After a brief stint in the cultural anomaly of Georgia, I was back in the Turkic world when I crossed into Azerbaijan. I was reunited with sugary tea in little tulip shaped cups and also reunited with that classic hospitality that I left before entering Georgia (not that people weren’t friendly there). A sort of normalcy had resumed, in which just sitting in a tea house for a few minutes usually resulted in that night’s accommodation being sorted. Most tea houses in Azerbaijan were found in extensive, shady gardens and the owners had no trouble with me putting up my tent in a corner. The owners usually offered before I could even bring the subject of sleeping up. On my second day, another customer in the restaurant I had stopped for an extended lunch paid for my meal after seeing my bicycle and after asking where I was going. The state of the road I had to deal with later that afternoon probably explained his charity.
Although it’s only the same size as Austria, Azerbaijan is host to 9 out of 11 of Earth’s climatic zones and each day’s cycling coincided with the transition from one to another. As I got closer to Baku, my surroundings changed from fertile, green farmland that was common in Georgia to golden fields of dried grass and wheat fields. Eventually the land eventually dried up completely, leaving me in shadeless semi-desert that offered no respite from the 37 degree heat. The closer I got to Baku, the hotter it was and the earlier I’d wake up to avoid the worst of the heat. After years of trying, even at uni, I finally figured out how to take a mid-afternoon nap in whatever shade I could find.
I arrived in Bakuwith a feeling of foreboding: I knew I had a a lot to sort out in this city, most of which was beyond my control. There were several visa-related issues for Central Asia to arrange but my main concern was about how I would continue East. With Iran (or the UK’s policies toward it) making things very difficult for independent British travelers to obtain visas, Brits, Americans, and Canadians have no choice but bypass Iran, a bypass which involves taking the infamous Caspian Sea ‘ferry’ to Aktau, Kazakhstan.
The term ‘ferry’ implies a regular schedule and guarantees of voyage times, of which this boat provides nether. It is essentially a cargo ship that takes on a few passengers. Sometimes it sails every few days, sometimes it doesn’t sail for weeks, leaving overland travelers stranded in the rather expensive, oil-rich city of Baku. Either way, a sailing is only confirmed on the day of departure, which for me, having spent all morning at embassies, resulted in a panicked exodus of Baku on the day I decided to try. I dashed across town in the dry mid-afternoon heat to the docks where I had to find the ticket office with somewhat vague directions found online (along the lines of “the second rusty door on your Right”). Then I was told that the boat sailed in 3 hours from the new docks, 75km away.
I was on a tight budget on this trip. But sometimes even the most frugal traveller just says ‘fuck it’ and throws money at a problem. This was one of those times and, because there was no way I was going to cycle there, I shoved my bike in the back seat of the taxi and sped to the port with the driver somehow weaving in between the traffic while hunched under my handle bars that were sticking over his head. Later that day the boat sailed north and into the waters just a few kilometers from the centre of Baku and it dropped anchor. I could clearly make out the city’s skyline that was grandly illuminated every night. In spite of all the rush, I ended up not very far from where the panicked exodus had started, and would remain there for the next 24 hours on the count of rough seas. So much for the rush.
Luckily, I had company: there were about a dozen other passengers on the boat, most of whom were travelling by motorbike. There was also a Turkish-German who was importing a Kebab machine so a friend of his could set up a shop in Kazakhstan. Together we shared stories, argued with each other that our choice of transport was wrong (too fast vs. too slow) and collectively ate the same soup and meat/carb combo served begrudgingly by some fat Russian Babushka who initially attempted to charge us for the privilege.
I should mention that you can catch a plane from Baku to Aktau and it only takes an hour. But if you flew, it certainly wouldn’t have deserved so much space in a blog post. As every part-masochistic-part-curious traveler who sets themselves the arbitrary overland rule knows, shoving your bicycle on a plane just isn’t the same: In spite of all the cons, inconveniences, and great deal of waiting, catching the boat across the Caspian offered an interesting experience to see a working ship in action, surly crew and all. As a working ship, we had access to all areas including the bridge and the very front of the boat, where Titanic references were irresistible. Looking back, it was definitely a part of the journey where the word ‘experience’ replaces ‘inconvenience’ through the rosy tint of hindsight.
Three days later, we were woken up at 1am and rounded up into one hot cabin for the rather intimidating inspection by Kazakh customs. We had arrived and were swiftly kicked off the boat so the crew could get on with their job of unloading the cargo. With all my visas and having made it to the other side of the Caspian, I had managed to sort out the first leg go this rather awkward, Northern detour around Iran. I celebrated by finding a hotel to regroup and prepare for this detour’s second leg: cycling across the Karakum Desert.
Next Chapter: Dust and sunscreen: crossing the Karakum Desert