The Berk Arar is allegedly one of the newest ships to sail the Caspian Sea. Designed specifically as a ferry, it has amenities the converted cargo ships do not have: cabins with showers, two bars and a restaurant, flat screen tv’s, and even a gift shop!
If only it were all true.
The Berk Arar may be one of the newest ships to sail the Caspian Sea, and it may actually have all of those amenities...except they are all illusions. There are cabins with showers, but they are primarily for the truck drivers whose rigs make up the bulk of the cargo on this ship. By the time the locals had their cabins (locals get served first) there were only two cabins left for Ralliers. The rest of us would have to pay $50 per person to sit in airline-style seats or fend for ourselves in some of the lounge areas of the boat.
There aren't in fact, two bars and a restaurant. The bars have no alcohol, no soda, no water, and no staff. The only thing we have found of any use or value is one bar has a small wine refrigerator whic is capable of taking a warm beer from your vehicle and making it slightly less warm. The restaurant is set up to serve all of the passengers with a massive, Odeon kitchen, and a decently long buffet table. Except there is barely any food. Breakfast was three eggs and toast. There was no lunch. Dinner was a piece of chicken. You have to get there early because quantities are limited and prices vary based on how much money you have and how much Russian you speak. We have taken to supplementing our meals with rations from our vehicles: lots of vodka, pickles, and cheap caviar.
Ther are flat screen tv’s in the airline seating area as well as the restaurant. The Ralliers have taken over the airline area and have the first episode of Game of Thrones, and a selection of Pixar movies. The tv in the restaurant is a different story. There is a small USB drive attached which, despite having multiple files, appears to only be capable of playing the same selection of music videos over and over. Was almost came to blows with a truck driver when we turned down the music on its third go--round. Words were exchanged between him and our Russian speaker. It got heated. Eventually someone from the boat came and took the speakers away.
And the gift ship is completely empty.
After we boarded the ship Monday afternoon, we proceeded to celebrate by getting good and ripped on Russian vodka. We figured we could sleep the night and most of the day away before having to confront the mysteries of Turkmenistan. Spirits were high in our group as we were finally making progress.
At 4am we were all awoken by angry men demanding our passports. The check in process had been chaotic and had resulted in several people not actually getting registered. I sleepily pointed in the direction of the desk and said that they already had my passport. I guess that was good enough for them because they left me alone. The rest of my companions had to blearily go over and sort things out at the desk. But at least we were on our way, right?
Wrong. We were still in the port of Baku. Twelve hours had passed and we had not moved a meter.
Four hours later we woke up to a view ofthe Caspian Sea out the window. The blue water was relatively calm, and it was a pleasant day for sailing. So why weren't we moving? We were approximately twenty kilometers off the coast of Baku and there we would stay for the next twelve hours. Promptly at 9pm, with no discernible change in weather or sea conditions, we started to move.
A combination of sea sickness, hangovers, and lack of flushing toilets quickly made the bathrooms a nightmare and the passageways near them next to impassable. Every few hours one ofthe bathrooms would get in working order and a mad dash would ensue.
Every so often a lady comes around and picks up our trass. She then walks outside and dumps it over the railing and into the sea. It is heartbreaking. We have taken to hiding our trash. We’ll deal with it on our own once we reach port. Hopefully it will not suffer a similar fate.
We pass our time playing cars, telling stories, and spreading rumors about the trip. I have fallen in with a motley crew of Americans, Canadians, Brits, Scots, and Swedes. We get along well and there is an easy comraderie about us. I’m glad to have the company. I’m not sure I would be able to maintain my sanity doing this alone.
Moe or less the crew leaves us alone and we are free to wander the ship. I have given myself a tour of the engine room, and we discovered how to get down to the vehicles so we can re-supply our vodka and pickles. Apparently one of my compatriots even drunkenly managed to wander onto the bridge the first night we were on board. There was no one there!!! This is , by far, the strangest ship I have ever been on!
Once I land in Turkmenbashi I will have to head directly for Ashgabat and the Uzbekistan embassy. My Uzbek visa will have expired by the time I get there and it is my only realistic exit from Turkmenistan. From there I will have to decide on the best course of action. Delays in Turkey and this ferry have made it so that parts of the trip will have to be adjusted or cancelled. I fear that the Pamir Highway is now entirely out of the question. There is an old Soviet space launch facility in Kazakhstan that may be an interesting alternative. It is no Pamir, but there are real roads in most of Kazakhstan and right now I need to make up some mileage and time. Perhaps the Pamir will have to wait for another time, another trip, and a vehicle that is actually designed to handle the rigors of the route. But then again, when is the next time I will be in this part of the world?
*. *. *.
We docked at the port of Turkmenbashi a little after 11am. The Vaspian was a brilliant blue against the red-brown rugged cliffs. Rusted freighters listed to their sides in the harbor as we eased into one of the two docks available. An ancient tugboat helped guide us into place.
We assumed that since the port was so small and there was so much traffic on the sea, they would be in a rush to get unloaded and free up the space.
We were wrong.
We sat on the boat for five hours as they slowly got the local passengers and cargo off the ship. Eventually we were allowed to go to our vehicles and get off this Styxian vessel!
WE pulled out into the hot Turkmen sun and were directed to assemble ourselves and vehicles in a small area next to eh ship. Being good tourists, we wanted to document every aspect of this. But, as soon as the cameras and GoPros came out, we were told by the guards to put them away. We had heard that the rules in Turkmenistan about filming were strict. It looked like they were not kidding.
We were led in our vehicles To a new assembly point in front of a larger steel gate. From there we were sent to what can only be s described as the world’s smallest and worst run DMV office. We were sent from administrator to administrator where the same information was gathered and hand written into log books. There was not a computer in the entire building! Each administrator would dutifully write down the information and then add his or her stamp to each of the three pages before sending us on our way. All of this had to be accomplished while blocking the windows against line-jumping Russian truck drivers. A few times things got pretty heated.
One of the longest waits was the map line. One at a time you entered a small room (blissfully air conditioned). An older man who spoke no English showed me a map of Turkmenistan. I had to demonstrate on the map my general route through the country. This served two purposes. The first was to calculate road tax and travel fees. The second was to make sure they could keep tabs on me (and the rest of the Rally teams). We are all here on transit visas. That meas we are simply in the country to get from one side to the other. If we were to be here as tourists, we would have to hire an official guide who would be with us all the time. It is similar to visiting China or Iran. The transit visa allows us to skip the inconvenience (and expense) of the guide, but means that we have to register our route.
By the end of the ordeal we were each in possession of well over a dozen different stamps and five separate pieces of paper. The very last administrator gave everything a cursory glance, tore off the bottom two copies, and tossed them into a box under his desk, probably never to be glanced at again.
The entire process took eleven hours.
We were not sent on our way until after 3am. By this time there was a debate as to whether or not to try to make the Steve hour drive to Ashgabat, or find a spot in the desert and get a few hours rest. I joined a convoy and headed east to Ashgabat.