View Baku Embassies and the Ferry in a larger map
This post is for all the fellow travelers who wish to use Baku as a launching point for a crossing of Central Asia. The process of getting your visas and actually making your way across the Caspian is notoriously difficult and confusing, so here’s the skinny on our experiences. We hope it saves you some headache.
See above for a map of the embassies and ferry port.
The most important thing to know here is that YOU DO NOT NEED AN LOI if you a US or EU citizen. There is some ambiguity about this on Caravanistan and other sites, but we showed up with nothing but our passports. The only other thing you need is the name and address of a hotel in Dushanbe to put on the form, and TWO passport photos on a white background. You should also come with a photocopy of your passport, which you will leave with the consul. (Though if you don’t have one, they will make one for you.) You don’t need to leave your passport.
The consul is a nice guy who generally wants to help you out. He’ll have you fill out two identical forms, and tell you to come back four days later. He will NOT give you a GBAO permit (required to go on the Pamir Highway) —he doesn’t have the stamp, but apparently that can be done pretty easily in Dushanbe.
The consulate is open from 3:00-5:00 pm Tuesday through Friday. I suggest you get there early. Only one group of applicants is allowed in at a time, so if somebody beats you to the embassy you could spend up to an hour sitting on the curb like we did.
Cost is USD 35 for 30 days and USD 50 for 45 days, payable in cash. They do not offer multiple entry visas.
If you have an LOI, this process can happen in a day. LOIs, however, must be purchased from a tour company and cleared by the Uzbek government, which can take up to ten days, so apply well before you get to Baku. A popular company to use is StanTours.
On the other hand, we didn’t have an LOI and we still got our visas. It took one week- we applied on Monday and got the visas the following Monday. All we needed was a passport photo on a white background, the name and address of a hotel, and a copy of our passports. He had us fill out a form by hand. You do not need to leave your passport.
If you’re a bike tourist, the consul may ask you if you plan to camp at all. Be sure to tell him no, that you’ll only be staying in registered hotels, as mandated by Uzbek law. Once you’re over the border, you’ll have to play the hotel registration game, and probably bribe hotels to set your forms in order, but my impression is that you can sleep on whichever patch of ground you fancy.
Operating hours are 10 am to 12 pm, 3 pm to 5pm, MWF. The Visa cost us 160 dollars for 30 days, single entry. When you apply, the consul will give you a slip with an account number and the address of a bank. You must go the bank and pay for the visa in cash. They give you a receipt, which you present with your passport when it’s time to pick up your visa. I’ve marked the bank on the map below.
This was super easy. No LOI required. All you needed was a copy of your passport, a passport photo, and the name and address of a hotel. If you’re taking the boat, find a hotel in Aktau. We didn’t have an address and the assistant who gave us our forms put a fake one in for us. You do not need to leave your passport at the embassy.
It takes four days. We filed for the visa on Tuesday and picked it up on Friday. The embassy is open for filing from 10-12 Tuesday through Friday, and for pickup from 3-5 on those same days.
The visa is 40 dollars if you’re not American, and 160 dollars if you are American. In exchange for the big bucks USA citizens pay, you get a better visa: 2 months, 2 entries. The 40 dollars buys you 1 month, 1 entry, though citizens of other countries can also shell out for the two month visa if they want it.
My understanding is that China no longer offers visas to foreigners here. We tried, but couldn’t even get into the embassy for lack of time. If you want to talk to them, they are open only on Monday and Wednesday, from 10-12.
THE BOAT ACROSS THE CASPIAN
The ferry across the Caspian does not run on any schedule. In Baku, you cross the Caspian when the travel gods decide you can. There doesn’t seem to be any reliability to the space between their departure, either. When we arrived, we met some bike tourists that had been waiting for 12 days. On the other hand, we missed a ferry the day we cleared all our visas, but there was another the next day.
The boats are not actually “ferrys” but rather cargo ships that have a few extra cabins to transport passengers. You leave when the cargo hold is full.
The best way to deal with the issue is to have somebody call every morning to see if there is a boat that day. The best run operation here is the Caspian Hostel, the only real backpacker establishment in town, which is run by a lovely women called Eliza. Eliza can call for you, and will give you the green or red light.
You can also go directly to the ticket office and ask. It is doubtful that they will speak English, so a Russian or Azeri friend will really help you along. Ask them for a phone number, and have someone who speaks the language call every morning for you.
Finding the office is a little confusing. It is in the Old Port, not the New Port. One way to find it is to start at the Absheron hotel. Directly across from that building there is a large glass structure that is supposed to be a maritime passenger terminal but was essentially empty.
Facing the passenger terminal, take a left and keep heading down the main boulevard, across a set a set of train tracks, to the very end of the park with playground equipment. You will see a small alley leads down the port on your right. Take that alley. About 100 meters down, just past the security gate, there will be an unmarked grey metal door on the righthand side. The infamous ferry lady is in that hut, and gets there about 9:00 in the morning.
A few last things to know about your actual ferry crossing. While you will board the ferry in the late afternoon, the boat will probably not leave until nighttime, when all the cargo is loaded. The actual crossing took us 24 hours, but it may take up to 48 hours, depending on the winds and the currents. Once you actually get to Aktau, you face another potential delay—you very well may be anchored offshore for some time before actually pullng into port. We were off shore more a mind-numbing 3 days (over 60 hours) before we pulled in, but I don’t think that experience is typical.
You should bring your own food on the ferry, and bring more than you think you need. In the case that you voyage is very long, like ours was, then the galley on board will provide you with some food. The woman who runs it became MUCH more courteous when we slipped her five manat every morning (between the two of us).