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Day thirty-four - the only flight on my journey home

Sunday 29 September 2019

Taxi problems

After a rude awakening, I quickly got ready as the taxi was due at 3am. At about 3.10am it still hadn’t arrived. I discovered that the hotel hadn’t actually ordered it for me. One was sorted through Yandex ( a type of Uber) and to my relief it turned up 5 minutes later. However, once installed in the cab, it wouldn’t start. By this time I could feel the anxiety levels rising. My fears weren’t allayed when the driver proceeded to open the bonnet and started to bang away at something under the hood. With anxiety levels rising, the engine suddenly sprung into life and we were off. Now we just needed to make it to the airport. Although only 15-20 minutes away from the centre, anything could happen!

I was flying to Istanbul because there is no border access to Turkey from Armenia, only this one flight. To take the train through Turkey, I would have had to go back to Tbilisi and then travel from there, something I couldn't face doing.

Always allow two hours

One I arrived at Zvartnot Airport departures I breathed a sigh of relief. Check-in took two minutes but then I saw the queue at the departure gate. One person was checking passengers just to let them through the door to passport control. It wasn’t until a second person came along that the queue really started to move. Once through, my heart sank at the queue which snaked round for what seemed like miles. I had been advised by both the airline and hotel that arriving one hour before departure was enough. This advice went contrary to my better judgement as I am paranoid about missing departures. To anyone flying from Zvartnots, I would definitely allow two hours minimum to get through. What with the taxi farrago, There was now only 30 minutes before boarding. It took 25 minutes to get through - luckily security was swift. No time for sitting around - the plane was boarding as I got through into the departure lounge.

Arriving in Istanbul

The flight itself was uneventful, arriving at 6.50 local time at the new airport. There was -1 hour difference in Istanbul. Transportation to the city is good - best to take the Havaist buses - the IST-19 goes to Taksim Square. There is no metro or tramway yet. I had a lot of time to kill before check in so wandered about stopping for coffee intermittently at places with WiFi. Being a Sunday, there were a lot of people having breakfast - there is a really buzzy cafe culture here. On İstiklal Caddesi - one of the main shopping areas in this part of the city - I stopped for a late buffet breakfast. All you can eat plus copious amounts of Turkish tea which is served as soon as you finish a glass.

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Arriving at the hotel a bit early, I managed to check in with an upgrade - a room looking out over the water. The Taksim Terrace Hotel is in a side street fairly near the main drag. It is well placed close to Sishane metro, the Tunel funicular and Galata tower. Like the buildings around it, there is a narrow frontage that’s five floors high and, as it’s name suggests, a terrace. The room was quite small but had a great view. It was a relief to get rid of my bag, shower and go for a wander.

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Train tickets and Museums

Walking down through the steep and narrow streets to the waterfront I walked along the river by the fish restaurants and fish market that are close to Galata Bridge. I planned to go and sort out my ticket to Sofia first and then visit the Museum of Innocence in the Beyoğlu area of the city. Museums are closed on Mondays so best to do it today. Using my Istanbualkart travel card, I took the tramway to the station. It’s within walking distance but I love riding the tramway!

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There is a special booking office for international tickets at Sirkesi station and it was easy to purchase. I went for a double compartment on the sleeper. You pay for a ticket and pay an additional amount for a bed. The overnight train actually leaves from Halkali station 25k from the Centre and is reached via the Marmaray line that links Asian and European Istanbul. I spotted left luggage lockers near the ticket office and also found the lift access to the Marmaray line just around the corner from the station. All important knowledge when you have a large, heavy bag in tow.

I then took the tramway to Tophane as it’s the nearest stop to the Museum of Innocence in the Beyoğlu area. The museum is a beautiful collection of artefacts relating to the book by Orhan Pamuk. Although I read it a few years ago, the story came back to me as I viewed the installations. There were lots of young women there, clutching their own copies. I would definitely recommend a visit - even if you haven’t read the book - it’s an intricate art gallery of objects.

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An Early night

The breakfast must have filled me up as I only started feeling hungry late in the afternoon. As I wandered around the area I found a cafe near to the Galata tower. There is absolutely no problem finding vegetarian options in Istanbul. By now the lack of sleep started to hit me so I headed back to the hotel to have a really early night and catch up on much needed sleep.

