There are 2 routes over the Caspian Sea that take passengers on board; both are cargo ships that run without a set timetable, run by the Caspian shipping company. One connects Baku in Azerbaijan to Aktau in Kazakhstan, the other runs between Baku and Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan. This means there (sadly) is no passenger ferry service over the Caspian Sea to Iran or to Russia.
There is no timetable for either of these ferries. When they leave depends a lot on the weather, and on the amount of freight that is loaded. Basically, it leaves when it’s full. This means every 3-5 days between Aktau and Baku and every day or every other day to Turkmenbashi and back. The passage takes around 30 hours for Baku-Aktau and 12 hours for Baku-Turkmenbashi. However, serious delays happen often. Between Baku and Aktau you can wait up to 2 weeks if you are unlucky. Although the Baku – Turkmenbashi is much more reliable, the port in Turkmenbashi is often too busy, which means you can wait up to a day or more in the port before you are allowed in. One traveler waited for 6 days! This can happen in the other ports too, by the way.
Ferry tickets and prices
Prices have gone up considerably in the past 5 years. Where in 2007 one could still get a ticket for 50$ from Baku to Aktau, now the price is around 110$ (last update April 2013). Around the time of the Mongol Rally especially, prices skyrocket (see below). A passenger ticket to Turkmenbashi also hovers around $100 USD per person. It’s all fairly random and up to the person selling you the ticket. You might need to show onward visas when you buy it. Get the cheapest ticket possible (no cabin, just a hard seat), because you’ll be able to upgrade cheaply on the ferry with a small bribe.
Tickets for both itineraries can be bought only on the day the ferry leaves. It’s basically a matter of going to the ferry terminal everyday and asking “Is there a boat today?” They will only sell tickets once there’s a confirmed sailing. Don’t trust what they say, though, keep asking around, you will hear many contradictory stories. Be persistant, don’t get fooled.
Ferry with a car or bike
There is a separate charge for those crossing the sea with their vehicles. Roughly, they will charge you an extra $50 USD per meter of the length of the vehicle transported to Turkmenistan and $55 USD per meter for a vehicle to Kazakhstan. One motorbike will cost you $110 USD (Turkmenistan) and $115 (Kazakhstan), a bicycle will cost $10 to both destinations (update: April 2013). Another charge is for using the special bridge to board the ferry: 1 car is $25 USD, motorbike and bicycle $20 USD. Yes, that’s a rip-off.
For Mongol Rally drivers
Want to take the ferry? You are not the only one. With the exploding popularity of the Mongol Rally, the people at the ticket office in Baku discovered a nice little earner in you and your fellow-drivers. Prices for tickets can suddenly increase with 400%, as the places on board are limited. You might not get on the boat either, since they like to be strict about the number of people they let in. Plus, it will be full of other Mongol Rallyers. Some might like the companionship, while others prefer to get off the beaten track.
Considering the price, the fact that you are likely to spend anything from a few days to a few weeks going back and forth to the ticket office, and the fact that you might well end up, like many others before you, spending your nights sleeping outside on the concrete of the port, I do not recommend taking the ferry. Your time is limited, and better adventures await you. If you agree, consider the following routes.
If you want to go through the Southern Caucasus, try taking the ferry to Turkmenistan. The visa is difficult, but you will be able to leave on the ferry in 1 or 2 days, and the ride only takes 12 hours instead of 30. Or how about Iran – Turkmenistan – Uzbekistan – Kazakhstan? More visa hassles again, but costs much less than the ferry.
The ticket office for the ferry in Baku (kassa) is a little tricky to find and due to new building work things are changing. But, walk along the corniche past the parliament building and on past the smart Denizi Voksal building; pass the huge Port Baku Residence building on the opposite side of the road. When you hit the railway tracks, which just cut straight over the main road, either follow them to the right between the white walls, or cross over them and then turn down the next road to the right – either way will lead you to a small open area with a single pole gate across the road and restaurant on the left (the Lenin mosaic is now almost completely gone). Here is the kassa and there’s a small sign on the wall on the right referring to the ferry/passenger company office. Just in case, the word for ferry in Russian is Parom.
