Day 440: You’ve GOT To Be Kidding

16.03.10:

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….?

No.

But…

No.

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!!

Sorry.

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?

No.

Can I get on if I pay double.

Yes.

Great.

Just wait there for five minutes on the freezing cold platform. Well, ground.

Okay.

(five minutes later….)

Just spoken to the boss, she says no.

But… but….

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!

Day 441: Politics & Modern History

17.03.10:

So after yesterday’s half-crazied shenanigans, I found myself kicked off the bus at 6am in the MIDDLE OF NOWHERE somewhere in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. The sky was firing sleet down and the wind chill was making my face freeze. There was a large concrete roundabout under a large concrete overpass. I tried to hide under the shelter of the nearby tumbledown fleamarket while I consulted my iPod Touch to find my barings, but since it takes a good minute and a half to refresh a quarter of a page of a pdf (and I thought my ZX81 was slow) I got moved on by the gruff security guard before I could find them. Hapless and out of ideas, I jumped in a taxi and headed to the main train station. Hopefully I’d find a 24 hour cafe, and I did.

Shivering, wet and cold, the pot of tea that I bought was a total lifesaver. I got out my laptop and sussed out where the hell I had to be next.

VISAS, SCHMIZERS!!

So, having gained entry to the mythical land of Azerbaijan I was now faced with the challenge of getting into Central Asia. The land of hellish visa regulations – letters of invitation, registration dockets, GBOA permits (whatever the hell they are), you name it, they want it and, if you’re unlucky, they’ll take their merry time about it too.

Yes, I’ve got an Iranian visa, but it’s a one-entry affair and I need to cross Iran to get to Kuwait next month. So the only option is to take a ferry across the Caspian Sea, one to Turkmenistan and one to Kazakhstan. The Turkmenistan one goes pretty much every day whereas the one to Kazakhstan goes when it feels like – and that’s usually once every 10 days or so. Obviously, it would be better for me to go to Turkmenistan, but it is the HARDEST place in the world (or at least joint equal to Saudi Arabia and North Korea) to get into. Just getting a transit visa takes at least two weeks, maybe three. A tourist visa requires a guide (that you have to pay for) and a set itinerary, which would mean private transportation – not something that lies within The Odyssey guidelines.

So my best bet is to get a Kazakhstan visa and wait for the ferry. I could be in Baku a loooooong time.

So as soon as it opened, I arrived at the Kazakhstani embassy having just about sussed out the Baku underground system. As with most embassies around the world (and the staircases in Harry Potter) it had moved for no apparent reason other than to MESS WITH MY HEAD, so I ended up taking a taxi, but the lady inside was nice and spoke good English. My guidebook said that I should be able to get the visa same day. My guidebook was wrong. It would be Friday at 4pm. Two days away.

That REALLY stuffs things up for me. I also need to pick up my visa for Uzbekistan, which I’ve organised through the wonderful folk at Stantours. Considering the Kazakhstani embassy is only open for a couple of hours in the morning, I’m not holding my breath for the Uzbek embassy holding the hours I require to make a quick exit. In short, I could be in Baku a loooooong time.

Having left my passport at the embassy, I walked back to the nearest metro station – and just happened to find myself EXACTLY where the bus has dropped me off several hours earlier when things were much darker and colder. Now it was just about bareably freezing. I found a dirty little cafe and settled in for a few hours updating my blog and attempting to organise my GPS logs into something usable (I may have failed).

Unfortunately, the cafe was monster cold as some workmen were fixing the door (and making a hell of a racket about it) so it wasn’t the most pleasent of introductions to Baku, especially not when they charged me a good seven quid for a crappy kebab and a cup of tea. But it was good as a base of operations until I sussed out what I was going to do next.

The two people that had offered to allow me to CouchSurf in their gaffs could now no longer host me – Jamil, the hero of the Istanbul Letter of Invitation, was leaving for a holiday in Russia on Friday and Nick the Aussie guy had invited somebody else to CouchSurf (he thought I was staying at Jamil’s). Luckily enough, Nick’s Surfer couldn’t make it, so ol’ Dead Man’s Hughes strikes again and biff bash boff I had a place to stay.

Damn good news – the cheapest hostel here is a whopping $25 a night.

So I arranged to meet Nick at the huuuuuuge statue of Nariman Narimanov (a famous Azeri poet, apparently) in the west of Central Baku. It was a hell of a hike up the hill from the Metro station, but bloomin’ eck it was worth it – don’t let the skanky suburbs fool you, the centre of Baku is stunning. More sandstone building than you can shake a stick at and they’ve all been recently renovated (Baku was the epicentre of the world first oil boom), I was in love. If only it wasn’t so damn expensive. Or difficult to get into. Or so far away.

I met Nick at 4pm and we went to his flat. I had decided to hold off finding out which day the ferry to Kazakhstan left until the next day, the weather was just too beastly. Nick works for BP and he used to go to the same uni as Mandy’s sister. He also has an AMAZING flat. He’s off to Pakistan in a few days and his girlfriend wants to see him as much as possible before he goes, so I was left to make my own kind of music tonight. It wasn’t until I logged on the internet that I realised it was St. Patricks Day. Completely forgot! This time last year I was in Key West, Florida. You’ve come a long way baby.

So I made plans with Jamil and we headed to Finnigans, the Irish pub (THERE’S ALWAYS AN IRISH PUB). Luckily for all of us who like our booze, the Azeris, while nominally muslim, don’t seem to give two hoots about the usual prohibition that makes Libya and Saudi such dull places. I had only just got to the bar before a guy from Florida bought me a Guinness, followed quickly by another courtesy of Jamil.

