After some time sat at my desk writing my next book and wondering where on earth to travel to next, I have finally made a decision and started booking tickets. Buying a ticket is an important step for me, as it gives me commitment and focus on my new challenge. It gives me mental strength and resolve. I’m going to try and get to Baku (Azerbaijan) by rail from London. I’m filled with that usual pre trip apprehension and excitment. My bags are already packed, and all I’m waiting for is a brand new passport (the old jumbo one is full after just six years of rail adventure) and for the climate in the Caucasus to hopefully cool off a little.
I have decided to follow the route of the original Orient Express to Istanbul, the (now suspended) Trans-Asia Express through Turkey and finally, once I reach Georgia, the Transcaucus Express as far as Baku. Those wretched rail TV presenters Palin and Portillo have beaten me to much of this route, but at least none have done the whole journey that I will undertake. There seem to be very few places in the world that you can travel to these days by train that haven’t been filmed by Lumley, Tarrant, Rhys-Jones, Palin and Portillo!
I like the nature of this trip. It’s long enough to be an proper adventure, it contains several countries that I don’t know well, and there is a massive diversity of people and culture along the route. It’s going to be warm, even hot, so my Siberian gear can remain in a cupboard. It’s also going to be a bit alienating, a sensation I actually enjoy; when no one speaks my language and I have to get by on sign language and a smile.
There is actually a narrow time window to successfully complete this journey. In the Balkans the route between Belgrade and Sofia becomes useless after 18th September, as a result of Serbian Railways having no money to rent an engine beyond it’s current summer timetable. The situation in Turkey is always fluid, and were I really lucky, the long overdue new line from Ankara to Batumi would open and make my life easy, but I fear this won’t happen. Once in Georgia, if I make it there before the end of the September, it is possible to get on a direct train at Batumi on the Black Sea coast that goes all the way to Baku on the Caspian Sea coast. I suspect I will be stopping on the way in Tbilisi though, and may also take a side trip into Armenia if things are going well.
Click map for enlarged version
The trip poses no insurmountable risks, but care is needed deep into eastern Turkey (especially near the Syrian border), and also to the north of the Caucuses, where the states of South Osettia and Abkhazia occupy disputed territory. You can’t travel directly to and from Armenia from Azerbaijan, as the border is closed and heavily militarised, in fact it’s an FCO no travel area. Tiblisi will therefore be my hub and forward base in the region. Chechnya is also best avoided! But the red tape is quite manageable, particularly as the few required visas are obtainable online and flexible enough to allow variable entry dates (for Turkey and Azerbaijan).
When I was travelling in the United States last year I met a very wise Amish man sporting a huge white beard travelling to Denver with his wife. Sat in the parlour car (me drinking beer, him drinking tea) he asked me what my hopes were for my trip. The question floored me – and I had no idea how to answer such an open and thoughtful question. Now I always think about this before setting out. My hopes for this trip are that I will get to meet people and see landscapes in a part of the world that I know so little about. That and the fact that I hear Georgia makes some rather interesting wine!
(thanks to Hans Peter Schaub for the photograph of Georgian vineyards)