Final Day 14 – Prague to St. Gallen, Switzerland via Austria

And finally we made it to the final day to drive from Prague to St. Gallen to complete the drive to Switzerland. It was a beautiful day with light drizzle keeping the car engine cool to cruise across the Europe.
The day was full of drive which was very interesting specially driving on Autobahns in Germany, the best roads on our route yet. this helped us cover the distance in time, and we reached the Germany – Austria Border where we had to buy Toll Road sticker for Austria and Switzerland both.

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Crossing a small patch of Austria around the lake we entered Switzerland to mark the completion of our Stage 1.

We completed our first overland journey and more has to come our way which we plan to make better, more joyous and adventurous.

18Hasta La Vista !!

Day 13 – Warsaw to Prague

Warsaw amazed us with its beautiful and well lit city at night. We started off early as we knew that the route is going to be 700 kms long. We found a restaurant near Novotel called Egipt which compelled us to get some Kocheri and Shawarma for the breakfast. A stop later we got the car fuelled as the last fill from Russia is about to finish and had our packed breakfast. Continued driving until after noon and resumed after another break. It was almost half way covered when we started finding beautiful small lakes on the road sides with Hazel Nut trees on the side.

 

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Keeping on driving was fun with one of us driving, the other keeping a watch on the map and a third one using the cameras. With no hassle and beautiful scenery around we kept on driving until we reached Prague while booking a hotel on the go. We had planned to visit Old Town Square, Charles Bridge and Prague Castle at least. We clicked few pictures and found a restaurant while walking around the streets hunting for dinner.

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The city of Prague looks beautiful by night and it boasts of historical monuments and some great tourist spots. Though we spent only a few hours in the city walking around the streets to see landmarks.

The plan is to start for the final leg starting from Prague tomorrow to drive to Switzerland and start the Stage II – Grand Tour of Switzerland.

 

Day 12 – Daugavpils, Latvia to Warsaw, Poland via Lithuania

Daugavpils is a beautiful town with all facilities for a tourist  and has relaxed environment.  This city is close to the Latvian border and we had to stay here as it was late and dark on the road. The Border crossings took exceptionally long, a foreign car at this border is very uncommon and some staff have seen it first time hence an irregular procedure has to be adopted. The Terehova border is normally used by cargo vehicles and some cars of local inhabitants. We stayed at HomeLikeHotel a decent one here available at the last moment and started off from here to drive 730 kms to Warsaw today with some quick breaks on Fuel stations on the way.

There are trees loaded with apples, plums and cherries on the sides of highway and one can stop by to pluck and enjoy some real fresh fruits. This route is full of lakes too giving a photogenic scenery at every small interval.

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The road is mostly 2 way with no lights and no divider which slows down the coverage. Lanes are not standard width and traffic moves on both sides at 100+ kph speed making it NOT AN EASY DRIVE. It needs very careful attention throughout the route specially when it gets dark.

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We reached Warsaw around 10 pm and checked into Novotel, which was a decent hotel, good service and comfortable beds. This time we did not leave the dinner for the night and had it during an evening break at a fuel station.

Warszawa or Warsaw is ranked as one of the most liveable cities in Central Europe. Today Warsaw is considered an “Alpha–” global city, a major international tourist destination and a significant cultural, political and economic hub. Warsaw’s economy, by a wide variety of industries, is characterised by FMCG manufacturing, metal processing, steel and electronic manufacturing and food processing. The city is a significant centre of research and development, BPO, ITO, as well as of the Polish media industry. The Warsaw Stock Exchange is one of the largest and most important in Central and Eastern Europe. Frontex, the European Union agency for external border security, has its headquarters in Warsaw. It has been said that Warsaw, together with Frankfurt, London, Paris and Barcelona is one of the cities with the highest number of skyscrapers in the European Union. Warsaw has also been called “Eastern Europe’s chic cultural capital with thriving art and club scenes and serious restaurants”. 

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After taking a few pictures around, it was time to take rest and prepare for tomorrow to Prague.

Good Night!

Day 11 – Moscow, Russia to Daugavpils, Latvia

Beautiful Morning, good breakfast at the start of journey prepared us for the day. Driving on the highways here can be fun if you are not in a hurry to cover the distances, which wasn’t true in our case, though a lot of natural beauty lies on the side of the road where one can stop over for some good photo shoots. The GPS told us “take third exit from the roundabout straight ahead at 595 kms”  Really, that’s how a GPS behaves in a country like Russia.

