The immediate thing that strikes us upon entering the country is the return to the Turkish-like enthusiasm of greetings and cheers from the locals. The two countries in fact share history and culture; both were part of the bygone Ottoman Empire and are even further glued by sister “Turkic” languages, which I gather are pretty much mutually intelligible. The numbers 1-20 at least are identical.
Azerbaijan had previously decided to follow in the footsteps of Turkey’s post-Ottoman westernisation by ditching the Arabic script for Latin. Russian, they also decided, was no longer really needed once it started converting to independence during the Soviet breakup. The Azeris were quick bring English into school curriculum. Consequently, most young Azeris here under the age of around 35 don’t seem to know any Russian. Nor any English for that matter. Most above that age speak Russian so we were able to practice on them.
The population is 99% Muslim,(presumably a resuscitation of Islam happened in the 1990s), though it is much less obvious than in Turkey because there are virtually no headscarves to be seen and alcohol is not concealed at all.
Anyway, history lesson over. The only reason I put that in is because I’ve just read a couple of chapters from Carmen’s heavy going “Inside Central Asia” where Azerbaijan is mentioned in the Turkey chapter. The book is so dense in technese that it’s unreadable; my brain is full up and wants to have a poo. The other reason to include it is because well really, I find the history more interesting than the country itself.
We were barely one day into the country and I fall sick again. We consider our options and decide that the healthiest and happiest course of action is for me to recover alone from sickness and then catch a train to the capital Baku. Carmen would cycle off on her own and take advantage of Turkic family hospitality along the way. The police had already been warm and helpful, giving us a lift in their cop car to government offices to help us with the registration process and then take us back home again. So we felt in safe hands in this country. We were about to spend the longest time apart since May 7th.
It goes more or less to plan. I book onto the night train that would take me the 450km to Baku. My seat choices on the website are “kp”, “sv” and “pk”, I’m desperate to get the thing booked so elected a random one. “Pk” for 7 manat (£5), bargain!
The derelict train station was in the middle of nowhere, I got there early and checked with the ticket man to ensure that my bike wouldn’t be a problem. Boarding time came, each carriage had an attendant so I approached one of them to ask where to put my bike. She indicated that bikes are a problem and that I wouldn’t be getting on the train with my bike. Then she spoke with another attendant from the next carriage and said that actually I could get on if I paid a bit more. Then she saw the bike with the luggage and said that actually no, the bike is a problem really. The individual people working under the collective title of “train staff” seemed to me to be working more like separate companies with different policies.
One good thing about language barrier is that it’s so much easier to just play dumb than if you were in your own culture: I stayed put, conjured up some facial expressions and waited until I heard the next iteration of a correct answer. Maybe I thought, they’d just give up thinking inside the box and actually think up a solution. You are basically making your problem their problem.
The attendant then went off, presumably to find out how on earth she could possibly fit my small bike onto an empty 10-carriage train that was to leave in three hours. After five minutes of entertaining a growing arch of spectators around me, including a policeman, I looked around for clues but saw that the attendant was now sitting down on a bench doing nothing and making sure that my problem didn’t become her problem.
Fat useless shit.
At this point, an American expat who was also at the platform informed me that Azerbaijanis are generally unable to problem-solve. So after more waiting around patiently, certain that someone would eventually help me, the policeman took control. He found a carriage himself and put my bike on, with assistance from another carriage attendant. Bingo. Good old helpful police.
The train was a classic Soviet sleeper. The “PK” class was communal second class, 6 bunk beds arranged and stowed in doorless births. I realised that I had been on one before in 2008, travelling overnight between the capitals of North Korea and China, in “KP” or koupe class, a cabin of four beds. It was a great experience then and it was exciting being on one again. I found out that the other class “SL” means private room.
The family that joined my birth a few hours later were rubbish. Feeding their two hyperactive kids sweets until bedtime, they spent much of the journey staring at me as if I were invading their personal space. Any attempt on my behalf to communicate with them drew more expressionless blanks. Once they decided that they were ready to sleep and that their kids should now stop climbing over me and throwing balloons at me, they asked a member of staff to tell me to move from my allocated bed to the top bunk, for their comfort.
The next morning, the carriage attendant switched on the lights requesting for everyone to wake up, addressing me in person in Russian as she went past me,
“Englishman! Wake up please!”
I rolled up my bedding and sat below, once more awkwardly avoiding the awkward gaze of the Adams Family in silence for the remaining two hours.
