Caspian sea ferry

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caspian sea ferry

The Nakchivan, on his way to Aktau

There are 2 routes over the Caspian Sea that take passengers on board; both are cargo ships that run without a set timetable. One connects Baku in Azerbaijan to Aktau in Kazakhstan, the other runs between Baku and Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan. This means there is no passenger ferry service over the Caspian Sea to Iran or to Russia.

Timetable

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 17 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 sometimes 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.

You can find out where the boats are, though, through the Marine Traffic website. On the map of the Caspian Sea, look for the following vessels: Nakchivan, Dagistan, Qara Qarayev, Heydar Aliyev. These are the vessels we know take passengers. Please let us know if you find out about another boat.

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 110$ (last update December 2013). Around the time of the Mongol Rally especially, prices skyrocket (see below). A passenger ticket to Turkmenbashi also hovers around $100 USD per person. You might need to show onward visas when you buy it. On the boat you can get a cabin for 10 or 20$.

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. You can also give your phone number and ask to be called when the boat leaves, in Baku this has been known to work.

If you want to avoid the hassle of running around for tickets and communicating in a language no one really speaks, you can contact these people to buy tickets for you. Please note they only make the effort if you also purchase a tour in Azerbaijan with them. Another helpful fixer is Ismahel (+994 552861200) who will take 30 manat to buy tickets for you, and can also help with visas. If you have a vehicle, you can also try Victoria (good English) – +99 455 266 5354. She will organise space for you and your vehicle. She has an office at the port in the Soviet grey heavy door just before entry. If you’re just looking for an Azeri visa or LOI, see here for explanation and here to apply.

Ferry with a car or bike

mongol-rally-boarding-boat

Your car, next to a train

There is a separate charge for those crossing the seas with their vehicles. It changes from boat to boat (especially the ramp-scam has not been introduced everywhere yet).

Prices in December 2013: roughly, they will charge you an extra $50-70 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. 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. Not all boats do this, though. On the other hand, some boats don’t mind asking for another 20$ to let you off the ferry.

If you are thinking of taking your car to Turkmenistan, see our article on driving in Turkmenistan for a full account of all the costs.

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.

Mongol rally drivers in Baku port

Mongol rally party in the port of Baku

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 to Kazakhstan.

Baku port

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 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, it’s 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.

Aktau port

aktau port kazakhstan

Port of Aktau – oil central

In Microrayon 3, in a random building block, there is a ticket office selling the ferry tickets. To confirm the address please contact the Hotel Keremet. Another ticket office is at 7-21-1 (streets don’t have names in Aktau. Seriously.). 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.

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.

Turkmenbashi port

turkmenbashi port terminal

Turkmenbashi port terminal

In Turkmenbashi, there are no signs to signify the port or what part of the port you might require. If you find a sign denoting the Sea Port…you have gone too far.

As you arrive off the desert road into the town you drive down a hill and there will be a petrol station on your left….as you follow the road down before it sweeps up hill and to the right there is an unmarked rutted potholed ‘road’ to the left before the police check point: this is the entrance to the port. As you drive along you will see a checkpoint where you will check in your vehicle. After checking in it will cost 10 Manat if you wish to drive out again and return.

You will see a blue and white neon sign PAROM MENELI; follow the parking sign and park in front of the office.

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

caspian sea sunset

Sunset over the Caspian

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.

caspian-sea-ferry-bathroom-inside

Your bathroom

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 colors 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 boats, like the Qara Qarayev, are not too bad when it comes to hygiene. Others are. 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.

You might not need it, but to be safe, bring plenty of food. The chef might fry you up some chicken for a few manat or dollars, and sell you some beers,vodka and cigarettes to boot, but once the food runs out (if they open at all), you’re on your own. Seeing how you can get stuck in the harbor 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

cabin on the boat

Your cabin.

Customs are another nasty feature of this ferry ride. With a car especially, you can get stuck for hours in customs. Turkmenbashi can take from 1 to (my personal record) 7 hours , Baku is equally bad, 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.

As of April 18th 2012, the Azeri customs do not allow passengers on the ferry without having the actual visa of their destination in their passport, be it a transit or a tourist visa.

For all your other visa questions, please refer to the relevant chapters: Turkmenistan visa, Kazakhstan visa and Azerbaijan visa.

Other ports on the Caspian Sea

Caspian Sea routes and ports

Caspian routes

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.

Why (not) take the ferry?

To finish off this long article, a little overview:

Plus

  • no airplanes involved
  • a unique traveling experience
  • beautiful scenery and sunsets

Minus

  • 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

31 Comments

  1. What a great detailed posting. This route fascinates me and I am considering it this fall/winter. I travel with out a vehicle, so would you just go ahead and fly this part?
    Also, all of the Stans seem daunting with all the Visas ( I am American) how bad are they?
    Glad I discovered you today, I look forward to reading more!

