Turkmenbashi to Baku – 3 Days on the Caspian Sea

K in Motion Travel Blog. Turkmenbashi, to Baku - 3 Days on the Caspian Sea. Turkmenbashi Port, Turkmenistan

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.

Waiting..

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?

K in Motion Travel Blog. Turkmenbashi to Baku - 3 Days on the Caspian Sea. The Azerbaijan Ferry Academik Topcubasov Docked at Turkmenbashi Port
Azerbaijan Ferry Akademik Topcubasov in port

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.

Immigration Procedure

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan to Baku, Azerbaijan - 3 Days on the Caspian Sea. Waiting to go into the Immigration Area

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Turkmenbashi to Baku - 3 Days on the Caspian Sea. New Bed on the Bagtyyar
My new bed on the Bagtyyar

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!

FInally moving?

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?

K in Motion Travel Blog. Turkmenbashi to Baku - 3 Days on the Caspian Sea. Finally Leaving the Port!

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!

New Captain?

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Turkmenbashi, to Baku - 3 Days on the Caspian Sea. Somewhere on the Caspian Sea

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Turkmenbashi, to Baku - 3 Days on the Caspian Sea. Shared Food on the Ferry

Meeting People

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Turkmenbashi, to Baku - 3 Days on the Caspian Sea. Sunset Coming into the Alat Port

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!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Turkmenbashi, to Baku - 3 Days on the Caspian Sea. Island near Alat Port

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Turkmenbashi, to Baku - 3 Days on the Caspian Sea. Tug Boat at the Alat Port

Land Ahoy!

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Turkmenbashi, to Baku - 3 Days on the Caspian Sea. Passengers Getting Ready to Leave the Boat

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Turkmenbashi, to Baku - 3 Days on the Caspian Sea. Small Port Shuttle

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Turkmenbashi, to Baku - 3 Days on the Caspian Sea. The Port Shuttle, Our Saviour

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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Travel to South Turkmenistan – Overly Impressive Capital to Caspian Sea Port

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Overly Impressive Capital to Caspian Sea Port. Ashgabat White Domed Buildings

In South Turkmenistan, the country’s capital city, Ashgabat is a strange, impressive and confusing place. The first odd thing about it is that the government has absolutely mad licensing rules for cars that carry passengers for hire. Cars are either licensed to drive passengers in the capital city or in the rest of the country, not both. Cars licenced to carry passengers in the rest of Turkmenistan cannot enter Ashgabat with their passengers. Because of this, there is a change-over station about 15 kilometres outside of the city. Country taxis drop passengers off there and city taxis can pick them up. I presume they have the same rules for intercity buses, as the Ashgabat bus station is relatively close to the change-over station.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Overly Impressive Capital to Caspian Sea Port. Ashgabat Taxi Changeover Station

First Impressions of the South Turkmenistan Capital, Ashgabat (Aşgabat)

As I had entered the city from northern Turkmenistan, the first thing I saw was the Ashgabat International Airport. Someone was definitely trying to make a big impression there. It was like the city was going all-out for some gala show. There were massive statues and fountains of water shooting high into the air. I was, unfortunately, unable to capture the grandness of it all from the car, so you’ll just have to imagine.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Overly Impressive Capital to Caspian Sea Port. Ashgabat Taxi Changeover Station

City of White

As I moved further into Ashgabat, I realised that every building was white. Every single one. They all looked fairly new as well. Once the novelty of seeing shiny, new, white buildings everywhere wore off, it seemed that the Turkmenistan capital had no soul. It was almost like Ashgabat was the unpopular kid who had suddenly become popular and was trying too hard to impress, but offered nothing of real value.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Overly Impressive Capital to Caspian Sea Port. Ashgabat White Buildings

Furthermore, it seemed that all the cars and buses in Ashgabat were either white or grey. I heard a rumour that it was illegal to own black cars in the city. I can’t really confirm if it’s true or not, but I can say for sure that I didn’t see one single black car during my time there. Only grey and white cars.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Overly Impressive Capital to Caspian Sea Port. Ashgabat. Only Grey and White Cars on the Road

Ashgabat continued to try to make huge impressions with many green spaces, monuments and fountains within the city centre. What it seemed to lack was the openness and friendliness of other Central Asian cities. In fact, the ever-present contingent of police officers stationed strategically around the city felt kind of ominous.

