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4 Countries in 10 days - travel frenzy along the Caspian Sea

· Travel Experience,Iran,Azerbaijan,Kazakhstan,Border Crossings

As we have mentioned before, the road to Central Asia through Turkmenistan was all but closed to us. Instead, we had to travel up from Tehran to Baku, take a ferry across the Caspian Sea to Aktau in Kazakhstan and then continue overland to the remote North of Uzbekistan. These transfers from one place to another gave rise to some of the most insane on-the-road experiences we had so far. In conclusion, air conditioning seems to be overrated in Central Asia so all our travels were HOT and slightly disgusting. But first things first:

By bus from Tehran to Baku

The bus trip from Tehran itself was unspectacular (despite that Nicole had as the only passenger of the whole bus not a VIP-seat…), but the border between Iran and Azerbaijan was definitely the most chaotic we have seen so far anywhere in the world. When we arrived early in the morning, there was already a cue several hundred people long waiting in front of us. As soon as the border started working, people actually started fighting with hands and feet (and throwing heavy suitcases) to try to be the first to get to the counters.

After we were finally stamped out of Iran, we made our way to the Azerbaijan side and entered the country without much hassle. On the other side however, we noticed that no one from our bus was with us and that also the bus itself was nowhere to be seen. We tried to ask our way around but found no answer due to lack of language skills. In the end, most people seemed to tell us that we would have to take a taxi to the customs checkpoint, were the bus would be waiting.

We did, still no bus. After an hour or so we grew increasingly anxious as the bus still carried our backpacks! We decided to drive back to the border to check if anyone from our bus has emerged, but no. How could it happen that we simply lost our bus?!

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After another hour or so (now completely desperate), we decided to go back to the customs checkpoint, hoping we could find some official willing to help us. Back again, we eventually found someone speaking English who persuaded a patrol officer to check the situation for us. In the end, our bus was held up in customs for around four hours, which is why it simply disappeared from our sight. Apparently, we were supposed to wait for the bus in the no-man’s-land between Iran and Azerbaijan and then cross the other side of the border with the bus. But somehow, nobody told us, leading to our desperate adventure.

Another five hours later, we finally arrived in Baku, which turned out to be a welcome surprise, with a beautiful (and UNESCO listed) old town as well bold modern architecture, the best hostel of our travel so far, amazing food and fast internet connection. Having to leave Baku for a boat to Aktau almost seemed to early, but we will be coming back.

By boat from Baku to Aktau

Lonely planet described the process of buying tickets for the transfer from Baku to Aktau in Kazakhstan as a dark art in itself and they couldn’t have provided a more apt description. Because of the infamous difficulties associated with the Caspian Shipping Company, the ferry operator, we had our hostel in Baku calling the contacts starting on day one.

Because the ship is not a proper ferry at all, but rather a cargo boat, the ship would depart whenever the boat was loaded with freight. As such, no one at the Caspian Shipping Company could tell us the date of departure. On day three, we were suddenly told to go to the ticket office at the harbor because they would be selling tickets for the ferry between 12:00 and 14:00. Buying the tickets was problematic as well because for some reason, the lady would only take US dollars but did not have any spare change. Kevin had to walk through half the city to change money as most banks were closed due to a public holiday.

Even after buying the tickets, the Caspian Shipping Company still did not know when the boat would eventually leave for Aktau. On the phone, we found out that they would leave either on the evening of the same night, or on the morning of the next day. At around 19:00, after a stroll in the city, our hostel suddenly told us we had to be at the port in Alat - 75 Km south of Baku - by 10 pm to board the ship. So we scrambled our things together and made our way to Alat. In Alat, we were allowed to leave Azerbaijan after the bored border agents finally found a passport stamp after an hour or so.

Finally on the ship, it became increasingly clear that we would not leave Alat tonight. To make matters worse, the passenger cabins were located in the lower level of the ship, with absolutely no window or any other source of fresh air. They smelled like no one had entered them for years and were so hot, just sitting there made both of us sweat rivers. In the end, we decided to take our mattresses and sleeping bags and spend a rough night on the upper deck of the ship.

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As expected, the ship hasn’t move one inch on the next morning. More travellers came pouring in throughout the day and in the end, we were a group of 11 people crazy enough to try the ferry: Among them were Artur, ranked number 44 on Nomadmania, and Cherif, who planned to travel by bike for five years.

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Finally, consumed by boredom, we left Alat around 9 pm on the second day, now loaded with trucks and accompanying truck drivers. The rest of the trip went quite smooth: The food was bad but edible, we managed to kill the boredom a little bit by playing UNO and watching Westworld and again slept outside the Cabins. Although no one on the ship (or in the entire Caspian Shipping Company) seemed to have any clue about anything, we eventually arrived in Aktau another 24 hours later. Crossing the border into Kazakhstan itself was unspectacular.

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By train from Aktau to Kungrad, Uzbekistan

Aktau turned out to be a pleasant, if absolutely uninspiring city. Built in Sowjet style, the city was divided into Mega- and Microdistricts. We did not come to Aktau by choice and wanted to leave the city as soon as possible to get to Uzbekistan. In the end, we stayed three nights in Aktau after taking a day trip to the nearby Mangistau desert, a place which probably has not seen many tourists walking it. Once you’re out of Aktau you’re literally in the middle of nowhere, crossing Western Kazakhstan’s vast nothingness (except some camels and horses along the way). Seeing this remote part of the world was definitely worth it!

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As with the ferry, the overnight train to Uzbekistan had no air-conditioning whatsoever and luckily for us, we also got a cabin with no windows. So again, it was stifling hot, with six people crammed into every cabin. For some reasons unknown to us, the train would also stop every half-hour or so. That gave villagers living nearby the chance to come to our trains and sell us literally everything, from the expected cold drinks to socks?! The other ladies in our cabin were so excited about the socks that an impromtu bazaar opened up.

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In the middle of the night – at around 3 am – we were suddenly woken up and told to prepare our passports. After crouching around for another hour or so in the no-man’s land between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, Kazakh border agents came in, took our passports and disappeared again. Another hour later, we were stamped out of Kazakhstan.

Next would be officially crossing the border into Uzbekistan, a border that lonely planet and other reports write horrendous stories about. The actual process went quite smoothly although it took another two hours or so. We were stamped into the country before the border agents started checking our luggage. They were particularly interested in any pills or tablets we had with us. Nicole was able to avoid the check by asking for en English customs declaration, which confused the agents so much they forgot to look through her luggage and pills storage. They did not check for our foreign currency although we had to declare it on the declaration.

So all in all, it was much better than we had expected after hearing so many horror stories. It was already bright morning when all was done and the moneychangers started pouring into the train. Because the Uzbek government maintains an artificially low exchange rate to other foreign currency, the black market rate for US Dollars was actually much higher. Therefore, although moneychangers are technically illegal, they are everywhere in Uzbekistan. We exchanged 100 USD against a stack of cash, feeling obscenely rich in Uzbekistan can be so easy.

In a few hours, we will arrive in Kungrad in Karakalpakistan, a place described by lonely planet as desolation. Our plan is to visit the former Aral Sea, which fell victim to one of the greatest environmental tragedies which saw the lake shrink to a fraction of its former size, before heading to the nicer places of Uzbekistan, Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand.

Stay tuned!

Kevin and Nicole, written somewhere in the deserts of Karakalpakistan