Leaving Azerbaijan, a £200 fine each & how we delayed the ferry by 4 hours!
Leaving Azerbaijan, a £200 fine each & how we delayed the ferry by 4 hours!August
After 12 days in Baku Stew and I were more than ready to leave the city behind, jump on our bikes and get the trip moving again.
We set out on a mostly flat 40 mile (60km) ride. We had a hospital appointment first thing to finally sort Stew’s health problems, so we didn’t leave until 12:00. This means we cycled though the hottest part of the day. At every opportunity we stopped and soaked our clothes in water – we stopped at a tap, 2 sprinklers on the side the road and at the markets to throw cold water over our hot bodies. It makes such a difference.
We finally arrived at Baku Sea Port at 5pm and waited for 2 days until our ferry departed on Sunday 25th at 16:00.
The ferry from Azerbaijan to Kazakstan doesn’t have a schedule – it’s nothing like the ferries we’re familiar with in Europe that run every hour or so at set times. This ship sails when it’s full and doesn’t leave a moment before.
In addition to this, the ferry will anchor in the middle of the Caspian if the weather is bad, so scheduling simply isn’t possible. Ships have sank in bad weather, so you can’t blame them for being too careful.
The process from arriving at the Sea Port to setting sail is easy enough, a little frustrating but if nothing else it’s an experience! For this part of the trip you need be prepared with things to do, plenty of time on your visa and a few snacks to keep you going!
It’s just a waiting game!
Unlike some lucky travellers who arrive and board the ferry within a day we had a bit of a wait.
We arrived at the ferry port on Friday 23rd August (my birthday!) and enquired about the ferry. We were told it would arrive at 6pm the following day (24th) and we would board later in the evening. Excellent, this sounded promising. We booked a hotel nearby, which came recommended by a fellow cyclist. The next morning we left the hotel and went back to the Sea Port to hang out in the cafe. Here we had access to air conditioning, a seat and a meal – we both ate a decent meal for just £2.50 each!
We met a couple of English travellers, which was very exciting! Due to the uncertainties of our ferry and their ferry we said hi and bye to them more times than I can count! We didn’t catch their names, but their daughter-in-law was from Ludlow and attended Ludlow school. Small world.
This couple were much older than us – I won’t attempt a guess at their age, but we were inspired! As we watched them jump onto their motorcycle for their ferry for the final time we said that we hoped we would always be as adventurous as them as we grew older. I regret not grabbing a photograph with them.
We shared stories and found their romantic-story was a little similar to ours. They met at a party and got talking. The gentleman told her that he was soon taking 3 months off work to travel to India. She was enthusiastic about the idea, so he invited her along! She accepted, but what she didn’t know about the travels was that he rented a motorcycle. He gave her the choice of travel and suggested the typical options – bus, hiking etc, but when she questioned what he normally does and found out it was by motorcycle she was up for the adventure! Her first major motorcycle trip was 3 months in India. Fantastic!
Things change at the ferry port
It’s common knowledge that the ferry arrival time can change, every now and again to see if there were updates. We found our ferry was now arriving at 2am, and at the earliest we would board was at 4am on the 25th. We found some Wi-Fi at the port so Stew could do something to kill the time – I had my book.
The Wi-Fi only worked near one of the cabins, so we chilled outside in 36c in the shade of a cabin. Stew downloaded some games for entertainment and checked the ferry arrival time online. According to the website the ferry wouldn’t arrive until 7am. Hesitant to trust the website over the information given at the port we decided we’d sleep at the port. It seemed pointless to pay for a hotel to sleep for just 5 hours.
While hanging around in the Wi-Fi zone we met a French hitchhiking couple who were taking the same ferry as us. They were relaxing in the waiting room and told us it was air-conditioned and plenty big enough to lay out a camping mattress and get a decent nights sleep. They suggested we might also be able to bring our bikes in.
