Across Continents

Ken's Blog

Central Asia – a postscript

July 23rd, 2010

It’d been a brief foray into Central Asia, a region, for much of its history, closed to foreigners. Azerbaijan, endemic corruption, nepotism. Across the Caspian, relatively prosperous, stable Kazakhstan, the nation others aspired to be. Probably. Kyrgyzstan. A country still trying to find its feet. Enthralled by barren steppe, imposing mountain ranges. Intrigued by politics, the recent ousting of a President, forced to flee into exile. Fascinated as to how vast oil and gas revenues had influenced things. Humbled, always, by a warm and generous people.

I’d learnt a little along the way of nearby Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Time, and to some extent restrictive visa requirements, had precluded a visit, for now at least. Quite distinct from the other Central Asian countries I’d passed through. I’d met a few Uzbeks, garnered quite a bit about their homeland, shaped as much by the Silk Roads as arbitrary Soviet era borders. But no Turkmen.

In fact, my only insight into Turkmenistan came from their TV channels I’d picked up in Kazakhstan. North Korea meets Michael Jackson’s Neverland. Lots of young children entertaining their Leader. Something of a Presidential personality cult in evidence. Seems a journalist had actually made a documentary along these lines, but it was difficult to confirm this. She’d died in prison. And no ATMs. It’d have to be worth a visit. Assuming their Secret Police don’t get to me first.

[Author’s note: Some debate as to whether Azerbaijan is in Central Asia, geographically at least. But culturally, linguistically, and ethnically, I thought so. Besides, it ends in Stan. Sort of…]

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Reflections on Azerbaijan

May 25th, 2010

“…one does not have to believe everything is true, one only has to believe it is necessary…” Franz Kafka (’The Trial’)

Corruption distorts, undermines any sense of fair play, the Rule of Law. And in a society where it’s part of the very fabric of everyday life, the consequences can be quite perverse. Embezzlement for example. You’d be forgiven for thinking going to the Police, placing your trust in the Judiciary, would be pointless. The perpetrators could simply pay off the right people, the case against them petering out. But, I learnt, you’d be wrong. Threatening to call in the Police is a powerful lever. Not because they’d be likely to arrest anyone, let alone charge them. No, because they’d demand a significant cut of the stolen funds. Justice of sorts?

Azerbaijan, it is widely acknowledged, is a very corrupt nation. And with little incentive to change. No lack of foreign investment. You might wonder why anyone would wish to invest in a country where much of your profit is likely to be skimmed off? Unless of course earnings are vast, illicit payments lost amongst them. As might be the case, say, if you had huge oil revenues. Which Azerbaijan does. The price of doing business? Not that I believe that respectable foreign companies are actually complicit in dubious or illegal practices – no one wants to loose profits, it’s just unavoidable.

What helps perpetuate corruption is, for all the mobile phones and Mercedes, the almost feudal structure of sections of society. Payments are often collected not for the pockets of those extorting them, but for their masters. If they wish to keep their job. You sense ordinary people just accept that this is how it is, shoulders shrugged, resigned to it. Most have food on the table. And they want to keep it that way. Of course, not everyone is corrupt, far from it. Problem is working out who to trust.

Family ties are an important part of life here. Nepotism? Not unique to Azeri society, I’d venture even in the UK connections can play a part in getting a job, or at least a foot in the door. But merit still counts for a lot. Not so sure here. Want a decent job? Try hard cash as well. For the employer. Not you. I’d met a graduate still doing bar work after five years, unable to buy into a job, lacking the family connections. Should you be concerned? If you live here, certainly. Imagine the unfortunate situation of, say, ending up in hospital, having to go under the knife. Picture yourself on the trolley, on your way to the operating theatre. Pondering just how the surgeon got the job. You’d be hoping it was on merit.

I’ve also sensed a lethargy amongst the older Soviet generation. Familiar with a time when the State gave you somewhere to live, a job for life. Whether you actually did anything or not really made little or no difference. Not corruption, more a bar to progress. I’d learnt of an architect who spent twenty years knitting. Mind you, quite understand not wanting to put your name to any of the hideous concrete structures that sprang up under Communism.

But what are my own experiences of corruption here? Lots of anecdotal evidence, reliable sources, but directly? A little. Surprised? No. I’m not in business here, a foreigner, a visitor to the country, passing through. The odd unexpected fee to pay. Volunteered of course, so I suppose that makes it just semi-consensual theft. Oh yes, and I haven’t driven here. Standards on the road pretty reasonable, for the most part. But seems ex-pats not so good. Get stopped an awful lot by the traffic police.

