How to Cross the Caspian Sea
Crossing the Caspian Sea from Baku to Turkmenbashi as part of the Mongol Rally is definitely an adventure; one you’re not likely to forget!
Finding information on the ferry from Baku to either Kazakhstan or Turkmenistan can be difficult. There are stories of ralliers waiting for a week, or the boat stopping half way across the Caspian and the crew extorting money from whoever is onboard. Don’t start freaking out, let’s talk about this first. Then you can freak out.
If you’re planning to take the ferry to Turkmenbashi and you did not get your visa in Istanbul, you’ll need to go to the Embassy office in Baku with your letter of invitation to have your name put in a letter stating that you are permitted to board the ferry, and apply for a visa on arrival in Turkmenbashi. If you’re planning to take the ferry across to Aqtau, Kazakhstan you’ll already have a visa in your passport, so you won’t need to make a stop at the embassy/consulate first.
How Much Does it Cost?
Prices for the ferry will vary. It depends on the officials on duty, whether the local fixer if sniffing around, and the size of your vehicle. All ferry fees are in USD so make sure you have plenty of USD to pay for the ferry, as well as what think you will need to get through Turkmenistan (there are no ATMs in Turkmenistan, so you need to estimate your costs before you enter the country).
Ticket cost per person – plan on spending anywhere from 100 USD to 150 USD for your ferry ticket.
Vehicle cost – plan on spending anywhere from 50 USD to 80 USD per meter. Yes, per meter!
Fixer cost – if he’s hanging around, you’ll need to pay him 15 USD.
If you’re lucky the ferry boat may have staterooms (I use that term very loosely) available. The price per room is usually 20 USD. That being said it is possible to set-up your tent on the deck or simply sleep in your sleeping bag, staring at the stars.
How to Find the Ferry Port
Finding the ferry port in Baku is like looking for Waldo after 5 hours of drinking. There are no signs that say ‘Ferry Port this way!’. If you’re looking at Google maps, Marine Passenger Terminal is not the place you need to go; however, it is close to the port you need.
Drive to the Marine Passenger Terminal, and then keep driving. You’ll be on Nobel Avenue. When you cross over the railroad tracks (about 5-7 minutes up the road), there will be an alley on the right, turn down there. It will look odd, but this is the road to the ferry port. Well, the first ferry port.
The red dot on this map is where the ferry port is located.
Finding the second (Main cargo) port is a little more difficult. To get to the second port keep driving on Nobel Avenue, passed the green gas station on the right side. Look for a sign that says Ro-Ro Quay (it’s just before a major intersection). The sign is on the right, and the road will look more like a driveway. Turn right at the sign, and drive all the way to the end.
How to Buy a Ticket
The process of buying a ticket for a ferry to Kazakhstan or Turkmenistan will be a challenge, and a test of your patience. If you want to try and buy the ticket on your own (several have), you can do so by visiting the ferry office at either port and inquiring about the next ferry to either Turkmenbashi, or Aqtau in Kazakhstan. I know this sounds simple, but it’s not. The ferry port official in the office will say ‘maybe a ship leaves today, maybe not’, the guards down by the ferry boats will say ‘yes, we have a ship today, but you need to buy a ticket at the office’. You will go back and forth, and you will need to stay calm and go through the motions. Of course, if you speak Russian, then this whole process will be a little easier. Or, you can go through the local fixer. Or try and pay a ‘little extra’.
The Local Fixer
The other way to buy your ticket is through the local fixer. During the Mongol Rally the local fixer (Ishmael) will not be hard to find. He’ll be the guy jumping the line in the morning at the Turkmenistan Embassy in Baku, or walking around the ferry port. If you’re at the port with your car and fellow ralliers, and he is there, he will find you.
Ishmael will claim to work for The Adventurists, he doesn’t. That being said, his prices are reasonable. Only 15 USD to arrange your ferry ticket (that is over and above your ticket and vehicle costs). As the local fixer, he has this down to a science, and he will not hesitate to tell you that he controls the entire port, and that boats leave when he says they leave. Blah, blah, blah. It’s double talk, but he does get you on the ferry, so try to ignore the double talk as much as possible.
Whatever you do, do not piss him off. The fixer has been doing this for a few years now, and he knows all of the key people. This means he can get you stonewalled, and make it very difficult for you to get on the ferry on your own.
What to Bring Onboard
Once your car is loaded onto the ferry, you will not have access to it until it’s time to disembark in either Turkmenbashi or Aqtau. Here is a list of items you should consider bringing onboard.
- Water – It’s hot in July/August so make sure each team member has a 4 liter bottle of water. Buying water on the ship is possible, but it is also expensive.
- Beer – If you’re a drinker, bring your own beer. You may be able to buy it onboard the ferry, but it will be expensive.
- Non-perishables – Unless you plan to eat your perishables the night you board, don’t bring them. There is no fridge access to keep things cold and fresh. Bring about 3 to 4 days worth of food. You’ll be amazed by how hungry you will feel once you are onboard.
- Clothing – Depending on the boat you may have access to a shower. Bring a couple changes of clothing onboard.
- Pillow – If you have a camp pillow, bring it!
- Sleeping bag & pad – The ferry crossing is your chance to catch up on sleep.
- Journal/Book/iPad – When you’re not sleeping, you will want something to do. Bring your journal, a book to read, your camera. Anything to keep yourself entertained.
Tip: Hide your USD cash on your person, or in a hidden space in your car. If you get stopped and asked for more money, have small bills on you. This way you don’t loose all your cash!
How Long does it take to cross the Caspian Sea?
The ferry crossing is roughly 14 hours to Turkmenbashi and around 18 hours to Aqtau, but you’ll be waiting a whole lot longer. A lot longer.
The fixer will tell you to be at the first ferry port at noon. When you arrive you will sit around and wait for the rest of the teams that he is helping to get on to the ferry. Once everyone has arrived, you’ll either continue to sit and wait, or you’ll convoy to the Main cargo port (Ro-Ro Quay) and wait there.
Once you’re at the port where you’ll be departing from you will be told to park your car and wait. And wait. And wait. While you’re waiting the fixer will ask for passports, ask for his payment, arrange your ticket, have each of the cars measured, and then ask for the ferry payments. This process usually takes anywhere from 3 to 5 hours. Yes, read that again, slowly… three to five hours!
After everyone has been measured and paid, you’ll be instructed to drive to a parking area near the ferry. You’ll then wait another 1-2 hours before you go through customs. Once you’ve gone through customs you will be asked to get your things from your car, and then instructed to board the ferry. The drivers will be told to wait with the car.
Once the cars have been loaded onto the ferry, the train cars and container cars will need to be loaded. This does not happen right away. Be prepared to be on the ferry, in port, for at least 5 to 7 hours before you actually leave port and start sailing. In most cases, you’ll be on the ferry by 7 pm, but the ferry won’t leave port until almost 5 am.
Depending on your destination the crossing will take anywhere from 14 to 18 hours. Once you dock, be prepared to wait on the ferry for at least another three to twelve hours before you’ll be able to leave the ferry and retrieve your car. Once you’re off the ferry you will then park outside the customs office, go inside, and spend another three hours getting your visa stamped, paying visa fees, filling out paperwork for your car, walking from office to office. To office. Paying more money for your car. And then when all the red tape and paperwork is over you will go outside where guards will inspect your car. If you are lucky the process will be quick. That being said some teams have had every single piece of gear taken out of their car and inspected, including the photos on their cameras.