AZERBAIJAN, 14th – 16th August 2017
Taking the Caspian Sea ferry from Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan is a major milestone for many touring cyclists heading east across Eurasia. Since British citizens are no longer allowed to travel freely through Iran without a guide it was also the only real route option for us (although I had drawn up an emergency Plan B of going up through the ‘travel not advised’ parts of Russia should anything go wrong). And things could go wrong. The Alat to Aktau ferry is not really a ferry, you see, but a cargo ship, and it provided some considerable logistical concerns for my attempt to make a full circumnavigation of the globe only by bicycle and boat. The self-imposed terms of this challenge, this circumnavigation attempt that I started in Paris in July 2013 and that I hope to conclude in Mori, China in December 2017 (and if you’re confused as to how a circumnavigation attempt can start and end in different places, may I please suggest you read No Wrong Turns, it’s only £1.99 on Kindle now, 4.8 stars on Amazon), is that I must never use motor vehicles at any stage. The Caspian Sea boat threatened this for a couple of reasons. First there was the initial issue of the boat leaving from Alat, 70 kilometres south of Baku, but the tickets for the boat only being available to purchase in Baku, and only a few hours before sailing, leaving me wondering how I could cover 70 kilometres in a few hours without using motor vehicles on land. But for me a bigger concern was the port itself. Travelling on cargo ships has generally been ‘off-limits’ during my various ocean crossings, because it is not considered safe to walk or cycle through ports where containers are being hoisted around, and other transport is usually required to get to and away from the actual boat. This was my biggest fear about the Caspian Sea. Would the continuity of my circumnavigation only by bicycle and boats survive?
Well, fortunately these fears were soon alleviated for me. The old, archaic system of having to buy the tickets 70 kilometres away from the port appears to be a thing of the past. As the motorcyclists we met in Baku told us, it was very easy to buy our tickets directly at the port in Alat (which probably saved Dea a 140 kilometre round-trip in a taxi). The man selling tickets was efficient and friendly and gave us a choice between beds in a four-bed dorm for $70 each or a two-bed room for $80 each. We chose to save the twenty bucks and pray that we landed ourselves some non-snoring truckers. And there were going to be plenty of truckers on board the ship. The big parking lot which became our temporary home as we waited for the boat was filled with rows of waiting trucks. This was a good sign. It turned out that it was not a cargo ship exactly, but actually more like a transport ferry after all. The trucks would roll on and roll off the boat, there would be no hoisting, and hopefully no need for us to take any rides in motor vehicles. Things were looking good.
Having bought our tickets and spent our first night camping away from the main parking lot we returned there the next morning to begin the important task of waiting. There was a small, shaded corner of the parking lot where the travellers gathered. It had been full of Mongol Rally teams the evening before but most of them had left during the night on the first boat and now only one car remained. This was a bit annoying, as it left me with few chances of making sales of my book, of which I had several extra copies with me. I’d had these copies sent to me in Italy, you see, thinking I might find some people eager to buy them along the way, and, well, I hadn’t. Now I was under pressure to get rid of them before we reached Uzbekistan, where we were likely to be searched thoroughly. I remembered from my last visit that Uzbek border officials were particularly interested in what books you carry with you, and so I was a bit concerned with how they might react to seeing me with four copies of the same book, all with my name on the cover, especially as it contained a chapter on Uzbekistan in which I’d been not entirely praiseworthy of the country.
So I set up my little shop and left it out for the travellers to see. I had to wait a while for them to get up, though, because they were all a little hungover and bleary-eyed. The first to come over to us was Angus, who was very friendly but didn’t buy my book. He explained that the four of them were recent graduates of Lancaster University and they had driven from England in just three weeks (it always amazes us how fast motor vehicle travel) in convoy with friends of theirs in another car that had, rather rudely, got on the last boat without them. After a while Angus wandered away and another of the four came and introduced himself. This was Ben, or Benji as everyone called him, the Norwegian with the much more convincing British accent than me. I decided that the reason I hadn’t clinched the sale with Angus was because he couldn’t have seen my little shop, so with Benji I decided I’d be a whole lot more forward. “Do you want to buy my book?” I said, about thirty seconds into the conversation.
