In this guide, we explain all you need to know about train travel in Azerbaijan and review the Azerbaijan Railways overnight sleeper train service between Baku and Sheki.
After a great stay in Azerbaijan’s intriguing capital city of Baku it was time to explore the country a bit further. My plan was to head by overnight train from Baku to Sheki, a historic town in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains.
I had previously bought my train ticket to Sheki online on the website of Azerbaijan Railways, which is downright hilarious. I mean, what is not to like about this picture of Azerbaijani strongman Ilham Aliyev staring awkwardly into the camera from a train seat?
The great text “NOW RAILWAYS IS MORE FAVORABLE!” (sic) – which could easily be a Soviet slogan – seals the deal to me!
How to buy an Azerbaijani train ticket online
All jokes aside, buying an online ticket for a domestic rail journey in Azerbaijan is actually very straightforward. You surf to the online booking tool of the Azerbaijan Railways website, switch the language to English, and it should all be relatively straightforward from that point on.
If you do not understand the process, then check the great user guide published by Azerbaijan Railways on how to buy a train ticket.
After successfully completing your booking you will receive a PDF file with your e-ticket. You cannot however board the train with this and need to exchange it for an old-fashioned paper ticket at a railway station in Azerbaijan before departure.
To book a train ticket, you do need to type your passport number.
Although some seats-only daytime trains in Azerbaijan use the common Western terms of first and second class, most long-distance trains and all overnight trains use the Russian system of train classes. These are:
Spalny Vagon (SV): A two-berth compartment of which there are nine in a single wagon. Normally, this means that there is a berth on the left and on the right side of the compartment so no bunks are used. This is ideal for couples or those seeking extra space and quietness. On tickets you will find it abbreviated as SV.
If you travel alone and want private occupancy of the compartment, you will have to buy both berths as otherwise you may end up sharing the compartment with a stranger if the train is full. Given the cheap prices of train tickets in Azerbaijan (a SV berth from Baku to Sheki did only cost me 18.52 AZN – or 9.90 EUR) this is certainly a reasonable option.
Kupe: Pronounced as Kupé, this is a four-berth compartment of which there are nine in a single wagon. They consist out of two lower berths and two upper berths. It’s best for families or those wanting the middle ground between comfort and price.
Platskartny: Also known as platskart or platzkartny, these are open-plan dormitory cars. Each wagon has a total of 54 bunk beds, divided in open bays of four at one side, and two along the wall of the wagon on the other side. Although you have your own bed as well with linen and all included, there are no doors or dividers so it lacks the privacy of Kupe.
Facilities on board trains in Azerbaijan
In all classes, toilets are shared and can be found at both ends of each wagon. There are usually no restaurant wagons on board Azerbaijani trains so bring your own food and drinks along! It is perfectly fine to drink a few beers or bottle of wine in your compartment.
If you travel in a shared compartment, it is however polite to share food with the other passengers. You will probably find out that this is what the Azerbaijani passengers do – and it is a great way to break the ice.
Each coach of the train has its own wagon attendant addressed by the Russian word ‘provodnik’ (for a man) or ‘provodnitsa’ (for a female wagon attendant, which usually is the case).
When arriving at a station, they open the wagon door to wave goodbye to passengers and welcome in others. Upon entering the wagon the provodnitsa will check your ticket. You have to enter the train at the exact wagon which is listed on your ticket. If your ticket has a berth listed in wagon 6 and you try to enter the train in wagon 7, the provodnitsa will simply direct you to the following car on the platform.
Usually, the provodnitsa will take your ticket upon departure and keep it for the rest of the journey. On an overnight journey, they usually knock some 30 to 20 minutes before arrival on your compartment door to wake you up and to give your ticket back.
Provodnitsas are the guardians of the train wagons and will kick off anyone who has no valid ticket or misbehave. For a few cents, they will usually be able to make you a fresh cup of tea. The more entrepreneurial provodniks and provodnitsas sometimes even keep a small stack of snacks, cans of soda and beer in their own private compartment at the front of the wagon to sell to passengers!
