From the Window of a Moving Train

Posted on March 1, 2012 by


One warm, clear September day I emerged from the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park, looking and smelling like someone who had just spent the past three days trudging through the woods, facing rainstorms, creek-crossings, gruff cattle-herders driving their herds across mountaintop meadows, and all of the other peculiarities of hiking in Georgia. I made my way through the village of Marelisi and headed towards the train station, though at the time I did not know where it was or whether or not I would be able to get a train out. With the help of a few kind shop keepers I found the station, stumbled my way through the Georgian necessary to procure a train ticket, and upon looking at my train ticket realized that I had managed to arrive just ten minutes before the only westbound train of the day was passing through. The train came, and relieved by the good fortune of catching it, I boarded it, beginning my first of many experiences on a Georgian train. I found my seat, which happened to be placed next to that of man from Tbilisi heading home to his family’s village and who spoke excellent English. We spent the ride talking to each other, though he was more than willing to dominate the conversation, especially when it came to letting loose his anti-Russian sentiments. As the train progressed, taking us through mountain passes and by forests rich in their summer color, I got to hear about how my friend speaks perfect Russian, but how he has no desire to ever speak it again, how he and his wife lost two houses in the Abkhazian conflict, and a whole list of other grievances against Georgia’s neighbor to the North. This diatribe was punctuated by him hopping off the train at every long stop to buy me another Georgian delicacy: khachapuri in Khashuri, some sort of sweet bread near Kharagauli, and smoked sulguni and Natakhtari in Samtredia. No matter how much I assured him I did not need the food, he was insistent on showing me the best that Georgian hospitality on a train can be.

The pinnacle of this hospitality was when we got to his stop, about 30 minutes up the road from my own, he refused to let me go further on the train, but insisted I let him and his father drive me from Lachkhuti to Supsa, and so, as it always goes when a Georgian man gets an idea like that in his mind, I could not refuse. We piled into his car and began the trip to Supsa (where I was living at the time), and I came to find out that the man’s father is a well-known Georgian travel writer who wrote about his journeys on a freight ship around South America. It was not getting to meet a Georgian author that made that chance meeting noteworthy, but is the lasting impression that his words left me with. Though confused and skeptical of why I would come to Georgia to take a low-paying job, he did have one thing to tell me: “Never let a day go by without writing down your experiences, impressions, and reflections on your time here. The mind is a changing thing, and those impressions that seem so vivid now fade and will be lost, but writing preserves them.” While I have fallen short of this ideal of daily writings, they are words that will stick with me, and getting to hear them will make that train ride one I will not forget.

But the serendipity of that meeting does not stop with those words. I think that I was destined to meet my new friend again, and that meeting happened a few days later. My host brother and I had gone to the sea in Grigoleti to escape the heat of an early September afternoon, and after a few hours of getting sunburned and swimming to our heart’s content, we went to make our way back home. There would not be any direct marshutkas for a couple hours, and so we decided to head out to the road, hoping to wave down a passing marshutka or anyone willing to pick us up. After spending 15 minutes without any luck, who should pull up willing to pick us up but my new friend from the train. He pulled over, introduced me to his wife, and once again I got an unexpected ride home. In a country the size of an American state, any chance meeting anywhere in the country has a chance of becoming more than just a passing exchange, for you never know the way your paths may cross again, and the way each of your lives could be enhanced by the passing meeting. And the train is a great place to make new connections.

On the night train of the Ozurgeti line I always ride platzkart, or third class. In your compartment you are six people who have probably never met before, put around one table for eight hours. The stage is perfectly set for conversation. These chance meetings and impromptu conversations are also enhanced by the selection of people who ride platzkart. You see a range of people from young backpackers travelling through Georgia; families going to or coming back from their village homes, laden with liters of their homemade wine and whatever fruits have ripened on their land; to old women, dragging bags full of whatever crops, fruit, or wares they are travelling to Tbilisi to sell. And with this range of people every conversation has the potential for a range of opinions, especially considering that Georgians are not a people to hide their opinions or shy from confrontation. On these train rides I have heard bitter polemics against the current administration, reminiscences about how great things used to be (especially during the days of the Soviet Union), criticisms of how little Georgian I have learned, praise for how much Georgian I speak, and a whole host of other, occasionally contradictory, opinions. And the great part is that you may have a number of different opinions on an issue seated around one table, with nobody backing down from their views or willing to hide just how strongly they feel on issues.

Along with the random meetings, I love the sensation—and the novelty—of sleeping on the train, but my most memorable train rides have been without much sleep at all. On one trip in particular, a fellow TLGer and I, not wanting to disturb the masses sleeping in our compartment, found and claimed a place to stand in the corridor between two cars for most of the ride from Tbilisi to Ureki. On that night, as the hours passed with the two of us talking and looking out the window at the passing towns, villages, and countryside, I was struck most by the circularity of everything we witnessed. Though the train was, in one regard, on a linear trajectory, carrying us more than halfway across the country, its journey was also marked by the repetitive cycles of station after station. As we approached each stop there was the same pattern of the conductor working in our compartment sleepily sauntering out of his room next to the corridor we were occupying, looking at us, exchanging a few words in broken Russian or Georgian, feeling the train come to a stop, and stepping down of the car to see if anyone was there to get on or off. Our approach to each station was accompanied by the same pattern of the train’s lights dimming, going out, and relighting; the same glance out at a train station slightly different than the last, really only distinguishable by the name scrawled in Georgian script; and the same feeling of our movement resuming, taking us closer to home and the 9:30 start of the school day.

