The Day we Caught the Train – 4 days on a Train

Tuesday 29th October
The race was on. Had I been on my own I’d have been at the station at the time we left the Kremlin. Most of the group agreed they’d have done the same. The mission ahead looked impossible.

Elena our Honcho was stepping up the gears, and we were expected to run up the metro escalators. This was a sign that she was also starting to panic. We got to the hostel grabbed our bags and left.

45 minutes until the train to Irtusk left. We had to near enough run with all our bags and all the supplies i’d brought started to feel like unnecessary weight. We got back to the local metro station and had to make a change again running. The metro train was in the platform. Me and Callum were at the back of the group and the metro train was already packed but we couldn’t afford not to get on.

As the doors closed we surged forward and just made it.

I looked at the watch 25 minutes until the train to Irtusk left. We had no idea how many stops it was but soon we were off the metro and walking at a brisk pace to the mainline station. We found the platform with 10 minutes to spare and started to put our bags through the scanner. It was at this point our guide realised we were in fact at the wrong platform.

Now we really were in a rush. it sounds harsh and perhaps it was organised chaos but it felt like she hadn’t got a clue where we needed to be. Finally we found it and ran to our carriage. The attendant had to check all our passports and allocate us to our seats.

I was allocated to be sitting with Claire Callum and Fi. We let out a sigh of relief once we were all sat down and it was this moment the train started pulling out. We were the last passengers on. A unique experience we would all have been happy to avoid.

Gradually it dawned on us this was home for three whole days and two half days. There didn’t seem much urgency to do anything but eventually we put bags away and made the top bunk beds.

After that time just seemed to slip by. We were lucky that our local companions were a group of 15-17 year old students that were interested in learning about us and who were so much better behaved than children of a similar age in the UK. One of the girls was particularly good at English and was very excited to know about London.

I had a nap and waking up about 6pm went to the restaurant car in the search for beer and once we returned shared some Vodka. It was ‘only’ 10pm but it seemed that activities were slowly winding down throughout the carriage and by 10.30pm we were asleep.

Wednesday 30th October
I was able to sleep but it felt very bumpy at times and for some reason I got a nose bleed as I woke up. I think it’s because we were entering the Ural Mountains which resulted in a change in pressure. I tried to explain to the attendant that I needed new sheets and she beckoned the girl who could speak English over to act as translator. Luckily the situation was resolved easily though with a bit of embarrassment on my part.

Wednesday was our first full day on the train. Again it was all a very easy pace. If something needed doing it felt it could wait. We got to one station and Claire and Paul got off and made an attempt to clean the window but it was the second station when Chris put Callum on his shoulders true progress was made and we even had a fascinated crowd. The attendant looked annoyed but didn’t say anything.

After this we entertained the kids with connect 4. I realised I’m quite competitive because I found it really hard to let them win. Paul and Chris said they felt the same but ‘little lad’ as he was dubbed was good and beat me fair and square to much excitement. After a few more games I was cool John.

After this we went to the bar and I had more types of the local beer Bajithka. The number 9 was 8% and reminded me of leffe. Having tried number 7 the export larger i eventually I settled for number 3 which went down more easily. It was good to chat to the other members of the group. I bailed earlier than the group from Leeds who returned in good spirits.

i was in my bunk in bed but awake and as a general group probably causing a bit more noise than we should have been. Eventually the attendant came down and angrily said something in Russian which seemed to include the word police so we went to bed. Classic Brits abroad.

Thursday 31st October
I woke after 11am next morning and felt surprisingly refreshed though we came in to a station just as I entered the toilet to clean my teeth. The attendant didn’t realise and therefore locked me in because they are meant to be out of use when the train stops. I waited until we were moving and eventually I heard the door unlock and was able to escape from my prison.

We stopped off at a station where I got some pictures and brought a few more supplies for Friday as I realised my rations were getting low. I’ve already started on the advent calendar and it’ll probably be finished before China. Returning to the train the scenery looked a bit unspectacular so with another whole day on the train tomorrow I decided to have a nap.

