Taking the Caspian Sea Ferry from Aktau to Baku: A Complete Guide
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Sdravstvuite…. I mumbled sleepily into the telephone. A rapid monologue in Russian followed, which I deciphered to mean ‘you need to get up’. It was 3am.
I stumbled out of bed, turned the light on, and packed my last bits. My contact for the Caspian Sea Ferry (details below) had told me I needed to be at the port at 4am. So I didn’t have all that much time.
Cut to eight hours later, and I’d made some friends, was three coffees into my day, and there was still no sign of the boat.
This is pretty much what getting the Caspian Sea Ferry entails. You might be told a time, but it’s unlikely that your boat will leave then. It’s one of the world’s best waiting games.
Taking the Caspian Sea Ferry from Aktau to Baku
So basically, I’m overlanding the world. Or at least most of it – I’ve spent the last five months travelling solo from Bali to London. When working out how to get from Central Asia to the Caucuses, there was only one feasible option.
I can’t go to Iran independently, and Dagestan would require a lengthy visa (I’d need to get another Russian transit visa), plus I kind of liked the idea of the Caspian Sea ferry from Aktau to Baku. It had an air of romance about it, plus I was quite keen to check out a real Soviet ship.
The romance was dead by the time I’d been waiting for 8 hours on very little sleep, but I was still excited to see the Soviet ship. If it ever appeared…
How to get the Caspian Sea Ferry from Aktau to Baku
First things first, you need to get to Aktau. Most travellers arrive at this Kazakhstan beach city from Uzbekistan, but you can also head there from the wilds of the Kazakh steppe. I took a train from Nukus to Mangystau (a hilarious blog post on that to come) and arrived in Aktau bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 8am.
Once you’ve arrived in Aktau, after checking all three sights of the city out, of course, send Ivan a text message. He’s the main man with the know-how about when the boat will leave – and he provides information to travellers completely out of the goodness of his own heart. His number is and he’ll let you know when the next Caspian Sea Ferry is leaving.
Now, as great as Ivan is, he did send me the wrong location on Whatsapp. The boat from Aktau to Baku doesn’t actually leave from Aktau, it leaves from 70km south. Taxi drivers will know where the port is, so don’t question them if they take you to a different location. If you arrive somewhere that looks like this (below), you’re in the right place.
Now the next part is going to sound rather vague: that is for no other reason than this part is very vague. Basically, go into the featured building, and wait for someone to arrive. If there are already people around, give them a big toothy grin and say ‘Baku’? and hopefully they’ll help you out. Eventually, someone will come and take passport details from you. And after that, you should be ushered through to the main waiting area, which has high-speed WiFi and a coffee shop.
You can also stay at Kuruyk. A family who was on my Caspian Sea Ferry did and had a good report – and you get the added benefit of being updated by hotel staff when the ferry will leave. Click here for more information.
The endless wait…
After we were ushered through to the main waiting area, which is very clean, very modern and has high-speed WiFi, we were told to sit on the chairs and wait. About 20 minutes later, we (myself and my two French friends) were invited to buy our tickets, which involved giving our passports to a man behind the counter, obtaining a form, taking this to the money exchange office, paying them, then going back to the counter, surrendering our passports, and then going back to sit down.
They had our passports for about an hour or so – I’m not sure what they were doing with them, but they brought them back to us while I was playing how-much-coffee-can-I-physically-handle in the cafe. Note: the cafe only accepts Kazakh tenge, and doesn’t have the most inspiring food selection, so you may find that you end up drinking about three litres of coffee just to use your remaining Kazakh money. Happens to the best of us.
While I was midway through coffee number I don’t even know, we were told to quickly get our bags and head to the scanner. Presuming this meant that the boat’s departure was imminent, we pulled our bags on, I transferred my coffee to my reusable mug (after asking the very unimpressed barista to give it a little rinse out) and we made our way to get the bags scanned. We were off to Azerbaijan!
