From Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan by boat. Crossing the Caspian Sea on a Soviet-era ferry, from Baku to Aktau. Right in the middle of the Kazakh Steppe.
The Azerbaijan – Kazakhstan ferry across the Caspian sea, connection the cities of Baku and Aktau, is an intresting choice for those bicycle touring the area, and for those who love to travel overland. Having the tricky Iran (for Americans and Birtish is not easy to get a veisa) and Turkmenistan (only 4 days transit visas available) in between, this could be a great choice to get to Central Asia from Caucasus or vice-versa.
Not much info are on-line tough, about the Baku – Aktau ferry, we hope sharing our experience in this post could help some of you attempting to cross the Caspian Sea by ship.
It’s said that the boat goes very rarely and with no fixed schedule, but according to our experience, at least in August, there where boats almost everyday. The situation may be different in winter.
The lenght of the ferry crossing is less than 20 hours, if the weather is good. Consider though that waiting time and custom procedures at both ports, can easily double the actual time.
We took this ferry in 2014, altough our experience is still valid, be sure to check this article on Caravanistan for the latest information. More information here.
Rushing on the ship
After the bad news from the embassy of Uzbekistan, we pay another visit to the port, to check about the Baku – Aktau ferry. The road to the harbor is full of the usual “fake gardens”, constantly under the sun, but with a perfect lawn and pruned plants. Always deserted. Across the road, the usual “reptilian” buildings, reptile-egg-shaped, to be specific.
A ticket to Kazakhstan – the ferry from Baku to Aktau really exists!
We enter the harbor by a rough road, no signs. The only clue we have to find the ticket office is that it should be located behind a “gray heavy door”. Fortunately, we recognize it immediately. On the door, many stickers were glued by tourists passed before us. The only problem is that the office is closed and there is no one around. We walk towards the ships to look for someone, we meet a policeman with another guy, apparently the clerk. They speak only Russian. The clerk tells us the ticket costs $110. We understand it must be done the day of the departure. Cash only. Let’s hope it’s true. In the meantime, we call again the console of Uzbekistan, who tells us that for some technical problems there’s nothing to do (as we figured out) and that we should make the request again and wait at least another eight days. We can’t, the Azerbaijani visa is expiring and moreover, we don’t want to stay a day longer in Baku.
Out of nowhere, the ticket man suddenly shows up, he’s pissed off and very rude. He tells us there is a ship leaving now! We don’t believe him much, but what can we do: with all the stories we heard about people being stuck in Baku for weeks because of no ferries, we better don’t let this chance slip away. So we run home to retrieve the bikes, prepare everything in a very short time, and rush back to the harbor.
After some more struggle with the crazy ticket office, we realize today there are two ships sailing to Aktau! really different from what we’ve read and heard about this connection. The first one though, is already gone, and the second one… we don’t know but he won’t let us on board. So we beg him and, as usual in the former Soviet Union, our Italianity helps us. Blabbering the usual things about Celentano and Cotugno he prints us the ticket.
In a couple of hours, all our plans are compromised, we don’t know what to do to Aktau, we have to somehow get through the Kazakh steppes in two weeks, the length of the Visa-free regime in Kazakhstan. We need to reach Kyrgyzstan, the only visa-free country bordering Kazakhstan. We hope to find a train.
Professor Gul: a Soviet-times ship sailing the Caspian sea
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Anyway finally, at 4 pm, after paying a bribe to a guy on the ship for the bikes (10$), we’re on board!
We’re welcomed by a literally crazy chick. Screams, laughs, speaks a mix of Russian and English. We take the cabin, for 15$ more, which is better than what we thought.
It is not the ultimate in cleanliness but there are two beds, shower, bed linen, and even a sofa. In the booth next to ours is one of the English guys who had our same “problem” with the drunk console of the Uzbek embassy.
The ship is smaller than the one crossing the Black Sea, the crossing should be much shorter. It’s an old Soviet-era relic, a little rusty. It’s named Professor Gul. Unsurprisingly, after all this “run run”, “soon soon”, “the ship is leaving”, at midnight we are still at the port of Baku. From here, the city looks just reptilian as it is, with these absurd play of light on the ovoid buildings end the LED flames enveloping the Flame Towers in a very boor style.
Registration papers and some more bullshit
We go to sleep waiting to sail off (which I think will happen at least tomorrow morning), but after an hour somebody knocks on the door and tells us we have to go to the port police for passport control! But if we are on the ship already for 11 hours!
Basically, the problem is that we went up on the ship without passing by the police checkpoint before, but no one stopped us, so… What were they doing?
And here comes an endless discussion, they want to see a registration paper (new rule of fantastic Azerbaijan) and we have it, but to them, it’s not okay, because it was done by the online registration system, and these illiterate cops do not even know what that means! After an hour of discussion and insults, they leave us in peace. At last, the ship can go.
The ferry crossing on the Caspian: from Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan
The journey is quite boring, nothing like the great fun of the Black Sea ferry, everybody staying in their cabin, even the British cyclists. We have nothing to eat because we did not have time to go shopping. On the ship and there are only french fries mixed with eggs or chicken and a dish costs $5! The British have food but they don’t share.
Indeed the food is so crappy, that some of the passengers take fishing rods out of we-don’t-know-where and begin fishing from the ship.
There are quite a few passengers, besides us and the British cyclists, there seems to be a sort of school trip, there are a lot of teenagers. The best are, as usual, the truck drivers. Some of them are really friendly, there are two Georgians offering us Chacha, drinking with empty stomachs don’t seem a great idea though. We manage to find a truck ride from Aktau to Atyrau from an Azeri guy called Ibrahim.
The crossing goes like this, smooth and boring, and it only takes around 20 hours of actual sailing.
Custom clearance in Kazakhstan
We get down the ship around 10 pm and, after several unnecessary controls, we leave the port with our passport stamped. We would have gladly waited 10 more minutes since the entry stamp now says 11.50 pm, that meaning we lost one day of our total of fifteen just for ten minutes! Fourteen days left to cross 4.500km of the steppe.
We wait outside the gate for our prospect driver, hoping at least to be on track tonight. But, after a while, we are told that the trucks will not come out before TOMORROW! We go to sleep in a gastinitza (guest house in Russian) inside the port, where we are welcomed by two other guests, Georgians again, with vodka, beer, and a holy lucky charm. There is also a common room with billiards. We get drunk.
The next morning we bring our hangovers to the train station, but it seems there are no trains until August 29, we have no choice but to hitch-hike. We also go to the migration bureau but today is Saturday and we can’t do the necessary registration. Very well. Then we cycle up to the only road that leads to Atyrau, a thousand miles north, we should head east but there’s no road crossing the Kyzyl Kum desert.
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