I woke up to hear Gary telling the kids a story about life in Norway; one of these was when he lost a bet and had to swim for 3 days in a lake. It sounded amazing and I hope we do have the chance to have a dip in lake  Baikal.

Soon we were at another station and I was finally able to buy some of the famous platform food. I was pleased with my choice, it looked like a doughnut but had a potato filling. I still felt a bit hungry so when the trolley lady came down I brought another pot of instant mash.

That evening we had a quiet one and just chatted. The kids on the other hand were having a noisy night and wanted a game of snap before going to bed. The clocks had changed so it was gone midnight.

Friday 1st November
Next morning I woke up at 11.25am again so by the time I was washed and changed it was lunchtime. I haven’t said what my lunch has consisted of, but i can confirm it was a proper gourmet experience consisting of powered soup, powered mash, crisps and the advent calendar chocolate. Soon we arrived at Krasnoyarsk and It was at this point I realised we’d gone forward another hour and I’d actually missed the entire morning.

Later on I found out some of the group had been told off by police for carrying Vodka on the train. I had none on me myself but this seemed a bit unfair as the guide books all say sharing vodka is one of the best ways to make friends and break the language barrier. Still there were no fines and the female officer was apparently trying to pull the male officer away as she understood we were tourists. Whilst I’m all for respecting other countries laws it sometimes feels as though the law here is up to individuals as nothing was in writing, or if it was you needed to be able to read Russian as there were no pictures. Plus no one had said anything the previous night.

I spent an hour or so reading about the route and looking out of the window before I needed a nap. Being on this train has made us very lazy.

I was probably asleep for an hour or so before Paul said him Claire and Chris were going to the lounge. I couldn’t have jumped down from my bunk quick enough and joined them. We only had one beer each as funds were getting low and i got some soup recommend by the attendant who actually smiled when she saw us (and so she should after the amount we’ve spent!)

We got off the train at llansky for a stretch of the legs and I noticed the temperature outside has certainly dropped. I fancied some platform food but couldn’t find my translator friend so opted against it.

We re-boarded the train and the kids were playing guitar. It was all in Russian but very relaxing and we clapped after each song.

Tomorrow we should get to Irkutsk and on to lake Baikal. The longest part of the train journey is therefore over which is both a relief because we can shower but sad because it has been good fun and the conditions so much worse…

Driftwood – Moscow

I arrived at St Petersburg station in plenty of time but looking like a drowned rat. My ‘new’ backpack coated in mud on one side from where it had toppled over in to a small puddle. Luckily the train and platform were both showing on the board so I made my way. A quick look in my faithful lonely planet guide to confirm how to say “Do you speak English?” and to make sure I’d read the carriage number correctly.

“Vi Ga va ri tye pa an gli ski?”…”Nyet. Passport!” There is something about the Russian accent that makes me feel I’m constantly in trouble. I handed over my passport with a smile. *Frown* “Immigration card?”…what now…the crumpled bit of paper I’d nearly thrown away but shoved in my document folder at the last minute? I retrieved what I hoped was the paper needed and handed it over. Success. Though more suspicious frowning.

I boarded the train and found the cabin I’d call home for the next 8 hours. Luckily I was first so I started storing my bags. A guy soon poked his head around the door and I tried to introduce myself in Russian. “mi  nya za vut John”. Now if I was on the train and someone suddenly told me there name, let alone tried to talk to me I’d probably think they were a bit weird. It turned out ‘Mike’ felt the same way and we didn’t say another word for the rest of the journey. ‘Peter’ was more friendly but by the time the 3rd arrived I’d given up. I shut my eyes and rolled over. I woke up about 5am and it seemed the unknown Russian was having a snoring competition with himself.

Eventually we were arriving in Moscow and it was at this point it was translated to me that the food on the table was free. I ate it very quickly and rushed off the train hoping I had everything.

