Saturday, October 27, 2012

Aktau Baku ferry - lesson of patience and bribing

Aktau is not an attractive city. It has oil, gas and a lot of expats working for oil companies. And it has the Aktau-Baku ferry. But there's hardly anything to do there and the accommodation options are pretty poor too. There are many top end hotels, but unfortunately they were way out of our budget, so that we were left with the low cost options... I will spare you the details, let's just say it was nearly as bad as the road we just drove. We were praying we wouldn't have to stay in the city for too long.

We went directly to the harbor to check for the ferry. Only one person spoke some English and the information he gave us was not a happy one. The ferry has just left yesterday and no one knows when the next one would be ready to leave, but we should come back tomorrow. We already heard about tourists, who were asked to come back tomorrow for two weeks, so we were not in the best moods. We even considered making a small trip around Aktau and skipping the appointment, but we finally decided against it and went to the harbor as we were told to. For the first half an hour everybody simply ignored us. They were speaking to each other, pointing in our direction from time to time, but no one seemed to want to talk to us. And when they finally did, all we heard was “OK, tomorrow morning 6 o'clock you go”. We were shocked! We were not expecting that, so we had to go back to the hotel to grab the money and all the papers do deal with the customs. It wasn't an easy job, I can tell you that. The harbor workers were not much help either. We got some ferry declarations on which we had to collect 5 or 6 stamps and some signatures, but everyone seemed to know only his part of the job, so finding out where to get the next stamp was quite a challenge (especially that the documents were mostly in Russian). And some of the workers after finishing their part told us everything was OK now and we could go home, though we were still missing some signatures. All in all it was one big chaos and we really had to breathe deeply and try hard not to explode. But the thought of leaving Aktau and our hotel was helping us get through it all. And we finally knew the cost as well. The price was nearly 100 USD per person, and for the car 80 USD per meter of length. We had to pay around 50 USD of harbor fee as well. Fortunately it was still in our budget.

We woke up early the next day and came to the harbor at 6, just to find out we can not enter before 9 o'clock anyway. So we parked our cars and went simply back to sleep. At 9 we turned up at the gate again just to be told that we should have come earlier and that we have to park quickly and run back to the passport control immediately. We did it just to discovered that the passport office would not open for the next 20 minutes anyway, so that we started wondering why the hell they told us to come at 6 o'clock in the morning in the first place. We had even more time to wonder about it after we went through, as it took a few hours before we could actually drive onto the ferry. In the end we left the harbor at 8 o'clock in the evening, slowly swimming in the direction of Baku.

The ferry was nothing like the ones we've seen so far. It was made to transport railway wagons and heavy goods and definitely not tourists. Our cars were the only ones they took. There where only three other passengers on board, all coming from the region, traveling for business reasons. At the beginning they wanted us to sleep on the chairs in the waiting room, but since the tickets were not exactly cheap, we argued till we got a room. And it was quite a nice one, comfortable enough to spend a nice day in it. If it wasn't for all the unwanted guests... We heard Azerbaijan had some serious problems with corruption and we experienced it shortly after getting on board. A few of the workers offered to testify that our cars were shorter than they actually are, if we paid them 50 USD. Already at the beginning of our journey we decided not to pay any bribes if we can only avoid it, even if it means wasting some of our precious traveling time or our money. We have sticked to this rule so far and were not willing to break it now. And to be honest the deal wasn't good anyway. They wanted 50 USD to help us save 10 or 15, so we weren't even tempted. We told them we didn't approve of bribing and want to pay the correct price. That was more than they could understand. One after another they were knocking on our door telling us that we didn't get it and that we would actually save money, so it is not a bad thing to pay them. We tried to stay polite, repeating that we understood everything perfectly, but were not willing to do it anyway. Finally we lost our tempers and told them to get out and leave us alone, as they're not getting any money and it's final. They left smashing the doors, so that we were a bit scared they may try to make our day on the ferry as hard as possible, but it was not the case. And surprisingly, from that moment the rest of the crew and the other passengers started showing us a lot more sympathy.

The ride took around 20 hours and we spend most of it reading and talking. We also got quite a nice food, which was included in the price. I have never been on a ferry for such a long time, so I was excited like a kid before Christmas, enjoying every minute of it. But we were still happy when we finally reached Baku, especially that we were able to see it by sunset. The view was splendid. It still took some time before we could drive out, since the wagons had to leave first, but it went quicker than we thought. We were supposed to pay for the cars when we leave the boat and to our surprise the guy who sold the tickets was not relying on any papers he got from the crew, but came to check the length of our cars himself. And he actually insisted they are both 5 meters long, so that we had to measure them to prove him wrong. He was not in his best mood either, as it was already late and I guess he wanted to be done with us and go home. And here we stand insisting upon measuring the cars and getting a receipt before we pay him any money at all. He wasn't happy about it. He got even more angry when the border officials told him we have to deal with customs before we can go to his office. He started yelling and threatening that he would go home and leave us at the border and we wouldn't be able to leave until morning, but we told him we didn't care and could sleep in the car if necessary. That made him really furious, but David showed him we can yell too if we need to and suddenly the whole border personnel was there trying to calm us all down, telling the guy to leave us alone and wait for his turn. And so he did. We went to his office as soon as we could, got the bill for the money we paid and he even actually apologized for everything, telling us he simply lost his temper as it was late and he was working the hole day already and still had to go to another harbor. Finally we were free to go!

Baku felt like being back in Europe. They had street lights, roads without holes and although it was late there was actually some life on the streets. There was even quite a lot of it. And there was a McDonald’s too! We haven't seen one for months, so we couldn't miss such a chance! The city itself was quite impressive. We got the feeling they have way to much money there and are running out of ideas on how to spend it. Splendid buildings and decorations are one thing, but marble sidewalks and subways seem a bit too much. Especially compared to the standards of living in the country. We didn't have much time to explore it, but one thing is sure, the people are extra friendly. Though they try to be as European as they can, they know how to show real Asian friendliness and hospitality too. We didn't really understood the political situation though. It is supposed to be a democratic republic, but when I mentioned it to the locals they started laughing so badly they could hardly breathe and told me I should try living there if I really believed that. And I have to say I found it suspicious that they had photos and quotations of the president and his father all over the country, in every office, most shops and even on big billboards around the highways, which is not a typical thing for a democratic country. It looked pretty scary to me, but I guess you need to spend some more time there to be able to judge it. But I would leave it to others as we were anxious to get to our next stop, Iran, the expected highlight of our trip, where the political system was certainly even more complex then what we have seen so far. 

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful pics from Baku at sunset on:)
    Gosh, for this money you could probably buy the whole ferry. Being tough in face of a bribe in semi Asian semi European country isn't easy. I'd probably pay:) I didn't realise the journey would take so long! The longest I was on a ferry was 3h from Calais to Dover when it was rather windy.
    When I think Baku I have one of the books we had to read at school on my mind 'Przedwiosnie'. There was no democracy there then either.
    I am so happy for you! Making your travelling dreams fulfilled. Buy something beautiful for home and take your target closer and closer on Europe. The fuel prices did not drop. Surprise surprise.

    After reading this post I know one thing for sure - I don't want to hear David screaming:)
    ps. I made a mistake - women can drive in Iran. Really sory (It's Saudi Arabia that they can't). Apparently they even have special cars design for them that basically drive themselves. For women and poor feeble little creatures. Stay safe and always together. Ola (The constant reader)