Georgian border crossing was without much incident apart from the long queue and a young man running away from an angry policeman. Feeling somewhat stressed with all sorts of warnings I had been listening to during the past weeks, I didn’t really feel an urge to stop anywhere. All through the country, my feet touched the ground three times. Once I was stopped by a mountain guard. He told me that the road I was using was actually a mountain road and I had missed the main highway a few miles back. Second was when I stopped for fuel and exchanged some money, and third was to sleep in a roadside guest house. It’s was a pity to have rushed through this country. If I had known what was waiting for me in Azerbaijan, I would have taken a few more days here. I didn’t even taste the famous wine. All I could say about Georgia is that there are too many cows on the streets and the toilets stink… And I have no photographs to prove either.

Azerbaijan border crossing in KımııKöprü (Red Bridge) was a very weird and valuable experience. I was welcomed by the money exchange guy and soldiers with cheap uniforms. Speaking Turkish seemed to be an advantage at first, but it didn’t take much for them to figure out that I was a tourist just like any other. First I was told that my bike would not be allowed for more than 5 days in the country regardless of the length of my visa. Having heard of the delays in ferry crossings on the Caspian, I coudn’t see how on earth I was going to make this deadline that was being presented to me by a high ranking border official who didn’t seem to like my accent… I tried to insist but it didn’t help. He somehow felt that I had to be punished because of the way I was travelling. At one point he suggested that I left a large sum of deposit (about US$1500) at this border post to collect on my way back. I explained him that this wasn’t possible because I wouldn’t be returning… He wouldn’t understand. I should have waited there 8 hours for him to come up with a solution. But instead, I accepted the 5 day limit. I had to be fast and lucky at the same time to make it. My plan was to try to make it to Baku in one day and see if there were any ferries for the following 4 days. If not, I was going to find a way to extend my permit at the customs in Baku… He was filling the papers as I was thinking about these options beyond the border. My thoughts were interrupted when he asked for 50 dollars. Suddenly it all became very clear. I wasn’t playing my part correctly. I should have insisted for the longer permit and begged him for a way of not paying the deposit. Then he would suggest a lower price and we would start the negotiation. Not having done any of these, I had disappointed him with my decision. He wasn’t going to let me go without getting something. It was too late. I had no choice. I had to give him something and I wasn’t getting anything in exchange… I asked for a receipt as I reached for my wallet. He waited until I got the money out and started shouting right after. He kept saying that the papers he gave me were the receipt. I looked for an indication of price, but there was none. He left the room to end the conversation and told me to move on to the next office. Next office was insurance. I was expectng to pay something for this. The officer in this room seemed a little more moderate. He prepared my policy and asked for 20 dollars. I inspected them and realised that the amount on the policy was just 5 dollars. When I pointed out this error and told him that I already had paid 50 at the previous desk, he calmly suggested that I could pay him 50 as well if I wanted to… I gave him his 20 and left the room. Soldiers opened the metal gate. 70 dollars poorer and with only 5 days to get out of the country, I was determined to reach Baku in the morning.

The ferry from Baku, AZ to Aktau, KZ does not have a schedule. It leaves when there are enough trucks to fill up the deck. Previous travellers have noted waiting times up to 8-10 days. With 4 days remaining, I only had a 50 percent chance of not dealing with corrupt officials… But I didn’t know how bad the roads were. The dirt road I was pointed to after the border didn’t seem to merge into a highway. Somewhere on the side of the road was a handwritten sign saying “Yahş Yol” which meant “Good Road”. I couldn’t believe that the road I was on was acually the good one. This was supposed to be the main highway traversing the country but it had no surfacing. Obviously, a grader had been here some years ago, but the heavy loaded truck had undone whatever it did years ago… The only purpose of this road was indication of direction and I had more than 500 kms of it. Obviously, I would be riding at night. There is a construction going on. On some sections, you are allowed to use the new road but most of it is just deep tire tracks on dirt.

I was stopped once by the police. I don’t know what the local speed limit was but they seemed to be interested more in taking photographs of each other on the bike. Hoping that this really is why they stopped me, I allowed them their time. Even I took some photographs of this ridiculous experience. As one of them was posing for my camera, the other decided to make a stupid joke and pushed the bike! I don’t know what he was expecting. When you push a bike, it falls… How much brain does that require? Nothing happened to the bike and the cop posing on it, but they were terrified by this “unexpected” incident. They let me go without asking for anything else.

