Analogue travel is alive and well in Georgia

The Man Who Pays His Way: It all started with a midnight train to Georgia

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Friday 24 May 2019 12:33 BST
Will it be a straightforward journey to Tbilisi?
Will it be a straightforward journey to Tbilisi? (Getty/iStock)

Zaza was his first name. And as we slalomed down a narrow, winding valley in southern Georgia, he insisted Schumacher was his second.

The taxi driver shared a passion for speed with the German motor-racing legend. But last Saturday afternoon he was a pit-stop short of glory, due to running low on fuel. So his ancient Opel coasted for at least half the journey to the small city of Akhaltsikhe: Formula 0.5, if you like.

Zaza had adopted the persona of the German racing driver for a reason. Earlier, he had wandered off from his vehicle at the makeshift car park that serves the astonishing monastery of Vardzia – hewn from a cliff face in the ultimate act of devotion (the monastery, not the car park). Maybe he wanted to be alone.

A trio of policemen manning the roadblock that protected the Unesco World Heritage site shook their collective heads then urged me to drive his car through their roadblock to search for him.

When finally I tracked Zaza down, my appointment with the last bus of the night to the city of Kutaisi was in jeopardy. Which was why Zaza steered two tricky courses at once. He simultaneously threaded through walls of rocks bearing the scars of tectonic restlessness while, depending on the gradient, alternating between third gear and neutral.

I felt slightly like a hostage, a feeling intensified by the splintered windscreen that made it appear that the last front seat passenger had taken a bullet.

Leaving, leaving: a midnight train to Georgia at Baku station in Azerbaijan (Simon Calder)

My day had begun disagreeably early with the gruff instruction “Passport!” at a frontier post at the Azerbaijan-Georgia border. As dawn rolled across the Caucasus, a procession of officials perused my papers and prodded my baggage. They repeated this analogue process with every passenger through all seven carriages. The delay meant the midnight train to Georgia arrived in the capital, Tbilisi, close to midday.

I missed my onward train connection, which turned out to be the best possible result. A minibus was leaving for Akhaltsikhe in, well, just the time it took to devour a dish of aubergine mixed with what seemed to be the entire garlic production of the Caucasus. Sorry, fellow passengers.

Driven by someone I take to be another member of the Schumacher family, only with better access to fuel, we overtook the slow train to the west somewhere around Stalin’s home town of Gori, and continued at such a pace that I arrived in Akhaltsikhe in time to reach Vardzia and make it back for the 6.10pm bus.

When Zaza’s Opel spluttered into the bus station, it turned out that the 6.10 was a figment of the timetable painter’s imagination (yes, schedules are works of art here). Zaza was keen for me not to continue with my journey but instead to spend the evening drinking with him.

But here is Dominic, who needs to be in Kutaisi tonight and will coax his Mercedes “Sprinter” there in return for the cost of the fuel. So off we go, scooping up prospective passengers along the way, then jostling with juggernauts travelling at terrifying speed.

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Halfway down an enormous descent, a disconcerting signpost read “Wrecking Cul-De-Sac”. (Which, some might say, is a good approximation to Brexit.)

For journeys in this part of the world, the internet is of little use. Even in the unlikely event that you can find a mobile phone signal, online travel information for western Georgia barely has the status of rumour. Instead, you just ask.

Thank goodness analogue travel is still available in this digital age, and only 2,000 miles from Britain. Should your faith in fortune and human nature need restoring, just start the day in Georgia and see what happens.

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