‘You should be able to board the ferry to Kazakhstan in about 20 minutes’ said the friendly port guard in Baku. Just a wee while later, while I’m hopping on the spot trying keep my nipples from freezing right off, I resign myself to the fact that 20-Azerbaijani minutes are pretty much equivalent to 20-Italian minutes. It’s been over six hours and from where I’m jogging it doesn’t look like we’re anywhere near ready to board. Bugger. The port car park is eerily empty albeit for a few vehicles belonging to the port staff. There’s a small tribe of feral cats loitering about, no doubt smelling our near endless stash of tuna and cheese sandwiches we’ve packed. When we bought the ferry tickets earlier, the office lady told us to pack ‘much food, the ferry ride can take anywhere from 30 hours to three days’. We’d also read other traveller’s reports of the ordeal which a simple 350km ride across the Caspian can turn into. There are those who waited three full days at this car park before boarding, and those who were stuck on the ship once in Aktau port, on the Kazakhstani side, waiting for landing clearance. So far, six hours doesn’t sound all that bad; but I’m not about to start feeding 25 cats, just in case.
Head here at peak overland travel season, between June and August, and this place is said to be a buzzying frenzy of activity, with both camper-loads of adventurous foreigners, and Lada-loads of locals, making a bee line for this most infamous ferry ride across the Caspian. We had hoped travelling off-season would expedite proceedings, but perhaps we were a little optimistic.
Still, we’re not complaining. It was just a 10 days ago that we were starting to worry we’d NEVER be able to cross the Caspian at all.
It started with a stamp….
Our stroke of ghastly luck started way back in Tbilisi two weeks ago, when I realized, just a few days before leaving Georgia for Azerbaijan, that my Italian passport would soon be running out of pages. I’d make it to Tajikistan, but then I’d get stuck there page-less. Assuming this to be a rather pesky position to find myself in, I decide to make a dash to the Italian Embassy in Tbilisi to request an urgent passport replacement. Just a single day later I was indeed the proud holder of a brand new passport, yet I had also received a less-welcomed CANCELLED stamp in the one I handed in. The one with a still very VALID Azerbaijani visa. Once I spotted the stamp, I was gobsmacked and speechless, something which, I assure you, happens very seldom. Whilst the Italian consul tried to downplay his colossal cock-up, his Azerbaijani counterpart was far less forthcoming.
‘There is no way you will be able to cross the border with that visa’ he said, once I’d run to his office enquiring as to the likelihood of border issues. ‘You’ll have to get a new one.’
A late-night emergency discussion between Chris and I resulted in our decision to try our luck. We only had three days left on our Georgian motorbike permits and had no time or inclination to extent our stay so that I could pay another $100 for another brand new visa. I was ready to plead, beg and even cry if necessary (this archaic tactic still works a treat in most countries outside Europe) and, alternatively, simply set up camp outside the border post till they relented and stamped me in. I also stashed a USD20 bill in my pocket in case none of those tricks worked.
Travel hint # 375: No matter what sort of ‘problems’ you think you may encounter at a cross-country border, it’s always worthwhile to attempt to cross it regardless. No matter what laws dictate in a country, border posts are a world onto themselves. The guy with the stamp will decide if he will let you in or not. I’ve seen travellers be refused entry for just being rude and rubbing the guard off the wrong way, even though all was in legal order. Once this happens, there is NOTHING you can do, except backtrack and try another border. I reasoned, therefore, that if a guard can refuse you entry even if all your paperwork is fine (but he doesn’t like you), then there HAS to be a chance that if he takes a liking to you, he’ll stamp you in even if your papers look a little dodgy. Obviously I was aiming for the latter!
For the first time in 18 months, I wore mascara and a little lipstick, thinking that at this stage, it couldn’t possibly hurt.
There were many worries which should have consumed my thoughts as we rode away from Tbilisi, yet the only thing I could think about was how incredibly amazing it felt to be back on the bike again. I had my usual frayed nerves as I hopped on Pixie’s saddle, worried that after our 3-month winter layover I’d forgotten how to ride. Yet as I revved up the throttle and rode the first tentative metres it felt so comfortable and natural to be on two wheels again. The sun was resplendent, the country roads amazingly picturesque and for the first two hours I could not wipe the smile off my face, even though the mascara was making my eyes annoyingly itchy.
I was literally salivating at the mere sound of Pixie’s roading engine. She felt sturdy and eager to go. The taste of freedom seemed to have affected her as well.
We could not have picked a more glorious day for a bike ride.
We’ve had a brilliant time in Tbilisi over winter. Considering we picked the country blind, simply going on the fact that it is the last country on our route which would allow us to stay for an extended period of time, we felt like we’d won the lottery. We toured the country extensively before stopping. By the time we left Tbilisi we’d spent over 5 months in Georgia alone, almost a whole third of our trip so far.
