By Cargo Ship Across the Caspian

It feels like a never-ending journey when Joanne Fearnley takes a “short hop” across one of the world’s smaller inland seas

There were lots of expensive, oil-boom-fuelled hotels in Baku, Azerbaijan and one relatively inexpensive hostel. Of course, we ended up in the cheap dormitory bunk beds option.

The manager’s name sounded a bit like “Backhander”, which would prove to suit him well. He proudly told us how he had learnt all his English in one year and proceeded to demonstrate the fact at every opportunity to remind us of the ‘house’ rules.

Having fun: “Please Keep Silence”
Getting to know the locals: “Do Not Talk to the Neighbours”
Cleanliness: “You will not use sink. It does not working.”
Security: “The key is under the plant pot outside the front door.”

In case we hadn’t quite understood, there were signs everywhere to remind us once more, including the one right next to the doorbell which screamed “THE KEY IS UNDER THE PLANT POT.” We just hoped that the local burglars couldn’t understand English.


So what were we doing there? Simple, we were trying to catch a lift on a boat across the Caspian Sea to Aktau, Kazakhstan, and this was the only option we had.

“There is only one cargo ferry to Kazakhstan, maybe today, maybe in four days, maybe in 10, who knows. It has no timetable and goes when it’s full,” Backhander cheerfully told us.


“So you stay here with me, cheap for you, and when ferry comes I tell you. You will go to ferry station and you will ask for Elmira, only Elmira. She will say ‘no tickets’, but you will give her code word ‘Backhander’ and she will remember that she has got some and for that piece of luck you will give her extra dollars in addition to the ticket price. Nothing for me! Nothing for me! Only gift for Elmira. Mention only me, Backhander. DO NOT mention the hostel name!”

Unexpectedly within only a couple of days we got the nod that the ship was heading into port, so we set off to find Elmira’s lair, a task that proved difficult. It didn’t help that we had to walk through columns of army jeeps, tanks and rocket launchers preparing for the parade on Army Day in two days’ time, in an isolated run-down industrial wasteland.

The soldiers stared. The police stared. The dock workers stared. We walked faster.

Having got past the Army, we still couldn’t find her office. We needed help, and help appeared in the form of a man called Tofiq. When we wandered into the shipping company offices at the docks hoping that this might be the place we were searching for, he decided to take a break from work and help us in our quest to find the elusive Elmira.

The ‘ticket office’ turned out to be a small, barely noticeable cabin with the word “KACCA” (ticket office) haphazardly splattered across it in white paint. We entered the inner sanctum. With only a cursory glance as us, the intimidating, dyed red-haired woman span round to our companion and demanded “Are you Backhander?”(We can only assume that they had only had phone conversations).

“Sit in the waiting room” barked the immigration official. The waiting room was a dilapidated shed without walls or any other kind of useful facilities.

“No,” replied Tofiq truthfully.

“How did you find me?”

“That’s a secret,” smiled Tofiq.

She asked us if we had been sent from Backhander. Tofiq replied for us and told her we were from his shipping company. He wasn’t taking any crap and we loved him for it, especially when he told us that the next time we were in town we had to go and stay with him and his family.

She asked us which hotel we were from. We quickly gave the name of a random hotel — after all, we had been told not to mention the hostel name. Disappointedly she handed over the tickets. Due to Tofiq’s presence there were no ‘gifts’ for her today. “Be at the port for 8pm tonight.” she snarled. We were going! Or were we? Getting the tickets would prove to be only half the battle…

“No boat today!” we are told upon enquiry about the ferry to Kazakhstan.
What?! It is 8pm and we are at the ramshackle boat station clutching our tickets, supposedly at last getting the ferry out of Baku.

“No, still no boat to Aktau today, even if you do ask in Russian”
“No, we don’t know when. Not today. Maybe tomorrow, maybe 3am, maybe 5am.”

“Sit in the waiting room” barked the immigration official. The waiting room was a dilapidated shed without walls or any other kind of useful facilities.
“I once waited three days for the ferry to Turkmenistan,” Butter, a Turkmen guy who had befriended us in the shed cheerfully informs us.

We watch the sun set over the Caspian Sea. There is a ferry going to Turkmenistan at midnight. We sadly bemoan the fact that we didn’t get visas for there instead.

The shed is quite busy. We hope there are still some shed-companions left after the Turkmenistan boat has gone to reassure us that there really will be one to Kazakhstan.

The Turkmenistan ferry leaves and we are left alone.