The ferry terminal now moved to the northern port, so the ferry to Kazakhstan is not leaving anymore from the place it’s usually described, but around 7 kms up north, from the ro-ro terminal. Quite easy to find, its on the big boulevard leaving from the other port. Going straight ahead, you will find the port clearly signed.
If you’re leaving the port, a taxi costs around 8 to 10 manat to the centre.
If you’re stuck at the port
By the port in Baku, if you walk half a mile up on the main road (and not the train tracks), there’s a great little pizza joint and a few markets. Also, if you’re stuck at the port in Baku and sleeping on the tarmac, there’s a family that offers hot showers for 2 manat. It’s a little house with a rubber hose hanging from a hook. It’s not the Four Seasons by any means but it’s hot, clean water. If you walk up the tracks to where the shacks are (facing the road) you should be able to find it. Just ask.
There is only one place where you can buy tickets in the centre. The address is 7-21-1 (streets don’t have names in Aktau). Telephone: 872 92 51 77 59. It’s close to the World War II monument with the eternal flame. They take 25$ commission. Very little English is spoken, so a local’s help might be needed. Ask for Aika, she understands a bit. You have to leave your phone number, and you will be called when the boat is leaving. Then it can still be up to a day before it actually leaves.
Leaving Aktau is easy if you are properly registered. Note that if you stay in Aktau for more than 10 days you might need to re-register. Don’t know how they can find out, but we heard someone had big trouble with this and ended up paying a 100$ fine. Others have asked and were told they didn’t have to.
The nice thing about the customs in Kazakhstan is they might have free WI-FI. There’s another place with internet in town; a restaurant at 2-43, near the ferry ticket office.
If you’re leaving Aktau by train, there is a bus to the train station 25km outside of town. It’s bus 105. There seems to be no more bus from the center of town – a taxi will cost 1000 tenge.
It has been advised many times to put your name on a list as soon as you arrive, so you can buy your ticket once the ferry is loaded. The list is a little notebook sitting on the counter. Once the ferry is loaded, you will get a coupon, go through customs and pay on the boat. If you have a translator or travel agent with you, he might be able to help by calling the ticket lady. People have reported getting their ticket on the spot for a little extra.
Boarding the ferry
You cannot board the ferry before all cargo is loaded, so you will have to sip some tea in the waiting area. Customs officers will ask to see some proof that you will not be turned back once you arrive at your destination (eg. a visa or LOI). Once on board, someone will demand your passport and, in Turkmenistan, the passage fee. It is safe to give them your passport, they need them to log who is on the ship. When the ferry docks go to captain’s cabin to regain your passport.
Details of the journey and a bit of history
The coastline views of Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan are beautiful. It’s a real delight to steam slowly over a quiet body of water, gazing at the horizon punctuated with oil rigs. While crossing the Caspian Sea, you might be able to spot Neft Daslari, an entire city built upon the foundations of sunken oil tankers 55km away from the nearest shore. A documentary has been made about this fascinating little island; if you’re interested you can watch the trailer. The Trailblazer guide of Azerbaijan is the only guidebook I have found so far that covers the place in depth.
Probably the most exciting part for Western travelers, besides a glimpse of the shocking amounts of corruption and bureaucracy underpinning life around the Caspian, is watching the sun sink into the sea. The colours it affords are truly stunning. You are also free to wander around the boat wherever you like; into the hull, the machine room or the bridge… it’s quite interesting.
