Crossing the Caspian Sea from Baku to Turkmenbashi

Azerbailjan – Baku Port

From Baku you have two choices to ship across the Caspian Sea. Aktau, Kazakhstan and Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan. I chose to travel to Turkmenbashi.

It is a bit of a challenge of securing transport on a cargo ship across the Caspian Sea as they are not focussing on individual vehicles. Motorbikes and cyclists can travel on the passenger ferries that run quiet regularly. Cars and trucks need to travel of larger scale freight vessels.

I was fortunate to be introduced to Huseyn by my Polish host Andrzej. Huseyn had studied in Poland for a couple of years and is now the unofficial Polish consulate in Baku and friend to all travellers.

Andrzej introduces me to Huseyn
                                                Andrzej introduces me to Huseyn

So after no more than 12 hours in the city, I found myself being introduced to a local Azerbaijani art dealer, by an ex-pat Polish national in the old town of Baku, with the aim of helping me buy a ferry ticket to Turkmenistan. Not really an everyday occurrence but I wasn’t about to argue.

Ticket Buying Process

Around 3pm when Huseyn and I we headed off to the carefully hidden port departure location for the Caspian Sea ferries. We found a little old lady waiting for us at the ticket office. She basically said we were too late for today and to come back tomorrow. Perhaps we should go down to the port and we might have some luck there. We headed to the customs area and after 30 minutes of backwards and forwards between buildings we (mainly Huseyn) ascertained that I had the right documentation and exiting customs shouldn’t be a problem.

These links provide location information and further guidance:

http://www.horizonsunlimited.com/hubb/northern-asia/ferry-azerbaidijan-to-turkm-nistan-59892

http://azerbaijan24.com/transport/38-transport-azerbaijan/60-ferryservicebaku.html

It’s not easy finding the ferry terminal in Baku for Turkmenistan, no signs and many people have no idea of distances or location. So here are a few coordinates:

Turnoff from the main frontage road into a small non-descript side road without any signs (ride towards the wharfs):
N40 22 34.3 E49 51 53.7

Get your tickets in another non-descript office, with small lettering “kassa” above the door, right after the first police checkpoint:
N40 22 28.4 E49 51 56.6

Customs office a bit past the ticket office (same alley way):
N40 22 18.9 E49 51 54.2

The right paperwork consisted of:

  • Vehicle Registration Documents
  • Passport
  • Valid Azerbaijan Entry Visa
  • Insurance / Road Tax payment processed at the border and most importantly a little piece of paper that was the receipt for these transactions. It seems innocuous but it’s very important. It has the date of entry into Azerbaijan.

Beware – 72 hour rule for vehicle visas

There is a 72 hour time limit rule in place for your vehicle entry visa. So while you get 30 days as an individual they only give your vehicle three days. They check this date when issuing ferry tickets. If you have over stayed this date or your ship is sailing after this date they will not sell you a ticket until you have extended the vehicle’s visa.

Fortunately I was leaving within the 72 hours. Other travellers I know were so fortunate. They had over stayed the 72 hours rule and were refused tickets. They had to go and pay a fine and for an extension. This cost them 2 days of their transit visa. Along with a short delay on the boat they had to drive straight across Turkmenistan in 36 hours to get out before their visa expired. They arrive 30 mins before the end of the day and the border was shut. The next day they went through many hoops, were asked to pay fines, refused and eventually were escorted out of Turkmenistan. Not such a fun time, though they did save a lot of cash. If you are prepared to risk it then give it a go. I wouldn’t with a truck because the sailings are to irregular. Bikes though have a good chance.

Ticket Buying Process (cont)

However, if we wanted a ticket we need to speak to the little old lady. Ah really we said, as she had already fobbed us off. We headed back to find the office shut for the day (at 4pm). Sneaky cow!!

