If anyone is reading this who is looking to take the boat across the Caspian Sea, some of the info here might be useful. I caught one from Baku to Aktau in Kazakhstan, but much of this will apply to the Turkmenbashi run. The info is current as I write it, but it seems evident that things seem to change the whim of those involved and other boats and crews might behave differently.
First things first, the ferry is not as difficult to catch as is made out in some parts of the internet such as Caravanistan and the Lonely Planet guide all of which basically seem to urge you not to take it, particularly on the Kazakhstan route. I’d say that’s nonsense and its actually quite a bit of fun. With one important caveat. If you are thinking of taking the boat, you must have time to spare.
In theory, Aktau is 20hrs away and Turkmenbashi 10hrs. In theory, Turkmenbashi boats run most days (but not everyday) and Aktau less frequently, but still normally several times a week. In theory.
In theory, communism works…
You might breeze through the whole thing, picking up tickets first time and getting across without and issues, but you’re taking a mighty risk if you are on any sort of tight deadline.
Anyway, here was my experience of getting tickets.
The ferry port and ticket office is still located at the east end of the main seaside boulevard, across several railway tracks. You can catch bus 14 from the old town to just outside, or as I did, you can just walk from the old town along the seafront, its only about 35-40 minutes and you pass a good cheap (and air-conditioned) supermarket on the way. Reports in the Lonely Planet and elsewhere which say that the Aktau boat now leaves from a different port 8km away appear, at the moment at least, to be incorrect. Having said that, the run down state of the port and the construction work outside of it makes it fairly clear the port isn’t going to remain here forever. It looks like prime real-estate for another LED adorned hotel or apartment…
If you want, you can take the fun (and stress) out of things by just ringing the ladies who deal with tickets each morning to see if there is a boat going. Vika, who deals with foot passengers and only speaks Russian and Azeri and her colleague who I never met but who apparently speaks English and is responsible for sorting out spaces for cars/motorbikes. However I preferred the more time intensive, pig-headed way of just turning up in person each day and asking “Kazakhstan/Turkmenistan today?” (zee-VOHD-nya in Russian. I’m literally learning the language one word at a time…) Its fair to say the ticket office hours of operation appear to be erratic at best. Getting there for 10am is your best bet but don’t expect it to open promptly or even at all. In fact on one occasion it actually shut just before 10am. I sense that they sometimes might find dealing with tourists rather exasperating, but plenty of them seem to go through this route, and as they seem to be skimming $10 off each ticket they are quite happy to help you really. (They charge $110 for a foot passenger for the Aktau trip).
Lesson 1 bring a book to read whilst you wait!
The first time I tried my Russian at the port I was given a categorical no accompanied by a wild gesticulation of arms which all felt rather definite. And it turns out this information was sort of true, as no boat left that day, although I probably should have asked again as I was a bit miffed to see from www.marinetraffic.com that a boat did indeed leave for Kazakhstan, albeit at 4am the following morning.
Lesson 2, its worth trying to check the situation again in the afternoon.
On Thursday I thought I was making rapid progress when I met an English speaking Kazakh at the port who had been told that one would be leaving that day to Aktau. Except this feeling of progress was short lived when the ticket lady then made it clear that actually there was no boat that day.
Lesson 3, even speaking Russian doesn’t guarantee you won’t get confused and end up getting the wrong message whilst trying to get a ticket!
Thursdays disappointment actually left me feeling rather low. It meant I would not longer be able to get across to Kazakhstan and then Nukus in Uzbekistan by the Monday to met up with some other travellers heading to the Aral Sea, but having thought it over, this did then have the liberating effect of meaning I no longer had any reason to rush as I still had over a week left on my Azeri Visa, so I was much more relaxed by the time I returned on Friday, with a British cycle tourist, Tom, who was also staying at my hostel.
Tom was under much more time pressure, having the same 15 day Visa I had, he’d first had to spend several days of it to cycle to Baku and then spent a week picking up various Visas for Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, before he could think about the ferry. He now only had until the Sunday to leave Azerbaijan or be fined for overstaying his Visa.
Lesson 4,the Azeri’s seem keen on only giving out shorter length Visa’s these days, therefore I would really recommend getting your Visa’s for onward countries before you actually reach Azerbaijan.
On Friday we were again told no boat today, but after further enquiries we became confident that there should be a boat leaving for Aktau on the Saturday, and we were told we should arrive at the port for 10am Saturday morning. On Saturday, 10am came and went with the office still shut up, so we staked out a position to wait…
Finally, just after midday we started to make some progress when I managed to find some port workers who with the aid of my one word of Russian and a pen and paper confirmed again that there was a boat heading for Aktau that day at 6pm and we then met another traveller who had been told that the office would in fact open later in the afternoon. I quickly popped back to the hostel to pick up my stuff and we started to give some thought about supplies for the journey, given the delays we had seen other boats being hit with, and given some comments about the food on board being horrible and overpriced. Soon, some 15 litres of water later and plenty of instant noodles and other tasty snacks we felt adequately supplied. We had decided to pool our resources for this, Tom looking after the food and myself the water. It seemed sensible at the time and it indeed might be worth taking some supplies with you if you take this trip. but in our case it was almost entirely unnecessary. On my boat they were perfectly happy to cook and serve you food for $10 a day.
Lesson 5 from this is, take some food, but don’t nuts.
Finally, shortly after 3pm, Vika, the ticket seller for foot passengers arrived and took our passports and money and I started to get rather excited for the journey ahead, as well as relieved that if nothing else, the ordeal of trying to get a ticket was over!
We were a band of 5 foreigners by this point as myself and Tom were joined by a French couple, and another Englishman, David, who was doing an overland trip on his motorbike. It wasn’t actually until it was approaching 8pm, that we were finally ushered through the border and were all allowed on-board. Well almost all. I last saw Tom as I was herded onto the boat in conversation with the border police who told him there was a problem with his registration form. I am still unclear as the exact issue here. If you stay in Azerbaijan for more than 3 days you are supposed to register with immigration. Generally this is done by your hotel, but if you are couch surfing or staying in a cheap hostel, you have to sort it out yourself, which in my case involved a frustrating hour at the post office where my inability to follow instructions exasperated the staff but ultimately resulted in me getting a stamped slip of paper afterwards, which said I was registered. Tom had stayed at a hotel and so should in theory have been registered by them and he had got some paper work from them saying that it was done, but apparently it had not. However it all seemed very suspicious as speaking to my fellow travellers it seems that neither the French couple nor David had actually registered at all and yet were allowed on with no problems. The only person with a stamped registration slip turned out to be me, but I was never asked for it. Perhaps it was an attempt at a bribe, or that no registration at all was better than having an error with your registration?
The final lesson I’d take from this is PLEASE MAKE SURE YOU ARE REGISTERED! Unfortunately because of the Visa siltation, Tom had to fly back home to the UK, but the experience left him with a 300 Manat fine which is the best part of 300 Euros.
So, whatever the reason, Tom never made it to the boat and nor therefore did any of our pooled food supply. I did have however 15 litres of water I had been put in charge off. This seemed rather a lot when the first thing that was pointed out to us as we boarded was a drinking fountain…
My next post will deal with the rather l-o-n-g journey and be a little less narrative based. It will also show my attempt at wildlife photography….