Midnight Train to Tbilisi, Georgia
Greetings, friends and readers. I’ve been traveling in the Caucasus this month, and over the weekend I took advantage of the opportunity to go from Azerbaijan to Georgia on a 15-hour overnight train.
Here are a few notes and several videos from the trip.
So much of travel involves getting lost, experiencing a slight rising of panic, feeling inadequate and not being able to communicate. The small moments of victory come when you successfully navigate a challenge. I found the train station! I bought a ticket! I found the right platform!
And then I wait four hours. As someone said once, the waiting is the hardest part. It’s cold here, but thankfully not really cold. I spend the first part of my hurry-up-and-wait time with a book, but then I just sit and look around. Glamorous it’s not, but it works for me.
“Sir, one question,” said the clerk at my hotel in Baku, whom I’d recruited to write Baku-Tbilisi, one-way, second class for me in the local language of Azeri. “Why do you want to take the train? It’s not very nice.”
Why take the train? Good question. First, I knew it would be a highly authentic way to get around the Caucasus, and also a good counterpoint to the world of Star Alliance flights that brought me from Portland to Baku, via Denver and Frankfurt. Second, I like overland travel, so why not go all-out? Fifteen hours can’t be that bad, and the unpredictability and raw element of train travel adds an edginess that I haven’t had recently.
On this train I meet Ina, a Norwegian who works for her country’s embassy in Azerbaijan. Ina is fluent in Russian, so I’m temporarily saved from having to use my broad vocabulary of five Russian words. The train rumbles through the night, and thankfully the border stop and accompanying bureaucracy don’t come until we arrive at the edge of Azerbaijan after 7am.
We notice a big difference in attitude between the Azerbaijani border guards and the Georgian border guards. The Azerbaijanis are suspicious and rude as they check our travel documents. An hour later, the Georgians are some of the most friendly border guards I’ve ever met. Several of them poke their head in the compartment just to say “Welcome to Georgia” in English.
Unfortunately, the attitude difference doesn’t translate to efficiency, as we have to wait nearly two hours to clear the Georgian side of the border. We finally make it into Tbilisi at around 1:30pm. I hadn’t slept much during the night, so I’m happy to find my hotel and take a nap before dinner.
I could have done without the four-hour wait for the train, and I’m neutral on Azerbaijan, but Georgia is living up to the high expectations several readers who had been here sent with me. I’ve spent the past couple of days getting settled and wandering around Tbilisi, which is truly a beautiful city. It reminds me of the Balkan region, particularly Croatia or Montenegro.
In short, I’m having fun. Train videos are below, photos are on Flickr, my whole life is on Twitter, and I hope you’re starting your own week off well. See you again soon, either from another stop in Georgia or from Armenia if I get there first.
Video #1 (30 seconds) inside of the train station
Video #2: (1 minute 49 seconds) how to travel without speaking the language – and being evicted from the only available seating in the train station
Video #3: (42 seconds) Exterior of the train, waiting to board
Video #4: (51 seconds) Interior of the compartment + dinner of champions
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I think the train is the coolest way to travel. It’s seems romantic and old-fashioned still compared to other forms of long distance travel.
How do you cope with, not only the language barrier, but also that the language is in a non Roman script (I presume its Cyrillic).
Having travelled by train from Singapore to Kuala Lumpar, I sort of get the romanticism of it all, but breaking down halfway and waiting hours to get moving again slightly spoiled it all! (Needless to say we took the flight back down)
Reminds of the time I was traveling in Colombia and ordered the “faJeta”. Having little grasp of the language, I pronounced the J like a j in jackass, making it sound more like a female reproductive organ. Got a few snickers from those who knew I was butchering their beautiful language.
Have fun amigo.
So glad to hear you’re doing well and having fun in the Caucasus, delayed trains and all. We joke that Georgia has the most friendly border guards in the world – even at 3 AM they were cheerful and seemed so happy to welcome us to their country. The Georgian people are perhaps the most hospitable people we’ve met yet on our journey – each day was an adventure of meeting people and getting invited to events and meals. Enjoy some khatchapuri, khinghali, matsoni (mixed with fresh honey), badrijan nigzit and lobio for us – I’m getting “homesick” for Georgian food! Watch your liver during supras (big, Georgian meals) though 🙂
I too love train travel. It makes up in interest what it loses in efficiency. I’m a little surprised that you were able to make videos in the train station and of the train itself. Are you hassled about it, ever?
I’m with Gordie. The train is an incredible way to travel. It sends me to an era long before my time and reminds me of how my grandmother used to travel to visit my family as a little kid.
Awesome! Second-class compartments aren’t all that bad. A seat in the day coach is… yeah, not so much.
Glad you’re having a great time! I was considering moving to Tbilisi at one time, and still can’t wait to get back there. 🙂
Azerbaijani beer and a Clif bar, truly a traveler’s meal.