Top Tip: Ship Sailing Times

They often tell you a time well in advance of the sailing time. Normally the scheduled departure time. However most boats depart late and many don’t even arrive before their departure time. A handy tip is to speak to the dock workers and ask them to give you a call when the ship arrives. This will require a local number, local contact and understanding of the local language. Huseyn was able to do this for me so it’s not an option for everyone. Stan Tours will arrange assistance if you request for Baku for a fee. I think it was $100 USD per day.

An example of the delays effected, Tim an Aussie cyclist I met at the port. He was told to arrive at the passenger ferry at 5pm for a 8pm sailing. The boat didn’t arrive until 2-3am and eventually sailed at 7am. Tim spent a long night waiting outside the terminal. There are no luxury services for waiting passengers.

 

Aussie Tim - Mad cyclist
                                                       Aussie Tim – Mad cyclist

The next day feeling we went to ticket office to find out about ticket for the next ferry at 11am. It turned out that there was a ferry travelling today and potentially one tomorrow. I was now faced with the decision of whether to go a day early or not. In the end I decided to go a day earlier as there was a guaranteed ferry.

Ferry costs

  • Vehicle ticket – $350 (calculated as length of vehicle 5 metres * $70 per metre)
  • Passenger ticket $90 for me
  • $60 for service costs (what ever they were?)
  • Totalling $500

For an extra $100 I could get a guarantee that I would have no problems with customs. Apparently the customs guys are sometimes known to make you pay a last-minute fee to board the boat. I declined the offer hoping for the best and that it wouldn’t result in problems down the line.

$500 cold hard cash for the ferry$500 cold hard cash for the ferry

It now meant that after racing across Europe and the Caucasus I was going to be a day ahead of schedule. So I advised my Turkmenistan support at Stan Tours I would be day early (maybe). The ferry journey takes 14 hours but its common for the ferry to wait offshore for 2-3 days waiting to dock. It’s all rather challenging when you are trying to arrive on an exact day to meet you guide and get into the country. Any changes to your plans costs more money as you have to pay for guides to wait for you.

Turkmenistan Visas

There are two visas for Turkmenistan.

  1. A transit visa that lasts for 5 days where you have to specify the exact 5 days. This is dangerous if your boat is delayed
  2. A tourist visa which gives you flexibility to arrive within a bigger window. e.g 20 days

I went for the tourist visa due to the uncertainly of the ferry schedule. It cost me an additional $1500-2000 to use a guide service but I also stayed longer than the 5 day minimum for the transit visa. It’s an expensive option but it was required to ensure no transit problems in Turkmenistan.

Ticket Process (cont)

After paying for the ticket around midday, I had to go to another port location and wait until 3pm to get my ticket and customs clearance.

Once secured and with a little sweet talk from Huseyn (you are not meant to leave port once customs has checked you documents) we headed back into town for shopping and lunch with Andrzej and a couple of his friends. Just mention that you need to get fuel and supplies and they should let you go.

Top Tip: Stock up on plenty of supplies to last 2-3 days on the ship. And take everything you need with you when you lock the vehicle. Often you are not allowed back to you vehicle (though I snuck back down on day 2 for more supplies). The ferries often have kitchens so there are food options, at a cost aboard.

Note: There are two port areas. The main one closest to town handles passengers which includes bikes mainly. It does handle large vehicles but there is a larger port area further north that handles most truck freight shipping. That is where I had to go.

I have my ferry ticket
                                                              I have my ferry ticket

I was incredibly fortunate to have Huseyn’s help. I don’t know how I would have got ticket without him so quickly. None of the ferry operators or customs people spoken much in the way of english. Many were not even interested in helping a foreigner, often being quite rude it felt. Having a local translator certainly help me. I was pretty confident that I wasn’t getting ripped off.

Most people do manage this process without help but you end up taking everything on faith. Plus the bikes are at the correct terminal when they buy their tickets so they know where to go. Though it’s not unheard of for the dock workers to ask for last-minute fees to board.

