Professor Yul
Professor Yul

Peculiar name for a cargo ship

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Catwalk up 5-levels
Catwalk up 5-levels

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Spotty, my satellite communication system, and my birthday card
Spotty, my satellite communication system, and my birthday card

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Professor Yul
Professor Yul

Peculiar name for a cargo ship

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20) EurAsia

Aktau Kazakhstan - Alat Azerbaijan

by Cargo Ship

6–8 May 2019 (Mon–Wed)

The trip from Aktau to Port Kuryk was much longer than expected. For some reason, I thought it was only 15 km but after about 30 minute of driving my taxi driver explained - in the best English he could muster - that the journey was actually over 80 km. I should have asked more precise questions. Lucky, I had plenty of time - more time than I needed, I later learned.

We drove 90 minutes in darkness. It was the Western Kazakhstan outback and it made me a bit nervous. Psychologically, a taxi is very different from a train. But my driver knew the road well, as he slowed down for rough sections and tight curves that I could not see coming. I was reassured. I had no idea how we would find my boat. I only had its name - Professor Gul. I assumed he knew where this road would end and he did.

When we arrived, I was only mildly disturbed that the name of the port is Quryq, while the name I had been given is Port Kuryk. I guess K's and Q's are interchangeable in some languages. A "Q" is a curious letter in the English language - I wonder why it receives so much attention in Central Asia.

Fortunately, there was a proper building with Export Checkpoints and Passenger Checkpoint in English and several other languages, plus two port officials that seemed to be expecting an Australian. So far so good...

But nothing happened ! One port official left - never to reappear - and the other quickly went to sleep. Comfortable chairs in linked-sets of three appeared to be my bed and I laid down after a couple of hours but did not sleep well. It was cold. No one else arrived.

Finally, about 2.30am someone appeared, got me up, put me in a van and took me several hundred meters to another building that was warm and new. The building was set-up to deal with administrative shipping matters including customs and immigration, but there was very little information in English in writing or verbally. I met a Middle Eastern fellow that introduced himself as Amie. He said that he was also waiting for Professor Gul. He could read and speak the local language and was also confused about what would happen next.

I could not figure out who was in charge and the next step of the process. Around 4.00am I was instructed to run my bags through an x-ray machine and then I was placed back in the same waiting area. My only reassurance - I had read blogs by others who had travelled across the Caspi that reported the same confusing circumstances. All will be revealed, eventually - I figured.

At least there was a worker’s cafeteria that offered chicken and rice to passengers for a couple of dollars and WIFI.

Miwa was up and at work and so we exchanged a bunch of text messages via Skype about my confusing circumstances. I was afraid to go to sleep, as I worried, I would be left behind.

There were 20-30 locals, mostly men, that looked like truck drivers or day labourers that were filling out official forms and talking to officials behind counters. No one seemed interested in talking to me or looking at my passport. I asked and was ignored repeatedly.

About sunrise, and now I am pretty tired, someone arrived and put Amie and I into a van and drove us into a ship - welcome to Professor Gul.

There in the hull, where trucks would soon park, a fellow looked at my ticket and passport and then put them in his pocket. He did the same with Amie. I had no idea who this guy was so I took his picture. He said fine but to delete it in Azerbaijan. I think he is the ship captain, as I saw him in the control room later.

I guess we were told to go up some stairs but neither of us were certain how high to go - this boat must have four or more levels. So, Amie and I wandered around from one level to the next not knowing what we were looking for but knowing that eventually we would be allocated a cabin and bed. I'm carrying way too much baggage up catwalk stairways

I found what appeared to be a passenger lounge on the 3rd level and figured this is the place to stay till someone finds us. Other also started arriving and then a woman appeared with keys. She seemed to organise men into groups of four and gave them keys that must be for four-bunk cabins. Best to get in fast so I moved forward and she asked me where I was from - perhaps the only English she has. Rather than combine me with others she assigned me to a two-bunk room, with my own bathroom, and assigned no one else to my cabin.

Perhaps they have had trouble when combining locals with foreigners. Maybe the locals cause trouble or maybe the foreigners cause trouble but she did not want any of that. I was happy as Amie looked reasonable (fellow on right playing a board game in the picture) but sharing a cabin with the rest - truck drivers or day labours - was a cultural experience that seemed dauntingly intimate.

Got my stuff organised and secure - even lockable closets - and returned to the passenger lounge, as there must be more. Yes. I was directed to a room and on a table sat 10 passports - mine was the only Australian - and next to those passports was an Immigration Official. She took my picture, stamped my passport and I told her I enjoyed a wonderful time in Kazakhstan. She did not smile. Upon departing another ship official took my passport again. Ok, all this will work out for the best in the end.

Back in my room for sleep and although I was tired, I did not sleep well. I don't know why. The boat departed at around 9.00am and I did not even get up to take pictures.

At 12.30pm someone banged on my door and yelled eat!  Chicken, bread and soup for lunch in a dining room - it was ok.

Decided to survey the boat and take pictures of anything interesting including the sea, various pieces of equipment, the trucks in the hold, life boats including the date last tested (26 July 2018 - reassuring), and even the posted safety plans for any number of problems: man overboard, abandon ship, an explosion, terrorism, etc. (in Russian and English). These plans were really interesting to read and so I took pictures and when I finished, I found that the woman with the keys was watching me. She did not seem pleased that I was paying so much attention to their posted safety plans. So, what - they are posted.

Talked to a young man that introduced himself as Ekion at the back of the boat (fellow on the left in the picture). He was cleaning a mop by tying it to a rope and dropping it five floors into the sea and letting it drag in the wake. How clever.

