Trains and Boats and Planes

With the exception of balloons, submarines and helicopters, I have tried most major forms of transport – yes, even camels, elephants and horses – but I have to admit that trains are my favourite mode of travel – especially long distance ones, with a sleeper and a restaurant car, hurtling me through time and space.

There have been disappointments of course. One time, on a short trip from Dublin to Cork, I treated myself to a first class ticket, but warm cans of Guinness from a ‘bar-cart’ – not even a bar-car! – detracted from the overall experience.

I was looking forward to different train trips in the Caucasus but unfortunately there were no trains along the southern shore of The Black Sea in northern Turkey which I covered in hops and leaps in very comfortable, intercity coaches but I was really looking forward to the overnight train from Batumi, just over the border from Turkey, in Georgia to the capital, Tbilisi.IMG_1860

Because of prior difficulties regarding statehood, nationality, form of government and current strains of economics and global trade, the entire region seemed to be unhappy with its immediate neighbours. ‘Turkey has no friends,’ lamented one young professional who had taken her masters at a Dublin university and that story was echoed in one way or another in each of the countries I visited.IMG_1861

Tbilisi would be my hub and from there I could get an overnight train to Yerevan in Armenia and to Baku in Azerbaijan. The only problem was that since none of the countries permitted inter-travel, I would have to retrace my steps to Tbilisi each time before heading off again. While I could enter Armenia from Georgia I couldn’t continue on to Azerbaijan. I’d have to return to Tbilisi the same way and then take another train to Baku on the shore of the Caspian Sea.

Similarly, I could take a train from Tbilisi to Baku but I couldn’t go from Baku to Yerevan in Armenia. What that all meant was a lot of overnight train trips from Tbilisi throughout the Caucasus.

Impressed with the modern Stadler train which whisked me effortlessly from the brand new looking station in Batumi to Tbilisi, I expected, foolishly perhaps, something similar on a longer, overnight, cross border experience.IMG_1862

Despite starting in Georgia, the train was Armenian and didn’t look remotely like the sleek brute that had delivered me to Tbilisi a few days previous. This particular train looked like trains did in Hitchcock movies so, pre-warned there was neither bar nor restaurant car on the fifteen hour trip between the capital cities, I stocked up on red wine and brandy accordingly. Thank God I had because the only amenities provided turned out to be a box of sugary jellies, a bottle each of still and fizzy water along with a fresh pillowcase and sheets.

I handed over my first class ticket to the burly blonde guarding the steps outside my carriage who glared uncomprehendingly at me when I greeted her and asked her name. ‘Lana’ she growled before ushering me up the steps impatiently as if the train were just about to depart.

IMG_1865Strolling up and the down the narrow corridor outside my compartment – there was another twenty minutes before the train was due to leave – the only differences I could see between the carriages was mine had the top two bunks removed, leaving only the bottom two.

The window in the compartment was sealed shut and masked with voluminous drapes of bleached out nylon. Only every third window in the carriage corridor outside opened partially. Not a major issue if the air conditioning worked, but when I found Lana, brewing coffee in her private ‘office’, and made IMG_1864panting sounds, mopping rivulets of sweat running down my face and neck and pleaded for the air con to be turned on, the brutal blonde overseer of the first class compartment seemed not to notice the 37 degree heat and only reluctantly turned the a/c on low, only to turn it off every time the train crawled into another small, sun-baked station.

When I tried to open the half window in the corridor outside my compartment to get a breath of air, she bustled bossily down and shouted at me, along with emphatic hand gestures, to close the window.

“Well, turn the bloody a/c on again” I retorted peevishly, the sweat stinging my eyes and my shirt sticking like a wet rag to my streaming skin.

My initially chilled beer  was almost tepid when, glaring at the sugary jellies and the bottles of water I opened it.

Usually, the regular clack-clack of the train would lull me to sleep but this time, seeming to compound the heat, the train groaned along, accompanied by what sounded like extended and sporadic heavy machine gun fire from the iron wheels.  I had already finished the wine and was about to dose myself with the brandy when immigration marched down the train, collecting passports and then disappearing with them for a worrying length of time before returning them just as the train ground to a noisy and shuddering halt at the border with Armenia. IMG_2083 Surprisingly – and pleasingly – smartly dressed Armenian officials came down the corridor with laptop computer scanners and handed back my passport within a minute of collecting it.

Dawn broke as I panted by a window I had furtively opened – no sign of the bossy Lana – looking at a high white cloud before eventually realising it was the snow-capped peak of Mount Ararat towering over the plains. IMG_1876Arrival time rolled around and the train still trundled noisily over flat, dusty plains with no sign of an imminent city. IMG_2081Questions to Lana about the expected arrival time were dismissed with a brusque hand gesture and a shrug and it was a good four hours late before the train finally shuddered to a halt in Yerevan itself.

I was here, that was the main thing and Armenia is famed for (among other things) its brandy – the only brandy Winston Churchill would drink, apparently – so what could go wrong? And there was the return trip to look forward to and to compare with the overnighter to Baku later on.

 

 

 

 

Georgia – First Impressions

A mini bus from Trabzon, on the far north east of Turkey’s share of the Black Sea, snaked past a long line of trucks queuing up to ender Georgia, many of which were backed-up in one of a string of tunnels leading up to the Turkish exit border post at Hopa. The bus could only go so far before we all had to get down and walk across the border throughIMG_1569 creaking, makeshift corridors of bare plywood and on into a no-man’s land where a very impressive Georgian border post, sparkling white in the sunshine, waited. No visa is needed for Georgia but my passport was scrutinised lengthily by a serious faced official before being smudgily stamped.

