“It’s a problem free – philosophy”
Baku didn’t seem the most loved city by my fellow travellers but I thought the place was great. Completely different to the rest of Azerbaijan’s poor rural towns, it boasts two popular beach spots, a well maintained historical centre and some gorgeous mosques to go visit. And best of all – a central square with a McDonalds, KFC, 3 cracking Indian restaurants and a couple of cheeky nightclubs. What’s not to like for the cycle tourer living off kebabs for the last two months.
Baku acts as a bottleneck for travellers since it serves as the gateway to Central Asia via the Caspian Sea ferries. The only other way to get to the stans is through Iran, but if you’re a native of the US, Canada or the U.K. then you would need to pay for a daily guide to be with you for the duration of your visit at about $100 a day…
The ferries from Baku head for either Kazakhstan or Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan is the second most secretive state behind North Korea and only (sometimes) issue out 5 day transit visas which are date specific. Since there are no boat timetables for the crossing and the stretch you would need to cycle once across is roughly 7 days riding – this left Kazakhstan – the home of Borat, Astana cycling and dodgy moustaches as my route into Central Asia.
The Caspian Sea ferry is notorious amongst travellers and has long been seen as a rite of passage for vagabonds crossing these parts – a badge of honour for those without any. Issues from the past 10 years or so seem to have varied from having to pay bribes to get on the ferry, to get off the ferry, to bring your bike on the boat – as well as the general mayhem surrounding ship departure times, amount of time spent waiting for ships to leave, amount of time spent on the actual crossing (anything up to 10 days apparently) as well as the maddening process of buying tickets. Reports on how to receive ferry tickets and where boats depart from vary week to week. Latest groupthink was you phone up each day to see if a ferry is leaving. When they give the big go, you buy your ticket from an office in Baku in the morning, then travel 70km to another port in Alat and wait for the boat to leave.
For me, inevitably, things went a bit off kilter. The day the boat was leaving I was told I needed to buy from the ticket office at Alat port some 70 kilometres away. I packed my stuff and arrived in a taxi with bike, bags and two other travellers about two hours before we were told to arrive. The other passengers went to buy their ticket while I put my bike together. Once I made it to ticket office I found out my taxi gang had nabbed the last two tickets. Mr Cadence Bro was stuck at the front of the queue of the almost made it’s. Next through the door were an English couple, Holly and Conrad, with exactly the same bike as me (awkward). When Holly found out the tickets were gone, she started going apeshit at the bewildered ticket officer, and she then went to the corner of the cabin to start crying. Me and Conrad were far too stiff upper lipped to be making such a scene personally but were more than happy to hang off the coat tails of Holly’s sweet 16th histrionics.
And boy did they pay off. The ticket officer tried to make arrangements for us with the ships captain to no avail but he did very kindly offer us to leave our bikes in his office until the next ferry arrived, and to arrange for free transport to Baku and back to Alat.
So back to Baku for another couple of days – before we agreed to return in a group of 6 to Alat port and wait for the next boat rather than miss it again. We brought a car load of beers, noodles and dirty vodka to festival up what was just a 10m2 patch of covered tarmac. The first day – everyone was in high spirits. Stories were shared, friendships formed and horrible truck-driver-abused squatter toilets were braved. By the time we had spent two full days camping on the hard stuff we were just longing to get onto the ship. By now we had been joined by a host of other cyclists, backpackers and Mongol ralliers who had started descending onto this part of the world on their quest to drive to Russia (combustion engines? Who needs ’em…).
Finally after 2 and a half days waiting we were aboard an absolute beauty of a ship built in the 1970’s by some disgruntled soviet drunks. The ship was a testament to ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’. I mean, it travelled on water. But not a lot else worked. I was in a windowless sweat box with 3 other strapping lads. Minutes in the hovel performing menial tasks left your shirt in its darkest shade and you requiring a straddle of the breezy front of the ship, Titanic style. There was a casino area but all the machines were broken. And meal times consisted of chicken with one of rice, pasta or rice. Or pasta. Breakfast was chicken’s eggs. Then back for another two rounds of chickens later in the day. Drink was one of the main fizzy kinds – kindly varying with each meal. But never water. And with no shop on board or any way to buy food or drink suffice to say no traveller was allowed to step off board until they had caught the obligatory stomach bug.
Since our allotted cabins were a biological hazard unfit for use, beds had to be fashioned from the top deck of the ship. Finding floor space out of the fierce Caspian Sea winds was a struggle and we spent the entire night worrying about our possessions flying off into the deep blue.
So after a 27 hour ferry ride and a full week after first arriving at Alat port, I had finally arrived into Actau port, Kazakhstan. A small oasis town on the edge of a vast desert and 50 degree heat. Never have I greeted such a fearsome outlook with so much happiness. Central Asia – here I come.