A Gilded Cage

Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan
August 9, 2019

Getting off the train in Turkmenbashi at 9:30 am, I headed to the port straight away after stocking up on food and water. Who knew? Maybe a cargo ship would leave for Baku today.

In the gleaming new building – white of course, with the requisite gold trim – I was told to come back at 7pm. Then I met some other travelers as well. A British couple who had come in from Dashoguz and I met again the Dutch trio I had met in Bukhara. We had seen some of the Mongol Rally teams come off the ship from Baku and were hopeful we could leave the same night. Ha! Little did we know.

None of us had any desire to overstay our five-day transit visa but strangely, getting stamped out before midnight required our repeated vociferous requests. Through the gleaming new passport controls – naturally, white and gold – we were deposited in the round observation tower. Comfy chairs to lounge in come with charging ports. And wonder of wonders – the first wifi we’d had in five days. Nobody was complaining.

“Yes, yes maybe soon”, was the response to our question about the ship. But evening came and went with no activity. Online forums warn travelers could be stuck for a day or two on this run if there are no ships. Oh well, we thought. Stretching out on chairs and in sleeping bags on the floor. Tomorrow would come soon enough, we thought.

It did and with it, the phrase we were beginning to know only too well. “Maybe 2 pm will be the boat”. At 2 pm it was “maybe 7 pm”. At 7 pm is was “maybe 1 am”. And so it continued, ad nauseum. That day as well as the next. There were a few ships at anchor, but none moved and nor was there any activity in the port.

We were left under the eagle eye of young soldiers on rotating shifts. At the bottom of the totem pole, they had no desire nor the ability to communicate. Not allowed out, we were marooned in the gilded cage. My food ran out and water would soon follow. Occasional frustrated outbursts ensured someone slightly higher on the totem pole would look in and be besieged with questions.

There seems to be a unique job requirement in Turkmenistan. Officials are required to prevaricate, and some have a remarkable aptitude for it. The higher the post held, the more eloquent they are and the more creative the excuses of why we could not leave. To give them their due, I suppose they were simply following orders. In one such conversation I wondered out loud what I would tell friends and family about Turkmenistan. This was digested silently but lo and behold, a half hour later a tray of tea and coffee appeared. A little later, a bowl of noodles appeared along with a loaf of bread – someone’s lunch brought from home, was given to us. It disappeared in record time.

August 11, 2019
We finally learned the real reason.  The all-important Caspian Sea conference hosted by Turkmenistan was being held August 11th- 12th. All countries around the Caspian as well as some neighboring ones had sent delegates. This had prompted the powers-that-be to shut down all travel to or from the city from the 10th through the 13th. The channel to the sea was closed, the port was closed as were the roads, trains and airport. Access was granted only to the attendees. Perfectly obvious course of action, right?

Heaven forbid the attendees see a single soul in the entire town or on the roads. To have ships seen leaving or entering the harbor? Blasphemy! To have visible signs of economic ties at an important economic summit? Unmitigated disaster! There must be a uniquely Turkmen logic to this, obvious to all here. But it is well beyond the meager cognitive abilities of foreigners. I read somewhere that at the Kurban Bayram festival celebrated on August 11th, the Turkmen populace were congratulated for their ethical traditions of honesty and kindness among a host of other sterling qualities. I wonder if irony was among the qualities praised. In any case there we were, stuck for at least a couple more days.

The gilded cage once pristine, had slowly begun to resemble a refugee camp. Towels and clothes lay draped on chairs and empty food packages filled the garbage bins. We had been trooping in and out of the arrivals area, past the passport controls to the only working toilets in this brand-new building. The last straw must have been the tent the Dutch trio unfolded. Or perhaps it was the sight of the camping stove. Galvanized into action, the authorities hastened to bundle us off onto the ship.

The Bestekar Qara Qarayev is no luxury liner but a rust-bucket that has seen too many decades. Nonetheless, we cheered as we left. One more night was to pass moored to the dock with the captain likewise fed up at being stranded at port.

We saw airplanes fly in on evening of the 12th and knew the conference was about to end. Around 2 am on August 13th the channel opened, and we were off. But this old cargo ship is no sleek racer and two more nights were spent on board before we arrived at Baku. Early in the morning on August 14th we stepped ashore.

A five-day transit visa had led to a ten day stay. They could just have given us the extra days on the visa. Or, since this conference had been planned months before, at least let us know we would not be allowed to exit. Ah, but that would be logical and no doubt incomprehensible in Turkmenistan.

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