Thursday, September 26, 2013

Transportation in Azerbaijan...or how to spend a weekend pretending you are Indiana Jones

Transportation in Azerbaijan:

Azerbaijan is a small country, but roads and other infrastructure issues make transportation from one site to another quite challenging, and even from one part of town or region to another.  Of my local friends and associates, I can think of no one who owns his own car, so reliance on public transportation is the way to go.  In the town where I live, Mingachevir, walking everywhere or taking a local in-town bus is what we do.  A ride costs about $0.25.  There are also taxis, basically operated by someone who has pooled the family’s financial resources and bought a car, often a well-used Russian Lada, on the top of which is loosely placed a plastic "taxi" sign.  They line up on virtually every corner, waiting for someone who needs the $2-$5 ride from one part of town to the other, or to the beach of the Mingachevir Reservoir.  You always negotiate the price before getting into the taxi!
At the bus stop in center of town taxis wait to pick up a fare

The red and blue car are taxis, hoping to get a fare off of the marshrutka (white van)

Blue marshrutka takes passengers all over town for $0.25

Taxis wait on every street corner to pick up a fare.  Rule of thumb:  women never sit in front next to the driver!

Looking at a map of Azerbaijan, we say that the country looks a bit like the palm and fingers of your right hand, with Baku being located on the thumb sticking out into the Caspian Sea, Quba and Qusar on the first finger, Sheki, Qax, Zagatala, and Balakan on the second finger, Tovuz and Gence on the third, and everything else is in the palm of the hand or “down south.” 
Reference Map of Azerbaijan

To get from one major region to another (we say from one finger to another), one must travel first to Baku and then transfer to go elsewhere—by bus!  Only recently have there been some regional airports that have opened sporadic service to Baku, and I know of no one who uses such service—it would be cost-prohibitive for most Azeris, and Peace Corps Volunteers, for sure!  From larger towns, there may be bus service using a large, fairly comfortable and air-conditioned bus; these buses leave on a fairly regular, but rather infrequent, schedule, to Baku.  Most people, however, just show up at the local avtovagzal (bus station) and climb aboard a marshrutka (mini-bus) to where-ever they want to go.  The marshrutkas depart once they are full.  The marshrutka ride to Baku takes about 4 ½ to 5 hours, including a tea break at a local rest stop, and the driver only sells enough tickets for the number of seats.  Marshrutkas are often cramped and very well-used, with narrow, sometimes torn, seats.  If necessary, between towns and villages where the ride may only take an hour or two, people are packed in like sardines, sitting on wooden stools in the narrow aisle, or standing in crowded fashion, leaning for the sake of stability over those lucky enough to be seated.  Sharing the ride with some live chickens that a farmer’s wife wants to bring to market is not uncommon.  And these marshrutkas on local runs between neighboring towns stop to pick up passengers on the side of the road going in the same general direction; they simply flag down the marshrutka, and it always seems possible to squeeze yet one more onto the little bus.
The white marshrutka stops at a rest area to allow passengers to get some tea
at the tea house in background, with a terrace in the foreground;
the restrooms-basically ceramic or concrete holes in the ground-are at the right

Marshrutkas stop at a rest-stop to allow passengers enjoy
a tea break.  Many have hawkers selling snacks, little toys and CD's
for the continuing ride and use the restroom

Riding the marshrutkas around the country has been part of the adventure of living here.  My little granddaughter, Kaitlyn, loves the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland, and I have told her that the marshrutka rides here are a little bit like several hours-long Indy rides.  Some marshrutkas have worn-out springs and shock-absorbers, and since the country is trying to modernize its roads, there is construction on many roads, with many stretches still full of pot-holes.  Other roads get washed out on occasion and are simply roads of dirt and rocks.  But this is not the only adventure.  Sometimes fellow passengers or the bus driver want to entertain you with traditional Azeri music, and to make sure you get the full force, blast it very loudly, just like at a wedding, where traditionally the Azeri music is played so loudly, no one can carry on a conversation.  Other adventures include having a driver who loves to play “chicken” with on-coming traffic; the first time I witnessed this, and then the swerving sharply to avoid a head-on crash onto the rock-strewn shoulder, I was scared to death—now it just seems part of the “adventure ride.”  Drivers also smoke, talk on cell-phones, and sometimes argue and gesture with passengers.  No one wears a seat-belt—they don’t exist.  The rides are so bumpy, hot, and crowded that often passengers must carry plastic bags into which they can relieve themselves of their car-sickness.  I have not had that problem personally, but sitting next to one who is violently car-sick…well, not so pleasant.  And then, according to popular opinion, you can get ill from sitting in a draft, so even when the weather is 110 degrees Fahrenheit outside, most passengers would rather ride inside an oven than crack a window for some refreshing breeze.
Views inside the marshrutkas

Seats can be attractively covered--and it
hides rips and tears, too.


One adventure occurred on a ride from Baku this past summer during Ramazan (Ramadan).  A guy was squeezed into the last bench of the marshrutka, and shortly into the ride back to Mingachevir from Baku, a woman started complaining about the guy’s behavior; actually, he kept passing out and falling over on her.  The driver stopped, and removed the guy to the front seat next to himself (not all passengers agreed with this, but the driver is basically the boss of his marshrutka).  At the required rest stop, discussion took place about whether to allow the guy back on; some were laughing that the guy’s ‘travel partner’ seemed to be too much beer.  Well, he resumed the spot on the front bench of the marshrutka, next to the driver, and again he started passing out and slumping over onto the driver’s lap.  Suddenly, the driver smacked the guy, and before you knew it, blood was spewing from the guy’s mouth and nose.  The driver stopped, the guy was removed and water from a near-by swamp was hauled to pour over the guy, in an effort to sober him up and clean him up.  The temperature in the middle of the desert-stretch of dusty road was well over 100.  Some wanted to just leave the guy, but after discussion, it was decided that during Ramadan no one could leave such a man—albeit surely a sick man—stranded by the side of the road.

Some people live a great enough distance from Baku that travel to and from is best for them by night-train.  Some newer ones can be comfortable, but the old Soviet trains are not so much, with lavatories that open straight onto the tracks below, and constant jerking and lunging of the train.  However, you are given a narrow bed in a small compartment (4-6 per compartment), clean sheets, pillow and blanket.  The trains are much slower than the buses, so traveling over-night can take 9 hours to a place that by bus would be perhaps only 5 or 6 hours.

Traditional modes of transportation are also frequently noticed and a charming part of life in the regions of Azerbaijan.

Some modes of transportation also serve as a sort of market--a place to buy what you need...

What will I miss about travel in Azerbaijan?—Well, you may get a more comfortable and certainly a much more spacious seat on the likes of Southwest Airlines, but the idyllic view of flocks of sheep crossing the road and causing traffic to come to a stop or a carefully maneuvered slow-down are some of the memories that will always make me smile.
When the road clogs, cars *queue* up, Azerbaijani style
The cause of many a road clog in Azerbaijan

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