In the old days, we backpackers took buses and trains (and hitch-hiked) around the world, going from Europe to Turkey, Iran, Afganistan, Pakistan, India, and Nepal. Our destination was Kathmandu, Nepal. Then, we traveled around India and Nepal and had to fly into what was then Burma, then to Bangkok, Thailand…then I hitch-hiked down to Malaysia, Singapore, took a boat to Indonesia (then buses to Bali which was good in those days), and Australia (where I worked for a while). I went around the world in 1975 and 1976 — I might be your grandfather.
These days, some overland travelers follow the Silk Road — and the difficult part involves a ferry from Baku, Azerbaijan, to Aktau, Kazakhstan. Some people wait for days and days, trying to figure out when the ferry will go. Bloggers say you must visit the ticket office twice a day. It is a 45 minute walk to a hard-to-find place — and typically no one has information. You must expect to not know anything for sure. This ferry trip is the Mt. Everest of backpack traveling — a true challenge.
I’ll tell how we did it in February, 2015.
First step, we booked into the Guest House Inn Hotel in Baku (cost for us: $55). We asked Emil, at the desk, to call Vika (99 455 266 5354), the lady who speaks English, at the Baku Ticket Office. This is the basic blogger advice. Emil knew Vika.
I was armed with all kinds of information from other people’s blogs and expected the process to be difficult. Karen downloaded an app that gives the positions of the ships known to go to Kazakhstan. She had a list of four ships.
“What is the probability that we can get a ferry to Aktau?” I asked Emil. The answer, “Not likely.” Most people give up. The Lonely Planet guidebook suggests buying an airplane ticket but we old-time travelers know that the right way is to go overland — to see everything by going by bus, train, boat, foot — not flying. We are on a pilgrimage and we are going to try to get on a ferry.
There is no set ferry schedule and the ferries to Aktau are infrequent. Some ferries go to Turkmenistan but that is not an option for us. The visas to Turkmenistan are hard to get these days — maybe impossible for people from the USA. Going to Kazakhstan seems to be the only way– even though it may be difficult.
I begin investigating airplane fares to Astana, Kazakhstan — we want to keep all options open. Our visa gives us only nine days in Azarbaijan.
We spoke with Vika, the lady at the ferry ticket office. She said she has no info. She says to call back in two hours. We call back. She said a boat was coming but it had no load. She said it was going to Kazakhstan. She said to call back in two hours. We called back. She did not answer. We went to buy groceries. She called and left a message. We must buy a ticket by 8 PM. Wow! Amazing! There was little time left — it was 7:30 pm.
Emil helped set it up. We had to hurry. We needed money in US dollars — $110/person. The cash machine provided only Azerbaijan money — I got the money and rushed to a money changing place — big rush! I got back to the hotel. Emil called his friend. Emil’s friend was to drive us to the distant, obscure ferry office….a new place… but he had extreme problems finding it. He asked for directions again and again — pedestrians, cab drivers, guys on the street — nobody was sure. He called Emil again and again. We missed the deadline but we got there at 9:00 PM. There were about four guys waiting to buy tickets — things were going slowly, the lady filling out paperwork — it seemed that these guys were waiting for different boats — hard to say. Emil’s friend spoke with the lady. “No problem,” Emil’s friend said. “Sorry about the trouble finding the place,” he said. We waited there while the woman filled out tickets for other people. One guy paid and checked his remaining money-not much left. The woman, someone other than Vika, took our money — $220 cash. She slowly filled out the paperwork. We got our tickets.
Emil’s friend is a good guy, able to speak some English. He told us of the wonderful former Supreme Leader/president/prime minister/whatever of Azerbaijan, whose son is now in power. “He is like Churchhill or Attaturk,” he said. “He tells the people about the Armenians, a big problem,” Emil’s friend says. “We are at war with Armenia. We used to get along with them. They were nice people, good neighbors, when I was young. Many lived in Baku in the old days — but now they are the enemy.”
We were exhausted, but so far, so good. We had tickets. The lady told Emil’s friend that we had to be on the boat by eleven PM (that would be almost impossible). Could we make it to the boat ontime? Maybe — there was a translation problem… We had to be there by twelve midnight — not eleven. We would need to hurry.
We rushed back and I paid Emil’s friend the agreed upon 15 manat (20 dollars). Now we were on our way. We got our stuff, got a cab. Emil gave the cab guy directions to the commercial ferry port. The cab guy spoke almost no English. It would cost 40 manat to get to the commercial ferry terminal (55 dollars). Off we went — driving, driving, driving — it was supposed to take 30 minutes — an hour passed. The cab guy had real trouble finding the place…it was scary — we were going to miss the boat! For a while we were afraid the cab guy had made a mistake and was taking us to the airport terminal…. but after more than an hour we arrived at the customs place. It was after midnight. “Don’t worry,” I told Karen. “Everything is always late.” But where was the boat? No one could tell us. The process began. They stamped our passports, took our photographs. They directed us out the door. We walked off in the direction they pointed for a long way in the dark. Where was the boat? Eventually we saw two boats and, following a guy’s gestures, we figured it out. We climbed on board the ferry Balaken, a boat built in Croatia in 2012. It was loaded with railroad cars filled with stuff. They were still loading it.
See my wife Karen’s blog — “Taking Our Time” — “Ferry from Baku, Azerbaijan, to Aktau, Kazakhstan” for a more complete description — but I would say that Vika and the Guest House Inn Hotel were the keys to our success.
The boat was not a bad place, actually, compared to those described by previous bloggers. We were two of the six passengers on the boat. We have our own cabin and toilet.
We lie in our beds, listening to the noise of stuff being loaded. In the morning, around 10:O0 AM, the boat starts moving.
We see the captain, driving the boat, and we look back at Azerbaijan.
We were on our way! The flag pole marks the bow of the ship and we look toward the stern.
We see oil rigs in the Caspian Sea.
We eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The meals are Russian food. A chicken drumstick, rice or noodles, pickled cabbage, bread, potatoes, tea, soup (leftover potatoes, rice, noodles), carbonated green drink made of tarragon.
The next day, at 8 AM, The boat drops anchor. We must wait for other freight ferries to unload. Some bloggers describe waiting for days. Some carry their own food.
We can see a smokestack in Kazakhstan.
We wait. I meditate.
They give us breakfast — margarine, cheese, sour cream, bread, tea. The first day, we got a kind of spam.
We can see Kazakhstan.
We wait. I meditate. We wait.
A crew member practices martial arts.
He demonstrates his moves.
Finally, after two days on the boat, we lift anchor and move toward the harbor. A crew member tells me not to take photographs. Only one or two speak English. They speak Russian. “This country ….funny,” he explains. “No pictures.”
We end up in Aktau, Kazakhstan, after dark. No taxis and our cell phone does not work there. Lucky for us, a security guy gives us a ride into town.
So that how we did it. Exciting. And the adventure continues.