Waiting for the Kazakhstan ferry proved a depressingly Beckettian state of affairs. My companion in this endeavour was Juergen, a German backpacker who’d missed the previous ferry by twenty minutes, having waited a week for it beforehand and was thus understandably losing his sense of humour slightly. After a week, the only news that we had received was from a rather wild-eyed Filippino tourist who’d just taken the ferry from Turkmenistan and whose English wasn’t great, but the phrase (accompanied by a lot of emphatic gesticulating) “it’s hell” came across pretty clearly; we had just begun to reluctantly investigate flying, when I got a phone call from the tourist office. “The ferry is leaving in an hour. I think maybe you should go now!”. Right.
Frantically dashing to the port, we were cheerfully informed that yes, a ferry was going to Kazakhstan, and we could even buy tickets, but of course it wasn’t leaving at once, and in fact, no-one knew when it was going to leave, so we’d better sit down and wait until something happened. This frequently takes a while in Azerbaijan, and so it proved. Six hours later, we were all aboard the Akademik Zafira Aliyeva, a surprisingly (to me) shiny and modern boat (I only saw one cockroach in the cabin) carrying goods wagons and Turkish trucks and a mere eleven passengers (the tendency of the shipping companies in previous years to overload the ferries with passengers and the accompanying tendency of said ferries to sink had apparently prompted authorities to be pretty strict on this point) across the Caspian to Kazakhstan.
J and I had stocked up on bread and tea, expecting to ride out the eighteen-hour crossing in limited comfort and space, but this is apparently the wrong attitude to approach boat travel in this part of the world. One of our fellow passengers was a Georgian, which of course meant that within seconds a whole cold chicken, a bag of khachapuri , a (literal) gallon of wine and two bottles of chacha (the Georgian national drink, a home-brewed firewater of a potency so lethal that it should probably be banned under international treaty, and that any self-respecting Georgian male keeps at least a flask of on his person at all times in case of a toasting emergency) made their appearance. The evening predictably degenerated into round after round of heartfelt and tearful toasts to the friendship between all nations (except Armenia – it is generally not a good idea to get Azerbaijanis started on this particular topic) and the brotherhood of all men (except Armenians), one of the most enthusiastic participants in which turned out to be our chief navigator, which seemed to me to be a bit of an error given that we hadn’t even left Baku at this point. Indeed, everyone having boarded around 7.30 pm, the ferry only began to move at midnight, around about the time at which England and Germany were being declared honorary members of the Caucasus.
I woke up the next afternoon, rather wishing that I hadn’t (chacha frequently has this effect), but in time to get the full effect of the sun setting across the Caspian. This also meant that we were several hours behind schedule (evidently the navigator was feeling the effects of the previous night as much as the rest of us) but punctuality is an overrated trait, at least when there’s plenty of tea to be had. We drew into Aktau at midnight, only six hours behind schedule to the tinny strains of the Kazakh national anthem played through the port loudspeaker system. Signs that I had entered Central Asia proper abounded: the increasingly ludicrous size of the peaked caps worn by various members of officialdom (the customs officers’ looked as though they had some sombrero in their ancestry), the return of tricky geopolitical debate at immigration (“You are Irish?” “No, English.” “But your passport says Ireland.” “No, it says ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’. Great Britain. Velikobritannia?” “That is Ireland!” “No.” and so on, ad infinitum) and, as we picnicked at 2.30 am in the customs house, the presence of large women ladelling generous spoonfuls of homemade jam into our cups of tea. It’s good to be back in ‘stan central again.