“The boat leaves late!” The border guard yelled as I arrived at Azerbaijan’s ferry terminal. “6 hours!”
My Caspian Sea ferry cruise was supposed to depart at 11pm. Now it looked like I was spending the night in the harbour. “Watch out for snakes”, the border guard added nonchalantly before strolling off. It was going to be a long 6 hours.
I was taking a cargo ship from Baku in Azerbaijan, across the Caspian Sea to Aktau, in Kazakhstan and I was expecting only the best of experiences- which might translate to being the worst experience for many people.
That morning I’d rushed across Baku in search of the ticket office, a little porta-cabin hidden away somewhere in the city’s harbour. I’d called earlier and was told that if I wanted a ticket, I had to get there quick.
I found the office, at the end of Baku’s sea front boulevard, amongst container units and shipping equipment. “Come back in a few hours”, the guard said. The ticket lady wasn’t there yet.
This wasn’t going to be an easy ride.
A few other travellers had congregated outside the office. There was Nam, the Korean cyclist, Arthyom, a Russian-Kazakhstani hitching his way across to Central Asia and Arner, who’d hitch hiked from Germany and was going all the way to China. We’d all been told differing times by the same lady. But united in our goal to cross the Caspian Sea by cargo ship, we stayed put in the rain, and would come to know each other almost too well over the next few days.
This is a trip that will appeal to few. Many more will question the practicalities, the safety and the time consumption of such a venture. It’s an unnecessarily difficult process to secure the ticket, the departure port has no direct public transport, and nothing runs on time. The boats are old Soviet ships, with dubious safety records, and if you don’t speak Russian, then the difficulties are staggeringly enhanced.
But for us few, it was the thrill of adventure that had lured us to the harbour, away from the airport, and away from the conventional and the easy. It was the challenge, really, that made all of us there set sail.
And a challenge I received.
After waiting for two hours in the cramped shelter of a guard office, the ticket lady finally made an appearance. She ushered us into her office- a small porta-cabin deposited amongst hundreds of rusting shipping containers- and then took our passports and cash- 80 US Dollars- while claiming that we needed to get this all done quick, as the ferry was scheduled to depart at 11pm that same evening.
With tickets finally in hand, we rushed into Baku city centre to gather supplies for the journey- pot noodles, water and whiskey- and to find some sort of transport to the departure point. The ferry to Aktau wasn’t departing from the Baku port where I’d just purchased my ticket. No, that would be too easy. The Baku to Aktau ferry would be departing from the port of Alat, some 50 miles south of Baku itself.
Nam the cyclist was in a curious position. This was the second time he’d attempted to take the Caspian Sea ferry from Baku to Aktau. He’d cycled down to the port the day before, only to be denied boarding when it transpired that he’d failed to register himself in Azerbaijan- a little known requirement the government insists all tourists complete if staying for 10 days or longer, but a requirement they fail to advertise. He’d been slapped with a hefty 500 Azeribaijani Manat fine- about 300 US Dollars- and had to travel all the way back to Baku from Alat in a costly taxi to pay that fine at the immigration office in the capital. Today he’d managed to switch his unused ticket to this evening’s departure, and somehow, hadn’t lost faith in his noble ambition to take his bicycle across the ocean.
To The Port!
Knowing that the cost of a taxi would cripple us all financially, we had to get as close as we could by bus.
With Arthyom the Russian-Kazakh translating at every turn for the non Russky speakers- i.e. the rest of us- after endless questioning of locals, and drivers we were away on a bus to the outskirts of Baku. From there, we changed onto a second bus, which took us down the dry and desert like Azerbaijani coastline, passing oil wells and drilling platforms, before screeching to a halt on the side of the motorway. Across four lanes of manic traffic, and along five kilometres of baking tarmac, the port of Alat was shimmering like a beacon in the setting Caspian Sea sunlight.
I was there.
But not quite.
Hiking along the tarmac roads we were passed by truck after truck driving into the port.
This was the place.
Nam led us into the parking area outside the customs and immigration checks, before wandering off to find his bicycle which he’d chained up over night during his trip back to Baku. There were a few hours to kill, and sleeping bags were unrolled and tea was put on the boil.
The waiting area was full of trucks from across the world, all waiting to drive their cargo across the sea and on into the East. There was a small hut for changing money- but not Kazakh currency of course- and a dilapidated canteen serving dodgy burgers and Russian Salads.
