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Crossing the Caspian Sea...

Central Asia was calling. To get there I had to cross the Caspian Sea. It was an adventure I’d been looking forward to since planning began. At that time, I’d known I didn’t fancy travelling Russia and I didn’t know how incredible Iran can be for travelling. So it had to be the Caspian Sea. Before that I had Azerbaijan to take on.

 

All I required to cross Azerbaijan was a regular e-visa and for the price of $55, I got this from a travel agency found online. On entry, I paid a 15 Manat insurance fee (~ £7) and $21 on some form of tax – who knows what this tax was for.

 

With the border posts well apart and a 3.5-hour wait, entrepreneurial saleswomen offered Pampers to the waiting drivers. Despite the tempting proposal, I pulled off the covert exercise of relieving myself with a plastic bottle in Pico. I was too close to the manned border post and there were way too many pedestrian border crossers.

 

The extra rest days in Georgia had me behind schedule arriving in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital. Knowing how long the crossing to Kazakhstan might take, I wasn’t stopping anywhere – as you’ll read, I need not have rushed. The only sadness was rushing along the wonderful road to Samaxi in the dark.

 

I’d have loved to have climbed this hilly winding pass in the light and gaze over the towns either side. As it was, I enjoyed the city-light fireflies but I know it would have been fantastic by day. To stop at one of the many restaurants or bars overlooking the view would have been a great way to spend an afternoon and a hike around even better.

 

Baku was a pretty good city to spend a few days in. I enjoyed the city for its metropolitan nature. The whole city, the Flame towers and waterfront ooze new wealth. With Formula 1 touching down for the first time this year, the city looks well on its way to become the Dubai of the Caucasus.

 

There’s very little light pollution in the city – it was noticeable from the moment I first arrived. This does mean the city is rather dark away from the exotically lit national buildings and main streets at night. Considering this new wealth is generated by oil production, Baku felt oddly environmentally friendly in this regard!

 

 Turns out I took no photos in Baku centre at all - so here's one from the port

 

One place I loved was the Baku Museum of Modern Art. Based close to the fanciest part of town with all the designer shops, it occupied the first few floors of a premium tower block. The density of art with surprisingly punchy, deep colours assaulted the senses. Between the pillars, in the alcoves and up the sculptured staircase was a great array of painting, mixed media and installation exhibits. They showcased artists from all over the local area. Muyseyib Amriov, Sabir Chopuroglu and Aida Mahmuhdova all drew my attention and enjoyment particularly.

 

As ever in the world of modern art, there were some fairly loose interpretations of ‘art’ – for many this would provide plenty of opportunity to ridicule some of the more childlike pieces. In fact, there was an exhibition of youth work and some of that was far more impressive than a few of the main exhibits.

 

The museum displayed the art in the best way I’ve ever seen – the non-linear labyrinth of colour just kept delivering round each corner and pillar. This and some of the wonderful art from artists unknown to me means I’d definitely recommend a visit there. Best thing I did in Baku!

 

The best place I ate in the city was on Pushkin Street. Anadolu is a place for cheap eats in the heart of the downtown. Bustling with locals, rapid service and an epic selection of Azerbaijani, Turkish and other treats, it felt like you were eating in the right place. I kept it simple with a Turkish Pide, some potatoes and a fresh kebab. While the food wasn’t mind-blowing complex I couldn’t fault it for an authentic local lunchtime experience. The service was so quick that I was in and out before I knew what hit me.

 

There are many similarities between Turkey and Azerbaijan and they hold close diplomatic ties. From sharing a very similar language to a significant bank called AzerTurk to the wifi password ‘Turkey123’ in one of my hotels it was clear that Turkey is Azerbaijan’s big brother in many ways. It’s somewhat  strange considering the countries don’t share a border.

 

What they do share is a hatred of Armenia. After decades of fighting between with Azerbaijan, the Armenians control the majority of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh lands post the 1994 ceasefire. As well as supporting the Azerbaijanis, Turkey has its own border issues with Armenia.

 

Just mentioning Armenia sometimes bought a dismissive response. Other travellers in Europe advised me not to enter Armenia so I had no passport stamps for the Azerbaijan border police to question. As it was, they didn’t even mention the stamps I had from my half an hour in Armenia.

