Why You Shouldn’t Ever Go to Azerbaijan
4 Aug, 2012; 18:08
So, the abrupt end of my last thought is owing to a moment of panic that I will elaborate upon in its appropriate time.
Anyway, continuing from the last post, we did eventually get out of our hostel and on the road toward Azerbaijan (ABJ). Unlike most of our exits, getting out of Tbilisi went pretty painlessly; we were never lost, and traffic wasn’t horrible. Our beautiful trip out, however, was the be the last good thing for a long time.
Just outside the city, Chase realized (luckily) that he’d left his passport at the hostel. Fortunately, it was only a 30 minute drive back to the hostel, and we got to see all of our friends laugh at our inability to complete the most simple of tasks. After a lot of good natured jeering, we got back out of Tbilisi. After our experiences with the Romanian police, we decided that the safest method of travelling through corrupt countries, such as Azerbaijan, was to do so with no cash. Unfortunately, the border crossing requires a certain amount to pay for insurance and road tax. We’d left Georgia, waited in line for an hour, and gotten to the window at the ABJ border only to have to return 30 minutes to Rustavi, the nearest city in Georgia, to find an ATM.
As we came back into Georgia, our friendly border guard came out with a puzzled look on his face. We explained our situation, and he took our passports and walked into the office building. For a brief moment we thought we’d made a huge mistake letting him take them like that, but he returned shortly, and all three of our books had a nice big “CANCELLED” stamp over our Georgian exit stamps.
Rustavi was actually a fun stop, since we still had 30 GEL to spend (there is a minimum the exchange bureaus will process, so we couldn’t get it turned into AZN). At the little market we stopped in for food, we found out just how much you can buy with 30 Lari, and we ended up giving the last 8 to a little beggar boy. Initially, Michael responded to his open hand by saying, “No, you give me your money,” and to our great surprise, the kid handed us his coins. We felt bad and hunted him down to give him what we had left. On our way out, his sisters ambushed us, but since we didn’t have any left, they went away disappointed.
We returned to the border, gave a friendly wave to our guard as we crossed out of Georgia for the second time in one day, and then began the process of dealing with a bunch of soldiers on the ABJ side who spoke no English. We blundered our way through the process, and I think because of our complete incompetence, we didn’t even get searched. Finally, a little over six hours after we started, we were through the border into Azerbaijan.
By this point, it was around 8 pm local time, and, against the best of advice, we decided to drive through the night to get to Baku, expecting to make the city in the early hours of the morning. About 45 minutes into the country, that timetable absolutely collapsed. A speed camera flashed us, and we were shortly thereafter stopped at a police checkpoint. Let me first say that there was no speed limit sign to indicate that the limit had dropped from 90kph to 60kph; what’s more, when we later figured out the system, we were almost certainly in a 90kph zone, as the only places it drops to 60 is in the towns.
At first, our fine for speeding was supposed to be 460 manat, which is around $600. Then, it dropped to $100, and we knew it was another situation of extortion. We tried our tested method of ignorance but quickly saw that it wouldn’t work in the situation. Then, against my advice, we switched to beligerence (I sat in the car, under the premise that one of us needed to stay out of jail to retrieve the others). Somehow, though, it worked. After much screaming and gnashing of teeth, our car documents and Chase’s passport were thrown back at us and we were told we’d have to pay our fine in Baku (we later found out that this is extremely unlikely to be the case).
Back on the road, we took to watching for speed limit signs, but, in a moment of weakness, Chase and I missed the next one (assuming there was one) and he got flashed again. (This is the point at which the writing of my last post was interrupted.) Panicking, we did the only think we could think to do; we pulled over on the side of the road and tried to find an alternate route on the map, hoping to miss the next checkpoint. While there, a police officer pulls up behind us, and in decent English, asks us if there’s a problem. Forgetting that we’re not in America, we said no, we were just checking our map. His reply: “Oh. Then stopping here is illegal, please show me your documents.”
Chase almost broke down crying in the car, and, after a bit of negotiation with the officer’s brother (an English teacher), we scored a police escort through the next checkpoint, no fines from either situation. When he turned off, he gave us his phone number, explained the speed limits to us, and told us to call if we had any problems. Finally, we set off again for Baku.
The rest of the night, (a little more than 400km) we drove at a maximum of 60kph until we got to the ABJ version of a freeway. Only then did we venture to get up to 90kph, even though the legal limit was 110. Driving in shifts and taking turns spotting and sleeping in the empty backseat, we made it into the city shortly after 9am. We got fairly luck in that we didn’t have any real problems getting into the city center to meet Alec, a friend of mine and Chase’s from high school. By the time we got to his apartment, it was 10, we were exhausted, and we slept away the first half of our first day in Baku.
Upon waking, we talked for a while with Alec about ABJ and Baku. He’s been here almost two years teaching English with the Peace Corps. We felt as though all of our hatred of this country was justified when he described the widespread corruption, biggotry, and indifference of the ABJ government and people; he labelled Baku a Disney city, in that everything looks pretty but it’s all fake. Nobody can afford to live in any of the nice new buildings, so they stand mostly empty. At night, only a few windows shine with the light of habitation. As we expected, this place is awful and we can’t wait to get on the boat to Kazakhstan.
One funny and interesting thing we learned from Alec is the ABJ treatment of the Armenia situation. The southwestern region of ABJ has always been an ethnically unique group of people who neither identify with ABJ or Armenia. They were controlled by Armenia until they were redrawn as a part of ABJ; now, the Armenians have forcibly occupied that region, and tensions are high. Due to heavy propoganda, most Azerbaijanis are ardently against even the mentioning of Armenia, so, when we talk about it, we refer to the country as Kansas and their people as Kansans.
Today, we slept in, with our only real plans for the day being to find out when our ferry was likely to leave. It runs on a demand schedule, and only leaves as often as it is filled. We took Alec’s friend, Ilyiana, who speaks Russian, to help smooth over the conversation. After an hour of driving, we decided that every road to the port must be closed for construction and parked the car to attempt to walk. When we got to the port office, they informed us that they didn’t deal with the cargo ferries, and we’d need to ask a taxi for directions since they didn’t know how to find that office. We broke down and had a taxi driver go ahead of us to find the place.
One bit of luck was that we were met by a man working with the Adventurists to coordinate teams getting onto the ferry. Evidently it’s enough of a headache that they actually have a local on the payroll so half the teams don’t drop out in Baku. We were too late for the ferry that left today, but he told us that there might be one leaving tomorrow or the next day and we should be able to get on that one. We took his phone number with instructions to call him tomorrow around noon. With a little bit of the luck we haven’t had in a while, we might be on our way to Kazakhstan as early as tomorrow.
Thinking our stress for the day was over, we retired to the apartment for a late lunch of chicken wraps. When I checked my email, we got the worst news of the trip. Alyx, for a number of reasons, has decided not to join us in Aqtau anymore. Instead she’s heading back to Krakow by plane to spend some time with her friends there and then returning to the states. I have been homesick too many times to not understand where she’s coming from, and I can’t seem to find it in myself to be angry with her. It does however present serious financial difficulties in finishing the rally, and right now, we’re sitting in shock, letting the implications of her decision sink in. Hopefully, we have the resources to finish as a team of three, but it is now a time for serious soul searching before we continue on our journey. Needless to say, since leaving Tbilisi, we’ve had nothing but the worst time of it; however, it is through adversity one grows, and I expect it’s an experience we’ll never forget.