Scurvy!!! That’s it!
I’ve been racking my brain for ten minutes trying to remember what disease one gets when one is stuck at sea for months on end. Finally I remember: it’s scurvy. If I’m not mistaken, scurvy is an awful, skin and muscle eating condition caused by lack of vitamins from fresh food. I think I have it. Or, at the very least, I’m starting to develop some symptoms.
I’m not normally a hypochondriac, but considering the fact that we ended up waiting 8 hours to board the ferry in Baku, 20 hours sailing to Aktau and, up to now, spent 72 hours just off the port city’s shore whilst someone or other gives us the go-ahead to dock, I’d say a little over-reacting is perhaps justified. I may or may not have scurvy. I certainly have hunger, although that’s probably not nearly as dramatic, especially if you consider I have healthy Georgian-khachapuri-loaded reserves.
I have not eaten a piece of fruit or vegetable in 4 days. We hadn’t even boarded the ship by the time we’d scoffed the last of those delectable tuna sandwiches. For lunch today, we had crackers topped with meat paste and a dollop of mayonnaise.
Now tell me this doesn’t look delicious?
Remember all those stray cats who kept us company at the Baku port car park? Well, if they were here, I may just start salivating at the sight of them.
But I regress. You’re probably curious to know how our scramble for visas in Baku worked out, right? Well, it certainly wasn’t an easy affair. It all got especially stressful on the first day, when we turned up bright and early at the Turkmenistan Embassy only to be informed that this particularly obtuse country no longer wants foreigners transiting through with their own vehicles. This was supposed to be our next destination, a very simple 5-day transit which would have seen us reach the central Uzbekistan desert area.
At the time, this news was deflating, yet after we quickly researched a re-route, we finally recognized the silver lining. Our only other option was to change course and take the ferry headed to Kazakhstan instead. Entering this far north may add 1,000km to our journey, yet it would also take us past the southern fringes of Lake Aral, one of the Stan’s foremost attractions and a poignant symbol of just how devastating man can be. But more on that later.
By the end of our second day in Baku we had applied for the Uzbekistan and the Kazakhstan visa. Both embassies were closing down for the Nowruz festivities; however they guaranteed we’d still be at least able to pick up our visas in 7 days. This would leave us with barely a day to spare on our Azerbaijan permit but there was literally nothing we could do. While we were at it (because we obviously didn’t have enough on our plates) we also decided to dash to the Tajikistani Embassy, adding yet another nerve-wrecking wait to our list of neurosis.
The next four days were a mix of relaxed sightseeing and persistent update calls to a guy called Ismail, a local ‘fixer’ who helps foreigners get tickets for the ferry crossing. You see, the getting of the visas was only half the problem. The other issue, which was not to be underrated, was the fact that although we may well get all our visas in time, there may not be a ship to Aktau in time.
The prevalent feelings we had were extreme frustration and utter helplessness. We may or may not end up in a very bad bind. We may or may not just scrape through. The worst part? NONE of it was up to us. We were at the mercy of the powers that be. I detest being at the mercy of powers with stamps!
So we decided to say STUFF IT! And we enjoyed a few fantastic days with our brilliant couchsurfing, host Andrew. If we were going to end up stuck in Azerbaijani purgatory till the end of time, we wanted to at least have some lovely memories of the country saved up.
Andrew is an absolute gem and we got on so well from the first moment we met him that it soon felt like we were just hanging out with a long-time friend. He took us on a guided tour of Baku’s historic centre…
And even on a day trip to the quaint mountain village of Ismail… (I mean seriously, some people don’t even go to that much trouble for visiting relatives!!!)
We have some super fun nights at home, smoking shisha and drinking copious amounts of wine. Even our African giraffe drinking game makes an appearance!
Before we know it, the festivities are all over and with a short phonecall on Monday morning jolts us back to reality: our visas are ready. By Monday night, we are the proud holders of what will forever be known as the ‘Baku Visa Holy Trifecta’
All we needed to do then, was get the hell out of town. As we rushed back to Andrew’s house form the last embassy we made frantic calls to Ismail.
