The Caspian Sea is a strange and unique phenomenon. The largest inland body of water, and the largest lake in the world, thus weirdly not a sea at all. I think they might have called it a sea because that’s what it feels like. While parts of the Mediterranean Sea, Red Sea and Black Sea can be crossed in just a couple of hours, the Caspian can takes days to cross – it’s just that big.
The Caspian Sea is also bordered by some very interesting countries. Russia to the North, Iran to the South, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to the East and Azerbaijan to the West. Of course, once upon a time it was just two countries, Iran and the Soviet Union.
Although many intrepid travellers have chosen this particular route in the past, the idea of crossing the Caspian rather than flying over it or going around it hasn’t yet entered the mainstream. And for good reason too!
Here are the many options (that we know of) to cross it via ferry.
Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan
The most popular and common ferry across the Caspian is between Turkmenbashy in Turkmenistan and Alat in Azerbaijan. The ferry used to go to Baku but unfortunately now leaves and arrives in Alat which is about 70km South of Baku. There isn’t much in Alat, a single hotel, a café and some money changers.
The ferry itself leaves roughly ever 1-2 days each way, but if conditions are rough, loading/unloading has taken longer than expected, or they aren’t full yet, it can end up being a week between crossings. There are no set schedules, and the ferry ticket costs roughly USD $80 for a person, $10 for a bicycle, $110 for a motorbike and $300 for a car. This will see you sharing a 4 person cabin. For an extra $80 you can get a “private cabin” in which others may still end up being placed anyway.
It's so well known that the ferry can take days or even a week to leave that on Azerbaijan’s side there is a specific spot to pitch a tent and wait as well as showers and even wifi.
You can apparently buy tickets visa the website, however if and when it does work you still need to head to the port to secure your spot anyway.
The website to book is: https://public.acsc.az/online/payment/index/en/
To find out more information by phone you can call +99412 493 51 85 or +99455 999 90 77. They may answer.
On the Turkmenistan side you’ll be greeted by possibly the fanciest port you’ve ever seen, all built in glistening white marble with a huge port control tower built in the shape of an anchor. This is very in keeping with architectural design in Turkmenistan!
The same as in Azerbaijan, you’ll just need to wait until the ferry is full and it’s time to leave. This can be quite frustrating as if you’re on a transit visa (only 5 days) you may end up overstaying your visa and being arrested. Likewise, if you’re on a tourist visa you’ll be paying the big bucks each day while waiting for the ferry to leave.
The crossing in both directions take around 17 hours. Remember to take plenty of food and water, although sometimes these are available on board.
Customs in Turkmenistan can take anywhere from 1-2 hours to 4 or 5 hours, or even longer, depending on how busy the ship is, while Alat in Azerbaijan is the easiest usually taking 2-3 hours.
The main hurdle with using this ferry route is the tricky Turkmenistan visa situation.
Kazakhstan to Azerbaijan
The ferry in Kazakhstan leaves from the port town of Kuryk. The ferry used to arrive and leave from Aktau but does not anymore and any information saying this is outdated. Kuryk is about 70km South of Aktau and can be reached by road only. A taxi will cost around 9000 Tenge (around $20 at this moment in time). The port of Kuryk is not to be confused by the town which is 30km away
The crossing between Alat and Kuryk takes about 27 hours and the ferry leaves roughly every 3-5 days.
Kuryk port in Kazakhstan has a hotel, café and wifi. The hotel is 3500 Tenge ($7.50) a night.
Alat port in Azerbaijan has a camping spot, an unmarked hotel nearby, a café and also wifi
Strangely enough the ticket pricing is the same as the Turkmenbashy – Alat Ferry at $80 per person, $10 per bicycle, $110 for a motorbike and $300 for a car. Children travel at half price.
Once you arrive in Kazakhstan, you’ll need to stay put next to your bags while Kazakh border guards board the boat. You’ll then be taken via minibus to passport control before being taken back to the boat. From the time the boat lands it will take around 5 hours to disembark. It then takes another 5-10 hours to get your car into Kazakhstan. Kuryk is by far the worst port of those on the Caspian for customs and immigration formalities.
What about Russia and Iran?
There are reportedly ferries to Turkmenistan from the small town of Olya in the Volga Delta. These have been little more than brave individuals managing to get themselves on to cargo ships doing the trip. There are plans to increase the number of ferries crossing the Caspian, however years of planning have led to little so far. In 2020 Iran announced they would start running ferries to Kazakhstan and Russia, but these seem to have been put on the backburner due to COVID-19.
There was also an announcement in 2018 that a ferry between Aktau (before the ferries were moved to Kuryk) and Makhachkala in Dagestan, Russia, however that has yet to come to fruition.
If you have any questions about any of this, please feel free to get in touch and we can help you out!