Ekion was conducting a four-month Electrical Engineering internship on this ship from a state university in Azerbaijan. After graduation he will be inducted into the Azerbaijan military for one year - there is tension on the Armenia border but no fighting any longer - and then he will proceed into his career. He wondered if I was required to spend a year in the Australian military. I also learned that this boat takes all kinds of cargo that enters in trucks or rail cars - there were rail tracks that ran right into the hold of the ship prior to our departure.

To say that this is a container ship is not exactly true. It is a cargo ship that handles both trucks and train cars. I was told that it can carry up to 36 trucks or cars.

When I was in the ship's hold, I counted 12 trucks and a large fully loaded BMW motorcycle with Russian plates. I was told the cycle would be picked-up in Alat - no passenger with that kind of money here. This appeared to be the entire cargo for this journey.

Eventually, engaged a group of 12 truck drivers that seemed familiar with one another, as they ride this boat regularly. Only one fellow, Roma, had English. This was a rough but jolly bunch that was interested in me and Australia. Mostly I joined them for meals in the dining room, afternoon tea in the passenger lounge and then sporadically as each day unfolded.

Half-way through the first day I recalled that it was my 66th birthday. Opened the card Miwa gave me in parting, almost a month ago, and enjoyed a raspberry chocolate bar after a birthday dinner that included one whole baked fish per passenger with rice - I sensed the fish was not wishing me a happy birthday but many others were thinking of me. I am loved...

Time for bed.

I was awaken by the sound of a clanking-chain at 6.00am, as the anchor was released into the Sea. This equipment sits just outside my port window at the front of the boat. The sound got me out of bed. The only other person up was Roma - the fellow with some English. He said that Alat Port was still too far away and wondered if the boat might be having some problems. It had rained during the night and dawn appeared as a misty morning. All this can wait.

Back to sleep but awaken by an 8.00am knock at my door. At breakfast I learned that we had in fact arrived 10 km off the coast of Alat Azerbaijan - near the Baku Sea Port. We had made the journey in 21 hours.

Now Professor Gul is in line to be unloaded, which might occur around 2pm or 3pm or who really knows but today most likely. Yes, this is what I was expecting. Glad to learn it is hours and not days.

The truck drivers would engage in discussions for hours that would occasionally include humour or become heated. They did not play cards but there were a couple of board games in the lounge room that they enjoyed. I watched with interest and they seemed pleased I was hanging-out with them. Many smoked but no one smoked inside. Everyone went out on the deck to smoke. They were dissatisfied with the amount of time we waited to be unloaded, as they had families with children waiting for them. Too much "standby-time" they all said in English.

Roma befriend me but later asked for my help to secure an Australian visa, wanted to drive me to Tbilisi - guess he drove taxis early in his career - and wanted to visit my cabin so he could compare my accommodations to what truck driver receive. All that seemed too much and I declined his offer to help me travel from the Alat Port to Baku. Roma has a truck to drive off and then he must deal with Customs. I am not going to wait around for all that.

As for all the others, mostly we just looked at each other and wondered who we were. Would have enjoyed getting to know several better but language got in the way.

Walked the ship, took pictures and worked on my most recent journal-entries. Changed batteries in my spot checker (Spotty), as the master light began flashing red and Spotty has not done that before. Miwa cleverly packed back-up Triple A batteries. All Good.

My spot checker sends a ping every minute to a satellite so that Miwa always knows my exact location. It also allows me to send one of four pre-recorded text (SMS) messages. “I have arrived”, “I am departing now” and “I am having trouble locating WIFI” were each written by me – I can write any message I wish. The fourth message comes with a pre-recorded message that is written by the manufacturer. When sent, it automatically goes from the satellite to the National Emergency Management Department of the country I am located in at that time. It give my specific geo-coordinates and tells the receiver that it is an emergency and I am in danger. The nation receiving that message could send me a bill if they choose to respond - but the emergency would be life-threating. Spot tracker cost about US$300 and the monthly service fee is US$25. 

I continue to wait... And wait, and wait and wait. 2.00pm came and went. Then 3, then 4pm. Roma said there was talk that we might stay the night. OK I can do that also - it’s just part of the adventure.

I did wonder about the Buto Hotel in Baku old city, as I had made a reservation for 8th May. Hate to show up on the 9th or 10th. Hate not being able to advise them if my plans are changing.

6.00pm arrived and finally, some noise outside my window. The crew were preparing to pull up the anchor. Roma confirm that the ship had been scheduled to be unloaded tonight rather than in the morning. OK, can do.

We docked at 7.30pm - about the time the 14 passengers have our final meal together.

The next step was as confusing as the first. We wanted our passports back but it was unclear where they would be distributed. The crew was having something official happening in a room off the dining room so 2 passengers and 12 truck drivers waited there. But no. Then Amie, who had been making enquiries, led us all to the back of the boat. We were to go down to the ship's hold. I had to go back and pick-up my black bag. Ran into Ekion along the way and he kindly offered to carry my bag down three levels - a steep catwalk. How could I refuse. At the bottom, Ekion told me I was the first Australian he had met on the boat and he wanted a picture.

Down in the hold all 14 were told our passports were up on the third level and we were to collect them up top. The truck drivers complained, I locked my black bag to a steel post and Ekion said there was no firm rule sometimes he had seen passports distributed on the 3rd level and sometimes in the hold by the exit. Whoever was in charge relented and brought the passports down. There was no order - passing them out was a free-for-all. I imagined that Miwa could have passed-out from the anxiety engendered - the locals seemed unfazed.

Finally, got a half decent picture of Professor Gul, in parting, but was now at the end of the passport control line. A Turkish truck drivers pushed me to the front and no one complained - maybe because I was a passenger or maybe because they liked me. An Immigration Officer welcomed me to Azerbaijan.