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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

THE GREAT GAME: Smiles, Bribes And Beer on Caucasus Train




Travel in the Caucasus, always easier than anywhere else in the former Soviet Union, is turning into a real joy. No more boorish officialdom, just glasses of warm beer and smiles.


It is all in the spirit of resurrecting the Silk Road and turning the Caucasus into a bustling trade route.


If you have a visa for Georgia you can go to Azerbaijan for five days without further ado, and vice versa. In fact, it is all so easygoing now that a couple of backpackers came through recently without any visa for any country, and travelled all over the Caucasus with no problems at all.


I just tested the deal the other day, driving up to Tbilisi and returning by train with a girlfriend who was visa-less. We had only laughs all the way.


The train is slow and hot but hilarious. There is an overpowering smell of oil from the rail tankers passing in the opposite direction bearing Caspian crude from Baku to the Black Sea. Oil is at the bottom of all this Caucasian cooperation on borders and customs.


We spent a couple of hours getting through the border while a trail of different officials, first Georgian and then Azeri, worked their way through the unlit carriages.


They all came into our coupe, and sat down to have a chat with the foreign guests. A fat, smooth-faced Azeri immigration official in camouflage uniform lolled on the bed while flicking through the various passports his underlings brought to show him.


Our neighbor, a young Georgian studying in Baku, bribed him in front of us, slapping his hand hard in a handshake that left a number of notes in the fat palm of the immigration man. The official put the money in his capacious trouser leg pocket, along with someone's passport, never batting an eyelid. The student later explained that it was because his sister did not have a proper passport, but he was pretty cheerful about it.


We had quite the opposite treatment. Someone took our passports off for what seemed like an hour. Finally a plainclothes man came back with them and asked if the money inside one was Heidi's, and why had she put it in the passport.


There was a momentary pause, full of insulted Caucasian honor. Women do not pay bribes, I remembered our student friend had said. The official dismissed Heidi's explanation that it was a mistake and that she kept money in her passport in case her bag was stolen by bandits.


"We don't have bandits here," he said departing. We could only laugh at that one.


Next came a customs guy, at least that's what he said he was. No uniform, or badge. "It's too hot," he explained, plucking at his loose shirt and waving a handkerchief around his face.


He watched vaguely while Heidi pulled her bags out from the compartment under her bed. I said mine was empty and he seemed relieved and changed the subject.


They all had a smattering of English and were delighted to try out a few words. On the drive up from Baku to Tbilisi one had served us warm beer from under his desk while he stamped our passports. Another on the train proudly showed off a U.S. immigration file and pen he had received during a training course there.


It was gentle chaos but light-hearted goodwill all the way.