“Erm… What’s it about?”
“Cycling around the world.”
I rushed up and shook his hand furiously before he could change his mind.
“Yeah, I like travelling books. How much is it?”
“How much do you want to pay? I mean, it should be £11 but-”
“Sure, I’ll pay £11.”
Oh, I liked Benji, I liked Benji a lot. He gave me a $20 note.
“This is too much. Let me find you some change.”
“Don’t worry about it. But it better be good!”
“Thanks… well, it has 4.8 stars on Amazon reviews.”
“Nice. How many reviews does it have?”
“Six or seven I think. Mostly friends and people I know, to be honest.”
“Some of your friends only gave it four stars?”
I sat and chatted with Benji for a while. He seemed genuinely very interested in my trip. I explained to him about how, having cycled all the way from Paris to Siberia, I’d been forced into a car at the Russian-Mongolian border by some absurd bureaucracy, how I’d restarted the circumnavigation in Mori, gone across China, Southeast Asia, Australia, Canada, Europe, how I was really getting quite close to completing my goal now, and how imperative it was that I not use motor vehicles. I told him about how Dea and I had met in Mongolia, and how she’d joined me at various stages, and was now my permanent cycling companion. He asked more questions and I answered him and before very long there really was no need for him to read the book anymore.
Mid-morning all of the Mongol Rally team piled into their Skoda and departed. We had been told that we’d be boarding the boat at six p.m. and leaving around eleven, so they had plenty of time to “nip to Baku and do some shopping.” Having spent the whole of the previous day cycling from Baku the idea of nipping back there seemed very alien to us, and Dea and I had to make do with what we could find in the parking lot shop. It was just an old container, one of several in a line that housed the ticket office, the shop, and a bank, but it had a fair selection of food and water on offer, including some surprisingly delicious fresh peaches. It really wasn’t a bad place to hang out for a few days, this parking lot. There was even wifi, believe it or not, although the toilet block was not the nicest old-container-full-of-squat-toilets-for-use-by-truckers I’d ever seen. Not the worst either, mind you.
We spent the day tinkering with our bikes and just enjoying not having much to do. After my early success the book shop sadly began to stagnate. Only one other traveller came by all day, a French motorcyclist with a sidecar full of stuff. Sadly for him our ship was already full and he’d have to come back another day. “Do you want to buy my book?” I asked, desperately, before he left.
“No,” he said, looking horrified, “I don’t like books.”
The Mongol Rally team returned and once the sun had dropped low enough in the sky to create a shaded pitch we commenced a tremendous game of 3-a-side football. It was me, Dea and Claire against the boys, Angus, Adam and Benji. Thanks to the most incredible goalkeeping performance by Dea the boys’ attacks were constantly thwarted by her long legs and we ran out the unlikely 3-1 winners. After that we all sat down together and played cards and ate dinner chatting. It was really nice to enjoy some good company, and very relaxing not to have to worry about constantly being on the move. Then a man came and told us that it was time for us to go through customs and board the boat, so we better get moving. All of our stuff was lying around, strewn about the place. We had anticipated a longer wait, now we had to rush around scooping things up and getting ourselves ready in a hurry. It was happening, we were boarding!
Well, we weren’t exactly boarding. First we had to cycle around the parking lot and go through passport control, which one might have reasonably thought was the prelude to boarding. But beyond passport control there was more waiting. All of the trucks lined up on one side, with us and the Mongol Rally team on the other. It was now around eleven in the evening. It was dark. Everyone was tired. Nothing else happened for a while. Dea pulled out her sleeping bag and dozed on the tarmac. Some members of the Mongol Rally team fell asleep in their car. I thought I’d better stay awake for a while. It felt like we would be boarding soon, and I certainly didn’t want us to miss that. So I sat down on the kerb and waited some more. Benji sat with me. He’d already made a start on reading the book, and had even more questions for me now. I asked him a few of my own and we had a good chat. With him being 22 years old and just finishing university his position in life made me curious and a bit jealous. The possibilities available to someone at that age are staggering, but I remember my own feelings coming out of university, feeling lost and confused about what to do next.