I navigated my way out of the station and to the Metro. I had no idea which way to go because in Moscow there was no translation to how the Russian text was pronounced. Plus it was the 8.30am rush hour so there wasn’t much time to think or to look at the board.

I dragged my bag down up some steps to the red line. 5 stops to the change. I counted and must have lost interest as I got off a stop to late. It was a horrible blur at the time. I was hot, dehydrated and even though I had plenty of time I just wanted to be at the hostel. Alas It didn’t get any easier in fact it became an endurance test. Having finally arrived at the correct station 45 minutes after I expected I started the short 5 minute walk. Except as with St Petersburg the directions made it sound more simple than it was. I therefore walked past ‘megaphone’ store because I can’t read Russian and turned left a street to late. Walking half way up a steep hill I knew I was on the wrong path. So I had to backtrack all the way to the station. I sat down on my bag and worked out the options. 1) hope the hostel or a sign for it suddenly appeared, 2) look for a taxi, 3) follow the directions more carefully. I opted for 3 as I couldn’t see a taxi.

Finally I found the correct turning and lugged my bag up the steps. Check in wasn’t until 2pm and it was now 10.15am. I’d been on the metro and walking for 1 hour 45 minutes and was just glad to be there and to put the bags in storage.

I sat in the lounge and got chatting to a 61 year old American. I didn’t realise at the time but he was the manager of the hostel. We talked about various things; the difficulty in navigating our way through Moscow (apparently things are better than 6 years ago), the storms in the UK compared to those in Tornado valley and the merits of the NHS and a TV licence. He also told me where to transfer my money at a good rate.

I slowly regained my strength and left the hostel to change my money and whilst i was out i had a burger king though I had already realised that fast food is not a cheap alternative out here. I just didn’t want to battle with trying to make an order for something I didn’t know if I’d even like. I got back to the hostel, checked in made the bed and showered.

whilst i had a few bits to sort in hindsight i should have used the free time to explore but I’d misread the itinerary and thought I had another free day. Finally it was 5pm and I got to meet the tour group and our honcho Elena an English tutor. There was a group from Leeds (Paul, Chris and Claire), a couple from Cambridge (Callum and Fi) and a guy from Norway called Gjermund Aasbrenn who told us to call him Gary. Sara was late arriving but everyone who was there seemed to be quite easy going and the ice was broken fairly quickly. For me it was relief to have company for the next leg.

It was raining and rather than heading for red square Elena suggested showing us the metro. I shuddered. But i knew from the tourist books some of the stations are considered tourist attractions in themselves and perhaps I’d appreciate it more when I wasn’t in a hurry.

Each station was like an art gallery to the Soviet Union with some even named and dedicated after different parts to the empire. it beat the bland old maze of Green Park. I grudgingly gave Moscow Metro a star. It got another when I appreciated that the trains were even more regular than in London. I still felt the directions didn’t make any sense but I could see some logic and maybe if I was Russian I’d find London underground equally baffling.

Finally we went to a convenience store to get supplies for the train to Irtusk and having dropped these off we successfully found a bar having now been united with the missing group member Sara. We had a couple of beers toasting new adventures and didn’t return back until after 1am.

We were up early next morning to explore Moscow. The breakfast service was slow and then when we finally arrived outside Red Square we couldn’t find the tour guide. It was the start of a number of frustrations.

First we all wanted to go to the Kremlin but Elena opted to take us to a nearby park which meant crossing over the river to the opposite Sadly none of us remember the name but if I’m being honest, none of us cared and it felt a waste of precious time. It would be like people wanting to see Westminster Abbey and me walking with them past it over the Albert Bridge to Battersea Park. Finally she relented to an extent and took us in to Red Square. First she insisted we saw Lenin. I think I’m the only one within the group that had a morbid interest in seeing how a man that had such an impact on the 21st century is now left in a mummified state.

Annoyingly we couldn’t take our cameras in and the tour guide wasn’t by the exit which meant when we were finished we were near St Basils Cathedral but couldn’t take any pictures. It was now also 11.30 and our train was at 13.05. We weren’t sure how long the journey to the hostel and to the train station would take but we were expecting a mad rush. Still we hadn’t got to go inside the Kremlin.

