The slow boat to Kazakhstan

Posted by Dan
Aktau, Kazakhstan

finally boarding the ship to Kazakhstan

The smoke, thick and black from the ship’s diesel engine blows away from us to the south-east and we are finally sailing north-west. Relaxing, reading, we hear the sound of a helicopter leaving an oil rig and fly above us. We jump to the window of our cabin, which is wide open, only a gentle breeze flutters the curtain now. Yesterday afternoon, the wind was apparently too strong to sail, or there was a storm out at sea which the captain wanted to hide from. So he dropped anchor, having turned around and motored back to the coast of Baku, after only 3 hours of leaving port. The boat sat and bobbed there all night, whilst we made friends with the Turkish truckies on board and swapped maps and notes with the other overlanders travelling this way.

This morning, when the wind had dropped and the anchor pulled in, we snoozed as crew pumped out excess ballast or leak water. In a soft daze, I hadn’t realised we were actually moving again, the sound of the water pumping out had merged with the splash of the still water under the speeding hull. It was only when I saw the reflection in the Perspex cover of the cabin light above my head of the sea moving away from us, I realised we were on our way again.

rest at last!

Relief allows us rest, and the strain of the 15 day wait for the boat is being slept off. Probably too by the 8 European friends we have made in the last 2 days. Despite having waited the longest and joined the French, German, Spanish, Ukrainian and English travellers camped outside the Kassa (ticket booth) all day, 2 days ago now, we ended up being the last ones to be sold a ticket. When we’d arrived at 7am, the day of departure, we’d been singled out and pressurised, told that the last ticket had been sold to our German friends and that there was no space for us. This deceit and the ugly, arrogant behaviour by the staff of the Kassa had us running back and forth between the Kassa and customs, where our friends all waited with their tickets in hand.

waiting at the kassa

We had already sensed the staff at the Kassa were dishonest people, but thought it incredulous that after 15 days of telling us, “Tomorrow, tomorrow” they would now refuse to sell two cyclists a ticket. A huge ship, with more cabins than passengers, was being described to us as full. With aggressive fists, the Kassa staff crossed their arms to make an X, to mean closed.

Close to tears, with dates of our visas running through our heads, and maps of alternative routes confusing and flashing through our minds, our journey, for a moment, seemed in the hands of these despicable people. It was hard to hide our anger, we raised our voices, losing our grip of calm and reason. Ireyna, the Ukranian woman, ran with us back to the Kassa, to ask again, speaking fluently in their common language of the ex-Soviet states, Russian.

She was calm, she was bright, she smiled, she was friendly, she didn’t show surprise and she was patient. Then she spotted the chief outside the Kassa, whom we’d not seen before, and spoke briefly and precisely to him. When the chief entered the Kassa, me and Krista understood clearly this part of the conversation. He spoke in stern Azeri, “What’s the problem? It is nothing. There is no problem. Sell them a ticket.” Ireyna, she is a star.

With ticket in hand, we three ran back to the boat to have our passports stamped, in fear that the boat would now leave without us. The customs guards were pleased for us and were all smiles, though the day before and the hour previously, they had been quiet and unreactionary. Our new friends punched the air as we joined the gang readying to board, although after the challenge of patience, nobody showed too much excitement, all agreeing that we’re not there until we’re there… When wheels roll away from customs to the open road, we’ll know we’ve made it: away from Azerbaijan and into Kazakhstan.

Our desperation to take this boat was so great, since we’d waited for such a long time, told every day that we should come back tomorrow. It had only taken 8 days to cycle the whole length of the country, yet we’d been in Baku for over 2 weeks. We’d been expecting to take a boat in a matter of 4 or 5 days, but because we’d waited so long, any other option for an alternative way out of Azerbaijan should we not board this boat was now nearly impossible.

One of the aims of our journey is not to fly. Our ongoing visas to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are paid for and planned out with set dates of entry and exit. To apply for replacements would be a costly option and a race against time, since we only had 6 days left on our Azeri visa. Our visa to remain in the country could expire before being granted one for a neighbouring country. We didn’t have time to exit the country by cycling. And we had chosen this route to avoid Iran, since, interesting as it may be, Krista didn’t want to return there as she’d been put in prison there 12 years ago. Even so, this would still leave us with the problem of a Turkmenistan transit visa, and crossing 800kms of desert in just 5 days in searing heat. AARGH!

The three men and one woman of the Kassa were simply scaring us into offering them a bribe, knowing how long they had kept us waiting, being aware that we must take a boat any day now.

We drew these conclusions when we got on board and saw that indeed this huge boat had more cabins than passengers. And when we heard from the captain that there had been other boats that had come and gone that we could’ve travelled on, our suspicions were confirmed.

For the first time on this journey, we had both forgotten that time is the only thing that can change a situation. It is only a moment of drama, and if you wait it out, it will be a different outcome. Patience will put an end to a tight spot, if you stay calm! So we toasted a drink on the bow of the ship with our new group of friends in celebration of our departure and progress towards Kazakhstan.

toasting with vodka

Smiles and laughter and friendship grew aboard and we made plans to look out for each other along the road, although our overlander friends would move much faster than us, travelling with motorbikes and cars.

The important words to remember come to mind on the voice of our friend Gizem: “Now the adventure really begins”.

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