Caspian Heartbreak: A Dead End in Aktau


Nearing two weeks in limbo, I'm forced into the skies


Heartbreak on the Caspian

So I kept waiting.

The days grew slower in Aktau. Time itself began to stretch and expand, as if it too was being bent out of shape by the stifling heat of this desolate, fledgling port city.

I’d arrived in Aktau a frustrated man. My patience had worn thin during my recent spate of misfortune. The heat was profound and debilitating: simply, the 40 degree midday sun was plenty to dissuade me from exploring what is a relatively banal, unexciting middle-sized city on foot.

So all I could do is sit, wait, chat to Albert - Bukowski’s best English speaking barkeep - and nurse by boredom.

Arriving sour, I’d decided to lash out for a $20 a night hotel room in Hotel Aktau - one of those beautifully miserable 1980’s affairs that retains a certain facade of elegance despite its best and most glamorous days being well and truly a thing of the past. But I needed the privacy - the air conditioning - and a place to simply meander away endless hours in a way that I’d been unable to in stifling and overcrowded dorm rooms for the past six months.

As the days past, they became ritualised. I’d wake up at 9 or so. My first task would be to email Yuliya, the ferry ticket manager, and get the latest update, which almost every day was: “email me tomorrow”. I’d stew in misery for the thirty minutes after Yuliya’s heartbreaking missives were received. Then, at 9:57, I’d race downstairs unshowered to make the free breakfast, which solicited a small cost after 10am.

Breakfasts were basic but generously endowed: instant coffee, majority-sugar orange juice, fried eggs, sausage, tomatoes and cucumber and pineapple or orange slice and, to my daily delight, a small but delectable slice of cake.

My mid-mornings would be spent in Bukowski’s - the hotel bar and restaurant - escaping into literature and the internet. Then, I’d return upstairs to room 312. Perhaps I’d have a nap. I’d take a shower. Then I’d spent the next few hours wiling away the midday heat, before summoning enough energy and enthusiasm to explore this distant post-Soviet outpost.

Sliding into Cynicism

It would be like this for days. My time in Aktau, in the end, was clouded by a poor state of mind - one that remained for almost my entire time there. The problem with embracing a cynical view of things is that it simply closes the door to opportunities. Entering the town jaded, I set the parameters for a visit that wouldn’t be all that it could. I was growing frustrated because of the ferry’s absurd management instead of seeing the light in the situation and embracing my time in a town I’d never again set foot.

After a few days of allowing myself to be pathetically intoxicated by my own self pity, I picked myself up and checked out - reluctantly - of the Aktau.  It had been about 5 days and a hundred dollars - an eternity and a fortune in the context of this trip. It was time to leave.

Aktau, for all its innumerable faults, actually does cater for the few budget tourists who emerge here for no other reason than to cross the Caspian. There are a few super budget hostels which are all rather wretched, but house an eclectic set of vagabonds all on intrepid escapades in which home becomes a distant memory.

I found one with such an indistinct name that I can’t remember it, and relocated to Aktau’s far north in a vain attempt to turn my spirits around. The hostel was a shocker, but I immediately met Fergal, a 35 year old Irish public servant, who’d recently landed on a boat from Baku. He asked me to accompany him for a drink, and soon, the entire band of travellers in Aktau waiting for the boat emerged from the ether to join us.

It was a rag tag bunch, the ferry-set. There was Aitor, a Basque mixologist caught up in a destructive whirlwind romance with a married local; Jonas, a Holsteinian hitch-hiker, a Belgian cycling couple whose names escape me, and, of course, Fergal.

One night, we gathered at one of Aktau’s few sandy beaches. Under a crescent moon, we shared a loot of cheap Georgian wine and local cheese, staring West towards the Caucasus like stranded castaways. But apart from this rare highlight, my time in Aktau was dominated by frustration.

Yuliya’s emails were increasingly unhelpful. As I entered my second week in Aktau, I started realising my purely overland dream might be coming unstuck.

More days passed with no news on the ferry. On day 11, I contacted Jonas and we decided to make the pilgrimage to Kuric, a small port town from which ferries are known to also go. With the help of Jonas’ Russian speaking friend, we hitched down the coast.

Kuric port, we soon realised, is about an hours’ drive on dirt roads from Kuric itself. Kuric port opened to fanfare in late 2017 - a long time before any surrounding infrastructure was completed. The result is a half constructed port area that is almost impossible to find and access. We were forced to pay a local taxi driver a considerable sum to even take us on the damaging dirt roads to the port.

By mid afternoon on my 11th day in Aktau, we’d arrived at Kuric Port. In the dock sat two cargo boats capable of carrying passengers and bound for Baku. I grew excited. I had a wallet full of cash and was willing to pay any price to get on one of those boats. We found the port manager and pleaded our case. He took us upstairs to the tower overlooking the port, and radio’d the captains of the two ships.

Soon, he came back with unwelcome news. The ships would be carrying a load of gas, which rendered it illegal for passengers to also board. This, it seemed, had been the problem throughout my time in Aktau - though no one had said so. Despite vain and probably rather dismal attempts at offering ‘a little extra’, the port manager wouldn’t budge. Nor would any of the captains. To make things worse, no one knew when the next boat would be - they couldn’t promise whether it would be in a day or a week or a month. Simply, no one knew. My last ditch attempt to cross the Caspian had failed. I booked a $100, 35 minute flight from Aktau to Baku for that night, bit my tongue, and headed to the airport.


You Say Agstafa, I Say Astara

Arriving in Baku late that night, I headed for a solid sleep and the cheapest place I could find. Waking to a baking summer’s day, I set out to explore the Azeri capital on foot and secure a train ticket south towards Iran.

Baku struck me as a strange place, and my emotions were mixed. It felt like the end of my entire trip, in some ways. Baku is a staunchly European place - walking its streets feels no different than walking those of London or Paris. In fact, the entire city resembles the perfume section of a shopping mall: gilded, glittery, aromatic, vain. In other words, the counterpoint to my 6 month traveler’s aesthetic. People still stared at me in Baku - but because I was disheveled, not because I was foreign. The stares weren’t ones of interest, but ones of disdain directed at me by an Azeri and Arab elite who have made this city a fashionable playground - a playground ill-suited to me.

So I endeavoured to leave. I still had that Iranian visa in my passport and planned to head to that country's far north en route to Armenia. I was aiming for Astara, the Azerbaijan/Iran border town, and purchased a late night train ticket that would get me there overnight. Just 24 hours after I landed in Azerbaijan, I was on my way out.

At this point in a trip of this length, things start to fall apart. One such thing was my ability to navigate on my phone, which no longer has a working GPS. It meant I simply have no way of knowing where I am located in the middle of any train journey. I simply navigate with my compass. I woke on the train and disembarked at the station I was told to.

Immediately, something felt wrong. The train had felt slightly longer than I’d expected. More strikingly, there was no water nearby, despite the fact that Astara sat on the Caspian Coast. I walked into the terminal and made a dramatic, uncomfortable realisation: I’d woken 700 kilometers from my intended destination.

I was in the Western Azerbaijan town of Agstafa, not the southern town of Astara. Instead of being near the Iranian border, I was just 20 kilometers from Georgia, a country I hadn’t planned on entering for another 9 days or so. It was a fitting end to a few weeks of crippling bad luck. It was now simply too difficult for me to see Iran for more than a day or so, and I decided to ditch any such attempt, instead pinning my hopes on Georgia and Armenia.