Two haircuts in 24 hours
I had the late afternoon and evening to explore Tbilisi. I could have stayed another day there and seen more but the car was parked in the street and like most big cities, Tbilisi has its share or n’er do wells.
I opted for a longish walk to visit the Sioni Cathedral, an orthodox church in the medieval part of the city. It was hot and after about 3kms I was too hot, so I flagged down a cab. One arrived almost immediately, and whilst it had a taxi sign on the roof, it was tricky to confirm it was one. The driver looked about 80 and the car, a battered old Lada Riva looked distinctly shabby. I gave my required destination and the man made the sign of the cross and nodded. He then drove rather worryingly fast through the traffic is this old nailer, continuously making the sign of the cross as he went. I’m not sure whether this was to reassure me that he hadn’t forgotten the destination, if the notion of the cathedral had thrown him into some sort of religious fever, or just that he was seeking to show Christian empathy.
The taxi stopped erm firmly, creating a cloud of dust and lots of irritated horns from cars behind. The cost (no meter) was just £2. Feeling flush, I gave him £4, said “cпасибо” and he went into another fury of signing of the cross, almost genuflecting with his appreciation.
The Cathedral was the usual impressively worked interior of Orthodox churches – lots of gilding, icons and candles. It wasn’t full of tourists – just a few really, and a visiting priest, taking pictures.
I had decided to try and find a barber somewhere in the city. I had found one earlier and enquired. It was called ‘The Good ‘ol Boy’, which I thought was pushing targeted marketing a little too far, but still. There were two youngish Hipster-ish guys in there, no customers. The rather camp manager looked at his computer screen and said that there might be a space free at 8 o clock (just an hour away). I looked pensive, took their card and said that if I’m free, I’ll pop in. With no Edwardian beard to trim, I’m not sure that were very interested in my custom.
Just around the corner from the cathedral, in the medieval quarter, the religious theme continued with a sign from a little first floor shop which read ‘The Glory’ and underneath was written ‘Hair salon’. Excellent luck, I though and climbed the iron stairs. The door was open and rather plump woman with over-bleached, slightly orange hair, greeted me. Her two (what I assumed to be) daughters, in their twenties, were putting on their make up, leaning against the mirrors. The older woman didn’t speak English but the daughter did and she agreed that they could cut my hair. It would cost 15 Lari (£5). I was happy with that and I was asked to take a seat in front of a mirror and a sort of dressing table. A gown was placed over me and that neck tape often used in Turkish barbers. We agreed on a number for the crop and this was attached to the clippers. This wasn’t the gentlest of shaves. I felt as though the woman was more used to rotovating sizeable agricultural plots in the past rather than my slightly more delicate and thinned barnet. As she was cutting or rather rotovating, the English speaking girl asked where I had come from and then mentioned that I would probably benefit from a good massage and that the two girls could offer one. In fact, she went on, “that’s what we do”. She pointed to an exterior sign, the wind had caused it to blow backwards on itself a bit. In addition to Hair Salon, it said Massage Parlour. Another girl arrived, with a local looking man in his forties, said something and disappeared. Oh dear. I think the hair salon bit was just a front for a slightly less legitimate business. These weren’t the daughters of the now named ‘Madame’ but workers. I was in a brothel. Ah well, in for a penny, in for a fiver. I explained that I had just arrived in Tbilisi and wanted to see the place. I thanked her and said I’d take an Ibuprofen instead. She laughed. The name of the place had obviously very little to do with religion.
My unusual barber experience over, I left, slightly wishing I’d gone to the ‘Good ‘ol Boy’ in the first place.
The medieval section (sort of more backpacker student quarter) was interesting in its scruffiness and peeling paint charm. I continued walking and arrived in the touristy Freedom Square, then on to find a restaurant for dinner and to the hotel for sleep. I liked Tbilisi. Worth a stopover on the way back.
I had read about very long queues at the border with Azerbaijan, often taking 4 hours or so to pass through. One was open 24 hours a day and an early morning arrival was recommended to minimise delay. So I left at 6am. The road, although very scenic, took me up and over the Tbilisi hills. There was very little traffic so I was able to crack on a bit.
When I arrived at the border, no queues were visible. The Georgia bit was very straightforward and took only about 30 minutes of paperwork and questioning. It was at the Azerbaijan side that everything seemed to slow right down. There were lots of different windows to visit and handover (usually the same) documents. I changed some money into Azeri Monat (about 2 to the Euro.). Many of the people were asleep at their desks. Photos were taken, things stamped and $20 taken for some reason or another. 3 Customs guys arrived at my car and looked in the boot. They didn’t seem terribly interested in the contents, apart from the medicines. First to come out were the epi-pens. I explained that I was allergic to wasps and, somewhat theatrically said that I would die if I didn’t have it. I offered to show them a letter from my GP. They weren’t interested. One of them pointed to his cheek and I thought he was explaining something complicated about his last wasp encounter but no, he wanted me to give him some painkillers for his toothache. Cheeky sod. At that point I really wished I had packed some laxatives. “Go on, take two. Is better for you” I could have said and spent the rest of the day imagining him crouching over the loo. Instead I found a couple of Paracetamol and handed them to him. That seemed enough. Suddenly, the search was over apart from a him pointing to the sky and saying “Drone?”. I said no but that I had a camera for taking photos. He looked at me like I was a bit loony and waved me on to the Big Iron Gate where, after further paper checking, they let you in. I was done in about 2 hours.