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Looking at the long distance and the best timings to cross the border before sunset we kept driving with minimum breaks to cover 700 kms by afternoon. Petrol often called Benzene here is much cheaper in Russia so we filled our tank 20 kms before reaching the border. Kudos to our FJ doing 1200 + kms on one tank full, expected to take us across the next 3 countries in this tank full.

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Reaching to the border was the easiest part of the day as there were lot of formalities and documentation to be done at the customs, Immigration and then transit offices of both countries. As this border is usually used by cargo vehicles and some local border town passengers, the staff here may not have experienced passing a Dubai Registered car from here. The procedure was not frequent and everyone in the process had to make a few phone calls before moving the papers on. Communication was a challenge too. It took its time to get us through after all stamps and security checks.12

Among the people waiting behind us was a Latvian guy on a Ford Mustang. We said hello and he was keen to know about us. We exchanged our travel stories for a while and agreed to meet on the other side of the border because it was obvious that our friend Alexander will cross over soon and we would be stuck here for a longer time. And so happened, the poor guy entered Latvia in about half an hour and had to wait for us on the Latvian side for another 2 hours approx.

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Alexander and his wife traveled across Europe with their Ford Mustang with more than 2 months on the road. He loves travelling and looks forward to visiting Dubai. Team LD presented him a book “Ten thousand miles without a cloud” and a souvenir from Dubai. They were so happy and offered their support if needed at any time in Latvia. He was happy to show us around Riga the capital of Latvia, but we had to excuse as we cannot forget that we are Roadies and not Tourists.

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As both sides of the border took exceptionally long before we could get back on the track, we had to spend the night somewhere closer to the border to start early the next day. Upon going a 20 kms further, we realized that a document that bears Car exit stamp from Russia is missing from the folder. We searched the car to its last corner on the road side for almost 20 minutes but all in vain.

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We decided to go back though the hoping to find it somewhere. As they don’t allow people to go back into the exit gate at border but with our polite request they issued one of us a pass to go inside and look for it. As it was dark around and people at the border were leaving from work with half lights already switched off, it was difficult to find our document. We were not even sure if it is with them or we lost it ourselves as there are so many documents to be shown differently at different windows and stoppages. Thankfully staff at Latvian side could speak English. Finally an officer helped us to open the closed office of Carnet Stamping Officer who had left by then. And said no its not even here, suddenly I asked him can I see whats there in that transparent folder on the corner of the table while standing at the door. He showed it to me and this was it. We thanked the officer for his special help taking us to this room and took a sigh of relief.

Happily we moved on this dark two way road to hunt for a bed. Daugavpils, a small town close to the border showed a hotel with 3 beds in a room. We went for it immediately without any second thought. The hotel “HomeLike” was comfortable and staff was supportive. Again time to eat and everything closed with limited options at the hotel. We swallowed something and went to bed.

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The marathon is on, tomorrow morning to Warsaw, Poland…

Yalla sleep.

Day 10 – A Day in Moscow

Moscow is a major political, economic, cultural, and scientific center of Russia and Eastern Europe, as well as the largest city entirely on the European continent. By broader definitions Moscow is among the world’s largest cities

As soon as we stepped out of the hotel, the fresh cool breeze forced us to leave the car in parking and walk around the city. GPS told us it’s a 4 km walk and we headed to The Red Square. While enjoying the walk on the street we grabbed a coffee on the way and clicked some pictures of the city “Mockba” as they call Moscow here.

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Our live video on FB shows around the Red Square and Obrázky pro dotaz Lenin Mausoleum. The place was full with tourists and locals hanging around due to many shopping and eating options along the walk in the area.

The Red Square is a city square (plaza) in Moscow, Russia. It separates the Kremlin, the former royal citadel and currently the official residence of the President of Russia, from a historic merchant quarter known as Kitai-gorod. Red Square is often considered the central square of Moscow since Moscow’s major streets, which connect to Russia’s major highways, originate from the square.

