The unreliable sailing times of the ferry from Baku to Aktau in Kazakstan led us to book our beds at the hostel for one night at the time. This would sooner or later lead to problems since new guests kept coming all the time.
We don’t know if it was to get rid of us or if it was of pure concern, but the lady who runs the hostel kept calling the ferry company several times each day to check if there would be any ferry. On Thursday morning she said it might be one on Friday, but when Friday came it turned out that there wasn’t going to be any departure that day. We asked if we could stay one more night at the hostel and although a bit problematic, the owner managed to let us stay by squeezing in some newcomers in her own apartment.
With all our visas ready we spent a few hours visiting the Swedish honorary consul in Baku who is a friend of a friend back home. It was great to sit down and talk in Swedish to someone else but ourselves. The consul invited us for a midsummer night dinner the following day.
During our stay in Baku I have serviced our bikes and Wej’s back tyre isn’t in the best condition so I moved it to the front wheel instead where it will wear out more slowly. We can’t count on finding any good bike stores in central asia so our plan was to buy a spare tyre in Baku to carry just in case of the unlikely event that some of our tyres blow up, are cut by sharp rocks or simply worn out.
Since Wej’s tyre was in a worse condition than we had expected we went to a bike store to buy not only a spare tyre, but also a completely new tyre for Wej. At the bike shop we met Magsud who has a summer job in the store and is a serious MTB rider. Magsud speaks very good English and we got his phone number in case we needed any help.
When the Friday evening came we were still waiting at the hostel but on Saturday morning the hostel owner told us there would be a ship later that day. She also had a new group of visitors coming in so she almost chased us away.
We were really confused because the hostel owner seemed to have a good contact at the ferry terminal, but her English wasn’t good enough to pass the details in the information on to us. We sent a message to Magsud who dropped by on his way to work and he translated all the information so that we could make a fact based decision.
The information we got was that the ferry would indeed leave that day (Saturday) and she had reserved tickets for us and that we should be at the port at 8 PM on Satuday evening. The hostel was by now soon full of new guests and we all packed our bikes and cycled to a nearby park where we decided to have a common picnic lunch and then spend the afternoon by just hanging around.
There will be a big army parade on June 26th and the Bulevar street (beach road) and the road leading into the port was closed for rehearsals. Earlier during the day someone in the group had tried to ride to the ferry terminal to check the status but had been turned away by soldiers.
When it was time to leave for the port we were afraid that the army would turn us away so we called Magsud who once again came by and rode with us to the terminal. He did an excellent job in telling the soldiers that they had to let us through and when we rode by all the army vehicles parked for the coming parade it felt like an invasion was under preparation. There were hundreds of tanks, rocket launchers and troop transport vehicles parked in straight lines.
Once we arrived at the port around 7 PM on Satuday we found there was nothing. The ticket office was empty and the ferry was not in port. A group of German motorcyclists were already waiting there and they told us (one of them spoke excellent russian) that the lady who sells the ticket would come at 10 PM and that we would be able to board at midnight.
The ferry between Baku and Aqtau is not a regular passanger ferry, but a ship that transports train carriages across the Caspian Sea. It sails when there is enough cargo and when the weather conditions permit.
We all got very excited when the ferry finally arrived in the Saturday evening but there lady in the ticket office was still absent. We spent our time waiting in an old shed and we had two 2.5 liter bottles of beer to share so the time passed easily 😉 Around midnight we learned that the lady selling tickets would come early in the morning instead. Rumours said that we could board the ferry before and pay straight to the captain afterwards, but we decided to spend the night at the shed.
7 cyclists, 5 motorcyclists and a lone french backpacker spread out their sleeping matresses on the ground and fell asleep only bothered by mosquitos and the squeeking sound of railway cars being pushed on and off the nearby ferry.
We woke up around 6.30 on Sunday morning and packed our equipment and had some bread with jam for breakfast. At 8.30 we went to the ticket office to buy our tickets. Finding the port and the ticket office and then buying the ticket is rather complicated and I have read numerous journals on the web about travelers running into all sorts of problems and that the lady selling the tickets is a witch.
