Continuing the story of our (Hamish & I) latest adventure out East………….
We arrived at 9.15 a.m. on our overnight train from Tbilisi. I was pretty damned excited having slept well, a feeling enhanced by the fact that I was in a brand new country.
The train journey had been very comfortable in our two-berth compartment. We had demolished our mobile tuck shop of fruit, cookies, crisps, banana cakes, crackers, bread, water Coke Zero and dark beer. In reality we had pretty much razed it to nothing by the time the bulk of the rail journey had started.
Refreshment also included tea and sweets brought to us without request by our good humoured lady carriage attendant.
She had already welcomed us aboard with a smile and shown us to our berths. For some reason our compartment had been chosen as the store for the bedding for at least this whole carriage. Three large blue bags of linen were stacked on our beds.
Olga then proceeded to supervise Hamish to take the three heavy bundles to the proper store at the front of the carriage next to her modest living quarters. Rather than helping my buddy out, I just smiled broadly and captured the occasion on my mobile phone.
Hamish is a stalwart of the Trans-Mongolian and he advised me that it was always a good idea to get in the good books of the provdonistas as the attendants are named in Russian. You never know when you might need a favour such as unlocking the loo early or needing a fresh pillow case.
We figured the tea was recompense for Hamish’s labour, but shortly after the off, Olga brought us our bedding and asked for some Lari or Manat in payment for the glasses of tea and milk flavoured candy. Well, we had spent every last Georgian bean we had, possessed no Azeri Manat due to it being unavailable in the UK and only had large Euro bills.
I then remembered that I had a $1 note, thus averting an unhappy provodonista with whatever consequences that might invoke.
Leaving on time at 20.35 it took us around an hour to reach the Georgian side of the border at Qardabani. We sat patiently on our bunks waiting for officialdom, but seeing as our first class carriage was the furthest from the loco, we were last to be visited. The border guard had a huge wad of passports in his goalkeeper like grasp.
A quick glance of our passport photos and a cursory wave of our paper Azerbaijan visa, and our documentation was added to the pile. We weren’t to see them again for another 45-minutes, when having been granted passage out of Georgia we were on our way moments later.
All in all we had been at the border post for 75 minutes and no sooner had we trundled a few minutes eastwards than we stopped once more at the Azeri border town of Boyuk Kasik. In contrast to before we were first to be visited, only this time we were ushered into an empty compartment by Olga, where two border guards awaited us.
They had a mobile passport checker to swipe our documents through. They then studied our visas, before asking whether we had visited Armenia before.
We answered in the affirmative (a wonderful 2015 visit) and were prepared for the next question – did you visit Nagorno-Karabakh (NK for short)?
We knew that an answer of “yes” would have seen us denied further passage, but as it happened we were not lying when we affirmed we had not visited the region. Passports were duly stamped and we were welcomed into Azerbaijan with two broad and genuine smiles.
NK is a disputed territory, internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but most of the region is governed by the Republic of Artsakh a de facto independent state with an Armenian ethnic majority. Azerbaijan has not exercised political authority over the region since the advent of the Karabakh movement in 1988.
Since the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh War in 1994, representatives of the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan have been holding peace talks, but there is no sign of a breakthrough with the border between the two nations closed.
At this point Hamish was busting for the loo, which of course Olga had locked. No worries, we were allowed off the train and there was a station toilet. Hamish returned fifteen minutes later still holding his nose. He reported that the toilet was the most disgusting he had ever witnessed in all his extensive travels.
Apparently it was so bad that any fly that had become attracted by the venue aroma now lay dead, asphyxiated by the stench! I was to remind him of the station latrines several times further on the trip to encourage dramatic effect out of my travel buddy. That’s just what friends are for!
I decided that I could wait for the off for my light relief and duly stopped consuming any liquids.
All in all we were to be stationary in Boyuk Kasik for an hour (also allowing for a swap of loco from Georgian to Azerbaijani) , meaning that despite only being only 80 km from Tbilisi, we had already been in transit for three and a quarter hours . The vagaries of cross-border train travel. I love it!
Happily the toilet was unlocked as soon as we departed and I was therefore able to finish my coke and wish my companion a good night’s sleep.
