Adrift on the Caspian Sea and Lost in the Karakoum Desert

Leaving Baku

Leaving Baku

Sunset on the Caspian

Sunset on the Caspian

Leaving Baku was a lot like our time spent gathering our Visas, surprisingly easy. Over the last few months we had been researching our sea voyage from Azerbaijan over the Caspian Sea to one of two places Kazakhstan or Turkmenistan. It was Turkmenistan that won our attention, as one of the least visited of the Central Asian countries and with a very good reason for that distinction. The government makes it incredibly difficult to obtain a visa and also very time consuming. It can take up to three weeks just to obtain your Letter of Invitation from Turkmenistan’s government. We chose an easier path then most and a bit more expensive then doing it on your own, but it took away the headache of dealing with the officials and paperwork all by yourself. By choosing to  use a government approved tour service called Owadan Tourism , we were going to be able to spend a bit more time doing the things we actually wanted to do in the country verses just transiting through. Or so we thought.

A bit blurry, but there were rigs like this everywhere.

A bit blurry, but there were rigs like this everywhere.

Our neighbor.

Our neighbor.

Amy cooking on deck.

Amy cooking on deck.

Finding and getting on the boat from Baku to Turkmenbashi was a breeze, All you have to do is arrive at the Ferry Terminal/Port  after 10 am (the woman who runs the ticket office will not be there any earlier) find the white door on the right hand side of the road with various stickers placed on it. (kind of like the old hobo markings) Inside there will be an old woman at a desk who speaks only Russian and Azeri, she is not the person you want to speak to but she it the lady who will write you a ticket for your departure. Behind this little old lady there is a room with another much younger woman who speaks English, she is the one you need to talk to about boarding a cargo ship heading East. Ferries come everyday to the port in Baku but not all of them depart in the direction of Turkmenistan, she will be able to tell you if there is a boat leaving today. There is no regular schedule for these Ferries so if there isn’t one leaving that day you will need to come back every morning and check on the status of boat arrivals. Because of the erratic scheduling or lack there of, they will only sell you a ticket on the day the boat is actually leaving port. There is no worry about making sure you have reservations there are none. We were lucky and only had to wait one day before a boat going to Turkmenbashi came into port and we where able to board with out much of a fuss. Tickets for us and all the other foreigners were $100 USD (USD only) and our bicycles where able to board for free, the charge for a cabin with a toilet and working shower cost us $30 USD (a one time fee) but that was done on board the ship not at the ticket office. Once we wheeled through Azeri Immigration and got stamped out of the country we were able to start loading our stuff onto the cargo boat almost immediately and with little direction for where we should store our bikes in the bowels of the ship. (Be extra careful of this, there are wire ropes and pulley systems working everywhere) Also onboard, the main cargo heading to Turkmenistan was an entire train. I’m not sure how many actual train cars were on loaded on board but it was but it was quite a scene to see. Along side the  huge train and our small bikes there were an extra 10 or so private cars of all sizes containing  around 40 people from various places in Europe and the Americas but they are all heading in the same direction, Mongolia. They are the Mongol Ralliers doing an over land trip by car from London to Mongolia for charity. This was going to be an interesting boat ride.

Time for a bit of fishing..

Time for a bit of fishing..

Anchored.

Anchored.

Finally after getting all situated in our little cabin it didn’t take long to explore the entirety of the ship, there really is only so much space on a boat to see. Luckily for us we set out rather quickly, only two hours after boarding we started making our way out on the Caspian Sea. The actual sailing time is only 15 hours, a short little over nighter and you are there in the Bay of Turkmenbashi. The night we set out everyone was having a blast, hanging out on the rooftop deck, drinking beers in the pool, experiencing the sun set out at sea, and very excited. For most of us this was our very first sea voyage and all of us (besides the crew members) our first time on the Caspian. That night was great hanging out with people talking about our adventures and seeing the stars with almost no light pollution except for the occasional oilrig. Everyone went to bed that evening knowing that we would arrive in Turkmenistan’s bay in the morning and be ready to continue on our different journeys.