For overnight journeys, bed linen, pillows and blankets are always provided and included in the fare. The bed linen is wrapped in plastic to show that it has been freshly washed and has not been used by someone else shortly before. That does however not say something about the quality of the linen, as it sometimes can look like it has been in use for more than 10 years!
The pre-packaged linen are usually handed out by the provodnitsa after departure of the train or can be found placed on your berth. Pillows and blankets will already be placed on your berth, or can otherwise be found in one of storage spaces under the berths or over the aisle of the wagon.
If it is your first time travelling by train in the ex-USSR, you can always ask the provodnitsa to help you a bit if you are clueless how to make up your own bed.
Safety and security on board Azerbaijani trains
In Spalny Vagon and Kupe, all compartments can be locked from the inside. This is a security measure which should be taken by men and women alike. Azerbaijan is an extremely safe country with a low crime rate and there is nothing to get paranoid about, but common sense should always apply. Locking the doors with the security hatch is one such measure.
On trains in Azerbaijan, passengers of both sexes share the same compartments. If at any time you feel uncomfortable if you end up sharing a kupe compartment with three men, you can always inquire with the provodnitsa if she can accommodate you in another compartment if you want.
Some women travellers prefer Kupe as usually you share it with families or older people, while others prefer Platskartny given the safety in numbers hypothesis and social control in the open-plan dormitory carriage.
Given the low costs of Azerbaijani train tickets, you can however also easily opt for Spalny Vagon and buy both berths in the compartment.
As a relatively small country, there are not many (overnight) domestic journeys which you can make within Azerbaijan. For most travellers, there are three main railway lines of interest. These are:
1. Baku to Sheki and Balakan
2. Baku to Ganja and Agstafa
3. Baku to Lankaran and Astara
On the simplified map below, you can see routes so you can get an idea of where you can travel within Azerbaijan. The only lines on which there are currently cross-border services running are Baku-Tbilisi (Georgia) and Baku-Derbent (Russia).
Train routes in Azerbaijan
Arguably, the routes to Sheki and Ganja are probably the ones which tourists are more likely to use as these are two of Azerbaijan’s most interesting places.
That said, some travellers might want to continue all the way to Balakan, as it is a convenient transit point just before the border with Georgia. From here, it is easy to arrange local transport or a taxi to Sighnaghi just across the border. This would make sense on a longer itinerary across the Caucasus as I consider Sighnaghi to be must-see stop within Georgia, it being a lovely wine-making town in an area described as the “Georgian Tuscany”.
The (overnight) train south to Lankaran and Astara is handy for travellers who want to head into Iran. Astara is located right at the border with Iran (the town itself has an Iranian and Azerbaijani part). Unfortunately, there are no through passenger trains into Iranian territory, so you would have to arrange alternative transport in Iran.
It seems that Rasht is the nearest railway station once in Iranian territory, so you could try to get a taxi or bus from Astara to Rasht, and then take a train south to Qazvin and Tehran.
International train routes
There is also an international train which runs directly between Baku and Tbilisi for those who do not plan to visit the eastern part of Georgia. This overnight train can also be booked online at the website of Azerbaijan Railways. Unfortunately, this is not possible for those who want to travel from Tbilisi to Baku – you have to buy your ticket at the station in Tbilisi.
From Azerbaijan, there are also trains north into the region of Dagestan in Russia. Due to years of insurgency in this region, non-Russian and Azerbaijani passport holders have been long barred from international trains travelling between the two countries, although this restriction seems to have been lifted.
There are a number of direct trains available from Baku to destinations across Russia such as Derbent, Makhachkala, Rostov-na-Donu, Volgograd, Astrakhan and of course Moscow. Trains also connect Baku with Kiev in Ukraine, although note that you would need a Russian (transit) visa for this.
Train tickets to Russia and Ukraine can be bought online through Tutu Travel, which reportedly gets good online reviews.
Due to the ongoing conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh the border between those two countries is firmly closed. You will have to travel between a third country (Iran, or much more practical and straightforward, Georgia) first in order to travel between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Turkey to Azerbaijan train
Last year (2019), a brand new railway line was completed which is now connecting Kars is north-eastern Turkey and Akhalkalaki in Georgia, connecting the previous dead-ends on the Turkish and Georgian railway networks.
