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.
For the overview, check out Formalities: Azerbaijan
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! Additionally 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 Azerbaijani's 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 negotiated 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.
We got to the ferry terminal bright and early (ok, 8:00), and were told that it would be open at 8:30. As we were sitting there waiting, another biker shows up, Massimo from Italy. He rides up in a nice clean GS1200 and seems to be very glad to meet someone else on bikes. We chat while waiting for the office to open. He has come overland from Italy, and has been on the road for a little over a month, and is planning a round trip back to Italy via Russia!!
At 9:00 the lady finally showed up. She then proceeded to take us to the other office and the gentlemen there drinking their morning coffee told us to come back in half an hour. While waiting, Matthew shows up. Matthew is our companion for the tour of Turkmenistan, and had sms'd us the previous night that he was in town, and would let us know about the ferry as soon as he found something out. Well, here he was, so now the four of us go over the office and the officer starts checking our papers.
First problem, Massimos visa starts the following day, so they refuse to sell us the ticket until mid-day. This apparently to keep us from getting on a ferry that arrives in Turkmenbashi before his visa starts. It doesn't matter that we aren't even together, he refuses to sell any of us a ticket, at least until 12:00.
At the same time he informs us that the cost will be 170$ per person and bike. When Matthew asked (Matthew spoke Russian, which was very helpful to sort all this out), how much it would be for him, the officer said he didn't know. What? Matthew went back to the other office where the lady was, and discussed the issue with her, she also told him that she didn't know. Apparently, they, the lady from the one office, and the officer from the other, would have to discuss how much to charge poor Matthew, and he would find out in the afternoon, when they would sell us the tickets! So Matthew goes back to the hotel to pack his things, we decide that we want to go to town and have a nice leisurely breakfast. For us this solution is also the right one as the boat ride is supposed to take around 12-13 hours and our guide is supposed to meet us the following day around 9:00 in the morning. So we also don't want to get on a ferry that gets us there too early. It was just that the whole thing was so surreal. Little did I realize it was going to get even worse.
After Matthew left, we re-parked our bikes and I was arranging for someone to watch them while we were gone, when a car with a customs official shows up and speaks to Cecilia. Cecilia then informs us that, that is the customs officer who will prepare our papers and he wanted her to come down to the customs house with our paperwork.
So off she goes. She returns 30 minutes later with the news that we all have to go down there, and that the customs official is pretty mad at Massimo! When we got down there, he greeted us friendly enough, and then got to Massimo, and asked him why he was late? Late; apparently he was supposed to have show up the previous day, as his import permission had run out then. Oh, boy, maybe we should get away from this guy! Anyway, the customs official wasn't happy. Massimo explained that he had gone to the customs office they had told him to go at the border, and there he had explained about the transportation and they had said it was ok. No problem. Yeah, right, here was a problem. The customs official took this pretty hard, and yelled at him about that the bike should have been here etc. etc. He (the customs official) then ran off, with his mobile to his ear, into an adjacent building and didn't re-appear for 20 minutes. When he finally showed up, he gives us all our receipts and various documents for the bikes, and tells us that everything is ok. We should not leave the port are as the bikes are no longer in the country! He even managed a half-smile (at least at Cecilia).
We then decided that we would go ahead and bring the bikes into the customs compound so that there would be no more problems. While we were at it the customs official informs us that the next ferry (at 13:00) would not take passengers as it is loaded with tanker cars (train wagons with airplane fuel). We could get on the next ferry at around 17:00. So, now our bikes were safely packed away in the customs compound, it was almost 12:00, the time we had agreed to meet Matthew so that we could buy our tickets, so it made no sense to go into town anymore. We settled for tea at a snack bar in the port area. By the way for those of you who are really interested the co-ordinates to the Baku ferry port is: N40 22.383 E49 51.890. (The new terminal across from the Abseron hotel was not working yet, and would only be a passenger terminal anyway, so if you have a vehicle you have to find this dock.)
At 12:00 Cecilia went and got Matthew and we all sat around drinking tea, discussing the very strange situation, and the fact that we have yet to find out what the price for Matthew was going to be. As we were sitting there the ticket officer comes by, pointing at his watch and making it clear that he had been expecting us at 12:00, and why were we sitting here having tea? He wasn't happy, and we couldn't really figure out why, what difference did it make if we showed up 30 minutes later? Anyway, we were literally marched up to the ticket office. Once there, he started talking to Matthew in Russian, and Matthew turned to us told us he thought that the officer was saying that the price was now going to be $140.00 and if that was ok with us? To confirm this the officer wrote the figure out on paper, $280 for Cecilia and I and $140 for Massimo, and $50.00 for Matthew, a total of $470.00. We all said that it would be ok with us! Hey, it is $30.00 per person cheaper, than what he had originally quoted us. At the same time, we also found out what it would cost Matthew, so he was happy. We all got our money out and he wrote out a single ticket for the four of us.
