The fact that I got out of bed this morning just goes to show how dedicated to the cause I am. Atheer didn’t get up until well after noon. First up, I needed my passport back.
After a quick (but surprising) fingerprint-taking session, the Iranian Embassy gave me my little burgundy booklet of travel, furnished with a brand new visa. I had Iran in the bag. Now I just have to get there before World War III kicks off.
I had got in touch with Jamel, a couchsurfer in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, to ask if he could write me a new letter of invitation. No probs he said, but it would take him a couple of hours to get it proofed and everything. The Azerbaijan Embassy closed at 1pm and was way way way on the other side of town. I HAD to make it. At 11am I was on the internet at the backpackers a little more than worried. By 12 noon I was beginning to panic, but at 12.15pm the letter had come through. I emailed it over to Mehmet on the front desk and he printed it out for me. I grabbed it HOT OFF THE PRESS and began to RUN!!
I headed FULL PELT to the Sultanahmet Tram station, took it all the way to the end of the line where I changed for the Taksim Funicular, arriving at 12:41. I thundered through the station and jumped on the Metro service to Levent in the very north of the city. The train pulled in at 12:55.
You should possibly understand at this point how hungover and sleep-deprived I was. Madness, utter madness.
And, even though the bloomin’ escalator was out of service, I managed to bound up the mofo all the way into the clear crisp spring day that was awaiting my return to the surface, sweating beer and chagrin. 12:57. I pegged it up the road towards the Embassy like a man possessed, arriving at 12:59.
They let me in.
Panting, exhausted and ready to faint, I got into the little portacabin office on the right of the mansion house and presented my documents – bank statements, letter of employment, letter of invitation…
This is no good.
What? Sorry, I mean WHAT?!!?!
It must come from the government.
I was told it didn’t have to, I just needed a letter. From someone in Azerbaijan. Written in Azeri. Well, here it is.
Nope. No good.
He saw that I looked like I was about to burst into tears.
Why don’t you try the embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia?
Thanks for nothin’ Azerbaijan! And to think… you used to be my favourite word.
After yesterday’s gallivanting around the travel agencies of fair Istanbul, I knew that the buses for Georgia left at 6pm. There was nothing else for me here. Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru had been brutally murdered by Stormtroopers and they had totally trashed my T-16. How could I be expected to bullseye womp-rats now?
Atheer was up for one final crazy night out, but The Odyssey comes first. Georgia here I come.
Dear old Bertie died of a heart attack in the 1920s and – according to his wishes – had been stuffed and kept in the little museum on the grounds of the fabulous manor house that Mand and I were visiting for Pimms and cucumber sandwiches. Bertie looked hilarious in his tartan and tweed and hadn’t aged a day. He was characteristically mounted standing up and holding the very glass of whiskey he was drinking when he passed away. The whiskey had evaporated over time, but one sleuthy sniff revealed to me the tell-tale smell of almonds in his drink – arsenic, old bean: dear old Bertie didn’t die of a heart attack, he was MURDERED, and what’s more… his killer was in this very room…
Before I could whip around and reveal whodunit, I woke up and found myself on a bus heading east along the banks of the Black Sea. Yesterday I had said my hearty farewells to Atheer and the good folks of the Orient International Hostel (gets a MASSIVE thumbs-up from me!) and we had travelled through the night east, east, east towards the Caucuses.
A day on a bus gives you precious little to write home about, but my fellow passengers were helpful and friendly and (I LOVE TURKEY!) the tea was, of course, free. The Black Sea to our left was, indeed a dark and forbidding slate-coloured affair but the little fishing boats did their best to brighten things up. To be honest I slept until midday. I guess getting sozzled four nights in a row had finally caught up with me. I tell you what though, I’m beginning wake up aching, which isn’t fun… and is doing much to make me believe I am now past the prime of my life.
Around 4pm we made it to the border with country 145: Georgia. The only place round these parts that don’t demand a visa. However, one of our passengers took a good two hours getting through customs, and we had to wait for him. Coupled with the fact that Georgia is not one but TWO hours ahead of Turkey, it was 8pm before we hit the road again.
Mandy had hooked me up with a CouchSurf host in Tbilisi called Rati, but by now I realised it would be well past midnight before we arrived. Rati said it was okay, to ring whenever. What a dude!
