Saturday, August 12, 2006

Ulaanbataar, pt1

[Massimo, Cecilia and the bikes, Baku Customs Terminal]

When we last met we were about to get on the ferry in Baku. Well, as I write this I am sitting in a comfortable Ger (traditional Mongolian tent) just outside of the capital of Mongolia, Ulaanbataar.

I can hardly believe that it has only been a couple of (four) weeks or so since my last entry. But first get yourself a cup of coffee or whatever and get comfortable, as this is long very long, so in order to make it more readable, not to mention getting something up on the net for you to read I have had to break it down into various pieces, this covers the Ferry ride, and the first part of Turkmenistan. Enjoy.

We got to the ferry terminal bright and early (ok, 8:00), and were told that it would be open at 8:30. As we were sitting there waiting, another biker shows up, Massimo from Italy. He rides up in a nice clean GS1200 and seems to be very glad to meet someone else on bikes. We chat while waiting for the office to open. He has come overland from Italy, and has been on the road for a little over a month, and is planning a round trip back to Italy via Russia!!

At 9:00 the lady finally showed up. She then proceeded to take us to the other office and the gentlemen there drinking their morning coffee told us to come back in half an hour. While waiting, Matthew shows up. Matthew is our companion for the tour of Turkmenistan, and had sms'd us the previous night that he was in town, and would let us know about the ferry as soon as he found something out. Well, here he was, so now the four of us go over the office and the officer starts checking our papers.

First problem, Massimos visa starts the following day, so they refuse to sell us the ticket until mid-day. This apparently to keep us from getting on a ferry that arrives in Turkmenbashi before his visa starts. It doesn't matter that we aren't even together, he refuses to sell any of us a ticket, at least until 12:00.

At the same time he informs us that the cost will be 170$ per person and bike. When Matthew asked (Matthew spoke Russian, which was very helpful to sort all this out), how much it would be for him, the officer said he didn't know. What? Matthew went back to the other office where the lady was, and discussed the issue with her, she also told him that she didn't know. Apparently, they, the lady from the one office, and the officer from the other, would have to discuss how much to charge poor Matthew, and he would find out in the afternoon, when they would sell us the tickets! So Matthew goes back to the hotel to pack his things, we decide that we want to go to town and have a nice leisurely breakfast. For us this solution is also the right one as the boat ride is supposed to take around 12-13 hours and our guide is supposed to meet us the following day around 9:00 in the morning. So we also don't want to get on a ferry that gets us there too early. It was just that the whole thing was so surreal. Little did I realize it was going to get even worse.

After Matthew left, we re-parked our bikes and I was arranging for someone to watch them while we were gone, when a car with a customs official shows up and speaks to Cecilia. Cecilia then informs us that, that is the customs officer who will prepare our papers and he wanted her to come down to the customs house with our paperwork.

So off she goes. She returns 30 minutes later with the news that we all have to go down there, and that the customs official is pretty mad at Massimo! When we got down there, he greeted us friendly enough, and then got to Massimo, and asked him why he was late? Late; apparently he was supposed to have show up the previous day, as his import permission had run out then. Oh, boy, maybe we should get away from this guy! Anyway, the customs official wasn't happy. Massimo explained that he had gone to the customs office they had told him to go at the border, and there he had explained about the transportation and they had said it was ok. No problem. Yeah, right, here was a problem. The customs official took this pretty hard, and yelled at him about that the bike should have been here etc. etc. He (the customs official) then ran off, with his mobile to his ear, into an adjacent building and didn't re-appear for 20 minutes. When he finally showed up, he gives us all our receipts and various documents for the bikes, and tells us that everything is ok. We should not leave the port are as the bikes are no longer in the country! He even managed a half-smile (at least at Cecilia).

We then decided that we would go ahead and bring the bikes into the customs compound so that there would be no more problems. While we were at it the customs official informs us that the next ferry (at 13:00) would not take passengers as it is loaded with tanker cars (train wagons with airplane fuel). We could get on the next ferry at around 17:00. So, now our bikes were safely packed away in the customs compound, it was almost 12:00, the time we had agreed to meet Matthew so that we could buy our tickets, so it made no sense to go into town anymore. We settled for tea at a snack bar in the port area. By the way for those of you who are really interested the co-ordinates to the Baku ferry port is: N40 22.383 E49 51.890. (The new terminal across from the Abseron hotel was not working yet, and would only be a passenger terminal anyway, so if you have a vehicle you have to find this dock.)

