Perhaps not unexpectedly we were woken by the police. This is what happens when you drive a limousine onto someone’s farm in full view of the road and set up a fairly elaborate campsite. Campsites including funeral vehicles are by their nature elaborate. After some bemused nodding to our broken Russian, he took his unmarked Lada away in a plume of sand. We left very soon after, fearing back up.
We had camped not far from Baku and made our way towards the port. From here, the plan was to finalise our Turkmenistani visas and buy ferry tickets over to Turkmenbashi. What we understood was that the process was an arcane, opaque system of shady little parts that somehow conspired to convey travelers across the Caspian every year. For instance, if it wasn’t for the collage of Rally stickers on the door to the ticket office, we would never distinguished it from any other anonymous port building.
We waited with several other teams for the office to open at “around 12pm, could be as late as 3pm”. Once it opened, we were all waved away without explanation, despite the fastidiously straight queue we had taken pains to form. Looking at the queue, we could have been in any post office in England. Looking at the result, it was clear we were in Azerbaijan. Unsure whether we would be ushered back at some point, we joined the minor encampment that had formed in the dusty parking lot around the little concrete building, occasionally making pilgrimage to the left-hand corner of the blue Mercedes – the exact spot at which free WI-FI could be obtained. Little did we know, but those weak beams of signal would be the last WI-FI we would access for over two weeks.
In the midst of the resultant minor befuddlement, Jack became violently ill. He became an incontinent tube capable of retaining neither solid nor fluid. His features became drawn and gaunt like a man drained of his essential force, his strength, his resolve. His usually erect posture collapsed into a broken huddle, like a dying spider. We think it may have been the watermelon – the bad watermelon. The one that had been a dark day for the peoples of the world and that represented the spurning of the most effective known bartering techniques. Steve, as usual, also had the shits.
Ollie and Dom went off in search of the equally well-hidden Turkmenistani embassy. Baku is a maze of one-way roads. Occasionally these will break out into roads with as many as 7 lanes – especially at the sea front. If you take a wrong-turn, you must follow Baku’s inevitable circulation in whichever way it wills you. Taxi drivers in London Cabs plough from one side to the other picking up and delivering fares, holding down their horns in place of indicating as they slice across traffic. Telepathic Bakuvians will beep you even before lights have changed, will walk across roads staring directly in front of them, will edge between two waiting cars to create a third lane at stop signs. After we had driven past the turning twice, we found it. It is literally located down an alleyway. The road is not even paved, which may seem a pretentious westernised observation, but this is in the middle of the intolerable mass of tarmac that is Baku. They would tarmac homeless people while they slept if they could.
Once you’re in the alleyway, look out for other ralliers waiting. That’s how you know the shuttered door in the side of a non-descript building is the sole embassy for the Republic of Turkmenistan in Azerbaijan. Inside is a man in a short sleeved shirt with three PCs from 1994. One of the PCs will play relaxing elevator music. One is connected to the dot matrix printer alongside the sole clerk. The other is a relic of a long-dead colleague who requested in his will that his place in the office be preserved and that he himself never be replaced. The darkened room is not a stressful place to be. It is just more like the IT office in your Dad’s first company than the sole power capable of granting legal passage through a sovereign and highly guarded nation.
You will be told to drive 4km to pay for the visa. This payment is on top of whatever you paid for a letter of invitation and is in addition to the charges you will be held account for once you arrive in Turkmenbashi. Upon your return to the embassy, you will receive the visa. The maximum number of days on a Turkmenistani transit visa is 5. You must pick the dates ahead of your arrival, which means guessing when the ferry will get you into port. Given the total lack of assurances (or words of any kind) from the ticket office, this is a risky business. We guessed we would leave the next day and arrive the day after that.
The location of the embassy should you ever need to know.
Whilst we waited, a team of Australian ralliers told us more about Turkmenistan. We learnt that the vessel that would take us there would be fully equipped for all of our blogging needs. This was somehow tied up with the strictly enforced whims of a single man, but we didn’t quite understand how.
Steve and Jack were in need of a shot of Wi-Fi, a shower and AC so they were packed off to a hotel, whilst Dom and Ollie re-joined the port-side troupe. After a quick meal cooked in the parking lot and a power shower supplied by a cracked pipe they found by some railway tracks, Dom and Ollie were ready to see some more of Baku. Following a pint in one of Baku’s more up-market establishments (bow ties on the waiters ‘n all!) they decided to find something cheaper with one of the other rally teams. They began descending staircases to knock on the doors of underground pubs. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time.
