Across the Caspian


An extract from Nick Rowan’s Friendly Steppes: A Silk Road Journey

In his new book, Friendly Steppes: A Silk Road Journey, Nick Rowan chronicles an extraordinary adventure that led him from Venice through Eastern Europe, still recovering from brutal warfare; on to Turkey, the gateway to Asia, and much-misunderstood Iran; across the exotic steppes of Central Asia, emerging from Soviet domination; and finally into a rapidly developing yet still mysterious China. Containing colourful stories and characters, wrapped in the local myths and legends told by the people who live along the route today, this is both an entertaining travelogue and inspiring introduction to a part of the world that has largely remained hidden from Western eyes for hundreds of years. In the fourth of a series of short extracts from the book, Open Central Asia follows Nick as he uses a less than conventional Azeri cargo ship to cross the Capsian Sea into Turkmenistan, having explored the oil-rich capital city of Baku.

As no one seemed to know much about the existence of the Turkmenbashi-bound ferry, we decided it would be best to head to the port early on Monday morning and enquire as to when—and if—such a ferry was due to leave. My temporary travel companion, Joe, and I gathered our belongings and started the long walk down the hill towards the old port. The city was eerily quiet, evidently recovering from the excesses of the weekend.

As soon as the ticket teller returned to her cash desk, which was inauspiciously housed in a shack in the corner of the yard, we rushed forward to secure our tickets. To our surprise, the attendant sold us a ticket without delay for 50 U.S. dollars and suggested that we hurry and board the ship, as it was leaving imminently. After all the uncertainty we had faced only a couple of days before, we couldn’t believe our luck.

Victory turned sour almost as soon as we’d left the ticket office. The dilapidated port was a depressing sight, with weeks’ worth of cargo dumped on every side. Some of the containers we passed on our way to customs were almost rusted through. A group of bored officials proceeded to ask us banal questions about our luggage and what we were doing. Were we carrying gold? Carpets? Were we journalists? Why were we leaving Azerbaijan? Didn’t we like it here? When all of the questions were answered, our passports were passed around and inspected by everyone. Tucked into the pages of my passport were a few photocopied pages from a guidebook that showed some maps of Azerbaijan and Central Asia.

This immediately aroused suspicion. The officer started to scrutinise the details, putting on a pair of spectacles to aid him.

‘Why do you have these maps?’ he growled at me, peering over his glasses and taking a draw from his cigarette. ‘Military maps?’

‘Guidebook,’ I started, pointing at mine to make my point as clear as possible. ‘It was too heavy, so I photocopied them. Look, here is Baku,’ I tried to point out jovially, showing him the various tourist sights.

‘Nyet, nyet,’ was the only reply that he came back with. I repeated my tourist story and kept getting the same negative answer. He beckoned his colleagues to come over and take a look. I was starting to get annoyed when he kindly stapled the papers together and handed them back to me without further questions.

The ship, the Azerbaijan, was as Soviet and decrepit as I had expected. It was a monster of a vessel, spanning over one hundred and fifty metres in length. In true Soviet style, it looked fairly well kept from the outside, and a thick coat of fresh-looking paint ensured that, to the port-side naked eye, it looked new. We checked into the ‘hotel’ section of what was basically a cargo ship with a few rooms for passengers. The windows were greasy and opaque from dirt that hadn’t been washed away in years. The wooden floorboards curled upwards, and the flaking paint on the wall revealed the ship’s true age underneath. Everywhere, peeling linoleum exposed an oily and rusting hull. Joe and I wandered along the ship’s narrow corridors with our packs on, not feeling confident enough to leave them anywhere below decks. The hallway was dimly lit and damp as we searched the maze for a sign of life.

Finally we found a babushka with a large bosom and mass of unkempt ginger hair. She begrudgingly checked our tickets, took a further five U.S. dollars to upgrade the tickets for a cabin and showed us to a tiny cubicle on the starboard side of the ship. I watched a cockroach sneak across the floor and decided not to use the filthy sheets, rolling out my sleeping bag on the grubby mattress instead.

At one time, truck drivers and other local businessmen might have been regular assengers aboard such a ship, but trade had almost stopped between the two Caspian countries. Relations between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan had greatly declined, mostly due to conflicts over the Caspian oil fields, and now the ferry struggled to fill its hold.

I set off to get information from the captain as to when we would leave for Turkmenbashi. My inquisitiveness led me along the ship’s narrow corridors, questioning anybody I met, until I found the captain through a side door to the ship’s bridge. He was as one might have imagined, uniformed, capped and sporting a square black bushy beard. His reddened, sunken eyes suggested a life of too much vodka and too little sleep. Instead of answering my poorly constructed Russian questions, he gave me a tour of the ship. His English was better than he had let on initially and our tour proved most genial, including a visit around the deck and meeting the crew, all of whom were Azeri. I was introduced to them in a booming voice like a long lost friend and ended up having lunch with the sailors in the second officer’s spacious sitting room. We ate a strange combination of bread, dubiously pickled fish, and cheese. I asked the diminutive second officer how long he had been working on the ship.

