We are sitting on a cargo ship bound for Kazakhstan. I don’t think I can fully convey my feelings of relief this evening at being onboard this small ship somewhere in the Caspian Sea. As much as we enjoyed the eccentricity of Baku, by the end of our short stay I had developed serious cabin fever: it was our longest rest stop since Istanbul back in September, and the route from embassies to ferry terminals to deportation meetings had become well-trodden and tiresome. As Lobby’s blog has pointed out, after two disastrous admin days in the capital there was nothing more I wanted to do than cycle hard off into the distance. Except that we couldn’t: we’d reached our most easterly point, blocked off by Iran to the south and Russia to the north. Even if we made it as far as the border we would then still be stopped and detained thanks to our Balakan Bastard. The situation was far from ideal.
But yesterday (The Day Everything Came Right), on our fourth visit to the ferry terminal a bored lady behind the grey Soviet door agreed to sell us two tickets aboard the Professor Gül to Aktau, Kazakhstan. She insisted on trying to speak English but then got many of her tenses wrong, which complicated the purchasing process! In fact this meant we still weren’t sure if the ship was there or not when we handed our money over (“Professor left at 10pm this evening,” she repeated at 4pm), but we reasoned that if she was prepared to sell tickets to us then we were going to buy them. After all, this was the first ferry to Kazakhstan for which we’d been allowed to buy tickets in our week in the capital, and we weren’t about to let the opportunity pass because of a language technicality. Knowing our luck in Baku it actually came as little surprise when she told us the ferry port had moved just three weeks ago. It was now 75km out of town. Quick sums. We didn’t have enough time to make it by bicycle before the Professor left (if it was even there). My brain screamed expletives at this bored lady counting our dollars. Damned if we were going to sit around in Baku for the next Professor while our Central Asian visas timed out, we hired a removal van and got there in style. Yes we did. Azeri dance beats pumping out of the stereo system. A lot of the week’s stress evaporated on that road! A relatively straightforward deportation from Azerbaijan and by 3 o’clock in the morning we had a cabin to ourselves, with bikes safely lashed to some fencing in the cargo hold. Some videos of our last moments in Azerbaijan here.
Many blogs moan about this particular ferry crossing, mostly because of safety and hygiene standards. Granted, one of the fleet sank not so long ago (the Merkuriy-2 in 2002) and the Professor could do with door handles which don’t come off so easily in your hand. Our cabin is supposedly en-suite but the showerhead is better used to sing into than to wash with. Nevertheless we are on a boat with a bed, going the right way. What’s more we are two of only six passengers onboard – a Georgian (who has already offered us shots), an Azeri, a Kazakh and two Uzbeks – so we’ve been given free rein to roam the decks. Apparently there are thirty crew onboard but we have seen only Sylvia the cleaning lady and the captain on the bridge when we went to check our course. My sailing experience amounts to a few dinghy outings aged 12 so I’m not sure if I was much help. The captain liked a good chat though. He told me our crossing would take any time from 20 to 45 hours depending on a few things I didn’t understand in Russian, and showed me his wonderfully useless searchlight for spotting a man overboard, which is stuck facing the sky. All hatches are left open which is perfect for a good snoop around: the galley, the kitchens, the engine room (lots of pistons and gauges, best not to touch), the hold… You name it, all deserted.
So like young children finally with time to play, we ascended masts, rolled down hatches, climbed into lifeboats and ran around on the upper decks. On one of our explorations we did spot a crew member, who seeing us skipping along with broad grins on our faces probably thought it wise to keep his distance. The Professor was our dormitory and our playground to see out the end of October.
I imagine real cruises must be a lot like this, except ours had the advantage of being able to explore everywhere onboard undisturbed; there was also no neighbour to follow you round with accounts of his previous cruises and experiences in this relatively confined space. We wandered up onto the top deck a few moments ago, taking care to walk in from the edge in case the railings went the way of our door handles (which would be awkward knowing now that our searchlight is pointing the way it is). The stars are the best I’ve ever seen them, meshing a tapestry across the sky with the Milky Way highlighted in the middle – I suppose we are 200km or so from land and the nearest light pollution. Like all luxury cruises there has been a lot of sleeping involved, a solid twelve hours on departure and naps throughout the day to prepare for our next cycling stretch. We will get up to watch the sunrise tomorrow and focus our minds back on the job at hand after a week off.
Our next major landmark is the Kazakh-Uzbek border in the Kyzyl Kum desert. There we will assess how to make up the extra mileage we have been given by being diverted north, to allow our visa dates still to work. The road until that point, like the Turkmenistan Dash, is meant to be one of the worst in the world.
Stay tuned. X