Crossing the Caspian Sea

After exploring as much of Ashgabat as my time and heat tolerance allowed, I knew it was time to be moving on. I would have stayed the night, but after finding out that the guys who drove me from the desert to the city charged me something like 20 times more than the passengers, I was ready to get out. Turkmenistan was fun and interesting and weird, but I had lost too much money on it in the past 36 hours. By the time I was leaving, I was thankful to be out of there.

When I exited my taxi to the train station, I was once again accosted by a flurry of cabbies, all trying to get me into their car in the signature Turkmen style. I pointed to the train station across the street and shrugged at them, and most of them walked off, grumbling. I’ll admit, in my sour mood brought on by the amount of money people had tried to get from me, it was satisfying to disappoint all these guys. I crossed under the subway tunnel to the station and went inside, praying I wasn’t too late to get a ticket to Turkmenbashi, the port city on Turkmenistan’s Caspian Sea coast.

No matter where you go, Central Asian train stations are quite nice. At least, the major ones are. Ashgabat’s is no exception, and is built in the white marble and gold ornamentation typical of the rest of the city. Inside, people mill around as they wait for their trains, and the atmosphere is as normal as can be. I went to the ticket counter and, to my surprise, the woman spoke English. There was indeed a ticket to Turkmenbashi, leaving in two hours, that I could get for 15 manat. I paid happily, leaving me with about 6 manat to spare. I wasn’t going to get more, so this was going to have to last me until I reached Azerbaijan.

Once I had my ticket, I had time to kill. I spent about an hour in the subway tunnel I had crossed earlier, using an outlet I saw to charge my phone. Every couple minutes, I had to unplug it and step back so a pair of street sweepers could wash the wall and floor where I was standing. Once it was adequately charged, I went back to the station to wait out the rest of my time. As I waited, some young guys came and started talking to me. All were 17-19, and all were preparing to study in other countries, mainly Turkey. Most of them were going to be doctors, though one of them was going to study business (like me!). Up to this point, I had been in a pretty bad mood and was ready to write off Turkmenistan, but these guys turned it around for me. Suddenly my ticket out of Ashgabat didn’t seem like such a great idea, but I was committed. But I’ve got these guys to thank for being the first in what became a string of positive encounters that left me feeling good about Turkmenistan.

 

Night Train to Turkmenbashi

As is the custom on Central Asian trains, my fellow passengers boarded with copious amounts of food and were ready to share it with whoever happened to be sharing their compartment. In my case, it was an older Turkmen couple who brought a thermos full of tea and two large watermelons. As we sat and looked out the window onto the train station, a large group of teens marched in a disorganized fashion down the platform to the entrance of our cart. The older Turkmen guy in my compartment pointed.

Soldat.”

All men in Turkmenistan, as told to me by an English-speaking soldier I met earlier in the day, must serve a mandatory two years in the military. This large group was on their way to begin their service. They filed onto the train one by one while their families followed along, giving teary waves through the windows from the platform. Once their officers had accounted for everyone, the train was set to depart and off we went into the Turkmen sunset.

For much of the first several hours, my compartment-mates and I attempted, in vain, to learn something from the other. There’s not much to be said with a 100% language barrier, but they gave me some of their tea regardless.

When the night got later and it was time to be sleeping, the guy sat up in his bunk and looked out into the hallway. He leaned back and pulled something from his sock in a plastic bag. A police officer walked down the hall past our compartment and he quickly stuffed the plastic bag under his leg. Once the officer was past he unwrapped the plastic from a chunk of hashish, took a bite out of it (which is something I didn’t even know people did with hash), threw me a shaka, then leaned back and went to sleep. Rock on.

 

Turkmenbashi

When I awoke on the train, we were about two hours away from Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan’s biggest port city on the Caspian Sea coast. Before we had left the desert, the train stopped at a ragged little outpost where the conscripts exited with their commanding officers. The train pushed on and the little outpost faded into the dust and sun.

As we began to roll into Turkmenbashi, I started going back through my mental logs of what had to happen to get myself out of Turkmenistan. The Caspian Sea ferry system is basically made up of a slew of cargo ships that have decided to also take passengers along for the ride. The upside is that you get to basically hitch a ride on a cargo ship, which is cool. The downside is that they absolutely don’t give a shit about any schedule but their own, and ships are known to wait in port days before departing.

I was expecting to be waiting awhile, but when the train pulled up to the station near the port, I recognized the name of a ship: The Bagtyỳar. I had seen it before on a short list of ships that are known to take passengers that I had found months ago. Because I didn’t know when the Bagtyỳar was going to leave or when the next ship was going to arrive, I didn’t take any time in Turkmenbashi. Which is a shame, because Turkmenbashi is a cool beach town with a good vibe. But there was no time to lose, or so I thought.

As soon as I got off the train, I took off as fast as I could to find an ATM to see if I could get enough cash for a meal before I got on the ship for who-knows-how-long. But no ATM worked for me that I could find, which meant I had the 20 manat (5.70 USD) in my pocket that I arrived with and no more. Unsure of whether or not I’d get [free] food on the ship, I bought as much as I could afford at a corner store and still have cash left for a taxi to the port. This got me a thick flatbread (as I have been buying since Turpan), a bunch of bananas, a snickers, and a bottle of water. The rest of my cash went to the taxi.

