Your trip across the Caspian may provide some of the scariest and most fulfilling moments of your entire journey.
— A veteran journalist we met in Tbilisi, Georgia who had seen it all in the former Soviet Union.
Although we are posting this from Pingyao, China, we dial back a few clicks to the beginning of our journey in Central Asia in an attempt to adequately address the images in our mind and the notes in our journals.
Oddly shaped like a damaged index finger or a distressed plume of smoke, the Caspian Sea pumps out oil and caviar in the midst of the surrounding desert and extreme landscape. For most of us, its name conjures images of a faraway, mysterious or mythical land. Our encounter with it was rather practical, however. In order to get from Baku, Azerbaijan to Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan, we needed to cross it.
Since there were no schedules, only the Caspian ferry gods knew when and if it might run. Due to a long run of rough weather that had recently plagued the region, the ferry hadn’t left for several days. Although these delays seemed to place our departure date in jeopardy, our frustration was offset by relief to hear that some semblance of safety standards were at work.
A Cast of Characters
The ticket woman holding court at the port didn’t know when or what time the boat would leave, but she sold us a ticket anyway and told us to return the next morning.
When we returned, we spent several hours watching train cars loaded with goods roll into the ferry’s cargo belly. After taking a lesson from the Azerbaijani border guard on Azerbaijani- Armenian relations, we walked the rickety metal gangplank and were securely inside.
We were met at the entrance to the ferry by a woman we came to call “comandante.” To imagine what she looked like, consider a genetic mash-up of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow and Michelin men. Add a wicked skin-piercing Russian accent and a dose of lingering Soviet sadness and you’d have the picture we were too afraid to take.
She quickly seized our passports and showed us to our cabin. In a predictably sad move to earn some extra money, she tried talking us into upgrading our cabin for a few extra dollars, repeating “Room number eight bad. Very bad.” over and over again. We feigned happiness with the windowless, stale inner cabin we had been assigned and declined her offer.
The Evening Show
As the sun began to descend, the sky slowly transformed into a color gradient, featuring rich shades of red, orange and violet. Our craft moved almost imperceptibly to us, leaving only the subtlest ripples in its wake as evidence. The waters of the Caspian were so placid, it was almost frightening. We were surrounded by the kind of silence that provides space – a thought space – into which it's possible to unnecessarily insert images of sinking ships.
Silhouettes of oil rigs punctuated the horizon which formed our circular visual boundary. Although oil rigs don't epitomize fantasy, just about anything takes on a chimerical appearance in this spectacular light. Dwarfed by nature, we continued scanning, rotating our view so as not to miss a single moment. A 360 degree turn rendered the sensation that we were floating on the surface of a giant water glass. These are the moments for which peripheral vision was made.
This was Mother Nature’s show. All we could do was watch in awe. Each time we thought the sunset was at its climax, she would outdo herself once again with darker shades on the horizon and more brilliant iridescence on the water's surface, thereby treating us to possibly the longest sunset we had ever witnessed.
When the sky was finally filled with darkness, we descended, chilled by the evening air and amazed by what we had just witnessed.
If you can handle the uncertainty of ferry travel and have some time flexibility, we highly recommend taking the slow boat across the Caspian (to Turkmenistan as we did, or to Aktau, Kazakhstan). The sunset alone is worth the trip and offers a dazzling display that you are unlikely to encounter anywhere else. Moreover, the ferry offers an ideal slow-paced transition into unusual Turkmenistan.
Practical Details: Boat from Baku to Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan
- Getting into Turkmenistan, the boat: To get to the Baku ferry building, ask for Parom, the Russian word for ferry. The overnight ferry leaves Baku on most days (i.e., there is no schedule) in the early afternoon. On the day of your desired departure, arrive around 8:30-9:00 AM to purchase a seat ticket for an arbitrary amount of money between $45-$60. Once you are on board, you can negotiate a cabin (preferably with a window) for another $5-$10. If there is no boat that day, keep trying until a boat eventually leaves. It’s best to bring some food with you on board since you never know if the “chef” will have extra food for passengers. Arrival in Turkmenbashi should be around 9 AM the next day. We’ve met people who were docked outside of Turkmenbashi for an additional 12-24 hours, however. So, you just never know.
- Getting into Turkmenistan, the bureaucracy: Turkmenistan is one of the most difficult countries in the world for which to get a visa. The process is long and convoluted. If you want to stay in the country for more than five days (which is the typical maximum for a transit visa), then you’ll need to book an authorized tour. Your guide is technically supposed to be with you at all times, except in Ashgabat.
- Visa support for Turkmenistan: We used and can recommend Stantours for our visa support (Letter of Invitation – LOI) and tour. The LOI took about three weeks while the actual visa only took a few days to issue from the Turkmen Embassy. Once we had possession of the LOI, we applied for our Turkmen visa at the Turkmen Embassy in Yerevan, Armenia. We highly recommend this location. The process was painless and delivery quick.
In order to control the cost of your tour, let your tour operator know that you are interested in joining an existing tour or adding travelers to your group. This not only helps financially, but you will likely meet some interesting people.
Turkmenistan-interested travelers can be an interesting breed. The characters in our tour group definitely added a positive and humorous dimension to our Turkmen experience. We also gained some new friends.