Baku to Tbilisi on the overnight train is a great experience!
It comprises of good solid East German stock of a mid 1960s vintage; good in its day, no doubt, even attractive in its Prussian way, but today it lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. The train is an exercise in functionality, offering overnight passage between these two Caucasian capitals in either 1st or 2nd class.
Each carriage is completely identical, but the 1st Class offering has only two lower berths, while four passengers prise themselves into two layers of bunks in 2nd Class.
The compartments are actually spacious enough, particularly if one actually lifts up the bed to reveal a large luggage locker underneath; travelling as we, and many other westerners do, with far too much luggage makes a bit of a squeeze, but it was the carpet that really did it.
I knew when it was bought up in the mountains that(a) it was a fabulous carpet at a terrific price and (b) it would be a pain to lug around for the next two weeks.
I was correct on both counts.
Boarding the train is a ritual. Only passengers are allowed on, so there would be no help with luggage from anyone else, and this was when I was advised that carpets had to have their own ticket. Or something like that. A draconian Azeri conductor was determined to prevent access to the train without some additional payment that turned out to be 2½ Manat (about $3) to carry carpets.
Without the assistance of our guide, this could have proved to be a show stopper as I had no clue what was going on.
So a word of warning to those of you planning to take a carpet on the overnight express from Baku to Tbilisi: remember the 2½ Manat fee.
Once on board, the conductor, in a slightly more approachable manner, dispensed sets of clean sheets to each passenger, and then we all made up our beds. At 2200 on the dot, the train pulled out of the station, and away we went. There were only the sleeping cars, no other facilities, but it mattered not.
We swayed and creaked our way west at a reasonable tick, and before I knew it we had arrived at the border at The Red Bridge.
Now here’s the thing; I might have a peculiar sense of fun, but I actually like crossing land borders. Not the antiseptic borders that define European nations or the US / Canada border, but real borders that separate distinct countries. I like the drama that is always played out, although one imagines that life as an Azeri border guard, posted to The Red Bridge cannot be full of excitement.
And so the pantomime begins.
First the passport brigade, scrutinizing passports with an intense scrut; ensuring that one hasn’t overstayed one’s visa, or silently crept across the Armenian border. Once stamped, then the customs guys follow, the final arm of the Azeri government, and one dedicated to saving the export of prohibited items. Like antique carpets.
Now the carpet that I had bought was not antique, but was exciting for them because it might have been. Regardless of the certificate that proved its age as about nine months, this could be the tip of an Antique Carpet Export Ring. Why else would four Canadians seek to leave the country by this backdoor?
The carpet specialist duly arrived and prodded, poked and rubbed bits of it between his sensitive and knowing fingers. Another opinion was sought, and finally someone said (although as they said it in Azeri, I can’t be sure of the actual words), “Leave it alone, it’s only nine months old you idiots!”
And so we slid out of Azerbaijan and into Georgia.
A fine overnight run, and worth every penny; passage on the train costs €23, and €46 if you want the privacy of a two-berth cabin. Admittedly one can fly in about an hour, and the train takes fourteen, but who wants to fly when the romance of the rails is on offer?