Friday, May 13, 2011

Getting there is half the fun

I'm a firm believer in that it is the journey, not necessarily the destination, that is important.

(Cue eye roll here)

Cheesy inspirational sayings aside, it's definitely true that the trip TO somewhere can be just as fun as the actual holiday. I have very fond memories of sitting in the backseat of a mint-green Ford taurus station wagon, eating Fruit-loop licorice necklaces and reading Nancy Drew books while my family made our three-day long drive to Marco Island, Florida. We'd get out of the car every now and then to stretch our legs and check out the wares at Cracker Barrel (the best restaurant ever, hands down) and then we'd be back on the open road, "Hotel California" and Bruce Springsteen anthems blaring.

On my most recent trip, to St. Petersburg with my parents, we elected to take the overnight train from Moscow. There's something about the Russian railroads that seems so romantic, don't you think? I had visions of me cosily ensconced in a little coupe, staring out a window at the snowy steppes while sipping tea and eating blini. Preferably with a guy named Alexei or Dmitri who would be reading Anna Karenina out loud in its original Russian, which I would of course naturally understand perfectly. (hey, this is a fantasy, right?)

This was not the case on Tuesday. We got to the Leningradsky train station around 11pm, but we had to wait for Rhea and her dad to meet us and help us print off our tickets. They got there just after midnight (our train was due to leave at 12:44am) and Rhea and I made our way to the machine where you could print the tickets.

I entered my nomer zakaza (order number), as well as my passport number, and a screen came up that informed me my tickets were printing. Then, all of a sudden, to my horror the word "oshibka" started flashing - mistake!

My tickets weren't printing! The clock was ticking! What to do???

I tried again. No luck. Rhea tried her numbers...and her tickets printed without a problem! My parents were standing a little ways away, talking to Rhea's dad Mike who we had just met. I could feel my mum's stress and tension beaming across the room to where I was, silently freaking out. Were we just about to throw 9,000 roubles (for three coupe-class round-trip tickets) down the drain?

Rhea and I ran over to the information desk, where there was, naturally, a loooong line-up. Full of extremely talkative people with problems that required lengthy discussion, of course. The minute hand on the clock ticked relentlessly on. My parents were looking increasingly frantic. And then...our saviour appeared!

In the form of a tall, handsome Russian guy named Sergei. Full disclosure here: I'm a horrible flirt. I just don't know how. I blame my innate awkwardness and the fact that I used to sport perfectly circular glasses and a retainer. But Rhea - tall, blonde, California-cool - has absolutely no problem with this and soon enough Sergei was issuing a stream of Russian to the women behind the desk. Then he quickly led us to our carriage, spoke rapidly to the security guards who were checking tickets and passports, and before we knew it...we were on the train! It was literally 12:42. Sergei dashed off (not before giving Rhea his phone number - natch!) and the train started its eight hour journey to St. Petersburg.

The train itself was VERY nice - cosy coupes with four beds each (bunk beds), all equipped with fresh sheets, blanket, and pillow. My parents befriended the porter and they ended up trading some coins with him. They gave him a loonie and a toonie (our ridiculously-named Canadian one-dollar and two-dollar coins) which threw him into ecstasies. In return, he gave my dad a 1967 USSR ten rouble coin. He also kept returning to check on them and bring them coffee and tea!

I shared a coupe with one other girl who didn't speak English and went to bed right away. Which was actually kind of nice, considering the situation on the way back to Moscow on Saturday night...

Once again, we JUST made the train. Because once again, there was a problem with our tickets. Rhea and her dad printed their tickets with ease, but that stupid "oshibka!" kept flashing for me until I wanted to punch the machine. This time, there was no Sergei in shining armour (in Adidas track-suit?) to save the day, but at least we were somewhat expecting a problem so we were able to just show our passports and get on the train. This train left a little earlier, at 10pm, and as soon as we stepped on board, we could tell we weren't in Kansas anymore...

This train was more reminiscent of an old Soviet train from 1988 or something. The suspicious gazes we were greeted with by the porters and the fellow passengers seemed to confirm the fact that we had traveled back in time and back behind the Iron Curtain.

The train was boiling inside, so my mum and I stood in the narrow hallway by a window that was open a crack, trying to catch a breeze. My parents had to share their coupe with two other women, (one of whom had incredibly bad body odour) and about ten pieces of luggage. Now, these coupes are TINY. There is barely enough room for each person to put their shoes and one bag. Here's a pic of one of the women in their coupe, unloading her stuff the next morning in Moscow:

The impressed look on my mother's face says it all:

I had to share my coupe with three men, all of whom snored like freight trains, but I do have to say that the moving train had a lulling effect on me and I slept pretty well until 4:30am when the female employee/former Soviet shotput Olympian (at least, that's what she looked like!) came by pounding on all the doors to wake the passengers up. A great wake-up call. Thank God for the little bar on the side of the bunk that kept me from rolling off the bed onto the floor in my sleep-induced haze!

But, like I said, half the fun is getting there. Riding the Russian rails was a memorable experience and definitely more interesting than if we had just flown to St. Petes. The next dream I want to fulfill: taking the Trans-Siberian Railway all the way across Russia to Vladivostok - a week long journey! It sounds incredible, but I might have to consider shelling out the extra bucks to have a private coupe with a friend or two...not sure if I could last a whole week sharing a space with smelly, snoring strangers!


  1. Well, the compartment cars are considered good - even if you have to share it with random people. They can be unpleasant, but sometimes you can run into someone really fascinating (like my friend recently travelled with a famous old photographer, and he told her stories all the way and offered some cognac).

    There's the other kind of cars, and I don't even know how to translate that. Even the picture doesn't say it all. Just imagine it being packed with people! It transforms into some kind of living hell with heads, hands and socks sticking out in every possible direction. Plus all kinds of sounds, of course.

    And you know what? People are accustomed to this. Even I can't stand to choose this over coupé - since it's three times cheaper this way. And you start to think "well, okay, it wouldn't be a pleasant night but I can stand it since it's just one night." And sometimes you simply don't have a choice - like when the other tickets are sold out or there's just no other tickets.

    Phew! I think I'm done with this rant :-) One thing I must add is about this pesky error you've got. I've seen it too once and was about to panic, but happened to be this energetic russian guy myself. Found my way to the window, asked the angry women behind it and ended up penetrating the train after just showing my passport.

  2. I'm glad that it wasn't just us the error happened to - I was thinking maybe it had something to do with our Canadian passports!
    Whew, that picture you linked to - are those THREE beds on top of one another? I suppose if it was three times cheaper, I could handle it for a night...
    I think its really just luck of the draw when it comes to who you're traveling with. Like I said, my parents really lucked out on the way to St. Petersburg, it was just the trip home that wasn't so great - but an adventure nonetheless! :)

  3. The top bunk is actually for the luggage, but, of course you, can never be hundred percent sure you won't find that some sneaky person decided to use it (probably to avoid paying for his ticket or if there were no other places).

    The real problem is that there are no doors, and in addition to four beds on the left there are the other two on the right. The thing that seems to be a pretty table is a part of the bed - you have to flip it and pull down to make it whole with a surface beneath.

    Both of those beds on the side are really uncomfortable - especially for the tall people (If I'd try to stretch on them my legs will just stick out). So in the daytime the person on the bottom should transform the bed back into the table and invite the one frome the top to sit across.

    And if no one is missing or napping on his bed, you are sitting not just with one stranger but five of them (four are across the corridor) and additionally you have a wide view to other nearby sections.

    So, it's a very, very effective way to experience the culture and customs. Alas, sometimes not all the good ones.