  2. I enjoyed the read so thanks to all for the information and story’s/comments etc., for me, it is nice to see there is still somewhere in the World unorganised by overpaid bureaucrats, and that you risk everything if you want to cross a small sea (full of oil wells). On the crossing, I think I would sleep in a life boat – if they have any?

  3. We did the crossing in late August 2013.

    Luckily the crossing only took around 36 hours (the boat before us took 4 days!)

    We paid $70 USD per meter of car and $100 USD a ticket. Then we had to pay a guy in office $20 USD (not really sure why but the captain made sure we went).

    Thanks for the info on the site it was helpful.

    Here is our write up:
    http://www.365aroundtheworld.com/blog/item/50-entering-central-asia

    • Also be prepared to pay over $150 USD to get your car in to Turkmenistan

      (luckily the petrol is cheap there!)

  4. I took the ferry from Baku to Aktau on 26/11. I boarded the boat the same night I went to the port to make enquiries. The boat left from Baku old port and I bought my ticket there. Ticket was $110 + $10 for ‘baggage’ which I think was probably a bribe for the police.
    The ship I sailed on was the Qarabag (Karalbakh) a 2005 Ro-Ro boat 154m in length.
    The boat left port the afternoon after I boarded, arrived in Aktau waters 30 hours later. It docked the following morning due to weather.
    Meals were available for 2 manat and access to the bridge encouraged. I shared a four bunk cabin with one other Azeri, this was $5, they hadn’t cleaned it in a while.
    Passport control came on board at Aktau and there were no issues, was driven to customs and this was fine too.
    Having a bicycle was no issue.

    • Adam, thanks a lot for sharing! would be useful for next cyclists.

  5. Hello everyone.

    I would like to know if the ferry between Türkmenba&y and Bakou is running in winter. I’m thinking of using it on late december 2013.

    Thanks a lot for your help.

    • yes, it runs year-round.

  6. Just to give you an idea what we did in the past 4 weeks:
    Germany – started from Nuremberg
    Poland – Krakow
    Ukraine – Lvow, Kiev, Donetsk
    Russia – Volgograd, Astrakhan
    Kazakhstan – Atyrau, Aktobe, Aralsk, Kyzylorda, Shymkent
    Kirgisia – Bishkek, Osh
    Usbekistan – Tashkent, Samarkand, Buchara
    Turkmenistan – Mary, Ashgabat, Turkmenbashy
    Azerbaidschan – Baku, Gence
    Georgia – Tbilisi
    Turkey – Trabzon, Bolu, Istanbul
    Greece – Igoumenitsa
    Ferry to Trieste /Italy
    Germany – Nuremberg
    Total: 14.000km in 32 days
    Cars: 4x “reinforced” Volkswagen Amarok Pickup & 1x Toyota Landcruiser

    “once-in-a-lifetime-experience”

    Bye, Peter

    • Well done guys! I had a similar experience this year. Like you said: no other way to get home than to suffer through it!

  7. Took the Ferry from Turkmenbashy to Baku on 01 September 2013. We were 9 People with 5 cars on the way back to Europe from a Silk Road Expedition
    Our experience in short:
    - Took us 45 hours to get on the ship – no real timetable available
    - Name of the vessel: BF Emirov – built 1983 in East Germany
    - Ship in bad condition, hygenic conditions extremely bad
    - Bring sleeping bags and Moskito Repellent
    - Crew (Aserbaidshan) was very nice, you can always visit the Bridge, are invited for tea and vodka
    - ship has 2 “better” cabins – in Addition to USD 30 for the Standard cabin you pay another USD 25 to get those
    - ship kitchen serves you meals and breakfast – nothing Special but acceptable under the circumstances
    - had to wait 10 hours outside port of Baku before entering the port. Officially “due to bad weather and the wind” but obviously Crew wanted to save Money by not being in the port for too Long
    - ship was empty except for about 5 trucks and our 5 cars
    - ship came into turkmenbashy absolutely packed with trucks – it took about 6 hours until it was unloaded
    - we had an agency helping us with procedures for getting on the ship
    - getting through passport and customs control with our vehicles leaving Turkmenistan took about 4 hours. Started at midnight, finished about 4 a.m., then slept in the cars until the late morning. ship then left at 3 p.m.
    - Absolutely “not nice to have experience” but no alternative possible if you want to get home. Iran is no alternative.

    Any questions? Shoot me a mail!
    Bye from Germany, Peter

    • Hi Peter,
      It was great to go through your write up. We are planning to cross Caspian during June 2014.
      We will cross Caspian from Turkmenbasi to Baku with our own vehicles-4 nos SUVs.
      Can you suggest any agency whose help can be sought while crossing the sea?
      Wait for your reply.

