We sat in the bay of an oil change shop drinking tea. The mechanic and I had driven over in the Rascal. It was time to meet the translator, get final instructions, and settle the bill. But of course, none of this could happen until we finished our tea.
“He says you must drive...relaxed,” the translator informed me. “The engine cannot go too fast or too hot.” I listened to his words and thought about how I had been driving right before everything went south. I had been pushing the Rascal hard, up a hill, trying to get to some artificial point on the map I had decided on months ago. “You need to stop, eat lunch. Let the engine cool down.” I had been driving nonstop. Lots of energy drinks and truck stop food. Everything the mechanic was telling me I could not do again.
We shook hands and parted company. I put the Rascal back on the road and pressed the accelerator...but just a bit. There were hundreds of miles of Turkey left and they were all mountainous. Plus it was getting hot, clos to 90 degrees. I could not afford to have another breakdown. So I relaxed. I let the speed. Drop down to 55mph, even slower on the hills, and did not worry about my timeframe. I stopped for lunch at the top of a mountain pass and stayed for an extra cup of tea. When I got back in the van, both it and I were much cooler.
The next two days were spent much the same way.
I crossed the border from Turkey into Georgia and stepped back in time. No indoor plumbing. Cow patties baking in the sun to be used for fuel. Rush hour involved slowing down to let dozens of coup and sheep come in from the fields and walk down the middle of the road. The Rascal was nudged ore than once by a cow who not pleased by my presence. I wondered how safe I was in my little tin can. The horns were long and I was pretty sure that the cows weighed more than the Rascal. I waited patiently, not wanting to spook them.
I had to move slowly through Georgia. Roads would go from great to nonexistent within a matter of meters. Sometimes it was just for a small section. Other times it was miles and miles of potholes. Luckily there were very few cars on the road as I ended up using both sides pretty equally in an effort to avoid the worst of the obstacles. As much as I trusted the GPS, when it told me to turn down a gravel road and follow it for the next 21 miles, I decided against it. I would take the longer route and save the wear and tear for Mongolia.
I spent the night in a filed just off the main road. The stars were bright and the road was quiet. At first I was worried about being so remote, so alone. What if the farmer showed up? What about the police? I realized i could worry about these things, or I could enjoy the serenity. I chose the latter.
The next day was much the same. Cows. Sheep. Pot holes. It was slow going, but quite beautiful.
The border with Azerbaizan was slow. I baked in the sun as I waited in line for over two hours. I remembered the mechanic’s words. “Stop. Have lunch. Let it cool.” I found myself an iced coffee.
Within twenty miles of the border i was pulled over by the Azerbaizani police. Apparently the rules that everyone else so blissfully ignored were going to be enforced for me. To be fair, I was guilty of everything he said, but so was every other driver. He got the “commandant” on the phone who informed me that I had to pay a $300 fine or lose my license for three months. A lot of back and forth ensued. Eventually we settled on $50 and I was free to go.
What had gotten me into that situation was passing some cars in a no passing zone (not well marked) and doing 90kmh in a 60 kWh zone (like everyone else). In other words, I was not driving “relaxed”. I settled back in and kept the Rascal well within the speed limit. In fact, I kept it under the speed limit for much of the day. The temperatures were approaching 110 degrees and the Rascal was running warm. This had me nervous. The last thing I needed was another breakdown!
I eventually pulled off and found a store that had what appeared to be a small restaurant attached. My pantomime skills got me a pot of tea, and some pointing and gesturing got me plate of smoked cheese and a bowl of garbonzo beans to eat. Eventually I even managed to get a cold beer! I made incomprehensible conversation with a pair of Azerbaizani men. Eventually I think I coveyed my trip details. They inspected the map on the side of the Rascal and shook their heads. Clearly they thought I was crazy! I was beginning to agree.
An hour later I was stopped by the police at a checkpoint. I was brought into a room and shown photographic evidence of my traffic crimes: Driving on the left and speeding. I was able to explain that driving on the left was me passing someone. As for speeding, I explained that my vehicle was close to overheating and there was no way I was going above the speed limit. The man pointed to a time stamp showing I was clearly speeding. I pointed out that the time stamp was from over a week ago and I had only been in the country for six hours. Eventually he let me go with a warning. “You drive truck. Must only go 70kmh.” I shook my head. My “truck” was smaller than most often SUV’s on the road.
