Overnight at the Port of Azerbaijan

When I started my trip, I had no idea where Azerbaijan was on a map, let alone know that there was a ferry that takes trucks across the Caspian Sea to Kazakhstan. When you are time rich (read: fun-employed), you constantly debate between whether to spend the money to get there quicker, or take a route that is less conventional and cheaper. This was one of those times for the ladder.

When attempting to catch the ferry to Kazakhstan, you must first accept the fact that there is not timetable. The ferries travel between both ports frequently, but can often be delayed a few days due to weather or long queues at the port to dock and unload/reload. Which means that if you are passenger trying to get aboard, you will have to call the port on a daily basis to find out when it arrives. (I was fortunate enough to have my friend, Mayis, from Azerbaijan calling in the mornings for me as they only speak Azeri and Russian.)  For the many truck drivers, they have been queued up for 3-4 days waiting at the port for the next ship to be ready.

Luckily for these truck drivers, they are fully equipped with kitchen supplies, food and a place to sleep. Walking around the port, I was invited to join Murat, a Turkish truck driver who invited me to have breakfast along with some other truck drivers on the side of his big rig. It was facinating to see his system for preparing breakfast and cleanup. Everything is simple but delicious, Turkish tea, Georgian tomatoes, Azeri cucumbers and good cheese. He even offered me some homemade blueberry jam from Turkey.

Unlucky for the few passengers who want to take the ferry, there is no place to sleep. When I arrived at the port, it was 6pm and I was told the ship could be docking at any moment. The hours passed by and it was becoming more apparent that we might not get to board this night, and I had nowhere to sleep. Luckily for me, I met a nice family of 4 from the UK that was taking the same ferry across to Kazakhstan. I was invited to join them for tea in the shipping container cafe, where we waited out the long hours of the night with tea and good conversations. 

The shipping container cafe that we spent the night in
Being a full time parent and traveller is hard, I admire Antony and Georgia for taking their kids across the world!
We drank a lot of black tea that night.
Outdoor sinks along some of the shipping containers

By around 5pm the next day, we were told that the ship has been unloaded and we can proceed through border control and finally board the ship. It was a little surreal after waiting 24 hours in the port, but we wasted no time and was first in line to get onto the ship.

With the hardest part of this journey being over, we checked into our rooms and got ready to enjoy our long awaited ride across the Caspian Sea!

72 hours in Baku, Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan

With the colder weather approaching Central Europe/Asia, I was intending to visit to parts of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan before winter fully approaches. As such, I tried to pack the most I could into 72 hours in and around Baku before moving on. The three days in Baku was a mix of museum, exploring the city and getting outside of Baku to the more diverse landscapes of Azerbaijan. If you stayed only in Baku, you would think the entire country was flat and dry!

First 24 hours
After taking the night train from Tbilisi, Georgia to Baku, I checked into the SAHIL Hostel & Hotel which is centrally located near the high end shopping stores and restaurants and hit the streets. For a budget traveller, I would recommend staying here, it’s located centrally, clean and a great way to save some cash at ~$5USD a night.

Azerbaijain Carpet Museum
As boring as this place sounds, it peaked my interest as to why a country would spend time and money to create a building in the shape of a rolled up rug. The admission price at my time of visit was 7AZN, roughly $4 USD, and worth a quick stroll through to see live demonstrations of carpet making and see some carpets dating back to the 14th century.

Old Town Baku
Just a few minutes walk from the downtown area, the Old Town feels like you are stepping back in time with it’s exterior fortress and stone lined streets. Walking around the area you will find antique shops and and endless number of vendors selling sweets, teas and freshly made treats. It’s a little touristy, but a must do while you are in town.

İçərişəhər Bookhouse & Cafe

Through some of the winding streets I stumbled upon a cozy book cafe that is setup for folks to hang out, study and do some reading with tea and other snacks. I spent a few hours here catching up on a novel and trying out some of their tea and sweets. A great way to unwind after the long day walking around Baku!

Local pastries
Around the town you will find a lot of bakeries with ladies behind the counter rolling dough, and placing them into stone ovens to bake. The breads that come out of these are simply amazing and a must do while visiting any of the countries in the Caucasus. One of my favorite varieties is a bread baked with local green vegetables inside.

Day #2  – Let’s head to the Mountains
Khinaliq, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the world. The thought occurred to me, I could either spend the day exploring the natural mud volcanos or head to the mountains. I have a weak spot for mountains and joined a long day trip to one of the highest villages in Europe at 2350m/7710ft. Typically when I am backpacking I try to avoid tours, but the public transportation here would have been tricky and would leave me with little time to see other sites along the way.