At 12:00 Cecilia went and got Matthew and we all sat around drinking tea, discussing the very strange situation, and the fact that we have yet to find out what the price for Matthew was going to be. As we were sitting there the ticket officer comes by, pointing at his watch and making it clear that he had been expecting us at 12:00, and why were we sitting here having tea? He wasn't happy, and we couldn't really figure out why, what difference did it make if we showed up 30 minutes later? Anyway, we were literally marched up to the ticket office. Once there, he started talking to Matthew in Russian, and Matthew turned to us told us he thought that the officer was saying that the price was now going to be $140.00 and if that was ok with us? To confirm this the officer wrote the figure out on paper, $280 for Cacilia and I and $140 for Massimo, and $50.00 for Matthew, a total of $470.00. We all said that it would be ok with us! Hey, it is $30.00 per person cheaper, than what he had originally quoted us. At the same time, we also found out what it would cost Matthew, so he was happy. We all got our money out and he wrote out a single ticket for the four of us.

The receipt was then written out for 297.80 azm (New Azerbaijan Manat) which is around $280.00!! For those keeping track, we paid $470.00 or around 500.00 azm, we assume the officer pocket the difference (202.20 azm). At this point we weren't really interested and just wanted to get on the ferry. I don't think it would have made any difference anyway. We took our ticket and headed down to the port.The first thing our friend the customs inspector said was that we had to go and pay an additional "service" fee (Bridge tax!!) at a building back toward where we had just come. So off we go. There we were shown into a very shabby office where a gentleman looked at our ticket asked for a passport and went off. When he came back, he said it would be $20.00 for the three of us. He made it clear that it was only for handling of the motorcycles, so only Massimo, Cecilia and I had to pay. How that came out to $20.00 we weren't sure. The receipt was in Cecilia's name since it was the passport he had gotten. The receipt was for 9.03 azm, so, surprise, surprise, he was also cashing in!

Now were were ready to go through customs and immigration. Customs demanded that we unload out bikes and take the luggage through the x-ray machine in their office so we did. Well, almost, we only showed them our large bags. The tank bag and the boxes stayed on the bikes. After that immigration stamped our passports and we were ready to get on the boat. Sounds nice and easy, took 1 1/2 hours, and we weren't on the boat yet!As we were packing and waiting, we noticed that we hadn't seen Matthew in 30 minutes, where was he? Well, it turns out that he had a stamp in his passport for Armenia, and due to the political situation between Azerbaijan and Armenia, he was being grilled by the customs. What had he done there, who had he talked to, where had he gone. He was forced to show the officers all the pictures in his digital camera! When he finally came out he was pretty much a wreck. But he had his exit stamp and could get on the ferry. Next was Massimo, he also had visited Armenia. Pretty nervous, he walked in, and in 15 minutes was finished. They had asked the same questions but I guess they were much happier with his answers. Not to mention that since Matthew spoke Russian, they could ask a lot more questions! Anyway, we were now ready, the ferry had loaded the last train cars and we were told to get on. So we rode on, and almost immediately the ferry left the dock (it was 15:00).

[Matthew, still at the dock!! (click to enlarge)]

Pretty cool, we were going to get moving ahead of schedule! As we were leaving the dock, we look back and there is Matthew. We though that he had already gotten on board, but there he was on the dock. Oh, boy. The ferry backs up and re-docks at the jetty across from where we had just been. We though that they had noticed that we had left Matthew behind, but it turns out that another ferry was coming in and needed this particular jetty to unload. So our ferry was just shifting positions! But for a while there we were worried that we were going to Turkmenistan without Matthew!Back at the dock, and Matthew safely aboard, a deckhand fetches us and brings us to the captain who isn't at all very friendly. Through the deckhand who happens to speak a little English, we are offered a "comfortable" cabin for $20.00, which we took, and are promptly shown the worst cabin I have ever had the pleasure of habiting. Not even the run down ferries in Indonesia had cabins this dirty and decrepit. Holes in the walls, door broken, ever single fixture broken or missing, and I don't even want to start on the shower and toilet. The best that could be said is that they did work. Nevertheless it was a place to lay down and sleep, so we took it.

