The last overnight train journey I had taken was the Caledonian Sleeper from London Euston to Glasgow Central, sometime around 2009. It wasn’t pleasant and I struggled to get much shut eye. The journey from Minsk to Moscow was feeling similar.
As I started to dose off, the train made one of its stops at a town called Orsha, around 20 miles away from the Russian border. The door to the kupe that I had to myself opened and someone came in, not switching on the lights or making much noise. Figuring I wasn’t going to sleep without knowing who I was now sharing a cabin with, and not wanting to be rude, I “woke up” and said hello.
When reading about travels across the Russian railways, the stand out point is how sociable it can be. Being in a small cabin with the same people for hours or days on end means you almost have to chat and get to know each other, if only to maintain sanity and pass the time. But it’s more than that. The people are genuinely friendly, visitors who are on a wee bit of an adventure and local people. And my first experience on the Russian trains was no different.
Dimitri was travelling from Orsha to Kazan via Moscow to visit friends for the weekend. He spoke good English and I was able to practice a bit of Russian. And in no time at all we were talking about travel, about politics, holidays, about Scotland, Belarus, Russia, football… Within 30 minutes we were on to talking about helicopter trips in Venezuela. After chatting into the wee small hours, it was time for a bit of shut eye, or as much as can be had on a train.
In the morning, everyone in the carriage is woken by the provodnitsa around an hour from Moscow. Another big part of the long trips on the Russian trains is sharing food, and in this case it meant I wasn’t able to decline sharing half a packet of dry biscuits for breakfast to go along with my coffee. Perhaps not the best start to a day.
The train arrived at Moscow Belorrusky station, arriving on time to the minute, and I started my two mile walk into the city through a quiet Moscow in the early morning. The first stop was an enjoyably quiet Red Square, free of the masses of tourists that I would see on a return visit later in the morning. A protester turned up near the Kremlin and police appeared, some out of seemingly nowhere, and he was “disappeared” within a few seconds. It’s efficient if a little scary.
I had train tickets to pick up for the Trans-Siberian railway and the office location was seven miles outside of the city centre. While I enjoy walking, attempting this 14 mile round trip on my first morning in Russia after having (not) slept on a train and hadn’t showered would have been daft. Which meant my option was to navigate the Moscow underground.
The Moscow subway is famous for its grand stations, which seems to be a bit of a theme not just in the city but across other parts of Russia, too. Subway navigated, tickets collected, I was back into town to what was now a mobbed Red Square.
A bit outside of the city centre, around 10 miles to the east, is the area of Izmailovsky. I saw a picture of this ridiculously grand looking building and wanted to find out what it was, plus take a walk around Izmailovsky Park nearby. It was fairly quiet at the time – I saw as many squirrels as people for a while – and seems like it will be a popular place on a busy summer day with fairground rides and stalls dotted around. Walking by a fairground ride where the music started without another soul in sight provided a Left for Dead 2 moment and my pace quickened a bit.
Izmailovsky Kremlin is a strange place. It’s easy to find simply by following the crowds from the subway station, which leads to a market stall. Half of the Kremlin is a divey market, selling all sorts of souvenirs in one area and almost anything you can think of in others. One chap looked like he had simply emptied the contents of his pockets on to a little table and he was trying to sell it on. The other half of the Kremlin is far nicer, with structures not on the brink of collapse, and seems to be a popular venue for weddings (four weddings were on the go when I visited). I’d say this is a “must see” in Moscow, if only for a couple of hours walking around the market.
Being such a sprawled out city, it’s easy to wander and wander in Moscow. So I did, taking in the Bolshoi Theatre, cathedrals, the KGB building, Gorky Park (by following the Moskva, obviously). Even after a reasonable amount of time here, I couldn’t see everything I wanted to, making a return to Moscow inevitable.