Soon enough I was sitting with a couple of Azeris, Alex and Lala, and a top Irish bloke called Don was getting them in. Jamil had to leave early as he had work in the morning, but Alex, Lala, Don and I stayed until chucking out time. Now Azerbaijan, being an oil state, follows many of the rules of a typical oil state. First up, it’s far too expensive (see: Norway, Angola, Libya), secondly, the government is not renowned for tolerating opposition (see: Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Saudi, Venezuela Libya etc.) and thirdly, the son of the last guy is now in charge (see: Gabon, Brunei, and just about everywhere in the Middle East). This, understandably pisses the good people of Azerbaijan off (especially if they side with the opposition). So what happens if you oppose the government here? Well, you get thrown in jail or shot. End of.

See my blog entry ‘George Lucas Syndrome’ to see where you end up if you stifle all opposition to your ideas. Jar Jar frickin Binks.

Anyways, we ended up walking Don back to his hotel, Lala back to her flat and me back to Nick’s. I found myself torn – I really love the architecture here, but why does this sort of stuff alway have to go hand in hand with oppression damnit?

You know, I almost let myself believe that Azerbaijan was one place in the world in which the incessant political meddling and game-playing could be for once be landed squarely at the door of the Russians and Persians – not the British (whose political machinations effectively invented over half the world’s nation states) for once, but no – I love the line from the history of Baku section in the Lonely Planet “…[in 1918] a secret British force sailed in from Iran to help them ‘defend’ the city (well, OK, the oilfields) against the Turks (Britain’s WWI enemies).”

Ah, nice to see some things never change…

“Britain has no perpetual enemies, only perpetual interests” – Lord Palmerstone.

But aside from that doomed military adventure (them plucky Brits ended up shipping back out under cover of darkness!) Britain tended to keep its sticky beak out of the Caucasus – no frickin’ wonder – the regional politics of this area are madder than a hatter in a hat factory.

So you’ve got your three main countries – Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. After that it gets complicated, so pay attention.

There’s three more quasi-independent nations within the Caucasus – Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Yeah, “Nagorno-Karabakh”: it just rolls of the tongue, doesn’t it? In short, they have been the source of a metric ton of tension and violence in the region. Russia, still bristling from the recognition by the US of Kosovo as a independent nation decided to back Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s claims for independence from Georgia resulting in the brief war (more Mini-Me vs. Goliath than David) that dominated the news in 2008. What’s the problem? In short, the Abkhazians speak Welsh instead of Georgian while the South Ossentians are dominated by ethnic Russians moved there by (guess who?) The Russians!

You see the dexterously sinister symmetry played out here? Kosovo was once part of Serbia. Lots of ethnic Albanians settled there, but while that area was all Yugoslavia it didn’t seem to matter, but once Tito’s commie adventure drew to it’s inevitable (and bloody) conclusion (did nobody suss that the term ‘Balkanisation’ came from – er – the Balkans BEFORE the Balkans Balkanised in the 1990s) things had changed. Slobberdown Melon-Chavic and his cronies saw that the population of the Kosovo region of Serbia was overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian or, to put it more succinctly, Muslim. This didn’t make him happy, so he devised a cunning scheme to rid Kosovo of its burgeoning Islamic population – it was called operation ‘KILL THEM ALL’.

The morally-bankrupt organisation of international gangsters and bastards we call the UN had turned two blind eyes to this kind of thing in Rwanda in 1994 and Melon-Chavic was counting on them doing the same again. AND THEY DID!

Whoop-whoop, another own goal for the UN, methinks. I can’t stress this to strongly enough – as yet undiscovered phosphorescent life living off the sulphur deposits of thermal vents two kilometres below the surface of the ocean have a better grasp of morality and ethics than the United Nations.

Luckily for the Kosovans, there’s a little club called NATO that doesn’t have to do what the UN thinks is best for the world (which, generally speaking, is to do nothing about anything ever) and so NATO set about bombing bridges in Novi Sad, which made it really difficult for all the people at Serbia’s Exit Festival to get back to their tents on the other side of the Danube. Justifiably angered by this, the festival-goers marched into the capital and hung Mr. Melon-Chavic from a lamppost. Kinda.

Now Russia has been getting upset about anybody (but them) diddling about with the Balkans since Archie Duke got shot by someone with a black hand in 1914, and the notion of having to stand by while the bruised and battered Kosovo (somewhat justifiably) asserted its independence from bullyboy Serbia was all a bit much for them and in classic Great Game style, they turned their attention to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. If they could prise them from Georgia, it would be Russia 2, NATO 1.

Look, if there’s a good reason for it, I’m all for countries going their own way – Somaliland and East Timor are a damn fine examples, as is Kosovo (they were being massacred!) but in some cases, such as Scotland, the Basque country, Quebec, you’ve really got to wonder… what the hell is wrong with these people? Are their children being stolen in the night by their evil overlords? Are they being forced to dress up in chicken costumes and parade around on the streets making cluck-cluck noises? Nope. They just happen to speak a different language to other people in their country. In Scotland, it’s not even a different language – it’s just a different bleedin’ accent.

We might as well call for independence for all people with a lisp. Or give deaf people their own country – I mean, after all, are they not speaking (signing) another language?

And what’s so great about independence eh? Cape Verde, Sao Tome and Comoros have been independent since the 1970s and they still so completely dependent on the condescension of others it’s almost silly. Like a beggar waxing lyrical about how great it is to pay no taxes before huddling from the icy winter gales in a shop doorway, independence is not all it’s cracked up to be. You have to pay for your own president(s), army, police force, customs, postal service, embassies in every other bleedin’ country in the world, politicians, UN reps, fire service, hospitals, schools, roads, drains, sewage systems, ports, coast guards, bureaucrats, judges, district attorneys, electrical grid, power stations… it all seems too much like hard work to me. Hence you should have a damn good reason for breaking from the motherland like eek! It’s Somalia! – and I’m sorry, but having another language does not cut the mustard.

