The first border check point went surprisingly smoothly; smiles were exchanged, Grettle was introduced, and passports were stamped in no time at all.
The second was really rather bizarre. I was summoned over to a man, fully clad in army kit, and wearing a large rifle under his right arm. He looked unnervingly straight-faced as I ground to a halt in front of him, after which he demanded I got off Grettle, and handed her over. Not entirely sure what exactly the purpose of this particular encounter was, I was a little reluctant in handing him my baby. For all I knew, he would just hop on, and drive off! They looked a most peculiar pair, and I got out my camera, distracted him from what ever he was doing (which appeared to be absolutely nothing), and began to take snap shots. It was clear he rather fancied himself, and so titling his cap to one side, succumbing to a smile, and proudly holding Grettle by her handle bars, posed happily for the photo shoot. When satisfied with the results, he returned Grettle, said 'Welcome to Azerbaijan', and pointed me onto the next check point.
Here, it was time for me to explain my self. They found my whole story rather strange, eyeing me up suspiciously once I had finished. The fact that I had left England, and travelled on my own for two months in search of a job in Kyrgyzstan, was quite beyond them,
Meanwhile, Grettle was being inspected by several army officers. They were looking questioningly at her smashed up front. I said Istanbul, clapped my hands together, and made a large exploding noise. They seemed to get the gist, and despite the fact that I was badly hurt, found the whole thing most amusing. One of the men then pointed at Travel Frog. I squeezed him and made a 'Ribbit-Ribbit' noise, then made an explosion noise once again, demonstrating the loss of Frog's ribbit. Word was passed around about the mad English artist, the smashed up Vespa, and the ribbit-less frog, and by the time I was asked to reveal the contents of my deteriorating leather panniers, Grettle had gathered quite the crowd!
It reminded me of that fateful day in Newcastle airport, where I was asked to empty my hand luggage, and one by one, revealed all of the practical jokes mother had given me in my Christmas stocking. The water pistol had caused the suspicion as it sailed through the scanners, followed by the exploding nuts, stink bombs, whoopy cushions; the entire collection of jokes, found at Instant Redress in Bridport, it seemed. It took so long to get through security, explaining what they should and should not try to open, that I almost missed my flight.
On this occasion, it was the brass aeroplane in my toiletries bag that caused the first raised eyebrow. It is in fact a pencil sharpener, but this was proving extremely difficult to explain. I then produced the large brass frog, that I found in the Indian Himalayas two years ago; it is an ingenious padlock, but to the naked eye, or at least to the eyes of the army men, it looked most suspect indeed! Finally, I pulled out the leather scrap book from my travels on Grettle, at which point the entire army gathered around to look at my drawings, photographs, routes, and notes about the trip. They especially enjoyed the pictures of Grettle and I camping on Normandy beach, and those depicting Travel Monkey in the Alps.
Once they had had their fun, I was released from the check point, and cruised without trouble over the final gate, and into Azerbaijan at last!
I aimed to arrive in Baku that evening, where I would meet both my cousin, William, who lives and works there, and also my Uncle, who had come out for a visit, and it just so happened that we coincided.
As I was sailing happily down the highway, enjoying the good quality road surface, after the pot-hole and cow-covered Georgian roads, I noticed a police car in my wing mirror, flashing its indicator behind me. I hoped to God this was not in reference to my self, and so continued to drive. To my horror, they drove up beside me, and pulled me over. What on earth I had done, was unclear. They simply held out their hand, and said 'Money'. I Pretended at first simply not to understand, shrugging my shoulders, and playing dumb. They repeated angrily 'Money, Money' prodding my wallet, and pointing at Grettle's speedometer. The day that Grettle got done for speeding, I have to admit, I thought I would surely never see! But here we were, and there was no reasoning with these bastards. I opened my wallet, they saw a 50 Manat note, and took it. Then saw another, and took this; practically all the money I had withdrawn. I had only just been to the cash point, and had no idea what the exchange rate was, having only just arrived in Azerbaijan.