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Security was good, as there were cops at many spots, still there came a big Cat Body Costume, grabbed two of us and asked our third partner to click a photo. We happily did that without knowing that a surprise is waiting for us. ‘Now the photo is in your camera and I charge 500 Rubles for that’ he said. We tried to negotiate but then had to delete the pics in front of him due to his disagreement on our offer price.

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We then headed back to our car for a drive around the city, where some cops stopped us to check proper documentation about what we were doing, as everything was well organized and explained to them through Google Translate, they were happy and amazed to see the route map on our car’s bonnet. Moving on we clicked some pictures of Moscow by night and started hunting for food which as we thought of tasting some different cuisine here which suits our taste too to find Zakuski which includes fish with salads, pickles and some eggs. It tasted great and we loved the experience.

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Tomorrow is going to be a 700 kms drive to the border of Russia and Latvia. The place is called Terehova.

TO be continued tomorrow !!

Day 9 – Volgograd to Moscow

As we started we visited The Motherland Calls (commonly known as Mother Russia), a  statue in Mamayev Kurgan in Volgograd, Russia.
When the memorial was dedicated in 1967 it was the tallest sculpture in the world, measuring 85 meters (279 ft) from the tip of its sword to the top of the plinth. The figure itself measures 52 meters (171 ft), and the sword 33 meters (108 ft). Two hundred steps, symbolizing the 200 days of the Battle of Stalingrad.

Volgograd has a significant place in the Russian history of World War II. It was a city worth visiting for its importance in history and nice weather at this time.

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I would call it the toughest day on the trip which had to start early looking at another 1000 kms. The tiredness of yesterday reduced with half sleep and limited meals could not stop us starting early on this day, we wanted to avoid driving in the night as people get drunk after sunset and roads have no lights. The bright and fresh morning charged us for the next challenge.

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Once we hit the road from hereon our destination was Moscow building a psychological pressure as we had limited hours to cover up. The beautiful scenes on the road sides kept our energy up to continue. On the way we found an off road track and in spite of getting late we could not stop ourselves to get in to find a detour putting us back on the road in a while.

And then it was continuous drive utill sunset for a break where we found some snacks to restart again. It was getting difficult due to tough driving and scary roads.

Unfortunately it was a No Moon completely dark night with 300 kms to go. Courage and strength we continued with driving carefully until we reached Moscow safely at around 2 a.m. Checked in to Novotel in the centre of the city and fell asleep.

Tomorrow we plan to show you around Moscow.

Bye for now !!!

Day 8 – Driving to Volgograd, Russia

Starting from Derbent, we knew its going to be a long 1000 kms drive with no option to stop overnight on the way as there is limited/no availability of decent place to stopover  before Volgograd.  With a basic breakfast we packed up the car and started at 7 a.m. for the driving marathon.

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Every 300 kms we took a break for stretching and kept ourselves refueling with chocolates and chips all the way.  Sunset at our destination Volgograd is 6:35 pm these days and by this time we had covered almost 800 kms. The road was a two way road with trucks speeding on high beam making the kms coverage slow.

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It was driving, driving and driving all day long spending 16 hours on road we reached Park Inn Hotel at Volgograd at 11:30 pm. Upon arrival we found hotel restaurant closing and everything else around closed down. Luckily we found a few packs of packed ‘Dal Makhni’ in Jammer’s bag pack and hurried up to hotel restaurant to ask for some plain bread before they close.

That’s what saved us this night and we all fell into bed for a short sleep before another big day tomorrow to MOSCOW.

Day 7 – Getting into Russia

Imagine a landmass one-eighth of the world’s total inhabited area. A country almost the size of the continent of South America. Bigger than Antarctica. Twice the size of Australia. The Godzilla of nations. Imagine: Russia.

Just a thought of the sheer size of this country is enough to numb the brain. You don’t need to be a wizard to know that with its superlative vastness comes the most amazing variety of experiences. And, challenges. So we made a plan. Have a good supper, sleep well, get up fresh, leave early morning from Baku for the border crossing, do the exit-entry formalities, and soon we’ll be in the land of Rasputin. So we thought.

First, there were the usual issues about getting up early. DJ seemed to have no issues with that. But, Jammer was anxious of the long day ahead, and wanted to sleep some more to see the day through. So, finally, after finishing breakfast at 8 am, the three motley men and the Black Beast aka FJ Cruiser were on the road and enjoying the drive and the vistas.

