London to Sydney Overland
Days Fifty-One and Fifty-Two
I have arrived in Ashgabat.
That makes it sound so simple. It was not simple. So let me clarify. After:
- 6 hours in port in Baku waiting for a ferry
- 6 hours on a ferry waiting to leave port
- 10 hours crossing the Caspian Sea on said ferry
- 26 hours hanging out on a docked ferry waiting for permission/visa approval to enter Turkmenistan
- 6 hours getting 36 people through customs at the port
- 1 night bush camping in the desert under a full moon
- 9 hours driving
- And countless CAMELS!
I have finally arrived in Ashgabat!
It wasn’t supposed to be quite this complicated. Initially we would have driven through Iran. We would have left Baku, Azerbaijan, crossed the border into Iran, toured around a bit and then driven across the border into Turkmenistan. But when we found out we weren’t going to be able to enter Iran this became the new plan.
72 Hours Earlier
Crossing the Caspian Sea as a passenger isn’t as easy as you may imagine. There aren’t set passenger ferries. There isn’t a timetable to look up and pick what works for your schedule. We’d been in Baku for two nights but our departure is still up in the air. Starting today we are ‘on call’.
James, our driver, is staying at the port sleeping on Alice, trying to find a Captain willing to take us across. And when he gets the okay, we get a text. When we get a text we hightail it to get to the port. We are ‘on call’. It’s possible we will also end up sleeping at the port tonight but I’m hoping that doesn’t happen.
I’m running errands. Post office. Coffee. Do I need another adapter? I’m filling time. I’m waiting.
The text arrives while I’m eating lunch. We’re supposed to get to the port in the next two hours. We have a ride! I head back to the hotel and pack up my stuff. We share cabs to the port where I along with a handful of my fellow overlanders wander around a bit aimlessly before we locate our beloved orange and gray Alice behind a gate.
The security guards at the port are friendly. They ask if they can take a picture with us and then let us through.
We pack our large bags into her lockers, re-organizing smaller day-packs with our essentials and snacks. We won’t have access to Alice on the ferry.
And then we wait. Wait to get word from our Captain that they’re ready to pull out. Wait to get the okay to go through customs. We wait. This isn’t like a cruise-ship port, it’s a working dock with cranes and container ships. There aren’t any gift shops or restaurants, just cement and tar.
So we wait.
Luckily there is a mall and a Starbucks a 10 minute walk away. We go in waves.
Jaime, Cat, Jenny and I find a bar just outside the port gates and order a round.
We sit in the patchy shade alongside Alice.
We read. We chat. We snack.
Eventually it’s time to move. We head through customs which is chaotic. Our bags go through the portable screener thing – technical term – and in an effort to ‘help’ we all line up passing them through willy nilly. The customs office is small, only four of us fit inside at a time. We gather on the other side as we get stamped out. I watch as truck after truck is loaded on to the ferry, our ferry. Alice drives on and we all cheer.
We have a ride across the Caspian Sea.
Finally we’re allowed to board. We scatter in every direction, trying to find the best place to settle in for the 10 to 14 hour journey across the Sea. In the center of the ferry there are four large U-shaped padded benches. Most of us decide to base ourselves there, room for both sleeping and playing. About an hour later other passengers start coming on board. The sun sets. We wait.
I pull out my sleeping bag and mat and read a book on my phone.
Now that the first problem, finding a ride across, is solved we start speculating about the new problem this creates. We’ve applied for our visas on-line and this ferry gets us to the border two full days before our visas begin. We may have avoided sleeping on the tar and cement port in Baku but we may end up doing just that on the other side. For two days.
I wake up at sunset the next morning as we pull in to port. The other passengers exit but we wait.
At this point the bathrooms are disgusting. The drainage system is clearly overloaded and the stench is awful. Now that it’s just us on the ferry finding the least stinky bathroom becomes almost a game. When you find a winner you spread the word, it doesn’t matter if it’s a men’s or a women’s. Everything is fair game. We come up with tricks on how to handle the smell. We go immediately after the staff come through, fixing the plumbing because we know before long it will happen again.
I hear a rumor the kitchen is open and serving a basic breakfast. I go check it out.
I order eggs and toast and drink tea.
The Captain has generously agreed to let us stay aboard, giving us free reign on this level. Some of the staff stay and continue to open the kitchen for breakfast and dinner. We won’t have showers but at least we’re not camping on asphalt. We are psyched. This is way better than it could have been.
It’s comfortable. We have electricity. We have AIR-CONDITIONING.
We wait. In air-conditioning.
This is overlanding luxury. Smelly bathrooms and all.
We play games. Mary has puzzles. Alex gives salsa lessons. We read books. We wander the deck. I have a new word game on my phone and I play without fear of killing my battery. Curtis and Nigel decide to investigate the nursery and get locked inside. We take photos before finding someone to help them. They wait.
That night the crew allows Ed to hook up his computer to the screens in their seating area and we turn it into a movie theater. Vit convinces the staff to allow us in to two of the cabins upstairs usually reserved for the drivers but currently vacant. We take turns taking showers. SHOWERS you guys. CLEAN toilets.
We wait. Washed.
This is becoming more luxurious as time goes on.
The next day we’re told we can leave the ship. Apparently the Captain and Customs agents had discussed our situation and rather than keep us on the ship another 24 hours, Customs has agreed to revise our visas and allow us in early. Woo-hoo!
After that we return to our new normal. We go through customs, get our stamps. We climb aboard Alice. Moments into our drive I see wild camels on the side of the road. Welcoming us to Turkmenistan.
Our camp is in the middle of the desert. It’s a full moon and the sky is brilliant. Jenny tells me about her practice of giving affirmations at each full moon and I ask to join her. A few others join us, each individually writing down things we appreciate and give thanks. We use the flame of Tyson’s tiny camp stove to burn them.
I walk back to my tent. In the morning we’ll complete the drive to Ashgabat.
I can hardly wait.