There are two main routes for the Caspian Sea Ferry. The first is Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan and the second is Azerbaijan to Turkmenistan. Cargo vessels leave from the port of Baku, Azerbaijan and head north east to Aktau or due east to Turkmenbashi.
There is a lot of contradictory information about this crossing, so here is my experience aimed at helping those looking to take a boat from Azerbaijan to Turkmenistan. I made the trip in April 2017 while travelling overland from England to China.
Taking the Caspian Sea Ferry
We arrived in Baku on a Friday morning on the overnight train from Tbilisi in Georgia. After checking in at the Old City Hostel we asked them to call the shipping company for us to find out when the next boat was likely to be leaving. We were advised that a ship was in the port now and would be leaving at 5pm. This was a bit too early as it would give us no time to check out Azerbaijan.
We decided to forego this one and cross our fingers that another boat would be leaving on Sunday. We were told that there would be no boat the next day, and to call back on Sunday morning. It was a gamble as the clock was ticking on our VISAs, but we had two-days grace to play with.
We spent the day enjoying the sights around Baku, including the beach at Bilgeh and Yanar Dag (Fire Mountain). Baku is a wonderful city with an impressive old town filled with medieval architecture. Check out my guide on things to do in Baku for information on the city’s sights!
At 10am we called the shipping company (+994 55 555 1757, +994 50 420 09 05 or +994 55 26653 54). The hostel called for us, but Victoria (Vika) speaks English if you need to do this yourself. We were advised to call back at 1pm and I took this as a good sign as it was not an outright ‘no ship today’. Our friend offered to drive us to the port to make things easier as having a local with us would be pretty handy. We were advised that there was a ship in port (The Bagtyyar) and that they didn’t know when it would set sail, possibly in four hours time.
With this good news we raced (literally along the Formula 1 route that was being built for the forthcoming Grand Prix) back to the hostel to pick up our bags. We stopped to buy some supplies for the crossing; water, bread, cheese, crisps and beer, as we were told there was no shop on board. We got back to the port at 2pm and said our goodbyes to our friend. We were directed to a waiting room where we sat for two hours as more people trickled in.
Saying Goodbye to Baku – Crossing the Caspian
By 4pm there were about 10 people (no other tourists, just Turkmen and Russians) and at this time a small shuttle-bus appeared to take us the five minute drive to the dockside. A makeshift customs and border post was made up of a van with an x-ray machine in the back and a couple of portacbabins. We put our bags through the machine and made our way to the second portacabin where the border security questioned us individually before stamping us out (you need your E-VISA for this also). The whole process took less than half an hour and we made our way to the boat as they were lowering the gangplank.
You buy your ticket for the journey on the boat and after ignoring us for some time in favour of sorting out the locals, we were asked whether we wanted a seat or a cabin. We opted for the seat ($50 – Cabin $90).
Although there was a fair bit of waiting around, and a lot of unknowns, the whole process was relatively painless. It helped immeasurably having our local friend help us. However, if you don’t know anyone here, simply call the shipping company on the above numbers. When you have confirmation that a boat is in port, just take a taxi to the port area on Nobel Avenue (turn right behind Port Baku Park and follow the road round to the barrier and tell the staff you want to go to Turkmenistan).
Some resources indicate you need to be put on some sort of passenger list, but we just turned up and paid on the boat and it was fine. It was actually harder buying a bus ticket in Istanbul than sorting out the boat in Baku.
The Bagtyyar – Caspian Sea Ferry
The Bagtyyar itself is a brand new vessel (in shipping terms). So new in fact, that the shop and bar on the main concourse are devoid of goods, workers and patrons. With this in mind you should stock up as the boat has been known to be waiting to dock for up to six days (highly unlikely, but delays of a day or two are not uncommon)!
We set up camp in the empty passenger lounge of this new Caspian Sea ferry which had rows of large seats spaced out well. There were probably around 200 seats and only five or six of us to occupy the space. I left my bags near a window and a power supply (240v European two-pin type) and set off to explore. You could go up on deck and see the views across the bay to Baku. As the sun set over the city it looked sublime. The Flame Towers lit up in different colours and cast their reflection onto the still water.