 

 Another port picture ;)

 

While getting hold of a SIM card I had a chance encounter with any Englishman topping up his phone. Our mutual language bought us together and we drove Pico to the coast to find somewhere to eat and share some travelling stories.

 

Bob was a travelling English teacher who’d been in many parts of the world that others might avoid. Oddly enough we come from the same part of the UK and back home he’d taught at lots of the local schools I knew. Conversation flowed fast with diverse topics from wealth inequality in capitalist societies to the dichotomy of British politics to Arabian policeman road rage incidents covered. It was an educational few hours of great discussion sat in an Italian restaurant. On parting, Bob very generously gave me one of his large and excellent custom made cigars. I smoked it in celebration of entering Central Asia as I crossed the Caspian Sea.

 

For all its increasing modernity, there wasn’t a whole lot to do outside of visiting the old town - a sign of things to come as I travelled east. Tourism just hasn’t been developed as much as it has in Europe yet. My main objective was to navigate the confusing world of crossing the Caspian Sea by ferry. Oh, how that was an adventure.

 

The website that you have to know about for travelling through the Central Asian countries is www.Caravanistan.com. It’s awesome. A travelling couple, who ventured forth many years ago, decided to settle down in Kazakhstan and create an online resource for crossing borders, getting visas, finding mechanics, sourcing fuel and every bit of potential admin you need to know. It’s also got a fantastic user forum to share up to date information – essential for the rapidly changing rules and regulations that govern this part of the world.

 

Having discovered this wonderful resource in my planning, I knew that crossing the Caspian had many difficulties and curiosities. Caravanistan’s forum topic on it is their largest and most frequented. It revealed that nearly everyday there was a different process, no authority had overall command or knowledge and that ultimately, it all came down to persistence and luck. My kind of fun ;)

 

I started my adventure by visiting the central port area in Baku. It felt like a logical place to start and after consulting several map options, I went to the location marked as the passenger ferry terminal. Unfortunately, these days it only services BP engineers visiting oilrigs. Did they know where I needed to head to – no.

 

Further investigations round the bay found what looked to be a ticket office: it had a ticket board, prices and instructions – perfect. Could I get a ticket here – no. Unfortunately, I’d have to go to Alat, a town 80km away, get a ticket and return for a ferry in Baku. Could they tell me when the next boat was – no. It was a fair way to drive just to get a ticket. Did I want to do this – no. Caravanistan and its wonderful knowledge base had informed me it might be like this.

 

 Like this tunnel, trying to get on board a ferry was a tight squeeze

 

On the website they had a few mobile numbers for staff who knew when the boats might arrive so this was my next plan. The next two days bought several phonecalls to these numbers while I touristed the city. There wasn’t much English spoken and even getting the hotel staff to speak to them revealed very little.

 

And then I had a little touch of traveller magic.

 

One of the hotel front desk workers offered to help me. It was late at night but he finished his shift at 10am and if I fancied his assistance he’d come with me to the Baku ticket office and try to work out what to do. It was unbelievably generous of him to donate his time in such a way, particularly after a night shift!

 

The beginnings of our ticket expedition took us back to the ticket office. After much debate, the current process was still to head to Alat for a ticket. Oh well – I’d make my way down there. Incredulously, my new assistant offered to come with and we journeyed down the coastal highway. Gazing over the industrial complexes that Azerbaijan’s oil wealth brings, we traded tunes on Pico’s stereo.

 

Finding the liman (port) just before Alat, we crossed into the customs area and found a ticket office – fantastic news! A bit of discussion and pointing at the same board as they had in Baku revealed I could get a $300 ticket for Pico and a $70 ticket for me – wonderful news! It would even include a shared cabin and food – even better!

 

Unfortunately, if I bought it there and then, I would have to enter customs control and wouldn’t be able to leave. I didn’t have my bags with me and I couldn’t exactly abandon my new friend so without a ticket we returned to Baku. At least I knew where to go now.