Eagle Valley
One of the most surreal parts of the trip was not the final destination, about a hour from the city of Quba, called the Eagle Valley. Just a short hop out of the car and we we’re standing on a cliff overlooking a large canyon, and spotting wild eagles flying close. It was a surreal moment with the clouds rolling in from behind us and seeing the contrast from the flat and dry area of Baku.

Khinaliq Village
The journey to Kinaliq village is long, with lots of dirt roads and some moments where you feel like the car could possibly get stuck. We arrived around 1pm and was excited to be having lunch with some locals who have converted converted their home into a guest house. We were treated to a home cooked meal which included lamb plov, local sheep cheese, eggplant and a cucumber and tomato salad. The sheep cheese here was simply the best I have had, and it turns out to be made locally within the village. After lunch we were served local black tea that’s popular everywhere in Azerbaijan and candied cherries to finish off with a sugar rush.

The journey to Khinaliq was an entire day from 9am to 9pm, and I would highly recommend this as a part your itinerary in Baku.

Day #3 – Baku Runners Club & Relaxing on the shore
Any visit to a country wouldn’t be complete without a chance to meet and interact with some locals. I did a quick google search and found the Baku Runners club and headed out the door in the morning to make the 10am call time. The running group had been started by an ex-pat a few years ago, but attracts both locals and foreigners alike. The Saturday run was a 10k that follows the harbor and turns back around to finish at the Cafe where you can leave your belongings, it’s also a chance to grab a coffee and socialize.

During my run, I met Mayis from Baku, who has been part of the running club for a while and kindly offered to help me call the port to find out when the boat to Kazakhstan would be arriving in Baku. He was excited to talk about his upcoming move to Germany for his MBA! It’s interactions like these, and a chance to learn about the local culture with people that make my journey worthwhile.

I also had a chance to meet Sarah from Australia, and we connected pretty quickly on travels and learned that she had recently moved here with her husband and kids for two years, as her husband works for an oil company. She asked where I was staying and even offered me a place to crash if I was going to be in Baku for longer. It was really inspiring to meet such an welcoming and super fit young mother in just a few kilometers!

Catching a sunset on the shore
The last part of my evening was spent near the beautiful shoreline, where you find many families and teenagers walking around and enjoying the afternoon sun. Looking out over the skyline and water, it made me feel like I am in just another European city. I was a little skeptical about visiting Baku, but it’s a nice place to spend a few days during your time in the Caucasus.

Baku Pier

Night train from Tbilisi, Georgia to Baku, Azerbaijan

Overnight train to Baku

Saying goodbye to Georgia
I was in a rush from dinner, but arrived to the Tbilisi Train Station with 30 minutes to spare. My friend, Jorieke from the Netherlands, wanted to make sure I had one last big meal in Georgia before boarding the overnight train bound for Baku, Azerbaijan. The Georgian food is so filling and rich that I only brought a bottle of water with me for the journey.

Jorieke and I had spent a little over week traveling together in Georgia, from a long four day hike in Mestia we visited stayed in some villages in the mountains, we had survived a 9 hour soviet era bus that across the country and a few days in the Telavi wine region. It’s not often that I get a chance to share the road with someone for so long, and you really get a chance to connect and get to know the other person. I’m looking forward to her visiting Los Angeles someday!

Aboard the overnight train
Aboard the train, you feel like you have just stepped back in time with the long corridors and green pleather upholstery. I had purchased a second class ticket, which guarantees me a bed in a four person cabin. Luckily I was paired up with just one other, a nice older Russian lady.

The train pulled out of the station around 8:45pm and we arrived at the Georgia boarder around an hour later with a sudden stop. Aboard the train one of the Georgian officers walk room to room collecting passports and checking that everyone who needed a visa for Azerbaijan had one. The whole process took a little over 30 minutes, the train continues to move and we are handed our passports back with an exit stamp from Georgia.

Crossing the boarder
After twenty minutes we were called up room by room to walk down the hall to one of the first cabins where they have turned it into a make shift immigration office. I take a seat across from the Azeri officer who tells me to look at the camera several times. After what seemed like 10 minutes of typing and checking, he stamps my passport and says “welcome”. Later onboard another officer passes through to check everyone’s luggage, he sticks his hand in my bag, looks disappointed and moves on to the next room. Looks like we’ve officially entered into Azerbaijan!