As they advised, the waiting room was so large that we wheeled our bikes into the room expecting we could leave them there for the night. We were greeted with a firm “no” from a woman who manned the waiting room. I tried to argue this, as I found the greeting quite rude. This rule made no sense to us as our bikes were smaller than other peoples luggage and the room was plenty big enough. Of all the rules to enforce in this part of the world, this is the one they chose! We begrudgingly unloaded our bikes and locked them to the seating area outside. We prepared our bed for the night and lay down for a night of sleeping in a public waiting room. Luckily the toilets were relatively clean and lights went out so we did catch a few hours sleep.
It can be a challenge to hold your nerve and wait without pestering staff for updates. There’s no schedule so you rely on the words of the guards/staff at the port and different people give different answers. There’s no real consistency, which doesn’t help you to feel settled.
The staff at the port are very diligent and if they tell you they’ll come find you when the boat arrives, they will. We saw a member of staff find our English motorcyclist friends with news and a guard came into the waiting room when another ferry was ready.
I set my alarm at 3am to check in with the staff, but when it went off I couldn’t be bothered to get up and went back to sleep. I trusted someone would come and get us. I stirred again at 4, and spoke to our friend Adrian (one half of the French hitch hiking couple); he had spoken to the ferry staff who advised we would now be able to board as 12:00. Okay. A few more hours of sleep it is!
Boarding the ferry
Finally our time came, at 11:15 a guard walked in and called for “Professor Gul” our ferry was leaving! We shot up, loaded our bikes and made our way to checkpoint 1. In the waiting room we had been relaxing with Adrian and Myles (the French couple) and a solo female cyclist, Aurelie. Coincidently they were all from Dijon.
Like us, Aurelie had spent many days in Baku as she was knocked off her bicycle by a car just a few kilometres after crossing the border! We shared stories about our stay in Baku and how we were ready to ride again.
“Did you remember to register?” Aurelie asked
Stew and I exchanged glances, we had forgotten about that! If you stay in Azerbaijan you have to register if you are staying longer than 15 days. I’d read about it before we crossed the border, but since we would be in Azerbaijan for no longer than 8 days I carelessly put it to the back of my mind and forgot about it; it was never going to be a problem for us. If I had remembered I might’ve researched it to find out exactly what we needed to do.
In our naivety Stew and I thought that if you stayed in a hotel and handed over your passport you are automatically registered. For this reason we took no further action. We counted the hotels from memory and we had stayed in plenty throughout our stay to be registered. Well, I can now tell you this is not the case.
Aurelie prompted us to contact a hotel before we boarded to make sure they registered us, but in our arrogance we shrugged it off and expected it would be fine. Well it wasn’t.
Stew handed over his passport at border control.
“Problem” said the guard, “Immigration problem.” He held onto Stew’s passport, made some calls in Azerbaijani and started to process mine.
At this point I was slightly nervous about the registration, but I was still expecting there was an error on their part and Stew’s visa would be fine.
“Happy birthday!” he said enthusiastically as he looked at my passport.
I thought all was okay then, he seemed happy at least and he knew I was with Stew.
“Immigration problem” he said to me as he checked my visa “wait here’.
We hadn’t registered had we. Fuck. I rationalised with myself that we’ve made an honest mistake, we vow to keep it cool with authorities in foreign countries – fear, worry and weakness won’t get you anywhere.
“I stayed in hotels, and gave them my passports.” I explained “they registered me.”
“You paid 10manat?” the guard asked
I hadn’t. Okay so at this point I realised there’s more to registration than simply handing your passport to hotel staff – they don’t simply register to you. I explained I paid the hotel their rate as requested. I genuinely thought you were automatically registered.
There was one guard dressed fully in camouflage chewing on sunflower seeds and throwing the shells onto the ground.
We followed the guard from one booth to another trying to understand the problem. We got no explanation but he was making different calls and speaking in Azerbaijani to his peers. Our new French friends left us to board the ferry and quite rightfully too.
We were told to wait, so wait we did.
The man in camouflage would take our passports for extended periods of time then come back and make a call. Eventually he gave our passports back and explained in pretty good english that we had an immigration problem, but he was going to try and help us. This was not his normal job, this was a job for immigration, but he liked English people and he wanted to help us. We felt some relief that we had our passports back and the overall manner was friendly.
Will we be able to continue with our trip?
