A journey across the Caspian Sea, the world’s largest inland body of water, from Turkmenbashi to Baku sounds like fun right? The prospect was quite exciting, as it’s not a common thing for people to do. I waited patiently at the Turkmenbashi port departure building until 11am. That was when ticket sales for the ferry to Baku, Azerbaijan were set to begin. Myself and 3 other people I’d met at the Turkmenbashi port made our way to the ticket sales window. This ticket sales window was, strangely, at the back of the port hotel, not in the departures building as you would think it would be. Even though there was a ticket sales window in the departures building, it seemed to be permanently closed, along with everything else that was supposed to be operating in the departures building.
The lady at the ticket window insisted that the truck drivers going on the ferry would be processed first. That meant we were only able to purchase our tickets for the Turkmenistan owned ferry ‘Bagtyyar’ starting from 11:30am. We had tried to get on the Azerbaijan owned ferry, Academik Topcubasov, that was also at the port. That one only cost US$60 per person for a bed in cabin. The Turkmen staff at the Turkmenistan port had told us that only the Turkmenistan owned ferry was taking passengers. Clearly it was a ploy to get people on to the more expensive Turkmenistan ferry. US$100 per person for just a seat on a 12 hour ferry. Sounds awesome, doesn’t it?
We were told the boat wouldn’t leave until the evening. We all had Turkmenistan Manat that we needed to spend, as it would be useless to us once we left Turkmenistan. Unfortunately, the currency exchange facilities that were supposed to be available at the port weren’t. So we headed to the port hotel restaurant for some lunch. Considering that it was the only restaurant in the area, it turned out to be a lot more reasonable than one would figure. I paid about US$1.60 for a steak.
Back in the port departures building, the four of us joined the line to go through to the immigration area. They were only letting small groups of people through at one time, so we had to wait a while. When we finally got in, our luggage was scanned and we headed upstairs to the immigration clearance area. We were directed to use machines that scanned our passports and took our pictures. The machines didn’t give us any kind of receipt, though. We had to then go to an immigration officer to be stamped out, so the machines seemed to be quite redundant.
From there, we entered the departure lounge to wait for boarding. The port departures building was quite huge but there was almost nothing there. It seems they had reserved the third floor for shops but forgot to rent out the spaces. There was only 1 duty free shop there and all it sold was sheets and towels. I guess they figured that was a niche market for people taking the ferry.
Starting the Journey from Turkmenbashi to Baku. Or Not.
Luckily, boarding started not long after that. We all quickly found ourselves rows of 3 seats each that we could use to sleep on. We waited on the boat for many hours, completely unsure of when it was going to leave. We asked around during the evening meal and no one was sure when we would leave. When I saw trucks still being loaded on to the ferry at 11pm, I figured we wouldn’t be moving for a while. We ended up going to sleep while still in port.
I woke up at about 4:30am because the airconditioning in the lounge area, where we were sleeping, was set to freezing. The sheet I’d managed to acquire was no longer protecting me from the arctic breeze. I decided to go outside where it was warmer. We still weren’t moving and we were still in the port area. We’d been on the ship for 16 hours and not moved a single centimetre. Obviously, ferries work differently in Turkmenistan!
Not long after that, just before sunrise at around 5am, we started moving, albeit slowly. Great, we were finally on our way from Turkmenbashi to Baku! Or were we?
I presumed we were moving super slowly because we were exiting the port area. Surely we’d gain some speed once further out. But shortly after that, I went outside and realised that we’d stopped moving. The port was still clearly visible not far behind us. By the time they opened the galley for breakfast at 10am, we still weren’t moving and nobody really knew what was going on. Would our journey from Turkmenbashi to Baku start that day? Or would we spend another night on the ‘sea’ in a stationary boat?
By this stage, we hadn’t showered for a few days owing to this being our second day on the ship and having caught an overnight train to get to the Turkmenbashi port the day before. Thankfully, one of the nice kitchen staff allowed all four of us to shower in his personal cabin. That was much needed and awesomely refreshing!
