My last impressions of Georgia were good! Not being allowed to pay for a marshutka and strange out-eyed men chasing me down village streets demanding, “Can I help you? Can I help you? What can I do for you? Food, tea, water, cha-cha? How can I help you?” But some tastes are hard to wash out of your mouth, and even the giant bag of candy foisted on me by an old babushka woman could never sweeten my feelings towards Stalin’s Georgia.
Borders don’t count for forming first impressions, because they’re always strange and seldom pleasant experiences. Hiking across the rural crossing into the world’s “Giant Funny Fur Hat Belt” meant wading my way through a sea of minor James Bond villains locked in fierce battle with the Tangerine Ladies, who were desperately swarming around trying to get me to currier big bags of tangerines to the other side.
Initial assessment of Azerbaijan was an A+++. A quickly changing and interesting landscape inhabited by quirky happy Turks. The country’s notoriously pain-in-the-ass-and-expensive visa procedures and lack of “sites” means the provinces don’t get many visitors (to put it lightly). Cars going the wrong direction were stopping take pictures and old men were flagging me down for roadside vodka-and-hardboiled-egg parties. “What is it?” everyone whispered to each other. “I don’t know, but let’s feed it tea and see what happens!” Hitchhiking wasn’t exactly a breeze, though: people were eager to help in any way possible, but they had a hard time grasping the concept. All in all, though, rural Azerbaijan made me think that poor people living in a developed infrastructure is a winning combination. The only downside was the loud raucous carryings-on of stupid jackals in an otherwise beautiful camping spot.
I formed my first impressions of Baku before ever setting eyes on it. I heard the terms, “Dubai on the Caspian,” “capital of world’s oil industry,” and “very expensive” and wrote the place off as a gaudy shit-hole. WRONG! Baku is awesome. Sure, they have a set of psychedelic skyrises which double as the world’s largest LED TV screens playing silhouettes of dudes waving around 40-story-high Azeri flags, but it also has an awesome windy cobbly old-town and, once again, very happy friendly citizenry feeding tea, opening up their houses and bending over backwards to help. And I have to admit I found it gorgeous: the exotic-tree lined pedestrian boulevards were a bit too manicured and Persian-rug-esque for my tastes, but at night the beautiful stone buildings sparkle with tasteful diamonds of light, and everywhere underfoot gorgeous intricate brickwork. I stayed with some nice expats who must have had a bad first impression, because they hated it there, but to me it was like Rome meets Disneyland except everything’s was way nicer. If this is where the entire wealth of the West is being sucked… I’m okay with that. My last impression of Baku (and Azerbaijan) was a glowing mirage fading into the watery horizon of the Caspian Sea.
The boat’s first impression of ME was highly confused. After two silly days of wandering around a dilapidated industrial port, language mishappening shenaniganing and big furry hats doing their bureaucratic thing, I was finally able to buy passage on a rail-freight ship bound for Kazakhstan. After my final hoop, the last stamp and Soviet salute, I had one final problem: I couldn’t figure out how to physically get on the boat. I stood scratching my head with a funny fur hat officer, whose entire job seemingly was to give the passengers (a total of 2) a their fifth passport check on this once-weekly crossing… and even he didn’t seem to have any clue. “Here, come with me,” he finally gestured. We took sketchy leaps from dock to dock and eventually ended up on the rail lines which were actively pushing freight into the ship’s hold. “There, just walk up in there,” he shrug-pointed. It seemed a strange way to enter a ship, but I did as instructed. Apparently, this was not the correct way to board, and I was greeted by the blankest stares I’ve ever received in my life. I tried 3 different languages and waving my ticket around to explain who I was, but all I got back was open mouths and drool. Finally some official came running up, “Whoah woah woah! What the hell are you doing here?”
48 hours later, my first impression of Kazakhstan was a couple camels loping around dusty streets…