Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Across the Caspian Sea

The distance between Baku and Türkmenbaşy is around 240 km in a straight line. From arriving at the gates of the Turkmenistan embassy in Baku to exiting through the gates of the port at Türkmenbaşy, 50 hours passed; an average speed of slightly less than 5 km/h. This speed is about ⅓ of the top speed of a domestic chicken. (In our defence, it is also 100 times faster than the top speed of a garden snail.)

The big rush to the Turkmenistan embassy started Monday morning. As soon as we came around to see the correct gate, it was obvious that we were now in the right place at the right time. The street in front of the embassy gate was filled with Mongol Rally people and the local facilitator Ishmael ran around collecting passports and paperwork, noting people’s names on lists, taking polls on who was attempting to get onto which boat, and handing paperwork and passports back. In this bustle, a girl suddenly grabs my attention to ask the questions “Did you say ‘ambulance’? Are you from Sweden?” and upon me answering in the affirmative following up with yet one more question: “Do you know Ben King, from New Zealand?”. Yes, I do know Ben King. We were neighbours once, some ten years ago, when he came to Lund University as a foreign exchange student. He had seen me post about this journey and told this girl, Charlie (who’s sister apparently is married to Ben’s brother), to keep an eye open for me and give me his greetings when she found me. (Small world.)

A few hours later we then found ourselves at the correct dock in the harbour, with the ambulance stocked up with enough bread, cheese and water to manage several days’ potential waiting in a good mood. As far as I could see, all vehicles on the dock were either heavy commercial vehicles or participants in the Mongol Rally. There seemed to be no terminal for normal passenger cars and we ralliers loaded from the cargo dock. Sven Hedin once loaded his railroad carriage, that had been given to his disposal by the Czar of Russia, onto the ferryboat in this harbour. We didn’t have any railroad carriage from the czar, but a 6 m long bright yellow Volvo ambulance isn’t that bad either. It cost a small fortune (715 USD in total) and took a few hours to get all six metres of it together with the three of us onboard, and I jealously thought about getting the shipping paid for by the czar.

All in all, Monday passed by pretty smoothly, we were aboard the ferryboat before nightfall and the engines started warming up around midnight. As long as we were still in harbour we had internet access through the local GSM network (incredibly slow, but working almost all the time) and Rico passed the time by making the video Ambulance Tetris 3D, showing the reorganizing of cargo in Tbilisi. It took a few hours to upload that video to YouTube, but we now had oceans of time and passed most of it eating our bread and cheese, drinking some wine we had brought onboard and talking to the other ralliers and to the Azerbaijani crew. Some of the younger crew members took great pleasure in the break our presence offered, in what would otherwise have been quite dull routine.

Tuesday afternoon the shores of Turkmenistan finally came into clear view and everyone got their hopes up, started packing up their things and getting ready. But when we were in sight of the harbour, the captain let drop anchor in order to wait for the ship, currently occupying the dock we were heading for, to finish loading and then leave the harbour. With dusk approaching, the anchor was eventually hoisted and hopes went up again. By now, a light breeze had begun to blow, cooling off the hot deck and getting everybody in good spirits as the ship navigated into the harbour.

But docking failed. Quote from a crew member: “Captain is woman. Can not park.” Unfavourable wind conditions were blamed for the failure, and the ship pulled back out of the harbour to anchor overnight at the old anchoring spot again. We feasted on bread and tuna in olive oil, grateful that we had been pessimistic when stocking up on provisions.

At this point in time, the passenger deck on which all ralliers were quartered had no more working toilets, and people started getting really uncomfortable. Having previously made friends with the Azerbaijani crew now paid off greatly, as I was invited down to crew quarters where they had a working toilet (which was fabulously appreciated by yours truly), good tea and an old black-&-white TV on which we watched Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall, dubbed into Russian (which was almost equally appreciated).

Wednesday morning the ferryboat finally made port, and sometime after 10 o’clock we could walk ashore to begin the gargantuan task of getting let into Turkmenistan. Our passports had been collected already when we boarded the ship and they were now given directly to the local authorities, and sometime around 11 o’clock we were able to hand over our Letters of Invitation, that we had obtained before starting the journey, to apply for Turkmenistan visas. The following hours were mostly waiting, with some short interruptions for filling out customs declaration forms and listening to new rumours. The sun was scorching and we sat in the dust in the shade of some old gazebos between the railroad and the port buildings.

Sometime around 17 o’clock things started moving, and what followed was a truly mind-boggling series of bureaucratic twists and turns. Our passports and Letters of Invitation had been matched up which each other and put in a big heap, with a clerk working his way through the heap, gluing visas into the passports and stamping them with the first required stamp. After this, the passports were handed back to us together with invoices for the visa and immigration fees, which were to be paid, in cash, in US dollars, at the cashier’s counter. For this, receipts were received with which the passports could be handed back to the visa stamp counter to be put in the heap of passports that were to be stamped with the second required stamp. After being stamped, they were handed back again upon which we were able to proceed with the rest of the paperwork. During this time, the customs declaration forms had been stamped (three stamps each) and handed back out, and with passport, twice stamped visa, thrice stamped customs declaration forms plus vehicle registration documents, it was now possible to apply for the small and big green form. The purpose of the small green form is still unclear to me (but it was said that it was necessary) but the big green form was needed to go to the counter at which a man calculated the various vehicle related fees that would need to be paid to be granted transit permission through the country.

