Caspian Cruise - Baku to Turkmenbashi

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October 16th 2014
Published: October 16th 2014
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Turkmenbashi Oct 14 2014

So our Caspian Sea cruise is close to completion. I have no idea how close as we are still on board and in dock with the cargo doors open. It has lived up to expectation. Certainly it is an option for the slow traveller. This is not a passage for any one with a deadline or in a rush.

This part of our journey was some what of a centre piece. It was the first bit we researched over a year ago because it made the whole route possible. Without it and with Ukraine out of bounds you either have to go through Iran, like most Mongol rally folks do these days, or through the Russian Caucasus. Iran is increasingly becoming more open with the thawing of relations with the West, we have met others going that way, and Jane quite understandably did not fancy it. The North passage around the Caspian Sea did not appeal either and the 'ferry' looked an interesting option.

All the advice in the guidebooks and on the internet clearly said it was unpredictable. We were ready for that. We had not anticipated
Train in Alat ferry portTrain in Alat ferry portTrain in Alat ferry port

Our boat is in the background
how the arrangements were being effected by the on going transformation of Baku. I will describe what we experienced in detail and hope no to bore the general reader. I hope the details may help any one who may want to take this passage in the near future (after that it could well have changed and be out of date).

So on our first day in Baku we went to find the ticket office. We planned to follow the LP guide instructions in combination with information and photos on google found websites. It was clear that a new building was being built where the office used to be. Two sets of people directed us to a smart new port building nearby.

We went in to the reception desk and soon had a small collection of people helping us. A young lady spoke some English. With maps they explained it was off Nobel Prospecti 5 or 6 km to the North. We spent time trying to get specific information. The lady then offered to take us to the bus stop to explain to the driver where we should get off. We got on a 175. A 46 would go there as well. You need any bus that goes along Nobel Prospecti towards the peninsula.

We were given landmark of a big restaurant, named Asiman, to look for on the left and then a railway bridge across the road. The bus dropped us as instructed on the second street on the right after these landmarks. We walked down this road as instructed no sure what to inspect. The lady had written 'ferry ticket office' in Russian in my book and told us to ask for this. We ended up at some dock gates where the security guard quickly directed us to a light brown door to the right next to an ATM. Inside we found an office and a lady (possibly Vika according to internet info) who spoke some English.

She said we could go today, there was a boat going. We wanted to go on Sunday which made her frown. She had no idea if a boat was going on Friday. She talked about how they only had one dock now instead four. She told us to come back on Sunday for 11am when the lady behind her would sell us tickets if a boat was going.

I had been using my GPS and the coordinates for the ticket office are: 40.36440; 49.93475.

We went off to enjoy Baku.

When we took the apartment Rahib had asked us to use his friend Gubad to take us to the ferry office the day we left. It would cost 4 manat he suggested. I was happy to agree. I also subsequently agreed with him that if we did not get a ticket Gubad would take us back to the apartment and we could stay an extra night.

Gubad turned out to epitomise Azeri helpfulness and by the end of the day he felt like a brother!

As planned Gubad picked us up in his car at 9.30am. He spoke little English. We worked hard to communicate with the help of our Russian phrase book. He understood the arrangement we had agreed with Rahib.

We directed him to the ticket office. It was closed. Gubad talked to the security guards at the gate and the senior man made a call. He said no boats were leaving from this dock today and one might be leaving from Alat. We quickly established that Alat was a town an hour south of Baku on the coast passed the tourist stop of Gobustan. But then it was no clear how we could buy a ticket even if we could get there.

At this point I should stress that it probably did not help that we were trying to do this arrangement on a Sunday. I think the ticket office would have been open as a matter of procedure on a weekday.

We were starting to think we were out of luck. I told Gubad that we should wait until 11am to see if the office lady turned up. He agreed 'No problem' and we had a happy time discussing our journey using pen, paper and phrase book.

