- Jamie Shannon
Across the Caspian Sea. Give me my Uzbek visa!
Well I finally find myself aboard my rusting cargo ship crossing the Caspian Sea, and to be perfectly honest, it’s all gone worryingly smoothly – in context that is. I mean it certainly isn’t like crossing the channel on a Stena line ferry.
I had heard many horror stories with regards to this journey which have had me on edge for quite some time. For instance, as it’s not a regular passenger ship and it leaves only when its full, I have heard of some people having to wait up to and over a week in order to procure their own magical ticket. As it was, I secured mine on my second attempt and more importantly, it actually left from Baku.
There is a new port being built 70 km’s south and more and more ships are leaving from there instead of Baku and if you add to this the fact that tickets can only be bought on the day of departure no earlier than noon, then this creates a slight headache for someone on a bicycle.
Trying to secure passage across the Caspian Sea
Having secured my Uzbekistan visa on Friday, I went down to the port late that evening in order to find out about the situation, and to my surprise, found some foot passengers camped out at the ticket office. I asked the woman in the office/shipping container if there would be one leaving tomorrow but her answer made me both elated and anxious. There was one leaving the next day but she wasn’t sure if it was leaving from Baku or Alat, 70 km’s south. I would have to phone in the morning.
After phoning several times, the lady told me it was leaving from Alat. Jesus I thought. How on earth could I cycle to Alat in three hours? It was simply not possible and with a taxi costing twenty five euros, I opted to take my chances and try again the next day.
I crossed my fingers the next morning and made the call but was told to call back in an hour when more information was available. This I did but I again got no response. After several failed calls, I was finally answered but was strangely given a different number to try. How odd. I felt the odds at my procuring a ticket were stacking up against me at this point and so I got Furkan to ring them instead thinking communicating in Turkish/Azeri might help things along. Bingo. There was a ferry today too and it went from Baku. Wahoo. This was just wonderful news.
I was told to come to the port by two and so myself, Furkan and Ihan (the Azeri guy whose place we had been staying at) sped on down to the port ten km’s away. Of course, and with all my bags on the bikes, I got another flat. I mean how is it even possible. (I have since burned that particular inner tube).
We made it though, albeit a half hour late but there were tickets available. Imagine my surprise when, after I handed the woman $200, I received $120 back. I still have no idea why the ticket was $80 instead of $110 but I’ll not dwell on the matter as its always wonderful news to find out you will be paying less.
I really did kiss my ticket. I was that happy.
This was a special and momentous time for me. I always knew that with the right mind-set, I could accomplish a trip such as this but it would be the inevitable bureaucracy and red tape that might actually hinder my plans or even stop them altogether. Having now secured the three visa’s Ill need and now being armed with my golden ticket across the Caspian, the world had suddenly opened up. This ticket had unlocked new countries and exciting cultures to explore. It was game on.
I was told to return at 19:00 and so we sat in the park and drank some beers until the hour was nigh. When I returned, there was no sign of any activity and so I settled down outside the ticket office for the long wait.
Two other foot passengers had arrived in the meantime. They were from Georgia and were brothers, both in their fifties. I know this because one of them insisted on showing me both their passports. Why? I do not know. The older one was a nice guy but the younger one of the two would just not leave me alone. He had clearly drank far too much vodka for the evening and he kept asking me questions - none of which I could understand. He kept on grabbing my arm too and talking louder and louder when he realized that I couldn't understand a word he was saying to me. This continued for an hour until I finally got too stressed out with his constant pestering and went to sit inside the office next door. He seemed to understand then. Either that or the vodka was wearing off. The final straw was the second time he drank from my cup that had some coffee in. I let it slide the first time but the second time really annoyed me. I do not want to drink the remnants of his mouth.
I made my way to the ship at eleven and once aboard, settled into my cabin. It wasn't until 5 am that the ship started to move however.
I really have enjoyed the five days I spent in Baku. After the farcical nature of our entry to the city, it was certainly nice to wake up in a beautiful and clean apartment instead of a cramped and smelly hostel dorm and I can’t thank Forkan enough and Ihan especially for his generous hospitality and welcoming nature.
It was particularly nice to have someone around whom knows the city. With so many things to be sorted for both myself and Forkan, it was simply amazing to have somebody to show us where everything was like bicycle and ‘outdoor’ stores, where to eat and drink. It was also great to be able to meet many, many more locals than I would have seen if I had have found the hostel that I had originally booked.
Ihan, it turns out is a member of a club called the Green Bikers club and we basically went every day to their hangout on the promenade to drink cay, beer and eat delicious kebabs. (They really are everywhere in this part of the world). Sometimes, when cycling around this huge city, I’d look in my mirror to find six other people on mountain bikes behind me. It was almost like being back in Amsterdam except that of course it was 36 degrees, the bikes weren’t pieces of rusting metal one would find dangling over the side of a canal and everyone obeyed the traffic rules.