Eventually we got the go ahead to go inside. The tour guide admitted she’d been a number of times and didn’t find it particularly interesting. We had 30 minutes to take in a sight that could easily have taken a day. It was such a blur but having heard so much about it I have seen behind the wall.

Unfortunately we now had 1 hour and 5 minutes to get back to the hostel and to the station. Tensions were high – but the group vowed not to leave anyone behind…

Minority – St Petersburg

I navigated myself to the baggage pickup and most importantly through passport control and customs.

The next task was to ask for directions to the hostel which I did in perfect ummm English though I had learnt Spa-si-ba (thank you) and apparently my pronunciation was perfect. I regularly have mocked ex England manager ‘Schteve’ McLaren for using a Dutch sounding English accent when he was interviewed by Dutch TV but realised I could have easily made the same ignorant mistake if I’d not been careful.

Next I lined up at the ATM. The lady in front was struggling so we made a unofficial alliance to help each other especially when we learnt we needed the same bus and metro stations. Luckily the driver was sympathetic to our plight and let us know when to get off. The metro was easier than the bus as it is in London. Get on the right colour line make sure you’re heading the right way and you can’t go wrong. Though my bag did get stuck in the barrier setting of the alarm and getting disapproving looks from all those around. I was travelling at ‘Rush hour’ and at that moment i knew i had become that classic tourist most commuters hate.

The directions to the hostel were clear but I hadn’t appreciated how long individual buildings would be here. I was looking for number 46 and when I saw number 58 I wrongly assumed it was close. When it didn’t appear in 5 minutes I assumed I’d gone wrong and wrongly back tracked. With all my luggage that was a mistake as and when I was finally in the warmth of the hostel I thought my arm right was going to drop off.

I was meant to have a ‘honcho’ on my first day and my voucher implied they’d give me help and advice on the day of arrival. Unfortunately I had no way of contacting them and hostel attempts to contact the company failed. I tried to introduce myself but my room mates were Russian, Argentinian and German. So I opted to keep myself to myself and sort out my itinerary.

I knew that after being so busy in the build up the first night would be hardest and it was especially when I started to think about just what lies ahead. This is my life for the foreseeable future – a life where I have no place to call home. I tried to flip it around and think of the freedom but in truth that just made it all more daunting.

Next morning I woke at 8 but didn’t have the energy to get up. Eventually I did and shortly after 9 my ‘honcho’ Celina (originally from Latvia but now fully embracing life in St Petersburg) arrived and so started one long day of sightseeing.

First we walked to the train station and I was told how to read the information board; a task that sounds a lot more simple than it is because all the text is in Cyrillic.

Next we back tracked and started an epic walking tour of the city. I thought Celina would leave me to it but it turned out I had a personal tour guide for the day. Before we started an epic walk of the historic area we went to an old soviet style coffee shop.

The first historic stop was the Winter Palace (now more commonly known as the Hermitage) which I remembered from school when studying the Bolshevik revolution and my main reason for visiting the city. i later read the revolution started and the palace was seized on the 25th/26th October in 1917 so 94 years to the day.

Next we walked to the Kunstkamera which holds a collection of items obtained by Peter the Great. I didn’t feel I had time to go in so instead we carried on to the Peter and Paul fortress where the canon was fired to mark 12.00 just as I went to take a picture. I was not expecting this and almost dropped my camera as a result. We carried on walking and came to the Summer garden and Palace the former of which have been restored to the original design. Celina said it looked more romantic and enchanting when it was overgrown and so began a interesting conversation about the merits of conservation and preservation.

We had quite a lot in common which meant it felt like I was being shown around by a friend, though I believe that is the tour companies intention. Half way through the day we event went back to hers for a cup of tea. She asked if it was true the English only drank black tea as that’s what all the Russian adverts said and even though I had not normally a tea drinker I felt confident to confirm this was not the case. After we left we headed for the Church of Spilt blood where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated and on St Isaac’s Cathedral where I finally parted with some roubles to climb the tower to get an aerial view.

