Crossing the Caspian

Letter From Turkmenbashi

Oil platforms are seen during heavy fog on the Caspian Sea, January 22, 2013. David Mdzinarishvili / Reuters

There is no better symbol of competition and interdependency than the Caspian Sea, which connects Central Asia and Europe, and Russia to Iran and the Middle East. This inland sea, both a bridge and barrier, contains some of the world’s largest fossil energy reserves, yet the undefined rules of the political game have kept them off limits: the Caspian energy resources are of great interest to Europe, China, and Russia, but the question of how to carry them to their destination or perhaps to the open ocean remains exceedingly complex.

Last spring, I paid a visit to the Caspian Sea to get a sense of the changes taking place there as different projects to connect Europe and Asia picked up speed. Since no passenger boats sail the Caspian, the only way to cross it is by cargo ship. Most will take a handful of passengers to make some extra money, but there are no fixed schedules. You have to wait for a ship to be fully loaded with goods before getting on board. Since there was no timetable, a helpful Russian woman named Vika who worked for the Azerbaijan State Caspian Shipping Company gave me her number. But as I called every two hours, the answer was always the same: no ships today, probably not tomorrow either, and if there are any ships they will be carrying oil, so no passengers are allowed. Turkmenistan also has one cargo ship, the Berkarar, which I am told is more modern and has notably better conveniences for passengers, but no one knows where it is or when it leaves and the company has no offices in Baku.

After a couple of days, I started to wonder if I would ever make the crossing. Then I received a message from Vika: a load of cargo had just been delivered, so a ship would be leaving in two or three hours. I rushed to the Baku port where the tickets were sold, but it turned

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