For us it was very smooth. The german motorcycle rider who spoke fluent russian helped us and the lady at the ticket office is certainly not a witch. She was actually very nice and smiled and joked all the time.
With tickets in our hands and our bikes loaded we were ready to board the ferry, but again nothing happened. We spent a few more hours waiting at the shed that now started to feel like our home.
Sometime around noon on Sunday we were waved to the customs and immigration booth. Once again nothing happened and we had to wait another hour before being called inside to get our travel documents checked.
At 2 PM on Sunday we could finally roll over the gangway and park our bikes among the railway cars. The ferry only takes 12 passengers and we were 15 in total which caused some problems. We were told to wait in the passenger’s mess and we all quickly fell asleep. Being onboad the ferry didn’t mean that we were getting any closer to Kazakstan though. It took another 3 hours before the ship finally set sail and left the Baku’s port at about 5 PM on Sunday afternoon.
We spent the good part of the Saturday day sitting and waiting in the park and then 22 hours by waiting at the shed and in the ferry before we really departed Baku.
The ferry company has two ships on this route, one old and one that is newly built. We are on the old ship (Agdan) and we are surprised that the ship isn’t in as bad condition as we had expected. The only drawback is that there has been a misunderstanding about our reservation and there wasn’t beds for all of us (bunk beds). A crew mate was ordered by the captain to give up his cabin for Wej and me and our friends slept on their own matresses in the passenger’s mess.
The main income for Azerbaijan comes from oil export and after leaving the port in Baku we sailed passed hundreds of oilrigs before we enjoyed a lovely sunset at sea followed by a bright fullmoon.
We felt just like we were on a cruise and the only thing we lacked was some entertainment onboard but I guess the crew isn’t prepared to set up any shows for only 15 passangers who are now only thinking about the coming ride through the desert….
On Monday afternoon we could see land on the Kazak shore of the Caspian Sea and we all hoped we would be able to get off the ship and cycle into town to buy some supplies for the coming days. Then the captain dropped the anchor……. 🙁 Soon after we were informed that there were no available space for our ship in the docks and we had to wait until perhaps 10 PM on Monday evening. Arriving to a new country and city that late is not very pleasant and we asked if we could stay onboard until Tuesday morning. The captain said he would try to see if it would be possible to arrive later and after an hour or two we got the message we would arrive early Tuesday morning instead.
When we were loading our bikes on early Tueday morning to be ready to disembark, we got new information telling that there harbour workers had a shift change and that we would have to wait 2-3 more hours before being able to leave the ship and go to thorugh customs which they say will take around 3 hours.
We arrived at the port in Baku on Saturday afternoon and will be cleared to start cycling in the early afternoon on Tuesday. For the time being we have been onboard this ship for 44 hours and we expect it to be 46 in total. That’s a lot of time to sail 450 km across the Caspian Sea…. Next time we should maybe cycle around it instead…. 😉
The good thing in all this is that we didn’t have to pay for the second night onboard and the extra dinner and breakfast that we would be served. The ticket prices was 110 USD and if we count the two nights of accomodation, two breakfast, lunches and dinners served, then it is not a bad price at all, but I would be happy to pay another 10-20 USD to get working toilets. They all stopped working in the Monday evening and I will spare you the description of look and the smell of the bathrooms 🙂
The very long wait for the ferry and the 46 hour long ferry ride itself has been interesting. In our western societies time is money and we are not used to wait for something to happen sometime which could be this afternoon or three days later. We want exact dates and times and feel unproductive and get restless and upset when there is no reliable information available about when things can be expected to happen.
I have during my trips to other far away countries often found that people seem to be able to not get restless when they wait for something to happen. Things will happen when they happen and maybe we stressed westerners who always want to be productive have something to learn. At least for us the experience with the ferry across the Caspian Sea has been a good lesson of how life is for many people around the world and I think we all have learned quite a lot from it this part of the adventure.