A Boat Trip to Baku - and Approaching the Shade of Europe
- Categorized in: July 2011
If you read the last entry of these accounts of my journey, you will know that Kellen and I had arrived in Aktau just after sunset, exhausted and completely at our physical end after 224km on the final day of an eight day push from the city of Khiva across the Uzbek and Kazakh deserts to the Caspian Sea.
The slightly shattered sense of achievement that was gradually taking root had been immediately and mercilessly squashed by a gnawing anxiety that, despite all our massive efforts, we yet might be too late to get on the cargo ferry which Cory had just told us was leaving that night. If we missed it, it would literally be by only 3 or 4 hours (the time which would have allowed us to buy tickets). And if we missed it, it was likely we would probably have to wait another two weeks in the port town of Atkau – not known as a city of great diversions.
Our best chance, according to Cory, was to go to the port anyway and try to talk (and/or pay) our way on. We agreed that we had to do everything we could to make it happen.
We started getting clean and pulling our kit together once more. We hurried out to stock up on food for the boat trip since we had heard you can’t buy food or drink on the boat, and took out enough Kazakh Tenge either to bribe any officials or buy an actual ticket (if they’d let us). Meanwhile, Cory’s bike was in no better state than when it had packed in on the road, so he and Kellen were back to their tricks of trying to coax any air at all to stay in one of his sieve-like inner tubes. It was only 4km to the port and he’d have to manage with his broken spokes and a wonky wheel. Just so long as he could get there.
Meanwhile, the receptionist was getting herself in a huge fuss because these two dirty cyclists had come and messed up her lobby, were using her showers but were now telling her that they didn’t need a bed after all. All that money slipping out the door. She wasn’t having that. After an argument of a few minutes, I agreed we’d at least pay something for the use of her showers. Needless to say, I think she came away with more than she deserved.
So a little before midnight we set out from the hotel towards the port. I think Cory’s back-wheel may have been providential after all, because he had figured out the way to the port earlier in the day, having arrived well before us. This was extremely helpful as it seemed to me an amazingly complicated route, turning this way and that along unlit streets. About 2km from the port, Cory’s wheel couldn’t take any more and he ran along pushing his bike instead.
At last, we came to the place where he said the ferry would leave from.
“Great job, Cory! That’s your part over, now it’s over to you Theo,” said Kellen.
Indeed. I was well aware of this. The real crux of the problem as I saw it was if we really were too late, I needed to be able to talk all of us onto the boat in Russian. I suppose I am a lawyer and I could think of several good reasons why they should let us on and how to put it to whomever I spoke with. And yet - Russian vocab. For this reason, I’d been flicking through my Russian dictionary avidly since hearing the news and now had come the moment to put it all into action.
Praying for at least an open ear, I approached the security guards at the gate. The man I spoke to turned out to be an ethnic Russian with a classically typical personality. In other words, I can’t remember him smiling once all night, but he turned out to be both helpful and thoughtful. His name was Sasha.
Without too much trouble, we found out from him that the boat – an Azeri cargo ferry called the Nakhichevan – had not yet arrived. He took me with him to the port controller who confirmed it probably wouldn’t arrive until 6am. He said if that was the case, there’s no way it would leave before some time the following afternoon or evening. So we would be able to buy tickets right there at 8am as soon as it opened up.
So – despite our breathless chasing around and dash to get to the port in time, in the end all the tension could dissipate. Once we had a ticket in hand I’d feel much better, but it looked like there would be no problem. This being the case, we decided to bed down on the concrete just outside the guardhouse, Sasha providing us with hot water and tea (as well as showing me some of his favourite holiday snaps from his trip to Turkey!). It was after 2am.
As usual I was first up, still a little on edge with adrenalin until I had my ticket. But of course 8am came, we got them, and then – as far as I was concerned – we were allowed to officially die. All three of us slept for hours and hours on the cool stone floor of the ferry terminal building.
