Part 1 – There
Our journey to Baku started energetically on Monday 27th May and finished, with fatigue, on Saturday 1st June. Sandwiched between the travelling was of course, a performance and result that left us inconsolable. A feeling that was well and truly placed in to perspective when we were greeted by the tragic news of Jose Antonio Reyes death upon our return to England several days later. Life always has a way of putting things in to perspective and losing a game of football, is not comparable with losing a family member or loved one. Something my editor will obviously confirm.
Whilst this is true, I will never be able to fully comprehend the apparent lack of desire and effort from our players, in a game at a venue where supporters had put in so much, just to be there to cheer them on. Although, I admittedly did not hang around long enough to witness it personally, I was later reliably informed that the majority of our players needed to be reminded to go and applaud the supporters who had made the journey, before leaving the field.
This, after a long and expensive journey, is a disgusting show of disregard towards the clubs supporters. We certainly do not want to be reading public relations statements, purportedly written by Unai Emery on his official Twitter account, telling us how proud he is of the team either. We all know that we have not had a team to be proud of for several years. None of us have any pride in watching our team being rolled over in successive cup finals and don’t ever let anyone tell you that losing a cup final doesn’t hurt because they still had a great time with the people that they went with, because believe me, it does and I left the stadium in tears, we both did.
Now that the negative aspects of the trip are out of the way, I hope to give people some inspiration by sharing the positive ones from of our trip to Baku. Experiences that, even despite the disappointment of the game itself, have left me feeling that I have grown as a person. My trip assisted me in developing more self-confidence whilst abroad and being more encouraged trying new things. It has to be said that kindness of the Georgian and Azerbaijani people, was an overwhelming and unexpected surprise and I loved every minute of being in both countries, with the obvious exception of the ninety minutes that were the reason for our journey in the first place.
As anyone who was working on a relatively limited budget to get to the final will testify, finding an affordable and practical route was a frustrating experience. However, once we had decided that we were going to Baku via Istanbul and Tbilisi, my emotional state was a combination of relief and excitement, with a small amount of apprehension. It quickly became solely the latter, once I had agreed to the suggestion of hitchhiking from Tbilisi to Baku. Having watched far too many horror films, I was started to fear for our lives and our sanity. The way it transpired, I needn’t have worried and the idea proved to be an inspired one.
Our first flight and the one that I found to be the most uncomfortable, was Stanstead to Istanbul on the Monday afternoon. I perhaps should have known it wouldn’t be a smooth flight in terms of the turbulence, after having to exchange some verbal ‘pleasantries’ with the ‘gentleman’ sitting across the aisle from me on the aeroplane, who took a bizarre exception to me moving his bag an inch or two further away from him in the luggage hold. My stubbornness ensured that I won the argument, my bag went in to the hold and thankfully, this was the only aggression that we encountered over the six days. I was also given the opportunity to smile wryly as an air hostesses came along and moved his bag. As they say, it’s the simple things in life.
After an uncomfortable three and a half hours in the air, we had safely made it to Istanbul. I have never been a fan of airports and our near four-hour wait for our next flight, this time to Tbilisi, was accompanied by sheer panic, following the realisation that we would need to make conversation with each other, in order to entertain ourselves, with there being no internet or WiFi readily available. I, of course, jest about the panic and it is easy to pass the time, when you are drinking beer with and have great company.
The flight from Istanbul to Tbilisi, was less than two hours and during this short time, we got talking to several Arsenal supporters, who were impressed by our literal interpretation of the “we’re on our way” song. We were going to Baku and at that stage; we had no firm idea of how we were getting there. Sadly, we didn’t get their names or give them ours but after seeing the joy on their faces when they saw that we had made it to the Red Lion pub in Baku, I believe that there will be further acknowledgement between us, at future Arsenal games.
However, it was after arriving in Tbilisi that our adventure really began. Following a brief pit stop, or perhaps I should say pint stop, to charge our phones, we set off. Myself, more in hope than expectation it has to be said. It wasn’t long before my mind-set started to become a more positive one after we were given a short but useful, fare free taxi ride to the main highway. Now, I should tell you that our decision to hitchhike was not one based on financial reasons. It was based on what mode of transport, from Tbilisi to Baku, we believed would give us the most unique and memorable experience and we were not disappointed.
We did not have to wait long for our second driver to pull over. His reason for stopping? He recognised us from the airport, which I naturally put down to my silly haircut! Once he learned of our intended destination, he offered to take us several kilometres to a popular petrol station, which he believed was our best hope of finding someone heading in the right direction. He was not wrong and by the time he had pulled out of the petrol station, he’d found us our next driver, one who did not speak a word of English but was still happy to help us on our way. Albeit in a car that didn’t look or sound like it should still be on the road.
Despite no words being exchanged with our driver, we were making good progress and had edged ourselves another thirty minutes closer to the Georgian boarder by the time it came for us to part ways. At this stage of our trip, it looked like our journey was shaping up to be a hitchhike relay and that we would spend the next day or two, jumping from car to car. Thankfully, our next driver was able to speak relatively good English and was more than happy to talk about Georgian history and culture. We also learned that he was married with three children and that the reason he was driving so sensibly, was because the car belonged to his wife!
We were now very much in rural Georgia and surrounded by a beautiful green backdrop. It had also become noticeable; just how many stray dogs there are in Georgia too, with the roadsides littered with them. Sadly, not all of them had successfully managed to avoid the passing traffic. Those who had, thankfully, looked to be in good health. We were dropped near a village called Kardenakhi, which was predominantly farmland but we had also noticed signs for a vineyard and were about to encounter some good fortune.
