Baku, AZ – Aktau, KZ
For cycle tourers crossing the Eurasian continent, you have probably heard of the infamous Caspian Sea ferry from Baku(-ish) to Aktau(-ish). Or, like us, you are travelling on British passports and are unable to independently travel in Iran and have no other way of reaching Central Asia from the Caucasus. We would like to iterate here that this blog is just to document our experience of catching this ferry in October 2018 and is not meant to be a step-by-step guide for other travellers to follow when catching the Azerbaijan-Kazakhstan ferry.
First of all, the ferry doesn’t actually leave from Baku, it leaves from a port just north of Alat which is 70 km south of Baku. Second of all, there is no schedule for this boat. At all. It arrives when it does and leaves when it does, depending on the weather and cargo. Third of all, there is no fixed time for the crossing of the Caspian Sea. The crew told us the crossing (without delays) I about 28 hours, but bad weather can lead to extended periods anchored in Baku harbour waiting for better conditions. Lastly, the ferry does not arrive in Aktau, it arrives in a port 25 km west of a village called Kuryk, 90 km from Aktau.
The day we were planning on catching our ferry we asked our hostel owner to ring up the ticket office in Alat to see if, and when a ferry was leaving to Aktau. Tonight! We cruised to Alat and arrived just after dark and doing so, bumped into another cyclist from the UK called Hayley who was also catching the ferry to Aktau. We arrived at the port and a very friendly, English speaking security guard checked our passports and said there were two motor cyclists also getting the ferry. Great! More travellers to meet. We arrived at “Customs check point 1” where there are several shipping containers. One is a bank, one is a café, one is a small market, one is a toilet block and the last is a ticket office. We left our bikes next to the café with the extremely eager café owner and went to buy our tickets from the office. $ 70 for the crossing including the cabin and 3 meals a day. We didn’t mention our bikes and were not charged for them. We went to the “bank” and paid for our tickets with a mixture of US dollars and the last of our Azerbaijani Manat (which in hindsight was a mistake as we had no local currency left to buy any more food or drink).
It was already 7 pm and the security guards, café owner, shop owner AND ticket seller said the ferry would be ready for boarding at 8-9 pm. So we sat in the café and had a coffee and the hours passed by…At 10 o’clock we were told boarding would be at 12 am so we decided it would be best to get our camp stove out and cook some dinner with what food we had left. As we were cooking our meals one of the security guards came and sat next to the stove (where I was sitting) and proceeded to skype his brother and show his brother every single cooking utensil, seasoning and food item we had out. He was quite a funny guy and I got the impression he was just extremely bored. At 1 am we asked again about the ferry and we were told it would be boarding at 3-4 am (can you sense a pattern here?) so Josephine and I went for a walk around the port where we bumped into one of the two motor cyclists, Jack, who was touring with his wife Jo. “Hey! Where are you guys from?” asked Josephine, “England, London!” he replied. Unbelievable, after not meeting any English people all trip we meet three in one evening!
After a short chinwag we returned to Hayley, who was told by a security guard that we were ready to go to “Customs check point 2” Where Jack and Jo were. All right! We cycled on over there, hung about for 30 minutes and were told by an official that we had to return to “Customs check point 1”. Dang. We cycled back. It was already 4 am and we were considering putting our tent up and getting some shut eye as we had heard other cyclists had done (we heard of one guy camping in the port for 5 nights before his ferry left). We sat on the cold ground for another hour trying to get some sleep and then spent a further hour sleeping on the table of the café (where is was warmer) until FINALLY, at 5:30 am we were allowed to continue through customs and security and on to the ferry. Cycle touring is interesting as officials are not sure what to categorise you as. Sometimes you are treated like a vehicle, and sometimes like a pedestrian. On this ferry we were treated like pedestrians and therefore we had to remove all our bags from the bikes and individually put them through an x-ray machine and then reload them all back on the bikes and continue on to the ship where one of the crew shouted at us in Azerbaijani and pointed furiously at his watch. I’m sorry, did we keep you waiting?