Some of these officers were intent on telling you off for stupid stuff. Like having the audacity to take your phone out of your pocket, to look at your map, near some buildings they didn’t want people to take photos of. Others were a little more friendly and willing to help with directions. One park even had men dressed in plain clothes stationed there. Why? To stop people taking pictures of the huge screen featured in the middle of the park. The screen played a loop of the president, looking all presidential and photoshopped in the middle of 2 digitally produced Turkmenistan flags.

Presidential Pictures

Another quirk of Ashgabat is the pictures of the president everywhere. You couldn’t walk more than 500 metres within the city without seeing his picture. Maybe you could go to a sports centre to escape his watchful eyes? Nope, he’s front and centre there too. Surely you could catch a bus to get away from him. Nope, he’s watching you from above the windscreen. The point is, the dude is everywhere.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Overly Impressive Capital to Caspian Sea Port. Ashgabat. Ubiquitous Photo of the President

I’m not sure of the reason for having these pictures everywhere in Ashgabat. Is it to remind people that the president does actually exist, even though he rarely goes out in public? There weren’t really that many pictures of him in the north of Turkmenistan though. Or maybe it’s done to illicit an undying love and admiration for him. If you are Turkmen you must love your fearless leader? Who knows, but it seems kinda weird and narcissistic. Especially seeing as rumour has it that he is ill and not even in Turkmenistan at the moment.

As an aside, I found out a few weeks after left Turkmenistan that the president was getting annoyed with all the gossip surrounding his health. So what’s a healthy president to do? How could he dispell such vicious rumours? By grabbing a car and doing donuts near the Darvaza Gas Crater. So yeah, the country is apparently being run by an insecure teenager.

Ashgabat in South Turkmenistan at Night

For all the weird things about the city of Ashgabat, it was much nicer at night. This probably had a lot to do with the fact that nightfall brought a drop from 45 degrees plus to a much more bearable temperature. You could walk around more comfortably at night. The lights of the night also added a dash of colour to break up the monotony of everything being white.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Overly Impressive Capital to Caspian Sea Port. Ashgabat. Monument Lit Up at Night K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Overly Impressive Capital to Caspian Sea Port. Ashgabat. Mosque Lit Up at Night

I had heard rumours of an 11pm curfew for foreigners in Ashgabat. Locals seem to think that it is enforced. When I went to visit a local friend, they told me I might have problems when walking back to my accommodation after leaving their place at 10:30pm. I did not have any problems. I was out past 11pm for both the nights I spent in Ashgabat. As I walked around there were several police officers standing guard outside buildings or near roads. They gave no indication that I shouldn’t be there. In fact, they barely even acknowledged I was there. So I was either lucky, or there is no curfew in effect now.

Sights Near Ashgabat, South Turkmenistan

There are a few interesting sights that can be easily accessed from Ashgabat, but you can expect to part with more money than you should have to if you want to see them. First, there is Old Nisa, or Konenusay. You can hop on the #50 bus from the Teke Bazaar Bus Terminus to get there. The bus takes about 30 minutes and only costs 0.5 Turkmen Manat. The entrance to Old Nisa is about a 20 minute walk from where the bus route terminates. There is a small shop there if you’re short on supplies.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Overly Impressive Capital to Caspian Sea Port. Ashgabat. Bus Fare K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Overly Impressive Capital to Caspian Sea Port. Ashgabat. Teke Bazaar Bus Terminal

Old Nisa Ruins – (Konenusay)

To enter the Old Nisa Ruins area, you need to pay 21 Manat. Considering that half of the ruins are not accessible and the other half seem to be barely maintained, it really doesn’t seem worth it. It could be worth it if you’re really super passionate about ruins though.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Overly Impressive Capital to Caspian Sea Port. Ashgabat. Old Nisa Ruins Entrance

To be honest, the town surrounding the ruins, Nusay was much more interesting to walk around.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Overly Impressive Capital to Caspian Sea Port. Ashgabat. Nusay, Near Old Nisa Ruins

Kow Ata Underground Lake in Ahal

Another site in South Turkmenistan that seems like it would be fun to visit is the Kow Ata underground lake in Ahal. It is less than an hour from the Ashgabat city centre, or a 30 Manat taxi ride. What might blow your mind about this one is the 50 Manat entrance fee. The less than warm reviews of the place might also make you want to think twice. But I guess if you have money and time to burn, you might want to check it out; just keep your expectations low.

