January 7th midnight, we left Baku bound for Turkmenistan on a ferry across the Caspian Sea. We only stepped on Central Asia soil on Jan 9th. The unforgettable ordeal to cross the Caspian Sea started from Azerbaijan soil …
Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital
We spent a week in Baku, sourcing for ferry services across the Caspian Sea to Turkmenbashi, a port city in western Turkmenistan. The lack of tourist traffic (and political reasons) across the Caspian Sea between the 2 cities led to a monopolised ferry service situation in Baku. With the assistance of our newfound friends in Caspian Shipyard, we finally managed to secure ferry tickets for the Jan 7th night. The tickets for 2 persons & 2 bicycles costed us US$230 – unbelievable cut-throat prices! Nobody could (or wanted) to explain to us how the US$230 was derived, except that it seemed to have some connection to the length of our bicycles. But why and how 2 units of 1.8m bicycles would cost so much for an insignificant space in a ferry left us dumbfounded and frustrated.
Jan 7th, 2300h, we bid farewell to our friends and rode to the Baku Port Customs. At the 1st customs post, I submitted the passports to a Customs Officer. After some data entries, he turned to me, holding on to the passports and made an astonishing request.
“US$5 for each of you. 2 of you, US$10. Give me and no problem.” he demanded in Azerli language.
I was stunned. It was our 1st time in a bribery situation so far in our journey. In broken Azerli language, I tried to explain that we have no money left as we are leaving Azerbaijan (soon)… we did not carry so much cash on hand as we only withdraw from banks in next cities … we are on a 1 1/2yr low-budget trip to home … blah blah blah.
The Officer simply brushed aside all my reasonings and repeated his demand. I attempted again, putting up a more desperate face but the Officer simply act blur, shoke his head and repeated his demand, again and again. All my attempts failed. The Officer must had several experiences before. That time, I was really clueless.
“Should I give him? If not, how and what to do?” I tossed over again and again in my mind but without any conclusion. I turned to look at Sean who was guarding our bicycles outside the post.
At that moment, a middle-aged Officer walked into the post. He was the Officer whom we have “befriended” several days ago when we came to the port for ticket enquiries. He knew about our travelling plans, our frustration with the monopolised & cut-throat ferry tickets situation. I grabbed him by the arm and threw my desperation at him.
“We have no money (left). The ferry tickets are so expensive. Where to find US$10 now?
What happened next completely caught me by surprise. He looked at the Officer sitting inside the booth, holding on to our passports. Almost instantly, he pulled out some Azerli bills from his wallet and THREW them into the booth!
The Officer cheekily picked up the scattered bills from the table and showed them to me – Azerli manats equivalent to US$10!
“This is US$10. You don’t have?” he sarcastically remarked as he returned our passports to me.
I turned and expressed my gratitude to the Officer who had helped us. He muttered a few words and gestured us to go to the gantry.
We pushed our bikes to the “2nd station” – the Customs inspection office. The Officers standing outside looked at the bikes and beckoned us to enter the room. They pointed to a seemingly new X-ray machine and told us to strip all our panniers and put them through the machine!
Sean immediately started reasoning with them. He led the Officers to the bikes and tried to show them that the panniers were firmly attached to the bikes. Removing and installing would be an uphill task. However they kept insisting on removing the panniers. One Officer asked if we had bombs and guns, we angrily told them we were tourists, not terrorists! Another Officer asked if we were checked in other countries. When we replied that we had no problems so far, they laughed that maybe the other countries did not have X-ray machines.
Sean then went into the office with the Officers again, this time to see their Chief. Together they went outside to see the bikes. Once again, Sean demonstrated in despair the problematic tasks of removing our panniers. But the Chief merely shoke his head and strongly insisted on removing the panniers.
