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Caspian Sea

Author: Maria Zehentner / Translation: Elke Weninger
Beitrag vom: 30.06.2017

The caspian sea - the detour!

Azerbaijan - Kazakhstan May 2017


As we had been denied a Transit Visa for Turkmenistan without being given any reasons we had to look for an alternative route that didn't throw over our well laid plans too much. After considering ups and downs of each of these possible different routes we decided to take the Caspian Sea Ferry, a shipping line which offered sailings from Baku, the Azerbaijani capital to Aqtau in Kazakhstan. However, we had to take a detour of 2,000 kilometers to be able to take this ferry.
Though entry into Azerbaijan ran fairly smoothly, it still required a hell lot of bureaucratic effort. Just like at many other border we had passed before, this time we also had to make sure that all stamps and all entry papers had been organised at various offices and official places beforehand. We were brought close to despair due to a bar code which was still missing. Yet, luckily we manged to get this final missing piece in the end as well and entry was allowed and possible for us.
The first few kilometers in this new country, which had not been planned to be traveled through by us in the first place, quickly made our hearts beat faster and made them sing. There were many very friendly people greeting us enthusiastically with a lovely smile, showing their gold teeth when doing so. We could see many agricultural areas and lush green meadows and were really happy that there was no hated rubbish lying around in the streets like in many other countries before. The best, however, was that women didn't have to wear hijabs here. Local women were dressed like women are dressed when it is really hot: They wore T-shirts, skirts or trousers. Unluckily, the roads turned out to be in an awful state and one pot-hole came after the other.
We stopped at a supermarket which also provided an ATM and were incredibly relieved to be able to get money without any problems though being foreigners. We stormed into the market and were looking for beer, beer, beer in the first place, though not on withdrawal we were yearning to enjoy barley juice after six weeks having to do without it. As Lennox had fallen asleep while Leander and I were dealing with bureaucracy at the border, we dared to open one can of beer and drank it full of pleasure. We were struck by the feeling of freedom and not the 13% of alcohol caused that feeling, but the knowledge that we were allowed to behave like us again weighed more heavily. It felt really amazing and this is what counted. After driving various hours on bumpy roads we stopped at a restaurant next to the road, ate something and lay down after being jolted and bumped on the bad roads.