The receipt was then written out for 297.80 azm (New Azerbaijan Manat) which is around $280.00!! For those keeping track, we paid $470.00 or around 500.00 azm, we assume the officer pocket the difference (202.20 azm). At this point we weren't really interested and just wanted to get on the ferry. I don't think it would have made any difference anyway. We took our ticket and headed down to the port.The first thing our friend the customs inspector said was that we had to go and pay an additional "service" fee (Bridge tax!!) at a building back toward where we had just come. So off we go. There we were shown into a very shabby office where a gentleman looked at our ticket asked for a passport and went off. When he came back, he said it would be $20.00 for the three of us. He made it clear that it was only for handling of the motorcycles, so only Massimo, Cecilia and I had to pay. How that came out to $20.00 we weren't sure. The receipt was in Cecilia's name since it was the passport he had gotten. The receipt was for 9.03 azm, so, surprise, surprise, he was also cashing in!
Now were were ready to go through customs and immigration. Customs demanded that we unload out bikes and take the luggage through the x-ray machine in their office so we did. Well, almost, we only showed them our large bags. The tank bag and the boxes stayed on the bikes. After that immigration stamped our passports and we were ready to get on the boat. Sounds nice and easy, took 1 1/2 hours, and we weren't on the boat yet!As we were packing and waiting, we noticed that we hadn't seen Matthew in 30 minutes, where was he? Well, it turns out that he had a stamp in his passport for Armenia, and due to the political situation between Azerbaijan and Armenia, he was being grilled by the customs. What had he done there, who had he talked to, where had he gone. He was forced to show the officers all the pictures in his digital camera! When he finally came out he was pretty much a wreck. But he had his exit stamp and could get on the ferry. Next was Massimo, he also had visited Armenia. Pretty nervous, he walked in, and in 15 minutes was finished. They had asked the same questions but I guess they were much happier with his answers. Not to mention that since Matthew spoke Russian, they could ask a lot more questions! Anyway, we were now ready, the ferry had loaded the last train cars and we were told to get on. So we rode on, and almost immediately the ferry left the dock (it was 15:00).
Pretty cool, we were going to get moving ahead of schedule! As we were leaving the dock, we look back and there is Matthew. We though that he had already gotten on board, but there he was on the dock. Oh, boy. The ferry backs up and re-docks at the jetty across from where we had just been. We though that they had noticed that we had left Matthew behind, but it turns out that another ferry was coming in and needed this particular jetty to unload. So our ferry was just shifting positions! But for a while there we were worried that we were going to Turkmenistan without Matthew!Back at the dock, and Matthew safely aboard, a deckhand fetches us and brings us to the captain who isn't at all very friendly. Through the deckhand who happens to speak a little English, we are offered a "comfortable" cabin for $20.00, which we took, and are promptly shown the worst cabin I have ever had the pleasure of habiting. Not even the run down ferries in Indonesia had cabins this dirty and decrepit. Holes in the walls, door broken, ever single fixture broken or missing, and I don't even want to start on the shower and toilet. The best that could be said is that they did work. Nevertheless it was a place to lay down and sleep, so we took it.
Next, the captain started to talk about that we had to pay a service charge for tying down and parking our bikes in the hold. At the same time he asked for our ticket. Unfortunately we didn't have the ticket. Cecilia was sure that one of the people back at the dock had kept it after examining it. The ticket was checked by at least a half-dozen people before we came on board. Anyway since we didn't have the ticket, and Matthew still wasn't over his scare with the immigration, Cecilia went off to look for it, while I argued with the captain regarding the "service" charge, and Massimo stood by looking very bemused. I simply refused to pay and after a while of cross discussions regarding the lack of "service" and the fact that we had already paid a "service" charge for what we believed was exactly this "service" or lack thereof, the captain stormed away in a huff and we got off not paying any more. I was particularly adamant about not paying, since they had in fact not provided any service at all. If anything they were more un-helpful than helpful, and we did everything ourselves, with our own equipment. The captain couldn't even argue that we were using ships equipment (ropes, tie-downs, etc.) to secure our vehicles! I almost felt sorry for him. It really looks like he is at the end of a chain of officials who all cash in on the tourist or travelers, and he wants his cut also, but of course the more efficient everyone else is the less is left for him to cash in on!! In particular the ticket office guys seem to be able to cash in the best.
After 30 minutes or so, Cecilia comes back and says that she needs her passport, so she gets it from the captain and takes off again! After another 45 minutes she comes back. No-one at the dock had the ticket, so she had to go back to the ticket office to get a copy. The guys at the customs got someone to drive her up to the ticket office and drive her back, since they said it was too far to walk! Everyone thought that I was pretty mean, making poor little Cecilia do all this work, and were therefore much more helpful. She got a copy and gave it to the captain and everyone was happy!
Ok, so now we are on the ferry, we have our stuff in the cabins, and even managed to lock the door! So we stand outside on the top deck and watch the comings and goings. Across from us the ferry from Kazakhstan pulls up and lets the few passengers off, takes on new passengers, unloads the cargo and re-loads cargo and leaves! It took 4 hours or so, but it was gone, and we are still here! We got bored, and got out some of our supplies and had a nice little picnic. Watched the sunset over Baku and finally at 22:00 (10pm), we leave. This is pretty good for us as it means that we aren't going to be waiting for the guide who was supposed to meet us at 9:00 the next morning in Turkmenbashi.
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