So it came to be that, instead of crossing Turkmenistan, we will have to travel back to Europe, cross Azerbaijan as fast as possible and board a ship which will take us from Baku to Aktau in Kazakhstan. Somehow we managed to transit through Azerbaijan in three days and leave the country before we even started to realise that we had arrived. We had learned from our previous mistakes and this time we did not have any expectations towards Azerbaijan – probably the only things we knew about this country were connected with oil and Nagorno-Karabakh. We think that you should let yourself form your own opinion and let everyone else form theirs. Truth be told, there was one reason why we wanted to cross the Iranian/Azeri border as fast as possible – after the dry law of Iran we finally had an opportunity to test real Azeri beer (preferably from two liter plastic bottle).
Up until Azerbaijan we hadn’t had any difficulties with border crossing, all the crossings turned out to be easier than expected. Without any serious problems we had managed to cross all the borders which in our book were considered as tricky – Ukraine/Russia, Russia/Georgia, and Armenia/Iran. I am not saying that Azeri border was very different from others and that we had some substantial difficulties, but anyway the customs officers managed to get me really pissed off.
We cleared the Iranian side of the border without a hitch, if one does not count the last 20 minutes when Iranian officers decided to hold on to our passports without any noticeable reason. The party started when we entered the Azeri side. At first it was almost impossible to convince them that the passport which I am showing to them is indeed my own. For them it somehow seemed impossible that a person can look slightly different after cycling for couple thousand kilometres. Anyhow, after a very close examination of my facial details including birthmarks they concluded that I am indeed the very same person. But even after this detailed examination, I still had an impression that they were not fully convinced about the real identity of Mr. Dainis Pudelis.
Unfortunately my adventures did not end there. I was a bit pissed off at them about their inability to recognize my face and maybe this gave them the idea that this guy is probably trying to smuggle in their glorious country something like a carpet from Tabriz. Their X-ray scanners showed something suspicious in one of my front panniers. And thus I had to lay all the contents on the table. It turned out that the “suspicious” object was a regular wrench without any hidden illegal qualities. All this procedure made me really pissed off, even more so because officers were not that interested in the bags of my companions. I had to swallow my anger and frustration, pack my bag and be on my way before the border closes. Forgive and forget.
One last thing about the border crossing. Before crossing the border we had some doubts about our chances to enter Azerbaijan, because our passports were stamped with Armenian entry and exit stamps. As we all know Armenia and Azerbaijan are not the friendliest countries at the moment and we were scared that a visit to Armenia could be enough to deny entry into Azerbaijan. It turned out that the border guards didn’t even blink an eye about this. The result would be very different if we would have ventured also into the Nagorno-Karabakh region. So, if you plan to visit Azerbaijan after Nagorno-Karabakh, make sure there is nothing in your passport proving this visit.
The first and the last storm in Azerbaijan
Finally on the other side of the border, we found ourselves in the southernmost city of Azerbaijan – Astara. We did not have time, nor interest to explore the city. All we did was exchange our last Iranian bills and buy supplies for the evening. After taking care of this, we quickly set out to find a suitable camping spot as the evening, together with some nasty, black clouds, was closing in on us faster than we would have liked. After cycling for couple of kilometres through the city we managed to find some kind of shelter from the rain and wind which had unfortunately caught us. As we didn’t have time to examine the place or to pay attention to who owns it, we decided to ignore these questions. The owner showed up as soon as we were getting under the shelter and instantly granted us the permission to the sea side shelter for free.
After examining the shelter for the first time we concluded that it is going to be enough to keep us dry during the night. It must be noted that the first impression was misleading this time. Soon after we settled down the storm ended its first onslaught – the wind and the rain almost stopped. The evening promised to be quite enjoyable – a mug of beer, pasta with sausages and tea provided by the son of the owner – a young gentlemen named Mr.Fegan. Fegan was very concerned about our wellbeing and to make us a bit more comfortable provided a constant flow of hot tea. The problem with Fegan’s hospitality was that it eventually became like a small annoyance, because we felt really tired and wanted to go to sleep without him observing us. Eventually we just had to be a bit rude and just ask Fegan to leave us.