He couldn’t guarantee a time it would get sorted, or that the ferry would still be here, but he told us to wait in the cafe. He had done what he could and now we needed to wait for immigration. We waited nervously for one hour drinking water and discussing our options. We had no idea what was happening, what the solution was or what we needed to do. We felt stupid, a little worried and frustrated with the entire experience in Azerbaijan. Such a lovely country, we should’ve been in and out in 8 days, but here we were 22 days later dealing with immigration problems. Idiots.
It felt like the entire trip was resting on the next steps because if we didn’t get on that ferry we may not have had the time on our visa to wait for the next one plus we may not have been granted a visa extension OR worst than this maybe we were on the edge of being deported for not following protocol.
Every half an hour or so I would pop out and check for the ferry. It was still there, typically me I was hopeful to the very last minute that it would all be okay. Stew couldn’t bear to know if the ferry was still there or not.
After one and a half hours of waiting I went back to the border, I couldn’t wait any longer I had to see what was happening.
“Come here” said the guard in camouflage “where is your friend? Come here, I have solved your problem my friend from immigration will be here.”
I was overjoyed “what can we do for you? Can we buy you dinner? I’ll leave some money at the cafe for you”
He shook his head, “if you want to do something – you can bring 2 coca colas”
I jumped back on my bike, called Stew over, bought 2 coca colas and we headed back to the crossing. “I think it’s going to be okay” I told Stew.
“You think!?” he questioned
By the time Stew and I got to the border there was another man waiting for us, he took our passports and visas and jumped into a car. This was not a comfortable time for us! We suspect he was driving to Baku as we didn’t see him for 2 hours!
It was unnerving not having our passports, but overall we felt okay. We were nervous about the boat leaving as we doubted it would wait for us. The guards were very friendly and their mannerisms could perhaps be summed up by saying they basically gave us an eye roll and said “you silly, silly English people”. They looked after us very well.
The man in camouflage made us feel at ease. He did everything he could to help. After a long wait his friend returned, the outcome was that we had to agree to pay a 400 manat fine (200GBP) each IF we come back to Azerbaijan. They handed us some paperwork which we need to bring if/when we come back.
The guard finally stamped us out of Azerbaijan and he laughed, as I, elated, shouted out a relived and happy “yay!”
“Now go quick!” The guards said “the ferry called earlier and I told them not to leave without you. They’re all waiting for you!”
This entire process had taken about 4 hours and the boat, the captain and all those on board were 4 hours delayed because of us! Oh the shame! We asked how to say “I’m sorry” in Azerbaijani because we were going to need it!
Sure enough we cycled to the boat -they signalled for us to get a move on. They looked at our paperwork, realised we hadn’t gone through customs so they sent us back. We unloaded our bikes and ran our bags through the scanner. It was so hot. We were soaked through with sweat. We loaded the bikes – cycled to the ship again, locked the bikes up, unloaded everything and carried 40kgs of luggage through the narrow boat up the aged staircase. So hot, so hungry, so sweaty, so heavy.
The poor staff were amazing and they were in such a hurry because of us. One guy took our ticket and passports and told us to go to the next room and tell the woman we paid $80 each. We did, but she didn’t understand and couldn’t take us to the cabin without a ticket. We sat down and waited for a ticket to be returned.The sweat poured.
Finally our ticket showed up and a young gentleman on the ferry took some of our luggage and took us to our room.
“You have the best cabin on the boat” he said.
I figured this was a joke, but we walked in to a room with a window and a private bathroom. Well compared to the other rooms we really did have the best room.
We felt undeserving of it after everything we’d done.
As we opened the door to our room there was a cheer behind us as our new French friends were celebrating our boarding and they introduced us to a German traveller. We told them all about our experience and they could not believe we got away without paying a fine straight away. They were aware, like us that it was a £200 fine on demand.
Ah, all is well that ends well. Just reliving this through the blogs makes me breathe a sigh of relief.
We have enjoyed our time on the boat – and now we can put Azerbaijan behind us and see what lies ahead in Kazakstan. How truly truly blessed we are in these moments to meet such good people.