Next, the captain started to talk about that we had to pay a service charge for tying down and parking our bikes in the hold. At the same time he asked for our ticket. Unfortunately we didn't have the ticket. Cecilia was sure that one of the people back at the dock had kept it after examining it. The ticket was checked by at least a half-dozen people before we came on board. Anyway since we didn't have the ticket, and Matthew still wasn't over his scare with the immigration, Cecilia went off to look for it, while I argued with the captain regarding the "service" charge, and Massimo stood by looking very bemused. I simply refused to pay and after a while of cross discussions regarding the lack of "service" and the fact that we had already paid a "service" charge for what we believed was exactly this "service" or lack thereof, the captain stormed away in a huff and we got off not paying any more. I was particularly adamant about not paying, since they had in fact not provided any service at all. If anything they were more un-helpful than helpful, and we did everything ourselves, with our own equipment. The captain couldn't even argue that we were using ships equipment (ropes, tie-downs, etc.) to secure our vehicles! I almost felt sorry for him. It really looks like he is at the end of a chain of officials who all cash in on the tourist or travelers, and he wants his cut also, but of course the more efficient everyone else is the less is left for him to cash in on!! In particular the ticket office guys seem to be able to cash in the best.

After 30 minutes or so, Cecilia comes back and says that she needs her passport, so she gets it from the captain and takes off again! After another 45 minutes she comes back. No-one at the dock had the ticket, so she had to go back to the ticket office to get a copy. The guys at the customs got someone to drive her up to the ticket office and driver her back, since they said it was too far to walk! All thought that I was pretty mean, making poor little Cecilia do all this work, and were therefore much more helpful. She got a copy and gave it to the captain and everyone was happy!

[Cecilia, Ferry to Kazakhstan just leaving]

Ok, so now we are on the ferry, we have our stuff in the cabins, and even managed to lock the door! So we stand outside on the top deck and watch the comings and goings. Across from us the ferry from Kazakhstan pulls up and lets the few passengers off, takes on new passengers, unloads the cargo and re-loads cargo and leaves! It took 4 hours or so, but it was gone, and we are still here! We got bored, and got out some of our supplies and had a nice little picnic. Watched the sunset over Baku and finally at 22:00 (10pm), we leave. This is pretty good for us as it means that we aren't going to be waiting for the guide who was supposed to meet us at 9:00 the next morning in Turkmenbashi.

[Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan]

The trip across the Caspian was un-eventful. You could barely tell that the ferry was moving the water was totally flat. No wind or waves, so we slept very well indeed. We got up in the morning and we were still quite a way out, it would be after lunch time by the time we got there. All good things must come to an end and sure enough, eventually we docked and were asked to vacate our cabin, which we did. We were told to wait upstairs after we got our bikes out of the way and packed, which we then did. In a while a lady comes on-board and we were told to go for a medical check! Ok, so we stand in front of the door while the only other passenger, a local Turkmen goes through the check and then it is our turn. I go first, she asks a couple of questions, where are we from, where have I traveled, and I get my temperature checked, that was it. The rest get the same questions, and she just copies my temperature on their charts and that was that.

Next comes the immigration. They took all our passports, and in 30 minutes or so come back and say that Massimo and Matthew can go off the ship, we have to wait for the consul to come from Turkmenbashi, as we had no visas, and it would be issued here, but only the consul could do it. Ok, no problem, we settle in for a nice wait, while we watch our companions disembark.We wait. We wait some more, and some more. After more than an hour and a half, we are told to go to the immigration building, so we finally get to disembark. We ride the 100 meters to the parking lot and park our bikes next to Massimos which is still here! Not a good sign.

Once inside the building, we are told to first pay the "Entry fee", 12 dollars each, ok, no problem. I stand in front of this window, the lady takes the passports and writes out a receipt in triplicate and then duplicates the work for Cacilia. We both sign our names on each of the three copies of our receipt, pay the $24.00 and go back to the immigration officer. As we were doing this our guide, Dima walks up and introduces himself. He has just finished with Matthew, who is now safely ensconced in the auto in the parking lot. He informs us that the reason we had to wait so long was that the consul had car problems and another car had to be sent to town to pick him up!