Later it turned out that Fegan was not our biggest problem – couple of hours after we fell asleep we were woken up by the return of the storm. Apparently the Caspian Sea was not very pleased with us and decided to make our stay quite miserable. The storm proved that the shelter was not as good as it seemed when we arrived and it was practically impossible to find a perfectly dry place. We tried our best and eventually somehow we maned to have at least some sleep in between the loud thunder blasts. Needless to say – in the morning it was not that easy to find a dry spot in our sleeping bags.
Where is the oil wealth of Azerbaijan?
We dried our sleeping bags, packed our bags and started off to the capital of Azerbaijan – Baku. As already said one of the few things we knew about Azerbaijan is that it has substantial oil and gas reserves and that “necessarily” implies that Azerbaijan is a “rich” country (an average Latvian like myself sees every oil exporting (including Lithuania) country with a bit of envy). Without paying attention to the extent of Azerbaijan’s oil and gas reserves, it is quite obvious that outside the capital the wealth generated by countries resources in not that evident. The roads in the southern part of the country are in terrible condition (worse than the roads in Latvia and that is serious). The catastrophic state of transport infrastructure combined with Azeri driving “culture” (sometimes it seems that pushing a cyclist off the road is a national sport) guarantees a unique cycling experience. To sum it all up – I felt much safer in the concrete jungles of Tehran than back in Europe.
It was a really frustrating experience trying not to mess up the bikes, while trying to stay alive and at least partially dry. We spent the second night in Azerbaijan hiding in a patch of trees next to the very same road we had been cycling on and very close to a flock of sheep. The said sheep were not as shy as one could suspect and paid us a visit not long after we settled for the night. After performing a complicated equation I came to a conclusion that I would rather risk getting caught by rain while sleeping outside for the second day in a row than sleep in a tent and get drenched in my own sweat. The gamble didn’t pay off – it started to rain during the night, but even this was not enough to convince me to give up and get into the tent. Hoping that a nearby tree will protect me from some of the rain I tried to get as close to it as possible and fall asleep. A perfect way how to spend your last day in Azerbaijan (land).
How we managed to catch Baku while trying to catch each other
The morning was quite muddy, as was my sleeping bag. After the usual morning ritual we were ready for jet another day on the road. If I would have to name one characteristic all three of us have in common it would be that we all have big personalities and maybe that explains why we usually don’t cycle in one group. As we all have different paces and Ivars disappears on his geocatching rampages from time to time we usually cycle couple hundred meters (or sometimes couple kilometres) from each other. This day was no different – I was cycling first, Laura was pedalling about a kilometre behind me and Ivars was some distance behind Laura. This time our oddities helped us to get to Baku faster than expected.
Only few kilometres after our camp site, while cycling through a little Azeri town, I noticed two touring bicycles and their owners on the left side of the road. Of course I had to stop and chat a bit and exchange experience. Later it turned out that this decision was the one who started off the chain of events which eventually lead us to Baku. So who did I meet? It was a married couple from Germany/China (husband was a German and the wife was Chinese) on their way from Germany to China. Their chosen route was a bit different than route chosen by majority of cyclists going from Europe to China. Instead of entering Iran right after Turkey, they decided to take a detour through Georgia and Azerbaijan. Unfortunately this is not the place of time to dwell on their stories and adventures, but if you want to know more about them you just have to follow this link right HERE.
While I was sharing our experience with German/Chinese colleges Laura managed to cycle past us without noticing that I had stopped. Ivars was not that “lucky” as we managed to shout him off the road. As soon as we realized (it took some time to be honest) that Laura hadn’t noticed us and has cycled on thinking I am still somewhere in front, we had to say farewell to our colleges and try to catch her. It is easier said than done. It must be noted that Laura is by no means a slow cyclist, there are days when she has way more energy as we do and she cycles like Lance Armstrong on doping. This and the strong headwind made the task of catching Laura not that easy. The situation was quite funny – I was trying to catch Laura, while Laura was trying to catch me.
