Azer Ferry Gone?

Last week, Yugyeong and I crossed the width of Uzbekistan: from cities being transformed in the East, to towns proudly displaying their past in the West. This week, we await our ride across the largest ‘lake’ in the world, towards a new adventure in an oil-rich state undergoing a radical transformation of its own.

Day 57 – Aktau, Kazakhstan

Aktau is our last stop in the ‘Stans’, and it’s a far-cry from the remote, desolate, lake-town I somehow envisioned. It’s a large and bustling city, with Burger Kings and fun fairs and everything the modern Kazakh could possibly need. Aside from the contemporary garbage, it actually has several inviting beaches – which I will get to later.

The reason for our being in the lovely metropolis of Aktau was to secure a safe passage across the Caspian Sea – otherwise known as the largest lake on planet earth. The ferries are sparse and unscheduled, so last night we slept in Port Aktau car park, just to be at the front of the queue for ferry information today. That was extremely wishful thinking, as we were told to leave our phone number and wait for ‘the call’. With no idea whether we would be leaving in five minutes or five days, we went to the beach and did things people normally do on ‘holidays’.

After several hours reading, drinking, watching life go by and the sun go down (and fully prepared for more of the same joys tomorrow), we got ‘THE CALL’, or rather ‘the text’: “be at the docks in ten minutes with your car and passport, tell no-one”. It didn’t actually say the last part, but it did feel extremely secretive and mysterious. In fact, all we were required to do was to provide a few of Toby’s details, as we “may or may not” be leaving tomorrow. That sounded positive enough to me.

Day 58 – Aktau, Kazakhstan to Somewhere in the Caspian Sea

Leaving we are! Well, perhaps. We arrived at the ticket office in the town at precisely 9am (the time we were told to get there), when we were greeted by a panic-stricken lady who wrote us two speedy tickets and told us we needed to be at the dock ten minutes ago. We raced across Aktau, sacrificing breakfast and toilet facilities, and stumbled, sweating profusely, into the port’s office.

“The ferry is arriving now, so get your car through customs and ready to board within the hour”. Having forgotten that a Kazakh minute lasts ten of any normal clock, we did as he said before proceeding to wait. One hour, two hours, three, four… It was a full nine hungry-hours later before we finally got aboard ‘Professor Gul’, before being informed that we were still missing a stamp on our car paperwork (which was checked by port officials several times already). Yugyeong was forced to dash off the boat (with everyone waiting and watching), collect another stamp from a random office (the hundred stamps we had already accumulated were not enough), and sprint back before she was left in Kazakhstan. Only then, did we leave the shores of Aktau.

Having heard many stories of poor food and foul sleeping quarters, the ferry was a pleasant surprise. Cramped and old, yes, but clean enough and well stocked with basic supplies. The crossing takes thirty hours, a quite incredible amount of time given the relatively short distance between each side, but understandable given the leisurely pace the mature ship was taking – something we were quite happy with. After a rather superb dinner of lamb curry, pasta, and a meat-based soup, we joined in some card-games with the other guests (there are only thirty-five of us in total), before retreating to our comfortable sleeping quarters. As we drifted off, the Caspian waters remained still and silent.

Day 59 – Somewhere in the Caspian Sea to Qobustan, Azerbaijan

The night was extremely calm, and the ship quietly made very good ground (or indeed water). In the morning, upon checking and double-checking the GPS on our phones, we discovered that we were less than one hundred kilometres away from our destination – we’d be on dry land before midday. Well we would have been if the ferry didn’t come to a grinding halt within sight of the port – we proceeded to wait again.

Our day continued in this order: walk the circumference of the ship, talk to the foreigners about the delay, watch two truck drivers argue in Turkish, and eat a few gone-off biscuits to fight-off starvation – before starting the cycle again. Along with the constantly undulating Professor Gul, the day dragged more than any other – before we finally got the all clear to approach Alat Port… at 11PM. We struggled sleepily through customs (and paid all their ridiculous fees) with the help of the twenty truck drivers on board, and made it onto Azeri soil sometime in the very early hours. I vow, no promise, never to take another ferry on the entirety of this trip – unless it’s the one across The Channel.

