To get started, head to Baku’s international bus station. Once your taxi deposits you onto the curb, right into a waiting crowd of aged Azeris clamoring for your attention like malnourished seagulls, good luck finding your way to the illusory ticket office. The fading grey building here might sell many things, from secondhand pantyhose to whatever the seller had leftover from dinner the previous night, but a ticket out of town isn’t one of them.
Back outside now, accosted once again by legions of unkempt goatherds attempting to corral you onto one of many makeshift vans-turned-buses, it becomes apparent that bargaining for your ticket with a man who could pass for Stalin’s grandfather is the way to hitch a ride out. The bushy, sooty assortment of hair clinging to his upper lip tells you all you need to know- one look at which must send the goats scurrying. It also serves to lend him a certain authoritative gravitas, confirmed by the way the grizzled others congregate to him. He bestows upon them a bill or two, while the women and younger men make theirs eagerly rushing from van to van, harping their wares like five dollar strumpets.
In the course of the twenty minutes it takes for the men folk to decide who’s driving which van where, you’ll be proposed bananas and mandarins from raisiny old women hunched from loads they’ve been bearing since the Soviet era, various fried things from eager young men, and mass produced sweaters, socks and various other clothing from everyone else. There is something of an irony about it all that would strike you were you anywhere else, but here bearded men making the rounds selling razors and nose trimmers feels like just another day. Meanwhile, a stone faced, pear shaped fellow loudly hawks china and glassware. Talk about one-stop shopping…
Before the van sets out be sure to buckle your seat belt, being careful however to avoid the spent chewing gum someone has carefully disposed of just where the belt comes to rest against your shoulder.
There is a TV stationed at the front of the van and after departing it comes foaming to life, much to the delight of the other passengers. It also ensures you’re provided some form of on-board entertainment aside from the woman violently coughing in the seat behind you. This entertainment appears to be a staged Azeri comedy program, the opening sketch of which consists of two suited middle-aged men dancing to some bizarre Azeri version of the Macarena. The serious, self-important audience -dressed more in line with that of a UN General Assembly- viewing the spectacle on stage lap it up and minutes later are, like every other passenger on the bus, laughing uproariously at a drag sketch being performed.
The entire musically interposed program seems to consist entirely of drag sketches, which would seem to echo the popularity of similar programs in Ukraine and Russia. What the former Soviet populace finds so amusing about men dressing as woman is doubly perplexing when coupled with the vehement reservations most of them hold about real life gender bending.
The whole experience is downright nauseating, though this is likely more the result of your van whipping around fog obscured corners high in the Caucasus rather than a decidedly offbeat comedy program.
With each stop, a new gaggle of increasingly exotic hawkers appears, reminding you to pick up your shoes and socks here in case you forgot them back home. Pastries and other baked goods are absorbed and fluids expelled, always under the gaze of the leathery driver and the whispers of suspecting passengers, and the five hours on board pass slowly, leaving you to ponder the consequences of too many drag shows on a population subsisting on little else.