Turkmenistan’s New Ferries Promise to Boost Caspian Trade
For a landlocked country, Turkmenistan is getting into the seafaring spirit: Ashgabat’s new showpiece ferry Berkarar has been shuttling its way around the Caspian Sea – defined by geographers as an inland lake – making trips to both Azerbaijan and Russia so far this year.
The ferry was built in the Uljanik Shipyard in Pula, Croatia – which has produced ferries for the Caspian littoral states since communist times – and delivered to the reclusive Central Asian country in December. Ashgabat has also commissioned a second, smaller ship, Bagtiyar, which is scheduled to arrive this summer. They carry both freight and passengers.
Azerbaijani newswire Trend.az gushed about Berkarar’s latest voyage, from Turkmenbashi to the Azerbaijani capital: “The ferry impresses with its dimensions; it has a length of 155.8 meters, width of 17.5 meters, and height of 12.2 meters,” Trend reported on January 14.
Berkarar can carry “56 trucks loaded with 40-foot containers,” according to News Central Asia’s detailed report on the vessel.
So, provided there are enough goods to fill them, the ferries could help expand regional trade across the contested waters of the Caspian.
A Turkish company is currently modernizing Turkmenistan’s Turkmenbashi port, a commission that is expected to finish in 2017.
On January 7, Berkarar made its maiden voyage to Olya, a port in Russia’s Astrakhan region, where a small community of ethnic Turkmen has lived since the 18th century. Turkmenistan opened a consulate in Astrakhan last September and Turkmen state media has been talking up growing ties with the region.
Citing a statement issued by the Astrakhan regional administration, Trend.az noted that on this occasion the vessel brought building materials for an Astrakhan school slated to become a cultural center for the Turkmen diaspora.
Though the ferry is designated first for cargo, travelers may find it speeds up the legendarily unpredictable Caspian crossing on Azerbaijani ferries. But with secretive Turkmenistan taking only baby steps toward integration with its neighbors, travelers may still have to wait some time for the new ship to fill with cargo before casting off.
Chris Rickleton is a journalist based in Almaty.