Posted by Cath_Greig 06:15 Archived in Turkey Tagged museum istanbul railway coffee tramway Comments (0)

Day nineteen - familiarising myself with Yerevan again

Saturday 14 September 2019

sunny 25 °C

Finally off the train

Arriving early in the morning and having time to kill, meant dragging my heavy suitcase up Tigran Mets looking for a cafe. One thing worth knowing - the train toilets are locked well before the train gets into the station. This means you will need to find the station toilets. I suspected this would involve steps so would have to hang on! This is when solo travelling can be tricky - having a companion means you can take turns looking after bags. Or possibly have a smaller, lighter bag, of course!

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I knew that if the worst came to the worst, I was likely to get coffee at the Marriott on Republic Square. As predicted no cafes were open. At least the pavements were quiet and I could walk in the shade. I also got some cash on the way.

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Breakfast at the Marriott

The Marriott was a welcome sight. I obviously prefer to support small local cafes but as none were open, needs must. After two coffees, a tasty creamy Bircher muesli and a welcome visit to their toilets, my next goal was to get a SIM card. There is a branch of Vivacell on Amiryan Street, on my route to the apartment. I just needed a sim to make local calls and to use as a hotspot when I’m out in they regions. The store is open 24 hours but I read reviews that there are long queues. Arriving early on a Saturday seemed a good time as I only had to wait a couple of minutes to be served.

My lovely apartment

As with most tech things, I had an issue with sending a text to the owner of the apartment, luckily, I could make calls so we arranged to meet near the Blue Mosque on Mashtots Avenue. Although I haven’t been to Yerevan in 7 years, I could orientate myself with no problems. On my last visit, my brother and I stayed in an apartment on Abovyan Street, close to the action. Central Yerevan is quite compact and easy to walk around so I knew where I was staying was still close to everything. My host met me and we walked round to the apartment which is behind the Blue Mosque. It’s at ground floor level - thank heavens - with just a few steps to access. Although small it is absolutely perfect for a solo traveller or a couple. The owner has thought of everything, and I have to say, bar a special apartment in Nicosia, this the nicest one I’ve stayed at. The decor and facilities provided are excellent. Loads of pots and pans, sugar, coffee, shampoo, nail polish remover etc. etc. You name it, it’s here. And spotlessly clean, too!

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Removing the grime

First job was to have a shower and wash away the grime. After that, I put a wash on. Getting my clothes washed always makes me happy. Then it was time to get out and explore and get some lunch. I stopped for lunch at Melody near the Opera House and after that generally just wandered around to old familiar places. I bought some veg and cheese so that I could eat in. I was too tired to visit the Cascades, one of my favourite areas so decided to go back to the apartment to have a siesta before venturing out again. I read that there was a music event in Charles Aznavour Square so decided to head down there in the evening.

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Aram MP3 was one of the artists appearing - for those who don’t watch Eurovision - he was Armenia’s entry in 2014 singing ‘Not Alone’. After a night of disrupted sleep, I knew I wouldn’t last very long. As predicted, by about 8pm I was feeling tired again so it was time to head back to my new home and sleep. Yerevan is pretty safe to walk around at night - the streets are full of people, particularly on a Saturday night.

Posted by Cath_Greig 11:04 Archived in Armenia Tagged railway yerevan armenia music_night Comments (0)

Day eighteen - last day in Tbilisi

Friday 13 September 2019

sunny 24 °C

With a day to kill before the night train to Yerevan, I had a leisurely breakfast. Chatted to an English couple who apparently live 6 months of the year in Cyprus. Slight tinge of jealousy! They had taken the train from Kutaisi to Tbilisi the previous day and apparently it was pretty horrendous. So glad we made the decision to do the journey by taxi. I took my time packing up - with about ten hours to fill there was no point rushing about. I decided to take a taxi to the station as I couldn’t face lugging my case around. I have to admit it was not a good buy. Although sturdy, it is a heavy case even before anything is put in it. In countries with few lifts it is a bit of a nightmare. The driver at the hotel took me at a cost of 10 lari.

There is a left luggage place at the station costing 10 lari. I just wanted to dump my bag so that I could spend the rest of the day unencumbered. Going on the metro without a big case was a relief. The turnstiles are tricky to negotiate, the escalators seem endless and the trains are incredibly busy. On the plus side though, they only cost 0.50 lari however far you go.

