As soon as we discovered that continuing overland via Iran was no longer an option for us visa-wise, we quickly concluded that a container ship across the Caspian Sea was our only choice if we didn’t want to take a flight (which we didn’t). Russia to the north would be too cold at this time of year; routes through Iraq or Syria to the south are both unthinkable these days.
We had a choice of heading for Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan or Aktau in Kazakhstan. As Turkmenistan only allows a fixed date entry 5-day transit visa that doesn’t give enough time to cycle across it or allow for any delays at sea, we chose the latter. A quick bit of research on the internet showed us that these boats run to no fixed timetable, can have quite disgusting facilities on board, tickets can only be purchased from a very elusive lady who operates out of a ticket office which frequently changes location and, it is possible to spend days anchored out at sea either waiting for good weather or a berth in Aktau. This sounded like an adventure!
In Baku, we found our way to the only budget option in town: the Caspian Hostel. It has a great location within the old city walls but is essentially just a room crammed with bunk beds, a tiny kitchen and a bathroom. It was perfect for us, however, as the daughter of the family is friends with the all important ticket lady and speaks a smattering of English. The first two days we were there, she phoned her friend each day and the answer was “no boat today, maybe tomorrow”. In our lives in London, we become frustrated having to wait more than 5 minutes for a tube, can find out information at the drop of a hat and everything has a schedule (even if it doesn’t always run to it!). This was therefore a useful trial of our patience; an attribute that I expect we will need more and more of as we continue our journey.
Still we felt unable to just forget about it entirely, so on our first full day in Baku we set out to find the ticket office ourselves. We had found some directions on the internet written by other travellers and armed with these we set out, confident that we would find what we were looking for. Three hours later, we had walked 9km out of town without success, we were hungry, grumpy and we admitted defeat. We flagged down a taxi to take us back into town.
Our next stop on our quest for information was the concierge desk at the Four Seasons hotel; probably the fanciest hotel in Baku. We were both secretly hoping that they did some sort of super discounted rate if you had cycled there all the way from the UK because it really was an amazing hotel. The lads on the concierge desk didn’t even question it when we appeared before them in our muddy shoes and unwashed clothes; they immediately started making phone calls to try and find out information about boats. They confirmed, in their perfect English, everything we already knew from the girl at the hostel – no boat today, maybe tomorrow. We were reassured somewhat. What they couldn’t tell us was the location of the ticket office. “Nobody seems to know where it is”, was their apologetic response. We chatted to them for a while; showed them our blog and thanked them profusely for helping us. They replied that they were more than happy to do so, it was much more interesting than their usual requests. The rate for one night? Around €350 – unfortunately we didn’t think we deserved it that much!
On the third day at the hostel, we had a semi-positive response. “Maybe today, call later”. We badgered the poor girl every couple of hours to phone her friend but by the evening it was clear it wasn’t happening that day. But there was a glimmer of hope; there was a boat out there, it just wasn’t clear when it would dock.
The next morning at 10am, it was all go! We must be at the ticket office at noon. The boat would be leaving from Alat (70km down the coast) at maybe 3pm, maybe 4pm. We didn’t know where the ticket office was or how to get our bikes and ourselves to the port but we were excited. It was happening!
The girl at the hostel told us that the ticket office was at the passenger terminal. We knew it definitely wasn’t there but thought it was our best bet for finding someone who could help us so we headed off there. Everyone there kept telling us to go to Alat to buy the ticket, but we firmly persisted, repeating “Anglia, billet, Aktau”, until they got fed up with us and went to find an English speaker from the back office. Even he (who spoke perfect English) said we should go to Alat until desperately we said, “we know there is a lady who sits in a ticket office somewhere near here and sells tickets for the boats, we just need to find her!” Suddenly he knew exactly what we were talking about and sent someone out to a taxi with us to give directions. I’m not quite sure why finding this lady has to be so mysterious but it certainly added to the excitement/stress levels.
When we arrived at the grey, unmarked door, we immediately knew we were at the right place (we’d seen pictures of the door on another blog that we are following). Shortly after, the ticket lady breezed up, unlocked the office and set about selling us the tickets. 5 minutes later and $220 lighter, we were the proud holders of two tickets for the Barda.