“I didn’t know what to do, but I knew I just never wanted to have a career,” I told him.
“This is basically the first time I’ve ever considered that it’s even possible to not have a career,” he said.
There was something special about meeting Benji. I don’t know if I affected him, but meeting him definitely affected me. It reminded me of why I started to travel, why I love to travel. After he’d said goodnight and wandered off I lay back on the tarmac and looked up at the stars and I was reminded of another boat trip I’d taken, to Iceland back in 2010 at the start of my first big bike trip. I’d made so many friends on that boat, spoken to so many other travellers. I’d been so enthusiastic and excited about travelling, about meeting people. Meeting this Mongol Rally team was similar, created similar connections, but now they were the young ones, with the world at their feet, reminding me of a feeling I’d almost forgotten.
A few more hours passed and I drifted off to sleep, only to be soon woken by the sun rising over the trucks next to us. Still there was no hint of us actually boarding the ship. Dea and I moved our bikes over to a building to get some shade, and from there we had a view out to sea, which gave us a good vantage point for finally seeing our boat. It was just coming in to port. It hadn’t even been here! Why had we not been told?! We could have put up our tent and had a good night of sleep! Goodness! So now we had to wait for the boat to dock, unload, and for the trucks to get on board, before we ourselves could finally roll onto the ship. It was around one in the afternoon. The boat would finally leave at four.
But the boat journey was a surprisingly good one. Not quite up to my usual cruise ship standard, but really not too far off. Despite having only paid for a four-bed room, Dea and I were given our own private two-bed cabin. It was en-suite, and had a porthole window for watching the oil rigs of the Caspian Sea drift by. The boat was not noisy and we would be lulled to sleep by the sound of the ocean drifting in through the window. There were three square meals a day included in the price, some of which was even suitable for a vegetarian like me, eaten in a canteen along with the truckers. And there were lots of outside decks for standing and watching as we sailed up past the distant Flame Towers of Baku and out into the Caspian at long last. There was even a lifeboat in case of emergencies:
The boat took 26 hours to reach Aktau, although I think both Dea and I wished it could have lasted longer. It was honestly a very relaxing time for us. No pressure to cycle, no wifi, no need to stress. We spent time hanging out with our new friends, the Mongol Rally team, playing cards and other games, although during one of these games we got another reminder of how old we’re getting when they didn’t appear to know who Justin Timberlake is. He’s like the cool singer, top of the charts, who all the young people like, isn’t he? ISN’T HE? Oh God, I’m so old.
The boat came in to the port just south of Aktau in the early evening. Kazakhstan looked flat, which was promising. But we were well aware of the next challenge that was facing us. Thousands of kilometres of empty desert lay ahead, and if the wind was blowing the wrong way, flat land wasn’t going to be our friend. Still, it was an exciting moment as the boat came to rest against the dock. A new, very exciting adventure lay ahead of us. The Caspian Sea had been conquered.
As we waited to depart the ship I spoke again with Benji.
“I’ve got as far as Russia in your book,” he told me.
“Wow. You’re most of the way through it already.” (I’m sure this was more to do with the lack of things to do on the ship than because of the quality of my writing, but it was still nice to hear.)
“I forgot though. Why you are cycling back to China now?”
“Well you’re about to get to it in the book, but they made me get in a car at the Russia-Mongolia border, so I had to start the whole thing all over again in China.”
“Oh yeah, that’s right.”
Then some serious-looking Kazakh border officials burst onto the ship and searched through our hand luggage. We were all made to wait for a while in a room, us travellers and the truckers, before being marched off the boat down some outside steps. Below us I noticed a minibus, waiting on the dock. I felt sick. I knew what was going to happen. I was suddenly back in Russia. Back at that bleak Siberian border post. Sick to my stomach. The truckers were already climbing into the bus, ready to be driven away. An official, dressed in camouflage army clothing, gun on his belt, pointed me to the minibus. “Get in,” he said. “Passport control. Get in.”