Azerbaijan,  Kazakhstan

Crossing the Caspian to Kazakhstan

Our journey east continues. This time not on two wheels, but across sea and over train tracks. From Baku, Azerbaijan we set sail towards Kuryk, Kazakhstan. A place we would never have expected to find ourselves. From there we cycle in the Kazakh desert to Aktau, where we hop on a 30+ hour train to Nukus, Uzbekistan. A journey that took us 6 days in total. How about that for a travel experience.

If you’re thinking about crossing the Caspian Sea by cargo ship, this blog can be quite useful. There’s no passenger ferry with a schedule. Some ride to the port, which isn’t in Baku itself but in Alat, and camp in the truck parking lot for up to four or five days. If you’re not interested in that, follow our tips and wait it out in Baku instead.

Tracking vessels

There are two ships you can take to get from Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan, the Professor Gul and Merkuri-1. On MarineTraffic you can follow the vessels to see where they are, and where they are heading to. Don’t count on the ETA it shows, this expires all the time. You see, Baku is known for its heavy winds. This means ships can’t always enter the harbor and need to wait it out for however long necessary.

On Saturday we could see that the Merkuri-1 had just left Alat and Professor Gul was right out of Kuryk, Kazakhstan. That was fine, because we wanted some time in Baku for sightseeing. We kept tracking the vessel on its way to Kazakhstan, and after that Azerbaijan. 

Ship today?

On Saturday we could see that the Merkuri-1 had just left Alat and Professor Gul was right out of Kuryk, Kazakhstan. That was fine, because we wanted some time in Baku for sightseeing. We kept tracking the vessel on its way to Kazakhstan, and after that Azerbaijan. 

When the ship started approaching Azerbaijan on Monday, we called the port (+994 55 999 91 24) to ask if they knew when it would arrive and if we could get on board anytime soon. No ship today, they said. Due to the wind, the port was closed. On Tuesday we got the same response, port is closed today. We could see the Professor Gul was still waiting outside Baku at the same spot, hiding from the wind.

When we woke up on Wednesday, the first thing we did was check MarineTraffic. We could see that the ship had set course towards Alat, so we immediately called the port again. The ship was leaving today and we had first 60 minutes, then suddenly only 30 minutes to get to the port. The race against the clock had begun. We were still in our pajamas and we were a one hour car ride away from the port.

Racing to the port

We tried to get a Bolt car (like Uber) but there was none available, so we hauled one of the purple London-style taxi’s instead. We agreed on the amount of 50 Manat (about 25 Euro), which is high but not outrageous. The bikes barely fit, but it worked after we took Sabina’s front wheel out. Sabina had to sit next to the driver, which isn’t officially a seat, so she sat on a crate that functioned as a chair.

Our stress levels were quite high, but we were in the car and called to let the port know we were on our way. We had already bought the tickets online, which isn’t really necessary, since you only get a voucher which you need to exchange where you buy tickets. But this way we could pay with our credit card instead of with dollars.

The price was 80 dollars per person, and we didn’t have to pay extra for the bikes. If you buy your ticket at the harbor you will probably pay 70 dollar, but you get a bed in a cabin for four. We had a private cabin, with a toilet and shower.

Taxi issues

The taxi drive to the port was quite eventful to say the least. Our driver had no problem with our strict schedule, he just ignored it instead. Our first stop was at the mosque, where he could donate money. We then stopped, to after a lot of guessing figured out Sabina had to get off the crate and sit on the floor, so no one could see she was sitting in the front. After a few miles (and 5 cigarettes) he probably felt bad, because he stopped again making Sabina sit on the crate again. To make matters worse, the GPS location for the port on iOverlander wasn’t correct. We missed the exit to the port and ended up in the town of Alat instead.

Once we finally found the port, it was very unclear where we should go. We needed to collect the tickets as fast as we could, but one of us had to stay by the taxi, since he didn’t have change from a hundred. We sure as hell weren’t paying him a single Manat more than agreed upon.

The circus at the port

Sabina was racing around the port on her bike with the still somewhat loose front wheel, trying to find the ticket office. When she finally found it, there were two men yelling at each other and the one at the desk had to finish stapling a lot of documents very aggressively before he would help her. We never knew one could aggressively staple, but this man sure proved it.

Getting the tickets took ages, and Robin was still waiting with the now also angry taxi driver. Sabina exchanged the one hundred bill for two fifties, so we could finally pay the taxi. When we handed him the money, he started shouting yevro, yevro, yevro. (Did he mean Euro?) Chaos was complete at this point. Once he realized we weren’t going to give him more than agreed upon, he kicked his car and left in fury.

This time of year there’s a circus going on in Central Asia. It’s the Mongol Rally Circus. We see lots of tiny old cars plastered in stickers, heading the same direction as us. The Rally is an intercontinental race from Prague, Czech Republic (used to be London, UK) to Ulan Ude, Russia (used to be Ulan Bator, Mongolia). We saw a bunch of them gathered on the parking lot. Most of them had been waiting there for five days, waiting on the cargo ship to Turkmenistan.

Making new friends

We also met three other cyclists here, Devrim from Turkey, George from the UK and Josh from the States. And then there was one odd duck parked between it all. A bright yellow Lada with a Russian license plate. It belonged to Alexey, who we befriended right away. We grabbed a bite to eat and he told us about his experience with the Transcontinental Race, a self-supportive bicycle race across Europe. But now he swapped his bike for this cool whip instead.