The Chief then asked to see the things inside Sean’s panniers. Without hesitation, Sean immediately opened and swiftly took out the contents, opening the various bags and plastics to show him – food, medicine, repair kits, clothings, etc. As he showed each item, he spoke and threw actions in the air in a bid to be as “detailed” as possible. The Chief pointed to another pannier and Sean again took out the contents and started similar explanations to the stuffs, what they were for, demonstrating as he spoke.
The Chief looked at the things, made a few more enquiries, looked at the rest of the panniers again (we have 8 panniers + 3 bags altogether), muttered a few words and then walked to his office. We were unsure of his verdict. We looked at the junior officers and they gestured us to go, GO! It had worked! Sean’s persistence and cooperation had paid off.
Last checkpoint. The ferry was in sight, in fact the ramp was just infront of the office. We submitted our passports, again. The young officers told us they would stamp our passports there and gestured us to enter their office. As they flipped through the passports, they started asking questions – where did we start? Where are we going? Who finance our trip? How long? blah blah blah. Even their Chief also joined in the conversation. We joked and laughed with them while keeping an eye on the officer who was doing data entries. Finally the officer stamped our passports (to our relief) and handed them back to us. We continued joking and laughing for a few rounds with them before finally leaving the office. Handshakes, thank yous and “Good road! Best wishes to Malaysia and families!” from the officers, we were out of the last Customs office.
Pushing our bikes towards the ferry, some men were waving and signalling to us to speed up. Once inside the lower deck where there were trucks and rail carriages, we were immediately surrounded by men who tried to converse with us in Russian. One man started asking US$5 from us for safeguarding our bicycles in the lower deck.
The lower deck was very spacious. Comparing to the space available and the size of our bicycles, I really felt cheated for the money we paid for “parking” our bicycles in the ferry. We refused to pay the so-called US$5 of safeguarding fee, citing reasons of no money as we had given to Customs Officers in the port previously. An older men who seemed to be a crew asked for our ticket. When he saw that our ticket was for “seats” only (Yes, US$230 is not even with cabin … really miserable), he asked if we wanted cabin. Previously when we bought the ticket, the operator had told us to give to the Captain US$10 and a cabin could be arranged for us to sleep. Normal price for a cabin of 2 would be additional US$100, according to the ticket seller.
I gave the US$10 to the old man and asked him for a cabin. He looked at the US$10 and laughed, asking for US$20 instead. I told him what the ticket seller had told us and the old man simply laughed at us, citing that the seller was joking. I looked at him helplessly and explained that our money had been given to the port customs officers and we had no money left. Other crews and men surrounding us simply laughed. Just at that moment, a younger crew pulled us out of the crowd and gestured us to follow him. He brought us up the winding stairs, past the kitchen, through several cabins before arriving at a cabin on the starboard. It seemed to be a crew cabin, his cabin in fact. It had a bed, a sofa and a toilet with showers, enough for the 12hr Caspian Sea crossing. After showing us the room, he shut the door. We were finally alone, in peace.
It was 000h and the ferry had just started to leave Baku port …
Turkmenbashi port city, Turkmenistan
We only arrived in Turkmenistan waters 15hrs later. However, the ferry was not able to berth due to other vessels in port. In addition, there were also other vessels in queue too. We were told that the earliest we can enter port might be the NEXT DAY!
We were stranded on sea and on the miserable ferry. We were restricted in our movements on board the ferry, having been warned by some crew. Time never passed so slow before. As darkness fall, we could only stare helplessly at the flickering lights of the land so near yet so far.
The next day there were news that we might be able to berth by 1200h. However, everything was as calm as before after 1200h, pin drop silence in fact. We had run out of bread after brunch and did not really fancy another night on the ferry.
Around 1700h, sounds of anchor pulling and engine running broke the silence. We were finally entering port! By the time the ferry berthed, it was already after 1900h. We were led out of the ferry by a senior customs officer with our passports with him. When we met him, we were asked if we had visas and we explained that Malaysians can enter Turkmenistan for 30 days without visa and our purpose was for “sport”. He did not comment but gestured us to follow him to the Customs building. We crossed our fingers hoping for a smooth entry into Turkmenistan as we pushed the bikes into the building.
