We arrived at the border to Azerbaijan just before the dusk and we got in line with other dozens of cars for the customs check. In our head, the border crossing would take just one hour. One and a half tops. Reality was a little bit different and the whole thing took us almost three hours. Exiting Georgia was not a problem: quick check of passport, stamp on it and off we went. The problem rose when we arrived at the entry check of Azerbaijan and it was just our fault. We had an E-visa and we assumed that the guards would be able to find our visas on their systems. When they asked us for a printed piece of paper, we immediately realized the mistake we did. It was a painful process of chasing officials to ask for some internet connection sharing in order to seek the document on our emails and when we managed to cross the border it was already pitch dark.
Entering in Azerbaijan (finally!) we convoyed with another Mongol Rally team and we decided to wild camp together in some rural area. Houses were a few hundred meters away and we thought that it was a safe spot, so we consumed our dinners and then we laid our tents. At 2:30 am we heard a noise of cars coming and by the time we exited from our textile houses we saw about nine people coming to us. Some police men and some civilians. Even the major of the village was present. It turned out that we camped above some pipelines, not sure if it was gas or oil. Regardless of what was flowing below our asses, we had done a bad thing and we had to move away immediately. Initially we were a little bit pissed at the whole situation but everything concluded in an extremely positive way when one of the two policemen invited the 5 of us to overnight in his house. We were a bit embarrassed to accept but it was an amazing experience.
When we arrive at his home, his wife had already prepared some tea and a couple of plates filled with homemade biscuits and sweets. They set up bed for us on the floor and in the morning we were woken up by the perfume of a massive breakfast. It was an incredible first night in Azerbaijan and we were stunned by the hospitality of that simple family. In the courtyard chickens and ducks were peacefully moving around. The taste of that humble life could have moved to tears even the most cold hearted person. We left after breakfast to continue our journey to Baku, but not before thanking the family by giving them some of our gadgets: T-Shirts and shopping bags hat were clearly not enough to compensate the great help received.
We spent the next couple of days driving, stooping just for food and to take some pictures of the scenery as we were heading to Baku. Our final destination in Azerbaijan was Alat, and more precisely the port from where we had to take a ferry to cross the Caspian sea. We sorted our tickets before even visiting the city and then, since ferries in Alat do not respect any strict schedule, we headed back north to visit Baku. The old town was a little smaller than expected and like any other touristic center it was populated with street shops of any kind. Jewelry, food, textiles and handcrafted gifts could be found in every corner of the old town and for the first time from the beginning of our trip we started to feel the powerful heat of the sun above our heads. In Baku we tried some local food at a famous restaurant and we opted for a meat based dish. I have to admit that up to this point I did not pay much attention to what I put under my teeth (i just feed myself) but I will try to be more careful over the next weeks and remember at least the name of the foods we will try.
When our visit to the old town was over, we headed back to the place where we parked our car and had the unpleasant surprise of seeing the parking spot empty. As a matter of fact, it was not a parking spot, so Astropanda had been towed away and we had to take a taxi to the place where it had been taken, pay a fine of 40 Manat (about 30 USD) and drive back to Alat because our friends Volkswakhan (yes, them again) texted us saying that some officials at the port were starting to count the cars to board on the ferry, so we had to hurry up or we would lose our spot on the ship. Yet there still was another thing that we wanted to see before leaving Azerbaijan, namely the mud volcanoes just outside Alat. We took a little detour of about two hours to go see this curious natural attraction and we had even to test Astropanda’s climbing skills as these volcanoes sits on top of a hill.
One thing that surprised me about these volcanoes is that they are not hot at all. Into my head, volcano means hot stuff, but the mud ejected by the many holes on top of that hill were actually cold. I tried first by quickly tipping my fingertip in the mud and then, feeling no heat at all, I stuck my whole hand in it and realized that the temperature was all but “volcanic”. Maybe that mud is even used for some sort of beauty treatment. Now the real problem was only to clean my hand…as a kid that is not able to keep himself clean, hehehehe.
Back to Alat, we discovered that the boarding hasn’t even started yet, but we were told to wait at the port and not to leave it for any reason until the ferry was ready for the transfer. We had to wait for a total of almost 3 full days but it wasn’t that bad. Beside of our beloved fellows Volkswakhan, other teams were lined up in the waiting cue and we also met another crazy Italian (not Mongol Rally material) who was traveling from Ravenna to Japan on a motorbike. The only negative side of the wait was that we had no booze to kill the time and the little shop at the harbor wasn’t selling any alcohol. Too bad…
We finally boarded the ship on the evening of the next day and we spent the next 36 hours slowly crossing the Caspian sea, seeing nothing but water all around us, exception made for some other cargo ships that we could spot in the horizon. The bureaucracy in Aktau, Kazakhstan, was also a pain in the arse: a lot of offices and paperwork to go through before we could finally enter the country. Team Volkswakhan was just ahead of us at the last desk and we knew that they were on a hurry because of a strict time schedule. However, we were imagining a proper goodbye before we parted ways but we found that when we passed the last office, they were gone already. That was a bit upsetting but in the evening they got in contact with us and explained what happened. Anyway, it was a lame not to see the beetle for a last time. Good luck to them.
At this point, we convoyed with Ricky and we headed north towards Beyneu, where we could cross into Uzbekistan and continue our journey to Moynak, in the Aral sea, to visit the famous boats that are now lying in what once was the bottom of the giant lake. We are now in Beyneu, planning to cross the border tomorrow. We arrived here in the dark and we sought some guesthouse since it was too dark already to find a spot to wild camp. Again the luck was on our side, as we ended up entering the courtyard of a local family who offered us a spot to lay out tents for the night.