By Brianna 22/February/16 Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan. The country that confuses UK Eurovision fans every year and reminds James Bond fans of that particularly cheesy Pierce Brosnan instalment, 'The World is not Enough' . Despite the fact that it is officially at war with its neighbour, Armenia, most of the world hardly hears anything about this quirky little Caucasian state. Which meant it could still surprise us...
Baku the first.
Our sleeper train to Baku was more Johnny English than 007 chic, but the outside-carraige views were intriguing to say the least. Barron landscape lined with nodding donkeys showed us into the capital city.
'10 Azeri Manat (£2.50) says Bri thought they were actual donkeys until 2 seconds ago.'
'Cheds, give me some credit. Of course I knew what they were.'
I didn't. I had no idea. But I wasn't coughing up any dollar for the privilege of being mocked. Either way, the nodding donkeys reminded us that oil is the supreme leader in these parts. It was evident everywhere, from the slick film covering the shores of the Caspian Sea to the intimidating Dubai-style up-market malls along its edge. But before we could explore further, we had to get the ball rolling on our Uzbek visas. If you have ample wait time and can work around odd opening times, getting visas on the road can be very cost-effective and less hassle than going through home-country bureaucracy. But you will meet a few characters. For example, if you fancy heading from Azbaj to Uzbekistan, you first have to go through Hasan. He's that really awesome dry, but short tempered school teacher everybody had, who carefully treads the line between being hilarious and downright terrifying:
Hasan: 'You want visa form?'
Us: 'Yes, please'
Hasan: 'No English. You must write in Russian.'
Us: 'But...We don't speak Russian?'
Hasan: 'No Russian, no visa'
This turned out to be a joke. Hahahaha, classic Hasan. We laughed away our terrified-ness as we filled out our applications and handed them back over. Two minutes of silence from Hasan and then:
'WHY YOU PAINT IT?!'
More classic Hasan comedy. Only it wasn't. He was fuming over the fact we'd crossed out and changed one of our dates. We took the smoke coming out of his ears as our cue to leave with no idea about the fate of our visas.
The weather in Baku was grey, wet, windy miserableness for the majority of our stay, so we felt right at home. Despite this, locals still gathered along the promenade in the early evening, enjoying their tea and murabba (explanation to come) to the backdrop of the second tallest flag post in the world, after North Korea. As it looked like the thing to do, we joined them. Like the language, Azeri tea culture is very close to Turkish, with one noticeable difference: lemon... and jam (murabba). These are not optional accessories to tea but necessary additions in Azbaj, to Cheddar's horror. The first time we received jam to accompany our tea, he assumed we'd ordered him some scones. Even he had to admit though, despite his prejudice, it tasted pretty good. In terms of things to do in Baku there aren't many options on a backpacking budget. The main attractions are whizzing around in purple London black cabs between luxury hotels and designer shops, visiting the carpet museum that's shaped like a giant rolled carpet and climbing up the major tourist spot, Maiden's tower. We had fun doing the last of those things.
Our Airbnb host and Azeri mother, Ana, looked after us so well that we didn't want to leave, feeding us the best traditional breakfasts every morning and even nursing a still-recovering Alex back to health. Little did we know that we'd be coming back to Baku. Twice.
Baku the second.
Our first dash back to the capital was based on and email from Hasan simply saying 'please come today to collect visa'. Only because of lack of wifi we didn't see the email until the banks closed. Hasan graciously let us come the next day at 10am, giving us one hour to find the right bank, pay for the visas, and get to the embassy on the other side of town. We did all those things, arriving right on time for our appointment, only to find a confused security guard wondering what we were doing at a closed embassy. After some frantic explaining and waving emails in faces we finally found out that Hasan had gone for lunch and wouldn't be back before 2pm. So we went to officially register our presence in the country (something you must do if you ever wish to leave Azbaj without leaving behind a lot of money). When we came back at 2, Hasan seemed to be just as confused as the security guard.
'Why are you here?'
'..because you told us to come?'
'Yes...You sent us an email, remember?'
(glaring)'Hmmm...You want visa?'
'I only have two visas. He (pointing at an Indian businessman filling in a form) gets visa. He doesn't paint form. Mouse gets visa. I like mouse. Give me your passports.'
Not willing to refuse anything Hasan says, we handed them over the desk. He put them in a drawer and then invited Cheddar to go for a smoke with him (no joke). We sat there, stunned, chatting to the businessman whilst Cheddar and Hasan put the world to rights outside. Of all the visas we'd ever received this was definitely the most surreal. To this day, I still don't know what they talked about but when they returned, Hasan handed us our visas along with a brochure listing the delights of Uzbekistan and advice not to visit anywhere.
Baku the third.
Our third and final time back to Baku was to attempt boarding the illusive Caspian Sea crossing ferry. We had enough time to stumble upon a gem of a traditional bar, however. Azerbaijan, like a lot of countries in the region, has a huge amount of 'man caves', where males get together, drink tea and play draughts. This one was unusually charming, with actual beer and an array of culinary delights. We dined on shashlyk (meat kebabs) and a few other things we just pointed at on an indecipherable menu. Despite the language barrier, the owners thought that our strange westernness was hilarious and even attempted to communicate with us in notes.
Baku isn't really a third time travel destination, but it did continue to surprise us with its weird wonderfulness on every visit. In between our short stays in the Azeri capital, we got to see the inverse Azerbaijan in the hilly countryside, which was weird and wonderful in other ways. Sometimes very wonderful. And often very, very weird. But I don't want to bore you with too many words so I'll put that in another post. Until next time, amigos!