Archive for the ‘azerbaijan’ Category

The slow boat to Kazakhstan

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

Posted by Dan
Aktau, Kazakhstan

finally boarding the ship to Kazakhstan

The smoke, thick and black from the ship’s diesel engine blows away from us to the south-east and we are finally sailing north-west. Relaxing, reading, we hear the sound of a helicopter leaving an oil rig and fly above us. We jump to the window of our cabin, which is wide open, only a gentle breeze flutters the curtain now. Yesterday afternoon, the wind was apparently too strong to sail, or there was a storm out at sea which the captain wanted to hide from. So he dropped anchor, having turned around and motored back to the coast of Baku, after only 3 hours of leaving port. The boat sat and bobbed there all night, whilst we made friends with the Turkish truckies on board and swapped maps and notes with the other overlanders travelling this way.

This morning, when the wind had dropped and the anchor pulled in, we snoozed as crew pumped out excess ballast or leak water. In a soft daze, I hadn’t realised we were actually moving again, the sound of the water pumping out had merged with the splash of the still water under the speeding hull. It was only when I saw the reflection in the Perspex cover of the cabin light above my head of the sea moving away from us, I realised we were on our way again.

rest at last!

Relief allows us rest, and the strain of the 15 day wait for the boat is being slept off. Probably too by the 8 European friends we have made in the last 2 days. Despite having waited the longest and joined the French, German, Spanish, Ukrainian and English travellers camped outside the Kassa (ticket booth) all day, 2 days ago now, we ended up being the last ones to be sold a ticket. When we’d arrived at 7am, the day of departure, we’d been singled out and pressurised, told that the last ticket had been sold to our German friends and that there was no space for us. This deceit and the ugly, arrogant behaviour by the staff of the Kassa had us running back and forth between the Kassa and customs, where our friends all waited with their tickets in hand.

waiting at the kassa

We had already sensed the staff at the Kassa were dishonest people, but thought it incredulous that after 15 days of telling us, “Tomorrow, tomorrow” they would now refuse to sell two cyclists a ticket. A huge ship, with more cabins than passengers, was being described to us as full. With aggressive fists, the Kassa staff crossed their arms to make an X, to mean closed.

Close to tears, with dates of our visas running through our heads, and maps of alternative routes confusing and flashing through our minds, our journey, for a moment, seemed in the hands of these despicable people. It was hard to hide our anger, we raised our voices, losing our grip of calm and reason. Ireyna, the Ukranian woman, ran with us back to the Kassa, to ask again, speaking fluently in their common language of the ex-Soviet states, Russian.

She was calm, she was bright, she smiled, she was friendly, she didn’t show surprise and she was patient. Then she spotted the chief outside the Kassa, whom we’d not seen before, and spoke briefly and precisely to him. When the chief entered the Kassa, me and Krista understood clearly this part of the conversation. He spoke in stern Azeri, “What’s the problem? It is nothing. There is no problem. Sell them a ticket.” Ireyna, she is a star.

With ticket in hand, we three ran back to the boat to have our passports stamped, in fear that the boat would now leave without us. The customs guards were pleased for us and were all smiles, though the day before and the hour previously, they had been quiet and unreactionary. Our new friends punched the air as we joined the gang readying to board, although after the challenge of patience, nobody showed too much excitement, all agreeing that we’re not there until we’re there… When wheels roll away from customs to the open road, we’ll know we’ve made it: away from Azerbaijan and into Kazakhstan.

Our desperation to take this boat was so great, since we’d waited for such a long time, told every day that we should come back tomorrow. It had only taken 8 days to cycle the whole length of the country, yet we’d been in Baku for over 2 weeks. We’d been expecting to take a boat in a matter of 4 or 5 days, but because we’d waited so long, any other option for an alternative way out of Azerbaijan should we not board this boat was now nearly impossible.

One of the aims of our journey is not to fly. Our ongoing visas to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are paid for and planned out with set dates of entry and exit. To apply for replacements would be a costly option and a race against time, since we only had 6 days left on our Azeri visa. Our visa to remain in the country could expire before being granted one for a neighbouring country. We didn’t have time to exit the country by cycling. And we had chosen this route to avoid Iran, since, interesting as it may be, Krista didn’t want to return there as she’d been put in prison there 12 years ago. Even so, this would still leave us with the problem of a Turkmenistan transit visa, and crossing 800kms of desert in just 5 days in searing heat. AARGH!

The three men and one woman of the Kassa were simply scaring us into offering them a bribe, knowing how long they had kept us waiting, being aware that we must take a boat any day now.

