Crossing the Caspian Sea, From One End of Sanity to Another

It’s the journey, not the destination.” And that, despite the enticing sounds of this slogan branded on our truck Archie II, was a lesson we certainly learned during our Caspian Sea crossing.

We had of course been told this is notoriously changeable. There’s no official timetable for the ferry, it leaves when it’s full. We had to call the ticket office a couple of times to double check what was happening and the likelihood of us needing to have our bags packed and ready to go within an hour. But we knew what we were in for, our guides were used to the haphazard organisational nature of this ferry from Baku to Turkmenbashi, and we actually managed to get to the port and through customs in relatively good time, a whole day earlier than we thought. We were ahead of schedule.

The first night on the ferry was one of our group’s birthdays. Well stocked up with Georgian wine to celebrate, we had a great time settling in! We weren’t so worried that this crossing could take longer than the 16-17 hour sail time, depending on the minds of the officials at the port on the Turkmen side of the border. We’d sleep in, laze around, and surely be in Turkmenbashi by that afternoon, if not the next morning. On the afternoon of the second day, the boredom started to sink in, as we were all furiously reading the books we hadn’t already finished to distract us from the heat. Little did we know we should’ve taken our time, and made those precious leisure activities last for as long as possible. Instead of the overnight sail, and a potential one or two days waiting outside of port for Turkmen customs to clear us for docking, we had a total of more than 120 hours from port to port including customs.

The people on board were an interesting mix. Most were truck drivers, but they came from all over. The main nationalities were Turkish and Ukrainian, but there were Azeri and probably Turkmen as well. There was our group of ten, the truckies and two general passengers on board, as well as the crew. One of these passengers was a quiet Azeri lady, who slept in our cabin. Sadly, as we neither spoke Azeri, Turkmen or Russian, and she no English, we couldn’t get to know her well. She was extremely kind though, and when we explained we were celebrating a birthday (which involved me singing the ‘Happy Birthday’ song), she later quietly offered a gift to the birthday girl. After some very stilted conversation, we found out she lived in Baku and was visiting her mother. She and two others on board were observing Ramadan. The poor woman therefore only had one meal per day, and didn’t appear to have brought anything to do with her, so slept most of the time. As we finally prepared to dock and get off the boat on the fifth day, she sprayed me with her perfume. It was a wonderfully kind gesture, which may have also been a back handed compliment about the smell of everyone’s clothes five days in.

Up on the top deck, where the crew were quartered, there was an empty pool. The first two or three days, this stayed empty. But on the third and fourth day, the crew pumped seawater into it, and enjoyed themselves. At a lucky invitation, myself and a few others were invited to join the crew up on deck. The captain was wearing some very brightly coloured Hawaiian board shorts, pouring shots of vodka and eating watermelon, a complete contrast to his more usual surly demeanour on the control bridge we’d glimpsed through windows. The pool was probably only 2 square meters, but it was deep enough to jump in, feel refreshed, and come up with a big childish grin on my face. The moment my feet hit the water, any trace of cabin fever I might’ve been developing vanished – at least for a while.

A few men on the boat took the forced leisure time as an opportunity to do a little fishing. They took out some lines, tied whatever they had lying around on the end and threw them overboard. They sat around talking and waiting patiently for something to bite, then try to quickly lift up their catch. No rods, just a piece of fishing wire. They caught a few, and then salted and dried them, hanging them up on some spare rope nearby. It was nice to chat and watch them, even if our conversation was extremely limited by several language barriers, but it was a good reminder we could relax and enjoy the amazing inefficiency of the Turkmenbashi port and its customs officers.

Our other stroke of luck was the shower. I think that was a saving grace, and helped a few people keep their wits about them a little longer. The heat was everywhere, every day, especially when we got no breeze when the ferry anchored. Most of us had one set of clothes, enough for the overnight journey and an extra day, and maybe an extra shirt. So when we were all sweating buckets no realised we weren’t likely to be moving for a while, a shower was definitely welcome! Sometimes this ferry has showers, sometimes it doesn’t, and once the door to the shower was locked on a previous journey – think God we had access to it!

The food, we were told, was actually pretty good given stories we’d heard from previous travellers. There was fresh bread every day (though we sometimes had to beat the Ukrainian and Turkish truckers to it), and we usually had soup and pasta for lunch, and rice or pasta with meat for dinner. But by the third day of having a huge pile of plain greasy pasta with the equivalent of half a handful of meat, we were noticing the carb load diet. Perhaps our favourite meal was the breakfast where we were served nothing but stale biscuits and jam, with tea. Strangely, the next two breakfasts were far more hearty, and we still can’t quite work out where that morning’s rations went.

On the fourth day, most people had had enough. We seemed to be talking about leaving and the boat moving at every meal, and hallucinating if we’d heard the sounds of an anchor being hoisted up. Had we gotten closer to that ship, or was it just our imagination? The icing on the cake was when, at about 6 am on the fifth morning, and the ferry had most definitely been moving since 4 am, we were all on deck with fat smiles on our faces at the prospect of moving. We’d be there by breakfast time if all went well.

Too soon. Just twenty minutes later, the boat stopped, yet again. So close yet so far! We then waited for another few hours before finally getting permission to dock.

Going through the Turkmenistan customs at the port was an interesting ordeal. Once the ferry was unloaded of all the trucks, we made our way over to the immigration office. The entry forms weren’t in English, but thankfully we had a local guide to meet us there for this reason. The interrogation we received was definitely unexpected! We knew they were tough on medications, so had all packed our supplies in easy to find places, and carefully thrown out any trace of illegal substances such as codeine. But the officers were far more interested in quizzing us on our lives than they were about what we’d brought into the country. I was asked what my job was, what I studied, why I was coming to Turkmenistan, where I’d travelled to, what did the luggage tag on my bag left over from my last flight say, what was the picture on my passport cover Iand then ‘what is a kangaroo?’), if I was sure I was Australian, was my name Turkish (because apparently my last name should have been Turkish)….all harmless questions, borne purely out of curiosity. They made a token effort to look through my medicine supply, opened my saxophone case (I think they just wanted to look at it), and then I was off. One other member of our group got asked if the backgammon game she’d brought was hers, and surprised all the officers that women might play!
All in all, those 5 days were certainly not what anyone expected. We were extremely glad to be back on land, though I do think it marred our impressions of Turkmenistan a little. Hopefully the Darvaza gas crater makes up for it! We most definitely didn’t’ care about our destination of Turkmenbashi by the end of that fifth day, all we could think about was the crazy journey we’d had to get there.If nothing else, we have many stories to tell.

I am travelling with Dragoman, who specialise in overlanding adventures such as this leg from Tbilisi to Ashgabat. They made the best of the worst situation they could have!


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