The ferry from Baku to Turkmenistan

Posted by on Jul 26, 2013 in blog | 11 comments

The ferry from Baku to Turkmenistan

I am now in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, having survived the ferry and visa race across Turkmenistan. This is the first internet connection since I left Baku (also my first restaurant). I did write some posts while offline, so I will post these in stages.-Robin

 Monday, July 22. 

I am sitting on an Azerbaijan cargo ferry in the Caspian Sea anchored off the coast of Turkmenistan waiting for the port to open. The port is closed because the Turkmenistan president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, has come to Turkmanbashi, where our ship is supposed to dock, and like all good dictators has ordered everything shut. We are on day two and have run out of vodka. The captain says maybe we can dock tomorrow night. Maybe.

Even though I’ve never been to prison, I imagine it to be like this boat. There is no phone service, no internet and Ramin the Captain has confiscated our passports. It’s unbearably sweltering, the men are all shirtless, and I’m sleeping in a cabin of bunk beds with five men, all of us sharing the one communal squat toilet with a ferry full of truck drivers (and two women cooks who don’t seem to leave the kitchen).

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Communal toilet. Six bunk cabin.It was surprisingly comfortable until we anchored, lost the breeze and the flies arrived.

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There is also camaraderie, again like I imagine in prison. The ten of us in the three rally teams on the ferry hang out on the deck with a group of friendly, if occasionally lecherous, Turkish truck drivers who make concerted efforts to pantomime questions and share with us everything they have: tea, food and cigarettes. We take photos of each other, pass around water bottles filled with vodka and Fanta (tastes like musty cough syrup) and use the phrase “no problem” a lot.

The truck drivers are a lively lot. I’ve nicknamed one “Gropey” because he loves to sling his arm around me, intimately feel my face with his thick hands and give me sloppy kisses on the check. Apparently, he does this to everyone. He wears a small white undershirt that rides up on his impressive belly and has a thick mustache under which is a big, toothless grin. “Gropey II” is less boisterous, but loves to dole out mustached kisses whenever he can.

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The gang.

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Me and Gropey I. 

Yesterday morning, Gropey I and Gropey II and friends shared an amazing breakfast cooked on the stove under a semi-truck. We dipped thick Turkish bread in a pot of warm tomatoes, onions, garlic and egg with a side bucket of chocolate and honey and sweet Turkish chai all while crouching on the deck. The truckers drive a loop, from Turkey to Baku, then from Turkmenistan into Iran and back to Turkey. One is driving on to London, in seven days doing the same route that took me two weeks.

During the day, we all wander around the boat, finding solitary spots over the emerald green of the Caspian, nap, read and then drift back to play cards and drinking games and spread the rumor that a truck driver told someone that we are stuck on this boat for five more days.

Five more days is a problem. Our Turkmenistan five-day transit visa expires in two days and our single-entry Azerbaijan visa is finished. With the Turkmen road to Uzbekistan only partly paved and hundreds of miles to go, it seems daunting to cross the entire country before our visa expires, if we even get there in time. The truck drivers have pantomimed that we can pay money to have our visa extended, but no one really knows.

It’s hard to get any concrete information on anything. Even getting on this boat was an exercise in patience. After getting our Turkmenistan visas at the Baku consulate, Ishamel the fixer said he would text when the ferry was ready. Maybe the next day. Maybe five days. Who knows.  Meanwhile, our cars are impounded at the ferry customs as they are only allowed to be in the country for three days and our visa is quickly running out. We hooked up with the Brighton Bandits, three English boys – Owen, Alex and Narmy — traveling in a van with 250,000 miles, no air conditioning and three beds they built themselves in the back. And we waited.

