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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.