While driving north along the Baku coast, turn right on an unmarked dirt road just after some train tracks and a 1km marker and just before an Armani billboard.. You’ll probably miss it. Beyond another set of train tracks is a white building with a metal door marked ‘kassa’. This is where tickets are purchased for both passengers and vehicles though there are no marked hours. We found an official looking man (based on the size of his hat and the presence of epaulets) and he told us to return at 10PM that evening. At 10PM we were told to return at 9AM and at 9AM we were told to return at 3PM and at 3PM we were told to return at 9AM. At the end of the dirt road there are some customs police who will gladly chat with you. There is also a wooden stall that sells watermelon and bottles of vodka. Mix at your discretion.
Slowly, you’ll start to see pieces falling together. A few more dockworkers might show up, some waiting cars may have prematurely turned their engines on, and truck drivers making the same crossing may seem a bit more eager, as if they know something you don’t. (They probably do). Eventually, the long since abandoned kassa booth I previously mentioned will be teeming with activity and you’ll want to be in the middle of it. You’ll need your passport, your car title, and your Azeri import documentations. You’ll also need a lot of patience, the ability to speak Russian, and heaps of USD.
After an ample amount of money changes hands, you’ll receive your vehicle ticket. All your passengers will need to secure their separate tickets ($100 a piece) from a separate kassa booth to the left. I can’t speak of that process as I was not involved. You’ll then move your car past the watermelon/vodka shop and the customs police, over yet another set of train tracks to the pier. You’ll get your passport stamped in a little room and then be asked to bring your vehicle on board between 1-4 hours later. Once on board, you will be told to give your passport to a man. Be sure it is the right man.
Feel free to enjoy the art gallery in the kitchen. Highlights include a neon airbrushing of an ibex and a deer in front of a waterfall entitled “Heaven on Earth” and a wall calendar from 1997 made by Helsinki Media. There is also a lovely piece in the corner entitled “American Feast” that would make Norman Rockwell envious. It’s an oversaturated still life that focuses on the Vitamin C in the American diet. Thirst quenching glasses of orange juice are ingeniously paired with halved grapefruit and key lime pie. The aesthetic placement of the objects channels early Cezanne – it’s just a shame that the texture of the piece is lost in the lamination. Made me miss home. Also plan on making your way to the top deck. Croquet is not allowed up there because it is above the staff’s sleeping quarters but there is no problem playing on either of the lower decks in the aft. At no point will you be allowed to climb up to the crow’s nest. If a backpack is stolen from your cabin, a bottle of Cognac will in all likelihood make it reappear. Don’t expect to receive keys for your assigned berth.
If all goes well, approximately 15 hours later you will pull into Turkmenbashi port. Before debarking, the first mate will make an announcement that the doctor would like to inspect all the Americans. Not really in the mood for a checkup, you will file into queue. In my case, we quickly learned that there were “too many of us” so the doctor did not want to make his inspection. There were 8 of us. I hope for your sake that the doctor isn’t feeling more ambitious during your crossing.
You Two hours later you will then debark the ship with all your luggage through the cargo hold and you will walk across a wooden bridge. You will then sit in a parking lot for a number of hours. Let’s call it seven hours. In this lot, smoking, spitting, and photography are not allowed. Through experiential learning, we also learned that ball games are not allowed. Staging a silent rock concert with a pair of air guitars and air drums seemed to be acceptable but not necessarily encouraged. The half hour yoga class my sister led on the pavement for other passengers pushed the boundaries of what is and is not allowed in this interzone.
Eventually you will be pointed at and told to enter the immigration complex. (Indicated by #1 on Exhibit I Below) That’s when the fun begins.
