Susanna and I reached the port just after 5, both anxious we were cutting it a bit tight, with the ferries scheduled departure at 5/6. We shouldn't have worried; in the end the boat didn't leave until well after midnight.
We had no idea what conditions on the boat would be like, where we would sleep, or even if drinking water was provided. We certainly didn't expect any food, so we had prepared 2 days of food and 20kg of water to take on board for the 30 hour voyage (plus probable delays). Again, we shouldn't have worried; when a crew member saw us preparing to take everything up, he rushed over, insisting we leave all the food, water, and sleeping stuff downstairs. We were led upstairs and shown to our cabin where we were instructed to leave our stuff before being ushered to a canteen and dished up a hearty two course meal; soup, followed by chicken, rice and mash. Of course, all washed down with a glass or two of çay (tea). All this happened in such a whirlwind we were left recovering from this sudden indulgence and sense of luxury. We were to have a bed for the first time in over two weeks, there were showers! Travelling by bike certainly makes you appreciate the simple things in life!
After dinner I lay down in my bed, stomach fit to explode, and like a kid at Christmas, tried desperately hard not to fall asleep. I had dreamt about this boat journey for so long, wondering if it would ever become a reality. And now it was, and I didn't want to miss a moment of it.
Apart from Susanna and I, the boat is filled with truck drivers who continue to transport goods along the Silk Road. For many of them, the boat trip is a regular monthly or twice-monthly occurrence, and allows them to catch up with their friends, some of whom they've known for several decades. Also, for some, the knowledge that they are on the boat and not driving for at least the next 30 hours is a good enough excuse for a party, and I spotted a few people drinking vodka neat from the bottle with their breakfast at 7 am. Some I didn't see again all day... maybe they went for a swim.
Many of the truck drivers are excited to have two tourists on board – I imagine we're a bit of a rarity - giving us a chance to get to know some of them. One, Nevzat, who speaks particularly good English has assumed the role of looking after us; whenever he sees us, he tells us with a grin 'Whatever you need, I give to you,' or 'you need anything? I got it.' I can't quite work out if he's just a very friendly man, or actually a very subtle drug baron. A little part of me hopes the latter!
When I was much younger, on the ferry to the Isle of Wight, my dad lifted me onto his shoulders and we waved to the captain, who beckoned us up to the bridge, and allowed me to steer the ship. With fond memories, I decided to try my luck once again, and I
climbed up the stairs and waved to the captain. Sure enough I was invited into the bridge, filled with buttons and the most tantalisingly empty horizon stretched out in front. After a while, I was led upstairs by Yakub, the chief engineer, and he told me he was a sportsman, and proceeded to show me his workout running around the boat pulling off various athletic manoveures, all the while, I believe, still in charge of the boat.
As the chief engineer began to tire from his workout, and looked ready to go back down and actually keep the ship on a steady course, I had one final request, and I asked if I could go and stand in the crows nest, the ships high point. He paused a minute, before saying okay, and leading me round to the ladder. From this vantage point I could see 360 degrees of nothingness. Not a ship. Not a speck of land. Not a single feature. It made me feel incredibly small, and I paused for a moment in awe of the view. It was a powerful feeling; I think one day, after the bike tour, you might see me rowing or sailing across an ocean!
Yakub then invited me down to his private cabin for a glass of cay. He had a notebook covered in scrawl with English phrases and words which he was excited to test on an actual English person. In the background, his television droned, before it began to crackle, and then finally it switched from the Azeri channel to the Kazakhstan channel, and the clock jumped an hour forwards.
The ferry adventure came to an abrupt end at the inconvenient time of 3am. The moment we docked, the boat was swarmed by Kazakh army officials and a rhino-sized dog, running around sniffing everything. I felt certain our drug baron friend Nevzat was going to be bundled to the ground any minute now. He didn't though. And he came through on his offer if we needed anything, by offering us a place to stay in his lorry.
The Caspian Sea ferry was every bit the adventure I had hoped it would. An experience to remember, an integral part of the trip, dropping me on the other side of the Caspian. Now, no more water lies between me and Singapore. I wonder what I'll have seen by the time I finally reach there!