This is a blow by blow account of our six days in Baku and how we eventually managed, by hook and by crook, to get to Central Asia. We arrived in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, on Thursday 23 October knowing we had quite a few bits of admin to sort out whilst in the city. As we are not able to travel through Iran we must instead cross the Caspian Sea by boat to Central Asia. Collecting our Turkmenistan visa, buying a satellite phone battery and buying ferry tickets were our main jobs – not too challenging you would have thought. Think again! As we raced around the city, impeded by obstacle after obstacle, we almost came to our combined wit’s end!
Baku is an unusual city situated on a peninsula pointing out into the Caspian Sea. An oil boomtown which came to life in 1846 with the discovery of ‘black gold’. The population of the small coastal town exploded at a rate faster than London, Paris or New York to 2 million today, the largest city in the Caucasus and largest on the Caspian. Baku hosted the Eurovision Song Contest in 2012 and will host the first European Games next year, two feats the locals are very proud of. To get to the capital we cycled through one hundred kilometres of empty desert, battling fierce winds along the way. Baku emerged on the horizon above the sandy hills, surrounded by the waters of the Caspian.
Baku is under constant construction, and we were told that if you return after only a couple of years away you will already have trouble recognising some places. This certainly seemed to be the case. Building sites abounded and the new Flame Towers, the new image of Baku, are just being completed. Surrounded by new buildings, at the heart of the city, lies the old town. This was to be our base for the week, very kindly put up in a hotel arranged by Ollie, Nick’s friend from uni. Narrow, cobbled lanes snake between beautiful, although heavily restored, buildings, leading to mosques, palaces and the Maiden’s Tower, the traditional, iconic picture of Baku. No one is sure what the tower was used for or how it gained its name (hypotheses are plentiful), but a digital storybook in the tower tells of some of the stories: all of which feature a maiden throwing herself from the top of the tower for the sake of love, in one she runs herself through with a sword… (no fairy tale endings here!) As the sun set we looked out eastward from the top of the tower (a guard on patrol to stop anyone following the maiden’s suit), towards Turkmenistan. But it wasn’t going to be that easy!
We were taken out to dinner on our first night, Thursday, by Huseyn and Fahri, Ollie’s friends from Baku. They gave us a picturesque night time driving tour of the city, explaining all of the landmarks as we went. A great introduction to this new city.
An early night meant we were ready and armed to take on the Turkmenistan embassy first thing Friday morning. Having applied in Istanbul all there was to do was to pick up the visa. We had no note, no proof we’d even applied but the rough Turkmen official was so forceful in his Istanbul office that we didn’t need anything that we didn’t argue. We took the bus to the embassy. Online it says the embassy has moved. We were careful not to go to the old address! We arrived at the new address – no embassy… The Ukrainian embassy pointed us in the direction of the Iranian embassy, they didn’t know where the Turkmens were. A friendly security guard told us they’d moved. A long way away… Taxi! It was already now past nine o’clock. We knew that getting the visa in a day meant arriving early then going to the bank to pay and then coming back for the visa all before they closed. The embassy only opens 9-12 Monday and Friday! We rushed off in our taxi and made it to the door to find it closed. We weren’t alone so we waited. At 9.40am they opened up. We were third in. “We’ve come to pick up the transit visa.” “Confirmation email?” We didn’t have one we explained, Istanbul uses the old system and said it’s okay. “No email, no visa!” We tried to explain, tried to reason. Could they not just search using our passport numbers? No. Could they call Istanbul? No – “it’s not my job” he retorted. We needed the email which Istanbul wouldn’t provide. Or at least the number on the email that didn’t exist. We went to a cafe to call Istanbul. We don’t speak Turkish or Turkmen and they barely speak English, but we found they couldn’t give us any email or number but that yes, our visa was ready for pick up and there was no problem. No problem? Really? We asked an Azeri friend to call them in Turkish and ask for help. He did his best but couldn’t get any further than we had. He called the embassy in Baku and met with the same issues. The words he used to describe the lack of communication between the embassies and the people he spoke to cannot be repeated here, but as you can imagine all of us were very frustrated! The embassy in Baku now closed we had nothing to do but try over the weekend to get that number and try again Monday. Next task! Irritation level amber.