 

Sidenote here – we returned to Baku and my advisor of excellence invited me to play a few rounds of Pro Evolution Soccer 2013. In Azerbaijan and other places since, individuals don’t own games consoles – instead, there are Playstation bars where row upon row of screens, consoles and comfy chairs line up. It’s a novel idea bred from necessity and I quite like it. It actually makes gaming a very social experience. For anyone that’s ever played a football game with me you won’t be surprised that I lost every single one of our 10s of games.  My destroyer was so embarrassed he refused to let me pay for anything!

 

Back to the ferry crossing and I knew I had to go to Alat now – I just had to wait for a boat. Calling again the next day the weather was bad and there was no boats sailing. However, I was now ready to go at a moment’s notice: I had discovered the shipping companies brand new online ticketing system. Caravanistan reported it as untried and were awaiting reports from intrepid travellers. With that challenge on the table I gave it a go!

 

The website was smooth, easy to use and in English. I booked on the credit card just in case things didn’t work out. With my ticket ready I just needed a boat.

 

The next day I made my call. There was boat coming in that day and the abrupt woman at the end of the phone said I needed to be in Alat immediately. Even at the time, it seemed unnecessarily rushed to be there straightaway. As it later transpired, there was really no need to rush at all.

 

Blazing down to Alat, I filled Pico up with some wonderfully cheap, high quality Azerbaijan fuel and arrived back in the port again. There was much confusion as to whether there was a boat arriving at all, whether I should exchange my online ticket or do customs first and if I could really join the next batch of 64 lorries waiting to go. Each part of the port from customs to the shipping company to the port authority had no idea what the other sections involved. In a very British way, it’s fair to say it was a shambles but it was certainly a friendly shambles.

 

I made acquaintances with the shipping company’s port manager and as he spoke some English, we developed a custom routine whereby he would walk over on a cigarette break, keep me informed of any updates and say hello. Being the first online ticket they’d had to process, it took a fair while to work out what they needed to do – we got there in the end – it was the long number under the QR code from the email I had – funny that.

 

I also made friends with the customs head when it was discovered I was missing some paperwork from entering the country. I’m not sure I was missing any at all but he sailed me through the process, didn’t check Pico’s contents and fed me some of his fresh pomegranate. Unsurprisingly, several hours later there was a knock at the window and a wink wink nudge nudge moment – a swift 10 Manat later and he was smiling.

 

After paying the $11 port authority fee, it became a waiting game in Alat. At some point the call would come and we would board. Little did I realise that we would board back in Baku.

 

In order to get there we had to form a customs convoy with patrol cars running up and down the line of 64 lorries and me for the entire 80km journey. As seems to be the way in Azerbaijan, no one had any idea when this would happen so I cooked a meal in the back of Pico and waited some more.

 

Ten hours in the customs area and we got the call at midnight: the lorries revved up, I joined the back like the baby elephant in the Jungle Book and we convoyed it up to Baku.

 

No stopping was allowed but that didn’t fase several of the Turkish drivers who halted for fuel on the way. With me at the back following the final customs car I had a fine view of the relaxed drivers and the not-so-relaxed customs official hastening them onwards. It’s probably the most open to abuse system of border control I’ve ever seen!

 

Arrival back in Baku didn’t take us to the port I’d initially visited: it took us to another point 8kms the other side of the town. I had also already visited this place in vain once I’d got my online ticket. Arriving around 1:30am, we cruised in through the giant blue door of the port and the Azerbaijani who’d been unable to help me previously greeted me. He was quite delighted that I’d made it into the customs convoy and could finally enter the port proper.

 

 The giant blue door entrance to the dockside

 

Here began a few days of sitting on the dock – 4 nights and 4 days in fact. Under customs control, we weren’t allowed to leave the dock area while we waited for the weather to clear. I entertained myself by helping a Russian driver top up his SIM card, taking photos of the docks and enjoying many cups of Turkish tea with the other drivers. I even managed to get a few good meals in me.

 

The first time I visited the port I’d ended up the operations team room and met a cheerful English-speaking graduate called Narmina. We’d exchanged details and while I was sat on the port dock, she got in touch to see how I was getting on. I told her of my plight and kindly, she invited me for lunch in the staff canteen.