We drew these conclusions when we got on board and saw that indeed this huge boat had more cabins than passengers. And when we heard from the captain that there had been other boats that had come and gone that we could’ve travelled on, our suspicions were confirmed.

For the first time on this journey, we had both forgotten that time is the only thing that can change a situation. It is only a moment of drama, and if you wait it out, it will be a different outcome. Patience will put an end to a tight spot, if you stay calm! So we toasted a drink on the bow of the ship with our new group of friends in celebration of our departure and progress towards Kazakhstan.

toasting with vodka

Smiles and laughter and friendship grew aboard and we made plans to look out for each other along the road, although our overlander friends would move much faster than us, travelling with motorbikes and cars.

The important words to remember come to mind on the voice of our friend Gizem: “Now the adventure really begins”.

Comments are closed due to spam. Click here to email us.

New system, old thinking

Sunday, May 17th, 2009

Posted by Krista
Baku, Azerbaijan

nodding donkey on the outskirts of Baku

When we asked a well-educated Baku man, Emin, today about the changes to Azerbaijan since the collapse of the Soviet Union, he commented (somewhat stoically), “New system, old thinking”, meaning that not much has changed – democracy has not yet reached Azerbaijan, and doesn’t look like it will in the near future.

It was no surprise to hear that when national leader Heydar Aliyev died in 2003, he was shamelessly succeeded by his son Ilham in a dynastic handover. And just a few days ago, polls were fixed so he’s now in power for life – apparently with 97% majority!

People seem to accept that this is how it is, and get on with their lives. Traffic police continue to blatantly bribe drivers (so they can buy themselves a promotion) and if you want a job, be prepared to pay around $15,000 US for the privilege.

We’ve finally bought a new camera (and sent mine back to the States to get fixed) – so you can now finally see a few photos of Azerbaijan if you click here.

10 days and counting…

Friday, May 15th, 2009

Posted by Krista
Baku, Azerbaijan

I’m nervous today. We’ve been waiting for a cargo ferry to transport us from Azerbaijan across the Caspian Sea to Kazakhstan for 10 days now – surely it must be leaving soon? But there’s no schedule – it just leaves when it’s full, and I’m worried that it will set sail quietly in the middle of the night, unbeknownst to us…

Although we’ve still got some time left on our Azeri and Kazakh visas, with every passing day I am feeling the tick of the clock. The next stage of the expedition will take us through over 1000 kilometres of harsh and sparsely populated desert – the globe is turning and summer’s fast approaching – we have to leave soon. So we patiently and earnestly trudge to the port every day, to check with the unfriendly man at the ‘Kassa’ on the ship’s status.

But, once again, he shrugs his shoulders and shakes his head, giving us no update other than a terse, “Yoq” – no. Oh well… maybe tomorrow…

The man with the golden smile

Saturday, May 9th, 2009

Posted by Krista
Baku, Azerbaijan

***A tall man wearing the typical black flatcap, sporting a full set of dazzling gold front teeth, runs over and accosts us. He’s so energetic and eager that, after having crossed the border from Georgia and cycled 50 kilometres through heat and dust, we just don’t have it in us to match his conversation pace, and are apprehensive to stop and chat with him. Politely though, reservedness eeking out of pores and body language, we answer the where-froms, where-tos, whys and wherefores without too much animation, whilst preparing to get going again. But this man, Natik, is not put-off by our lack of warmth. In fact he is so excited that he hasn’t even noticed all our energies are pointing towards getting back on our bikes so we can reach our planned destination of Zaqatala before the sun sets.

“Come and drink çay!”, he exclaims, beckoning us over to a small, dimly-lit café, full of cigarette-smoking men. “Come, come!”. I look at Dan, who raises his eyebrows in a look of, “Do you really want to?”, whilst Natik’s beckoning becomes more voluptuous by the minute.

I am reminded of the words, “…to let go, or to hold on…”. We believe so strongly that we are in control of our own destiny, we makes plans and organise our pathways, and are not open to a change in direction, however big or small. We think we know what is best for us and try to manipulate the world to fit into our grand and rigid plans – which are really just arbitrary ideas that we’ve concocted.

“…to let go, or to hold on…” These words loop in my mind and, in this moment, I know I have to surrender to something deeper than myself. I look at Dan and nod – letting go – and with a golden smile Natik opens the café door.

Once inside, seated around a table with Natik and three of his friends, Dan and I begin to relax. Natik plies us with çay, served from a teapot into tulip glasses, sipped through a sweet or a rough sugar lump held between the teeth. He thinks we must be hungry and orders us kalem dolma (spicy meatballs wrapped in cabbage leaf) and salad, whilst introduces us proudly to his Azeri culture. Dan and I relax some more.