Direct trains were supposed to start connecting Ankara to Tbilisi and Baku in 2020, but so far there service has not yet commenced. When it does I’ll update this page accordingly. It would be a fantastic way to travel from Europe to Azerbaijan, as there is some great scenery on the Turkish railway line, especially the part between Sivas and Erzincan where the train sneaks through narrow gorges of among others the Euphrates River!
Review: Baku to Sheki by overnight train
Enough basic information and back to the actual trip report and review of the overnight train service between Baku and Sheki!
From the city centre of Baku I made my way to the railway station by metro. Baku’s modern train station is located in some kind of shopping centre. You will find most ticket offices downstairs and the main waiting hall and platforms one level up by escalator.
As I already had exchanged my e-ticket to a proper paper ticket earlier in the day, I could head straight upstairs and find my train to Sheki. As there was for some reason a huge number of police officers and soldiers on the platform I didn’t dare to make too many pictures of the station and train as this being frowned upon in many ex-Soviet countries where such objects are seen as vital state infrastructure.
Baku to Sheki by Azerbaijan Railways overnight train
Train number: 664 Baku-Balakan – Class: Spalny Vagon (SV),
Departure: 10.40pm – Arrival: 7.10am
Travel time: 8h30m – Distance: approximately 221 miles
Costs: 18.80 EUR for both compartment berths/private occupancy
Even though I’m fairly used to these ex-Soviet trains and have travelled on quite many ancient carriages across different former Soviet republics, this Balakan-bound train did look particularly old.
The wagon corridor and my compartment were both very dark and dank, although when the heating kicked in upon departure of the train it was much more bearable and actually fairly pleasant.
Although the electricity also started to work, the light in the compartment barely gave any light at all. At least the compartment was clean, the linen fresh and the occupancy of the train very light by what it seemed.
Upon departure the provodnik came to collect my tickets and was surprised I made the effort to buy both berths in the compartment. For me the small extra costs and the assurance of private occupancy were nothing, although I can fully understand that with a meagre railroad salary it seemed like unnecessary and exuberant spending!
Probably, these trains do not run even close to being full on mid-week departures in the low season, but as a Spalny Vagon berth was just 9 EUR it was not something which I wanted to risk.
I had brought along some snacks and beers for the ride and spent the first hour after departure trying to read my book in the dim light. The book (On Secret Service East of Constantinople by Peter Hopkirk) is a thrilling, fantastic read for those interested in the fascinating history of the Great War and espionage in the Near East.
It has a couple of chapters detailing the adventurous Dunsterforce mission to revolutionary Baku in 1917-1918, which is simply one of the more amazing and unique episodes of the First World War.
One of the pleasures of train travel is to simply get snug and cosy under your blanket and read a book while listening to the clackety sounds of the train rolling over the rails. Drinking a Xirdalan beer or two and eating some breaded cheese (the ubiquitous Russian beer snack) completes the picture.
After finishing my beers I went to sleep. The only downside of the berths on these Soviet-era trains is that they are quite narrow. Apart from that, they make for a decent night of sleep.
I understand that overnight train travel is not for everyone. Light sleepers might find themselves awake at every sound, rattle or station stop. However, I always manage to sleep well on such trains. Even when I’m not tired, the shaking and movements of the train help me sleep fast in a similar way like you rock a baby to sleep.
Around 20 minutes before arrival the provodnik knocked on the compartment door to warn me of the upcoming stop in Sheki. I was already awake at this point as I put my own alarm clock, wanting enough time to get properly dressed and to wash my face in the toilet’s washbasin.
The railway station of Sheki is located in the middle of nowhere along the main provincial road to Balakan. Fortunately, there are plenty of taxis (both shared and private) waiting for the 10-mile ride to the town of Sheki proper. After disembarking the train I easily managed to negotiate a 1 EUR fare in a shared taxi, with the driver dropping me off directly in front of my guesthouse.
