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September 17, 2018

‘The Armenian’ from Batumi to Yerevan

Over on platform number two of Batumi station this afternoon stand two very different trains. On one side a new double decker Georgian Stadler electric train headed for Tblisi, and opposite it stand seven rather battered old Armenian carriages pulled by a Georgian engine known as train 201, or ‘The Armenian’. It will also head to Tbilisi (at a much slower pace), then turn south, crossing the Armenian frontier and on to Yerevan.

I’m very early, and at first the guard of carriage number 6 says I can’t come on board for another 25 minutes. This is a Soviet style carriage, so the metal steps are pulled up like a drawbridge, and I’m not getting on until he lowers them. I hang around the carriage taking moody selfies for a future project.

But then just when I’m getting too hot in the afternoon sun, in a turn of good fortune I meet the jovial and larger than life station master, who seems to take a like to me. He’s a big chap with a big personality, and he has more gold braid on his shoulders than a Bolivian tank commander – just a few words from him seems to wither the man on the train, and with a shrug of defeat, I’m in.

Carriage number 6 has four berth kupe style compartments, but with some very Armenian adornments like gold curtains and complimentary fruit pastels. The windows are sealed and the air conditioning isn’t on, so I sit on the steps of the carriage and watch a steady stream of Armenian holiday makers returning home with much baggage.

The train is completely full and I share the compartment with Paul, the first Briton I have met in over a week, a bearded youngish Armenian chap, also headed to Yerevan, and a smartly dressed older man, who is getting off in the middle of nowhere. I have forgotten what kupe class is like, but quickly find myself getting used to the limited space of communal living. I have a lower berth, which gives me bagsy rights on the small table by the window. I’m much happier on the lower beds as night time trips to the toilet can go dramatically wrong when descending from high up.

The journey to Yerevan is around 16 hours, and we pass through Tbilisi at around 10pm before heading south to the Armenian frontier at Ayrum (00.46 am). We have around 30 minutes sat in Tbilisi station, so most of us hang around on the windy platform until summoned back on the train. A couple of American tourists roll up to our carriage attendant and want to swap from where they are located in another coach – I have no idea what has gone wrong, but hang back as I don’t fancy changing berths at this stage.

Much to my disappointment there is once again no restaurant carriage, but I have stocked up on some local cheese stuffed pastries for my supper. Once the sun has set we read and then try and get some sleep; something I don’t manage very well. The Georgian police board the train at around 11.00pm, collect passports and travel with us until the border. I had heard that Armenian security checks could involve a one to one interview, but nothing could have been more different from this tonight. Well after we have actually crossed the border, a smartly turned out soldier enters our compartment (at around midnight) and asks if he can sit on my bed. I’m hardly likely to refuse, and before I know it I’m sat next to him like we were going to play a game of cards. He sets up his passport scanning machine, something that reminds me a bit of a 1980’s electronic version of ‘Battleships’. No further questions are asked, and with my freshly stamped passport back in my hands he leaves us. Our bags were not searched and we were then left alone for the night.

The next few hours were not much fun for me, but this wasn’t really the fault of the train. At one point I needed to use the bathroom with some urgency. I met two large ladies at the end of the corridor who insisted that this wasn’t possible (I think was in their smoking and gossiping space) – ‘its finished” they said, waving their arms – but I haven’t got where I am today by being put off by such people. I returned with the carriage attendant, and as if by magic the toilet door is opened and is working just fine. Second class ‘Kupe’ carriages often smell quite ‘lived in’, and this one was no exception. It might be psychosomatic, but all I could smell was stale urine. Paul smelt nothing other than the burning of our worn out brakes. Added to this the aircon went on and off throughout the night, changing the climate from nice, to sweaty and back again to nice constantly. Just to add to my misery I had tooth ache and the drugs I had didn’t seem to control the pain. I lay there feeling a bit sorry for myself until the sun rose and Mount Ararat (in Eastern Turkey) emerged seemingly close by.. but I couldn’t spot Noah and his Ark.

This hasn’t been a particularly relaxing journey, but the company was good, and you learn to take the rough with the smooth. The carriages were 100% sold out, so do try and get a reservation made well in advance if you are considering taking this train. The beds were comfy, and as long as you bring your own supplies, everything will be fine.

I’m now spending a couple of days in Yerevan – first impressions are very good. I’m actually headed back to Tbilisi on the same train in reverse later in the week, but in single SV (first class), so it will be interesting to compare the experience.

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