Over the Caspian Sea

Baku, 27.07.2019

In the “posh hotel” the ladies at the reception were very helpful to try to find out about the next ferry to sail. In the end, the info on Caravanistan this time proved to be accurate, incl. the contact to Ilgar, the gentleman that arranges the ferry crossings in Aktau. Once we connected on Whatsapp, he quickly gave me an update on the ferry situation. It seemed the bad weather was having an impact on the ferry crossings, but not on other ships. On an app that my friend Hakan in Istanbul had shown me, I could track the positions of ships on the Caspian sea. I had found four of the ones mentioned on Caravanistan, that supposedly were sailing on the Kuryk-Alau route. They were sailing across the Caspian despite of the bad weather. But I got told the one I was supposed to take, would “maybe take off in the night, at 04:00 or 05:00. You need to be there 2-3h in advance for the port formalities.” Add in 1h drive from Aktau, and I would have had to leave the hotel at 01:00. As I had slept most of the day, I went for a late dinner, and at midnight was ready to take off. But then the ferry didn’t sail, and finally at 03:30 I got confirmation I could go to sleep. The next morning I checked in again. Would a ferry sail today? “The ferry will arrive tomorrow, exact time I will say you later.” OK, one more day of waiting, and waiting. It was impossible to get precise information on arrival times, departure times, check in times. Then in the evening the confirmation came: “Tomorrow at 18:00 ferry will arrive.” “Great! When will it leave again? And when is it arriving in Baku?” “As soon as it ready, 3-4 hours”. OK, so we leave at 21:00/22:00, but no info on arrival in Baku. “Ok, so when should I be in Kuryk? 1900/2000?” “2 hours before” Before what time? 1900/2000? 1800? 2100/2200? Speak to me in times, not hours! This didn’t have to be so complicated.

I had spent the entire day checking next stops, roads, service stations, overnight stops. But with no clarity on arrival in Baku it was all useless. Also, I kept thinking that if at Beyneu the other night instead of driving south to the port I would have driven north, to Atyrau, through where I had passed in 2013, I would have reached Baku the same night. I found a map of the Kazakh roads that confirmed a 250km long bad stretch, but I had passed these before, and survived them all. And yet, here I was, sitting on the terrace of the “posh hotel”, looking at the sun going down over a pretty boring Caspian sea, in a run down Soviet outpost, with nothing to do or see. It’s hard to appreciate seaside places when your baseline is the Mediterranean in Italy, Greece and Spain. In those places the combination of beautiful nature, accessibility and enjoyability of the sea, availability of bars/restaurants/beach cabanas with local characteristics and good quality makes having a good time at the sea very easy. But if that is your normal, it’s pretty safe to say you’ll be disappointed in the vast majority of places around the world. I’ve seen breathtaking beaches in Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa, Oceania – with no bar or restaurant in sight, or just a pizza/burger/fried fish rundown place. Or the beach is littered in trash. Or the local cuisine is so poor and crude, or dirty. Or there’s a strange crowd around. Or the place is just destroyed. Or, like in Aktau, there are only guys taking a bath, although there are “swimming prohibited” signs crumbling everywhere. The beachfront smelled. Around me were only hopelessly run down Soviet buildings. The local bar played cheesy music and had nothing exciting to offer. The more I was sitting around and thought about this, the more I was looking forward to get back into lands that offered more quality and enjoyment of life. Less poverty and destruction. Gender equality and not a man’s world only. Georgia and its cuisine and wines was the next major stop. Then Turkey, where I planned to explore a part of the Mediterranean coast I hadn’t seen so far. I’ve always been lucky meeting friendly, open people in Turkey, and love their honest, fresh cuisine. In Istanbul I had discovered they also make good wine. I was hoping their seaside would be lovely too.