Outraged, and upset, feeling robbed, I pulled over to the next café I saw, sat down and had a beer. To my frustration, two men approached me immediately as I sat down to drink. 'We saw your bike, and followed you here' they said smiling happily. This was in every way, the last thing I wanted to hear, and desperate for some space, I told them to leave me alone, that I had just been robbed of all my money, and needed some time to relax. The man who spoke English, who's name I later learned to be Rashad, continued to talk to me, 'I am also biker, I have big bike' he said happily, as though this would change everything, and we would become best of friends. Eventually I gave up telling him to shove off, and asked him how much 100 Manat was.'100 Euros' he replied. My heart sank a little further; this was two weeks worth of money on my current budget! He asked me what it was for, and I replied that I didn't know, but that the officers had implied speeding. Laughing, he said 'This Vespa....for speeding?' Not yet finding the whole thing in the least bit amusing, I nodded, irritated by his jovial attitude.
He then told me Azerbaijan people were not like these 'Mother -fuckers' and that if I liked, we would go and find these two police men, and get my money back. I thought this whole plan highly unlikely, but deciding I had nothing to loose, went with him in a taxi to a police check point, about ten kilometres from the café. There followed many phone calls, during which they asked me to
try to describe the men. My memory appeared to have gone blank, and I could neither remember whether either had a moustache, which was apparently a key factor in the search, nor, where exactly I had been stopped. Nevertheless, the search and calls continued, and after about fifteen minutes, word was spread that the officers had been found. I was told 'These policemen have done wrong', and ushered into the kitchens where the nice woman cooked me up some lunch, and plenty of chai. Not long after this, the chief of police, handed me note by note, my 100 Manat back, I couldn’t believe it; I had been paid back! In fact, between the two of us, we even made a 50 Manat profit from the police encounter. Thewhole day was becoming quite extraordinary.
Rashad then insisted I sat and drank beers to celebrate the good news, and so my drive to Baku was rather delayed. Deciding to set off whilst the going was good, I declined his rather tempting offer, to smoke marijuana in a 2000 plus year old village, where the houses are made of bottles, and bid farewell to the nice bunch at the bar, before hitting the road once again, for Baku.
As the sun was beginning to set, I still had a good few hours of driving to go. The wind had gathered something rotten, and Grettle was being swept badly over the road, I thought it wouldn't be long until the two of us were swept over, and so in seeing two large dump trucks at a near by mechanics, I sidled in and asked the two men if the trucks were going to Baku. Eventually, after lots of miming wind, pointing at the vespa, and then at the large trucks, they understood that I wanted to hitch-hike. They also explained, through wild gesturing and body language, swirling their hands above their heads, and shouting Baku, that the wind was even worse nearer the city. A man turned up in a car a few moments later, and offered to give me the lift for 60 Manat. We communicated figures or sums, by drawing numbers in the sand. Deciding this was a little over my budget, I declined his offer, explaining as best I could, my journey, and the consequently small amount of money I had to spend. At this point, the two mechanics, who turned out to be father and son, gestured that I sleep the night there, and journey tomorrow morning when the whether would be calmer. We c
ommunicated the times of day, by cupping the sun in our hands, and either lifting them, for the sun rise, or lowering them, for the sun set. As they suggested this, they pointed at the car, presently being mended on a contraption lifting it high off the garage floor, so that it was suspended in the air. I thought they were suggesting I slept
in the car, and so nodded happily, and went to retrieve my bags. They laughed and shook their heads, saying 'Mumma, Pappa, Baby', and I soon caught on that we would be staying with the family. First however, they must finish mending the car.
