Trans Eurasia travel

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Getting around (transport)

By air

The internal flight network is a main triangle between Baku, Ganja and Nakhchivan. Foreigners are charged $100 (Baku-Nakhchivan, 4/day) or $50 for either Baku-Ganja or Ganja-Nakhchivan (both Tue, Thur, Sat, Sun). To buy internal tickets in Baku one has to use use the central doorway marked Naxchivan (not the one marked 'Ticket Sales') at the main office of AZAL, two blocks southeast of the Central Railway station, near Samed Vurgun Park, or buy them at the airport.

By train

Train travel in the Caucasus is a bargain. For less than $5 you can cross Azerbaijan in reasonable overnight comfort including a reserved sleeping berth and clean sheets. The wide-gauge trains give fairly good leg room and the relatively slow progress means you can get a full night's sleep even on shorter trips such as Baku-Ganja. However, if you're in a hurry it's quicker to move by road. Trains in Georgia are even slower than in Azerbaijan though have a slightly better reputation for cleanliness.

Some carrages have a samovar which, when lit, provides boiling water for passengers to make their own tea. The operation of the samovar as well as the cleanliness and orderliness of the carrage is very much dependent on the personality and integrity of the provodnik (carrage duty officer). These are the ticket collectors/ guards who are at best guardian angels, at worst mini mafiosi to their carrage's passengers. Fortunately the former is much more common.

Somehow, many people seem to have developed the strange misapprehension that train travel is dangerous in the ex-Soviet Union. The only real problem is that carrages can be unbearably hot and, ridiculously, few of the compartments have opening windows. Air-conditioning only becomes effective an hour or two after leaving Baku. Another petty annoyance is that the train lighting is rarely switched on until the train is ready to depart which can make finding your berth rather awkward at night. This does not result in panic or mass thievery, just the need for a torch.

Standard intercity trains are relatively comfortable all-sleeper overnight expresses. These have three main classes. The best is 'SV' (pronounced 'ess-vay', translated  as sleeping carrage) in which a special closable compartment holds just two passengers in relative luxury. These carrages are normally very clean (except the separate toilets) and you have your own reading light, fold out mirror and (for the better lower bunk) a small desk with a power-point. Roughly half the price are the most popular Kupe berths which have four beds in a larger, sparser compartment. Not available on all trains, the open Platskart class squeezes in a further two people by removing the compartment dividers and adding two berths along the walkway/corridor. These open carrages are clearly less secure than closed kupe compartments but many people use them across country without incidents. The corridor berths are short and best avoided.

If the train is almost full (most unlikely) and you're desperate to get aboard you might be able to get an 'obshchiy or umumi' (unreserved) ticket or go directly to the provodnik on the train itself and pay your way aboard. In reality the trains are rarely entirely full and there's often a small gaggle of locals trying to pay their way onto each carrage in the hope of saving a few manats over the full ticket pnce. This could be a dangerous tactic as you'll pay almost the same price without any guarantee of a place to sleep.

Berth numbers
If you have luggage it can be stowed in a large box beneath the lower seats. Thus, for security, it is reassuring to have an (odd-numbered), lower ('ashagi' in Azeri) berth and act as sleeping guardian. In platskart or kupe the best berths are probably #17, #19 or #21 as they're in the middle of the carrage, well away from the smelly toilets. Avoid berth numbers over #33 in platskart since they are shorter, have no luggage box and, being alongside the passageway, are prone to frequent disturbance by other passengers wandering by.

Bed sheets
There's a mattress roll and pillow to add comfort to each berth. Before you use these, however, you're supposed to fetch a set of clean, rented sheets from the provodnik and make up the bed properly. Depending on the fare you paid, the cost of sheet rental may or may not be included (it is usually included in tickets purchased ex-Baku). Ask the person at the ticket window to confirm this to avoid an unnecessary quarrel with the provodnik once aboard.

In Georgia, sheet rental is usually extra, the sheets if available come ironed and sealed in plastic bags, or you can use your own sleeping bag.

