Waiting For God Knows What
I realised at the end of the first day that I’m not really built for delays, waiting and the essence of mañana. I realised at the end of the second day that it’s a form of torture, for me at least.
I read that because the ferries across the Caspian do not work to a timetable (they leave when they are full), it can be very tricky to know when to go to the port. Online radar apps of known boat names give some idea of what is likely to arrive and then the idea is to charge down the motorway the 70kms or so to the port. There is no point just going there in hope because it is a wasteland with no facilities to speak of.
I reached the port at about 2pm. If you cut it too fine, there is a risk that the ship will be full and you’ll then have to repeat the process a day or two later. I could have caught a fast ferry if I was willing to forego the lie-in I’d promised myself. By the time I called the port, I was one hour too late to make the list, dammit. That particular boat was one of the premium Turkmenistan registered ships. It does the crossing in 12 hours, whereas other Azerbaijani ones take double that. Still, I did have a good sleep at the hotel instead!
The port was about 38deg in the shade. Security at the entrance was tight and the guard wanted to check everything, in detail. He went on asking questions about alcohol in the car. Look mate, I’m not stupid. You’re the doorman to the Port, not an Official, I thought. I had bought two tiny bottles of bourbon for such a purpose (they cost about £2 each). I handed him one of them and he feigned enormous surprise and gratitude. Suddenly, the security gate was lifted. Yes, it was hot. And there was no shade. And I couldn’t be arsed to make grandiose statements about anti-corruption principles.
I got myself onto the list of ‘cargo’ and then there was the usual dance of different bits of paperwork. It’s really important that every document is checked when handed back because, for example, a lost registration document for the car means the sudden end of the trip. I’m not one for admin and detail at all!
All the port offices were originally shipping containers. And so were the loos. You really wouldn’t want to go there.
The day went very slooooowly. I had put some ice in the chill box (for my medicines) that morning but I was worried they wouldn’t last this day, let alone the time on passage and disembarkation. I tried to doze a bit but it was too hot and too noisy.
I managed to see a Russian woman getting what looked like a wi-fi code from a port employee. I begged and successfully charmed my way into receiving it too, as long as I promised to zip my mouth, she gestured. I could at least communicate and read the news etc.
By about 6pm, the ship had arrived. I used my 12V kettle to boil some water and make a noodle pot (Beef Terriyaki, since you ask) as I was hungry. It was a bit disgusting and there is always the temptation with these products to try to eat them whilst they are still piping hot and so inevitably scald your mouth.
There then followed a 4 hour wait until a knock on the door and a “Come, ship please”. I drove round to the departure barriers and had yet another paperwork dance. A Customs Officer asked me to wait in the car and he would see me shortly. I knew this was going to be another attempt at receiving something from my newly named car, Kerrching. He was very polite, looking through the windows and asking me lots of questions to “help me”. He went through questions about drugs, alcohol, fuel in cans, drone. Apart from the fuel in cans, this is an issue for Turkmenistan, not the departure country. He could see that I was remaining so polite and chatty but not giving an inch on any possible gifts I may wish to make. Almost as a revenge maybe, he pointed out a building some 400 metres away where I needed to get all my goods scanned. When I turfed up there, I asked if they really wanted to see everything and why can’t I show them the contents of the car and they could decide what to x-ray. This seemed to be OK and a reasonably thorough search was made of the car and only my case and backpack needed to be scanned. All was fine and I was told to drive to the ship. It was now dark and I saw a ship and approached it. Fortunately, at the last moment, I could see that it wasn’t the name of the one I needed. That one was going to Kazakhstan – oops, very nearly a bit of a disaster.
Midnight came and went. I was in another car park.
I had to wait another 3 hours on the quay as more trucks were loaded. I was to be the very last vehicle on the ship, and the only car.
A Turkish truck driver engaged me in a sort of multi-lingual pidgin conversation. I offered him a chilled beer from the boot. Kronenburg 1664, which he pronounced as very, very good. Half an hour later, he offered me a coffee. These 10-wheeler trucks have cupboards down the side which lower to reveal a worktop/dining table, gas cooker and food supplies. All quite impressive. He said it was just Nescafé (he was short of something for the real stuff). Anyway, five minutes later, he gave me a caramel sweet and handed over the coffee, with something of a ceremony. It was pretty awful tasting and we spoke about different coffees around the world, not quite changing the subject.
