Riding the Russian Rails - Moscow to St. Petersburg

I’m not sure what the Russian term for ‘All Aboard’ is, but whatever it may have been, I never did hear it that night. I’m referring, of course, to the wonderful experience of riding the rails from Moscow to St. Petersburg; a distance of 500 Kilometers which took eight and a half hours by train. It was nice to see, in a world where speed is everything that people can still manage to coast through the Russian countryside at 60 Km. per hour. (35 mph for us, the over fifty crowd).

I took a taxi to the train station in Moscow, only to be faced with my first challenge: the driver. Like so many Russians spoke no English, and of course my Russian vocabulary consists of one word, the meaning of which I’m unsure. No matter – I was soon engulfed in my second dilemma: there are five train stations in Moscow with names totally unpronounceable to travellers from Port Perry.

Eventually I found the right one and entered the massive station, wandering aimlessly through billowed clouds of thick, blue smoke. (Most Russians smoke, and of course they smoke everywhere.) I had paid for the Red Carpet service, the finest available (a mere $230 for an entire compartment), which not only included elite service and the ultimate in accommodation, but also gave me access to the first class lounge in the station.

I dragged my duffle bag around the train station until at last I found the lounge. As I entered I was greeted by the familiar blue haze and was fortunate that one of the four metal folding chairs were still vacant. As I sat, the attendant smiled from behind his 1950’s style steel desk and explained, in broken, but understandable English, that I would be boarding the train at 11:30 for a midnight departure. I looked at my watch and sighed, as it was only 9:00 pm.

It didn’t take long for two Australian passengers, already seated, to strike up a conservation. Interesting people – he was 87 and she was in her late 70's. They were boarding a different train – the Siberian Express and a two-week journey to China. I was more than impressed by their attitude and stamina and enjoyed their conversation. Of course he was near deaf and would repeat everything his wife had said several minutes later.

I should mention the entire lounge was no larger than four by four meters and although there were no beverages there was a television – albeit black and white – with rabbit ears – and one very snowy channel. It featured one of my favourite episodes of the Rockford Files, with James Garner constantly saying ‘Spaciba’ and ‘Nyet’.

It was silly for me to presume there would not be other ‘first class’ tourists and my ignorance proved true when three people, laden with backpacks and suitcases, entered the small premise. They, like the Australian couple were also on their way to the Orient via train. What adventurers they were. I felt humbled by their eagerness, as I had been quite impressed with my own initiative of the overnight journey to St. Petersburg.

The threesome was quite amusing. A Canadian with his American wife, both in their early thirties, were accompanied by a single British woman who had difficulty completing a sentence, which did not contain three or four ‘descriptive’ words, not repeatable in mixed company. The American, definitely the one in charge, ordered her husband to ‘move the luggage’, ‘get the cigarettes’, ‘find a store’ and ‘buy her a Coke’. I watched quietly from my chair in the corner, terrified that she would see me and add me to her list of submissives.

At last it was my turn to depart. The porter offered to take my duffle bag to the train – for a mere 350 rubles (the equivalent of $10.00) – which I declined when I saw him drop a suitcase from his trolley on to the cement floor. It is important to realize the average income in Russia is the equivalent of $200 a month, so $10.00 for a portage charge was outrageous – especially since the entire walk to the train was less than three minutes.

I boarded the train and was quite impressed with the accommodations. The car although old, was extremely clean. A red carpet ran along the hallway and my compartment had been readied for sleeping. Two bunks had been lowered with a small space in between. My duffle bag fit neatly under it and all in all I had ample room.

The first task was to take the broomstick-like pole beside the door and force it under the door handle to prevent unwanted intruders. Theft on the train is high and I was not looking to share my compartment with some unsavoury Cossack.

The wonderful sound of a Russian radio talk show filled the air as other passengers made their way into the rail car. I had been warned not to use the lavatory – you can imagine eighty or so people using the facilities continuously for eight hours. I found, however, that not to be the case. Either I had been misled or my personal expectations are so far below the norm that it doesn’t matter.

Sleep came easy for me, but was constantly awakened by the ongoing stops as the train rolled into, and stopped, at every one of the 13 stations along the way. I slept on and off until the early hours of the morning and, looked forward to the excitement of entering St. Petersburg’s rail station.

A few minutes later, dressed and raring to go, a knock on the door (my wake-up call) was followed directly with a boxed breakfast, consisting of hard-boiled eggs, bread, salami and of course steaming hot Russian coffee. It was not the most satisfying breakfast I have ever eaten, but it certainly hit the spot.

At long last, as the train rolled along the backs of peasant houses, I began to see larger buildings and finally the old, weatherworn platforms and terminals of the train station at St. Petersburg, luxurious home to the former imperial family of Mother Russia.

Overall I found the excursion to be exciting and fun. It is important to constantly remind oneself that a mere 20 years ago this was the pillar of Communism and western ways and customs were not only dissuaded, but very much frowned upon. Today, however, the people of Russia are making a desperate attempt to cater to the ways which we take so much for granted. I honestly believe the Russians want to belong to a world which offers so many possibilities, most of which we have enjoyed all our lives.

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