At the second place they tried, they came upon one man on a stool playing Spanish guitar, being watched by 5-6 other men. No-one behind the bar. After a brief consultation they were invited in and filed nervously into what was obviously someone else’s party. Three camcorders swung round to watch their descent. A round of shots was poured, unbidden, for them and for which they were assured they would not have to pay. What followed is difficult to describe. It was an awkward youtube dance party. It was two cultures confusedly meeting in a bar and really committing to a fleeting, inexplicable encounter. At times it looked like the beginning of cheap slasher horror after the manner of the Blair Witch Project. At others, it looked like a crew of 14 year old’s sneaking alcohol into their basement and playing at DJs. Meanwhile, elsewhere in Baku, following a return to good health Jack visited the world’s largest KFC.
And then the night.
Rendezvous at the Empire Hotel. We realised suddenly that this was our fourth day in Azerbaijan. This meant that we had to register in order to validate our visa. We spent a very long time trying to register at the hotel. The result of the first round of negotiations was that Steve and Jack had bought another night at the hotel, which was not at all what they had wanted. The result of the second was that we had a fairly uncertain assurance that we were registered. With that, after stocking up for the ferry journey (and witnessing in a supermarket that Gherkins could cost £10 / jar) we drove back down to the ticket office.
We arrived just 30 minutes after it had closed. We were slightly panicked – we had to leave today in order to get to Turkmenistan on the date we had guessed. On a hunch, we got the address of the “other” port. The other port was down a long road full of pipes, concrete blocks, the rusted carcasses of several Ladas and magnificent official buildings. On the tarmac, we found 11 other teams. None of the other teams had tickets. None of the other teams knew when the ferry would depart, when it would arrive or what it would cost. Nevertheless, we felt an overwhelming sense of elation. We had found the correct port. We were in the same mire of total confusion and uncertainty as everyone else. In that sense, we were secure and on our way.
Every step in the process was somehow delayed. We wiled away the time drinking red wine mixed with hot earl grey tea. After several hours we had our vehicles measured. The 6 metre limousine came in at 5.5 metres after some creative measuring tape artistry by Ollie, but somehow when it came to paying, we were only charged for 3.5 metres, saving $150.
The proceedings were interspersed with appearances by Ishmael. Ishmael is a “fixer”. We think this means: he has networked into both the Mongol Rally and whatever corrupt operation leads to the passage of passengers on freight ships from Baku to Turkmenbashi. We paid him $50 out of fear that not doing so would cause us problems in getting on the boat.
With all of the events that had occurred, we were nervous to not have written down anything for our blog. We knew, though, that the solution to this quandary floated just 100m away, moored at the port.
Customs was completed at 3am without a hitch, right there, at the port.
The port was an interesting spectacle. Dormant “Dagistan” class tankers rested, empty and sparsely lit, in the thick, oily water. We were free to wander around whilst the security guards drank or played football with some of the ralliers. The Mongol Rally cars formed an idiosyncratic, untidy jumble of eclectic vehicles on one side, whilst on the other, lorries were formed into endless, orderly rows.
We boarded the ferry 10 hours after arriving, at 5am in the morning. You drive directly into the darkened hull of the boat and then down a ramp into its red-brown undercarriage. Once we were down there, three men began demanding passports from everyone. They were highly irritable, shouting and gesticulating violently. They offered little explanation and appeared, despite all of the precedent waiting, to be under intense time constraints. Everyone was reluctant to oblige, but after several frenzied minutes, they had the majority of the documents.
The group of sleepy ralliers dispersed throughout the ship looking for places to sleep, eventually congregating on the deck and in a lounge. In the morning, we were allocated 4 person cabins (with sinks!) Everything was clean, comfortable convenient. The toilets (often) worked and you could buy tea and a greasy fry up from the portly chef (“Is he boiling the sausages in oil!?”)
When we woke, we were disappointed to discover the boat had not moved. Moreover, our gravest fear had been realised. Prior to boarding, we had imagined the perfect opportunity to transcribe the unwritten mental notes we have for our blog. Between the four of us, we were sure we could put together something spectacular, but there are certain difficulties involved in conveying thoughts into written words. We needed to be able to concisely express and capture our thoughts. These difficulties were sure to be overcome once we left Baku for Turkmenistan. From what we had been told about this point in the Mongol Rally, about Turkmenistan and what it would be like to arrive there, we imagined a boat rife with every kind of ergonomic keyboard, of inkwells, Dictaphones, of specialised software. Somewhere we could speak and have our thoughts captured immediately.