After waiting for a few hours, which we used to get a visa for Uzbekistan (we later found out we didn’t need one), it was time to get on the ship. We could stall the bikes on the parking deck and were appointed cabin number one. We had bunk beds, and a small window looking out the front deck. Or the air vent on the front deck at least. The bathroom smelled so funky, we stuck our noses in our toiletry bag just to get the stench out.

Life on board

Life on the boat was simple and slow. We used our time to relax, edit some photo’s, write the blog and hung out with fellow travelers. There was a meal served three times a day. That was all the food you could get. There was no shop that sold snacks or water, so we made sure we brought enough of those.

On board we also quickly befriended Samir, who works on the ship. He told us about the Caspian Sea, life as an Azerbaijan sailor man and showed us around. He made sure we had everything we needed, thanks Samir!

Desert ride

Crossing the Caspian took us little over 33 hours, we went aboard around 2 pm on Wednesday and set foot on Kazakh shore at around 11 pm the following day. Country number three on this trip didn’t require a visa. This didn’t mean it was easy to enter Kazakhstan. After two passport checks and one baggage check on board, we got our stamp. In the port our bags and passports were checked yet another four or five times. 

Tourists traveling the other direction were clearly annoyed by this futile border system, as the first thing they shouted to us was Don’t get too excited when you see a toilet in Kazakhstan! I guess they had been waiting there for quite a while, and the toilets were indeed locked. Welcome to Kazakhstan. Best country in the world.

There is absolutely nothing at the port of Kuryk, and the city was 20 km further. We teamed up with the other cyclist and camped in the desert next to the parking lot. We would cycle to Kuryk the next day and continue to Aktau on the same day. We had a strong headwind for the first 20 km’s. But after Kuryk, where we could get some Kazakh money, water and food, we continued cycling 70 km in the desert. This time with a strong tailwind luckily.

Feeling the heat

The wind made it feel like we were flying, but the temperature kept rising and rising. Shade was hard to find, and our water had also gotten very warm. This made it very hard to cool off, and Sabina was really struggling with the heat for the last 10 km’s in the desert. When we finally found some shade, she drenched her shirt in water and stood in the wind giving her chills all over. It got even better when a father and his son pulled over to give us a watermelon, which we devoured immediately. A very, very warm welcome to a new country.

The land of Borat

Riding in to Aktau felt surreal. The wind took a turn, and blew straight in our face, making the last bit a real pain. We were surrounded by huge factories, and there were massive pipelines besides and over the road. It got even weirder when we came to our beach resort hostel. Apparently we had stumbled upon a holiday resort for locals and Russians. The beach was clean, there was entertainment and music and we went on a crazy fast water slide, which would definitely not pass European safety standards. 

Aktau is exactly what we expected from Kazakhstan. It probably doesn’t do it real justice tough. To get even more in the mood, we watched Borat with Josh and George and they also shaved the Borat-moustache. Not a pretty sight, but neither was Aktau.

Shipping it

On the ship we had sorted some stuff out, that we wanted to send home. DHL was exorbitantly expensive and charged 255 US dollars. So we opted for the cheaper Kazpost instead, at 24 US dollars. Or did DHL just make a calculating error? At least we were 3,5 kg lighter. Let’s hope we can feel it climbing in the Pamir’s.

All aboard

From Aktau our journey to Uzbekistan would continue by train. We bought the tickets online and had to cycle to another village to the train station the next day. We wanted to be there early, since it can be a real hassle with the bikes. Thank god we did, because the time on our ticket wasn’t local time but one hour earlier, probably the time in the capital. So instead of arriving one hour before departure, we came just in time.

The train was a whole experience on its own. We had two upper berths across from each other, above an elderly couple. They were lying on their bed or drinking tea with their friends, so we couldn’t really sit anywhere. The amount of stuff people brought on the train was astonishing. Entire kitchens including a six burner stove, tractor wheels, carpets, washing machines, it all went along.

After a thousand stops

There was a stop for about every fifteen minutes, even in the middle of the desert with nothing in sight. Staring out the window wasn’t really fun either, since there was only sand, dry bushes and a lot of garbage to see. This made us prime entertainment for the other passengers on the train. None spoke English, so it was a lot of guessing and gesturing. 

Upon nightfall the train stopped and we could get out to stretch our legs. Not at a platform, but just by the tracks amongst other driving trains. Then all of a sudden we had to get back on, and the train drove on for a short bit to stop again. We couldn’t get off this time, but the train didn’t continued driving further until very early the next morning. We then had to get out of our beds and get our passports ready. The Kazakh teenage border police collected all the passports and after about thirty minutes we got them back with a fresh exit stamp.

Next stop was the Uzbek border police, which were the friendliest we’ve encountered so far. They made some chit chat with us and the other cyclists and asked about our journey out of interest instead of duty. We had a few hours on the train left and about a million stops. Vendors boarded the train and walked the aisles at least forty times each. All goods didn’t smell that fresh, so we skipped out on the dried fish and shasliks. No thanks.

Not for the fainthearted

When we finally got off the train our group quickly fell apart. We wanted to get out of the town and start cycling. We could borrow a little money from Josh that he had exchanged on the train, and we continued cycling in the desert with him. We were stoked to be on our bikes and camping again. And away from the hassle of the train. Would we recommend doing it? Definitely, just not for the fainthearted. 

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