Imagine being stuck in Milton Keynes for a week with absolutely nothing to do.
That’s pretty much what’s happened to us, being marooned in Aktau, Kazakhstan.
This Aktau expats blog describes the main attraction as bowling:
“Bowling is a favorite past time in Aktau. There are three bowling alleys”
That pretty much sums it up…
On the shores of the Caspian Sea, it was founded in 1958 by Uranium prospectors, and has been built up around the oil and gas industry since.
It’s a soulless place, constantly whipped by harsh wind and built on a block/grid system for which is it is apparently “famous”.
It's one saving grace is the lovely coastline where you can watch the sun set.
Months ago we decided we would take a weekend break in our trip to fly back to the UK for the wedding of two of our close friends.
We booked our flights from a city called Samsun in northern Turkey, so we need to be there by the 14th June. Once in Azerbaijan, it is 1,400km we need to cover through Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey.
Therefore the sooner we cross the sea, the more time we have to ride the distance and catch our flight.
Unfortunately things didn’t go quite to plan.
On arrival we checked into “Aktau B&B” – pretty much the only reasonably priced accommodation on offer. Everything seemed to be falling apart, or falling off. Paint peeling off the walls, holes in the roof, polystyrene roof crumbling, and bed mouldy…
We’d use it as a base to negotiate our way onto the boat that would take us across the sea, so planned to only stop there a night – two max.
The boat across the sea is a ferry in the loosest sense of the word.
It’s not a ferry as you or I would imagine, it’s actually a freighter ship that takes cargo and trucks across the Caspian Sea between the main ports in Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkmenistan.
Passengers can buy tickets to ride along as well, but there is no timetable, the boat only arrives and departs depending on when cargo is available, and to which port it needs to go.
This being the case, there’s no way to “buy a ticket for the boat tomorrow”, you just need to rock up the ferry port, ask them if there will be a boat crossing today, and then buy a ticket and jump on.
Often the boats sail at short notice, sometimes they don’t allow passengers, sometimes they are delayed due to weather, and sometimes they don’t call in Azerbaijan, but will go straight to Iran or Turkmenistan which wasn’t any good for us.
Throw in the lack of English from the staff, and our lack of Russian/Kazakh and it makes trying to get on a boat a confusing and frustrating process.
We arrived in Aktau on the 28th May, and our first job on the 29th was to head 5km down the road to the port to try and negotiate our way on a ferry.
“No sailing today, try tomorrow. Or you can try at the office in town – they might have other information”
There was a second ferry office in town, so on the 30th we headed here:
“Yes there is boat tonight – you go and buy ticket at port, be there for 9pm”
Great! We spun back to the port and after much confusion we were eventually told:
“Boat tonight not take passengers, try again tomorrow”
The 31st and the 1st were similar stories.
We ended up spending our days doing laps between the port, the office in town and B&B Aktau.
We had budgeted three days to get to Azerbaijan, as online blogs advised boats run every day if the weather was good.
It didn't seem to be the case however and every further day we spent sitting in Aktau was a day less we had to cover the distance to Samsun on the other side.
At our current rate with no sign of a boat in the next few days, it was looking like we were going to take four or even five to get across. We were starting to get a bit worried that we could actually get across.
Just when we were really struggling to communicate with the ferry staff, and starting to worry about when we would realistically get across, we met Eric.
We’d stopped to buy some food at what we thought was a supermarket, which was actually an industrial estate. We were obviously looking lost, when Eric pulled up in his car:
“Hi guys! It is my dream to ride around many countries on a bike like yours, how may I help you?”
We said we were looking for a supermarket, so Eric took us to one. We got talking and explained our predicament. Eric told us:
“I have been in the Kazakh army for 15 years, I was a Major and had 80 men under my command. I retired from that last year to open up a pizza restaurant here in Aktau. I think you should come with me to have a pizza, and then you can stay at my house whilst you wait for the boat”
True to his word, we had a delicious pizza at the restaurant, and then ditched B&B Aktau for Eric’s home with his lovely wife Laura and three great kids.
Eric and Laura were our saviours in Aktau, and turned what could have been a thoroughly depressing time into an enjoyable few days.
Eric called the ferry terminal twice a day for us to check the next sailing, and whilst we bided our time, Katie dressed up in wedding clothing with the girls, whilst Ewan drank beer and ate sausage with the lads!
On the night of the 2nd we got the confirmation – there is a boat leaving with cargo tonight for Baku, Azerbaijan. Be at the terminal at 2300.
