This post provides some essential information to travellers wishing to take the ferry-boat on the way to the silk road from Baku, Azerbaijan, to Aktau, Kazakhstan. It reflects informations personally gathered in the field during summer 2011. We have learnt it the hard way with our three children, the bikes, trailers in midst of the summerheat and have spent quite some time and sweating to get the precious tickets and finally crossing the Caspian sea by cargo. So we hope this post will help you, dear traveller, to enjoy Baku even more than we were able to…
Although many informations can be found from travellers taking the boat from Baku to Aktau on the internet via guide books, travel blogs and forums, precise informations are scarce, spread around and some are even outdated as things have undergone some changes in recent past.
Most notably port facilities have been renewed, extended and therefore the location of the ticket-booth as indicated in some guides (Mark Elliots excellent « Azerbaijan » guide for instance) is no longer valid, as it has moved several kilometers away, to the new port. More on this later.
The one and only azeri state-owned cargo-ferry-boat service available in Baku is running without schedule, solely depending on demand, weather and other things you and I have no grip on it. It is said that it usually runs about once every 7 to 10 days, a bit more frequently in summer. During our 10 day stay in Baku from end of July to beginning of August 2011, we for sure knew of 2 train-cargo ships and one truck-cargo ship leaving Baku to Aktau. We took one of the former.
The truck cargo ship mainly transports… lorries as well as all kind of vehicles (cars, motorbikes). The one we saw left from the new port. They apparently are reluctant to board bike-travellers on this type of cargo boat, as bikes are not meant to be charged. It is therefore more profitable to fill the cabins (and the ship) with people who are coming with and paying for their car or lorry. So you will probably be encouraged to take a train-cargo boat, which does only take people without motor vehicles or just with bikes. This type of ship we took had only two 4 people cabins equipped with toilet and shower available for passengers (plus a communautary room for groups with seats, tables and sofas but without beds, nor showers). Do not necessarly expect that all toilets and showers in the cabins work though.
Nevertheless, if your visa is running out and you are willing to pay the price, it might be possible to get onto the ship with the trucks…
How and where to buy tickets
Baku bay with the old port on the left, the new port on the right.
The new port where you can buy the tickets is about 8 km east outside central baku. About 200 meters after a petrol station and a big « Mebel » warehouse is a sign (« Ro-Ro Terminal ») where you have to turn right and go straight down to the port entrance. If on the main road you arrive at a big intersection with a café called « Nargilé » at the north-east corner, it means that you missed the sign and went about 200 meters to far. After passing the guarded fence, the booth is in the the hut just at the west (or your right) from the fence. About 50m further is a big new building where you can find the lady selling the tickets, if she is not present in the booth. It should be noted that altough she can speak some english, you will be better off with russian (she is ethnic russian) and that she has quite a reputation among travellers. You will recognize her easily by her glittering appearance.
More often than not the guardians at the gate or the lady will tell you to come back to check every day if a boat is on the departure and only then will be willing to sell you a ticket. So a good option is to gather her mobile number and to call every day to inquire, maybe with the help of some russian-speaking person. It is also possible to get some informations and help from lorry drivers standing in line and waiting for cargo delivery at the old port or at an office at the old port, but in the end only the glittering lady at the new port will be able to sell the tickets (even if herself might tell you otherwise).
In order to buy the tickets, you will need your passport with valid visas for Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan and the papers for your motor vehicle.
If things turn wrong and in last resort, it may be necessary to find out how to contact some people with influence to bend things the way how you think they should be, as we had to… but in last resort only and with good reasons.
The official price as adverted in the ticket booth in August 2011 for a one-way crossing from Baku to Aktau was 87 Manat per person. Motor vehicles were charged 80 US$ per meter. Bikes are for free (as were the trailers for our children). Children might be asked to pay half price, which will entitle them to have their own bed in the cabin. If you do not need, they should travel for free. But you should also be aware that once on the boat, it might turn out like first-come-first-served. So do not take the cabin and the bed for granted if it gets crowded on the boat.
Getting on the boat and finally the sea crossing
When finally your day will have arrived they will probably tell you to hurry and run to the port (the old port for the train-cargo) to catch it. Most of the time you will have some margin, as decharging and recharging the boat as well as manoeuvering the train cargo will take some time. For instance we were asked to present ourselves at the port at 7am, actually arrived at 9am, boarded at 3pm and finally left at 2am. The truck drivers as well as the guardians of the old port customs will be able to inform you more exactly about the (intended) schedule and you will maybe have some time to get some food and drinks for the journey, if you have not yet done so.
Although the usual crossing is meant to take about 18 to 24 hours from Baku to Aktau, you have to be aware that it can also last 96 hours or more (as it did for us) if weather conditions are defavorable. In fact these ships due to their huge lateral area they present are very sensitive to wind conditions. So you might find yourself waking up several mornings in a row with the same sight on Baku just a few kilometers away from the coast…
For an unexpected and unusually extended stay on the ship and precluded you have a normal relationship with the kitchen personal, they will provide you with food for the time being. Drinking water and tea are freely available on board.
Do not be surprised if the ship crew asks for your passport and actually keeps it for the whole journey. It is the rule for everyone. They will take care of the formalities with the kazakh immigration at the arrival in Aktau and hand you out your passport when everybody is cleared to leave the boat and to proceed to the kazakh customs on land.
Getting a kazakh visa
It is pretty straightforward and relatively cheap to get a kazakh visa for one, three or six months in Tbilisi, Georgia. Be careful to check the prices for visas at the kazakh embassy (website) of your country first. The employees at the embassy will show you their full gratitude if you can help them remember how much a visa should cost to you and your kids if there are any…