All Aboard

Deciding early on we didn’t like the hassle of Turkmenistan’s visas and conditions, left us the route options of a northern route via Russia, or taking the “ferry” from Baku, Azerbaijan to Aktau (Aqtau), Kazakhstan. The “ferry” is not arranged like a scheduled public ferry, it’s more that tourists can have spare space on a rail/truck shuttle. That was what we chose.
Cycle touring blogs abound with tales of the hassle, faff, and hardship involved. A lot of it is probably due to language issues and Soviet approach to service: Although most individuals are helpful, the system isn’t. The operators publish no user information, so the web is full of garbled advice, from everyone’s individual experience, but perhaps too often folk assume their example shows what the system is, when really it’s quite variable and ad-hoc. So here’s our experience:
Following online advice, we went to find the Baku ticket office. The directions on welovemountains were helpful, although Baku changes fast and the last bit differed: the rough road and grey tatty building are gone. The new port entrance is smart. To the left of it, the port’s electricity substation is stone or marble clad and lettered in gold. Right and just inside the port entrance barrier (and its helpful guard) is an old shipping container, painted white and turned into the ticket kiosk. The recommended lady, Vika, inside from 11am on our days, does indeed speak English. So far so good.
It took me a while to fully grasp what Vika was saying: “Call tomorrow to find out if there’s a ship tomorrow. Yes, on the same day. We open at 11am. The ship will go from Alat, 80km away.” So depending on sailing time, it may be impossible or a terrible scramble to actually catch the boat.
I asked, “Can we only buy tickets here”: Answer, “Yes, here”. It sounds clear, but three English lads in a car bought theirs in Alat, so clearly incorrect. Probably Vika didn’t get the “only”. Or meant that she didn’t sell anything but tickets (my bad English!). But I believed it, so with a day or two in hand, we checked out travel options to Alat:
Cycle: Allow 6 hours, dual carriageway, not too hilly. Ok if getting to port at 6pm is acceptible. Actually, on the day, it pissed down, so just as well we didn’t.
Coach: Station is about an hour’s crap ride from the ticket office. Bus ticket sales staff not able to help, I couldn’t find timetable. Not even sure if a full size coach goes that way. Small coaches can’t take bikes.
Bus: Service 195 apparently, from 20-ci. But getting bikes on buses is not easy.
Minibus: (from coach station, services for Sabirabad). No fixed schedule or tickets, drivers helpful about the bikes “no problem”. Probably best cheap option, but cycling cross town, then waiting for it to go could make it little faster than riding.
Train: English no use at train station, couldn’t even get times. Staff told us bikes not allowed on Azeri trains, although other Azeris say that’s not true.
Taxi: Almost all are saloons & can’t carry bikes. We wandered about the day before until we saw a big estate taxi, flagged it down and got a number. Got the hotel to call driver, agree a price and times. This worked well, and was quick, although at the end there was a disagreement about the fare. No idea if genuine or if driver was trying it on. We took responsibility for the last stage of navigating, driver wasn’t familiar with Alat Port.
Anyway, next day at 11, I call, and wooooo, there’s a ship: Be at Alat at 17:00. Rushed over to ticket office with both passports (needed), and cash. Prices were quoted in USD, but Vika said we could be paid in Manat or USD. $110 each, bike free, including cabin, bedding, food. I took Manat, using the typical exchange rate, and had a pleasant surprise that the exchange rate used worked out significantly cheaper. There was some delay finding the cashier person, but really it was smooth enough.  I did, however, get entangled in Baku’s one-way system on the way home. Anyway, we got tickets for Merkuri 1.
Again advice was confusing, we saw stuff online that cars and trucks can be loaded at Baku, whereas rail and foot passengers board at Alat, or occasionally vice versa. We boarded at Alat, where we cycled on, via vehicle ramp, noting the presence of rail tracks from inside the port onto the boat, so they could have loaded rail cars. But in fact we were followed by trucks, and finally a Ford Fiesta containing three English lads, Ivor, Martin, Andy on a post college jolly. I suspect that, as the entire fleet has the same dimensions, any of them can load anything at either port, but perhaps they don’t mix road and rail cargoes – another ship alongside was filling up with railcars. I don’t think trucks were part of these ship’s or docks original design, as the artics and dolly towers alike all had to reverse off.
The whole paperwork and loading process, both our personal bit and the whole ship, was way slower than a European car ferry. We’d been told to arrive 17:00 and were early, waited to be called up about 17:15, and were on-board about 18:15, bikes tucked in a corner before loading trucks. The three lads in a car, waiting before us, boarded last, car filling last gap, after 21:00 when the canteen had closed. Actual departure was about 22:30.
On boarding, and lashing down, we carried all our bags up (groan) to our room, including the heavy provisions we’d bought for the journey, after terrible online warnings about the food.
There’s no announcements on ship, but it’s easy enough to stroll along to the bridge and ask the current plan. I was originally told we’d dock about 22:30 (having departed almost exactly 24 hours before). But at 22:00 we heard the anchor going down, and I strolled f’ward to be told it’d be the morning (the dock was occupied). That was good for us – a comfy bed for the night, instead of dumped ashore at midnight. In fact it was about midday when we docked. And the crew were correct in predicting about an hour for Kazakhstan customs. All passengers had to leave the ship (and bulky luggage), do the paperwork (ok), reembark, and roll off. Customs then did a moderately thorough search, and in my case, had a go on the bike. I guess we were rolling by about 13:30. In our case just into Aqtau, to stock up for the long empty roads of Western Kazakhstan.
As for the ferry and voyage, it was fine, nothing matching the dreadful online reports. The sea was calm. Merkuri 1 was showing her 31 years, but everything important worked. The 2 bed cabin was rather tatty, but spacious, with an opening porthole, shower (sometimes hot, sometimes not), desk, loads of storage, and really comfy new mattresses. The 3 meals a day were basic but ok. It took me a while to find it, but there was always cay available. There didn’t seem any way to spend money on the ship, except for using phone data while near land.
Clare was violently ill in the first night. It must’ve been food poisoning.  But the timing makes it difficult to pin it on the ship’s cook. Just as likely to be the dodgy supermarket sausage sandwich she had while we waited to board. However we did thereafter both avoid the salad at mealtimes, as raw, unpeeled, fruit is generally a known risk.
Crew were friendly and helpful, but mostly without English. But in a fix, make for the bridge – I guess English is mandatory for marine VHF on international waters. Special mention for the stewardess who bangs on the doors at mealtimes, actually she more or less dragged us out of the cabin to the dining room. Below, she is putting out the laundry.
Other passengers mostly Turkish truckers, all friendly, the 3 English, and 3 folk from Aqtau, 2 ladies and a little pickle, who was spoilt rotten by everyone. I’m sure P&O wouldn’t have been keen on the round-the-ship-chase, climbing the mast at night, and steering-the-ship-even-though-you-can’t-see-over-the-console (tho’ I suspect the autopilot was on).
So yes, we had to be a bit flexible on timing, but apart from needlessly rushing from ticket sale in Baku, and Clare’s tummy, it was a walk in the park.
We celebrated passing this milestone with a dip in the Caspian (much cleaner looking in Aqtau than in downwind Baku). As it started to patter with rain.
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