Caspian Sea, Kazakhstan/Azerbaijan
The Caspian Sea is huge. It’s big enough to have tides, waves and its own climate. But is it really a sea? Basically, the answer is no. It has no outflow, and a fresh water supply feeds it in the north. So in fact it is the world’s largest lake. The main reason it is still called a sea is for that age old reason, money.
Even though international waters usually start 200 nautical miles from land, in the Caspian the local-water zone is more like 20km wide. This way, all the coastal countries can share the sea equally, and this means sharing the resources buried in the sea bed equally as well. If it were a lake, the body of water would be divided up unequally based on each country’s coastal length. That would really piss off people like Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, whilst massively benefiting countries like Iran, Kazakhstan and Russia. Hence the sea versus lake debate rumbles on to this day.
On numerous people’s advice, upon arriving at the coast we headed immediately to the port in Aktau and registered ourselves for the next ferry. We didn’t really know what we were registering for, but our presence on the list of vehicles was reassuring. The list was exactly two vehicles long.
Quietly confident we had achieved something and with little further information, we checked ourselves into a slightly cockroachy guest house and waited. We wandered the streets of the town vacantly and watched the virtual ships come and go. It was a tale of three blind mice. There were three potential ships in the running and they might have been the blind mice. But actually the blind mice were us, the ships and the port authorities.
We knew our time in Aktau would test our patience. We had forfeited seeing the better parts of Kazakhstan to rush here. We would now have to quietly twiddle our thumbs and wait for the right boat. But what was the right boat?
During the height of the cold war, the Americans spied something strange being built near the Caspian sea. Shrouded in secrecy but sporting the Soviet navy’s insignia, a huge plane was being constructed. But it had wings too short to fly and this caused a lot of confusion amongst the intelligence community. Stencilled on the fuselage were the letters KM, and in the United States’ collective minds, the Kaspian Monster was born! Probably one of the weirdest flying machines you could conceive, this thing could fly below radar carrying 250 tonnes of cargo and be propelled by 10 jet engines to over 650km/h. And it’s still out there, like Nessie, lurking in the cold waters somewhere.
Whilst the Kaspian Monster might have solved all of our problems, it did not come to our rescue. As we continued to wait, two more motorcyclists (Hannes and Tommy) joined us at our guest house. They had befriended a local guy and he went out of his way to entertain and help us with our ferry problem. Our new recruit in the Kazakh Field Office (KFO) back in Almaty had also been activated and was now pushing hard to get us out of the country before our 30 days expired.
But what could we do? The port authorities told us they did not know which boat was arriving, let alone leaving, with passengers. The ticket agents told us to call them when a ferry arrived so they could sell us tickets! Each day yielded new partial yet contradictory information. Then we met some other foot passengers waiting at the port so we moved into their guest house. Every day we all traded information, looking for a breakthrough. There started to be solidarity between all the hopefuls, but the web of misinformation was stifling. Even though we were tracking the ships’ GPS data, we couldn’t be sure it was accurate. We hadn’t seen a single, actual, real ship.
To confuse matters further, there were actually two ports near Aktau. Worse still for ship tracking, there were also two ports in the far side of the sea in Azerbaijan, near Baku. We’d actually spoken to motorcyclists who had arrived at this alternative port in Kazakhstan. But the authorities were telling us it was not possible. So one day our local contact kindly drove us 140km to visit this newer, more elusive port. Unfortunately this yielded nothing useful, but he did point out some local history on the way back.
The Soviet obsession with nuclear fission was shown to us just outside the city of Aktau. By 1973 the BN-350 fast breeder reactor was commissioned and connected to the national grid. More often used for marine power units, this type of reactor is very compact and intrinsically a little safer than water-clad reactors. Squatting precariously on the shores of the Caspian, this reactor provided power and heat to the town for about 20 years. It was also the world’s only desalination reactor, producing over 100,000 tonnes of fresh water every day. It could additionally do something that the Soviets liked very much; produce plutonium which could be weaponised in the adjacent processing plant. We could see the protective concrete sarcophagus in front of this building as we whizzed past in the car.
Each day at the port the list of registered vehicles ticked upwards. But despite being chased everyday by the KFO, the cyclists, the pedestrians and any Russian speaker we could find, no one knew anything. And the days were passing by, taking us closer to our deadline. We casually enquired about overstaying past 30 days. Our options would be jail time, a very large fine and probably deportation.
But without knowing when something would happen meant we couldn’t plan to do much else, in case that something did happen. It was ferry death row. All we could really manage was some tinkering with the bikes, some beach time and a lot of eating and drinking. So we survived, I guess!