Now, where was I? Oh yeah, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Yeah, they’re now being run by Russia. Lucky them. I’d take tattooed mobsters, hilariously miserable prostitutes and soulless oligarchs over the laid-back Georgians any day.

My advice to Georgia? Let it go. You’re not going to get Russia to back down. Rehouse your refugees and join the EU. Soon you’ll be easyjetting it off to Paris every weekend to buy stilettos while your daffy former countrymen languish in the third world and have to pay protection fees to whatever Russian racket is currently terrorising their community. They’ve made their bed, let them lie in it (and then watch with glee when Abkhazia grows tired of its humourless masters and breaks Russia’s heart by attempting to join the EU as well) – Peter The Great was Great because he turned to the West, not the East. For all our foibles we must be doing something right.

As for that firm of Central Asian lawyers, Nagorno-Karabakh (did you forget about them?!), it was once a region of Azerbaijan but in fit of patriotic fervour back in the late eighties Armenia decided that they wanted it on the grounds that Armenians lived there (Brothers! Let’s take New England back!) and launched an incredibly brutal offensive to annex it off their Azerbaijani neighbours while the international community (as usual) was busy filing its nails.

Now I’m not saying that Armenia didn’t have a decent argument. Nagorno-Karabakh was (and is even moreso now) overwhelmingly Christian, and Azerbaijan, for all its beer-guzzling ways is nominally Muslim. This being the case, and the fact that the majority of Nagorno-Karabakh people regard themselves as Armenian (unsurprising considering it was part of Armenia until Stalin decided to hand it to Azerbaijan in the 1920s), you can (kinda) see their point, even if (like me) you can’t understand why people of faith can’t just – you know, get along. But what the Armenians did was out of order. When Nagorno-Karabakh declared its independence from Azerbaijan, Armenia’s army waded in and used it as an excuse to chuck out all the native Azeri people living in both Nagorno-Karabakh AND Armenia – a not insignificant figure – 200,000 people. The resultant war (1989-1994) killed a further 30,000 people. As for the future, I can’t see Nagorno-Karabakh ever being independent, it’s more likely to be officially integrated into Armenia – Nagorno-Karabakh does have a ‘president’, but he’s little more than a regional governor – a puppet for the Armenian government in Yerevan.

Phew!

The upshot of all this is that you can’t get into Armenia from Turkey or Azerbaijan, you can’t get into Georgia from Russia and you can’t get into Azerbaijan from Armenia or Russia. Nagorno-Karabakh can only be accessed from Armenia, but if you have a Nagorno-Karabakh stamp in your passport you can’t get into Azerbaijan. Despite still being regarded as laying within Georgia by the international community (save Russia and a couple of oddballs), Abkhazia and South Ossetia can now only be accessed from Russia. Like I said, it’s all very complicated and I hope this goes some way to explain why I’m not bothering with Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia or South Ossetia on this journey – I honestly can’t see any of them becoming independent nations any time soon, and personally doubt whether any of them really could. Nagorno-Karabakh will (eventually) be absorbed into Armenia and the likelihood of Russia really allowing Abkhazia or South Ossetia true autonomy is, in my opinion, a pipe dream – see nearby Chechnya for details.

Day 442: The Dolphins In The Dole Queue

18.03.10:

The Caucasus – it’s where us whities get our rather daffy pigeonhole ‘Caucasian’, a term lampooned by Lewis Carroll in his nonsensical Caucus Race in which everybody wins a prize – sounds like modern schooling to me. I would say that when it comes to describing the breeds of human, the term ‘Caucasian’ should be left to describe white skinned dark haired buggers (generally sporting a monobrow – think Noel Gallagher) while us fair and red-haired lot get our own categories… something to do with Vicky the Viking or Groundskeeper Willie would be nice. Gallagans, Vicks and Willies – that would sort the men from the boys. Or maybe we could just do away with the whole system of putting humans into different categories and just have one big box marked ‘human’, you know, separate us from the dolphins in the dole queue.

Oh do grow up, Double-O Hughes.

So I woke with thunder crashing in my head and soon realised it wasn’t my head it was out the window – the weather had gone from grim to Grimaldi Ferries and there was a full-on blizzard outside. I made myself a cup of tea and considered my options. I could stay in Nick’s flat all day like a big fat slob, abuse his internet and watch his DVDs or I could go out in the freezing cold and squint at the city through frozen eyelashes. I unsurprisingly chose the former. Later on, Jamil called and invited me around to his gaff for some authentic Azerbaijani grub – an offer I couldn’t refuse.

Jamil picked me up in his car (nice wheels, man!) and we fought through the increasingly furious storm over to his place where he whipped me up some aromatic rice and vine leaves stuffed with meat – it was delishhh. Kudos to Jamil’s mum for preparing it all! Afterwards, we traded internet memes before I headed off back to Nick’s to get some shut-eye. A hard day at work I guess.

DID YOU KNOW? There are very few countries in the +4 GMT Time Zone – just Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, UAE, Oman, Seychelles and Mauritius. And a tiny bit of Russia.

