22.20 PM. As the loud speakers announces the arrival of the train, passengers slowly descend to the platform from the waiting hall. The wagons dock, discharging its passengers before welcoming a new lot heading outside Baku to Astara, Azerbaijan’s southern most city marking the border with Iran. People hustle to stock up on water, sunflower seeds, and sweets from kiosks and wandering sellers.
The wagons are dark - except for the conductor's cabin - all lights are off.
Controllers check the tickets before boarding as travelers juggle large parcels and documents. It is pitch dark, phones prove to be essential tools to spot the right seat. With less than an hour left to the departure, discontent grows.
"Are you saving electricity on us? Turn on the lights, we cannot see each other.”
No response. Without seeing each other’s faces, squeezed into their seat, passengers chat anyway. Most complain. Each wagon, or plaskart, accommodates about 50 passengers on bunk beds.
"My son bought the ticket, we did not pay attention to which place it was. It will be impossible to sleep here," grumbles a lady called Qatiba.
Sara, a woman in her 50s, massages her feet. She hails from Liman, but lives in Baku.
“My family used to live in Salyan [117 km south of Baku] then we moved further south to Port [renamed Liman in 1999]. My father was a railroad worker and took part in the construction of the line from Baku to Astara during the second world war.”
The train is by far the preferred mean of transport, yet it gets really busy during the holidays, finding a seat is difficult, notes Sara.
“Cars are faster, but it is a long, tiring journey, so people prefer to use the train which goes to Lenkeran to then reach the Iranian border,'' explain Ramin, another passenger.
During the festivities, travellers include traders heading north as well as shoppers heading south. Residents from Astara board for Baku to sell tangerines and feijoa, a juicy, egg-shaped green fruit, as the regions towards Iran are rich of fruits, mainly citruses.
“The train is cheaper and it allows us to travel with quite a lot of weight,” he adds. “We can pay AZN 12 [$6.7] for two beds as well and the luggage.”
Residents from Baku and the regions around the capital travel south and cross into Iran to shop since goods are much cheaper. Many purchase goods over the border and then re-sell them in Azerbaijan.
A picturesque town on the Caspian Sea, Astara is also known as Azerbaycan Astarasi, Azerbaijan’s Astara, as an homonym town that lies on the other side of the borden, on Iranian soil. A short walk dives the two, yet decades of tense relations between the two countries means long and thorough control at the border crossing. The town of 16,000 is one of the three crossing points into Iran - the others being Bilasuvar and Julfa in Nakhchivan, the Azerbaijan’s enclave wedged among Turkey, Armenia, and Iran.A few minutes before departure, one of the passenger's voices is heard again.
“What shall we do? Shall we wait when the train leaves so the lights will turn on? How long should we stay in the darkness?”
This time around lights are turned on. Bags outnumber the passengers who show careful engineering skills in cramming their luggage into the allocated areas, under and in between their seats.
23.20 pm. The train idly sets off - Astara is 320 kilometres and nine hours south from Baku.
As midnight approaches yawning takes over chatting. People take the mattresses piled up on the shelves and prepare their night bunk. Windows are sealed, air ventilators do not work, the smell of sweat is everywhere, the old mattresses and pillows dispel dust. The air gets heavier.
“Can we open the windows?” screams one passenger. To no avail - “We have no permission to open then,” replies the controller.
Windows can be opened only during summer months and the air conditioner can be turned on only one hour after departure, sometimes later.
As ticket checking starts, so do the complaints.
“Tickets cost six manats [$3.5], but at the counter we are charged 0.50 manat [$0.28] more. It is illegal. Multiply that amount per each passenger, how much money do they make illegally?"
“I bought mine for six manat the day before, no charge,” counters Sara.
65-year-old Sara is a chef assistant in a restaurant in Baku. She rarely visits her hometown Lenkeran region, taking time off from work is difficult.
“I can say that I don't have anyone. My son went missing in Lachin during the Nagorno Karabakh war [the war between Armenians and Azerbaijanis over the Nagorno Karabakh region in the early 1990s]. My daughter is married, she lives separately. I do not want to be alone in my own home.” Sara’s son was never found.
“My son-in-law works as a chef,” says Qatiba joining in. “I asked him to give me some work, because I am bored all day. He said that I won’t be able to work, and to put my hands in cold water as I had a surgery."
The 60-year-old says that until ten years earlier she used to go up to the Baku train station and sell lemons she’d brought from Astara. She recalls residents from Liman traveling all the way to the capital to sell fish as well.
"I started in 1996, I could make good money. I earned on average around 20 manat [then about $25, while $11 with today’s exchange rate], some days I could make double that amount. Then my daughter died and I did not return again." Her youngest daughter committed suicide when she was 18, and nothing has been the same since then for Qatiba.
The night falls. The train scythes through the countryside, breaking the silence of small communities whose lives are another planet from Baku’s glitzy buzz. On board, chattering is rare.
4.50 am. Wagons crawl into Dayikend, the train is half way to its journey. Six people get on - an old couple struggles with their large bags, they cannot find space in the cabins and ended up sitting in the corner of the someone’s bed.
"Two hours left to Lenkaran," he sights.
From around Dayikend, tickets are no longer needed, unofficially - custom has it that passengers informally pay AZN 1 ($0.56) to the controller and get on board. If there is no place, they sit anywhere on the corner.
Snuggled in a wool jacket, her hair wrapped in a thick black scarf, a woman in her 70s falls asleep while sitting up.
Those getting off at Lenkeran are up on their feet early and hand over mattresses and cushions to the conductor. Again, the same dust from the same dirty bed floats in the air.
Sara stares at the nocturnal landscape unfolding through the window, and she gives in to her memories.
"In 1992, during the war, people would descend by train to Lenkeran and the surrounding regions to bring baskets filled with bread. There was no flour; the town and surrounding villages were starving, we could not even bake bread."
Ramin joins the conversation.
"It lasted three years, the bread was black, like soldier's bread. I hope those days are gone forever, that they never will come back again.”
At 7 am, Sara gets off the train in Liman. Half an hour later a big group leaves the wagon in Lenkeran. About 12 passengers are left for the final destination.
"It is not only [our] Astara, this train serves people heading to the Iranian side as well. For trade as well as medical treatment, it is cheaper. There are also women involved in drug trafficking, you look at them and will never guess that they are drug dealers."
8.20 am. Nine hours after fluttering across Azerbaijan, finally, the train crawls into Astara. The station is just a few metres away from the Caspian sea’s shores. Battling tiredness and luggage, passengers leave their carriages. Taxi drivers ring them up offering a ride to the town centre for a mere AZN 2. Qatiba drags her suitcase towards one of them. Soon she’ll be home.