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.
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.
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.
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.
Strolling 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 panting 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. 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. Arrival time rolled around and the train still trundled noisily over flat, dusty plains with no sign of an imminent city. Questions 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.