Monday – arrival in Baku

I woke to the sound of the anchor being rolled out. It was 6.00 am. We were ‘parked’ out in the channel outside of Baku harbour. Dotted around were other vessels waiting to dock. I had had a good sleep so got up to watch the sun coming up. It was a beautiful sunrise. The morning was quite grey, but the sun appeared as a salmon pink ball on the horizon.

As daylight came we could gradually make out the amazing architecture of modern Baku. There are some terrific designer buildings that compare very well with modern buildings in London or Dubai. It was not at all what we were expecting! Having said this neither of us had heard of Baku! Two enormous grey fin like structures were particularly noticeable. When the cloud dispersed they shone in the sunlight. There was a lot of glass and wonderful shapes to be seen from our vantage point in the harbour. Baku is a wealthy city and it shows.

We then had a long wait. When it was allowed to approach the dock, the ferry had two attempts to lock on to the rails on the jetty to enable it to unload its train. I found it a very tense business, although I think our Captain had done it before! Once the berthing had taken place, all sorts of upmarket passengers emerged who we had not seen on board before. They were certainly not in our accommodation! We were definitely in ‘steerage’ – I am not sure what that means but it was certainly mentioned on the TItanic!

We eventually got off the ferry at about 12.30. Following a lengthy border control and customs process (we were behind the televisions, washing machine and carpet) we arrived at our hotel at 3.00, having left Penelope in the border control car park. Penelope can only be in Azerbaijan for 72 hours, so the longer the truck can stay in their compound the later it is before the clock starts ticking for us to leave Azerbaijan. All very technical!

We dumped our bags at the hotel and set out for the old town. We had already experienced Baku traffic during our brief taxi ride from the port. The jams were chronic. Every cross roads was completely gridlocked. The cars were very upmarket with Porsches, land cruisers and range rovers all very much in evidence. Surprisingly there are also London taxis! I think their traffic light system could do with attention!

Apparently Baku is one of the oldest cities in the world with evidence of a town here back as far as 600 BC. It is much bigger now than it was and has extended way beyond its old boundaries, but many of the outer walls of the old city remain. The skyline of the old town is dominated by something called the Maiden’s Tower a very oddly shaped building – a tower at one end and a stabilising brick wall to one side. At the base of this are some old buildings including three Caravanserai – the ancient traders accommodation we have seen all along the Silk Road. Today these are now an upmarket shop and restaurants.

We wandered the old narrow streets and up and down the steps inside the city wall. There were some distinctive old houses with huge wooden balconies, two mosques and an amazing palace which we went in to investigate. I was very frustrated in that I had no means of taking photographs as my phone had completely run out of charge following our Caspian Sea crossing.

Having had a thorough wander around the old town, we set off to find Paul’s, a bar said to sell champagne. We found the bar – no champagne, but excellent wheat beer and wonderful steaks – after two days of snacking we really enjoyed our meal. Steak has never tasted so good!

It was then home to bed with the thought of not having to get up in the morning!!

Sunday – the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan

The ferry arrived at about 3.00 am, the previous incumbent of the dock space having sailed off at about 1.00 am. Refrigerator lorries started to queue at about 4.00 am with chilling units going at full blast. You can tell that there was not too much sleeping done.

We breakfasted and settled down to wait, first for the train to be shunted on and then for us to be called to border control. Eventually the usual forms were issued and at about 11.00 we were called to the border office with our bags. We also carried two boxes of food from the truck, together with the food supplies we had purchased ourselves as we did not know if we would have access to Penelope again until we reached Azerbaijan. It was a pretty well loaded down and rather motley crew who assembled to leave Turkmenistan and set off on the high seas.

We sat in the border control office and watched the three generations of a local family gather for the crossing. Their luggage was incredible! 2 enormous flat screen televisions, a washing machine (!), a large carpet, several large plastic bags and a number of wheelie trolleys all collected themselves around them.

We eventually got through the ‘getting out of Turkmenistan’ process and found ourselves sitting outside the office on the jetty with a wooden walkway in front of us leading into the bowels of the ship and with the truck in front of us, waiting to be searched for the usual guns and drugs. At about 2.00 pm we received the nod. Simon drove Penelope across and we trooped into the ship, alongside the railway goods carriages already in position. (The ship has railway lines in it!) After several attempts, space was found for Penelope and we were allowed to climb up to what was, I think, our third class accommodation.

As we walked along the deck, looking at the rust frequently displayed where there were joints of ironwork, I hoped its workings were a little more up to date than it’s obvious longevity. This was a soviet ship that had been around a very long time. Black smoke belched out of its twin chimneys, grey washing hung out on washing lines strung between various bits of apparatus. Signs directed us to a dining room and shopwhich were never found and were probably long gone!

