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 436: Rimming The Black Sea

12.03.10:

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.

Blurgh.

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.

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!