Ultimately, what draws me so much to train travel is the juxtaposition of this cyclicality and unpredictability. With the trains you know where you are going and when you are getting there, as well as the time of each stop along the way. And the means that brings you to each of these known points is the repetitive motion of the wheels turning, giving the train a slight jolt with each rotation, reminding everyone on board that the process continues uninterrupted. It is the same comfort brought on by a sunrise or a sunset, reminders that the earth still spins on its access, and that any of our human concerns, as great as they may seem, are no more than a “parenthesis of infinitesimal brevity” (to borrow from James Joyce) relative to the apathy of the stars and our own planet in its celestial motions. This predictability strikingly contrasts with the randomness of other parts of the experience. When you step onto the train, you don’t know who you will be put next to or what the relationship between you and those around you has in store. There is no telling what wanderings the conversation will take, what you will be expected to eat and drink, or what stroke of fortune will hand you a connection that may come in handy at some distant point in the future. It is this intersection of the known and the unknown, the expected and unexpected, that makes me excited every time I step onto a train, especially every time I ride platzkart..

What the train affords that I have seen on no other form of transport is the chance to appreciate the beauty of the breadth of Georgian landscapes, whether they are bathed in the dim light of the stars or under the blaze of the summer sun. One weekend I had gone to Gori to visit a few friends, TLGers, and decided to make my way back on the day train (the same line on which I met my new Tbilisi friend). This trip came on the tail end of a four-day weekend due to heavy snowfalls across the country, and so a heavy blanket of fresh snow lay across the land. Having made the same trip in the summer, autumn, and early winter, I thought that I would just be seeing the same sights again, but from my train window I witnessed a transformed landscape. In my preceding journeys across the country I had been struck by the richness and abundance of the land. Even in the drier, continental climate of the east, life verdantly abounds. Likewise, autumn, though a departure from the lushness of the preceding months, brought on a richness of color that seemed to highlight the diversity of life through the contrasts of colors. But what I saw on this trip was not a natural narrative of rich color or lush growth, but one of striking perseverance. Everywhere around me I saw a story of a land struggling to survive, fighting against a host of hardships, patiently bearing all until the day comes when the frosts and snows have left and the buds of spring can emerge without fear or hesitation.

The train slowly made its way past the scattered trees of the fields of the east buried in snow, their growth forever altered and guided by the driving winds of their exposed location, with the tops of hills occasionally bearing an ancient fortress or church, persisting once again under snow as it has braved centuries of attack, whether natural or human-driven. We moved into the mountain passes of the Southern Caucasus, paling in comparison to their rugged counterparts to the North, but still majestic, proud, and inhospitable; and in these passes I looked up at the fir forests forming a halo around the mountains, bound by the nakedness of the deciduous trees above and below, and bearing the burden of snow solemnly yet strongly, like a crown, refusing to yield anything or to give up the processes so essential to plant life. As my eyes scanned downward I saw low-lying beech stands, their dried brown leaves remaining on stems as reminders of the glories of past life, a life soon to reemerge from sharp distinct buds, forcing last year’s foliage to the ground to give new leaves the chance to test their fate; and between these stands, covering the banks too steep for much else to grow, I looked at the rhododendron, separating itself into two species (R. ponticum and R. caucasicum), and standing firm (though not tall) against the snowfall reaching up to the base of the highest leaves (in the case of R. caucasicum).In these rhododendrons I saw the climax of the narrative of the land’s perseverance. Living in inhospitable, acidic soils at the heights of the mountains where few other woody plants are willing to risk it, they retain their leaves throughout the year, defying the common-sense of the deciduous habit and asserting a refusal to bend or change with the passing seasons. Even their closest relatives, azaleas, blueberries, and much of the rest of the family are happy to drop their leaves with the rest of the deciduous forest while the rhododendron asserts its green presence, even when struggling against burial by the building snows.

After the train came out of the mountains, the story changed. As we made our way down, the snow became less and less thick as it lay on the Imeretian fields of West Georgia, part of a trajectory that would culminate in our arrival on the coast. The closer the train came to the coast and my arrival home, the snow became more and more spotty, punctuated by the signs of an oncoming spring: the male flowers of the hazel trees, the growing buds on riverside alders, a new host of song-birds, and hints at the green that will fill the subtropical landscape in barely more than a month. The story of perseverance giving way to a hope for better times to come that I witnessed out of a train window to me represents something more than views of nice landscapes and a nice way to travel. In that story I see the country of Georgia. This country has weathered some harsh winters: centuries of invasions, Russian and Soviet control, and the darkness of the era immediately falling the collapse of the Soviet Union when corruption and uncertainty where major features of Georgian life. But looking around the Georgia of today, it isn’t clear if the spring has exactly arrived yet, but it is clear that if it hasn’t, it is soon to come. Riding platzkart, one is often in contact with some of Georgia’s poorer travelers, those who have fallen on hard times, who are struggling to persevere, or those who just have yet to have made it. You see the lingering elements of the winter in the old women who have the exasperated look that comes from decades of Soviet life and the couple decades after its collapse, and you see the spring embodied in the younger travelers, heading to Tbilisi to look for work, travelling back and forth between their university and their home, or taking the train for a host of other reasons. You talk to the people and you do not hear desperation, resignation, or apathy; rather you here a people who care about the country and the direction it’s heading, and whatever their political leanings, you hear hope for a future that is not so distant. And all the while you can look out the window and see the beautiful, at times majestic, and at times subdued, landscape that is the ground upon which all of those hopes are founded.