We have to cross the Caspian Sea. The political mix of countries makes it impossible to go around by road. We plan to cross the Caspian Sea to Turkmenistan, but this becomes impossible for visa reasons (see Harry’s story ‘suckers for punishment’). We consider our options, pull-off a 5 day transit visa for Kazakhstan and set off to cross the Caspian Sea to Aktau.
We smack, face-first, into a brick wall. Behind it hides a rigid SYSTEM of closed doors, little barred windows, surly women and bulky bullies.
We call on the old and the new ports of Baku. We visit both ports in the morning and the afternoon on Monday and on Tuesday. It’s clear “NO, NO, NO, NO ferry to Aktau today, GO, GO, GO, GO”. Then early on Tuesday evening, a “YES, ferry to Aktau tomorrow, COME, COME, COME 9h00!” We wake, we pack and we arrive at 9h00. There is not a soul at the old port and we hear a “Maybe TODAY, Maybe TOMORROW, Wait!” at the new port.
And the waiting begins ….
We wait with Odett, a biker from Israel, and Sjaak, in a blue campervan, from the Netherlands.
We work hard for every single snippet of information. There are two ports, the old and the new, 5 kilometers apart. There are two types of ferries; both RoRo (ride on ride off); one for trucks and one for trains. Motorbikes are allowed on the RoRo ferry for trucks; campervans also but only with a single person; passengers are allowed on the RoRo ferry for trains; the hapless cyclist isn’t allowed on either. We must clear our bikes with Customs when we have a ferry ticket. We may only buy a ticket when a ferry arrives. Nobody knows when the ferry arrives because there is no schedule. Tickets are bought at the new port. Customs for motorbikes is at the old port. The ferry for motorbikes leaves from the new port. And we jump on and off our bikes and scurry between ports. Once we check-in our bikes with Customs, we are no longer allowed to use them, and we jump in and out of taxis! We grovel at little windows that shield security guards, cashiers, shipping agents and customs officials. And we swear it’s the SAME officials (an Omar Shariff look-alike and his 3 henchmen) that serve us at the OLD and NEW ports!!!!!!!!!!!
We wait for – THREE FULL DAYS – 35 hrs to claim our place on a ferry; 19 hrs to board the ferry; 5 hrs for the trucks to board the ferry; 5 hours for the ferry to leave the port of Baku; 6 hours to enter the port of Aktau; 4 hours for the tide to rise to allow the trucks (and us) to disembark. This excludes the 26 hrs it takes the ferry to cross the Caspian Sea.
We wait in a port with – NO FACILITIES – No bed, No bath, No toilet and No delicious meals.
We move with the shade cast by the sun. We creep around a tree, along a truck and in the corners of a security wall. We shift from bum cheek to cheek, to haunches, to feet. We walk, 10 meters at a time, in the stinking heat. We watch the sun set and the moon rise. We sit until we can bear it no longer. Then we roll out a groundsheet in the parking area, pump up our mattresses and sleep fitfully in the faces of barking dogs. We fiddle, we fart (well, one of us) and we itch, we bitch (well, one of us).
Angry thoughts wash in!
To be honest, we are too irritated to read a book! It takes all our energies just to be cool, calm and collected. It ONLY becomes bear-able because it is not happening in our country. It ONLY becomes bearable because it is not forever.
Angry thoughts wash out!
For a moment, we peep over our own self-centered sight of vision. And, we see the young family off to Turkmenistan, the middle-aged lady waiting for her son from Kazakhstan, the optimistic young Azeri businessman. We see row upon row of trucks, with their drivers, queue for a ferry. This is their COUNTRY and this is their FOREVER.
A stocky Turk gestures for us to join them for chai (tea). There, between two parallel-parked trucks is perfect shade and a band of happy truckers! Boisterous and Blaring – that’s the way to Be! We lap each other up. Countries: Turkey! Afghanistan! Kyrgyzstan! Czechoslovakia! South Africa! Why are you White, you must be Black! Roads: only two types – Autobahns and Catastrophes! We jingle sets of keys. Promise to exchange trucks for motorbikes for the ‘road of hell’ waiting for us on the other side of the Caspian Sea. We forget we are waiting! They tell us they have been waiting for ELEVEN DAYS and more ….
On board; we become part of the family.
Harry and I grab our first shower in three days. Hairy men, freshly showered and wrapped in towels, plod down passage-ways. We eat in a small canteen, in the first of three sittings. It’s the first of four tasty meals; all made up of soup, chicken, potatoes and bread. Tables clear and backgammon boards come out! Harry says I’m good. I wish he hadn’t. These guys are wizards and play 5 sets and a set is the first to get 5 games! A music man sweetly irritates everybody with his thrill cell-phone tunes, first inside and then outside. On the top deck the sun sets and vodka is shot.
The next day clothes dry in the sun. Some fish for fun in the foul Caspian Sea. We see photos of wives, sons and daughters at home. A cell-phone video clip shows a wife, a sister and a handful of children dance away at a picnic in rural Turkey. We mark maps with good and bad road options. We start to split and spit sunflower seeds with the rest of them and leave little circles of shells around us. In the afternoon, a mammoth Russian Bingo game begins; we sense this time we shouldn’t join in.
We dock in Aktau. The non-truckers (Harry & I, Odett, Sjaak, Servio & Stefano) pack. Our truckers nod, smile and throw the dice. We wait another 4 hours for the tide to rise so that the ferry’s drawbridge can drop and trucks can disembark.
We pass through Customs in less than 3 hours.
We leave behind the truckers who will only start to clear their cargo with Customs the next day. We see row upon row of trucks, on the far-side of the port, queue for the return trip.
We will never look at truckers in the same way again. They, not us, are the ‘silk roaders’ of the 21st century. We travel with them, and then shoot past them at every single border post. We see them as they queue; they tinker away at their trucks, debate in their underpants and shower under perforated containers that balance in ingenuous ways.
Yes, we encounter an unkind and ineffectual system, at the Baku port and border post of our trip. But these practices, the daily lot of truckers, are indefensible! Let these ‘Masters of the Waiting Games’ spend less time at border posts and more time at home! Please.
On the other-side, Harry & I realise:
- We could have made two earlier ferries to Aktau, had there been the bureaucratic will.
- We have inadvertently ‘oil’ed this infuriating system by 260 USD. We pay, after measurements and calculations in our presence, 250 USD each. Our official receipt reads 120 USD each.
We’ve been had. But now we lucky FOOLS wave like mad at every single TRUCK DRIVER.