The next morning soon after breakfast we hastened to the Turkmenistan border for the crossing into the country. Like Bishkek it was a waiting game and we got cleared only after some 6-hour wait. Fortunately daylight hours remained until 8:00 pm or so. The destination was Mary (pronounced Maa Ree.) The city was also formerly known as Merv, an oasis for travellers on the Silk Road.
Much of Turkmenistan is desert (70%) and we could feel it as we drove from Turkmenabat to Mary. The real desert, however, is to the north — the Karakum desert — the void as seen on the map.
It was a hard drive through the night; and we had an incident whereby one of the cars lost its right-rear wheel which decided to break away and roll down the slope. That was a major breakdown and after assessing the situation, Convoy Leader decided that three cars (the stricken car, the Mechanic’s car and Grandpa the Sweeper’s car) had to stay back, fix the car and camp in the wild. The rest of us drove on to Mary arriving there around 2:00 am.
Unlike Tashkent, our hotel didn’t have late dinner service. So a frantic search was made; and thanks to our Russian-speaking handler we had late dinner at an all-night cafe somewhere in town. That excitement certainly broke the boredom of Bukhara!
Next morning we had to hang around waiting for the three cars that camped in the wild to join us. They didn’t arrive until about 10:30 am. And then they have to go find a workshop so that they can make good their temporary repairs to the rear undercarriage system. That was a blessing because it meant we could have some additional snooze time (until 12:00 pm) to make up for last night. Not so for the mechanics and Grandpa though.
The drive to Ashgabat some 370 km west was less than five hours. So after lunch we gladly said goodbye to Mary in the hope of a better time at Ashgabat, the capital city of Turkmenistan.
Ashgabat is a beautiful city especially when it’s lighted up at night. Fuel is cheap hence lighting costs for the city would be quite affordable. However, we didn’t have much time to tour the city except for visiting their Sunday market (aptly known as the “Thieves Market”) where you could get anything you want by just asking the numerous vendors there. If it’s not there they’ll get it for you in a short while. And sure enough, when we got to our cars to depart Ashgabat, our Toyota emblem was missing. Somebody must have wanted one!
Our next destination was the port city of Turkmenbashi (which means Leader of the Turkmen, a reference to the President) located on the Caspian Sea coast. According to our itinerary, we were to board a ferry and sail to Baku, Azerbaijan from here. Anyway, back to that later.
The drive to Turkmenbashi was tedious; not that their roads were not good, but because there were too many security road blocks. In fact it was at every entry and exit to a town or village along the way.
We arrived at 9:30 pm at the Serdar Oteli, a rather nice hotel by the sea, but rather low on occupancy. We almost had the place to ourselves. Wow, it’s already 18 Sep and we were more than half way to London. And the day after we were to sail across the Caspian Sea.
The next day was a free day and we took time off to visit the city for some shopping. Nothing much to shop really except to buy some local fruits and delicacies. We also learned that there were Malaysians — Petronas Carigali people — in Turkmenbashi. That was nice; and they were ever so pleased to meet up with fellow countrymen. The next day they even came to send us off at the port.
So we hung around and around until almost noon when we were told that there was no such thing as a ferry to Baku. The ship that came from Baku was a cargo ship and it could take only just the cars; no passengers, not even drivers. All hell broke loose and some people lost their cool. The blame game started and profanities came off from the most unexpected quarters. Finally five drivers were allowed to board to look after the cars. (It was later learned that these poor guys suffered a most unpleasant night aboard the cargo ship.) The rest of us had to hightail it back to Ashgabat and take a flight to Baku. And we must be at the airport before 7:30 pm because the counters would close at that time.
The excitement had just begun. And Convoy Leader and his management team got one big problem-solving headache to deal with.
Just kidding. That bus could never make it to Ashgabat within five hours. So we settled for the pirate taxis of Hondas and Toyotas; they were more flexible and the taxi men promised that they’d deliver all of us (30 pax I think, with 3 guys cramped at the back) by 7:00 pm at Ashgabat. Well, they did. They knew when to speed and when to slow down for the security checks; only one car had a minor mishap but no injuries. Yes, the counters did close at 7:30 pm but our flight by Lufthansa was scheduled for well after midnight for the 2 hr flight to Baku. More tempers and curses, but I just played the “glad game.” I was glad that we were to get to Baku after all with no serious mishaps to cause more problems. I was also glad that I could now boast of another “stan” to add to my brag list — “Gostan” (go astern or backtrack in colloquial Malay.)