‘Oh, many, many years. We live here. This is my home and these are my friends: Kazim, Davud and Ugur,’ he replied. ‘And you, were do you live?’ Kazim interjected. ‘I live in London, in England,’ I replied, motioning with my hand that it was somewhere westwards, as though it was visible in the distance. ‘Velika Britanniya’ (Great Britain) I added just to emphasise the point. ‘Yes, yes I know. Tony Blair and President Aliyev are big friends now. They met at Dining Street, no?’ I nodded vaguely, hiding my amusement at his  mispronunciation, wishing I had been following Azeri-British relations before I had departed for my journey four months earlier. Then again, my Russian was not advanced enough to delve any deeper.

After lunch, one hour turned into two, which turned into four. I couldn’t understand why the ticket lady had urged us to hurry, as there clearly was no imminent departure planned. After six hours of waiting I asked the crew again. Once more, the reply was one or two hours. Evidently the crew had worked out that this answer was enough to shut me up and leave them alone.

We waited. There was nothing else we could do. We couldn’t get back into Azerbaijan and we weren’t sailing to Turkmenistan any time soon. We were stuck inside a rusting metal container with little sign of activity, at the mercy of a half-drunk crew doing little else other than listening to the radio and playing cards. We ate some greyish-coloured greasy soup and bread in the ship’s canteen, where a few broken chairs sat around empty tables. A small, rotund man in blue overalls served us our insipid meals through a hatch. Out of the porthole, we could see that the city of Baku was ablaze with a gloriously tempting sunset.

As the hours ticked away, frustration got the better of me. It was clear that no-one actually knew when the ship might leave. Any sign, no matter how small, gave us hope that we might be about to leave. The tiniest activity on shore raised our expectations, but to no end. At midnight I gave up hoping that we might leave anytime soon.

At three o’clock in the morning a loudspeaker announcement woke us up. I dared not hope. But after a few minutes the ship’s funnels were noisily billowing a combination of thick black smoke and the odd spark that lit up the dark sky above. Soon we were alone at sea and the crew’s activity died almost as quickly as it had risen. To us, it felt like a minor victory and we returned to our cabin contented.

I was relieved to find that the boat was still moving as I woke up the next morning. The sea was a calm, seductive blue. I took this to be a good sign, feeling hopeful that in a few hours the coastline would be visible. ‘Land ahoy!’ I shouted down from the top of the crow’s nest, where I had climbed to get a better view. The ship worker below looked up but ignored me. It was, it seemed, fine to sit anywhere or do anything aboard this ship—as long as you weren’t being too much of a stickler for timetables.

But then we started to slow down and the sound of the anchor dropping confirmed that we wouldn’t be reaching shore for a while yet. Four hours turned into eight hours, which turned into uncertainty. The sun was low in the sky by the time I gave up hope of reaching land that night. Every hour that  passed didn’t necessarily mean that we were an hour closer to arriving. We just sat and waited. ‘Sometimes we must wait two days,’ the second officer informed me. He didn’t realise the blow he was delivering to me, for he himself couldn’t have cared less—whatever happened, he would still be on the ship, away from his family, drinking vodka, smoking and playing cards.

The hours spent offshore crept by slowly. Despite their initial friendliness, the crew became invisible, having retired to their berths. I began to wonder if they had ever really existed. I went below deck to try to forget our frustrating situation, but being cooped up on board the Azerbaijan felt like solitary confinement at times.

Our thirty-sixth hour on board was rung in with yet another bottle of vodka and fabricated songs that changed the lyrics of well-known tunes to reflect our undying love for the Turkmenbashi port and the Azeri ship. The cook ended up taking pity on us and did his best to lighten the mood, singing through the hatch. The vodka vanished and, with my head by now feeling heavy and swaying freely, I headed to bed.

At half past six the next morning, the sound of the anchor being raised stirred me from my restless slumber. Was it too much to believe that we might finally be on our way? As the engines roared into action once again, the new day’s sun greeted us—and so did the rather small, Soviet-style port of Turkmenbashi.

The first sign of our being allowed to move off the boat was the sight of a young doctor in his white coat and his equally young—and attractive—nurse, both of whom were wearing facemasks. Apparently, an unannounced medical check-up was required before entry following which we entered the terminal building and handed over our documents. A row of young military recruits dressed in thick safari suits looked on. Their expressionless faces betrayed their utter boredom as their commanding officer explained that their future duties would include making sure nefarious, foreign ‘spies’ were hassled as much as possible before being allowed to enter their country. I smiled at them as we passed, but their broad Mongol faces with thick black hair and tanned chestnut complexions remained as fixed as ever.

 I wondered then, as I still do, how a country that is so paranoid about letting spies in can expect anyone other than spies to actually arrive. Still, we had passed this tricky introduction and been accepted as simple tourists, and that was all that mattered.

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