16 Turmenistan, Caspian Sea
is converting from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet.
The permits to get Dipli in cost $125. It would have been much more if Jan had not convinced them that Dipli was not a truck. For us the invitations and visas had been $152. Just as well that we never paid to sleep - to offset the high visa costs for these small countries. (Finding a suitable overnight spot a little off the road, usually with the aid of 4WD, was not too difficult). Initially we were unable to BUY diesel because citizens get it on a coupon system for free and not all fuel stations handle cash. Later, at the black market exchange rate, we paid $0.02c a litre.
This desert filled republic has a fabulous wealth of unexploited oil and gas, but like all the other ex-Soviet states the roads were also very bumpy tar. From vendors next to irrigated patches we bought gigantic elongated melons and round watermelons! Turkmen women wear full-length long sleeved velvet dresses, in spite of the heat – usually maroon and often gold trimmed.
In Ashgabat we gave up on the slow Internet
and went to the new Sheraton Hotel opposite for an elegantly served (mediocre) lunchtime snack. Next door in the Carpet Museum we were amazed at the world’s largest hand-woven carpet (10 x 18m).
In Turkmenistan and in Uzbekistan, at more then 50 police control points, they not only checked our documents, but also laboriously wrote, so futile, all the details in an exercise book.
We were hoping to see the opening of the Olympic Games on TV somewhere in Turkmenistan. The desert plains with camels suddenly became arid hills bristling with pylons and cables. The “Yol polis” (road police) control was under a web of pipes. We had reached the oil port of Turkmenbashi (previously Krasnovodsk) on the Caspian Sea. The police did not know anything about the ferry. After our documents had been examined, we tried to pull off…no clutch action! We rolled backwards down hill and pulled off on the road to the ferry port. (Switch off, engage low range 2nd, start engine in gear). It was early Friday evening and from all the traffic we assumed that the ferry was about to leave. Jan started dismantling, but then decided he preferred to have a beer while watching the sun set over the Caspian Sea. By Saturday morning the clutch master cylinder recuperating seal had been replaced and we went to wait at the harbour. The boat was there but no one knew when it would be leaving for Baku. Someone gestured that the train had to come first. We drove over and under pipelines, around refineries to the town. As everywhere in Turkmenistan there were large pictures of the president and slogans calling himself “Turkmenbashi” = leader of all Turkmen. After a nice pizza we returned to wait.
Late afternoon there was activity on the rail track and then thunderous shunting by two locomotives simultaneously offloading carriages and then loading two trains into the ship. Someone phoned the customs official. Much later he reluctantly came. He was sorting out the paper work with Jan when we heard the horn of the ferryboat. There it disappeared into the night!
Sunday morning we were told to park right next to the pale turquoise Caspian Sea.
Police and other officials played cards in small patches of shade. We waited all day for the locomotives to come. This time they shunted and shoved just l metre from Dipli’s nose. The customs official started the paperwork early. He must have been so impressed by Jan’s refusal to give him a bribe that he turned up with supper: four writhing fish! Leoné shrieked and fled. Custom’s guy stood watching so we could not fling them back from whence they came.
Jan grabbed a knife and started hurriedly cleaning the fish. The last carriages were loaded. Leoné quickly fried the fish and in a frenzy we consumed the delicious morsels. It was chaos in and around the motorhome. They were gesturing for us to come on board. Jan hastily went to collect a bucket of seawater. Came back soaked to the chest (to just under the shirt pocket with the passports!). Had slipped on a slimy rock. Panicky cleaning and drying and changing. We drove onto the ferry. Dipli was squeezed in between two enormous bulging fuel carrying rail tankers. Drivers and passengers were ordered out of the vehicles because the ship was about to sail. We grabbed water and some SA cans of food. On the way to our ‘deck passage’, we were offered a comfortable cabin with bathroom for $20. And then…. We did not sail. Engine trouble… Left early Monday morning. When we docked in Baku at midnight, it took an hour longer for one large truck to manoeuvre himself from the ferry and out of our way.
The Azerbaijan customs officer on duty at this time of night, could only give 3-day transit permits for vehicles. The boss would only arrive at 10 a.m. next morning, so he asked if we could sleep right there on the docks. This suited us well, as we did not want to venture into a strange city at 1 a.m. anyway.
The Caucasus nations (Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia) form a spectacular bridge between the Caspian and Black Seas crashing together in a knot of soaring mountains. Caucasus is Persian for “glittering ice” but the region also comprises a variety of warmer climatic zones.
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