Thank God for air conditioning!
I thought Tbilisi was hot. And it was... but I wasn't expecting the overnight train ride from Georgia to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, to be an oven on rails. If you've been following me, you know I'm not new to train travel in hot countries... China, India, to name two places where I endured long hours on hot trains. However, none of those experiences could even come close to the stifling heat on the slow-moving, ancient train from Tbilisi to Baku. When I first got on, I was already sweating just from walking from the metro station but the air in the train was so still that it felt thick. The cushions and curtains looked like they were from 1954 and the air felt like it was that old too. But I figured as soon as we started moving it would all be flushed out and circulated through the open windows. Unfortunately, there were only two windows open in the entire train car and they were in the "hallway" and not in the compartments. Plus, my compartment was in between the two open windows - as far from the fresh air as possible. Even after we started to move, I couldn't stop sweating even though I was constantly fanning myself with my Kindle cover - the only flexible fan-like object I had! I asked the conductor if there was any way to open more windows since I had noticed that other cars had more windows open but she just rudely snapped "niyeah" (Russian for no) without even looking at me.
So, I suffered through the two hours or so before we hit the border. Here we had to get off the train for a while which was better than being inside but there was no breeze so even at 7pm at night it was still extremely hot. The whole border procedure took a good two hours... I got through quite easily but a few others I met got grilled since they had Armenian stamps in their passports. "What is your purpose in Azerbaijan?" Tourism. "What was your purpose in Armenia?" Tourism. "Hmmm..." Scowl. Frown. Evil eye. And then they were allowed through. I had heard that people sometimes had trouble getting into Azerbaijan after being in Armenia (they're not friendly neighbors) but I heard it was a bit easier to go to Azerbaijan first and then to Armenia because the Armenians don't seem to care as much. That's my hope anyway!
Passports stamped, we continued plodding along at 40 km/h or so. The friendly conductor passed out sheets and pillowcases and I tried to lie down. Luckily there was only one other person in my compartment so there wasn't as much body heat as there could have been. But at some point during the night it did cool off because I woke up around 3am and actually felt the need to pull the sheet over me. Thankfully, the cooler morning air lingered inside the train until we arrived in Baku at 10am. I had met a nice Polish couple on the train and shared a cab to the old city where my hostel was meant to be.
Driving through town in a sleak Mercedes with leather interior, by far the nicest taxi I've ever been in, I could tell Baku was trying to be fancy. It's hard to tell if it really is fancy or if it's just a facade but there were beautiful tree-lined streets and nice cars everywhere. A Peace Corps volunteer had told me that some of the buildings are actually falling apart on the inside but have been covered with some kind of styrofoam facade that makes the buildings look great but if you touch them, you can tell they're not solid... I have no proof of this though. :-) It also seemed very quiet - there were not many people on the streets at all. I'm not sure if that was only due to the fact that it's so hot here or if Ramadan is also keeping folks inside. Baku seems to be a couple degrees hotter than Tbilisi but significantly drier so I don't seem to get as sweaty here.
Anyway, we found the Polish Embassy where my friends were staying (they work for the embassy in Beirut) and I asked around for the Caspian Hostel. No one had a clue so I asked for the Meridian Hotel instead as I was instructed to do when I emailed the hostel to make a reservation. That one they knew... and I was pointed around a corner. I walked for a few minutes down some nice cobblestone streets until something caused me to look down a narrow alley. Low and behold, scribbled on the wall about 50 feet down the alley, was "Caspian Hostel" in what looked like pen! I wandered down the alley and in a few meters came upon an open doorway with a paper taped to it saying "Caspian Hostel". I entered a dilapidated courtyard where I found another scribbled sign directing me to the second floor. Luckily there were some backpacker-looking types sitting outside on the balcony and they told me where to find the friendly, but non-English-speaking woman in charge. She showed me the last free bunk in the room, the bathroom and tiny kitchenette. Seemed fine to me... I'm glad I booked ahead since this is apparently the only budget accommodation in Baku (at about $22 per night)! I wouldn't call it a hostel though... seems like these people just decided to make some extra cash by using one of the rooms in their apartment for budget travelers. Somehow they ended up in the Lonely Planet and their paper sign is all they need to be booked up. :-)
I spent the rest of the day wandering the streets of old town, exploring the Caspian Sea waterfront, and searching for a bank that would give me money. I was losing hope and was about to send yet another frustrated email to my bank when the fourth ATM I tried finally worked (I have no idea why). Unfortunately, it didn't seem to be one of the more mainstream banks so I have a feeling I might end up with the same issue I had in Madagascar where there was only one ATM in the whole country that agreed to give me cash. Hmm. The other thing that this city seems to lack is supermarkets. After a few hours of wandering all I found were tiny mini markets that sold cigarettes, soda and candy. I asked a few people and kept being directed back to the minimarkets. I saw people carrying what looked like groceries but never found the elusive source. Very weird. I eventually found a guy selling some fruit but that was the best I did.
But regardless, Baku is a pretty city. It's extremely clean and very manicured - which again, looks a bit like a facade. There are a few obviously ancient looking "archeological sites" fenced off and labeled with historical info plaques but they look a bit funny being right next to posh looking hotels and cafes. Anyway, hopefully the photos will give you an idea of what the old town looked like... sort of like in Tbilisi... it's meant to be old but it looks very newly renovated. You even have to pay an entrance fee if you want to drive inside the "old" city walls. The modern skyscrapers in the background added even more to the strange old/new theme.
Feeling extremely hot after a few hours of wandering, I was delighted when I re-entered my bunk room and it was cold inside! They have AC! It hadn't been on when I arrived earlier in the day so this was a very pleasant surprise. A cold shower and some AC was a very nice end to a long and hot 24 hours. Welcome to Azerbaijan! :-)