Approaching Baku, I looked out the window in horror. Muddy, flat, brown and grey wastelands, sometimes with the odd house sitting up like an unfortunate island in a sea of hell. It was windy and rainy, I had barely slept for three days now and I missed Carmen. It was pretty depressing.
We pulled up at Baku station and I had to wait very patiently for one of the train attendants to open the carriage door for me to wheel out my bike. She curiously kept telling me to wait while she was chatting away to other staff. After ten minutes I started to realise that new passengers were boarding and the engineers were reversing the drive mechanisms. I pleaded some more to the woman before some girls boarded and asked what my problem was. I pointed to my velociped and bagazhe and indicated that I simply needed to get off. The three girls immediately helped me get all my stuff off by squeezing through the intercarriage doors and out onto the platform via the next carriage. All the while with the carriage attendant laughing and watching us. This was the same woman that the night before had decided to charge me extra for the bike; charging me for a service that doesn’t exist. And this woman had now decided to plead ignorance to my needs.
Fat useless shit.
The train left the platform the way it came less than a minute after I had got off it.
Things are different when I don’t have an attractive girl by my side, people aren’t quite as helpful. Unless of course it’s help from four attractive Russian girls!
The weather had been hard going for Carmen but luckily she was able to dry off most of the time in the evenings in the comfort of her hosts. She eventually became tempted by my warm apartment that I had booked for recovery purposes and she fast-tracked a day of cycling in a minibus and arrived three hours later.
I just asked her for descriptives of her part of the journey for the purposes of this part of the blog post.
“It was alright” is her answer.
Infer as you will. Apparently my train ride was more exciting.
We parked ourselves in Baku for six days in the hands of a Couch Surfer named Jonathan, a scouser. Now finding myself surrounded by two of them, I kept my belongings even closer to me as we waited out to receive our Uzbekistan visas.
Seven weeks ago back in the Istanbul consulate, the clerk accidentally sent our visas to the wrong city. He offered to rectify his mistake by sending them to Baku for us to collect. The embassy in Baku was able to confirm by way of a telephone call to the Istanbul visa man in person that indeed the man had done nothing to arrange to forward on our visas to Baku for collection.
Fat useless shit.
We restarted the application process and waited all over again. 7-10 days we were told this time. We held no hope. Far better to stop expecting things to go to plan.
We filled our time in expensive Baku firstly by spending a couple of days with some of the British (and scouse) expats teaching English for oil companies.
After the USSR, Azerbaijan no longer needed to cyphen off its oil to its Soviet master so it has been able to boom and profit since then. The manat is on par with euro and costs here are very European. Baku consequently is home to a large expat community, feeding off, directly or indirectly, the country’s oil.
In our time off we enjoyed reading and watching the country’s plethora of propaganda crap. We noted with hilarity how the country mostly aspires to European standards but whilst feeling like it has to explain itself and apologise to Russia about it, almost as a sign of fearsome allegiance.
In an interview with an Azeri oil company executive that we read in a magazine:
“We plan to export to the EU more and more. Not because we favour the EU over Russia, simply because it’s good business.”
Baku is a strange place. It has a bubble of development a few square kilometres in size. This bubble stops very abruptly: perhaps 500m from the old city (which is beautiful) and main shopping area, the city rolls off into ugly derelict semi-residential wastelands comprising potholes, bulldozers and concrete blocks. Our expat friends told us that even inside the bubble, many of the buildings are merely concrete shells with nice facades.
The bubble itself is nice enough though, it’s comfortable and familiar and it could have used Paris or London as its’ style guide. It has the familiarity of having the UK commercial high-street landscape: WH Smith, Zara, Debenhams etc. to please its Anglo-Saxon diaspora. So when I say it’s nice, I don’t mean original or unique. Or even interesting really. But it’s probably what we needed, we were still low on energy, exhausting ourselves simply with an afternoon of walking around.
We couldn’t believe it when we got a call to inform us that the visas were ready for collection. It had been six days since we reapplied. We had kind of lost hope in most things we were waiting for. To our surprise we had also received a package of replacement parts for the tent and stove that we had sent to a Warm Showers host’s address. We previously had no faith in the Azeri postal system which had many bad reviews. There doesn’t seem to be a robust address system either, finding stuff,including the embassy relies on meticulous directions on english speaking forums.
