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Big Adventure - Week 6 Report

Batumi - Tblisi - Baku - Alat - Kuryk - Aktau - 906 miles

Our bus journey from Batumi to Tblisi was not the most comfortable - a combination of bumpy roads, knackered suspension and crazy driving. We arrived in the early evening, making our way by taxi to our so called 'apart hotel' - in my view the worst place we've stayed so far, though as far is Jefris is concerned our place in Budapest still holds that title. Any place that's tight and unpleasant to be in we call 'a dungeon of doom'. This was another one of those places that had clearly been designed to cram as many small units as possible, in this case in a two storey breeze block building - thank goodness we didn't select the 'upgrade' to a room with a balcony, which would have just meant lugging our bags upstairs to an identical unit overlooking a dingy courtyard space. First impressions last, as they say; shortly after arrival I went for a pee in our miniscule en suite and was greeted with the sight of some used men's underwear hanging on the hook in front of me. It was the least clean of any place we've stayed in, the shared kitchenette being positively grimy. Jefris was not too bothered about any of this, he was too busy freaking out about his football, which he'd accidentally left behind in the back of the taxi. He always takes a football everywhere we go, and has been collecting 'good luck' signatures from nearly every country we've visited. The helpful check in attendant (who'd been rather shamefaced when I presented him with the dirty boxers, held up between very tips of thumb and forefinger) phoned our Bolt taxi driver, who said he would drop it off next time he was in our area. Our courtyard was reached via a passage between two large buildings on a busy main street, in one of Anastasia's recommended parts of town, and we headed out to the cheaper of her two favourite restaurants in the area - a fab little place we would never have found without her help: in a half basement, staffed by a team of old aunties serving tasty home cooking. My favourite Georgian dish was a lovely dip made with aubergine and ground walnuts, and I also loved the pan fried cornbreads, according to Hagar pretty much identical to Venezuelan arepas. We were very happy with our meal, washed down with half a litre of local wine, all for about £8. When we got home, Jefris was overjoyed to see his beloved football hanging from our door handle. With flights to Azerbaijan booked for Wednesday morning, we had only a day to explore Tblisi. I had spotted a very interesting looking modernist building on our way into the city - interesting curved shapes with a vertical row of bells hanging between two tall concrete pillars on top. I found out online that this was 'The Palace of Rituals' commissioned during the soviet era as a space to celebrate weddings and funerals without religion. Of course, given my work, this interested me greatly and I was very keen to see it. Following google maps directions we caught a metro to the nearest station and made our way towards the bell towers - only to discover that the only gates towards the building were locked. There was a huge construction project underway on the adjacent plot, and the little rocky outcrop that the Palace stands on was surrounded by busy dual lane highways. It quickly became apparent that we couldn't make it to anywhere in the least bit pedestrian friendly without a long and very unpleasant walk. With no data, we couldn't call a cab either and there wasn't a cafe in sight. Eventually we passed a Hilton hotel tower block so I went in and asked to use the WiFI to call a cab, with the intention of taking the cable car up to the Fortress that overlooks the city. Unfortunately I got it mixed up with the 'aerial tramway lower station ' and so our taxi took us there, only to find it closed, again in a 'nowhere' part of town. By the time we arrived at the bottom station of the cable car we had wasted pretty much the whole morning. At the top of the cable car we were rewarded with panoramic views of the city in one direction, and in the valley below us on the other side, the botanical garden in full flush of autumnal colours. We had a pleasant walk on the cliffside park down to Sololaki, a bit of browsing at the flea market on Dry Bridge, and back for a little rest before meeting Anastasia for dinner at another favourite restaurant of hers. Thank you Anastasia for all your help, we hope to meet you again! I settled down for an earlyish night, and Jefris went to watch the late night football match with the guys in reception. Goodbye to Tblisi at 6am, and off to the airport to catch our plane to Baku. The little airport seemed to have a resident dog, cosily curled up in a corner of the pre-departures seating area. We wondered what kind of landscape we were missing on our hour long flight - what would have been a six or seven hour journey. Arriving in Baku, on the shores of the Caspian Sea, we were wowed by juxtaposition of ancient city walls, 18th and 19th century grandeur and ultra modern architecture. On our way from the airport we had passed some of the oilfields that bring the city it's great wealth. Our hotel was a very welcome contrast - we welcomed by a charming and very professional reception manager Edgar, and shown to our spotless and very comfortable room. After a shower and a rest we set out to explore the local area; surprised at the cosmpolitan buzz of the city and amazed by the opulence of the parks and gardens:even the underpass to the seafront with its