Thursday, 14 October 2010

Into the 'Stans...

1030hrs: We’re off! The engines have fired up and they’re dragging the anchor back in.

We slowly motor our way into port - Because the ship is carrying train carriages in the hold, docking is a precision affair. The ship has to line up the fixed train tracks in the hold, with the tracks on the mainland. The Captain does a good job of lining us up, the final stages of docking uses a pilot tug to push the ship sideways into the port.

Its here that we learn our delay wasn’t due to high volumes of traffic, but high winds rolling down from the steep terrain surrounding the port. If the winds are blowing in a certain direction and speed, the effect they have on the ship exceeds the power available from the tug boats and its impossible to dock.

The number 2 comes over and explains there’s a wait for customs to do their thing before we can leave the ship. He spots Becky sat on her bag in a corridor looking half asleep and cold, he promptly beckons us into his cabin for tea and biscuits. Very nice too!

Eventually its time to go and we make our way down to the cargo hold to find Jerry. On the docks, a six man team of pretty stern looking soldiers wearing camoflage and wide brimmed boonie hats, are evenly spaced along each side of the dock side.

We fire up Jerry and motor out, the best part of being last to enter the hold is being the first to leave it! I park the car on the docks and walk over to the office building - Suddenly I hear a lady calling out, “Hey Max!” it’s our mandatory Turkmenistan guide, Angela.

I mentally prepare myself for the infamously complicated arrival paperwork, and walk into the customs hall to meet Angela. A Turkmen national, she speaks both fluent English and Russian, the main language spoken throughout the ‘Stans - This was to prove invaluable right from the word go.

Problem 1: Passport control….We hand our passports over to the passport guy for him to fix our visas into. He jabbers something to Angela, who quickly explains that Beckys passport doesn’t have a free page in her passport for the full page visa sticker. Uh oh….some problems are insurmountable, and this could be one of them. I couldnt believe it, I'd calculated how many pages we'd need for each country, then left another 5 spare. It turned out that Serbia, Croatia, Bulgaria and Turkey had been randomly stamping new pages at each border....

Fortunately after 40 minutes of waiting and wondering, the guy asked where Antigua is - I explain, but he’s never heard of it. Two minutes later the Antigua stamp has been replaced with a shiny new visa sticker! Happy days. This problem is ongoing though, we still need two more free pages for visas, one for Laos, the other for Vietnam. This could require some creative thinking further down the line…

Problem 2: Next stop is the border police. Two plain clothes guys in a side office, one old and one young, both very smart with shiny shoes. Top tip, beware the plain clothes officials wearing shiny shoes… They’re usually the ones high up the command chain, firmly holding all of the cards…

The elderly of the two says very little, but sits at the back of the room watching, listening to every word. He nods to his junior who calmly and quietly pronounces “Porsche? My friend, sportscars are illegal in Turkmenistan” Uh oh… Surely this is some mistake, I turn to Angela for some re-assurance that she’ll be able to sort things out but even she appears concerned…

Thirty minutes later there’s no change, rules are rules and theres nothing they can do to help. I start planning a re-route, the only option open to us would be to head back on the boat to Baku, then take a ferry from Baku to Aktau, Kazakstanh. This would be a costly exercise in terms of both time and money. I reckoned on an extra $600 and a week of travelling.

Angela tries her best to reason with the two guys, she explains that the car isn’t a Sportscar. After all, theres no mention of sportscar anywhere on the registration document… After presenting her case to them, the younger guy starts to study every inch of the registration document for any sign of the word Sportscar.

In the meantime, Alec, another tour company representative comes into the room. He speaks with both guys to check on the problem, he’s never heard of this new law and sceptical, asks to see the rule book. Five minutes later he returns solemn faced….”Sorry guys, I checked the book and its a genuine new law” He then explains to the police that an Azeri Prince who was gifted a new Aston Martin last by the British Government last year (!) recently drove it through with no problems, but this falls on deaf ears.

The police say they will refer the case to HQ in Ashgabat, but its unlikely we’ll be granted permission. In the meantime, we’ll have to leave the car in a compound at the docks.

Everyone leaves the room for a cigarette, all but me and the younger of the two officers, he turns to me and quietly says “Mr Levell….you have a problem, I can ‘fix’ your problem. If I fix your problem, how much will you give me?” An offer of $50 is accepted, he immediately issues an entry permit and starts preparing the reams of paperwork. One hour and $400 in permits later and we’re ready to leave the port.

The initial plan was to drive straight to Ashgabat, a hardcore drive on dangerously poor desert roads littered with camels. Yes, camels! Alec explains that the drive is bad enough in the day, at night it’s a death wish. We’re guaranteed to either crash, wreck the car or both. Its getting late, so we decide to stay the night and make an early start in the morning.

That night is spent with Angela and Alec enjoying some outstanding local Shaslik kebabs, washed down with some top of the range local Vodka (£2 a bottle) and beer. Four bars later we hit the sack, entirely unprepared for our early start the next day....

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