Getting across the Caspian Sea from Kazakhstan to Azerbaijan was basically the final big hurdle between Europe and me. Theres many ferry horror stories online about people being stuck for weeks and corrupt workers gouging them in the wallet. It seemed to be all about luck and showing up at the right time. After riding hard for three days and covering 1,500 km, we made it into Aktau hoping luck was on our side.
Coming from Central Asia, there’s a few options to get around the Caspian Sea. You can go south through Turkmenistan and Iran to Turkey, which was a no go because I never got the Turkmen or Iranian visas. The second option is to catch a ferry from Turkmenbashi, on the coast of Turkmenistan, over to Baku, Azerbaijan, which would have been the easiest option with a Turkmen visa. Third, go all the way up into Russia, around the Caspian, and back down into the Caucuses on the other side, but I also never got my Russian visa. Stupid visas are the worst part of trips like this. The fourth possibility, and my only choice, was to get on a boat in Aktau, Kazakhstan and cross over to Baku, Azerbaijan. Kazakhstan gives most countries fifteen days visa free and I got the Azerbaijan transit visa in Dushanbe. The ferries run much less regularly than the Turmenbashi to Baku ones, and it’s a longer journey.
After getting your name on the passenger wait list and preparing all the paperwork at the port, it’s a waiting game. There’s a small office in town with a friendly and pretty woman named Katia. This is where you have to buy the ticket for the boat, and after letting her know you’re waiting, she’ll call you as soon as ones ready to leave. In all our time waiting around Aktau, she was one of the few people who weren’t gloomy and rude. Winter was fast approaching and the entire port city was gloomy. It’s hard to keep negative energy off if it’s all around you.
I had traveled from Tajikistan to this point with Beau, an Australian rider who started in Seattle and shipped over to Russia. Four very boring days were spent waiting around getting our hopes up each day only to have them crushed down. It was nice to have a friend to hang out with, pass the time, drink beer, and hear each others bitching and complaining. Every day they would tell us that the ferry was leaving the next night and then the weather would delay us. After packing up to leave and checking out of our smelly, funky, and overpriced hotel, we would dejectedly sulk back into the lobby after being told it would be another day before leaving. Each time, even though we had only been gone an hour or so, they would give us a different room with a whole new disgusting smell to it and disgusting things left lying about. It appeared that our hotel also served as a popular place for hookers.
None of them had ever entered a beauty pageant that’s for sure. After five days, the ferry was finally ready for us. Turned out it had been too windy for it to come into port. Finally, we wouldn’t have to go back into reception again where the young girl would cough violently all over everything and act annoyed by our every move.
Half the day we had to go all over the port to different offices getting stamps on our paperwork. In total we needed about 350,000 stamps before being cleared. Once stamped out of Kazakhstan, we had another couple of hours of waiting around before the good word came to load up. There were four of us travelers hitching a ride. Joining Beau and I was an Argentinian who’s been traveling the world on a 250cc Honda for three years, and an Englishman who is riding a bicycle from Japan to England.
He had been attacked and robbed in Aktau when walking home drunk at night. They had done quite the job on him. Stitches in the back of the head and over the eye, and a black and blue swollen face. His whole head was wrapped in a white bandage. The stitches over his eye were done with some type of twine that looked like thin rope. Central Asian style. Three motorcycles, one bicycle, and four road-weary travelers loaded onto the ferry. Excitement was in the air as we all felt like the other side of the Caspian Sea was soon to be ours, but the waiting game had only just begun. Our own Caspian Sea adventure was well underway.
After us, the train cars were all loaded up onto the boat, full of meat. We found this out from the odd collection of guys who it apparently belonged to. A fat Azerbaijani guy with an even fatter mustache who looked like he would die of a heart attack at any moment, a weak shrunken old man with an equally impressive mustache who sounded like he had severe emphysema, and a stoically silent Georgian man who always seemed to be in deep thought. The rest of the boat was composed of a few other random passengers, a large crew who seemed to multiply everyday out of nowhere, and your best friends on a boat, the cooks.
Some ferries have a cafeteria where it’s possible to buy food, but we got lucky and were given three meals a day. I’m not saying they were delicious, or even good, but when you’re stuck on a boat for days with no snacks, meal time is about all there is to look forward to. Both cook ladies were later middle-aged and appeared to have lived rough lives, or at least played the part well. One of them was always hidden in the kitchen whipping up the meals, while the other handled everything else. Three times a day she would knock on our cabin door and bark something in Russian, which sent us scampering towards the smell of food like street dogs. Once in the dinning room she would un-enthusiastically toss a plate off food in front of each of us and impatiently wait for it to be gobbled down. Never once was there a pleasant moment between us or a smile shared by her. She seemed forever annoyed by our presence. A couple of times I sensed a giggle coming, but it was always tucked back in behind her fiery glare. It had gone down hill quickly on the first day when some tissue got tossed into our toilet and clogged up all the toilets. Seems like a shitty design to me, but she was livid. The sign on the wall about not putting anything down it was pointed to over and over and she tried saying we had to pay the engineer to fix it. Fortunately, the captain of the boat was a very pleasant bald man who didn’t take too much seriously. He reminded me of a miniature Lenny from Of Mice and Men.