Out into Georgia proper and there’s a waiting, but already packed, minibus on to Batumi, Georgia’s premier port that I decline clambering in with a backpack. I wait for another emptier mini bus to materialize. One does and I scramble in along with another horde of people crossing the border and off to Batumi, all for about thirty Australian cents!

Asia or Europe or Asia Minor or even Eurasia? I couldn’t tell. The people didn’t look Asian the way people in Vietnam, Hong Kong and Malaysia looked Asian – they all seemed fair-skinned with blue eyes and dark hair, although many girls dyed their hair blonde. Caucasian or Circassian?

I suppose Batumi, the bustling seaport where the mini bus from the border dropped me off, had a hint of Asia with its grubby street market where spices, fruit – cherries and raspberries – veg and cheese were loudly hawked from stalls and barrows. Grimy Thai massage parlours, decorated with twinkling fairy lights, were shoulder to shoulder with casinos and slot machine joints. The beckoning and giggling girls in the doorways were definitely Thai – I stopped to chat to some of them – but their business was mostly with Turkish men who come over the border for a bit of fun. Where in God’s name is there any border with a town on either side where one side always appears better / more attractive / cheaper /more appealing than the other (and where there are truckloads of cross border trade)?

Pick anywhere on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic (Irish butter was always cheaper over the border in N. Ireland), or the border towns north of Khota Bharu in Malaysia and Sungai Golok and Narathiwat on the Thai side, or Hong Kong and Shenzhen, or Tijuana in Mexico and some place in Texas, and Temungong in Brunei Darussalam and Limbang in Malaysia but you get the idea. Oh, let’s not forget the overland border crossing from Saigon into Cambodia. Border towns worldwide always seem a bit seedy but all have that same frísson of excitement on first arrival.IMG_1570

Anyway, away from the market area and into a beautiful cloister-like square (Georgia became a Christian country in 301 C.E.) with restaurants on three sides. A pretty red-IMG_1572 2haired waitress dressed like a flight attendant with a jaunty blue hat, served me my first and excellent Georgian beer. I don’t know the name of the beer because it was written in the Georgian alphabet, which, to my eye looked unintelligible, full of squiggles, radii and what looks like badly written numbers.IMG_1591

What I did like about Batumi in particular were the mosaic style cobbled streets, the Botanical Gardens overlooking a muddy and uninviting Black Sea, the Cable Car that went to nowhere – well, there was a cafe and below that there was an empty, church tower – IMG_1599the musical fountain near the Ukrainian restaurant that had a dress code (I was not allowed to eat up on the balcony) and the somewhat gaudy buildings, IMG_1602the impossibly tall column of Medea (of Jason and the Argonauts fame),IMG_1639the excellent craft beer – although I meant to drink Georgian wine IMG_1605specifically! But what really bowled me over was the certainty on the part of everyone I spoke to that the Georgian language was directly related to the Basque language and that in the past Georgia had been called Iberia and that just proves it! Fantastic.  Yes, I know this bottle does not say Iberia but then aagain I find it hard to believe Georgian and Basque languages are related.IMG_1685

 

Crossing the Caucasus

When I was in school, I used to enjoy Geography and was proud of my childish ability to name European capital cities. Then the world seemed more compact, comprising of Western Europe, The USSR, Asia, Africa, The Americas and Antarctica. Then, of course from the ethnocentric European point of view, there was the Near East (Egypt and Suez), the Middle East (Syria, Turkey) and the Far East (China, Japan) and, intriguingly, Asia Minor or was it Eurasia? And then there was something called the Balkans, famously described by Bismarck, I think, as the ‘sick man of Europe’ and the Caucasus, which, in my mind, was a sort of no-go area. Nevertheless, none of those areas was ever clarified in my mind.

Confusingly too, in American crime news and novels, there were always references to “Caucasian males, armed and dangerous, if encountered, do not approach”. Who or what they were I was never quite sure but I suspected that I might be one of them – no, not the armed and dangerous bit, of course.

Anyway, as I learned recently, the currently outmoded system of classifying our species depended on a 19th century German physiologist and anthropologist, Blumenbach. He classified human kind in traditional terms of Caucasian / Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Australoid and Negroid, but it was the use of the term Caucasian that fascinated me.

The Caucasus Mountains in modern day Georgia, and specifically the southern slopes,

Wine Qveri
Ancient Wine amphora or Qveri from Batumi in Georgia

were apparently the home of, not only the autochthones – the original members of mankind – and the site at which Noah’s (of the Ark fame) son, Japheth – the traditional Biblical ancestor of the Europeans – established his tribes before migrating into Europe proper but also the birthplace of wine more than 8,000 years ago!With a history like that, what was there not to like about exploring this hitherto unknown – to me – part of the world.

Factually, the Caucasus is the area of land, composed mostly of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan (along with lesser, recognised and / or unofficial Republics of Ossetia (north & South), Abkhazia, Adjara, Ardsakh, bounded in the north by the Greater Caucasian Mountains and about 100 kilometres south by the lesser Caucasian Mountains.

188px-Kaukasus
Satelite view of the Greater and Lesser Caucasus Mountains

Nevertheless, without bothering particularly to look at maps, I arbitrarily decided for myself that my Caucasus (trip) would start in Istanbul where the Bosporus drained from the Black Sea and would encompass everything as far as Baku in Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea. It seemed simple – Black to the Caspian Sea with the Caucasus somewhere in between – and the wine bit sounded good, to me at least.

Caucasus 2 Map
Istanbul to Baku, The Black to the Caspian Sea.

I remember, years ago, I dozed through a class called Comparative Analysis of an Uncommonly Taught Language, Turkish and English. The only definitive thing I took away from that class was that Turkish is an ‘agglutinative’ language. I could still remember a smattering of Arabic phrases from my time in the Gulf so language shouldn’t be a problem! All I had to do now was get to Istanbul and start discovering 8000-year-old wines!

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