Eastern Europe Rail Odyssey #5: Istanbul to Tbilisi

 

This is the last train tour that we undertook in 2014, or it will be until our 2017 route planned for September.

The trip started with a flight and a long journey by tram across Istanbul, a train under the Bosphorus and out to the Asian suburb of Pendik, where our fast train to Ankara would depart from.

After witnessing an air-rage incident involving a celebrated English musician, we set off on the long trek from Ataturk Airport to Pendik. Haydarpasa station, where we would have expected to travel from, was closed at that time as the last leg of the high speed line was extended to the Asian side of the great city.

The exciting leg of the journey from across the city was the newly opened train line deep under the Bosphorus connecting Europe with Asia. We felt like pioneers as we travelled deeper and deeper down to the platforms. The underwater bit only took a few minutes, but we fully appreciated the feat of engineering that had made the journey possible.

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(Me Nearly Under Water!)

Pendik was close to Sabiha Gökçen Airport and we could have done the journey in half the time in a taxi, but that would not have been nearly as much fun.

Next morning we took the high speed line to Ankara. With a few hours to kill we dumped the rucksacks in left luggage and walked the mile or so to the Ataturk Mausoleum, where their greatest modern leader is buried.

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This was our second visit to the capital for a change of trains, having been there five years previous on the way to Syria. On that occasion we had high drama involving a lost passport. This visit would surely be trouble free? No such luck!

We nearly missed our train again due to a faulty left luggage locker. Disaster was only just averted thanks to a screwdriver and perseverance, and we charged to our platform to catch the Doğu Ekspresi (Eastern Express) for the overnight train to Erzurum in the east of Turkey in the Kurdish region, with moments to spare.

You will know how much I love overnight trains and restaurant cars (see train travel pleasures) and the Doğu scored highly on both counts. Another thing that sticks in my mind about the journey was that we stopped at a station called Eric. This tickled me somewhat and I dearly hoped the next station would be called Ernie (a reference to the late, great Morecambe & Wise), but sadly no such luck.

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(Eric Station)

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(Train Window View)

From Erzurum we had to catch a bus to the border with Georgia. This turned out to be an excruciating experience due to a busted seat, winding journey up and down steep hills and the fact that I was ‘breaking my neck’ due to needing a toilet about thirty minutes in to the five hour journey. The eventual relief was off the scale!

We had to walk across the border at midnight to get from Turkey to Georgia. This was a memorable stroll from the Islamic temperance of the Turkish side to the booze, betting and brothels of Georgia. The difference was as stark as I imagine it to be at the Mexican border town of El Paso compared to the New Mexican side in the States.

We were staying one night in the Black Sea resort of Batumi situated in a region said to have higher annual rainfall than Iceland! We found a cheap fleapit at 1am, bought a beer and peanuts from the adjacent off-licence and crashed out on top of our lumpy beds.

We awoke to hammering rain, which only got more torrential as the morning wore on. Batumi was one of the strangest places I have ever visited. A cross between Blackpool and Disneyland, with follies, casinos, fair rides and karaoke bars. We were pretty pleased to get to the train station for our overnight transportation to the capital of Armenia via the capital of Georgia.

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The rain was absolutely torrential and the station freezing, not helped by the hole in the roof that became the entry point for a free cold shower should anybody have wanted it!

A large bin had been placed to capture most of the rain, whilst cleaners fought a losing battle with their inadequate mops. We ended up getting completely soaked running ten metres from station to carriage, not the finest start to what would be a classic journey.

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Our experience included sharing our carriage with a blind cat, Hamish having an unpleasant run in with its potty, the train guards drinking vodka and noisily playing backgammon whilst listening to the best of Two Unlimited on top volume, and finally having a great conversation with a Californian/Danish couple who swapped with the blind cat owners at Tbilisi.

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We awoke to the magical sight of Mount Ararat slowly revealing itself as the sun rose and burned off the mist – a vision entrenched firmly in my memory in the pleasurable recall section.

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We arrived in Armenia’s capital on a special day, its 23rd Independence Day celebrations. Yerevan is a lovely capital city and it had put on its Sunday best for the day. It culminated in a flag waving, folk dancing, beer swilling party in the main square. We loved being unplanned guests and honorary Armenians for the day.

train10train11train12train13We took two tours into the countryside during our stay. First up to the Ararat region close to the border with Turkey and not far from Azerbaijan and Iran, as well as the ‘independent’ region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

We visited a monastery and a church complex, both situated in stunning surroundings, before finishing with a visit to a winery.

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The main church of St Karapet had some extremely narrow steps arranged in an inverted V-shape around the main entrance that led up to the second storey.

With no handrail and total disregard for health & safety, you were able to clamber up the steps to view the rocky chamber above.

It would have been safer to climb up and down the back of an aggravated stegosaurus in my book, but virtually everybody else made the climb apart from vertigo suffering me.

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Next day we hired a taxi driver to take us to Greek style temple and the truly remarkable Geghard Monastery built into a rocky outcrop 90 minutes south of the capital.

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The monastery was beautifully tranquil, augmented by a local singing group who performed in a corridor hewn out of stone, which allowed their angelic voices to drift through a hole in the wall of the church to fill it with mesmerising melodies.

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 (Angelic Voices)

The church was also unique due to having a natural stream running through it. We lingered for a good couple of hours, until the peace was shattered somewhat by a coach party of travellers who came to pay their unruly respects to the holy shrine.