We also started to get to know some of the other passengers. Three friendly women – one French, two Australians – who had been sent by the ticket agent to be at the terminal for 2am and hence had found themselves condemned to an uncomfortable night sleeping on the floor as well. The French lady, Florence Brun (who knows if a relation but the first non-relative I’ve met with my surname), we had actually met already in Tashkent. She was close to completing a monster journey of I think about 16 months, and had been unfortunate enough to sit out 5 or 6 days in Aktau, forced to wait for this boat. The other two ladies were teachers from Beijing. One of them, Heather, had finished up there and was returning home to Australia after her trip, while the younger of the two, Fiona, was returning to Beijing once they’d reached Istanbul.
As well as these, there were a collection of Kazakhs and Azeris of whom I got to know only a couple of parties: one consisting of an Azeri man, his brother-in-law and younger cousin who lived in Aktau but were going to Baku to party (pretty much); another comprised of an Azeri man, his son and his brother who had bought a car in Tbilisi (Georgia) and taken it to Kazakhstan to sell. They were now returning to their home in western Azerbaijan. Apparently they could make as much as US$2,000 from a deal like this (which seems a slow way to do business to me, but I guess it must be worth their while). The son had the most appalling posture. He could only have been 19 but he stooped like an old man. It must be a sign of getting older because I kept wanting to go and put my hand on his shoulder and between his shoulder blades to make him stand up straight, just like my grandfather used to do to me.
I resisted the urge.
Apart from them, all in all there were only 22 passengers on board. These joined to a crew of 65 – which seemed a lot considering the boat was pretty old and knackered (and in all frankness filthy), and during the voyage it seemed to me a good proportion of the crew sat around playing chess. I would have had several of them scrubbing down the decks for sure.
But all of this acquaintanceship came later. The main focus for us was waiting for the signal that we could get on the boat, into our cabins, and asleep. When the boat actually left port, I didn’t care.
Finally it was time. Once up on the passenger deck, a severe-faced Russian woman allocated us all cabins, which were slightly cramped and boiling hot, but which had the great virtue of having a proper bed. Exploration of the ship could come later. I stripped down, began to sweat profusely and fell into a deep sleep.
A few hours later, I was woken by the noise of the engines as we finally got underway.
There then followed one of the most pleasant interludes of my entire journey. A restful cruise across the leaden calmness of the Caspian Sea, long hours of sleep broken up with conversations in French, Russian and English that could only happen on a boat whilst looking slightly wistfully out to sea, sitting letting the breeze cool off our bodies that had been so beaten under the sun for several weeks.
Sometime around midday the following day, the coast of Azerbaijan came into view. But it was another few hours before we entered the bay of Baku, moored up waiting for clearance to land, and eventually found ourselves heaving all our kit down the gangway once more.
It was early evening and the sky was still quite light when the customs guards finally let us through, with many smiles and almost as many dirty jokes. Cory’s bike was defunct for now, so he caught a taxi to the hostel where we and Florence, Heather and Fiona were going to stay. Kellen and I would bring up the rear on our bikes.
The port is located right in the heart of Baku. It was less than a couple of minutes of riding before we found ourselves in several lanes of traffic, trying to avoid being run down by beautifully clean BMWs, Porsche 4x4s (ugly things), Mercedes and Audis, rushing headlong into the clean-cut boulevards and wonderfully ornate architectural facades of the Baku Esplanade, all paid for of course by the Black Gold.
This all came as a huge cultural, even emotional, shock. Perhaps we should have expected it, knowing a little about the historical wealth of this city from its oil industry, but that didn’t stop Kellen and I trundling along very slowly, gawping in near disbelief at the pale sandstone architecture and sparkling facades of every luxury brand shop you could think of, big banks, government palaces, enormous flag mountings, carefully crafted public parks and brightly lit monuments. It looked like Paris-next-the-Sea. That part of Baku is undeniably impressive, if a little over the top. And after the pale wastelands of Central Asia, I had a very strong sensation of homecoming to Europe.