We were shown into a communal area with aged photographs depicting many medalled veterans of a previous era. Arranged around the walls were what looked like ex-aircraft chairs, some with arms and some with just the metal carcus of arms. All had been ‘covered’ with loose covers in various stages of (dis)repair. A dead plant in cement like earth sat in an iron pot in the centre of the room. The only other piece of furniture was a much mended table.

We shared a cabin with Wendy and Sarah, the Australian ladies we have shared with before. The cabin was very small with three narrow plastic cupboards, 4 bunk beds, a sink with no plumbing connection and half a broken mirror. Ancient wires hung out the remains of a plug socket. One positive thing was the porthole that opened – we could get air!

The ferry left at 4.00 pm with an estimated journey time of 16 hours.

We had more or less exhausted our selves by 8.30 pm having not slept much the night before. We had spent some time outside on deck on an area I termed as the ‘sun deck’ but it had no seats so sitting was a bit of an issue. We had then cobbled together two meals from the truck and our own supplies (lunch and supper). We had no way of recharging IPads so our reading was running out – so an early night was the only sensible option.

We had politely turned down the offer of bedding and I slept on top of my sleeping bag in my silk liner sack.

I opted for the upper bunk and slept well, despite a slight anxiety that if there was a heavy swell I was likely fall out of the wide open window – sorry – porthole that my bunk gave rather too easy access. There was a cooling breeze and luckily our crossing was flat calm. No lives were lost.


Saturday – Ashgabat to the Caspian Sea

It was an early start. By 7.30 we were on the road. When we started out it was with the intention of staying overnight at a bush camp and then set out for the Caspian port first thing. Apparently it is not possible to book onto a ferry in advance. You have to be there to get your place.

The plan had been to visit hot springs on the way, but as no-one fancied the hot spring opportunity, we cracked on. Leaving Ashgabat we passed the largest mosque in Central Asia on the outskirts of the city and a long row of buildings which I think was military accommodation. It was not long before the mountains that separate Turkmenistan from Iran were running parallel with the road. A railway line ran along between the highway and the mountains.

The road was pretty grim. There is a new road in the process of being built, although we saw no-one working on it, and in some areas it was complete but frequently there were long stretches where it was not and we bumped along the old road, which was a single lane in each direction. It was a long day. I read a complete book!

The desert closed in on either side. The mountains to our left towards Iran disappeared. Mountains then appeared to our right – the Minor and eventually the Great Balkan mountain ranges came and went. A very soviet looking oil town appeared, and was then left behind.

At about 4.00 pm news came through to Kurban that there was a ferry due to dock in the early hours of the morning and we may be able to get on it, so the decision was taken to keep going to the port and camp there. (How are we going to get tent pegs in I thought to myself?) We kept going. At about 6.30 pm we got our first sighting of the sea. By 7.30 we were at the dock side. The sun was setting. Penelope was parked comfortably amongst her trucky chums but looked a little less at home when we got out our cooking gear and started to cook supper! The other lorry drivers looked a bit surprised as they discretely opened up food compartments cunningly built into in the side of their vehicles. It is another world!!

The good news was that we had been accepted on the ferry -which apparently also takes a goods train across…….. Hmmmmmm thinks I – Penelope and a goods train. Pretty heavy stuff.

In the end Keith and I, plus one or two others, decided not to battle with getting tent pegs into the asphalt but to sleep on the truck. Although I have not bothered too much with reports on ‘facilities’ in my writings, the standards of the toilets on the dockside were nothing short of horrific. They were absolutely disgusting and we had no idea how long we would be there. Everything was pretty ‘elastic’. No-one knew what time the ferry would actually arrive or indeed if and when it did arrive, when it would leave. Meanwhile, we and all the lorry drivers who continued to arrive all evening, plus the other foot passengers, plus the border staff, plus the port staff were all condemned to use the same loos, which were unspeakable. I will move swiftly on…….

We adjourned to the truck to sleep.

Friday – Ashgabat

Although we had all read about it and Simon, who had been before, had made some comments, nothing had prepared us for Ashgabat.

Unusually for this trip, it was a cloudy day. As it turned out – thank goodness! The 100 degree heat of yesterday would have been disastrous for our tour. As it was, at 9.00 am our people carrier and driver turned up as did young Kurban, our Turmenistan guide, with his file of words. We all piled in – and we were off.

First of all we were warned that no photographs were to be taken of government buildings….. How can you tell what is a government building?!