By this point my legs had given up and despite the city being full of museums which were now closed and I wasn’t sure what else there was to see or do. Next minute we were in an abandoned factory which was being used unofficially to house a club, cafe, contemporary art exhibition and some kind of cake sale. It was very odd but a good use of the space though Health and safety in the UK would have fainted.

Next Celina suggested going to the Opera at the famous Mariinsky theatre which I have to admit sounded a fabulous idea. Sadly it was sold out but instead we went to a smaller theatre to see Swan Lake which wasn’t without drama.

I wasn’t sure if I could take my rucksack in so to be sure handed it to the lady in the cloakroom but and I don’t understand what was said in Russian but the gist was “you’re not having a ticket but don’t worry I’ll remember you”. I tried to get it back but we were running late, the bell had just gone and the hand gestures I received meant the attendant wanted to move on. I spent the entire first half thinking bye bye bag and so long camera and train ticket. Everyone says watch your possessions – I knew all that but in the rush let my guard down, or at least I thought I had.

in fact there was no reason to worry – I got the bag at the interval and the lady looked very confused as to why I wanted to lug it around as she was quite frail and could barely lift it.

After the performance which was fantastic we went our separate ways. I had a night boat to catch to see the rising of the bridges. I tried to keep myself to myself again but it wasn’t long before the people in front realised I wasn’t native which felt slightly intimidating especially as I’d literally just read about the Russia for Russian murders. Luckily there were a group of uni students from Moscow and they whilst they very drunk they seemed harmless enough and acted as a translator. It was only a matter of time before I was asked “where are you from?” Where am I from. England. Who hates England, pretty much everyone especially Russia so I decided to go for where I’m moving to “Sydney in Australia”. Now I’m not proud but this was possibly the best lie I’ve ever told for it created gasps of wonder and meant David Cameron’s comments the other month wouldn’t haunt me. Luckily questions such as how hot is it were easy to answer. I did however refuse the vodka but only because my guard was still well and truly up.

The cruise finished and I made my way back to the hostel 18 hours after I set out. I hoped to fall asleep but the person in the bunk behind me appeared to have company. I need to get used to the hostel life. I put my ear plugs in, drew the curtain to my bunk, hid under the covers and pretended nothing was happening whilst i read about Rasputin when it happened…I dropped my phone on the floor and the screen lit up the room thereby causing the ultimate cock-block. Play time was over. I felt guilty but i have to admit it was also pretty hilarious.

Next day I woke up at 11.30. There was no reason to try another heavy day as my train from Moscow isn’t until 11.30pm.

I packed up put everything in storage and headed back to the Winter Palace/Hermitage to have a look around. I tried to ask “Vi ga-va-ri the pa-an gli-ski” (do you speak English). I practised for 30 minutes when I was in the queue and when it got to me I’ve no idea what I said. All I know is it created an angry lady who kept shouting change at me. I’m guessing it was because I gave 1000 roubles when the ticket cost 600 but if this is the issue the bank should give smaller notes.

The museum/art gallery had a number of stunning exhibits and was basically the British Museum, V&A and National Gallery combined. Whilst I have to admit whilst i appreciate art, any technical coment is lost on me and I couldn’t help but think how much Hamish would tell me off for not studying every painting in detail. After 3 hours of getting lost and stumbling upon famous works like Da Vinci’s Madonna and Child I collapsed on a chair in the cafe. It was at this point I realised I could have downloaded a free map which had all the main highlights marked.

I left and noticed that the big stage set up for the winter Olympics was now being used and there were loads of police and soldiers. Also part of the main road leading to the hostel had barriers along it and people were queuing behind them. I thought about asking what was going on but I didn’t know how and as everyone except me had a Russian flag I didn’t want to draw attention. Regardless it was clear due to the police presence some sort of procession was going to pass.

