Silk Road (5): Border bothers

Every national border marks the place where two gangs of bandits got too exhausted to kill each other anymore and signed a treaty.

~Robert Anton Wilson

Borders are a complicated matter. In Europe, thanks to the EU, we don’t even notice them now, but I remember the days, pre-EU, when I had
to get visas every single time I wanted to travel abroad on my Bulgarian
passport. Still, it’s interesting to think that when it comes to passports,
they are a relatively recent phenomenon, having been introduced only in the early 20th century.

I had already noticed the Azerbaijan border upon entering Armenia from Georgia because it is a stone’s throw away from there. We could see the abandoned houses along the road and on the hills around us on the Armenian side: the Nagorno – Karabakh conflict continues to be a big issue for these two countries. On leaving Armenia, I was specifically asked if I would be coming from Iran back through Armenia or Azerbaijan. On entering Azerbaijan, we were summoned and questioned (in French, the official either did not speak or refused to speak Russian) why we had visited Armenia.

The bus trip Tehran – Baku took 22 hours, of which the majority were spent either at the border, waiting for customs inspection, or at arbitrary and frequent stops for lunch, breakfast, dinner, tea etc. The 70% or so devaluation of the Iranian currency had created a brisk trade across the border: Iranian consumer goods had become incredibly cheap compared to Azeri ones and some people naturally took advantage of this. However, Azeri customs officials were not willing to turn a blind eye. This caused massive arguments about what could pass the border (can you imagine arguing with British customs about what you are allowed to bring in the country!?) which meant it took ten hours for just our bus to go through.

The town of Astara bridges the border there. This, plus the fact that there is a beach on the Azerbaijan side, reminded me a bit of the Turkey-Georgia border at Sarp – only that instead of the Black Sea there is the Caspian Sea, and Batumi’s equivalent, Baku, is some 300km away (instead of 10km away in the former). There was only one other thing that brought memories from this other previous border crossing – it was raining throughout; everything else about it was very different.

To start with, the border was deserted: not a single car passed through while we waited. A few trucks, though, did. There is no passenger waiting area at all. Just a warehouse where both passengers and buses are checked. Once through (with your bags) one has to wait outside for the bus to be inspected. I had never seen a close border control inspection of a vehicle before: they literally took the bus apart, then they had a dog sniff out for drugs. The kids found this quite amusing.

Once we made it into Azerbaijan, I was happy I had already exchanged some money in a ramshackle shop on the Iranian side, even though the rate was ridiculous: there are no exchange bureaus on the Azeri side.

There was a lot of drama in the bus after we passed the border on the way to Baku: some women were crying, some were shouting non-stop.

I think some of their goods were confiscated and on the others they probably had to pay a fine. Still, the bus kept stopping at random places along the road where local cars would wait and money and goods would change hands.

We had exchanged enough money at the border to be able to take the metro in Baku to our hotel. We were pleasantly surprised to see that it was fairly easy to navigate (signs in Azeri, Russian and English). Unfortunately, though, I had forgotten to download the offline map of our hotel, so we had no clue where it was. Luckily, the hospitality and helpfulness, which we had become so used to in Iran in the past two weeks, seemed to extend in Baku as well.

Literally everyone wanted to help us: the ticket salesman, the police officer, random people would just stop and take out their phone to try to figure out the location of our hotel. Eventually, a young man, speaking fluent French (very unusual, we were told, yet this was the second time it happened in Azerbaijan in the course of a few hours!), decided to get off at our tube stop and walked us to the hotel.

It was ‘difficult’ to get back to reality otherwise: the cost of things were back to what one would get in Europe. Baku seemed the most expensive city so far on our travels. On the positive side, we were happy to be back in a culture where we could enjoy a very nice glass of local red wine on our first dinner there.

On that note, even though Azerbaijan is a Muslim country, it is obvious they have adapted their religious beliefs to a Western model of modern society. People in Baku were extremely fashionable, well-groomed, and good looking. Barely a single woman wore the hijab or conservative clothing. Once more, London comparisons come to mind, as those Muslim women clearly didn’t seem to think it is a religious requirement to cover! Men also seemed to care for their appearances to such an extent that I decided to get a haircut too.

The hotel where we stayed was serviced by a group of young people who, again, were eager to help. I don’t know if this is an Azeri custom, but they walked us to the restaurant for dinner, to the taxi stand, to the exchange bureau, and, yes, even to the barber shop. And these were not places around the corner, but a good 10-15 min. walk.

Baku is a weird mixture of modern Yerevan and old Tbilisi. It seems more compact than either though. We stayed in the old city which is still surrounded by a wall (cars need to pay extra to enter). This part of Baku has been restored to such pristine conditions that it feels a bit of artificially old: you aren’t going to get the dusty, crumbling feeling of time having swept its hands through it.

This was in stark contrast with Iran. While even there, we eventually realized, many mosques and cultural artifacts had been restored, people had somehow managed to preserve the feeling of history passing by. This was only enhanced by historical sights being everywhere. Iran is a bit like Italy in that sense: there is history on every corner. Baku also has beautiful mosques, ancient palace, etc. but they pale in comparison with what we saw in Iran.