 

 Tima, Narmina and Ulker with Pico and me post lunch

 

Food in there was pretty good: my two meals with her and her friends were the national dish of ash, plov and dovga (chicken, rice and a milk-based vegetable soup) as well as an Azerbaijani take on meatballs with quinoa. Sharing a communal meal with the welders, crane drivers, security and port officers in their smart naval uniform was a great experience.

 

One afternoon, managing to escape confinement I made it to a solitary café truck drivers could go to at the port entrance. I had some vine leave wrapped deliciousness: I’m still not sure what the filling was. Of course this was accompanied by more black Turkish tea :)

 

Time didn’t exactly fly but it didn’t exactly lag either. Fortunately, I’d got a SIM card with unlimited internet and felt fairly connected to the world, if not in reality. Many films were watched, lots of strolls were taken and moments of stationary portside peace were enjoyed.

 

Each day had the drivers and me wondering when our time would come. Each day there would be the latest rumour – gladly received and often false. Each day we were no closer to Kazakhstan. And then, after 4 days dockside, a 2am tap on my window told me in was time to get my passport stamped.

 

Leaving on that date was fairly important as my visa was expiring. In fact it had expired by a couple of hours when I was processed in the middle of the night. There was certainly some confusion over the legality of my exit. A few calls and a passport officer that probably wanted no trouble stamped my passport.

 

When the time came to board, I was first to the boat and straight on. Perhaps a little overexcited I was told to get off immediately! They needed to board the lorries first and squeeze me in at the end. Unfortunately, this meant waiting back on the dock for 2 hours while the lorries loaded.

 

Our ship was the Professor Gul. Its blue hull, hiding a smoker’s heart and lungs, hadn’t originally been designed for the ocean like crossings of the Caspian Sea. The majority of ships in the Caspian Shipping Company’s fleet hadn’t been – this meant they were high sided, narrow and without stablisation. I’ve seen it described online that they were not fit for their use and that a couple of years ago one had sank with the loss of most of its passengers – it was going to make for an interesting journey – no wonder we’d waited for the winds to die down.

 

 Pico waiting patiently to board Professor Gul

 

All my meals were included with my ticket and as I boarded, breakfast was served. The food on board was simple, either rice or pasta with a chicken breast and usually a soup. Breakfast was a classic affair for the region: a bit of white cheese, some tomato/cucumber slices, bread and some cut-up processed pink sausage. All the food was served by the biggest smile on board: the matriarch of the kitchen even spoke one or two words of English – this had us both smiling.

 

 My cabin on board - a simple affair

 

The second morning we also had a delightfully salty, thin porridge. Almost like gruel, I was glad I’d accepted a bowl from my Kazak roommate: with a splash of sugar, it was delicious.

 

The crossing was fairly smooth. With the sun at its zenith, we cruised past oil fields and were tracked by gliding seagulls. The cigar gifted me by Bob was my entry ticket onto the boat’s bridge. I gazed across the water with their binoculars and learned the basic controls of the ship as we sailed.

 

 On the ship's bridge

 The first mate at the controls

 

With darkness settling, you could see lights twinkling on the Russian coastline. That night passed with a steady roll of the sea rocking us to sleep. It affected some experienced fellows in no way. Others, like my roommate, were somewhat worse for wear because of it.

 

One sleep in the cabin and 24 hours later, we arrived far earlier than planned in the port of Aktau. It was a crisp, clear morning to arrive at the city of white mountains overlooking the sea – almost like Dover, the crispness was a sign of things to come. I won’t bore you with the undocking process: it took 4 hours and 7 different stages of customs processing to enter the country. It didn’t matter; I was through before all but one of the other drivers. I had arrived in central Asia. It was time to adventure in a whole new part of the world…

 

 Disembarking from the ferry

 

 Arrival in Aktau bought this sculptured beauty - shame I didn't cross on that

 

Thursday 27th October – Jasmine Hotel, Baku

Friday 28th October – Jasmine Hotel, Baku

Saturday 29th October – ATFK Hotel, Baku

Sunday 30th October – ATFK Hotel, Baku

Monday 31st October – BP Hotel, Baku

Tuesday 1st November – Baku Port

Wednesday 2nd November – Baku Port

Thursday 3rd November – Baku Port

Friday 4th November – Baku Port

Saturday 5th November – Professor Gul, Caspian Sea

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