The night stretches out in front of us, long and never-ending.

Unconvinced that this boat will ever come, we start to plan other ways out.


We have to get to Kazakhstan somehow, we have jobs there waiting for us in Almaty, we just happen to be going there the long way round.

We debate flying to Moscow, maybe. A train back to Georgia, where we had just come from.

But we are stubborn and refuse to lose the money we paid the evil Elmira. Even more stubbornly, we are not going to ask for a refund which would more than likely involve a cancellation ‘gift’.

We decide that there will be a boat – what’s a couple of days’ waiting… We settle in. We’ll be OK. We have a small bottle of water, a wooden bench, and a lump of cheese – but no Azeri money left or any way of changing any, not that there is anywhere to spend it anyway.

– A boat arrives! Jubilation! The police were wrong after all, and our lift has arrived. We’re getting out of here!

No. This boat is also going to Turkmenistan…

3am – Hooray, a new arrival in the shed. We have company. Albeit a hiccupping one. Hiccupping company promptly vomits on the shed floor.
“Any news?” Darren once more enquires hopefully of the port police.
“Not before 4am,” he is told.’’ There’s only room for one ferry at a time’’.

5am – The Turkmenistan ferry’s still there.

6am – Still no boat. Sleep is not forthcoming. We watch the sun rise over the Caspian Sea and entertain ourselves by thinking how many other words can be made from name “Elmira”. Mire and Liar are our favourites.

6:15am — there’s a shift change on the port police. “Good morning!” one of them quips at us in English, smelling suspiciously of stale Vodka.
“Er, good morning!” we manage to mutter back, all bleary-eyed. He wanders off happily.
Suddenly he returns in true Jekyll and Hyde style. Maybe he’s remembered he’s got a hangover and isn’t that happy after all. “Documents!” he snaps.
“What is this?” he barks. He has spotted Darren’s Armenian visa and doesn’t like it one little bit. He likes it even less that Darren’s passport contains a collection of Armenian bank notes.
Unfortunately Armenia and Azerbaijan had a war a few years ago over the disputed region of Karabakh resulting in the two countries not talking and the borders remaining definitely closed.
It’s all very sensitive and Azeri customs officials are particularly prone to confiscating anything related to Armenia — books, maps, money and even souvenirs. On a good day, they just rip out the pages of the Karabakh region from the guidebooks. We got the feeling that this wasn’t a good day…
Well at least he’s not going to see this as an attempt to bribe a fine upstanding officer of the Azerbaijani law, we think, not with the money of his country’s sworn enemy. Unfortunately we don’t think he’s going to see the funny side either. He calls over a senior official who plays with the money for a little bit and then, most surprisingly returns it to us and goes away.
We continue to be quizzed about our reasons for going to the enemy country. “Do you have any photographs?” he wants to know. We are assuming he is not interested in our holiday snaps out of friendly, personal interest.
Looking at each other, we simultaneously bleat, “Not really…” We wonder how many “not really” photos are acceptable. We think it prudent not to mention the couple of illicit postcards of the Armenian army and especially not the one of the Karabakh national anthem that were bought in all innocence without thinking.
We’re already worried that we’re going to have our bags searched and they’ll be discovered and seen as inflammatory propaganda at best, and we really can’t think of any real excuse that would get us off. “Souvenir” sounds particularly lame under the circumstances. However, he churlishly accepts our answer and hands back our passports. Maybe it’s time for a Vodka break.

7am – Turkmenistan ship leaves. Hurrah!

7.30am – There is a ship. A big ship. A big cargo ship. And it’s a big cargo ship going to Kazakhstan.5-IMG_5492
We head towards passport control, the Jekyll and Hyde customs official follows us — he really seems to have it in for us — and we are still scared of our inflammatory material being discovered.
During the long hours in the shed we had seriously considered destroying them but had come to the conclusion that a mini bonfire might draw attention and be slightly inexplicable, so we are stuck with them. There are two security checks to get through so there is still a chance that we could get sprung.
We get through the first check and make it to the second, we are only a few yards from the ship, we can practically touch it, we are sooooo close.
Our progress is slowed by the fact that I have a brand new passport with an electronic chip in it. The security guy, who is actually very nice and smiley has never seen one and is fascinated by it and decides to play with it for a while.
We are still being stalked by Mr Jekyll, this isn’t his domain but he’s there lurking in the background glowering at us. My passport is handed back at exactly the same time that he makes a phone call to God knows who and God knows why, about the two British… but we’re through, we’re on the ship and officially out of Azerbaijan. Our breathing slowly returns to normal.
Twelve hours after arriving at the docks, and sitting watching the sun set and the sun rise over the Caspian we’re finally on our way to Kazakhstan.

