If there was a world record for the number of stamps required on a Bill of Lading (the authority to load & disembark cargo), Port Aktau would win hands down. In the end I had to get eight stamps over a period of several hours before my bike was allowed onto the ferry to cross The Caspian Sea from Aktau, Kazakhstan to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.
‘Mercuri-1’ is a 30 year old Croatian-built ferry, 150m (500ft) long with a tiny 4m (13ft) draught when loaded. Luckily the sea was dead flat, or else it would have been an interesting (as in rocky) journey. I’d read that in 2002 her sister ship, ‘Mercuri-2’, had sunk in rough Caspian seas taking 43 lives with her. With their small draughts these ships weren’t really designed to cope with the high seas the Caspian can occasionally whip up.
After a long 9 hour wait for an immigration stamp, I eventually embarked the ferry around 3pm. My bike slotted nicely up alongside a lorry, and a crew member asked me for 20 dollars ‘security money’. I asked him if he accepted visa, which he didn’t of course, so shrugged and carried my bags up to the passenger deck.
Near the gangway I was met by the rest of the friendly all-Azeri crew and introduced to Savir, the Chief Communications Officer, who (was the only one who) spoke good English and looked after me during the trip.
I decided to ‘splash out’ on a single cabin for 20 US dollars for some comfort, peace and privacy on the 30 hour passage, rather than rough it on the filthy deck which was covered in a thin layer of black oil and grime. My cabin was on the top deck where all the other officers lived and it was surprisingly clean and tidy; it even had a double bed. I’d noticed the other passengers were crammed in 4-berth cabins below decks, and as they cost 10 dollars anyway, I thought I’d got a good deal.
By this time I was starving, as I’d not eaten all day and been up since 2am getting my 8 export stamps. Then I remembered the packed lunch Anna had made me, and was extremely grateful for it as I wolfed it down.
I wasn’t sure what the deal was with food onboard, as there didn’t seem to be anyone about to ask. For a large ship, it was virtually a ghost ship with only 32 crew and 8 passengers (mostly truck drivers from Georgia). The rest of the cargo consisted of around 20 brand new lorries.
However, soon the situation resolved itself, as they quite often do. One advantage of having an arm wrapped in bandages is that some people, mostly women, take pity on you. One of these was the female chef, affectionately called ‘Jaynar Bebe’ (or Auntie Gazelle), who grabbed me as I wondered around the ship and led me down to the galley, where she fed me a delicious hot meal of chicken and potato casserole. I ate it all despite having just eaten Anna’s lunch – the advantage of having a huge appetite! It did feel a little strange though, as I was the only one eating in the huge dining room made to seat hundreds. It was funny when Auntie Gazelle rushed in half-way through to hide me behind a curtain, as the Kazakh customs inspection squad was doing their rounds and apparently I wasn’t supposed to be in there yet!
The Caspian Sea
The ship finally sailed at 5pm, and I suddenly became excited to think about the next phase of my trip that lay ahead.
Mr Savir turned out to be a very good host and guide, and made sure I had endless quantities of Azeri tea, got fed when I needed to, and gave me a good tour of the ship. Being an old Navy lad, I couldn’t help noticing the lifeboats had practically seized solid, there were no test dates on the life saving equipment and there were no life jackets to be seen. I couldn’t help but wonder if these contributed towards the loss of 43 lives on her sister ship. If they did, it didn’t look as though many lessons had been learnt by the company. Just in case, I had my own escape plan all worked out, which basically involved swimming out of the large port-hole in my cabin and into open water, grabbing whatever I could find that was still floating. My dry bags would have been useful, except that they were full of holes! At least the water was reasonably warm at 25 degrees C (77 F).
That evening, as we slipped through the calm sea, I felt a familiar, comforting feeling creep over me; after 8 years in the navy, this is where I felt at home.
There are few sunsets better than those at sea, and that evening was no exception.
More Tea Vicar?
The next morning Savir invited me onto the bridge, plied me with more tea, and asked me if I knew how to work their new ECDIS (Electronic Chart Display & Information System). It had been installed only 2 weeks before, but no-one had been trained how to use it! Well it just so happened I did, so I showed them and won myself more tea and crumpets in the process.
Then Savir took me down into the engine room where I was given more tea by the lads. Good job I like tea! It is reassuring that no matter what ship you go on, you can always be sure the lads in the engine room will be hard working, good old boys.
They took pride in showing in showing me the ship’s engines, which you can now also have the honour of witnessing:
Despite its misgivings, I would go so far as to say the 30 hour crossing on Mercuri-1 was wonderful. The sea was calm, the wind blew a nice cooling breeze, the crew were friendly and hospitable, the cabin clean and the food excellent. Sure, it was a dirty old rust bucket with minimal life-saving equipment and poor maintenance schedules (if any), but it had character and I’ve been on much worse. It was well worth the hassle and wait getting on it, and I would do it again. This pleasantly surprised me, because I had read on web reviews that the cabins were filthy, crew deceitful, and food poor and overpriced (at 5 dollars a meal I thought it was good value and delicious).