Brilliant! We said our goodbyes to Eric and Laura, and left for the port. As we walked into the office in the terminal, the man told us:
“Come back at 0100, boat is not here now”
Two hours passed, and we returned at 0100 to find the office deserted, aside from a woman who was working at a desk. She had no English, but was making her arms into an “X”, (like the X factor, symbol) and saying “Niet Parom” – no ferry.
We didn’t understand - there was supposed to be a ferry leaving that night?
Eventually, the lady got her daughter on the phone to translate.
She was not happy at being woken at 1am, but explained:
“My mother says the boat is stuck in a storm and they have lost contact with it. She doesn’t know when it will be here but you should go away and come back tomorrow”
That didn’t sound good.
It was too late to go back to Eric and Laura’s, so we slept in a waiting room in the customs office.
The next day, the boat eventually arrived. Turned out it had been caught in a storm and wasn’t able to get to the port. We loaded our bikes on and locked them up whilst this sizeable man had a loud and animated phone call in Russian.
The boat itself was old and rusty. We were the only tourists, the rest of the passengers being truck drivers from Kazakhstan, Russia and Azerbaijan.
There was at least some nice décor on deck…
The crossing was supposed to take 20 hours and take us to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. Here's Ewan at the helm:
We were given a small, but comfortable cabin, and spent that evening exploring the boat and sitting on deck watching the sun set into the Caspian Sea.
The Caspian Sea is the largest enclosed inland body of water on earth, variously classed as the worlds largest lake, or a fully fledged sea. It’s surface area is 371,000 square km, bigger than Germany (357,000 square km).
It was beautiful sitting on the deck with a 360 view of the calm sea, no other boats or land in sight.
The truck drivers were a friendly bunch although there was a fair bit of gawping at Katie – they can’t get many blond European girls on these boats.
We shared some tea with them, and all ate together in the canteen.
The crossing itself was smooth, and we were approaching Azerbaijan.
It was at this moment we were informed that instead of Baku, the ferry was actually heading for Alat – the other port in Azerbaijan 75km down the coast.
Around 4pm it was land ahoy! Assuming we docked soon, it would still give us five hours daylight to get on our bikes and get some distance done before setting up camp.
Just as we reached sight of land – we stopped.
And dropped the anchor…
Six hours later, sitting in sight of land, and after an excruciatingly slow wait to get through Azeri customs, we eventually got off the boat and into the port around 11pm.
There is nothing in Alat.
No accommodation, no shops, nowhere to pitch a tent and too dark to cycle on anywhere.
We met a small band of bike tourers, and English couple and two Iranian lads who were waiting to catch the boat the other direction to Kazakhstan and shared some tea with them.
Around 1am, we didn’t have anywhere to go, so ended up sleeping rough under a small bridge whilst we waited for the sun to come up.
As the sun rose the next day we set up our bikes and got ready to go.
It was the 5th June and had been a full seven days since we last had been covering ground in a westerly direction (we did cover 68km in Alat alone going back and forward to the port, the office and bloody B&B Aktau!).
Very frustrating to lose the time, but we had finally arrived and could get cracking again.
We shouldn’t feel too sorry for ourselves, we met a French lad who was on the ferry that they lost contact with in the storm – he was on the boat for 61 hours at sea!
Our fortunes were also better than two Iranian bike tourers we’d met the prior night.
Turned out when they had gone to board the ship at 2am, the Azeri officials wouldn’t let them out the country as their visas had expired at midnight, two hours earlier! They now had to bike back to Baku, pay for another visa, pay for another ferry, and likely wait another six days before catching the next one
We’d lost three precious riding days, so now had a bit of a task on our hands to claw it back.
There are two routes from the coast of Azerbaijan to our next marker, Tblisi in Georgia. The scenic northern route, or the direct southern route. The ferry timings forced our hand so we had to take the direct route and unfortunately miss the mountains in Northern Azerbaijan.
It was a good gamble however as fortune was on our side and some good wind helped us cover 369km in two days.
On that 369km stretch, there is really nothing to report.
The countryside was flat, there was little or nothing to look at and our days were only broken up by frequent stops at the fruit sellers on the side of the road.
We’d arranged to stay with a Warm Showers host, Khazar, in small town Tovuz, the day before we crossed the border into Georgia.
Warm Showers is a network for cycle tourers who kindly offer a place to sleep in their house to fellow cyclists who are passing through. It’s a great network and we’ve had brilliant experiences using it.
