Trans Eurasia travel

Trains

Tbilisi’s main train station (Tel 566253, 993253; Vagzlis moedani) is the railway hub of Georgia. Trains from Tbilisi are generally slower, less frequent, more comfortable and a bit cheaper than marshrutkas and buses. The station is due for rebuilding but meanwhile remains a slightly confusing place. Schedule information is currently available at the left-hand end of the line of ticket windows. Some is also given in English on www.info-tbilisi.com and (in Georgian) on the Georgian Railway site (www.railway.ge).

The only international trains are the overnight sleepers to Baku and Yerevan. The train to Baku (2nd/1st-class 70/139 GEL (50 Euros), 14 hours) leaves at 5.15pm daily. Given the shortage of road transport from Tbilisi to Azerbaijan, this is the most convenient way to get to Baku and to stops en route such as Gəncə. The reverse direction train from Baku to Tbilisi is also liable to serious delays, with perhaps a couple of hours at the Georgian border post and the same at the Azeri border. Leaving Baku daily at 20.35, it takes around 15 hours for 549km, and fares start at about US$20. About 45mins into the trip, expect to have a lengthy stop at Gardabani where your passsports will be taken for inspection and returned once train leave the station. Then you continue to a town just across the border called Böyük Kesik. It is here that the Azerbaijan officials board the train.

The train to Yerevan (4th/3rd/2nd/1st-class 12/16/24/45 GEL, 15 hours) however takes a painfully slow, roundabout route via Vanadzor and Gyumri, and only runs every two days (on odd dates from Tbilisi to Yerevan and on even dates from Yerevan to Tbilisi) . It leaves Tbilisi at 3.40pm.  The best class, SV, can be a very civilised way to travel, if you're in no rush.

It’s advisable to book a day or two ahead, though at busy times (eg the summer holiday season) you might be told the train is fully booked. Within Georgia, the most useful trains include the night train to Zugdidi (3rd/2nd-class 5.50/11 GEL, eight hours, 9.30pm) and the night train to Batumi (3rd/2nd/1st-class 15/23/40 GEL, eight hours, 10pm). This Batumi sleeper, with air-conditioned 1st- and 2nd-class compartments, is another train for which it’s advisable to book ahead. Note that Batumi appears as Makhinjauri (the exact location of its station) on some timetables. Day trains include the 8.50am to Batumi (20 GEL, eight hours), the 2.45pm to Poti (8 GEL, six hours), both with 3rd-class seating only, and the 9.15am to Kutaisi (3rd/2nd-class 5/10.50 GEL, 5½ hours) and Zugdidi (3rd/ 2nd-class 6/11.50 GEL, eight hours). There’s also an 11.40pm departure to Poti.

Departing: There are no English instructions on which platform the train will leave from, however there are only a handful of main tracks, and you just need to look for the blue and white train cars that say "Tbilisi-Baki". The cabin attendants are very nice, but do not expect them speak English. It is easy enough to find your assigned berth, as the carriage number and seat number are printed on your ticket in English. The attendants will take your passport and half of your ticket when you board the train... do not be alarmed. They will return it shortly.

The Trip: They will deliver the bedding in a plastic bag about an hour before the sunset. The bathrooms are OK, functioning sink and actual toilet, but no toilet seat, so bring seat covers. There is no food or water available on the train, so be sure and bring enough for the evening and morning. Do not be alarmed if the train stops frequently and moves really slowly.

The Border: About an hour or two after you leave Tbilisi you will reach the Georgian border. Someone will come through and collect your passports and deliver them back to you about 45 minutes later with a Georgian exit stamp and an Azerbaijan customs form. The customs form for Azerbaijan is pretty straight forward, although some of the translations on the English version are not that clear. The important thing is to indicate how many bags you are traveling with. Then the train will continue for about an hour before you reach the Azerbaijan border. When you reach the Azerbaijan border some officials in uniform will come through the train and collect the passports again. They will then begin to search the entire train, including your bags. If you are American, they will tell you that you need to follow a guard to the back of the train. At the end of my train car was interview room where a customs officer scanned my passport, took my photograph, and asked me a series of questions. They actually asked me what sites in Baku I wanted to see... it was pretty detailed. IMPORTANT: ensure that your visa for Azerbaijan begins on the DEPARTURE date, and not the arrival date in Baku. You will hit the Azerbaijan border about 8 PM, and they almost didn't let me in the country because my visa did not start until the next day. They reluctantly let me in anyway, but it also delayed my customs departure from Azerbaijan because of the error. The customs officials spoke very limited English, but we finally got through the interviews and they stamped my passport and returned it to me.

After the search of the train was complete and the passports were examined, the train continued moving. At this point I went to sleep for most of the night. The air conditioner works well, but seemed to only function when the train was at a high speed (which was rarely) so it was a bit warm in the cabin.

Arrival: The train arrived in Baku central station 5 minutes early (10 AM on the dot)! It's amazing that they have all the delays and searches timed so perfectly. I had read online that the train is often late, but it seemed to always arrive on time from what I heard from other passengers.

Overall it is a fun experience (if a bit stressful at the border) and I am glad that I had an adventure. :-) Next time, I will probably fly between Tbilisi and Baku.

It's no longer feasible to reach Georgia by train from Russia: services from Moscow ran via Baku (Azerbaijan) to Tbilisi (3,214km, taking 3 days) until the opening in the late 1930s of a line along the Black Sea coast. This became the main route 509km, taking 41hrs), but is now closed due to the secession of Abkhazia; the Baku route was also closed by the Chechen war. However, the opening in 1997 of a new link through Daghestan (avoiding Chechnya) allowed Moscow-Baku services to resume, although non-CIS citizens are not allowed to use it. The through service Tbilisi via Baku was restored in May 2006. There have been various attempts at building a direct route through and under the Caucasus, but all were abandoned it seems unlikely to be tried again.

Tbilisi should be connected by a direct line to Turkey by 2012 (it was originally planned for 2010). This will link Akhalkalaki in southern Georgia with Kars in northeast Turkey and finally make a continuous route between Baku and Istanbul (and Europe beyond) a reality.

Elektrichky (electric trains with seating only) run from Tbilisi’s Borjomi station, next door to the main station, to Borjomi (2
GEL, 4¼ hours) at 7.15am and 4.55pm, and to Kutaisi (3.50 GEL, 5½ hours) at 4.10pm. For these you pay on the train.
All the above domestic trains stop at Gori, and most at Mtskheta.

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