escalators and brightly lit polished marble felt like the lobby of a posh conference centre. After a bit of exploring we had a delicious dinner at Edgar's recommended restaurant, washed down with pomegranite wine. The next morning our priority was to find out about the cargo ship to Kazahkstan. The ships leave from port of Alat, about 60km south of Baku, carrying containers or trucks. Our main sources of information were blogs by travellers who had done the route before us, but none that we could find since before Covid. We had the number of of the shipping company office, which Edgar kindly tried calling for us many times, without getting an answer. We had read that there was an office in Baku, where we would be able to find out about departures, and where we needed to buy our tickets. Edgar had heard of the office and told us roughly where to find it, which seemed to correspond with what we'd read on line. Google searches also indicated a location a couple of miles along the boulevard, but we couldn't find any office and non-one we spoke to in the vicinity seemed to have heard of it. I had also messaged the Azerbaijan Shipping Company (ASCO) via their facebook page, which eventually yielded a reply, with a link to live information about all their vessels, in port and at sea. We decided to head to the port first thing on Saturday, when it seemed likely that there would be two or three ships sailing from Alat to Kuryk. So, another day and a half and a couple of nights in Baku: exploring the old town, visiting the carpet museum - the whole four storey building designed to resemble a gigantic rolled up carpet, listening to the two boys playing four handed jazz songs on the outdoor piano in the philharmonic gardens, walking up the hill past the Flame Towers to Highland Park for spectacular views of the night time cityscape, the Heydar Aliyev centre - an extraordinary curved structure. two more visits working our way around the menu of the same lovely restaurant. Arriving at Alat Port, we were directed to a portacabin office to enquire about tickets. Jefris was handed a slip, directed to another small building with a bank office and told to pay our fare and come back with the receipt. We were told 'boat in afternoon'. 'Which boat?' - we rather hoped it might be the Professor Gul, which had docked at 2am, but no, we would sail on 'Azerbaijan' still on her way from Kuryk. 'You go in afternoon, 6 o clock.' A security check in followed, with a 'baggage inspection' - we were both asked to open our big bags which we duly did, the kindly official made a show of feeling around the edges and then carried my bag for me into the waiting area - a gleaming hall with a couple of hundred smart new looking airport type seats, all empty. A fellow back packer soon appeared from another door inside the hall. Reinhard from Germany introduced himself. He told us he'd arrived the previous morning and been told he would leave at midday, and then in the evening, and had since had a quite comfortable night's sleep in the adjoining room, where there were more seats and some low, massage couch type beds. 'It's not at all bad here' he told us 'I had a good meal in the little canteen last night.' And indeed it wasn't at all bad - pristinely clean, decent toilets, a water dispenser, neither hot nor cold, plenty of windows. A couple of tables with chairs. We decided to explore the canteen, with a nod from the security guards we made our way past rows of waiting trucks to the cute little trucker's canteen. The little hot food left looked a bit unappetising but there were some nice salads, and Jefris was shown to the nearby half outdoor kitchen and shown that eggs were also an option - great! So a tasty breakfast of nicely friend eggs, as ever plenty of bread for Jefris, cucumber, tomato, hot pepper and a very yummy cabbage and beetroot and carrot sauerkraut. Afterwards Jefris visited the little barber's shop in a shack next to the canteen, and had a hair, moustache, beard and eyebrow trim from the very meticulous and rather handsome barber. As he worked carefully on Jefris's facial hair I realised he was snipping out all the white hairs - leaving him looking more unfeasably young than ever. After breakfast I caught up with work and Week 5 Report - the table and chairs providing the most comfortable work space I've enjoyed since Trieste - and rewarded myself with a bit of hooping - plenty of space for that too. Around 1pm Reinhard - after his wait of thirty hours or so - was called to board the bus that would take him to his boat. He doesn't have a smart phone so he gave us his email address and we planned to get in touch in Aktau, perhaps to share a taxi to do some sightseeing in the surrounding desert - mausoleums and an underground mosque. After saying goodbye, we headed back to the little canteen, only to find that the food we'd seen being delivered earlier was finished already. We were given to understand that more would arrive at 3pm, so headed back - me for more working and hooping, Jefris for more photo and video editing and more snoozing - he really is a remarkably accomplished snoozer, capable of falling almost instantly into a deep and audible slumber pretty much anywhere. Back at the canteen, Jefris tucked into a freshly cooked lamb kebab and I enjoyed a very tasty goulash type stew. Back in the waiting area we decided to move our bags into the back room and grab a couple of the beds. An hour or two later our ticket for the Azerbaijan finally appeared - 'midnight' we were told, but we weren't holding our breath. After all the busyness of travel; packing