I agreed, thanking them, and we left Grettle tucked up beneath the suspended car in the garage, before driving the three kilometres to the family house. After three kilometres had gone by at least eighteen times, I wondered where on earth we were going. It turned out they had decided I needed a shower, and we were on our way for 'Douche'. Two hours later, we arrived at a public shower type dungeon, where I was handed a towel and some soap, and lead into a small, dank, shower room. I had a fairly quick shower, after which, we drove the two hours back to the family house. The time it had taken these kind men to take me to the shower, we could have easily got to Baku and back twice already! They wanted no Manat for any of this, and when we arrived at the household, I was introduced to the many bambinos, sisters, brothers, parents and grand parents. It was such a large family, I found it a challenge to keep up! After some home cooked Azeri doughnuts, I was lead into my bedroom, where I shared with one of the women, and a small child, before waking early, and continuing my extremely delayed drive to Baku.
As the mechanics had told me, the weather was much calmer in the morning, and I arrived by about 9.30 am. I was soon found outside 'Megafun' by William, who tuned up in a taxi soon after I had arrived. He struggled on top of Grettle behind me, as I perched on the very edge of the seat, to try to make room, amongst the heap of bags now loaded on top of her. We found Will's flat, which lay amidst a bubble of sheik shops, high rise flats, smart hotels, and expensive, but eerily empty stores.
The European Games had commenced in Baku the previous day, and it appeared that the city had been some what glammed-up for the event. Having driven through the fabulous, almost desert-like Azeri landscape, of high golden cliffs, and baron, windy lands, it was most peculiar arriving into this bizarre little bubble of glamour and glitz.
We found D block, within the set of flats that Will is residing, and having unloaded the many bits and pieces from the bike, took the lift to the 15h floor. Here, I was shown my room, where Will had opened out the sofa bed for me, beside a little balcony, that overlooked the city. It was certainly the most deluxe place I had stayed for some time!
Will very kindly took me out for a delicious breakfast to celebrate my arrival, and we feasted on the buffet in the Marriot Hotel. A very grand place, where I must say, I looked a little under-dressed; still in my torn harems, flip-flops, and Indian head band, amidst a crowd of people, all breakfasting in their finest linens.
The day continued in a similar vein, and we went on to meet Uncle Hugh at the Hilton. My uncle was on a business trip of some kind, with Lord Risby, who I was promptly introd
uced to, after which Will had to depart, for some kind of work appointment with a client of his, and so Uncle Hugh, Lord Risby, and myself, proceeded to the roof of the Hilton, where we dined on Chinese.
Lord Risby lead most of the conversation, which revolved very much around all of the extremely wealthy people that he knew, I appear to have forgotten the names of the many lords, chancellors, advisers, deputy advisers, and highly intelligent people, that he was antiquated with, rather loosing thread of the conversation, as I caught eyes with a very handsome man sat on the opposite table.
Once Lord Risby and Uncle Hugh had finished their interviews on the roof top, I was told to stay put, in case William made it back from his meeting in time to polish off much of the Chinese that we couldn’t manage. Whilst the two of them descended to the sugar lounge,
I hopped out onto the roof top, took in the breathtaking view, and lit up a cigarette, where I was soon joined by the handsome man.
His name was Dan, and he turned out to be part of the flybe staff team. They had stopped for a few days in Baku, been treated to a room at the Hitlon, and tickets to see the games. I explained my own story, and how exactly I came to be dining with Lords, on the rooftop terrace of the Hilton Hotel, and we both found good humor our in our separate, but equally strange predicaments.
Having reunited with Will, Lord Risby, and Uncle Hugh, we set off for the Hiatt hotel, where we spent the afternoon sunbathing and discussing business. My dress so far this day had already been most inappropriate, but it was made worse by the fact that during my crash in Istanbul, my bikini, which I had tied to the outside of the bike in order for it to dry, had been shredded badly, and drenched in oil. I thought it would in fact be worse to wear this, than my clothes, so I swam in my very worn and torn denim shorts, and a bright orange boob tube, which I wore over my electric pink bra. The whole attire stuck out like a saw thumb amidst the sea of see-through gowns, Dior shades, and bling bikinis.