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Raising the anchor.

Raising the anchor.

Into Turkmenbashi, at long last

Into Turkmenbashi, at long last

Or so we thought, the next morning we arrived in the bay it was around 6 am when Brian and I both awoke when the ship stopped moving and we could see the port from our little porthole window. Brian asked me if I thought we should get up and start packing our stuff, I opted for us to go back to sleep it takes time to dock a boat and figured we would have a few hours before we needed to get moving. How right I was. The port in Turkmenbashi only has two docks for ships like ours to unload train cargo, we would have to wait our turn in line for a place to park. As it came to pass it took around 78 hours before our chance came along. There are several things contributing into this extended time frame, first the bay is very shallow and boats have to exit and enter in a certain slot that is marked out like a run way, second having only two unloading areas for cargo ferries this leads to a back log of ships trying to get into port, third was culmination of one and two, the storm. On day two onboard the stagnate ferry we woke up to a wind and rain storm that closed the port all together, nothing could go into or out of Turkmenistan for almost a full 24 hours. By this time the novelty of a voyage by sea was beginning to wear off for most people. For Brian, I think he was quite at ease with the whole situation. Simply knowing that there is absolutely nothing one can do to further on progress can be a calming notion. I for one was a little worried about the amount of Englishmen to alcohol ratio. Knowing that we might be adrift at sea for more then a few days we managed to pack our bags full of staples to help feed us incase of such a problem. It was a good thing that we did, almost all the supplies were used up on that trip. The ships crew helped supplement some of the food rationing by serving meals free of charge after the first night and throughout the rest of our time on board. As far as we know this isn’t a common practice on these ferry rides, there just happened to be an unusual number of passengers on board at this time .Most of us being entitled westerners but there was also a large group of Azeris and Turkmen as well.

Our ride.

Our ride.

Karakum Desert.

Karakum Desert.

The  three days waiting in the bay were very much uneventful, there were a few passing jokes about mutiny or swimming to shore but most of that was abandoned after it was realized that they still had cars aboard and it was also discovered that I was the most experienced person to drive the ship. Being that I had once steered a tugboat. Instead most of us turned to reading and watching movies off the hard drives.

Gozli Ata pilgrimage site.

Gozli Ata pilgrimage site.

Gozli Ata pilgrimage site.

Gozli Ata pilgrimage site.

When we finally got the go ahead and started moving towards shore everyone was relived, our time was ticking on our visas and three of the ten days allowed in country had already passed. Brian and I were more fortunate then most in this regard, we still had seven days and people waiting for us at boarder control to help speed along the immigration process. Boarder Control would take several hours for the people with cars, for us the time was much shorter. There is always a different process when crossing borders, but since entering Central Asia especially former Soviet States this is more of a hassle then normal. First there are forms to be filled out (normal) but never in English, fees to be paid $12 USD (normal) but not to the same person holding your passport, back in line again to receive your paperwork (unnecessary) and maybe your passport, eventually your bags are x-rayed (normal) possibly searched, there was an unusual amount of talking about importing guns into the country. For a person on bicycle this seems very strange but I eventually learned that people from the Middle East come to Turkmenistan to hunt wild birds. After the gun search was over with we were allowed to exit the station and proceed through three more checkpoints before being able to board our Tour operators vehicle and head to our hotel. The car was not allowed to do a curbside pick up and we had to ride our bikes out of the port parking lot. This is what is is like to go though passport control and customs in Turkmenistan with a handler, I have no frame of reference for what it is like to do it on your own. The Mongol Rally guys we met up with later on had a much harder time getting through.

Dunes.

Dunes.

Gozli Ata pilgrimage site.

Gozli Ata pilgrimage site.