Inside the seemingly new Customs building, the Senior Officer was working on his PC and making some calls. He looked troubled. Turning to us, he said,”You have only 14 days as tourists in Turkmenistan without visa.”
We were shocked. From Turkmen’s embassy in Turkey, we understood that Malaysians have 30 days without visa requirements in Turkmen. The embassy even rejected our request for visa application then.
We explained what we gathered in Turkey but the senior officer insisted that his 1994 dated info was the only one available. He did not have any of the 1999 dated info that we saw in Turkey. Furthermore, he could not register us as “sports” because we did not have any official document from Malaysia or Turkmenistan’s sports authorities. (Note: If we are able to register as “sports” in the reason for entry to Turkmen, we can get 3 months without visa in Turkmen.)
To make things worse, he told us that as we had to register in Ashgabat’s Immigration Centre within 3 DAYS. To travel >600km within 3 DAYS to the capital by bikes? It was absolute nonsense and totally defeated our purpose of travel in Turkmenistan! @#$!@%^#!!
“We are on bicycles, not cars. How can we travel to Ashgabat in 3 days?”
“Maybe we will take 14 days to travel to Ashgabat!”
Irregardless of how we argued and reasoned with the senior officer, he still stick to his view. As a matter of fact, he was merely following the law and available data at that point. He suggested us to approach their Immigration Dept in the port city the next day for further assistance. With this, he stamped our passport and indicated on our entry card as “TOURIST”.
By the time the commotion ended, it was already 2200h Turkmen time (Turkmenistan is 1hr later than Azerbaijan). We were totally drained and hungry. Our last solution … to make a phone call to a Petronas personnel working in the Turkmenbashi.
The Customs officers helped us to connect the number we got from Petronas Ashgabat office.
“Hello, is this Mr.Mohd Khairizul?” Sean spoke over the phone.
“We are the 2 Malaysian cyclists. Sorry to trouble you at this late hour … Yes … Yes … er … we are now at the Port Customs … Yes … yes … Oh … Thank you.”
Sean turned to me after he hung up the phone.
“They are coming to pick us up.”
For the first time since leaving Baku port, our faces were beaming with joy. Shortly after we cleared the customs inspection (they merely requested us to fill in “No”, “No”, “No” to a form, declaration of money we bought into Turkmenistan and asked a few questions. No dismantle of panniers.), an Indian man appeared outside the Port Customs.
“WELCOME, WELCOME! I’m Ilias. Come, let’s go to the Petronas Supply Base to store your bikes. Then we will go to Zul’s house. Tonight, you will stay at his place.”
We rode around 700m to the supply base, stored the bikes in a container and went with Ilias and his driver in their car. Within minutes, we were in the port city.
You cannot imagine how delighted and relieved we were when we stepped inside Zul’s house. It was liked a meeting of old friends, familiar faces and unmistakable voices.
Most surprising of all, a hot meal of Malaysian assam, fried vegetables and rice was waiting for us …
That, was how we landed on Central Asia soil. The Baku port customs night encounter left a mark on us. However, we can never forget the Azerbaijan people we met along the 542km road leading to Baku, the people who seems to live on the code of hospitality.
Our US$10 cabin, just behind the ship’s control room, previously the room of a crew.
“Dagestan”, the 21-yrs old ferry that costed us a bomb to travel across the Caspian Sea. The ferry is among 6 others that travel across the sea ‘almost daily’ transporting cargo. In her peak days during the Soviet era, she used to ferry hundreds of tourists between Baku and Krasnovodsk (currently known as Turkmenbashi).
With some of the crews, the only kind and approachable souls on board.
A ferry leaving Turkmenbashi port. It was finally our chance to enter the port after 1-1/2 day of waiting in the Turkmen sea.