We went to Baku, the Azerbaijani capital the next morning. Baku is a rather young city and instantly ranked among the top ten on our personal list of favourite cities. City administration has successfully managed to combine old historical building with modern architecture in a harmonious way.
When looking for a ticket office to buy our tickets for the ferry we came across Johannes, who was on his way to South Korea on his motorbike to propose to his girlfriend. I liked this motivation of him to take on driving such a big distance.
Unluckily we couldn't find a ticket shop in Baku and in the harbour we were told to go to Alat, 80 kilometers from Baku for ferry tickets but also to board the ferry. This meant driving even further. By now the roads were in a better condition and so we could drive Akela very fast. However, driving fast wasn't possible for a long time as we suddenly heard a vague metallic bang and saw some item flying away in the rear window. We stopped the truck at once and went to pick this thing up from the road. Leander identified it as belonging to the generator, yet wasn't able to tell whether it was of major importance. Damn! Couldn't there finally be an end to the dilemma at some time?
We could remember seeing a MAN workshed when driving into the city which made us turn around and try our luck there even though it was a Sunday. We were not lucky as some security men consoled us to return on Monday in the morning. Without further ado we rented a room in one of the many hotel at the seashore and ignored our burdened budget. Our souls and our minds urgently needed a rest after this stressful time and so we treated ourselves to that hotel. Lennox had fun in the swimming pool and in the evening Leander and I indulged ourselves in a stunning buffet we wouldn't have been served anywhere else.
We let Johannes, the motorbiker, know that we had a break down wih Akela and would arrive late in Alat. He promised to keep us up to date regarding the ferry departure as there was no proper time table for it.
After a restful night we waited at the workshed punctually at 9:00 o'clock as we had done so often before at other worksheds. Thank God, the part which had gone missing was only the lid of the generator and of no major importance like we had hoped. Leander took the chance of having Akela checked through in a renowned workshed. The mechanics didn't find any major deficiency but re-adjusted the brakes.
There was something else, apart from Akela's frequent problems, which gave us headaches. A small and very cute stray dog conquered our hearts. It was dirty and filthy and followed Lennox every step he took as if he had know him for ages, looking at him and us with his big wide eyes. It was love at first sight. When watching the two of them frolicking around was heart-warming. Leander and I were pondering what to do with the lovely creature. Should we just pack him up and take him along? When the employers at the workshed put him – we had called him Baku – into the driving cabin as if he belonged there and when we saw how he snuggled up to Lennox's legs we had to swallow hard but were reasonable enough to NOT take Baku along. This lovely four-legged friend would have made our journey even more complicated. That Baku didn't have any documents seemed the smallest of these complications. We had booked ship cruises and planned to fly home for a month in September. What should we do with Baku during that time? This dog was cheeky and had never enjoyed any training and was not used to traveling in a lorry. Taking Baku along would have caused additional troubles and cost more of our precious time which we didn't have anyway. Lennox, who didn't enjoy traveling as much as we had hoped and wished for would have loved to take Baku along and so we had to fight about this matter with him.
Lennox severely missed his friends from home and no matter how many children we met on our journey, they still couldn't make up for his friends and play mates from Austria but were only some change to his daily routine. Iran is a huge country and we have driven thousands of kilometers. When not sitting behind the steering wheel and in the driving cabin we were usually at worksheds. The heat, the sand and the dust did not only cause him problems but we were also troubled by these things in the long run. Moreover, as Lennox was continually asked to pose for pictures by complete strangers he didn't want to get out of the truck anymore which resulted in him being underoccupied and so he got bored and was discontent even more very often. This resulted in him being aggressive, and at times already before breakfast started calling us stupid parents, claiming that he didn't like us anymore and that the trip around the world was completely boring. We completely understood his mood about the situation as the last weeks were all but suitable for children. Instead of having fun and playing games the time was spent at worksheds and by having a stressful time. At times he brought us close to despair as whatever we wanted to do, he regarded it as the wrong option and our suggestion was doomed to fail.
Sometimes we didn't recognise our own son any more, on other days everything seemed perfectly alright. There were ups and downs among the three of us – an emotional chaos one could say.
On bad days, when things didn't run smoothly and we asked him whether he would like to break up our round the world trip, he answered quickly like a shot with a yes. He did so, even though he had seen back in Austria with his own eyes how we had sold one piece of furniture after the other and how it got carried out of our flat. He was still convinced that our flat in Anthering, Austria, was waiting for us and was looking the same way as it had done when we set off on our journey. When trying to explain to him that nothing would be or look the same as he remembered when returning to Austria he started crying and consequently made us cry as well. It broke our hearts when seeing our son so unhappy, yet we couldn't, didn't want to and weren't allowed to give up. We had to look for something to cheer him up again, to make him smile again. We dearly hoped that the upcoming countries would do this job as there were lower temperatures as well as mountains and lakes, in short, a kind of environment we all loved to spend time in. If now the truck also worked the way we wanted it to do then everything should turn out positive. At least this is what we hoped for.
After we had left the workshed where the brakes had been fixed, and had to go back there as they were stuck, we could finally set off and aimed towards Alat.

