When good nights go bad

Trip Start Feb 20, 2002
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Trip End Nov 18, 2002


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Flag of Azerbaijan  ,
Monday, September 16, 2002

-- When good nights go bad.

As I laid in my tiny bed, on the moored-ferry-cum-slum-hotel, a constant buzzing from blood-thirsty mosquitoes filled the air. The irritating buzz grew louder and louder as more insects streamed into the room. Seeing as my cabin window didn't shut all the way, a fleet of invaders had taken up residence in my tiny room. ... I could hear the swarm surveying their human prey above.

The ravenous bugs weren't the only noise that night. Throughout the night, tin walls shook with shouting, raucous laughing and ear pinging high-heals clanking passed on the rusting sheet metal floor outside my door. Drunks occasionally knocked violently on my door and yelled inside demanding I open it before noticing they had stumbled their way to the wrong room. The reception TV blasted Russian pop tunes so loud that I had to check to see if my ear plugs were actually in my ears and hadn't fallen out.

By 6am I hadn't managed a precious little 5 minutes of sleep when I heard, through my paper thin walls, a large Russian man burst into his room and slamming the door shut. He laughed a Vodka soaked cry and so did a second, female, voice.

"Ohh god... no more sleep for Luc" I thought realizing that he was one of the hourly customers and would keep me from getting any possible sleep.

When 9am rolled around, the noise finally faded as the boat-load of activity died down. I was tired. I ripped off my blanket and confronted the vicious squadron of 30 mosquitos buzzing over my head. They were all fat and plump from their Luc-Feast. One was spinning in circles on my night table, attempting to fly. "I think someone ate too much" I thought before swatting the bastard. The resulting goo confirmed that he'd been responsible for one, or more, or the glowing red itchy sores on my body.

My body was covered in huge itchy bites and I contorted into a violent scratching frenzy.

I stood up to inspect the damage in my cracked mirror to notice that another fleet of invaders had been munching away through the night. I had bed bugs. Tiny red spots, cluster all over my body.

AHHHhhhh!

That was it. I'd had it. No sleep, dirty, bitten to shreds and frustrated, I packed and stomped out of my room. I walked passed the Russian squad at the front, brushed off the offers for a morning quicky from the resident hookers and their respective pimps and left the floating brothel to find a new hotel.

... Azerbaijan was a lovely country but staying in the old ferry to Turkmenistan which was now a raunchy hotel on the Caspian would make for the worse night of my travels, read on!

-- Azerbaijan Assault

It was 11pm when the Azeri border police entered the cabin of my train where I had been sleeping.

The wily Azeri border police were notorious for their extortion of money from passengers crossing into the country. I opened the cabin door and saw the unsmiling foursome of cammo clad officers with wide brimmed official hats stomping in, knocking on doors to wake everyone from their beds.

As I searched for my passport, the guard who Maria had spoken with before leaving me on the train, rushed over and intercepted the group. He spoke to them in what seemed to be Russian and I handed over my passport.

The younger officer of the bunch took my passport and uttered some Russian questions to me.

"English?" I asked kindly.
"No english, please leave cabin."

The guard jumped in and pulled me out of the cabin. As I waited the 4 pulled apart my room, searching under the bed and through my bed sheets to finally turn and pull me back in.

"Sir, no problem." the police nodded to the guard and the guard smiled to me as if to say see-I-told-you-I-would-get-you-across-the-border-safely.

I stayed standing, disbelieving at the ease of the crossing procedure, and silently thanked Maria for arranging my 1st class transfer into Azerbaijan under guise of a KGB-like diplomat.

I was still standing when the police turned to me, they had already started inspecting the next room.

"Sir, please, no problem, sleep now."

I turned, locked my door and did just that.

-- Oil slick in the Caucasus

When I awoke the next morning in my cabin and looked out the window, the landscape had changed since the night before. The soil was a sandy yellow, hills spiked and rolled across each other and oil pumps dotted the vista. There were so many pumps that one would think that Azerbaijan was a mere thin crust of soil floating on a giant bubble of oil.

