Crossing Borders - Part 4: Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan

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May 7th 2009
Published: May 11th 2009
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If it takes a beer to tie you over the wait trying to get into Turkmenistan, bring a keg when you're trying to get out. Granted, I did not fly out from Ashgabat airport like most tourists would. Instead I took an overnight train (clearly Chinese manufactured - strangely familiar!) to Turkmenbashi, the coastal city in the far west, to get a boat across the Caspian Sea to Baku.

I knew that this would not be a straight forward affair: there is no timetable for the boats, they simply leave as soon as they are loaded with cargo. If there is no cargo they don't leave, and if the cargo is deemed to be of hazardous nature, they won't let you on board at all. Nonetheless, there is steady ferry traffic between the two cities, and I was fairly sure I stood a good chance of getting on one before long.

Good news came as soon as I arrived at the ferry terminal: two ferries were in port that morning, and one of them was bound to leave soon! Abdullah the guide, under strict instructions not to leave me until he had packed me off on the boat, went about finding out how to secure a ticket. Except that no one would tell him if I actually could get a ticket until they knew what the cargo was. And so we waited. And waited. And waited more. As the hours passed, there appeared to be no sign of any kind of progress and I was wondering if I would be able to get out at all.

The waiting room was a big white hall with a few benches and a TV turned to 'Turkmen Owazy', the traditional Turkmen music channel. When we first came in, there was a black and white video of an old man sitting on a rug playing the dutar, a traditional two-stringed plucked instrument. Abdullah proudly explained that the instrument had won international acclaim for its ability to play such a wide range of notes and variety of tunes with just two strings. A few hours into our wait even Abdullah had to admit that there were only so many notes the thing could crank out and turned the TV onto mute.

Waiting with us was an Azeri family of eight carrying so much luggage between them that they may as well have been moving house. Junior of the family, maybe 8 years old, whiled away the time by playing a car racing game on his dad's mobile, that was set to a soundtrack of a tinny version of Firestarter on loop. If the nine hour wait was itself not enough to do your head in, 'Turkmen Owazy' mixed with the Firestarter jingle certainly did the job.

At 6:30pm, after customs rifled through my bags and immigration hesitantly stamped my passport, Abdullah was finally released and I was on my way onto the boat. A lady with a little English and a lot of gold teeth showed me to my cabin. It felt a lot like Harwich to Hamburg - the English signs and a Holsten menu board betraying the boat's former life somewhere in that region.

We were only due to sail at 10pm, and given the track record in accuracy of the information I had been given all day I did not hold my breath. By the time it got dark I just went to bed and fell asleep.

I woke up half way through the night and again at dawn and it was absolutly still and silent. Great, I thought, another hold up, we haven't actually left port yet. But no, as soon as I got out on deck I saw that we were in the middle of the Caspian Sea, no land in sight, steadily chugging along away from the sun. It has to have been the calmest sailing ever!

And before long the skyline of Baku came into sight!

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13th May 2009

Your mail has inspired me....
to catch up on your blog - keeping this maintained including posting rather remarkable photos is one of the most impressive things about your journey. Getting hold of a functioning computer on internet can't have been easy in the 'Stans. Your mum told me that you'd reached the Black Sea. I spent a shockingly lazy school trip week on Golden Sands in Bulgaria (near Varga, one of your ports of call?) It won't be very much on your mind now but I've got some excellent (and mercifully short) material on Ecuador for your next exotic escapade.... Please don't "strip my link" (dire warning on the top of this box) Hurry up and get back, I've been been invited to dinner when you do... Chris

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