Lol, just kidding. We scanned our bags and then we were directed back to the cold, hard chairs. At least the WiFi was still excellent.
After another couple of hours, travellers who had been on the boat from Baku started to traipse in. After sharing stories about Azerbaijan/ the ferry and Kazakhstan, it was all go go go – it was time to get on the boat, and it wasn’t a drill.
Us three foot passengers were loaded into a van, which hurriedly drove towards the steam boat that had appeared in the dock. Only when we got to the boat did we realise… we hadn’t been stamped out of Kazakhstan. Our passports got taken from us again (something that always causes me intense anxiety), and it was once again a waiting game.
Boarding the Boat
In the interim, we were shown onto the boat. My friends were directed into a cabin, and me into another – I was told I could either choose a cabin with a shower but a very blocked toilet, or a cabin with no bathroom. Feeling optimistic that the crossing would only take a day and that I wouldn’t need a shower in that time, I opted for no blocked toilet.
We later learned that most of the toilets on the boat were blocked, thanks to the last passengers on the boat – who were a crew of truck drivers who drunk a lot of vodka, apparently, and forgot to not flush toilet paper. This resulted in, every time a staff member saw me walking to the communal toilets, a reminder that I was not meant to flush the toilet paper.
The cabins are 4-berth, with two beds at the bottom and two pull-down beds at the top. There’s a pull away ladder to get to the top beds. The cabins with no bathroom do have a sink, and there is a table and lockers for storage. There’s also a window that can be opened – although be wary, as I left mine open and came back to a very wet cabin!
I imagine it would have been a bit of a squeeze with four people in there – I lucked out and got a whole cabin to myself!
So it turned out, everyone had their passports taken from them. We went through Kazakh customs on the boat – make sure that you keep your immigration slip that you get given when you arrive to the country. My friends actually lost theirs and were allowed to leave the country, but I don’t think that this necessarily always happens.
Customs were easy enough, and we met our vice-captain, who could speak very good English and liked to practice with tourists.
And we’re off!
After another indefinite amount of time, the boat set sail. There’s really no knowing when this will happen, but for us it was about an hour and a half after boarding.
There were only fourteen passengers on our ferry, so to be honest I was surprised it left when it did (I thought it was a leave when it’s full kind of scenario). The other passengers were: my new French friends, a Swiss motorcyclist, a Dutch family of seven, a Georgian truck driver, a Turkish truck driver and an Azeri truck driver.
A few of us sat in the common area and chatted for a bit, then I went to lie down, chill out and read… and that was pretty much the routine for the rest of the trip.
Food on the Caspian Sea Ferry
I’d heard that the ferry across the Caspian Sea ain’t exactly a vegetarian’s dream. This suspicion was confirmed at dinner time, when I was offered chicken and potatoes – the vegetarian option being potatoes. It wasn’t all bad news though – there was some salad, made primarily out of pickles and tinned carrot, on offer at the table. We were also all given a bottle of fanta.
I would have had some bread and jam at breakfast (cheese, egg and yogurt were also on offer), but I actually felt so sick (not because of the food) that I passed on it. Lunch the following day was buckwheat and chicken – for me, buckwheat.
It actually wasn’t all that bad, and I’d already packed a lot of food. It’s recommended to take lots of food on the boat in case it is delayed, and I also took 5 litres of water (I drink a lot). However, there is generally drinking water available, as well as copious amounts of tea.
Sightseeing on the Caspian Sea Ferry
When you’re in the middle of a huge salty lake, sightseeing opportunities can be a bit slim on the ground – but there are some cool things worth checking out.
- Definitely head to the deck for sunset – watching the sun dip over the sea’s horizon is an absolute spectacle.
- I’d also recommend checking out the oil rigs, which appear close to Baku. A community lives there, for the sole purpose of extracting oil for Azerbaijan and its friends to use.