For the most part, I’ve just had to put up with incessant efforts at over-charging or vastly inflated prices. Admittedly largely confined to the centre of the Capital, Baku. I’ve seen filter coffee for about ten pounds. Corruption? No, more a distortion, people eager to exploit those they perceive to be wealthy – Western Europeans amongst others – encouraged by a good many willing to pay far over the odds for things. Some would say it’s just good business.

But for all the societal problems, ordinary people, especially in the towns and villages, in roadside cafes, have been incredibly friendly, at times with an almost a child-like innocence, inquisitive. Many individual acts of generosity, the extent unimaginable in supposedly more developed nations. Much of it against the backdrop of the Greater Caucasus Range, its snow capped peaks contrasting with the sun baked wide valley flood plains below. Would I return? Of course. A fascinating country, warm and welcoming, albeit with a society so markedly different to my own. Intriguing.

[Author’s note: This post is dedicated to Carol, fellow traveller in Tbilisi, Georgia, regrettably unable to visit Azerbaijan herself. Various independent sources rate Azerbaijan as a very corrupt nation, but they’re far from the top spot. Presumably to secure that they’d need to pay a small fee…. But, most of all, thanks to those individuals, understandably wishing to remain anonymous, who’ve been very candid about their experiences of life here]

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Playing the game

May 24th, 2010

Taking a bicycle and all your kit on an aeroplane is, at best, not the simplest of evolutions, the risk of damage ever present. And potentially quite expensive. But imagine two scenarios. At one airport that’ll be two hundred dollars for excess baggage, take it or leave it, and pot luck as to how much your bike gets thrown around by the ground handlers. And lots of pointless carriage requirements, such as having to deflate your tyres. Or remove the pedals.

At another airport, Emma is carried out to the aircraft, intact, placed in the hold, other luggage carefully packed around her. Ground crew so proud of their efforts to protect her, they insist on showing you their efforts before you board the aircraft. Even if it’s an ageing Russian built jet that looks like it belongs in a museum. And the excess baggage – most of the panniers and the bike itself – well, always scope for negotiation. Cash helps.

The first scenario could be many a First World airport. But the second? Baku’s international airport. So, it would seem, Azerbaijan is, quite unexpectedly, actually a pretty good place to fly out of with a bike. Of course, I’d been in the city for a while and had learnt something of how things work. Knew how to play the game. Like a firm and generous handshake. Mind you, still had to put the entire bicycle through the X-ray scanners. Three times. No way around that piece of fun.

[Author’s note: If you are planning to follow in my footsteps and fly with a bike from Baku to Kazakhstan, I’d be delighted to share more details – hints and tips – with you. Contact me via the website]

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Rules of the game

May 23rd, 2010

A short postscript to the recent Baku armchair adventure…

So. You’ve reached Baku and want to catch the ferry across the Caspian to Aktau in Kazakhstan. Even if you haven’t, and have no plans to do so anytime soon, you may nevertheless find the story below intriguing. If only for the insight it provides into life in Azerbaijan…

Firstly, get yourself a local SIM card for your phone. Absolutely essential. Unless you want to die of old age here. Or be deported for overstaying your visa. Truth is, and that can be a very elusive quantity around here, in either case you’ll go bankrupt first. If, like me, you no longer have a mobile, you can acquire the complete package for around twenty pounds. Go and chat to the very helpful, trustworthy staff in Baku’s Tourism Information Center. Good English to boot.

Next, visit the port and locate the ticket office. Expect a door with ’Kasse’ painted on it, nothing more. From very close – fifty metres – to the intersection of Y.Safarov Street and Nobel Avenue, head down a rough road for a couple of hundred metres, past various wrecks of buses. Some may still be in service. Find the lady who seems to be there during the week, give her your phone number, and a small fee to help with the usual administrative costs. This last bit is crucial. Otherwise see previous paragraph. Crisp US dollars work best.

Then wait. By all means take the number of the ticket office, and call them twice daily, around ten and three. Great if you speak Russian or Azeri, but just saying ’Ship Kazakhstan’ works fine, with the usual pleasantries. If you do need help with the language barrier, the Tourism Information Center can help out. You suspect they have the ticket office on speed dial.

Now the intriguing bit. You’d be forgiven for thinking that ships to Kazakhstan are pretty rare, a few times a month. No schedule, they just go when there’s sufficient cargo, often at just a few hours notice. Admittedly things may be a bit different in winter, but otherwise there seems to be rather more sailings than you’d be led to believe. I reckon there’s one every 3-4 days, weekly at worst. Maybe it’s just coincidence, but, until I’d made a small cash donation towards administrative costs, the ferries were just rumours, ghost ships. Contribution made, phone call the next day. Ship to Kazakhstan.