I had not seen Uncle Hugh for agreat many years. Embarrassingly, I fear the last encounter we had, was at the wedding of my cousin Katy, where I struggled to cope the copious amounts of champagne, passed out in an adjacent field, and woke to the sounds of a search party. It was however, lovely to see him again, as it was unnervingly like seeing my dad. The two of them shared the same peculiar habits; the awkward accent put on when ordering food from a foreigner, the kind, gentle, smiling eyes, and the need to organize the day's activity with extremely precise timings. Uncle Hugh I noticed, sat in exactly the same way as my grandmother, and so seeing him, was rather like seeing the whole family, and I was sad to bid him farewell, when he and Lord Risby departed the Hiatt hotel, to catch their flight back to the UK that evening.I had a lot of things to organize in Baku, one of which was picking up my visa for Uzbekistan, which I had applied for in Istanbul. Another was to find out how, and when, I could board a cargo ship across the Caspian sea to Kazakhstan, and the last, was to register my bike in the country. On top of all this, I had a maximum of five days within the country on my transit visa, and so not at all long to get everything done. There was no schedule for the cargo ship, it simply leaves when full, and so crossing the Caspian sea, combined with visiting Azerbaijan on a transit visa, is rather a game for the gamblers. I had hoped to have time to get Grettle serviced, buy a visa with a helmet, and fix my camera, before heading into the desert, not to mention see all the sights, and get to some of the games!Will kindly put me in touch with a friend of his called Nurana, who was a work client, and had taken it upon her self, as a favor to Will, to help me with these challenges. So on my first day there, I was whisked off by her driver, to the port, where I was to register Grettle, The following few hours were spent with many Azeri port officials shouting things at me. I, in turn, would pass them on to Nurana, who was on the phone, and she would then translate back to me, what exactly was being said. Eventually, all phones were places back upon their receivers, and the main official nodded, pointing me to the door. Hoping this meant I was now registered, I hopped back in the car with the driver, and returned to Will's flat.Due to the police encounter, the beers with Rashad, and the delayed arrival to Baku, I had sadly missed the opening party for the European games, which my Uncle and cousin had hoped I would be able to make. The British Ambassador had attended the party, and had got to hear about my adventures with Grettle through Will. The next day, the Ambassador got in touch about the trip, and as long as I was willing, wanted to write a story on the adventure, spinning in it such a way, that I had traveled all the way from London to Baku, on a Vespa, to support Britain, in the European Games. I was overjoyed by such an opportunity, so Grettle, Travel Monkey, and myself, chugged along to the Embassy, where I parked scruffily outside the smart gates. The whole thing was most amusing, and the three of us were taken to a square outside the embassy, where a woman named Gunel. a professional photographer, and myself, heaved Grettle up the steps, so that we were perched beneath a grand statue in the centre of the square. After this I was asked to scoot in circles around the square, where many families were sitting, chatting, and picnicking, watching this performance curiously, whilst the photographer took videos and several photographs.
Both Gunel, and the photographer, then began pointing at various accessories, such as Travel Monkey, the collection of various key rings attached to Grettle's start key, the leather panniers, my arm clad in bracelets and bangles, the sprawled writing over my left hand, and I, in turn, explained the meaning and purpose of each item.
They then asked me if I had had any scrapes with the police (off camera), after which, they began filming again, as I recounted my recent encounter with the Azeri police force. The photographer could not stop laughing, and was struggling hopelessly to hold the camera still, and remain silent during the anecdote. Gunel asked me if it was all right to post the video that evening, clearly a little concerned for my safety post story-release! I explained I was leaving the country and so I was happy for her to go ahead.
I missed the opportunity to speak on a local TV channel about the trip, since I had been watching the men's Water Polo all day at the European Games, and had only received the message to get to the Ambassador ASAP by about 5pm that afternoon, which was sadly a few hours too late. Although, in witnessing the video posted on the Embassy website that evening, which played the crazy frog theme tune, as Grettle whizzed about the square, intermittently interrupted by my snippets, and very edited anecdotes from myself, I felt satisfied that we had made quite enough of a fool out of our selves for one afternoon! I was happy to see that she also featured in another Embassy Website named 'Human's of Baku', most amusingly, above David Cameron's message on Ramadan! Beside this, was a paragraph or two written in Azeri, which unfortunately Google Translate is making rather a mess of, and I have been unable to translate.
