A transit visa gives me 5 days to enter and arrive at my designated exit point. I entered via Farap in the South East of Turkmenistan and stayed the first night in Mary. This gave an opportunity to visit the ancient ruins at Merv. Yes, they are ruins but fascinating and atmospheric. This was once one of the most important centres of Islam in the world. It’s a huge site and each of them is linked by a small tarmac road. I went early in the morning and it was really worthwhile.
Mary itself has quite a few of those BWBs (Big White Buildings) with kitsch gold ornamentation but it seemed comparatively relaxed overall, apart from discovering a police radar trap every kilometre for 10 kilometres! I then drove to Ashgabat and its sterile rows of BWBs, its centre devoid of people, save Policemen and women furiously polishing steel motorway barriers (no, I’m not joking). Although I wished I had ventured further into the ‘burbs to try and understand the place, I stayed in the hotel, getting frustrated at the strangely fluctuating internet connections. Again my internet was intercepted. Facebook is banned, Whatsapp and Skype are banned. Even the BBC news website is unavailable. There is a curfew which prevents people being on the street after 11pm. The manicured parks and pathways are a piece of self-aggrandising nonsense. It’s a vanity project, part 1984, part Disney. OK, as you might have guessed, I loathed it. I say this with no disrespect to the people (and I didn’t meet an unpleasant one, apart from minions in uniform who were only doing what they were told) and I mean no insult to the government regime who did after all, let me enter their country as a guest. But seeing and hearing stories of people really struggling to lead a normal life in a country with one of the largest natural resources in the world (gas and oil) and seeing such grandiose, meaningless, boastful projects such as Ashgabat stuck in my craw. As you might have guessed, I feel very angry about it and I will return to the subject another time. Oh, by the way, foreigners cannot buy a SIM card there so there is no voice or SMS contact possible.
For now, I’d like to explain my last few days spent in Turkmenistan. It’s a long write up but I ask that you have to imagine just how long it felt for me, going through it, in real time. It might be a little like that episode of Breaking Bad where a fly entered the laboratory. An entire episode was devoted to the irritating, endless hunt for the fly. Or perhaps a bit like the film with Tom Hanks as the lead (The Terminal) where he was stuck in an airport lounge for ages.
I arrived at the port of Turkmenbashy on Tuesday afternoon. My visa was due to expire at midnight on Thursday, so plenty of time. There is usually a ferry every day (OK, probably a cranky old Azerbaijan one) and although they do not run to a fixed schedule, one can normal catch one every day. My preferred option was the slightly more expensive Turkmenistan ferry. There are two of them. They are relatively new and much faster. However, one has been out of action for months so the service is reliant on just the remaining ship. However, there is no official confirmation that the broken one is actually broken so it seems to turn up at the port, lower its cargo bridge and sit there, before raising it again to make way for the one ferry which does work. I was told that the next ferry would probably be leaving the next morning and there were actually seats available. I asked about any Azerbaijan ferries but was told that although these boats could take trucks and their drivers, cars and their drivers were not able to board due to ‘safety reasons’. There is nowhere on the internet which mentions this. I think it was just a ruse to get me to buy the Turkmenistan ferry – a simple trade war. I asked for confirmation of this policy or a way round it and I was told that it would be up to Port Director to make a special case for me. He refused to exempt me. Why exactly Truck Drivers’ lives are less important than mine when it comes to personal safety escapes me, and them obviously.
With my visa still current, I stayed at the big white hotel in the town. The glitzy new port hotel was full of people who hoped to take the ferry that day, but it was cancelled. My hotel was described as 5 star but it was a shabby ruin of poor maintenance, stank of fags and was full of staff glued to their phones and TVs all around playing soft porn Russian ‘eurotrash’ pop videos. I digress.
In the evening, I went back to the port and received further confirmation that the ferry would probably be leaving in the afternoon, not the morning. Since my last ferry experience was fairly grim, I decided to go and buy my ticket. It cost $300 for the car and $100 for me. I also paid a further $30 for a ‘lux’ cabin, with the all important en suite. Nationals pay only about a quarter of the price.
