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Goodbye Central Asia

We had originally planned to drive around the north end of the Caspian Sea and down through Russia into Georgia, but various sources had told us the road was pretty bad and we were better off taking the ferry. Only a friendly Russian told us (probably accurately) that the drive down through Dagestan and the Russian Caucasus was more scenic. But we opted for the ferry, which connects Kazakhstan with Azerbaijan and takes around 30 hours. That is, when it arrives. It is mainly for rail and road freight, not passengers, so runs to no particular schedule and leaves when full. This can mean a wait of anything up to 5 days, and arriving at the port we discovered we’d missed the last one by less than 12 hours. Given our now tight time schedule for getting home, this caused more than a little anxiety and we re-considered the 2000km drive round.

But we got lucky. After some bizarrely heated exchanges with a lady in the ticket office (she seemed cross with us as soon as we walked in the door) we established there was another ferry leaving at 7am the next morning. We bought our tickets and left, somewhat perplexed, and never understanding what the issue was.

As we drove away we spotted a couple of exhausted looking cyclists sat on the kerb. Guy and Kamilla from Illinois and cycling from south east Asia to Europe, also had tickets for the ferry. But at 3 in the afternoon, and 40 degrees, they were contemplating how to get to the port, 90km away. The first taxi they called had turned around and driven off on seeing them… Enter Giles, once again. By stacking their bikes on top of the spare tyre and cramming all the bags inside, they were able to get a taxi whilst we drove gingerly down the highway with all their worldly possessions.

After two months in Central Asia we expected the ferry port processes to be convoluted and they didn’t let us down. With nothing happening we made more apricot jam, drank some beers and went to bed. Half an hour later a man in a hard-hat woke us and we went, with the three Turkish truckers (the only other vehicle passengers) to collect a clutch of stamped forms. With nothing else apparently happening, we went to be once more. At 1am the same man returned and ushered us through customs to another empty car park, making a cursory check of the vehicle in the moonlight, before disappearing once more, and we were finally allowed some peace, until a new hard hatted attendant came and muttered something about the bank. Taken in tow by our new and equally bemused Turkish friends I toddled over to pay the port fees which were, perhaps for the first time in central Asian history, half what we were expecting. Another slow morning unfolded, eventually ending in the sniffer dog looking delighted with our present of a tennis ball and us trundling on to the ferry. We finally left at 3.30pm.

The Caspian is the world’s largest inland body of water covering 371,000 square kilometres. It contains 3.5 times more water than all of America’s Great Lakes combined, but is not a freshwater lake. The northern portion is closer to freshwater, with most of the inflow being here, whilst the salinity increases markedly further south. There is no outflow other than evaporation. It’s levels change rapidly, largely in response to the discharge of the Volga, in Russia, and its waters are dotted with oil refineries, some surrounded by floating towns of supporting accommodation and other infrastructure. But for us it was a pleasant little voyage and a nice break from driving, with some interesting fellow passengers. Other than those already mentioned another cyclist had arrived at 6am, having set off from Aktau at 2am. David Hayles is 77 years old and cycling around the world on an electric bike. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind being described as an eccentric old bugger, who had a laryngectomy around 10 years ago and is definitely not letting it hold him back.

After an enjoyable 24 hours on board we docked just south of Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, and played another game of challenge Anika, running around paying fees and obtaining permits before heading west. We were now on borrowed time, having promised to be back in the U.K. on July 3rd, giving us 10 days, and 5000km…

Our travels through Central Asia have been an unforgettable experience. We will miss the warm and friendly people, the wide open steppe, the majestic mountains and the brutal plains. And we will remember the appalling toilets, the questionable water, the lamentable driving and the astonished looks at seeing Cas at the wheel. It has been joyful and stressful, hopefully not in quite equal measures, and our trusty Giles has chugged along relentlessly and made possible some unusual and unlikely exploration. We hope we’ll have the chance to return to some of these places in the future, with more time, but for now it’s a lightning-tour of Asia Minor and Europe…

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