We imagined what we were promised – a dictator-ship across the Caspian Sea. The only apparatus we were to find in Turkmenistan were those controlled by the all-pervasive state. Oh no!
It did not move until 5pm that day: departure was 26 hours after ‘check-in’. In the meantime we got merrily drunk, playing card games in the lounge.
The boat did crash into the port before getting away, but we all doubted that anything could bring down our ship, the mighty “Professor Gȕl” (pronounced “ghoul”). Legend has it that the Prof has carved out this same route for 40 years. It has been told that old Ghouly has suffered more than 5 mutinies, and that captured mutineers are minced into sausages and served for breakfast for years to come. Some say the boat was named after a crazed Azerbaijani alchemist who believed that the purification of iron could only occur through immersion in the sea for tens of years. It is from the wreckage of his monumental, deep-sea iron laboratory that the “Professor Gȕl” was constructed. His body was never found. Others say that the ship is crewed eternally by passengers who had the misfortune to have a shower with the stewardess of the boat – a woman whose name begins with an X.
The stewardess was a very abrupt Iranian-born Azerbaijani woman. She called everyone “Francis”. She roughly fondled passengers’ hair with a sort of threatening affection. She changed her outfit multiple times into very slightly varied versions of stripy nylon. She despaired of smoking inside, feet on tables and spilt milk (even though we advised her not to cry about these things). She insisted that people shower at 2am, but that they stand outside of the cubicle whilst doing so. She refused to give several people blowjobs. She ruined our board game by using the pieces to tell us her life story, even though we really just wanted to finish the game. She was 51, had 2 children and 3 grandchildren in Georgia. She didn’t really speak English.
Card games inevitably gave way to yoga on the ship’s top deck, British Bulldog and later, salty chicken kebabs for dinner.
And so it was that three days after arriving at the port, we pulled into Turkmenistan on the morning of the 8th August, just one day after the start of our visas. We had four days to explore and traverse the mysterious country. There was a sense of excitement to be in such a large convoy.
We were sent down to our cars. Rebelling, two hours later we came back up on deck to watch the lorries start leaving. We were sent back under deck once more, and waited another two hours in the sweltering, petrol-fume choked hull before we could leave.
As we stood gazing into the mushrooms clouds of mud thrown up by the Professor, we saw a shadow. A snake-like shadow, squiggling effortlessly through the sea. Three of us witnessed the black shape wind through the waves.
Out of the boat and into the paper basket, as they say. We ran a gauntlet of superfluous bureaucracy for the remainder of the day. There are 17 discrete stages to the process once you have arrived in Turkmenistan. You must pay $200 dollars in cash throughout the 7 hour ordeal, but no ATMs in Turkmenbashi contain dollars. At one stage, you must pay in Turkmenistan Manat, but there are no currency exchanges nearby. At another stage, you must indicate your route on a map, but no map is provided. At one more stage, you must wait for 6 other people to have reached that same stage before you can progress. There was a stage where an employee indicated that she was going to bed, before locking up her office and leaving (she was, eventually replaced). By the end, you have a stack of paper, each containing multiple stamps, with no two pieces of paper being the same size. There was even an instance where Dom had a biscuit stolen by a trucker who stared directly into his eyes while he chewed. The staff were, however, very friendly. We were cheerfully punted along an endless corridor. It might be what Purgatory is like.
It was 10.30pm before we got out. Most of the teams had planned to be in Ashgabat that evening and to the Gates of Hell by the day after that. We resolved to eat something and camp nearby, pairing up with the stripy Ford escort for company. The first time we stopped the car, we were immediately mobbed by young children. You couldn’t open the door because the road was so thick with them. Little did we know, they probably collectively owned a medium-to-large business empire. We pushed on and reached a café.
Outside the café lounged a non-descript 17 year old with a Bieber-esque semblance. He spoke perfect English. He owned a telecom company and two houses. As we chatted, a 14 year old in a brand new 4×4 drove by, throwing a can out the window. That night, we ate camel before we saw one, at his guidance. Next, he found us a fully-equipped house to sleep in, for free, with AC, with a sit down toilet. On the way, he picked up a melon you could open up and sleep in for each car. The house we stayed in was owned by a 25 year old who had started a car wash and now owned five houses. We had landed in Turkmenistan, the dusty desert dictatorship of toddler business moguls, where water flows free and gas flows like water (also free – subsidised by the government. Long live the government.)
We slept in and missed the convoy, content to take our time on the road to Ashgabat and to see the Door to Hell the following day.