At 11am no ticket lady had turned up. We waited another five minutes. We were about to drive back to the apartment to try the next day when Jane reminded me that I had the phone number of a ticket office lady called Vika from the internet (+994 552665354). Gubad called the number and the lady the other end gave him the number of the 'ticket office' (+994 555551757).

Gubad called this number and established that firstly, ferries leave from Alat most days and only once a week from Baku's dock. He then found out that the lady could come to office and sell us a ticket for a boat leaving from Alat that evening. That sounded good. She arrived by car half an hour later and sold us two tickets after she had sold two to a man with two Turkmenistan passports who had driven her to the office. She seemed to have come in especially for this purpose.

The tickets were 90USD or 71 manat each. I paid her 150 manats from the ATM (to conserve our USD) and she gave me 10USD change!

So now we had tickets. How were we going to get to Alat? Gubad said that lady was going to 'phone for a bus'. This turned out to cost 50 manats so Gubad had an alternative. We waited for a friend of his and then drove together to Sivox an area on the Southern edge of Baku where the friend could show us how to get a bus to Alat. The bus was there when we arrived and the guys briefed the driver. We said fond farewells as Gubad in particular had spent 4hours of his time sorting us out. I also gave him 20 manats for his trouble. The 195 bus from Sixus to Alat was 1.6 manats for both of us.

It quickly filled to bursting and then after Qobustan started to thin out. Another Azeri said he would show us where to get off. As we were approaching Alat (GPS still in hand) we saw what looked like a port at the coast. This new intersection was were we got off. It was six lane motorway we were deposited by. There was no traffic going to the port we were clearly going to have to walk.

First we had to cross the six lanes and the central reservation barrier. We had seen that this was standard practice for even old ladies earlier in the bus ride. As numerous rubble trucks past us it was clear they were still building this new port. By the motorway was a new
Quarantined on arrival at TurkmenbashiQuarantined on arrival at TurkmenbashiQuarantined on arrival at Turkmenbashi

Note Turkmenistan courtesy flag (green) and medical quarantine flag (yellow)
large sign 'Baku Sea Port'. We could see one ship in dock.

It was probably about a 4 km walk following the road to the boat loading barrier. This was under a large canopy with train tracks to the right. Other Turkmen and Azeris were already waiting. We went to see the official on the barrier who said there was 'no boat' (yet). A sophisticated couple drove up in a new land cruiser and talked to the guard. I discovered she spoke English and she confirmed with the guard that the boat we had tickets for would be here in around 3 hours. We sat down to wait as the others were. The couple drove off thinking we were mad.

Sure enough another ferry steamed up and docked around 5pm.

By 6.30pm the sun had set and the temperature was dropping and they started processing people to let them on the ferry. We basically had to go through the Azeri border control and customs - a formality. There was a small bus that could take you from the border control to the boat, about 1 km. The guy asked for 5USD for the trip so we walked!

You walked on the boat through the front loading doors. It looked as if the railway carriage cargo was already on board. We climbed stairs and found a passenger lounge. In all I counted 29 passengers on the ferry for the trip. A crew member came and collected everyone's passports.

After an hour of sitting around some ladies came up and allocated cabins. One spoke some English because her sister was an English teacher. We at first agreed to have a private cabin ensuite for 20USD. In the end none of these were left so we had a private cabin with the shared loos (they were fine) for 10USD. By now it was 9.30pm or so. We read a bit and then fell asleep. We were still in dock!

I woke early at sunrise and realised we were moving. I dressed and went on deck to see us cruising up the channel out of the port. I noted that the starboard mark was remarkably close to the southern tip of an off shore island. Sunrise over I went back to bed.

We must have been tired and we both slept in until 10am. Jane said she had just seen land. This can be confusing as there are many oil derricks and platforms out in the sea. We got up to see where we were. Surely it was too early to be in Turkmenbashi? The first thing I saw as we came out on the deck was the Flame towers. We were off Baku! No much progress then. We had a good laugh about that. Take the positive: we had our own private cruise of Baku bay.