Day 443: Bless My Lucky Underpants

19.03.10:

I called Alex (whom I met at the Irish Pub the other night) and asked him if he could get in touch with the Uzbek embassy to see if there was any chance they might be open after 4pm today. To my shock and surprise, they were – they were open until SIX. This is pretty unheard of where I’ve come from (which I guess is the rest of the world) – most embassies open for a couple of hours in the morning once a century when the moon is in the Eighth House of Were. THANK YOU ALEX!!

Struck with a new sense of urgency (I was firmly convinced that I would be going to the Uzbek embassy on Monday morning) and seeing that yesterday’s storm had passed and the skies were bluest of blue, I headed over to the Kazahk embassy to go and retrieve my passport. After negotiating the antequated metro system and helping the taxi driver find his way there through a traffic jam, I arrived at six minutes past four and by seven minutes past four I had my passport back. Entry: GRANTED!

Awesome, I thought, ran out to the main road and jumped the first taxi I could get my hands on to the Uzbek embassy. However, it was now pretty much rush-hour and the going was sloooooow. The Uzbek embassy was unhelpfully strategically placed on the other side of the city and it was about 4:40pm before I got there (my taxi driver got very lost in the back streets of suburbia). Never mind, drop in the passport, pick it up on Monday, Bob’s-your-uncle. Only when I met the incredibly friendly ambassador he informed me that I could – if I was fast – get the visa TODAY.

You see, I had already organised the invitation through Stantours, all I was doing was picking up the visa.

The possibilities whizzed through my mind. I think because everything has taken so long for so long that that’s just the way things are going to be for the rest of The Odyssey, but to that I say PISH! If I got my visa today, I could be out of here tomorrow. That’s if the boat to Kazakhstan leaves tomorrow, which it won’t, unless I’m luckier than Lucky Jim standing in a field of four-leaved clovers wearing his magic lucky underpants. The ‘ferry’ only leaves once every ten days and one in ten are terrible odds.

So… what do I have to do?

Well, said the friendly ambassador, you need to hurry to the city centre, pay in the $85 you owe into the National Bank of Azerbaijan and come back here with the receipt. This is standard procedure with many embassies I’ve come across. I looked at my watch. It was 4:45. It sounded like an impossible mission. Surely the bank would be closed by 5pm. Oh well, in for a penny….

I ran with my arms flailing wildly to the main road, jumped in the first taxi that came past (almost getting myself run over in the process) and we fought together through the gridlocked traffic of central Baku. My heart was in my mouth as we inched closer and closer to 5pm… we were still a few blocks away and this traffic was going NO-where. At 5pm I had resigned myself to my fate. I’d be picking up the visa on Monday morning. We arrived at the bank at 5.03pm and it was closed. I banged on the door, but nobody came to my aid. But there were still people inside… couldn’t they just…. I tried to get in through the office entrance but the security guard was having none of it. Then a bank employee came to my aid. She told me that the bank had been closed since 4pm.

Damnit.

Are you open tomorrow by any chance.

No, it’s the holidays. We’re not open again for ten days.

Oh right…. PARDON????????!!!

Yeah, ten days. It’s the holidays, you see, like your Christmas.

Does that mean…. oh bollocks.

What do I do? What do I do? I started to panic. The nice bank lady told me I could pay it into another bank, a commercial bank, if I hurry – they don’t close until 5.30pm. My eyes lit up and I pegged it across town to this other bank.

I got there at 5.27pm. Panting, sweating, on the verge of tears…. can I pay $85 dollars into this account please?

The lady smiled. Sure – have you got your passport?

Yeah I, (goes for inside pocket only to find it empty)

I –

I left it at the Uzbek Embassy.

I’m very sorry then sir, there’s nothing we can do.

At that moment, there was only one thing keeping me from total mental and physical collapse – my mobile phone and a snowball in hell. I rang the embassy and explained the situation. After some discussions the secretary came back on the line and said the words I so deperately wanted to hear – it’s okay. You can pay it here.

I jumped in the air and screamed WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!

Which made everybody in the bank jump. And then stare. I high-fived the bedazzled bank teller and ran out of the door, into the nearest taxi summoning US$100 out of the nearby cash machine on the way.

It was now 5.40pm. The Embassy closes at 6pm. One last hurdle… get out of town during rush hour on Azerbaijan’s equivilent of Christmas Eve.

You know, every time I get in a taxi, or a bus, or whatever my driver invariably believes himself to be the bastard child of Michael Schumacher and Eval Keneval. That is unless I’m in a real hurry and then they decide to drive like they’re driving Miss Daisy. It was coming up to 6pm and there was no way we were going to make it. I rang the embassy. It’s me again. Could you possibly stay open for just a few insy-winsy more minutes?

I held my breath.

Yes, we’ll wait for you.

Thank the maker. It was six minutes past this running joke when I arrived and after a tense moment were I was for the first time in The Odyssey on the verge of physically assaulting my &^%(^*$” cab driver (he demanded double for hurrying – the rotter!) I hurried to the guard outside the Uzbek embassy.

Sorry – we’re closed.

I know. My name is Graham Hughes, they’re expecting me.

A withering look. A quick phone conversation.

Okay, you can go in.

I entered the Embassy – by the way, this wasn’t your Sudanese concrete cellar or your Azerbaijan portacabin, this was the Ambassdor’s residence… and a ruddy nice pad it was. The Ambassador came down to meet me. He had already put the visa in my passport. I handed over the hundred dollar bill, he gave me the change and we shook on the deal. ACCESS: GRANTED.

My favourite Ambassador so far. Uzbekistan… YOU’RE ALLLLLLRIGHT!

I exited the Embassy into the glorious golden hour sunshine of success. In less than two hours I had got my grubby mitts on two visas from the ‘Stans… the hardest countries in the world to crack Da Visa Code. Central Asia, here I come. Now I just need a boat.