If you ever find yourself in Turkmenistan after 11 pm, good luck! Every shop or restaurant  in the country is government mandated to be close by 11 pm. We got in by 9 pm but had to drop our bikes off to be shipped to Ashgabat by train (since we wouldn’t be riding them in Turkmenistan) then made a break for the local shop before closing time for some essentials but didn’t manage to get into Turkmenbashi before all the restaurants were closed. After being checked into our room for the night we had bread for dinner.

Gozli Ata pilgrimage site.

Gozli Ata pilgrimage site.

Gozli Ata pilgrimage site.

Gozli Ata pilgrimage site.

It’s unfortunate that Turkmenistan doesn’t allow pictures to be taken in many public places, this includes all government buildings inside and out, market places, and bazars. This restricted us so much that we have virtually no pictures of the cities we visited in Turkmenistan. The only shots we were able to take were of the countryside and a few from moving cars and trains, which the later don’t make for interesting photos.

Gozli Ata pilgrimage site.

Gozli Ata pilgrimage site.

Yangikala Canyon.

Yangikala Canyon.

Nomad home.

Nomad home.

On our government approved tour, we opted for the 4 days / 3 nights 4×4 desert package. Day one to the Yangykala canyons, day two thru the sand dunes, day three the gas creator, afterwards 24 hours in Ashgabat, then the overnight train to Turkmenabad and then exiting the country. Sounds simple enough right?

Amy.

Amy.

Yangikala Canyon.

Yangikala Canyon.

One thing we didn’t know is that no one has gone on this sort of trip with this tour operator in more then a year. Desert landscapes change drastically in this amount of time due to weather conditions from the following year. This trip also doesn’t follow and regular or semi regular roads in fact there weren’t any roads per say and only dirt tracks if we were lucky. Our guide had done this trip three times previous but not recently, he had a Gps with some older tracks on it to help us find our way. Brian and I didn’t hire a guide for this trip only a driver, he came courtesy of the company since they wanted a recent Gps track of the new route. I really hate guided tours, I never have good luck with these sorts of things.

Yangikala Canyon.

Yangikala Canyon.

Yangikala Canyon.

Yangikala Canyon.

The first day went mostly fine, because of our shortened time on our visas the tour company wanted us to speed things up a bit and cover more ground so that we would be sure to catch our train leaving the country on time. This was no big deal and we agreed to go a little faster then was  on original scheduled program. What wasn’t realized at that time but our route was flawed, mainly because there wasn’t really a route at all. In fact all the barely scratched out roads in the desert totally disappeared with the seasonal rains and shifting sands. Towards the end of our first day we had to back track through the scrub brush losing close to four hours of drive time. We ended up camping short of our first intended destination and well before our 300 km mark.  It still was a beautiful site to set up camp but we got there entirely to late in the evening to do much sightseeing. The days are growing shorter which is great news for us because it means summer is beginning to wane but bad for this little excursion because the time between setting up camp and darkness is starting to cut it a little close.

Yangikala Canyon.

Yangikala Canyon.

 

Amy in the desert.

Amy in the desert.

Shepherd.

Shepherd.
IHeartAdamT.

IHeartAdamT.

Don’t let any one tell you that you can travel the Karakoum Desert quickly!

By our second day we got to see the Yangykala Canyons and stand out on the  famous scenic ledge called the Sharks Tooth, the over look of the canyon valley was spectacular. Other then that there was a fair amount of riding through the bumpy desert occasionally stopping to take pictures. Most of the rest of the time was spent speeding through the desert trying to make up for some lost time. I’m not sure what our intended destination was for the night but I am sure we never reached it. Around 6 pm the dirt track we where running on disappeared in a seemingly dry old river bed  and then reappeared heading up what looked to be a steep and sandy embankment. Instead of staying on track our guide thought it wise to follow the river bed to find another way around this hill, a huge mistake! Remember earlier when I said our last road ran out because of seasonal rains and shifting sands? Well it turns out that this dry river bed was only dry on the surface, underneath a few inches of dried cracked dirt there is still water and mud. We didn’t make it far before the back end of the truck sunk into the mud and we were stuck… without a shovel.

