Thursday, July 06, 2006

Baku, Azerbaijan

We made it to Baku. Which for those Geographically challenged among you is the capital of Azerbaijan (approximately. 1.6 million), and a port city on the Caspian sea. We have come overland from Georgia, which we entered from Turkey, a little over a week and a half a go.
Before we even got out of Turkey the rains came. As we were waiting in line to get out of Turkey it started, and didn't let off until we were a good 200km into Azerbaijan.
Getting out of Turkey turned out to be more difficult than getting in. The customs papers caused a stir. As soon as they tried entering our data in their computers the system crashed. So they tried it on all the different computers they had, still the same result. For some reason their program didn't like our data! In the end they just did it by hand, and we were finally out. Then, the fun started.
First, they weren't quite sure what to do with us at the passport control as he had to make sure that we didn't need a visa, luckily, his data and our matched. So then he stamped it and let us go. Takes only 1 line to write, but 45 minutes to live through! In the meanwhile, a lot of irate, Geogians are trying to get their papers in the window, and pushing, poor Cecilia aside. Finally the guy inside, yells at them to stop it. Oh, and I forgot to mention there was only one guy working.
Well, that taken care of then the customs stuff. The guy asked a couple of cursory questions before filling out a piece of paper per bike and putting a stamp on it. Then it was off to another counter, where again, 1 guy was filling out papers. Cecilia (always send a small, poor, little blond, to do this stuff; read on) goes and stands there, just waiting. People are standing 3 deep and 8 wide at this counter, with one hapless official working. To make it more interesting it took him around 8-10 minutes per vehicle!

Anyway after standing there around 45 minutes, finally, the people behind were starting to reach the counter, and those already there, made sure that they did not push past Cecilia. It almost got into a pushing contest. The guys at the counter then, started to fight to see who could help Cecilia fill out the documentation! One person standing in line spoke some German, so it worked out pretty good. She got the paperwork filled out, got to the counter, and when everything was ready, she came and got me to sign my name. As I walked in everyone parted to let me through to the counter, where I duly signed my name to three documents!
Patients, persistence, and more patience, and a short blond girl, all help.
After this we were in Georgia.

Georgia, turns out to be very "rustic", or more properly, rural. As soon as we got into the country, we passed a small village, with cows lying in the middle of the road. The traffic roaring by as if running a slalom race. It was really fascinating to watch, which car would hit which cow. Luckily, everyone survived, that day at least in Georgia. (Forgot to mention the unlucky cow, in a tunnel just before the border in Turkey. She was hit straight on by a bus!).

There were no towns, only small villages all over Georgia, with decaying building everywhere. It was as if you had taken a time machine and gone back maybe 80 years or so. People selling fruits and vegetables on the side of the road, life unfolding in the middle of the street. The interest that the bikes created was amazing. I though that we were slowly immune to this! Everyone, from little children to the men standing around would beckon to us to stop, or yell and wave. We waved back and rolled on. It isn't a lot of fun to stop while it is pouring down, not to mention riding in a strange country, dodging, potholes, and live animals, and the occasional native.

We rode along a river valley from an hour or so before deciding to find a camping spot for the night, and sure enough one came up. Next to the river was a sawmill and a small house, and further on a nice flat area where the river made a curve. I checked it out, and as soon as I stopped, people came out of the sawmill to have a look. As I was 500 meters a way they send two kids out to check on me. I rode back to where the men where standing and made it clear what I wanted, they gestured that I could stay at the house, which I politely declined. They then made it clear that it was no problem camping in the spot I gestured to. So that is exactly what we did. As we were setting up, the whole posse showed up and stood watching us. Cecilia trying to communicate while I set the tent up. It was a lot of fun.

After getting the tent up we all sat down and tried to communicate. Which, surprisingly enough went very well. Everyone had a great time. We were then left alone for a while to enjoy the wonderful panorama of the river and valley in the distance as it slowly getting dark. It had stopped raining and was only drizzling slightly so it was bearable to be outside.

After 30 minutes the whole posse shows up again, this time bearing food and drink.
Home made wine, accompanied by potato wedges, some green "stuff" (ajapsandali), and some soup (khashi, garlic and tripe soup). I declined the wine, but heartedly ate the potatoes and the green stuff. In short other the matron showed up. It turns out that the gentlemen were all her sons, and the kids her grandsons. They were in charge of the sawmill, which is a family business, apparently, as they all worked there.