Of course this isn’t Europe. At least not if you ask an Azeri. But for a few hundred metres, from the Baku seafront back up the hill about 10 blocks, it might as well be.
Baku is a very enjoyable place to be. Stylish restaurants, good food, beautifully-lit walkways and promenades, amazingly clean streets, and interesting and intricate architecture (and people). There is an old city, complete with its old city walls still intact in which most of the various embassies have taken up residence, and there are a handful of historical and new sites to see.
One of these is called the Maiden Tower, behind which is a bizarre story, in which a local ruler fell in love with his own daughter. He locked her up, planning to marry her and consummate the marriage, but desperate to avoid this shameful consummation, she threw herself to her death. The Maiden’s Tower was built on the spot of her death in her memory.
We spent a couple of days in Baku but we achieved little beyond getting Cory’s bike fixed, getting well fed and doing a little bit of writing. We singularly failed to do any real sight-seeing of the city but there were good reasons for this.
On the one hand, we were still exhausted. (In fact it was only in Tbilisi about two weeks later that I started to feel back to normal physically.) On the other, it was burning hot. Both days we were there the temperature got up to 45 degrees Celsius. So even though we’d come out of the desert, it was no more pleasant in the sun in Baku than it had been there (although the ice cream in hand helps).
The owner of our hostel in the old city – a man whom I couldn’t help feeling was a few beers short of a six-pack – told us that the city regularly saw temperatures of 50 degrees Celsius. And at least one taxi driver claimed that for just a few minutes on one scorching hot day last year, the temperature reached 70 degrees Celsius! This would make Baku the hottest spot on the planet in recorded history by about 15 degrees. This is hard to believe. I haven’t looked into it, but I’m sure that the more obvious explanation for this is a latent tendency towards exaggeration in Azeris.
There is evidently a lot more to be got out of Baku and its surrounding area, but we were now trying to make an assignation with my brother and his family on the Azeri/Georgian border. Because we had been so fortunate with the timing of the ferry crossing from Aktau, this had meant that it would theoretically be possible for us to meet up for 5 or 6 days after all. Operation Georgia (commanded by that most strategic of planners, Christina Brun!) was back on.
So with the green light now firmly “on” and with Christian and his wife Christina working out the logistics of transporting bikes plus bike trailers for two kids to the little bordertown of Lagodekhi, our job was to make the rendez-vous.
So after two days’ rest, we set off again to the west. Immediately behind the glamorous frontage of Baku’s oligarch playground, the rest of the city somewhat deteriorates into something you might expect from a city in that part of the world. We had to climb uphill out of the city, and the countryside from the outskirts onward continues on anything but flat.
Once again we found ourselves, if not in a desert, at least in a very hot dry empty place! Rolling hills with occasional harsh climbs and a pretty bracing headwind. I can’t say I was faring that well. My legs still felt like lead from Kazakhstan and I was decidedly bringing up the rear all day.
In fact, all through Azerbaijan and for a few days into Georgia my legs felt exceptionally weary. It was only when I discovered that my tyre was leaking some air they day before I got to Tbilisi that I also discovered my rear wheel was very slightly out of shape – just enough that it would brush against the brakes on each rotation. This meant that I had effectively been pedalling from Baku (about 1,000km) against the brakes, which could be some explanation for why I was suddenly so slow and tired! It certainly wouldn’t have helped.
Always check your gear!
At the same time as enduring just a little bit more desert, I was listening to Les Miserables by Victor Hugo – a work of quite incredible genius in my view, or at least incredible scope. I think it’s about 50 hours of listening and I’d just started so I did at least have something to keep my mind occupied.
We stopped for lunch in a service station where we met a nice-looking couple – the man from Scotland and his wife was a kiwi. They were heading in the opposite direction, in the process of relocating from his home in Scotland to hers in New Zealand. They looked amazingly healthy I have to say, and they both eulogised about the rest of Azerbaijan from which they’d come. How beautiful it was, how hospitable etc. This was encouraging. They said we only had to get a short way beyond the town of Samaxi (100km from Baku) and the landscape changes into trees, woodland mountains and then beautiful shaded avenues that continue for dozens of kilometres along relatively flat terrain.
