September 2: Beteket, Turkmenistan
5:50. I am up extra early as we will leave at 7:00 and hopefully get to Turkmenbashi before noon. We plan to take a ferry across the Caspian Sea and enter Azerbaijan at the port of Baku. This isn’t as simple as boarding a ferry to PEI or Vancouver Island though. The Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan ferries don’t run on a set schedule but rather whenever their captains deems them to be sufficiently full, whenever bad weather is rolling in, or whenever the captain feels like taking a case of vodka and a few Romanian strippers out for a day or two on the water.
6:20. According to our guide the ruckus in the night was a pack of wolves. There are jackals in the area as well but Rustam can tell the difference by their howl. Over breakfast he explains why the people of Turkmenistan are relatively happy with their dict… I mean President. Electricity, gas and water for a family of four costs about $50 per year. A loaf of fresh baked bread is 1 manat or 30 cents.
9:37. We stop for diesel in Balkanabat. We aren’t allowed to fill jerrycans or external tanks but we can buy all the diesel that Xara’s dual tanks will hold (600 liters) for 33 cents per liter. Balkanabat is a typical Soviet town. There are more Khrushchevs (dreary concrete apartment blocks) and less marble clad buildings.
9:50. We pass a newly built racetrack but cannot stop. I’m told that it has a nice clubhouse, modern photo finish and timing equipment, a beautiful turf course and extensive infield landscaping. In short, it has everything you’d expect to find at a new racetrack — with the exception of regularly scheduled racing. They’re apparently working on that minor detail.
10:00. We stop at a small roadside shop and stock up on snacks. There is a likely to be a concession stand on the ship but not in the parking lot where we could be waiting for up to three days.
10:03. The five-year-old in me wants to buy a box of Barf (laundry detergent) but I’m afraid it could be a bad omen to buy Barg just before boarding crossing the notoriously rough Caspian Sea. Besides, I still have some liquid Tide.
10:15. Word from Turkmenbashi is that a ferry is in port. Unfortunately there’s no indication when it will start boarding. They generally board and sail every three to four days and the actual crossing takes 16-60 hours. Give or take.
12:15. We arrive at the port. Photography is strictly prohibited but I manage to snap a few shots while the guards eat lunch.
15:25. I have a piece of cold French toast that is left over from breakfast. For reasons that should be obvious, the less I eat over the next 24 hours, the better.
16:00. I spend half an hour washing clothes in a bucket. Tide does the trick but it would be fun to have a photo of me with a box of Barf.
19:30. A cargo ship named ‘The Balken’ has just sailed and the port is now empty, save for three rusting hulks that are being scrapped.
21:57. The Azerbaijan ferry is within sight.
22:00. Duncan has left with customs officials and will begin to fill out the the paperwork required to take a truck out of Turkmenistan. We start the clock for our next guessing game. I guess that it will be 23 hours and 9 minutes until we drive off the ship in Baku. I’m by far the most optimistic. Someone guesses 68 hours.
22:07. According to Rustam the customs agents won’t even START processing us until the Azerbaijan ferry is in port, emptied of all passengers, and cleaned.
22:45. The ferry ‘Akademik’ is now in port. It’s large and modern and the disembarking passengers are in good spirits. This is a good sign.
22:50 We won’t be sailing on the Akademik. They’re reserving a special class of ship for the foreigners, we’re told.
(Continued on September 3)