Across Continents

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Rules of the game

May 23rd, 2010

A short postscript to the recent Baku armchair adventure…

So. You’ve reached Baku and want to catch the ferry across the Caspian to Aktau in Kazakhstan. Even if you haven’t, and have no plans to do so anytime soon, you may nevertheless find the story below intriguing. If only for the insight it provides into life in Azerbaijan…

Firstly, get yourself a local SIM card for your phone. Absolutely essential. Unless you want to die of old age here. Or be deported for overstaying your visa. Truth is, and that can be a very elusive quantity around here, in either case you’ll go bankrupt first. If, like me, you no longer have a mobile, you can acquire the complete package for around twenty pounds. Go and chat to the very helpful, trustworthy staff in Baku’s Tourism Information Center. Good English to boot.

Next, visit the port and locate the ticket office. Expect a door with ’Kasse’ painted on it, nothing more. From very close – fifty metres – to the intersection of Y.Safarov Street and Nobel Avenue, head down a rough road for a couple of hundred metres, past various wrecks of buses. Some may still be in service. Find the lady who seems to be there during the week, give her your phone number, and a small fee to help with the usual administrative costs. This last bit is crucial. Otherwise see previous paragraph. Crisp US dollars work best.

Then wait. By all means take the number of the ticket office, and call them twice daily, around ten and three. Great if you speak Russian or Azeri, but just saying ’Ship Kazakhstan’ works fine, with the usual pleasantries. If you do need help with the language barrier, the Tourism Information Center can help out. You suspect they have the ticket office on speed dial.

Now the intriguing bit. You’d be forgiven for thinking that ships to Kazakhstan are pretty rare, a few times a month. No schedule, they just go when there’s sufficient cargo, often at just a few hours notice. Admittedly things may be a bit different in winter, but otherwise there seems to be rather more sailings than you’d be led to believe. I reckon there’s one every 3-4 days, weekly at worst. Maybe it’s just coincidence, but, until I’d made a small cash donation towards administrative costs, the ferries were just rumours, ghost ships. Contribution made, phone call the next day. Ship to Kazakhstan.

[Author’s note: Oddly enough, the Kazakhstan end of the operation seems to have a far better grasp of what the ferry is up to – call agents Tagu in Aktau on 3292-513989.

Self-imposed editorial rules prevent identification of the lady at the ticket office, or the size of the contribution made to cover administrative costs. However, if you are planning on catching a ferry to Kazakhstan, contact me via the website – if I’m satisfied you’re a genuine traveller I’ll normally share this information with you]


For a few dollars more…

May 21st, 2010

Final instalment of Baku’s armchair adventure. Hopefully….

I’d barely got the ticket in my hand when the phone rang. There was a ship. Sailing soon, exactly when no-one was quite sure, but today certainly. I wasn’t surprised. The previous day I’d returned to the port, volunteered a small fee to help cover miscellaneous expenses. Remarkable how a ferry suddenly turns up. Coincidence I’m sure. Actually, I’d discovered that there’s probably rather more ships plying the route to Kazakhstan than you might be led to believe. Try about once a week in the summer, sometimes more frequent.

But none of this mattered anymore. No longer need I dwell on the fact that offer a small fee and you find there’s a second ticket office close by. I’d found a flight from Baku to Atyrau, the Sunday afternoon slot a few dollars more than the best offer for the ferry. Arranged through a Georgian travel company, not Azeri. Emma’s not keen on flying, but I’d been assured she’d be well looked after. And this option places me at the northern tip of the Caspian, where I’d originally hoped to be. Saves me around a thousand extra kilometres, and gives me a fighting chance of cycling the vast majority of Kazakhstan and still making the Chinese border in time for my visa.

I’m a bit disappointed at not sailing across the Caspian, but the primary objective is to cycle across Asia, not indulge in a passage on the high seas. And as for the intellectual challenge of securing a ship to Kazakhstan? Box ticked the moment the phone rang.

Intrigued as to what’s actually been going on? Coming this way yourself? Then wait a few days and all will be revealed. At least, my own assessment of the situation. Reckon I’ve researched my facts pretty carefully, got a good measure of how things work here, just putting the final touches to the post…

[With considerable thanks to Aysel for doing her level best to extract information from the ferry company. Brian for being such a great sounding board and, together with his daughter Savannah, a very generous host. Paul and Hammid for help obtaining an air ticket to Atyrau. Silvana, Johan and their friends for exploring the possibility of boarding other ships. Mark and my parents back in the UK for lots of helpful suggestions. And a few other friends who prefer to remain anonymous. Solo riding, team effort]


Groundhog Day

May 20th, 2010

Another instalment of the armchair adventure? It was beginning to feel like Groundhog Day.