‘Yes, maybe boat…no, maybe no boat’ aaarrggghhh we just couldn’t get a straight answer either way so we only had one option: pack the bikes and head to port. Clear OUT of Azerbaijani customs and then simply wait for a ferry to take us to Kazakhstan. Today, tomorrow, whenever…
As we reached the ticket office at port we received what was essentially the first bit of bloody good news in days. Not only was there a ship going ‘soon soon’, but it was the Barda, a Croatian built freighter ship which is barely 2 years old and is considered the jewel of ferries in this neck of the woods. Sailing on her, as opposed to the decrepit Soviet-era death-tanks I’ve been reading about for weeks, was going to be a much safer bet. The Caspian Sea is said to be treacherous at times, the sea bed hosting quite a few sunken freighters already.
As you know by now, we ended up waiting 8 very loooong hours at port before we were allowed to board. I was so deliriously tired that I even thought the cabin was rather charming, although that was a wee bit before I spotted the unsavoury stains on my mattress.
I’m glad to have had a sleeping bag protecting my skin from touching the mattress, lest I catch something. We were exhausted beyond words, but happy to be finally indoors and out of the skin-splitting winds of the harbour. The ship was barely swaying and I fell asleep within seconds. An hour or so later we were woken up by the sound of the engine roaring to life, when then anchor is retracted it makes me jump out of bed.
I have a fitful night’s sleep and, because our cabin was windowless, we awake with pounding headaches. We sleepily get up and go outside to get a breath of air and are greeted by the most glorious sunny day we’d seen in weeks.
We take our maps and guidebooks and spend the day on deck researching the north-western Uzbekistan area we’ll be spending the next two weeks in. We soaked up the sun and fresh air like it was the best thing in life. It truly is.
The most glorious part of the whole day comes right at the end. The sun setting over the horizon of the Caspian is simply breathtaking.
So now I’m ready to explain to you how we got from that gorgeous picture…to scurvy!
Our sailing day went by without a hitch, yet it wasn’t until half way through the next day (when we’d been anchored off the shores of Aktau for 12 hours) that I seriously started to lose my marbles. We had arrived, but we really hadn’t. We couldn’t see Aktau, but buggered if we could get this (by now) shit-hole of a freighter to move an inch toward it. Apparently, we were awaiting clearance to approach and disembark, something which I’d read could take anything from one to five days. Considering our run of luck recently, you can just imagine how optimistic I was feeling about us getting the shorter end of the waiting-stick.
Our ‘charming’ cabin started leaking smelly, festering water from the TOILET about half way through our sailing day. After 24 hours, it seemed the entire ship was enveloped by an utterly enchanting fishy-toilety-aroma. My gag reflexes were in full function mode, the only positive thing being that it was killing my appetite. Considering we only had enough crackers and tuna cans to last us one more day, a little panic set in.
Another 24 hours of smelly-hell followed without even a hint of movement. We tried everything to keep ourselves busy. I exercised on deck, read a bit, snoozed lots and from the late afternoon we turned in to watch episodes of Downton Abbey on our laptop. Thank heavens for the in-house entertainment!
By the time we got to our third day floating in no man’s land I was completely slept out. We were so well rested and relaxed that we resemble two comatose zombies. There wass absolutely no sign of the famed clearance and that charming aroma had penetrated every item of clothing we owned. I swear to whomever…if I hadn’t had Pixie with me I would have jumped right over and swam to land on my own.
Fiiiinally, just as we’re approaching our 4th waiting day, the ship receives clearance to approach. Only problem is that by now it’s just past midnight. The ship roars to life yet again and literally sprints towards the port of Aktau. A flurry of activity arises on board and we are instructed to pack all our belongings.
My response, aimed at Chris, is one of slight alarm:
‘Are you telling me that after making us wait for almost 4 full days…they’re going to make us disembark in the middle of the night?’
And so it is that at almost precisely 2am on Saturday, the 29th March 2014, we enter Kazakhstan in the dead of night.
Never mind that the port customs office won’t open until 9am…