[Author’s note: Oddly enough, the Kazakhstan end of the operation seems to have a far better grasp of what the ferry is up to – call agents Tagu in Aktau on 3292-513989.

Self-imposed editorial rules prevent identification of the lady at the ticket office, or the size of the contribution made to cover administrative costs. However, if you are planning on catching a ferry to Kazakhstan, contact me via the website – if I’m satisfied you’re a genuine traveller I’ll normally share this information with you]

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On the couch

May 22nd, 2010

Many things in Azerbaijan had seemed strange, so suppose this wasn’t any different. I’d been staying in Baku with Brian and his daughter Savannah, expecting to sleep on the couch. But no, I’d had the master bedroom. En suite. With a sunken bath.

Savannah

An art teacher at one of the International Schools, oils were Brian’s medium. Bright, colourful paintings. Of course, being Azerbaijan, taking them out of the country required payment of a hefty fee to have them certified as not being a national treasure. Even if one was so obviously his daughter. And his signature was on the canvas. Not like you were trundling off with the Elgin Marbles in a wheelbarrow.

They’d lived in Mongolia. Surviving largely on tinned food and sheep fat, heading out in the winter in temperatures of minus thirty-five. Too cold for snow outside, inside in the stairwell the air warm and damp enough to produce a light dusting of the white stuff. Their time spent in China sounded much more appealing, fascinating anecdotes, useful insight into what I might find when I get there.

There’d be ample opportunity to discuss many issues at length. Favourite amongst them was the classification of countries. First World. Second World. Third World. Developed. Developing. Surely every nation was still developing? The British Empire used to be readily identifiable as the pink bits on a map. But what of those countries that were largely nondescript, for whom existing monikers didn’t really fit? Like Azerbaijan, suggested Brian. They were beige. Not bold, like red or black. Not especially better than any other country, nor especially worse. Neutral. Not to be meddled with, no matter how well-intentioned. They’d need to be left alone to find their own place in the world. Help offered perhaps, never imposed.

Brian and Savannah been very understanding of my own trials and tribulations, my attempts to board a ship to Kazakhstan, thwarted, it seemed, at almost every turn. And my efforts at preparing dinner. It wasn’t the food as such, more my dismantling of one of the kitchen units to unstick a drawer. Sometimes it’s best not to see what the chef’s up to.

[The author is hugely indebted to Brian and Savannah for being such generous and understanding hosts. And for quite a while. Original painting copyright Brian Hawkeswood. Image reproduced above with kind permission of the artist]

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Escape kit

May 22nd, 2010

Air ticket

Two things you need to escape from Baku. And lots of heavy duty plastic bags, parcel tape and cardboard. For Emma and the panniers.

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For a few dollars more…

May 21st, 2010

Final instalment of Baku’s armchair adventure. Hopefully….

I’d barely got the ticket in my hand when the phone rang. There was a ship. Sailing soon, exactly when no-one was quite sure, but today certainly. I wasn’t surprised. The previous day I’d returned to the port, volunteered a small fee to help cover miscellaneous expenses. Remarkable how a ferry suddenly turns up. Coincidence I’m sure. Actually, I’d discovered that there’s probably rather more ships plying the route to Kazakhstan than you might be led to believe. Try about once a week in the summer, sometimes more frequent.

But none of this mattered anymore. No longer need I dwell on the fact that offer a small fee and you find there’s a second ticket office close by. I’d found a flight from Baku to Atyrau, the Sunday afternoon slot a few dollars more than the best offer for the ferry. Arranged through a Georgian travel company, not Azeri. Emma’s not keen on flying, but I’d been assured she’d be well looked after. And this option places me at the northern tip of the Caspian, where I’d originally hoped to be. Saves me around a thousand extra kilometres, and gives me a fighting chance of cycling the vast majority of Kazakhstan and still making the Chinese border in time for my visa.

I’m a bit disappointed at not sailing across the Caspian, but the primary objective is to cycle across Asia, not indulge in a passage on the high seas. And as for the intellectual challenge of securing a ship to Kazakhstan? Box ticked the moment the phone rang.

