The trans-Caspian Express

So, my first ‘stan at last. I am waiting (and waiting) on the aft deck (see the full extent of my sailing knowledge) of this cargo ship for the doctors and immigration people and customs guys who are no doubt rubbing their hands with glee at getting their mitts onto their first foreigner of the day. Or not rubbing their hands with glee, if they are the doctors. Since I might have Sars, after all.

In fact, it may well be their last foreigner of the day too. Foreign guests are rare in Turkmenistan, so I am told. Am I fortunate, or foolish? Too late to change my mind now I guess.

While I call it a ‘cargo’ ship, in fact it had no cargo. It left Baku last night, almost (but not quite, sadly for the spy in me) under cover of darkness. And when I woke this morning, rousing myself slowly from the relative comfort of my lying-across-three-seats bed, we were here already. My plans for a photo of Turkmenistan from a distance are dashed. At least until (if?) I come this way again.

But yes, no cargo. They put some railway carriages on. Twice actually. But both times they took them off again. There must have been some kind of problem. Which reminds me of the Azerbaijani border guy who only seemed to be able to say ‘big problem’ in English (which says something in itself, I guess), even when there were no problems. So when he handed me a form to fill in, when he gave me back my passport, when he smiled and waved me on my way. Rather strange.

And no other passengers either. So I like to think that this boat was going from Azerbaijan to Turkmenistan just for me. Of course, it wasn’t really. Even if I had never got on it would have gone anyway. There is apparently something in Turkmenistan to be picked up.

The chief luxury on board (and I could have had more salubrious accommodations except that I did not want to pay for them – in fact, I could have had them for free had I taken up the offer of one of the crew to have one of the spare bunks in his room) was the top deck. Flat and open almost from one end of the boat to the other, off limits to all but the passenger, and with a perfectly sited park bench providing comfort and a feeling of security (as well as a perfect spot to check out the scenery). I had been thinking lately that I might like to take a cruise at some point in the future, so it was nice to imagine that this was my cruise ship, although the route was rather predictable (there and back and there and back and there and back) and comprised of none of the most reknowned sun-splashed tourists ports on the planet.

Just so you know, the Caspian was a dead-flat, deep-green colour, sparkling in the sunlight. It didn’t have any waves. Not much of a swell even. It is the world’s biggest lake, I think. Or is that somewhere else?

The other highlight was a singalong with a bunch of the sailors. They were clearly very bored: life in the Azeri navy was not hard (to judge by the bellies they all sported in their mid-20s), and they all dreamed the same dream – to buy some expensive home theatre equipment from the colour brochure (Pioneer – all in English) that one sailor kept in his cabin. In the evenings they gather to play guitar and laugh and smoke. They each have different talents: one plays only lead, one can play good rhythm but knows few tunes, a third is like the band leader. And for one night only, they were joined by a New Zealander who can not really play the guitar at all to listen to, appreciate, and even record (one had a cassette player) a few great tunes. The Baku Sessions, coming soon to all good record stores.

And so I enter into the record as one of the highlights of my journey thus far, butchering Dave Dobbyn tunes with a bunch of young Azerbaijani sailors as we cruised across the Caspian Sea. If truth be told, they preferred the mellow tunes of the LuckSmiths.

One of the crew was the first Russian that I have ever really admired too. Which makes it another highlight. He was only 24 but he had a clear plan for why he was in the Navy (to make captain (next year), to get out (as soon as possible), to start a new life with his wife (they marry young) in a country far far from Azerbaijan). He has relatives in Germany. Good idea, I said. It was nice to meet someone who was not saying ‘oh, things are bad but I can do nothing’.

I spent the day in Baku. Which was probably just about long enough. Although I am sure it could be a fun town, all I ever saw it as was a transit point. On the way. So I did not really want to stay.

But can I just record my eternal gratitude to the three Azeris who helped me out at the train station, saving me from a rapacious guard who was hunting for a bribe. Or perhaps something easy to steal. I am sure that, once I had made the crucial mistake to follow him to his office (that is the last time I will do that, he says), it was only their insistence that they were going to call the consulate (which one was not clearly specified) that made the guard give up and piss off to find someone less trouble to hassle. I regret now that I did not take up their offer of an invite to lunch. But I was on the way. To my first ‘stan, as I said.

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