Azerbaijan was rich, rich with black gold. Azerbaijan was so rich in oil that in the 18th and 19th century, Azerbaijan supplied half of the world's oil! This influx of cash created countless oil barons and pumped the economy to levels far better than it's neighbor, Georgia. As we pulled into the station, I could already see, by the state of the streets, cleanliness and new buildings the result of it's now bourgeoning second oil boom.

I stepped out of the train, backpack on and daypack flung over in front, onto my chest, and walked over to a hotel which my guide book had reviewed. Walking through the streets, bundled up tightly, I was thrown stares and side glances wildly, attracting more attention than I would have liked for my first 10 minutes in a new country.

When I arrived at the port on the Caspian Sea, I spotted the hotel, The Kompas Hotel. The Kompas was once the ferry which brought passengers over the Caspian sea to Turkmenistan. The ferry, now moored on the sea port, had been converted into a cheap hotel. It seemed like a unique place to stay, so I climbed aboard, to the top deck where 5 Russian speaking men sat drinking vodka.

The rooms were cheap, 4$US in a town where budget tourism was non existent and hotel rooms range from 40$US to 200$US, a far cry from typical budget accommodations, this was a steal.

At first, everything seemed fine but when I was quoted the "hourly rate" for the rooms, I should have thought twice about staying there, I'd regret my decision to stay there the next day.

After I checked in, I walked around to inspect the communal showers and toilets. Walking around, it looked as though the floors hadn't been washed since the ship was first moored, the toilets weren't any better. A cluster of flies buzzed over a seatless toilet. A splatter of brown matter decorated the urinal walls and puddles of water gathered in all directions. The showers were "slightly" better, of course the door from the hall which lead directly to the shower didn't lock and the promised hot water was non-existent, but it could have been worse, I justified.

I only had 3 days in Baku, the Azerbaijan capital, and didn't waste any time. I picked up my day pack and launched into the streets. Baku was a town which had an undescribable spark to it. The town rested along the Caspian sea and was nestled onto a tall sweeping cliff, looking almost like a huge roman theater. I walked down the sea side boardwalk and headed for the old city. The old city, where one could walk through the city as it was hundreds of years ago, reminded me of Jerusalem with it's old crumbling doors, cobble stone streets and medieval feel. The highlight of the old city, and debatably, Baku, was the Maiden's tower, a strangely shaped thick walled tower looking over the city and dating back to 7000BC. Old... Many theories surrounded the existence of the tower but a more popular one was that it used to serve as a Zoroastrian temple. The Zoroastrian religion being an ancient pagan religion practiced in the Caucasus and Persia (Iran) and still practiced in distant, hard to reach mountain areas. The dead where said to be brought up to the top of the tower where the crows could dispose of the body, much like they still did in Tibet.

I continued on with my discovery of Baku, spending 1 hour finding the State History museum in the confusing streets. The museum was a huge anti-climax, especially after my daunting journey to find it. All signs in the museum were in Azeri and Russian, no one spoke English. To top it off, the entry was 5$US, a fortune in Azerbaijan.

I spent the rest of the hot afternoon walking through the old city and visiting mosques to finally walk back to the new city.

Confused as to how exactly to get around Azerbaijan, busses were in low supply as was tourist help, I stumbled passed the ISIC office. With Azerbaijan's complicated visa process and lack of tourist infrastructure, it was no wonder that very few foreigners made it out here. The ISIC office, which issued student cards, much like the forged one I bought in Bangkok, was a gold mine of information.

Inside, Rovshan, a friendly man, roughly my age, was more than happy to go above and beyond the call of duty to help. We planned out a day trip, via taxi, for the next day, and I took off happy to have sorted out the next day's details.

-- Night from HELL.