and lugging, finding our way around in each new place, sorting out meals and laundry, planning our next moves; it was actually very welcome to have plenty of space and time with nothing to do and nowhere to go. Later in the afternoon a couple more travellers arrived, a father and nine year old daughter, on their way back to Turkmenistan from a long visit with his mother in Azerbaijan. I offered Missina my hoop to play with and opened another one so that I could teach her a few moves. We had asked earlier about dinner time at the canteen, so shortly before 7 we invited them to join us, and cheerfully wandered over, only to discover that we'd got the wrong end of the stick - 7pm was not dinner time, but closing time. Never mind. We bought a few snacks from the little shop and headed back to the departure lounge. Amongst our new friends' many bags, one large one seemed to be entirely stuffed with food, and Missina's dad insisted we accept pears, pomegranates, lemons and feijoa - an Azerbaijani fruit that look a bit like tiny limes -eaten by splitting the thickish skin and slurping out the tangy, aromatic mush inside. Jefris was also persuaded to try a couple of different kinds of cake. We shared our comparatively paltry snacks and I dug out one of the jeweller's loupes, stashed in my bag for just such an occasion as this - a little keepsake as a thank you offering. By ten o'clock I was ready to crash out for however much of the night might be left to us, though fairly confident that we'd be back to the canteen for breakfast next morning. Jefris, having snoozed so much during the day, stayed up to play dominos with our Turkmen friend. I wasn't aware when he joined me in the sleeping room, but in the small hours two more travellers peeped in. Needing to get up for a pee, I chatted for long enough to discover that they were students from France. I told them about the canteen and our wait so far, feeling rather as though I was handing on the baton from Reinhard. I also met a very friendly elderly lady, clearly local, sitting with a vast pile of bags and boxes. It was still dark when we were woken again, this time with the news that it was time to go. We assembled ourselves as quickly as we could, and with farewells to our fellow travellers, Turkmen and French, we boarded the bus together with the old lady and all her luggage, which we helped her to unload at the port exit baggage check. By the time we boarded the Azerbaijan, dawn was just beginning to break. We were shown to our cabin, stuffy but pretty spacious as cabins go, being designed for four truckers to share, and the en suite was a pleasant surprise. Looking for a way out onto deck, we met a few assorted truckers. Despite the large noticeboards we'd seen at the port, setting out the rules including a strict ban on alcohol, we were warmly greeted by a big Ukrainian trucker who was clearly in a party mood. He insisted we follow him... where?.. to his cabin, where Jefris was fairly easily persuaded to join him for a 7am shot of vodka. Our twenty two hour crossing passed fairly pleasantly: surprisingly tasty and generous meals in the ship's canteen, a bit of on deck hooping and football - Jefris was enjoying a some gentle kick ups with the kitchen boys, then one of the big truckers joined in and booted the precious football ball over a wall - fortunately not overboard, but down to the garage deck, where he was able to retrieve it from under a truck - and chats with assorted truckers from Georgia, Azerbaijan, Russia, Ukraine, and all across central Asia. Many of them, we discovered, work a round trip route; across the Caspian, up through Khazahkstan to Russia, back across to Black Sea to Romania or Bulgaria, and back via Turkey and Georgia; usually taking around a month. One group of four were driving three brand new trucks back from Holland. We slept well in our comfy bunks and were woken, again just before dawn, to prepare for disembarkation. Passports were slowly handed out as the Kazhak customs officials inspected the ship with their beautiful well trained dog. In the port of Kuryk, once again with our old lady friend and all her bags and boxes, we were directed into a minibus which drove us to passport control. We waited outside the immigration building, where we could see there was a canteen and a cash machine. When our official companion returned with our passports we asked if we could go in, but no - with google translate we were informed that someone would come to search our bags. No such person appeared as we were driving around the port, just slightly agressive offers of 'taxi taxi' for $60 - clearly a hugely inflated price, so we refused - eventually to be turfed out at the edge of the complex where the old lady had someone waiting to meet here with a minibus, and we were left to fend for ourselves. No local money, no facilities of any kind in sight, and - for only the second time on our travels - it was starting to rain. At least we now had an e sim, but no taxi app. I was furious that we hadn't been allowed to get out at immigration, where we could have had breakfast, got money and used the WiFi. Eventually Jefris found his way to a small port hotel, where one of the staff said she could order us a taxi to Aktau for $30. The driver then told us it was $40 - oh well, better than $60 at least - and thus began week 7 of our adventures, onwards into the unknown...

Lots of love to our friends and family, we love and miss you and appreciate messages from home. Hope all of you all made it safely through the storm! xxx

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