 

The Port

I arrived at the port and hurried inside to buy a ticket. I had read online that the ticket was 60-something USD, but it’s actually 100. The ATM in the building didn’t work, but I thankfully had the foresight to get as much USD as I could acquire while I was still in Beijing (as I arrived with only Nepali rupees). Of course I wasn’t happy to be paying 100 dollars for a boat ride, but at least I was able to afford it. Without that ticket out, my only other exit option was essentially deportation. So yeah, very happy I took the extra effort to pry some extra USD from the Bank of China’s cold, bony fingers.

After checking half a dozen times that I was buying a ticket to Baku, I paid and sat with the other passengers as we waited for security to open. I sat there for a few hours before being allowed through, where I spent another hour getting my passport stamped. When we were finally allowed on the ship, I was happy to have caught it in time.

And then we sat in port for 12 hours, which gave me plenty of time to work up some anxiety about whether or not I was on the right ship.

 

The Voyage

We boarded the ship at noon, and by the time I decided to go to sleep around midnight, we still had not departed. When I woke up at 2:00 in the morning, we were moving steadily away from the shore. By this time I had eaten the majority of my food and watched most of the Netflix episodes I had downloaded when I last had wifi in Uzbekistan. All there was to do was explore what little of the ship I was permitted and try to sleep intermittently. I woke throughout the night a few times, where I’d go out and listen to music while watching the water. At 6:00 AM, I awoke for good and decided it was time to vacate my seat. I had grown tired of being watched by a portrait of President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, but there wasn’t much I could do when there was a portrait hanging in every room.

Thankfully there was no portrait in the bathroom, but it was rank and I couldn’t hide from good ol’ Gurby for longer than a few minutes.

The only option was to go out and watch the waves and take some photos. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I was surprised at how humid it was. Of course it’d be humid on the water in the sea spray, but it was also quite cold so I was just perpetually wet for the entire voyage. Still, it was the most interesting leg of my travels thus far. I’d never traveled on a ship before this point, just as I’d never traveled by train before China.

For hours and hours, there was nothing. Just the horizon stretching on in every direction. Sometimes, the ghost of a ship’s silhouette would fade into view before fading back into the mist miles away. The wind whipped from Azerbaijan to Turkmenistan, howling through the metal frames and beams of the ship’s top deck. Doors labeled “Keep Closed When at Sea” flapped in the wind and banged on their frames. Turkmen, Azeri, and Russian passengers huddled in corners, trying their hardest to light cigarettes before the lighter was blown out in moments.

As the sun rose higher in the sky, more and more passengers woke from fitful sleeps and filed down a hall when an announcement, in Turkmen, came over the speaker. I, for whatever reason, stayed behind and finished what little food I had left. A few hours later when another announcement came, an older Turkmen man came and tapped me on the shoulder. He pointed down the hall then made an eating motion, beckoning me to come. As it turned out, food was complimentary (contrary to what I had read online), and I finally had my first quasi-meal since I left Uzbekistan.

Several more hours later, more and more fixtures began to appear on the horizon we were heading for. First, other cargo ships. Then came oil rigs. A few at first, then whole metallic forests rising up from the mist. At long last, an island appeared. Just a small one, but land nonetheless. Another hour passed, and then the first shadow of land came over the horizon; Azerbaijan.

From the time of our first sighting of land to our actual arrival at Baku’s port, almost two more hours passed. From the time I boarded to the time I exited the boat and headed for Azeri customs, over 30 hours had passed. I had been toying with the idea of also taking a ferry across the Black Sea from Georgia, but one 30-hour trip was enough for me, much less the 60-something it’d take to cross the much bigger sea.

 

Welcome to Azerbaijan

Once we landed in the port of Baku (conveniently located in the city of Alat, 66 kilometers south of Baku), it was nearly two hours before I was actually able to get off the ship. Azeri customs at the port of Alat aren’t exactly efficient. Before anyone could leave, bags had to be unloaded. This meant an old man dragging a small wagon from the customs office 100 meters away and waiting for a crane to lower a cage full of luggage. He’d then load up his wagon, which fit about half the cage, then pull it back to customs at a much slower pace, where he’d unload it, alone, and repeat.

After some time, the customs officer that was keeping us from leaving the ship recognized me as a traveler and ushered me off. He asked where I’m from, and I answered “America.” A flurry of thumbs-ups and exaggerated Ah-MER-ee-cah‘s came from the passengers around me. I pushed through and made my way to the customs office with some other passengers who were allowed to exit, where I was allowed through pretty quickly. The officer didn’t have a lot of questions for me. Usually, I get a smile and a wave through, though the Azeri customs agents were a little less friendly than what I had become used to.

After customs there is a compulsory shuttle that takes you from the office to outside the port where taxis wait. This meant, unfortunately, that I was taken past the only money exchange office in Alat. When a guy rolled up in his car to get me to come to his hotel, I agreed on the condition that he take me somewhere I can exchange money. Within 20 minutes, I was at a gas station a few kilometers down the road, and in 30 I was at a hotel near the coast.

After being shown my room, I was given spaghetti and beer for a few extra Azeri manat, and I finally had the chance to truly relax with my first true meal since I left Uzbekistan, and to reflect on being in Turkmenistan.

All in, I’m glad I was able to get through. Turkmenistan was the reason this whole Silk Road/Central Asian traverse began, and was the final stop before I got out of Central Asia. Hard to get in, hard to travel in, but a stamp in my passport that the majority of people don’t get and several stories of some of the nicest people I’ve met thus far.

 

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