The overnight journey
As I prepare to turn down my bed for the evening, the Russian lady saw me struggle to make my bed. She pointed out that we were all given a mat to place upon the bench to make it more comfortable. Glad she helped out, it made a big difference.

I was a little skeptical about sleeping in a train, but being 5’10” I was able to lay down comfortably and fully stretch my legs out. The train keeps rocking steadily and I find myself fast asleep by midnight.

After a restful night, the morning wake up calls start around 8:30am, the attendant knocks on everyone’s door and also asks if they would like purchase tea. It’s exciting to wake up and realize that you will shortly step foot in another country. I look the window and see the dry desert landscape in front of us, lots of small hilltops and a few small bodies of water here and there. It wasn’t until we reached out the outskirts of Baku that you see this gigantic city that seems to come out of nowhere. (Same sort of feeling you get after traveling 5 hours through the dessert from Los Angeles to Las Vegas via car.) It’s stark contrast and you soon begin to see the large skyscrapers built around the older looking city that surrounds them. Finally we arrive at the Baku station and take my first steps into Azerbaijan.

Overall the entire experience was pleasant, well rested and ready to explore the city. If I had to do it over, I would had saved a little money for the morning tea!

Departure: Tbilisi, Georgia
Arrival: Baku, Azerbaijan
Time of departure: 8:30pm*
Time of arrival: 10:00am
Cost: 52 GEL (~$21 USD)

*Time of departure will vary depending on the time of year, the trains will be scheduled accordingly. The best way to catch one is to show up at the ticket office and ask in person.

Managing a cell phone abroad

Depending on how much you are paying a month, it might make sense to ditch your cell phone plan back in the US and use pre-paid SIM cards while aborad.  Still want to hang on to your old phone number? It’s easier and quicker than you think and can save you some cash on a long trip.

Option 1: Keeping your existing US based cell phone plan

1. Upgrade to an international plan – Most of the carriers will offer an international phone plan that will allow you to receive calls, text messages and surf the web with your current cell phone setup. The drawback, however, is it can be fairly expensive – something like $10 a day – while traveling. This is most suited for shorter trips abroad.

2. Put your account on hold – If you are leaving the country for an extended period of time, many of the cell phone carriers will allow you to put your account for a small fee. For example, AT&T charges $10/month for this service. You will still be paying some a little money monthly, but this will save you from paying the entire bill while you are away. (For me this would approximately $55 a month that I would have to pay for services I don’t use). And once you are abroad, you can use local SIM cards for calling and data services, so long as your cell phone is GSM and unlocked. This option is best suited for people that would be abroad for just a month or two who wish to keep their current cell phone plan.

Option 2: Ditch your phone plan, while keep your existing phone number (optional)
If you are planning to travel for an extended period of time, you can still keep your existing phone number by moving it to Google Voice. (This is available only to mobile phone numbers in the United States). Google Voice allows  you  to make and receive calls via your old number via the Google Voice application on your phone or via a web browser. You will still receive SMS and voicemails through Google Voice as well, and can even have your voicemails automatically transcribed to e-mails. Once you are back to the US, you can have Google Voice forward phone calls to your new US based phone number and users will not know the difference.

For myself personally, I moved my number to Google Voice and plan to have been using local SIM cards as I am traveling. Here are the steps I took to accomplish this:

1. Get your phone unlocked – Check that your cell phone is unlocked, you can try it yourself by inserting a SIM card from another cell phone provider. If in doubt, give you carrier a call and check their policy for unlocking your cell phone. As for AT&T there is a simple unlock website to submit your request. AT&T Unlock

2. Move your number to Google Voice (US numbers only)- If you do not have an account already, sign up for Google Voice. Once that is setup, follow the directions on below for porting your phone number. The entire process was painless and took about 2 days to complete.  Afterward your account will automatically be closed with the carrier, I was instantly locked out of my AT&T online account the next day. Howtogeek – Port your number to Google Voice.

3. Finding the best deals on local SIM cards – There are many websites dedicated to pre paid SIM cards while abroad, but I have found this one to be particularly helpful. Prepaid SIM card Wiki

Some notes from my experience:

  • What’s App – If you already have this phone number via What’s App, there will be no changes to how you use What’s App.
  • iMessage (Apple) – iMessage will cease to work via your existing phone number. However, you can still use iMessage with all of your friends, just ensure that you have an e-mail address associated with iMessage and have your friends add that to their contact list.

