Moscow, Russian Federation
Travel in Russia feels hard. That is just my current feeling, of course, and that might be avoided by a more bullish approach than my ‘bugger, got to get moving again’ one. Said feeling is possibly added to by reading advice sites and getting the sense that if you try to go it alone you will find difficulties, but booking a ticket, changing an electronic counterfoil for a real ticket and working out which metro stop you need for an overland station are all things that need to be done just for one journey and seem slightly more trouble than they might be. I booked my tickets through Real Russia, for instance, paying a premium so i could just book online while they navigate the rules and regs. Just buying a ticket should be straightforward, but without speaking Russian I don’t know where you’d start (“hello!…um, my good man…”). That said, the self service booths at the station had English instructions, so maybe there it is possible. You must also bear in mind that the times on Russian tickets are Moscow time; the itinerary from the agency helpfully shows them in local time, too. There is already two hours between the two once you get to Yekaterinburg after 26hours or so.
I printed the ticket-like things and itineraries they had sent me via email and relaxed. Luckily I then had time to read through the instructions last night; having chosen to receive ticket information electronically to save myself a trip to Real Russia’s offices (or the cost of postage) I spotted that my print outs were receipts, to be exchanged for a ticket at the station. I emerged from Komsomolskaya metro into the kacca hall at Kasinsky, pleased that my slim cyrillic had at least spotted the right exit, and tried. Nope, suburban trains here-there was a clue, in fact, in that my train wasn’t listed amongst the departures. Up the stairs as directed and I was near the platforms and trains and could see my train listed. Great. No kacca. Out of an exit and onto the station concourse? No kacca. Eventually I found it, a bit tucked away and up several sets of stairs into a big ticket hall, phew. Self service might have worked for me, but I queued-Russians seem to like to stand close, I figured there was a snooze you lose thing happening-and got my ticket. Should you go, you want the ticket booths on the right, with red column decorations, not the left. Real Russia also give you an itinerary in English which is invaluable. Once you’ve given over your receipt they’ll keep it, so you’d be left to interpret the ticket yourself. Carriage is easy enough, but the seat no., I know thanks to my English instructions, is next to ‘mecta’ further down on the ticket sheet.
They say you haven’t lived till you’ve had some microwaved fast food in a Russian station food court, so i eschewed the ‘products on the road’ and went to the court. Charmingly, the staff behind each counter seemed to be trying to sell their wares as I walked past. I didn’t get a word, but nodded along like I did. Mmm, burger, and misc baked goods for the journey. Spotting it was 1pm I wandered to the platform. It turns out that carriage 16 is a long way down. All in all, allow an hour at least, more if you want that microwaved burger (it was tasty).
The lower-numbered trains are supposed to be the more comfortable and quicker ones, which I’d not really paid attention to when booking, thinking only that a few extra hours on my first trip wouldn’t matter-my train takes 3 or 4 hours longer to Yekaterinburg, but that’s 26 anyway, so getting in at 6pm rather than 3 or so didn’t seem that big a deal. Walking past the old carriages I thought maybe this was a mistake, but my second class carriage is comfortable enough, and the 3 others in my compartment, 2 older women and a man, were friendly enough. I managed to babble enough at them-rather than staying silent, as can be my wont when I know people don’t speak my language-that they picked up that I was angliski, at least. Tickets are checked before you get on, then the counter foil removed once you are in place, and the conductor exchanges that, effectively, for a sealed package of towel and sheets. Having towels seems to be the way here, the hostels supply one too, which means I lost mine at the right point.
My bunkmates made their beds early so I thought it politic to offer to make mine, so as to be out of the way of the lady on the bottom bunk. Once on my bunk a nap was natural, and the relaxed side of travelling by train took over-no obligation other than to do as thou wilt. We stopped after 3 hours or so and hawkers appeared-the first I spotted seemed to be offering small chandeliers, others had plate sets, glasses; all the practicalities of travelling by train covered. The presence of hawkers at least shows there is time to get off and wander if you want to, at the next couple of stops there were none and we were there for just a couple of minutes. Around seven I finally emerged and wandered to the restaurant-pectopah-car, where you can sit and have a £3 beer whilst assailed by the music and flashing lights of a mini vw beetle some passengers have brought in to sit on the table with them (your experience may differ, electronic annoyance not completely guaranteed). Sod it, it’s not even really annoying in a foreign country, I can just chalk it up to foreign experience. The beer, baltika, was cold and good, though just a normal 500ml. The station kiosks had some monster 1000ml cans, for that “I’m a Lilliputian”* experience.
Part way through drinking a Russian came over while I was going over old blog posts to ask how I was getting Internet access. It took a bit of gesturing to get to that understanding, but he invited me to join him and I learned that dinner in the pectopah was pretty average and that he had bitten off more than his limited English and my nill Russian could chew. He’s a chief engineer on a ship, he fishes, he has just spent time with his woman and is returning to his wife. We got that much, and it may mostly be true. Sancho Panza discovers who the lady Dulcinea of Toboso is; “I know her very well…she can throw a metal bar just as well as the brawniest lad in the village…the best thing about her is that she’s not a prude. In fact she’s something of a trollop”
* or, more likely, the “my hands are slightly too small. Why is the bottom half of my beer so warm?” one.