11th June 2017
On a train somewhere, Azerbaijan
Tamuna collected myself and Kirstie from outside Cozy Hostel in the late morning. The three of us had planned to make a day trip to Kakheti, known as the ‘wine region’ of Georgia because of its rich history and culture of vineyards and wineries. After a quick stop in the Dunkin’ Donuts in Tbilisi’s city centre for breakfast, we set off for Signagi, Kakheti’s most popular city.
After a few hours drive, we stepped out into the small city of old cobbled roads, orange tiled roofs, and beautifully preserved churches and monasteries. We didn’t have much of a plan, so just started walking. We made a brief stop at a half-dilapidated tower section of the old city walls, then trekked up the road leading out of town, for a panorama of the city and the valley below. Tamuna treated us to a huge feast in a very fancy local restaurant, where we sat on a terrace, overlooking the vineyards of Kakheti, as gentle piano music played in the background.
We didn’t actually manage to make it to a winery, as I’d hoped for. After our meal we drove a long, winding series of bumpy roads, down into the vineyards of at the base of the valley, trying to find a place called Pheasant’s Tears. Finally we reached the spot marked by Google Maps, only to be told by a man standing outside the farmhouse that the owner was away. It was for the best, too: Kirstie and I were meant to be boarding our train for Baku in two hours; Google predicted it would take two hours and ten minutes for us to make it to the station. Determined to not have us miss our train, Tamuna sped the whole way back to Tbilisi, aggressively overtaking and undercutting with fearlessness that would put even the local minibus drivers to shame. The police stopped us at one point. Tamuna accepted her fine, and took off like a bullet again. Kirstie wasn’t completely comfortable with the driving style, telling Tamuna on a few occasions that it wouldn’t be the end of the world if we had to take tomorrow’s train. I said nothing.
We arrived at the station fifteen minutes before the train was due to depart. Tamuna bought us some food from a cafe in the station, to keep us fed during the night. Kirstie and I thanked her for all the generosity and hospitality she’d shown us over our time in Georgia, then boarded the train. We found our beds; two narrow top bunks in a cabin for four, which we were sharing with two Russian women. Mitch, the New Zealander I’d met a few nights ago, also happened to be on our train, a few cabins down the carriage. Myself and Kirstie settled into our bunks, as the train set off.
We reached the Azerbaijani border soon after dark. On the Georgian side, the train stopped for an hour, for passports to be collected by uniformed officers. While the men were inspecting the documents, the passengers stepped off for a smoke, or some fresh air, or just for something to do. Myself, Mitch, and Kirstie went to a small kiosk, built beside the border control station, to buy a few beers. We stood in the dark, on the tracks beside our carriage (we weren’t at any sort of proper station), drinking the slightly-overpriced, lukewarm bottles, until one of the stewards called something out of the carriage, and all the passengers began getting on again. I quickly ran back to the kiosk, grabbed a few more beers for my friends and I, then jumped back on the train. The stewards handed out our passports as the train started moving again, and we officially crossed into Azerbaijan.
On the Azerbaijani side, the process was more daunting. A team of soldiers, policemen, and border control agents all boarded the train. The men went from cabin to cabin, first collecting and inspecting passports, then taking them away to another cabin, which the men had claimed as their temporary office. As our passports were taken, only one question was asked of us
“Have you been to Armenia?”
I could tell them I hadn’t. Kirstie, who could perhaps have lied, but really didn’t want to risk it, had to tell them she had.
After our documents were inspected, a soldier with a metal detector came around to search luggage. He didn’t use the metal detector, but did tell me to open my backpack, to have a quick look inside.
“Alcohol?” he asked me, as he searched it.
“No” I replied, assuming he was referring only to the contents of my bag, and not to the two open beers myself and Kirstie had left on the cabin table.
The soldier moved on, and myself and my cabin mates sat silently, waiting for whatever was to come next. In twos, we were summoned by the stewards, to sit with the border agents in the cabin they’d claimed. First the Russian women were called. Then they returned, and myself and Kirstie were called. Kirstie went into the cabin first, and I followed behind. We sat down opposite two agents, in uniforms that seemed halfway between those of policemen and soldiers, who had set up a computer and camera on the table between us. From the way they were looking at me, I could tell the meetings were actually meant to be on an individual basis. I stood up, and waited outside the cabin, as Kirstie was questioned.
“You were in Armenia?”
*muffled talking in Azerbaijani*
“Where you go in Armenia?”
“You go to Nagorno-Karabakh?” [The disputed territory, internationally recognised as being Azerbaijani, but in practice controlled by Armenia]
“Look into camera.”
A minute later, Kirstie emerged from the cabin, holding her passport. She smiled, and returned to our room.
My interrogation went much smoother.
“You were in Armenia?”
“Look into camera.”
I stared into the camera on the desk for a minute, waited for the men to stamp my passport and hand it back to me, then stood up, and returned to my cabin. Myself and Kirstie dropped off our passports, picked up our beers, and stepped off the train to join Mitch, as we waited for all the inspections and interrogations to finish up. Shortly before midnight, the Azerbaijani officials stepped off the train, the steward called for the passengers to step back on, and we started moving again. My friends and I stood in the hallway of the carriage, outside our cabin, finishing the last drops of our beers. Just as the clocks passed midnight, we called it a night, and each climbed into our bunk beds, to try to get a few hours sleep before morning.