Caspian Sea Shenanigans

I’m writing this around midday on Tuesday as we sit anchored in the Caspian Sea amongst over 50 other vessels with Turkmenbashi in the distance waiting for word that we can enter the port. The trip appeared to be on course for a mid-Monday arrival when we heard that the President was in town and the port had been closed!

Fast forward some 24 hours later and we wait.  When we were first told about this ridiculous situation, our earliest arrival was estimated to be Tuesday evening. Late last night we heard it could be 3-5 days (which would make sense given the number of vessels needing to dock and the time it would take to park and offload) while this morning, different people have heard we’ll be docking at 1, 2 and 5 pm.

Clearly, no-one really knows so to get your hopes up is futile. As ridiculous as it sounds, when we drive off, we drive off and to second guess and ask around is pointless. It’s just incredible to think that an international port has been closed for this. There must be over 5,000 people on board all the boats who have been hugely inconvenienced while people dock side are no doubt waiting for their supplies and the like.

One goes through many emotions in a situation like this. There is obviously deep frustration and even anger. We’ve put so much effort, time and money into this trip and as each day passes, we have to change plans and compromise on what we wanted to do. You also second guess yourself – perhaps we could have made Iran work and did we make the correct decision to catch the ferry?

At the same time, you realise things could always be worse. Firstly, we’re still heading east and to date, we haven’t been sent back.  The weather’s great (if super hot during the day) while it’s not ridiculously crowded and we’re fairly comfortable. We have (limited) food and water as well as cards and books to keep us busy.

Most importantly, we’re with fantastic people who we met at the ticket office on Sunday. These guys are doing the Mongolian Charity Rally and are also heading to Mongolia via Central Asia. We’ve been pooling what we have to cook together at night, sharing food during the day and keeping ourselves entertained with cards and games.

Thankfully, we got a 10 day visa so that’s not a concern although for the guys we’re with, and many of the truck drivers, their 5 day visa may well expire on board with no clear indication of what will happen when we do (hopefully) dock.

We knew when we signed up for this rally that things would very likely go wrong. Some 30% of teams don’t even make it to Mongolia and this will no doubt go into next year’s handbook as an example of where things can go horribly wrong.

It’s been a long few days of waiting around. We had been unable to find any information whatsoever on the ferry to Turkmenbashi. We had heard that it was a cargo vessel that took cars and passengers where space permitted and that no time-table existed. We’d read it costs $50-$500 and could take 16 – 40 hours. Our initial decision to go via Iran was as a result of just this – too much was out of hands and the ferry could potentially mess up all our plans. But with the change in the Iranian visa situation, we felt that the ferry option was the better of two bad choices.

Driving into Baku late Saturday night, we were stunned by what we saw. The main street is lined with brightly lit-up buildings and fancy stores from Armani to Rolex while expensive cars weave in and out of traffic.Clearly this is a country with money and it wants the world to know that.

One set of 3 adjacent towers has been designed to look like flames and displays an impressive rotating three-design light show. The first shows a combination of red and yellow to give the effects of flames, the second shows the colours of the flag and the third, and to my mind the most impressive, shows one person waving the flag on each tower. I think the best word to describe the city is ostentatious.

Baku by night
Baku by night

Given the scene we’d driven into, we had expected to see a well sign-posted “Porto Sign” directing us to a street leading to said port. Instead, we drove round town for at least 30 minutes until we found the ‘Porto’ road – a dimly-lit dirt track with no signage whatsoever. Perhaps this was a sign of things to come.

After sleeping in the car in the port parking lot with views of the Hilton, we were outside the ticket as instructed the night before at 9. Just after 10, the office opened but we were told this was the motorbike and bicycle office, ours was next door and would open at 11.  When it opened after 11, that office would direct us to a new port where, after waiting for 2 hours, we were issued with our tickets.

As for the price? $100/person and $50/m for the car plus some “official government taxes”. We had read to pay in dollars but in hindsight it would have been better to go draw the necessary Manat – the ticket is in local currency  and you get fleeced on the exchange rate by paying in dollars.

After a delicious picnic of bread and cheese in the shade of the electricity pylon and a few further hours of waiting, we were allowed to drive into the port where further waiting outside the ticket office ensued. The frisbee was very quickly out before a customs official arrived with a PC to check our passports and stamp us out of the country

The endless wait for the Baku-Turkmenbashi ferry with
The endless wait for the Baku-Turkmenbashi ferry with

The waiting wasn’t yet over, it had just changed place and this time we waited next to the ferry. After cooking a delicious pasta dinner together and enjoying a game of ferry-side cricket before the ball ended up in the Caspian Sea, we boarded at around 11pm and just after midnight, almost 24 hours after first arriving at the port, we were en route!

We’d stocked up on vodka and it was a fun night drinking with new friends, both the other teams we’d met and local truck drivers who were keen to get involved in the “super-drink”. We were invited for a delicious breakfast with the drivers in the morning before our worst fears were realised. With land just sighted, word came through that the President was in town and the port had been closed!

As I’m writing this, we have just started moving again. Immediately, spirits are raised and people are starting to pack up. I’ll finish this off when we’re on land, which I sincerely hope will be tonight.

I’m finishing this off a week later at the hostel in Samarkand in Uzbekistan as there was no internet access in Turkmenistan. We were in fact able to dock that afternoon but would only enter the country some seven hours later. That’s without doubt the longest I’ve ever spent at a border and I’ll write more in our next blog about Turkmenistan.

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