At around 10 30 PM I was exhausted. I had done half of it but lost more than half of my energy. I had to sleep somewhere, but checking into a hotel didn’t seem to be the quickest option. I had to find a place where I could sleep right by the bike. The guards at the gas station I stopped in, were interested in me. I told them about the incident at the border and they offered me a place where I could pitch my tent, promising to watch me through the night and wake me up before the sun rose. It seems like here is a reverse relation between the corruption of officials and hospitality of the people… I had a sound sleep and hit the road before the sunrise. The roads became much better early in the day. I was even beginning to enjoy it. I arrived at the port of Baku at exactly nine o’clock thanks to Evren’s GPS guidance via SMS. But my sharpness was in vain. All I could get in the ticket office was the remains of the cashiers breakfast… There was no ferry, and noone knew when the next one was. I had hurried for nothing. But the tea tasted good.

I moved to the customs area near the docking station, hoping to find someone who could extend my vehicle permit. This was a cement parking lot with dust and garbage flying around the deserted vehicles, prefabricated shacks for the guards and a sheet metal fence surrounding the area. Railroads traversed the zone into the docks where the trains and trucks were loaded. Sun was burning the ground and the occasional wind was bringing more dust than coolness… Bored customs police officers with large hats completed the scene. This place which reminded a prison more than anything else, was going to be my new home in Azerbaijan… And I was going to enjoy it.

First I discovered that the procedure for extending a vehicle permit is too long and expensive to do. I had to go somewhere else and pay god-knows-how-much money to get it done. The ferry could decide to leave anytime and calling the ticket office wasn’t a very reliable option, particularly because it stayed closed most of the day. I had to find a safe place near the port where I could walk daily to check the ferry departure and the bike as it stayed in the customs zone with the bored sun-struck guards. Baku is an expensive city. Daily rates for a standard hotel room is not less than US$ 60.

My second discovery happened as I was wandering around the deserted vehicles in the parking lot. Some of them bore signs of failed central asian expeditions. This is a horrible sight for a traveller. Seeing a dusty customized 4WD left under the sun at the customs port makes you realize how real the beurocratic threat is… But one of these vehicles, a small Subaru van seemed to have some life in it. A young Czech couple was waking up. I talked to the guy as the girl left for the restroom; so there was a restroom here. Waiting for their Turkmen visa, the vehicle permit expired so they were living here in the parking lot… “We don’t know when the visa will be coming! It may be days or weeks…” he said, as the girl was hanging the laundry between the X-ray machine and the control tower… It seemed like it was possible to survive in this beurocratic desert. So I decided to pitch my tent somewhere near. I needed the sleep anyway… What could be safer cheaper and closer to the port than the customs police zone inside it? The guards didn’t seem to care. Another tourist to have fun with…

This really proved to be the best place to hang out in Baku. During the day, I could go to the city and do some sightseeing, shopping etc. But for the rest of it, I stayed within the compund meeting other travellers.

First came the Art Bus… This old bus departed from Finland long time ago. It’s crew was constantly changing as people left and new ones joined. They called themselves the Art Bus because the exterior was repeatedly being painted by local children on their destinations. One of the current crew was a Turkish girl called Aylin. They were also headed to Kazakhstan but didn’t seem to be in a hurry to do so. Crowded as they are, there are always delays…

Then came Jehan. A french motorcyclist on a Tenere travelling to Japan. He was waiting for the Kazakh ferry too. I somehow felt that we were going to do some travelling with this weird guy…

Then I met the Turkish truckers. Recep, Mehmet and Sinan… Probably the nicest and cleanest truckers I ever met… They invited Jehan and myself to have breakfast at the truck. They were from Gaziantep so I enjoyed some nice cheese away from home.

A ferry docked and an extremely polite British backpacker got off. “Excuse me! Hi! I heard you speaking English!” said Paris… She was coming back from Aktau, KZ. I asked her what she thought of the city. She said “Boring!’ All she wanted to do was to get a taxi and check into a hotel so she was delighted to find out that I could speak Turkish with the cab driver. I never saw her again but we exchanged phone numbers.

I spent two days hanging around at the port. Meeting nice travellers, hoping to find a good road mate to cross the Ustyurt plateau into Uzbekistan. This piece of desert was worrying me a little bit… I had no other option since I didn’t have time to wait for the Turkmen visa.

Jehan and I were returning from a cafe in the city back to the port. As we entered the customs zone, the guards told us that the Aktau ferry was going to leave that night. We ran to the port and confirmed the news with the truck drivers and Azeri guards. Suddenly everything was changing. People were moving fast. Russian truckers were drinking vodka and playing accordion. Recep, Mehmet and Sinan were rushing their carnets between offices. The ticket office was still not open and I had to pack up my tent and laundry. I received an SMS from Paris, about a guidebook we talked about exchanging earlier. I replied back saying that the ferry was leaving and I was hoping to be on it.

A little later, while running to the ticket office, we met another traveller. Another British girl. This time on a bicycle. What’s wrong with British girls? Why do they get so bored at home? Her name was Isabel and she learned about the ferry via my SMS to Paris at the hotel. She rushed to the port hoping to catch it. Soon we were buying beer and Vodka for the trip. I got some for the truckers too…