This is an article for other travelers seeking to cross the Caspian Sea by ferry. It is a highly subjective account of our experiences aboard the Merkuri-1. For more information about other travelers’ experiences, see the respective forum on Caravanistan.
In Baku we stayed at Stay Inn Baku (amazing staff!) and asked the reception to call the ticket office every morning. We finally got the information that a ship was likely to leave Alat port in the evening. At noon we cycled to the ticket office which is located behind a park / playground for children. (Check out the exact location here.) The lady who sold the tickets was in such a bad mood that she wanted to send us away when we said we didn’t have enough dollars. Be aware that you can only pay in cash dollars or Manat. She would not take credit cards. She said she was off work anyways and would leave the office then. We asked her if we might be able to get the tickets at the port, and she grumpily replied that it wasn’t possible because the office had already closed there. Feeling disheartened we accepted that, and for some reason, she suddenly changed her mind, and told us to quickly get the money from an ATM.
The whole confusing affair was due to victory day. If you’re buying tickets on a holiday, definitely arrive before noon. We paid $80 per person, bikes are free. (The price is the same at the port.) The lady told us not to arrive at the port any later than 7pm.
The hotel staff kindly organized a taxi for us which cost 32 Manat. Not many taxis can take two people and two full-size bicycles, and even in our taxi little space remained for us to sit. The driver dropped us in front of the entrance of the port at 5.30pm. The guards checked our tickets and let us in. We then made our way to the “waiting area” which was easy to find as there were six motorcyclists already waiting.
There is a post office, a small restaurant, a shop, and a customs office, all located inside of containers. There is also supposed to be a restroom. We did not visit it, though, as one of the motorcyclists told us that someone had ripped off the toilet so that it was not usable anymore.
Nothing happened at 7pm. At 10pm we were told that the ship was “coming”. At 11pm we got to know that there were only a few trucks left to leave the ship. We finally boarded the ship at 3am. The two of us were assigned a four bed cabin. Beds were ok, new sheets were clean. The ferry left the harbor at around 8am.
We got served three meals per day. The food was good, sometimes oversalted, portions small. Those who waited patiently were given more food. There were three hours between breakfast and lunch, whereas seven hours between lunch and dinner. There wasn’t any shop aboard, but free tea and sugar in a common room. Bring your own food and water, if you like to snack or drink something other than tea.
During our second night, at 2am, the anchor was dropped just off the Kazakh coast and 100km south of Aktau. We did not understand why we didn’t continue straight to the port. Our journey paused until the anchor was hoisted at 2pm, and we arrived at Aktau port at 10pm.
On arrival, the Kazakh border police entered, and we all had to stand in a line with our baggage in front of us while a dog ran up and down the line sniffling at the bags. We had to open almost all of our bags and take out some of our stuff. Then, all other passengers were driven by bus to the immigration office where our passports got stamped and our bags were x-rayed. We had to walk back to the ship for around 500m. Important: Follow the other people (truck drivers etc) to get back fast. The immigration staff sent us out at the back of the building, and we had to pass another security checkpoint in order to get back into the landing area of the port.
We left the ship with our bikes, and cycled towards a closed barrrier that was controlled by the customs office. We had nothing to declare, so we wanted to go on. At the same time, the motorcyclists arrived, and all of us were asked to park their vehicles. The motorcyclists had to go inside – this was the checkpoint that we had to go through to come back to the landing area – while we didn’t have to. Waiting outside, we asked the officers in Russian to lift the barrier, but they would not do so. They were confused and had to make several calls to find out that we did not have to register our bicycles as we don’t carry number plates. When they finally lifted the barrier for us, it was 1am. In the dark we cycled to Aktau and were still able to check into our hotel (Silk Way Hotel).
Conclusion: Flying from Baku to Aktau would be faster and more convenient.
Jan & Gratsi
P.S. See our route map here!