My arrival at Yerevan station is textbook. The taxi driver charges me 600 Dram for the trip, about £1.10. I give him a 400 Dram tip, and he seems very happy, shaking my hand and waving goodbye. “Armnenia good?” he asks me. I tell him “Armenia good, good, good”, as I think his English (far better than my Armenian or even Russian) is very limited. He smiles and leaves me to it.
It’s a short stroll into the station, where I find a large and very peaceful Soviet designed hall that reminds me of a Moscow metro station. I can see a few people waiting, but there is no hustle and bustle here – presumably because there are only two or three trains a day, and it’s not exactly a commuter route taking a meandering nine hour journey over the border to Tbilisi. I speak with a young lady at the ticket counter, and as I had hoped, my train is due to arrive about 30 minutes before departure right outside the hall on platform 1, so I’m in the right place.
As I wander out onto the platform I see the carriages are being shunted onto our platform early. The 202 is the returning ‘Armenian’ 201 service from Batumi, and I recognise some of the crew straightaway. They don’t seem that pleased to see me, but I think that’s just a Soviet railway thing.
This is a summer only train, mainly scheduled to take Armenians to the Black Sea for their holidays. It’s a 16 hour ride to Batumi, but the route the train takes in the summer is still faster than the route in the off season. Lets be honest, this isn’t an ‘express’! The train heading this way is about half full, whereas the one I took coming from Batumi a few days ago was 100% full, as passengers are returning from their well earned summer break.
For this journey I have been able to secure a ticket in SV, first class, and I’m introduced to the lady who runs the single carriage of this type – No. 2 – on the train. Once she has verified I’m not a second class passenger sneaking in to the luxury of SV, I’m shown to a clean and comfy two berth compartment. Here I am dazzled by the extra set of gold net curtains, a pair of VIP slippers and an industrial quantity of fruit pastilles. It turns out I’m not going to have to share today, so I have space to relax and unwind. I like meeting people in shared compartments, but it’s also nice to have a break and a bit of solitude too. That is why I like crossing Siberia with my own compartment so much.
Once I have my gear stowed I hang around on the platform with the crew, and meet a few slightly mad fellow passengers. Nearly everyone is headed to Tbilisi. The timing of this train is such that I don’t really see it as a sleeper, even though I have a bed. Departing Yerevan at 15.30, our arrival in Tbilisi is scheduled for 00.12, so I have a hotel booked at the other end. What I do like about mid afternoon departures like this is that the scenery can be stunning and its good to see everything in daylight before the night draws in. That’s probably the reason it is not so busy – unless you are heading on to Batumi you could just buy a seat in coach. But this is £35 I’m happy to spend for the extra comfort today.
The driver eventually blows the engine whistle, and I’m ushered back on to the train – we set off right on time at 15.30. Other than a minor scuffle over the number of fruit pastilles permissible for a single first class passenger to consume, everything goes smoothly (FYI – it’s just one box). The toilet is kept very clean, the samovar works, and most amazingly the carriage has free wi-fi that seems very fast to me. This is a rail first, as I have actually assembled most of this post whilst on the train. I carry a very thin and light MacBook with me, and my photos can be transferred wirelessly onto it from my Fuji X-T20. I used to do this on my iPad, but now I use WordPress I like to have the full functionality of the OS X version and a decent keyboard.
Watching the desertified plains and rolling hills out the window (train travel cliche!), I eat my rations of a single meagre ham and cheese roll. The Armenians take their bread very seriously and its actually pretty tasty. I decide to take a tactical nap at around 19.00, as I want to be fresh and ready for the border games that will start later on, and there will be no chance to rest then.
Shortly after 21.00 an Armenian soldier dressed in full combats looks in to my compartment, switches on the main light and glances around. Maybe I’m too well camouflaged to be seen in my yellow t-shirt and gold scarf in a compartment completely furnished in shades of yellow and gold. Focussing in my direction he doesn’t seem to concerned to eventually spot me. He takes my passport and after a cursory check, hands it to his boss, who says a lot that of course I can’t understand. Maybe they have noted my special Armenian train camouflage technique? There is no time for further debate though, as a smartly turned out immigration officer arrives in his dress uniform, complete with the computerised M&B 1980’s “Battleships’ game that is actually his mobile passport scanner. When he stamps my passport I thank him and he says that I’m very welcome. I only hope that these Armenian stamps don’t give me any trouble when I head for Azerbaijan in a few days time. You may well be aware that the direct border between these two countries is closed, which is why I’m headed back to Georgia as an intermediary.
A bit later on I’m visited by a serious man in blue overalls wearing rubber gloves. He’s the customs man, and he asks me a whole checklist of questions which culminate in his interest in cash, gold and firearms. I like to think I have an honest face, and after a while he marks my name off his list and goes back to searching other parts of the train.
We arrive in Tbilisi about 15 minutes late. Its not one of my favourite stations in the world, as the very high bridge between platforms has only stairs, and it’s a long, long, climb up with a 30 kilo bag. Outside I go through the usual taxi routine, and end up with a deal that’s inflated, but not so much as to lose sleep over. The driver looks both disappointed and offended at the same time that he’s only managed to get 20 Lari out of me. And so ends a long trip, my head hits the pillow at about 02.00am.
I’m here in Tbilisi for a few days before embarking on the final leg of this trip to Baku at the weekend.