We have heard lots of horror stories about Azerbaijan, how the police are really corrupt and the people are unfriendly so as we cross the border from Georgia we are greeted with this sign it doesn't do anything to make us feel better!
Usual stuff James and I have to get out of the van while John drives through, glad I'm not on my own going to miss James when he goes. We go through customs uneventfully coming out the other end to wait for Tigger. Lots of taxi drivers mill around the exit/entry to the border - "taxi Mrs, taxi"? It's really really hot there is nowhere to wait, no seats and no shade, we ask one of the border guards how long it usually takes to get a vehicle through, anything from between 2 and 5hours!!!!!!! we don't even have any water, this could be the worse border crossing yet.
Tigger eventually comes through in around two and a half hours so it wasn't as bad as anticipated. however we have a problem, we have visas for us for one month but the border guard will only give Tigger a pass of 4days, which means a big rush to get across the country plus we can't get into Turkmenistan for 6 days so what will do? We decided to head for Baku and hope it will sort itself out what else are we going to do?!
After checking out the speed limits we head off with some trepidation, as seems to be the case when entering a new country. What will the roads be like?, What will the drivers be like?, what will the people be like? The roads and the drivers are most definitely better than Georgia, so far so good.
We head for a small town called Sheki known for its Caravansay and supposed to be very pretty. We are so ready for a stop, after wild camping for 2 nights and in the heat of the day we are more than ready for a hot shower and some clean sheets, you could say the van is humming!
The "Caravansary" is where travellers of the silk route would have stopped for the night to be fed and watered they are characterised by their large central courtyard. it is very atmospheric, as we arrive in the late afternoon the light is wonderful along the arched corridors - and just as a bonus it even has decent wifi!
We have to get some Azerbaijan doo dahs (think they were Manet) so pop into town. The town central square is taken over by men sitting outside drinking tea, putting the worlds to rights and playing backgammon we decide to have a cup of tea and once seated and served realise that John is the only man in shorts on and I am the only woman in the entire square of at least 100 men, should I even be there? We drink our tea a bit more self consciously now, when it is time to pay the owner of the Cafe welcomes us to Azerbaijan and says the tea is on him - how lovely and what a surprise
Because we are lazy and the restaurant looks pretty we decided to eat at the hotel, the restaurant is situated in the garden, we are told there is no alcohol and a limited menu, never mind we aren't so hungry and anyway, we have wifi in the room so let's have a quick something to eat and then get back to the wifi zone - we are more hungry for the wifi than the food! We order from the limited menu, John's chicken looks like road kill that has been scrapped of the road, James and I are happy with our veggie option of a tomato a bit of cucumber. Just as we are about to leave for the delights of the wifi the waiter approaches us and says that the gentleman at the next table who is a highly eminent politician I'll have you know would like to buy us a ceremonial tea plus anything else we would like, he also sends over vodka shots and a bottle of wine - sorry thought there was no alcohol?? the food doesn't stop coming and none of us are that hungry!
Our feast sent over by Mr Politician
We go over and thank Mr Eminent Politician and there is lots of handshaking, smiling and back patting and we work out that he wants to welcome us to Azerbaijan. We also realise that we are here just before the start of the European Games which Azerbaijan is hosting in Baku in just a few days time. It is the first of its kind and it is being called the European Olympic Games and has a torch to be lit and opening ceremony just like the Olympics - hmm now not being cynical but I wonder if the hospitality would have anything to do with this?
Our ceremonial tea in the Samavar
Our original plan was to take in more of Azerbaijan but with the restriction on Tigger with his 4 day visa we have to move much faster than we had planned. We are going to head for Baku but we have a spare night to go visit the mud volcanoes! They are sort of geysers but through mud, probably geographically it has a special term but mud bubbles with farty noises is what it boils down to!
To call them volcanoes is a bit of an exaggeration but they are an amusing distraction and a novel place to camp for the night with the "volcanoes" farting around you. It's good to be wild camping with no one else around and we enjoy our bush kitchen
Next morning we head off to Baku, where we will wait for the ferry. Our apartment which is supposed to have wifi is rubbish but the city itself is fantastic. It is so hyped up for the European games which will start in the next few days it is buzzing! We even get interviewed by the Azerbaijan TV while walking around !! Everyone in the city is so keen to know "do you like our city" and "hello, hello, where are you from?" Everyone wants to be our friend.
Yes this is the real fame of Azerbaijan!
And they love their modern statues!
Fun is had in Baku but we need to catch the ferry to Turkmenistan and we are worried about Tigger's visa running out. The website http://caravanistan.com/ is a great website for anything in Central Asia and had telephone numbers for the ferry company and a girl who spoke English so we could at least see if there was a ferry leaving. You are unable to book a crossing on the ferry as it goes when it is full plus it is weather dependant so if the weather isn't good then the ferry doesn't go and Baku is known as the windy city! We telephoned and were told that (think Russian accent in your head) "there is no ferry today" this happened three days in a row!! We are very worried about Tigger's visa what will happen will we be fined large amounts of money for being illegal is this where the Azerbaijan's turn nasty??? As it happens we have to go to some customs office in the centre and pay around $20 however if we had gone to the customs place before hand we could have had an extension and not paid anything, so again nothing sinister.
We park Tigger in the port and wait for the ship. All the customs guys are very friendly and keen to help us there are also a little litter of puppies just where we have parked the van - surely no one would notice if we just took one!? We buy our ticket once it has been confirmed the boat is going , its not cheap nearly $700 for us and Tigger to cross the Caspian sea but we don't have much choice so just get on with it.
So who is getting on? Mostly Turkish lorry drivers and a French guy who is a Dragoman (adventure overland tour company) driver with his truck. We all wait in the port for 12hrs before being allowed on the ship. There is a short reprieve where we can see the "Flames" of Baku from a distance and there is a firework display, no doubt in preparation for the games.
The crossing - so where are the swimming pool and spa facilities? Well that would be funny if there were any facilities at all - toilets were at the most basic and only used on an absolute have to basis the showers, well lets not even talk about them! We were shown to our cabin which had bunk beds and blankets, no sheets, and very smelly and very dirty. The communal room was mostly taken over by the chain smoking Turkish lorry drivers who as always very friendly but smelly none the less - this was going to be a long crossing. We spent most of our time in our cabin, we did have a cup of tea on deck but other than that we ate from our reserves not quite trusting the delights of the ship.
Thankfully we arrived in Turkembashi 24hours after we left Baku, apparently it is very common to sit just outside the port for a number of days (due to bad weather the winds we think) before being able to dock. Someone was looking down on us that day as we were able to get in immediately.
so overall impression of Az - Great, not sure where all the awful people are but we didn't meet any. Really don't want to be cynical and believe it was all because of the European games as most of the people we met seemed very genuine and friendly, just a shame we couldn't have spent more time in the country as it seemed to have a lot to offer