The immigration officer takes the receipt and our passports and starts filling out some form. When suddenly he stops and starts to talk to Dima about something, Dima turns to us and tells us that the printer is out of ink, and they have to send someone into town to pick up a new cartridge so we have to wait some more! Ok, no problem. In the meanwhile we do manage to get through customs, with Dimas help. He helps the officer fill out the customs form, and basically offers all the standard answers. We don't even have to show the bikes, or our luggage as Dima tells them that it is all affixed to the bike and can't be taken off.

After about 40 minutes he returns, the process can continue. Now we sign the form that they managed to print with the new cartridge. We are then told to go and pay $51 each for the visa, so back to the bank counter, and wait for the lady to write out a receipt in triplicate and of course twice. Not to mention that we ended up paying $106.00 (51x2=102, plus 2x2 handling charge!) By the way, that also explained the $24 entry fee, the fee is $10 and $2 for the bank charge. Dima also informed me that the exchange rate on the black market is around 23,000.00 manat to the dollar. The official rate, and the rate at which everything was being charge (the receipts were for manat converted from US dollars at the official rate) is 5200 manat to the dollar. Too bad we couldn't pay anything in the local currency!! It would have cost virtually nothing.

Ok, we were now past immigration. All in all not too bad. There was virtually no-one else there, as by now all the passengers leaving had been processed, and we were the only ones arriving. Next was the customs papers for the motorcycle. First though, Dima had to straighten out a problem with the visa. On the visa the areas to be visited had to be entered and apparently they had forgotten two places we were to visit, and it took Dima a half hour with the official and a number of phone calls to sort that out!!

Back to the bikes. First to the official which filled out an official route document. This document is used to calculate the road tax, insurance and various other miscellaneous charges (disinfection for example, which wasn't done but stamped as done on the document!, oh, and charged, $1). With this document we visit various officials which put their stamp on it and passed us on to the next post. After it had all the requisite stamps, we then had to pay said document, after a last stop at the insurance booth, where they also fill out an additional document as proof of insurance. We paid this (yes, another receipt filled out in triplicate, by hand, twice!). The cost was $182 for the two of us, so $91 each. The various charges added up to $89, and of course the $2 bank charge.

By the way, gasoline in Turkmenistan is $0.017 a liter, and the road tax is apparently intended to recover some of this subsidized fuel. In the end Massimo calculated that we paid a total of $0.25 a liter for the gas we used while covering the country, not bad. These calculations are based on the black market exchange rate of course!.

We were then waved to the customs where they entered the bike data in a big book, then they sent me with another document to a different lady who put a stamp on it, no idea what that was. Then I was sent me to the police who also entered the motorcycle data in a book, put another stamp on another piece of paper, and with that we were through. Well, almost.

As soon as we got to the door, before we could walk back out the bike, we were told that we had to pay the port authority a port tax! What a relief, this was almost too easy. Anyway, this is also were we caught up with Massimo, he was almost to his bike, when they also called him back and together we went to the port authority office, where they filled out a paper. Sent us to a cashier who gave us a different piece of paper and then incredibly asked if it was ok, if she put both charges (Ceciilas and mine) on a single invoice! With this invoice, I was sent back inside to pay the port tax at the bank window, yes, you guessed it, another receipt in triplicate, but this time only one copy and therefore only one bank charge. The port tax was $10.00 per bike. So the charge was $22.00, by now we just wanted to get out of here, without killing anyone.

The whole ordeal from the time the ship docked to the time we rode out of the port was a little over 6 hours! Poor Matthew had to wait the better part of 4 hours in the car, well, not too bad actually, the car was running with the air-con going the whole time!!

Once outside we followed Dimas car to the hotel in town, which was only a couple of kilometers away. Here we unloaded our stuff into the car and only took what we need upstairs to our room.The hotel Hazar was our accommodation for the night. This turned out to be our first experience of the "intourist" class of hotels. Basically, huge hotels, with a very unpleasant and penetrating odor, lousy rooms, bad service, just generally nasty, but serviceable. The shower worked, paint peeling and rust everywhere, but to everyones surprise there was water, and even hot water. I am not going to get into the cockroaches and other nasties crawling around, but you get the idea. We stowed the bikes around the corner at some company lot.