Task two – as you know we will be traversing the Pamir Mountains in winter. -40°C temperatures are not uncommon. People have told us that only fools and crazy people attempt it. As such, on the second highest highway in the world, with snow and ice and no phone signal we decided a satellite phone was the least we needed as a backup. Unfortunately our first phone broke before reaching Istanbul. The second has been sent to Dushanbe, Tajikistan for us to collect on arrival. Unfortunately the battery could not be sent with it due to shipping regulations with batteries. As Baku is the last place that sells this model of phone we need to buy the battery here. We headed to the phone dealer. The building, when we eventually found it, was under construction, buckets of stones swinging from uneven scaffolding. With our luck the shop would have been closed down last week. But no, it was open, had the battery and was cheaper than expected! Great success!
Task three – the ferry. If you read about the Caspian Sea ferry online, in blogs, you will probably never want to step foot on board one of the boats. The ships are actually cargo boats that happen to take the odd worker, tourist or Mongol Rally driver. The boats are known to be in a bad enough state of repair that they would not be granted access to most ports worldwide. One recently sank, and therefore they now take fewer passengers in case it happens again! We were told to prepare for the worst, to take several days worth of food and water and to wrap up warm. As they carry cargo they have no timetable. They come and go when full and so you can only know on the day if there will be a ferry or not. Pretty useless if you are on a tight schedule! We arrived at the ferry terminal, which looked more like a building site. We were sent in several different directions by different people and eventually made it to an office. The ferry terminal was no longer here they said. It’s moved. Great… They didn’t know where to, but said we could take a bus along the coast and we might get there. All this was conveyed in Russian, which Nick’s GCSE had not fully prepared him for. We took the bus, even more frustrated than in the morning. A helpful man said he thought he might know where to go and showed us to the right place. We eventually found the ticket office. “Are there any boats today?” There was one to Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan. “Do you have Turkmenistan visa?” “Not yet. When is the next boat?” They didn’t know, “Tomorrow? Maybe yes, maybe no, fifty fifty.” At least we knew where the ticket office was. We returned to the hotel thinking through all of the possibilities in order to get the visa for Turkmenistan.
We rang the British embassy in Baku. They couldn’t help – because of the language barrier!? I rang the Turkmenistan embassy in London hoping they would speak good English, understand what we needed and might know something about the new and old systems. Miraculously they did! They searched for us on the database, found our confirmation code and said that’s all we would need. Success! “That’s all?” I doublechecked. “If they just asked for the code then this is the right code, that will be enough…if they are telling the truth and not lying.” Erm…okay. Is lying to tourists a common problem in the visa section of the embassy? At least we had beaten the system and gotten our codes. Nick burst into the room. “We’ve got a problem, a big problem… We need to go to the immigration police tomorrow.” As if we didn’t have enough to do already! Great!
Saturday (feeling like we’re in an episode of 24 where so much happens in such a short space of time!) We arrive at immigration after thirty minutes on the bus – the time it takes from every place we need to go to the next. We go in to find out what is wrong, to be told they have closed and the officials have gone home. It’s midday!?! “They left fifteen minutes ago, come back Monday.” We try to get an explanation out of them. We are passed around the immigration offices from one junior official to the next, none knowing our situation or why we have come, they want to know what we sent by email. “What email? You emailed our hotel.” General confusion adds to the frustration and sense of incompetence. Finally we find out that because the hotel in Balakan on our first night didn’t register us we have been in the country illegally and as such will need to pay a fine of about €300. We explained we can’t and won’t pay. “Come back Monday to pay or be deported.” Stress levels are going through the roof! Stress level red! What happens when you’re deported? Is it put in your passport? Can we be deported by ferry? Will Turkmenistan let us in if we’ve been deported? We go shopping for supplies for the ferry and in the evening head to ‘The Shakespeare’ pub for a bit of stress release!
