Day 435: The Getaway

11.03.10:

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.

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.