I couldn’t understand why people kept saying ‘probably’ less than 24 hours before the ferry was due to depart but I now know it’s because nobody actually has any idea and the staff don’t want to upset you and so basically tell you what you want to hear. Since I had no option of another ferry under another flag, I just had to wait. With no contact with the outside world it was impossible to corroborate the recent ‘ban’ on Azerbaijan ferries and non truckie drivers. It occurred to me that if there is no crossing schedule, then no ferry can ever be shown to be late. Whilst on the subject of ‘stats’, officially, there is no crime in Turkmenistan. Nope, no Alcoholic ever pops into a shop and nicks a bottle of vodka – ever. Why have a police force then?
In the morning (Wednesday), I went back to the ferry terminal and was told that it would now not be leaving that day but they ‘hoped’ it would leave in the morning the next day. That night I stayed at the port hotel which despite being only a few years old, was also crumbling, apart from the swanky, showpiece foyer. It also had no wi-fi which is odd for a nearly new building - and for $100 a night, totally unacceptable. So I went to buy a wi-fi pass from a kiosk in the hotel but this also is ‘not for foreigners’. I was number 53 on the vehicle list out of 55, so I congratulated myself on the certainty brought about by my decision the night before to get a ticket.
By noon (Thursday), I had to check out of the hotel so I went to the terminal building – yet another new building in yes, you guessed it, white with gold trimmings for added kitsch. I just had to sit and wait. The room was full of other people just waiting and hoping for a departure sometime soon. There was a large video screen playing a 30-minute reel of songs and traditional music. Obviously I couldn’t understand any of the lyrics but as it featured large scale choreographed dancing in front of lots of the previously referred to white buildings and monuments interspersed with textile looms, I can only assume many of the songs thanked the gracious government for their wisdom in producing yet another record breaking cotton harvest, or some other loathsome propaganda. Obviously, I said nothing about them and just waited patiently. But I was getting nervous that my visa was due to expire at midnight that day.
After about 8 hours, I was told to take my car to the cargo area for customs clearance. A few admin hiccups and the usual hanging about, my car (and me) were ‘airside’ cleared just 15 minutes before midnight. I was then led into a departure lounge.
I was the only one in there. It was round, very brightly lit, with white ceramic floor tiles and huge double glazed windows. There were aircraft style seats for about 50 people, signs for a restaurant, duty free shop and children’s play area, why even a billiards room (yes weird I know). My visa had expired and I had to stay there until the ferry left. I asked when that might be and was told the usual garbage.
I was later to find out that, like many other buildings, this one was just a sham. Every single one of the facilities was closed and it seemed permanently so. There were loos but two out the three of them were broken and out of order. The seals were falling off the double glazed windows. I could have done a better job on the tiling, it was of such poor quality. Doors scraped against the tiles as they were not fitted true. I won’t go on.
A young policemen with A Very Large Cap told me to sit down on one the seats. I had been sitting for blimmin ages and I wasn’t going to sit down when told to, whatever the size of his cap. I said “нет” and gestured with my fingers that I wanted to walk about a bit. He wasn’t happy. I was challenging him. And this was round one, to me I think hehe. I said I wanted to have a pee and he got up from his desk and escorted me in and waited behind me as I pee’d. I was beginning to realise that I was under the complete control of a foreign power, and a not very pleasant one at that. OK, round two to him perhaps because, whilst I could walk the lounge if I wanted, he could watch me pee if he wanted. I felt we weren’t going to bond much. But as it was about 1am, I decided to lay across 3 chairs and try to get some sleep. It wasn’t noisy but it was extremely brightly lit. There were four TV screens showing that horrid glorious cotton harvest video. Fortunately the sound was turned down. It was a little cold as the aircon was blasting out so I opened a couple of windows for it to warm up a bit (sounds odd I know).
In the morning (Friday), I again wandered about, tsk tsk. A ferry was starting its engines and so I thought ‘yesss’ it’s, getting ready for loading. Its crew passed me and boarded. However, by the afternoon, it raised its doors and prepared to leave. It had a technical fault, although I suspected from other sources, this was not a one-off and it hadn’t operated for months. It was just making way for its sister ship. My guard with the Very Large Cap had vanished, off shift but was replaced by another but this time in military fatigues and a camouflage sort of Tilley floppy hat. He was friendly, just 22 years of age. He gestured to me very carefully, due to the CCTV, if I had a cigarette. I had, for smoothing the way with corrupt border officials and gestured that they were in the car. I was allowed to go to it, watched by the guard from above. As well as the cigarette, I gathered up some snacks, water and a Russian phrase book. I had also bought some fruit but due to the high night-time temperatures, these were just a fizzy mush. Once back, extremely convert actions were required by him to pass the offending tobacco. I put it inside my passport and offered it to him for inspection. He took it, wrote down some details in a book and allowed the cigarette to fall from my passport into his book. I went for a wash and brush up. There was no shower, just a basin. But, hey, the ferry was going and it was only one night in a lounge after all. My proffered cigarette had at least allowed me a wash unsupervised.
