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26 August 2011 / leggypeggy

A 24-hour cooling off period

Our cargo ship docked around noon and once we (Svetlana included) got through passport control in Turkmenbashi, we hoped to be on our way within a few hours. Our truck (The Monster) had been loaded first, followed by all other vehicles and then 17 sealed railway cars.

The Monster was on the main storage deck, wedged against the hull and to the right of the railway cars. We’d be free as soon as they were towed out. Another cargo ship was moored alongside, complete with its own set of railway cars. We needed two train engines and two drivers to complete the move. We waited AND waited AND waited AND waited. Good thing we were in the Waiting Room (more about that wretched place later).

By late afternoon, some activity began on the other ship. I confess that I didn’t pay a lot of attention, but I noticed that their railway cars (most were tankers) were being towed out (to keep a ship balanced, both rows of cars are pulled out at the same time). We optimistically and foolishly assumed that as soon as they finished with that ship, they’d start on ours.

But no. Hours went by and nothing happened. There were varied and ever-changing explanations. The port closes at 6 p.m. The engine drivers aren’t available. And on and on and on. So we sat—not on chairs but on the terrazzo floor of the Waiting Room. There were only a few metal benches and those had been quickly nabbed by a group of Azeri women who were waiting to board our ship and return to Baku.

So picture this. About 100 Westerners are filling up the waiting room, lying or sitting on a hard slab of a floor. Most of our companions are part of a London to Mongolia car rally. We and all our vehicles are cleared to go. We have no local currency. There is no money charger. Town is quite a few kilometres away. There’s a cafe behind the building and it accepts payment in US$1 notes—if you have them. There is just one sink and one toilet—again. The toilet door is quite sticky and sometime during the evening, Will, our driver, gets trapped. Martin hears his yells for help and soon the door is manhandled out of it’s jamb. By late evening, we realise it is hopeless and try to sleep stretched out on the terrazzo.

Come early morning we are fed another excuse. Those sneaky Azeris have loaded contraband cigarettes into at least one of the railway cars. Turkmenistan is having a real crackdown on smoking. No smoking is allowed outside, except in designated areas (we saw a lot of men in uniform smoking outside in undesignated spots, but our guide explained that’s only because they know where the cameras are). A few months ago, as part of the crackdown, the Turkmenistan government banned the import of all cigarettes.

Now if the latest excuse is at all true and if Azeris are indeed being sneaky, it’s not as if they are trying to hide or smuggle the smokes. We are told that the cigarettes are plainly listed on the manifest. My guess is that Turkmenistan—such an uber-closed society—decided to ban cigarette imports and then failed to tell any of the neighbouring countries.

We decided the cigarette story might have been an excuse they came up with to shut us up. Anyway, if it was true, this first-time appearance of contraband smokes was so alien to them that no one in customs knew what to do. The next step would set a precedent. Should they seize and burn the little sticks, or better still seize and sell them? Should they turn the ship back, along with our truck (worst option)? How would they be punished if they chose the wrong option? All we heard was that the bigwigs would meet at 9 a.m. to make a decision.

Quite a few bigwigs were milling around from about 8 a.m., Within 30 minutes and without any of them appearing to leave for a meeting, they all hopped into cars and were whisked away. Almost immediately, things began to happen and two engines appeared to start moving the railway cars. This was most welcome news, especially because about 6 a.m. a fellow had come along and locked the door to the toilet. He was most annoyed that the door jamb was broken. Luckily, there was a block of toilet behind the cafe. The ladies had a row of about eight stalls—all were squat toilets with walls about waist-height and not a single one with a door.

Fortunately, the truck was finally released and we piled in for a bumpy 11-hour ride to Ashgabat, the capital and most bizarre city I have ever seen.

P.S. sorry no photos. Ran out of time to downsize them.

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