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Secondly, as we took a lot of breaks and detours,  it was an hour past noon by the time we reached Samur Border. Samur is a tiny village of over 2,000 residents on the Azerbaijan side. It is named after River Samur that flows by it through Dagestan in Russia, finally becoming one with the Caspian Sea.

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To our disappointment, nobody on the Azerbaijan border control side seemed to speak a word of English. We had to resort to using hand-signs, and symbols, nods and gestures, smiles and long faces to communicate. To get a complete handle on the entire exit procedure in this manner took a long, long time. Then, the formalities kicked in – lots of security screenings, filling forms, verification, stamping and finally immigration. No wonder it took us the best part of two hours to say goodbye to Azerbaijan.

www.facebook.com/letsdrivegroup/videos/557595491090576/

Crossing a bridge after exiting the Azerbaijan territory, we slowly approached the Russian border control. Here, we were asked to empty the car (again!) for a thorough screening by the customs officials. From unloading the car’s stuff, to carrying the luggage to a different place (by the way, we have over 200 kg of goods in the car), get through the scrutiny, repacking the bags and boxes to placing them back in the car, and all this going through an endless queue of people trying to cross over into Russia, it was quite a hassle. Add to the mix that just like their Azeri counterparts, the Russian officers and staff too had absolutely no clue of English (or, they pretended it that way). With our usual channels of communication (speak, write, gesture) failing, we resorted to Google’s audio translator technology on our smartphone to deliver our messages across to them. Our “smartness” seems to have amused one of the officers; he smiled and wanted to respond using the same medium.  This translator was our lifeline at that time, and helped us get through the ordeal in slightly under 5 hours. Finally, we got everything sorted out by 6 pm.

So, we were finally entering Russia. Yay!

By then, it had already started to get dark. Knowing that we had a delay situation, DJ quickly pulled up some hotel options on his smartphone, while Jammer bought car insurance in parallel.

Upon crossing over into the Dagestan region of Russia, it was already dark so we couldn’t take any photos there. So we decided to keep driving.

‘Where to?’ was the question going on in our heads, as as we did not want to end up driving in the night. We recalled the advice of multiple travelers not to drive at night in Russia, due to safety reasons (risk of road accidents due to trucks). Our GPS showed that the nearest town – Derbent – where we hoped to find a decent hotel, was 70 km away.  It took us an hour-and-a-half of driving to reach, but the we enjoyed the ride listening to the silky songs of Kishore Kumar playing on the car stereo. At one point, shivers went down our spine when our car’s high beam pierced the pitch dark of the New Moon night to reveal a woman crossing the road. A sudden screeching of the brakes followed, as we stopped just about a meter in front of her. She looked at us once in a slow glance, and simply walked past the car, quickly disappearing into the darkness.

Once at the hotel, we quickly went downstairs for dinner. Some people who had seen our car parked outside, asked if that “big car” belonged to us. We weren’t surprised by this as it is unusual to see a Toyota FJ Cruiser on the Russian roads. They were delighted to know about our Dubai to Switzerland Road Trip.  A conversation followed, and they instantly warmed up to us, and helped us with important information and advice on the route and the current road conditions.

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Among the hotel guests that night were a friendly couple, to whom we gifted a book and some souvenirs from Dubai. They gave us a sticker for our car which looks like a local Russian car registration plate 🙂 Let’s Drive is making new friends all along!

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It was a tiring day which had drained us all out. We were also nervous that a lot of time and miles had been lost today. I felt a sudden urge to take the wheel and start driving the miles, right now, until I fell asleep. Got instantly reminded of Frost’s magical lines:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep

But I have promises to keep.

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

But sanity prevailed on me. So, I am off to bed now. Hey, all you worries of the lost miles – meet me tomorrow, as the morning sun climbs it way up the blue skies.

Next Stop: Volgograd. In sha Allah.

 

 

Day 6 – Exploring Baku, the amazing capital of Azerbaijan

It is no secret that a good night’s sleep can do wonders to the body and soul. So was the case with us too. Having been on the road for the past five days, we needed to soothe our muscles and minds a bit. So we rested well last night and woke up later by an hour. And what better place to enjoy doing this than Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan!