Aside Germany and Australia, Georgia is the country I’ve spent most time in during my near decade-long travel stint. It’d really no wonder I also felt a pang in my heart as we drove towards the border. I’ve loved everything about Georgia: the wilderness, people, culture, cuisine…everything. If you’re ever on the lookout for an off-the-beaten path and incredibly stunning country to visit, you could do no better that to visit the real pearl of the Caucasus.
All of these pleasant thoughts evaporated in mid-air the moment we reached the border with Azerbaijan. Even the road sign seemed intent on reminding me of possible trouble ahead.
Now might be a good time to mention that I had also decided to quit smoking on the day we drove out of Tbilisi, although as I approached the guards that seemed a rather silly decision to have made. Having tried to quit twice before, I was painfully aware of how thoughts of smoking have the tendency to take over one’s life for the first few weeks. My genius plan this time was to simply add my stop-smoking hurdle on top of all the other crap I was going to have to worry about for the next month or so. If I could relegate this ‘worry’ to the back of the line, knowing how hectic our time will be from now on, I may have an easier time quitting. Well, I thought it was rather genius anyway…
We manage to clear out of Georgia in just a few minutes and reach the Azerbaijan custom post with bright, friendly smiles. Luckily, they are returned in kind. There were about a dozen guards standing idly by and they were all soon taken by our bikes and our journey. Not wanting to rush this ‘meet & greet’ session, we laughed and chatted for what seemed like an eternity, before one of them decided it may be a good idea to have a look at our passports.
As I took out both of my Italian passports, I decided on the spot to go the nonchalant route, acting as if it was perfectly normal to have a visa in a cancelled passport and a brand new, visa-less one.
‘So, here is my Azerbaijan visa in this passport and here is my new passport’ I declared as I smiled (I may have batted my eyelids just a little) and continued chatting to the other guards. Within less than a minute he returns with an entry stamp in my passport, hands them both back to me and continues talking to Chris about motorbike engines. I can’t believe my luck.
As soon as we’re free to ride onwards and finally into the country, we stop for a celebratory coffee at a roadside restaurant. I also celebrate with a cigarette, not yet finding the courage to call it quits. Within minutes the bikes are surrounded by men and we’re asked to pose for countless photos, which of course we obligingly do. The restaurant owner refuses to take money for our coffees, something which is repeated every single time we stop in the next three days. Our first impression of the country are, so far, flawless.
Back to bushcamping…
Our days in Baku were never going to be relaxing and this we knew from the start. Our short, 2-week visa would make the obtaining of three visas (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) a rather hurried affair, so in order to arrive in the capital rested and relaxed, we headed to the area of Qobustan for what promised to be a couple of days of blissful desert camping. The guide book we’d read did not disappoint. After months of city living we were itching to be lost in nature again.
Qobustan nature reserve is just 60km south of Baku, where you’ll find old Roman rock carvings (this is said to be the most eastern point the Roman Empire ever ventured to), mesmerizing mud volcanoes and endless desert plains which are just a buzz to ride through on bikes.
This is our playground for the next two days.
The scramble for visas…
Riding into Baku on what was supposed to be a quiet Sunday morning was a shock to the system. The traffic was just insane and my patience was dearly tested, possibly more due to the fact that this was my first day as a non-smoker. Finally!
We find our couchsurfing host with relative ease and, after securing parking in the underground garage of a neighbour, take to making our Monday embassy-visit itinerary with military style precision. The Uzbekistan visa requires the most waiting time (one full week), so we planned to apply for this first and foremost. Then will come Turkmenistan and, finally Tajikistan, which is said to be the easiest of all to get. With just 12 days left on our visa, it was going to be a tight squeeze, but definitely doable.
Enter the most revered celebration in the country: Nowruz Bayram, otherwise known as the Persian New Year. A time when EVERYTHING (and I do mean EVERYTHING) closes down in Azerbaijan for an entire week.
Yep…that would be this week.
Now far be it from me to criticize how a country celebrates its new year, but do you reckon an entire nation should stop for a WHOLE WEEK??! Hey take a day off and go hard on the vodka, knock yourself out…but to close down every single office, every single bank and every single EMBASSY in the capital city is just downright ridiculous! Urgh, think we stuffed up here just a little…
Yes I admit this is a rather rudimentary mistake to make. Some would say this is as travel rookie as can be. I spent years as a tour guide constantly ensuring that whenever I had official work to do in a city, our visit day would never fall on a Sunday or public holiday. Yet with Chris this habit has gone out the window, mostly due to the fact that we travel so slowly. Should our plans be put on hold for a day or two of local holiday, it normally never bothers us. On the contrary! On a tight schedule, however, it deals a hard blow. We have exactly three working days at our disposal to secure three visas; one of which takes a week to process.
Fark, I need a cigarette!
( to be continued)