Intrigued as to what’s actually been going on? Coming this way yourself? Then wait a few days and all will be revealed. At least, my own assessment of the situation. Reckon I’ve researched my facts pretty carefully, got a good measure of how things work here, just putting the final touches to the post…

[With considerable thanks to Aysel for doing her level best to extract information from the ferry company. Brian for being such a great sounding board and, together with his daughter Savannah, a very generous host. Paul and Hammid for help obtaining an air ticket to Atyrau. Silvana, Johan and their friends for exploring the possibility of boarding other ships. Mark and my parents back in the UK for lots of helpful suggestions. And a few other friends who prefer to remain anonymous. Solo riding, team effort]

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Groundhog Day

May 20th, 2010

Another instalment of the armchair adventure? It was beginning to feel like Groundhog Day.

They’d been a development the previous afternoon. The ship was sailing for Kazakhstan, fully laden but no passengers. Not quite sure when it was going, and the idea of a ferry so full of cargo no-one else could board seemed almost beyond comprehension. That would make it two sailings, opportunities to cross the Caspian, that had alluded me. Two weeks left on my Azerbaijan visa before I’d need to leave the country to obtain a fresh one. Probably simpler than trying to obtain an extension.

Mostly out of frustration, I’d headed down to the port in the early evening. Ticket office closed. No one around. I’d got a bit lost and found myself wandering around the docks for a while. At least gave me a chance to see what ships were actually in port. A few Iranian flagged vessels. Not very promising. But a couple of Roll-On-Roll-Off ferries at anchor in the bay, too distant to make out their names. Maybe one was mine.

I’d known the visit to the port had little prospect of achieving anything, but it had at least given me chance to think. What I needed was anything that floated, and a fair wind. Could it be that difficult? I headed back to the western suburbs where I was staying with Brian and his daughter Savannah, a few fresh ideas beginning to gel.

Bottle

Over a very welcome beer and some fine homemade curry, Brian and I discussed the situation, carefully dissected what little information there seemed to be, looking for patterns that might unlock the problem. Perhaps the apparent absence of a pattern was itself a pattern? Brian suggested that this was becoming more than just about getting to Kazakhstan. It was an intellectual challenge. He was probably right.

The next morning – Day Eight – I’d a plan of sorts. Had to do something, anything, better than just waiting, especially when the prospect of success seemed so small. I’d made a few phone calls the previous evening and was waiting to hear back, see what they yielded. Couple more to make later. In the meantime, I’d other things to do. If I knew when the ferry was returning to port, I’d at least know when to head down there and try to get onboard. By whatever, albeit legitimate, means. But first I’d need the names of the ship. Or ships. No-one seemed quite sure.

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Day Seven…. A sighting

May 18th, 2010

Armchair adventure, soap opera, simple saga, or never-ending story? You be the judge. Meanwhile, the latest instalment….

Aysel

Strong, warm, gusting winds off the Caspian, dust and debris swirling amongst the buildings. Day Seven in Baku. Good to her word, Aysel at the Tourism Information Centre called shortly after ten. There’d been a sighting. Well, seemed the ship had left Kazakhstan and was returning to Azerbaijan. Eighteen hour passage. Expected back in port tonight. Would it sail again today? Or perhaps tomorrow? Nobody knew. Not yet anyway. Aysel would check again with the shipping company that night and let me know. Nothing to do but wait. Thought I might wash my socks.

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Good news, bad news

May 17th, 2010

The armchair adventure continues….

Good news. Definitely a ship to Kazakhstan. It had sailed the previous night. Bad news? I’m still in Baku. Seems that since my unfruitful visit to the shipping company the previous morning, they’d decided to sail it after all. Aysel, the very helpful lady in the Tourism Information Centre, doubled checked. Yes. It had gone. Extremely frustrating, especially as I’ve never missed a ship, train or plane as far back as I can remember.

I needed a plan. Simply couldn’t afford, in more sense than one, to miss the next sailing, whenever that might be. An hour later I had a second hand mobile telephone, all for about twenty pounds. Whilst there was no timetable, a pattern was emerging. The ship usually arrived in the morning, sailing again in the evening, normally around six. Aysel would check at ten in the morning, and again at three, calling me the moment there was any news. And, I was assured, if anything different happened, she’d get a call from the company and would then ring me right away. I trusted her.

[Author’s note: If you are ever mad enough to contemplate doing this for real, remember two things – a mobile telephone with a local SIM card (25 Manat or about £20 – various places around 28 May Street) – and a visit to the Baku Tourism Information Center, 36, U. Gadjibekov str. Baku Az1000, Azerbaijan, (+994 12) 498 12 44 tic_baku@tourism.az. Ferry ticket is about US$60 per person, plus about the same for a bicycle]

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