Crossing the Rubikhan

Caspian Purgatory (and into the ‘Stans)

Posted on 12 Aug 2014 in Uncategorized | 4 comments

**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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAzerbaijan, in a nutshell

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMain entrance to the Turkmenistan embassy

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOld City, Baku

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABaku skyline. (Not pictured: the world’s second-tallest flagpole)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALounging on the dock, waiting (indefinitely) for the ferry

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMinutes before we loaded our cars onto the Professor Gül

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe next morning: still in port

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAInspecting the escape vessels

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt long last, we leave Baku behind!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Rubikhans pose on the Gül’s afterdeck

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAApproaching Turkmenbashi

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Turkmenistan national fleet

4 comments

  1. Barbara Seiders / August 12th, 2014 2:14

    Great update. Sounds like the Rally is being a typical Rally, spending more time waiting to travel or to cross borders than actually traveling! I’ve got to say as a world traveling ’77, the picture of one of you guys at the entrance to the Turkmenistan Embassy in a D’mouth shirt made me a little misty eyed! Also, nice hammock! Safe travels, gentlemen!

    Reply

  2. Peggy / August 12th, 2014 15:12

    I am trying to decide if I should laugh or cry for you?. This is quite the blog….as always, extremely well written, but YUCK!! I bet more than once during the past few days you questioned your decision to spend your summers Crossing the Rubikhan?!?!? I mean you could be working in some 2/ 7 job in NYC wearing ties and jackets and …..oh wait…at least one of you will be doing that soon. 🙂
    Get some rest and know your followers are cheering you along every step of the way. Keep enjoying. We love your reports and photos. xo Aunt Peggy

    Reply

    • Peggy / August 12th, 2014 15:15

      24/7 job….excuse the many typos.

      Reply

  3. datanner@gmail.com / August 12th, 2014 17:24

    Surreal!! A lifetime of adventures and stories in just a couple of months. Keep the stories and pictures coming and enjoy the ‘stans!! David

    Reply

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