Judging from the comments received, several of you thought our train adventures had elements of difficulty. Wait until you hear about our ferry trip from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan.
We arrived in the lovely new port facilities which include a hotel and fancy terminal building at lunch time on 18 October. Less than a year old, the hotel already has cracked marble steps etc. But that’s another story.
We arrived to hear the good news that the ferry we were catching would arrive at about 4pm that day. It needs about 24 hours to unload and reload. This is because of the tight customs controls and that most of the cargo space on the ferry is occupied by large transport trucks. We checked into the port hotel. Our guide, who was hired to remain with us until we were safely through the doors exiting Turkmenistan, left. He had another assignment.
We whiled away the afternoon hand washing laundry in the sink – getting rid of desert sand and grime – and stringing drying lines in our rooms.
An early night. The next morning we checked on the proposed departure time. We were told later in the afternoon. Checkout was at noon. We checked out, dawdled over lunch, checked ferry times. We were told to go to the terminal at 6pm. The ferry would depart at 8pm or so.
We whiled away more time then went to the terminal.
Confusing clusters of people were gathered by the gate. Pat went to check on what the cluster was about and talked to an English tourist, who was safely tucked away behind the rope and near an exit door. His guide told us to come over and he’d help us. This he did and soon we too were on the uncluttered side of the rope. This is clearly what our long-gone guide should have been doing for us.
The English man – Alan, the three of us and a Swiss couple were soon being whisked along through the complex multiple-stops exit immigration process. Thumb prints, eye scans, pictures, close passport inspections, notations made digitally and in a hand written ledger.
Finally into a crisp clean waiting lounge. Here we met a lovely young woman from the UK who had spent the past 24 hours in this lounge because her visa had expired the previous day.
We waited for an hour or so then boarded the ferry. No cabins were available for us as they are all taken by the many truck drivers who travel with their rigs. Fair enough.
We eight tourists – we’d been joined by a young woman from Calgary – settled into seats arranged in groups of three. The arm rests raised so three seats had the potential of creating space for sleeping horizontally.
By 11pm the ferry had yet to move but we lay down, covered ourselves with sleeping bags or jackets etc and went to sleep. When we woke in the morning – around 7 or so for most of us – we were exactly where we’d been the night before. We’d not moved an inch.
Finally at about 8:30am on 20 Oct, the ferry left on it’s 13 hour crossing of the Caspian Sea.
An uneventful crossing. We passed a couple of other ships and several large oil platforms. The sea was calm. We were given two meals. Not marvellous but somewhat edible. We chatted and visited with our new friends and counted the hours.
We all had a bit too much Turkmenistan cash left over and despite our best efforts we’d not been able to exchange it before leaving the country. No surprise really, Turkmen seem to despise and avoid their country’s currency. I went to the pursers desk and asked the causally dressed woman there if I could exchange 150.00 Turkmen manat. A fellow passenger immediately said she’d take it off my hands for USD 5.00. On the black market 150.00 manat is worth 15.00 USD. At a bank it is worth about 42.00 USD. I said I’d pass. An enormous row broke out with the behind-the-counter woman eliciting the reluctant help of several passengers to loudly discuss the merits of the “Black Bazaar” with me and anyone else who cared to listen. The Black Bazaar is of course her rendition of the Black Market. What amazed us was the volume of this harangue. No one seemed too concerned about advertising the Black Bazaar.
We decided to keep our worthless Turkmen manat just to annoy the hell out of these shysters.
So if you are planning a trip to Turkmenistan – have we got a deal for you!
Finally at about 8pm we docked at a port about 50 kms south of Baku. We were all looking forward to getting off the damn boat. About three hours later we did. It took three hours for our passports to be returned, for the truck drivers to be processed and for the few other passengers to slowly make their way through immigration. For a good portion of that time, we stood with our packs on in a crush of people all struggling to be first out the doors after the drivers who kept clambering through the throng. Total Asian confusion at it’s best.
Once off the boat – down a gangplank with oddly slanting stairs so it was like climbing down on rungs, not stepping down stairs – and on the other side of immigration, we had to take a bus through the port to where the taxis waited outside. Inconceivably, the bus driver would not stop and when various taxis tried to stop him by driving in front, he tried to run them down. We passengers stared shouting at the bus driver and he finally stopped and we piled off. It was about 11pm.
Our taxi driver had quite a time finding the apartment we are staying in. It is about the oldest apartment building still standing in Baku – built without much finesse in early Soviet times.
But that is part of the next chapter.
Helen is leaving us here in Baku. She’s not as interested in Asia Minor as she was in Central Asia and her family and friends in France are a more compelling attraction. She may join us for our last few days in Istanbul.
More about Azerbaijan in the next chapter.