This article outlines our experience catching the infamous ‘ferry’ across the Caspian Sea (with bikes) from Alat (south of Baku) in Azerbaijan to Aktau, Kazakstan. We hope that anyone taking the same journey will find the information helpful.
First things first, the boat from Baku, Azerbaijan actually departs from the port of Alat around 70km to the south. Secondly, there are no schedules for these ferries. The general rule of thumb is that they leave every 3-5 days. With a bit of patience, leg-work and luck- you should make it onto one of these ferries. I would say we were extremely lucky with the timings and had a fairly painless experience.
10am: Called port who confirmed the boat had docked at Alat
11:45am: Taxi from Baku to Alat port
1pm: Arrived at Alat port
2pm: Tickets purchased for boat
22:15pm: Boarded ferry
10:30am (following day): Boat left port
11:30am (Kazak time, following day): Arrived at Kuryk port
13:00pm: Cleared to Kuryk port
We arrived in Baku on a Sunday morning and checked into Stay Inn Baku Hostel. We’d heard they were fairly proactive about helping guests find out about the ferries but it turned out they weren’t. We would advise against staying at this hostel.
Ferries either go to Turkmenistan or Kazakstan. Kazakstan, where we were heading, is more popular as visas are notoriously difficult for Turkmenistan. As mentioned, the boat to Kazakstan does not leave from Baku; it leaves from Alat 70km south of Baku. The hugely helpful Carivanstan website indicated only Mecuri-1, Professor Gul and Qara Qarayev vessels were running to Kazakstan. Check their website for the latest information on this. We tracked these vessels on martimetraffic.com which we found useful; although we could only see Mecuri-1 (spelt Mecury-1 on the tracker) and Professor Gul at the time, both in transit at the time of our search.
We went in search of the Baku ticket office to find out when the ferry was due. The office is in an obscure location next to a children’s playground - see here. Only go to this ferry if you want to get to Turkmenistan, which leaves from Baku. The man in the office told us we could not buy tickets for the Kazakstan ferry and had no idea when the next ferry was, but did give us the Alat port number to phone: +994 57475957.
Later that evening we noticed on martimetrffic.com that Professor Gul was just offshore from Kazakstan and pointing toward Alat, although the tracking information said is was still heading for Kazakstan. It still said this when checked a few hours later and was closer to Azerbaijan. Take from this that the website tracking is accurate but the destination information is not.
We called the number the following morning around 10am and were told the boat was in port and to arrive before 2pm. The mad dash to the port began. We asked the hostel receptionist for help to book a taxi, including bikes. After a few calls he came back with a price of 80 manat, more than twice going rate for a normal taxi. Granted we had bikes but we had read other reports of travellers paying the normal rate (around 35 manat in 2018). We were running out of time so settled on 60 manat for the 70km journey.
We were alarmed when a saloon Mercedes E-class turned up but the driver was at least helpful strapping the bikes down into the boot with the wheels off. We’d recommend making tentative taxi arrangements further in advance to avoid our situation. We know of others cyclists who flagged down a London-style cab to the port with bikes and would suggest this as a cheaper option. There are plenty available in Baku.
The drive to Alat port takes around an hour, we arrived at 1pm. We showed our passports to the port officials and they allowed the taxi to drive us all the way to the passenger waiting area in Check Point 2. You will undoubtedly see a crowd of forlorn travellers waiting outside the customs building.
There are a number of shipping containers, each with its own function. Firstly head to the ticket office. It’s worth mentioning at this point that the passenger ferry now goes to Kuryk in Kazakstan, 70km south of Aktau where it docked in the past. We booked a two berth cabin for 80USD (paid in dollars) each. Bicycles go free. The officer will give you a slip which you take to the cashier in the neighbouring shipping container. There is an ATM next to this but we advise taking money out in Baku (ATM’s dispense USD) incase this is not working; there is no other ATM nearby. The cashier will stamp your slip to confirm receipt of payment, which you must then take back to the ticket office. Your ticket is then printed after a few hours. We were told the ferry should leave around 5pm.
