Many times repainted but never repaired or refurbished, the overnight train to Astara stand patiently in Baku station, the end of the line. The wide-gauge carriages are placed high off the ground, needing four iron steps to attain floor level. The sleeper compartments have locking doors and windows that don’t open. Once you are inside, you are in your own private cell. The windows are so dirty it is difficult to see out and when you breath in, you ingest the odors of everyone who has travelled that way before you.
Our compartment is uncommon, a double. Most are designed for four people and I think this one was meant for the lady conductors who in their blue, military style uniforms with gold epaulettes are supposed to patrol every carriage. On the Trans-Siberian railway, each carriage comes complete with its own samovar, so that you can make tea any time of day or night. Not so here. No buffet car, no tea trolley, just the slow journey into the night as we rattle out of the city, past half built oil rigs and derelict factories then along the low, curving coast of the Caspian, South towards Lankaran and journey’s end.
Only one light works in the compartment, shedding a dim glow on the formica walls and gaudy nylon curtains. There are no sheets for the bed, just a hairy blanket and a tiny pillow, much flattened from years of use. Camping mattresses lay on the two wooden benches placed one above the other, with a third conveniently placed in between, for use in case the train was overcrowded. Not on this night however. Maybe three of the eight compartments of our carriage are occupied plus there were two old men, standing up all night in the space between the carriages. Maybe it was cheaper to travel that way but a 250 kilometer journey for 7 Manat [about 6 Pounds] isn’t too expensive, for us at least.
I can understand why the conductor prefers to sleep somewhere else. The compartment is next door to the stinking toilet, with no seat and a lino floor that squishes with every step.
This is no high-speed train, no high-tech alternative to air travel, this is the Last Days of rail in Azerbaijan.
Baku railway terminus was probably built in the mid 1950’s and has seen no refurbishment since then. The limestone pillars holding up the leaking roof of grey concrete are heroic after a fashion and marble is used extensively for the counters and the floor but everything is worn down with use. By the look of the scaffolding outside the building, refurbishment work is underway but the bus service takes half the time, the vehicles used are retired tourist coaches and the price is the same.
We don’t sleep much as we clank and groan our way from the dry steppe around Baku to the lush, wetness of the South we are given an insight into an earlier version of Azerbaijan. One that is fading, but slowly…