There is just something special about travelling by train. It has an old-fashioned bit of romanticism which is lacking in so many other forms of transport and gives you the time to reconnect to the basics in life.
When you have a long journey by train, you will have time to look out of the window and absorb the view, talk to your travel partner or to strangers, read a book, listen to music, or simply sleep.
Especially in a country like Azerbaijan travelling by train is a wonderful throwback to the days of the Soviet Union. Those who have travelled before in any of the other ex-USSR states will find themselves on familiar ground when they set foot on an Azerbaijani train.
Train travel in Azerbaijan is dirt cheap and fairly comfortable. Even a domestic ticket for an overnight train in Spalny Vagon will not cost you more than a tenner – an amount which is unthinkable in Russia where such a similar journey can easily cost you 10 or 20 times as much.
Sure, overnight train travel might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Those used to luxury travel or extremely light sleepers might balk at the idea of such a journey or having to share a basic toilet at the end of the train corridor. But those people will miss out on a quintessential experience which is as much part of any trip as the destination itself.
Trip report index
This article is part of the ‘Siberian Shuffle – A Crazy Winter Trip Around Eurasia‘ trip report, which consists of the following chapters:
1. Review: Wizz Air Bucharest to Oslo Sandefjord Torp (Airbus A321)
2. A Day in the Norwegian Capital of Oslo
3. Review: Norwegian Railways Night Train Oslo-Stavanger in a Private Sleeper
4. Review: Radisson Blu Royal Hotel, Stavanger
5. Stavanger – A Great Norwegian City Trip Surprise
6. Review: North Sea Lounge Stavanger Airport
7. Review: KLM Cityhopper Business Class Stavanger to Amsterdam (Embraer RJ-175)
8. Guide to the Carnival Celebrations in the Netherlands
9. Review: KLM Crown Lounge (Schengen) Amsterdam Airport
10. Review: Air France Business Class Amsterdam to Paris (Airbus A319)
11. Review: ‘Salon Paris’ Business Class Lounge Paris CDG Terminal 2C
12. Review: Aeroflot Business Class Paris to Moscow (Airbus A320)
13. Review: Aeroflot Domestic Business Class Lounge Moscow Sheremetyevo
14. Review: Aeroflot Domestic Business Class Moscow to Irkutsk (Boeing 737-800)
15. Review: Matreshka Hotel, Irkutsk
16. Irkutsk Trip Report: Exploring the ‘Paris of Siberia’ in Winter
17. Review: Mayak Hotel, Listvyanka (Lake Baikal)
18. A Winter Trip to the Frozen Wonderland of Lake Baikal
19. Review: Ibis Irkutsk Center Hotel, Irkutsk
20. Review: Domestic Business Class Lounge Irkutsk Airport
21. Review: Aeroflot Domestic Business Class Irkutsk to Moscow (Boeing 737-800)
22. Review: Pushkin Hotel, Moscow
23. A 24 Hour Stopover in the Russian Capital of Moscow
24. Review: ‘Moscow’ and ‘Jazz’ Business Lounges Moscow Sheremetyevo Terminal D
25. Review: Aeroflot Business Class Moscow to Paris (Airbus A320)
26. Review: TAROM Business Class Paris to Bucharest (Airbus A318)
27. Review: TAROM Business Lounge Bucharest Otopeni Airport
28. Review: Air France Business Class Bucharest to Paris (Airbus A320)
29. A Short Overnight Stopover in Paris
30. Review: Sheltair Business Lounge Paris CDG Terminal 2D
31. Review: Azerbaijan Airlines Business Class Paris to Baku (Airbus A320)
32. Review: Old City Hotel and Apartments, Baku, Azerbaijan
33. Destination Baku: An Intriguing Mix Between Old and New
34. Guide: Train Travel in Azerbaijan (current chapter)
35. Sheki: Azerbaijan’s Most Lovely Town and Springboard to the Caucasus
36. Must Be the Ganja! A Visit to the City of Ganja in Azerbaijan
37. Review: Shah Palace Hotel, Baku, Azerbaijan