(James) Before I start I just want to let you know that this next post will contain overzealous use of inverted commas as I don’t want to allow anyone to make the mistake of trying to picture some of what I will describe – it would be futile, some things just can’t ‘appreciated’ ( there I go already!) unless you have experienced them first hand! I should also point out at this stage that this is not a ‘ferry service’ that crosses the Caspian from Baku to Turkmenbashi but a ship designed to carry rail stock, it doesn’t have a timetable of any sort and you are allowed on pretty much at the captain’s pleasure. The reason there is no schedule is simple, if not a bit bizarre. The crew don’t get paid per crossing but based on the load the ship is carrying so when we arrived on the Monday morning the ship was in dock but waiting for rolling stock to arrive at the port, and had no plan to leave until it had enough. The same logic applies at the other end, so whilst the crossing itself might only take 13 hours, the ships regularly sit for several days off shore, refusing to dock until they are satisfied that there is enough rolling stock waiting for them at the port!
So, having got all our gear together and put our bike clothes back on we left the hotel and took a taxi down to the port where to our relief we found our bikes sitting in the customs ‘lot’ exactly as we’d left them. We loaded the bikes back up and then walked back down the alley to the ‘ticket office’ (a small door in a hut with no sign on it) to find out if there would be any berths available for us and were happy to see not just the really grumpy old woman who normally sells tickets (and who usually requires a bribe just to actually allow you to buy a ticket!), but the captain as well – surely a good sign?! We happened to bump into Michael and Noemi, a couple of French cyclists we’d first met and got chatting to on the road to Baku a few days earlier (cut short by another corrupt policeman pulling up to demand money!) who were looking to get on the same crossing so at least sailing or not we’d have some nice company! We’d been sitting quietly for half an hour trying not to draw attention to ourselves (the hut was air conditioned and given it was 39 degrees we’d gotten a little clammy – we did not want to be sent outside again!) before Michael and Noemi were sent to sit with the ticket lady and I was ushered over for a word with the captain. 20 minutes later, following a bit of gentle negotiation, we agreed on a reduced price (plus a little backhander for the Captain!) and were told that we should go back down to the customs area and start getting the necessary paper work stamped. Within 2 hours we were riding on to the ship and tying the bikes up next to the rolling stock whilst negotiating a small fee with one of the crew to keep an eye (i.e. don’t steal everything) on the stuff we were leaving with them. Having secured the bikes, we had to walk with everything we’d need for the crossing back off the boat and round to the starboard side past several cranes loading additional cargo and up a pretty hairy looking set of stairs. Having survived this and now feeling like a couple of ‘boil in the bags’ we waited on deck for the ‘Helga’ (grumpy old Russian type) to allocate us a ‘cabin’. Ours had seen better days for sure and apart from being incredibly grotty was boiling! The ship itself must have been 50 years old and our ‘wall’ was the actual metal hull of the ship, air conditioning was provided by an open port hole (ooh, a cabin with a sea view!!), but we did luck out on the shower front and we had a nozzle from which some water would drip out. Having ‘showered’ (no towels but it didn’t take more than a minute to air-dry) we had little to do but stay out of the sun so we sat in our cabin (stifling)and waited for the crew to decide to put to sea which fortunately they did within 2-3 hours.
As evening came we ventured up on deck and had ‘dinner’ and a bottle of wine with Michael and Noemi (again, don’t get the wrong idea – everyone on the ship brought with them food and water for up to 4 days!) and enjoyed the cooler air and the sea breeze before turning in for the night but not before another shower and lying wet on the bed. We were woken at 7am the following morning by the deafening sound of the anchor being dropped (not difficult as we were about 5 metres from it!) which informed us that although we had reached Turkmenbashi, the crew were not yet happy with the amount of rolling stock currently sitting in port and so started a very long, very hot (it was 6 degrees warmer here than in Baku!), utterly windless day which generally involved us sitting in our cabin, trying to stay out of the sun and standing under the ‘shower’ every couple of hours. Not much fun!
At about 8pm the engines started and the ship started making its way into the harbour – this was, despite the long time we’d already spent on the boat, a bonus as it would mean we’d dock in the evening, do our documentation over night and get a couple of hours of sleep and then hit the road. By 9pm, the ship was trying to dock and we were all waiting on the deck ready for the customs officers to come on board to inspect our papers. Despite the fact that there was only a slight breeze in the harbour (it was a calm day by English channel standards!) the crew seemed to be struggling to line up to the dock and after twenty minutes of farting about gave up and headed back out to sea saying they’d try again in the morning! We were gutted and as we headed back down below deck we were informed that ‘Helga’ had already taken all of our sheets and put them in the laundry so we’d have to sleep on the (really dirty) mattress for the night and make do! Several people had also run out of food and water so there was much sharing around and pleading with the crew, but for us it was the lost time that was the biggest worry, as with each passing day our Uzbek visa got closer to expiring and, of course, Bishkek, still over 3000km away, would get that much harder to reach in time for our scheduled crossing of China.
Once again, at 6am we were shocked awake by the sound of the anchor being raised and once again we got ready to meet the customs officials on the aft deck. This time the ship docked without incident and within 20 minutes 5 men in various ‘soviet’ looking uniforms came on deck and we were ushered into an office to answer some questions and have a ‘medical’ inspection (which simply involved signing our name on a random bit of paper) before being sent down to the cargo deck to pack up the bikes. Finally, we were on the Asian side of the Caspian Sea and about to enter the ‘Stans…
Nb. A few pics added to the end of Azer gallery.