**We’re currently in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, but we’re so spent from three days of tough driving that we’ll have to save our updates from the past few days for tomorrow (or the next time we have internet). For now, we’ll stick to the ferry adventure, but we promise to fill you in on Turkmenistan in no time!**
According to the captain’s log, we last checked in somewhere around the Georgia-Azerbaijan border. We had high hopes that we could fly through Azerbaijan in one day, take care of visa stuff the next day, and hop on a Turkmenistan-bound ferry the same evening. Well, that did not happen.
We made it across Azerbaijan just fine, caravaning with Boyz II Mon up and over the mountains and down to the coastal plain. Our little convoy made it to Baku just in time for a celebratory dinner along the shores of the Caspian.
Little did we know just how much time we would be spending along the shores of the Caspian.
The next day (Tuesday), we woke up early to head to the ridiculously hidden Turkmen embassy – it was nestled in a nondescript alley in an industrial part of the city, which we could only find thanks to GPS coordinates shared by another Rally team – and began the arduous visa-acquistion process required to enter Turkmenistan. Upon showing up at the embassy, our passport numbers were taken down and we were sent some three kilometers away to a bank where we could make some sort of payment.
We made it to the bank without problem, and then to a passport photo office, then back to the embassy, where, after we waited in a growing line of other rallyers for nearly an hour, our passports were ceremoniously adorned with the coveted Turkmenistan visa sticker. So far, so good.
Our spirits high, we headed down to the cargo port from where the “ferry” was rumored to depart, in hopes of securing passage that evening. We found the ticket office, but were told to come back at 10AM the next day.
Now this next part of the story is in log form, a medium we’ve chosen since time and duration are integral themes, as you will see:
10:00AM (Wednesday): We show up at the ferry terminal. There’s no sign of the woman we spoke with at the ticket office yesterday. Twelve other rally teams slowly join us, and together wait outside the gates. No one (including the young customs officials who saunter around the premises, smoking and cracking jokes amongst themselves), knows much of anything. It’s really hot outside. We seek refuge in the shade of a diesel pipeline.
2:00PM: A local fixer arrives, and assures us that, for the princely sum of $50USD per team, he will help us clear customs and acquire the necessary ferry tickets. As he is the only person at the dock who speaks a word of English, we reluctantly oblige, along with every other team.
3:00PM: All of the rally teams are ushered through the gate and onto a giant shipping dock. Our cars clear customs, and thus are no longer allowed to drive back into Azerbaijan.
5:00PM: The Rubikhans pay their first bribe of the trip when Cooper returns from a quick grocery run and is subsequently forbidden from bringing alcohol through customs. After a tense and lengthy negotiation process, Cooper successfully offers the guards one 12-ounce fruit smoothie in exchange for free passage for his beers.
6:00PM: Benjie joins representatives from a few teams to pick up KFC for us from what is surely the largest KFC in the world. We’re forever grateful.
1:00AM: I (Nick) realize we’re probably not boarding tonight, so I set up my sleeping bag by the car for a grim night’s sleep out on the dock.
2:00AM: Cooper spots a cargo freighter named the Professor Gül approaching the docks. This is the boat we’re to take to Turkmenistan. It’s already twelve hours late.
2:45AM: The immigration officers promptly wake everyone up and rush us through their office before sending our cars over to our vessel, the aptly named Professor Gül (pronounced ‘Ghoul’).
4:30AM: we’re finally allowed to board the Ghoul, and we park our cars on the very bottom deck of the ship. This becomes important later on. We promptly pass out in the ship’s canteen, since all of the cabins are apparently filled with snoring Azeri sailors.
7:30AM: We’re not-so-gently woken up by a very lound and angry woman, who shows us to our proper cabins through a masterful routine of pointing, yelling, and calling everyone “Francis.” It’s Thursday now. Peering out the windows, we’re dismayed to find that the ferry is still in port. So, we take to exploring the noble Ghoul.
Built in the 1980s, the Ghoul has been in service ever since, and it doesn’t seem like a single piece of equipment, furniture, or paint had been replaced since that time. It is a hulking, rusted relic of the golden age of Caspian Sea shipping (based on our extensive knowledge about the history of Caspian Sea shipping).
But nothing is off limits, and so we wander from the bow to the stern, up and down decks, and even into the emergency escape vessels. The 30-odd rallyers share the ship with the crew and several other passengers, eating our stored food, drinking our stored vodka and convivially passing the time – and there is certainly time to pass because…
5:15PM: The ferry finally leaves port, over 31 hours after we arrived at the terminal. A massive cheer erupts from the ralliers.
1:00PM (Friday): The ferry docks in Turkmenbashi, and we are immediately shooed down to our cars in the bowels of the ship by the same nameless lady who unceremoniously woke us up the previous morning.
Remember how I said our cars were at the very bottom? This is important because we must now wait for every single truck to offload before we can even think of getting off the ship. So we impatiently linger in the hot, stuffy, cargo hull – chugging water and trying to move as little as possible. Occassionally, we sneak up to the upper decks for some fresh air, but the crazy “Francis” lady inevitably spots us and corrals us back down into the hull.
4:30PM: The door opens and we’re finally able to drive off the boat – and right into the Turkmenistan border!
The Turkmen immigration process is the most absurd and horrible bureaucratic nightmare we’ve ever encountered. It deserves its own 16-step subsection. (I know you may be bored reading all of this, but consider it part of the experience. It’s almost like you’re here with us!):
1) Go one-by-one to a booth where your passports are returned (the ship had held onto them)
2) Go to a 2nd booth to pay the $12 fee to get your passport back, acquire receipt
3) Return to the first booth to hand in receipt, receive indecipherable random form
4) Take indecipherable form to an office, receive another indecipherable form
5) Take all forms to a 2nd office, get something stamped
6) Take forms to a 3rd office, get another stamp
7) Go around building to a 4th office where a man tells you he needs six drivers at a time in order to bestow yet another indecipherable form
8) After waiting for five more drivers, get forms and head to Ticket Office to trade in form for another indecipherable form
9) Take new form to 2nd booth (from before!), pay $158 for some reason or another, receive another receipt
10) Take all forms to 5th office to get signed, stamped, whatevered by someone who looks somewhat more official. Receive new indecipherable form
11) Take newest form to 6th office to get stamped
12) Take same form to 7th office to get stamped and signed
13) Return to 5th office to turn in form
14) Fill out customs declaration
15) Get car searched by military officer in green forest camo (because no one told him that Turkmenistan is entirely desert)
16) Turn in one of the dozen or so accumulated forms to man at gate, revel in your freedom
9:30PM: we leave the border and promptly find a hotel, restaurant, and a round of cold beers. It is Friday night after all…
More to come, as soon as we find the time (and internet) to upload another post!
Nick, Cooper, Benjie
Azerbaijan, in a nutshell
Main entrance to the Turkmenistan embassy
Old City, Baku
Baku skyline. (Not pictured: the world’s second-tallest flagpole)
Lounging on the dock, waiting (indefinitely) for the ferry
Minutes before we loaded our cars onto the Professor Gül
The next morning: still in port
Inspecting the escape vessels
At long last, we leave Baku behind!
The Rubikhans pose on the Gül’s afterdeck
The Turkmenistan national fleet