So our luck in Baku changed and bit by bit our missing pieces fitted back together again. The weather turned good and we even got on the infamous ferry to Aktau only two days after getting the visas. Carmen had to call the also infamous Russian boat lady to ask her, in Russian, when the next boat leaves and if we would be allowed on. The lady told her that it wouldn’t be today but to call back again the next morning for an update, which was what we expected. Cut to five minutes later, she calls us back and asks us to come to the port immediately to get on the ship leaving today.
We didn’t believe we’d actually get on the ship, simply owning a ticket wasn’t enough to fill us with confidence. We had to physically walk our bikes onto the ship before we were reassured that we really would be sailing away towards Kazakhstan today. We were very excited by now. It didn’t matter that we had to rush to get a taxi 70k away to the other port, contradicting all info we’d read on the forums.
The two travelling motorcyclists we met in the port’s ticketing office had no such luck boarding with us. They were told they could also board but that they had to wait. After waiting, they were told to then wait more. We left them assuming we would see them on board but they never showed up. We felt rather lucky that it was all going to plan for us.
It turned out that we were put on the rail-cargo ship,which is rare for tourists to be put on, people usually have to wait longer for the standard cargo ship to leave from the city.
On board, we were able to move between three rooms: our bedroom, the living room and the dining room. Or if you prefer seaspeak, the cabin, the day room and the mess room. And of course the deck. There were 23 crew and only one other civilian passenger besides the two of us.
After sailing for four hours and into the night, we anchored up which we presumed, out of primitive logic, was because the captain can’t see where he’s going at night. The next morning, on our 14th hour, recognising the skyline, we realised that we were anchored in Baku. The actual sailing time is usually 23 hours.
The third captain, the only English speaker on board, explained that the wind was far too dangerous, at 40 metres a second, for fragile rail cargo to sail into. We would have to wait from control for permission to continue sailing.
Keen to make friends with him, I patiently asked when he thought that may be.
“3-4 days” he answered. Half way through this answer, I had anticipated the unit of time being hours. Carmen and I exchanged a brief smile that concealed our real emotions. We diagnosed the situation ourselves and decided that it was actually definitely very safe to get going. All he needed to do was switch on the headlights and accelerate away.
He invited us into the cockpit (or wheelhouse) whenever he was on watch. So like an excitable techno child, the next evening I took him up on the offer and began an acute line of questioning:
“So is it all computers these days then?”
“Is that a fax machine?”
“Is there a signalling flag that exists to mean that there’s been a hijack?”
“Can you tell from the RADAR screen what kind of vessel each one is?”
“Is that a chicken?”
“What qualifications do you have?”
“Do you not have satellite internet?”
The answers to the questions were:
“Yes, it’s all on auto pilot and we constantly check everything”
“Sort of, it’s a telex”
“Yes, I can click on each one and see data such as call sign and vessel type”
“Yes, we have 8 chickens in there, we use them for cooking…No, they don’t lay eggs”
“Marine nautical something degree for four years”
“No we don’t. Some other ships have internet and can receive their data that way. Captains sometimes use it to check Facebook”
He revealed a lot to us actually and was very honest about his job, which he didn’t really enjoy and was only doing it for the money. We were also very surprised to see that John Cleese was the first captain of the ship! He was there calmly sipping tea, expressionless yet concentrated.
The living room had a TV which was frequented throughout the day by the crew at various intervals. We were subjected to mostly awful pop music, surreal archives of traditional dance and AZTV, the ghastly government propaganda channel.
We observed that the country has many ingredients of a successful dictatorship:
-The ex-president’s face is framed in virtually every building and public space, including the vessel’s living room.
-If not the ex-president then his son, the current president.
-The current president has a silly moustache.
-The president’s daily movements are reported constantly by news. In much of the footage, he appears alongside huge framed versions of himself, or of his father.
-The president likes to go to places and look at things.
I would observe many of the crew members staring at this channel with no sense of expression, curiosity or disdain. As if they were accepting and absorbing what they were fed. Subjects of His quasi-dictatorship.
The good thing about such regimes though is election time. A local we had met who served in the army (compulsory) told us that they are given their ballot papers with the vote pre-ticked for the current leadership. Saving the populace entirely from troubling themselves with the hassle and energy of having to work out who to possibly vote for. (Our friend asked for a blank ballot for his vote.). Far less hassle the autocratic way!
