The big question at the beginning of a grand trip was: when would we arrive in Turkmenbashy? From the day I decided to arrive in Turkmenistan by boat instead of plane, I was aware that I was choosing the difficult way over the easy one. The advantage was practical: arriving in the west of the country would allow for a one-way trek through it, instead of arriving in Ashgabat, traveling west and then east again, inevitably using the same road. The other advantage: a choice for the unknown, the unpredictable, and therefore, a choice for adventure. And we got what we wanted. After arranging the mandatory tour through a Turkmen agency, we had to fix our arrival date before we could complete the visa application process. After reading several stories of other travelers who had done so before, we realized that this was very much a hit and miss thing. First of all, there is no scheduled passenger ferry; the only way to cross is to take a cargo ship. Depending on the ship and the cargo, the freighter does or does not accept incidental passengers on board. Some said there could be up to four boats a day, where others indicated that there could be several days without a boat at all. While the crossing should normally take some 14 hours, it was apparently also possible that it could take up to 6 days, depending on the weather conditions. All in all, several insecure factors that could not be influenced and did not make planning any easier.
We arrived in Baku according to our fastest planning, and realized that even if there would be a boat that day, we would not be allowed to take it since our visa for Turkmenistan was only valid two days later. So we explored the Azeri capital that afternoon, ending up near the dock from which the ferry would depart. We were sent to a small, white house, in which there was a tiny, closed window with the word Kassa written over it. The door was also locked, but when we knocked, a female voice told us to wait a few minutes. Once inside, she was adamant we close the door - we would find out that Elmina, as she was called, did not seem to like daylight or fresh air, and preferred to stay inside her cramped room. She told us to come back the next morning at 10am, and that yes, Inshallah, there would be a possibility to leave. We arrived a little late the next morning, and she seemed less sure that there would be a boat at all - also because the crane used to load cargo seemed broken, and asked us to be back at 2. Carrying all our luggage and not wanting to abandon the area, we installed ourselves for several hours at an outside restaurant where we had breakfast. When we finally returned to the other office (it turned out there were two), a uniformed man seemed very optimistic and took us back to the office of Elmina. But she was perhaps even less sure about our chances than a few hours before, and we had a drink at a small shop across the street. We started wondering where we should spend the night, when a man took Elmina from her own office to the other one, and when she came out, she gave us a sign that we did not understand initially. We soon found out she had good news, and we were finally allowed to buy tickets for the boat. She wrote the tickets for the "Dagestan", took the money, the tip money for herself automatically included in the price. Of course, Elmina did not have a clue about the departure time, but told us to contact the harbour police closer to the boat area. There, we learnt that the boat to Kazakhstan was still to leave before our boat could even dock, and we were advised to come back around 8pm. We ended up dumping our luggage at our breakfast place, and made another tour of the city on foot. Of course, when we were back at the police post at 8, nothing much had happened, and we ended up chatting with the police who appeared a little apprehensive of my iPhone, and ended up eating ice cream and drinking champagne with them. Then, suddenly, we were ushered over to the office, and finally did the formalities to leave Azerbaijan and enter the boat. We were shown our cabin by a robust, yet short woman, and explored the boat a little. Nothing at all seemed to happen around the ship. To our untrained eyes, it seemed that there was no more space for cargo - yet there was no movement at all. It would actually take another five hours before we finally detected movement in the ship. By that time, daylight was on its way back to the earth again in this part of the world.
When we woke up and looked through through the port-hole we saw sea all around. So we had left after all! I had sent a message to our compulsory guide in Turkmenistan, but without a departure time. Now, of course, there was now way to contact her anymore. We just hoped that by knowing the name of the ship we were on, she would be able figure out herself. For now, we could only enjoy the crossing as much as possible. For starters, we started exploring the ship we had only seen in the dark of the night. Our cabin was pretty basic, with a broken sink, the upper bed which was half loose, and the floor carpet that had seen shinier days. The rest of the boat have us a similar impression: an old vessel, which just doing what it had to do: transport mostly trucks and train carriages across the Caspian Sea. It was certainly not your luxurious cruise ship. But then again, we knew that from the start. The most remarkable thing on the "Dagestan": it was virtually empty. We came across large rooms without a person. We walked the deck: we were the only ones. It was when we came to the restaurant - we felt like having something to eat - when we ran into the first passenger. A lone Turkish truck driver, with whom we had an interesting conversation. He could just not believe we were going to travel in Turkmenistan. According to him, the people were awful, the food was even worse, and it was a dirty country. The manager of the restaurant, not having anything to do, joined in our conversation. It became especially interesting when we took out a world map, and the manager wanted to impress us with his geographical knowledge. Sitting over the map, pointing out places on the world we were quite sure he had never been even close to. He gave the impression of being a general overseeing future battle fields, while recounting those of the past. It was time to go out and get some sun. Plenty of opportunity for that: not surprisingly, the entire sundeck turned out to be utterly empty. In a distance, we saw oil platforms, but otherwise, a perfectly calm Caspian Sea all around us. We paid a visit to the captain, who proudly showed us his navigation deck, before we returned to take more sun. Sooner than we thought, we started to discern the contours of low mountains of Turkmenistan. Slowly but surely, they turned into real mountains - and after even more time, we could finally detect details: roads, houses, cars driving - and people walking. So far, our journey had been a very relaxed one, we did not have to worry about anything; it had all been very easy. We realized that now, we were close to starting our real adventure: crossing Central Asia. After we had navigated the difficult entry, and were lucky enough to find an unoccupied pier - the main reason for sometimes very long delays of the boat - the formalities started. During a short interview by Turkmen officials who came aboard to examine the few passengers (to our surprise, there were 6 other passengers), we suddenly noticed the grim woman who had shown us our cabin the night before. It seemed she had undergone a total make-over. Very short skirt, high heeled shoes, heavy make-up, and seductive eyes - she was on the hunt and the few men on the boat had noticed. We would never know how, and with whom, she would end up, as we were ushered to the lower deck and into the immigration office. This was the moment we first met our guide - and her first question was if the voyage had not been very tiring and dirty, and whether we were not happy to be off the ship. On the contrary - we had thoroughly enjoyed it, and could easily have continued for another day. But we were here to visit Turkmenistan - we spent several hours here to clear immigration and customs before we could finally leave the harbour. With a bit of nostalgia, we looked around to say goodbye to the "Dagestan".
Around the World in 80 Clicks
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Baku-Turkmenbashy Ferry (Azerbaijan). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Baku-Turkmenbashy Ferry. Read more about this site.