I got the metro back into the centre and stopped off at Marjanishvili station to return to the Pharaoh cafe for a good cup of Turkish coffee. I decided to do a lot of walking to tire myself out as much as possible before the train journey. Now that I had a better idea of how different areas related to each other, I could avoid the dreadful roads that are impossible to cross. I hadn’t forgotten our experience when we had tried to get to the flea market when we first arrived. We had made the mistake of walking to the river whereas we should have walked down David Aghmashenebeli Avenue to the next bridge. This is the street with lots of cafes and the craft beer bar. There are also a few interesting craft shops. I got to the flea market also known as dry bridge market and had a bit of a wander round. There were some bags I liked but they were far too small for me.

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I rested at the nearby park close to the hotel that I’d just left. The parks in Tbilisi are well used. Lots of seating and plenty of shade. I decided to have lunch at Mama Terra again - the veggie cafe near the funicular. I had Pad Thai - quite nice but not as good as the ones that my sister makes from a Linda McCartney recipe. My next port of call was the old city as I wanted to visit the Armenian Cathedral and also wander around some of the backstreets. There are a lot of beautiful but crumbling buildings down the side roads but there is also a lot of restoration going on, too.

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I didn’t realise at the time but we had walked past the entrance to the Armenian cathedral on the walking tour. It’s on Samghebro Street that leads to the sulphur baths. I started to walk up a nearby steep street and realised that I was heading to the fortress and some great views of the city. I decided to drop down and sit in Rike Park for a while. The queue for the cable car was really long.

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My walk back took me past all the places in the old town that had now become so familiar. I popped into the Galleria to use their facilities - it’s good to locate where the free and clean toilets are located in any city! I had a final stroll up Rustaveli to have something to eat at the Iveria cafe close to the Radisson Blu. Had a tasty courgette soup and a rather unusual banana cake. The advice for travelling on the train was to take food and particularly water as there is nothing available on the train. I had already bought simit at a Turkish bakery so got fruit, crisps and a large bottle of water from a nearby supermarket. As it was now dark I decided that I might as well go to the station and hang around there, even though there were still a couple of hours to go.

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There is a waiting area in the station booking hall. It’s OK but the constant noise of the buzzer is a bit intrusive. At about 9.15 I retrieved my bag. I had hoped that the train would go from Plarform one, next to the left luggage but no - it was platform 3. Although there was an escalator back up to the booking hall, I could only see a long flight of steps to the platform. It also wasn’t clear which platform was which as there was no signage. I couldn’t face lugging my case down then up again. Luckily a fellow passenger confirmed which was 3 and helped me with my bag

The train arrives about 30 minutes before departure as it’s quite a performance getting everyone on the train. Some people were already on the train from Batumi. I think there were 16 carriages - mine was carriage 15. I chatted to a guy who is studying in the US and a man from Djibouti, both of whom were heading to Armenia for the first time. A random train driver looked at our tickets and told us which area of the platform to wait on. It was good advice - it would have been quite a trek if we’d stood at the wrong end. At first I felt a bit stressed about finding the right carriage but they were all numbered and a steward shows you to your seat/bed. The couple in the next compartment were very friendly Geordies and I shared the compartment with a woman from Denmark who was also very friendly. I’d decided to go on the equivalent of first class with only two to a compartment with clean sheets, pillow cases and towel provided as well as a little care package of toothpaste and comb etc. The toilets were ok -I’ve seen worse but unfortunately there was no running water. Luckily I had wet wipes - destroying my eco credentials - and water for teeth brushing. At the other end though of the carriage was hot water for drinks. Although I had tea bags, I didn’t have a cup. Note to self, in future bring a collapsible cup for travelling.

Before setting off, our passports were taken away which was a bit concerning but they were returned with a stamp showing our exit from Georgia. There was a scary looking guy walking up and down the train - he looked a bit like Lurch from the Addams Family. We thought he might be security as he glanced into all of the compartments. There is red tape over everything. I naively thought it was to hold things together but we realised it was to stop people hiding contraband in the vents as the tape would show any signs of tampering.

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The train is slow with noisy tracks and I knew I wouldn’t get much sleep not helped by my fellow traveller who snored for Denmark! I think I managed to sleep on and off during the night but at the Armenian border we were woken up as we then had to show passports to Armenian border control. Luckily we didn’t have to get off the train. I think I must have gone comatose after this as suddenly we were being told to wake up - we were nearly in Yerevan!

