For the last few days in Baku we had been chasing information about any boats heading to Aktau in Kazakhstan. The waterway, notorious amongst travellers for its complete and utter lack of conformity and organisation.
For a glimpse of what I’m talking about, I ring the port office for the umpteenth time.
“Come to the port office and buy your ticket at 3pm”
“Brilliant, when does the boat leave?””I cannot say”
“When does the boat come in?”
“Im not sure”
“When should we get to the port?” – some 75km away from the port ticket office
“Before 8pm maybe?”
But you cannot blame the port officials, they just work for the body that organises and oversees vessels entering and leaving their boundries.
We hear rumours that the boat should dock at 5pm and takes around two hours to unload. So me and Amund load our bikes and bid farewell to Carol and Phil.
The motorway to the port was a downhill wonder. With ease we reached 35km an hour. Gliding in the afternoon heat. My body like sponge, absorbed every ounce of moisture in the air, until it was literally dripping from my arms, head, chest, and back. Every breathe was hot and scrapped at the back of my throat. Water did little to cool, already warm from the sun, it was a cruel reminder of things to come.
7pm we arrive at the port, instinctively beeline for a group surrounded by bicycles. The moment you think or wish you were alone, is the exact moment that you are the furthest from it- in the literal sense. In this instance we meet an additional 5 cyclists, 4 motorcyclists and two hitchhikers.
No boat has docked. It’s 1am before the boat begins to motion towards the port, after spending the afternoon anchored outside the harbour.
4am, I roll up the camping mattress, after a two hour doze. In a zombie like motion, fumble over to passport control, supported by my bike.
It’s 6am before my head hits a questionable pillow, on the bottom bunk of a bed. The vessels is primarily used for cargo, but additionally takes foot passengers and stupid cyclists heading for the Kazak steppe.
Last rendered in the 80’s, the corridors are lined with plastic wood. The floor constantly hot as the heat from the engines rises from everywhere. Ventilation hasn’t yet been invented in the era of this vessel.
As luck would have it, my cabin was in the middle of the boat which meant no window, air or breeze. Four folding beds a sink and door – mostly kept open to encourage any ounce of air that may roll down the way.
8am and there’s a comotion. Large kazak bellys bounce past the door attached to short shirtless men, carrying large bags under there eyes, exhaling the familiar spirit smell. These are the lorry drivers that make up 95% of the vessel, and of which 99% are hammered.
Huddled around small tables, the dinning room is another hotbox, where it’s every man for himself. Two boiled eggs, bread butter and jam. The familiar breakfast of every hostel, since Europe.
The next few hours are filled by a curious wander around the ship, adjusting to the heat and abundance of free time.
A brief stint in a shadow on the top deck, as the sun quickly eats through the shade, inch by inch shuffling back along the cool rusty floor, until it’s lunch time.
A chicken wing on top of pasta, bowl of soup and a bottle of fanta. Half decent grub. Meal time is a mission to spend as little time as possible in the sauna, and so portion sizes are irrelevent. No one, no one waits for seconds. The temperature rises again, napkin holders empty, once again a river flows down me from everywhere.
I ventured out onto the front deck to find a good spot in the shade. The heat of the day was only getting started. I had walked around the outside of the ship several times already, and found a few nice spots. Now below the bridge, I sat down in the shade and began reading about Levison Woods rather topical journey, walking through Asia.
It was 4:30 and I wanted nothing more than to lay my head down and catch a few winks. But the sticky air inside my cabin was less than inviting.
After only a few moments, my skin became clammy and my back stuck to the material as each breathe drew the warm heat into my lungs. I was up and moving again. Looking to find something to occupy myself with, atleast until I could fight the urge to sleep again.
My eyelids got the better of me, suddenly I was gone for five minutes. Woken by the beads of sweat forming on my forehead and arms. I rose and a large droplet ran down the middle of my chest. Arms now clearly displaying a pool of liquid along my forearm.
Stumbling out of the furance, dizzy with the heat, I wondered down the hall pausing as the light breeze stopped me still.
The enchanting German motorcyclist couple, sat freely with another, two a piece on the sofa and one on the top bunk. I was immediately drawn to the open window and the cool air that poured into the small room. I was ushered, immediately into the room and entered without a mumour, sliding onto the sofa and into the breeze.
The day was measured by the length of time between each meal. After lunch, Amund rather aptly remarked “only eight hours until dinner”. We literally ate , slept and repeated.
It’s 3pm and the boat begins to dock in Aktau. A parade of baby faced soldiers line up in the foyer. A senior officer displays how they should invasively search the “Tourists bags”.
Two hours later, through passport control and I am in Kazakhstan. It’s nothing like I expected.