Running the Baku Ferry Gauntlet

By the time the Georgian-Azerbaijan border was crossed, it was past midnight on a Saturday night. Grant asked Kyle over the intercom as they passed through deserted large towns “I wonder what people do here on a Saturday night”. They approached a giant steel gate they believed was a hotel entrance. Three knocks and a man let them pass through, beckoning them to the check in counter. As the Ricks walked in it became very evident what happens in Azerbaijan on a Saturday night.

Azerbaijan

A group of about twenty students in their mid to late 20’s were standing in the hallway chatting. It was quickly apparent that they spoke extremely good English, and the usual questions were directed at the Ricks about what part of the world they come from, how were their travels, etc. These students were staying up all night long drinking….. tea. In the hotel lobby. Yes it seems that alcohol is not always necessary to have a wild night. The Ricks feeling happy that they would finally receive a respite for their livers, sat down at a table first with a separate older Azeri man, who spoke very good Russian but no English. Their hopes were dashed when a bottle of vodka suddenly appeared and shots were thrust into their hands.

Vodka

“What do we toast to?” the man asked. Kyle, thinking these people would understand their neighbors tradition, offered a toast to the departed. “We have other traditions here….” said the man, as a pang of missing the customs of the Georgians struck Kyle after only five hours of separation.

Benzine

The next morning Grant was awoken by a knock on the door: “Hey, it’s noon, are you going to be spending another night or what?”. In a haste we grabbed our bags and jumped on our bikes. We had intended to transit the entire country to the capital Baku that day. The noon start definitely did not help. Luckily the sun was shining, the air was pleasant and the roads were great.

Riding Overla

Azerbaijanis turned out to be a lively bunch, and only about 20% of them did not honk their horns and wave at the trio as they passed through their country, almost as if the Ricks were running a marathon. After a quick and pleasant lunch it was back on the bikes for the final push to Baku.

The end of the Green

Baku

Baku was a stark change from Tbilisi, very clean and very new buildings were everywhere, the buildings on the outskirts of town were standing empty. It was very clear that oil money drove this place for many years. Kyle had a very interesting experience, where he offered 10 Manat ($8) for a taxi ride across town, and the taxi driver actually told him the price would be only 8 manat! That was certainly one for the record books. There was little desire or time to really explore the city however, because two things drove the path of the Ricks: acquiring an Uzbekistan visa, and catching the ferry.

El Gato
Spent 20 minutes hopefully following these signs to what we thought would be a Mexican restaurant, ended up not going anywhere…

Driving to the Uzbekistan consulate with an LOI (letter of invitation) in hand made the process incredibly quick and easy. We handed over the documents (they need 1x copy of your passport, the LOI, the printed applications, and a passport photo). Grant did not even have a passport photo available initially. Kindly, the representative said that when the trio was to go to the bank to pay he could go to a photography shop and have a few taken, and there would be no delay when they returned. Once the Ricks returned with the receipts of payment the sticker visas were applied to their passports immediately.

The Ferry

The ferry service across the Caspian Sea is sporadic at best, and completely at a whim at worst. People can wait a week or more just to get on a ship, and once the ship arrives on the other side, there can be another several days of waiting anchored 5 miles outside the port. There is a lady you can call who speaks English who will try to guess whether there is a boat leaving the port that day. After acquiring our visas we spoke to her and she said to hurry down there immediately that night, there was either a boat that night or the next day.

20 Yanvar Roundabout
Went through this intersection 4 times before finally making it out

Riding an hour south to Alat (the port town near Baku), we spoke to the representatives of the ferry company who explained that tonight’s ferry was not taking passengers, but tomorrow’s would. At 10am we would be able to purchase our tickets, so we set up camp right by the customs control booths.

Parking Lot Camp

The next day Kyle awoke and sat outside the ticket office. If there was going to be a ferry today, he was not going to miss it. 10 AM turned into 11 AM, into 1130 AM, but eventually he acquired the tickets for a ship that was “scheduled” to leave at 5 PM. Slowly but surely other overlanders began to trickle in as they heard the news, and soon the group grew to thirteen people sitting around behind the shade of a semi truck trailer. At 6 PM, boarding began, and the group was on the ship eating dinner.

James getting his ticket
James had been waiting for seven days to get this ticket. Faster than biking around the caspian I guess…

Loading the Ferry

The next morning arrived, and Kyle went up to the top deck to enjoy the view. Suddenly he was surprised by a view of LAND! and a CITY! Quickly he pulled out his phone to investigate where they were. After an entire night on the boat, Kyle realized they had only gone 60 miles to the northwest, and that city was Baku…. they had barely left port.

Top Deck

Breakfast on the Ferry

The boat continued to chug along across the ocean, and after doing some calculations it was estimated that we would arrive at port at midnight. Wanting to get a good night of sleep before dealing with the customs bureaucracy, everyone went to bed early.
No one awoke the Ricks in the night to get off the ship, and the next morning it was clear that we were now anchored five miles away from the dock, waiting for the port to… open?

It wasn’t until 5PM that next evening we finally docked and unloaded, beginning what turned out to be a seven hour process to enter Kazakhstan.

Chilling on the Ferry

The port of Kurik had only been open for a total of ninety days, so its processes were not quite solidified yet. None of the Ricks can explain how they finally made it out the other side, it was simply a trial and error of finding the right person to stamp papers, sign the stamps, make copies of passports until the final check at the end. In the middle of that process, it turned out that the Ricks were missing a critical signature from customs control verifying that they had been checked for narcotics, even though they had indeed gone through that checkpoint. The last border officer would not let them pass the final check. Using his phone to communicate, the border officer explained that the narcotics officer would arrive to sign in another 40 minutes delaying the Ricks even further. After seven hours of jumping through every hoop laid out in their path, Kit and Grant proceeded to “flip their shit”. Kyle proceeded to push them out of the border officers office, as to not get deported back over the Caspian to Azerbaijan.

Kyle Stressing
The mood at this time

Lastly, after riding around the port making a racket expecting people to come out and yell at them and ask what they were doing, the Ricks enlisted the help of a Kazakh they met on the boat to translate, and finally they found the necessary person for the final signature. At midnight the Ricks entry into Kazakhstan was finally cleared, they exited the border control area and met up with the fellow overlanders they had met who were patiently waiting for them.

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