Take'n the Train: The Azerbaijan Railway (includes English train schedule)

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If you're interested in taking the Azerbaijan train, below is a few musings and an English train schedule for both international and domestic railway routes headed out of Baku.

International Train headed to Moscow from Baku Central Train Station. Baku, Azerbaijan

In comparison to the International Bus Station (Yeni Avtovağzal), which requires a short bus ride out of the city, the Baku Central Train Station is just off-center of Baku city (directions below). Unlike the bus, there are restrooms onboard, tea and coffee (for 50 qepik) and some of the local routes are overnight, which means you can save on a hotel and get to cover ground while you snooze. However, it is a bit more expensive than the bus (which, to my community is 8 AZN, while the train is 9 AZN) and it takes longer, such as, my trip by bus is about 8 to 9 hours, while the train took 12 and half hours (routes may vary, of course, and there is an "Express" train to some destinations). Also, the train stations sometimes leave you a taxi or marshutka ride away from the town centers (my ride is about 15 minutes and was 5 AZN via taxi, 60 qepik via marshutka).

The rail system in Azerbaijan is aged, rugged and definitely has stories to tell. The trains seem remarkably "Soviet." Which, I should qualify. The republics of the USSR gained independence in 1991. I was just beginning kindergarten. Aside from James Bond and the remnants of scare-tactic-rhetoric of US politicians, I have little knowledge of the reality of the Soviet Union (aside from some economic perusing, which primarily took the shape of statistics). For some reason, the image I get in my head is steel, coal and trains. Very "industrial." Either way, the Azerbaijan train system did not disappoint. It was immediately obvious that the trains were past their prime, and I had an inkling that scrapping the green paint would reveal the Hammer & Sickle (☭).  If you're looking for an experience, rather than just another ride, and you have a bit of extra time to spare - go with the train.  But, if you get motion sickness easily, take the bus.

Plaskart class on the Azerbaijan Railroads, 2012

There are three "classes" of tickets. The cheapest is "platskart" (PL) an open compartment with six beds in each section - and there are nine sections in each car. The beds are fairly short, and while walking to the bathroom you may take a foot to the face. Next up is "kupe" (KP) which is a closed compartment with four beds roughly seven feet by two feet - a tad bigger than plaskart class. The most expensive is "luxe" (SV) which is a closed compartment for two and includes some minor amenities  (such as a small desk and a mirror). I've only made one attempt to purchase SV tickets and it was the morning of - there were no places left, so be sure to plan ahead. The prices vary from 4.50 AZN to 25 AZN (~5.75 - 31.80 USD) depending on your route and class. (My trip was 6.50 AZN for a PL, 9 AZN for KP and 17 AZN for SV.) The train station also allows for a refund on tickets, which in my experience, was 75% of the ticket price the afternoon of departure.

To get to the Baku Central Train Station you can take the #1 and #32 bus (walk west, around the building and then take a right, and another right) or take the metro to the 28 May metro stop. Walk straight out of the metro station (you'll see the Azərbaycan Dövlet Neft Akademiyasi, or Azerbaijan State Oil Academy) and turn to the left (east).  The words "Kassa Zalı" and some arrows are painted on some artificial walls (now painted Eurovision) in place outside the building, presumably to shield construction (the work seems very slow-going). The main room inside the train station, is very large and straight ahead is several windows with "kassa" (booking office, till, cashier) over them - walk up to any.

A terrible photo of the

A few signs with destinations and the prices are on either side of the windows. To the right of the kassas is a train schedule, but this might not be correct. The cashier spoke Azerbaijani and Russian. However, a police officer did speak English to me and offered his service if I had questions. The trains depart directly behind this building - you can either walk through the white, arched hallway just around the right-hand corner, or walk back out of the building, take a right up the stairs and then another right. Walk straight until you see trains.