If past experience is anything to go by, I could be waiting some time. But the shock at getting my visas so quickly was making me believe that anything was possible. Maybe it is.

Fed up with all things taxi (ONE WORD, WORLD: METERS) I decided to walk to the port. It took two hours and took me through some of the best parts of the city – along the Avenue of Rememberence (in which we’re not just presented with the names but also the faces of the deceased, etched into marble – a common practice in this part of the world and one that I actually quite like) and down to the shores of the Caspian Sea.

Something I noticed on the way down – those stone buildings that I like so much… they’re brand new! Well, kind of… Okay, some of them are, some of them aren’t and some of them are somewhere inbetween. The ‘somewhere inbetween’ are buildings that were formally miserablist concrete monstrosities but have given a new lease of life by the entire edifice being clad in a new overcoat of cut stone – Ionic Columns, Blustrading, Keystones, you name it… it’s like they’ve taken St. John’s shopping centre and turned it into something akin to Buckingham Palace. No mean feat! Okay, there are some building for which it hasn’t worked and it makes you wish they hadn’t bothered – but there are plenty more for which it has.

Everytime I bang on about architecture I get people saying that it’s a money thing. It’s not. It’s a matter of aesthetics. I don’t see why new buildings ‘have’ to look rubbish, I never have. And here, at the edge of the world, I’ve found my proof. Put simply, at first glance I couldn’t tell which buildings were 100 years old and those that were brand spanking new. These were not some kind of tacky pastiche like you’d find adorning the walls of a modern shopping center or some dreadful aping of earlier designs shoddily rendered out of cement. And these new buildings are made with cut stone – the kind you want to touch – and a definate Azeri look to them, something that the soviet ‘dark ages’ buildings could never have: they just looked like the same clunky, uninspiring, brutal, concrete crap that you find all over the world from Milton Keynes to Mozambique, from Melbourne to Montevideo.

My heart is made of stone. And I don’t see that as a bad thing.

So, eventually, (after catching a glimpse of el presidente himself strolling through the cordoned-off-for-tomorrow’s-celebrations waterside park) I found myself at the port. I spoke to some guys and they pointed me to a portacabin just beyond the boomgate. I rang the bell and a guy in maritime garb opened the day.

No ferry today!

I already knew that much, but what about tomorrow?

No ferry tomorrow!

Okay, I’ve got the weekend to play with, that’s fine.

What about Sunday?

Maybe Sunday.

Can I call?

No, you come here tomorrow 1pm.

But it’s over the other side of town!

The guy laughs and shuts the door. That’s me told then. I ambled back to Nicks, grabbing a kebab on the way. Nick has been an utter legend allowing me to stay at his, especially considering he’s up to his eyes with getting stuff organised for his trip to Pakistan on Sunday. I’ve got to find somewhere else to lay my weary bones tomorrow night, but Alex and Lala are on the case. Finding myself home alone and with Jamil leaving for Russia tonight I ended up staying in and watching DVDs. I’d go out tomorrow night, Saturday night in Baku on a public holiday sounds like a blast.

What a day!

I made myself a cup of tea.

DID YOU KNOW? At one point, Baku supplied 50% of the world’s oil.

Day 444: Shurely Shum Mishtake

20.03.10:

So I had nothing important to do today, it was a big public holiday in Baku and the main road through town were shut. I was looking forward to meeting up with Lala again later on and she had kindly offered me a couch at her brother’s flat. I imagined I’d go to the port, talk with somebody who knew what was going on, find out that the next ferry for Kazakhstan would be leaving in X-many days and have to wait it out. If I was lucky, it would be leaving before Tuesday. If I was REALLY lucky, it might be leaving tomorrow. To be honest, I really couldn’t be bothered, what with all the celebrations going on, but I walked down the hill from Nick’s to the Metro station, filled up my ‘oyster’ card (at 20p a trip, it’s value for money HEAR THAT BORIS?) and after arriving at the Main Station I plodded over to the port.

I was in no rush, and I didn’t get there until just after 2pm. I was taken into the portacabin and I spoke to the lady who through broken English told me to go and get my bags from my hotel. I didn’t understand what on Earth she was on about. My bags? From my hotel? Why?

Because the boat to Kazakhstan leaves in an hour. I couldn’t believe my ears.

My jaw hit the ground and my feet hit the road. My taxi cunningly took the route around town and by 3pm I was back at Nicks throwing my scattered belongings into my bag like a wife who’s just caught her husband with his pants down attempting the Heimlich Manoeuver on his secretary. Nick, being the SUPERSTAR LEGEND that he is, went to the grocers and picked me up some provisions for my journey over the Caspian Sea. He met me on the way out of his building and we promised to meet up again in the wonderful land of Oz. Thanking him profusely, texting Lala to explain what was going on (she had arranged to take me to an art gallery and all sorts, damnit!) I stuffed myself in a taxi and headed back to the port, hoping that by ‘the boat leaves in one hour’ the woman meant ‘the boat leaves in two hours’.

I got there at about half three, weighed down with bags and nonsense. The woman in the portacabin looked at me in that ‘oh dear, I’ve got some bad news for you, young man’ way that seems to be universal to humankind.

The boat was full.

Full? How could it be full?!

It only has eleven places for passengers.

ELEVEN PLACES?!? Why didn’t you tell me this before I legged it all the way to the other side of town and back like a man deranged?

But somebody might not turn up.

Out of a hundred, maybe. Out of ELEVEN?

Oh, six are already here.

So if one out of the FIVE people we’re waiting for doesn’t turn up, I get a place on the boat?

Yeah. Come back here at four.

