Caspian Sea, shore to shore

‘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.

Michael from the Urals at our resort hotel

Glorious sunset over the Caspian Sea

Our hotel and beach near Aktau port

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.

Mig 21 in Aktau park

Mig 21 takes to the skies in Aktau

No streetnames here, just block and building numbers, No. 32

Soviet era apartments in Aktau

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.

Dawn is breaking and we are close to leaving Aktau

Just before departure from Aktau

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.

Great to be on our way soon

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.

Our snug cabin on the Professor Gul

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.

“Don’t know what this means” the officer in charge told Anne

1986 built Professor Gul instruments

“Now was it turn left or right?” Anne wonders while all alone on the bridge, “

Vacant bridge, Anne is in charge, gulp….Ok so she has flown an RAAF C130-H for 45 mins.

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.

Professor Gul

Anthony exploring our luxury cruise ship

Full steam ahead, making smoke

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.

Getting a little help to dock into Alat port

We have nearly arrived in Alat, Azerbaijan

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.

We have arrived in Azerbaijan

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.

– Anthony

What time is the next ferry please?

What date will we leave Aktau? A chance to test your skill, knowledge and luck by guessing the date we will depart from Aktau in Kazakhstan for any port in Azerbaijan. You may confer, call a friend or research on the internet.

Good luck, the winning date will be announced after, and if, we successfully arrive in Azerbaijan.

– 2slowspeeds

Up to the Caspian Sea

The magnificent buildings in Samarkand and Bukhara visited for the second time in three years will now be added to our store of memories’ record in this blog as we head west again. From Bukhara we have a long haul to reach Aktau some 1,500 km or almost 1,000 ml away. Luckily the temperature is not expected to rise above the mid 30’s celsius. Last time we were here in 2014 it was the mid 40’s celsius, so we are lucky again. An early start from Bukhara, after loading another 28 litres of fuel onto Streak and Storm, sees us wrestle with avoiding potholes close to the city which does not always work as bottoming out the suspension on numerous occasions will testify. Anne has a theory on where the potholes come from, and we now have photographic evidence, they are stolen!

How pot-holes are formed, someone steals the road in pieces

Drivers hoot, flash lights and wave as we slowly make our way slowly westwards of all the ‘Stans’, the people of Uzbekistan are the most enthusiastic towards motorbikes. We also pass a bad accident, one car wrecked on the road, another in the field nearby, probably a front-on looking at the damage, lots of people already stopped so as we move on we are reminded to stay alert.

Waving locals

Beautiful cloud patterns

While we have 14 litres of fuel each extra, headwinds and the fact we are using 80 octane fuel, albeit with a booster additive, means we cannot be too complacent about how fast we travel on the good stretches of road – some fuel we have purchased has sediment which looks like that found in old wine bottles, so do not decant it all into the tank. We do have enough to reach Nukus some 550 km away which we reach after a long day’s riding.

Nukus was once one of the most prosperous cities in Uzbekistan based on agricultural produce but over time diversions of water resources to other regions has reduced agricultural output, and wealth significantly. To the north lies the shrinking remains of the Aral Sea. This was caused by the diversion of water from the Syr Darya River and the Amu Darya River in the 1960’s to support the growth of Soviet cotton production. Work is being undertaken to reverse the damage but it will take decades to achieve. Nukus is a good jumping off point for tours up to the Aral sea bed. Our hotel reception procures more petrol/gasoline, “do you want 91 octane?”. I think they have done this before.

State Museum of Art named after I.V.Savitsky in Nukus

Soviet era art by A N Volkov in the I.V.Savitsky museum

Early morning departure from Nukus

Off to work in Nukus

Extra fuel along for the ride

Time to adjust the extra fuel straps

This may be where the pot-hole pieces came from.

Our crossing back into Kazakhstan from Uzbekistan is relatively painless as borders go, paperwork at a minimum and only a couple of hours’ time. Makes one realise how good the systems we have in place are and the benefits of the EU Customs Union. If Brexit does not come up with an efficient Customs alternative the tailback will reach long past the M20 in Kent.

We had heard that the road on the Kazakhstan side was difficult and this proved to be true, it is mostly dirt, which in many ways is easier than pot-holed tar. We tend to be quicker than the cars across this surface, but we are always listening for a telltale rattle that something has come loose. We only have about 45 miles / 70 kilometres of this surface before we return to tar. It just confirms I am not a dirt rider, I will do it, but it gives me no pleasure.

Glad not to be doing this in the rainly season

Fellow travellers

Out and about in NW Kazakhstan

Hard to see the road markings here

Go for the gap in the middle

Oil and gas fields that feed Aktau port

We are some 20 ml/32 km from our final destination in Kazakhstan, the port of Aktau, where we will board a ship to take us across the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan. I glance down at the GPS and see that it has turned into a depth gauge, we are already some 70 meters below sea level! I quickly hold by breath, check for oncoming water from the Caspian Sea that towers above us somewhere ahead at only 27 meters below sea level and try to remember any anecdotal diving information from a friend over long dinners and good red wine back in Manly. Reality returns to my befuddled brain and I I realise I do not need to add a snorkel or oxygen tanks to the fuel and water containers that festoon Streak and Storm, Phew! We are in or close to the Karagie Depression which reaches 132m / 433 ft. below sea level and is one of the lowest points in the world. The name translated from Kazakh is “black hollow”, although the landscape is white and yellow. There are also many reported UFO sightings in the area, although today I think we are the only aliens around.

About to go down below sea level near the Karagie Depression.

We arrive in Aktau, the Caspian Sea now bars our way and we will need to seek passage on a ship to travel further westwards, but that’s for another blog entry.