On day two in Baku, we sat at the port for hours trying to get on a ferry. When we were finally given the ok, we went to the ticket office, a small unmarked door in a ramshackle unmarked building down the road. It was closed. We walked back. Some phone calls were made. The ticket man didn’t want to come back. Some more phone calls were made. He finally appeared. He wrote down a price on a piece of paper and slowly started typing my name into the computer. His phone rang. He answered, looked at me, said, “kaput,” and turned off the computer. The ferry had left. “Tomorrow,” he said. “Maybe.”

We spent the night in a lively outdoor restaurant on the square, eating plates of smoked cheese and shishkabab and drinking Azeri NZS draft beer long into the night with the bandits and the fun-loving Matt and Claire from the Dragoman tour company.

On day three, now with headaches, we heard there was a ferry from another port.  After a long day of uncertainty, numerous phone calls and pleading with a train conductor to move the train that was blocking in our cars, we made it on. Then we waited. At midnight, the engines rumbled and we slowly pulled away from Baku, the LED-lit Flame Tower skyscrapers rising above the 900-year-old old city like huge torches.

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Waiting to board the ferry with the Brighton Bandits and There and Bactrian from the Mongol Rally.

 

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Trucks load. Sunset over Baku.

We’ve just discovered that there is more vodka on board, the bandits are cooking peanut-beer curry in the kitchen (the cooks gave us some sympathy French fries after they tasted it) and there is a breeze on the port side. In the distance are the barren mountains of Turkmenistan and the twinkling lights of the oil rigs. The sound of the Turkish truck drivers chatting and smoking floats across the deck. I will try to sleep outside tonight, under the full moon and the breeze, and suddenly being stuck on a cargo ferry in the middle of the Caspian Sea doesn’t feel like prison at all.

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The Caspian over the bow. Waiting to pull into Turkmenbashi port.

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The Caspian is a beautiful color.  I wanted to swim. Then our boat dumped it’s sewage and I didn’t want to anymore.

wardlaw

 

Wardlaw joins the gang of shirtless men. To be fair, it’s more than 40C/104F degrees.

11 Comments

  1. So happy you made it off that ferry! I was wondering what it was like on board. Wardlaw doesn’t give me any details. I felt like I was talking to him in prison! Good luck with the rest of the trip. Can’t wait to get the next post.

    • it was prison! but a fun one.

  2. What great memories y’all are making. Hope you will write a book!

  3. Hi Robin, have been tracking your adventure with interest (your a real trooper). Your challenging and sometimes frustating travels remind me of the year that I (Peter) spend in Egypt (1985-86). There I was confronted with a whole host of strange and exciting incidents. Hope that you and your team have finally connected with Dean somewhere in the hinderlands (BF) of Uzbekistan.
    Keep on trucking and stay safe. Marion and I will continue to read your blog posts with anticipation.

    • We met up with Dean in Bukhara on Thursday. He’d only been here two days, but already knew everyone in town. As we walk by locals, they call out “Dean!” and get us tables in busy restaurants and give us presents. He’s a celebrity here. Next time we meet, I want to hear more about this Egypt adventure! Thanks!

  4. thank you for this i am Owens mum. its so good to hear the story peanut beer curry ah…… what an invention

    • It turned out surprisingly well! The three of them concocted it in the 55 degree boat kitchen. Just saw Owen and we are all headed to Samarkand this afternoon. Good to hear from you!

  5. This is what real adventure’s about: the great dance with taking chances. Go Robin! I’m enjoying immensely your tales from the road! Marveling also at the immediacy of communication as I type this message from my iPhone. Please don’t decide to omit and gloss over your visa race across Turkmenistan! No doubt, it was speedy acceleration with more stories to tell… Eagerly anticipating you next post, signed Your Reader

    • Thanks dear reader. Yes, more Turkmenistan to come! I’m struggling to catchup. In Uzbekistan now sitting in a beautiful flower garden drinking coffee. Turkmenistan feels years ago!

  6. What happened to wardlaws’s head? It does not match the rest of his body. Does he have the Michael Jackson disease?

    • quite possibly.

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