So, in Baku we just took it easy and simply enjoyed walking the streets. That’s how we stumbled upon the Flame Towers, symbolizing Azerbaijan’s rich deposits of natural gas and oil (later, on the way to the seaport, we also saw the constant blaze of fire coming from the mountains in the distance where the deposits are).

We also saw an enormous KFC restaurant (my son told me that, apparently, it is the largest KFC in the world!). Actually, already in Iran a five-star hotel would proudly have one of its floors dedicated to a fast food restaurant. The imposing building, which hosted this KFC in Baku, then clearly indicated that fast food is quite well regarded by the locals in Central Asia. Could it be that it is still a novelty and a connection to the western world and culture which the young people in these countries strive to emulate?

On the way to the Flame Towers we saw a massive flag in the distance. We did not think much of it, having already seen the massive flags in Turkey, but later on we found out that it was the second largest one in the world. In fact, until 2010, when they raised the one in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, it was the largest. Azerbaijan, though claims other ‘firsts’. For example, it was, unofficially the first country to declare independence from the Soviet Union in March 1991. It is also considered the first democratic Islamic republic (saying that, they have had a father and son as presidents pretty much since independence, with the son now serving three terms, when officially two terms is the maximum – so, I don’t know how that works).

Of course, we also did the ‘obligatory” sightseeing: Maiden Tower, roamed the streets of the old city, visited the Palace. There was one thing on our minds though: how to cross the Caspian Sea.

We had initially planned to go north around the Caspian Sea because there are no passenger ferries across (and we were told it wasn’t worthy to get the expensive Turkmenistan visa). Talking to people and digging deeper into travel blogs, however, we found out that one could still cross the Caspian Sea as a passenger on a cargo ship. The only problem is that there are no schedules for those: they leave only when required by the specific type of cargo. Still, we decided to try that option.

This meant that we had to call every morning the Caspian Shipping Company to find out if there was a boat going to Kazakhstan that day.

We got lucky on our third day in Baku. We were told that the boat would leave at 10pm so, as the port is 70km south of Baku, and eager to be there in plenty of time to acquire tickets for the boat, we left the city at 2pm.

This was the start of, possibly, the longest 24h of my life! It made me wish I was a truck driver: at least they have a bed in the back of their cabin!

We arrived at around 3pm and bought the $70 (per person – it includes bed and meals) ticket with no problem. We found out, though, that the boat might “only dock at 10pm, which means you will embark around 2am, and the boat might eventually leave around 5am”. Ok, we can survive that.

Wait a minute. This is not a passenger port, there is no passenger terminal! The facilities consisted of a bunch of containers which were transformed to be a “drivers’ waiting area”, a shop, a bank, the Caspian Shipping Company’s office, a police booth and the smelliest, most disgusting toilet I had ever seen in my life!

We can do this?! Yeah, right.

The sight of a family seemed to cause a lot of excitement among the police and the truck drivers – as one can imagine, this is predominantly a man’s world. The police kept double checking our passports and asked me several times if this was indeed my wife and these were really our kids!

We soon found out how the system works: you buy eggs, sausages and vegetables from the makeshift shop and get the guy who mans the waiting area to cook them for you (I made a mistake not to agree a price first for his services, and, of course, he tried to charge us restaurant prices!).

There was nothing to do there. No free Wi-Fi. The kids were reading and trying to do some schoolwork but overall it was a huge exercise of our patience and managing our expectations in the face of the uncertainty of when we would depart.

We ended ‘sleeping’ on rackety chairs all night. Around midnight there was some commotion but it turned out it was the boat to Turkmenistan that was leaving (after also several hours of delay). No one had any information about what was happening to our boat. Around 7am I went to the ‘office’ of the Caspian Shipping Company and knocked on the door. The same guy who sold us the tickets the day before appeared from behind and asked me angrily what was going on. I said, I simply wanted to know if our boat had even docked. He just snapped back something like, “I was sleeping, how would I know?!”

If only we had been given some information, instead of spending so much time waiting aimlessly at the port, we could have visited the mud volcanoes which were very close by. Because of the enormous reserves of oil and gas (before the discovery of oil in the Arabian Peninsula, Azerbaijan boasted the world’s largest deposits – the scenery outside Baku is dominated by oil wells), Azerbaijan apparently has almost half of the world’s mud volcanoes in existence!

Finally, one of the police guys took pity on us and showed us on his phone (using one of those apps) that our boat was just outside of the harbor waiting to dock as soon as a berth got freed up. Finally, some hope.

We eventually embarked at 3pm and the boat departed at 7pm for the 22h crossing of the Caspian Sea.

Let me tell you a secret: there is nothing special about crossing the Caspian Sea. We got lucky true: the sea was flat as a pancake (and there is nothing to see but… water there – no other boats either), the weather was nice and sunny, the crew was friendly (they allowed Georgia and my daughter to use special quarters when they needed to), the food was decent, and, yes, the truck drivers were friendly. I am not sure whether we even saved time compared to if we went around through Russia. So, apart from just saying, “we did cross the Caspian Sea”, there is not much else to say about that.