Posted by Cath_Greig 09:20 Archived in Georgia Tagged trains travel railway tbilisi Comments (0)

Day seven - catching the cuckoo train

Monday 2 September 2019

storm 17 °C

The train from Borjomi to Bakuriani is a narrow gauge train line also know as the cuckoo line. It leaves Borjomi twice a day - 7.15 or 10.55am at a cost of 2 GEL. . We plumped for the earlier train and got their quite early. The weather was a lot colder than I expected as I still had the lingering memory of the heat of the previous day. I took a raincoat as rain was forecast but didn’t also take enough additional layers despite having several season’s worth of clothes with me. Two hour journey was pretty cold. Only a few other tourists on the train - the rest were locals who hopped on and off the train as it slowly made its way up the steep terrain. Lovely scenery but upsetting to see plastic bottles and other litter in amongst the undergrowth. There were quite a few stations on the line but people were also getting on and off the train while it was moving - not that it ever went much above a snail’s pace by railway standards.

By the time we got to Bakuriani, I was pretty cold despite the sun starting to break through the clouds. First stop was a coffee shop for breakfast, coffee and a warm up. Our goal was to find the cable car to go further up the mountain. We were pointed in the right direction but had no idea if it was close or a long distance away. We trudged up through the town past The ski resort hotel accommodation. Seemed to be a lot of refurbishment of hotels and new building going on. A taxi driver asked if we wanted a lift and although we declined by the time we actually arrived at the cable car we had covered a lot of distance and could see why other people were flying past us in a taxi. It was good to be out walking in the fresh air but the trucks going backwards and forwards to the building sites didn’t make it a pleasant experience.

The cable car took us up to a halfway point - there’s a cafe overlooking the valley and a ‘monorail’ type of toboggan ride that looked fun but I felt that it was probably too cold to go on it. There was a family who were giving it a go as we arrived who told me that it was brilliant but I still wasn’t tempted though. After another warming coffee, we decided not to do the chairlift to the top as the cloud was starting to descend and we wouldn’t have seen anything and we would have just got cold again. We took the cable car down, made our way into town and bought a tasty freshly backed loaf of Georgian bread to go with our lunch. We couldn’t resist nibbling bits as we made our way down. By this time the rain was starting to come down hard and with a 30 minute wait for they bus, we decided to take a taxi. The marshstruka leaves hourly but there was a gap in the middle of the day with none going at 1.00 or 2.00pm. 40 lari seemed quite steep but we hadn’t realised quite how far the journey was as they taxi had to use winding roads to get back to Borjomi.

We got the driver to drop us off near the tourist information just so we could check about the best way of getting to the coast. Doing the 5 hour journey in a marshstruka didn’t fill us with joy especially as there was only one per day and there was no guarantee that we could get seats and luggage onto the bus. I think this is the main downside of travelling this way if you are carrying big cases. There is very little room for luggage as the priority is getting a full bus and optimum fares. There was no other practical solution other than going on a 2 hour bus journey to Tbilisi and then getting the train to Batumi which also takes a long time.

Once we were back at the guesthouse we had a very late lunch after a visit to the supermarket deli. I think our host was very impressed with our Georgian fare. He gave us some useful advice about getting to Batumi. Apparently the marshstruka to Batumi is a very uncomfortable ride as the bus is usually very old and crowded with little room for luggage. He suggested getting one to Khashuri and change buses there as the marshstruka were more modern and spacious. The journey wouldn’t be shorter, just more comfortable. There is nothing like a bit of local knowledge to make life easier.

After a bit of rest and down time we decided to go to the first restaurant that we had been to - Pesvebi. We were hoping to get down there a bit earlier than usual as we would be leaving the next day. However, the rain that had been coming down quite steadily, erupted into a full blown storm with impressive forked lightning and thunder, very close by. At one point the power went out so we were left in darkness for about 20 minutes. Once the power came back on and the rain had abated, we finally managed to leave the apartment and make our way to the restaurant. We had a great meal there - I would highly recommend it. And it figures highly in Trip Advisor, too. Although the food was delicious, and we have had good food elsewhere I’m beginning to find that the limited Georgian cuisine is making me yearn for an Indian or Thai meal. There just isn’t the variety and it’s also very bread based.

Time for a nightcap and good night’s sleep before the next adventure.

Posted by Cath_Greig 06:27 Archived in Georgia Tagged car cable railway borjomi pesvebi bakuriani Comments (0)

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