We finally set sail at 22:20, eight hours after we arrived. The seats were large and relatively comfortable. My friend made a bed on the back row and slept almost continually for 15 hours so they can’t have been that bad, but I didn’t sleep particularly well and was up at sunrise at 5am.
Crossing the Caspian
Crossing the Caspian should take 12 hours on the new vessels Berkarar and Bagtyyar and by 11:300am we could just about make out land in the distance but the boat had stopped and dropped anchor. The sea was an azure blue and the skies cloudless. It was like being on a cruise ship in the Caribbean, albeit without any restaurants, entertainment etc which was fine by us. Tankers and other vessels lined up in a row behind us ready to enter the Turkmenbashi port.
Stuck at Sea
By early afternoon we were told that we would not be docking until the next day as they were still unloading another vessel. This wasn’t great news, but it wasn’t panic stations either. Our food and water supply was not really adequate for lengthy delays and more importantly our Turkmenistan VISA had started and we had less than seven days to enter and leave the country (our booked tour of Turkmenistan was for four days).
We spent the afternoon idling on deck, taking photos and generally mooching about in a state of subdued bliss. I imagine it’s what retirement feels like. We decided to use the opportunity to do some washing using the sinks in the toilets and each washed a handful of clothes to keep us going, hanging them out on deck to dry in the strong early evening sun. Our clothes were out less than half an hour before someone told us we would be docking in half an hour (Bonus!) and that we needed to pack our stuff. Slightly irksome, but rather a few wet clothes that we could dry off later than facing any more of a delay.
Arriving in Turkmenbashi
Another problem was that we had no way of contacting our tour company in Ashgabat or driver in Turkmenbashi. We just hoped that they would be contacting the port for updates, but this was no guarantee and we didn’t really want to be stranded in Turkmenistan after curfew (11pm) on our own if we couldn’t meet up with our driver. My friend decided to phone the company quickly just to update them, but this wasn’t cheap! As it turned out we were hanging around for another 4 or 5 hours until we actually left the vessel, but we were back on schedule, just.
After going through passport control, paying the $14 entry fee and having to empty our bags for inspection, we were eventually allowed into Turkmenistan after midnight.
Taking the Caspian Ferry Timeline – Sunday 16th April 2017:
10:00 – Called Shipping Company. Told to call back at 13:00.
13:00 – Drove to port. Advised there is a boat departing today. Time unknown.
14:00 – Returned to port with our bags and supplies for the journey.
16:50 –Shuttle-bus arrives to take us dockside.
17:00 – Customs Check.
17:20 – Border Processing.
17:45 – On boat.
22:20 – Set Sail.
Crossing the Caspian Timeline – Monday 17th April 2017:
11:00 – Boat slowed down to a crawl. No land in sight.
11:50 – Advised that the boat will be waiting at sea for another day as port full.
12:00 – Boat at anchor in sight of land.
18:00 – Received word that the boat would be docking in half an hour.
20:00 – Engines started and move into port.
21:00 – Docked.
22:30 – Received passports back from crew and left vessel.
22:40 – Driven in minibus to customs area.
22:50 – Arrive Customs
Crossing the Caspian Timeline – Tuesday 18th April 2017:
00:30 – Depart Customs
Name: Bagtyyar Length: 155.8m Breadth: 17.5m Draught: 3.8m
Gross Tonnage: 9791 Built: 2015 Flag: Turkmenistan (TM)
Facilities on Board the Caspian Sea Ferry Baggtyyar:
There is a shop and a bar but these were closed at the time of writing and unless more passengers start to use this service in the future (highly unlikely) I would work on the assumption that they will not be staffed anytime soon. Ensure you bring enough food and water for the crossing and waiting at sea to dock.
Toilets are clean, modern and western style, but no toilet paper or soap is provided. Bring these and wet-wipes to wash. There is a smoking area outside on deck.
For the latest traveler information, check the forum at Caravanistan.
Looking for things to discover in Turkmenistan? Have a read of the following:
Ashgabat – the strange and spotless marble capital of Turkmenistan.
The Door to Hell – Darvaza gas crater in the middle of the desert.
Konye Urgench – Ancient Silk Road capital.
Yerbent Desert Village – an oasis in the vast Karakum Desert.