Hurriedly hobbling down the platform to find my carriage, I stop to ask where my carriage is. The attendant, with thick red lipstick and aquatic eye shadow gives me a bored look and and points me further down. Hobbling further, my angry joint seemed is just about as friendly as the railway staff. The faded green an stained white carriages are surrounded by smoke, steam and soot. Lights penetrate the smog, while far-off trains whistle. The romantic scene is not lost on me, but it feels as though the journey could not start sooner.
From the outside it seems the train would be a taste of the old country, but the inside of the carriages is pleasantly clean. The cabins are cramped, but warm enough to brave the cool leather benches. There was a first-class option, but Indian train travel has taught lessons of comfort-versus-enjoyment that I consider imoprtant. The rougher the class, the nicer the people. And this was pretty much hospital-like, but certainly not first class.
Wedged into the four person cabin, waiting, a small woman scuttles in. She’s done-up, probably with after-market lips, and seems about as grumpy and charming as the train’s staff. She says hello in Azeri, I grunt and smile, and we set off.
We only start talking about three hours into the journey, when she translates for four goons who want to take our cabin and move us both up to two random bunks. She says no, without a hitch, so I follow suit. The goons, drunk and reeking of stale smoke, sit and wait. They sit, they wait, trying to convince us it’s a good idea.
I don’t love the idea of a top bunk as a well padded fellow, and I fancy getting on this grumpy woman’s good side.
Watching a movie on her tablet, I watch Azerbaijan pass by. She asks if her tablet is too loud, but I don’t mind.
“It’s Transformers movie. I like this movie,” she says far too seriously in a thick tsuedo-Russian accent.
I look away, holding in my laughter.
Between the goons and Transformers, she opens up. I discover she speaks more than just a couple of words of English. She’s actually Azeri, heading to Tbiliisi, Georgia, for a doctor’s appointment. Why? Because Azerbaijan’s doctors are decidedly crap, in spite of the country’s wealth. People buy their degrees rather than earning them, she says. Doctors in Georgia, however, are among the best in the region. Some people go as far as Turkey or Iran for their doctors, she says. She shows me her passport, stamped back and forth between the two countries, all by train. Many exit and entry stamps carrying the same date. If the train is on time, she tells me, then she will leave the same day we arrive.
Waking up the next morning, not far from the Georgian border, we go through immigration. We exit Azerbaijan on the train, cross the border, and enter Georgia on the other side. Not long after waking, we realise she’s going to have to stay the night. A 13-hour train is going to end up a 16 or 17 hour ride.
Having ridden mostly in the dark, underneath two of the snoring goons, I’m relatively well rested. With about six or seven hours sleep, the lady opposite hands me a chocolate biscuit.
“From Ukraine”, she tells me. “One for you, one for me, with tea.”
One of the grumps brings us some tea, and we sip away. Sugar cubes and hard candies are served with the tea, the idea being that either can be dunked in as a sweetener for the typical Azeri bergamot tea.
Hard talk seems to flow out of her and over the tea. She tells me about her son, and how they need to leave Azerbaijan to avoid military service. She says she wants a good education for him, she wants him to learn and earn his degree. She speaks of the current president of the country, whom many people see as a bit of a dictator. Sure, she says, he’s a bit authoritarian. But Azerbaijan needs someone strong like him, because Azerbaijan is full of “stupids” like “them”, pointing the carriage next door where the goons have moved.
The president of Azerbaijan is known for being a bit preferential in his nepotistic choices of government officials and general corruption, he’s been in power for a long time, and he shows not sign of leaving anytime soon either.
As the chat subsides, and the city of Tbilisi reveals itself from the grim countryside, we go through immigration and the people seem to warm up. The lady leaves without pleasantries and I get onto the platform.
I grab a taxi with Taras, a husky old dog, and we hit the streets of what will be one of my favourite cities. The desolate outskirts of the city are a trick because the inner city’s cultural wealth is something to behold.