Accessing money while abroad

The two most useful cards I have in my wallet at all times, the Chase Sapphire Reserve & Charles Schwab checking card

As resident of the United States, accessing cash while abroad in Europe does not need to be tricky.  Instead of bringing a lot of cash and finding a place to exchange it, I have taken the approach of only using one credit card and one debit card for my travels. These are the two of my most useful cards while traveling abroad, whether for two days or six months:

My travel Credit Card
Chase Sapphire Reserve
Why: $0 in foreign transaction fees, travelers insurance, lost/delayed baggage insurance, included car rental insurance, lounge access, global entry & pre TSA reimbursement. You will get 50,000 points for signing up which is almost a round trip flight to Europe from the US! (At the time when I signed up, I received 80,000 points)

This card has a lot of travel benefits that are included as a card holder:

  • 3 points for each dollar spent on travel & dining (restaurants, bar, airline tickets, train, etc.)
  • Access to a number of Airport lounges (Priority Pass)
  • No international fees
  • Delayed trip insurance – Provides reimbursement for expenses such as meals and lodging if your common carrier (airline, bus, cruise ship, train) travel is delayed more than 12 hours or requires an overnight stay
  • Delayed baggage insurance – If your bag is delayed while traveling (train, airplane, etc) you are reimbursed $100/day to buy clothing
  • Car rental insurance – Included anytime you rent a car with this credit card
  • Global entry & TSA Pre reimbursement ($100 value) – This means you can skip the lines at the airport
  • $300 in travel credits a year – There is a $450 annual membership fee, but if you have at least $300 in travel expenses, this will be reimbursed during your billing statement each year.

This card is particularly useful in turning your everyday spending into some serious points to be used with travel. Often times I would go to dinner with friends and they would like me pay the bill on my credit card so i could get the points. (They paid me back, of course).

Stories from the road:
○ My baggage was lost for 3 days while traveling from France to Norway, which allowed for me to spend $100/day maximum on clothing through the lost baggage insurance. Hence my new trench coat in the video below. They also they will reimburse for a 1 cell phone charger, which I learned about while on the phone with a Chase representative.

Approx. $127 USD that was reimbursed to my credit card for the baggage delay.

It was the first new piece of clothing I had purchased in over 6 months, and best of all, it was free!

○ While in Romania, I lost my credit card and was sent a replacement one in about 3 days or so. Chase is really responsive if you let them know it needs to be expedited.
○ It’s easy to drop into a lounge at the 100’s of lounges included in the Priority Pass (lounge access) You can check out a list on their website.

If you would like to apply for the Chase Sapphire Reserve, I would ask that you please do so with my referral link. Apply for the Chase Sapphire Reserve

My Travel Bank Account
Charles Schwab Checking account
Why: While traveling it’s much more convenient to pull money out of an ATM, with an added bonus of a good exchange rate from the local Banks. The best part of the card is that it will reimburse you for any ATM fees incurred. For instance, if the ATM charges a fee of $3EUR to withdraw cash, Charles Schwab will reimburse you at the end of the month.

Charles Schwab automatically credited my account $6 USD for all of my ATM fees during the month of March 2018

Tip: When choosing an ATM, rates will vary but by a small percentage. Try and go to the bigger chain banks and not a tiny 3rd party ATM)

Stories from the road:
○ Able to use this in every country so far without issues. And the ATM fee reimbursement has been great, I see a credit at the end of each month (Although I haven’t run into too many ATM’s that charge a fee)

Other tips for Credit & bank cards:
– I keep a backup credit card and debit card just in case your primary one gets lost. Depending on the country, you could get the card in as little as 2 days or 2 weeks!
– Before leaving the country, be sure to give your Bank and call and let them know your dates of travel for their fraud alert.
– Check with each of your Banks about withdrawal fees, for instance, Chase charges a fee of $5 each time you use your card abroad. So if you’re in a bind, make sure you take out a larger sum of money instead of going multiple times for smaller amounts.

Budgeting & expense tracking:

Tripcoin – iOS only (for now)
For those of you who are obsessed with metrics and being able to analyze your spending, I have been using the app TripCoin religiously for the past 7 months. The concept is simple, you enter in your daily expenses and it will provide you cool graphs of how much you have spent daily against your budget and how much you’ve spent by country.

Image provided by https://tripcoinapp.com/
Image provided by https://tripcoinapp.com/