Even though we stayed anchored out to sea close to Baku for 68 hours, we very much enjoyed our time on board, from the beginning. Nothing to do other than recover, read, write this blog and eat our rations at the set 3 times a day. The crew bemused themselves at how much I ate (or wanted to eat). Every meal consisted of chicken and some form of carb accompanied with some great soups, including our favourite shchee. Breakfast did little to break our fast though: stale bread and sometimes semolina. The livingroom had a table tennis so that kept us active.
At first the crew all seemed indifferent to us. They spoke neither Russian nor English so I guess it was mutual that we felt cut off from one another. We were surprised on the third night, during the storm when one of the dinner ladies came into our cabin and told us to dress up warm. She watched me put my trousers on and waited for us to accompany her outside. We had no idea what was going on. Actually that’s not true, we had a very good idea what this could have been about as we slowly walked to deck which I now recall in slow motion.
Much to our great relief, the lifeboats weren’t being lowered, the 23 crew weren’t wearing life jackets and neither was there a sombre looking captain shutting himself in the cockpit. Or a string quartet! Everyone was stood on deck around a table next to a fire with meat cooking on it! We were quickly offered red wine and some chicken. Red wine! Being British, we had been craving to fill this void of activity with drinking but didn’t expect wine to ever be on the cards. Guess the crew must have made up the 1% of the country’s non-Muslims!
Huge delight overcame us as we realised that being on the deck of a cargo ship in a small windy rain storm feasting on wine and food next to a fire on the Caspian Sea with a bunch of Azerbaijani sailors on route to Khazakstan is probably once in a lifetime experience. Try saying that aloud without pausing to breathe.
And all of a sudden, we all became friends, language was no longer a barrier, the crew opened up and each top up of wine was accompanied with a clinking of glasses. By the end of the evening, we had to leave as many of the young sailors’ tails were wagging in overdrive at Carmen’s presence and they couldn’t stop themselves taking photo after photo of themselves next to her.
Until this point we believed that John Cleese was the captain of the ship, he looked wise and he was the oldest. I was delighted to be rubbing shoulders with him. Carmen and I competed to see who could cheers him the most. Joe 5-2 Carmen. Then we learnt he was just the telex operator. The first captain was the geezer in the cap. He wasn’t keen on having his photo taken. It later occurred to me that maybe it was because it’s massively illegal to have any kind of fire on a cargo ship containing an oil train-tanker just below our feet.
We retreated to the cockpit to get away from the manfest. Our English speaking captain was on watch and his calm sweet, composed and polite manner was a welcome end to the fantastic night. The cockpit was a calm and dark place lit up only by the flashing LEDs, with crew almost whispering whilst sipping tea, eating biscuits and checking up on beeping noises produced by the various technomachines. The captain’s English lexicon was at times wonderfully genius. Nighttime became night o’clock and crossing or journey was a voyage. These words tickled me whenever they came up in conversation.
“If we arrive at night o’clock we will complete the voyage maybe in the morning and go to the jetty.”
The second dinner lady warmed to us after a couple of days and on morning three we were rewarded for good behaviour with a shower and some laundry.
Our final night of the voyage was celebrated with another BBQ which went on well into night o’clock. The first captain’s powers stretched into socialising. He commanded verbally over salad preparation and fire maintenance. Then, after several sweet wines, silliness ensued. On the captain’s orders, salt was mixed with a sailor’s wine behind his back, producing a hurl of laughter at cheersing point. Then I cheersed John Cleese, using his name.
“What is ‘Jon Kleez’?” asks the captain in broken English.
“Then you must show me on the internet. NOW!”
We marched to his palacial suite. He seemed to be the only crew member with a computer connected to the internet. No sooner had I typed “John Cleese” into Google images, the captain was roaring with hysterical laughter. He grabbed the tannoy and summoned John Cleese into his room, his voice echoing throughout the ship’s PA. By the time Cleese had arrived, we were watching the ministry of silly walks and the hitler march from Fawlty Towers, with the captain in exaggerated hurls of laughter, almost falling back behind his chair. I had never actually seen anyone LOL. LOL!
To our astonishment Cleese immediately replicated what we were watching, almost like an obliging monkey pleasing His hysterical powerful master and his guests. He seemed to be able to be John Cleese down to the T. We went on deck and took a load of photos.
We arrived in Aktau, Khazakstan five days after leaving the Azeri port. 70 hours of this was spent anchored in Baku waters and the remaining 25 hours anchored in Aktau.
We are now about to experience our first ever desert before the home straight to Kyrgystan where we will settle and build a life long enough for the icy winter to pass for some four months or so.
So there you go. A blog entry without a single story of cycling.