After two wasted days just waiting, the next morning I was eager to move. The Whatsapp conversation to enquire about the ferry schedules became painfully nonsense. I couldn’t get a clear information on when to be at the port, how long check-in would take, when the boat would arrive in Kuryk, sail or get to Baku. The 3-4h turnaround time of the ferry at the port sounded completely unrealistic. At 15:30 I took off, giving a ride to a young Canadian guy traveling alone. We chatted along the 90km from Atkau to Kuryk port, and as so often it was interesting to get to know other travellers, their motivation to go see the world, their way of moving around and how they absorb the impressions from the new lands they see. At the port there were already several other travellers waiting, a couple from Poland, a Dutch girl on a bicycle, an Israeli guy. They had all been waiting in or outside an empty room, without any clear information on the ferry crossing. The Canadian and I walked up to the official in an empty white room with a desk, a chair, a phone and two registration books. He spoke no Western language, and Google translate was in a funny mood today, or maybe his Russian was funny. He told me there was no space for my car on the ferry, but a few phone calls later that misunderstanding was solved. On the wall of the ferry building was a schedule for a few days, clearly outlining some ferries’ sailing times, as well as vehicle capacity. So there was a schedule! Then we waited, had our passports checked, and suddenly a few men in uniform came and gave us back our documents, rushing us to a building inside the port for passport and customs check. In all this it became clear that one guy didn’t know what the other guy had to do. They were all very uncoordinated, and there seemed to be no clear procedures and responsibilities. Inside the port building, a paperwork battle began. Endless photocopies of my passport, the car documents, the “ticket” (a slice of paper ripped off an entire page), payment in cash, more papers, customs check, “do you have your import declaration?”, “eh, what? oh that piece of paper I almost threw away in the hotel…”, “Wait on the parking lot with the trucks.”

Over an hour and a half passed, as fog started to cover the port, before I heard the ferry approaching. At about 19:30 it docked in Kuryk, and then nothing happened for another couple of hours. A van drove back and forth a few times, otherwise silence. While waiting I chatted with two German bikers that were on their way back from Mongolia. Around us were only trucks, Georgian, Turkish, Kazakh, Turkmen. Oriental music filled the air, truckers shouting, playing cards, eating, waiting. Finally a swarm of bikes, then a group of motorbikes, then a few cars cars followed by an endless flow of trucks left the boat. The bikers apparently caught the border staff off guard and left before the checkpoints were manned, and a back and forth of people and vehicles began, until the Kazakhs got the situation back under control. The motorbikes coming off the boat were all still shiny, and the two Germans laughed at them, their dirty bikes behind them. After the trucks that got off the ferry were mostly processed, the pedestrian passengers boarding it were driven from the terminal to the boat, incl. the girl on the bike. Then the German motorbikes and my Mini were told to board. As I was boarding the ferry, a guy approached me. “Mister, get back. You last.” I rolled back to the dock, and parked on the side under a light. Then for almost two hours all trucks were loaded. I watched, falling asleep and waking up again and again. At 02:30 I finally rolled onto the boat, the last vehicle to board. Half an hour later I closed the door of a 4-bed cabin that I got assigned to myself. It was completely filthy and run down, the mattresses and pillows screamed dirt and bugs and trucker sweat and who know what else. I was so tired, I just put the sheets on, laid down and fell asleep instantly trying not to think about where I was.