Khazar met us in Tovus and we pedalled the 5km out of town to his house.
We’re always incredibly grateful to anyone who puts us up, and Khazar was no different – however it can sometime be a bit more effort than expected.
Most Warm Showers hosts understand what it’s like to cycle a long way, and generally the things you need when you arrive are a shower, food and time to chill.
Some hosts in Asia however have never really ridden a bike before, and use it as a way to practice their English, which is what Khazar and his friend Farman had decided to do.
It’s not a problem - we’re always happy to help out be it around the house, offer to pick up food, cook or generally muck in in return for a bed, but sometimes it can be more tiring than relaxing.
After sleeping on a ferry, sleeping rough, camping and having just cycled 369 km in two days we desperately needed a wash.
First however, we were required to drink tea with everyone. Meet the extended family who all wanted selfies for their Instagram, and answer all the usual questions:
Are you married
Do you have children?
Why do you not have children?
When are you going to have children?
How much is your bike worth?
What is your salary?
We were then able to wash, and eventually got clean again.
We did have some interesting discussion. We asked what Azerbaijan was most famous for, the answer was.
“Oh and also we also won the Eurovision in 2011! This was a big moment for the country”
“In 2015 we hosted the first European Games. People weren’t really interested though. They think it is just the president spending all the country’s money on these things to make him look good, when he should be spending it on the people”
“Our president is very corrupt. He is dictator. He has been President for 14 years.”
President Ilham Aliyev was awarded the dubious honour of “Corruption’s person of the year” in 2012 by the organised crime and corruption reporting project.
In February this year he appointed himself a new vice president – his wife.
As reported by the Washington Post, leaked American diplomats described her as “Ill informed about political issues, and that she had problems showing a full range of facial expressions due to substantial cosmetic surgery…”
Here he is. As every good dictator knows, plastering your image on millions of billboards all over the country is a key step if you are to garner any respect from your citizens…
We were very appreciative of Khazar and family for hosting us, but it was a long night!
By the time food was served at 2340, we were almost falling asleep into our tea, and dizzy due to hunger.
We awoke the next morning to find our bikes, clothes and helmet strewn over the floor outside their house.
Our hearts sank – we’d surely been robbed.
On closer inspection however, turned out it was actually an over excited neighbourhood dog that had found its way into the garden, and chewed its way through half our gear!
For some reason – probably because it smelled better – he’d only picked on Katie’s things.
He’d chewed through the strap on her helmet, taken a few bites out of her clothes, and run off with her sports bra!
On our way out of town, we looked for a stray dog rocking a jazzy techno colour sports bra… but didn’t see him.
It wasn’t far to the border the next day and we said goodbye to Azerbaijan.
It’s a funny old place… we’d be lying to say we warmed to it as much as we did the Central Asian countries.
There was an awkward moment when Khazar asked us:
“What’s the most interesting thing you’ve seen in Azerbaijan so far?”
“Good question… erm…”
We literally couldn’t think of anything – ended up talking about how nice the fruit was.
In fairness we didn’t really give Azerbaijan a fair hearing as we didn’t get the chance to see capital city Baku, and didn’t take the scenic route through the northern mountains.
So we’re sorry Azerbaijan, it’s nothing personal.
It’s not you, it’s us – we’d like to stay friends…
But please don’t call.
Georgia on the other hand – what a contrast!
As soon as you cross the border, the scenery turns green and the hills start rolling.
It’s beautiful and a welcome reprieve from all the sand flats.
We had a day’s ride to capital city Tblisi, and arrived in good time to meet Avto, the father of a friend from home who was an absolute legend and put us up in his flat overlooking the city.
Here we are in front of the Tblisi fortress, Avto is on the right.
Tblisi is a beautiful city, a mixture an ancient architecture such as the fortress, and many modern looking buildings such as the ones below.
You’d be forgiven for thinking Georgia is in the EU, as there are EU flags everywhere. In actual fact it’s not, although it does enjoy close ties with the EU.
Last month they opened a direct flight to Tblisi from London, so if you are looking for a slightly different holiday destination we can highly recommend it – it’s beautiful.
We spent a great evening with Avto and his friend who treated us to a fantastic Georgian dinner in the Tblisi old town, before heading back to Avto’s apartment and crashing out.
It’s been a funny old few days, but we’re delighted to be moving again, delighted to be in Georgia and delighted to be seeing our friends and family in a couple of weeks when we head back for a weekend for Rich and Liv’s wedding.