We started off in Baku, Azerbaijan, onboard the ferry boat Balaken.
Our ship was beside another ferry, the rusty Merkuri-1. We heard that a few years ago, a ferry sank during a storm — the Merkuri-1 might be next!
The Balaken, built in 2012, is said to be “new” — not on our list of Baku-to-Aktau ferries.
We get underway at 10:00 AM.
The Balaken carries boxcars on rails.
We meet our fellow passengers, a family (husband, wife, daughter), and a single guy (beside Karen).
Previous bloggers worried about food. We did not have time to buy adequate provisions but we were served enough on-board. Breakfast: a kind of spam, bread, margarine, cheese, and tea.
Meals included soup, cabbage, pickles, tea, and a green carbonated drink made from tarragon.
Here is a supper: chicken, cabbage, and noodles.
After two days and nights on the boat, we arrived in Aktau, Kazakhstan, at 9:00 PM and got a ride with a security guy to a hotel — which turned out to be too expensive for us ($150/night). The young woman at the desk was nice and she sent us to a cheaper place within walking distance — it was late so we checked in and paid about $100.00 for the night (still more than we can afford but it was late) — then we had tiny bowls of expensive soup.
In the morning, we set out to get train tickets to Astana — but our hotel desk directions were no good and we had many problems finding the ticket office.
I did not record video of the down-town area — with office buildings and high-rise hotels. There are plenty of poor dwellings mixed among the hotels.
Eventually, we found the ticket office and determined that we would need to hang around in Aktau for two more days until the next train left.
We booked the cheapest place we could find …a nice place that cost $75/night. It had the best breakfast EVER! We needed the rest. The train would take 2 days to get to Astana.
Few people speak English in Aktau — except for the foreigners who work there and the desk clerks at the expensive places. Aktau is the energy center of Kazakhstan — it is on the Caspian Sea, a salt water lake, the largest lake in the world — with a huge oil field underneath.
We have a lot to learn about Kazakhstan. I made a list of phrases in the Kazakhstan local language (Kazakh) but it turned out that it is better to know Russian. Maybe 30% the people in Aktau are Russian (I guess) — to be precise, they are former Russians who are now citizens of Kazakhstan. The Kazakhs in Kazakhstan have lived much of their lives within the USSR — and a large percentage can speak Russian.
Aktau was built in the 1960s as a center for mining uranium but then that declined and now oil is the big export. The Caspian Sea has so much oil that Kazakhstan has the potential to become like Saudi Arabia or the U.A.E.
I am reading about the history of Kazakhstan. About 40 percent of the people here are Kazakh, I learn. They look more Asian than the European-looking Russians.
People say Aktau has mild weather because it gets above freezing (32 degrees F.) in the winter, sometimes — people in Kazakhstan call that mild. Astana, where we are going, is very cold in the winter.
Trees do not grow naturally in this area. When they first built Altau, they had to drill holes and bring in dirt so that the trees could grow if properly watered. The environment is harsh.
You can buy canned horse meat in the store across the street from our hotel. People also eat camel meat but it is expensive — a delicacy. The main kinds of meat are sheep and horse. I look at the cans of meat in the store and some have pictures of horses on them. The horses that they eat are different from the horses that they ride. The ones they eat are fattened up so that they are more tender.
The sidewalks are sometimes a bit rough — a large percentage of people in Kazakhstan (maybe 50%) live below the poverty line. The oil wealth that comes to Kazakhstan is not distributed evenly. I saw people buying alcohol in the store.
I am at the shore of the Caspian Sea, where so much oil waits to be extracted and sold. Kazakhstan is the land of the future — a country with immense treasure under land and sea.
I am reading a tourist guide book and a book by Martha Brill Olcott — Kazakhstan: Unfulfilled Promise? — to learn more.