You can catch a flight straight over the Caspian Sea from Baku to Aktau and it only takes an hour.
If you flew you certainly wouldn’t have to worry about how long you would be stuck in Baku, waiting for a confirmed sailing of the infamous cargo/train ship that sporadically sails to Aktau, Kazakhstan. Sometimes it goes every 3 days; sometimes it can be up to two weeks. A similar range of times also applies for the actual crossing time. That concern, on top of the usual worries of embassy visits ( where Murphy’s Law always applies) and looming visa deadlines for central Asia, overshadowed my ride towards Baku, which otherwise was rather lovely.
Getting to this city from Tblisi took me across several climatic zones, becoming hotter and more arid the closer I got to the Caspian as the lush green vineyards of Georgia gave way to golden fields of wheat and, eventually, barren, shadeless semi-desert that offered no respite from the 37 degree heat except the odd concrete pipe in a construction site. On the way I was able to sleep in an old Caravanserai, where the old traders of the Silk Road – the route I have been following since Istanbul – sheltered for the night, protected from bandits from its thick, stone walls. These same walls now mainly protect the modern traveller from the heat by providing natural air conditioning in the dark rooms. In spite of the fact that, as a hotel, it’s terrible, it remains one of the most atmospheric places I have ever slept in. All through this ride the Caucuses stood abruptly to the north: the mountains simply burst upwards from the flat valley floor immediately without any preceding foothills: this landscape, let alone the fact that the rather awkward/impassable Russian border lies on the other side, reminded me that there was no other option but to continue east towards Baku.
If you flew, you wouldn’t be told that you have 30 minutes to cycle across town to the ticket office to secure your place only to then be old that the actual port the ship is sailing from that day is another 75km away.
If you flew, you wouldn’t be stuck on the boat for an extra 24 hours due to weather conditions, eating the same soup and meat/carb combo served begrudgingly by some fat Russian Babushka who initially attempted to charge you for the privilege. Or be harassed by the git working the dock, who tried to charge many passengers for using the ramp to get onto the ship.
But if you flew, you’d barely remember it. As every part-masochistic-part-curious traveller who sets themself the arbitrary overland rule knows, shoving your bicycle on a plane is not only cheating but is also completely absent of ‘experience’ that provides the silver lining to any inconvenient or far from ideal part of a journey. In spite of all the boredom, the cons, and the waiting, catching the boat across the Caspian offered an interesting experience to see a working ship in action, surly crew and all. There’s always some other interesting passengers to pass the time with. On my boat they predominantly consisted of motorcyclists who will be in Mongolia before I even reach the other side of Uzbekistan, which really reveals how different the scale of time and achievable distance is between those who have an engine and those who go without. There was also a Turkish-German who was importing a Kebab machine so a friend of his could set up a shop in Kazakhstan.
So after being woken up at 1am and shoved off the boat, here I am in Aktau. I’m glad I took the boat and was able to see the Caspian Sea properly but I’m also glad that I will not have to rely any other mode of transport apart from my bike between here and the end of the Eurasian continent. For now I am spending a day or two here to collect supplies for the next leg of the journey: miles and miles of empty desert. It will be quite an introduction to Central Asia.