Leaving Tbilisi behind we once again headed east, this time towards the Azerbaijan border. We stopped off briefly at Signagi, a hilltop village which was formerly the capital city of the region, and which the President decided should be restored to its former glory. It is a source of much pride to the Georgians, although to outsiders it perhaps feels a bit like walking through a museum as there seems to be all the facilities a village would need, but none of the people! Nonetheless it was a pleasant place to wander around, and for our hardworking bar lady Katie and her crew of happy helpers, it was a chance to buy up all the beer from each shop so that we could have stocks on board before crossing into the ever-expensive Azerbaijan.
One last bushcamp in Georgia saw an unwanted visitor – the rain. We have continued to be unbelievably lucky with the weather, but as we rolled out the tarpaulin over the kitchen, everyone went delving into their bags for wet-weather gear which had been just taking up room until now. Fortunately it wasn’t long until the rain abated (as did the lightning much to Heather’s relief) and we awoke to a cloudy, but happily dry sky in the morning.
It was an early start as we headed to the border, mindful of both the time difference between Georgia and Azerbaijan and the tendency for the 10am changeover of border guards in Azerbaijan to cause a standstill in proceedings for about an hour. Arriving so early seemed to catch the border guards a little unawares and as they rubbed their eyes (either in disbelief or to get the sleep out of them, it was never clear which) they stamped our passports and we were through. But, as was the case in Turkey, the difficulty is getting Calypso through. Not a truck, not a bus, registered in the UK, right hand drive, oh, it is all so confusing! As Pete waited patiently and was shuffled from desk to desk drinking copious cups of tea, the reason for the hold-up became clear. A very embarrassed border guard explained that they could not process Calypso because they did not have any paper onto which to photocopy all the relevant documents. Don’t worry, said Pete, I have paper on the truck that you can use. Unfortunately pride would not allow them to accept, but several more cups of tea later the paper arrived by taxi and we were stamped through and into Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan which gained its independence from Russia in 1991 has substantial oil and gas deposits which render it a wealthy state, however travelling through the countryside from the border with Georgia it is hard to imagine as you sit stationary in the truck waiting for yet another herd of sheep or cattle to be cleared off to the road by the shepherds their donkeys or horses and rather fearsome looking dogs.
As we are only allowed to have the truck in Azerbaijan for a limited time, a bureaucratic restriction that does not reflect how welcome we we were made to feel by all the border staff, we are unfortunately restricted in how much of the country we can see. Our first night in Azerbaijan was spent at Sheki, where we stayed at the Karavansaray Hotel. Karavansaray is the name given to the old hotels that were established along the silk road and provided a chance to restock and of course to trade. In Sheki there are two remaining Karavansarays, the Upper Karavansaray where we stayed has been fully restored and converted into a modern hotel, set around a lovely courtyard full of blooming roses, with a shady garden and restaurant out the back.
Sheki is also home to the Khan’s Summer Palace dating from the late 1700’s which is well worth a wander round to see the magnificent decoration.
From Sheki we headed further east towards Baku, but with a stop off at one of our favourite bushcamps on the whole route. We turned off the main road and headed up a long slow dirt track before cresting the hill and finding what we were looking for – a prairie-like scene dotted with active mud volcanoes. There are other places in Azerbaijan to see this natural phenomenon, but what makes this so special is that it has not yet been discovered by any other tourists. The only other people we saw during our stay there were local shepherds and of course the police who came to find out who we were and what we were doing, have a drink with us and wish us all the best.
Mud volcanoes are caused by natural gas leaking up to the surface, these volcanoes of cold, wet mud bubble every now and then, usually covering whoever is staring into them with a fine splattering of mud. For those who ventured too close to the more active ones, the thin crust gave way, covering Pete up to the knees in mud and relegating his flip flops to the depths of the earth… Ned nearly fared worse when only the top of his little gnome hat was still to be seen after he went for a mud bath. Who would have thought that playing with mud was still such fun when you were adults?
Leaving the mud volcanoes behind it was only a short hop into Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. Baku is a very visible demonstration of the wealth of this oil-rich country. Armani and other boutiques line the boulevard, shiny new BMW, Porsche and 6.3 litre AMG Mercedes 4x4s roam the streets and restaurant, hotel and bar prices are at London levels or higher; it is such a marked contrast from the rural areas that we travelled through on our way from Georgia. The city is used to oil workers with lots of excess cash, so it was the perfect opportunity for Darrell, Mike and Pete to go into a Bentley garage to try to get a test-drive of a convertible Continental GT. If it had been a Saturday they would have been successful! Unfortunately as Darrell would now be in Turkmenistan on “oil business”, Saturday would be too late. But the manager has assured them that anytime they come back they are welcome to come in and drive any of the cars!
Baku has an historic centre with the Maiden’s Tower an easily recognisable landmark, and a maze of old streets to wander around and get lost in, and the boulevard that winds along the seafront is dotted with bumper cars and pirate ships and young couples in love.
Although Azerbaijan is a Muslim country, it is really only the call to prayer in Baku that would give you any indication as beer and spirits are freely available in bars and restaurants and you can even get ham on your pizza. It is going to be quite a contrast when we finally get across the Caspian to Turkmenistan, hopefully the ferry is going to be sailing tonight with us on board!