09 Oct Trip Diary – Crossing the Caspian Sea
Ah, the Caspian Sea! Billed by many guidebooks and travel blogs as a truly unique and must-see experience to watch the sunset over the waters from a boat’s upper decks, I was excited to find out for myself. It certainly was memorable, but not just for the reasons mentioned above.
After a few days rest and city exploration in Baku, it was time to say goodbye to my amazing hosts and cycle 70km south to the port of Alat. I’d cycled this same stretch on my arrival into Baku facing the worst headwinds I’d experienced on the whole trip to date. This time, going back the other way, I had my fingers crossed that those same headwinds would now propel me effortlessly along the coast and I’d be able to forgive them for the punishing ride they gave me a week beforehand. And they did, although typically, they weren’t anywhere near as strong, but were powerful enough to deposit me at the port in Alat in a third of the time it took me to cycle the other way towards Baku. Little did I know that this was the last time I’d be back on the bike for some time.
I’d read up on the crossing a fair amount. Stories abound online of travellers being stuck in ports for days on end due to bad weather or marooned out at sea with captains understandably wanting to avoid disasters of the past, and unwilling to risk capsizing the shallow hulled boat in the stormy seas. I’d heard waits were possible for up to a week on the Alat-Aktau line, the route I was hoping to take but reassured myself that these were a rarity. Or so I thought.
Let the games begin…
My arrival at the port coincided with little activity. Passing through the small checkpoint on arrival, I searched the large parking area, with its cluster of portacabins and rows of stationary lorries, for any signs of life. Testing the door to one of these cabins, I was surprised to find it open but maybe not as surprised as the small group of port officials and police inside huddled around an electric fire and drinking tea. With the usual friendliness I’d experienced throughout my time in Azerbaijan, I was ushered into the warmth, given some tea, and told that there would be no boats today but possibly tomorrow. I asked where I could camp, and one of the policeman stood up, brushed the crumbs of bread from his jacket, reached for his hat, and took me outside. With a smile that had more than a hint of apology hidden within, he pointed to a small mud and gravel strip under a railway bridge at the far end of the car park. This, it would turn out, would be my home for the next nine days.
Every day I spent up to two hours trying to track down anyone who might be able to give me any information on when a boat might arrive and I never got a straight answer. I could talk to two or three people in the space of an hour and get different answers. On some days, words such as promise and guarantee were used to describe my departure time, but this would come and go with no signs of movement. It seemed nobody had any idea, but instead of saying this, they all felt compelled to tell me something in a vague attempt to assure me that today was the day I’d be off. Reasons why there weren’t any boats varied daily too: bad weather, not enough passengers, engine problems. Trucks kept arriving but went nowhere, with their drivers confined to the same fate of waiting as I was.
Playing the waiting game
Days passed slowly with little to do but drink overpriced chai tea in a small cabin used as a cafe and make small talk with the few truck drivers that could speak English. On the fifth night of camping under the bridge, the weather went from bad to worse and a large storm rolled in off the Caspian Sea. Torrential rain and winds topping 90kmph battered the tent through the night. I lay there convinced it was too much for the thin material and lightweight aluminum poles to take but time and time again, as the winds briefly subsided, it would spring back and regain its normal shape without damage. I woke from a brief period of sleep around 2am to a sense something wasn’t quite right. The storm outside was just as fierce as I fumbled around the tent for my head torch but before I could find it, my hand discovered what my brain had sensed. The tent had flooded. The rain had become too much for the surrounding ground and unable to absorb any more, the water had begun to pool under the tent and soak through the groundsheet. Around three centimetres of rainwater now covered the floor and yesterday’s clothes were soaked through along with the bottom of the sleeping bag, My sleeping pad now offered the only dry surface. There was little I could do about the pond I now found myself sleeping in, so I buried myself in my sleeping bag, adopted the foetal position, and waited for the morning.