This sounded like just nuts to us.
As it was, we didn’t managed to make very good headway in the afternoon and we ended up stopping to eat dinner – the inevitable fare of tomato/cucumber salad, bread, plus some sort kind of meat – in an obscure little town. During our meal, a man came to speak with us. He was a local army officer who trained recruits in the local army base. On our behalf, he tried to persuade the restaurant owner to let us stay in a nice secluded cool room at the back of the building, but it was nothing doing.
Instead, he said we could come and sleep at his place. This we did. At the risk of sounding ungrateful, we may have done better sleeping in a field. His wife and child live in his other house in Baku, and this – his second home – was in dire need of a house-keeper. There was one distinct and abiding smell - that of feet - which permeated through his house; there were several weeks (possibly months) of washing-up piled up in the “kitchen”, and the living room, where he proposed to put us, was swelteringly hot. I would say it all took me back to my university days, but I don’t think I ever saw even a student house deteriorate into that state.
Instead of the living room I elected to sleep on the floor of the porch, which was at least a little cooler. It was only in the morning light that I discovered I was sharing this space within inches of a squashed toad that had obviously been slowly decaying for some time. Perhaps he couldn’t take the smell.
A new day, a new journey. It wasn’t long before we ran out the final 25km or so of desert – which was the last, absolutely the last, definitely and categorically the last desert I would ride through on this journey (hurray!). Soon, after the bigger town of Samaxi, we diverted off the main road to Georgia towards the northwest, taking us down and then up into the foothills of the bigger Caucasian Mountains behind to the north.
The middle of the day was tough and slow going. But there were at least trees.
There is an interesting little book that is well-known in the Caucasus called Ali and Nino. It is a love story about a Muslim Azeri boy and a Christian Georgian girl who live in Baku, written anonymously by a Jewish man who converted to Islam. It is an interesting book, in my view, because it is wildly over-praised for what it is. I find it syrupy, one-dimensional and I rather detest the main character of Ali. (This is by the by and doesn’t mean that you will think the same). But it does at least attempt to weave a story around the essential differences and interactions and contradictions that are part of the life of Armenians, Georgians and Azeris who co-exist in this region – the literal fault-line between Europe and Asia, between Christendom and, what?, the Dar-al Salaam or Umma of Islam. To that extend it has some interesting flashes. In one of them, the protagonist declares his mistrust of trees, and his great love of the desert. The desert is open, honest, light, good. Trees and woodland are shadowy, dark, mysterious, ominous. Hence he, the Azeri and Asian loves the desert but dislikes trees.
If this is a trustworthy indicator of where one’s true heart lies, then I must be a European to my fingertips. (As if there was any doubt). But I admit to feeling a definite thrill as we climbed up into country of rolling mountain shoulders, thickly blanketed with wonderfully green oaks and birches and limes. Could there be any doubt that we were nearing home now?
(Or at least within 6,000km of it.)
In some ways it was a little strange to be cycling through towns with names like Ismailiya while passing under long woodland avenues that could have been back home in Norfolk, or Denmark, or, according to Kellen and Cory, parts of their home-state of Michigan.
It was fitting then that we ended up stopping just beyond this attractive little town, in the middle of a forest where a restaurant had spread out tables under the branches of several old oak trees. Families – presumably locals – were already enjoying their barbecued feasts of shashlyk and all the trimmings (i.e. precisely the same food as the rest of Central Asia).
We had sweated and sweated all day and I felt particularly disgusting. Wanting to get clean before anything else, I went straight to the washstand and did my best to get clean, dry and dressed again. I was just completely the difficult manoever of being stripped butt-naked (except flip flops), positioning myself out of the line of sight of any ladies around, and covering what modesty I had left with a small hand towel. Just at this point, one of owners chose this moment to invite me to use their shower. Perhaps he might have suggested this a couple of minutes earlier.