Turkmenbashy Monument and Mosque

The Turkmenbashy Mosque, Mausoleum and Monument may prove to be the three best value for money sights in South Turkmenistan. You can hop on a bus from the Teke Bazaar Bus Terminal to Kipchak/Qipchak and all three sites are within 500 metres of each other.

Train to Turkmenbashi (Türkmenbaşy)

I’d decided to take the overnight train to Turkmenbashi in western Turkmenistan, which would be my exit point from the country. Trains in Turkmenistan are a very economical option for travelling between cities, but they are quite slow. There is an online ticketing system, but it requires a Turkmenistan card to purchase tickets and often shows that there are no tickets, even when they are available at the train station.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Overly Impressive Capital to Caspian Sea Port. Ashgabat Train Station

Buying Train Tickets

The best option for tourists in Turkmenistan is to go to the building next to the train station, with ‘Kassalar’ written on the top of it in big yellow letters. Some say you should purchase your ticket at least 2 days in advance, but I purchased on the same day with no problems. Ticket counters open at 7am. Counters 4-7 sell tickets for Turkmenbashi in western Turkmenistan and Turkmenabat, in eastern Turkmenistan. It is pretty much chaos at the ticket counters as people don’t seem to know how to line up straight and people like to try to push through to get to the counter before you.

Ticket Drama

After waiting for about 20 minutes, I was finally at the counter and let the lady behind the window know that I was going to Turkmenbashi in the west of South Turkmenistan. She told me that the departure time and asked for 31 Manat. The departure time she gave me was different to what I thought it would be, but then I figured that there might be more than one train. It wasn’t until I looked at the ticket that I realised that she’d somehow mistaken Turkmenbashi for Turkmenibat, which was literally at the other end of the country.

I alerted her to her mistake but instead of giving me back 31 Manat, she only gave me 22 Manat, then made me pay another 31 Manat for the correct ticket. I was annoyed that she’d charged me for her mistake and indicated that I wanted the 9 Manat back. She said I could come back later to get my money back. That was probably something she said just to try to get rid of me, as there was no one at the counter later. So a 31 Manat train ticket ended up costing me 40 Manat.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Overly Impressive Capital to Caspian Sea Port. Ashgabat Train Ticket to Turkmenbashi

The train takes a fairly straight route to the most western part of South Turkmenistan; the port of Turkmenbashi on the Caspian Sea. It was quite comfortable, but each cabin had 6 beds, in the form of 2 triple bunks. That meant that the person on the top bunk wouldn’t be able to sit up without hitting the roof of the cabin. The people in my cabin were eager to share their food with me. They tried to chat with me, but it was hard because we couldn’t really understand each other.

Turkmenbashi, South Turkmenistan – Gateway to the Caspian Sea

The train arrived in the western Turkmenistan city of Turkmenbashi at 05:50, about an hour later than scheduled. The city of Turkmenbashi seemed a lot nicer than Ashgabat. For a start, it was a lot more modest and there were buildings that weren’t white. As an added bonus, it was surrounded by mountains.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Overly Impressive Capital to Caspian Sea Port. Turkmenbashi Mountains

I had figured that the port wouldn’t open until 8 or 9am, so I decided to have a bit of a look around Turkmenbashi. The early hour made it quite pleasant to walk around as there weren’t many people out and the sun wasn’t yet in full force.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Overly Impressive Capital to Caspian Sea Port. Turkmenbashi Structures K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Overly Impressive Capital to Caspian Sea Port. Turkmenbashi Monument

The Turkmenbashi Port looked shiny, new and of course, white. There were a few huge buildings, but there didn’t seem to be much going on in the area. I entered the port area just before 8am, only to find out that tickets for the boat wouldn’t go on sale until 11am. Luckily, I found some people to talk to, who were also taking the ferry to Baku. Little did we know, that we would be spending a lot more time together than we’d originally thought.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Overly Impressive Capital to Caspian Sea Port. In Front of Turkmenbashi Port K in Motion Travel Blog. Travel to Turkmenistan - Overly Impressive Capital to Caspian Sea Port. Turkmenbashi Port

Keep an eye out for my upcoming post to find out how an estimated 12 hours on the Caspian Sea turned into 3 days.

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