Monday – arrival in Baku

I woke to the sound of the anchor being rolled out. It was 6.00 am. We were ‘parked’ out in the channel outside of Baku harbour. Dotted around were other vessels waiting to dock. I had had a good sleep so got up to watch the sun coming up. It was a beautiful sunrise. The morning was quite grey, but the sun appeared as a salmon pink ball on the horizon.

As daylight came we could gradually make out the amazing architecture of modern Baku. There are some terrific designer buildings that compare very well with modern buildings in London or Dubai. It was not at all what we were expecting! Having said this neither of us had heard of Baku! Two enormous grey fin like structures were particularly noticeable. When the cloud dispersed they shone in the sunlight. There was a lot of glass and wonderful shapes to be seen from our vantage point in the harbour. Baku is a wealthy city and it shows.

We then had a long wait. When it was allowed to approach the dock, the ferry had two attempts to lock on to the rails on the jetty to enable it to unload its train. I found it a very tense business, although I think our Captain had done it before! Once the berthing had taken place, all sorts of upmarket passengers emerged who we had not seen on board before. They were certainly not in our accommodation! We were definitely in ‘steerage’ – I am not sure what that means but it was certainly mentioned on the TItanic!

We eventually got off the ferry at about 12.30. Following a lengthy border control and customs process (we were behind the televisions, washing machine and carpet) we arrived at our hotel at 3.00, having left Penelope in the border control car park. Penelope can only be in Azerbaijan for 72 hours, so the longer the truck can stay in their compound the later it is before the clock starts ticking for us to leave Azerbaijan. All very technical!

We dumped our bags at the hotel and set out for the old town. We had already experienced Baku traffic during our brief taxi ride from the port. The jams were chronic. Every cross roads was completely gridlocked. The cars were very upmarket with Porsches, land cruisers and range rovers all very much in evidence. Surprisingly there are also London taxis! I think their traffic light system could do with attention!

Apparently Baku is one of the oldest cities in the world with evidence of a town here back as far as 600 BC. It is much bigger now than it was and has extended way beyond its old boundaries, but many of the outer walls of the old city remain. The skyline of the old town is dominated by something called the Maiden’s Tower a very oddly shaped building – a tower at one end and a stabilising brick wall to one side. At the base of this are some old buildings including three Caravanserai – the ancient traders accommodation we have seen all along the Silk Road. Today these are now an upmarket shop and restaurants.

We wandered the old narrow streets and up and down the steps inside the city wall. There were some distinctive old houses with huge wooden balconies, two mosques and an amazing palace which we went in to investigate. I was very frustrated in that I had no means of taking photographs as my phone had completely run out of charge following our Caspian Sea crossing.

Having had a thorough wander around the old town, we set off to find Paul’s, a bar said to sell champagne. We found the bar – no champagne, but excellent wheat beer and wonderful steaks – after two days of snacking we really enjoyed our meal. Steak has never tasted so good!

It was then home to bed with the thought of not having to get up in the morning!!

Sunday – the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan

The ferry arrived at about 3.00 am, the previous incumbent of the dock space having sailed off at about 1.00 am. Refrigerator lorries started to queue at about 4.00 am with chilling units going at full blast. You can tell that there was not too much sleeping done.

We breakfasted and settled down to wait, first for the train to be shunted on and then for us to be called to border control. Eventually the usual forms were issued and at about 11.00 we were called to the border office with our bags. We also carried two boxes of food from the truck, together with the food supplies we had purchased ourselves as we did not know if we would have access to Penelope again until we reached Azerbaijan. It was a pretty well loaded down and rather motley crew who assembled to leave Turkmenistan and set off on the high seas.

We sat in the border control office and watched the three generations of a local family gather for the crossing. Their luggage was incredible! 2 enormous flat screen televisions, a washing machine (!), a large carpet, several large plastic bags and a number of wheelie trolleys all collected themselves around them.

We eventually got through the ‘getting out of Turkmenistan’ process and found ourselves sitting outside the office on the jetty with a wooden walkway in front of us leading into the bowels of the ship and with the truck in front of us, waiting to be searched for the usual guns and drugs. At about 2.00 pm we received the nod. Simon drove Penelope across and we trooped into the ship, alongside the railway goods carriages already in position. (The ship has railway lines in it!) After several attempts, space was found for Penelope and we were allowed to climb up to what was, I think, our third class accommodation.

As we walked along the deck, looking at the rust frequently displayed where there were joints of ironwork, I hoped its workings were a little more up to date than it’s obvious longevity. This was a soviet ship that had been around a very long time. Black smoke belched out of its twin chimneys, grey washing hung out on washing lines strung between various bits of apparatus. Signs directed us to a dining room and shopwhich were never found and were probably long gone!

We were shown into a communal area with aged photographs depicting many medalled veterans of a previous era. Arranged around the walls were what looked like ex-aircraft chairs, some with arms and some with just the metal carcus of arms. All had been ‘covered’ with loose covers in various stages of (dis)repair. A dead plant in cement like earth sat in an iron pot in the centre of the room. The only other piece of furniture was a much mended table.

We shared a cabin with Wendy and Sarah, the Australian ladies we have shared with before. The cabin was very small with three narrow plastic cupboards, 4 bunk beds, a sink with no plumbing connection and half a broken mirror. Ancient wires hung out the remains of a plug socket. One positive thing was the porthole that opened – we could get air!

The ferry left at 4.00 pm with an estimated journey time of 16 hours.

We had more or less exhausted our selves by 8.30 pm having not slept much the night before. We had spent some time outside on deck on an area I termed as the ‘sun deck’ but it had no seats so sitting was a bit of an issue. We had then cobbled together two meals from the truck and our own supplies (lunch and supper). We had no way of recharging IPads so our reading was running out – so an early night was the only sensible option.

We had politely turned down the offer of bedding and I slept on top of my sleeping bag in my silk liner sack.

I opted for the upper bunk and slept well, despite a slight anxiety that if there was a heavy swell I was likely fall out of the wide open window – sorry – porthole that my bunk gave rather too easy access. There was a cooling breeze and luckily our crossing was flat calm. No lives were lost.