As admin goes, Sunday is not a very productive day in any country. So to take a break from the stresses and strains of bureaucracy we decided to get our clothes washed. The hotel offered to clean them for us but we were careful to check the price first. “Little monies”, the receptionist promised. One, five, ten Manat (approx = €) Fifty? One hundred? I joked. She laughed. Of course not that expensive. We wanted an exact number. The maid came and counted every article of clothing. 56 Manat. What?!? We could buy new clothes for that amount! Stress levels remained the same if not slightly increased. We headed to the Aliyev Museum for a private tour, arranged by Askar, Nick’s friend from school, to take our minds off our situation. That evening we ate steak and watched football over beer at Askar’s sports lounge, a perfect evening!
Feeling positive we headed to the Turkmenistan embassy bright and early Monday morning, confirmation codes in hand, hoping the official hadn’t been lying! Nine o’clock, still closed. They opened at half past last time and again we weren’t alone. Half nine came and went. Quarter to ten, “closed” said the Azeri men who had gone and come back. What? No! Impossible! We knocked frantically. Went round to the embassy security. Yes, closed. Holiday. $#!@! They only open twice a week for three hours at a time and they took one of those days off! We couldn’t wait any longer in Baku. One option remained. This year Kazakhstan implemented a trial visa policy that gives British nationals fifteen days visa free in the country. We checked the map, it would add lots of kilometres, add a lot more desert and we already knew the ferries were more sporadic than those going to Turkmenistan. We were going to Kazakhstan – maybe.
We headed for the ferry ticket office. Another thirty minute bus journey. Half way into the journey a police car pulled alongside the bus. Sirens blared and lights flashed. Everybody off! Unbelievable. We don’t have time for this! Locals complained violently, shouting at the police as they took the bus driver aside. We walked to the next stop. Every bus that passed was empty but for the driver and a police officer stood next to him. What the hell had all the city’s bus drivers done? An underground criminal bus driver gang? Whatever it was it delayed us over an hour. We grew ever more irate and exasperated. Hungry, tired and generally pissed off we eventually got a non-mafia bus. It didn’t matter anyway, the ferry office was closed. We went to the immigration offices – closed, but only for lunch.
After lunch we returned to debate our future in Azerbaijan. We refused to pay the fine, explained it wasn’t our fault, that the hotel not us should be punished. We accepted deportation. They felt sorry for us and our situation so said they would make it a two year ban rather than five. But we’d have to come back tomorrow to collect the letter of deportation. To the bike shop!
After two split sidewalls in our tyres we needed a spare Marathon tyre for the mountains. These are extremely difficult to come by outside Europe, but there, hanging on a rack in the back of the shop was a singular Marathon tyre – success! This was probably the only Marathon tyre for sale in a thousand kilometre radius. We took our bikes to another shop for a quick service before our departure to Central Asia, where good bike shops are hard to find. To celebrate we went to KFC for dinner. A bucket is called a basket, it costs more than the UK, has fewer pieces of chicken and comes with no sides or drink – perfect!
Back to the bike shop just before closing. We took a look over the bikes to find that Nick’s rear rim had split. Not in one place, or two, but three! Were we destined never to make it past Baku? It needed to be replaced. Spare parts could be brought in but we didn’t have time. The shop agreed to do it while we went to buy ferry tickets in the morning – if there was even a ferry that day, or even that week! Back to the hotel.
Tuesday – straight to the immigration office. Nick drops the SD card adaptor and it teeters on the edge of a drain. It didn’t fall in… Maybe today was finally going to be our day! [see my video!] We collected our letters of deportation. Banned for three years, not two. Next, to the ferry ticket office. Closed! For lunch… The iron door of the office looked like a suitable place to bang my head against but I resisted the urge. We came back to find there was a ferry, that night, to Aktau Kazakhstan! We bought the tickets. Hurrah! We could finally continue our journey. Where is the ferry leaving from? “75km down the coast…” Why, oh why???
We raced back to the hotel, picking up the bikes on the way. Made a phone call to Askar, who told us not to worry, we’d make it to the ferry on time! We had our one way ticket to Central Asia in our hands. We just needed to make sure we were on that ferry!