Waiting For The Ghost Ferry In Aktau

The ferry from Kazakhstan to Azerbaijan has no schedule. It shows up and leaves when it feels like it. Romantic, huh? Not if our visas are about to run out.

After two days driving across the desert from Uzbekistan to Kazakhstan, on possibly the worst road in the world, we arrived, dusty and beat, in the port town of Aktau. Located on the coast of the Caspian Sea, this is where we would wait for the ferry to Azerbaijan, a ghost ferry that appears when it appears and doesn’t leave again until it has sufficient cargo on board. We had read that some people had waited up to two weeks for a ferry. With only nine days left on Phil’s Kazakhstan visa we prayed the wait would not be this long.

Much better suited to desert roads!

Much better suited to desert roads!

Time bomb

Possible disaster…a ferry arrived in Aktau on the same day we did and was scheduled to leave the next evening. But that’s perfect, you might think. Unfortunately we didn’t yet have a visa for Azerbaijan. We had tried to get it in Tashkent, Uzbekistan but the lazy gentleman at the Azerbaijan consulate told us it was impossible to get the $20 transit visa we needed, we would have to pay for the $118 30-day visa, but we would still only be allowed to stay 5 days with our vehicle. If he had felt like doing his job that day we could have had our visas and would have been straight on the ferry, not waiting in Aktau.

We had to wait up to five working days for the visas to be processed in Aktau, so seven days including the weekend. It was now a very nervous wait to see if a ferry would come after we had our Azerbaijan visas but before our Kazakh visas expired. A very small window of opportunity!

Sunset over the Caspian Sea

Sunset over the Caspian Sea

Smelly hotel rooms, wet clothes and Chihuahuas

We spent our first night in Aktau at the budget Hotel Keramet. Our first floor room had a toilet and a shower, neither of which worked, but managed to fill the whole place with an awful stench. The smell was so bad we actually felt sick. We’ve never vacated a place so quickly!

Once out of the horrible room we went straight to apply for our visas and register the car. We then set up in a café with free WiFi to find a new place to live for the week. Chuck found a website advertising apartments for rent and with the help of a friendly English speaking waitress we set about calling numerous apartment owners. We found a vacant place owned by a loud but friendly Russian woman who carried a ridiculous Chihuahua under one arm like a purse. She gave us the keys and we settled in to a lovely apartment overlooking the Caspian Sea.

The Chihuahua purse

The Chihuahua purse

That night Chuck put almost his entire wardrobe in the washing machine and we set it to what we imagined was a normal cycle. The next morning the cycle seemed to have finished but the door wouldn’t unlock. We tried turning it off, unplugging it, turning it back on, but it was no good, the door wouldn’t open. All the instructions were in Russian so we tried a different setting and hit the start button again. 48 hours later Chuck’s clothes were still washing. We’d tried every different setting but the machine just kept going and the door wouldn’t open. We called the Russian woman with the Chihuahua purse and she came around to sort it out. Besides an obvious electronic error the handle on the door was also broken. She told us someone would come around in the morning to fix it, until then Chuck had to continue wearing the one set of clothes he hadn’t washed.

Only two days after we’d applied for our visas, mine was ready. This was good news. If a ferry turned up we could at least get me and the car out of Kazakhstan and, if worse came to worse, the boys could wait for their visas and then fly to Baku to meet me. The idea of taking a ferry full of Turkish truck drivers on my own wasn’t particularly appealing, so we continued to hope everything would turn out in our favour!

Car repair adventures

The engine mount being replaced

The engine mount being replaced

Betty had taken a severe beating on the road across the desert. Both rear shock absorbers had been destroyed so we found a local mechanic and hoped he could get the parts. Phil was taken to the auto bazaar, a huge market selling only car parts. They visited about thirty different stores but no one carried rear shock absorbers for a Toyota Hilux Surf. After being charged a stupid amount of money for simply removing the broken shock absorbers, we set off in search of the local Toyota dealer. They were much more helpful and professional. They discovered that the engine mount had also taken too many brutal hits and was snapped on one side, but they didn’t have the parts we needed either. They were able to order the engine mount replacement from their store in Almaty which would take 2 to 5 days to arrive. We ordered it and prayed it would arrive before the ferry. It arrived 2 days later. We took it to a cheaper mechanic where a friendly Russian mechanic fixed it for free! What a nice guy. We felt we owed him something so we bought him and his mates a beer.

The shock absorbers were no where to be found in Kazakhstan so Phil and I decided to fashion our own. One of our tyres had been destroyed on the desert road so we cut it up and using gaffa tape and cables ties we fitted our home made shock absorbers to the car. They weren’t perfect but we figured they would ease the stress on the suspension until we reached Georgia where we would have time to find the right parts. Surprisingly our bushman mechanics held out remarkably well!

Bushman mechanic shock absorber

Bushman mechanic shock absorber


After three nights in our lovely seaside apartment with the possessed washing machine we decided to leave to go to a cheaper place. That morning the washing machine mechanic came to get Chuck’s clothes out. The Chihuahua purse lady told us it was our fault the washing machine was broken and wanted us to pay the $60 it cost to have it fixed. As we hadn’t done anything but start the washing machine we felt this was highly unfair, so we quietly packed all our things and left before she could demand we pay the money. This wasn’t the best move it seemed. When we to the new apartment the landlady never turned up and wouldn’t answer our calls. Neither would the man who had helped us organise the apartment. We went back to our local café and asked the English speaking waitress to call the land lady for us. She said we’d broken the other woman’s washing machine so now she didn’t want to deal with foreigners.  We’d been blacklisted by the apartment renting community of Aktau!

With no other option we moved into Hotel Arai, the second cheapest hotel in Aktau. The room was nice, it didn’t smell of sewage and the owners were extremely friendly so we were happy enough to continue the waiting game there.

We’d arrived in Aktau on a Monday night. By Thursday I had my visa, by the following Tuesday the boys had their visas and a ferry was due to arrive the same day at 9pm. Phil’s Kazakh visa was due to expire on the Thursday so thankfully things were working out perfectly. We had the car cleared by customs at the port and all the paperwork done by 3pm that day. The English speaking officer told us to be at the port at 9pm when the ferry arrived. He said it would take maybe an hour to unload and another two to load. Not so bad we thought. We arrived back at the port at 9pm to find the waiting room completely empty. We found a staff member and asked if the ferry had arrived.

“1am” they said.

Not the most comfortable bed in the world!

Not the most comfortable bed in the world!

We set ourselves up in the waiting room and passed the time by playing cards and gesture catagories. 1am came around and the English speaking officer said the ferry had arrived but it would be another six hours until we could board! We accepted we were there for the night and tried to sleep on the metal chairs in the waiting room. It was a long uncomfortable night. We sat in that room and waited, and waited, and waited. Turkish truck drivers would come and go occasionally, also waiting to board the ferry. At around midday other passengers started to arrive in the waiting room. How had they known not to turn up at 9pm the night before? At 2pm we finally went through passport control and were told to take our car over to the ferry. We found the right ferry, but when we got there the crew told us to park to the side while they loaded all the trucks. Our car would be the last to go on. So we sat and did some more waiting. By 6pm we finally had the car loaded onto the ferry and by 9pm, 24 hours after we’d arrived at the port, and with 24 hours left on Phil’s visa, the ferry finally set sail for Azerbaijan!

Betty waiting to be loaded  onto the ferry

Betty waiting to be loaded onto the ferry

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