As we are writing this, we’re already stuck for more than 12 hours on the Caspian Sea ferry to Turkmenbashi and it hasn’t even left the port yet. Getting from Azerbaijan to Turkmenistan or Kazakhstan isn’t as easy as taking a ferry from Dover to Calais. It takes a lot of patience and time (which you probably don’t have).
When arriving in Baku, Azerbaijan, you have two options. You can go to the port of Baku and find out yourself if there is a ferry. Or you can contact ‘the local fixer’ Ishmaël. We’ve read a lot about him on other forums and blogs, but we figured it’s actually not so difficult to get yourself on the Caspian Sea ferry.
GETTING A TURKMENISTAN VISA IN BAKU
So we chose for option one. It seemed that it wasn’t so hard to figure out if there was a ferry or not. The process is actually pretty straightforward. Usually, in perfect circumstances, there is a ferry that takes you to Turkmenbashi every day or two days. So we first called to Victoria, she’s the one that sells the tickets and can speak pretty good English. Apparently, there hasn’t been a boat for the last 2 days but she was sure that there would be one the next day. So we had the time to go to the Turkmen embassy to get our visa in our passports. Because we’re participating in the Mongol Rally, we’ve got an LOI through the Visa Machine to easily apply for our 5 days transit visa. The embassy is only open on Monday and Friday and it isn’t a very smooth process. First, we went to the embassy to get a small paper with information on, which was written in Russian. This paper said that we needed to go to the bank and transfer the visa fee (for us it was $55 each) to their bank account. We had to take a taxi to the bank because it was pretty far to walk. They helped us out at the bank to transfer the money and gave us another paper which we needed to show at the embassy. After that, we went back to the embassy for our visa. We queued for 7 hours because there were a lot of other Mongol Ralliers that wanted to do the same as us. Eventually, this was a wrong move because this could endanger our period in Turkmenistan if the Caspian Sea ferry would not arrive the next day (and it didn’t). We’ve heard different stories about getting onto the ferry with just an LOI and get the stamp at the Turkmenistan border and it seems that it’s no problem at all.
KILLING TIME AT THE PORT
The day after we went to the ferry port and stamped the car out because our road tax was only valid for 3 days. We went through the barrier and on the right side there was a small old office with the sign ‘Customs’. A pretty old guy that could not speak English scanned our road tax document and send us away. (If you overstay your 3 days, you need to pay an extra road tax fee of approx. 10 dollars.) Because it was early in the morning and Victoria wasn’t there yet we had to wait for 2 hours before she arrived. Basically, she just comes and goes whenever she wants. After some more waiting, she told us that there was only one boat leaving that day but that it was rather a small one. Suddenly this ‘fixer’ Ishmaël appears and began to tell us what to do. We and some other teams were just standing in the line for our tickets and he wanted us out of there just to get his people on the boat. He was running in and out of Victoria’s office and wouldn’t want to talk to people that didn’t pay him. So yeah, you can already figure out he’s an ass. Eventually, he got 2 out of his 4 teams on the boat.
We stayed there the whole day, and every hour there was some other news. First, there was just one boat. After a while, a second boat would come into port in the evening and even maybe a third. Eventually, Victoria started writing tickets for the next boat with only 9 places. Also now, Ishmaël was bossing around and telling people what to do and who could come on that boat. This wasn’t fair at all for the people that were already waiting in Baku for multiple days and that didn’t pay him. This boat was full very quickly because of all the trucks so it seemed that we lost a day and needed to stay in Baku for another night. We made the best of it and went to the city center for dinner. We stopped at Cafe City at Fountain Square and had a delicious meal with a beer plate and salmon toast.
The next day the waiting game really kicked off. Victoria was saying different things but didn’t know for sure if a ferry would leave Turkmenbashi that day. We waited back again for more than 12 hours at the port while it felt like at least 40°C. Luckily there’s a mall not so far from the port where we could go to for some food and fresh water. Ishmaël however, has been sent out of the port by the guards because everyone had enough of him and he wasn’t honest at all. Basically what he does is giving you information that you can find yourself using www.marinetraffic.com and calling to Victoria for information. He didn’t help any ralliers with their visas or things like that. It was all very corrupt because we heard that he asked different prices to different people and most of them went on the same ferry as everyone else. So we don’t recommend to use his services because you lose too much money on him for doing almost nothing.
THERE’S A BOAT!
After waiting for 3 full days at the port of Baku, which began to look like a refugee camp, we heard the great news that a new ferry would arrive on Thursday evening that could take all the Mongol Rally teams to the other side. I think that the guys from the port have never seen people waiting for that long because they even ordered döner kebab for everyone and organized a guided tour around Baku! Eventually, we needed to sleep a night in the car who was standing in the port because we needed to board at 9 a.m. on Friday. Because everything changes so quickly we didn’t want to take the risk of getting a hotel for another night. 9 a.m. Became 11 a.m. and it almost took 4 hours to get everyone through passport control before we could board the Caspian Sea ferry with our car.
Once on the boat, called Berkarar, we had to pay for the car and a cabin. Normally you have to pay a certain amount of USD per meter of the car. Because this boat wasn’t an Azeri boat but a Turkmen boat, the price for the car was fixed ($200). The cabins were reasonable, we had two beds and a small bathroom with a shower which was useful after those long, hot days in the port. The price, however, is way to much for what you get. We paid $80 each for a cabin but the AC didn’t even work so it was too hot inside. We even slept the first night on the deck. However, it was the best option for us because otherwise, we needed to pay $60 each for just a ferry ticket without a cabin/shower.
We all took our stuff (food and water included) out of our cars because we couldn’t reach them afterwards. There wasn’t much choice in the restaurant to eat, only french fries with chicken or soup. Unfortunately, they ran out of chicken so we could only have some french fries… Once again, we needed to wait for 3 hours until we could start eating. While we were waiting, the boat stopped in the middle of the Caspian Sea and nobody knew what was happening. We have read some stories about the captain that simply stops the boat until he bribed everyone. So we were afraid that this was happening right now. Although, after a while, it became clear that the ferry needed to wait until he could enter the port of Turkmenbashi. They told us upfront that the Caspian Sea ferry crossing would take 14 hours. But eventually, it took us 40 hours on the boat until we arrived in Turkmenistan!
We stayed almost a week in Baku but actually we didn’t see much of the city. Almost all of our time was spent in the port and in the evening we were so exhausted of just waiting and running around for some information. We couldn’t even go and explore the city because there could change something so fast that we were obliged to stay at the port. The cashiers at the mall already knew us because we went there almost 7 times a day…
Related articles you might like:
- Mongol Rally Part 2 – Döner, Dinos & Dangerous Drivers
- Mongol Rally Part 4 – Turkmenistan & Uzbekistan: The Devil Is Teasing Us
- 8 Awesome Things In Central Asia That Need To Be On Your Bucket List