Atyrau, Kazakhstan

My friend Phong told me the same thing he said to his fiancé, don’t visit Atyrau (Атырау) there’s nothing to here to see. Luckily for him, one of my goals during year was to take rare opportunities to see friends while abroad, no matter how remote. In May I had spent a week in a rural village in the mountains of Peru, where refrigerators were a luxury, so why not Kazakhstan? Phong had left Los Angeles for Kazakhstan just a little over a year now for work, and I was excited to be his first visitor from home.

The journey to Atyrau from the port of Kazakhstan took more than 13 hours on land, and I was lucky to be hitching a ride with one of the Kazakh truck drivers I met aboard the ferry from Baku. We took a lot of pit stops, and most of my time was spent looking out at the dry landscape with wild camels running around.

The city of Atyrau is a stark contrast from the bustling city of Almaty, for one, cost of living is higher, mostly due the expatriates living and working for the oil companies here. The city is unique as it is considered to be at the crossroads between Europe and Asia. Symbolically they consider the Central Bridge as the highway which connects both continents, even though one does not truly exist (even on Google maps doesn’t recognize this).

Having spent some time traveling through former Eastern Bloc countries, I was surprised to see some of the more decorated concrete apartment blocks.

Everywhere you look, there is a large effort to refresh the streets, city parks, and mosques within the city. 

As a former part of the USSR, most people here speak Kazakh and Russian, which is why you will see a lot of the Cyrillic characters. It was just announced just a few months ago, that Kazakhstan will be adopting a new version of Latin-based Kazakh alphabet. The deadline-to complete the switch is sometime in 2025, so in the future, a lot of the signage will slowly start to disappear.

Walking through the streets of Atyrau, you start to notice there are not a lot of restaurants. Most locals have their meals at home with family before heading out for a night out with friends. Most of the restaurants that exist are catered towards the Western crowd and the prices reflect this. Some of the places include Champions Sports Bar, located inside of the Renaissance Hotel, Tofu sushi bar, and one of the most expensive bars in town which felt like something that would be found in any trendy capital city.

If you get out of the city center a little, you can find places like DИHA market and bizarre, where locals go to find  a thriving selection of of produce, meats,  clothing and household items. You won’t find many foreigners hanging out here.

I am glad to have had the opportunity to spend time with my friend Phong abroad, and see what living like an expatriate is like in Atyrau, Kazakhstan.

Crossing the Caspian Sea on a ferry

Finally aboard Professor Gül, one of the crew brought us to our rooms and gave us clean linens and towels. My room was situated in the same-corridor as the rest of the guests (mainly truck drivers), while the cabin / crew have the second floor of the ship. Each room contain four beds, with the top two bunks being collapsable. Luckily for me, the ship was not full and I shared the room with a driver from Kazakhstan.

As a passenger on the ship, there is a common area where they serve hot black tea, a few corridors and the upper deck where you are free to hang out in. One of the drivers was excited to give me a tour of the cargo area, where he had parked his sixteen wheeler. We proceeded down the flight of stairs to the basement, where the trucks were still being parked. As you walk along the basement, you notice the tracks built in to allow for shipping containers to be loaded and unloaded.

Food wise, there is a central kitchen that provides breakfast, lunch and dinner for all of the passengers. The meals involved pasta and chicken, bread and eggs and you guessed it, plenty of black tea to go around! Life on the ship is simple, there are not many things made for entertainment, even the television in the common room was rarely switched on. Your time on the ship allows you to read, stare out into the sea and most importantly,  get to know the other passengers aboard the ship.

My highlight of the journey was getting to know the family of 4 from the UK that decided to pack their bags and go on an indefinite trip.  Anton was born in Bulgaria, his wife Georgia was born in Italy and the kids Eliano and Malina were born in the UK. With such international roots, it shouldn’t be so much of a surprise that they have a serious case of wanderlust. Being on the road and home schooling your children is not a task for the faint of heart, I was continually impressed with their dedication to give their children a rich experience outside of the traditional classroom.

You can check read about their adventures at their blog, BeyondOverton. I’ve also included a little interview with them on in the video below.

We were fortunate with good weather, and the journey took only 20 hours to cross from Baku to Kazakhstan. I have heard that this journey could take up to 72 hours depending on weather conditions. 

Everyone was elated to step foot at the port of Kuryk, Kazakhstan!

Overnight at the Port of Azerbaijan

When I started my trip, I had no idea where Azerbaijan was on a map, let alone know that there was a ferry that takes trucks across the Caspian Sea to Kazakhstan. When you are time rich (read: fun-employed), you constantly debate between whether to spend the money to get there quicker, or take a route that is less conventional and cheaper. This was one of those times for the ladder.

When attempting to catch the ferry to Kazakhstan, you must first accept the fact that there is not timetable. The ferries travel between both ports frequently, but can often be delayed a few days due to weather or long queues at the port to dock and unload/reload. Which means that if you are passenger trying to get aboard, you will have to call the port on a daily basis to find out when it arrives. (I was fortunate enough to have my friend, Mayis, from Azerbaijan calling in the mornings for me as they only speak Azeri and Russian.)  For the many truck drivers, they have been queued up for 3-4 days waiting at the port for the next ship to be ready.

Luckily for these truck drivers, they are fully equipped with kitchen supplies, food and a place to sleep. Walking around the port, I was invited to join Murat, a Turkish truck driver who invited me to have breakfast along with some other truck drivers on the side of his big rig. It was facinating to see his system for preparing breakfast and cleanup. Everything is simple but delicious, Turkish tea, Georgian tomatoes, Azeri cucumbers and good cheese. He even offered me some homemade blueberry jam from Turkey.

Unlucky for the few passengers who want to take the ferry, there is no place to sleep. When I arrived at the port, it was 6pm and I was told the ship could be docking at any moment. The hours passed by and it was becoming more apparent that we might not get to board this night, and I had nowhere to sleep. Luckily for me, I met a nice family of 4 from the UK that was taking the same ferry across to Kazakhstan. I was invited to join them for tea in the shipping container cafe, where we waited out the long hours of the night with tea and good conversations. 

The shipping container cafe that we spent the night in
Being a full time parent and traveller is hard, I admire Antony and Georgia for taking their kids across the world!
We drank a lot of black tea that night.
Outdoor sinks along some of the shipping containers

By around 5pm the next day, we were told that the ship has been unloaded and we can proceed through border control and finally board the ship. It was a little surreal after waiting 24 hours in the port, but we wasted no time and was first in line to get onto the ship.

With the hardest part of this journey being over, we checked into our rooms and got ready to enjoy our long awaited ride across the Caspian Sea!