I carried on to the hostel and still failed to interact with anyone despite sitting in the lounge writing this whilst waiting for the moment I’d have to leave for the station. Hopefully conversation will be easier on the tour because meeting new people is part of the fun and feeling isolated is not. Still all part of the experience…

The Waiting: The Pre Flight story

The list of tasks that remained outstanding as I approached the final 36 hours was becoming slightly overwhelming but by 10pm I just about had it under control and even allowed myself an hour to relax with Kirsten and Jyoti in the lounge.

All I had left to do was to transfer some money. As I ate my bit of chocolate cake and chatted I was oblivious to the chaos that was about to unfold.

At about 11.00 I made the transfer. Rejected. Then it struck me. In my haste to be organised I’d transferred the address of my Halifax account to my dads address. The moneycorp explorer card was to my home of 3 years. I was snookered. All transfers were blocked.

Despite a 45 minute plea moneycorp refused to change the address despite the evidence I was able to provide. Halifax were equally baffled at their refusal. By 1.00am the situation was still not resolved but I gave up as I felt I’d have more luck in the local halifax branch near work to sort it face to face.

So at 2pm I wondered down and explained the situation. The lady on the desk nodded and made those fake sympathetic sounds only those in the service industry can perfect. A call was made to her colleague and the block was lifted. I didn’t trust the situation so tried again in branch.

Rejected. She spoke to the lady at moneycorp and eventually they both got the addresses identical.

So I tried again. Rejected. Even at this point, bearing in mind the flight was less than 24hrs away, the time I’d spent on the phone and the hr I’d been in the branch i feel i remained fairly relaxed. Everything can get sorted I kept telling myself. Better that it happen now than on the journey.

Eventually the error was established and whilst the issue is at the time of writing (on the plane) still not fully resolved I won’t bore you any more suffice to say 8 hours before the flight I was still on the phone…which meant after over 6 months of planning and years of dreaming, Departure Day was upon me.

Victoria had kindly sent me a wake up message as did my mum and Caroline. V thoughtful of you all!

Leaving the house was a blur. I said goodbye to Kirsten but it didn’t feel like I was leaving not to return back to the house later that evening.
Before I left I checked the room one final time and realised I’d left my advent calendar behind. The chocolate won’t last till Christmas but will be a handy ration pack. Then as I closed the door one final time I brought my 21kg rucksack down on to my toe. Ouch!

i slowly made my way with all my luggage to south Ealing bashing my leg as I wheeled my rucksack along but eventually I was at terminal 5.

Check in and security were uneventful and so I made my way to the business class lounge. This was a whole new world. Free WiFi, breakfast and drinks. With my old reliable rucksack I felt rather out of place amongst the others who were dressed in suits and I assume actually there on business. Not that that stopped me getting a photo and eating the food and drinking the drink on offer.

The flight was delayed and this is the first time I didn’t care. It meant more time to take in the lounge surroundings and I have to thank Kelly again. No connecting flight no tours; just get to the hostel, plan tomorrow and sleep.

Once on the plane I swapped with the lady behind because somehow her family had been split up and her children were alone. Whilst I hope this journey develops me I’m still not ready to spend a flight playing daddy so it was mutually beneficial to us both. Better still I ended up next to some locals who I hoped would be able to tell me how to find the hostel. Unfortunately they didn’t know that area so well. Initially I thought they could also teach me some Russian and whilst they did teach me hello and goodbye (words i recognised from conversations with two old school friends) my pronunciation was so bad I fear i disgraced myself and may have been swearing. Like if you told someone to say “goodbye” but they said “go*&%£yourself”. luckily i was told “unlike in Paris where people only speak French (disclaimer I know this is a stereotypical view) people in Saint Petersburg do speak English”. They were very interested in hearing where I was going and they gave me some places to see.

Sadly I fell asleep and having probably snored, any chance of further conversation felt like it was over as when I woke they were both reading. Note to self don’t fall asleep unless I’m in a bed as every opportunity needs to be seized!