We arrived in Baku with the sole purpose of leaving as soon as possible. We knew that the ferry crossing to Turkmenistan could take days and persistence was the key to a spot on board. Once we realized it would be at least a few days, we managed to slow down a bit and enjoy the city. One of my closest friends from college, Ru Hasanov, grew up in Baku and put us in touch with his family who kindly invited us to their summer home and fed us impeccably prepared food. Each course of homemade cuisine washed away a layer of angst we had been feeling towards the Azeris. This angst was based primarily on their penchant for pulling us over to demand a bribe and their inability to coherently plan a ferry crossing. Between our jaunts to the port for updates, we were able to explore a decent part of the old city, partake in a carnival, and have a swim in the Caspian. Ru returned from Moscow at 4:15AM on Monday, just hours before we were meant to depart. We spent the next few hours at the beach, where we managed to get the bus stuck in a foot and a half of soft sand. We showed up at the ferry port extremely sandy and extremely tired. Nothing to wake me up like twelve hours of mindless bureaucracy. We spent the better part of the day preparing our bus for shipment, and finally set sail around 7PM that evening. Donning our tuxedos for what we misunderstood to be a luxury cruise, Robin and I settled down to a rousing game of croquet on the deck.
Despite cries of terror from the online reviews of the ferry, I managed one of the top 20 nights sleep of my life with the sea breeze blowing into my positively filthy berth. I’ll spare you the details of our immigration process into Turkmenistan as I have already laid those out elsewhere, but suffice it is to say that we were the lucky ones. After escaping the wrath of Turkmen customs around 9PM Tuesday evening, all other Mongol Rally teams were held up until 11AM the next day due to a train car of illegal cigarettes that had found its way onto the ship.
We quickly realized that Turkmenistan is the type of place that spawns unique and seemingly ridiculous stories. When we found ourselves lost on the highway to Ashgabat due to a detour, a police officer whistled at a 7 year old boy and had him jump in our bus to navigate the 2 km detour on our behalf. Hours later, we found ourselves at the Kow Ata Sulfur Baths, a warm lake buried 65m beneath the Earth’s surface in a cave, only to have all the electricity in the cave go out while we were swimming. After slowly navigating our way out of the cave, we fancied ourselves some lunch. Unable to communicate with the griller, he had me reach into three plastic bags of raw meat and pull out how much I wanted of each variety. Think of it as Fire and Ice for the rest of the world.
We spent Wednesday evening in Ashgabat with a large group of rally teams. Never have I been to such a surreal city. Perfectly manicured gardens and sidewalks lay in waiting, practically unused by pedestrians after ten in the evening. Walking alone through a completely deserted town I had the sensation I was in a Central Asia sister city of Pleasantville, or at least a boarding school after curfew (if the boarding school were designed by Las Vegas city planners and the Wizard of Oz). Not only were the streets empty, but a full half of the city was half closed as well. Entire blocks of neon green illuminated facades existed beyond guarded walls. The night was silent save for the humming generators powering the walled off fortress. There weren’t even any street cats.
On Thursday we headed north to the Darvaza Gas Craters, a phenomenon so surreal it deserves its own blog post. We camped out in the desert under the stars, illuminated only by a nearly full moon and the orange haze of the crater.
I don’t know why I thought leaving Turkmenistan this past Friday would be any easier than entering. After driving through the surprisingly monumental border town of Konye-Urgench, we once again came across the familiar site of the border crossing. In a cruel twist of irony, my comprehensive guide to importing a car into Turkmenistan failed to mention one important point. When we showed up at the border to leave, there apparently was one stamp missing from our Entry Permit. You’ll have to imagine my surprise when my team had already passed through customs and I was being told that the bus, and myself, could not leave. Surrounded by a gaggle of soldiers and border guards, one of them pointed to my teams and said, “Your boyfriend your girlfriend your brother your sister? Uzbekistan. You? Turkmenbashi.” This was followed by a roar of laughter over the thought that I would have to drive 20 hours back to our point of entry to get a piece of paper stamped and 20 hours back before my visa expired the following night. While he didn’t speak English, he did speak dollars, and an unwelcome detour was quickly averted.
While I was initially disappointed by my failure to obtain an Iranian visa for the Mongol Rally, the Caspian detour ended up being an adventure in and of itself. The ship provided a nice change of pace for a day and provided fodder for stories I will tell for ages. As I write this on a late Friday afternoon, we have just come across a broken down rally team about 50km into Uzbekistan. We strapped them up to the back of our bus and began on the long road to Kieva.