Things started to look up on the afternoon of day seven. For the first time since my arrival at the port, foot passengers began to arrive having been sent down from Baku under the instructions a boat was imminent. This though, once again, proved to be untrue. By the eighth day, my little campground under the bridge was home to four other tents and after more than a week without much company, I was only too glad to make room for them. Each new arrival brought news from Baku that the boat was due any minute, but by now I would only believe it when I saw it with my own eyes.
Is today the day?
Finally, on my ninth day at the port, I finally caught sight of a cargo boat slowly manoeuvring inside the walls of the dock. I watched from behind the chain linked fence as vehicles and pedestrians disembarked and made their way through customs, and then…nothing. No movement or call to board. That is, until around 5pm when we were all instructed to pack our tents as we would be boarding within the hour. Again, and I really should have known, this proved untrue. By 10pmk, tired and cold, we still hadn’t boarded and the port showed no signs we would anytime soon. The police stopped us from setting up our tents again, so it seemed they were convinced we were leaving. I opted to unfold my sleeping bag on the cold tarmac of the car park outside the customs booth and tried to sleep.
At 1am, I was awoken by the sound of Diesel engines warming up. Lifting my head off the floor and poking my head out from the relative warmth of my sleeping bag, I was greeted by a sight I was beginning to think I would never see. The port had come alive. The custom booths were now bathed in a soft light, border guards emerged from the darkness and took up their positions, and truck drivers raced around preparing their vehicles. Finally, after a little more than nine days of waiting, I was about to board the boat that would take me to Kazakhstan, the unusually named Professor Gul.
We’re off…but not far
It took another three hours to pass customs, load the bike, and be given my cabin number but at 4am, tired and freezing, I crawled into my bunk and was glad to be on the move, at least so I thought. In fact, when I awoke at 7am in time to catch the onboard breakfast, I was surprised to see we hadn’t moved an inch. Loading was still underway and it would be four more hours, at around 11am, until the engines finally roared into life. Still, my excitement of leaving Azerbaijan behind was short lived.
Less than three hours into the journey, with Baku still looming large on the horizon, the boat’s engines fell silent, and the thunderous sound of the anchor being dropped filled the upper decks. We didn’t move for the next 27 hours, save for the tidal pull on the boat rotating us round in circles against the weight of the 4-tonne anchor. The reason? Winds out in the Caspian Sea away from the shelter of the coast were too strong to sail through. All around us, other boats had made the same decision. I’d swapped a car park full of trucks for one full of boats. It seemed Azerbaijan wasn’t ready to let us leave after all.
My cabin comrades consisted of two Polish backpackers and an English/Syrian man who was on a motorbike trip around Asia, all of whom I’d met at the port. We’d opted to stick together in the hopes of sharing a cabin and this proved to be a wise move. Apart from a handful of travellers, the majority of passengers were truck drivers, mostly from Eastern Europe, like the Ukraine or had come down from Russia. Not the best mix considering the current tensions between these countries. In fact, the tension was obvious throughout the boat right from the start, especially at meal times when everyone was together. Vodka flowed freely amongst most of the drivers, no doubt contributing to the obvious anger that consumed a few of them, and a heavy smell of strong alcohol soon hung around the corridors. On more than one occasion, tempers would boil over, insults would be hurled around and, inevitably, punches would be thrown. For the entire journey, the lower decks would become an area in which to avoid eye contact and steer well clear of any talks between these nationals. I was glad our cabin was a war-free zone.
Those 27 hours were some of the longest hours I think I’ve lived through. Our cabin, located in the centre of the ship and without a window or air conditioning, was stiflingly hot, so much so it was near impossible to sleep. I must have paced every corridor and deck in the hope of discovering something to entertain me, but to no avail. I drank copious amounts of chai to pass at least a little time, chatted amongst those who seemed less intent on starting an onboard war, joined some of the Turkish drivers who had brought hand-held fishing lines for a spot of fishing, and lazed about on the top deck staring out to sea. Still, minutes felt like hours, but eventually, thankfully, the ship’s engines rumbled and shook into life, the anchor rattled its way up the side of the ship, and we were finally on our way.
