Sleeping on the rails part 3 – in Russia with love
Prior to this year, I’d only ever taken one journey on a sleeper train. It was 2003 and we were in St Petersburg visiting my sister, and she decided we should go to Moscow for the day to see the sights. Lenin’s Tomb, Red Square and so on. We’d arrive on the sleeper, spend the day there and arrive back in St Petersburg the following morning.
Lenin was impressed to see us.
Buying tickets was hard – very hard. We had to go to a building next door to the train station, which had about 80 different ticket windows. You had to go to a certain set of windows depending on where you were going and what ticket you wanted. The sleeper trains had a handful of windows, each with its own queue – the Russians clearly love a queue and this building did it in style. You stood in the queue for ages, then the person in the window would be interrupted by their supervisor to take money off them – this had to be done in minute detail and involved several minutes of counting cash – and then… well the person in the window would go off on their tea break.
And the queue of people would have to stand there for fifteen minutes until they came back. Well there’d be no point in moving because each of the other queues was barely moving anyway.
The queues were exasperated by the habit many people had of coming in a pair and each standing in different queues, in the vain hope that they’d actually get served quicker. Not that it seemed to make any difference at all.
Then there was the complex rules of “Could you mind my place?”, where the person in front of you would decide he’d had enough, would pop off to the toilet (or more likely for a very strong vodka) and ask you to mind their place whilst they were gone. So you’d have to remember who had been stood there when they returned thirty minutes later.
I’m not over-exaggerating when I say we spend about an hour and a half trying to buy sleeper tickets for us all.
On the plus side, the return came out as about £30 each…
If getting the tickets had been stressful enough, getting to the station seemed even worse. And the big problem is that you need ID before boarding the sleeper train in Russia. Yes, even post Communism there was no such thing as just getting on board and going.
Normally this would have been fine had it not for the fact that on arrival in Russia, foreign nationals had to get their visa validated. This required getting your hotel or hostel to submit your passport off to some central bureau of bureaucracy who would then return it a few days later covered in lots of stamps.
We’d submitted our passports a few days before and were still waiting for them to come back. All we had was a photocopy of our passports and no one really knew if the train staff would actually let us on board. There was nothing technically illegal about us going to Moscow but all it would take would be one self-important bureaucrat railway company employee and we’d be going nowhere. And believe me, there’s plenty of them in Russia. We saw more than a few during our travels.
Thankfully it didn’t actually happen and we were allowed to board and enjoy our four bunk cabin.
The cabins held four bunks so the three of us had to share with a random stranger. On the trip there, the random stranger decided the sensible option was to spend most of it in the bar and to be honest I can’t blame him.
The amenities were rather basic. Just bunks and a small hygiene kit of soap and a “tooth towel” – a sort of wet wipe for teeth. There was no in-cabin sink – a trip down the corridor was required instead, which featured a delightful toilet – the kind where the toilet waste went straight down on the tracks. Such train toilets are now very rare in the UK, but still feature in many other parts of the world. Including France and Switzerland incidentally.
What I did notice was that there were copious numbers of people drinking tea out of nice, glass teacups. It wasn’t until our arrival the next day that I worked out they came from the cabin attendant.
It was also amazing how many of the travellers had bought their slippers with them.
I can’t say that I remember much about the journey other than waking up during the night to find bright station lights blaring through the window as we sat at a station. Sleep was patchy – a familiar results going to Scotland some years later – and we naturally arrived in Moscow far too early in the morning – there is absolutely nothing open in Moscow at 7am in the morning, that I can tell you!
The way back was pretty much the same, bar the random stranger not going to the lounge car this time. It was also whilst sat at a Moscow train station that I noticed one of the big differences between rail travel in Russia and Britain. People brought everything – and the kitchen sink.
As we marched promptly to our train, we were surrounded by people carrying several huge bags of stuff – those huge plastic duvet bags you get in cheap pound shops. They were crammed with merchandise, to be sold when the owner got to St Petersburg.
Where they put them on the train, I’ll never know given each person carrying them had effectively three times their own normal space.
The other noticeable event on the way back was the the amount of sleep. After not getting much the night before, and having seen Red Square, Lenin, a big statue, and an old exhibition park dedicated to showing off Communisim (which included a statue of Lenin surrounded by shops), I slept like a log.