This is one of the last word I remember from georgian language that I had started to learn when I fell in love with a georgian girl in Paris. It means ‘hello’ and ‘victory’ as far as I remember but georgian is one of the most complicated language to learn, that is amazing !
Great to read that Georgia seems nice today to an American fellow after all they suffered.
Wow, did you happen to take any pictures from the train while you were on it? Seems pretty exciting!
Glad to hear that you’re enjoying Tbilisi! The Georgian guards are indeed extremely nice. I have yet to go to Azerbaijan, but I’ve been to Armenia several times and it’s always a pleasure to get back to the smiling Georgian faces. I’ve only been here for 3 months now, but I love it. I love the people. I love the place. I’m glad I have a couple more years to go.
And as Chris Leborgne said, Georgian is definitely a very complicated language to learn. I’m trying… so far I can say simple things like hello how are you, count to ten and tell you what day of the week it is. Oh, and I know the alphabet. If I was in France or Italy, I bet I would know more than that by now. But it’s worth it, I find the language fascinating, although I’m not looking forward to learning the grammar.
Hope you enjoy the rest of your trip, and I’m glad you took the train. Train travel is wonderful, even if it’s not glamorous.
I love train travel! I almost always meet interesting people and have good experiences. Not knowing the language can be stressful but someone I always managed to muddle through.
It is not cyrillic at all and, I think, even more complicated! Georgian is a very old language with its own alphabet. Letters are very similar with each other to a novice and there are quite a few sounds that don’t exist in other European languages. And the grammar is … Oh my God !! Who could have invented that ? Trying to learn this language is a really good exercise to rebuild your brain connections.
But people there are friendly so you can pass over the language barrier.
Safe travels. Am enjoying your website as a new “subscriber”…. You’ve lived up to your promise of capturing my attention in a few hits.
Thanks for the post. Your willingness to travel here, there and yon WITHOUT knowing the language of your destinations is pulverizing one of my excuses for not going abroad (would like to be conversational in X language before . . . )
“So much of travel involves getting lost, experiencing a slight rising of panic, feeling inadequate and not being able to communicate.”
Communication is always my biggest fear, since I get easily frustrated sometimes. (Especially when I’m at work, which happens surprisingly often… So I’m very uneasy about travel when I know nothing of the local language.) Of course, it really is no excuse, but it helps that hubby is somewhat fluent in German. 🙂 I hope to be one day as well.
Great reminder to push those comfort zones… It’s the only way one can grow as a person. It would do me lots of good to remember that.
Yep – I can relate! A 3rd of my year looks like like that… except I have a team of 6-8 young people with me and we usually use second class and don’t stay in hotels. Good times.
Enjoy the open road!
Chris, I recon that we learnt to be impatient while waiting from a lifetime of getting what we want (mostly!), when we want it.
When I first moved to Africa, a hiccup wait of a couple of hours was an annoying ‘big deal’. After two years of living there and adjusting my parameters, a 9 hour wait in Nairobi for a connecting flight was a non event.
Learning to enjoy things that we cannot influence is a big part of our ‘new’ way of life, focusing on where we are, rather than where we are heading. (re-read the ‘way of the peaceful warrior’ by Dan Millman if anyone has forgotten how!)
Stay well Chris
What a great adventure. My wife’s family did tons of traveling when she was growing up. I always wondered how to get by when you don’t speak the language. But I suppose there are workarounds.
Man… if second class in America meant we got a little cabin along with our train ticket, I’m all for it. I wonder what first class gives you? A condo? 🙂
Thanks for the videos, Chris. Like you said, not luxurious, but definitely a unique experience. I would love to do something like that.
And FYI it was Tom Petty who said, “Waiting is the hardest part” in his song The Waiting.
I was wondering how you were finding it as a vegetarian traveling in that part of the world. There seems to be this assumption that Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics are difficult places for vegetarians. What kinds of food have you been eating (and just how many Clif bars did you take with you)?
Great question – I’m going to write about this subject in a whole post soon (early 2010). Thanks!
I am glad to hear that you are having a good time in Georgia. My brother lives in Tbilisi, and we visited him in 2007. Georgians are even more friendly when you travel with children – they love kids.
Our favorite side trips from Tbilisi were to the cave comlexes at Uplistsikhe, and especially those at Vardzia, near Borjomi. Batumi is also wonderful, a tropical city on the Black Sea, with a Roman fort in nearby Gonio.
We never made it to the mountains but we heard that there are incredible.
Have a great trip!
Awesome videos! I felt like I was along for the ride. 🙂
Nice. We lived in Tbilisi in 2002/3, but haven’t been able to get back there. Maybe in 2010. I am sure things have improved a lot since then. Georgia is definitely captivating.
While traveling by train to Lyon, France, I met an Australian guy who traveled mainly overland from Oz via Japan and Russia to Western Europe. I tried to explain which countries he was traveling through, including political craziness of Belgium politics (while myself being from the Netherlands) to him. With apologies to all Flemmish readers :).
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