While the two gentlemen drank the wine we got our Russian dictionary and our Georgia book out and had grand time trying to explain who we were, and what we were doing.

They were very curios and asked a lot of questions, about us, about where we lived, work, travel etc. Really, really, nice, and they drank the whole 2 liter bottle of wine! Teaching us a few words of Georgian along the way. Gaumarjos! (Cheers).

Eventually as it got dark, everyone left, but only after we promised to come for tea in the morning. Which we did, and met the rest of the crew working in the sawmill.
We then continued on, over a pass at around 2000 meters. Everywhere we traveled, the same response from people, yelling, waving and running out into the street. The towns were all very dreary, although the country side is beautiful. Forest, hills, valleys, mountains. No large cities or industry. The roads, are horrible, and barely passable.
Perfect terrain for our GS, although to be hones, we could do with half the weight. Of course, as bad as the roads were, the other drivers, were still passing us right and left, sometimes two abreast, with on coming traffic. But, for old Africa hands like us this is tame (see our entry on Egypt, Morocco, et al at Now, if that wasn't enough, the rains, set in, in earnest. So now, we have a whole cornucopia of hazards to avoid. Potholes, as in POTHOLES, road waves, rocks, gravel, mud, missing asphalt, cows, dogs, sheep, a river running down the middle of the road. Ah, what fun. But the country is beautiful.

Our next stop was at a tourist attraction at Vardiza, a cave city situated above a river. It was deserted as we got there, other than a car load of aid workers. You know you are off the beaten path when the only other tourist you see are foreign aid workers! It was raining so we set up camp next to the entrance and made dinner rather than climb up to the caves. It had been a long day. The following day we decided to skip the caves, as they wanted to charge us double the posted price, and we declined. So off it was towards Tbilisi. The road went along some beautiful tea growing region, and there were castles and abandoned fortresses everywhere you looked. If I had to pick a nick name for Georgia, it would be "Land of Castles". We did manage to stop and photograph one or two. Did I mention it was raining?

In broad strokes, we rode along the Acharistskali river valley over the pass. Then over to Akhalkalaki and eventually back along the Mtkvari River valley to Mtskheta where we spent another soaking night high in the hills above the river. But not before having to fix a flat tire. After a short rest stop as we pulled away Cecilia's back tire was flat. So we stopped and started getting it off. Of course a couple of gentlemen nearby came over to have a look. Two cars passing also stopped and in the end I had an audience of 8 people watching me change the tire. When they got tired of watching they also lent a hand. The tire had a hole in the carcass and this had punctured the tube, so I decided to mount the new tire we had been carrying around since we left Switzerland. This is a knobby tire which we had planned to use in Africa, but had yet to see action. I had hoped to use the tires we had until Mongolia, as the knobbies don't last all that long. I am hoping for around 7000km. We shall see. One problem while mounting the tire, was that it wouldn't seat properly. We deflated it twice, used soap and water, all to no avail. So, I left it that way, hoping that when it was on the bike and rolling it would seat properly. This is something I had done on a number of times, and had to date always worked with the rear tire, and only once did it not work, but with a front tire. We then continued, lots of green, forests, and fields, and water everywhere to our chosen camping spot.

The following day we continued (in the rain) towards Sighnaghi, which has a great wall fortification and sits up on the hill with a great view of the plains beyond. We had a quick look, a couple of pictures, a round of the town, and then back down to a nice little spot by the river where we camped for the night, still in the rain of course.

By the following day we had had enough of the rain, we had now been soaking wet for the past 4 days, more or less, and it was time to move on. So we headed for the border at Lagodekhi. Which we barely managed due to all the flooding. The road when through kilometers of flooded villages. For long stretches the road was also underwater, sometimes almost half a meter deep. In a couple of places, another centimeter, and we would have to turn around. Cecilia's bike did flood once but made it to the other side, where after checking everything and getting the water out of the air box we continued. In all it was almost 3km of flooded roads that we had managed to pass, with much care, and quite a bit of traffic, creating large waves, which made it even more challenging.