 

My boat - Fikrat Amirov
                                                      My boat – Fikrat Amirov

I was back to port at 7pm, thinking that I’d have to wait until 1am to board, then depart at 4am. Next thing I’m going on board at 8pm first. I didn’t know where I was going on so I ended up last going down to lower deck last. By the time I got upstairs all private rooms were gone and everybody was too busy to help. My passport was taken from me and whenever I asked about room and I got no joy. Eventually I was lead to 6 bed dorm room below deck. Here I met a bunch of Turkmenistan students so we all jump in together. Ruslan spoke a little English so he was appointed as translator for the journey.

Around 11pm my presence was requested by the Police. Oh dear I thought, what had I done now? It turned out that I hadn’t stamped out of passport control. Whoops. This was resolved in 10 minutes and I was back onboard ready to go.

On the Boat

I woke the day after we left Baku to a beautiful sunny day on the Caspian Sea. The cool sea air was refreshing. Optimistically I hoped that we would dock today, one day ahead of schedule. The first sign that things were going to be different was my mobile phone had lost any network connection. Contacting my guide onshore was going to be tricky.

We docked with another boat around midday and gave them supplies as they had been waiting for one month to dock. Yikes!!

We left and headed for port around 3pm thinking we might get in by 3-5pm. Hopes were dashed around 5pm as we dropped anchor for the night. So close yet so far away.

Saturday the 6th was the day I originally planned to arrive in Turkmenbashi. We all had high hopes that today we would dock.

We got word that we were going to dock so I broke out the supplies for a splendid late lunch with the lads in budget cabin number 1. Cheese, chorizo, fresh bread and a cold beer. Delicious!!

After we finished lunch we didn’t dock. Ah well. I was getting used to this.

Turkmenbashi at night - so close yet so far
                                       Turkmenbashi at night – so close yet so far

We all wondered if today will be the day we dock? I got up and showered in the plush wet room (read: one of the dodgiest shower room ever).

Around 2pm we got call to dock. Hoo-bloodly-ray!!

Finally we reach port
                                                           Finally we reach port

Turkmenistan – Turkmenbashi Port

We finally arrived in port around 3pm. Finally got Boris off the ship around 6pm and then the fun with customs began. At 18.30 I entered customs near the passenger terminal (approx 1km from the cargo terminal) and met Yuri my guide for the first time. He then went to work, finding my passport, collecting my car documents, taking $12 and disappearing again. I sat back and let him work his magic.

Land Ho. The light at the end of the tunnel. Finally exiting the ferry.
                       Land Ho. The light at the end of the tunnel. Finally exiting the ferry.

There must be 9 or 10 different offices that Yuri was moving back and forth between. Immigration, cash office, health *2, transport, military and customs. Then came the fees for each department.

  • $1 – For vehicle disinfection
  • $30 – For entry & transit passage
  • $37 – For compensation of the fuel cost
  • $50 – Third Party Liability Insurance
  • $5 – For processing the documents
  • $3 – Certificate for something?
  • $50 – Road tax
  • $10 – something else?

Somewhere around 10pm we finally cleared customs and were free to go. I was $200 lighter for the experience. It’s by far the most amount of paperwork I have ever had to complete. Apparently it’s the same for the transit visa. It would take a day without help. To add to everything the process is all manual paperwork. Not a computer insight!! Keeps everybody in a job I suppose.

My 3 day Caspian Sea cruise was an experience and now the proper Turkmenistan adventure was about to begin on land. But first I needed a good nights sleep.

p.s One reason for the delay might have been that I was on an Azerbaijani boat rather than a Turkmen boat. Who you know still rules in this part of the world. 3 days for a 14 hour boat journey is common place. It makes it awfully difficult to plan for with a 5 transit visa that requires you to specify the exact dates of you travel. Personally I think it’s a rather convenient way to get tourists to pay more for tourist visas.

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