London to Moscow by train
- By Jamie Andrews
- 16th May 2012
Tales from travelling on the train, Loco2 co-founder Jamie tells us what his travel entails.
I’m writing this from Astrakhan, deep in the South of European Russia on the Caspian sea. But as this is my first chance to sit down and write a blog since leaving London, I’m starting with an account of my trip from London to Moscow…
I had a leisurely departure from London at 3pm (which contrasted greatly to many previous mad morning rushes) followed by a few hours on the Eurostar to Brussels and a very comfortable German ICE train to Cologne (where all announcements were in *four* languages – French, Flemish, German and English). I spent my two hours in Cologne wandering along the river and having my last proper meal before 30 hours on a train. I grabbed some beers and other last minute supplies, and found my way to the night-train at 10pm.
When I got to my coach I was immediately greeted by an umsmiling, no-nonsense, Russian man, who took my ticket, asked if I spoke any German (to which I replied “Ein sehr klein”), and pointed me in the direction of my sleeping compartment (“funf und zwanzig”). One thing to note about joining the Moscow night train in Cologne is that because it is going so far East it doesn’t even list Moscow as a destination, presumably because they assume no-one would be mad enough to travel that far in one go, and so the listed destination was Warsaw, despite the carriage I was travelling in clearly belonging to Russian Railways.
When I arrived in my compartment I was greeted by a portly gentleman in his sixties. We quickly determined each other’s nationality – he Russian, I English, and neither sharing more than two words in the other’s language. This barrier only fuelled the friendliness between us, and as the train departed Cologne we quickly started learning as much as we could about each other with the use of my (very limited) Lonely Planet English-Russian dictionary, and a pencil and paper (for numbers and diagrams).
Pavel (as I soon learnt was the man’s name) was a retired military man. He’d studied in military school in St Petersburg, and his career, as some kind of military scientist, had taken him as far afield as Algeria. He had been visiting his son Artem near Utrecht, where he lives with his Dutch wife and 8 year-old son (Pavel’s grandson). Artem is a software engineer and moved to the Netherlands 12 years ago. I wondered to myself whether there are lots of parents in Russia whose children have moved away for jobs abroad (just as Eugene is about to do when comes to London with Loco2).
One tool at our disposal for communicating, which I didn’t have on my trip around Eastern Europe a few years ago, was the internet on my phone (I had bought a ‘data bundle’ so it cost me £5/day to use the internet in the EU). In order to fully explain the purpose of my visit to Pavel I pasted the text of my recent blog post into Google Translate so that Pavel could read it in Russian. He in turn then showed me his website, from which I was able to gather that he (a) enjoys carving tortured figures in wood (which he described jokingly as an ‘Autoportrait’, which I guessed meant self-portrait) and (b) he sometimes enjoys sporting a hat and sunglasses. I translated some of a PDF from his site which included a Giordino Bruno quote; from this I surmised that he was an academic attempting to fuse the science of quantum physics with a universal human philosophy of nature, and was publishing his revelations in collaboration with a university in Boston, USA.
After a few beers and some further chats, Pavel and I climbed into our bunks and got some sleep. Interestingly I found that the times I was most awake is when the train is not moving, due to the rocking nature of the motion. One of these times was at about 4am when we were joined by Sebastian in Berlin.
Sebastian is a German studying Russian in Moscow, and was on the train to rejoin his studies for the final month of a three month placement. He spoke good English and Russian, and so I was able to clear up some of the uncertainties from the previous night’s conversation. For example, it turned out that Pavel was not a philosopher, but a chemical physicist who had a pending patent with the Boston University thanks to his career in the Russian air force. The lack of a philosophical aspect to Pavel’s academic work was mildly disappointing, but it was good to be clear.
Sebastian was brought up in East Berlin until the fall of the Berlin wall, and had previously visited his Russian wife’s grandmother who lived on the Russian/Khazakstan border, so there was plenty to talk about. The landscape outside began slowly changing and we saw more wooden houses in villages and more open plains.
We eventually crossed the border into Belarus at which point I braced myself for a brutal dictatorship, and allowed the early glimpses of military border guards to compound this expectation. After a relatively gruff official asked me to complete an immigration card and we moved on into Brest, I was beginning to feel more remote from “The West”…
After a long time waiting at customs we moved into a special shed used to lift the train up and replace the wheels to fit with the wider gauge of track in Belarus and into Russia. At this point we were joined on the train by numerous Babushkas (Russian for Grandma) adorned with stereotypically Eastern European clothes and ’80s haircuts (no offence intended). They jumped on to sell us beer (‘Piva’), potato pancakes (‘Draniki’) and gherkins. Pavel jumped at this and insisted to pay for the three of us to have a feast, clearly expressing his delight at how delicious it all was. I was touched by the gesture and tucked in with enthusiasm.
The process of the wheels being changed was fascinating and definitely the oddest train-based experience I’ve ever had. The train is lifted up about by about 4 feet using cranks, with all passengers still inside. The wheels (including axles and other housing) are detached and removed, and new wheels fitting the wider gauge track are fitted. Each carriage is done in turn, with half of the train in parallel to the other half, and then there’s a lot of banging and bumping as the carriages are reattached and the train proceeds out of the station.
By the time we got to Brest station itself, I was glad to get some fresh air since the air conditioning had been off whilst we were stationary, and the sun was by now beating down (in stark contrast to the rain I had left in London). We then went onwards into Belarus, stopping at the Capital Minsk at about 11pm.
My expectations of Minsk were quickly disproved as I was surprised by how modern the city was. My preconceptions had been based on my limited knowledge of the fact that the country is controlled by an ex-Communist Dictator. This initial impression had been compounded earlier in the day when I witnessed the stern border guards and the deeply “proletariat”-looking workers who changed the rail gauges. The reality of Minsk seemed different and I’d like to return properly in the future to understand more about the country, its politics and people.
Sebastian and I went to sleep soon after Minsk, joining Pavel who had already retired to his bunk thanks to the fact he was leaving us at 4am at Smolensk. I awoke at 9am after a great night’s sleep, on the outskirts of Moscow, and was soon in the heart of the city…
Loco2 co-founder Jamie Andrews is gallivanting around Russia on a well-deserved break by train. You can read about how to find and book trains in Russia in the Engine Room, ask your own questions and submit your ideas too. All aboard!