I looked at my watch. It was twenty to four. I sat on the concrete by the boomgate, gobsmacked by this turn of events. An image came into my head – Lawrence Olivier and the other Olympian Gods playing with toy versions of their favourite humans for fun. The next boat wouldn’t be for 10 days. I’d probably be here until April. Why do the Gods mock me so?!

At half four, the lady came out of her portacabin. My heart was in my mouth. She flicked me a smile and coaxed me inside.

I was in.

Dead Man’s Hughes Strikes Again.

What are the chances of the last 24 hours of my life all working out so perfectly? Hundreds to one against, I’d say, but I’m not a gambling man – the house always wins. I got my ticket, barrelled through customs and bundled myself onto the ‘Naxçivan’.

After paying a whopping $120 for my passage, I was more than a little miffed when the guy on board wanted a further $15 for a skanky cabin. I haggled him down to $10 and got rid of my Azeri change by buying a bottle of Fanta. Dinner didn’t look to appetising (a sausage from a moldy fridge) so I made do with my processed cheese and bread that Nick had thankfully given me and settled in for the night with a movie – Confessions of A Dangerous Mind. Got a bit freaked out at one point when I realised that the main character was a little bit too similar to me for comfort.

By the way, I’ve got a GREAT idea for a game show…

DID YOU KNOW? Azerbaijan has a map of Europe on their banknotes – stretching all the way to the Caspian. FANCY THAT! Is somebody gearing up to join the EU by any chance? Does Russia know?

Day 445: The Naxçivan

21.03.10:

This must be the most incredibly naff ship I’ve been on so far; all dirty floors, peeling fake wood wallpaper, murky corridors, broken lights, stained matress, rusty bulkheads, dripping plumbing, doors that don’t close properly… Lovely! BUT AT LEAST THE TEA WAS FREE. And that makes ALL the difference in my book. I would suffer any kind of hardship as long as there was free tea on offer. And, in it’s favour, The Naxçivan was incredibly quiet and smooth… so much so that I didn’t notice for the best part of an hour that we had left port.

Maybe there was no engine… maybe it was powered by the 1984 Soviet Olympic Rowing Team, chained and manacled to the Naxçivan’s hull, their anguished cries for help stifled by the fact that they had their tongues removed before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Why the ship could only have eleven passengers was beyond me, it was massive, a great big train transporter. Okay, there may not be enough cabins, but there was a room with flilthy ripped airline seats, about thirty of them – it was only an overnight trip, what gives? I guess I’ll never know.

Tell you what though – I’d take the grotty Naxçivan over that ****ing Grimaldi Ferry to Tunisia ANY DAY. I’d taked the damn Shissiwani II over a Grimaldi Ferry, and that’s saying something.

Anyway, we got to within a couple of miles offshore of Aktau, Kazakhstan by early afternoon, but then we had to wait. A good dozen oil tankers were sharing a similar fate. This is always a worry – how long will we be stuck here? If we were offshore from an African country, I could quite imagine us waiting for days, but I was sure we’d get to dry land before midnight. Even so, I had to laugh when my friendly barman/passenger organiser said we would be one hour. It was more like ten.

At sunset, we started inching towards the port. We were going so slowly I didn’t really believe we were moving until I made a point of watching one of the oil tankers go from one side of my porthole to the other. It was dark before we were allowed to disembark. I had been warned that customs takes an age in Central Asia, but even so it took until midnight to get all eleven(!) of us through passport control. Maybe that’s why they only allowed eleven passengers. Any more and we would have been there all week. Eventually I took a shared taxi with some of the other passengers into town, something that end up costing me $10, which can’t be right in a country in which petrol costs less than water. I hate hate hate taxi drivers.

I was kicked out in a hotel that was $15 to share a room with an incredibly annoying drunken Kazakh tosser who insisted on repeating the only two English words he knew over and over and over again. Those words were “English?” and “okay?”. I gave up on having a meaningful conversation after about five seconds, but he kept plugging away at it for a good half hour, maybe longer, I don’t know, I fell asleep.

But, sod it, it’s Sunday 21 March and I’m in Kazakhstan. This time last month I was still in the UK. Happy Days!

DID YOU KNOW? Every country that borders the Caspian Sea requires difficult-to-obtain visas off Europeans.

Day 690: Oh Dear

21.11.10:

Kupang is a little dull.  Here’s a list of my ten favourite place names in the world:

Azerbaijan – Sounds like something a magician would say before pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

Galapagos – It just sounds lovely. Lovely lovely lovely.

Timbuktu, Mali – The name alone sounds like a promise of being miles from anywhere.

Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso – Pronounced ‘Waggadoogoo’ it’s the capital of Burkina Faso, TAKE THE TRAIN!!!!… yes, it’s called the Ouagadougou Choo-Choo. BRILLIANT!

Shit, Iran – Exists! Try typing it into Google Earth!

Kumbag, Turkey – See above.

Wetwang, England – the town of which the late great Richard Whitely was mayor.

Lake Disappointment, Australia – Does exactly what it says on the tin.

Truth Or Consequences, USA – Awesome.  I wish I had the job of renaming towns.  Hull, Grimsby, Scunthorpe, Skegness and Milton Keynes would be first for the chop-chop.

And the best ever, ever name for a place?

In my book, nothing beats…

Oh Dear, Pitcairn Island – really, really exists.  It makes me giggle whenever I think about it.

Oh My God That Is So AWESOME!!

Actually, Pitcairn Island is full of awesome monikers: Timiti’s Crack, Where Dan Fell, Tom Off, John Catch-a-Cow, Johnny Fall, Bitey Bitey, Little George Coc’nuts, Bop Bop, and my second favourite name on Pitcairn, Down The God.  Sounds like something Richard Dawkins would use as a book title.