It was past 3am before we got there. A heady mixture of terrible roads, fog and driving rain had hampered our efforts somewhat. I took a taxi to Rati’s neighbourhood and met him outside the Chemist’s shop. All I can say is a THANK YOU and express a massive depth of gratitude to Rati for meeting me. I put my stuff on charge and got my head down for the night.
I actually woke up at 7am, but Rati was still asleep, so that gave me an excuse to go back to sleep until noon. Rati’s apartment is lovely on the inside, but it is housed within just one of many ugly concrete tenement flats from the closing days of the USSR.
There is something tremendously soul crushing about Soviet architecture, maybe that was the idea – to invoke a dab and dreary landscape from which escape seemed impossible. The conspicuous lack of any elegance, refinement, beauty or romance is echoed in many buildings all over the world; not least in the UK, were I implore anyone with even a modicum of interest in architecture to go compare the graceful Liverpool Infirmary (designed by Waterhouse and built in the first decade of the twentieth century) to the painfully dispiriting home for the undead that is the ‘modern’ Royal Hospital opened in 1979 – the year of my birth.
Look at the statues from the era – not exactly slender, svelte and sinuous are they? Just brutal, ugly and overbearing. They look like they were carved by the Bitmap Brothers. Whilst wearing boxing gloves. But when it comes to all things oppressive, blocktacular and downright ugly, the former USSR wins hands down.
Right now the Azerbaijan Embassy doesn’t open until Monday, so I may as well go get another country under my belt: Armenia.
This entailed going to the bus station which looked like the cargo hold of the Nostromo, if it had been made of concrete. Rati came with me and plonked me on a shared minibus to the border, 70km away. It rained all the way there, but gave me the chance to catch up on my blog. Unlike Georgia, I do need a visa for Armenia, but you can get it on the border and it’s only a fiver for three days, which is way more than I needed. The border guards decided to take me to one side and go through all my things asking questions. It was only when one of them took out the Toblerone I had bought at the Duty Free shop and asked me what was in it and what it was for that I fired my best comedy “what is this guy on?” look to his mate who promptly cracked up laughing.
They let me in, no worries!
But by the time everyone was through it was dark and so then the bus drove through the Debed Valley, which the Lonely Planet tells me is the more picturesque bit of Armenia, at night – so it’s fair to say I didn’t see much. I stayed the night in the town of Vanadzon at the south end of the Valley. Arriving at 9pm, I thought I’d check into the cheap little hotel, find a nice little place to eat, maybe have a beer or two… no.
Everything – and I mean EVERYTHING was closed. Saturday night in Armenia is not my idea of fun. It’s not anyone’s idea of fun. Unless you’re Morrissey perhaps. It was pissing down with rain, the people where either glum or rude (or both!) and after a fruitless hour of pottering about getting very wet and even more hungry I found a 24 hour supermarket (wonders never end!) which actually had a kebab (souvlaki) stand in it. Thank the maker! The kebab, I have to say, was the BEST I have EVER had. If there is one (and there may be only one) redeeming feature of this place, I think that will have to be it – the kebabs. The secret? Ah – that’d be the crispy bacon!!
Welcome to Armenia.
After yesterday’s glum-fest, I didn’t think things could get any more glum. I WAS WRONG! After leaving my (Overlook) hotel I went over to the train station/bus stand to try to get a bus up the valley to go and explore the old monasteries up there. A guy called Gary offered to take me in his clapped out old Lada taxi around the sites for twelve euro. That’ll do, I thought, and hopped in.
Man oh man, I heard the Soviets were awesome at sucking the beauty out of everything like some kind of giant aesthetical vampire, but I was NOT prepared for the devastation they had wrought on the Debed Canyon. If, as it states in the Lonely Planet the Debed Canyon “manages to pack in more history and culture than just about anywhere else in the country” then I didn’t miss much by not visiting the rest of Armenia.
Once upon a time, the Debed Canyon was a picturesque wooded valley, dotted with small settlements and medieval monasteries. Then the Soviets rucked up in their big clod-hopper boots and managed to somehow take this pristine wilderness and turn it into the most heartbreaking bags of arse I have ever seen. They installed a copper mine, HIGH-RISE FLATS (seriously!) and a railway line. And in doing so they thoughtlessly meffed-up Armenia’s heritage in a way that would make the most capital of capitalists blush.
The railway line wouldn’t be so bad (I have no objection to a pair of nice clean rails running through the countryside) if they hadn’t decided to solve the obvious drainage/subsidence problem in the most ham-fisted way imaginable – by steering the rainwater OVER THE TOP of the railway using wide, brutal concrete drainage channels every kilometre or so. These drainage channels sat perched in the air over the railway and looked like half-finished concrete bridges of the kind dreamt up by over-zealous town planners in the 1960s who thought that they could create a new world order out of concrete and asbestos.