Anyway, they also said we could use one of their empty rooms to bed down on our (by now) very comfortable air mattresses.
All was well. We were clean and fed and had a space to lie down. What else does a traveller need?
With two days to go before our rendez-vous – and “Team Cs Brun” already in Georgia – we wanted to get quite a lot done the following day. Over 150km to the mountain town of Qax – pronounced “Kakhhhhhhh”.
I can’t recall most of the ride except to say that the morning was extremely enjoyable and the afternoon was, in large parts, absolute hell. Yet this may have reflected merely that I grew tired, riding as I was with the handbrake on. (Doofus!).
As Victor Hugo was laying out the entire playing out of the Battle of Waterloo in marvelous detail and colour, with a long explanation of Napoleon and his place in history (in Les Mis), we progressed along past woods and fields, following the edge of the Caucasian mountains to our right.
Every town we came to seem to be set higher up the slope into the mountains, so we followed a rhythm of climbing into towns, having our soft drinks hit, and then merrily descending back towards the lower ground. As the day went on, I would have been happy with less descending if only it meant less climbing, and from our last push from the town of Seki (allegedly an old historical town of great beauty but I can’t say it made much impression on us) to Qax we lost the road surface as well.
This wasn’t anything like the surface in Kazakhstan but it was wearisome. And the people in the villages through which we passed looked at us glumly. We all felt a distinct change in the mood of these locals. I can’t say why. The fact that we noticed this at all probably just shows how hospitable everywhere else has been across Central Asia.
Again there was a gentle but very long climb into the town of Qax, and I ran out of energy. As did Kellen. You know you’re not in a good way when you are prepared to lick the semi-molten remains of a lump of gummi bear sweets out of the bottom of the packet. It’s at this point perhaps that humans and dogs most resemble each other.
But even as we sat under this oak knowing we only had 5km to go (which felt like a hundred), I looked up and saw a little red church on the hillside. It was one of the square, slightly squat-looking basilicas, very neat in their own way, that are completely characteristic and ubiquitous across the Georgian and Armenian landscape.
“OK – God is here. Please God, give me another 5km.”
And so He did. Albeit incredibly slowly.
The pleasant little mountain town of Qax I will remember for one reason. Once we’d found the only restaurant in town, we sat down to a badly needed meal. We needed energy and fast. The owner seemed to understand this very well, and amongst other very wonderful things, he served us up what has to be the perfect glass of Coke. Having been something of a connoisseur of this amazing drink since an early age (I used to drink 3 litres of the stuff at dinner as a child when I could get away with it), I can say I have never enjoyed a Coke as much as in that restaurant.
The secret – in case you wondered – is to freeze the bottle to a point just short of solidifying. When the liquid has just started to become viscous, forming a very light kind of slush, at this point you serve it. But you mustn’t drink it just yet. Let it stand for about 90 seconds just to the point of full liquidity again, and there you have your perfect glass of Coca-Cola.
James Bond may have his Bollinger ’39, I have my Coca-Cola ’11.
There you go.
Once more, the restaurant owners let us sleep in one of their side-rooms – a tactic I would recommend to any travellers through this region on a tight budget – and we were up and off again in good time on a cloudy morning that brightened up into a glorious day.
70km to go, which to us meant pretty much nothing.
And rather easy it was. Passing through more and more lovely countryside, everything was great. Our bikes all worked, it wasn’t too hot, we made good time and my brother and his family were already installed in Lagodekhi, just over the border.
I think in the last kilometre before the border, Cory wheels popped another spoke, and even the luggage frame of Kellen’s bike snapped. But it wasn’t enough to stop us.
We passed through the Azeri border check swiftly, walked across the bridge over the little mountain stream that separates these two worlds of Azerbaijan and Georgia - of Asia and Europe - of Christendom and Islam, and approached the border guard in his dark blue and grey uniform.
With a cursory glance at all three passports, he looks up brightly and, with a big smile, says in English, “Welcome to Georgia.”
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