A Cavalcade of Titular Hilarity!

So what are your favourite placenames?  Come on, don’t be shy…!  Let me know!!

TALKING OF PITCAIRN ISLAND… do you know Kupang’s claim to fame?

Here’s a clue: What historic character has been played by Charles Laughton, Trevor Howard & Anthony Hopkins?

Aye… it’s got something to do with Mutiny on the Bounty…

That’s right!  They all played Captain Bligh.  Well done.  Hurrah for imdb!

If you have ever seen or read Mutiny on the Bounty, you’ll know that the mutineers of the titular taste of paradise cast Captain Bligh and his loyal officers adrift in a 7-metre open launch in the middle of (what is now) French Polynesia.  Eek!

But thanks to some KICK ASS bit of navigation (a feat that has not been repeated since) he and all of his crew made it here to Kupang… some 6,710 kilometres away.  With just a sextant and a pocket watch.  Seriously.  3,618 nautical miles in a little wooden boat in the Pacific?  With no charts?  In 1789?  Wow.  And he did it in just 47 days.  Puts my daredevil boat trip to Cape Verde to shame.

Edwin, the owner of the Lavalon Bar is (understandably) proud of this fact and does his best to promote Kupang’s Bounty heritage.  And, hell, it’s easier to get to than Pitcairn Island.  A crew from Britain and Australia tried to copy Bligh’s achievement earlier this year: cast adrift in French Polynesia with no maps and no navigational aids.

They did, however, have an emergency GPS.  One day, with a storm closing in and deadly reefs all around them, they (sensibly) chose to smash the glass and use it.  After 221 years, Bligh’s kick-ass record, armed with just a sextant and a pocket watch, still stands.

Considering there have been so many film versions made of Mutiny on the Bounty, I’m amazed that nobody has had a punt on the second book of the trilogy, Men Against The Sea, which recounts Bligh’s epic 47 day journey to Kupang.

In fact, bringing this (admittedly one-sided) discussion full circle, I’m even more flabbergasted that nobody has made the final book, Pitcairn’s Island, into a movie… a real-life Lord of the Flies extravaganza: of the 15 men (mutineers and Tahitians) who settled on the island, after a decade of madness and bloodshed, only one remained.

Somebody fly me to Hollywood!!  Stat!

I was trying to write some blogs up on the trip from Labuanbajo to Aimere the other day, but the windy mountain roads made that job a little – urk – difficult, especially as my drivers seemed to take a sick delight in fanging it around blind corners.  My attempt to get up to date on the ferry was doomed by a lack of electrical sockets and my battery not being charged the night before thanks to the fact that my plugs don’t actually stay in any given socket.

Okay, I’m going to blow off a little steam here, but just bear with me, okay?

Something I would like to take issue with YOU WORLD is the matter of electrical sockets.  Like seriously, can you ALL JUST F**K OFF with your limp, dangling plugs?  Euro round 2-pin: YOU SUCK.  America flat 2-pin: you SUCK.  Australia flat angled 2-pin: YOU SUCK.

I am SICK TO DEATH of wasting hours of my life trying to get you little bastards to actually STAY IN THE FRICKIN’ SOCKET!  Gaffer tape, sellotape, medical tape, packing tape, I’ve tried the lot; and yet as Radiohead once sang, GRAVITY ALWAYS WINS.

Can we have some kind of international standard PLEASE?  And like the international standards of time, longitude and language can that standard be British?  Yeah, say what you like about my crazy little country, AT LEAST OUR PLUGS STAY IN THE FRICKIN’ SOCKET!!

Nice solid plugs and sockets.  That’s what I want.

And world peace.  Of course.

Oh Dear!  Ahahahahahahahaha!!!  Love it!

THE ODYSSEY WORLD VISA GUIDE

One of the things that holds back many people from travelling is the prospect of wasting time and effort attempting to get into countries that would quite prefer it if you didn’t bother.  However, it is a false presumption.  In more than 150 countries worldwide you can turn up without shelling out $$$ for an invitation first.

So here’s a comprehensive list of the visa requirements for British Passport Holders for every country in the world, although it may come in useful for other nationalities as well.

I’ve split the world into four main categories: No Visa Required, Visa On Arrival, Prior Visa Required and Letter of Invitation (LOI) Required.

No Visa Required: You beauties!! Note the (very) high prevalence of prosperous, confident and democratic countries in this list.

Visa on Arrival: Not quite as good as no visa at all, but much, much less hassle than:

Prior Visa/LOI required: Crikey. What a bitch. Don’t turn up without a visa to any of the countries on this (mercifully short) list of grubby and inhospitable nations.  They will fly you straight back home again at your expense because you didn’t ask their f—ing permission first.  So go queue outside their ostentatious embassies in the pouring rain for hours, pay them a bundle of fivers and then wait and wait and wait for the privilege of visiting their stupid godforsaken country.

I find the whole process quite demeaning – it’s like having to write to someone to ask if you can attend their wedding – take the hint man, take the hint – these countries are obviously not much interested in you, or tourism in general.

Many of these countries hilariously require an onward ticket, some want you to write a begging letter to come in, others want a letter off your employer or even copies of your bank statements… remember this is not to LIVE THERE, this is just to VISIT FOR A FEW DAYS.

The worst of the worst require a Letter of Invitation (LOI) – I’ve cast these down into the very lowest rungs of hell.  Not only do you have to pay extortionate amounts of money to Ambassador Ratbag for the stamp, you also have to pay someone in the country to ‘vouch’ for you.