By the afternoon, I was, not unsurprisingly, hungry. I’d had a couple of mini Bounty bars and some cocktail biscuits but nothing else for over 24 hours. I approached the guard and, armed with my phrase book, said that I needed to eat. There was a bit of chitchat on the radio and he asked me to follow him. We went back through customs control, across the road outside the terminal to the Border Guards’ staff restaurant. They were all very friendly and, given the language barrier, led me to the kitchen where the lids of huge pans were opened to enable me to sniff and see the contents. The female cooks stood in a line and smiled proudly. I felt a bit like Prince Charles inspecting a newly opened hospital kitchen facility. It was a bit of a hobson’s choice between a brown, oily, beefy stew or boiled chicken and rice. I choose the latter, snaffled 3 soft drinks bottles and paid about £4 in Monat. I then went back to the lounge to erm feast upon it. It was OK., just, but mainly because I was ravenous. I tried the cigarette approach again and was able to go to the car once more and get some fresh clothes. The Guard had a little booklet of phrases in Turkmen, Russian and English. He wanted to revise. “Doh yoo haf any licker in your baggage” he asked. I nodded encouragingly and responded with “Yes, 10 litres”.
There was no sign of any loading of the ferry. I lay across the chairs for another few hours sleep. That night the chicken and rice caused a major, 'full frontal assault by Khenghis Khan', just to add to my discomfort.
Saturday morning brought no news of a ferry and, just to complicate matters further, the wind was beginning to blow strongly. I went to the car via a request for medicines and brewed up a cup of coffee with the 12V kettle. More fresh clothes and an unsupervised wash.
There was more English revision with the guard and with another replacement later that day.
I was beginning to get very cross and I was also becoming weary through lack of decent sleep. I had a Silk Road travel book but that was about it. I could have done something on the PC but I didn’t really want to alert them to the fact I had it or else I may have to forfeit some photos of Ashgabat I had stored on it. And, of course, no internet.
I decided to rebel, but I wasn’t sure how. My first rebellion was rather symbolic but I gathered up the meal from the previous day (they gave me so much I thought I might hang on to it but given it impact on my system and the lack of a cool space, I decided to be cautious).
The waste bin was divided into cans, organic waste and paper. I threw my food into the cans section. I didn’t expect the regime to fall immediately as a result of this subversive action but it was a step. And I felt better for it.
Due to a bit of a technology error, all the music I had stored on my phone was sitting in the cloud, inaccessible. But for some reason, just three songs were still playable. Sittin’ on the dock of a bay was one and Catch the wind by Donavon was another. I have no idea how SClub7’s Reach for the Stars got there but this was my chosen rebellion number two. I needed only to play it a few times to subvert the entire nation. Trouble was, the guard rather liked it. Now he wasn’t exactly raising his arms at the chorus but these things take time. Soon enough, I reckoned, he’d be on top of his desk, fatigues around his ankles, doing some fine Turkmen moves before he’s caught on the CCTV and dragged away. I decided it’d work virally from that point on.
I was starting to realise that nobody knew where I was and I needed to get some news of my predicament to the outside world. I wasn’t expecting a full SAS raid to release me and take me home to Blighty but I was concerned that others might be worried. The day dragged on. The broken down ferry left and anchored in the bay. Another ferry (yippee) was also there. This too was at anchor and had been there all night bouncing up and down in the gale. I pitied any passengers that may have been on it – like me, just waiting.
By the afternoon, I asked for some food. It’d been 24 hours hours since my last, after all. I was again escorted back through passport control and to the staff restaurant where, mmm, the food was exactly the same. It was at least a change of scene and I feigned interest in the joy or yet more chicken and rice. The cooks were friendly again though and gave me a paratha type thing straight from the hot oil.