We then went down the block to a restaurant where we had our first meal in Turkmenistan. Sturgeon grilled on coal fire. Excellent. Dima and the driver indulged in a bottle of vodka, which apparently is the standard drink around here. All the while regaling us with a propaganda speech of how great the country is, and how well everyone is being taken care of by their great leader. He even mentioned that one of the major worries is what will happen when the great leader is no longer around. Sounded like North Korea. Very interesting and bizarre at the same time. But he seemed to believe it and was very earnest about it so we just listenen intently and asked some polite questions

[Cecilia and Matthew in front of the entrance to Kow Ata, the underground lake]

[The entrance to Kow Ata, it is dark down here!!]

The following day we took of in the direction of Ashgabat, but not before changing some money at the market, for $20 I got 470,000 manat! We then went an filled up our gas tanks. The gas station itself was hard to find, if you didn't know where it was, no sign anywhere, just a couple of pumps, and a little house with huge bars over a little window where you could pass money in. The way it works, is that you have to tell the attendant how many liters you want and and pay. The pump only shows liters. We got 30 liters and paid 12,000 manat!

[Turkmenistan, Pilgrims at a mosque]

[Massimo, Dima, and Cecilia going up the stair to the sacred mosque]

Massimo had joined our party at least for a while as he was also headed the same direction. The western part of Turkmenistan is very barren and we felt right at home after being in North Africa so long. In Parou we stopped at a mosque which was the site of a "miracle", where some persecuted woman put her hands on a rock and prayed for deliverance and suddenly a cave opened which gave her shelter and hid her from her followers? Pilgrims from all over Turkmenistan come here and pray. Dima explained the story and showed us the various religious spots. Pretty interesting.

[Our "cabin", north of Nokhur]

[One of the graves with the typical sacred horns of the mountain goat]

We continued to Nokhur, a mountain village just across the border to Iran. The road was really bad, but the country beautiful, and it was nice and cool up in the mountain. Here we stayed in a nice little resort village, which we were all very surprised to see here. We were in the middle of nowhere! The reason for coming up here was the village which is a home to a group of people descended from Alexander The Greats army, who prefer to marry among themselves and keep many of the traditions of the past alive, such as decorating each grave with the horns of a mountain goat which is sacred to them. Men wear traditional fur hats, and speak in a dialect which is very different to the Turkmen language.

[View over Nokhur]

[Cecilia in the middle of Nokhur]

We had a nice stay at the resort hotel. We were served a traditional dinner of dumplings and a way bread which is very hard an keeps forever (practically). Very interesting.The following day we saw the men, the cemetery, and wandered around the village, in which there isn't much to see. In particular it is a bit strange, as there is absolutely nothing touristy about the place, and if anything you feel really out of place. Nevertheless it was an interesting experience.

[A poster of Turkmenbashi at the tourist village!!]

After that we drove through more of this desolate desert landscape, passing a few dust covered villages in the middle of nowhere. We suddenly turned and went a couple of kilometers from the main road, and stopped at a place called Kow Ata, which turned out to be an underground lake with water around 38°C. So we went swimming. A very surreal experience. First you walk down a 170 or so stairs, as soon as you step onto the first staircase the sulfur and heat hits you. At the bottom there is a platform where they have a change room and snack bar! You walk a few more steps down and there is the water. Everything is pretty dark as there are only a few lights down here. You step into the water and it is wonderful. As you swim back the light disappear and you are in complete darkness, very spooky. You keep wondering what could be below you? Other than the small platform where you stepped in there is no where to stand up so you thread water in the dark and listen to the bats flying around you. Excellent.

Eventually you get out and you are totally drained, you can barely make it to the changing room, and there are still those 170 or so steps to the top! Someone has conveniently placed a number of benches on the way up so you can take a rest, and then when you hit the outside you are freezing. Pretty strange considering it is 40°C in the sun!! A great experience.

[The largest mosque in central asia]

[The great leader, Turkmenbashi (leader of the Turkmen)]

[Statue of Turkmenbashi which follows the sun, Independence arch, Ashgabat]

[Building with a huge portrait of Turkmenbashi]

Before going into Ashgabat, we are going to take a break... More later!! Stay tuned...