Baku is also the cultural, educational and industrial capital of Azerbaijan, and is a very beautiful city. Our first thoughts upon stepping out in the streets were – Wow! The city has quite a character, and is a magnet for the lively and the enthusiastic. Wherever you go – in the old city or in the newer districts, from the narrow streets of the old neighborhoods to the bustling squares in the newer districts – you see art, architecture and culture in the plenty. Baku is such an enchanting place – both by day and night – that hours seem to fly past like minutes, like soft, dry sand slipping through the fist – the harder you try to contain it, the faster it disappears, until you give up trying! I think that is just the way to explore Baku – just be in the moment, don’t try to cram in too many sights and sounds, just be!

We passed by several interesting sculptures and monuments as we toured the city. During our visit to the ‘Old Town’ of Baku, we went to see Maiden Tower (or ‘Giz Galasi’ in the local language). This ancient tower (possibly a millennium old) is part of the walled city or  ‘Icheri Sheher’ and is a popular landmark. We asked some people who spoke a bit of English about the origin of its strange name, but no one really seemed to know!

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(above) Maiden Tower

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Art and craft on sale in the Old Town

We roamed around the old town for a couple of hours, and totally loved what we saw. These videos will give you a glimpse of Baku through our eyes.

http://www.facebook.com/shamim.quazi/videos/1162402383834338/

http://www.facebook.com/letsdrivegroup/videos/557262304457228/

While driving in the streets, several people gave us thumbs-up signs from their cars’ windows. People almost mobbed us wherever we stopped. We couldn’t help ourselves from smiling back when a pretty face waved at us, and they were in plenty, I must say 🙂

Some people came over and talked to us. One of them was Yazad, an Azerbaijani national who has traveled to 10 countries, including a few by doing road trips. From the fact that he knew so much about Dubai, we thought he must have lived there, or at least been there a few times. Indeed, he had! We found out that he had worked in Dubai and Saudi Arabia about 15 years ago, after which he returned to Azerbaijan to start his own business of automotive maintenance. He loved cars and driving, so in a way, his business furthered his passion. A nice chat with him over a cup of tea was all we needed to have found another friend on this trip. He listened to our story, too, with the astonishment of a child, and also wrote us a message in our trip diary. Before saying goodbye, we said “Təşəkkür” (thanks) to him for his time and appreciation, and gifted him a book titled “A Fork In The Road”, along with a souvenir from Dubai.

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Jamal with Yazad

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Haris saying goodbye to Yazad

Another fascinating place that we visited was the Fountain Square. The place owns you with its decor, streetscape and the energy of the crowd there. It is a very happening place, where people flock every evening for shopping, dining and meeting each other. It is also known for its live street performances. To our amusement, we heard a Hindi movie song “Fevicol” blasting on the speakers. As we walked towards it, we saw a motley crowd had gathered in a corner, and were enjoying the performance of a local girl dancing – in perfect Bollywood style, embellished with all the typical ‘latka‘ and ‘jhatka‘ (hip gyrations). It was quite an emotional feeling…. felt like homecoming!

Some of our friends and well-wishers back in Dubai and India had been requesting us to share the views of Baku with them. So, other than sharing pictures, we decided to give them a real-time view from Fountain Square, using Facebook Live Video. It was our first ever attempt to use this feature, and we struggled with what to say or show, and also got the mobile camera angle wrong 😉 All part of the fun and learning!

http://www.facebook.com/letsdrivegroup/videos/557231434460315/

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Fountain Square

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We had an early dinner at 7:30 pm in an open-air restaurant called Pizza Inn. The food was finger-licking delicious. Afterwards, we took some more photos at the Fountain Square and called it a day.

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Nizami Street by night

It is going to be an early morning start tomorrow to get into Russia via Samur border. This time, we would like to be more careful and drive during daylight hours only. The distances to our two next stopovers are large, with vast empty spaces in between, and we do not want to risk getting lost or stuck in the middle of nowhere. To that extent, we have even considered that should a situation arise that we have an hour or two left to drive in the evening and the likelihood of finding a safe place for the night appears slim, we may stop there itself, or take a detour to reach another place just to sleep, and get back on track the next morning.

Just too many things going on in our minds right now…. but, it’s time to lay them to bed.

