‘Why did you come to Aktau?’ asks Micheal a Russian guest at our hotel. A fair question when you look on a map and see Aktau on the shores of the Caspian Sea with no obvious reason to visit here and it is a long way by road from anywhere.
We explain we are in Aktau to take the ferry to Azerbaijan. Micheal, who comes with his family for the beach which is the nearest to drive to from the Urals in Russia where they live, starts to tell us of the various interesting geological features that exist in the area, none of which we were aware of, or had found in any English Language search of the internet. As we have found time and time again there is always something of interest wherever you are going.
After registering our bikes and us, at two separate locations 11kms / 7 ml apart, port and city respectively, we spent three days in Aktau, mostly relaxing at our resort hotel as we waited for the call to say a ferry is on its way. This we understood is standard practice here as the local offices have no idea which ship is coming until it departs from Baku, and seems to depend on the demand from trucks wanting to cross. There is no schedule. When we left the port, I noted some 30 vehicles on the screen in the port office, but only 24 were scheduled to board that night.
A text pops up on my mobile with the Kazakhstan sim card ‘come to the office between 10 and 12’, which office? We guess correctly: the port office, complete our bill of lading then get our passenger tickets in town. The ship will arrive at about 02:00 and we need to be at the port at 23:00. Not much sleep tonight.
We ride to the port, only 3 km / 2 ml from our hotel, but as we avoid riding at night wherever possible it’s a strange feeling riding in darkness and as we arrive at the port we realise that the empty railway tracks we had seen in daytime that criss cross the port roads are alive with shunting activity at night. Rider/driver beware.
Customs and Immigration processes are documented in Visas and Borders section, only noteworthy item was watching Customs officers trying to search our bags in the dark without any torches: that does not work well, they could see nothing and I could see nothing, it was over pretty quickly.
Rather than our comfortable hotel bed, a short distance away, we spend the early morning hours outside the port office, surrounded by cigarette smoking truck drivers – seems the world’s remaining smokers congregated here. We were waiting with a couple of other motorcyclists and a number of backpackers. We have hardly seen a backpacker on our journey, different hotels/hostels and the fact we never visit train or bus stations means our paths normally never cross. That was us once many decades ago, I am certain I could not lift a backpack like that anymore. Ahh nostalgia….No I do not miss the cheap backpacker hostels with old beds and no air-conditioning, maybe I have become soft but I like my comforts.
We have packed food and sleeping bags to take onboard, as have others because there is no information on sleeping arrangements or food availability on the ship. Shows how little information is available on these crossings, better to be prepared.
We get on board our ship, a RO/RO Passenger ferry called ‘Professor Gul’, as the eastern sky gets that early morning glimmer of light, unfortunately Storm is having difficulty starting, we get there, but sounds like a problem to be looked at in Baku (turns out that the battery was run down: did someone fiddle with my spotlight switch while the motorbikes were waiting to board?). A four berth cabin, a surprise, is allocated by an unpleasant woman who wants as many people to a cabin as possible to save cleaning, and opens as few toilets as possible (3 male toilets only) to save work. Very different attitude from the kitchen staff who work hard to give us wholesome food at each meal time. We end up sharing with a Dutch motorcycle couple on a pair of Royal Enfield’s who started from Australia over a year ago heading to Europe , even slower travellers than the 2slowspeeds! Sleep overtakes us.
A calm sea greets us when finally awaken in the early afternoon. The cabin is warm, the newly installed air conditioning system is not working, I hope better goes for the lifeboats, at least they have a checked date of 16/07/2017 painted on them from the last major overhaul. Luckily, we can open our window and our cabin door does not close so we have a through draft. Hopefully we will not need our Personal Location Beacon (PLB), a smaller version of an EPIRB, which we have dug out the top-box just in case.
We start to wander around, seems we could go anywhere except the vehicle deck, but the heat and noise emanating from the fully opened engineering hatches is enough to keep me topside. It must be hard working down below in summer. On researching the ship I find it was constructed in Croatia: how did they get a 155m x 18m ship into the Caspian Sea, more research and the can only assume they used the Don-Volga canal, which would have been a tight squeeze.
The sea is smooth, great for us fair weather sailors, and we progress without me sighting a single ship. Not the busiest of shipping routes. Day 2 sees us anchored just off Baku, our final destination, by 3am but sadly not the Professor Gul’s. We are destined for the new port of Alat some 65 km. / 40 ml. south of Baku and we eventually move into that direction 5 hours later, and disembarked after 31 hours at sea.
After the usual Customs and Immigration procedures, plus time taken to pay for the motorcycle transport portion of our journey, we emerge onto the nice wide tarred highway and head for Baku.
By the way nobody voted the correct date of our departure, which was earlier than even we expected, Friday 25th August 2017. I think some 50+ people viewed the blog entry, but only 11 voted, woefully inadequate conversion rate in my view, I will have to write better operating instructions, or provide a real prize in future, should we decide to hold another poll.