I got to the port city of Baku after 10pm. What should have been a seven hour drive had turned into a fifteen hour day. The air was heavy and still, like being in the Amazon reptile room at the zoo. A sheen of moisture covered everything, the buildings, the cars, the people. It was hot and the city was doing all it could to cool off.
Baku feels like a modern pirate city. Huge gleaming buildings and fancy cars and shops line the streets. Meanwhile, rusting, hulking freighters sit in the harbor waiting to load or unload their cargo. How does that small amount of port traffic generate that much income for the residents?
My GPS took medown a dark road to a series of warehouses on the outskirts of town. This felt more like the ferry terminal I was looking for. The ferry “system” is a loose affiliation of cargo ships that take passengers and vehicles from Azerbaizan across the Caspian Sea to either Turkmenistan or Kazakhstan. There is no set schedule. There are no set accommodations. You show up at the terminal. You wait. You go when the ship is full.
There were several guards standing around a gated area. There were no Rally cars to be seen, but they could have been inside one of the warehouses. I got out of the Rascal and approached the group. Clearly I was not the first person to have ended up here. Before I could get much more than, “Hi! I want-” out of my mouth, one of the guards finished “to go to Turkmenistan!” Yes, the Rally had reached this point before. Except it was not the right place.
I was directed to “The Port Building” about four miles back down the road. When I arrived I was confused. Instead of what I would consider anything port-related, there was a gleaming skyscraper and a row of posh shops (including a Bentley dealership). Clearly something had been lost in translation. I sat for a while at the Starbucks, soaking up the free wifi and air conditioning. A google search did not turn up much more information. There was a non-descript building across the road and I thought that might be it.
A security guard at the gate shook his head. He pointed to the right and made a rectangle with his fingers. Not much to go on.
I started walking to the right. This did not feel right. Instead of warehouses, I found more posh restaurants and a large playground. There wa as long wall behind all of these, and I wondered if the port might be behind it. It was dark and there was no telling what was back there.
Eventually I came to the end of the wall and turned right. Almost immediately I saw a low rectangular building. Even more amazingly, the door was open ad the light was on! I walked inside and asked the lady behind the window if this was where I bought tickets for the ferry. It was not, but it was where I checked in. She put my name on the list and directed me to park my car in the lot. There was a ferry that would be leaving the next day!!! I raced back to the Rascal and brought it to the lot. There were the Rally vehicles!
I spent the next several hours wandering from building to building and calling Michelle on the satellite phone. Turkmenistan is notoriously difficult to get in to. I had a letter of invitation, but no visa. That was a problem. I had been told in no uncertain terms that I could not get in to the country without a visa. However, there was a solid rumor circulating on the Rally Facebook group that we could get to the port in Turkmenistan and get our visas there. If the rumor was true, then it would save me a lot of time and frustration. If the rumor was wrong, it was going to be extremely expensive and potentially the end of my trip. Unfortunately, there was no clear answer.
Finally, around 4 am I fell asleep in the van. The customs agent had told me to come see him the next morning when I had a ticket. About 8 am the rest of the Ralliers arrived, having spent the night in hotels and hostels. They had waited all day only to be told that there were not enough passengers. They hoped that today there would be enough and we could get going.
More importantly, they also confirmed that I could get my Visa in Turkmenistan...all of them had the same plan! In the muggy light of day, a plan was in place. I was with friends, and we were going to Turkmenistan!
Or so we thought.
The ticket office was supposed to open at 10. Around noon it finally opened. By 1pm we had the bad news. Our previously under-capacity ferry was now over capacity. Not all of us would be able to go. Since I was the last to arrive, it was clear that I would not be going. There was a lot of confusion among the rest of the Rally teams as they tried to sort out how to get the maximum number of cars on the ferry. Supposedly a second, passenger ferry would be arriving soon and could take the rest of the teammates.
So here I sit in Baku. It is hot. It is muggy. And all I can do is wait and relax. There are books to be read, emails to send, and maybe even a tasty treat to be found. I have a plan in place going forward for making the next ferry and my visas beyond. I might have to do some adjusting along the way, but that is part of the trip.