The trees of the valley are now all but gone and all that remains of the good old days are a handful of small monasteries in various states of dilapidation. I spend a good few hours exploring them in the rain – Sanahin and Haghpat are UNESCO World Heritage Sites – but aside from the joy I got from the inscriptions carved on the wall in the Armenian alphabet (it looks soooo much like it was done by aliens) it was about as much fun as a wet weekend in Rhyl.
Did I mention it was raining? Oh, yeah, I did, but I thought I’d mention it again as it adds to the dark, grey gloominess of the valley. What’s that? Oh, another factory, another derelict warehouse or two… or four… or thirty-six. Concrete hell-holes with all their windows smashed in, covered in graffiti and despair. It’s like somebody read my mind (or my blog) and devised the perfect opposite of my personal vision of nature and architecture entwined in some kind of ethereal beauty.
In short, Rivendell it was not.
I soon decided it would be best to head back to Georgia, which I duly did, losing another precious page of my passport in the process (despite my valiant efforts!). I met with Rati at his home and we had dinner – some kind of Russian concoction, a bit like meatballs wrapped in pasta. It was pretty good, I have to say. Later we left to head into town and meet up with a couple of guys that Rati had been in contact with through CouchSurfing – Michael and Martin.
Michael is from Germany and Martin is from Austria. Michael’s supposed to be kipping at Rati’s gaff but I’ve nicked his spot (ha!), no fear though – he’ll be joining us tomorrow night and taking the spare room. We found a little pub in downtown Tbilisi (if you like a drink or two, Georgia is gob-smackingly cheap) and settled in for the night. But remember – NEVER toast with beer in Georgia – only wine or spirits may be used to propose a toast. If a Georgian toast you with beer, you are their enemy, which is a great way to catch somebody out who’s pretending to be Georgian and isn’t.
Turns out Michael was working in Cambodia for a couple of years before deciding to travel his way back home – which meant that I could happily pick his brains about the old border formalities of China, India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran et al. Thanks to him, I’ve altered my schedule slightly and will now be attempting to enter China from Pakistan rather than Nepal (I was hoping to pull some strings, but I gave up hope of special favours a loooooong time ago).
So what’s up next I hear you cry?
Well, obviously I need to sort out my visa for Azerbaijan still, and once I’ve got that I’ll high-tail it over to Baku, the capital. From there I’ll be heading to Kazakhstan, the home of a certain Borat Sagdiyev and then pressing on to Uzbekistan (for which I will (hopefully) have a two-entry visa) and beginning the process of getting my Turkmenistan transit visa (it can take up to TWENTY days). While I wait for that to come through I’ll visit Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan before returning to Uzbekistan to pick up my Turkmenistan visa (for one day’s worth of travel, I might add) and thunder on through Turkmenistan down to Herat in Afghanistan where I’ll take a sharp right like Bugs Bunny at Albuquerque and plough head-first into Iran.
Good. Now first things first… I need a new visa for Azerbaijan.
The Azerbaijan Embassy is only open for two hours every morning, but after last night’s little beerathon, Rati and I were in little mood to drag ourselves out of our beds. But somehow we did. Soon enough we were in a taxi which didn’t know where the Azerbaijani Embassy was going around in circles looking for the Azerbaijani Embassy. After asking at least fifty separate passers-by for (wrong) directions, our driver finally got us there ten minutes before closing time. Thank god he wasn’t on the meter.
So we joined in the scrum outside the Embassy and Rati got chatting with the guard who gave us an application form and told us it would take three days to get the visa. THREE FRICKIN’ DAYS?!!!? What’s more, it would cost another (wait for it…) ONE HUNDRED AND ONE DOLLARS. I nearly burst into tears there and then.
The only good news was that I didn’t need a Letter of Invitation (which was why I couldn’t get the visa in Istanbul).
Now there were a ton of people outside and although we had manoeuvred ourselves to the front of the ‘queue’, the guard said that the bloke what does the visas had left and wouldn’t be back for half an hour. Okay, well we’ll go get some lunch then… which we did, stuffing our faces with Khachapuri, the Georgian lunchtime snack of choice – cheese pie. Yum!
