The way the Caspian Sea Ferry works is just far from our mentality. Once you’ve accepted it, though, everything is going to be alright… maybe!
So, How does It Work?
- There is no timetable and you need to call the Baku Sea Port (in Alat) to know if any boat is leaving that day
- Don’t expect that someone is picking up every time
- Don’t expect them to speak English
- Buy the ticket at the port once you go there to take the boat, you must pay dollars in cash – there is an ATM next to the “ticket office”, but we didn’t use it
- You can buy a ticket online but then you’ll have just a ticket with no schedule, so you always need to call the port
- The Azerbaijani cargo boat costs $60 and you’ll have your private ensuite cabin and three meals
- The Turkmen ferry costs $120 and you’ll have just a seat, we assume food is not provided
- Be patient
This is the email we received from ASCO (Azerbaijani Caspian Shipping Company):
We are going to report our experience from Baku to Türkmenbaşı. We don’t know exactly how it works the other way around, but a Japanese guy met at the port in Baku told us you need to either call the port in Türkmenbaşı or go there once your transit visa has expired and wait for a boat (he waited for two days).
We arrived at Baku on the 5th September 2019 and wanted to take a cargo boat or ferry on the 11th as that was the day we wrote on our visa application for Turkmenistan – we then found out that the day doesn’t matter; for more details about it, check out our article about the Visa for Turkmenistan.
Firstly, we checked out www.asco.az where you can actually buy the ticket online but you can’t select a day and time, so we contacted them on Messenger Facebook and they sent us a pretty clear email (see above). Basically, the only convenience of buying an online ticket is that you can pay by card, but we had dollars in cash with us so we decided to take it extra safe and buy the ticket at the port.
On the 7th, our second full day in Baku, we tried to call the port but had no answer. So, since we were going to Qobustan by bus we decided to stop in Alat Sea Port first (70km from Baku city centre). As reported in our article about Baku, the bus stops on the highway and then you have to cross it running – a local man showed us the way- and then walk to the port (about 1.5 km). There, we were informed that there was no boat that day and that tickets are sold on-site just when there is a boat. Also, we were told there is no timetable, and to call the port… 😅 well, we knew that.
We called again on the 8th, no answer. We called on the 9th and… someone picked up and told us that yes, there was a boat that night and to go to the port at 7/8 pm! We couldn’t believe it! It was lunchtime so we rushed home (we were actually quite far) and we made it to the port at 7pm – we took a taxi for 30 manat.
At the port, you need to cross it all going beyond the railway in order to buy the ticket – the ticket office is in a container and the bank is next to it, there is also an ATM as only cash is accepted. We paid $60 each for the Azerbaijani cargo boat.
Once you have a ticket, you have to wait. We had dinner in the little cafe inside the port and then at 9pm we moved to the passport control, we had been told so. Well, the lorries were checked out and we were the last in the queue 😅 While waiting, we met the Japanese guy mentioned above and exchanged some cash and experience. After maybe one hour, it was our turn (yee!) but it took us a wee while to convince the police officer that the code we had received from the Italian Embassy of Turkmenistan was valid and we could get our visas on arrival. After ten hand-shakes confirming that we took full responsibility for it, we moved to the customs control and then on the boat. We first went on the wrong one, actually. There was the Turkmen ferry waiting in front of the customs and nobody told us that we should have opened a closed gate to reach our Azerbaijani cargo.
As soon as we embarked, there were three men in the cargo area who asked for our passports. We were a bit naive and handed them in, but they wanted to keep them..no way! We panicked a bit and left as they were a bit aggressive and it seemed they were asking for money to give them back to us in Türkmenbaşı. Once up in the cabin area, we met a guy and he told us he had his passport with him so Guido went downstairs and using some “nice” Italian words, had our passports back. Still a bit nervous, we met the lady in charge of the kitchen and the cleaning. She took us to our ensuite cabin and then we went for a walk around the boat.
Suddenly, we were asked again for our passports but we refused and walked away. Well, this time we were wrong! That person was the second captain and passengers’ passports are usually collected not to wake you up in the middle of the night for passport control and to make the procedure faster both in Azerbaijan and in Turkmenistan. By the way, we kept it and gave it to the police man at 2am.. at that point, everyone was laughing, of course..but it’s ok, better safe than sorry!
The cargo left at about 2:30 am and the journey went slowly and smoothly: we slept, ate, wrote, read, walked around, visited the control cabin, “chatted” and drank chai (tea) with the Turkish lorry drivers, and met our new friend Maris (who helped us a lot afterwards as he can speak Russian, thank you!). Crossing the Caspian Sea was a unique experience and seeing the sea changing colour as the hours went on was quite emotional.
Unfortunately, all the romanticism and the good feelings swept away when we got to the port of Türkmenbaşı and we were stuck inside the boat for about two or three hours. We were told to leave our cabin at about 11pm so we moved to the common room with the other passengers – not a crowd as we were like 15 people in total: three tourists and the Turkish lorry drivers!
We waited…the hours passed by and eventually at about 2 am we were called on for passport and visa control. The three of us entered in a room with three soldiers and one lady; the situation wasn’t friendly and the soldier in charge wasn’t happy about the fact that we had no proper visa but just a code (Maris had a piece of paper, indeed). We were sure it will work as our Portuguese friend did it in May, so Maris talked for us explaining the situation and the soldier agreed to let us disembark.
The port of Türkmenbaşı at night is scary and shining at the same time. Scary as there is nobody but heavily armed soldiers, shining because the main building is huge, white and lit up.
We got in this white world in awe/shock; some machines to check our passports and scan ourselves were waiting for us. After that, we sat on comfy sofas in the waiting room surrounded by fake birds and fennies… after a wee while the same soldier of the boat arrived and did all the visa process for us as well as the passport control (just changing desks..). At that point, he was very friendly and showed his surprise about the efficiency of the visa system (our code worked, of course).
We paid dollars in cash at the bank desk next to the visa one; a lady responsible for it arrived sleepy but serious enough to do her job. We went through the customs control where we were registered manually, again, and finally ended up in the waiting hall… we were officially in Turkmenistan!! It was almost 5 am, so we slept a bit on the chairs wondering about our next adventure into that unknown and white country. But that will be in the following articles!