I think I should write a little of my experience at the Uzbek embassy as that was a little surreal too.
I could only go to the embassy on Monday, Wednesday or Friday, but having only arrived on Tuesday evening, I was simply too tired to go out at 9am and search for an embassy ten km’s away and so I opted to wait until Friday. I had already shelled out $75 for a letter of Invitation from an Uzbek tour company back in Georgia but with this, I could get the visa the same day instead of the usual eight to ten working days if you were applying without one. Thus I could wait a little longer.
On Friday morning, I set off at nine to the embassy in order to be sure of arriving early enough for when it opened at ten. Not being listed on google maps and with no accurate address, I was metaphorically weighed down with digital maps and information from other people on the internet about where to find it. For instance: Take bus 663 to…….. where you change to bus 447 after which you’ll pass a small roundabout. From there, you’ll see some people selling flowers outside a cemetery on your right. As soon as you see the blue Citimarket sign (above the Citimarket supermarket that isn’t there now) on your right, get off the bus. Walk back a few metres until you pass a fruit and veg shop and then take the street on your left. If it looks like a non-descript residential alley they you’ve got the right one. It was all a little baffling to say the least but I found the street nonetheless.
I arrived at about ten and knew I had the right place when I saw a small security booth outside the building with two policeman sitting inside. I was told I could put my bike right outside the embassy walls which I thought was strange, and after being asked why I was there, was invited into their booth where I sat down and drank some cay with them. I won’t even write which question they asked me first upon seeing my passport……
After one hour waiting, my patience was beginning to waver and so I asked when I would be let in. Soon they said soon. Drink some cay.
After another fifteen minutes had crawled by, I was finally allowed to enter the compound where I made my way upstairs to the office area where the bespeckled and polite Consul was seated behind a small window.
After giving him my documents I was in return given a small slip pf paper which I would have to take to the International bank of Azerbaijan right back in the centre, 5 km’s away. It was now eleven and he told me to come back before one at which point I would be issued my visa.
So off I went. I rode as fast as I could down to the city centre where I found the bank (the third one I went into) and paid the Azeri Manat equivalent of 75 USD for my visa. I now had one hour to get back to the embassy but since it was located right the way back up some extremely steep hills 5 km’s away I did think I might not even make it. As it was, I got there with twenty minutes to spare but I was drenched from head to foot in lovely sweat. This was no problem however as I ended up waiting a further forty minutes outside. The friendly policemen now seemed much more official, there was no more cay and their smiles had worryingly vanished. And so I waited.
When half an hour had passed I asked them when I would be let inside but they simply said, soon.
After another ten minutes had passed, and with my patience growing thinner by the minute, one of the guards came out and told me to come back at four. What? I was told to come back before one. I stand here for forty minutes and now you’re telling me to come back in two and a half hours. This is a joke. I didn’t say the last few words mind. Clearly this was an argument I wasn’t going to win.
Just as I was leaving, the consul walked passed with his assistant. He said he had told me to come back before 13:00 pm and I said I had done. 12:40 to be precise. He then said the guards hadn’t told him of my arrival until 13:20. I didn’t know who to believe. It was all very strange.
I returned at 15:45 to collect my visa and was promptly let in. The consul walked slowly back and forth around the office arranging various things. This is a man, I thought, that thinks everything through quite thoroughly. He diligently affixed the visa to my passport and even gave me a pamphlet describing the wonders of Uzbekistan and seemed genuinely pleased that I was visiting. I’m not sure he gets many visitors through these doors. Nice guy though.
Read a little more about visas here
I was extremely pleased to have my Uzbek visa in my passport. It had been a long process and an expensive one too. I only had one country in my way now; Tajikistan, and that had just recently switched to a relatively easy e -visa scheme. Sounds simple enough right? We’ll see. Things were ticking along just nicely however.
Time is ticking away too. It’s nearly 8pm as I write this and dinner is about to be served in the canteen. I’ve been quite impressed with the food thus far. The women in the kitchen sure do rustle up some hearty fare and I’ve been almost tempted to ask for seconds but I must remember I’m not at school anymore.
I must get out of this cabin too. There’s only one thing worse than sharing a cabin with five truckers and that’s sharing a cabin with five Russian truckers whom all seem to snore heavily. I’m really hoping my one night aboard here doesn’t turn into three nights if only for this reason.
I’m actually enjoying it. I can pretty much walk anywhere on the ship and have even made a visit to the bridge. No one seemed to mind.
After dinner, ill head out onto the deck to hopefully catch a glimpse of the Milky Way. I’m thinking as we’re in the middle of nowhere, the stars should be very bright indeed.