With the invoice created by help of the big green form, I could now go back to the cashier’s counter and pay, in cash, in US dollars, the calculated fees and get a receipt. Equipped with this receipt together with the big green form and the passport with the twice stamped visa, it is then possible to go to the next house to visit the port authority and from them get the invoice for use of the harbour. This invoice should then be taken around the building to the port authority cashier’s desk.

Here the smooth system broke down. The port authorities in Baku had on the ship loading documents mixed up the names of us team members (despite asking for confirmation of this particular point on three different occasions) and erroneously listed Rico as the legal owner of the car. This error had then been transferred to the invoice, but when I came to pick up the invoice (as the legal owner of the car) my passport number had been written onto it and the poor woman at the port authority cashier’s desk now had a document upon which name and passport number didn’t match up. I realized what had happened and showed her the document from the port authority in Baku together with the vehicle registration documents to show that an error had been made. She had a hard time understanding how the port authority in Baku could possibly have made an error in this document, but eventually walked through the building back to the people who had written the invoice and got it corrected somehow. Then she required, in cash, in local Turkmen currency, a sum equivalent to 1½ US dollar. This must be paid in local currency and could not be paid in any foreign currency, which posed a slight problem for us as it’s illegal to bring Turkmen currency out of Turkmenistan so we could not have acquired it before reaching the border crossing and we had not yet been allowed into the country to acquire it there.

So I walked back to the immigration and customs authorities cashier’s counter to ask if the lady there might be able to exchange a few US dollars for local Turkmen manat. This was utterly impossible, as she was out of local banknotes. But after a bit of discussion and questions about any advice on how we otherwise might be able to pay the port fees, she eventually decided that she would be able to exchange 5 USD after all, after getting some banknotes from a safe in the back of her office. With this money, I could go back to the port authority cashier’s counter and pay the port fees. With this receipt, it was now possible to go back to immigration and customs and hand over the newly acquired receipt together with passport with visa with two stamps and customs declaration forms with three stamps and vehicle registration documents and the big green form to a counter whose function and purpose I never managed to decipher. After that, they sent me to another office to meet someone they referred to as “doctor”, who stamped some of my papers (by this time I had lost track of which and why) while a military man made gestures implying that the lady referred to as “doctor” was an attractive woman and that he wanted me to agree with him on this. A few uneasy smiles later, I was sent to the police office to get the last required document.

In the police office, the big-hat man himself was out for tea and the office was instead guarded by a young conscript border patrol soldier, with whom I had made some attempts at friendly contact during the day. With his boss now out of sight, I managed to buy his official uniform belt buckle from him, for the price of my own plain American belt buckle (which he had previously shown that he coveted) plus 12 USD cash behind the back. A bargain! My new belt buckle is exceptionally shiny and decorated with wreaths, crescent moons, stars and stuff. Awesome!

With the new belt buckle safely tucked away in a deep pocket, I was now holding my trousers up with my left hand when the big-hat man suddenly returned from tea. But he seemed to not notice, was friendly and in a jovial mood, and I was soon out on the parking lot with all required documents under my arm, ready for the final required vehicle inspection before being allowed into the country.

So on Wednesday night, some 13 hours after we had handed over the first documents to the immigration authorities (and a few hundred US dollars in fees and taxes later) and some 50 hours after we had first lined up outside the Turkmenistan embassy in Baku, we could now drive legally and with all papers in order, through the gates into Turkmenistan.


  1. Vilken pärs... Grattis till att ni nu är förbi detta nålsöga! Hur ska det förstås, att det är så svårt att komma in i Turkmenistan? Är det ett så fantastiskt land att många försöker ta sig in olagligt och sedan stanna kvar? Eller...?

    1. Jag skulle tro att förklaringen ligger i att Turkmenistan är en diktatur rik på naturtillgångar (framför allt naturgas), så att eventuella besökare mest är till besvär från de styrandes synvinkel.

  2. I really enjoyed this blog posting (not saying that I havent enjoyed the previously, goes without saying - I'd expect) and I am humongously jealous of such a treat, such a gem, such a treasure as a foreign officials uniform item: the belt buckle. My hat is off for your bargain mastery, and good luck continue to tactically acuire further items of great historically content. (Even if the historically, is more of the 'dryg dryckes historia'-kind!)

  3. Det är svårt för en svensk att föreställa sig att det går till så här, men Du är ju ett sanningsvittne så det måste vara sant. Att vara gränsgångare är alltså omöjligt. Ser fram emot nästa spännande avsnitt i Din medryckande reseberättelse.

  4. Hey guys! Some greetings from Switzerland ;-) specially to Rico, who worked with me... Now in Swiss German:
    Ich han nochli recherchiert, und bin mol ufs "Nomen"-fix STAN für all die Staate in Zentralasie cho: http://www.worldatlas.com/aatlas/infopage/stan.htm

    Hoffe, ihr, sind alli wohluf und euches Visum für Tadschikistan und Kirgistan sind parat! Ajo, und für die ganze Nordländer gits no öppis z'lerne, nämmli wiemer Chuchichäschtli und Fischers Fritz fischt frische Fische korrekt in Züridütsch usspricht... also gib der müeh, Rico!

    For all of you, who didn't understand any of the above words... don't worry, Switzerland's government is as lazy as you think, it is... come in, and enjoy the party :-)