One of my few disappointments was, yet again, seeing the crew throw all their garbage into the sea. The number of times I have seen this in Asia I’m surprised the continent isn’t one huge rubbish tip. I really do hope one day people will learn not to…
We arrived off Baku around 11pm, 30 hours after sailing, and anchored in the bay waiting for a berth, as there was a queue of several ships ahead of us. Sitting a mile offshore, the lights of Baku dazzled brightly over the black water. I could see Azerbaijan’s famous huge flag illuminated as it majestically waved in the light wind. It was once the tallest flag in the world (standing 162m/ 531ft) until it was quickly beaten by Tajikistan’s flag in their capital Dushanbe (both made by the same American designer, who I imagine isn’t too welcome in Azerbaijan anymore).
I could also see a huge Ferris wheel (every city seems to have one of these nowadays) and 3 huge LED displays mounted to the sides of 3 buildings, each showing people waving the national flag, just in case anyone forgot what it looked like.
Not knowing how long we would wait for (waits of several hours is common), I dozed off in my cabin and was awoken by one of the crew at 2am just as we secured alongside.
Expecting a long delay with paperwork, I was pleasantly surprised when I was off the ferry and through customs and immigration within 2 hours. I wasn’t even asked to pay a bribe, as I had read happens commonly (allegedly). From the experience I’d had with Azerbaijani’s so far, I did not have a bad word to say about any of them. However, the customs officer did only give me 3 days to transit through the country on my motorbike, even though the immigration transit visa in my passport was for 5 days.
After customs clearance, I paid the shipping company for the bike’s transport in their office; I was surprised at how cheap it was (110 US dollars). I was then free to ride onto the streets of Baku, and hit the town at around 4am.
I stopped at an ATM just outside the port and resupplied with local money. After that, I wasn’t sure what to do. I didn’t want to pay 20 US dollars for a hostel room for only a couple of hours’ sleep, and I wasn’t even tired, so I rode around looking for somewhere to eat.
The only good thing about arriving in a city at 4am is the lack of traffic. I rode all over the city for an hour and didn’t find anywhere serving food except for a small newspaper stand selling drinks and snacks. Then I found a building where I could pick up free wifi and started looking for hotels for the next night. The only reasonably priced accommodation was a hostel but it had no parking, and all the other hotels seemed to be very expensive. I sat and deliberated for a while and then, at 5.30am, I decided I’d had enough and left for Sheki, a small town in the Greater Caucasus mountain range 300km away. I’d already seen most of Baku anyway (albeit at night) and this way I could complete the journey before it got too hot and my starter motor started playing up again.
Off to Sheki
Baku and its surrounding area are pretty flat and semi-arid. By the time the sun rose I had escaped the large city, and watched the burning ball as it slowly enflamed the dry, dusty vista in a beautiful yellow-orange haze.
I had half a tank of fuel and would need to fill up to get to Sheki, so I started looking for a gas station on a hill where I could easily push-start the bike again rather than wait around for it to cool down. I found one, but was very happily surprised when the bike started first time. This proved the starting problem must be a heat issue, as the cold morning air passing at speed over the engine had kept it cool, whereas in the city I had not been going fast enough for this cooling to take place and had had to wait an hour before it started again.
Gradually the countryside became less dry and trees started to appear. Then I caught sight of the distant Caucasus mountains and rode towards them.
Sheki was hot, in the high 30’s, despite being 500m up in the cooler mountains. I liked it much better than Baku as soon as I arrived; small, clean and quaint with medieval cobbled streets and ancient buildings, once an important centre for silkworm-breeding, now selling Turkish sweats and pottery.
I found a charming old 18th Century Caravanserai, used to accommodate silk road traders, and moved into a low-ceilinged, stone arched single room for 15 quid.
By now I was pretty wacked, and enjoyed a long, cool shower. Changing the dressings on my arm I noticed the skin had almost healed over with delicate, bright pink new skin. It was now 17 days since the accident, and because I’d not done much with that arm and the right side of my chest, they were both feeling pretty weak. So, I immediately enrolled myself on an intensive Bowen Get Fit programme.
I started with a lot of stretching, and then managed 10 half-push-ups, which was all my repairing ribs could manage. However, I wasn’t happy with that and tried again a few minutes later and managed 10 slow, proper press-ups. Much better! I was on the road to full recovery, and it felt good.
I celebrated with a huge plate of chicken, chips and beer at the on-site restaurant and planned my route into Georgia. It was a shame I only had 3 days in Azerbaijan, which wasn’t really enough to explore, but I was looking forward to sampling Georgia’s famous wine and hospitality.