If there was ever a lottery in life it is the Baku-Aktau ferry crossing. Boats can depart on consecutive days or more than a week apart. The catch is that there is no schedule, you need to be present at the middle-of-nowhere port on the lucky evening before to buy a ticket. Steve, the banker on the bike and an afternoon travel companion from Georgia, had waited 3 days in port; whilst a young Azeri family had camped 5 days in the desert heat to get a crossing. Yet we bought the winning ticket, the ferry seemed to wait for our arrival into Baku, and was ready to leave on the morning of our desire.
In the queue at the port of Alat we met Benji and Beth, a pair of friends driving to the 'Stans in a beastly Hilux. Their nationality wasn't hard to decipher, we caught them in the midst of a mini-boule tournament as our old friend Steve, the 60 year-old inadvertently after the veteran round-the-world record, was reclining in cycling lycra in one of their deckchairs.
With this distinctly British comradeship, our experience was that of P&O cruise meets Soviet-era ferry. The usual blue rinse brigade were replaced by a motley collection of Russian or Slavic truckers, scruffy European travelers, a few young Kazakh chaps returning from the Baku Europa League final, and a few bawling families chucked in to drown out the engines' roar. The decks were dominated by leathered and age-hardened men in flip-flops and shorts, usually belly out, smoking to compete with the emissions of the boat's chimneys.
The scrabble for cabins was reminiscent of the beginning of term in a boarding house, and the accompanying confiscation of passports raised a few eyebrows on board. How they were delivered back towards the end of the journey raised heartbeats: an official came into the common room and 'made it rain' in a shower maroon, blue and green card - a document forger's wet dream. A feeding frenzy ensued, with all frantically snatching through the heap of crucial life documents; I bagged all the maroon HRH crests and acted as postman.
Otherwise the journey was pleasant if too short, the forced time with no connection or internet was incredibly fertile for reading, writing and general decompression. Benji and Beth's company made for some very relatable traveling companions, with no need for the usual cross-cultural explanation, discussion would always move at a more riveting pace. And there was no guilt over any pause in progress, as the steady drone of the ship ensured we were always advancing towards our destination, we were reveling in the rare luxury of passive travel. The second day of the crossing also brought up my quarter century on this planet, it made for a suitably marker given the year we are on. A midnight passing toast with Benji and Beth was had with the plastic bottle of Georgian Chacha we had smuggled on board, I had resigned myself to 'a quiet one' this year...