I wasn’t sure I could finish the entire cup, so I asked if he had ever heard of coffee from Ireland. He hadn’t, so I poured some of the bourbon into his cup. OK, not proper Irish coffee, but it'll do. This was a revelation to him. He said it was the best. He also thought Irelish kafé was the funniest joke he’d heard all day. My new best friend. He then used a very clever translation device on his mobile phone to talk a bit.
Up came the subject of Turkey and its current regime. He was very, very anti. I felt a bit anxious at this point because it really is best to steer clear of discussing politics in certain countries. He then started to show off how he was able to see pornographic material on his phone with a private VPN and I felt our friendship had peaked. Then, a young, recently graduated Azerbaijani who works for the port came up and just really wanted to chat in English. He was desperate to improve it (it was actually rather good). We joked and laughed until at 3am, I was driving the car up the ramp to the ship.
Sadly, it didn’t end there. I was told earlier that this particular ship had cabins – 6 people to a room. As I was being shown away from the vehicle decks, I was told that I should wait so they could allocate me a room. At this point, I had to roll my last die and jokingly asked if there was a first class cabin for me. They said that only the ‘Kapitan’ has the first class cabin. I asked how much would it be to chuck him out. No cigar unfortunately and the ‘Purser’ bashed continuously on the door of a cabin to wake up the occupants. This seemed to take ages but eventually a bleary-eyed chap opened up.
There were three bunk beds in a boiling hot room (so capacity of 6. I think the ‘first class’ bit was that there were portholes) some cabins have no ventilation at all!). I was handed two sheets and a pillow case and left in the near pitch dark. I had my own bed bug sheeting too. I can’t say I was worried for my virtue but it did seem strange.
The ship didn’t actually leave the port until 5am. This gave plenty of time for the mosquitoes to gorge themselves on me. I was ‘lucky’ in that there were only 3 other people in the cabin, which measured about 3m x 4m. I gave each of them a name as I tried, without success to sleep. There was The Hoarse Whisperer, who talked in his sleep as if he was giving advice to someone and then suddenly being chased by them. Then there was ‘The Undead’. He made no sound or movement. He could have been in that bunk for weeks. The third I shan’t go into too much detail about, but I called him ‘Gusty’.
I pondered that the cabins were probably akin to life in a prison cell.
I just had to get up at 7am. I wandered about the ship a bit. It really was an old, rusting crock. Not exactly the Pride of Canterbury as a ferry.
It was cargo ship really, about 130metres long and rather narrow for a seagoing vessel. Built in Germany in 1984, it was showing its age, more than a little. The rusting, decaying bits and pieces were one thing, the miles of Formica another. But it was the diesel which I hated. It wasn’t just the smell of exhaust fumes, it was as if the entire ship had been bathed in the stuff. Floors were sticky with it.
A woman approached me and made eating gestures with her hands. Ooh, breakfast. This was a few slices of bread, two granite hard boiled eggs and some cheese of doubtful heritage. There was an urn to pour chai (Russian chai, I was told). It was OK. With just 25 mainly Turkish truck drivers for company, I felt I would have been pummelled to death if I had asked to have some granola instead.
I wandered upstairs to the bridge deck and saw an array of fabulously vintage instruments. I asked if I could enter and take a peek. I gave them my boaty credentials to assist. It was fascinating and slightly worrying at the same time to see all the creaking old analogue equipment.
A few newer pieces of kit (eg electronic charting) were proudly presented. They offered me chai (Proper Azerbaijan chai, not that Russian rubbish we serve you, I was told!). Between us, we managed to chat about money (eg tax in UK, average earnings). Yes, even Brexit (which they struggle to understand what the UK is doing and why.) Kapitan wanted a photo
and I promised to email it to him. I offered him a glass of the Serbian wine I’ve been trying to get rid of later on in the day. Maybe he will - maybe he didn’t understand.
I was treated as something of a novelty, almost a celebrity. The only non-truck driver. But rather than being spurned, Mumik, my NBF, acted as my Public Relations Officer, telling each of them my exact route, the car I was driving and how I made positively the best coffee in the world. I was given Honourary Truck Driver status accordingly.