Josephine, Hayley and I collected our cabin keys and sheets from a lady on the ship and went to our cabin. It was small, but comfortable and it had a port hole which you could open. This was a godsend as for some reason the heating was on full in the cabin for the entire crossing. We got to sleep at around 6:30 and woke up at around 10:30 to see Alat still out the window. The boat still hadn’t left!
The facilities on board were really not very good. The toilets were filthy and were broken half the time (didn’t flush). There were separate toilets for men and women but the womens were locked. There was a shower, and it was hot, but it was basically just a hose in the wall. The food was edible but not very filling. Also the meal times were ridiculous. Breakfast was 7:30 – 8:00, lunch was 11:15-11:45 (ha!) and dinner was 19:30-20:00. They were also an hour or two either side of that each day. We screwed up massively and forgot to bring any snacks on board with us so the marathon between lunch and dinner was made easier by Hayley and Jack & Jo (the Wilsons) as they brought plenty of snacks. The Wilsons even brought two bottles of wine which they kindly shared with us, legends!
At around midday the first day we finally headed off across the Caspian Sea. The first 2 hours were quite exciting going north along the Azerbaijan coast past hundreds of active and abandoned offshore oil rigs. We got as far as Baku only to drop anchor just south of the city due to high winds. We were told we would wait for 24 hours for the wind to die down. The ship did get going at breakfast the next morning which was earlier than expected and we were kindly invited up to the bridge by one of the crew to have a look around. It was like stepping into a museum of Soviet engineering. It looked like the inside of a Soviet submarine that you see in films. Very cool. We were told to leave after 25 minutes though, as the captain didn’t know we were there and apparently might have been pissed off. We spent the rest of the crossing playing card games with our English companions and attempting to communicate with the truck drivers. They were from all over the place: Tajikistan, Kurdistan, Turkey, Belarus among others. They were also pretty good at Backgammon. Tea was also served in the social room after every meal. As soon as it was placed on the table everyone immediately stood up to get their fill before it ran out. It is also worth mentioning the beautiful sunsets over the Caspian Sea. It was like nothing I had ever seen before, the whole sky was a mixture of lilac, orange and red, 360 degrees around. The stars were also just as amazing, however it was quite chilly on deck at night, autumn had definitely arrived.
The third morning after arriving on the ferry, we looked out of our cabin to see Kazakhstan! We arrived at breakfast 10 minutes after the announcement (there are announcements for meals to each cabin) and were given evils by the kitchen staff for being late. After breakfast we swifty packed our things together and carried them down to the bottom deck where the vehicles were and began sorting out our bikes. We were then told to go back up to the top deck to have our passports stamped by the Kazakh border police. The Kazakh people look very different from the Azerbaijani people. This was the first time in the trip we had noticed the ethnicity of the people really change. Kazakh people look something like a cross between a white European and eastern Asian.
After collected our stamps and being given two stamps on our migration cards (meaning we did not have to register ourselves with the Kazakh migration police for the first 30 days) we rolled off the ferry and into a brand spanking new port right in the middle of bloody nowhere. There was no one around and no signs so we were a bit confused of where to go. We cycled the wrong way through a one way lane to the Entrance to the port where a security guard simply opened a gate and let us through. No customs check or anything. Easy! But maybe we needed a customs document for when we leave Kazakhstan? Hmm we’ll worry about that another time. The port is actually 25 km’s west of the village of Kuryk but luckily the road is good and we had a tailwind so we zoomed into Kuryk which has a café, a small fruit and veg market, a convenience store and an ATM/bank. But as we were told, when you leave the port you are right in the middle of the Kazakh Steppe, camels and all.
Some tips for people getting the ferry:
- Bring extra food. The meals are small and not super delicious. They are more designed to keep you alive.
- Do not expect ANYTHING to be punctual and do not expect to be given any reasons for spontaneous delays. Arrive with an open mind expecting things to take a lot longer than they should.
- Try and get out on deck to see the sunset and/or the stars.
- The crew are very friendly and speak English so try and make friends with them!
- A little Kazakh money before may be useful incase it is not available in Kuryk.