Cycling East Part 17 – Rail Ferry across the Caspian Sea

This post is the first one that contains no cycling, instead its my adventure catching the ferry from Baku, Azerbaijan to Aktau in Kazakhstan. It is a journey that is billed as an epic and somewhat ridiculous rite of passage for silk road cycle tourers.

I was sceptical of the blogs that describe the craziness of waiting for days and running around chasing elusive tickets. Well given my experience, it certainly lived up to that farcical reputation and the whole crossing was probably even more frustrating than I expected.

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After arranging my Uzbekistan visa I dashed to the office that arranges passenger tickets on the cargo boats across the Caspian sea.  It is in a random building by the docks that requires some detailed instructions to find. (From the old town go left when facing the sea past the Hilton hotel then the Marriott hotel and on the sea side of the road there is a big port building that is no longer used. Go past this and there is a building site that will probably be a new hotel I suspect, then a little green park and next two sets of old rails cross the road. It is then the next rough road on the right, it normally has lorries or cars parked up along it. Go about 200m keeping left at the turning and the building with its infamous bike trip stickered door will appear on your right.)

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When I finally arrived at the office it was all locked up with no one about so I asked a port security guard what was gping on, he said to come back at 5pm and assured me that no ship was sailing today anyway. That meant I could now relax a bit and sort out my tourist registration with the Azerbaijan government. Happily a guy from the hostel came with me to the post office and helped me register, i just signed the forms making it a piece of cake.
It’s prettyimportant to register yet so few travellers do, in most cases it seems they simply won’t let you leave. You must visit various departments to arrange being deported and banned for 2 years or pay a large fine. It also means that normally you miss the boat/flight and lose you ticket money.

I spent the rest of the day searching bike shops for fatter tyres and a new cassette, but with no real luck. I swapped my worn out 25mm Gatorskin front tyre for a 28mm Continental four seasons which I haggled down to €35, it looks marginally better! I stocked up on new inner tubes so I now have 5 spare and an extra self adhesive patch kit along with some more chain links. The best bike shops in Baku were United Sports in town and 2 Teker out of town a bit. They seemed a bit better stocked than Tbilisi bike shops though.

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I returned to the boat ticket office at 5pm which was now open, apparently I was told a boat leaves tomorrow so I must return at 10am. I since learnt that this is code for go away and leave her alone because she doesn’t know or just won’t sell you a ticket!

I then finally relaxed and explored a bit of the old town in Baku. It’s very modern and clean for an old town but still pleasant enough, the chap at the hostel walked with me a little way and happily pointed out the dirty old stone houses getting new clean cut stone cladding to make them look like they want the historic buildings to look.
I said it’s a shame to lose the genuine and more interesting old ‘dirty’ buildings to a uniform and dull consistent style,  but this was lost on him.

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The next day I returned to the boat ticket office at 10am, but true to form it was closed until 12am, I waited with another cycle tourer, Greg from Poland. Luckily he spoke English and Russian, we chatted to the waiting lorry drivers and got a lorry brewed coffee so thick the spoon stood up. Then finally the office opened, we went in and Greg asked in Russian, just to be told there is no boat leaving today.
Clearly there was something leaving because the lorries were going to Aktau later. We left the office to confirm if a boat was leaving with port security and the lorry drivers, we then went back and said we wanted to get on today’s boat. After much arguing she agreed to call the captain and for us to return in one hour. Almost an hour of waiting outside, it was clear she wasn’t doing anything so I went back, the man who was being particularly grumpy made a call and we waited again patiently outside. Finally she waved us over and explained in Russian to Greg that one left at 1am. So we demanded a ticket rather than returning later, it turned out  it arrived at 1am but left at 5am but we finally had a boat confirmed! I am sure that if Greg didn’t speak forcefully Russian to her we would have got nowhere for another day or more. We later found out on the boat that relative locals from Georgia to Uzbekistan actually paid more than us! We paid $110 but some locals on boarder had paid $150 so we kept quiet. It’s all very odd, but it seems that locals get preference first then if there’s space tourists are allowed on. Why we couldn’t get on the lorry drivers earlier boat was a mystery!