To put it simply we spent the day in Baku bay. We anchored once and then cruised the shore before anchoring again by the North Shore (where we had bought the tickets the previous morning) and filling up with petrol from a supply ship. Jane took a picture of the crew hand having a cigarette while the fuel was being loaded.

It was around 5pm when we finally set off across the Caspian Sea to Turkmenbashi.

We warned Antonina from Stan Tours we were running late.

We had come prepared for meals even if the ferry was delayed. We had bread, dried fruit, yoghurts, spreads, fruit, a chickpea salad, date cake I made in the apartment and 5 litres of drinking water! There was a dining area where we bought tea (1 pot 1 manat) and as the boat left that evening we also ordered a chicken stew the chef had (9 manat). It was very tasty if salty. We probably could have ordered more food. Most of the other passengers seem to have their own food. Many had disappeared into cabins at the start and we did not see them again until we got to Turkmenbashi.

The sea was calm and we had a good second night. We were roused at 7am to clear our cabins as we had arrive in dock at Turkmenbashi. (We learn later from Antonina that it was actually more common to have delays going into Turkmenbashi than leaving Baku.)

Having packed we sat and waited in the passenger lounge (we were getting used to this). I wandered on deck and saw the ferry was flying a Turkmenistan curtesy flag and the yellow flag for quarantine!

We were asked to go upstairs for a medical check. We sat in front of a lady in a white coat, told her basic information including the date we left England and confirmed we were not sick. Back to the waiting room.

Finally we got the call to disembark. It was around 10am.

We got near the front. When it came to our turn with the immigration he said our visas were fine and there was an issue with our driver, Andre's paperwork. He had to go off and fix it which took another hour.

This allowed us to observe the others going through customs. All baggage went through X-ray although this seemed pretty irrelevant as it was unpacked after. The first two people through seemed to have issues from what one could see. The lady was taken to a separate room for a 'private' search and the customs lady came out holding six packs of cigarettes. Both the lady and the man went to a separate office for further conversation/fines it was difficult to tell what. They got sent on their way towards the end. Meanwhile we were still waiting for the driver and his paper work.

He finally came back with it. Once it was checked by the immigration official we went to the cashier and paid 24USD and received 4 pieces of handwritten paper in exchange. This allowed the immigration official to stamp the passports.

The head customs official came over and told us in good crisp English how to fill out the customs entry form (why had no one told us earlier.) He emphasised about whether we had any medicines and in particular, tramadol, trimazipam and codeine which were 'banned' in Turkmenistan. We said no. The bags went through the machine and then they did a cursory search. Having smelly flip flops in the top probably helped. Had we any medicines? I got the first aid kit out. The first bunch of tablets out said 'Codeine Phosphate' on the front! Opps! The head guy was called back.

'They are just part of our general first aid kit', I said.

'I know what is in a first aid kit', he said.

'You can keep them', I tried.

'I don't need them', he responded......I was just giving him the problem!

'You will have to take them back to the boat', he said. This removed the problem from Turkmenistan.

So off I trooped, escorted by a soldier (all the officials were from the military) with my passport. I met a crew member and was glad he quickly accepted the contraband. Back to the customs hall and we were through to the warm Turkmenistan sunshine.

It was 12 noon and 50 hours since we had left our Baku apartment to buy the tickets. We elected to drive straight to the capital Ashgabat, 8 hours away. This meant it was a long day and importantly we did not have to pay the extra day to Stan Tours for the driver (120USD).

So it turned out to be the adventure others had said it would be. Key lessons for any that follow us are: communicate to your Turkmenistan agency you are leaving Baku only when the boat starts to cross the Caspian Sea; check your First Aid kit before customs and do not try and rush it. There is nothing you can do to speed it up and you will get there eventually.


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