We were then taxied to the train station for our early afternoon journey back to Tbilisi. We retraced our tracks in daylight for much of the way, seeing Ararat in a different light and a lot more of the scenic countryside and neat stations along the route.

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(Yerevan Train Station)

As darkness fell, our enjoyment level did too. We soon consumed the beer and crackers that our last few Armenian beans had secured and the lack of interior light made reading impossible.

Our midnight arrival, though welcome was not very pleasant. Firstly our chosen taxi driver had the worst bad breath that I have ever encountered. He insisted on getting in my face to read my map to try and locate our hotel. I nearly fainted as I smelt the remains of every meal consumed, cigarette smoked and vodka shot drunk by him over the past month. Disgusting!

We then proceeded to get hopelessly lost, before eventually arriving exhausted at 1am.

We then had to deal with an extremely grumpy owner, over-tired and pissed off for having to wait for us to arrive. Initially he tried to insist we have a double room, before finally relenting and giving us a junior suite, the strangest looking room I have ever slept in.

The furniture was ancient, the decorations completely mismatched, the bedding more floral than Kew Gardens and the bathroom plumbing a Heath Robinson contraption of pipes, levers and taps.

We were bushed and could have slept anywhere. Breakfast next morning did not improve our first impressions, as my book explains:

The room decor did not look any improved in the mid-morning light and the fact it was hammering down outside did nothing to lighten our mood. Breakfast was oddly served between nine & eleven and there were only a few minutes to spare by the time we clambered upstairs.

The middle-aged breakfast lady beckoned us to sit at a table that had just been vacated as we arrived. The table was covered in breadcrumbs and spilt jam and our bread & biscuits were inherited from the previous incumbent.

We grabbed the last two hard-boiled eggs and the final slices of cheese that no doubt had been lying there since before nine. As a teapot full of hot water was plonked in front of us, our inattentive attendant must have noticed our displeasure. “Breakfast nine,” she muttered. “Breakfast nine to eleven,” I countered. She repeated my words with a distant look in her eyes and “nodded. 

I thought that maybe she was trying to say that if we wanted more choice we should turn up earlier. We would do tomorrow we agreed.

The bread was stale, the biscuits were soft, the coleslaw was rancid and there was no milk or milk powder. The coffee was the awful 3-in-1 combo of coffee, milk powder and sugar and it was really pissing down now. “What time is the train back to Yerevan,” I joked.

It was all rather depressing. The hotel owner, who had reverted to his natural mood of grumpy old sod, did not enhance our mood one iota. He had no maps of Tbilisi but the Tourist Information would. Thanks for that gem of knowledge!

From the moment we left Fawlty Towers our mood picked up, the rain stopped and Tbilisi soon revealed itself to be a very fine city.

Tbilisi is a must see for any self-respecting fan of short(ish) breaks. A mix of the ancient and the modern, of Islam and Christianity, the city also provides gorgeous cuisine (what they cannot do deliciously with a chickpea is not worth knowing), ample internationally renowned cultural entertainment and world-class wine, all at a fraction of the cost of say a Paris, London or Milan.

A particular highlight is to meander up hill to Tbilisi’s highest point where its ancient fortress and enormous statue of Mother Georgia are situated.

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You can stand by her big toe for spectacular views along the winding River Mtkvari and admire the Norman Foster like cantilevered Peace Bridge, the regal Presidential Palace and the myriad of domes & steeples. Breath-taking by day, absolutely astonishing at night, the gentle climb is well worth the effort.

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The summit can also be reached by super slick cable car and it is a great idea to let that take the strain for the ascent, whilst you zigzag downwards through the Arabic quarter, stopping off for a reviving ablution and invigorating massage at the hamam if you are feeling suitably brave.

You can take your pick of tasty cuisine at very friendly prices (vegetarians are very well catered for) and if you happen to prefer beer to the awesome full-bodied reds, then head for Mirzaani Brewery Bar for red, brown and dark ales produced on the premises, coupled with a good variety of hearty dishes.

Fine Wine

Georgia claims to be home to the world’s oldest vine, leaving the country to boast themselves as the inventors of Bacchus’s favourite tipple (a claim also made by Armenia).

A couple of hours drive out of the capital will find you absorbed into the picturesque and at times brooding Caucus Mountain landscapes of the Kakheti Wine Region.

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Think Champagne, Bordeaux or Côtes du Rhône without the crowds, the pretentiousness or the price tag. Velvety, plummy reds decanted into plastic bottles are sold at give away prices by the sides of the roads that dissect the lush, green vine-laden fields.

You are welcome to stop off at any vineyard and may be fortunate enough to view wine made the traditional way – grapes picked by hand and crushed by foot.

We took a tour and ended up in our own private taxi – as well as vineyards, we visited the peace and quiet of Georgia’s spiritual home, St Nina’s (The Enlightener of Georgia) Monastery.

train26Final stop on the tour was ‘Lover’s Paradise’, the ultra pretty & welcoming town of Sighnaghi, the home of apparently the longest unbroken wall in Eastern Europe at an impressive five kilometres.

The town was incredibly laid back – old men played backgammon atop a rubbish bin and looked like they played in exactly the same spot whenever the weather allowed.

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There are parts of Georgia that are at best ‘proceed with caution’ (South Ossetia for example) and the shadow of Russia’s mighty bear still lingers over Josef Stalin’s birth nation, but not once did I ever feel anything but totally safe and enchanted during my four-day stay there.

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