Day 49 (1): A bad day & the end of the Caucasus Challenge

Astara Travel Blog

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Interesting logo for public transport
At 6 in the morning I arrived at the Baku bus station. I'd spent my last money on a taxi and still had to pay for my bus ticket, but I figured there would be an ATM or two in this massive bus station. I mean, ATM are on every street corner of Baku, so they are bound to be here as well. Well, yes and no. Yes, there was an ATM, two even, but no, they were not particularly well-stocked. They seemed to be lacking something essential. Uhm, what was it again. Ah yes! Money! Both ATM's were empty. Bugger!

And since I only needed about ten euros worth of Azeri money, I didn't feel like changing a 50 euro note. I tried the exchange office if they would change me 10 euros or dollars and give me 40 change.
on the road to Astara
The man at the counter was very helpful, but unfortunately he didn't have any smaller denominations. Every person who changes with him changes at least 100 dollars.

So no luck there. I went to the bus and tried to explain my issue to the bus driver. Maybe I could travel to Astara and get money from the ATM there? After a quick chat with his manager he agreed and I was allowed to take a seat.  

The bus was a small bus with only about 25 seats and barely any leg room. This was going to be an uncomfortable trip. The seat covers bore a logo which said 'Titanic' - I hope that wasn't a sign of their safety record...

As soon as we'd set off the assistant driver came to collect the money.
The surroundings on the way south
I explained to him what deal I had with the driver, but the guy didn't speak a word of English. I guess he thought I refused to pay, because after the first break the driver himself came up to me and demanded payment. I tried reasoning with him, showing the 50 euro note, explaining I was going to Iran where Azeri money is useless and that it didn't make sense to lose money on exchange rates twice. He would not budge, I had to pay or leave the bus. Whatever deal I had made with his boss at the bus station was completely forgotten, it seemed. So I gave him the 50 euro note and collected 43 manat in return.

When we entered Astara I saw an ATM and briefly contemplated forcing the driver to stop to extract 10 manat and demand my 50 euros back, but I decided against it.
The surroundings on the way south

The bus stopped several times along the main road in Astara and one by one the locals left the bus. Pretty soon I was the only passenger left on the bus. It didn't surprise me when I was thrown off the bus as soon as the last local had left. I argued with the driver that I had a ticket to the terminal, which is walking distance from the border, and that he had to drive me there. It was futile. He wasn't going any further and I had to take a taxi. I demanded money for the taxi, but he just laughed. My luggage got thrown on the street and when I picked it up the bus sped away, nearly running me over in the process. Assholes! This is now the second time that I have taken a bus to a border and got ripped off by the driver. I guess bus drivers are like taxi drivers only they don't know it yet.
not having a particularly good time on the bus

I took a taxi to the border post, which looked a lot like Baku: a construction site. There used to be a separate border crossing for cars and for pedestrians, but it seems they are now combining the two now. The friendly Azeri official asked me all sorts of questions about where I'd been, where I was going, what I was doing in the region, et cetera. After about five minutes of chit chat he said “I think you have problem, you visa says 4 days, but you have been here 5 days”. I explained to him that I arrived to Baku by train on the 21st, so technically I'd only been in Azerbaijan four days. “You crossed the border on the 20th and it counts as calendar days”.
OK, but in my visa it says 20 to 24 May, I arrived on the 20th, today is the 24th, so I am within the validity of the visa, right? “No, it says here 4 days, so you were allowed to stay 4 days within this period”.
I tried to joke my way out of it, I never asked for the four days, I'd wanted to visit the country longer and spend more money, but for some reason the embassy only gave me 4 days.
“That is because you have been to Armenia”. Oh shit, the dreaded words. I'd been to Armenia, yes, but that was not the reason for my visa, since I did not have the Armenian visa in my passport yet when I applied for the Azeri visa.
He then started to ask me about Armenia. What did I think of the country? “Well, erm, it is very green...” I replied, as generic as I could.
Next I had to tell him where I had been. I told him.
“Not to Nogorno-Karabakh?” No, I didn't go there.
“Why not?” I told him: “Because it would get me into trouble going to Azerbaijan.” That was the right answer. One of the soldiers was sent off with my passport to talk to the officials in charge, and I had to stay put and wait.
“So what happens now?” I asked. “I don't know”, the border guard said. “My superior has to decide. Maybe a fine, but I think you will be ok.”

He remained very nice and interested, asking me random questions about Holland and my travels as he checked the passports of other people, but I was shitting myself. Here I was, having barely slept because I was worrying about Iran and as it turns out getting out of Azerbaijan is an even bigger issue.

A few minutes later a phone call came. I was cleared to leave the country. The superior had not deemed my crime serious enough. So I was handed my passport, got several firm handshakes from the official and the soldiers, and I was on my way again. Across the Aras river and into Iran.

And thus ended my Caucasian challenge. Well, in hindsight it hadn't been much of a challenge, but it hadn't been an entirely smooth ride either. My biggest concern had been time and I think I managed pretty well to make the most of the short time I'd had. And it wasn't even too short. Sure, there had been areas in every country which I wouldn't have mind visiting had I had more time, but I am not leaving the Caucasus feeling I missed out on a lot of things because of time.

It's hard to compare the three countries, or lump them into one group like the Soviets did. Armenia and Georgia might share a religion, that is about the only thing they have in common. The countries don't even look alike. Sure, they both have mountains, but whereas Armenia is very rocky and wild, Georgia consists mostly of lush green fertile hills. Azerbaijan is mostly an arid semi-desert, at least, the part of Azerbaijan that I saw.

Politically speaking these countries are a mess. Armenia may have good relations with the USA, Russia and Iran, making it a unique and important player in the region, its relationships with its neighbours Turkey and Azerbaijan are well below freezing point. Turkey keeps denying the genocide of 1915, causing Armenia to play the role of victim very well internationally. At the same time Armenia occupies the Nogorno-Karabakh region in Azerbaijan, in an attempt to keep some of its former borders after the country was split up between Russia, Turkey and Iran in the 19th century.
Georgia on the other hand has very good relations with its neighbours, but remains at near-war with Russia. And the country maintains a very aggressive stance in the South Ossetia and Abkhazia issues.
Azerbaijan seems to be the least warmongering of the three. The Armenian occupation in Nogorno-Karabakh remains an issue, but since the cease-fire in 1994 the country has done little to try and resolve the issue. Armenia wants to allow the Azeri IDP's to return to the region and hold a referendum, but Azerbaijan prefers to wait another 10 to 20 years.

Of the three capitals I liked Yerevan the most and Baku the least. Yerevan just has a wonderful city vibe and a very European feel. I loved all the outdoor cafés and restaurants. Tbilisi may have better nightlife, but I found the city as a whole rather unattractive. Baku was too artificial for me. Both the historic and the modern centre look rather fake and the lack of unity among the people (locals, oil workers and other expats all seem to live in separate worlds) results in a lack of vibe in the city.
What Georgia may be lacking in its capital it makes up for with the rest of the country, which definitely is the most scenic of the three, though the weather may also be a factor here (I had two days of rain in Armenia).

But in general all three have been very interesting and a wonderful experience. While at first it didn't make much sense to do a two-week detour on the way from Turkey to Iran, I am very glad I did it. It has been well-worth it.

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Interesting logo for public transp…
Interesting logo for public trans…
on the road to Astara
on the road to Astara
The surroundings on the way south
The surroundings on the way south
The surroundings on the way south
The surroundings on the way south
not having a particularly good tim…
not having a particularly good ti…
photo by: Biedjee