A less exciting part of the journey will be your first encounter with your cabin. Some cabins have port holes, others don’t. Shower and toilet are in the same place, and are not cleaned, but there are public toilets (equally ‘fragrant’) elsewhere. Bring a sleeping bag, as your mattress and pillow are not clean. Also bring plenty of food. The chef might fry you up some chicken for 5$, and sell you some beers and cigarettes to boot, but once his food runs out (if he opens at all), you’re on your own. Seeing how you can get stuck in the harbour for days, it would be wise to pack plenty of food. Don’t forget water!!
Some people, upon seeing the aged ships (they are over a quarter-century old), might wonder if it is safe to travel on a rusty vessel as the “Dagestan“. We found an answer in a well-written and very informative book by Lutz Kleveman, The New Great Game: Blood and oil in Central Asia.
The MV Nakhichevan is a Dagestan class rail ferry, an ageing relic of the Soviet era and one of seven rusting hulks pressed into service to bridge the gap between the Caucasus and Trans-Caspian railways. As much as I relished the idea of leaving Azerbaijan, the sight of the ferry made me worry that the corrupt police and the slag heap behind me may be the lesser of two evils. The ship was barely afloat. The Dagestans weren’t designed for open water, their topsides too high to survive the violent storms of the Caspian. Even moored to the groaning linkspan the ship looked unstable, rolling against the dock bumpers as the rail cars shunting into the hold upset its balance.
At 154 metres the Nakhichevan is almost the length of the enormous passenger ferries of the English Channel, but barely half as wide. The ship shares the same depth as those of the Channel, but while the Pride of Dover sails with a draft of over six metres the Nakhichevan sails with less than three. Its dimensions are all wrong for the open water: narrow, top heavy and prone to roll like a drunk in all but the calmest of seas. Their crews keep the Dagestans from the sea bed only by steering constantly into the wind. That and fervent prayer.
Seven years earlier these prayers were ignored when the Merkuriy-2, sister ship of the Nakhichevan, was lost in stormy seas while carrying a shipment of oil from Aktau to Baku. Force eight winds and six metre high waves proved too much for the vessel, and when the constant roll caused the cargo to break loose the ship was sent into a fatal list. Of the 51 souls aboard only nine were saved.
As a result of this accident, the shipping company is now reluctant to put too many people on any ferry in case there is another accident.
Customs and visa
Customs are another nasty feature of this ferry ride. With a car especially, you can get stuck for hours in customs. Turkmenbashi is the most efficient here, usually clearing everyone within an hour. Baku takes a few hours more, and Aktau is the worst, with people reporting to get stuck there for a whole day with their vehicle.
Also, customs only seems to work 9-5 in Aktau, so although foot passengers can get off the ferry in the middle of the night, drivers can’t.
A note on LOI and visa dates: this relates to a Tourist visa only, and assumes your agency organises it in the following way. Assume you have arranged to be in Turkmenistan from the 1st to the 10th of the month. Your agency would have drawn up an LOI indicating you are invited for the 1st to the 20th; the extra days are padding. When you arrive at the port, your visa will state the 1st to the 10th. If your ferry is delayed, for example you arrive on the 2nd, then when you arrive at the port, the dates on your visa will be written as the 2nd to the 11th. This means everything works out ok.
Update: as of April 18th 2012, the Azeri customs do not allow passengers on the ferry without having the actual visa in their passport, be it a transit or a tourist visa.
Other ports on the Caspian Sea
The main ports on the Caspian sea are Baku, Makhachkala, Astrakhan (Olya), Turkmenbashi, Aktau and Enzeli. In addition, there are some small ports and docks at the Caspian sea, such as port Bautino, port Cheleken and docks Aladzha, Beckdash, Okarem, and Kianly, and in Iran the ports Nowshehr and Neka. If you are interested in shipping your vehicle without going on the boat yourself, you can contact this company.
Why (not) take the ferry?
To finish off this long article, a little overview:
- no airplanes involved
- a unique traveling experience
- beautiful scenery and sunsets
- a little bit dangerous
- kind of disgusting
- could be expensive when traveling by car
- possibly a lot of frustration and lost time, especially on the Baku-Aktau line