The voice from the speaker system announcing breakfast woke me up at 09:00. Outside the sun was shining, the sea was littered with the white crests of the waves and the ferry was slowly rocking sideways. It was also not moving, and Kuryk port was in sight. For breakfast all travellers and truckers got treated to two boiled eggs, a tiny slice of feta-like cheese, gummy bread and almost liquid butter with hot tea. I went looking for the bridge, and eventually ran into a friendly Azeri crew member. “My friend from Spain, we have to wait. The sea is bad. Maybe we cross tonight.” I went back to my cabin, laid down, and fell asleep to the movement of the ship and the waves, with a slight breeze in the room. Lunch consisted of a soup with almost dissolving pasta and potato chunks and some bulgur with oil and meat pieces. Back to the cabin, playing solitaire, listening to music, reading. At 18:30 the anchors were lifted and we finally took off. Slowly, very slowly. There’s a reason why a mere 400km take 24h to cross. Dinner was so bad I forgot the menu. Back to the cabin, sleep. In the morning I woke up and my back hurt. Same breakfast, only that the bread was so bad I didn’t touch it. I had some nuts in the cabin that saved me, as well as a Japanese snack my friend Timo from Berlin had given me at my last visit. Lifesaving. I felt horrible, dirty, stinky. There were showers on board, but so disgustingly dirty I didn’t dare to use them. The toilets were already enough. You can call me a pampered Western tourist or many other things, I’m completely OK with that As a souvenir from this crossing the memories were fine, I didn’t need athlete’s foot or other surprises. Lunch was the same as the previous day, disgusting. Joking with the German bikers I said “I hope this is our last meal together on this boat.” 24h after taking off we reached Alat, the port an hour south of Baku. But while I was dozing off on the cabin bed, trying to find a position that would hurt my back less, I heard the anchor chains. Up on the bridge, the Azeri greeted me. “Port busy, my Spanish friend. We wait, 1h, then another 1h to the port.” Deep breath, back to the cabin, patience. I had been offline for 50h+ now, didn’t wash myself, tried not to sweat, not to move, to sleep as much as I could, make time pass. When life is all about enjoying every moment of it, making every day count, these last 4 days were the worst waste of my time in a long time. On the other hand, a certain calm and resignation had overcome me. Digital detox, listening to music, the waves smashing on the ship. When finally the anchors got lifted, I packed my stuff and waited for news. Once somebody passed and hammered on the cabin door, I got out and dropped my blankets. All passengers started to gather in the saloon, waiting to see what was next and if we would get our passports back. We had to give them up upon boarding the ferry. The Dutch cyclist sat next to me, Dorien was her name. We started to chat. She had been on the road from Singapore by bycicle for 10 months, and was on her way back, slowly, to be home for Christmas. A solo cyclist on the road seemed like a special experience to me. It was very different from how I travelled, much more in touch with the locals, much simpler, closer to land and people. Later reading her blog it was very interesting to see how she experienced some of the countries I had also crossed. She could go to places the Mini wouldn’t take me to, spent a lot more time on the road, and had plenty of encounters with local people that gave her insights I never came close to. She told me unfortunately as a female solo traveller there were men wanting sex recently, and molesting her. I felt very ashamed. As a man driving in comfort I had tremendous respect for what she did. Some assholes along the road treated her like a slut she told me, as if she was cycling around looking to bang every guy that crossed her way. As she spoke about it I noticed how this had started to change her connection to travelling once she had reached the Central Asian, muslim, traditional countries. Her initial openness seemed to have changed to slightly scared, in need to protect herself instead of simply enjoying her trip. As a European in 2019 this is so far away for me. And yet, out here, in a different civilization, Europe is very distant. In this men’s world, women have a very narrow, specific place, that I just can’t and don’t want to accept.

Finally a border official came into thee salon, a plastic bad full of passports in his hand. He gave instructions to everyone, feeling very important as he spoke, and it became clear there was no proper process, and he had no clue on how to handle us. Were we the first ferry to arrive at this port from Kazakhstan? After his speech, he guided us down to the ramp of the ferry. Next speech. Nobody understood what to do. Then he sent us to a barrack in the port, where our passports got handed back to us, and we were sent one by one for passport control and customs check. As my car was the first on the ship, I was also the first to get checked. “Hello my friend, how are you” the Azeri customs official greeted me. “Do you like Azerbaijan?” “Well, I’m back for a reason.” “Get your car here to us, and put all your bags through the scanner.” Back at the boat, as I was driving off it, two sailors told me to wait, shouting into their walkie talkie. After five minutes I told them customs wanted to see my car, and just drove off. Nobody here seemed to have a clue on the procedure to unload the ferry. Back at the customs office, I just put a few bags through the X-ray, they checked my dirty clothes, my camera, some cables. It was 20:30, and I jut wanted to get out of here, to shower, eat something, sleep, and forget about the ferry. “Do you have helicopter.” “What.” “Flying camera.” “?”. Google translate: “Drone.” “Yes, I have a drone in the car.” “Put it through the scanner.” I dropped my bags back into the car and got my tiny drone out. The official inspected it, then made a phone call, and told me to sit down and wait. Shortly after, a handful of other officials came into the building, and started to inspect the drone. How high it flew, if I knew drones were prohibited in Azerbaijan, what I was using it for they wanted to know. “Just don’t use drone in Azerbaijan, OK?” “Sure, like in Uzbekistan.” “OK you can go.” I said goodbye to the officer and the other travellers, got into the car, happy to be out of here.