At the border, we got into a protracted discussion with the customs guy. Apparently, all the help Cecilia hat gotten coming in didn't help, the exit point had been wrongly entered in the form. We were in the "wrong" place. Actually, we were in the right place, but the form was wrong. No dice, not even crocodile tears helped! It was pouring down rain, and the guy, even though he professed to wanting to help us, just kept saying that there was nothing he could do. We discussed it for a while longer, until finally admitting defeat and heading out in the rain again. Since we didn't want to go back the same way as we were afraid that we might end up getting stuck somewhere, so we headed north to Kvareli. This decision, at least in the beginning didn't look like a good idea. A few kilometers down the road, we had to go through a town that was completely under water. A river was running through the street, and there wasn't any other way around. A bridge was 3/4 destroyed, but we squeezed through, and luckily it only lasted until we were out of town, where the road turned into the hills. So we breathed a sigh of relief and continued. The ride was great as it wound along the right side of a wide valley, which we then crossed to get to the correct side where we then headed south and the "red bridge" border, which was the one noted on our customs documents.

Nearing Tbilisi I had a flat tire, luckily I ended up stopping just in front of a tire repair place! I got everything off and the guy there fixed all the tubes that I needed fixing (in total, three). The reason for the flat was the same as Cecilia's two days previously, the carcass had a hole in it. I showed it to the guy at the shop, and he cut me a piece of fire hose to use as a patch between the hole and the tube. So I re-mounted the tire and the fixed tube, and we took off again. Four hours later, while going through some small town, I heard a loud bang, and suddenly the bikes back end started dancing around, and I was lucky to keep the bike upright. Sure, enough the tube had blown, and I had another flat tire! So we set to work getting this fixed. Of course everyone within sight was there almost by the time I got the bike stopped.

Everyone was very helpful, and in the end, I ended up almost just directing while they did all the work, and got all dirty in the process. We got the tire on, a new tube and everything mounted, cheered on by everyone who couldn't reach in and give a helping hand. Getting the tire on the bike, gave everyone who had not helped a chance, so they literally lifted the bike so that I could get the tire back on. We also had the same problem with this tire, as I had had with Cecilia's. It wouldn't seat properly, so we just mounted it and continued.

We couldn't find a decent camping, and ended up just driving around, we even toyed with the idea of heading into Tbilisi, but ended up turning around, as we couldn't get motivated enough to look for a hotel, in the dark, in a strange city! As we were debating the best of the bad spots we had noticed a police car stopped, and we both went oooh, no, now what? But the policeman, was just curious, and even spoke some German, so after we explained what we were doing, he suggested going a couple of kilometers up the road where there was a "Turkish camping", whatever that is. Well, that, turned out to be a TIR parking, a place where truckers parked for the night, and it had toilets, a small cafe and lots of watch dogs. We explained to the guy there what we wanted and he said no problem, and showed us a spot at the back of the compound. It turned out to be pretty noisy, but passable, with the plus that we were able to cook in the shower building which no-one used. We were dead, it had been a really long day, with lots of emotional ups and downs. Cecilia nevertheless cooked a wonderful dinner and after a nice warm tea we were almost cheerful as we went to bed.

In the morning, we got up and had a nice breakfast in the shower building and got ready to leave. The camping turned out to be free, as they didn't want any money. Fine with us, and he cheerfully told us to come back on our way home! So we waved goodbye and headed for Azerbaijan. Which we then reached in short order. Red Bridge, was pretty quiet. We drove up, showed our papers, and the other than a momentary scare, due to the date on the Azerbaijani visa, which the Georgian, official assumed to be the validity date, when in actuality it was the date that the visa was issued. As soon as this was cleared up we could leave. Great, only took around 15 minutes.

Now for Azerbaijan. At the control point, we stopped behind the cars and waited. Waited some more. They were letting in a car every 10 minutes or so! Of course, someone in a turbo Mercedes would just drive by and cut in, shutting off traffic until they let him in. As we were sitting there watching the show, a money changer came by and we changed our remaining Georgian Lari to the Azerbaijani Manat, for our 23 lari we got 50,000 manat! He also said to just drive to the front of the gate, and started directing traffic around us so that we could get out and move to the gate. He then proceeded to talk to the military guards at the gate, and presently one came over and asked for our passports. With these in had, he took off and presently came back and and waved us inside.