Much of the day had been wasted but I stocked up on a few bits. Some food water and more USD. I then had a couple of big meals to make up for not eating properly for the last few days. I ate a gourmet burger with chips that I had been craving and then later a chicken shish kebab with soup , bulgar, salad and grilled chillies that blew my head off.

At 3am not long after getting to sleep my alarm went off, I checked the ship radar tracking website and Merkuri 1 had docked at 2am apparently,  Merkuri 2 had sunk in 2003 it seems….
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I loaded the bike and rode across the wide streets of Baku in the peaceful early morning. At the port a group of local men and Greg were already waiting.
Finally a policeman arrived to check our passports. Greg was nervous because he hadn’t registered at all in 3 weeks of being here.
We were then led to the security gate where our details were taken and recorded, we passed through a turned off X-Ray scanner and another chap checked passports and tickets. Then one by one we passed the final policeman he was scary and super thorough. I got through fine but Greg was turned back, the border guard told me to board the boat and I couldn’t speak to him. So that was it, I was to be the sole tourist on what turned out to be a decaying ancient rail freight ferry to Kazakhstan at 4am in the morning. Wandering around the maze of levels and passageways I just sat down and felt pretty overwhelmed. Finally a guy saw me and went to fetch a random lady. She then gave me a decent enough 4 bed cabin to myself which seemed quite a good result.
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I knew the Merkuri 1 would sit around for a bit but at 6pm, that’s 14 hours later, we were still sat in Baku, it was ridiculous, the rail wagons had been reloaded at 3pm. This was early morning moon light over Baku:
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This was sunset and we still were in the port!
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I had earlier gone downstairs into the dark, rusty, black with grime underbelly hold, to watch the monstrous rail cars crank in. I had explored most of the ferry as it was all open, even the bridge and radio tower could be climbed.
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Happily this long delay meant I bumped into Greg who after running around Baku to arrange his deportation had made it back onto the ferry 14 hours late! I was so glad to have a English speaker to talk to. The fact he spoke Russian also made my life a lot easier onboard!

I read many conflicting reports about taking food and water, I took a loaf of rye bread, dried fruit, cereal, biscuits and 6litres of water. Given what happened I wish I had more food and water. The ship sold expensive chicken dinner and pricey bottles of sparkling water but nothing much else. Greg persuaded them to make a lardy omelette for breakfast but I was glad I had taken some cereal with me.

At sunset the boat finally departed I ran around the decks super excited taking photos.
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After a dinner of chicken and rice in the dining room some Georgian guys invited us for Chacha the strong brandy they all love! I tried to decline but failed to refuse at least one, Greg sank quite a few. I then went to sleep as we bobbed about on our way to Aktau.
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In the morning I checked the GPS and saw just how slowly we were moving (15kph) and how little we had moved, more concerning, we had made a straight bearing direct to Turkmenistan not Kazakhstan. It turned out we were avoiding a storm so we would be taking the long way around, it would be another 18 hours to Aktau which was pretty depressing. I spent the day writing, playing scrabble on my tablet and aimlessly wandering all areas of the ship.
This was a novel way to clean the mops!
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I had a shower and the toilets now worked so life wasn’t too bad. It even had a satellite.
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The second nights dinner was chicken soup served Luke warm with chicken and chips. The backlash of the storm had hit us and the boat was getting rocked about pretty violently, I don’t suffer sea sickness but lying down made me feel a tad queasy! I checked out the safety facilities:

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And the axes are for what exactly?

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These ships are apparently not designed for open water being too narrow and long. Our ship the Merkuri 1 had a sister ship the Merkuri 2 that sank a few years back when the rail wagons broke lose in rough seas. Without this ballast weight the ships design stood no chance in the waves. This thought rather haunted me as I woke up in the night with high winds and waves battering the boat and the rail cargo making eerie lurching noises in the depths below! Much like the Black sea I was amazed that the waves get so high on such an enclosed body of water!
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In the morning we were woken by the sound of the anchors being dropped. We had arrived at Aktau only to be kept in the ship for another 6 hours while it was checked by the border police. The dogs and various uniformed people finally left the boat and getting through the border under the new visa free Kazakhstan regime was easy, i had to crouch down for a photo and laugh at their disbelief at me bearded face and the clean cut passport photo, then a stamp and that was it.

We were in Kazakhstan where the air stank of natural gas!
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