Details and pics of the boat from Alat in Azerbaijan to the new port of Kuryk in Kazakhstan
The ferry Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan (Or the Eternal Voyage across the Caspian Sea)
Like nearly every other summer’s day, it’s a hot, sunny and windy Saturday in Azerbaijan, and I’m leaving the Vienna-Dubai mirage that is Baku for a little known port called Alat. I’m cycling with Ian, an Englishman I met whilst browsing a bike shop in Tbilisi over 500km ago, and we remain hopeful of getting one of the infamous cargo ships across to Kazakhstan. The Caspian Sea ferry is notoriously overcomplicated to get on, and we are prepared for the unexpected.
The arid desert that surrounds Baku was over 35°C when we left, but the wind kept us a lot cooler and made riding possible in the midday heat. It morphed into a tailwind as we headed south and I reached 60km/h at one point on the flat (Ian spun out). Not much to see on the way. We passed some rusty factories, equally rusty oil rigs at sea, and hundreds of nodding oil rigs just outside Baku that must have been there for at least 50 years.
It was the same dry, desert climate I had cycled through to get to Baku, but hardly as difficult as instead of days, the journey was finished in 2 hours and 45 minutes, quite a feat for 70km on loaded touring bicycles. It was the first time we had cycled our bikes in a week, and it was all over too soon. And little did we know it would be a long while before we got back on them again.
Alat was something that we unwillingly would grow very familiar with. A boat must have just left as we, along with two other cyclists from England and a Russian hitchhiker, were the only potential passengers there. It is a distinctly odd place, the port of Alat. Basically, it’s a sad, little, metal, container village. There’s a container shop, a container ticket office, a container police station, a container bank and a container tea house. None of them are particularly clearly labelled, and they all form part of a row of even more containers, spanning away from our hang out spot under the “Check Point 2” customs booths. And there we would remain, waiting for a boat that runs on no timetable, listening to the dead hum of air conditioners for what seemed like an eternity.
Our first (rather great) news of the ferry was that it was coming tomorrow, and that we’d probably get on it. And then an hour later that news had changed, by word of the same person, to “maybe in 5 days.” This yo-yo information continued until after several hours of waiting, the guy with the info just started saying “Tomorrow, 50/50” every time we asked. It’s no wonder the telephone line to the port is useless, because even when you are here they don’t have a bloody clue of when the next boat will arrive and if you’ll even be able to board it.
And so we got comfortable, and watched more and more people arrive as the time floated by, until time itself disappeared and we were left with only day and night. No hours or minutes. Nothing mattered. Nothing happened. If there was by chance any significant event in the day, like a car passing the passport control, everybody knew about it.
A few more English cyclists began to arrive, the reason why is generally because the Brits find it difficult to get a visa for Russia, and near impossible for Iran, so we all get funnelled through this illusive ferry to get to Kazakhstan, essentially the only other way without flying and skipping out sections of the journey east.
A couple of ships arrived and left, which we for some reason weren’t able to get on. And a couple of ships left for Turkmenistan too. The whole thing is a farce, and they are playing by the rules just enough that you have to actually buy a place in one of the cabins, so you can’t just sleep on deck if the boat is full. It’s $70 and that includes your bed in a 4 bedroom cabin and 3 meals a day until the boat arrives at the destination. Bikes go free. We were wondering if they sometimes give priority to the cars, since they pay $300 and thus are more profitable, and that’s why we have to wait so long. For the most part we kept ourselves occupied by sneaking beer into the port (supposedly forbidden) and sharing travel stories into the night.
After four days of sleeping and cooking on our stoves at the port, we finally got a boat. It was the infamous Merkuri-I. The Merkuri-II has already sunk, drowning 46 of it’s 55 crew in the Caspian. It’s not that the Caspian is particularly rough or dangerous to cross, it’s just that the ships are especially dilapidated and old. None of them are really seaworthy, and word is that none of them were actually even built for the open water, but rather should be spending their miserable lives floating up and down rivers, in particular the Volga. It’s supposed to take about 30 hours to cross, but as it’s nearly always windy, and since nearly all the ships should be in a museum, you could be delayed at sea for days. The record was 57 days anchored off shore. You can’t go back once out at sea, because you would need another visa which you can’t get at port. The only way is forward.
Now 7 cyclists, we hurriedly packed our stuff and headed for the border booths. The border out of the country was so lax compared to entering that one of the guards even asked me to play a song on my ukulele, which I obviously refused. It wasn’t any better when I cycled onto the boat either as one of the workies asked me to play Shakira. As much as I like the videos, I don’t know any of her songs.
The ship was pretty big. Big enough to carry about 50 large train carriages full of concrete pipes.
On board, a Russian looking woman with a thick accent gave us our bedsheets and showed us to our cabin. It was a small 4 bed, which I shared with Ian and another English rtw cyclist Nick.
My bed was broken and sloping at an angle of 15 degrees into the wall. And unfortunately the little cooling fan on the roof was also broken, so it quickly became an oven. Luckily cabin 21, two cabins down, was left open by mistake, and we could sneak in there to sleep. There were many cabins actually, and most seemed unused. About 15 spaces were reserved for crew, and a few more for some guys on board who were repainting everything. Around the boat was mainly clean, apart from the exceptionally high numbers of decaying dead flies under all the lights. And there was only one shower for about 20 passengers. And no toilet paper or soap in the bathroom. Thankfully we all had our own. The lounge has a bat living in a hole in one of the corners. Though the bat died mid-voyage, allegedly trying to access the defunct bar area. Tim found it lying motionless on the lobby floor. Perhaps the hardest pill to swallow was the absence of wifi.
The boat was built in the 80’s in Soviet Russia. But it feels like the 60’s. USSR furniture was probably about 20 years behind the then-current fashion. Looking through some of the windows from deck was like peering into a museum.
They also had a slot machine exhibit.
Food is the only thing that saves the service. It’s a 3 meal-a-day stodge, with lunch served at the absurd time of 11.30am. They feed you every day until you land at port, with the food getting worse as time goes on.
Our crossing took 3 days. The first day and a half was spent floating about 50km east of Baku because of strong winds. But the rest of the journey was rather plain sailing. The journey was quite a social one and we got to share stories with some of the (mainly Azerbaijani) crew.
Pictures from the Caspian Sea Ferry:
When we finally did arrive, we were anchored outside of Kuryk port for several hours. And then when we docked we were kept on the boat for several hours more, mainly so an official could come aboard and stamp us in to Kazakhstan. There’s a lot of waiting involved when crossing the Caspian.
Kuryk port leaves a lot to be desired. It’s perhaps even more desolate than Alat. They haven’t even finished building the port yet, so it seems bizarre that it’s even open. But if things in Kazakhstan are anything like in Azerbaijan then that’s probably totally normal. No shops, no water, no customs office. Just diggers, cranes, concrete, brand-new empty buildings and oddly, wifi.
Most disappointingly of all, the town of Kuryk is actually 25km away (yay!), so we weren’t even anywhere near Kuryk or civilisation. We are on the far reaches of the Kyzylkum desert and there isn’t anything around except sand and power lines. And it was 10:30pm and dark. And we have no Kazakh money.
Luckily for us, one official at the port pulled some strings and let all the passengers on the boat stay in the brand new hotel, which was almost finished, for free. Supposedly we were the first guests. And it was actually all right. The next day, we all hit the desert.
Overall, I really enjoyed the haphazard voyage across the Caspian. It was a good adventure and there was plenty (too much?) time to relax and unwind, and no absence of company. Not something I’m likely to do again though as I think the novelty factor was what pulled us all through.
p.s. Don’t get this boat if you’re in a rush.