London to Russia by train : the final chapter
- By Jamie Andrews
- 1st Jun 2012
Now back from my Slavic adventure from London to Russia by train and back, I have returned older, wiser and refreshed.
The 19 days I was away was by far the most concentrated period of train travel I have ever embarked on, and I’m pleased to say that it has only strengthened my enthusiasm for the rails.
When I last wrote I had just arrived in Astrakhan. My first impression was that it was fairly typical of the Russian towns we’d encountered on the journey so far – a righteous Lenin adorned the small square outside the station. We then wandered through the (also fairly typical) sprawling lanes of traffic to catch a Marshrutka. Marshrutkas are a cross between a bus and a taxi; they are privately run minibuses operating on set routes. You take a seat and pass your money to a fellow passenger, who then passes it forward to the driver. A typical journey costs 11-12 Rubles (about 20p).
One of the main reasons for visiting Astrakhan was to meet Eugene’s mum Elena, so the first thing we did was head to her apartment before setting off on foot when she went to work (the train had arrived at about 7.30am). We visited the central Kremlin (every major city in Russia has one of these walled fortresses containing impressive churches and local govenment buildings) and wandered along canals before exploring more residential areas.
The city is full of intriguing contrasts – old wooden houses without running water just down the road from huge blocks of flats and enormous shopping centres plastered with advertising.
Being so far south in Russia, it was clear there was a diverse mix of culture and ethnicity. White caucasians mix with Tatars, whose ancestory goes back to the days of the Mongol raids from the East in the 8th century. Orthodox Christian churches and Muslim mosques sit nearby each other, often looking surprisingly similar. On our third day in Astrakhan we went to visit a reconstructed Mongol village built on an archeological site. Travelling through the steppes to get there felt more like a desert than I ever imagined Russia would.
I even sat on top of a camel and felt more like I was the Middle East than Russia. With Iran just across the Caspian sea from Astrakhan this was perhaps not as strange as it sounds.
The next day me, Eugene and Elena ventured out of the city by bus for half an hour to Eugene’s Aunt’s dacha. Lots of Russians own dachas – small houses in the countryside perfect for retreating to at the weekend. Like many dacha-owners, Eugene’s aunt grows an impressive array of fruit and vegetables on the land. As soon as we arrived I felt incredibly relaxed in the warm sunshine and we proceeded to eat, drink, read and sleep, followed by some (faily amateur!) fishing in the mighty Volga river nearby.
When we came to leave Astrakhan, I did my best to convey my gratitude to Elena for her hospitality by hand-writing a letter in Russian translated by Google Translate (I fear it was largely nonsense!). I’m also incredibly grateful to Sasha and Irina (Eugene’s cousin, not to be confused with his wife Irina who I was to later meet in St Petersburg), who not only drove us to the Mongol village, but gave me the most amazing parting gift of a porcelain Astrakhan fisherman vodka bottle!
The train to St Petersburg (a whopping 34 hours!) was largely similar to the train we travelled on from Moscow to Astrakhan. Once again my presence (and my English passport) was a source of sheer hilarity for the Provodnitsas, and this created a air of jollity as we joined the train at 11pm. Eugene and I played cards and watched an epic thunderstorm as everyone around us fell asleep.
I’ve been to St Petersburg before and there’s plenty to read about it online so I won’t write much here. Suffice to say it is my favourite Russian city, and the metro is much easier to navigate thanks to the English signs. My favourite part of the three day stay was meeting Irina, Eugene’s wife (they make a perfect couple), closely followed by witnessing an incredible performance by the St Petersburg philharmonic orchestra.
I then began my journey home, beginning with another Platzkarty sleeper that was headed for Odessa. My bunk was alongside three highly amused/amusing middle-aged women, two of whom were on their way for a holiday on a farm near Pskov.
In Orsha, Belarus, I changed trains and joined the Moscow-Paris sleeper train. It was much like the Cologe-Moscow sleeper I took on the way out, but with some extra touches (e.g. complimentary cup of posh coffee and newly-refurbished toilets) due to the fact that it’s a newly-launched route. I shared a compartment with a young, friendly couple from Moscow (Denis and Mila) on their way to Paris to celebrate Denis’ 30th birthday. Denis spoke exceptionally good English, which he said he picked up from reading English websites and watching lots of Ricky Gervais.
The train’s wheels were changed again at Brest, and then it wasn’t long before we re-entered the EU at Terespol, accompanied by a beautiful sunset.
I changed in Berlin to catch an early morning ICE to Cologne. I had a few hours in Cologne so I met with Jan from Railslove and chatted about Loco2 and his own public transport project whilst sat on the lovely sunny steps of the Cathedral. Finally I made my way to Brussels and on to London by Eurostar.
On arrival at St Pancras it was liberating to speak English again after so long in a sea of Russian, and reassuring that the buildings regained a familiar not-so-massive size. I made my way back to Hackney, ready to tuck into the massive bag of delicious dried Vobla that I had carried back from Astrakhan, another present from Sasha…
On reflection my Russian adventure was both fascinating and beguiling, and I returned to numerous people telling me how relaxed and healthy I’m looking. All the reasons I love slow travel – the time for reading and reflection; the witnessing of landscapes changing and unfolding; the wonderful people you meet – have once again proved and refreshed themselves in my mind.
Read about the practicalities of travelling to the depths of Russia by train and back in Jamie’s insightful Engine Room post.