I went to collect my Uzbekistan visa, where I was told I must pay for it at the international bank, and only after this, could I return to collect it. As luck had it, that day was a national holiday, and so the international bank was closed until the following day. This was all very well, but the following day, the embassy was closed, and not open again until the next. So I finally managed to pick up the visa on Wednesday morning, the day after the interviews, which was the final day of my Azeri transit visa.
When I asked at the Uzbek embassy, to make a call to the migration office for me, and ask about the cost of extending the visa, I was told, 'Extension not possible, you must leave the country today'. I explained I was waiting for the ship to leave, but this, I was told, was not solid enough grounds for an extension. I was told the fine for overstaying the visa, was a horrific 300 Manat; the equivalent of around 300 Euros. After paying this, I would be granted 48 hours to leave the country! And so I found myself in rather a sticky wicket... I had been toldby Nurana that morning that there was no ferry leaving that day, and I certainly did not have 300 manat. I began to write in my mind, a letter to the Ambassador, hoping that he might be able to help out in some way.
I was just about to write the email, when I received an emergency text message from William, telling me to 'Call immediately'. When I did so, I was passed on to Nurana, who told me to pack my bags and go to the port straight away, I could be on a ship that evening! This was altogether fantastic news, so I decided not to trouble the Ambassador, packed my bags, grabbed some cold pasta from the fridge, that I had cooked up previously, and hurried down to the garage to find Grettle.
I followed a taxi to the port, since I had forgotten where it was, and had no map of Baku. On arriving there, I walked into the place I had registered once before, tried to explain I was here to register again, to leave on the ship that day. They laughed, shook their heads, and simply said 'no'. None of them spoke a word of English so I rang Nurana from one of their cell phones, and she explained they were having lunch, and to return at 2pm. There appeared to be no food in sight, but I did as I was was told, and went to perch on Grettle to tuck in to some of my cold pasta. About ten minutes later, a woman turned up in a car, who asked me where I was going, and told me to follow her. Finding this all a bit out of the blue, since we had neither met, nor spoken before, I followed her about 30 kilometers East to a different port, where I paid for my ticket for the ship. I couldn't quite believe my luck, since if I had not met this lady, I would surely have got absolutely nowhere at the previous port, would probably have missed the ship, and have to have the paid 300 manat for overstaying my visa.
I met a nice French man also buying his ticket for the crossing, named Baptiste, and the two of us headed for the final port, about an hours dive out of Baku, where the boat was scheduled to depart....
THE CROSSING OF THE CASPIAN AND INTO THE DESERT- 1ST JULY 2015
I stocked up with a large bag of slightly soggy pistachio nuts, and two packets of cigarettes at a small market on route to the port, to prepare for the crossing.
On arriving at the passport and ticket control, the officials, who it appeared had not seen a tourist in some time, were most amused by the duo of Grettle, and Blue Flame. Blue Flame (Baptiste's bike) was massive, and appeared more massive still, due to the two spare wheels strapped to each side of it's engine, the large bags of all shapes and sizes, strung on to every spare inch of it, and the several litres of petrol, tucked inside the spare wheels, and under the outer netting. The result was really rather frightening, but when assessed next to Grettle, became in every sense, wonderfully ridiculous.
One man was fascinated by my bracelets. I reeled off a list of countries, demonstrating they had been collected over the journey. It then occurred to me that I had forgotten to pick one up from Azerbaijan. The patriotic army officer was horrified about this, and so the search began to find a bracelet before the ferry was boarded. After some time had passed, and nothing had been found, I pointed at his shoe lace, strung up to a smartly polished army boot. I think he thought I was joking, and laughed, before holding up his index finger, and disappearing into his little box once again. He soon appeared holding a pendant, with small studded diamonds placed in a circle around a large capital A, standing for Allah. Baptiste found