Barely catching the ferry (Crossing the Caspian Sea)

From visiting the Baku seaport I was told that the Baku to Aktau ferry doesn’t in fact leave from Baku at all, but from Alat 50 miles south of Baku. Annoying the only place where you can buy tickets is from the ferry port in Baku and you can only buy them on the morning the ferry is leaving. And you only know the ferry is leaving the day it leaves. No timetable, no scheduled time, just when the cargo ship is full it leaves. Simple! Only that’s not simple for travellers who want to make that crossing to Kazakhstan.

Knowing that I wouldn’t have enough time to cycle down on the day of the ferry I decided to cycle to Alat on a day when it ‘wasn’t’ leaving and then catch a bus back to Baku. That was the plan at least. So that when the day finally came when the boat was leaving I’d be able to buy my ticket, then take a taxi to the ferry, knowing that I had already cycled to it. This way I was still following the rules that I’d set myself to cycle everything.

I left on Tuesday morning to make the ride down to the ferry. Running parallel to Caspian Sea is the motorway and the only way to reach the ferry port. I don’t enjoy riding in busy roads by I had no choice and I thankfully had a wide hard shoulder to myself.

Riding out of Baku could definitely have gone smoother. I realise now that the main road splits out of Baku into one road for traffic heading in and one for out. Somehow I found myself heading out of Baku against 5 other lanes that were coming in. I’m still not quite sure if I was in the wrong because there were arrows on the surface of the road pointing in my direction. Bit scary at time but not too bad and I soon reached he point where the road rejoined and I could relax and ride ‘with’ the traffic.

Being next to the sea I faced some serious winds for the entire ride. Not fun especially with large fast lorry shooting past suddenly blocking the wind and ‘sucking’ me into them. Though one benefit of the wind was that without it I would’ve been drenched in sweat.

A guy snapping a photo of me just outside Baku

A guy snapping a photo of me just outside Baku

I was stopped by the police twice during the day. Both times telling me to take a bus. After explaining that I had ridden from England and that I really REALLY wanted to cycle they thankfully agreed. (I just want to clarify here that I didn’t feel that I was in danger. I had a large hard shoulder that I used to separate myself from the speeding Azeri vehicles).

Stopping for lunch I shot a quick price-to-camera. Unfortunately for me I was unknowingly outside a military establishment. A guy in uniform came up to me and demanded to see my camera and see the ‘photo’ that I took. I played the 2 minute vid I had shot and after a minute or so he seemed satisfied that I wasn’t a unicycle touring spy, or maybe he just got bored of watching me speak! Either way he passed the camera back to me, but made me wait while he took down the details from my passport. For some unknown reason I then had wait for half an hour after which he said I could go. I mounted and cycled away sharpish, not wanting to be called back and made to wait any longer. I was already pushing it for daylight as it was!

I reached the ferry port at around 6:30pm. My heart sank as I cycling into the port and a heard a horn blast from the ferry. ‘Maybe it was in fact leaving today?’. This would have been great timing, only I didn’t have a ticket and the only way to buy a ticket, as I mentioned before, was from the ferry port in Baku 50 miles away!

Speaking to the mixture of police officers and seaport workers my fears were confirmed and the ferry was in fact leaving that day! I asked if was at all possible to buy a ticket there, but my question was met with a resounding “yok” (no!). It was perhaps a possibility to take a taxi to Baku, buy a ticket and then race back to the ferry but I was informed that there no more tickets available. So this was it then. I had missed the boat and was potentially facing a wait of a week for the next. Damn! The passenger places were full, I didn’t have a ticket and the boat was leaving soon. After waiting in Baku for 4 days, I had missed it. I felt silly.

I started considering my options. I could fly to Aktau. I’d heard that the plane was cheap (£90). This was definitely an option, but I really wanted to experience the infamous ferry crossing, witness the sunrise and sunset on the Caspian Sea and there just seemed to be something about staying on the surface of the earth that just felt more adventurous!

So I’m at the Alat Sea Port, the ferry is set to leave and I’m not going to be on it. But if this trip has taught me anything it is to never give up straight away and always dig a bit further to see if there is anything anyone can do. After asking around a bit longer it seemed that there might actually be a possibility of a policeman in Baku bringing a ticket in a taxi down. I didn’t really know how this would be possible as I was told previously that there where no spaces available. But after a lot of “umming” and “aaaahing” a ray of hope appeared and it seemed that this would be an option.

For $250 (ouch! I know!) a ticket could be brought down for me and remarkably I might catch this ship after all. Perfect right? Well nearly…problem was I didn’t actually have $250 on me. I’d decided not to mention this little hiccup during the discussion, not wanting to reduce the chances of them coming up with a solution. Luckily I wasn’t the only traveler at the port because waiting to board with their campervan were Marcel, Manual and Marrie Ann (Marcel’s soon to be wife (<ha!) who was joining the 2 guys for a couple of weeks). Marcel and Manual had driven from Switzerland followed a similar route to me and were also heading towards Kyrgyzstan. Amazingly they had spotted me previously near the border into Azerbaijan in Lagodekhi.

So with no ATM nearby and my options for finding $250 looking slim I explained my situation and asked if they would lend me the money. Kindly they agreed and offered me the last piece to my interesting ferry catching puzzle.

I joined Manual, Marcel and MaryAnn for a dinner of rice and cold beer. An offer that, especially after a hot windy day on the road, I couldn’t refuse.

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Eating dinner with Manual, Marcel and MaryAnn

 

After dinner and even more waiting a taxi finally arrived from Baku and with a sigh of relief I was handed my ticket. I would be make the crossing after all! I can’t tell you how happy I was! In that time Delphine, who is originally from France but currently lives in the UK, joined us to complete our Caspian Sea ‘family’.

After even more waiting we were finally called through to passport control. Thankfully I wasn’t asked to unpack my unicycle and I escaped lightly with just opening the zips to let the security officer peer inside. A first for me was having my luggage inspected by sniffer dog. The campervan didn’t escape so lightly. Boarder control emptied the entire vehicle and inspected everything.

Once we’d passed security we were finally just meters away from boarding the ship. More waiting while cargo was loaded but excitingly we were invited onto one of the train engines preparing to load cargo onto the boat.

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TRAINS!

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Delphine chatting to the train opporator

Just past midnight we were finally beckoned onto the ship. I was smaller than I was expecting. Cargo was still yet to be loaded, the Captain wasn’t onboard an we were told it would leave until 5am, but I had made it and that’s all I cared about! I was on my way to Kazakhstan.

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Finally onboard!

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The cabin

We were issued our cabins at around 4. No working toilet in ours but luckily they was enough space for my unicycle to fit comfortably. At At 5am the engines were lit and the boat started rumbling. Keen to seen it pull away from land I dragged myself out of bed to watch it leave.

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Ship pulling away from Azerbaijan

 

I kept myself busy on the boat documenting the crossing with video and photos. The 24 hours we took to cross flew by and I definitely could have spent another couple of days onboard (This has definitely started me thinking about trying to catch a boat from Singapore to Australia!). Photography opportunities were endless and I definitely tried to make the most of my time onboard.

Portraits
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The ship
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One of the reasons I was so keen to catch this boat was for the famous sunrise and sunsets on the Caspian Sea.

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Sunrise
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The time spent crossing the Caspian was definitely a highlight of my tour so far. Thanks to Delphine, MarryAnn, Marcel and Manuel there wasn’t a dull moment onboard! This was an experience that in the end was definitely worth all of the hassle.

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From right to left. Me (obviously!), Delphine, MaryAnn, Marcel and Manuel. Cheers guys for making the time on the boat so enjoyable!

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