When I arrived back at the ferry, scantily clad women were buzzing around and the restaurant at the front of the open deck was filling up with customers. I parked myself in the corner and ordered a beer. I sat there for hours, watching the sun set. My gaze was locked on the sun but when I would casually glance around the deck, thick lip-sticked women at neighboring tables would take turns waving me over.

"English?" I would yell back, the idea of attempting conversation with a non-english speaking prostitute wasn't too appealing.

When the food arrived, the waitress asked, "What is your name?", "Luc, and you?", "Nono... not me" she replied pointing to the women at the distant tables.

I now had a pretty good idea why the rooms came in the hourly rate flavour.

I sipped a few more beers, walked down to the shoreline and called it a night. What followed was the worse night, in the worse hotel room of my entire trip.

As I laid in my tiny bed, on the moored-ferry-cum-slum-hotel, a constant buzzing from blood-thirsty mosquitoes filled the air. The irritating buzz grew louder and louder as more insects streamed into the room. Seeing as my cabin window didn't shut all the way, a fleet of invaders had taken up residence in my tiny room. "No problem" I thought and pulled a sheet over my head, to block them out. No good... The buzzing continued. I tried to shut the noise out by shoving my ear plugs deep in my ears, but still I could hear the swarm surveying their human prey above.

The ravenous bugs weren't the only noise that night. Throughout the night, the tin walls shook with shouting, raucous laughing and ear pinging high-heals clanking passed on the rusting sheet metal floor outside my door. Drunks occasionally knocked violently on my door and yelled inside demanding I open it before noticing they had stumbled their way to the wrong room. The reception TV blasted Russian pop tunes so loud that I had to check to see if my ear plugs were actually in my ears and hadn't fallen out.

By 6am I hadn't managed a precious little 5 minutes of sleep when I heard, through my paper thin walls, a large Russian man burst into his room and slamming the door shut. He laughed a Vodka soaked cry and so did a second, female, voice.

"Ohh god... no more sleep for Luc" I thought realizing that he was one of the hourly customers and would keep me from getting any possible sleep.

When 9am rolled around, the noise finally faded as the boat-load of activity died down. I was tired. I ripped off my blanket and confronted the vicious squadron of 30 mosquitos buzzing over my head. They were all fat and plump from their Luc-Feast. One was spinning in circles on my night table, attempting to fly. "I think someone ate too much" I thought before swatting the bastard. The resulting goo confirmed that he'd been responsible for one, or more, or the glowing red itchy sores on my body.

My body was covered in huge itchy bites and I contorted into a violent scratching frenzy.

I stood up to inspect the damage in my cracked mirror to notice that another fleet of invaders had been munching away through the night. I had been assault by bed bugs. Tiny red spots, clustered all over my body.

AHHHhhhh!

That was it. I'd had it. No sleep, dirty, bitten to shreds and frustrated, I packed and stomped out of my room. I walked passed the Russian squad at the front, brushed off the offers for a morning quicky from the resident hookers and their respective pimps and left the floating brothel to find a new hotel.

Scrambling through my book, I found one hotel which wasn't 200$US, a rarity in oil rich Baku. I finally ended up at the Cenub hotel. It wasn't much better, with a broken mirror, a toilet that didn't flush, a rusted faucet, no hot water, no bathroom light and a tap which fell into my hands as I attempted to turn the water on, but compared to the Kompas, and at 10$US, it was heaven.

-- "Maybe I come with you"

I washed up quickly and ran off to meet Rovshan. He'd promised to get me a taxi and tell the driver in Russian where to take me for my day trip into the outskirts of Azerbaijan.

When he drove up to the front door of the ISIC office, he pulled me into his car and offered to drive me to the bus station to find a taxi.

It was funny, the night before I had been laying on the boardwalk, watching Baku lit up in street lights, and thinking that Azerbaijan would be the only country which I had travelled in completely alone. In each country I had been in before I had always met a local or another tourist and travelled with them for a while. Soon, Azerbaijan would no longer be the only country I went solo in.