Before very long we were passing huge official looking buildings with large formal gardens in front or a vast expanse of parking. There were rarely cars parked. Kurban would say ‘….. And this is Turkmenistan’s Ministry of Sport’ or ‘ Turkmenistan’s Ministry of…..’ He then read from his script some blurb about the wonders of that particular ministry. The roads were smooth to the point that every corner made the tyres squeal. The pavements were immaculate. I am not sure how long it took before we realised there were no people. Not one. Very occasionally we saw a woman sweeping the very clean road. There were few cars. There were air conditioned bus stops but no-one in them. There were no buses.

Our first stop was, I think, the independence memorial. We parked in an empty car park. We walked across to the base of the very tall edifice. It had four legs leading up to something that most closely resembled a concrete Eiffel Tower or perhaps a rocket launcher, with a gold figure of the first president post independence, complete with batman cloak, on the top. There were several ladies with brushes and brooms cleaning what looked like the totally immaculate marble pavement beneath it. Two soldiers stood to attention in sentry boxes. Amusingly two mongrel dogs trotted past oblivious to the perfection they were spoiling! They happily padded through the water running off the ladies brooms.

There is a lift going up one of the ‘legs’ of the structure and a beautifully attired lady accompanied us up in the lift. We were at the first landing stage. It was all very plush. She opened a door and we were out on the first balcony and looking out over a rather startling landscape. Beneath us were the formal gardens with white lamp posts. Then the closest surroundings were covered with freshly planted short fir trees. Some of them flourished. Many of them were clearly dead or dying. They had been planted in the desert sand and I am not sure the desert was ready for planting. It was fighting back!

Beyond the plantation in the haze of the far distance there is a sky line of apartment blocks, but between us and them were large white classic buildings, futuristic towers, then there was the world’s second largest flag pole(?), weird shaped modern building blocks, pillared frontages, gold spires all were represented but in isolated splendour. Immediately around the base or surrounding each edifice was a garden but then there was a gap of empty desert. Deserted road ways led to each building or tower. It was literally indescribable.

From this higher perspective we were able to gain an overview of what was to become our tour. We drove past a blue building that soared into the air in the shape of a cobra. The hospital is designed to look from a distance to be in the shape of a gigantic hyperdermic syringe, the wedding palace (of which more later) with its 8 sided star and globe, a hotel in the shape of a grey shimmering sail. The Ferris wheel. Large petroleum offices, the gas ministry, it went on and on. Kurban read us the official commentary on every building. Occasionally the vehicle stopped and we were tipped out onto the pavement to look at a square or stroll around a particular piece of architecture or ‘sculpture’ eg the large painted replica of the first president’s ‘great book’. ???????!!!!!!!

One of the ‘hghlights’ of the trip was the wedding palace – a huge building incorporating seven wedding suites each of them with different themes, with register offices, large ballrooms with thrones and twinkly lights all laid out ready for the brides and bridegrooms and all their entourage to sweep in at a moments notice. The building also contained shops for the purchase of wear for bride and groom, a gift shop to accommodate the wedding list – in fact everything for a perfect and expensive wedding – but there was no-one there. Well dressed cleaners swept the very shiny marble floors. Bored shop assistants walked around the merchandise in the shops. Outside we did see one bride and groom with a band of local musicians and a few ‘guests’ real or posed, it was difficult to tell. Overhead on the top of the building loomed an intricate concrete eight sided star with a globe inside it with Turkmenistan picked out in gold relief…..

Our next excursion was to try out the Ferris wheel. This was particularly bizarre. The wheel, similar in design to the London Eye, is actually inside a building, making it very difficult to see out. As we entered the doors into the building lobby we were confronted by crowd control barriers and the security man. No visitors except us. We went up in the lift and zig zagged up to the point to enter the pods to go round on the wheel. A young man rushed up to set things in motion and we were off, occasionally through the ‘meccano’ like white iron work that held the wheel and its workings we could see outside. It was all very odd, but even more odd was leaving the wheel and going through the children’s playground area around its base on the way to the cafeteria. There were toy trains to sit in and a roundabout, a carousel and all sorts. Empty. The music played but all was still.

The cafeteria? A complete commercial kitchen sat behind a counter. Chairs and tables stood in readiness. But there was no-one there except the staff – who were having their lunch and said there was no food available……

We left the Ferris wheel scratching our heads. What is this place all about. It was lunch time and our car took us back into what felt like ‘the real world’, with people, full buses, cars – to a place for lunch. It was as though we had spent the morning in someone else’s fantasy world. Almost in someone else’s head.

As I said at the beginning nothing and no-one could prepare you for the Presidential area of Ashgabat.

The afternoon was spent at the Russian market getting supplies for our ‘cruise’ on the Caspian Sea. What that will involves we are not quite sure, but supplies were recommended.

We had a wine and cheese gathering with our Australian ladies for supper. Tomorrow we leave Ashgabat for the port……