Welcome to Azerbaijan

Baku, this morning around the bus station, waiting for bus 85

A bus goes daily from Istanbul to Baku, it stops sometime in the afternoon on the highway around Kutaisi, at a Turkish grill. We fix the appointment by phone with the company, they will call us at the hostel from where we will have to leave. A taxi comes for us at four, it takes us to a small office in the outskirts. The Laz – a Muslim Georgian from Turkey – office manager is extremely nice. He orders a taxi, which takes us for twenty lari – about eight euros – to Zestaponi, thirty kilometers away, where the highway coming from the Turkish border through Batumi meets the Kutaisi-Tbilisi highway. At the roadside grill they serve both Georgian and Turkish food, and Turkish programs are playing on the TV hanging on the wall. Here, you can see an important function of the Turkish fast food places along the Georgian highways: they provide a continuous Turkish thread to follow for those traveling through the country. The bus arrives, with air-conditioning and wifi, the clientele is from the upper, relatively wealthy layer of Azerbaijani guest workers in Istanbul. They lunch, we leave. We stop once more, not much before the border, after the former industrial and now ghost town of Rustavi, north of the desert of David Gareja, at the Gaziantep Muslim restaurant, which is already quite similar to the roadside eating-houses in Kurdistan.

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An hour later we are at the border, above Ganja. In the modern building of the Georgian border station, just like in all the country, the stray dogs stroll about freely. The Georgian border guards look astonished at the Azerbaijani electronic visa, introduced in last year, they have never seen such a thing. They ask for help by phone, but they receive none. They ask us several times whether we are sure that we can enter Azerbaijan with this thing. If not, we are welcome for the night in the waiting room. Afterfinally rubber-stamping our passports, we then make a half-kilometer walk in no man’s land, like at the Iranian border stations, with all of our luggage. For us, this is only a backpack, but most of our fellow travelers move on as a spectacular caravan. Along the walk, some luxurious duty free shops brightly lit in the night, the Azeris standing around hasten offer us their help in buying cigarettes there, it seems that those coming home cannot do this for some reason. On the Azerbaijani border they make us unpack every bag to inspect the contents. They try to open my notebook computer, after some tries I offer my help, they are grateful for it. They ask about each electronic gadget, the external HDs, the scanner, the external DVD reader, the chargers, how they are called in English and in Russian. They find it amusing. We wait a long time in the bus – even now, as I write this – for all the passengers to pass through the customs gauntlet, and in the meantime we chat with the others. The woman with bleached-blonde hair has a textile business in Baku, she goes twice a year to Turkey to sign contracts for Italian, English, and Spanish goods, just now her elegant store is being built in the new shopping quarter of Baku. “I love our President very much”, she reveals a sincere confession. “He is so positive, so civilized. And my parents really loved his father.” When was I in Baku for the last time? “In three years Baku changed so much, you will not recognize it.” Does this mean, a thing of which I am sore afraid, that they have completely destroyed the old town? On the morrow, I will give the answer.

The waiter and a local electrician – who paid for our first breakfast – try to insert the wifi code in my notebook, in Café Baku at the central bus station. Photo by Lloyd Dunn