Friday 07 August
Tbilisi was getting the better of me. Apart from ridiculously close heat, attempting to get off the booze for elongated periods of time was proving, as ever, something of a difficulty. My face was melting off, I’d sung Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars” at karaoke more times than the band performed it live, and I’d managed to make a stripper fall in love with me. Or maybe that was just to buy her drinks. One of the two. My Azerbaijan visa was finally ready (at a push). It was time to move on.
I set off early afternoon, confident in a straight run to the border, then a decent highway all the way to my destination of Baku. I love hitching to a new country, because aside from getting that all important flag sticker for my guitar, autostop at a border is like taking candy from a baby. I was envisaging arrival in Baku by sundown, needing only two rides to do so. Assumption is the mother of all fuck ups.
Sure I made the border in good time. This was in part thanks to my first ride of the day, a Russian water polo player, who kindly takes me to a better spot outside the city. I then chance my arm in one of the thousands of death-trap, tin-can Ladas, filled to the brim with large Azerbaijanis. Making a snap decision about my safety, I squeeze in, and regret it immediately. Not because they’re threatening in any way, purely because the driver’s foot is glued to the accelerator pedal, and he’s invoking Aryton Senna, delusions of grandeur at being an F1 driver. He’s a man possessed. But between him and his two companions, nobody gives a damn but me. They nonchalantly chain smoke, turn round to shoot the breeze with me in broken English, take eyes off the road, and swing into corners with wild abandon. He’s pushing the rusting soviet icon to its limits, rattling passed three or four vehicles at a time on blind corners and summits. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; the most dangerous thing about hitching is whether or not you get a good driver. No exceptions here.
I’m thankful to be alive as we reach the border. It turns a little sour when they ask for money, but they’re all smiles when I lightheartedly explain I’m not paying. Trying their luck I guess. In a lot of Eastern European countries, and indeed in the East I understand, you have to establish beforehand that you’re not paying. I’ve often thought this a little rude (and potentially offensive) so I’ve always given the benefit of the doubt. This trust was about to come back and bite me in the ass.
Walking across borders is usually a breeze. Hundreds of trucks and cars sit in the baking heat for hours, while I march effortlessly through. Not so here. It’s chaos. Not even organised chaos. Utter chaos. A swaying mass of people fight for privilege in the passport control line, with one kiosk open, and only one customs official in sight. There’s more pushing and shoving here than at a Supergrass concert, and there’s more gold in their mouths than in Fort Knox. You’ve never seen so many gold teeth. Arguments blaze readily, flashing shiny molars, but not just between one or two people. The whole crowd seems to get involved in everyone elses business. My whiter than white skin (actually quite red), sticks out like a sore thumb, and I somehow find myself consistently at the back of the queue. It’s time to get dirty. I force my way into the throng.
Taking maybe an hour to get out, it takes maybe another hour to get in. At least they have a queue barrier system in place on the Azerbaijan side, but that doesn’t stop folk trying to squeeze past. I put a stop to this by putting both hands out to hold onto the barrier, and slowly but surely I shuffle forward. I’m asked where I’m from by a grinning local. A couple of attractive Russian girls shoot sheepish smiles my way. A side door is thrown open and all hell breaks loose.
A customs guard marches out, hotly pursued by a granddad who is screaming bloody murder. Beyond him, I spy at least three bawling children, and the crowd begins to throw its hat in the ring with a general commotion of disgust. In seconds, a crew of uniformed women appear from nowhere and enter the fray. The door slams shut. Drug smuggling granddad is still going hell for leather behind the partition, and everyone is craning necks to get a better look. As the entertainment dwindles, I thank my lucky stars I’m allowed into the country.
Not without a quick fire quiz though. They’re always easy to spot, they’re about a subtle as a brick. Strolling over, the high-ranking official will casually ask where you’re from, leafing through passport stamps. “Ahhh Mexico!” “Ahhhh Peru!” And then boom! The loaded question I’m waiting for:
“Have you been to Armenia?”
“Good. Don’t go there.”
As many of you will be aware, Azerbaijan and Armenia aren’t best mates. They’ve been squabbling over a patch of land for years, and in spite of a ceasefire, certain border areas between the two countries are still subject to random skirmishes, and littered with landmines. It’s still classified as a war zone. You can’t cross the border at all, which is why in order to see Armenia and continue into Iran, I will need to return to Georgia. But that’s ok, because I can visit my stripper girlfriend…
First car over the border takes me to a place called Ganja. I don’t need to make any comment at all.