I decided to have another go at sleeping and went back to my bunk. Again, it wasn’t long before I was dripping with sweat and thinking the whole thing was hopeless. At 11:30, Severely Soviet Catering woman No.2 opened the door and shouted “Nahar” so loudly everyone awoke. My co-cabin members and I hadn’t exchanged a word so far in the trip. But I sat up in my bed and shouted “Nahar” too. The others thought it very funny that the only thing I said was “Lunch” and whenever I would see them in a corridor they would yell’ “Nahar” and roll about in laughter.
Lunch was a soup with lentils and some slightly stale bread. Then a roast chicken drumstick on some egg noodles with lentil (I think). There was some fermented cabbage on offer too. I passed on that one. Again, lots of chai. It was wasn’t disgusting food. It was OK. I did worry greatly about my stomach though…
There was just nothing at all to do. There was no seating on deck and the dining room was not always available. Just sit in your bunk, chill time. Chill is the wrong word of course. Dinner was exactly the same as lunch though this time with potatoes.
In the cabin, there was a basin. Splashes from this caused the floor to be a bit like a swamp after a time. There was a loo on our floor and, shock, it was not a squattie. I looked for a shower, found a squattie loo with a hose nearby (you really don’t want a photo of that). My NBF approached Severe Soviet Catering woman No 1 and she guided me to it. What can I say. It was a shower. It worked, hot and cold. You wouldn’t want to linger. Nuff Said. To show appreciation, I made NBF and Catering Woman No 1 a cup of my now famous Irelish Kafé. She became my NNBF as a result.
Time passed slowly but by 4am I could hear the ship entering Turkmenbashi port. By 6.00, it was tied up and ready to disgorge its massive load. Incidentally, it wasn’t just the 25 trucks on board. There were refrigerated trailers en route to the 14,000 US troops in Afghanistan and plenty more trailers which will be picked up by local Turkmen drivers.
Whilst we were waiting for the offloading, all the drivers were hanging around my car. They peered in it, kicked the tyres, shook it and asked a few questions.
Some asked to sit in it too. How much, how old, cost of tyres, consumption etc. They seemed to think it was a very good car for the task. Several wanted one. I could have sold it there and then!
Usual delays meant that I, being first off, didn’t actually do so until 8am. Then began the fairly extreme security and controls of Turkmenistan. By 10am, I was in the first room where the chap in there confirmed my route, wrote it down on a map, decided against giving me a GPS tracker (often used to make sure I don’t stray to other places) and calculated the cost of my journey. (You pay by kilometre and engine size) as petrol in the country is ridiculously cheap (14p a litre). My price was $280 including extras such as admin. I had to go to the bank and run back with a receipt, so he could stamp it. Then it was the vet dept (bizarrely), (same issue re bank and stamps), the sanitary dept and passport control. It was now noon. At passport control/Immigration, they went through my passport and visa. Whilst the expiry date was listed on the visa, it did not say the date that it was valid from. After an hour waiting and tooth sucking through the glass, it turned out that the visa only started a day later than my arrival. Aargh! Normal procedure is to deport (another day on the ship nooo!). But the Officer was really decent. He applied for a change via HQ. The bad news was that it was not known how long it would take to produce the authorisation. He estimated 2 hours wait.
My new truckie buddies left the port, one by one, I was left in the (yes, again, hot) car park. Thank heavens I had plenty to drink with me in the car. To cut an awfully long story short, it wasn’t until 7pm, that I had my Visa stuck in my passport. Yes, a long time and the Officer did his best, when maybe others would have taken the easy option.
But I still had Customs to go through and the car to be searched. They asked the right questions (guns, drugs, alcohol etc) but didn’t look in detail at everything. It was less onerous than I expected.
By 8.30, I was released into Turkmenistan. I had been either in a car park or on board for 49 hours! I should have found a hotel quickly. Apparently, there’s a huge white marble one in the port. But there have been so many new buildings built, I couldn’t find it. Irrationally maybe, I opted to just get out of the port and start my journey to Ashgabat, some 7 hours away. I knew I wouldn’t be able to complete that journey, but given I couldn’t find the hotel, or change dollars into local currency, I just took to the road.
A moment to pay credit to the truck drivers. This is a tough job. You might expect them to be hot headed, tough Turks. They travel thousands of kilometres, often into dangerous territory. And of course, they have to put up with extraordinary bureaucracy and delays wherever they go across borders. They were decent, supportive of me and hugely polite. If I was in trouble, I wouldn’t hesitate to ask for help from one.
And so into Turkmenistan. More of which anon.