Travelling is always fun. At least according to Social Media. Postcard perfect photos. Meeting great new people. Seamless travel. However the reality is sometimes different. Plane delays, reservations being cancelled and often for me- Border Crossings.
A Train Bound for Nowhere
We had been on an overnight train from Azerbaijan (a very handy word to play in Scrabble) bound for Tbilisi (which despite all the I’s in the word, still feels like it could do with an extra one), Georgia. Fifteen hours on a train built when Lenin still ruled this region, isn’t the most comfortable experience imaginable but being such a worldly traveler (wanker alert) I was used to it.
After fourteen largely uneventful hours, at 7am our train stops at the Azeri border and customs official’s board for passport checks and to check bags. This is where the commotion starts. Aside from a few weary tourists, the majority of our carriage is full of locals. And these locals are big bad bustling babushkas. Very stocky, very determined seventy year old Georgian ladies who would scare Mike Tyson. More facial hair than a hipster and with a very short fuse. All of these ladies are laden with bags about the same size as them and full of assorted items. The officials board our carriage, spot all these bags and advise the ladies that they have too much luggage and need to pay an excess customs fee.
This news is not taken well and results in a huge argument. Ten of these ladies commence yelling at the two border guards. I’m not sure if it was Russian, Georgian, Azeri or some crazy hybrid but it was very aggressive. Soon more women from the neighboring carriages hear the excitement and join in. In a futile attempt to even up the numbers more guards come piling out of the station and onto our carriage. Pretty soon there are close to thirty people all yelling and screaming at each other. Plus eight bewildered tourists watching and being squeezed into a corner by all the shouting newcomers.
My knowledge of the language spoken was shady but I could tell the guards were demanding money and the ladies were refusing to pay. The guards pick a couple of the smaller women and try to physically force them off the train. These women are strong and don’t budge an inch. A phone call is made (on a mobile about the same size as these women…guess IPhones weren’t readily available) and after fifteen minutes some men in military uniform get on our ever popular carriage. It soon feels like an attempt is being made on the world record for most people screaming in a train carriage.
Eventually the guards grab some of the bags, but the women simply grab them back. The guards have guns but this doesn’t seem to phase the agitated group. Maybe they have bullet proof vests on. Or maybe the guards were more scared of them, then they were of the guards. Whatever the reason the guns were no threat. After two hours of this impasse, the guards give up and the train continues on. 1-0 to the Babushkas.
Five minutes later we stop at Georgian customs. As the trains pull in, the babushkas start passing out bags through the windows to people waiting on the platform. The guards see this and immediately lock all the windows, which results in more arguments. All doors and windows are locked and we are forced to wait in the heat as passports are checked. Whilst we wait, the babushkas try to smuggle their bags off the train but are continually denied.
The guards to decide to make an example of one unfortunate babushka, caught smuggling bags and tell her to pay a fine. This results in absolute mayhem. (and to think I believed it was at mayhem level a few hours earlier). More yelling and arguing which then escalates into heated pushing and shoving. There are military police, customs officials and babushkas all involved. In the stifling heat. In our small overcrowded carriage with locked windows. And no cooling. Just as I think I may pass out in this custom made Georgian sauna, one guard makes the decision to open the doors and let people out onto the platform
Somehow this makes the situation worse.
The babushkas seize this opportunity and start throwing all their bags out the doors to their friends and family waiting on the platform. It’s like seagulls feasting on scraps of food as masses of people rush forward to catch these bags. It works quite successfully for most of them, until one of the police decides to grab a babushka and haul her away. This is the straw that broke the angry mobs back. Babushkas from all carriages descend onto the platform and start yelling and screaming. It’s a swarm, a herd, whatever the collective noun for a group of angry babushkas is. All demanding their one compadre to be freed. Its an uprising not seen in these parts since Stalin was around (who incidentally was born in Georgia).
When the “Georgian 1” is kept hostage the rest of the group take their protest to the tracks and sit in front of the train so we can’t move. Fifty angry women blocking the tracks. The train can’t move and so we are now stuck.
Joining the fight
Despite lots of Georgian guards, police and officials standing about, nothing is done to move them and they all sit on the track yelling and screaming. This goes on for four hours. Four hours we wait frustrated whilst these women refuse to move. This is after the 2-3 hours we had already been waiting. The officials seemed content to let them sit there and yell and just watch. I guess not much exciting happens at this border and this is considered entertainment. Well I being a globetalker, I like watching local cultural activities, so decide to get off the train and join in the party.
I head to the front of the train and to take it all in and soon get swept up in the enthusiasm and just start yelling as well. Although my yelling is in English no one can understand and unsurprisingly my contribution has no effect and the general brouhaha continues. (Side note- if I was ever a wrestler I would like to be known as General Brouhaha).
Just as I think I will be spending the rest of my life at this station more police arrive. This brings more shouting, tears, abuse (mainly just from me) but still no movement at the station. These new reinforcements seem a bit more serious and get out their big batons and physically threaten the women. This seems to have some effect as some of them finally move to avoid the baton but the majority stay.
The police start prodding and shoving the group and literally grabbing the women by the arms and dragging them away. Some of these ladies are very strong and the leader of the women needed five policemen to move her. I watch in awe at this site. Then without notice and after all those hours of being stationary the train unexpectedly starts moving. The driver sees a clear track and decides to make the most of it. No announcements – just straight into action.
I was out near the tracks at the front of the train and about 150 meters from my carriage. This resulted in a mad sprint, moving in and out of the babushkas that were still arguing. I managed to jump on board the moving train (something I admit I had always wanted to do), and after over six hours we were through the border. Sweaty, hungry, tired but we were in Georgia.
Welcome to Georgia. No Excess Luggage allowed.
No photos pf the incident were posted on Instagram. Just a picture perfect photo of a church n the countryside #travel #notreality