The Professor Gul was as old as me and, rather worryingly, was showing its age. Rust streaks stained many of the exterior walls and decks, ropes supporting life rafts looked frayed and tired from years of sun exposure, and doors and windows refused to close properly. The interior panel walls made of imitation wood had begun to detach themselves and the floor had swollen and buckled in places from some invisible force. Hardly anywhere was out of bounds and I was free to explore the ship, from the engine room that housed the huge, loud diesel engines (rather worryingly, a dark fluid that I opted not to ask about seemed to leak freely from a lot of the piping), to the bridge, complete with the classic steering wheel you’d associate with ships of the previous century. Only the crew quarters were out of bounds but often doors where left open and glimpsing in, it became obvious that any money that had been spent on the boat in the last 20 years had gone here.
Sixty-two hours after leaving the port in Alat, more than twice as long as a normal crossing, the rock arms of Aktau‘ port came into view. Standing on the top deck, I watched as the city grew larger and larger on the horizon until finally we were being nudged into position by the tugboats, but there was still the question of customs.
Customs in Kazakhstan start with onboard searches. Nobody is allowed to leave the boat until a team of customs agents along with multiple sniffer dogs have searched the ship. Cars and lorries are inspected and all hand luggage is emptied out and looked through carefully. Dogs sniff around all passengers and cabins and only when they are happy can people leave. No matter how many times I go through this process, it always unnerves me. I’ve no idea why, after all, I’ve nothing to worry about, but the whole process is rather intimidating. Reassured that I wasn’t a cycling drug mule, I was allowed to leave and ushered immediately, without my bike, into a waiting minibus. Only once I’d cleared immigration and passport control was I allowed back to the boat to collect the bike. With only a single loading door, all the lorries were required to reverse off with varying degrees of success (this may be more down to how much vodka the drivers had consumed though), all of them intent on being the next one off. Weaving my bike amongst them, unsure who would move next, trying to avoid the countless tie-down straps that had been hastily cast aside, and avoiding the ankles of other passengers made for a rather scary and undignified exist.
Losing patience and whiskey
Despite the onboard checks, we weren’t through yet. Another round of searches under the watchful eye of three customs officials and a dog awaited me. Every item from all five panniers as well as the tent was laid out on the floor for inspection. Most of my belongings attracted little attention from the three men who stood over me until I produced a small hip flask of whiskey. For each 1,000km I cycle, I take a single swig to celebrate and was planning to see how long I could make it last. I say ‘was’ as I now have very little left after all three customs officials helped themselves to huge gulps. To add insult to injury, one of them declared after almost finishing the contents that he didn’t like it. No taste, these people! Annoyed, but rather helpless (let’s see you argue with an Alsatian and three armed men), I repacked the bags and was finally given the all clear. It had taken 12 days from port to port but I was now officially in country number 14 of the trip, Kazakhstan.
As it was late by the time I finally cleared customs, I opted to stay the night in a hostel close to the port with some of the other travellers. It turned out to be one of the nicest hostels I’d ever been to. Everything looked brand new and it was amazingly cheap too. That night, I joined the others for a meal at a local restaurant to celebrate our arrival and enjoyed my first beer in a long time.
So was it worth the wait?
Crossing the Caspian Sea is certainly an experience. Not many have to wait quite as long as I did, so I think I was just unlucky in that respect. Maybe I was unlucky too with the volatile mix of truck drivers but even so, the crew was nice and the company of fellow travellers made the experience all the better. In my opinion, it beats flying across to Kazakhstan. It feels far more adventurous this way and when you do finally make it out to sea, the views of uninterrupted water with no land in sight feel very special. Oh, and the Internet was right, the sunsets over the Caspian Sea really are amazing.
This diary entry covers the dates from 28th Sept – 9th October, 2017