They’d been a development the previous afternoon. The ship was sailing for Kazakhstan, fully laden but no passengers. Not quite sure when it was going, and the idea of a ferry so full of cargo no-one else could board seemed almost beyond comprehension. That would make it two sailings, opportunities to cross the Caspian, that had alluded me. Two weeks left on my Azerbaijan visa before I’d need to leave the country to obtain a fresh one. Probably simpler than trying to obtain an extension.

Mostly out of frustration, I’d headed down to the port in the early evening. Ticket office closed. No one around. I’d got a bit lost and found myself wandering around the docks for a while. At least gave me a chance to see what ships were actually in port. A few Iranian flagged vessels. Not very promising. But a couple of Roll-On-Roll-Off ferries at anchor in the bay, too distant to make out their names. Maybe one was mine.

I’d known the visit to the port had little prospect of achieving anything, but it had at least given me chance to think. What I needed was anything that floated, and a fair wind. Could it be that difficult? I headed back to the western suburbs where I was staying with Brian and his daughter Savannah, a few fresh ideas beginning to gel.


Over a very welcome beer and some fine homemade curry, Brian and I discussed the situation, carefully dissected what little information there seemed to be, looking for patterns that might unlock the problem. Perhaps the apparent absence of a pattern was itself a pattern? Brian suggested that this was becoming more than just about getting to Kazakhstan. It was an intellectual challenge. He was probably right.

The next morning – Day Eight – I’d a plan of sorts. Had to do something, anything, better than just waiting, especially when the prospect of success seemed so small. I’d made a few phone calls the previous evening and was waiting to hear back, see what they yielded. Couple more to make later. In the meantime, I’d other things to do. If I knew when the ferry was returning to port, I’d at least know when to head down there and try to get onboard. By whatever, albeit legitimate, means. But first I’d need the names of the ship. Or ships. No-one seemed quite sure.


Tough choices

May 18th, 2010

Tough choices from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

Still no ship to Kazakhstan, visa clock ticking, Ken describes the tough choices he faces.


Difficult choices

May 18th, 2010

Barely perceptible. The slow, insidious tick of the visa clock. A few more weeks permitted in Azerbaijan, a generous fifty or so days remaining for Kazakhstan. Just had to get there. Confident I’d cross the Caspian sooner rather than later, the difficulty was not the ’Stans. It was China. Had to cross the border before mid-June. At best then, three weeks to trek across Kazakhstan, a country sixty percent of the size of the European Union.

I’d also discovered that the ship I sought out of Baku went to Aqtau, rather than Atyrau. Rather than entering Kazakhstan at the northern end of the Caspian, I’d be landing further south, adding around a thousand kilometres to my journey. Close to the Uzbekistan border. But I’d already decided not to obtain an Uzbek visa, favouring a faster, more direct route across Kazakhstan. But that decision had assumed arrival in Atyrau, not Aqtau. An Uzbek visa was possible in Baku, but trying to obtain one, the inevitable handing over of your passport, ran the very risk of missing the ship. Again.

So, I’d have to run north from Aqtau towards Atyrau, pick up the direct route across Kazakhstan, then sprint towards the Chinese border. Now close on four thousand kilometres or about two and a half thousand miles. Across arid deserts, through mountains, often on rough tracks. At best, an exercise in endurance, Kazakhstan a mere blur. I’d leave the country not much wiser than when I’d entered. Much of the intended route follows railway tracks, which I thought might provide a compromise – leap ahead to the more populated eastern regions, more of a chance to get a measure of the country, and then cycle into China.

So, it would seem that the stark choice was cycle all of Kazakhstan, or all of China, but not both. Far from ideal. Practicality rather than purity. And I was still very keen to visit Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s riot torn Capital, if the security situation permitted. Unlocking the problem required a fresh Chinese visa, permitting entry for at least sixty days. Question was, could I obtain one? Not in Kazakhstan it seemed. Thirty days at best. I’d an idea. Besides, quite fancied a cup of tea at the British Consulate.


