2007/07/28-31: Turkmenbashi Ferry Terminal
We arrived at the terminal on Tuesday at 2:00 p.m. There was next to nothing other than Turkmen and Russian spoken in the terminal, and it quickly became clear that the authorities take no responsibility whatsoever towards keeping any kind of order among the the passengers who wait, as many as fifty or more, for boats which arrive at random intervals and take only as many passengers as each captain chooses to allow.
One dutiful passenger had started a list in an attempt at keeping order. We probably noticed this after half a dozen other passengers who had arrived later than we had put themselves on it. Foreigners are a very low priority, and the locals, who know both the language and the system, manoeuvre easily around them. “The foreigners,” in this case, meant us and the Turkish truck drivers. The port officials indicated we could go away till “tomorrow,” as there were no boats travelling because of strong winds. We weren’t assured that we’d get any new information that became available after we left, so we decided to stay.
At the cafe next door, we emptied our remaining manat onto the table and asked how many mante we could buy for that sum. It was then that we found we’d been given a few worthless old manat bills when changing money, likely at the border. Turkmenistan has an old and a new currency, and shop prices are stated in yet a third variant on the currency, just to make life difficult. We were easy to cheat. We were probably less than a dollar out, but this was the first time we’d been so brazenly cheated in nearly seven months of travel in seven countries. We laid out our Thermarests on the floor under the stairs of the waiting room, and tried to sleep a little once the Turkmenbashi-approved television channel was finally turned off for the night.
On Wednesday evening, a boat arrived. Four Mongol Rally Brits in two cars got off, among others. The ticket window opened briefly, and tickets were sold to fill the captain’s stated quota. We did not get tickets, and the Turkish truck drivers made it clear to us that we had been shafted. Why not? We were easy to cheat.
A well-dressed woman and her entourage arrived, and after she had stamped her feet and harangued the staff for a while, space was found for her group on the boat. She strode smugly across the loading area to the boat while being bombarded with filthy looks and a few choice words. I saw a group of men and the ticket window which had suddenly reopened just for them. They had a stack of passports and were buying for another group for which space had magically appeared. I walked over and had a look at the paper beside the documents, thinking it was the famous LIST, and one of the men grabbed it from me and said, “His mother dead,” quickly putting on a solemn face. There was some kind of exception for bereavement being used, but they were chuckling about it as soon as I turned away. I wonder how much a bad photo-copy of a death certificate costs in Turkmenistan?
We cooked our last noodles on our stove outside, and settled under the stairs again. This time we hung our mosquito nets from the stairs. Might as well be comfortable. There is also malaria here.
On Thursday morning, the port officials indicated to us they had no information on boats. We had nothing left to read. Chris did his Sudoku puzzles and kicked a soccer ball with an 11 year old. I watched Turkmenbashi-approved telly and whittled bits of wood. At 5:00 p.m., we were told that two boats would arrive shortly, one at 6:00 and one at 7:00. Apparently, everyone already knew except us. The new LIST keeper (the old one had departed on yesterday’s boat) went into the ticket room by himself, knelt facing Mecca, and prayed. We ate sausage on bread, split the last Choco-Pie biscuit, and got our hopes up. We must have looked pitiful, because soon a lovely Azeri family was offering us tea and cookies. The young woman spoke excellent English and helped us inquire yet again whether our transit visas would expire that midnight or the next. Earlier answers had been unclear, but now we were told we’d be OK for another day.
We were sent into customs around midnight, and were slowly processed and then told to “sit there.” Our bags had been both X-rayed and examined far more closely than ever before, and every single photo we had taken in Turkmenistan was reviewed for evidence of anything the Turkmenbashi might not want the outer world to see. We sat, and watched the hapless ad hoc leader of 70 Mongol Rally participants who were offloading with 26 cars . The Turkmens wanted it done “as a group.” Rally-drivers are independent souls, and there were many nationalities and cultures among them. We didn’t envy the reluctant “leader,” who was being yelled at by the Turkmen authorities for such crimes as wanting to see documents in English before signing them. We were forced to watch all this, because the number of outgoing passengers could not be confirmed until incoming ones had cleared customs.
2007/07/31-08/01: Turkmenbashi to Baku
When it was realized we had no tickets, we were sent back into the terminal to get them. We finally emerged in the loading area at about 3:00 a.m., and got on the boat about 3:30 a.m. along with one Japanese man in his sixties, having our passports checked three times in 100 metres, and then handing them over to the boat crew.
After climbing three ladders carrying six bags each from the cargo deck, a peek into the dark warren of the passenger cabin area showed it to be derelict and filthy. A bat was flying in the corridor. There was no-one to tell us anything, so we dozed on Thermarests on the deck till the sun rose, then found cabin beds since we needed shade. We laid our Thermrests on the mattresses for reasons of hygiene, and dozed.
The boat left at at about 3:00 p.m. on Friday, twelve hours after we’d boarded. Chris tracked progress across the Caspian with the GPS by the porthole. There was a bit of a meal served after we started, which somehow we were summoned to, though it seemed to be for the crew – a bunch of students of seamanship doing a practicum and all of whom were keen to practice their English. The cook’s name was Ludmilla.
This was also when we first met Takashi, the retired Japanese man who had had the luck to arrive just in time to board the boat. We dozed again. Only one toilet worked on the boat, and when that became blocked we learned to use the sink in our cabin. The bat came out again.
About 4:00 a.m. there was door-banging and someone yelled “BAKU!” so we got up. We shuffled off a gangplank from the passenger deck, retrieved our bikes from the bowels of the ship, and reassembled ourselves into two efficient rolling units.
Neither we nor Takashi were keen to join the scrum to enter Azeri customs, preferring to chat and wait till the end. A senior-looking Azeri customs officer who spoke excellent English asked us why we didn’t want to push and shove like everyone else. Our behaviour seemed odd to him. I tried to explain the difference in queuing culture to him by describing the procedure at a BC Ferries terminal, where your place in the queue is formally established as soon as you arrive, thereby eliminating the need to cheat or push – an utterly foreign concept. I told him what happened to people who ignore the instructions given (i.e.“Go to Lane SIX!”) as they buy their tickets, and who try to queue jump by placing themselves in a lane they think will load sooner: they get stopped and sent back. I added that anyone who queue jumped was “probably a recent immigrant from Turkmenistan. “ He was Azeri, so this amused him.
It was about 8:00 a.m. by the time we were fully processed. Takashi, a mild-mannered grandfather, was grilled in a little room for the high crime of having an Armenian visa in his passport, and having spent three days there on a previous trip. We thought they might try to re-educate him, as we’ve heard they do, by making him sit and read the Azerbaijani version of recent Caucasus history, but they didn’t have a Japanese version of their text.
We walked with Takashi to a central hotel listed in his guidebook, and collectively agreed it was nasty. We went to another suggested in his book, Takashi by subway and we by bike. It was good to pedal again! Our hotel is the fortuitously named Velotreki Hotel, right beside the velotreki – the velodrome. We washed ourselves and our clothes. We’d been wearing the same shirts for eight days and sleeping in them for five nights.