When we got back to the Embassy, we got some bad news, the visa guy wasn’t coming back. Dammit, we should have got there earlier. The guard wanted me to talk to somebody, which I did by pressing on the intercom. A voice answered. I explained I wanted a visa and they told me to come back tomorrow. I explained that I already had a visa, but it had expired. Okay, come back at four. I thought I was hearing things… oh, okay then.
With more than a few hours to kill, Rati and I arranged to meet up with Michael and Martin again and in doing so we walked along Rustavelis gamziri, Tbilisi’s main street, and what a street it is… the buildings are stunning, just stunning. The contrast of these elegant edifices of the city with the slap-dash cheapo concrete suburbs couldn’t be more acute if it tried. Georgian-Georgian terraces, a magnificent opera-house, a music school trimmed with columns, an art gallery, parliament, museums and a whopping great golden statue of St George killing the dragon… wow wow wow and wow again… and – something that is bound to make me go weak at the knees – everything had a Georgian flourish about it, a little something you wouldn’t see anywhere else in the world – local architecture built by local people out of local materials. Shame everything that’s been built after World War II is as unsightly as Susan Boyle chewing a wasp.
But that kinda goes for everywhere in the world…
After finding Michael and Martin at the Metro station we mooched about looking for a coffee only to find ourselves back in the very same bar as the night before (if it ain’t broke…). After a pleasant hour of friendly banter it was time to head back to the Azerbaijani embassy to reveal my fate. A taxi ride there cost me €2, which I was more than happy to pay if it could save me a couple of days waiting for this damn visa.
The same guard at the embassy asked me to address the intercom again. I explained I was told to come back today at 4pm. The guy asked me to come in to speak to him. He told me that they could not accept the application today…
If we were quick – very quick – we could head over to the secret travel agency that could sort me out with a visa straight away.
Straight away? What like in three days?
No. Like in half an hour.
My jaw hit the ground. Half an hour? This was too good to be true. How much will this service cost?
Well, you still have to pay the $101, but after that it should only be a few euros.
Within seconds we were back in a taxi screaming our way across town to the secret travel agency. We got there just as they were leaving with that day’s passports. You need to fill out an application form…
It’s okay… here’s one I filled out earlier.
Okay, come back in half an hour.
I couldn’t believe my ears or my luck.
An important lesson is to be learnt from all this… if we hadn’t have got so plastered last night, we would have got up earlier, got to the embassy for opening time and got the application in prim and proper. Then I would have had to wait until THURSDAY until I got my visa. By being late getting to the Embassy, we found out about the secret back door, the cheat code that could get me a visa within minutes. It all works out in the wash.
After a swift celebratory half with Rati, I had my passport back, furnished with my brand new Azerbaijani visa. Happy days.
Now the big question was should I stay or should I go. An American chick I got chatting to outside the Secret Travel Agency told us that the train for Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, left at 6.30pm. It was 5pm. That didn’t leave us much time – all my stuff was at Rati’s and I wasn’t packed – and by the time we had picked up Michael I wasn’t holding out much hope of getting on the damn thing.
So instead of rushing about, we took the Metro back to Rati’s gaff, bought some beers and sausages (well Michael didn’t – he’s a veggie) and planned a lad’s night in. Good job we didn’t rush – it had been raining all day and my clothes were on the line – they were soaking. I told you it all works out in the wash.
The day started slowly, with me finally dragging myself out of bed around 11pm. I spent most of the day packing my bag, organising my tapes and doing a bunch of boring stuff that possibly doesn’t warrant a mention in this great big bulging blog of mine.
At 4pm, it was time to hit the road again… I had a good two and a half hours to make the train to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan – what could possibly go wrong?
Ah yes. What could…?
Rati had a couple of things to be getting on with, so he said he’d join Michael and I at the station later. We headed off to town, asking the cabbie to take us to the post office as it was high time for me to send some tapes back to the UK for safe keeping. When we got to the post office, it didn’t take us long to figure out that something was amiss – it was a derelict shell. Nothing to stop you walking in there, mind, but a derelict shell it was.
We were redirected down the street. Eventually finding the new post office across the road from the HSBC in a scuzzy courtyard with ‘Post Office’ printed on A4 paper and stuck to the wall with paste. We went inside and were directed to a third Post Office, one that handles international post, this time over the other side of the Mikvari River that rushes through the middle of the city like a man possessed.