Rovshan looked tired, he'd just woken up. We chatted casually and he turned to me as we made our way to the taxis. "Hmmm, well, maybe I come with you. Is better no?"

"Yeah, sure!"

Without even having exchanged names, we were off to Western Azerbaijan for a day trip.

Rovshan was a funny guy. Full of life and swinging his hands in the air to the music as we zipped down the horribly pot holed highway to Simaxi.

"Hey Rovshan, don't you wear a seat belt?" I asked after he'd pointed out a cliff side where he'd driven off a year before, which hospitalized him for months.

"Bah! Why? If something is meant to happen, it will happen." he rationalized.

A true Azeri, to the death.

Leaving Baku was a great experience, as Azerbaijan was much different than it's oil rich capital. Ondolating yellow-grassy hills swept around us as herds of sheep and cows blocked the roads. Azerbaijan was still largely untamed.

We reached Simaxi, and ate fresh kebab on a picnic table perched on a slopping hill.

When we finished eating some Azeri delights, we headed for the old Observatory. Apparently it was the 3rd largest in the world, snuggled in a desolate forest. The old Soviet tower, gray and bubble-like was empty. We found the keeper and asked to be let in. It was obvious that he hadn't seen tourists in a while.

The giant telescope in the center of the construction was surrounded with old electronics.

"Can I take a picture?" Rovshan translated to the host for me.

"He says ok, because you are Canadian. Apparently only certain nationalities can photograph this place."

"Really? Why?"

"Well Afghanis and Chechans can't, they don't want anyone blowing the place up. But as strategic as this place might be, there are no guards, because..." He laughed "This is Azerbaijan!"

After thanking the host, we headed back to town.

Driving down the battered streets, waves of goats, cows and horses were being herded down the street parting ways to allow us to pass. Apparently, it was market day. A day when locals in the remote region of Azerbaijan gathered to sell their live-stock.

"Cool! Can we go?"

"Why not!" Rovshan announced.

We made our way to a vast field where groups of cattle were sitting, waiting for a buyer. Rovshan walked up and spoke in Russian to the locals, telling them I was a journalist and talking my way into getting some great pictures.

We ended the day by driving back to town and visiting the old Soviet-era oil field where James Bond was filmed in "The World is Not Enough".

In one day I'd seen more than I had expected of Baku and was ready to call it a night to catch up on previous sleep lost the night before.

Rovshan dropped me off at the Cenub hotel and promised to pick me up to drive me to the airport the next day for my flight to Syria.

I marched up to my room, promptly tiger balmed my rash of itching mosquito bites and passed out.

-- Luc and his stalker

When I awoke on my last day in the city, I had a short day planned out. A quick stroll along the Caspian and a visit to the Zoroastrian Fire Temple outside the city to finish the day catching my flight to Syria.

I packed up, checked out and walked out to the sea side were people were busily walking to work down the street and life began to awake in Baku.

I walked over to the waist high wall separating the park from the Caspian and looked out. Oil rigs could be seen sucking the ocean floor from it's oil in the distance and a mist danced over the water.

I did a quick shoulder check around and took out my digital camera to snap a few pictures. When I finished a few shots, I noticed that a young man had walked over, passed me from behind and when I turned, was staring at my camera. He quickly turned away. Sensing something wasn't right, I did a 180 and began to walk away from the shore and back into the city at a faster than usual pace.

When I reached about 100 meters away and turned my head to see the man following me. I stopped in my tracks and bluntly turned to face him. He was still far enough away that I imagined he had hoped to go unnoticed. I put both my hands on my hips stood and stared directly at him in an I-know-what-your-up-to gaze. He turned and kicked a few rocks attempting to look as if he was casually strolling.

I turned and continued on my way into Baku. I glanced into mirrors I passed and reflective windows to see that he was still following me. I stopped again, turned, pumped my chest and froze staring at him. Again, he casually turned and acted casual.

