Day 9: Crossing the Caspian Sea

The most uncertain part of our trip was about to begin. Crossing the Caspian Sea can be notoriously unreliable and full of confusion. The confusion was compounded by the fact that our visas were not in order, as we found out two days ago. We had already contacted Ismayil, the fixer well known for helping teams get across from Baku, Azerbaijan to Turkmenbashi, Turkmenbashi. He was sure our papers were in order, but agreed to meet us in front of the embassy the next morning to help facilitate conversation with the Turkmen officials.

We jumped out of bed at 7am, showered, packed up our things, loaded the car and headed to the top floor of the hotel to get some breakfast. I had trouble eating though the breakfast spread was pretty good. My stomach was in knots. I hadn’t grown to love Baku and the thought of hanging out in this city for another 4-5 days made my stomach churn.

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The view off the balcony of the restaurant was stunning. As the morning sun hit the red-tiled roofs of the buildings in Baku, I felt that there might be more to Azerbaijan than awful police officers. However, there was no time to dwell. We thanked the hotel reception for their hospitality, jumped into the car and drove off.

We arrived well before 8:45am, but the Turkmen guard in front of the embassy wouldn’t let us park. So we parked our car a bit further away, and waited patiently for Ismayil. He showed up a little after 9am, and walked us to the back entrance of the embassy. We found a few more people waiting there. Soon, two more Mongol Rally teams arrived, one from the US and another from Spain. Ismayil had promised to help all of us. Summer seems to be a peak time for his business.

Even though the embassy is supposed to open at 9am, we waited a full 90 mins before we were asked to enter. One person from each team accompanied Ismayil inside where the Turkmen officials, after careful scrutiny, declared us all eligible to board the ship. Contrary to what had been previously communicated by the incompetent The Visa Machine, the agency that processed our invitation letter for Turkmenistan, the paper was valid and it did not need the signature paper that we were told would be required. The Visa Machine went so far as to advise us to not go to the Embassy at all until we had the signature page, in order not to confuse the Embassy officials. This all proved to be wrong.

Once we had the confirmation that our paperwork was in order, Ismayil offered to drive us to the port. We’ve read previous accounts of how Ismayil enjoys driving the rally cars and uses the excuse of ‘getting there faster if I drive’ to get behind the wheels. We had no issues. We let him take over. He drove in full speed, while simultaneously navigating Baku traffic and taking calls on his cell phone. I can’t say we were surprised – we had been warned!

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Once we neared the port, we found a bright yellow firetruck waiting by the entrance. These guys were another team that Ismayil was helping. Joanna and Jeroen, the couple driving the big firetruck to Mongolia, were part of the Mongol Charity Rally, a spin-off of the original Mongol Rally, that aimed to retain some of the charity aspect of the rally that our rally seemed to have deviated from over the years.

We drove into the port together and introduced ourselves. We also met a couple of people from the Oasis Overland Tours that were travelling with a very large yellow truck. They were to pick up tourists from Ashgabat and take them travelling through Central Asia. FC Mongoal, the American team we met that morning at the embassy, arrived soon enough. A few other teams were also parked nearby. All in all, there appeared to be around 6 teams waiting to cross that day. Some of them had already been waiting for 4-5 days. This was good news for us, because this meant that it was quite likely that there would be a ferry that day.

Part of Ismayil’s services included processing port paperwork. This included measuring the car to identify the right rates for our transport, paying for our tickets and the car as well as clearing customs. We paid a hefty sum of USD 550 for two people and a Renault Kangoo get across the Caspian Sea.

The payment process was a bit sketchy. We were invited into an air-conditioned room together with Ismayil, where we forked over USD 550 to a guy in plain clothes. A very official looking guy in uniform watched from behind a desk without a word or intervention. No receipts were provided.

All of this was done by 11am. We would not board until mid-afternoon at the earliest. So we were told that we could wander around but had to be back by 3pm. Our cars had to stay in the compound, as after the completion of the paperwork, the cars had officially been signed out of Azerbaijan. They were not allowed to be outside of the port. So we headed out with Jo, Jeroen and the guys from the Overland Tours to get a bite to eat.

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We walked through a fancy mall, and I assumed that we were going to a fancy food court of some sort. Boy, was I wrong! The other guys, who had been around in Baku for a bit already, led us to a basement café that you could only reach through a narrow alleyway. It didn’t resemble a restaurant, but rather somebody’s dining room. It was the most authentic Baku eating experience you could ask for.

