From Azerbaijan, the no fly options that were available to us were. Firstly, we could go south to Iran and into Turkmenistan. Secondly, go north into Russia then enter Kazakhstan. Finally, cross the Caspian Sea to either Turkmenistan or Kazakhstan.
Advised against all but essential travel to the areas of Iran that we would need to pass through. The Iranian Embassy’s advice on obtaining a visa was, you must either apply as part of an organised tour or have a sponsor in Iran. Not wanting to go through Iran as part of an organised tour. Which works out really expensive. Or knowing anyone in Iran who would sponsor us, pretty much shut this option down.
Advised against all travel to the area of Russia immediately to the north of Azerbaijan that we would need to pass through. This again precluded us from using that route.
The final option we had was to cross the Caspian Sea. This was the route we would take.
The next decision was whether to get the ferry from Baku in Azerbaijan to Turkmenistan or Kazakhstan. The visa implications were better if we went to Kazakhstan as it had increased its visa-free policy to include EU countries.
Having carried out a lot of online research. Seen the television documentary, ”Race across the world”. We had an insight into what was to come. We knew that crossing the Caspian Sea to Kazakhstan could be a long-drawn-out process.
The research carried out identified that there is no timetable for ship departures to Kazakhstan. Departures are from the Port of Baku, which is in Alat, some 70km from Baku itself.
At the eastern end of Milli park is the Marine Passenger Terminal. Research had indicated that tickets for the crossing to Kazakhstan could be purchased there. The same research also advised that the ticket office had relocated. No longer in the Terminal building instead in a portacabin close by. On arrival, we were informed that the Baku ticket office was now permanently closed. Tickets could only be purchased at the terminal in Alat or online. It was mid-October 2019, outside of the tourist season. Therefore we would purchase our tickets on arrival at the Port of Baku in Alat.
Confirmation of departure time
All of the staff at our accommodation, the Buta Hotel were really helpful. Calling the Port to get information on when a ship to Kazakhstan would be arriving.
Communication between our hotel and the Port was excellent with numerous calls being made both ways. The phone number of the Port that we had was incorrect. The hotel managed to obtain the right one.
The phone numbers for getting information about the ships are:-
With no positive news on when the ship would be arriving, we stayed another night in Baku. As it was out of season our hotel could accommodate us.
A 3rd night spent in Baku and still no news when a ship would arrive. We decided to make our way to the Port at Alat.
Baku to Alat
Leaving our hotel in the Old Town at 1100 hrs. We walked the 11 mins to the Azneft Square bus stop. Getting the number 125 bus to Karvansaray bus stop near the Bina bus station. Purchasing the bus tickets from the machine at the bus stop. We used the BakiKART limited use ticket. The tickets cost 0.3 AZN per person. There is also a 0.2 AZN fee for this type of ticket. A total of 0.8 AZN for both of us.
Be warned ⚠️
The machines do not give change. The journey took approximately 40 mins.
When the bus arrived at Karvansaray bus stop, the majority of the passengers got off. Crossing over the road to get to Bina bus station, we had to find our next bus to Alat.
The bus we required for Alat was the number 195. The next departure was at 1300 hrs, nearly an hour’s wait. The journey to Alat took just over an hour and cost 1 AZN per person.
This bus started its journey relatively empty, soon to become crowded with locals and school children.
Research we conducted advised us to ask the bus driver to stop at the turning for the Port of Baku. From there it is approximately a 2 km walk to the ferry terminal. We stayed on the bus, past the train station and got off at the Socar Petrol Station bus stop at the roundabout. There were a couple of taxis waiting at the bus stop. We got a taxi to take us to the Port gate for 3 AZN. During the journey, we passed a couple who got off the bus at the port turning and were still walking towards the port.
A taxi from Baku directly to the port would have cost 50 Manat. A quicker journey of only an hour but, far more expensive.
Port of Baku
Finally at the port gate a little over 4 hours after leaving Baku. The security guard checks your passport and gives directions on how to get to the ticket office. Approximately a 400m walk through the port.
The ticket office is located in a group of portacabins. They confirmed that a ship had arrived and it would depart that evening. They check your passport, you are also required to complete some paperwork. On completion, they issue a slip of paper. Take it to the bank next door and pay the fare. 160 US Dollars for a 2 berth ensuite cabin. 140 US Dollars for a 4 berth cabin with a basin and shared toilet and shower.
The fare paid and the slip of paper stamped. Back to the ticket office to collect the tickets. Tickets in hand, it’s the 400m walk back to the waiting room opposite the security checkpoint at the main gate. From arrival at the port gate to getting to the waiting room took just over an hour. We grabbed a coffee in the cafe on the way to the waiting room.