So it was another taxi ride before finally finding somewhere I could post my tapes. Only I couldn’t. Why? Because the electricity was down and so they couldn’t weigh the bugger, all 314 grams of it. They told us to come back tomorrow. I’d be in Azerbaijan. Luckily, a jovial Georgian chap who spoke English came to our aid. He took the tapes, went next door to the swish courier company and plonked the tapes on their scales before they could stop him. He ran back into the Post Office triumphant. 314 grams it was. That’ll be €11 please. What what? Eleven Euro? Have you lost your mind… the tapes didn’t cost that much!! Oh yeah, and it will take three weeks to get there.
If it gets there.
Well I was stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea, so I said fine. Then she tried to put all the required stamps on the tiny package. Twenty of ’em. Luckily for some reason best kept to the Georgians, they can stick their stamps over other stamps as long as they leave a few millimetres revealed down one side. It looked like somebody was playing stamp poker.
Ah well, soon enough it was all ready to go and blimey is that the time it was 5.30pm. Time to get that train.
The American girl yesterday told me it left at 6.30pm. Rati called them today to confirm and they said it left at 6.45pm, so I thought I was uncharacteristically getting there in good time. Ha!
Tbilisi’s train station is currently being refurbished and is in a remarkable state of disarray at the moment. Michael and I spent ten minutes queuing at the wrong counter before being told we were at the wrong counter and then going up to the correct counter and waiting another ten minutes for no discernable reason. At this point Rati showed up and I asked him what gives. He asked the girl in the window next to the international departures one (number 14, if you’re interested, not that there are 14 windows in the station, there’s more like 5) what was happening and she said that there were no more tickets for the train because the train leaves in six minutes’ time.
It was 6.09pm.
But we had been told the train left at 6.45, or 6.30 at the earliest – plus we’d been there for twenty minutes.
She didn’t give a f–k
I was ready to explode.
You could try asking on the train. So Rati, Michael and I pegged it like Trainspotting over to the platform on which the Baku train was waiting. Can we….?
Is there anything we can do?
You could take a taxi to the next town, head the train off at the pass, so to speak and get on there.
This is madness. The train is here!!
Okay, other than the fact that I desperately want to get this journey finished sometime this decade, if I don’t get to Baku for tomorrow morning, I’m going to have plenty big trouble getting the necessary visas for Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan before the weekend. I needed to be on that train. There was only one thing for it… it was taxi time. Rati did the fast talkin’ and after saying my hearty thanks and farewells to my wonderful Georgian host and my fellow wayfarer Michael I jumped into a cab which then raced like a loon (not that Georgian drivers drive any other way) to the town of Rustavi, halfway to the border with Azerbaijan.
Can I just say at this point that Georgian drivers are the WORST in the world. Yup, even worse than Nigerians. If that’s possible. You see, Nigerians may drive like suicidal maniacs on the wrong side of the motorway, but at least they’re sober. I’m firmly convinced that every taxi I took in Georgia was driven by a chap more sozzled than Winston Churchill on VE day.
My cabbie to Rustavi wasn’t as bad as some I’ve had, he only nearly killed me seven times. We beat the train and got to the station just as it was pulling in. Yippee!!
I bounded over to the copper standing on the platform (well, the ground) and asked him where I could buy a ticket. He looked confused. Then I spoke to the lady conductor on the train I had spoken to in Tbilisi. I was supposed to buy the ticket at another station on the way here. Was I? Crikey, this is complicated. Can I get on?
Can I get on if I pay double.
Just wait there for five minutes on the freezing cold platform. Well, ground.
(five minutes later….)
Just spoken to the boss, she says no.
Here’s what you need to do. Take another taxi to the border, it won’t take long. Cross the border on foot and take the bus.
But the bus left at 3pm today!
That was the international bus. This is a bus that doesn’t cross the border – it leaves from the Azerbaijani side. If you hurry, you’ll make it.
Secret revealed knowledge eh? There’s nothin’ like it. So back in a taxi (and another €15 – still cheaper than a five minute ride in a Italian taxi) and by about 8.30pm I was crossing the border. My Armenian visa raised a few eyebrows (Azerbaijan and Armenia are at war, a cold war, but war nonetheless) but after twenty or so minutes they let me in.
WOO! AZERBAIJAN!! Country 147. What a break!
There were people offering me taxis to Baku (it’s 450km! Are they mad?!), but there like a great big slab of wonderful metal on wheels was a proper coach ready and waiting to head to Baku. I made it in the nick of time – like the coach from Igoumenitsa to Istanbul it left before I got to my seat.
The (Prince) Caspian Sea here I come!