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Overland by train from Tbilisi, Georgia to Baku, Azerbaijan

Phespirit reports - June 2008

The Plan

The Journey

Phespirit arrived at Tbilisi railway station with his ticket in hand and ample time to catch the night train to Azerbaijan. Five carriages marked BAKI - TBİLİSİ and numbered from 2 to 6 stood waiting by Platform 2. Phespirit's carriage would be number six and he would be spending the night in the first compartment, horizontal on seat number two. There were two seats to each compartment. A double engine, worn-green but robust-looking, arrived a quarter of an hour before the scheduled departure time and was fastened to one end of carriage six. Phespirit boarded the train, lay on his mattress-covered seat and settled into reading Mikhail Bulgakov's 'The Master and Margarita'. Presently he was joined in the compartment by a gang of young women. After much chortling, all but one departed. She would be the occupant of the adjacent seat.

The train departed promptly at 5:15pm. Phespirit's ticket was inspected and taken, and shortly thereafter came a setback. He had not been aware that seven Georgian lari had to be paid as a fee for bed sheets. Thus, he had used up all his remaining lari earlier in the day. When an enormous bovine carriage attendant came along demanding money in return for sheets, only to be met with a "no" and a shrug from Phespirit, she immediately ushered him off his seat and snatched away the bedding that had already been laid out: mattress, blanket and pillow. Fortunately Phespirit had a light cotton sleeping bag with him so the position was far from hopeless.

The train rumbled, jolted and juddered along. This did not augur well for sleep. After some minor stops - one for five minutes, just a quarter of an hour out of Tbilisi, followed by a couple of stop-starts - the first major stop came at 6:20pm in some unnamed station with at least four platforms and additional parallel sidings for freight wagons. Here all passports were collected and taken away, and the waiting began. At 7:40pm, the train was still stuck at this border station. The phlegmatic paunch-bearing guard came by and, with minimal utterance, dropped onto Phespirit's seat all the bedding that had previously been confiscated - i.e. a full set, but without any sheets. That was better. Phespirit decided he wouldn't unfurl it until the bovine attendant had taken note of this development.

Instead, he popped out to use the station toilet on the platform directly opposite the far end of his carriage. Up a short flight of steps, the facility was essentially a small elevated concrete unit with holes in the floor through which patrons may allow their the bodily discharges to fall onto a vast exposed heap at ground level. The stench was absolutely staggering. Phespirit kept it simple. Back on the train, men in smart crimson shirts and black trousers walked up and down the carriages asking passengers a few questions. Phespirit could understand none of it, and the uniformed men were not concerned enough to bother making him try.

By 8:00pm the sun was very low on the horizon. The train remained stationary and passports had still not been returned. Perhaps a distant hiss of steam was an indication that the situation would soon change. Certainly the passengers that had detrained were now rapidly climbing back on board. More steam followed. A couple of minutes passed. The white-shirted gentleman who had originally collected all the passports re-appeared and handed them back. Phespirit's now had a Georgian exit stamp, which was nice, but evidently the steam had been a false alarm as several more minutes elapsed with no further activity. Was the train now hideously late, or was this all part of the service? Phespirit had no idea. He did decide, however, that the carriage attendant had been given ample opportunity to re-confiscate his bedding so he unfurled it and made himself a bit more comfortable.

Come 8:16pm there was a slight lurch of the train, then a hiss, then a pause ..... and then a minute later the train was moving, a shade under two hours since it had ground to its halt. The sun had just dipped below the horizon so the carriage electric lights were duly switched on. Progress was extremely slow for the first five minutes, leading Phespirit to wonder whether the two hour delay was solely for Georgian formalities. The pace eventually picked up, though, insofar as the old workhorse engine was capable, and Phespirit was satisfied that there would surely be no more border bureaucracy prior to reaching his final destination. He settled back down with his book.

The evening was sticky. Only the softest of occasional breezes suggested that coolness might yet come with nightfall. Shortly after twenty to eight, the train stopped again. Against all odds, this was indeed the Azeri border check stop. Five minutes passed before a slightly tubby man in military uniform - all garments patterned with startlingly bright green camouflage markings - walked through the carriage and collected passports. Easy come, easy go. If Azeri efficiency proved no better than that of their Georgian counterparts, then this train would not be going anywhere before ten thirty at the very earliest.

At five past nine, a series of clangs and shudders suggested that the Georgian engine may have been uncoupled and replaced with an Azeri one. Shortly after, some officials in white shirts and infeasibly wide-brimmed caps entered each compartment for a cursory luggage check and to ask the usual questions: 'where are you going?', 'what is your business there?' This would have been a lot more protracted had the girl in Phespirit's compartment not been able to speak English. The guard had offered German but when that went nowhere he stuck with Azeri or Georgian.

Passports were returned at 9:25pm. Phespirit noted that an extra green stamp had been added to his pre-purchased visa. Other people then took turns in passing through the carriage, starting with a young camouflaged soldier with a metal pole wired to a box held near his waist. This mildly worrying implement appeared merely to be for checking high overhead box compartments for unaccounted baggage. In other words, it was a glorified mirror on a stick. Then came an old woman chanting a long list of wares for sale, such as Fanta, chocolate, cigarettes, cola, to tempt a captive market. The train started moving again at 9:42pm - well done, Azeris! Just one hour for formalities, half the time taken by the Georgians. It was now night-time black outside. Time to think about settling down in readiness for sleep.

Sleep was fitful, to day the least, but was achieved nonetheless. Phespirit was aware that the train had come to a silent stop for about twenty minutes between three and half three, Georgian time, or four and half four, Azeri time - henceforth all times stated will be Azeri. After a while the silence was broken by the lilting call of a muezzin somewhere in the distance. Phespirit faded back to sleep.

At around seven o'clock he decided officially to wake up, pull his trousers on, and pack away his sleeping bag. Overnight temperatures had remained sufficiently high for his cotton cover to keep him warm without needing to use the itchy-looking railway blankets as well. Morning had well and truly broken, with watery sunshine and long shadows falling on the scrubby semi-desert landscape visible through Phespirit's north-facing window. At ten past eight there came a wake-up rap on the door from the guard. The train passed through Sәngәçal station, and five minutes later started passing the first lumpen tower blocks. Then the buildings gave way, and through a south-facing window Phespirit caught a fleeting glimpse of the Caspian Sea.

Slowly the journey continued, on through Qaradağ station. Only at this point did Phespirit notice a small Russian timetable in the carriage corridor. Using his basic recognition of Cyrillic, he discovered that the train was still running on time. Evidently the 115-minute stop on the Georgian side of the border crossing had been exactly as scheduled. The tracks now followed the line of the Caspian coast up to Baku, but the sea itself was obscured. A mess of oil and gas extraction infrastructure took its place on both sides of the track, scattered across mostly barren lands.

Unexpectedly, just before the journey came to an end Phespirit's train ticket was returned to him. This was the last act before reaching Baku. The train arrived in the capital at exactly 9:34am - a mere ten minutes late on a trip of over sixteen hours. Very impressive. A car was waiting to collect Phespirit from the sunny platform of Baku station and whisk him away to begin the next phase of his travels in the Caucasus.

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