Within the port, there is a cafe for food and drink, a shop, and basic toilet/shower facilities. We didn’t get to use these as we only had a 2-hour wait before boarding. Others had been waiting far longer. Should you get stuck here and don’t want to sleep on the floor there is the Hotel Alat a couple of kilometres away. Not knowing anything about the hotel we couldn’t comment. But if stuck, it’s somewhere to try.
There is a minibus transfer from the waiting room to the ship. The first stop on the transfer was at passport control. Moving then onto customs and our luggage scanned. Then a chance to get some goodies at the duty-free shop next door. Followed by a short wait before boarding the ship.
The ship for our crossing to Kazakhstan was the Merkury-1. An 11,450 ton Ro-Ro/passenger ship, 155m in length. Built in 1970 and sailed from the former Yugoslavia in 1985 to the Caspian Sea.
Passports collected by a member of the crew as we boarded then 20 or so passengers were taken to the “hospitality stewardess”. She allocated us our bed linen and marched us to our ensuite cabin for two.
Fortunately, we had seen the TV series “Race Across the World”. Therefore we had absolutely no expectations of the cabin being “nice”. Opening the door, we both just burst out laughing. Hand on heart, we think everything in the cabin and “bathroom” was still there from its original build. Even the dirt looked ancient. The mattresses and pillows stained and so dirty even the bed bugs had left. We knew it wasn’t going to be palatial and we thought the TV show may have exaggerated it a little. They certainly hadn’t. If anything it was worse.
Throughout the voyage, 3 meals a day are served. Breakfast at 0730 hrs, lunch at 1130 hrs and dinner at 1930 hrs.
English is very limited. The crew were very hospitable and always friendly.
Dinner served at 1930 hrs consisted of a bowl of soup, followed by chicken with buckwheat. To drink was a bottle of coca-cola each. Or tea was generally always available throughout the voyage.
Not much to do apart from socialising with fellow passengers and wandering around the decks. No seats on deck to sit in whilst enjoying the sun. We were fortunate to have a calm sea and witness an amazing sunset. The night sky was so clear with no light pollution. Glazing up into the sky, we felt like we could see the whole universe.
Finally the ship got underway at 2200 hrs. The voyage across to Kazakhstan was scheduled as being a 30-hour crossing.
The following morning breakfast served at 0730 hrs consisted of bread, cheese, meat, butter, and honey.
Lunch served at 1130 hrs consisted of soup, followed by chicken with Spaghetti. Washed down with a bottle of sparkling pear juice.
We took the opportunity to visit the bridge in the afternoon. A cup of tea and some grapes with the Captain, strange combination. ☕ 🍇
Earlier in the day, we had seen a bird flying around the ship. On questioning the Captain about this he confirmed that we weren’t going mad and that we did see an owl. It was the ship’s owl, who resides in the ballast tank breather pipe, witnessing him coming out to feed during the voyage.
All passports were returned by late afternoon.
Dinner served at 1930 hrs consisted of soup, followed by chicken with mashed potatoes. Exactly the same just minus the meat was the vegetarian option. To drink was a bottle of sparkling water.
After dinner we all gathered in the lounge area, adjacent to this was a small room with slot machines. Not working. We spent the evening with new-found friends telling stories, singing, and dancing with the help of a couple of bottles of vodka.🥴
Arrival in Kuryk
The next morning the ship approached the port in Kuryk at 0400 hrs, the berth wasn’t available, the anchor was dropped. The spurling pipe from the anchor chain locker was immediately in front of our cabin. Giving us an unwelcome noisy wake-up call.
Breakfast served at 0730 hrs consisted of bread, cheese, meat, butter, and honey. Backpacks packed, it was now just a waiting game for a berth to become available. At around 0900hrs sounds of the anchor being lifted could be heard. The ship slowly steamed into the port.
The “hospitality stewardess” hastily ran around all the cabins, collecting the dirty linen and rubbish. Along with checking everyone out of their cabin as she did so.
Kazakh immigration team came aboard to complete the immigration process. Extremely slow as each passenger was individually dealt with. By midday, the immigration officials had finished and we could disembark.
A minibus transferred the passengers to the customs hall. Customs cleared by 1415 hrs local time, 1 hour ahead of Azerbaijan time. The whole process taking 46 hours from us arriving at Baku port in Alat to leaving the port in Kuryk.
A farewell to our fellow travellers.
It was time to arrange the next part of our journey. Our accommodation wasn’t booked, as we hadn’t any idea when we were going to arrive in Kazakhstan. No wifi or mobile data was available throughout the voyage. Luckily there is free wifi available in the Kuryk Terminal building along with ATMs.
Utilising the wifi, the Aktau Hotel booked using Booking.com. Getting to the hotel in Aktau which was about 90 km away, we had two options. Either hitchhike or get a taxi. Taxis were waiting at the port. Two of the drivers actually got into a fight about taking us to Aktau. The taxi cost 6000 Tenge for the 45 min journey.