There’s not a lot to do on a boat that’s crossing the Caspian sea. One thing I can recommend is finding the nearest Georgian man – in this case Thomas (Jefferson) to my Charlie (Chaplin) – and get yourself invited to his train for a drink. 10am arrived and with it came tchacha, vino and cognac. by 11am Ryan and I were both a bit pissed so I tottered back to bed for a nap and then watched a few films, and within a half hour Ryan joined me – not in the same bed of course.
Considering i’ve heard nightmares about these boats, I was pleasantly surprised. We had a cabin to ourselves, which we didn’t have to pay any extra for, no one tried to scam us (not even a little!) and the food was all free and served bang on time. Paying 1 Manat for clean sheets was no problem, even if the duvet cover was very odd (a big hole cut out of the middle that you stuffed the blanket through).
We scouted out the boat over the course of the day, but our cargo ship was pretty small and there wasn’t an awful lot to do. Invariably, this meant another visit to Thomas’s train, with his friend Joseph – Joseph Stalin of course – meant more cognac and a couple episodes of game of thrones in Russian. by 10 I was pooped from doing nothing all day apart from drinking and watching the sea pass, so I crashed, knowing we wouldn’t be up until at least 8 – I’d heard the customs office didn’t open until 9. How wrong i was to be.
Our door was thrust open at 2am, with the first mate shouting at us in Russian. He made it clear that we had docked, and that we had to get off his bloody boat. We tried to explain that it was 2am, and surely it would wait until the morning, but he was pretty adamant. Obviously we gave in and started gathering our things. I went down to get my bags loaded onto my bike, and when Ryan joined me he had a soldier in tow. He turned out be a friendly chap, Khali, and he quite clearly wanted us to get moving. He made this clear by looking over our bikes with his torch and gently saying davai davai to us every minute or two. He escorted us to passport control and customs, before waving goodbye to us on the other side.
Well now it was 3am, pitch-black and we had no idea where we were so we cycled through the dark for a bit. After a half hour of this, we realised we weren’t achieving much so threw up the tent and got some shuteye. Four hours later, we realised we had camped between the main road leading out of Aktau (absolutely chock-full of cars) and a very busy train line which had been hammering us with horns all night. We broke camp quickly and headed into town, cycling about for a while before finding a fancy hotel where there was a beautiful Kazakh girl who spoke perfect English and was very willing to help us out! She gave us the password for the wifi then told me she’d look up all the information for the trains we needed and told us to sit down in the comfy seats, even though we were quite bedraggled and a little smelly. Central Asian hospitality starting to kick in I think.
Within ten minutes, she came over to tell me the first train (Aktau to Beyneu) would leave in at 11am, taking 10 hours, then the second train would leave at 1am the next morning and take 24. Bit of a nightmare, but best we had. All we had to do was buy tickets and get to Mangyshlak. Ticket buying was a little tricky, but I eventually found a Kazakh lassie in a bank who spoke english who was again very willing to help us. She told me that the people in the bank thought I was dressing strangely in an awkward attempt to blend in, when in fact I was just living out of a small waterproof bag. Very soon we had our tickets, then it was only a quick dash across town, including going across some rather bumpy dirt roads and we were soon ready to load up for the train.
The train was pretty boring but we met a really lovely kid, Adilet, which changed the kilter of the journey. He talked to us for a while in broken English which he was learning out of a magical book that could speak in Russian, Kazakh and English. I am yet to decipher how it works. Once we were a few hours outside of Beyneu he invited us to his house for the time between our connecting trains. When we arrived we walked to his house which wasn’t far, then his family made us a feast and we gorged on wifi. His middle-aged sister told him to tell me that she thought I was beautiful. I’m rapidly becoming a fan of these very lovely Central Asian women.