When I’d had my meal, I asked the guard to ask a member of staff I’d spoken to a couple of days before. She spoke reasonable English and maybe could try to get a message home on her phone. She understood my predicament (wow, empathy!) and set up her phone to try and pair with mine. No joy. Oddly she asked what internet I was using. I replied that I was er using only the internet and asked if are there more than one. “Yes of course” she said. Hmm. Hotmail, Gmail and gawd knows what else were blocked. Eventually, she very sweetly agreed to send a text for me to Holly, which said in plain vanilla terms, the basics. Just then, an Immigration Officer came in and started scolding the Guard for breaching rules and letting me back through passport control, even under supervision. We had been caught on the CCTV. I stepped in and slightly lost it. I had the English speaking staff member by my side and I rather let rip. “I am a guest in your country. You have a history of being hospitable to guests. What are you doing? I am here because your ferry doesn’t work like a normal ferry should. I am hungry because your restaurant is closed, despite what I was told by your colleagues.” I decided not to mention the shameful closure of the Billiard room. “If you do not treat me properly, I will make an official complaint to my Embassy now who will make contact with Ashgabat HQ who will investigate”. The mention of the embassy, but probably more so Ashgabat caused something of a pale reaction. This could go very badly for him, just because he decided to pull rank with a minion. My English speaking buddy was a bit shocked at my outburst but plainly approved of the threat it posed. The Immigration officer just had to retort a bit (male thing) by saying that I must stay in the lounge and they would bring food to me. I was in for a penny, in for a pound at this point. No room for compromise. “No”, I shouted “A dog is brought food. I am not a dog!”. He walked off. If he had one, I know where his tail would have been. I apologised to the guard and the staff member for my shouting. They understood. I hoped they approved.
The rest of the day passed slowly. The wind was blowing hard. The poor souls stuck on the ferry in the bay were still out there there. Yet again, I tried to get some sleep.
Early next morning (Sunday), I saw that the ferry was in and passengers and vehicles eventually were offloaded. They didn’t look great. One old woman was crying and had vomit down her dress. They were all passing the other side of the glass so I couldn’t converse. But it was nice to see some people who weren’t in uniform! The wind had subsided a bit. By early afternoon, there was a rumour that the ferry might actually be leaving. I was told to go to my car and wait. There, in the huge car park, some trucks were arriving. There were a few cars, a couple of motorcyclists and a young Chinese guy on a bicycle, doing a world trip. Suddenly the atmosphere changed. Food was cooked on stoves, fresh watermelon shared. The world seemed a better place.
Things move painfully slowly in Turkmenistan. The ferry processes all seem to happen sequentially, nothing in parallel. The result is that everything takes ages. Anyway, that evening, we were on the ferry, vehicles and all. I think it was midnight before the ship finally released its lines and left the dock. 12 hours later, we should be sipping beer in Baku, Azerbaijan. Nope, we went to the bay and anchored. But they did feed us (yes, you guessed it!). On Monday morning at 8ish , we were actually making our way though towards Baku. I had slept in a bed for the first time in 3 days.
You may remember I’d booked a ‘lux’ cabin. I had sort of assumed it’d be private. I was a bit surprised when a lanky Joe90 lookalike was shown a bed. Ah well, a roommate. But, although there were no windows, there was a shower, a basin and a loo. It was hot in there but there was at least some ventilation. Most passengers stayed in the lounge area, forming little social groups and sleeping wherever there was a bit of space. But again, and here’s a new acronym, it’s a case of ‘NRTTT’ (Not really thought this through). There were probably 4 male and maybe 6 female loos. They soon became fetid nightmares. I was fine. I had my lux cabin!
I chatted lots with the bikers, a Turkmen who was going to Turkey for a holiday and the young Chinese cyclist.
By late afternoon, we were approaching the bay near Baku (Alat) where the ship would dock. We picked up a Pilot and steered into port. I could barely believe I was in another country at last.
True to form, things didn’t move quickly after docking. It was a severe case of NRTTT. First to arrive were 2 Customs guys who set about approving the truck drivers’ freight documents. This took a good hour. The next sequence involved a large cardboard box which contained all the passports for each passenger. One young crewman picked out a passport and read out the name of its holder who would call out and take the passport. The passports, If you think about it, could have been pre-sorted perhaps alphabetically to save time for all. They could have been handed out whilst the truckies’ papers were being sorted. But no. NRTTT. all foot passengers could have been released into passport control at the same time. But no, sequential, you see. So they all crowded by the steps from the ferry onto the dock. Next phase was their unloading. They were desperate to get off. There were arguments with the crewman because he was letting only 10 people at a time descend the steps and walk to passport control. A small boy of about 7 was frightened and crying. A truck driver asked why he didn’t let the drivers off first so they could prepare their vehicles for leaving etc etc. All a completely unnecessary waste of time and a stressful time for which a 16 year old on work experience could have devised major improvements.