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We ordered some food, thanks to the help from the Oasis crew who spoke some Russian. We tried to explain that we didn’t eat meat and would like some vegetables. Of course vegetables did arrive, but they were stuffed with ground meat. I ate them anyway – wasn’t about to starve myself. We were offered some drinks which the restaurant owners recommended highly. It turned out to be peach schnapps that tasted more like sweet cough syrup. None of us could really stomach it!

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Once we had finished eating, we were politely asked to leave. There were only two tables in the eatery and more people were waiting to be seated!

We slowly wandered out, found a park with a café to get a drink and hung out. Everyone had fun stories to share and the wait couldn’t have been less tedious. By 3pm, we were back at the port. The port authorities were frantically asking everyone to move their cars. We were sure that the boat would leave right away! We all jumped into our cars, formed a queue and drove behind each other to the dock. Once we got there, we lined up one after another and parked.

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We soon realized that there was no rush. By 4:15pm, we were still standing in the sun waiting for something to happen. We eventually discovered that the boat only leaves when all the trucks had disembarked, and new ones had embarked. We watched massive cargo trucks one by one exit the boat and new ones drive in.

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By 6pm, we were pretty tired. We sat in the shade of the firetruck, laid out a picnic blanket and attempted to entertain ourselves. Some of the other teams were off playing football or playing cards. The wait is excruciating, especially when the temperature even in the shade is over 40 degrees Celsius.

At about 7pm, we were asked to stand in line to get our passports stamped. A shipping container fashioned into an office stood close to the dock. We were asked to enter one by one, where they checked our papers, visas, Letters of Invitation and stamped us out of Azerbaijan. The system the immigration officials were entering data into frequently crashed. As a result, the whole process took twice as long.

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We eventually boarded the ferry at 8pm. We drove our car into the belly of the ship, where it would be secured to avoid tossing about. We had already packed overnight bags with the necessary clean clothes and a stash of tinned food, as our cars would not be accessible for the night. We climbed upstairs and an attendant took our passports, which would be returned to us when we leave the ship. He showed us to our room and left us.

I was amazed. We had been led to believe that the ship is usually an old Soviet era one with barely minimal facilities. What we got was a brand new, sparkling ferry where our cabins came equipped with clean beds, hot shower and toilets that could be flushed. It felt like true luxury. After sitting in the sun the entire day, the idea of getting a hot shower was exciting!

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We deposited our stuff and went to meet the others on the roof of the ship. The sun was ready to set, and the skyline looked beautiful. We enjoyed the sea breeze, but it was getting dark. We ventured into the cafeteria and ordered some tea. The griminess was getting unbearable, so we went to shower right after the tea.

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The meal options in the cafeteria were limited: chicken with rice and chicken soup. We opted to eat tinned ravioli and tinned fruits as dinner. By then it was 10pm, and we still had not left the dock. We hung out with the others until 11pm, and went to bed soon afterwards. As we curled up into our respective beds, we heard the boat start to swish about and leave the dock. It was nearly midnight. We had successfully gotten on to the ferry. Now all we had to do is arrive in Turkmenbashi. I fantasized about the wonders that Central Asia held as the rocking of the boat lulled me to sleep.

The lowdown:

• If you need to contact Ismayil, his number is: +994552861200 (as of July 2015)

• There are a lot conflicting information regarding the Turkmenistan Embassy in Baku. One could almost be tempted to believe that the embassy moves around the city every year. The address we found to be the correct one is as follows:

Turkmenistan Embassy
18 Nəsibbəy Yusifbəyli
Bakı, Azerbaijan

40.395279, 49.826538
Google Map link

(This is the front entrance. Go around the corner alley for the back entrance.)

•The Turkmen Embassy officials don’t like people that show up looking grubby. Come dressed well and preferably in long pants. Wearing shorts is considered rude, no matter if you’re male or female.

• The embassy is open only 9am-12pm, Monday to Friday. Plan your appointments accordingly, if you need a visa in advance to cross the Caspian Sea.

Other useful locations:

Baku Port entrance:
40.374244, 49.864349
Google Maps link

Restrooms inside the port facilities (horrible, men right, women left):
40.372732, 49.862104
Google Maps link

Ferry dock:
40.369931, 49.861380
Google Maps link

To eat authentic food:
Enter through the arch, go down the two steps on the left, follow all the way straight then duck into the tiny room on the left.

145 Neftçilər Prospekti
Bakı, Azerbaijan
40.374655, 49.858857
Google Maps link

This post is part of a series covering my trip across Central Asia in four weeks.

One Comment Add yours

  1. thewordistry says:

    Good that you put up the info clearly, hopefully others will be able to use it!

    Also, that ferry looks super nice!

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