Day 55 - Fri 09 May 08
Phew! What a day. The train from Tehran arrived on time at 08:00, and the bookseller wants me to come back to his place and have breakfast, but I've decided to try an cross into Azerbaijan today if possible. So he gets his father to drop me off at the bus station. I don't even make it into the station building, the shared taxi guys pounce and for 60,000R I'm on the road to Ardabil. The countryside up here is very different to that south of Tehran. Lots of greenery and lots of cultivation. We collect a couple of people who want to travel between villages on the way. There are an amazing number of speed traps, and we see one bloke being caught twice!
My driver drops me on the edge of Ardabil and I find another taxi to get me to the shared taxi stand. That short trip costs 10,000R but I pretend I don't have much cash and hand over 7,000R why do short trips cost so much?
Play a bit of ping pong with the shared taxi drivers while we wait for other passengers. The driver is a demon at ping pong, and I'm quite relieved that a family appears quite quickly. We're all loaded into the taxi and off we go.
The landscape changes again and we're into a mountain pass that looks like the one at the start of 'The Italian Job', and the Iranian's are out in force each one of them has a picnic! There are loads of stalls selling honey on every hairpin corner. I get dropped along way from the border so it's another local taxi to the border crossing proper. I'm past caring, I just want to get across now. I change my last Iranian Rial into 20USD and 18 Manat. I have no idea if that's good or bad.
The Iranian border is a bun fight, the whole world seems to want to cross the border, and most of them appear to be bringing potatoes across the border. Almost have to fight my way into the immigration hall and hand over my passport. It's the usual batch process. Mine is the last to be handed back. I walk across no mans land which is a bridge over a river.
Immigration on the Azerbaijan side is done in a old German bus, It's divided into two parts. You climb up the entrance at the front and someone there stamps your passport, you then head to the back where someone writes your name in a book. You then dismount via the rear bus steps.
Walk through a building site and into an opening in a wall in someone's garden into Azerbaijan proper. A taxi man grabs me and we head off to Astra railway station, via another money changer - $25 gets me 20 Manat. The station is on the shores of the Caspian sea, and it has a very much 'end of the world' feel to it. There's a 16:00 train I could catch, but the 20:00 sleeper costs me 5 Manat and will save me the cost of a room in Baku. It will also arrive in Baku in daylight rather than 23:00 (which the 16:00 express does).
So I have a few hours to kill, met and chatted to a nice bloke from Pakistan with his wife and daughter who has been to Pakistan to purchase stock for his shop in Baku. He's come all the way overland.
The train is rather basic shall we say. It's the standard ex-soviet stock built in East Germany with most of the electricals smashed, but for $6 want can you expect? I have three other bunk mates, but they don't have too much English. One of them is a Tony Hawks look-a-like. They say that men don't have much to say but these guys yap from 20:00 to 23:00, and the old bloke has a very monotonous tone. There was a cow on the platform - maybe me feel like I was back in India!