Day 60 – Qobustan, Azerbaijan to Baku, Azerbaijan

At least the port wasn’t far from the capital. We only had fifty kilometres to drive before reaching Baku, and begin the search for our hostel in the incredulously-busy city centre. On first glance, Baku was not-at-all what we were expecting. A city looking to emulate Dubai was what I envisioned, with their copious oil money being poured into glass skyscrapers and twelve-laned highways. However, a city more akin to San Francisco (or even Paris) was what we saw: modern buildings made to appear timeworn and European in style, lining the narrow (and hilly), cobbled streets.

After our wearing journey to get here, we contented ourselves with doing very little today – and that was our plan for Baku in general. After completing the usual chores and visa applications, we headed out of the hostel, and stepped into the furore. We are both yet to acclimatise to the hustle-and-bustle of a chaotic city (the peace and quiet of the wildernesses we have driven through is always missed in these moments), and our two-months-on-the-road celebratory drink was a short one – favouring a cup of tea and an early night in our fourteen-person dormitory. The snoring is real.

Day 61 – Baku, Azerbaijan

We started our tour of the city by visiting the waterfront, where it is possible to see all of Baku’s major landmarks in one shot. The Azeri appear to enjoy replicating famous landmarks from around the world, their opera house being no different, whilst their iconic ‘Flame Towers’ can be seen from any vantage point in the city. Mosques are sparsely placed in between the modern structures although, given their lack of prominence and, from what we could tell, worshippers (in comparison to other Muslim countries we have visited), it would appear they may be fighting a losing battle with modernity.

Baku also comprises a UNESCO listed ‘Old Town’, which looks suspiciously new. It is flooded with tourists and, whilst I highly doubt its authenticity, they appeared to lap-up the cheap carpets and copper lamps (as seen in Aladdin). Whether it was built hundreds of years ago or last week, it is still an attractive place to wander around and get lost in. Once outside Baku’s historic-quarter, everywhere is very clean, very easy to navigate, and very quiet – until nightfall.

The city comes alive after dark. Restaurants, shops and bars are all open until the very early hours of the morn, and the chandelier-lit streets are full of activity until sunrise – we hear as such from our bunk-bed. However, the atmosphere is more family-orientated than drunk-and-disorderly, and it is a rather pleasant place to be after the crowds subside – rather like Astana in Kazakhstan. We had a couple of drinks in an Azeri sport’s bar (my favourite pastime), before making our way back to Snoresville. Sleeping next to landing fighter jets would provide more peace.

Day 62 – Baku, Azerbaijan

We returned to the old town this morn, and paid for entry into the renowned Palace of the Shirvanshahs: a 15th century palace built by the Shirvanshahs – who would have guessed. It comprises a mosque, a minaret, several large stone gates, two burial-vaults, a bath house, a mausoleum and, of course, the palace itself. Whilst it’s not the most remarkable complex we’ve seen in Central Asia, most of it looks genuinely historic, a rarity in Baku. The museum was more interesting, as it painted a vivid picture of a city that has undergone a radical transformation over the last seventy-five years: from a small fishing town to an oil-rich urban metropolis.

Later that very afternoon, something else underwent a historic transformation: my dishevelled hairdo. Having shaved off the lot in the forests of Siberia at the start of the journey (for the sake of cleanliness may I add), it was difficult to envisage a time when I would ever need to trim again, but (for the sides at least), today was the day. It will be useful having a bit more growth on the top – with Winter on the way and all. At thirty degrees and a humidity in the nineties, it certainly doesn’t feel like it’s getting any nippier just yet. Maybe in Iran? Maybe not.

Day 63 – Baku, Azerbaijan

Another day of rest and relaxation in Cheeky Carabao hostel, as the only attraction we were interested in visiting today was better observed after nightfall. So, as the sun set, we drove about twenty kilometres North of Baku to Yanar Dag: one of only a handful of ‘fire mountains’ left on earth (most are in Azerbaijan).

Having missed out on visiting the burning ‘Gates of Hell’ in Turkmenistan, this was the next-best accidental-continuous-fire-hazard we could find. A small quantity of natural gas seeps from below the surface of the ground, constantly keeping the blaze lit – something which fascinated Marco Polo when he arrived in this part of the world. Whilst not quite as dramatic its the name suggests (it’s more of a fire mound than a mountain), it was large enough to bring on a sweat from thirty paces. Well worth braving the ridiculous city traffic to visit.

Back in Baku for one final evening before we begin the short journey South to Iran: the last country (we believe) where we may encounter a few difficulties entering. Short of a few documents and without a ‘required’ guide, let’s hope the border guards can offer us some of the renowned Persian hospitality!

Distance Travelled: 15,655km


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