Wed 22 May ’13 – day 11 My alarm sounds at 06:30 hours, so I’m up showered, shaved and packed and have loaded my day sack with the things that I will need on the train. I checked out and had a short wait before the taxi driver arrived; it is a later departure than originally planned, but as the hotel is just around the corner from the station it only takes five minutes to get there.
Minsk is not a place for tourists as there is little to see and even less to do.
Having brought some more water I then waited until the indicator board clicks over to reveal where the train will be departing – platform 4, track 7. I made my way to the platform and waited for the train to arrive from Brest. It is a sunny day and when the train has come to a halt I find the correct carriage and handed over my passport and ticket to the attendant. These are called Provodnista (female) or Provodnik (male), with ladies normally being in the majority, men are usually the train managers. The Provodnista is “She who must be obeyed” as she is in charge – it is their carriage and it is almost as if the passengers are only there on sufferance. Virtually none of them speak any language other than their own, but a smile and a few words – please, thank you etc – in Russian usually helps break the ice and smooth’s the way. There is also normally someone in the carriage who will speak English if you need to get something translated.
All my journeys by train in Belarus, Russia, Mongolia and China will be in a 2nd class Kupeyny carriage, always shortened to Kupe. These carriages have nine compartments with two upper and two lower berths (the preferred option) and is the way in which most westerners travel. The best trains have single digit numbers and very often a name and these usually have three classes of accommodation; 1st, Spalny Vagon (SV) or sleeping wagon, which is a compartment with two lower berths and is usually twice the price of 2nd class (Kupe) with its two upper and two lower berths. Platskart (3rd class) is a 54 person dormitory accommodation and this is normally half the price of 2nd class.
The higher the number the train is normally an indication that it is slower and comprises of lower quality carriages.
Real Russia booked all my train tickets and I collected the majority of them from their London office and will pick up the remainder in Moscow.
I am in the middle compartment in the carriage and have lower berth, No 19, which faces the rear of the train. A couple who I later learned were husband and wife are already in the compartment having boarded in Brest where the train commenced in the early hours of the morning. They are sleeping, so I stow my luggage under my berth as quietly as possible and then go and stand in the corridor closing the door behind me.
The train departs on time and I check the timetable which is always affixed to the corridor wall in each carriage; it is in Cyrillic script but not too difficult to translate. I then stand and watch the world go by before the husband eventually emerges and we get chatting. He has worked in Western Europe so could speak some English and this was certainly better than my very limited Russian; when there was any confusion I used the phrasebook and dictionary. The couple are flying home for Moscow to Khabarovsk in the Russian Far East, which will be my last stop before Vladivostok in a few weeks’ time.
He is fascinated that I could obtain a map of Russian that is produced by a German company and which I brought in Stanford’s, the premier map shop in London. During the Soviet era maps were considered to ‘secret’ documents so were not available to the general public, this just goes to prove that old ignorance’s are still prevalent in the country.
At the last stop in Belarus we are joined by a young man, so the compartment is full.
As the train crossed the border we moved into another time zone so watches were advance by an hour; we then stopped at Smolensk the Russian border town, but there are no checks as the two countries have an open border.
It is easy to fall in with the rhythm of the train as you chat, eat & drink then sleep. The lower berths are longer enough so that I can stretch out and wide enough for me to be able to turn over without worrying about falling onto the floor.
There is not a lot to see out of the windows – just trees and farmland with the occasional bit of habitation.
Entrance into Moscow was through some pretty grotty suburbs, but this is the same for all major cities throughout the world. We arrived at Byelorruski Station right on schedule – 750km in 11 hours 22 minutes. I said goodbye to the husband, but the wife never spoke to me.
I wait until everyone has left and then manoeuvre my luggage down the corridor and step down from the train; as I walk passed the Platskart carriages I am glad that I am not travelling that way and I have also learned that you need to leave the toilet door and window open otherwise the smell can become awful.
My transfer is waiting and as we leave the station the heavens open, so it is a quick dash to the taxi, put my luggage in the car and then scramble out of the rain – it is bucketing down. Even though is 20:30 hours the traffic is horrendous and it seems that it is everyone for themselves and that pedestrians are far game! I thought that we were going to have an accident even before we left the car park. We headed into the city either on full throttle or maximum braking and skirt the northern edge of Red Square before I am dropped off at my hotel. The Kitay-Gorod is a boutique style hotel situated in the district of the same name and about 10 minute’s walk from Red Square.
It is not what I expected and the single door is locked, but some Americans waiting to go out for dinner let me in and I climb the stairs to reception. Here the young lass spoke good English and was interested in how I found out about the hotel, well it is listed in the Lonely Planet Guide to Moscow.
Having checked in and completed the security registration form I climb two more flights of stairs (no lift) to reach my room. It is small just as the guidebook states, but it has everything that I need. I started to unpack, but because I was feeling so tired, I gave up and went to bed.