Well, maybe “cruising” is a bit of a stretch of the word. I’ve had no experience but I’m pretty sure that most cruise boats are a lot cleaner and more luxurious with fewer cockroaches than the Merkuri-1. So there wasn’t enough bed sheets to cover the horribly stained matresses; the furniture was falling apart; and the back door of the ship was left open for the whole crossing. But it did come with 3 solidly square meals a day; some cool travellers to hang out with; friendly Turkish truck drivers; and we even got the only cabin with a bathroom due to having children. The most important thing for me, as I’m the sort of person who gets seasick on a pond, is that the sea was flat as a pancake the whole way – what a relief! Supposedly the boat type isn’t the ideal sort of ship for the Caspian, something to do with it being the wrong shape for the shallow waters, so they don’t sail if it is too windy.
In the end it was “just” a 16 hour wait at the port in Aktau until our ship set sail. We hadn’t checked in the truck the previous evening and there had been a mysterious phone call at 1am in Russian asking where the truck was so we arrived at the port at 8, anxious to make sure it was on the loading list. From then on it was just a long wait, there was a good cafe we could stay in for part of it so it wasn’t too painful. Apart from the mostly truckers; there was one other motorhome; a handful of motorbikes and about 10 backpackers. With virtually no information forthcoming from the ferry company, we made a very convincing bunch of sheep milling around trying to workout what was happening, then all moving en-mass to the next place to wait.
Eventually by 8.30pm the girls and I along with the other foot passengers were onboard but it took Steve a couple more hours to get the truck on, as all the arriving trucks had to reverse off. The girls did very well, chatting away to all the other travellers. But eventually at 10.30 with Lucy dropping on her feet I begged some sheets off of the staff and put them to bed, we left around midnight.
We had been worried if the Caspian Sea option was the best for us, rather than driving through the dodgy bits of Russia. We had heard nightmare stories of people waiting for 9 days for the boat, which runs without a schedule, but we left Aktau 72 hours after arriving so we were pleased we took it. Tracking the previous crossing we had seen they had been stuck outside both ports for many hours but our crossing was only 30 hours, just long enough to catch 2 magnificent sunsets.
We were woken up at midnight by banging on the door, telling us to return the sheets. It would have been nicer to stay in bed as we weren’t allowed to disembark for a further 2 1/2 hours. The port of Alat, 70 kms south of Baku, has nothing near it: no town, no taxis, no nothing – just desert. Port security also wanted us all out, fine for us we planned to drive just outside and go back to bed till the morning but hard for our new backpacker friends. Stroppy Port security wouldn’t even let them set up their tents or even sit inside the port. So we loaded them all up in the back of the truck and tried to drive out, only to be thwarted by the dam security guys again who sent Steve back to pay another fee that no one had previously mentioned on the other side of the port. I think they were rather surprised to see 13 people get out and wait for a fuming Steve to come back.
It sounds like the start of a terrible joke: How many backpackers can you get in a truck at 4am? Just a few missing from the shot.
We gave up on the sleeping option as the sun started to rise and made for a group of mud volcanoes just in time to see the sunrise over the Caspian. What a way to start the day (or was it end of the night?) with the rising sun reflecting off the cold belching puddles of mud and the strangely bubbling pool.
Not wanting to incur the wrath of the frequently present Azeri traffic police we had to drop off most of the backpackers on the highway and headed into Baku. Finding nowhere to stay downtown we headed out out to a nearby beach resort, with a beautiful view of the row of oil rigs just offshore. Too wired to sleep we headed into the picturesque old town to explore. Baku was an interesting mix of old and new with the old town walls starkly contrasting with modern architecture funded from money from the recent oil boom.
Much refreshed the following morning we drove through the desert and into the winding forested hills. The countryside was full of tiny roadside cafes with tables under the trees waiting for customers out on a Sunday drive. Boys sold small bags of freshly picked hazelnuts along the road and smallholders had piles of fruit in buckets; honey; pickles; and jams. We bought boiled sweet corn and fresh figs for lunch from one of them.
We arrived in the picturesquely historic town of Seki in time to explore the compact walled town. The 18th century Khan had two intricately painted palaces with lots of “niches for dishes” – a bizarre but commonly descriptive phrase used all over Central Asia, where the two words rhyme – it always cracks us up. It was the bright stain-glassed windows projecting vivid patterns onto the walls and floor that made the place truly beautiful. The ancient caravanasi is now a hotel but it wasn’t hard to imagine the central courtyard teaming with merchants with their pack animals and the thick walled rooms piled high with goods. A track up a stream bed made for a quiet night’s camp spot.
With just 3 days and, sort of, 3 nights to explore Azerbaijan we barely scratched the surface but we liked what we saw. Unfortunately the time is marching on towards our return back to England, so after a quick border control it was time for our next country: Georgia.