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Sunday, July 29, 2012

Azerbaijan - the land where nothing makes sense

We set out for the Georgia and hit the Georgia-Azerbaijan border around mid-morning. We ran into a few other Mongol Rally teams, the first we'd seen in a few days. It was great to catch up and hear stories from the road.

After a "short" (3 hour) processing time at the border, we were in Azerbaijan. Everything was different. We started out convoying with two other teams but soon left on our own, unable to stomach actually going 50 km/h. The other team (the Fire Fairies) warned us that there were a number of cops on the road in Azerbaijan so we should go the speed-limit. Although the area of Azerbaijan we entered in was really rural and fairly poor, they did have decent roads and a lot of signs that indicated that there was radar surveillance. They did not, however, have many signs indicating what the speed limit was, and the limits would change quickly from 90 to 50 to 70 to 30 km/h. Judging by the lack of efficiency in other areas of Azerbaijan, we were pretty sure that the radar/police system was not well-synced. We were wrong!

We were pulled over by the (crooked) cops and they tried to tell us that we were speeding. We were taken into a radar station with 5 cops in it and they showed us a video, where we were going 87 km/h in a 90 km/h zone. They tried to communicate that since there was a hut nearby it was a 50 km/h zone. They then told us that we had to pay a $400 fine. Azeri cops are notoriously crooked, and basically they were trying to shake us down for money. The cops were using my basic bargaining technique of "good cop - bad cop" to work us over. Some of the cops were pretty nice and we almost got off, but there was one guy that held onto Sebastien's driver's licence and wouldn't bend. Eventually (and in the interest of time) we agreed to pay them a "fee". We learned the lesson that we shouldn't go into a police station, because the more people that are around, the higher their service charge.

The funny part here is that the two teams we were supposed to convoy with passed us!

We kept on driving, watching the speed limit, and obviously railing against how stupid the radar laws were and how backward the country is when they employ so many cops to try and screw people over rather than investing that same amount of money in something important - like education!

Meanwhile, we went through another radar checkpoint that flashed when we went under it. We were pretty sure we hadn't been speeding, but were a bit nervous since the light had flashed. We closely followed a truck and surely enough, when we passed the checkpoint, a cop tried to flag us down. We decided to keep going and see what happened. Eventually 2 cops pulled us over and we played stupid foreigner, told them we were students and kept pointing at the stickers on our car and saying the three words we know in Russian "please, thank you and good". These 2 cops were much nicer since they weren't surrounded by their friends, so we managed to get off with less of a "service fee". 

We spent the remainder of the day and some of the night driving, often painfully slow at the speed limit (seriously, going 30 km/h for a few stretches). It made no sense, the roads were new-ish and completely fine, but the speed limit would change arbitrarily - lower, higher for 50 meters, and lower again. 

We finally arrived in Baku around 1am and tried in vain to find the ferry station. In the end, we paid a taxi driver to take us there, and it was a good thing that we did because we never would have found it on our own. We followed a dark street and eventually rolled up to the ferry stand. We saw a number of other Mongol Rally teams there who were on the ferry departing that night. We were excited because we thought that there was a chance we could make the ferry. We were introduced to Ismael, a "fixer" for those wanting to take the Baku-Turkmenbashi ferry. He basically acts as a translator/go-between between the Baku ferry people and other passengers. For the low, low price of $15usd/person he will try to make the ferry process work. However, it will still be long and inefficient. We waited around and Ismael inquired with the ferry authorities about whether or not we could make the boat. He gave it a 60% chance. It would have been amazing if we could get on the boat, and out of Azerbaijan. 

Sadly, the ticket guy was not around so we couldn't get on the ferry. We were pretty traumatized, but as often happens on the rally, there were other people that were worse off than us! One team had spent 12 hours at the Georgia-Azerbaijan border and then another 12 hours at the ferry terminal only to be refused entry onto the ferry. One of their team members had gotten his Turkmenistan visa in Istanbul, and the consular officer had made a mistake on  the visa dates so the consular officer changed it by hand. The Azeri ferry authorities wouldn't respect that visa, and so he was booted off the boat. 

After accepting the fact that we couldn't get on the ferry and completely exhausted from driving all day, we followed Ismael to a nearby hotel that he recommended. We spent an inordinate amount of time discussing the price and getting nowhere. Finally, we were led to our rooms, down a hallway that was reminiscent of The Shining. We were introduced to our room, the decor of which can only be described as "Soviet Chic". 

We were called back to the sea port the following morning, and informed that the ferry was delayed, we spend the day in Baki looking around and admiring the petroleum-tainted views of the Caspian Sea. At night, we went out with Team Chevrolet, a great bunch of guys, and ended up at a gay karaoke night club where we proceeded to wow the azerbayjanis with our prowess at singing "White Snake".

Nursing a hangover the following morning, we went back to the terminal and informed that the ferry would leave the following day!

Day Three in Baki, crazy town, crazy people, sharing an apartment with team LEAMongols, had a great Iftar Dinner and rolled into bed.  We're heading back to the ferry to meet everyone at 11 am per our fixer, hopefully we get on!