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Shamim and Haris at Fountain Square – a day well spent!

Let’s hope for a smooth entry and ride in Russia tomorrow.

Cheers!

Day 5 – Leaving Iran and getting into Azerbaijan

The day started early at 6 a.m. with a quick packing of the bags. we skipped breakfast and decided to reach the border early in the morning to be first in queue. We thought once we got through quickly to the other side, we could savor a traditional Azeri treat!

It was raining when we reached the border. As intended, there was no one before us. But it didn’t make our exit any faster. It was Friday, which meant a limited functioning of the customs office due to the weekend. The officials were even more helpful when they realized that we were from ‘Hindustan’. Though the systems appeared bureaucratic and slow, compared to what we are used to in other places in the Middle East, we still managed to cross over customs and transit clearance in under 2 hours. Happily proceeding to the immigration counters facing Azerbaijan border for the final stamps before leaving Iran, we were called in for a news: “You cannot go out from this Border as the system shows a different ‘port of exit’ for you, and that too differs for one of you.”  Baffled, we inquired – What next? The officer said, “Go back to Tehran Immigration HQ and talk to them.”

Go to Tehran, I mean – Really?

Threat, pressure and hunger immediately took over passion and adventure to give rise to an idea and a rescue plan. Idea: Lets try our luck by involving the Immigration Office in town to help us in this situation. Plan: Park the car, hire an agent, and get a taxi to save not us but our documents from the rain.

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A helpful officer at the Immigration came to our rescue. Jammer showed him the pictures we took in Iran on the Let’s Drive Facebook and Instagram pages. This helped break the ice, and we were quick to jump on this opportunity to open a chat with the officer. He telephoned some higher authority in Tehran, and obtained his consent to let us pass through. Happiness and joy rushed to our faces when they broke the good news to us while offering special Iranian tea. 🙂

After thanking the officers, getting our passports stamped and adding the agent’s contacts to our Instagram (which seems quite popular here), we were on the roll again. Once past the Iranian side, we entered a nicely built, well-organized and straightforward Border check post of Azerbaijan. Nice people again, simple procedures but it also took its own time. It was already 12 noon when we crossed over, hoping to find something to eat. All this while, we had survived the day with only potato chips that DJ Sham had kept in the car. By the time we could finish half the formalities, it was time for the officers’ lunch break.

With a heavy heart and an empty belly, we sat waiting another hour for them to return. Once all documents had been signed and stamped, the car had to be stripped of all loose stuff to the last bit of tissue paper. It was such a sight we felt a string urge to shoot the entire scene with our camera. Wish we could show you how all 5 doors were left open for the sniffer dogs, after being checked by a military officer, to get in the car and sniff every corner of the car and everything outside the car, before we could re-stuff the care and move on. Alas, due to restrictions on photography at border posts, the use of cameras was impossible.

It was 5 pm by then. All Said, All Done, All Good. Welcome to Azerbaijan!

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The FIRST thing we did in Azerbaijan was to find breakfast. We had been awake since 6 am and hungry like wolves. Yet, we had to drive 50 km ahead to Lankaran where we found a ‘Restoran’ as they call it here. I must tell you that to find that they only had Snickers and coffee was still so much of a blessing. Oh goodness, what a relief!

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With the intake of these calories, we had enough to quickly start for Baku. It was going to get dark soon. The highway reminded us of our very own Grand Truck Road in India – no street lighting, no dividers, high speed trucks, and muddy/ slippery sides for almost two-thirds of the way.

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As we got closer to Baku, the road changed to a 6-lane expressway.  We decided to speed up. Finally, we reached Baku at 10 p.m.

We booked rooms at a hotel, parked the car and headed out for a walk around Fountain Square and Nizami Street, followed by dinner. We found Baku to be a thriving city, and the people on the streets appeared to be brimming with enthusiasm and positive energy. People smile at us, and came over to greet us and talk to us when they saw our Let’s Drive caps.

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We returned to our hotel by 11:30 pm. We plan to stay over in Baku the next day, to explore this amazing place, its people, food and street culture. The break would help recharge us physically, and we plan to catch some lost sleep to be fit for the marathon drive coming our way.  It is going to get bigger, better and more daunting.

They call it Russia. Better, prepare!

Ciao.