He tells us intimate tales of how he ran away from his parents house in the night so that he could fight the war in Karabakh against Armenia in the early ’90s, and compares nowadays with 18 years ago when Azerbaijan was part of the 15-country-strong Soviet Union. He invites us to stay at his home, explaining that in Azerbaijan, a Muslim country, everyone has a spare room for guests because they are revered as god. He can’t disguise his disappointment after we answer his questions about whether the same tradition exists in England.

When we finally depart, it’s with happy, full hearts and bellies – and it suddenly doesn’t matter if we don’t reach Zaqatala before the sun sets. ***

I thought that nothing particularly extraordinary had happened in this encounter, apart from some great hospitality and a gentle meeting of souls. But when we reached Baku, 10 days later, I realised that, indeed, magic had taken place. Natik – the first person we’d met in Azerbaijan – had given us so much warmth and generosity upon our arrival in his country that the spirit of his friendship accompanied us throughout. Without even knowing it, he had softened us, allowing us to open and trust more in this unfolding journey, and reminded us that the ideas we’ve created for ourselves can and may change at any given moment… and that’s not such a bad thing…

Comments are closed due to spam. Click here to email us.

Silk road

Thursday, May 7th, 2009

Posted by Krista
Baku, Azerbaijan

A lump in my throat and tears in my eyes – as I stood on the dusty mound on the edge of the moonlike mountain landscape and saw the shimmer of the Caspian Sea in the distance below. The words, “Coast to coast to coast” entered my mind, and like flickering timelapse photography, I saw moving snapshots of two steady and determined bicycle riders traversing the lands that lie between the English Channel, the Black Sea and the Caspian.

Here we are in the strange land that is Azerbaijan. Back to sea level with 5500 kilometres on our odometer. In a new kind of place where gleaming golden-tooth strangers have greeted us, and where we learn slowly that not everything is as it may at first seem…

When we crossed the border we straightaway felt like minor celebrities. The Georgians had been fairly quiet, shy and even slightly insular. A controlled and restrained “Gamarjaobat” (hello) would be mustered, but usually only if we were the first to wave, smile, greet. But now, having crossed the Alazani river that separates the two countries, suddenly, every second Azeri car is honking, bodies and faces leaning from windows in amazement and bemusement, grabbing videos or photos of us on their mobile phones as we whizz by.

The question on everybody’s lips is, “Is the President of your country paying you to ride your bike?” If only… They obviously don’t get us when we shake our heads and try desperately to communicate the environmental reasons for our cycle ride across the world. We’re foreigners anyway, so we must be rich, and all prices are promptly doubled. It’s interesting that we’re still spending the same on groceries as we did when we lived in London.

Now that the days are getting longer and warmer, it’s becoming easier and easier to camp. Shepherds and goat herders point us to good spots near freshwater springs, and reassure us, in our shared common language of Turkish, that we need not be scared in the night. They’re fascinated with our set-up and point to tent, bikes, Trangia, rubbing fingers against thumb in the universal gesture of “how much, how much?”. It’s hard to convey that these two loaded bikes are pretty much all the possessions we have in the world… It’s even harder to answer their shock that, as a couple in our 30’s, we have no children – and they raise open hands to the sky in a plead to Allah to bless us.

We’ve joined the Silk Road and our path will now weave across its ancient strands all the way through Central Asia and into China. These trading routes brought amber and honey the the east, silk and jade to the west. One of its threads took us to Sheki, a famous silk weaving town, where we stayed in an 18th century caravansaray. In its heyday, Sheki had five working caravansarays to shelter and feed traders and pack animals resting at the junction where the caravan route between Baku and Tbilisi met the cross-mountain branch to Derbent in Dagestan.

The Greater Caucasus mountains have been so elusive – catching cloud and snaring mist – that we got up before dawn every day to see their impressive peaks in morning’s first light. And when fertile earth below our feet turned to desert dust, we craned our necks some more to see circling eagles spiral and soar above our heads.

We’re in Baku now, with the rural life and Caucasus mountains far behind. In this oil-rich capital, chok-a-blok with Ladas, Nivas, pick-ups, Mercedes, and the most enormous luxury 4WD’s I’ve ever seen, we’re tracking down a boat to ferry us across the largest lake in the world – that is, the Caspian Sea – all the way to Kazakhstan.

Comments are closed due to spam. Click here to email us.