Nobody seems to have the incentive to suggest changes – that could be seen as criticism. In time, drivers were indeed called forward. I was urged forward by the crowd by a woman with the crying child. As I squeezed past her I could see/feel that she was very heavily pregnant. Hang on a bit, I thought, this is wrong and I gestured to her that she should go in front of, or at least with me. She refused, a little concerned at the possible consequences. What kind of brain doesn’t think about suggesting that families with children, old and infirm etc leave first?
Azerbaijan doesn’t escape scot-free. There were just two men checking passports. But behind them, there were at least 6 people imvolved in baggage scanning. NRTTT.
Once my passport was checked, I walked to the quai near the ferry to wait for the docking bridge of the ferry to be lowered. Obviously that only happened when every passenger had left the ship. Finally, at about 02:30, I drove Kerrching off the boat. I was told to go to scanning with the car and when I got there, a man came up to the car and said that I must unload every item in the car and carry it to scanning. I asked him if he really meant that as last time I brought only my luggage. Oh yes, he said, every item. Yep, sorry dear reader I lost it again. This time I said that I was 62 years of age and I simply was not able to carry it all. I would of course, but he must arrange for a Doctor to accompany me, or his colleagues would have to come and help. “5 minutes” he said. I carried my two bags to the scanner. A Customs man who I met on the outward journey (and who I recalled for his heavy hinting at 'gifts'), remembered me and shook my hand. My bags passed through fine and he said I could go. I checked…”You mean me and my car can leave?” “yes, of course” he said. I took advantage of the confusion, slipped into the car and drove off to the next customs point. Here I had to pay $15 ‘road tax’. This had to be paid at the bank, across a bridge over a railway line, maybe 5 minutes walk away. When I reached it, I had to knock hard on the window because the woman behind it was asleep on a bed. She rather grumpily got up, opened the window and booted up her PC (doh, perhaps leave kit in sleep mode?). Meantime, I was outside getting bitten to death by a cloud of pesky mosquitoes. I got the required receipt and returned over the bridge to the Customs guy. It turns out he made a mistake and I was due to pay another $5 on account of the size of my engine, which was incidentally written on the registration document I had handed him. “You must go back to bank and pay another $5” he said. “No way” said I. “You made the mistake, you go and pay it. If you want me to, you must get a Doctor…” (you know the rest). Magically, he got a mate to take the $5, call the sleepy banker and say he was good for the $5.
Then my car was due to be searched. The man looked at the car, shook each door quite violently to see if any hidden drugs rattled, poked about in the engine compartment, under seats etc. He then asked if every item had been scanned. I told him I had been to scanning and everything was OK and I was cleared - not a blatant lie after all. He looked sceptical but didn’t push further, waving me on as if I was a irritating bee.
By now it was 03:30 Tuesday and we had one more step which was the port gates and the payment of the laughable ‘bridge tax’ . This was $40. I thought that was very good value as I’d never been on an invisible bridge before! I handed over the money and it went into a drawer. I took the plunge and requested a receipt. He looked at me in pain. It took him 15 minutes to type a receipt which was then handed resentfully to me. My insistence on an official record had cost him $40 after all.
Just after 4am, I was free. My NBF had suggested we travel in convoy as far as possible and make for Istanbul. I was up for this. It would be company. He spoke fluent Turkish and we could share the navigational load. We set off on what was to be a journey through all of Azerbaijan and most of Georgia. It was a 14 hour drive. I felt bad about missing out on seeing much of both countries but friend Mark was due in Istanbul in a few days and although the delay wasn’t my fault, I didn’t want to let him down.
I had arrived simply to take a ferry on the previous Tuesday afternoon. I finally completed that journey the following Tuesday morning. What should have taken maybe 18 hours, had taken nearly a week. I will return again to the ludicrous Turkmenistan, but only as a blog subject, never again physically. Without change, I strongly suggest you don’t either.