Camels are my new favorite animals. They're pretty comical.

Camels are my new favorite animals. They’re pretty comical.

Soviet dirt bike

Soviet dirt bike

*I just wanted to say this quick, this could have been totally avoidable if the Guide and Driver would have just listened to us in the first place. Brian told them it was a bad idea to drive down the old river bed before hand and I know how to dig out a truck, it’s a job requirement. Unfortunately for all of us they refused to listen to either of us and then even each other, so much for team work?

Dodgy stove.

Dodgy stove.

Well dressed horse.

Well dressed horse.

Well.

Well.

Our guide decided he was going to walk to the nearest village 25 kms ahead of us on the road we didn’t take on the other side of the hill and come back with a shovel and hopefully a truck big enough to pull us out. Meanwhile… a storm was coming. It was overly obvious to even the most un desert savvy that we were sitting in the path of a rather large  rain storm. With our guide off in the distance going in a direction only he knew (not back tracking to the village we already knew existed) Brian and I had to unload all of our stuff and head for higher ground. Our driver didn’t seem to think it was a terrible idea to be in a downhill flowing river bed during a rain storm in the desert. I guess he figured flash floods only happen to other people? I’m not sure what he was thinking? Us on the other hand grabbed all of us stuff and headed up the hill to set up camp. We got our tent half way set up before the winds started to howl  and a collapse seemed imminent. There were no places to set up guide wires to hold the tent taught in the sand, every attempt to stake out the tent the ground would just disintegrated underneath the stakes. I eventually used my P-style as a entrenching tool and dug into the sand burying anything with weight I could find, our front Panniers and 5 liter bottles of water were used to help guide out the tent. Thankfully it worked and the rain didn’t last very long, but the sand and wind that accompanied the storm it lasted throughout the evening. There was nothing we could do to keep the sands from blowing into the tent.  We still spent a sleepless, fitful, and gritty night hoping the tent still wouldn’t collapse.  I made sure to sleep with my pocket knife by my side incase a collapse happened so I would be able to cut myself free.

Pump cozy.

Pump cozy.

Digging out the truck

Digging out the truck

There's inexplicably a village here.

There’s inexplicably a village here.

Morning couldn’t come quick enough, by 6 am everyone awoke caked in sand, the storm had passed, the truck and our driver still alive, but there was no sign of our wandering guide who had gone for help that following evening. None of us started to worry until after we broke camp and had a bit of breakfast, by 10 there was still no help arriving and not another passing car during those hours. Brian and I started making plans on how to trek back to the last town we visited on the Gps, (Brian was keeping track in his device)but that would have to wait until nightfall. Our driver decided to finally start digging out the truck by hand, with no other available option both of us started grabbing what brush we could find and began to dig out as well. Brian found the tire jack and we somehow got the car lifted out of the muck, shoved as many branches as we could under the sunken tires and that’s about when the guide and his shovel showed up. It took about an extra hour of digging but they got the truck unstuck with out the aid of the Russian Monster truck that also arrived with the guide and his shovel.

Dunes. Karakum Desert.

Dunes. Karakum Desert.

Preparing lunch.

Preparing lunch.

After that little calamity was over with we were again on our route but still behind schedule. There was no possible way that we were going to make it to our last desert destination “The Door to Hell” the burning gas creator 270 kms north of Ashgabat. I’m not exactly sure where we were at this moment but it was obvious that we needed to head straight to the capitol city from here. There was only one stop to be made, the man that came in the Russian Monster truck invited us back to his home for a wild hare lunch, which we happily accepted. Knowing that it was a long and bumpy road to Ashgabat, and we probably  wouldn’t  be stopping for dinner.

Receiving veggies.

Receiving veggies.