The next car to stop, yes, you’ve guessed it, happened to be the owner of said vineyard. Which was named Elizbar Talakvadze Winery and within minutes of being in his car, he had kindly offered to give us a free tour. I had never previously been to a vineyard so we happily accepted his offer. Not only did he show us around his property, he also gave us a brief but informative overview of the wine making process, in near perfect English. Our only disappointment was that we did not have time to try any wine and were unable to bring any home due to luggage restrictions.
The owner of the vineyard dropped us off on the outskirts of the town and it was here that we were soon picked up by yet another local, who, once we were seated in the back of his car, offered us some of his bread. Being one who never turns down free food, I accepted and to my surprise, the bread was still warm. He was not only offering us his food, he was offering us his freshly produced food. This however, was not his final act of kindness.
As we parted ways, we gave him one of the small gifts that we had brought with us from England with which to thank people who helped us. In his case, it was a decorative metal tin containing English tea and no, it wasn’t PG Tips! Minutes after we left his car, the driver pulled up alongside us again and summoned us back in. He had decided that he was going to take us all the way to the Georgian Lagodekhi and Balakan Azerbaijan border. A route that was out of his way and around forty minutes long, we could not believe his generosity.
After just over three hours of hitchhiking, consisting of six vehicle changes, we had finally reached the border. Going through the borders on foot was a completely new experience for us, it was surreal to be greeted by a smile, and a handshake by the soldiers stationed there. On walking through to the Azerbaijani side, one of the Azeri Border Guards met us and he has stuck in my mind because of his appearance. He was rather portly and wearing a uniform that was several sizes too small, with the buttons appearing to be on the verge of popping. He also seemed to take enjoyment from calling me Nico after looking at my passport. That is not the name in my passport but his laugh was infectious nonetheless.
We did not need to wait long for our first ride in Azerbaijan as were quickly picked up by a smartly dressed gentleman. He spoke no English but was able to read our Baku sign and drove us to a bus stop that was several kilometres from the border. Once he was out of sight and we would not be seen as being ungrateful, we continued in our quest to hitchhike the rest of the journey. Stopping briefly for something to eat in a restaurant that lured us in mainly because of the large cannon outside the front entrance. However, our dining experience was an unusual one as the waiting staff tried to take away our plates after almost every mouthful and a very vocal cat was intently watching our every move.
Less than five minutes after leaving the restaurant and thankfully without being followed by the waiters or the cat, a coach pulled over, told us that he was heading to Baku and invited us aboard. We informed the driver that we had no money for the coach and that we would continue to walk but he insisted that we got on regardless. To our surprise, there was only him and two other passengers on board, who disembarked an hour or so in to the journey, leaving just the three of us.
By this stage, I was shattered and was often drifting in and of consciousness. Every time I woke up, admittedly hoping that we were still heading in the right direction towards Baku, the faces of cows seemingly greeted me as they casually held up the traffic. I had never seen so many cows in my life and probably never will again but it is safe to say that provided you are a carnivore, you would never go hungry in Azerbaijan. If it wasn’t cows in the road, it was dogs, horses or sheep.
As we travelled through Azerbaijan, we were surprised at the number of newly built towns and the modern infrastructure. However, we were also left questioning whom these towns were being built for, as there did not seem to be many people about and many of the towns’ resembled ghost towns. When we finally reached Baku, we found out exactly where all the people were but before that and around two hours before we reached our final destination, the coach driver asked if we minded him stopping for something to eat and drink. We did not and we were eager to try some local food ourselves.
Unfortunately, I cannot remember the name of the dish we ate but it resembled a savoury pancake and there were two different types, one with meat and one without. It has to be said that the meat version was delicious, whilst the latter tasted how I would expect the contents of a lawn mower grass box to taste. We did our best to eat it regardless as it was order by a newfound friend and we did not want to be rude. As we tried to pay the bill, the coach driver was very insistent that he paid, telling us that we were his guests and he welcomed us to Azerbaijan. We genuinely could not believe his kindness, he was driving us the seven or eight hours to Baku and now, he was also buying us dinner. Unbelievable.
We arrived in Baku around seven or eight in the evening local time and we were greeted by a bustling city. A stark contrast to what we had seen elsewhere in Azerbaijan. We were delighted to have made it and thanked our driver profusely. Before we parted ways, he took us to the metro station, paid for us to get on the train and advised on us how to get to the airport, where we had arranged to meet our Airbnb host as his home and our home for two nights, was situated the other side of the airport to the city.
Having heard stories about hotels and other accommodation being cancelled by locals and resold to new guests at a higher price, we were relieved when our host showed up to pick us up. After allowing us some time to shower and freshen up, our host took us to his favourite local restaurant and asked if we minding him leaving his eighteen year old son with us so that he could hone his English skills. We agreed, his company was pleasant and the food was delicious. When our host returned to pick us up, he also picked up the bill and the cost was relatively close to what we had paid him to stay for two nights!
Our host ferried us to and from his house to the airport several times during our stay and seemed happy to come and pick us up at the times we gave him, even leaving his work mid shift to do so. What made this more surprising was that he worked as an air traffic controller at Heydar Aliyev airport, Baku’s main airport. It is perhaps no wonder that there are very few direct flights to Baku, when the air traffic controllers happily leave their posts whenever they feel like it!
On the day of the game, we met up with our friends and my dad and brother, who had all travelled different routes. It quickly became apparent that nobody else had travelled the same way that we had and everyone seemed slightly jealous of the adventure that we’d been on to get there. We all know the game did not go as planned, an understatement to say the least, which is why I wanted to write about our journey instead of the game itself. To share a positive personal experience after such a negative and disappointing one for all Arsenal supporters.
Part 2 later today 🙂