Johannes got back to us and told us that we hadn't missed a ferry so far as there simply hadn't been one. When arriving at the port we found ourselves among many other people from abroad hoping to get on a boat. There were other Austrians, Spaniards, Italians, Dutch and Swiss who all tried their luck. They were driving converted cars, motorbikes, bicycles or walked on foot – any means of transport was used and in no time we made up a funny crowd of travellers. We managed to get hold of tickets for Akela and a cabin for the three of us which both cost €800. Contrary to quite horrendous blogs we had found online we were mighty lucky with the cruise. At 6:00 o'clock the paperwork for embarkement started and three hours later we set sail. Poseidon meant well and we had a really calm crossing. The ship itself and the cabins were, well, how shall I put it, purposive. Simple, dirty, run down – but purposive – and this is all we required. We reached the Kazakh harbour of Aqtau within 24 hours.

Cheerful and in a good mood our highly mixed group left the boat and we were happy and relieved that leaving the country of Azerbaijan turned out to be easy-peasy and was completed in no time. When entering Kazakhstan none of us had been that lucky. Paper work and waiting for the officials to finish their lunch break nearly lasted six hours. The Kazakhs took inspection very seriously. Up to that very border we had been able to stop the customs officials from taking a closer look in our driving cabin by telling them we didn't have a ladder to enter it. We could do so as the ladder was hidden well in the frame of the lorry and only spotted when looking very carefully. At times the officials had also been too lazy to climb up and get into it. Yet this was not true for the Kazakhs. Standing on kitchen towels they crawled from one side of Akela to her other side as shoes were an absolute no-go in Akela.
Even customs officers had to obey to our strict law. Of course they did not find anything of interest. I can still remember the little, black and white drug dog. It was a cocker-spaniel and judging from its corpulence it looked as if trained to look for sweets rather than drugs. After we had paid our harbour fees and paid a sum of € 70 to get a car insurance it was finally time for us to say “Welcome to Kazakhstan”. There is a great variety in the landscape of Kazakhstan, with the major part of its territory consisting of plains, low mountains and hills. As far as we could see there were frolicking or grazing horses in the green steppe. The term “Kazach” means rider of the steppe and so it is not surprising that according to a saying a true Kazakh is born in the saddle.

As we had got on really well with the Austrian couple Martin and Valerie and the two Spaniards Carlos and Sergio on the ferry we decided to travel together for the next kilometers.
We stocked up on food in the small port city Aqtau, which means “white mountain”, and followed Martin's plan to drive 80 kilometers north to get to the Caspian coastline. Martin had found a really beautiful spot there which he regarded as perfect to go swimming, to have a rest and to relax.
Although Kazakh streets are either brand new or being currently under construction, we had to drive on the worst streets ever driving on. And I am no longer speaking about pot-holes but speaking of fords and ruts and holes as deep as craters. Sometimes we could driver faster on the sand track in the steppe which was next to the bad road. Saying that we weren't going any faster than 10km/h is by no means an exaggeration and this resulted in requiring many hours to complete the final kilometers. We dearly hoped that Martin was right about this spot he had made us go to as there was a lot of trouble and challenges we and Akela had to put up with. When arriving at this very spot we couldn't reproach Martin at all – this section of the beach was absolutely stunning. The sandy part, which was surrounded by rocks, was amazing and the sea was crystal clear. As usual on beautiful locations, however, we couldn't take a step without treading on rubbish or shards of glass. I have really had enough of that by now.

Our planet is unique and wonderful yet mankind has no respect for it and shows no ambition to look after it and care for it. Instead, we stand back and watch how the world gets covered in rubbish. In many of the countries we have been traveling through we have had a lack of many basic things and consequently, environmental protection and education has had no importance either and this has been visible fairly frequently. Since it was rather windy when we arrived we postponed swimming to the next morning. While Lennox and Martin were trying to look for snakes the women on board prepared dinner and the rest of the gang collected firewood. We rounded the evening off by having fun at the campfire and afterwards taking our shaken bones to bed.
The next morning wasn't tempting to go swimming either and so once more we decided as a group against fooling around in the water but rather to set off towards the Uzbek border again. When Leander was doing his usual round to check on Akela before starting to drive off he made a very bad and unpleasant discovery: the alternator had nearly come off its entire anchoring. It was pretty clear to us that driving the final 20 km had caused these problems. They had simply been too much for our truck. The lads tried fixing the alternator as well as possible using wire and cable straps. Should we drive and lose the alternator our truck would be stuck for good. By no means would it have been possible to carry on driving with Akela in the bad state he was in and so we came to the conclusion that we should drive back to Aqtau and look for a mechanic there. Leander was driving the 20 km of horrible road back very carefully, feeling not good at all and being very worried. Luckily the temporary fixing kept.