By watching the ship movements on the internet we learnt to calculate true ETAs (as opposed to each captain’s drunken predictions). We also learnt that being on a boat didn’t mean the end. One ship we believed would save us, left Azerbaijan and headed our way. Then it turned back and anchored inside a headland. The KFO filled us in; a storm on the far side made crossing in these old ships too dangerous right now. That ship remained static for 3 days before making the 24 hour crossing. We met some of the passengers disembarking; they were utterly frazzled.
One problem was authenticity. People at the port would tell us things and they would turn out to be fake. Later someone at the port would tell us not to listen to other people at the port. And we’d jump on every morsel of news, so this was a nightmare. Then one day just after lunch I got a call from someone at the port speaking Russian. I passed the phone to Tommy to speak to them. We were a go! KFO confirmed the source and everyone scrambled to the port. Part two of the circus was about to commence.
However many attempts we had made to reverse-engineer and second-guess the ferry system, nothing could have prepared us for the bureaucratic cluster cuss that unfolded. All we could glean was that (a) the ferries were operated by Azeri companies (the other side of the water), (b) these ferry companies made their money from transporting mainly oil and gas-based goods, (c) mixing passengers with these dangerous goods was forbidden, (d) the passenger ticket monies went to the Kazakh government and (e) the ports had to make money somewhere.
This meant that the shipping companies really did not want our business. It was a pain and often interrupted their core operations. So in order to complete our vehicle booking we had to pay the departure port of Aktau a seemingly random fee for “services”. The following day these services transpired to exactly nothing: No shade, no water, no food, no seats, no toilet. They dumped us in a parking lot in the middle of nowhere and ignored us all day. On top of this fee, we purchased passenger tickets. Upon leaving the boat at the far side, we would have to pay for the vehicular transport fees as well as another “port tax”. Seemingly the Kazakh port people didn’t even know which way we were going and had specifically timed our processing to coincide with people unloading from the ship. At one point, a Kazakh customs guy irritatedly asked us why we were all back in his customs office again. I loudly proclaimed “How should we know? It’s your system!” before we got yet another stamp on our bill of lading and were despatched to another room.
It was only when we got our exit stamps in our passports that we felt a certain amount of relief. Jail time was now impossible! On the day of getting the call from the port we had gone there for a handful of hours then returned to the hostel for our last supper. The next day we spent 13 hours at the port being slowly processed and waiting to board. It was the height of inefficiency. Burnt to a crisp, dehydrated and finally afloat, we tied up the bikes as best we could and checked in to our very warm cabins. We managed to keep our eyes open long enough for the lights on the coast of Kazakhstan to fade and we watched the red moon rise.
After being quickly ejected from the galley following breakfast in the morning, we all just looked at each other and shrugged. This was it. We were miles from land, pottering at 14km/h in a southerly direction. When would we dock in Azerbaijan? In about 24 hours! So we opened the cognac and began our day of not much, interspersed with food and the odd snooze. Life at sea wasn’t so bad!
If getting on the boat had been traumatic, the compounded effect of 54 hours from touching land on one side to touching land on the other side, made us all keen to get going again. But the Azeris had other plans. Once docked, we waited for some officials to show up. It was as if we had surprised them with the arrival of our huge ship. Then we trudged across the baking tarmac to have our visas processed. Then we marched back to the ship to begin some more waiting. Finally we were allowed to drive off the boat being cursorily searched by some idiots. Then they implied we could leave. But we hadn’t paid, nor been through customs. We thought of running for freedom, but there were more security barriers to hurdle on the way out. So we sought out the official process, with some difficulty.
If we thought the Kazakh port was a cluster cuss, the Azeris took it to a new level. They were doing their PhD in fuckwittery. One man, dressed like a prinkle, was trying to process everyone’s freight payments. One problem was that he couldn’t stay serving one person for more than 60 seconds before attempting to multitask onto something else. People also queue-jumped. Additionally he wasn’t trusted by his employers to actually take payment. He wrote a slip of paper. You took this to the bank (shipping container full of more men dressed like different prinkles). You paid the bank. They gave you more paperwork. You went back to the initial prinkle. He produced more paperwork and neatly filed it into plastic sleeves. Then he gave you a piece of paper. Then you went to the next shipping container and paid the next fee. More money. More paper. Then you went back across the footbridge to your vehicle and into the customs building. If you were unlucky enough to have a car or truck, you then had to take another receipt back to the bank to pay for vehicle tax then return once more. It was maddening! People would find themselves queuing at places 2 or 3 times awaiting another stamp or another piece of paper. Luckily us two-wheelers only had to complete some paperwork within customs, but each time the staff looked at their forms as if it was the first time they had ever seen them. Like pouring frozen treacle, the officials slowly stepped through each registration document, VIN , weight, make, model and typed it into their system. We were pretty tired when we docked at 06:30. When we were finally free of the port complex at 14:00, Azerbaijan had already sapped most of our energy.