I have given this train a bit of a grand name. To me it is the essence of crossing the Caucasus on the main line, the route which transports the oil from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea. But to the strict timetable enthusiast, this is of course train number 37, the night service between Tbilisi in Georgia and Baku in Azerbaijan. I should probably also apologise for going a bit ‘jazzy’ with my main image for this post. The thing is that all Soviet derived locomotives begin to look the same after a while, so I felt I should use some creativity for my final blog of this amazing journey.
My time in Tbilisi has come quickly to an end – what a great city! On Saturday night I find myself in a taxi screeching round bends and street racing towards the train station, music blaring from the upgraded car sound system. I have become something of an expert in all the many taxi scams out there, and enjoy watching the driver go through the motions of using a few of his weaker tricks on me, especially as we have already agreed a fare of 10 Lari. First of all he tries the invalid routine, shows me a scar and says he’s not well. I sympathise and ignore this line of conversation. Then he decides to up the ante and says that the fare is actually priced in US dollars. I smile and pat him on the shoulder – treating this move as though it is a bit of Georgian humour. This completely defuses the possibility of a renegotiation. Keep smiling. Then he decides to try the ‘double fare because you are only one passenger’ routine. I just wag my finger and show hime my 10 Lari note. Finally he starts driving like an absolute tool, perhaps to scare me into paying more, but I just close my eyes and breathe deeply. Eventually we pull into the station still alive and in a taxi with no new scrapes or major missing parts. Exasperated at my resolve he gives in and helps me with my luggage. I give him 15 Lari, that’s about a £1 tip. He settles for that looking a little like he has been ‘done’, and wishes me well. Georgian taxi drivers are real chancers, as well as generally quite dangerous drivers.
Tbilisi station is set inside a shopping centre. Up on the second floor the display board rolls in Georgian and then English, confirming all is in order. I head to platform 1, and the train is there but locked up as I’m too early. Eventually the Azeri ladies who run tonight’s train open the doors and let a few of us on board. I’m in carriage number 6, berth 7, it’s a modern SV, or two berth first class carriage. It looks a bit ‘Cold War’ on the outside, but it is clean, comfortable and quite new inside.
I’m sharing tonight with a charming Frenchman called Gerrard, who lives in Reunion and has been travelling around Iran in a way that British and US passport holders can only dream of. The train is made up of a couple of SV coaches, 4 ‘kupe’ (four berth) carriages, and for the adventurous, a single ‘Plaskart’ wagon containing 52 open plan berths. Once again there is no restaurant carriage, a consistent disappointment so far on nearly all of this trip (I guess there was one on the Paris – Munich TGV, but I was served at my seat). Up front we will be pulled to the border by a Georgian locomotive. The carriage attendants are keen to chat, and one speaks quite good English. The banter is friendly and strangely flirtatious.
We set off with a series of bumps and bunny hops down the line at about 20.40. On board everything seems to work, but I don’t try the television in the room as its unlikely to be showing anything in English. The toilets are pressurised and there is an enormous red button on the wall with a sign saying ‘Unload!”.
At about 22.00 we reach the Georgian frontier, and the train stops here for an hour. I have no idea why, but the upside of this inactivity is that we are allowed to get off and hang out with the dogs. There is even chilled beer on sale at a couple of enterprising pop up shops by the side of the Police station. I enjoy a couple of Aisi (Icy) beers before we head into Azerbaijan. Typical of everything I have experienced on this trip a couple of Georgian men who speak English help translate my beverage requirements and generally look after me.
I’m greeted back in the compartment with a fairly simple customs form to complete. No gold, currency over $10000 or firearms to declare. The fun starts around midnight. My Azerbaijan e-visa is checked and taken away along with my passport. The drill is that we each have to attend an interview and have our photographs taken in a compartment down the train. When my turn comes it’s all going well to begin with and I’m invited to take a seat opposite the officer who will be deciding if I’m to be admitted. He has a massive plastic box on the table with his computer inside and a camera mounted on the top. It’s the sort of box that is indestructible and people use to transport very classified things. As he takes my photo and he speaks to me in a very polite way, with soft and precise English. At this point one of the carriage attendants appears round the door and chats to him whilst he types something inside his plastic box. They are talking about me, but I can’t work out quite why. I guess she tells him I’m that I’m a wealthy retired businessman, and more importantly in her mind, an English gentleman. He hands back my visa, and given what has been said, I can’t stop myself saying something silly like “are we done?”.
He looks at me very seriously after I have said this, and responds with just one word, “No”. Then the ‘Great Escape’ and ‘Columbo’ moment combined. Just one more question, ‘Have you been to Armenia?’. Of course I have, the stamps are there in my passport, but I look contrite and confirm to him that I have in fact been in Yerevan for a few days, but nowhere else. I dare not even say the words, but what he probably wants to know is that I have not visited Nagorno-Karabakh. My confession of having visited Armenia signals a change in approach and he gets out a notebook and starts taking my details down. I’m not sure if this is just theatre to intimidate me, or possibly something else more worrying. His boss arrives (five stars on his epaulettes, but I don’t think he’s a general) and is also incredibly polite. After a quick chat and a bit of staring at me, I’m eventually accepted as a tourist. A green stamp is added at the opposite end of my passport from my Armenian one. I’m in and allowed to return to my compartment where Gerrard is interested to find out why it has taken so long. Its his turn now, but I don’t think Iran poses as much of an issue on this particular border.
The final step is the customs man. He’s been tipped off I’m the only person in the carriage who has been to Armenia. My bags are all out and being inspected in the small space of the cabin. I don’t know what he’s looking for. When a Captain walks by I say ‘hello’ to her. She smiles and simply asks in good English if I have anything with me from Armenia. When I say ‘no’ its all over and the customs man leaves me alone to repack.
It should have been a comfy night on this train, but as is the way in the post Soviet empire, the air conditioning is deemed a bit decadent and switched off. I have learned that its pointless arguing about this. Better just to open the compartment door and a window in the corridor and let the air forced in by the speed of the train ventilate the otherwise sealed compartment.
By 07.00 I’m up and about. Gerrard snores gently, and I try not to wake him as I fold up and return my bedding. The carriage attendant fusses around me and makes me a cup of tea which is served with some boiled sweets. Outside the skies are dark and lightning streaks down on the oilfields and marshlands. We pass occasional settlements of mud huts with modern houses being built around them, a sign of the oil boom no doubt. Herds of goats tended to by their herdsman wander past nodding donkeys of an altogether different breed.
Things are going well until will stop at a place on the outskirts of Baku where the train stops and is declared officially broken. It takes about an hour to abandon the striken locomotive and get attached to a new one, and many people give up and leave the train here to find a bus.
We eventually arrive into Baku in the middle of the thunderstorm at around 10.30 am. A policeman helps me sort out a taxi and the need to find an ATM. I’m tired but content – another successful night on the rails. Then it occurs to me – this is my final objective – I have travelled from London to Baku, probably about 5500 km, in 19 days. It might not sound very far, but it has been a little complex in places, particularly in Turkey.
My journey ends here, but it is possible to take a ship across the Caspian Sea to Turkmenistan and onward east on the Silk Route. But the ferry no longer has any official timetable and takes more than two days to make the crossing. I note the possibility of using this route to circumnavigate the world by train and ship at a future date, but it would of course be much faster and easier to take the Trans-Siberian to Vladivostok. I wonder why Phileas Fogg didn’t opt for this route? Even Michael Palin chose to head through the Gulf to India and Singapore..
I hope you have enjoyed reading about this journey. I will wrap up my learnings in a later post when I am back behind my desk in deepest West Sussex.