After very little sleep post our Armenian adventure we were up early in order to cross the border into Azerbaijan. We were warned beforehand that this was our first ‘serious’ border crossing, although this did not quite prepare us for the questioning we were about to get. By now we were all aware of the problems between Armenian and Azerbaijan but what we weren’t aware of was that by entering Armenia we would encounter problems at the Azerbaijan border. When the border guards saw the stamps in our passports we were immediately subjected to a tirade of questions about where we had been, where we had stayed and what we had seen. With most of us now terrified we were going to say the wrong thing and risk being ejected from the country our bags were scanned and any products from Armenia were removed. Our cameras and passports were then removed from us and we were ushered into a waiting room where we all started to relax with the border guards. After a couple of marriage proposals, the loss of any photos of the genocide museum and a re-education about the Armenia genocide itself (it didn’t happen apparently), we were on our way.
We spent one night in Sheki, sleeping in the Karavansaray – traditionally where the animals would have been kept on the Silk Road – perhaps it has something to do with the smell? We sample the local dish; Piti – lamb smothered in fat and cooked in a clay pot – sounds disgusting, tastes delicious. We make a brief stop at Khan’s Palace. Brightly coloured, adorned with stained glass and mirrored jewels this small palace was originally used as the khan’s administrative building, completed in 1762 it is the only royal structure that survives in Sheki today.
We plan to stop at some weird and wonderful mud volcanoes before making our way to the capital, Baku. It isn’t long before the rain starts and soon trusty old Calypso is stuck in the mud. Stuck at an alarming angle the truck lurches and slides as Driver tries to free us. Before long those of us at the back are begging to be released and we make the walk up to the volcanoes on foot. The volcanoes make a bizarre site. The smaller volcanoes ooze and spit grey mud whilst the larger ones gurgle away in the background giving this alien landscape and eerie soundtrack. A few of the more inquisitive members of the group venture too close and end up waist deep in mud giving the rest of us a good giggle. As we wander back down the hill caked in grey sticky mud we find Calypso freed from her mud encasing and we are able to head off to a bush camp for the evening.
Calypso in the mud:
We arrive in Baku early in the morning where as a group we head to the Turkmenistan embassy in order to get our visas and start the process of crossing the Caspian Sea. There are no scheduled ferry times and we have been warned that we could end up in Baku for a number of days before we are able get on one. For a hefty price our Turkmenistan visas are processed in a matter of hours and we are set free for an hour to grab some food with strict instructions to be back at 3pm for news on the ferry. Three o’clock comes around quickly but there is no news so we are ushered back out again to explore. Baku is a glossy cosmopolitan city filled with beautiful parks, lined with trees and wacky fountains. Winners of Eurovision in 2011 and the host city in 2012 they are certainly proud of this fact. We arrive one day after the 2013 event where Azerbaijan came second. The locals talk about it constantly and the main square is full of large screens where the contest was shown. Even as a Brit who thinks Eurovision is a bit of a joke I can’t help feeling we missed out by not arriving a day earlier.
Alex jumping for joy in Azerbaijan
6pm rolls round and we are told there is a possibility of getting on a ferry the next day so we have the evening to ourselves, expecting a bit of a lie in and a casual morning of waiting around the hotel. We plan at trip on the funicular railway for a view over the city, however, when we arrive back at the hotel later that night we given the unexpected news that we will be getting on a ferry in the early hours of the morning. We rush around packing our bags, handing over passports, showering and jumping into bed for a few hours sleep. We are woken by a cheery phone call from Teresa at 6am, two hours later than expected, and told to be ready in 10minutes. More rushing and panicking ensues but we are soon all in the lobby waiting and worrying about the state of the ferry. The Caspian Sea crossing is notorious on this trip and it is one aspect that has been a cause of anxiety for us all. Having already done one of these crossings between Egypt and Sudan I am preparing myself for the worst. We have been told that the actual crossing takes 16 hours but external factors such as finding somewhere to dock and loading and unloading the ferry can mean a painfully long wait, not to mention the state of the ferry’s themselves. We have been warned about maggots in the beds and come prepared with roll mats and sleeping bags.
Baku by night:
We make it to the port at 6.30 and finally jump on board the ferry at 9.30 to be greeted by brand new mattresses, an on board bar and restaurant. We are delighted and settle down on deck to wait for the ferry to be loaded. We set sail at 12.30 expecting to dock at around 4am. After a lazy day reading and snacking we watch the sunset and head to bed.
Sunset on the Caspian Sea:
Before we hit the hay the captain comes round to tell us that there are two ships in the docks ahead of us so we will drop anchor in the morning and wait for a dock to become available. At the prospect of another lie in we are thoroughly ecstatic. At 2.30pm the next day, however, when we still haven’t made it into port our patience is beginning to wane. We finally make it into port at 3.30 and are made to wait in the cargo hold for a further two hours whilst the Turkmen border authorities finish their tea break. At 5.30 we are moved out of the cargo hold and are made to wait outside passport control until 7.30 when they start to process our passports. At 8.30 we are finally released, desperate for the toilet and delirious with hunger we make a quick stop for plov, a local rice dish. With an 11pm curfew for tourists we make a quick dash down the road to a bush camp.
A full 38 hours after our wake-up call in Azerbaijan we have made it to Turkmenistan, country number five.