A Train to Japan Chapter 3: Russia is too Russian

Tuesday, July 3 2012 at 15:23 (Trips)

So last time I set off bravely to explore some of Warsaw. I didn’t get very far – it was far too hot for extended exploring and the grassy area turned out to be fenced off for something football related, so all I could do was gaze longingly at the shade under the trees. Shortly after that a random Polish guy came and talked at me. He was either drunk, insane or trying to steal my stuff. Possibly all of the above. I ran away.

I fretted for a while about what to get to eat on the train and ended up with a sandwich, bag of crisps and a gigantic apple. Eventually it was time to board the sleeper to Moscow, called the ‘Polonez’. It wasn’t that different from the Jan Kiepura except there were three beds to a compartment instead of six. Somehow though, I ended up with a compartment all to myself – this meant that I was lonely and had no-one to watch my stuff, but on the other hand I finally had a window seat/bed. I sat and read Harry Potter+Philostone for the six or so hours it took to reach the Belarus border.

I was mildly terrified about the Belarus border since it would be the first test of my visa escapades. I was given a migration card which I filled in to the best of my ability and also worried that if we reached the Russian border before midnight, I could be thrown off the train due to the dates on my visa. The border control check took a while but I was handed back my passport and migration cards with exciting stamps and nobody even jabbed me with an AK47! Things were going well.

Shortly after passing the Belarusian border we had to stop to change our train from standard gauge (5ft 6in if my memory serves) to Russian gauge (6ft exactly). This involved literally jacking up the whole train and swapping the wheelsets. Sadly from my position on the train I didn’t actually get to see the process happen, but it was pretty neat nonetheless.
Whilst stopped a number of crazy Belarusian ladies came up to the train to sell us food and alcohol. I declined. A helpful stoner couple on the train were not English but did seem to speak English/Russian/Polish so translated some key details for me.

Did I mention all of the cool Russian rolling stock? There was a lot of it. Being on the sleeper made me grateful for all of my recently acquired railway knowledge and also my experience with sleeping in noisy, rocking boat cabins. I sat and watched the moon go by for a bit then went to sleep.

I was expecting to be attacked by Russian border control in the wee hours of the morning but evidently Belarus border control also cleared you for Russia, as I didn’t awake until some kind of sensible time like 6:45 (that’s 4:45 UK time). I slept on and off until we arrived in Moskva Belorusskaya around 11.
Moscow is terrifyingly Russian, so Russian that you kind of feel like someone is pulling an elaborate joke. I think it’s mostly the Cyrillic and the architecture but it’s really unmistakeable for anywhere else in the world. The first thing you see when you leave the platform is a huge set of flower beds – that was reassuring somehow.
I changed 100USD into Roubles and went in search of the metro station, which turned out to be hidden around a corner with the smallest ‘M’ sign possible despite being a sizeable building. I managed to beat a ticket out of a machine and somehow got on the right train to the correct station, where my departing station for the trans-Mongolian is. The metro is grand, with chandeliers and faux pillars, but is poorly laid out and not very tourist friendly. I dropped off my big bag by giving it and some cash to a man in a hole in the wall. Unsure if I’d ever see my belongings again, I set off for Red Square.

Sadly for probably the biggest and most iconic tourist attraction in Russia, Red Square is poorly signed for those not knowing any Russian. I only found it myself by looking up which metro station to go to before I left, and even then I gad to do a fair bit of wandering to reach it. The Kremlin is smaller than I imagined but still eminently photographable, though still probably better in snow than the baking heat of the time. The architecture was all round pretty great, very… Russian, and totally incomparable to the squared-off concrete blocks that are out in the countryside.

By this point I was incredibly thirsty and set off to the Red Square McDonalds where I met a Canadian couple inside who couldn’t help me with Cyrillic but did give me a Canada badge instead… ‘kay. For those scoffing at my lack of adventurousness food-wise, be aware that ordering here was a deeply cultural experience: Sure I just got 0.8l of Coke and a chicken wrap, but I had to point and mime my arse off for it. It’s also notably the first time I’ve ordered from a McDonalds in any country. So there. Also there was the deep irony of being near a monument of communist government and going all ‘Capitalism ho, bitches!’ (Anyone who gets that reference wins 10 Roubles.)

There was no wifi in McDonalds so I had to text home to check something about registering visas that I was unsure about – turns out that I’m fine and it’s just that the advice given on my migration card was a year out of date. I’m spending less than seven working days in Russia, so don’t need to register.

Red Square is pretty good but kind of bleak. Right near it, however, is a beautiful garden area with loads of trees, flowers, grass and fountains. It’s the first time so far that I’ve felt compelled to take a lot of pictures; it really is that pretty. There’s even a Doric facade with metopes, but their columns only have 16 flutes, the jokers. I also saw some ceremony involving guards duckwalking around, not sure what for but there were lots of people watching so it was probably something well-known.

Overall right now I don’t mind being a camera-toting tourist if I get to look at stuff like this.

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4 Comments

  1. Chloé said,

    The extent of my knowledge on the Kremlin is limited to what I learnt from Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol 😉
    Russia seems sound my friend xxx

  2. David Gibbons said,

    Really enjoying your blog, Ben – even if i dont quite share your love of rolling stock Keep on having a great time. David.

  3. camillaherrmann said,

    I think we need another blog post!

    • joethearachnid said,

      I’d write one, but the prospect of typing up 15 days’ worth of travels is somewhat daunting.

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