When I finally reached the city, amongst crowds of other honest Azeris, I was safe, but slightly adrenalized by my stalker.

-- Fire Temples in the city

The ISIC office was more than happy to call a taxi for me and to explain in Russian were I wanted to go. I was headed for the Zoroastrian Fire Temple 40 minutes outside the city.

We drove out passed old rusting oil pumps, decaying cities and barren landscapes to reach the Fire Temple. The temple was small, fortified by a surrounding stone wall which surrounded a small four pillared square temple. In the temple centered an eternal flame which was once supplied gas by a natural vent. Fire flickered at the four top corners. Although a small temple, it was the first time I'd seen a fire temple, a temple dedicated to worshiping fire, at this natural, eternal flame. I could imagine Zoroastrian priests, thousands of years before Christ, worshipping this strange fire which blazed from the ground enticing foreigners from India and beyond to worship it. The sight was also once part of the ancient Silk Road and Indian traders left their mark, praying here and even erecting the symbol of Shiva on the top of the temple.

The shear oddity of it was interesting enough to keep me staring into the fire, imagining what took place at this site, for an hour.

-- The land of corruption

On the way back to the city, my taxi driver lost his way and reached a dead end. He looked around, asked a few locals and decided it best to reverse down a one way street for 1km to meet up with the main road. Unfortunately, a police car which was stopped behind us, didn't think it such a good idea.

As we approached, the police man shouted and waved us to the side. The driver sighed and stepped out of the car. From the backseat I could only see the middle section of both men as they yelled in Russian.

Finally, knowing that he was getting nowhere, my driver removed a stack of 1000 Manat bills from his left pocket discreetly and flipped off 5 bills into his right hand.

The driver shook the police man's hand, in which I saw the 5 1000 manat bills disappear in, and the yelling stopped as the now smiling officer waved us on.

The driver jumped into his seat, turned back at me and cracked a smile. That was how it worked in Azerbaijan.

-- Bye Bye Baku

To pass the remaining hours away, I stopped in at a pirated CD store where 2 friendly sales men were more than happy to help me buy a dozen 3$ CDs, enough to replenish my stale music library and I headed for the airport.

The airport was new, big and clean. An obvious new construction built to attract foreign oil companies. I passed through the chaotic mass of politics to finally reach the customs desk.

"Hello, umm, before you stamp" I said handing him my passport.

"I only have 2 blank pages left, can you please stamp here?" I said pointing to the page with the Azeri visa on it.

He laughed and nudged his neighboring customs official "5$"

"Your kidding, common, I don't have 5 dollars" I couldn't believe that even the new airport with it's clean facade and professional looking entourage wanted a bribe.

"No, 5$ ok?"

I smiled as large as I could and cupped my hands in a praying position "Common please help, I have no money!"

After 5 minutes of the routine run around, the officer finally stamped the visa and handed me my passport. Horah!

The flight to Syria was a strange one. The plane, an old Soviet model seemed like something picked out of a trash heap. Azeris sparked up cigarettes as attendants rushed in to explain that you can't smoke on aircrafts but of course, the washroom stunk from Azeris sneaking in a few puffs. Flies buzzed in the cabin and the food was stale. In the end, we finally did reach Aleppo in one piece and I was happy to be back on the beaten path.

It was funny, I was so keen to get off the standard travellers path but now I was happy to be back on it. Everything in moderation I thought, and happily made my way passed hoards of taxi touts to my hotel.
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Comments

eurogrovers
eurogrovers on

Lucky's right!
Bedbugs, mosquitoes and stalkers!! What an adventure or was it a nightmare? Loved your story, can't wait to read more. Happy travels.

dleeak
dleeak on

Stay alert
I think that was a good way to deal with the shady character following you. I've experienced similar situations in South America. It's always a good idea to appear attentive to what's going on around you.

omz on

Your description was spot on. It should be noted that it has only been about 20 years since this country left the soviet-rule.

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