The Road

Rusty Pass Through the Caspian Sea

The ferry doesn’t go from the Baku, but from the new port in Alat. It takes a little bit more than 1 hour via hitchhiking to get there, we got lucky since the driver took us to the very gate of the port. After crossing the whole place in the heat of the sun, we finally found the cargo container office. Here we could buy ourselves the bed place in the 4 berth cabin for “only” 70$ per person.

It was one of those rare moments where we actually gave up on hitchhiking for the other means of transport. There were a few reasons, but the main one was just to experience the crossing of Caspian Sea with its (in)famous ferry. On the way to the ticket office, we exchanged looks with the guys sitting in the shadows of another building. They have been travelers just like us, and their lethargic faces told us that they did not show up here recently. Once we were handed over the tickets, the worker told us with a smile “you are very lucky, the ship is gonna be here tonight at 8 pm!”. Indeed this news made us happy. We felt well prepared since we read lots of reports of passengers waiting one week for this ship (some even 2 weeks!). Once we shared the message with the waiting guys they quickly brought us down to earth. They were told the same “news” one day ago, some 2 days ago. 

Basically that’s the part that took us by surprise. The waiting itself is not a big deal, especially if you know how bad it can get. The problem is with the mental torture administration workers are serving, telling every few hours that the ship is comming in 3 hours/tonight/very soon, but it never does. Indeed, although the ship did not appear at 8 p.m., as we were informed, in the end we were very lucky with our timing. We joined the waiting group as one of the last passengers, it was around 5 pm, and we had to wait till the next day 8 pm.

Some of our fellow travelers were less lucky – one french couple has been waiting there already for 3 days.  Since, as mentioned, fake news about the ship coming are served constantly, also the trick with sleeping in the hotel in a nearby city and letting the staff call the port did not work. Another couple tried it, were woken up early in the morning and rushed to the port only to find out that the ship in fact is nowhere near… There was time to hear each and every story, and naturally many of them concerned the ferry. 

Actually, at least for us, there was no time for boredom. Great thing about the Caspian Sea ferry route is the fact that not many people will choose it. Since it’s a risk of losing a significant amount of time,  tourists with limited holiday period definitely won’t include it in their plan. Basically, with its unreasonably unorganized schedule, the port quite naturally filters out vacationists, leaving the travellers. Still, those are just a few, a little extra. The main purpose of the ferry is to provide a route for the truck transit, thus the huge parking area was filled with trucks heading towards various parts of Central Asia – more about them later. Our travellers group consisted of maybe 10 -15 people. Guys, both couples and solo travelers, were from Europe, most of them from France, it was fun to meet people going around in such a variety of styles – they were cyclist, motorcycle riders, hitchhikers like us and guys using public means of transport. Each and everybody had their own story to tell and share, the plans of the further travel, once we will get to the other shore of the Caspian Sea. 

It started to get late and we knew that no ship is coming,the  administration moved us to another place – from one “waiting room” which was empty building, to bigger one with some chairs. We decided to set up a tent outside, as the air was so nice and we could avoid loud talkers inside. The next day we finally got on the ferry around 5 pm – what an exciting moment it was. The cargo ship named “Agdam” docked next to our ferry, reminded us of our illegal visit in that huge ghost town and that we’re leaving the lands of uneasy modern history… 

Though the sea route took all together one evening, a night and a day, much of it is actually spent on the ferry docked to the ports on the both shores. To admire sunset from the upper deck and see everyone smiling at the starting, slow movements of our ship was a pleasant reward after hours of waiting. 

We pretty much walked through the whole ferry before it managed to finally roll into the sea. Since you are free to wander at the boat wherever you like, it makes an interesting trip or two. The ship is kind of a relic of soviet era, we’re pretty sure re-paint job hides many signs of time on it. Red carpet floor covering inside, potted plants, some out of order gambling machines and sofas in the lobby which definitely have seen a lot. With a specific mix of smells of sweat, oils and exhaust fumes, the climate was one of a kind. But for most, of course, the berth cabin, showers and toilets are the most important, and their quality is not that bad. There were one locked shower, and two others are just gum hoses fixed to the wall from which water is sprayed to the side, but that’s kind of average standard on our road. In our cabin AC seemed to work little, but it was a good place to chill and sleep nevertheless. We were lucky to end up in the same cabin with a lovely couple from Switzerland with whom we got acquainted with in the port (Cheers Anita and Patrick!).

We watched the blue sky over our heads, lying down on the upper deck, hiding from the strong winds. We could spend the whole trip like this, but there was a work to be done – a big laundry. Except for that we made breaks for 3 meals served in the small dining room. Here we could observe the rest of the passengers, that seemed to spend most of their time locked inside cabins. There appeared also Tolik and Aiwa, two Turkmen truck drivers to which we spoke earlier before, during our first hour in the port. We figured that since we will need to catch a ride in Kazakhstan anyway, why not do it there in the parking lot with all the drivers close. Later we discovered how lucky we were to run into these two – that majority of the drivers on the ship were quite troublemakers. Apparently for many of the guys, the Caspian Sea ferry is a only longer break during lengthy rides through whole Asia, so that they make sure to use it as much as they can. The drinking party with occasional fist fights in the meeting room ended up deep in the night. The troubled ferry service was trying to mop the sticky with cheap alcohol floor while at the same time try to push away drunk passengers who tried to kiss them. Luckily the captain’s assitant was a really big guy, his appearance in the room made everyone go silent and let us finally sleep. 

The same guy turned out to be very helpful. He told Marek at what time he should appear on the upper deck to see a very peculiar place – one of the destinations that are not so easy to reach. Neft Daşları, also known as the Oil Rocks is one of a kind place – Soviet Era Oil City, floating 55km from the shores of Azerbaijan. It’s world’s first offshore oil platform and nowadays a settlement with a population of 2,000 people. It was 3:00 in the night and the winds outside were strong and cold. Neft Daslari remained a mystery – it’s crumbling old platforms could barely be seen in the moon light… beside that far in the horizon hundreds of lights were shining hinting the impressive size of “Stalin’s Atlantis”.

Going back to the berth cabin, Marek passed next to a gleaming sign which in daytime hid well in the sun rays. It was the name of the ship – Merkuri 1. It made him goosebumps as he reminded the dark story of another Caspian Sea ship, named Merkuri 2. In 2002, it went from Aktau but never reached its final destination in Baku. Huge wind and 6 metre high waves turned out to be too much for it – out of 51 men on board, only 9 were saved.  Thinking about it, the prolonged time of our voyage stopped to bother us. It made us wonder how long this rather adventurous and unique option to cross the Caspian Sea will remain.

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