Livestock.

Livestock.

Arriving in Ashgabat at around 10 pm, the timing again becoming a bigger problem since everything has to be closed up by 11. There was just enough time to check into our hotel and run to the nearest restaurant for dinner which broke us completely. Then off for some sleep.

Our first day in the capitol was spent like many of our city days, trying to get chores done. We had to wash all of the sand out of our clothes and sleeping gear, get more passport photos, do a little food shopping, and find a place to exchange money. Turkmenistan is a cash economy only  and you can exchange only US Dollars for their currency the Manat. All this plus finding meals and a meeting with the owner of Owadan to talk about the tour problems had to be done before our 4pm trip to the gas creator aka “The Door to Hell.” So there wasn’t much time left to explore the city. I really didn’t think it was going to matter anyhow because you aren’t allowed to take pictures of public spaces or government buildings in Turkmenistan. It kind of ruins the idea of a city tour if you aren’t allowed to photograph anything. Eventually we got everything we needed done by the early afternoon before we were picked up for the out and back to the Gas Creator.

Salty, salty water.

Salty, salty water.

Andrei, our intrepid driver;

Andrei, our intrepid driver;

The Door to Hell is about a 3 and 1/2 hour drive North from Ashgabat on the main highway heading towards  Khiva, Uzbekistan. It’s a sight not to miss, if you do one thing with your limited time in Turkmenistan see this. Definitely worth all the trouble getting there. I’ll let the photos do the talking.

After visiting the gas creator of Darvaza, we made it straight back to Ashgabat that night hoping for some time in the morning to do a little more sightseeing. It really is an amazing city to see, wide boulevards, immaculate green spaces, all the buildings are large and covered in white mostly Italian Carrara marble, and the big markets selling everything from food stuffs to carpets. Brian really wanted to do some carpet shopping.

The Doorway to Hell.

The Doorway to Hell.

It's pretty big.

It’s pretty big.

By the time we woke up and were just about ready to do some sightseeing and touristy stuff we received a phone call asking us if we would be interviewed about our bicycle trip for the government news channel. The president had recently decided that bicycling was a good way for his citizens to get healthy (the average male life span is only 68 years) and the tourism board wanted to do what we thought would be a quick interview to help promote cycling. We have done things like this before for the local news  (in India) and agreed on the condition that it would be quick. This was our last day in Ashgabat we would be boarding an overnight train to the border that day and exiting the country. So this was our last chance to see Turkmenistan. The news media came for us at 1 pm and asked us to put on long-sleeved shirts and pants. The president himself would be watching this broadcast and they didn’t want our tattoos on TV, reluctantly we agreed. The temperature being over 95 degrees Fahrenheit or 35 C so the whole thing seemed a bit ridiculous. What we didn’t realize is that that wanted to film us and our bikes coming down the hill on the main freeway into Ashgabat and then interviewing us outside with one of their large marble buildings in the background, but this is what ended up happening. They plied us with promises to see the National Museum, driving tours of the city, and what ever else they could arrange. The entire ordeal took up all our remaining time in the city,  so after the interview was finished we were rushed to pick up or bags at the hotel and then moved on to catch our train. In the end we never got to actually do any of the things we wanted to in Ashgabat or the things promised to us. Our trip was very much government controlled and government approved. The biggest thing was that Brain really did want to buy a Turkmen carpet but was never given the chance before we were ruched to board our train to Turkmenabad.

On the plus side the train ride was great, we had our own little personal cabin, a little bit of food provided by Owadan, and tons of crazy stories to tell about our few moments in Turmenistan. I would love to visit Turkmenistan again but next time with a bit more time and a lot less interference. Hopefully that can happen someday soon?

Pontoon bridge. The Soviets used to drive tanks over this thing...

Pontoon bridge. The Soviets used to drive tanks over this thing…

President Turkmenbashi the Great. Or something.

President Turkmenbashi the Great. Or something.