ABSHERON NATIONAL PARK
As expats we are looking forward to exploring both the city of Baku where we live, as well as the surrounding areas. Online we find information (in English!) about the 8 national parks in Azerbaijan. The closest one, about an hour drive from Baku, is the park on the narrow spit of land at the very end of the Absheron peninsula that juts out into the Caspian Sea.
Absheron National Park is only about an hour (driving) so 6 of us decide to make the journey there. However, we need to use public transportation - not always easy when you don't read or speak the local language. Mapping out the journey on paper seems easy - metro (subway to some of you) to a stop, local bus down the peninsula, and then hopefully a taxi from the last stop to the park.
Metro is a piece of cake - after a couple of weeks, we're old hands at this. Emerging from under the earth we find ourselves at an enormously busy intersection with busses everywhere. The stops don't seems to be labeled, how will we find number 120?? Wandering up and down the street for awhile we luck out when one of our group spots the bus way up ahead. Since the bus only runs every hour, we've made a great first connection. This is a local bus, an old one which stops NUMEROUS times along its journey. Since we were on at the beginning of the route we get seats, although in this culture the men usually give up their seats to the women, so Billy stands for a good part of the journey. While I'm sitting a woman who is standing in the aisle plunks her huge handbag in my lap - another cultural tradition - if I get to sit, then I should hold someone's bag if they are standing. No problem, but also a very trusting society as I could have easily taken things out of it.
OK, an hour goes by and we pull up to the village which is the last stop for the bus. Imagine photos of a typical middle eastern village - dry, mud brick walls, narrow streets large enough for one bus. The bus stops at an intersection in the town and we descend.
There is actually a car there with a sign that says 'taxi' on it. With lots of hand motions and single words we try to let him know that we want to go to the national park. He seems to indicate that he can't take us, he only drives around this town. There is another man there and they talk together, give us a price and he motions for us to put our backpacks into the trunk of his car. At this point we are fully expecting that 3 of us will go in his car and 3 of us in the taxi... not to be! We all wedge ourselves into this small Lata - I'm in the front seat on Billy's lap with my head touching the roof of the car, Jean is in the back seat on Tom's lap with her head crooked as she doesn't have the room to straighten it. Cynthia and Jeannette are also crammed into the small backseat. About 20 bumpy minutes later we arrive at the park and exit the car like one of the clown cars in the circus where more and more clowns continually exit one after another rubbing cramped muscles. We think we have made arrangements for him to pick us up later in the afternoon to return us to the bus station.
OK, hooray we got here! Next issue, the gate is locked and there doesn't appear to be anyone around. A man in paint smeared overalls greats us, but speaks no English. Again with hand motions we seem to think that he will call someone else to come. Yep, about 15 minutes later another man appears who speaks some basic English - yay! He asks us if we have paid for our admission and we tell him no - apparently they don't accept payment at the park, you are supposed to go to a bank in town and pay your fees ahead of time. He assures us that this won't be a problem and that we can pay our fees the following day, Monday. Hmmm... strange system, but OK with us. He does take passport details from Billy, so there is some guarantee that we will want to pay the nominal fees.
This man is the 'park ranger' in American-speak. He proceeds to give us a guided tour around the park for the next 3 hours! As we walk off the park road we warns us to be careful of poisonous snakes - yep, we all keep our eyes scanning for the creatures. The day continues as we see the terrain of sand, scrub brush, in-land wetlands where we see some birds, old Russian missile and underground constructions. It's a terrifically windy day, but even so, it's good to be out of the city and into some open spaces.
As we get ready to leave, the man who dropped us off DOES reappear and we proceed to reverse the process back to the bus, back to the city, and back to our flats. All in all a successful day of navigating in a foreign culture and getting a glimpse of the land outside the city.
Now, the next day paying for the admission proves to be another whole adventure! The park ranger had given me a piece of paper with the bank details to make the payment. I agreed to do this for all of the group, so I walk to a local bank. Strike 1 - no English and a referral to someone on the phone who tells me that I need to go to a government building to make the payment. Strike 2 at the government building - they all shake their heads and point me down the street 2 doors down which turns out to be a travel agency. The people there speak English and are really nice, a woman reads the paper and tells me to go to a bank and make the payment - circular logic here! I explain that I've tried to do this and had no luck. There is a lovely young girl in the office who volunteers to go with me to the bank. We have a nice visit on the 10 minute walk to the closest bank - in the bank there is much discussion, much examination of the paper... and basically they say that I can't make the payment without having a bank account and would I like to open one??? We try another bank and Strike 3 with the same information - I have to have an account. I give up and figure that someone at school may be able to help us out. It turns out that school is able to help us, they make the payment and deduct it from Billy's salary.
Billy writes a nice email to the park ranger thanking him for a great day and explaining the difficulties that all expats will have trying to pay the admission fees... we never got a reply.