Azeri trains fill up but are not especially crowded except in student holidays. It's usually quite easy to get a ticket for the same day of travel as little as an hour or so before departure. However, it's worth buying early to get a well-positioned berth.

Georgian trains are so rarely full that tickets hardly ever go on sale until a couple of hours before departure. You will usually be asked to show your passport when buying a ticket.

From a station that is not the train's departure point there is only a limited quota of tickets available. Once this has been reached further bookings are impossible until about half an hour before the train's arrival or whenever it has signalled ahead the number of berths remaining. This explains why you might occasionally see a small queue at the ticket office that never seems to diminish.

When you have the ticket in your hand it's worth checking that the details are what you expected. On the most common computerized ticket there are four lines of print-out: the first gives the train number, departure date/time (getma tarixi), carrage number (vaqon) with a code for class (KP = kupe, PL = Platskart), base price, and your passport number (bring ID'). Hidden away on the second line between the routing and your name is the all-important berth number (yer). The third line lists any surcharges - including 'yataq' fee for bed-sheets. Ignore the last line which simply records the cashier and date of purchase. Ticket vendors are usually most obliging and will often underline the key points without being asked.

On boarding the train the provodnik initially examines the ticket to make sure you have the correct carriage and returns it. Once the train has departed he walks up the carriage collecting tickets in a numbered wallet. Being left ticketless is unnerving for first-time passengers but is quite normal. Still, for your own peace of mind, you can make a photocopy/camera shot of the ticket before boarding just in case there's a question later about the ticket getting lost' - especially on the Baku-Tbilisi train.

By bus, minibus and shared taxi

There are bus services on most roads and even the smallest villages usually have at least one bus per day, if there's a way through the potholes. On several long-distance routes bus/minibus services are duplicated by shared taxis which fill up faster and cover the routes recklessly fast for roughly double the mini-bus fare.

Vehicle hire and taxi

If you're confident enough to take on the twin road challenges of potholes and police, several car hire outlets in Baku can oblige. Much the best deals in town come from friendly Avis. If you don't have an international licence they can make a temporary permit using driving documents issued by your home country. Other rental agencies include Hertz, Caspian Motors. 4WD for trips to mountains might be essential, but book well ahead for summer weekends.

Approximate driving times from Baku (by car)
Astara    6 hrs
Besh Barmaq    1.5-2 hrs
Lankaran    5 hrs
Minare (Cloudcatcher) 3-4 hrs
Qabala    3.5 hrs
Quba    3 hrs
Red Bridge (Georgian border) 8 hrs
Shamakha    2 hrs
Shaki    6 hrs
Xinaliq    4,5 hrs

Taxi/chauffeured vehicles

Driving can be stressful and amazingly taxi-chartering is often no more expensive. You can get the best deals if you locate a share taxi heading where you're going - offer to pay five times the single-person fare and in return request a few photo stops and side excursions en route. Make sure you explain these ahead of time - if you add them later the price may rise substantially. Just don't leave things too late in the day if the driver thinks he won't be able to find passengers for the return journey he'll want to charge you double.

A great way to weekend in the deep south or around Shaki is to take the night train out on Friday night, walk around or use a taxi to explore on Saturday, then get a share taxi to drive you back to Baku on the Sunday via a few rural points of interest. Much less tiring than driving there AND back, whoever's at the wheel.

Reaching the most interesting mountain villages often requires a 4WD vehicle. If you're interested in the mountains for the views rather than the automotive challenge, consider engaging a local driver with a Niva (easy to find around the bus stations or bazaars of Quba, Ismaili, Qusar and other hub towns).

Prices vary substantially but will usually be cheaper and less stressful than renting a 4WD and driving yourself. For harder routes eg to Xinaliq or Allar, even a Niva may struggle but finding a driver with a high-clearance, virtually indestructible UAZ jeep is the solution.

If you don't want to find a driver in situ or don't trust your phrase book, the car-rental agencies or travel agencies offer chauffeur services for $30-50/day on top of vehicle rental charges.