Back on the main road we separated for the time being. The other four went on to do the planned daily route while Leander and I, once again, were looking for a mechanic in Aqtau. Communication is essential when traveling to foreign countries. As soon as we had got to know the basics of one national language of a country we left it again and had to start from scratch once we had crossed the border. Kazakhstan has got two official languages, Kazakh and Russian. We weren't able to speak any of these two just in mere basics. Da (yes) and njet (no) and spasibo (thank you) – this was all we were able to say in Russian.
The word “mechanic”, however, seems to be familiar to every person in the world. After only a short time we had found our way to a big Toyota Center. The boss spoke English and guided us with Akela to the back yard, where two mechanics instantly started work on the truck. Though I assumed that they didn't have a lot of experience with trucks I still believed it wouldn't be too much of a challenge for them to be able to fix the alternator to our truck and repair him as our oldie Akela was free of modern technology. After only two hours of work the guys had finished their job and we were ready to drive off. They charged us only € 50 including necessary material. Martina, the secretary there, was really happy to be able to speak English, gave us some chocolate, T-shirts and caps before waving us in a sad mood when we were leaving. It went better than we had assumed and so we stepped on it.

Our friends, the vanguard, kept informing us via text message about their current location. Their target coordinates were roughly 170 km away from us here in Aqtau and it was already late in the afternoon. Provided we wanted to catch up with them we would have to drive at night – time, something which we wanted to avoid by all means as it was really dangerous in these countries. Horses, camels, cattle, goats – all of these animals were trodding on the streets. Not to forget the Kazakhs themselves, who were driving their ancient trucks and Ladas in a nerve-racking manner and not providing a secure feeling by doing so at all.
We reached their pitch at ten o'clock at night. They had stopped and put up tents just off the road in a tiny village called Shtepe, in the middle of nowhere. After telling them very briefly about Akela's well being and what it had been like in the workshed we went to bed without even having any dinner as we were too tired for that as well.
When waking up the next morning Valerie and Martin had already left to check out a “TIR Park”. Being very naive, I believed this to be a zoo when passing the road sign the day before when driving through Shtepe. Quite on the contrary, this “TIR Park” was a service station mainly aimed at long-distance lorry drivers. It offered showers, a small restaurant, and the possibility to rest. We enjoyed the provided washing machines there and didn't mind paying a small amount of money for this service.

This is also when our “Bushcamp” split into pieces. Valerie and Martin, who were in Kazakhstan to do research stayed for a longer time while our two Spaniards and the three of us set off to go to the Uzbek border. We set off early in the morning to cover the final kilometers on Kazakh roads after having had a quiet day of driving and spending a comfortable night next to the road. We set off in the positive belief to reach the border in the early afternoon yet the final 80 kilometers drove us nuts. It took us six hours to get there and you can all guess in what state the road was judging from the time it took us. We arrived at the checkpoint completely whacked and had stiff limbs.
When going closer we saw that there was already a long queue waiting to pass the border. Carlos and Sergio tended to camp right before the border and to wait until the next day. Leander, on the other side, wanted to pass as quickly as possible. Consequently, he parked Akela and went up to the officials to inquire about waiting times. He returned within a very short time, telling us that we as tourists could pass without having to wait and that we could pass right away. After only few persuasive efforts the Spaniards agreed to accompany us after all and we headed towards Uzbekistan.

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