24 May 2013

The crossing

This post was written over the time on the boat and then after to fill in bits I'd missed and some reflection - this is why it has a slightly odd flow.

Day 23 (17 May 2013)
Olly and Jan went off to the port again this morning, having had no call last night about a crossing. By 1030 they were back - there is a crossing, but they won't sell us tickets until they see you and your bags and the woman selling the tickets was pushing how quickly we needed to move - Jan had stayed at the port to help make sure they sold the tickets to us. Cue some quick repacking, goodbyes at the hotel (we'd been there long enough to get to know them a little - it was obviously a family run business) and a short taxi ride later (the taxis which park near the hotel all know Olly now - they knew where we were going and we had a fixed price) and we were at the port by 1100.

The ticket seller would now sell us tickets, despite that she'd not looked at us or our bags. No, I don't know either.

Here begins the hurryupandwait. Here also beings our introduction to Steffen - a Dutch guy travelling in the area on his own and we'd been told it was 4 to a room and that he'd be sharing with us.
He in travelling independently through parts of them world which go outside of their way to make it harder for independent travellers, if not impossible, so it surprised me that I met anyone doing it.

By 1230 we'd managed to be processed by Customs and Immigration, which mostly involved many different people checking our paperwork was in order and then writing down information in to paper ledger books - yes folks, paper.
The final check of my passport and ticket came with the same information being entered in to a computer and my picture taken (as per entry) - one stamp later and I'm officially out of the country.
Interestingly, and amusingly, the guys at the last check point had a guiager counter - not your everyday item at most borders I've crossed, or at least not visibly so.

We loaded on to the ferry fairly quickly, to be massively surprised to find that it's nice. It's new, clean, only 2 to a room, the rooms are en suite and have a shower! This was a major surprise to us all; we were expecting a rusting hulk with very basic facilities. It also has a kitchen on board and they'll sell us food as well as feeding the crew - this is a far more interesting option than the basics I'd brought with me and in hindsight a really useful thing - we'd all have all been in trouble without it.

The hurryupandwait now gets in to full swing. A good 2 hours go by with very little happening - the cargo isn't loaded (the train tracks on the boat don't have trains on them, so it's easy to tell) and we all just poke around the boat, relax, read (Rivers of London - it's excellent, I'm working my way through the trilogy).
Eventually the loading process starts - to my simple mind this should be a simple thing: there is a fixed amount of space for train carriages and the carriages are all identical - simply shunt on the required amount in to the relevant places (there are 4 tracks - you need to load them up in pairs so as to balance the weight) and done. How wrong am I. If nothing else the lower level of train tracks (yes, 2 floors of trains on a boat) take a lot of effort to fill, or so it would appear.

2.5+ hours later and the last of the train carriages are on board - this is when they then start loading the other items, mostly by forklift - but some (clearly marked as corrosive) by hand (ie thrown on to some guy's shoulder). This takes hours - don't ask me how many, I lost track.

I knew when we reached the port and saw the lack of loaded cargo we were on for a long wait - I was hoping for about 1800, maybe 2000. We asked several members of the boat's crew and got a mixture of shrugs, "30 minutes after we are finished loading" and "8pm" - 8 would do me.

What we hadn't expected is that around 8pm we'd be told by the crew, and then by the Captain (to Olly), that we will leave "early in the morning" as the boat didn't have enough fuel on board. The boat, which has been in the port all day, which is carrying trains full of fuel, doesn't have enough on board.
There is nothing we can do about this, so we continue to talk, take in the view of Baku by night and then turn in.

We'll see what tomorrow brings...

Day 24 (18 May 2013)
True to the Captain's word we set off early, about 0630. I got out of bed (having been woken by a PA announcement telling us we're on our way, or that is what I assume it said - it was lost on me in that it was in Azeri and I was too busy jumping out of bed going "what was that", or words to that effect) the remainder of the sunrise, but mostly to see us leaving Baku - it was nice to be in one place for a few days, but we'd been there 2 days too long.
The crew told us that it would be about an 11 hour crossings, which wasn't terrible - sail all day, get to Turkmenbashi in the evening, a few hours for Customs and Immigration and then drive all night to get to Ashgabat - we'd long known that we had lost the first few days of the Turkmenistan itinerary as we needed to get to Ashgabat, if for no other reason than there were a bunch of people there waiting to join the tour, but the sooner we got there the better.

With nothing else to do I got busy with reading - Moon Over Soho, the second in the trilogy starting with Rivers of London.
We were told by the crew that there was already one boat ahead of us waiting at the port, so they slowed our ship down and this meant we'd not reach port until about midnight - not great news, but not terrible; if we had travelled at the boat's normal speed we'd still be waiting until midnight to dock, so why rush.
A while after sunset we could see the lights of Turkmenbashi on the horizon - we knew we were close. What we hadn't expected was the sound of the anchor being lowered and the sound of the engines stopping - we weren't docking and would spend another night on the boat. We would dock early in the morning, said the crew.

Day 25 (19 May 2013)
Early morning came and went. Morning came and part way through the engines were started, the anchor raised and we started heading for the land - the boat was just being moved to a better fishing spot. The anchor was lowered and the engines stopped. Again. The fishing lines came out.

I'm not sure what they caught, but we had chicken for lunch.

The afternoon was exactly the same as the previous day - wandering around the ship, chatting, but mostly reading (Whispers Underground). The highlight was easily that the two cooks baked John a cake - allowing him to have tea & cake on his birthday. A really really nice thing for them to have done.
With no sign of docking at any point soon I just went to my bunk, read (finished the book - well worth reading all three) and dozed off - at about midnight Brian (my roommate for the crossing, an in general) woke me up with the news that the crew had just told (through sign language & mime) that they were about to start the engines and we'd be docking about 0100. Cue a quick repacking and getting everything ready. I then went back to bed to sleep for what little I could, expecting to get precious little over the next day or two.

At 0230 (Day 26 - 20 May 2013) I was awoken again, this time by one of the cooks (who also doubled as the boat's housekeeper) saying that we had docked and we needed to leave the boat. Now.

After days of hurryupandwait that I, we, going from our beds at 0230 to being in Customs and Immigration by 0245 came as a surprise. Of course, we then spent a few hours there - but it took me a few hours to get through the Immigration queue in the USA last November.

To our surprise, delight and relief Jan walked in to Customs about 10 minutes after us - it turns out that he had left a 1.5 days after us, but arrived at the same time thanks to the delays we had. Given that potentially huge headaches involved if the truck was stuck in Baku we were all very happy to see Jan - Olly especially.

Our guide for what little time we had left in Turkmenistan met us at Customs, which is a very useful thing - having someone local to help with the paperwork and act as a translator is invaluable, especially as the local officials are picky about how the paperwork is filled in; we all needed 2 goes at it and that's with help and a translator.

Steffen hitched a little lift with 2 Swedish guys who were independently overlanding in a 4x4 (you expect none and 3 turn up at once) and we last saw him waiting for the Swedes to sort out their entry. Given the delays we had with the boat he had very little time left on his visa, so he was hoping to see something of Ashgabat before having to push on to the Kazakhstan border. I hope he made it.

After sorting out a mistake with the paperwork (it only had 2 stamps and it needed 3) we were finally out of the port. 67 hours. 67 hours from port to port, beating the crossing of a similar Dragoman truck who are a few weeks ahead of us - they took 41 hours. That is winning, yes?