On my ticket, the departure time was 9:15pm, so I had plenty of time to stroll around Baku. I spotted the Yeni Baki Restorani and had a Baltika on tap and some boar kebab (a total of 6 AZN), then took a stroll on down to the Caspian coastline. In sight were the Eurovision Crystal Hall, next to the world's biggest flagpole (flying a proportionally enormous Azerbaijani flag), the almost finished 190 meter Flame Towers and the 5 Star Baku Hilton Hotel that just opened last fall.

The entrance to the Baku Train Station, just east of the 28th May Metro station exit. Azerbaijan, 2012

After that I loitered around the train station, which housed a couple of tea-houses  (çayxana) and cafes, I settled for a liter of pop at 1 AZN. My train left at exactly 9:15pm, just as the sun was leaving the city and the "Baku" sign above the train station lit up, and a large picture of Heydar Aliyev, the former president, waved us off. (The car attendant only spoke Russian and Azerbaijani -   show this person your ticket and they lead or point the way).

Former president, Heydar Aliyev, waving off the trains at Baku Central Station.

Four beds line the walls of the kupe (bunk-bed style), one was assigned to me, but if no one showed up (the attendant told me) I could spread out. Riding in the kupe, I was able to talk with some local Azerbaijanis - which I'd consider a plus to traveling by train, in contrast to relative silence of the bus. My kupe-mate ran off at the next "stansiyasi" (station) to grab food and a beer for me - I later found out that he paid for the coffee and tea I order (which I wrongly assumed was complimentary in kupe class). He did this simply because, as he put it, I was a guest to Azerbaijan. On another occasions traveling by train, some women offered my travel companion and myself "dolma," and then gave us bread, fruit, cucumbers and cheese on the side. Foreigners will often find that this is a common occurrence in Azerbaijan. In fact, only one time have I not received food from passengers. If you choose to ride in the plaskart class, you are more likely to interact with people and they are more likely to offer you food. (And, when it comes to Caucasian hospitality, resistance is futile)

A panorama of the Zaqatala Train Station
A panorama of the Zaqatala Train Station

The trains are fairly narrow - maybe 12 feet at most. The bed comes with clean sheets (which arrive in a seal bag, so you know they're fresh), a wool blanket and a pillow. The conversation with my kupe-mates led late into the night, or else the swaying of the train would have lulled me to sleep immediately. In the morning, I was able to watch the sunrise over the eastern edge of the Caucasus - vibrant pink-orange against the pale ocean-blue peaks. My camera couldn't penetrate the dusty, cloudy windows of the hallway, leaving the moment lost to history.

In the bathroom, there was the remnants of a socket, no running water (at least not on that particular train car - other cars did have water) and a stainless steel toilet with a pedal flush (I had to decipher the word "pedal" amid the Cyrillic instructions). I made my way back through a mostly empty car, swaying on each step, and noticed sockets in the hallway. Plugging in my phone revealed no juice (I'll plan accordingly next time), as I waited for signs of life out of my phone, the car attendant offered me some morning coffee, before picking up the discussion with my kupemates. The train is noisy, it rattles and shifts more than is comfortable, it smells old, with a diesel taint, most amenities are in disrepair and it travels slower than the alternatives, but it's well worth it.

Azerbaijan Train Schedule (in English)

The translations of the train schedules are mine, so I apologize for any inaccuracies. For the original document (written in Azerbaijani): Azerbaijan Railway Schedule. It is also possible to reserve a ticket online from that same website, I grabbed mine on the morning of my departure and it didn't seem to be a hassle. If worried, you can get the ticket the night before, or the above method. Also, when getting tickets outside of Baku, I have been asked for my father's nameto but on the ticket - you can provide any name, really.

I have included both the international and domestic train schedules for Azerbaijan, but those who are not citizens of a CIS country cannot cross the border into Russia. Foreigners can cross into Georgia or Iran by train, however, provided you have the appropriate documentation.

Azerbaijan International Train Schedule - 2012

Azerbaijan Domestic Train Schedule - 2012