How to get from Baku to Aktau by ship

Stunning view in the Caspian See
Stunning view of the Caspian Sea

After being denied the Turkmenistan Visa in Iran, we had to come up with a new route to be able to follow our journey on the Silk Road towards Uzbekistan.

The only safe option at that moment (excluding Afghanistan and Pakistan) was across the Caspian Sea from Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan, where many nationalities currently do not need Visas.

Once you are in Baku, you have to first check when the cargo ship is leaving. The only operating company at that time (July 2016) was Caspian Shipping Company.

Unfortunately, however, there are some drawbacks in the process:

  • LENGHTY CROSS: Around 20-22 hours to cross the Caspian Sea from Baku to Aktau.
  • NO FIXED SCHEDULE: The cargo ship has no predictable departure time. You only get confirmation on the same day a few hours before departure. The boat can sail every day, once a week or not at all. You have to phone (055-2665354) after 11 am every day to know if the boat will sail that day. Alternatively, you can directly go to the company office located at the western end of Şəhər Bulvar:

It is vital you ask for and speak with “Vicky” if possible, in order to be quickly let in from the guarded gate and inquire about the ship. She speaks sufficient English. The office is a “white container” just 20 meters after the gate, on the right.

Containers where you can buy the tickste for the ship in Baku
Container where you can buy the ticket for the ship
  • ONLY FEW PASSENGERS ARE ACCEPTED: As a matter of fact, ships are mainly for cargo purposes. Only few cabins are left for passengers without vehicle.
  • SHIPS TO AKTAU ONLY DEPART FROM THE NEW BAKU INTERNATIONAL SEAPORT: The port is located at around 75 Km from Baku, near Alat, in the middle of nowhere!

Getting there by public transport is quite an art: from opposite the 28 May metro station in Baku, you have to catch the urban bus n. 5 until the terminus stop. Then take a white bus n. 195 to Alat (a proper, crowded, local bus, taking 1h 30!!)

Bus 195 for getting the Alat Port in Baku
Bus 195 to reach the New Baku International Seaport in Alat

However, the bus does not stop at the Seaport

You have to warn the driver beforehand in order for him to leave you at the Seaport road intersection with the Highway, from where you still have 30 minutes walking!!

Walking to Alat port in Azerbaijan
Walking to the port

Once you have received the confirmation, you can purchase the ticket either at the Baku Office (better option) or at the Seaport Office, just before the passport check. There is again a white container near the money exchange stalls you can knock at. The ticket costs 80 dollars or the equivalent in Azerbaijan Manat, if you prefer. It includes all the meals inside the ship.

Arrived at the Seaport, to our glad surprise, we found out that there is a mini market, a rest room to watch TV and eat, the Caspian Shipping Company office and two money exchange shops, which unluckily only sell Dollars or Rubles, not the Kazak Tenges

You can however change your remaining Manats into Dollars to later use them in Uzbekistan. This is how we did!!

After that, we immediately realized that the information received a few hours earlier was unreliable: the ship should have already been at the dock since 3 pm. Instead at 6 pm still there was no track of it!

Boat for crossing the Caspian Sea in Alat Port - Azerbaijan
Our boat for crossing the Caspian Sea

Therefore, we had to wait until further notice. The issue was that whereas the Company claimed the boat was about to leave in few hours, other passengers, border policemen and eventually the supposed ship captain were providing prudent and elusive predictions.

At around 10 pm (already one hour later than the expected departure time at 9 pm), we got finally warned we could go through the passport and customs control.

Another French passenger was stopped and denied the access because he had exceeded the allowed 10 days in Azerbaijan without police registration. Pay attention to that!

After the verification, you have to walk towards the harbour for about 200 meters. The situation then got a bit confused, as we discerned 3 ships moored at the dock. We distinguished our “Balakan” though.

Corridor inside the boat with the cabins
Corridor inside the boat with the cabins

Don’t expect too much ceremony there. This is not like a Greek ferry! You will be hardly welcomed and nobody speaks English. Just try to follow the other passengers or show the ticket to any member of the crew (difficult to distinguish though).

Finally, after being requested to leave the passport (they kept it for the whole duration of the trip), we were shown our little, but very decent cabin

As said, there is no luxury inside the ship. Nevertheless, you are assigned a private, 2 beds cabin with basic toilet inside (the shower was missing the head though : ). By far more than expected!!

Our cabin for nearly 4 days
Our cabin for nearly 4 days

If you are travelling alone, they could grant you either a private cabin (if there are no many passengers) or one to be shared with another passenger.

The first night we were not served any dinner. So be prepared. At least we thought the ship departure was imminent. What naïve!! At around 24h we believed that finally the ship was moving. Then, around 3 am, to all our disappointment, we heard loading-unloading sounds coming from the vehicles area. We had not advanced even one centimetre!!

The boat carrying trains with goods
The boat carrying trains with goods

We woke up the following morning still in the same discouraging position as we were the previous night. The second day, at last the boat moved…but just to Baku city port, only few Kilomeers nearby. When inquired, the captain kept providing vague answers about an imminent departure. Apparently the reason for delay was the inclement weather conditions in the sea.

Windy sunset at the boat crossing the Caspian Sea
Windy sunset from the boat

Luckily, at least, we could watch Euro2016 football matches on board in the common hall and get regular (and included) meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Meals are quite an experience: they are served at very precise hours (8,30, 12,30, 20,30), after the crew has eaten. Somebody will somehow knock on your door to warn you the food is ready. Once sat in the small dining room, you are instantly handed your dish (one main course, plus common salad on the table), which you have to finish in no more than 15 minutes, before the “picturesque” kitchen maid laconically “invites” you to hurry up : ). On top of that, as nobody among the crew and the passengers (apart from a friendly Georgian guy) could speak English, we did not exchange any word with our tablemates.

In the end, we set sail after 2 days and a half. It took then a third night to arrive to Aktau. We arrived there after 3 days and a half

At the port, before allowing any person to disembark, local authorities thoroughly inspected the ship and cabins. Instructed dogs also sniffed our belongings. Finally, we arrived to the passport control, very straightforward for us.

Passport control building in Aktau
Passport control building in Aktau

Aktau harbour is at about 5 km from the city centre though. Hence, either you are lucky like us and get a lift from a customs employee or you need to catch a taxi or a cheaper bus number 4, which stops at irregular intervals at few hundred meters from the port (you will see the bus sign near the stop). That’s it!

Main entrance of the port in Aktau
Main entrance of the port in Aktau

To sum up, the experience was quite original and peculiar. A bit frustrated at the beginning, we got later used to the unexplained uncertainty very quickly. People in the ship are indeed nice and friendly, even though they are not able to talk to you in English. They always smilingly tried to help us and make ourselves at ease during the endless wait. Also we could celebrate Bea’s birthday with some expired biscuits from a nice Georgian guy who helped us at least to enjoy the day : ) “Cheerful patience” is your best weapon in such occasions!

Happy birthday Bea ! Baku
Happy birthday Bea !

 

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