As it neared the scheduled departure time, no one and nothing was rolling into action. The immigration officers were asleep and the truckers were all having late night dinners.
Arthyom went over to speak in Russian to a few guards strolling around the perimeter, but these turned out to be possibly the only non Russian speakers in all of Azerbaijan. Switching to a mix of Azeri-Turkish-English-Russian-Sign Language they told us that the boat left at 4am in the morning. I could see it on the edge of the harbour, pumping smoke into the night, but the boat was leaving late.
With a warning about the snakes, the guards left us in the dark.
A Long Wait.
I settled down with some Russian Salad and my roll matt on the hard floor, eating in the dim shadows of the trucker lights. Every now and then a freight car rolled down the line to be loaded onto the ship, and the noise combined wiith the inherent fear of snakes made sleeping an impossibility.
4 am was slowly approaching and then it rolled right on by.
But not long after, the guards stirred from their slumber and began waking people up. It was finally time.
Onto the boat!
The immigration officer stamped me out of Azerbaijan from the little cabin he’d been asleep in, but only after thoroughly checking my visa and registration paper. All was in order and there’d be no going back to Baku to pay a hefty fine for me this day. The others were stamped through too, and we were sent on to customs.
The customs officer was waiting outside his office on the side of the road a few metres along. Arthyom translated, asking if we had any guns or drugs on us. No guns and no drugs. And with that we were off.
In the dark, in the early hours of the morning, I walked up onto the rusting ramp of the ship’s cargo bay and into the hold of the Caspian Sea Ferry that would take me to Kazakhstan.
Us four weary travellers were allocated a cabin to ourselves. I was expecting just a rusting corner of the cargo bay, and the cabin was luxurious in comparison.
A bit cramped, but I couldn’t complain.
There were hot showers, a television room and a dining hall and after a few hours sleep, it was breakfast time. The ship was still docked and still being loaded as I chowed down on some spaghetti chicken- a Soviet staple- and watched the sun rise.
The Long Ride To Aktau…
The ship, The Professor Gull, slowly left its berth in the morning. Steaming its way out of Alat and onto the Caspian Sea, it passed along the Azerbaijani coastline, back up towards where my journey had begun- towards Baku.
The Caspian Sea here is being drilled for its oil, as it has been for the last century, and stretching endlessly along the horizon were oil rigs, drilling platforms and entire offshore cities .
A mass of metal and machinery.
A strange sight to behold.
Once Baku was rounded, the ship sailed out onto the vast expanse of the Caspian Sea, and before long there was nothing but water and the odd deep sea drilling platform to be seen on the deep blue of the Caspian.
The day was spent sunbathing on the deck of Professor Gull and watching the oil platforms pass by. Dinner was more spaghetti, this time accompanied by fish- Spaghetti Fish- and the sunset that evening was one of the most beautiful I’d ever seen. There was nothing but open water and vibrant colours in the sky.
The ship was ahead of schedule by now. If there ever was a schedule. The journey from point to point can take anywhere from 24 hours to a whole week depending on how long it takes to be given a docking spot at the port. In the morning, the ship was waiting outside of Aktau as I had a breakfast of boiled eggs and hot tea in the dining galley. I didn’t get my hopes up that we would be docking any time soon, but within the hour we were sailing into the port and it was a frantic scramble to pack up and prepare for arrival.
Kazakh immigration officers, armed with AK-47’s and holding back muzzled sniffer dogs on leashes stormed through the cabins, demanding that everyone get out.
A pleasant welcome to Kazakhstan.
Just over 24 hours after departing from Azerbaijan, I was already setting foot on the dry, desert like coastline of West Kazakhstan.
A Beer On The Beach!
After hitching a ride on a local bus from the port to the city of Aktau, I bought a beer- Baltika of course- and lay down on the sandy shore of the Caspian Sea. To the West, out over the blue water was Azerbaijan- where my journey had begun two days ago- while to the East, the endless Kazakh desert and steppe awaited me.
Check out my detailed article on HOW to actually catch the Caspian Sea Ferry from Baku to Aktau! It’s got all the details! Essential reading for any intrepid adventurers planing the same journey! Coming soon to Travel Tramp!
For more information before then, check out the awesome article at Caravanistan HERE!