I did manage to catch Laura but not without outside assistance. It seemed that the wind was getting stronger and stronger and even after approximately 20 km I still hadn’t caught Laura. This was when a pickup car stopped and offered a lift. At first I was quite reluctant to agree as in a way it was giving up, but after the car approached me for the second time, I gave in. Now catching Laura was just a question of time, and a short amount of time. After I managed to persuade Laura to get in the car we just had to find Ivars. The driver agreed to help us and turned the car around to go looking for the Beardmaster. After we managed to get Ivars in the car, we had to decide what to do next. It turned out that our Azeri benefactor – Natig was driving straight to Baku. This offered us an unexpected opportunity to arrive in the capital few days before we planned to get there and thus a slight opportunity to catch the ship sailing to Kazakhstan. It was all decided – we were driving to Baku.
In the right place at the right time
So it came to be that we ended up in the capital of Azerbaijan already on our third day in this country. We managed to escape the nasty Azerbaijani roads and headwind and found ourselves standing in front of the Marine Passenger Terminal. We had done our homework about sea traffic between Baku and Aktau and we knew that the ferry is crossing the Caspian Sea only a couple of times a month. For this reason it would be very, very stupid to miss the ferry only because we were too lazy to check at the ticket office on the day when we arrived in the city. In addition, we did not have anything against skipping Baku almost entirely. First surprise was that the Marine Passenger Terminal is not the right place to look for tickets for this particular ferry. As we had already learned from researching the subject most probably we have to get to the Ro Ro (roll on/roll off) terminal which was located some 10 km from us. We arrived there just in time to catch the employees before they left (we barely made it).
Once the ticket office lady got to know that we want to get on a ferry sailing to Kazakhstan, she got noticeably less happy and announced that unfortunately we are some 10 minutes too late. We actually didn’t know what we have missed and we never bothered to find out as she promised to try help us. She called somebody to ask if all is lost and it turned out that we did make it on time. We just had to find ~ 110 USD each and we would be accepted on the board of the vessel. We tried to ask every question about the trip from Baku to Aktau, but as we later found out question asking doesn’t always help. After paying the money and providing the required information, we got the tickets (actually it was a bill of lading) and all we had to do now was wait.
Even though we had to wait a lot, it was nothing compared to the excitement we all had as this promised to be the greatest sea voyage we have embarked on. Anyway we spent the time quite productively – we had the first and the last meal in Baku and found company for the trip across the Caspian Sea. To tell the truth Sophie and Jasper (Jan) – a couple from The Netherlands who had been travelling with an old and lovely camper van for a couple of months already, actually found us. After several small expeditions across the harbour, few cups of coffee and a lot of cigarettes our ship was finally here and we were finally ready to depart.
P.S. Additional information about sea traffic across the Caspian Sea can be found HERE.
Over the Caspian Sea
I have never been very interested in sea/ocean cruise – for me they are too fancy, artificial and maybe predictable. You don’t fell the real roughness and power of the sea. On the other hand I have always dreamed about travelling on a cargo ship. Now I had this chance. I know that it would be a bit unfair to call our ship a “real cargo vessel”, but it was as close enough for my taste. Probably the fact that there were only a handful of tourists/travellers made it a bit more like a cargo vessel. Majority of the passengers were either truck drivers or Georgian train car maintenance crew. The crew was also quite colourful – the captain was following the current fashion trends by wearing a Dolce&Gabbana t-shirt, the cook was a real pirate and the rest of the crew was busy looking for the missing Belarussian.
If I had to name one incident while on the ship it would be our attempts to get free food from the master cook. The problem was that when we bought the tickets they assured us that we don’t have to take that much food with us as we will be fed on board and it is included in the price. Following these instructions we did not take that much food or cash. Long story short – we did not starve after all, as the food was served for us almost for free thanks to the master cook and some minor trickery from our side. The time between the meals and naps was spent exploring the ship from every possible angle and trying to find the best place for reading books and watching the sea. Unfortunately no dolphins or whales. If somebody would offer me to do this again I would agree without even thinking. I love all kinds of boats.
Back in Asia
After approximately 48 hours after we boarded the ship I found myself on the deck watching the docking procedure on the other side of Caspian Sea – we had arrived in Aktau. After the show was over, the Kazakh custom officers took us to the Harbours Customs Office where we were finally accepted in Kazakhstan. Customs procedure was slow as always, but eventually our passports got stamped with the right stamps and Kazakhstan was waiting for us.
We had returned to Asia.