These posts got backed up in Turkmenistan, because there was no internet. Apologies if the catch-up seems like a deluge.
I’d been warned, but I still believed that the ferry crossing from Turkmenbashi to Baku would be a suitable conclusion to the Central Asian adventure. In fact, the trip had almost been planned with this adventure as its climax. Slipping away from the Asian shore, leaving the Great Game arena via the gateway so many players had used to approach it – what could be more dramatic and romantic?
The Transcaspian Railway ferry Akademik Hesen Aliev looked unprepossessing enough at the Turkmen dockside. A tired, stumpy old ship closer to a Channel ferry in need of a re-spray than a stately Silk Road galleon…
We were hustled through customs and passport sheds at a great rate because the boat was on a fast turnaround and the captain didn’t want his passengers (there were just the two of us) holding up the departure.
On the quay we met a dazed British boy disembarking with his motorbike. ‘Five days from Baku on that thing’ he muttered. ‘It’s supposed to take seventeen hours’.
We commiserated and blithely passed on, into the guts of the ship past the rail freight wagons hunkered in the hold and up skeins of steel ladders to the cabin deck. Please don’t imagine white-jacketed stewards and strains of Glenn Miller. Much more Russian crewman in soiled vest, stink of crude oil, peeling grey lino. And the cabin itself, in the spectral light filtering through brown nylon curtain? Two torn mattresses, one neon striplight, a cubicle with a broken lavatory and a basin hanging off the wall. The whole luxurious suite was papered in some oily material that visibly shivered with subcutaneous cockroach activity. We laughed, slightly nervously. As for the fast turnaround – the minute we were trapped on board and our passports removed everything came to standstill.
It was four hours before the Akademik ploughed away from the dock, and as soon as it did so it became clear that our romantic boat was a fifty-year-old fourth-hand rust bucket, a shuddering firetrap of a barely-crewed ghost ship without a lifejacket on board and no hope of escaping the catastrophic fire that would surely break out at any minute. The lifeboats were fused into the davits and clearly hadn’t been tested since the Volga Boatman last sang in the cabaret.
Actually it was flat calm and the night passed, sleepless for me because I was on bug watch, but uneventful. We’d embarked at midday, and by 10 am we were approaching Baku – hungry, because we’d hurried aboard without time to stock up with provisions as advised, and dirty because that was preferable to dealing with the ‘bathroom’, but – hey – there we were, and Azerbaijan obviously had coffee and food, because I could SMELL them from 500 yards off in the bay.
Unfortunately 500 yards was as close as we were to come. The engines stopped and the anchor cable rattled over the winch. We would have to wait for dock access. No one knew when it would be granted.
The hot empty hours crawled by. Lunchtime (no lunch) and dinnertime (likewise) came and went. Darkness fell. No one knew anything. Five days began to seem a distinct possibility. Across the oily water Baku glittered like an exotic vision, never to become reality. At midnight I put on my pyjamas and crawled into my makeshift cockroach exclusion cocoon once more.
As soon as I had dropped off, the engines started up.
There’s a happy ending. By 3 a.m. I was draining the hotel mini bar and gobbling Snickers in the shower. I’ve never been so happy.
You might want to book a honeymoon trip aboard the Turkmenbashi-Baku Caspian ferry. Or you might not. Baku itself is a glamorous, oil-rich city full of designer shops and cafe bars, with an ancient silk road settlement of carvanserais and hammans at its heart. Which seems to encapsulate rather neatly the opposite poles of this adventure.
It has been amazing, in the real sense of the word. Tomorrow – LONDON!!!!!!