Azerbaijan beyond the border is like stepping back in time. Donkey or pony pulled carts seemed popular and men wearing straw cowboy hats rode about like Gouchos. On the road, this was Lada Riva (sometimes Niva) city. Some of them were in a barely functioning state – no MOT here then. Only the occasional ‘city slicker’ in a Merc wafted by, usually at great speed.
I think I’ve mentioned before that road signs, whether speed limits or solid lines have been largely ignored since Turkey and Georgia, and Azerbaijan proved just the same. This can be a bit frustrating as you try to avoid breaking the speed limit and getting pulled in or sit behind slow traffic for miles, unable to overtake on the very long sections of solid line. In one such long section, I was behind a very old and huge ex-soviet truck, which was spewing vast amounts of black soot from its exhaust in front of me. I had to endure the ignominy of being constantly overtaken by barely functioning Rivas! The road began a long incline. The truck slowed even more. I nipped out and saw it was a very long stretch ahead, entire clear of traffic. I decided to overtake. Just as I had passed the truck, I saw the unmistakable striped police car ahead of me. No worry, I thought, loads of other cars do it, I’ll be fine. Nope, those other Ladas don’t have ‘Kerrching, free money’ stamped on their number plate.
Lots of sirens and flashing lights later, I was in the layby. Three burly Policemen were in the BMW (obviously the pride of the force, given the state of most of the fleet I’d seen). I was invited to get out of my car ad sit in theirs. The guy in the back (so big how he managed a shift there, I’ll never know), smiled and stretched out his hand for a handshake. He said welcome to Azerbaijan and made fishing rod reel gestures to indicate they had just caught a tasty fish. I offered my wrists together, ready for the cuffs (as a friendly gesture, and they all laughed). Then one of them called the ‘Kommandant’ who spoke a little English and explained to me that it was illegal to drive over a solid line. I tried the “Yes, I know, I want to respect Azerbaijan laws but everybody seemed to be doing it” line but obviously that got nowhere. I was beginning to realise this was not a question of incarceration but of cash. The Kommandant (were I referred to the others as ‘Big Boss’) told me that I must remain with them overnight and then get a Post Office to exchange money to pay the fine. The fine was 300 Manat (about €150). “Oh dear”, I said. I started counting out my money and showing rather too many Turkish Lira in my wallet (of no interest to them at all). But I did have 170 Manat. I didn’t want to declare I had US$ too, obviously. There was much discussion and then the Policeman said, “OK, we will take 170 Manat and you can go now”. Phew. There was of course no paperwork to provide by way of receipt etc. I just put the notes on the dashboard and got out of the car. I wished them “Bon Appetit” as a sardonic comment on the likely beneficiary of the money. One of them, The Silent One, plainly knew what I meant and translated to his colleagues, who fell about a bit. Back in the car, the first thing I did was to leave only a small amount of cash in my wallet (“It’s all I have officer” and hid other currencies. I drove like a very compliant soul the remaining 5 hours to Baku. There were Police stops every 30 miles or so. I tried to tuck behind a truck or coach so they were less tempted. I’d had two haircuts in 24 hours!
I managed to get some money from an ATM a few hours after haircut No2 so at least I had some money to buy snacks for the journey.
I’m now in Baku. Judging by the major contrast between the provinces and the capital, distribution of wealth doesn’t happen often, or much. It’s large, with more iconic skyscrapers.
Finding a ferry to Turkmenistan is far from simple. There is no fixed sailing schedule. There’s the language issue and there are two ports. Most sailings go from so-called Baku port in Alat, some 70kms south of the City. They are developing the old port into a fancy waterside venue so the boats have to move on. But some ferries do still go from Baku.
These are the slightly premium priced Turmenistan owned, fast ships The others South, are effectively cargo ships that take the odd car and passenger. Facilities are not great onboard and they have a slightly dodgy safety record. Finding out what the schedule might be requires an internet connection and looking at long range radar maps, looking for ships due in and racing to the port to be there.
If I’m lucky today and find a ship, I will be out of communication for probably two days. If not, I’ll be back in my Baku hotel. The ports can be very busy. It is not unheard of for people to have to stay on board 4 days while a quay is cleared. And it can take over 7 hours boarding and another 7 disembarking. Although I'm told they feed you, I need some water and supplies. Wish me luck.