Upon entry, you will be directed to a passport booth where you will be handed your passport. (2) This should now include your Turkmen visa. After a lenient security check (I had a knife in the bag I x-rayed and was carrying a pocket knife on my body),(3) turn ever so slightly to the left and head past the scale (more on that later) to the wooden table in the corner where a very nice woman with impeccable handwriting will take your passport and make some markings in one of many dusty volumes on or around her desk. (4) If she is not at her desk, you can usually find her chatting with the man in the room I have marked ‘4b’ in Exhibit 1 below. After indicating that you have a car, you’ll turn around and head to the center office which is appropriately labeled Turkmenulaggozegcilik. (5) His desk appears mahogany and on his wall will be a picture of President Berdymukhamedov and a map of Central Asia. His desk lamp is the color of Peptol-Bismol.. Harking back to sixth grade geography class, he will ask you to point on a map your intended route through the country. Various calculations on a comically large orange 4 function calculator that looks like it was a hand out at an Easy Jet conference will be tallied together on your Bir Gezekleyin Rugsatnama, or Entry Permit. This gem of paper pushing bureaucracy will include a handdrawn map of your intended route through Turkmenistan and a list of fees levied against you, ranging from $1 for vehicle disinfection to third party liability insurance and compensation of fuel cost fee. In a series of acts that are not unlike Halloween, you will then take your Entry Permit to collect various stamps. First, you’ll need to head next door to the Turkmenbasy SWBP office, where a man will look you over and then offer his literal stamp of approval. (6) His office has the same picture of the President but a different map of Central Asia. His desk lamp is powder blue and his desk appears to be chestnut. He keeps his stamp in an old film canister and is very diligent about applying adequate pressure as to ensure the stamp is legible but does not bleed. He wears a +1.75 magnification on his glasses. (He did not remove the purple sticker from the top left of the frame). From here, you’ll exit to your left, passing the Turkmenulaggozegcilik where you received you Bir Gezekleyin Rugsatnama, and enter into Turkmenbasy OKSB, where you will collect another stamp. (7) This man has no picture of the President, no map of Central Asia, and no desk lamp! However, he does have a very scientific microscope in the corner of his office which I found odd. The laminate is peeling off of his desk to such a degree that I could not derive its intended varnish. This man’s stamp is much larger than the others and he seems more contemplative when stamping it. After exiting the OKSB office, the nice woman from step 4 asked me to stand on an industrial scale. (8) She did not ask for my passport nor did she mark anything down, which leads me to believe that this was an erroneous step included only for her enjoyment and did not help nor hinder my entry into Turkmenistan.
Now that you have collected your stamps, you must exit the immigration room, pass through the waiting room, and go outside to a brick counter. (9) Here, an officer and his colleague will copy down information that has already been copied down many times before. From here, the officer will point to your right, making a hooking motion with his arm and say “red door”. You should walk outside, hook to the left exactly as indicated by his hand, and you will eventually come across a glossy red door that would look more in place in Montmartre than Turkmen Customs. (10) The sign will read “Turkmenbashi International Seaport: The of Industrial-Shipping Complex No. 2” Ignore the grammar and enter into a silent labyrinth of marble and plastic. I can say with a reasonable amount of confidence that the walls were the exact same color as the desk lamp in the Turkmenbashi SWPD office. Guess and check lead me to Menzil Nobatcy, Duty for Terminal. This room is much larger and air conditioned and the chair you will sit in does not move even though it looks as if it should. In a miraculous feat of non-technological efficiency, one of the many ledgers your details have been written into now appears before this man and you must only point to your car on a list. You will then draw a picture of your car so he has an idea how large it is and how much he should charge you. He eventually hands you a white ticket. You then walk back out the red door, back past the officer in the brick office and turn to the right to enter the ticket office. (11) Upon entry, you will experience déjà vu and then realize it is because you are looking in the back of the Menzil Nobatcy office from which you just came. Likely, nobody will be there so feel free to holler. A very nice woman will emerge smiling and take your white ticket, only to give you another white ticket, which you will take back the Turkmenbasybank Cash Desk, located next to the passport control office you started at. (12) The lady who works here will review your stamps and papers, and indicate how much you owe. While doing her calculations, I noticed a wall calendar with a cat on it. I pointed and said “meow.” She looked over at the calendar, turned back to me, and replied,”yes, meow.” By the end, she will have stamped 18 pieces of paper and required your signature 9 times. You will receive one final piece of paper that you will take out to the ticket office (14) and pay a nominal fee of 4-5 manat. This has to be paid in local currency, so make sure you come prepared. (13) After this, the ticket office woman will smile and send you back out the way you came, through the same door you entered hours before, in an act that will psychologically negate all of your hard work. (15)
However, with your slew of paperwork, you should now be able to head to your car, provided it has been unloaded, verify with the customs officers that you have no narcotics, get your dollars worth and drive through the vehicle disinfectant pool, and then honk for 5 minutes until a man comes and unlocks the gate, sending you on your way. But don’t get too exited yet – the first of many police check points is just a few hundred meters away.
State Customs Service of Turkmenistan receives customer service inquiries between 6PM-7PM on Wednesdays and can be reached at +800123350566.