Great, we were now at customs, and as usual this is where the problems always start. Maybe we should be doing this with a bicycle? To make a long story short, ok, shorter. It took 2.5 hours in total to get out of Georgia and into Azerbaijan. The majority of time, 2 hours was spent at customs in Azerbaijan. Cecilia was shuffled back and forth, and there was a lot of problems with the language. In the end the result was we got into the country with our 15 day visa, no problem. The motorcycles, were only awarded a 3 day transit visa. So the end result is that we have to be out on the 8th of July! The problem is that as a tourist, with your own transportation, customs requires a deposit of 10,000$ per bike, and unfortunately after counting our loose change we just couldn't come up with it. Well, actually it is even more complicated. You can only leave the deposit if you come back out the same way, otherwise you probably won't be allowed to leave, and loose your deposit? As we weren't coming back this way, this was out for us, and we would not have left such a deposit anyway! Leaving the only alternative, a transit visa for three days.

So now we were in Azerbaijan! This makes the 14th country so far this trip. First thing we noticed, it is relative prosperous, and there is much more "color" than in Georgia. This is something, which we later realized is due to the fact that in Georgia, there was nearly no advertisement. As soon as you hit Azerbaijan, there are billboards and signs for all the usual stuff. This had been missing in Georgia, so you only saw the drab buildings, which Azerbaijan also has, but they at least have some "promotional" color! Additionaly the roads are much better, and there is a lot of building and construction going on. So next to the economic basket case which is Georgia, Azerbaijan stands out as a progressive and prosperous country. The people are incredible, again. I am starting to run our of adjectives to describe all the interest and friendliness that all the people show us as we travel around. The Azerbaijanis nearly run us over to talk to us at traffic lights or on the road. Very dangerous, but incredible curious and friendly.

The road towards Baku, goes straight through the center of the country, which is totally flat, flanked by mountain ranges right and left. This is the bread basket of the country, pretty boring, but at least we were making headway. Only when we go into towns, or away from the main roads, are you reminded of the roads in Georgia. If anything in places it is worse here, as they are re-routing some of the main roads while working on them, and you are forced to go through some very adventurous ground. (Have I mentioned lately, that it was still raining!). After a few hours in Azerbaijan, we finally hit some dry weather. The rain stopped, and we could see clear weather in the distance. Great, finally.

We rode as far as we could, and shortly before it got dark, we got lucky and found a hotel. Lucky, while we were actually on the wrong road. This one also heads to Baku, but is slower than the main road, and has less traffic, so why there was a hotel here was not quite clear. Nevertheless, there was one, and I negociated a price of 20manat (new manat = 100,000 old manat). And we moved into a nice large room in an old barrack building, which had been converted to a hotel. Perfectly passable. We spread all our stuff around to try and dry some of it, making a huge mess in the process.

The following day we headed to Baku, now only a 150km away. Baku, turned out to be a busy metropolis, with all the usual amenities, and noise, traffic and confusion. We are starting to be really adverse to going into cities. Something which we always have dreaded. We rode around, trying to make sense of the maps which we had, the most detailed being the city map in the Lonely Planet, Georgia, Armenia & Azerbaijan. A book, you should avoid like the plague. We have been and continue to be big fans of the series, but this one is horrible. The data is worse than useless and just plain badly written and researched.

As we were trying to find a hotel, a cab driver stopped and asked us if he could help. We explained, and in short order he offered to show us to the hotel, which he then did, for no remuneration. Great. The hotel didn't turn out to be what we had wanted to we headed to another one but, the gesture was wonderful. In the end we settled for a relative expensive but well located hotel near the port, which had great parking for the bikes. This is something which I probably have mentioned before, but I am going to do it again. Whenever we stay in a hotel, I am very, very reluctant to stay anywhere, where the bikes have to be parked on the street. Only on a couple of occasions have I done this, and I try to avoid it. This means that the hotels which we stay in have to accommodate this, and those that can are usually a bit dearer than your run of the mill flop house. Which, would suit us fine, but not my bikes.

So that brings us to the end of this opus. We are going to try and get on the ferry tomorrow morning. Today we checked out the ferry port, so we know now where it is, no thanks to the LP which has it wrong. We weren't able to get tickets in advance as there was no-one at the ticket counter there. The information was that they would be back in an hour, and we didn't feel like waiting. So we will head out early in the morning and hope for the best.

As a last word, we certainly would like to come back to Georgia, and spend much, much more time there exploring the country and its people. The same for Azerbaijan, but only when they change their convoluted customs regulations. I can easily imagine spending a month or two just crusing around the country. Oh, well, next time.

Turkmenistan awaits.