To sustain us on the next lengthy part of our journey we have:

1 packet of crisps (small)
1 bread roll (stale)
Half a lump of cheese (sweaty)
1 can of beer (warm)
Teabags (useful, but no water)

We go in search of hot water to help eke out our meagre rations. We can’t believe it as we stumble into a canteen. It has tea, it has chips and it has beer. The second mate-cum-chef is very friendly and tells us there will be football that night.
“Football… Pivo (beer)… Pivo… Football… Heh, heh, heh!” and mumbles something that sounds like the captain will want you to join him later as it’s not often he has foreign guests.
We decide that we must have just misunderstood his Russian; it has after all been a very long night. By now we’ve been awake for so long we have no concept of the time or day. We treat ourselves to the one can of warm breakfast beer and collapse onto a most welcome bunk bed.

10.30pm – a knock on the door. “The Captain requests your presence,” we are informed by the man standing there, who then escorts us to the Captain’s Quarters.
A feast awaits us. We are very interested in the cheese selection that the Captain is particularly proud of – home-made and unpasteurised. We watch Germany vs Turkey on the Captain’s other great joy – a sputnik satellite TV.
We toast our host with the Captain’s table specialty – homemade vodka moonshine. We’re not so enamoured with his tale about how his other identical ship the Mercury 2 (we are on the Mercury 1) sank during a storm, because the oil drums that were being transported weren’t secured properly and rolled around and 43 crew members and eight passengers died…

2 am – “Shtime to shleep…” the Captain informed us as he drained the last drop from the vodka/moonshine chaser.
“We shwill arrive at 9… 10… 11am. If the port ish open of courshe…”
“Oh yes, we really must go,” we replied (yes, yes, yes, thank God for that) and stumbled to our cabin.

9am – peering through the porthole, there was Kazakhstan looming before us. What a funny guy – if the port is open, indeed, ha, ha, ha! As if! Whoever heard of a port being closed? Ha, ha, ha, ha!

10am — “We don’t appear to have moved…” remarked Darren as we counted the 12 other ships all lined up. It appeared that, yes, in actual fact ports do close. Well, at least this one did, and we were anchored in the Caspian Sea 10 miles offshore.

2pm – Canteen closed. Nibble on a bit of sweaty cheese to sustain ourselves.
3pm – Bored.
4pm – Count ships. Still 12.
5pm – Wander around a bit.
6pm – Stare at ceiling.
7pm – Still 12 ships.
8pm – Watch sun set over the Caspian. Again.
9pm – Why didn’t we go via Georgia?
10pm – Want a bed but we’ve been booted out of the cabins which are now strictly out of bounds.

11pm – We’re moving, finally.
Midnight – Customs board the ferry and give out regulations, prohibiting fresh food products of any kind. There is a sudden mass movement of bags by the Azeri passengers. Our fresh food products have long since gone.

1am – Get off ship. Get minibus to passport control. There is lots of officialdom, form filling, red ink and stamping bits of paper.

2am – We’ve done it! We’re finally in Kazakhstan!

2:30am – The port is completely deserted and in the middle of nowhere, there are no taxis and it’s cold. We sit despondently on our rucksacks and prepare to spend another night dossing. We share one last piece of stale bread. The shed suddenly doesn’t seem so bad anymore.

2:45am – A random unofficial taxi appears. The driver wants an exorbitant amount of money. We don’t care.

3am – Hotel, yay!

3:02am – Sit dejectedly on the steps of the “no rooms in here” hotel. A tired and frustrated tear or two is shed…

3:30am – A local girl hanging about a dubious looking establishment next to the hotel takes pity on us and offers us a room for the night at her Mum’s house. Its 20km out of town and as generous as it is and as tired as we are, we politely decline.

3:45am – A friendly, English-speaking Kazakh man and his friend (who turn out to be dentists on a dentist’s convention) are also outside the hotel and learn about our plight. He is not impressed and stomps into the “no room” hotel on our behalf and demands that if the girl isn’t willing to let us in then she will phone another hotel and find us a room. Amazingly she complies. I develop a sudden liking for dentists.

4am – 56 hours after we set off to do a quick hop across a lake (the Caspian isn’t actually really a sea at all) we finally collapse into bed at the Hotel “Kermit”.