Not sure if this is the best type of captain to have, but whenever she was complaining about something, he would waddle in and give us a smile and look that said “just ignore her dumb ass”. Besides getting fed, we got lucky in other ways too. The four of us were given clean comfortable cabins to stay in. On some boats you have the option to pay for a room, but they were given to us.
Beau and I spent many of hours watching movies escaping the boredom of the boat. We had one day of good weather when we could hang out outside. It was a good day spent laying between the train cars in the sun listening to music daydreaming of living like a train jumping hobo, but the rest of the trip was cold and raining. The only time we really hung out with the other passengers was when we hooked the hard-drive into the big TV in the common room and watched Inglorious Bastards. None of them could speak English or German, so they couldn’t understand any dialogue, but it still captured they’re attention. They could tell it was a movie about Nazis, and by the end could tell it was a movie about killing Nazis. It seemed like they enjoyed this.
One of them had us copy it onto his computer. The other way we got lucky was nobody ever tried to get a bribe or other money off of us. There are countless tales of people having to pay “bridge fees” when loading and unloading their bikes from the boat, “security fee” for your bike and/or passport, and any other way the crew can scam you out of money. We experienced none of this. Maybe it’s because we all looked so bad ass and they didn’t want to mess with us.
The trip across the Caspian Sea from Aktau to Baku is supposed to take roughly twenty hours. It look us over eighty. We went to bed the first night anticipating waking up in the morning out at sea, but woke up in exactly the same spot. Due to wind, we hadn’t left and spent the entire following day sitting in port before leaving late the next night. Again, we went to dreamland looking forward to waking up out at sea, but when we came too, it was obvious the boat was sitting still. We had gotten out of port and started heading towards Baku until early morning, but then had to stop along the coast in shelter because it was apparently very windy off shore.
About a tenth of the journey was complete. We spent that entire day anchored as they told us every few hours that we would leave in a few hours. It was hard to believe the weather was so bad out there because where we were the sky was blue without a breath of wind. At about two in the morning, on our third night on the boat, the massive engines fired up, the enormous anchors were brought in, and the journey got back underway. The entire next day was spent on the flat sea motoring towards Baku in thick wet clouds. The only views available were of the many oil platforms.
The Caspian Sea is full of oil and they’re doing their best to find it all. At the beginning of the 20th century Azerbaijan produced half the world’s oil. Through the thick white fog, they look like giant skeletons coming to life out of the sea. Many look broken down and in disrepair. As we were settling into our fourth night on the boat, the grinch of the kitchen gave her familiar knock on our door. She impatiently motioned for us to gather our things and get the hell out.
The Barda would be reaching port soon, which meant it was time for her to do the cleaning. At close to two in the morning, we bumped into the dock and roped up. After a short wait, they let us down to our bikes and we were just able to slip by the train cars to ride back onto land.
After almost 83 hours on that magical ship, we were freed into the cold drizzly night of Baku Port. It had felt more like three and a half weeks, not just three and a half days. After a stop at the port authority, to pay for the motorcycle freight, we made the short ride over to Customs and immigration. Turned out the ferry didn’t even take us to Baku, but to Alat, seventy km to the south. Customs couldn’t deal with us until the morning, which meant we didn’t have to ride out into the rainy night at 3 AM, and could catch some sleep on the floor. I missed my bed on the boat just a tiny bit, but wouldn’t have gotten back on if they offered.
In the morning, we waited a couple of hours for them to finish up our paperwork. They seemed just a tad incompetent for much of the time. In the end, we each got a slip of paper to give to customs when exiting the country. Even though each of us previously paid for and received a five-day transit visa at an Azerbaijan embassy, they would only give us three. Seems like their loss, since they’re just forcing tourists to leave quickly before spending any money in their country. A quick seventy km ride brought us into Baku city. Boy do they have some serious oil money going on. I don’t remember the last place I was in that was so fancy and sparkly new looking. They’re putting some serious investment into the place. Besides the excitement of having McDonald’s, after all the boat food, nothing really grabbed us and we got out-of-town.
Azerbaijan is a small country and in a couple of days I was at the border with Georgia. It was pleasant riding and I had an epic camping spot looking out over some rolling farm land. An abandoned restaurant/hotel sat on a hill-top. The electrical box had been on a large concrete platform, but had come off, which made for the perfect home.
In the short time Azerbaijan gave me to glimpse it’s country it was a nice spot to spend a night. Getting across the Caspian Sea was quite the adventure and it led me to one country that I’d been looking forward to since the beginning, Georgia.
For anyone wondering about the costs to do this crossing with a motorcycle, here it is all up. A passenger ticket for yourself- $112, port “safety” charge or something like that- $14, freight charge for the motorcycle- $110, and Baku port fee- $10, for a total of $246 and lots of unforgettable fun.