Azerbaijan, whilst not the worst border crossing of the entire rally, it gave us a taste of international experiences to come.
Arriving at roughly midday, we were treated to an afternoon of IT glitches, a seemingly random selection of forms and expenses (covering multiple currencies, across numerous different kiosks), and a solitary gate keeper: a modern day, but somewhat inefficient, Saint Peter who was oblivious to the mayhem his almost constant cigarette breaks were having on the long queue of vehicles in front of him.
Six hours after first hitting the neutral zone we were finally at the exit to Azerbaijan, with only a single barcode-ticket barrier standing between us and freedom. However, “computer said no”, the barrier refused to open, and an unsubtle alarm notified the rest of the concourse of our non-existent indiscretion. It transpired that every car would suffer the same embarrassment, that the border authorities were well-aware of this technological foible, but had taken the “wise” decision to allow universal exit failure in order to introduce a further 30 minute checking process before issuing everyone with a get-out-of-Georgia-for-free card.
Finally liberated, we made our way to the capital city of Baku, where our ferry across the Caspian Sea awaited (or so we thought)...
Baku is an interesting place, with the narrow streets and sandstone architecture of the tiny old city surrendering its central status to the nouveau-oil-riche marble and glass skyscrapers that have become synonymous with modern-day Central Asia. The high streets had more designer labels than London Fashion week and the whole metropolis suffered from as much consumer sterility as your average privately-paid-for vasectomy (is it a pun, is it a metaphor, or is it a terrible hybrid of the two?). However, we inadvertently avoided all such luxuries (a quick local wine tasting, aside) as we found ourselves penned up in the Mongol Rally jungle camp, at Port Baku.
Now the “daily” ferry service to Turkmenbashi is a lot like Jose Mourinho’s third season at any football club... departure is inevitable, but exact timings are anyone’s guess. We arrived at port early Saturday for the imminent loading of the docked vessel (the sense of relief across the team, working to an especially tight timetable, was palpable given that the previous boat had taken the best part of a week to set sail). By midnight of the same day it became apparent that we, and the ten-or-so other Rally Teams occupying the holding-pen carpark, were going nowhere fast (despite officials’ promises to the contrary); so we all retired to our cars/hostels to fight another day.
Sunday was another early morning, largely the result of racing to the Post Office for 7am to pay a random car surcharge (the result of a scrawled bit of paper from a “helpful” Customs Official) only to collectively discover it didn’t open until 10.
A few more laborious and time-consuming steps later we were on board our vessel by mid-afternoon, ready to go, and expectantly waiting for the crew to pull anchor... which they did 5+ hours later. But oh well, I suppose it could’ve been worse, and after dark we were finally off to Turkmenistan; although the ferry ride was to prove an adventure in itself (to be continued).