I awoke at 07.45, just before my alarm was due to herald the last hour of the journey. I sneaked a peak behind the blind to find us surrounded by desert. Something told me that we were further from Baku than we should have been.
As we were pulling into a small station, I ventured into the corridor to check. We had arrived at Bay Alat and on checking the displayed timetable it was confirmed that we were about 25-minutes behind schedule. Not to bad in the scheme of things.
We were now in the port of Baku region. Alat is in fact a major transportation hub linking the Tukey & Georgia to the west, Iran to the south and Russia to the north. It is situated on the Gobustan Peninsula that juts out into the Caspian Sea.
We were surrounded by the tell tale signs of the oil & gas industries – giant pipelines, turbines, factories, cargo crates and huge storage units. We could see the blue waters to our right with dozens of tankers in situ ready for loading or unloading.
The last hour or so of an overnight journey can drag a little, especially when you are running late. You have set your watches for a precise wake-up call and with no restaurant car there never seems much to do but wish you had arrived already.
Olga provided a distraction, first bringing us tea and then demanding we neatly fold our bedding and hand it to her.
It wasn’t the cleverest thing to do when I spied an eagle flying outside. In my eagerness I shot my hand out in the direction of the flying carnivore to bring it to Hamish’s attention.
I sent me tea flying with my flailing hand, more precisely all over my trousers as well as breaking the glass. Luckily the samovar (boiler situated at the end of each carriage) hadn’t heated the water to scalding proportions, meaning that I only suffered wet discomfort and embarrassment rather than burnt legs.
I was sure that I would be asked to cough up for the broken glass though, plus for Olga’s mopping up exercise. However in the event Olga just shrugged in a way that suggested this happened all the time and that Azerbaijan Railways had an endless supply of tea glasses anyway.
Perhaps Hamish’s labours had paid off after all and we had indeed earned Olga’s leniency……
After my involuntary tea dance, we soon found ourselves pulling into Baku. We could see plenty of grand buildings and got our first peek of the tips of the world famous Flame Towers poking out above the other buildings.
Train Arrived At Baku Station
We glided into position on platform one, now being pulled by an Azeri locomotive of course.
Instead of making a beeline for the exit we decided to take a few pics of brand new train carriages that were standing ready for the much anticipated direct Ankara to Baku service, that had been rumoured to be about to start service for several months, but was yet to do so.
We had in fact intended to arrive on that very train, but such was the uncertainty as to when it would start, what day of the week it would run and when tickets would be bookable, we were very happy that we had chosen the Tbilisi option, purchased through Advantour in advance for $90 each.
A hefty premium no doubt but we had needed certainty and the intrepid rail explorer and fellow rail journey author Matthew Woodward had confirmed that this was the best way to go. He had in fact undertaken the journey to Baku by train all the way from Chichester just the prior year, so if anybody knew, he would.
We were not ready to head off in search of currency and transport to our hotel just yet though. First we headed for the inner sanctum of the train station to book some overnight train tickets from Baku to Sheki and back.
The station building was shiny and new, with a small army of staff employed to constantly polish, mop, scrub and sweep to keep the marbled halls immaculate.
The ticket office itself was full of attractive bright young things in pristine uniforms, all of whom spoke perfect English, had virtuous levels of patience for dithering foreigners and fixed smiles on their pretty faces.
Such a contrast to what we had encountered in the likes of Minsk, Sevastopol, Odessa and Chisinau in the not too distant past, when we had witnessed surly and down right rude staff, a scrum rather than an orderly queue and positions closing without notice for fifteen minute tea/cigarette breaks.
Baku Station even had a bank/McDonalds style queueing system when you took a number and sat in comfort until it was your turn. We didn’t have to wait too long and hit the ‘in your dreams’ jackpot with a quite frankly gorgeous and equally smiley young lady, who took our orders efficiently and courteously.
The Azerbaijan Railway Timetable – 59 Hours to Kiev!
It was now time to hoist our rucksacks out into the real world…………
Azerbaijan and Georgia will feature in a future book from my Wilbur’s Travels series, which will feature train travels in all fifteen of the former Soviet Republics.
If you enjoyed reading this blog post, I am sure that you will enjoy part one of the series that features train travels throughout the Balkans which is available for purchase on Amazon.