But a few meters further at a gate, another guy in uniform told me to stop, park the car, and get into another building. Another control, my car got registered again. “Go to bank, pay $50, road tax.” “Road tax? I’ve never heard about this, I’m just travelling through Azerbaijan on my way to Russia. This is not my first time here, and also last time I didn’t pay anything.” The situation reminded me of the rip off at the Tajik border, where I had just refused to pay this “tax”. The two German bikers also came in, and got through without paying. I tried to argue with the guy that like them, I was out of the country shortly again, just transiting. But he insisted I pay. I left for a bank somewhere on another side of the port, over a pedestrian bridge, in the dark. There were a few containers, only one with light in it and marked as a bank. But the guy in the bank refused to process the payment and sent me to a bankomat behind his container. I went back to the building, that was now full with truckers getting their paperwork done. An argument broke out, the officer and I got loud, and a Turkish trucker speaking some German got in between us, trying to mediate. We were all shouting at each other at some point. I waited, and waited, and waited. It got late, and I was furious. The arbitrary way to determine who pays what, plus I had already paid for an eVisa to get into Azerbaijan, for just a few days. I kept trying to talk to the guy, telling him he should let me through as he let the German bikers through. He didn’t budge. The one thing I remembered about Azeri roads was that they were filled with speed cameras, and police were corrupt. I was unwilling to pay a tax for that. And the more time passed, I remembered that also in 2013 my first experience entering this country had be bad, complicated, costly, involved corrupt police and night driving. 2,5h had passed at the station, and I tried to find the payment booth again on the other side of the bridge. The guy in the bank told me again to pay somewhere else, but this time with a lady that was standing around in the dark, then got into a tiny container, turned on the light, and asked for $16 (not $50). On the container it said “Post office”. Furious I got back to the customs office. The guy that processed me was not there. “He eating.” “Fuck him eating, give me the papers to get out of here! I’ve been waiting 3,5h now, this is enough! I want to get out of here.” “He eating.” I slammed my fist on the counter and ran out shouting abuse at these assholes in all languages I knew. I got into the Mini and drove to the gate. They checked my papers again, and asked for a form. I handed them the papers from the payment, and in the end the officer went into the customs building himself to get the appropriate form. “OK go.” Deep breath, I took off.

Shortly after another gate blocked my way. A guy in another uniform came towards me. “Ticket?” “What ticket, I’ve paid everything you wanted. I spent 4h at this fucking port, I just want to get out.” “Ticket.” I gave him all my papers, and he was slightly confused as he checked all of them, and didn’t find what he was looking for. A few slamming doors and a lot of insult after I drove off, into the port again, trying to find a “ticket office” in the dark where I had to pay who knows what. There were no roadsigns, no building marks in the darkness. Several back and forth later, I was back at the container village. Some guy in uniform standing in the dark told me to go to a container with no lights in it. A window opened, and a sleepy guy made me pay $40 for who knows what. It took him ages to fill another paper form. Then I was sent to another container, with no signs on it, its door to the rear, the air heavy of sweat and sweet tobacco. Another unshaved guy started to fill more papers, copied my passport and car documents. “Go pay at the bank.” “Credit card?” “Cash!” $300 and one more piece of paper later, I got another form stamped, and drove back to the gate. As I got out of the car I was only shouting at everybody. And these idiots even made fun of me. “Worse than Africa! You are all a piece of shit! Shame on you!” I showed them the finger as I finally drove out of the port, 4,5h after rolling off the boat. I was not proud of myself. The port had broken my peace on the road of the last weeks, even in difficult moments, even of the last few days waiting. On the road to Baku I passed plenty of Soviet trucks with no lights and overloaded with hay blocks. Lots of old Mercedes were speeding and flashing lights. Police checkpoints. The usual post-Soviet routine. I was so done with all this, and just wanted to get out. When I finally reached my hotel, they had cancelled my reservation, as I had arrived late. “I had written to you that I was on a boat, and my arrival date could change. You had said it was OK.” “Sorry, no room, but we have another hotel close by.” I checked in there, dropped my bags, and tried to find a cold beer. My hair was greasy, I smelled probably, my shirt and shorts felt all stiff from the sweat and dirt. At a bar that seemed decent, I got a table among groups of two or three small, dark haired, slightly fatty guys, all in shorts and polo shirt, smoking shisha and drinking tea. I waited forever to get the menu – and they didn’t serve alcohol. This was not my night! I left, found a small shop where I got a bottle of cold Coke, and went for a very long shower.

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