There was a rumour that the captain of the ship for this sailing was relatively new. Being new, he apparently thought there was a storm coming. The thing is, the sky looked absolutely clear for as far as the eye could see and the water all around us was calm. Staff on the boat didn’t even know what was going on. They actually thought that we would be on the way to Baku that day.
By the evening we still weren’t moving and still had no idea what was going on. When we went to have the evening meal, we got a bit of a surprise. Despite having already paid US$100 for our seat and onboard meals, the ship staff wanted to charge us for that meal. In Turkmenistan Manat, which we had gotten rid of. Luckily, some other passengers on the ship came to our rescue. Firstly, some Azerbaijani drivers made sure that the 4 of us got meals. Then a really nice Turkmen lady, who spoke English really well, shared some meat that she had made at home and brought on board with her.
This lady had figured out that I was a teacher because she’d heard me explaining something to someone earlier. I’m not sure whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. Maybe it is true that teachers never stop teaching. Or maybe she picked it up because she was also a teacher. As the only person on board that could speak English, she became our communication conduit. It was a bit weird when passengers asked for invitations to South Korea, from my companions. They had only started talking to them one minute beforehand.
That night we went to sleep again on the water, but still not moving. We were anchored just outside the port area, but still within Turkmenistan waters. At that point, we had officially been on the ferry for over 30 hours and we had been anchored in the same spot for about half that time. We were possibly waiting out a storm that never came. We’d been stamped out of Turkmenistan early afternoon on the 25th, but still hadn’t left Turkmenistan waters by the early hours of the 27th, almost 2 days later.
Turkmenbashi to Baku, Finally!
I managed to sleep in until 7am, probably because I was so exhausted from my lack of sleep over the last 3 days. It was about that time that we finally started moving, for real. We checked with the staff and they said we would be in Baku by 7pm. Collectively, we were still a bit dubious about that claim, as we had also been told that the day before.
We kept checking our progress on our map periodically during the day. It was extremely comforting to see that we were actually moving nicely across the Caspian Sea. Around 3pm it looked like we were very close to Baku and would make it quite a bit before 7pm. The prospect of getting in earlier than expected was exciting. We just knew that exiting the ship was going to be chaotic and time-consuming.
Then our final surprise came at about 17:30. We were looking at the map to check how far we had to go. It was then that we realised that we’d sailed right past Baku! Despite all the information that we’d read online that our ferry goes to the port in Baku, we were heading to the port of Alat. That’s 70km away from Baku!
Furthermore, we were only making our way past the sandbar island outside of the port area after 7pm. We were barely crawling at that point, I guess due to speed restrictions near the port. Then we had to wait for the Azerbaijani tug boat to come out and guide us in.
You can’t imagine the joy we felt at finally being in Azerbaijan. But the challenges were not over yet. We still had to get off the boat, go through immigration and find a way to get Baku. It was 9pm by the time we docked. Staff became crowd controllers as they had to ensure that all the drivers exited first, in groups of 20. There were 50 drivers and the staff had their work cut out for them trying to keep the passengers at bay.
Waiting patiently, instead of pushing and shoving like all the other passengers were, paid off for us. The staff-member-turned-crowd-control dude let us go with the last lot of drivers. That happened an hour after the boat had docked. There were only 2 immigration officers, so even with such a small amount of people, there was still a pretty long wait.
It wasn’t far away from midnight by the time we had all made it through immigration. We found out at that point that it wasn’t possible to get a taxi from where we were, in the port area. We had to get a port shuttle to the main road first. Luckily, while we were waiting, a port coach entered and we were told it would take us all the way to Baku for US$3. Sounded great to us! I even managed to get a bit of sleep on the way in.
As fun as a ferry across the Caspian sounds, I wouldn’t recommend it. Unless you absolutely can’t live without the ‘I’ve travelled across the Caspian’ bragging rights.
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