episode 10: the baku ferry port - the waiting game

August 3, 2016

Read next: Episode 11

It took us 5 hours of waiting until we were ushered into the foot passenger line up to cross the border into Azerbaijan while Aaron stayed in the car to clear the vehicle through customs. It was sticky and hot outside. We'd gotten up between 5 and 5:30AM to get to the border early thinking we'd wait for only a couple hours to cross over. Wrong wrong wrong.

We didn't have any food with us save for a bag of candied peanuts that we bought at the border for 3 lari. They were tasty but they got old real quick. We wouldn't find food until 4:00PM and when we did it would be one of those places where you use charades and pointing to describe what you want.

When we threaded our way through the short line up to passport control, because who goes to Azerbaijan on vacation, I was met with a border guard. I handed my passport over and was interrogated:

“Where are you from?” (but I just handed you my passport!?)

“Are you from Switzerland?”

“Where are you going?”

I am doing a road trip.

“Where are you going after Baku?”

“Do you have a visa for Turkmenistan?”
I have a Letter of Invitation.

“Where are you getting your visa to Turkmenistan?”
At the Embassy of Turkmenistan in Baku.

“And how are you getting to Turkmenistan?”
I’m taking a ferry across the Caspian Sea.

As soon as I can get on one.

At this point he flipped through my passport and pointed out a few pages:

“Why do you have a Tajik visa?”
Because I am going to drive through Tajikistan.

Because I want to drive the Pamir Highway.

“Have you been to Kazakhstan?”
Well, not yet. I’m going there though.

“OK. Look at camera.”

After that he scanned my passport and half-heartedly tossed my passport back under the glass. I walked past the border official in full uniform behind him and went through a scanner and waited for the boys, who immediately told me they got through with absolutely no problem, a few smiles and handshakes and conversational oh-where-did-you-go-in-Turkey! The first thing I noticed on the other side of the border was that there were no women. None. There only seemed to be men outside. The few women that were in public were over 60 years old, covered in shawls, and sweeping up garbage around the cars. Men on the side of the road smoking cigarettes. Men selling melons. Men selling taxi rides. Men selling peaches. Men sitting on the curb doing nothing but observing. Men looking out of their cars.

We waited for another 30 minutes before Aaron rolled the car through the gate and we started the 6 hour drive to Baku across the entire country. The entire place was dust, scrub, low brick buildings, railroad tracks and a few power lines. When we got closer to Baku the air got thicker. It was 37 degrees and a little cozy in the car. Pipelines popped out of the ground. Construction sites materialized. Huge cranes stuck out of the ground like spikes. Prickly. Industrial sites were everywhere. It looks a lot like driving north of Fort McMurray, passing through the Syncrude site. It looks like whatever was scraped away, leaving ravaged sand and crumbling rock behind. It smelt like smoke. We could see the black wisps being carried across the sky like a smudge of oil. Flare stacks were alight in the distance.

It was a mean shock to learn that the Azerbaijan Manat is stronger than the Canadian dollar. Things aren’t cheap in this city. It’s a mix of old and new -skyscrapers rising out of the bricks. The Old Town is a quiet maze of alleys where shops sell Flying Carpets, pots and magnets.

Now begins the very fun part: the ferry across the Caspian Sea. To put it simply, there are no straight answers and no easy solutions. Many teams were issued only 3 days of car insurance at the border for Baku, so after 3 days, the car has to clear customs at the ferry port and after that, you can’t leave the port. Luckily we were issued 30 days (why, we have no idea really –luck of the draw) so on that front we’re OK. There are about 36 cars stuck in the ferry port right now waiting for the next ferry, and no one knows when that is. They are there simply because they can’t be anywhere else and that’s the only way to find out information. Many teams have their Turkmenistan visas already started and running out. Other teams have their Azerbaijan visas running out. People are getting desperate, looking up the fines to avoid deportation out of Turkmenistan (reportedly $400USD/person or get deported. If you get deported you may have trouble entering other countries – it’s like a black mark on your passport). 

There’s a list of cars and people who are apparently “in line” for the ferry and our names and vehicle are on that list… but no one really knows if the list is a hard rule or means anything at all (it probably doesn’t). No one really knows if you can get on the ferry if your Turkmenistan visa doesn’t start until 18 hours after that or not. Some people have opted to risk it a little more and get on the ferry with only the Letter of Invitation to Turkmenistan, which to be honest doesn’t look like anything official. It looks like scrap paper. They’re thinking is they can get the visa at the port in Turkmenbashi. No one is sure though, although that would be convenient. Our plan of attack: head to the Turkmenistan Embassy tomorrow and hope it opens (apparently the guy there will open it if there are enough people there… although how he knows how many people are there if he’s decided not to come in at all is completely beyond me). We will pick a starting visa day of August 6th so our transit visa to Turmenistan ends on August 10th. We then move the car into customs and out of Azerbaijan and we wait at the ferry terminal all day hoping for news of a ferry. No one normal takes this ferry. It’s primarily a cargo ferry. It wasn’t meant for us and it’s pretty clear there is no working system in place to accommodate the yearly rush of the Mongol Rally.

I don’t care. All I need is out before my Azeri visa expires and I’ll be fine. All we need is two days of validity left on the Turkmenistan visa. That will be enough to drive into Uzbekistan. All we need is just enough. We’re going to squeeze through, I hope.

Cheers from Baku, Azerbaijan.

Read next: Episode 11

Using Format