I would actually like a list of all of the illegal refugees and economic migrants pouring out of our rich democratic nations and claiming asylum in… Nigeria? Papua New Guinea? TURKMENISTAN?? Seriously? WHAT?

I hold Australia in particular contempt for this policy – it is the ONLY rich westernised power on an otherwise quite hellish list of paranoid basketcases.

Oh, and by the way, Aussie tourists are granted a SIX MONTH stay in the UK, upon arrival, for free.  So, Australia, when you ask me in your rasping nasal tones where the bloody hell am I – I guess I’m in a country that welcomes me with open arms rather than a punch in the face and a bill of sale.

But look on the bright side, there are 150 (other, better) countries which don’t make you beg for permission to pop in for a visit…

Here’s your at-a-glance VISA MAP OF THE WORLD:

World Visa Requirement Map
World Visa Requirement Map For British Passport Holders

NO VISA REQUIRED (WOO!)

AMERICAS
Antigua & Barbuda
Argentina
Bahamas
Barbados
Belize
Bolivia
Brazil
Canada
Chile
Colombia
Costa Rica
Dominica
Dominican Republic
Ecuador
El Salvador
Grenada
Guatemala
Guyana
Haiti
Honduras
Mexico
Nicaragua
Panama
Paraguay
Peru
St. Kitts & Nevis
St. Lucia
St. Vincent and The Grenadines
Trinidad & Tobago
Uruguay
USA (but you do need a prior visa if you arrive on private boat or plane)
Venezuela

EUROPE
Albania
Andorra
Austria
Belgium
Bosnia & Herzegovina
Bulgaria
Croatia
Cyprus
Czech Republic
Denmark
Estonia
Finland
France
Georgia
Germany
Greece
Hungary
Iceland
Ireland
Italy
Kosovo
Latvia
Liechtenstein
Lithuania
Luxembourg
Malta
Moldova
Monaco
Montenegro
Netherlands
Norway
Poland
Portugal
Romania
San Marino
Serbia
Slovakia
Slovenia
Spain
Sweden
Switzerland
UK
Ukraine
Vatican City

AFRICA
Botswana
Burkina Faso
Lesotho
Malawi
Mali
Mauritius
Namibia
Rwanda
Senegal
Seychelles
South Africa
Swaziland
The Gambia
Tunisia
Morocco

THE MIDDLE EAST/ASIA
Bahrain
Iraq (Kurdistan only, entered from Turkey)
Israel
Japan
Jordan (if you enter on the ferry from Egypt)
Kuwait
Oman
Palestine
Qatar
South Korea
Taiwan
The Maldives
UAE
Yemen

SE ASIA/OCEANIA
Brunei
Fiji
Kiribati
Malaysia
Marshall Islands
Micronesia
New Zealand
Palau
Samoa
Singapore
Solomon Islands
Thailand
The Philippines
Tonga
Tuvalu
Vanuatu

VISA ON ARRIVAL

AMERICAS
Cuba (well, I got a visa on arrival, but I came on a yacht…)

EUROPE
Armenia
Turkey

AFRICA
Benin
Burundi
Cape Verde
Comoros
Egypt
Kenya
Mauritania
Mozambique
Sierra Leone
Tanzania
Togo
Uganda
Zambia
Zimbabwe

THE MIDDLE EAST/ASIA
Jordan
Lebanon
Nepal
Sri Lanka
Syria

SE ASIA/OCEANIA
Burma (but only valid for border regions)
Cambodia
East Timor (though no longer available on land border with Indonesia)
Indonesia (though not available on land borders with East Timor and PNG)
Laos

That’s over 150 countries where you can get in without asking prior permission.  Now here’s the naughty list:

PRIOR VISA REQUIRED

AMERICAS
Suriname (letting the side down there somewhat)
Cuba (but I doubt they’d turn you back)

EUROPE
Belarus (no surprise there – they still have the KGB)

AFRICA
Cameroon
Central African Republic
Chad
Congo
Cote D’Ivoire
Democratic Republic of Congo
Djibouti
Eritrea (best obtained in Jeddah – next day delivery)
Ethiopia (best obtained in Nairobi – same day delivery)
Gabon
Ghana
Guinea
Guinea-Bissau
Liberia
Madagascar (but it’s free, so can’t complain)
Niger
Sao Tome & Principe
Sudan (best obtained in Cairo – same day delivery)

ASIA
Afghanistan
Bangladesh
Bhutan
Burma (for travel into interior)
China
India (AND now requires you to leave for 60 days between visits!)
Iraq (for travel beyond Kurdistan)
Kyrgyzstan
Mongolia
Tajikistan

SE ASIA/OCEANIA
Australia*
Papua New Guinea
Vietnam*

*visa obtainable on arrival at airport with prior permission over internet

LETTER OF INVITATION (+ PRIOR VISA) REQUIRED

AMERICAS
N/A

EUROPE
Azerbaijan (no LOI required if visa bought in Georgia)
Russia

AFRICA
Algeria*
Angola*
Equatorial Guinea*
Libya (AND you must pay for a ‘guide’)
Nigeria*
Somalia*

THE MIDDLE EAST/ASIA
Iran
Kazakhstan
North Korea
Pakistan
Saudi Arabia*
Turkmenistan
Uzbekistan

SE ASIA/OCEANIA
Nauru

*To make matters worse, these visas can only be obtained in your country of origin (although it is possible to get a Nigerian visa from Ghana and an Algerian visa from Mali if you’re lucky).

Right.  That’s it.  If there are any mistakes/updates/excuses you’d like to make (this is pretty much all off the top of my head), please comment below.