Within a few moments, I’m picked up in a big rig. These truckers are a merry sort. They’re constantly beaming from ear to ear, bouncing up and down in the driver’s seat, ecstatic that you’re along for the ride, as if they know something you don’t. Bless him, he gets on the phone to his mum, (he must be pushing mid 50’s himself), and for mile after mile we proceed to have this three-way translated conversation. His mum tells him what to ask, he asks, I respond, he tells his mum, she translates what it means. Hilarious. He can take me all the way to Baku, but with the day not getting younger, riding a slow-ass trailer, and him pulling in for dinner; I opt to push on and try my luck. Warmly thanking him, he looks utterly dejected and I feel quite heartbroken as I leap down from the lofty perch of the cabin. My decision is instantly rewarded however, as an expensive looking Mercedes mini-bus swings in, and I’m bundled into a comfortable back seat with a family of seven and a baby. He takes off at warp speed, stark contrast to crawling at 40, and I settle back knowing I will be in Baku in time for a beer…
I wake at night, with the family piling out in near darkness. Lamps from a roadside restaurant are the only glow, apart from the infrequent glare of speeding headlights. The large matriarch with a gob full of Au demands money. Here we go again. I pull the dumb foreigner routine, attempting to explain I said I had no money (which I did), and that I don’t understand. Nobody else is confronting me. The driver, four other guys, and the young lady with the baby avert their eyes, hands in pockets, some wheezing on smokes. The growling mama behemoth tosses her head in disgust and turfs my bag out onto the gravel, mumbling what I can only imagine are obscenities, formerly smiley shiny gold mouth hidden with a grimace. The unmagnificent seven climb back into the vehicle, while I stand rooted to my spot, inches from the sliding doors, attempting to look them all in the eye. Every occupant rigidly sits face forward, as my nose presses as close to the glass as I dare. I shake my head. For shame. For shame. And they know it too. Leaving a traveler stranded. A stranger in their land, thrown out onto the side of the road in the darkness. The tyres kick up dust as they speed away.
And so what am I going to write about Azerbaijan? What am I going to tell people about Azerbaijan when I see them? Or I go home? What shall I report to the rest of the world? This is how you treat people here? Are you not meant to open your door wide to a wanderer? Is not the hospitality in muslim countries meant to be a shining light against xenophobia?! Some people really don’t think.
Nor it seems do I. A trucks horn blasts a warning as it thunders past, reminding me I’m standing on a highway. I turn to look at my options, but strangely enough, I’m not that concerned just yet. I’ve been in this situation before, only I wasn’t wearing shorts. Shades of 8 hours on the side of a sub-zero road in Poland come flooding back. At least here I can still feel my fingers and toes. This is a walk in the park compared to that experience, but I could still do with a hero.
Ask and you shall receive. He comes in the form of a young man, who approaches from the nearby diner. He’s seen the whole episode, and in broken English he tells me he can take me all the way to Baku, beckoning me to join him and his two companions. One is an aging Chinese man, the other an Azerbaijani who is apparently “in oil”. The two of them are doing their best to save each others souls by smashing back straight vodka. They offer me food and drink, and after a trip to the foulest roadside toilet I’ve ever encountered, we’re underway into the night, blasting out Turkish music while I discover my driver is another rally wannabe. He doesn’t appear to care that he’s behind the wheel of a Mercedes saloon, as he’s convinced it’s a 4×4, and he’s flying off and into potholes, curbsides and crash barriers. If I make it in one piece it’ll be a miracle.
It’s a short twenty minutes of blaring music and drunken camaraderie before the two on the booze have passed out. (As I predicted – with the motion of the vehicle, they weren’t going to keep that up for too long). I’m left to my own thoughts in the gloom. It’s days like this that really highlight the juxtaposition of “what the hell am I doing?” And “this is the best thing ever”. We’re still some three hours away, and I’m guessing it’s around midnight already. I’m too wired to sleep, and those that know me best, will understand how my brain would begin to eat itself in such solitude. I’ve never been so happy to see city lights.
Baku. The oil rich Caspian sea. Another jewel on the silk road. And what a jewel it appears to be. The architecture diverse and unusual. The lights dazzling. The empty road through the city winds round an eclectic array of buildings, skyscrapers, ferris wheels and giant flags so enormous, they appear to flutter in slow motion in high winds. I’m due to meet up with a couch surfing host, but traveling with no phone, there’s no way to contact him. Originally I’d planned arriving early to a wi-fi spot and firing off an email. After delivering the blind drunk zen master home, and without prompting, the driver calls his English-speaking girlfriend. A short conversation later, and I have a place to stay for the night. In the face of the polar opposite, the incredible kindness of strangers. It’s around 2 am.
Then a wheel falls off the car.
Well this really is of no surprise, considering how many curbsides he was trying to destroy with it. The front drivers side-wheel is off its axle. It’s a taxi ride home. But it’s not long before I’m wearily climbing a flight of crumbling stairs, in a tower block that could have been the set for Saving Private Ryan. Once inside however, my host’s abode is actually very comfortable. They hastily prepare me my first real meal of the day. I actually never eat when I set out on a hitch, as I think it gives me an edge, and keeps me awake longer. I wolf down a delicious omelette at around 3 am, before crashing out on their sofa bed. Angels on my shoulders.
Lying awake in the moments before sleep takes over, and I wonder how I’m ever going to tell people about days like today. Sometimes, all the right words in the world just don’t cut it. Such fluctuating emotions cannot be expressed as keenly as they’re felt. And this is only the beginning. With Azerbaijan to explore, Armenia in a few weeks time, and my Iran visa in the pipeline; the silk road is on. Shit is about to get very real. I just hope the wheels (head) don’t come falling off.