Only cargo ferries cross the Caspian Sea from Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan, however, they do take passengers. There are no timetables as these ships only depart once full of cargo. The crossing can take anything from 1 to 4 days, depending on storms, space to berth at the arrival port and customs/police/army inspections. We had heard tales of how the ticket office was impossible to find, of it’s random opening hours and the unhelpful ticket lady – thankfully all these tales were untrue! In line with the rest of the region, road signs, street names, building and shop names are all non-existent, therefore finding anywhere requires great patience and the need to repeatedly ask for directions! Fortunately, with a lot of tips and shared information from the other cyclists we struck gold on the first attempt!
As instructed on the telephone, we arrived at the docks at 10am and located the lady who was holding our tickets. Transaction completed and back outside, we were joined by two Swiss guys – they’d also got their visas so we would have company for the voyage! We’d previously met Dominic in Tbilisi when he was attempting to get his wheel rebuilt at the velodrome workshop. Dominic and Mario are great characters who had ridden all the way from home on vintage ex-army bicycles. If our bikes are old – theirs are pre-retro, with only one speed and some seriously ropey brakes, they are definitely on a mission!
We were left hanging around for a couple of hours whilst the trains were shunted aboard and then finally we were ushered through customs control. After passing through the (inoperative) x-ray scanner we were asked to unload the bikes and put the luggage through the baggage scanner, what a faff! Despite the ten-or-so staff, nobody was really paying attention.
Once aboard, our bikes were tied up on the freight deck along with railway tankers and we lugged our bags up the stairways to the cabin. We would be sharing this with Dominic and Mario. It wasn’t clean but it was comfortable, had powerful air-con and a working shower!
Food was available on-board and deemed OK for human consumption. It was ‘lovingly’ prepared by a large lady we nicknamed ‘chef’. She didn’t really have much time for tourists and didn’t speak any English; she was both grumpy and funny at the same time.
Whilst on board we were free to go on deck and spent our time sleeping, relaxing and eating. We also managed to sneak below deck and have a wander around the wagons. Dominic cunningly set his alarm and managed to see sunrise from the top of the ship’s mast without being spotted! We were allowed onto the bridge for a short while but warned not to push any buttons!
Our crossing was fast and uneventful, we were within sight of Aktau when the rumble of chains and electric motors indicated that we were dropping anchor. We knew a long wait was a real possibility, but we were well prepared with lots of food, books, and a pack of cards! As our cabin had the best facilities we’d enjoyed for some time, we were later disappointed to be told that we’d be weighing the anchor and at the dockside in a few hours!
The ferry berthed in daylight but we stayed aboard for a few more hours until we were escorted off the ship (by an army guy) and finally made it through customs just before midnight. Arriving in a new city in a new country in the middle of the night is a strange feeling. Not being able to really see your surroundings, but just able to make out the strange shapes of massive industrial pipes running in all directions, all your senses are alive with excitement. We pedalled a few km away from the port, and as we were unsure of the area, decided that for security it would be best to camp at a petrol station – we asked permission and pitched the tent using their diesel-electric generator as a wind break! It was now the early hours of the morning so we easily fell asleep and were ready to see what awaited us in the morning.