Day Seven…. A sighting

May 18th, 2010

Armchair adventure, soap opera, simple saga, or never-ending story? You be the judge. Meanwhile, the latest instalment….


Strong, warm, gusting winds off the Caspian, dust and debris swirling amongst the buildings. Day Seven in Baku. Good to her word, Aysel at the Tourism Information Centre called shortly after ten. There’d been a sighting. Well, seemed the ship had left Kazakhstan and was returning to Azerbaijan. Eighteen hour passage. Expected back in port tonight. Would it sail again today? Or perhaps tomorrow? Nobody knew. Not yet anyway. Aysel would check again with the shipping company that night and let me know. Nothing to do but wait. Thought I might wash my socks.


Good news, bad news

May 17th, 2010

The armchair adventure continues….

Good news. Definitely a ship to Kazakhstan. It had sailed the previous night. Bad news? I’m still in Baku. Seems that since my unfruitful visit to the shipping company the previous morning, they’d decided to sail it after all. Aysel, the very helpful lady in the Tourism Information Centre, doubled checked. Yes. It had gone. Extremely frustrating, especially as I’ve never missed a ship, train or plane as far back as I can remember.

I needed a plan. Simply couldn’t afford, in more sense than one, to miss the next sailing, whenever that might be. An hour later I had a second hand mobile telephone, all for about twenty pounds. Whilst there was no timetable, a pattern was emerging. The ship usually arrived in the morning, sailing again in the evening, normally around six. Aysel would check at ten in the morning, and again at three, calling me the moment there was any news. And, I was assured, if anything different happened, she’d get a call from the company and would then ring me right away. I trusted her.

[Author’s note: If you are ever mad enough to contemplate doing this for real, remember two things – a mobile telephone with a local SIM card (25 Manat or about £20 – various places around 28 May Street) – and a visit to the Baku Tourism Information Center, 36, U. Gadjibekov str. Baku Az1000, Azerbaijan, (+994 12) 498 12 44 Ferry ticket is about US$60 per person, plus about the same for a bicycle]


Searching for a ship

May 17th, 2010

An armful of visas. Kazakhstan and China in sight. Almost. Just need to catch a ship across the Caspian Sea. What could be simpler? Try World Peace. Intrigued? Maybe not, but just be thankful you’re not trapped in one of the most expensive cities on the planet. So sit back and enjoy a bit of armchair adventure. Here goes…

First locate the shipping company’s ticket office. A sketchy map in a well-known guidebook helps, but you’ll need to conduct house-to-house enquiries to find the right doorway. Don’t worry if you find it locked on your first visit, because you’ll be coming back in any case. Many times.

Once eventually inside, mutter a few words of Azeri and then the magic phrase – Kazakhstan. It probably helps if you’re a budding actor or an aspiring author since, chances are, you’re already used to rejection. If not, you soon will be. Expect to hear “No ship. Tomorrow maybe. Ten o’clock information” or variations thereof. Sometimes you get shrugging of shoulders. Animation helps break up the monotony. If you’re really lucky, they make a phone call first.

After a while, the merest snippets of information seem like progress. Some are actually quite helpful, like discovering the ship goes to a different port to the one you’d been expecting. And the vessel – if it actually exists, and after a while you do wonder – is there to transport freight trains en route from Georgia, not you. So just be grateful if they let you board. That is, once you’ve handed over your stash of US Dollars. You may be tempted to console yourself with a coffee, but this is Baku, so that’s probably your whole day’s budget gone.

There’s no timetable for the service, if you can call it that, and, it seems, no one has any idea when the ship last sailed. You begin to wonder if it’s sunk again. Or who these people really are. But, quite unusually for Baku, nobody will accept your money, purportedly for a ticket, until there’s actually a vessel to board.

Once you realise that turning up in person makes not a jot of difference, you can always get the Tourist Information Office to call them for you. Staff speak excellent English. And there’s a lovely coffee shop nearby. Not that you can afford to go in. Still, you could always pop around to the local chemist. See if they stock Prozac. Or go and sit on the Promenade, watch the seasons change, and contemplate how to bring about World Peace.


On the shores of the Caspian Sea

May 16th, 2010

On the shores of the Caspian Sea from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

Ken describes reaching the shores of the Caspian Sea, the first stage of Asia now complete.


Frustrations on the shores of the Caspian

May 16th, 2010

Waiting for a ship to Kazakhstan from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

Ken describes the frustrations of waiting for a ship across the Caspian Sea from Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan.

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