September 3: Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan
1:40. Duncan is still in the customs office. I’m outside, talking over the fence with a guy from Calgary who is driving a car in the Mongol Rally (London to Ulaanbaatar). The armed guards are not happy and tell me to step back from the fence and not to talk. I don’t know much about the driver other than he’s sponsored by LB Tiling and Owenpalooza.com. I’ll try to look him up later. Now it’s time for some shut-eye.
6:01. I’m awake after about three hours of restless sleep on the truck.
6:15. I walk to the bathroom. Yes, that one. It’s no better in the dark. In fact it’s even worse when you don’t know where you’re stepping. The Mongol rally car is gone so I won’t get a chance to talk to the guy from Calgary. (Sorry about the abrupt end to our conversation if you’re reading this, Mongol Rally guy.)
6:42. Helen collects our passports and takes them to the ticket office that will soon open. We are not required in person just yet.
7:02. I stroll up to the waiting room / ticket office. No action. Duncan has emerged with two slips of paper but he doesn’t know what they are. Neither appears to be a ticket. The badly damaged TV in the waiting area is still playing a Bollywood musical. This has been going on since well before midnight. Only about 20 percent of the screen is visible. It’s 20% too much.
7:10. Rustam accompanies Duncan to the customs office. They are handed a clip board and a stack of forms.
7:24. Helen returns with our passports and small slips of paper that show our names and passport numbers. It’s not clear what this proves but we are told to keep them handy as they may be required at any time.
7:45. Two agents show up at the truck and summon us to the Immigration office. Bring your passport and leave your big bags on the truck, they say.
7:50. We report to the waiting room and… wait. The Bollywood musical has finished but now we are treated to a choir of Kindergarten-age kids singing klezmer folk songs. The volume has been cranked to the max. I can hardly believe our good fortune.
8:12. Duncan is told to start the truck and move it from the parking lot to a secure compound.
8:24. We complete and submit standard customs declarations. No, we’re not in possession of religious materials or porn.
8:32. Time to say goodbye to our local guide Rustam. He has been a huge help and a great source of unbiased information. We’ll definitely miss him.
8:37. A young guard motions for us to stop. He may want to search the truck after all. I suspect that he’s out to prove his worth and a full search might result in a pat on the head if he finds some contraband. (Not that we are carrying any, of course.)
8:40. They DO want to search the truck.
8:45. Two guards board the truck and instruct Duncan to pull out of the line-up for the ship and instead drive through a gate into the parking lot.
8:49. We drive about 1 km to a remote part of the port. I smell a shakedown.
8:52. We are definitely not sailing on The Akademik. It looks like we’re headed for a cargo ship / truck ferry by the name of Bestekar Qara Qarayev. It’s not anywhere close to new but it appears to be seaworthy.
8:55. The guards get off the truck. We clap. They blush. They’re just boys, maybe 19 at most, likely doing their two years of mandatory millitary service.
8:56. Duncan and Helen have discussion on the ramp with several guards, the port workers, a plain clothes cop and others. Cell phones are produced and interpreters contacted. It looks like we’ll be first to board the ship. This also means that we’ll have to wait until many more transport trucks are loaded. In the past some Dragoman trucks have been delayed up to four (4) days while they fill a shop.
907. Another guard boards the truck and checks our passports. I believe that was passport check #14.
9:28. We are on board! It could be 2-3 hours before we sail though. A plain clothes cop comes around and collects our passports . He drops them in a white plastic shopping bag that bears the logo of a brand of Russian vodka. Very reassuring.
10:00. We are offered a fried chicken breast and greasy chips for $5 or stale bread and very strong Feta-like cheese for $1. I order both. Cheese is good. Any cheese.
13:35. The ship’s horn sounds and we are moving!
18:35. We have crossed Into Azerbaijan waters. I know this because a crew member has just changed the flag that flies from the pole on which I am now leaning. I need this pole. It’s been a few hours since Duncan, Rodney, Aleksandr and I cracked the seal on vodka bottle #1. We’re no longer on #1. Aleksandr is a very bright 4th year student at the Oil and Gas Academy in Baku. He spent a year in Minnesota when he was in grade 12 and his English is excellent. For some reason he wasn’t allowed to play high school sports in America so instead he went to the gym every day. Let’s just say he was very easy to talk to.
19:00. The chicken and pasta isn’t too bad for five bucks. Not that there’s any alternative, mind you.
19:20. Time for our second taste of Azerbaijan — a fine vintage of Angry Bear.