September 2017: I've taken the overnight train from Georgia to the capital: Baku. I don't have too much time to explore and understand this enigmatic country, as I have a flight in three days, so I've restricted myself to exploring Baku and the surrounding areas.


The approach to Baku is one of the ugliest stretches of land that I have ever seen in my life. It's a semi-desert waste land, and littered with all kinds of rubbish. Piles of human made ruble dot the horizon, along with the ubiquitous nodding donkey, sucking oil from the ground at an insatiable rate, and fuelling the country's new found economic boom. This place is a self styled, not without some justification, Dubai of the Caucuses. As we pull into Baku everything seems much cleaner, smarter and more modern than Georgia, but somehow lacking some of the edgy soul that Tbilisi has. The hostel is hidden in a nondescript block of flats, but inside is very spacious and modern; owned by a Canadian man who works for an oil company, and his Azeri girl friend. The people in general here are incredibly friendly, and it is a far less visited place than Georgia, most of the foreigners work for the oil companies, so the locals are usually pleased to talk to a backpacker. There is not much English spoken, but as normal for this part of the world this doesn't stop people from trying to strike up a conversation. Bread is a religion in Azerbaijan, and it’s incredibly varied and delicious, otherwise the food is a little stodgey but filling. I hung out at the hostel, there seems to be a large collection of people from different parts of the world in semi-permanent residence here, and barely leaving the hostel to see the outside world, so I share some wine with a group of them. Many Arabs are staying here, along with the ubiquitous Germans and a handful of people from the surrounding countries. Many of them are waiting here as they hassle the local embassies for the visas for their onwards trips. This is as far east as most Europeans can travel overland without a significantly painful visa application.

The old town of Baku backed by the glitzy new flame shaped skyscrapers that new found oil wealth has bought.

The next day I go on a taxi tour with one guy from Qatar and a German girl to the mud volcanoes. These are a minor local tourist draw. Set on a hill above the Caspian sea the semi-desert landscape and the seismic activity conspire to form a series of "volcanoes" that spew cold mud onto the plane below, forming a series of dry mud caked hills. This is quite a weird tourist draw, and not one of the most impressive sights that I have ever seen to be honest, but different, I'll give them that. The German girl decides that it would be a good idea to stick her foot in one of the volcanoes, she assures us that it is quite cool and safe. As she does so she slips and her entire leg disappears into the mud! upto her bottom. Me and the man from Qatar have to pull her out, and she is absolutely covered in a thick oily mud. She tries to clean herself in the nearby pool of water, but this is also oily-muddy water, so is completely ineffective in getting her clean. Unsurprisingly the taxi driver is not too pleased to see us as we return to where he left us. He puts down a towel and forces her to stay in the boot. We find a garage at the bottom of the hill, and they get out their power hose and spray off the dirt. 7 or 8 Azeri men gather to watch the spectacle of a German woman covered in mud squealing as she is broken free from her muddy encasing. No doubt this spectacle has made their day! The German girl seems completely nonplussed, and I get the impression that this slight misadventure is all too common for her. Everyone seems to be finding it amusing, and it’s all good natured. Again on the drive out of the city I can't help but notice how ugly the place is, the deserted flat lands are scarred with rusty oil wells, even the sea has a nasty oily back-wash and there is rubbish everywhere. We stop quickly for a photo of the Caspian sea as the sun is setting and return to Baku.

That evening I go for drinks with a guy from the Czech republic. There are many trendy little bars around Baku, and the city itself seems quite liberal, most people not caring too much about the fine print of rules of Islam, drinking and even sneaking the occasional sausage. Still the city doesn't really have the soul or the life of Tbilisi. Again it's time to move on, and I feel like I have learnt and experienced so little of this cryptic and unusual country. I knew next to nothing about Azerbaijan when I set off on this trip. It doesn't have the exotic allure of some of its neighbouring countries, and telling your friends that you have been here on holiday will no doubt elicit only blank stares. I got a tiny taste of this land, but I can't say I'm much the wiser to Azerbaijan. The people are friendly, the women are weirdly beautiful, the bread is very tasty, there is lots of oil, but a more in-depth understanding will have to wait for another trip, maybe I will return.

The next day I set off early and board the plane to Tashkent, the first flight that I have taken since the initial one to Estonia, a two hour flight from Baku to Tashkent, over the Caspian and the enigma of Turkmenistan, which I will have to skip. I can't imagine they see too many British passports going from Baku to Tashkent, the flight seems to be made up almost exclusively of Uzbek people, who look starkly different from their Caucasian cousins. I'm a little nervous of going into Uzbekistan, as I have absolutely no idea of what to expect from the country, some people tell me that I'll be robbed, others that the police will try to extort bribes from me at every turn, yet others tell me that I will be welcomed as a long lost friend. Let's find out ...