- Leaving Kazakhstan and arriving in Azerbaijan are, of course, sights you’ll want to see.
- Touring the ship is quite fun – you might be lucky like we were and get a chilled out captain who lets you see most of the ship. Even if not, walking around is still really interesting – I actually made a boat tour video for YouTube, which I haven’t got round to making/ posting yet but I’ll paste it here when I do!
The Cabins on the Caspian Sea Ferry
I honestly can’t believe how much I lucked out on the Caspian Sea ferry – I got an entire 4 berth cabin to myself, because there were so few people on the ship! It’s rare to get this lucky, but generally I think they try to put all the non-truck drivers together. Anyway, for just one person alone, the cabin was basically the ritz.
I had the choice of four bunk beds, an ocean-view window, and four lockers to store my things. I didn’t have my own toilet or shower – we’d been told that there had been a lot of truck drivers on the last boat with an affinity for vodka, who got too drunk and forgot not to flush toilet roll down the toilet. Hence most of the toilets were blocked, and I had to use the block of male toilets (about half way into the boat, the food poisoning that I’d had for a few days developed a turn for the worse, so I could have really done with my own bathroom – but I was so grateful for my own room that I didn’t give it too much thought). I did have my own sink though.
The Caspian Sea Ferry Journey
The Caspian Sea Ferry journey is slightly notorious, especially because the ships are old Soviet boats that kind of look like they might fall apart mid-Caspian. Nonetheless, my boat held strong, I didn’t notice much turbulence apart from right at the start, which I think was just me adjusting to the ship moving. The boats seem a little unstable, and I was a bit worried before I got on the boat, but it really wasn’t that bad. There was one incident a good few years back, but they have better safety procedures now (they don’t let boats leave in storms, and wait out bad weather rather than trying to carry on sailing) and on a clear day, it was really fine.
I spent the time reading, chatting to my new friends, trying to ignore my food poisoning, and heading up to the deck every so often to check out the views. Despite the nausea (which I think was caused by water that wasn’t properly boiled on an Uzbek train), I had a really great time.
Arriving in Azerbaijan
Docking in Azerbaijan took a couple of hours – I was advised it could take a maximum of a few days, so that was fine. We had to wait around for a while to get our passports back (for some reason the boat staff had kept hold of them, then the captain approached me and told me he’d been looking at my passport and saw I was an Aquarius like his daughter…) and then we were permitted off the ship.
For us foot passengers, it wasn’t too arduous a process – we got our passports and visas checked, I had to assure the border control that I didn’t have a drone (which was completely true, I invited them to look into my bag but for some reason they just wanted me to swear an oath that I didn’t have one), and then they gave us advice on where to find a taxi. It took the family with a car quite a lot longer, as everything needed to be checked, and the motorcyclist had to take all of his bags from the bike to be scanned at customs.
We approached the one lonely cafe in Alat, where the port is based, and asked for a taxi. There is a bus that leaves at 8pm – but as it was 4pm, we opted to take a taxi for 40 manat.
Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, is a compelling fusion. It has streets and and old town that reminded me of Istanbul, but so many futuristic buildings that looked like Dubai. Azeri is the main language, which is very close to Turkish (if you talk Turkish in Azerbaijan, they’ll have no problem understanding you), but everyone speaks Russian as well.
I spent 2 nights in Baku – but my food poisoning really got me on the first day – however, I’ll write about my one day in Baku, where we did quite a lot, in a future post.
A Soviet Ship Adventure…
Taking the Caspian Sea Ferry from Kuruyk to Alat isn’t for everyone, but it is hands down one of my most memorable travel experiences. I’ve got lots of posts about Central Asia to come – you can click here for all my Kazakhstan posts, and here for my Uzbekistan content.
Also, check out my YouTube channel which has lots of videos of my overland trip from Bali to London!
If you end up taking the Caspain Sea Ferry, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the journey – you can leave a comment below or contact me on social media.