The feeling of getting on the boat when trying to cross the Caspian Sea is one of a great weight being lifted from your shoulders. You’ve done your bit now; you’ve done all the walking to and from the port, you’ve done your bit arranging Visa’s and registration forms, and you’ve done your bit trying to understand if there is a boat for your today. Now you’re on board. All you need to do now is….well…nothing. The boat will sail to Aktau and at some point the boat will arrive at Aktau. In between times you are not required to do anything. This really feels like a relief!
The boat we were on was the Ağdam. (the “ğ” is not pronounced as a “g” but as a lengthening of the proceeding letter, in this case the A – so I think the nearest English transliteration would be Ardam?) She was a rail/vehicle carrier, primarily carrying railway wagons, but there were also two lorries that had managed to squeeze on. The ship was relatively new, built in 2006, and I got the impression that most of the passenger carrying ships on the Caspian Sea are of similar vintage. Generally the crew seemed happy for us to explore and take photos on the bridge and elsewhere. On the main though, we spent most of the journey either in our cabin, in the mess room or in a lounge room, dominated by a large portrait of Azerbajains ex-President Hayder Aliyev and with volumes of his memoirs/life story or whatever it was on hand for any sailors to read during their down time. Strangely despite these stunning attractions on offer to the crew they only seemed to come in here in the evening, where they used a rigged up arial to pick up the World Cup which they invited us to watch with them…
Our cabin had space for 5 of which there were the 4 tourists and one Kazakh man who managed to get across to us in a combination of basic English and violent sign language that he was a kickboxer. We had expected to have to pay for the cabin, but on this boat at least it seems we did not.
We did need to pay $10 a day for food, but this was cheap compared to getting food in Baku and whilst it was basic, it was filling and there was a lot of it. Maybe it was because there were so few other distractions but it seemed to all of us that it was almost always time for one meal or another and that very little time was not actually spent eating! The two ladies working in the kitchen seemed perfectly friendly and seemed happy to allow us a bit more of a lie in for breakfast than the 7am required of most of the rest of the crew.
As I mentioned in my last post, you are required to have patience when crossing the Caspian Sea by boat. We left port just after 10pm on the Saturday but when we woke up the next morning we were at anchor not far from Baku sheltering from the strong winds that were blowing across the sea, And here we stayed for all of Sunday and all of Monday until around midnight we finally set off again for Aktau.
So what do you do when you are stuck on a not particularly large boat for 3 days? Well to be honest time for the most part seemed to fly by. I spent it trying to write up some blog entries, reading several books and trying to learn some more Russian. Whenever I felt like I had been sat down for two long, a quick walk around the boat, with the sea rolling past and the wind in your face, was a great way of getting away from the feeling of just being trapped inside. We also spent some time chatting to the Captain. He appeared rather unhappy that his lot in life now ammounted to sailing these rail ferries across the Caspian Sea. He told us of a long career in which he sailed boats to all sorts of other exotic locations, on various different types of ships. His favourite type were the great oil tankers. This it seemed, might have had something to do with the fact that oil cannot complain, something which apparently the human cargo he now had to take on the Caspian Sea often did. His other reason for preferring the oil tankers were that they could handle bad weather and would not have had to seek shelter from every minor storm. In fact he didn’t really seem to consider the boat we were on to be particularly sea worthy… Thankfully the seas were as calm as a millpond by this point!
We arrived into Aktau at the rather inconvenient time of 1am on Wednesday morning. By the time we were allowed off the boat after customs checks it was gone 2am, and after some further delays getting through passport control we emerged into a room in which a TV was showing the Belgium USA game. We settled down to watch the end of this and once finished, the people at the port seemed happy for us to try to catch some sleep on the floor before we moved on the next morning.
After hitching a ride into Aktau itself the next day, I split up from my fellow travellers. My foot was now playing up with a return of Plantar Fasciitis (basically this is something that makes your foot hurt) and I felt like staying in a slightly nicer hotel as I was likely to be a bit more confined to it as a result.
At this point every travel blog that mentions Aktau points out that it is a town, where as U2 might put it, the streets have no name. This blog will be no exception.
Aktau is the town where the streets have no name. Instead it is split into around 14 Districts, and in each district is further split down into building numbers. Its a strange town. Very different to Baku where I had come from, but I immediately felt a bit more connected with it. It has some of the soul that Baku lacks. Its landmarks, like a Mig Fighter jet pointing skyward, feel rather more real and straight forward than the extravagant architectural fantasy buildings preferred by Baku.
Despite my foot I did get out to do a far bit of exploring, including taking photos of some of the giant murals that decorate some of the apartment buildings. Unfortunately doing this managed to attract the attention of some Kazakh soldiers who asked in Russian for my passport and promptly decided there was a problem with my immigration slip as I had not written down when I had entered the country. I tried to point out that as the border guard has stamped the slip with the date I entered that surely this was sufficient but as I spoke no Russian and they spoke no English I found getting this argument across difficult. After a period of talking at each other and failing to get anywhere, and numerous radio transmissions by the soldiers, they decided the way forward was to take me to the police station, stopping at the playgrounds we past to see if any of the kids could speak English…On the way the soldiers made frequent references amongst themselves to 007 and James Bond , which was rather unnerving but before I could protest that I was not a spy, it was pushed out of my mind as the soldiers suddenly jumped and pushed me to one side as a random stray dog decided to try to attack us. After this incident I was rather glad actually get to the police station, where luckily they took one look at my paperwork and decided it was absolutely fine. Perhaps feeling like a bit of a wally the guy in charge of the soliders smartly saluted me as they went back on their patrol, leaving me to work out where exactly I was in terms of my hotel…
The next day I caught the first of the two trains that were to take me to Uzbekistan. The first, to a town called Beyneu, was stiflingly hot and 9 hours long, with no air conditioning and seemingly millions of kids on board. The heat on trains in Kazakhstan is perhaps responsible for the slightly odd phenomenon that is the all the young men on board dress as if they were heading down to the beach, wearing board shorts or swim shorts and often little else. Still whilst I can’t claim that due to the heat this was my favourite journey, as it drew to a close and I found myself staring out of the window with the sun setting over the desert, the occasional camel flashing by I felt myself glowing with the slightly nervous energy that makes travel so addicting. Europe now seems a long way away…