It’s safe to say that Azerbaijan and I have gotten off on the wrong foot. After getting ‘fined’ 100 USD the night before for ‘speeding’, we had checked into a hotel room that stank of stale cigarette smoke and crashed into bed.
While checkout the next day was meant to be at 12pm, we were unceremoniously rushed into leaving our room at 11:30am by the persistent knocks on the door. The receptionist escorted us out. I suppose he had no use for us since we’d already spent the night. He maybe even held a grudge for our fight the night before? We’ll never know.
Having skipped dinner the night before and without any breakfast options evident in the hotel, we packed up our stuff and decided to stop along the way for something to eat. We also had no local currency but hoped to find ATMs to withdraw cash. Little did we know that attempts to find either food or cash would be futile.
The 350km from Ganja to Baku should’ve been relatively easy. But the roads were pretty dismal in some sections and after getting stopped by the police, we were careful not to draw attention to ourselves or drive anywhere above the speed limit.
We were still keeping an eye out for roadside cash points and restaurants. There was absolutely no cash points anywhere which made buying food nearly impossible. We stopped at a roadside restaurant but obviously couldn’t decipher the menu. I would have happily eaten some bread with tea, but even communicating that seemed to be a challenge. What eventually became clear was that without any Azeri Manats, we were not going to be able to purchase any food.
We snacked on cookies and nuts as we drove to Baku. I felt like my stomach had swallowed itself in hunger. I dug out a can of corn and ate it with a spoon. We had quite a bit of tinned food with us, and this was the first of many instances I would realize the lengths I’m willing to go to not be hungry. When you’re miles from civilization and driving through dusty village roads, even canned vegetables combined with tinned fruits will taste delicious!
We stopped for gas midway. As I drove in, a large group of employees dressed like Super Mario at the gas station surrounded us in curiosity. I assumed that not many women drive into their remote gas station. They looked at our car, pointed at the Bangladeshi flag, asked us questions we thought we understood and laughed amongst themselves. We had no idea what they were saying, but we explained to them that we were driving to Mongolia. They probably thought we were crazy. Our car was quite dirty by then, and they asked us if we wanted to use the car-wash. In the interest of time, we politely declined.
When it was time pay, I took out my credit card. As a general division of labor in the team, I was responsible for our financial management. This appeared to be a bit of an uncomfortable idea for quite a few people during our journey. The manager of the gas station seemed taken aback that I was the one who would pay but recovered quickly from the shock. Given that Azerbaijan’s oil industry is booming and that it accounts for much of the country’s wealth, we paid a little over 20 EUR for more nearly three quarter of our tank.
There wasn’t much going on along the way to Baku. It was a great deal of nothingness, some shops along the main street of the smaller towns and sparse traffic on the highways. We would soon realize that most of the development efforts in Azerbaijan had been focused on Baku to shape it into a European capital. This meant that the rest of the country seemed forgotten. While driving in the dark the night before, we were surprised at how few signs of electricity we had seen in the countryside.
As we approached Baku, the roads formed into proper paved highways. We reached the city around 6:30pm and during rush hour traffic. The city seemed to have undergone a massive makeover on account of the Baku European Games 2015, which had taken place in June. The games were rather controversial as sports journalists had been selectively denied access to the country in an effort to stifle any coverage of human rights abuses in the country. But Azerbaijan spared no expense in the hosting of the games itself to elevate Baku’s status as a European capital. While the city retained a very Soviet look and feel, the makeover efforts as well as prominent branding of the Baku 2015 was plastered all over the city.
Not having eaten a proper meal in 24 hours, we were ready to find a restaurant. Whether it was because we were in the wrong neighborhood or because it was a Sunday evening, we struggled to find an open restaurant. After wandering around for nearly 20 mins, we stumbled upon a pizza place. While not the most authentic Azeri experience, we were in no place to be picky. It was blistering hot outside and we were tired from sitting in the tin box of a car, baking in the sun. We planted ourselves in the cool air-conditioned restaurant which seemed to be mostly a delivery joint. Despite the lack of sit-in customers, they had a clean bathroom, decent facilities and even free internet.
We washed up and ordered a large pizza. While we waited, we looked up accommodation options. We found the Anatolia Hotel to be a reasonably priced option. We booked immediately, and once we had devoured the pizza, headed towards the hotel.
We checked in and discovered the massive room that we had been allocated. We wanted to get some washing done, but the hotel option turned out to be too expensive for our liking. Given that our room had a bathtub, we decided to make full use of our luxury option. After washing two loads in the aforementioned bathtub, we made further use of the size of the room by putting up our clothing lines and hanging them up to dry. I suppose this is not what 4 start hotels are meant for, but a rallier has to do what a rallier has to do!
In the parking garage of the hotel, we found another large 4X4 next to us with a team name and website pasted on the side of their car. We decided to look them up and see if we could join forces. We found a number on their website and left a text message.
In the meantime, we attempted to sort out our visa issues. Our plan was to apply for the Turkmenistan visa first thing the next day. We had been told that our paperwork was not in order, and as a result, were understandably nervous. Our greatest wish at this point was to be able to board a ferry to Turkmenistan as soon as possible. But without the right paperwork, this would not be possible.
Besides, the ferry to Turkmenistan is notoriously unreliable. The process of actually getting on the ferry is filled with confusion. You are only likely to get one every 4-5 days and it only leaves once it’s full, meaning you could be hanging out at the port for days before you’re actually able to depart.
Given our documentation situation, we decided to call the famous fixer Ismayil (As of July 2015, his number is +994552861200). He has helped countless teams navigate the murky waters of Turkmenistan visas and ferry crossing across the Caspian Sea. His ‘help’, of course, comes at a price. We called him up and he quoted a price of 50 USD per person to help facilitate conversation at the Turkmenistan Embassy and process our paperwork at the port. We were nervous about having the right papers and agreed to pay him in the hopes that we’d be able to board a ferry soon.
Ismayil assured us that we could get our visas the next day. He even told us that there were some other teams that have been waiting for a few days already, but there’s a good chance that there will be a ferry the next day. Could this be true? Would we really be able to board a ferry within 24 hours of arriving in Baku?
Our aspirations of making it to Mongolia in four weeks depended heavily on being able to catch a ferry. If we are stuck in Baku for 5 days, we would not make it to Mongolia on time. We had a three-day buffer in our schedule, but being able to get on a ferry just the next day would be like Christmas coming early! It would also mean that we’d be ahead of schedule.
We agreed to meet Ismayil the next day at 8:45am in front of the Turkmen Embassy. I had a hard time falling asleep with all the nervous energy I was feeling. I wanted to cross the Caspian Sea as quickly as possible. Once we get to Turkmenistan, that’s where the real adventure was to begin.
This post is part of a series covering my trip across Central Asia in four weeks.