    • Peter,

      Can you tell me what Turkmen visa you had? I’ve read that Transit visas will not be issued by Turkmenistan if you plan to exit via the ferry port across the Caspian Sea which is currently our intention.

      • Where have you read that, Charles? Many people have passed through the port on their way out of Turkmenistan on a transit visa. I have never heard of such a thing.

        • Thank you Steven. The book was The Adventure Motorcycling Handbook by Chris Scott, the latest edition I think. Maybe that part was a little out of date.

          (Brilliant website here, I’ll report back anything useful when we’ve done the trip. Almaty (KZ) to London (UK) through ~30 countries and 3 disputed territories.)

  8. Hej, since finding out when a boat acutally leaves seems to be at least an annoying issue, did anyone try the AIS monitor?:
    http://www.marinetraffic.com/ais/

    I can see the NAKHICHEVAN is just on the way to Turkmenbashi, and I’m pretty sure also the other vessels will have AIS even in this part of the world.

    So knowing the name of the boat(s) that take passengers and an internet connection should suffice – just check in the morning if a relevant boat is at least on the way to the departure port …

    • T, this is great! Thank you for sharing!

      • Just take note: I have never been in the area (but planning to go), so not sure how reliable this works.

        However, Wikipedia says about AIS:
        “The International Maritime Organization’s International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea requires AIS to be fitted aboard international voyaging ships with gross tonnage (GT) of 300 or more tons, and all passenger ships regardless of size”

  9. Hi Steven

    I am hitching through Central Asia and have arrived at Aktau hoping to catch the ferry to Baku. It appears the ticket office for the ferry has moved. It is now at 2-33 under the name Sea Ferry Management. No English was spoken but she used google translate and we were able to communicate. They are open 9:00 – 6:00 on weekdays. I tried purchasing a ticket directly at the port office and it seemed not possible. Bus 4 will take you out to the port much cheaper than a cab.

    • Thanks for the reply, will update the article soon!

    • Hi Jay,
      how did it go with the ferry? How long have you had to wait all together? Am planning to take the same ferry next month. Anyone else any up-to-date information?

      • Took the boat last month, waited for 2 days but used a tour operator to arrange the sailing. Everything is still as written on this page, good luck!

    • hey guys, I just left the ferry ticket office a few hours ago and now I am using the awesome wifi in the lobby of the Renaissance Hotel. The office is on the side of the building of 2-33 like Jay said. The lady at the ticket window didn’t speak English, but some girls in the office did and they helped to translate for me. There was a boat leaving today which is Thursday, but I wasn’t ready to leave yet because im waiting for my Azerbaijan visa. She took my passport and made a copy and filed it away. She also took down my contact info and my hotel name. The other girl said that the next boat would be leaving either Friday or Saturday of next week.

      • you will need to wait over a week for a ferry in august?

  10. Hi Steven,
    My wife and I will be taking the Baku-Turkmanbashi ferry somewhere in August. We will be travelling overland from Brussels to Bangkok.
    We are now preparing our visa application for Turkmenistan at the Turkmen embassy in Brussels and we are forced to indicate a fixed entry date on the visa application.
    How does one give a fixed entry date if the ferry schedule is not fixed??? How did you handle this or would you handle this? Would it be OK to try to buy a ticket for the ferry one day before the fixed entry date (and thus arrive at the rightdate I suppose?)? If there is no ferry that day, I’ll just wait for the next one. I cannot imagine Turkmen officials sending us back if we arrive 2 or 3 days after the fixed date…
    Can you give us your thoughts on this Gordian knot?

    • Hi Walter,

      its the same for everyone, as I have said many times before, there is no solution, you will have to be lucky. What you can do is arrive before your visa starts and wait in the ferry terminal of Turkmenbashi until you are allowed in. If you arrive late, you will be sent back, have to rush across the country or bribe someone. Only other solution is to get a tourist visa.

  11. Hi,
    I’m on a Around the World in 80 Days trip (taking no flights). My route requires I go thru Baku to Aktau as I can’t bother with the Turk/Uzbek visa processes. I’m taking that ferry to Aktau around May 16-20. Have you heard of any good stories making that sea crossing?

    • Yes, its no problem. Just might have to wait a few days.

  12. Hi, i tried asking this question on the forum, but my (old) computer keeps saying it is not going through..so sorry for that.

    Is this ferry still running ( I am hoping to take it June/July 2013) and if so where would you recommend getting an Azeri visa..it sounds like turkmen is best done in Dushanbe. Thanks for your help.

    • Hi Lawrence, I need to spend some time to make the forum spam-proof, so for now I have to approve every post before it becomes visible. Takes a few days since I’m on the road, but I will get back to all questions. So, I answered you on the forum!

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