Tbilisi, Georgia to Baku, Azerbaijan and onwards to Turkmenistan
2nd – 3rd August 2014
The drive from Tbilisi to the Azerbaijani border was relatively quick, and we weren’t 100% sure what to read into the “Good Luck” sign as we approached the border – would we be needing this? Probably, we thought!
Border crossings seemed to act as a kind of filter for Rally team and we bumped into the young due team French Khan Khan in their tried and tested rally Renault 4 which we quickly dubbed Bumblebee, and Sebastian and Pierre were dubbed Miles II and James II – these guys would serve as the doubles of the original Miles and James from The Lion Rampant. To make the transition complete we supplied them with a lion of their own and fitted it to their roof for them using cable ties.
The aforementioned mentioned Renault 4 of Team French Khan Khan was actually a twice veteran of other rallies, complete with bucket racing seats, rally steering wheel, and lots of extra dials, gauges and switches, most of which didn’t work. It was interesting to us that several teams we had met along the way so far were carrying legacy items from previous teams, or like these guys, the entire car. The question now is what “torch” can South Afristans pass to future teams? Some manky onesies and a pith helmet perhaps? Or maybe a water buffalo head made from tin cans?
After a few pleasant albeit scorching hours in the sun, we were across the border minus and en-route to Baku, the large oil port on the Caspian Sea.
It was now scorching hot, and the respite from both the Georgian heat and bad drivers would not let up – in fact, it was worse! In contrast to the predominantly Christian Georgia, we were now most definitely in the vicinity of the Middle East; this much was evident by the architecture, the eastern style toilets and the increasingly drier terrain – we were now really getting into arid country!
Susanne somehow forgot that she was not in fact in Germany on the Autobahn and both teams got pulled over for speeding; doing a hefty 70-something in a 50 km/h zone. When we eventually convinced Susanne to actually stop (the cop was now bearing down on us in his BMW), it was clear that he meant business. For some reason, Rich and Pierre were summonsed into the police car and driven off, without their wallets and cellphones, to the scene of the infringement (crime seems a bit of a strong word here…). With all of this happening without a word of English being spoken, the policeman drove back to the camera the wrong way up the dual carriageway, where it appeared that the original recording had been deleted. Without skipping a beat, much to Rich and Pierre’s concern, the policeman continued to speed away in the opposite direction in which we were headed. Our relief was palpable when he then turned around, to point out in no uncertain terms, the 70 km/h speed sign and then the 50 km/h speed sign. Once back at Stan and Bumblebee, the negotiations commenced. The fine was to be US$50 per car, but Rich managed to convince the policeman that $25 would be more appropriate. He managed to pay in Georgian Lari, which we no longer needed anyway (colourful, animal and Madiba riddled South African money was snubbed).
The delay in the border crossing meant that we had a long late push to Baku, our planned stop for the night. After the sun went down at around 21:00, we quickly realized that driving on the incredibly busy roads with massive amounts of construction was a bad idea, and we elected to camp in a remote spot in the desert. James II and Miles II did a sterling job using their spotlights to find a dirt track that led off a few hundred meters into the desert. It was great camping under the spectacular stars, but we did find out that James II was probably the worst boy scout ever. He had sat on his own knife, dropped an entire pot of freshly cooked pasta into our garbage box (fortunately the box was empty so we dished up out of the garbage!) and then spilt water all over his own bed. Did we mention that he dropped our entire pasta dinner for 6 in the trash!!
Our decision to stop the previous night was validated by the long drive to Baku the next day – what we thought was going to be a quick one and a half hour drive turned into a 3 hour trek – this seems to be a recurring theme for this trip – all journeys seem to be taking longer than expected.
Baku was impressive – there clearly is oil money here! Baku serves as the major oil and gas port for the oil-rich Caspian Sea, and we passed several on-shore and off-shore wells and drill rigs as we drove into Baku. Finding the ferry terminal proved to be challenging, and after several trips up the marine boulevard, with no place to turn around if you missed the turning, a friendly policeman who was clearly anxious to get out of his stuffy office took it upon himself to escort us to the ferry terminal. Problem was that he also didn’t know the way. After the 7th trip up the boulevard and seeing the same sights again and again, we were reminded of the scene from the old National Lampoons European Vacation movie, where Chevy Chase gets stuck in a French traffic circle with his family: “Look kids, the Eiffel Tower… Look kids, the Eiffel Tower…” he repeats again and again!
Eventually we made it to the ferry and the complex procedure of purchasing a ticket began. How this actually happens and how the price is calculated is a dark art to which only those in the ticket office know… and the fixers that lurk near ports, embassies and kebab shops to assist Mongol Rally’ers in their most basic needs and hugely inflated prices. US$800 later and the four of us, along with Stan, had secured our spot on the ferry, which was due to sail in a few hours. The timing was perfect – JP and Rich’s Turkmenistan visas were only valid from the 4th to the 8th of July, so any delays would jeopardize the Turkemistan portion of the trip. Amazingly we would make Turkmenistan on the afternoon of the fourth!
We also managed to rendezvous with Bob, who had just returned from South Africa to Baku, where he works, who kindly brought us the stickers that JP had left behind, the Central Asia Lonely Planet which Rich had left behind, and as an added bonus, some South African red wine. A big thanks to Bob for hauling this to Azerbaijan for us, and for the bottle of wine!
The ferry left on time, and we settled down topsides in the limited shade along with two other Swedish Mongol Rally teams, Four Swedes One Horsepower and Team Adventure. We also said our goodbyes to James II and Miles II (Pierre and Sebastian of French Khan Khan) as they needed to sort out their Turkmenistan Visa in Baku and would be catching the next available ferry over to Turkmenbashi.
Four Swedes and One Horsepower and the South Afristans instantly hit it off with their shared love for beer, singing and rude songs in their own languages, and a good evening was spent topsides drinking warm beer, vodka out of gifted melons and just generally annoying the ferry staff, as the ferry steadily chugged along towards the mysterious Turkmenistan; dubbed the North Korea of Central Asia. We really got the sense that the Adventure was only just beginning!