Crossing the Caspian Sea by Ferry
Azerbaijan's capital city, Baku was an exciting milestone for me and my adventure bike touring around the world. I had reached the Caspian Sea and could go no further. I had wanted to go south, through Iran but visa requirements denied me access there. To the north was Russia. Closed border crossings prevented me navigating around the Caspian there too. This left me with one option; the infamous Caspian Sea ferry from Baku to Aktau, notoriously hard to catch.
Why is the Caspian Sea Ferry so difficult to catch?
1) People in the ticket office speak Russian and Azeri, and only a little English.
2) It is not actually a passenger ferry, and is predominantly used for cargo. This means there is no schedule, and instead it leaves 'when it is full.' This makes procuring information regarding its departure a challenge, and any information you find will be vague and last-minute; 'Yes, there is a ferry today', 'No, there is not a ferry today.'
3) The ferry to Kazakhstan leaves every 3 – 5 days on average, but delays of up to two weeks are not unknown. Such a delay could jeopardise future visa arrangements.
4) Finally, and most ridiculously, the ticket office will only sell you a ticket when a ferry is guaranteed, generally only on the day of the ferry. The ridiculous part is that the ticket office is located 70km north of where you actually have to take the ferry from. This creates a headache for bike tourers who may only have a few hours notice to buy a ticket and get themselves to the port 70km south.
I had arranged for Susanna and I to couchsurf in Baku with a friendly local, Rovshan, who proved very helpful. He rang the ticket office for us the evening we arrived but was told there was no information on a ferry yet. The next morning he rang again, but was told to call again later. At 10:30 when he called again, he was told a ferry would be leaving at 5pm that day. We were relieved but a little disappointed; we had been looking forward to exploring Baku, excited for our first rest day in 10 days, and cycling back to the port would mean repeating the same 70km as the day before. Despite this I felt strongly we should get the ferry; waiting another 3 – 5 days would place a strain on reaching Uzbekistan on time. We hurriedly packed our stuff, rushed goodbyes with Rovshan and headed in search of the ticket office.
As we set off neither of our heart's were really in it. Baku is a beautiful, clean oil-rich city with an interesting old city, and a wide, extravagant promenade. And we wanted more time to explore it. We both reached the same decision at the same time. We were going to take a risk by not going for the ferry today so we could have a look around, and hope another would come along soon.
In the late afternoon, we arrived at the ticket office and I went in to see what information I could gather, and discovered that our luck was in- another ferry was leaving the next day! Even better, they were willing to let me buy the tickets right then, a day in advance. (I have never read any accounts of people buying tickets a day in advance.) It got stranger; a sign outside showed the price as $110 a ticket (I have even read of people paying $120) so I handed over $220 for two tickets, but was handed a few notes back and only ended up getting charged $80 a ticket!
I felt like Charlie with his golden ticket from Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, as at last I clutched the ferry ticket in my hands, delighted to have it at last! I had always known that given enough time I could cycle to Australia, but it is the logistical challenges I believe pose the biggest threat to the trip. This ferry ticket was my key, unlocking new countries to explore, the silk road to traverse and new experiences to be had.
Part Two – Crossing the Caspian will be out soon! Don't forget to subscribe for email updates below so you don't miss it!