Where exactly are the boundaries of Europe? With that question, you can entertain your guests for a whole evening of barbecue, especially when serving ćevapčići and kebab.
It can’t just be the European Union, because why should San Marino, Norway and soon the United Kingdom not be part of Europe? Also, that would make Mayotte and French Guyana parts of Europe. The sea is a nice natural boundary, although Iceland wants to be European and Carthage had much more to do with Europe than the barbarian tribes of Germans. And in the east, there is no continuous sea anyway. The Ural mountains are a rather arbitrary choice. They are not even very high, are they? The Pyrenees or the Alps are higher, but nobody allows himself to be cut off from Europe by them. And then there is the silly Bosporus, not exactly a very impressive body of water, small enough to be crossed by bridges even. If rivers, then why not the Volga or the Danube, along which you can walk for days without finding a bridge? Some Greek islands are just a few kilometers off the coast of Turkey. And what about Cyprus?
As I said, the discussions will last until late at night. You may even have to get the old school atlas from the children’s bedroom.
For me, ever since I traveled through the Caucasus, it has been clear where the boundary between Europe and the Orient is situated: between Georgia and Azerbaijan, exactly on the Red Bridge. At this border crossing, locally called Krasny Most, Tsiteli Khidi or Qirmizi Körpü, all of which you have to remember because you don’t know in which language the bus driver will put the sign behind the windshield (which he might, to confuse you even more, spell Красный мост or წითელი ხიდი), you step across the threshold from one world into the other.
In Georgia, everything is calm and relaxed, but as soon as you enter into the border building on the Azerbaijani side, chaos, noise and quarrels rule. An unorganized swarm of people is pushing in front of the counters, with no specific lines attributable to either of them. In between, sacks with potatoes, bread and sunflower oil as well as two children’s bicycles are being pulled and pushed, tossed and torn. People insult each other, scream at each other and almost hit each other. The Azerbaijani border guards don’t seem to care. I speak none of the languages used in the disputes around me and hope that all involved parties recognize that I am neutral. This is how the blue helmets must feel between the frontlines.
If I don’t want to be standing in the waiting hall for anther week, I too must start to push and squeeze a bit. With my civilized queuing method, learned in Britain, I am not going to advance a single meter.
The actual immigration check is carried out rather quickly, as I had already applied for and received a visa beforehand. But right after the border, on Azerbaijani soil, the matter gets even worse.
Hordes of money changers and taxi drivers all run towards me. All of them deny that there is a bus to Ganja. The bus to Baku denies that it goes past Ganja. (Is there even any other way?)
At a small shop, two men are arguing heatedly because both claim to be the owner of the shop, asking me to pay for the bottle of Coca Cola with the one and not the other.
I know that there is a bus to Ganja. It’s Azerbaijan’s second largest city, and there are always buses. But I can’t go looking for it in peace, because four or five bearded men are constantly an inch beside my face, screaming at me in Azeri-Turkish. Just to get away from this mayhem, I finally relent and allow one of them to take me to Qazax, the next town. There, I hope to be able to organize onward travel to Ganja in a more relaxed setting.
The country road runs in a straight line for the most part. On both sides, there are hills, somewhat dry (it’s July), but golden-grey. The blue sky is interspersed with photogenic fluffy clouds. Tractors are taking home bales of hay. Field workers are riding horses to the next village bar. A flock of sheep, led by a goat, crosses the street, not at all afraid of the oncoming taxi.
It could be beautiful, if only I wasn’t sitting in the car of a liar and fraudster, who is still speaking of going all the way to Ganja, pretending not to understand me. Worst case, once we get to Qazax, I will have to jump out at a red light or subdue the driver. Worryingly though, he looks as if he is much more used to violence than me.
We pass an army truck, Soviet model, being loaded with firewood. The soldiers cut one of the trees on the side of the road for that purpose. Or maybe the wood is for a nearby furniture factory, whose name is the only remaining reference to Europe: Avropa Mebel.
As we are getting closer to Qazax, I ask the driver to drop me at the bus terminal. As one might expect, he claims that there isn’t any. That’s it. End of my patience. “Of course there is a bus terminal,” I retort with a smile of superior know-it-all. I am bluffing, but the town has around 20,000 people and it is the first larger stop after the border. There has to be a bus terminal. “I never heard of that,” the driver counters, shrugging his shoulders like a poker player who doesn’t care about your cards because, in the end, he will shoot you anyway.
I raise the stakes: “I will show you the way,” I say, as cool as if I had grown up in this small town in western Azerbaijan. From my backpack, I take out the tablet with GPS and Maps.me, adjuring that somebody has marked the bus station. Success! Not only does it show the avtovağzalı, but also the taxi as an arrow moving rapidly towards the town.
Flabbergasted and fascinated, the pirate driver can hardly take his eyes off the arrow showing our position in real time. I better put it away again. I have memorized the route. Lo and behold, the driver suddenly remembers the way to the bus station, too, where – the magic gadget has left a noticeable impression – he drops me right in front of the bus to Ganja, which he now points out with surprising helpfulness and politeness.
Unnecessarily, I have spent 10 euros for 30 km. Thrown in free of charge, I got a bad first impression of the country. There was once a James Bond film made in Azerbaijan, called “The World is not Enough”, but I already have enough of it.
No country should be judged by its cab drivers, I try to calm myself. But then, the same happens in Ganja. At the bus station far outside of the city, I am surrounded again by taxi drivers, screaming at each other. The lucky one, in whose Lada I get, doesn’t know Tabriz Street (it’s in the center), has to call the owner of the house twice and ask a passer-by for the way. Because the ride takes longer than planned (however one would plan a route to an unknown destination), he raises the fare from the agreed 10 to 20 manats (= 10 euros). If you don’t speak Turkish or Russian here, you will be fooled again and again.
Three days later, exhausted, drained and somewhat disturbed (thanks to the Aliyev family!), I return to the same border. By now, I am an expert and can ignore all providers of unnecessary transport services. All I seek is a money changer, to get rid of the remaining manats. In this particular business, competition seems to work. The exchange rate is fair.
On the Georgian side of the Red Bridge, I pick up plenty of cigars in a walkable humidor, but then, during the payment process, I am confronted with the question about the direction of my travel. As is my habit, I answer truthfully. “I am very sorry, but we are only allowed to sell the cigars when you are leaving Georgia, not when you are entering Georgia,” the young gentleman bursts my pipe and tobacco dreams. Not even pointing to my birthday melts his heart. I am genuinely back in Europe, where rules are rules.
- When traveling between Georgia and Azerbaijan, better take the train.
- And there is almost always a bus, regardless of what cab drivers say. Except in North America and in Germany, but then, there are not even enough cabs there.
- If there really shouldn’t be any bus, for example late at night, other people will be stranded too, so you can share a taxi and the expenses. I once had to do this on the border between Ecuador and Peru, ending up with petrol smugglers.
- I probably should have simply walked for a few kilometers and then tried to hitchhike. Having said that, even with hitchhiking I had a bad experience in Azerbaijan, but more about that in my report from Göygöl.