On our return to the hostel, Scottie, our sole companion at the hostel over the past few days, had a message from the girl (who had gone out) that we should have taken all our stuff with us as the boat might leave at 2pm! Although we were pretty sure it wouldn’t leave this early, we immediately ruled out cycling the 70km as to miss the boat when we had got this far would be annoying to say the least. We loaded up the bikes, said hasty goodbyes and headed for the Four Seasons, certain that someone there would be able to help us. On our way, Steven spied one of the many “London style” cabs that ply the streets of Baku and immediately waved it down. Now I was quite dubious about whether everything would fit in, and even if it did, whether the driver would agree to take us. But where there’s a will there’s a way. The bikes just squeezed in (I had my front wheel in my lap, praying that we didn’t stop suddenly and my head smack into the metal studded tire!) and the bags were piled high in the front seat, but we sped off at 100kph towards the port.
When we arrived before 2pm not much seemed to be happening, but within minutes a man who had been hanging round the ticket office earlier popped up and told us we should wait in his car as it was cold. It was about 40 minutes before the passport control officers waved us over. We navigated out of Azerbaijan as easily as we had entered and wheeled our bikes across to the boats. There was a choice of two; the other was going to Turkmenistan where we definitely would not be welcome without a visa so we confirmed a number of times that we were heading for the correct boat.
Our bikes safely lashed to something solid, we lugged our many bags up to the accommodation deck and were shown to a twin bedded cabin with an en-suite shower and toilet. This was far better than I ever imagined it would be. It was clean-ish, the shower was just a hose but there was endless hot water, the beds had some dubious looking stains on them but once we’d received our sheets and made the beds up we could (kind of) forget about that.
And then we waited. And waited. On one of many exploration trips to see whether anything was happening, we noticed that they were taking containers off rather than on to the boat. Further exploration down in the control room with one of the crew confirmed that this was quite complicated, with moving platforms taking containers down into the hold and lots of shunting back and forth of the rail carriages. It was clear we were going nowhere anytime soon.
What also became clear very quickly was that we hadn’t brought nearly enough food with us on board. Boredom coupled with the fact that we hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast meant we were hungry and our meagre provisions that we’d hurriedly purchased before racing off to Alat just weren’t going to cut it – especially if we got stuck out at sea somewhere for days.
At about 8pm, I had a nosey round the mess-rooms and the galley where a gold-toothed lady had been creating something that smelt incredible. I inquired whether we would be able to have anything to eat and made eating motions. She seemed to understand but she just commanded “cabina!” at me and pointed me back to our cabin. I returned dejectedly to Steven and started explaining that we were going to starve to death on this boat surrounded by people and amazing cooking smells. A few moments later she appeared furtively in the doorway and explained through sign language that if we wanted to eat we needed to pay money. That was ok by us and the price (the equivalent of €2.50 each) was good. She proceeded to take us to the passenger mess-room, lock us in and indicated that we should be quiet and eat quickly and then leave. It was clear that she didn’t want the captain or officers to know that she was feeding us, and she was most probably just pocketing the money. We didn’t care though, the food was delicious; a fantastic Turkish style soup and bread followed by chicken and buttery mashed potato. We were so full our bellies hurt.
This procedure was repeated at all subsequent meals (all of them delicious). She or her co-chef would come to our cabin and say “nom, nom, nom”, we would follow her, eat very quickly and quietly in a locked room before returning to our cabin. It was quite bizarre but hilarious. During our final meal, they actually picked up our plates mid meal and rushed us into our cabin to finish off. Presumably the captain was on the prowl.
Apart from the meal times, there really isn’t much to say about this voyage. We finally got underway at about 3am and motored across the Caspian until about 5am the following morning. There was absolutely nothing to see apart from some oil platforms. There were no spectacular sunsets or sunrises as it was cloudy the whole time. There were a handful of other passengers (we think all Azeri) but we gathered that they were slightly different from us (i.e. they didn’t have to eat in secret). The only incredible thing that I can remember is on the second night, when on one of our many trips to see if there was anything interesting going on, we poked our heads outside and it was pitch black. And I mean really, really dark. There was no visible light in any directions other than the light that was emanating from us and we couldn’t even see the water below us. It felt like we were travelling through a black hole or something equally weird.
We finally were allowed to disembark at Aktau port at about 10am, two days after we had left dry land in Alat. The Kazakh border guards were stern-faced but friendly in their fur hats and long green capes. We passed through passport control and customs once again without any hassle or checking of our bags, to emerge into the biting wind and freezing drizzle. There was nothing but a few deserted looking buildings, rail tracks, metal pipes heading off in every direction, power stations pumping out pollution and…a herd of camels. We had finally arrived in Central Asia.