If you are travelling in a car or motorbike, allow time to have an argument with the officials, as every motorist seemed to be doing when we were there. I’m not sure what paperwork is required but everyone seemed to have something missing. Nothing additional is required for bicycles.
There are toilets, showers (free for locals), a fairly well stocked shop and restaurant. Walk slowly between all the places to kill time and enjoy idle chat with fellow travellers. There are constant new arrivals as people get wind of the ferry’s arrival.
It became apparent the ferry would not be leaving at 5pm as suggested. The port officials have as much idea as you do when it’ll leave. When asked they tend to just add on 2 or 3 hours from the previous estimate. Once it got dark, we were told it would in fact be tomorrow morning, so everyone began setting up camp. Other travellers said the officials allowed people to sleep in the shipping containers the previous evening, but there were now too many of us. It is possible to sleep in a cab of a lorry if you don’t mind sharing a bed with a trucker, or potentially missing the boat departing whilst you sleep. This actually happened to one guy we met.
Around midnight a group of us found a spot behind the customs building, sheltered from the savage wind that blows through the port. We had all settled in for the night when a local came running around the corner at 9pm saying “Parom! Parom! Kazakstan!”. We made our way over to the customs checkpoint. Tickets and passports are checked at the barrier then you make your way to the customs building for a vague bag search. Leave the bicycles outside and bring in all panniers.
This process took about 45 minutes. We boarded the Professor Gul at 22:15 and were led up to the canteen on board. Belongings can be brought up later and access to the bikes is available at all times (at least they were in our experience). All passports were handed to the steward on board. He spoke perfect English and explained they’d be handed back once at sea. We were provided with bed linen and lead to our cabin. The 2 berth cabins come with an en suite. All was basic but relatively clean. You’ll be told repeatedly not to flush paper down the toilet, there are signs all around the boat hammering this point home.
We were not served dinner that evening but were given breakfast the following morning before leaving port at 10:15am. The food is not amazing, neither is it inedible. The portions are relatively small and nearly all come with meat. Vegetarians should bring something extra. Vegans will be drowned at sea. Times for the meals are posted on the canteen door. Breakfast and lunch are close together, with a long break until dinner. You should probably bring your own snacks if you get hungry.
You’re free to wander around the decks for the rest of the time. This is a better idea than being inside as it’s full of drunk truckers staggering about. About halfway through the journey the passports are returned by laying them out on the common room table.
Our voyage took 23 hours in total, arriving Kuryk port (south of Aktau) at 11:30am Kazak time. All passengers regroup with their luggage in the common room. Kazak customs officers quickly scan over some of the bags before everyone is allowed to disembark. Panniers left on the bike were never checked so it’s possible to save time by only taking what you need to the cabin.
You’ll be driven to the immigration office a few hundred metres from the boat. After the usual checks, we were allowed back to the ferry to collect our bikes. This took quite a bit of time due to the amount of people. You’ll cross through one final customs search before being cleared from the port - we were eventually out by 1pm. Again, anyone with a motorbike or car seemed to come under greater scrutiny so checks take longer.
One final point is that Kuryk Port seems to be very new and it isn’t actually in Kuryk. There is literally nothing around but desert and sections of the road leading away from it were still under construction in 2018. Kuryk is the name of the nearest town which is 24km away. The town is very basic with a few shops and a petrol station. We camped on the shore of the Caspian before riding 60km to Aktau - the nearest larger town with hotels - the following day.
We hope this article sheds some light on the Caspian Sea joinery prepares you for what to expect. As mentioned previously, I think we were extremely lucky with the timings; from arriving in Baku we were on the boat in less than 24 hours. Many people we had spoken to at the port had been there for 3 days+. No boats sail if it’s windy. It’s unfortunate it’s a notoriously windy part of the world.