23/24 July 2010
The Russian Train 443 arrived and a retinue of uniformed staff descended onto the platform. I entered my allotted car clutching my phrase book. With the total absence of English speaking staff, getting sorted offered a perfect setting for a gesturing comedy, laced by scrutiny of my tickets. Fortunately, the finished jigsaw was accompanied by in-situ Russian smiles. Arrival at Moskva Belorusskaja was to be at 20.35, 24th July. The route: Poznan, Warszawa, Brest (Belarus frontier), Minsk, Smolensk and Moskva – a distance of 1610km.
I suspected there would be many lost-in-conversation incidents over the next 29 hours. A of Y had persuaded me to take a couchette, in hindsight correctly. I managed to order the first grand mug of Russian tea, but as we travelled, a strange atmosphere of non-existence encompassed us, the passengers. At Poznan (a long stop), some staff suddenly disappeared and returned from an ALDI/LIDL shopping expedition, all bags clearly destined for home consumption. The sound of keys turning to secure the loot echoed down the carriage, while my standing in the corridor and gazing at the scenery/activity also became a bit of an irritating intrusion. I texted Ant O’F: ‘left Berlin for Moscow, all OK, grey skies, Russian train officials with gold braid have air of take care’.
Poznan saw a young man occupy the next berth, later joined by a beautiful young woman at Warszawa. The train crossed into Belarus at 02.45 with a shuddering halt at Brest. Border control, passport and visa for passing through Belarus (£120) and rail tickets were all taken, examined and returned 2 hours later to all those patiently standing in the corridor. Boredom relief came in broken English/German conservations with a young Russian architect student going home to Moskva after 2 years in Berlin; an ex-merchant Russian seaman who had been to Middlesborough; and then in perfect English with Olga, the beauty from Warszawa. She knew London and was surprised to see me travelling alone. After immigration the train shunted into a long shed; wheels were changed with an almighty bang to suit the Russian gauge and it left Brest at 06.00 with a rising sun. Upon leaving the train at Minsk, the beautiful Olga (with her man) gently said ‘Beware of Muscovites’! Texted A of Y: ‘In Moscow soon, ship to Japan ticket, will it be at Vladivostok’? We pulled into Moskva Belorusskaja station one hour late at 21.35, with temperatures at 39°C!
Tired, I found the patiently waiting driver for trip to out-of-centre Moskva Vega hotel. Forgot to go first to the Belorusskaja Intourist Office to collect the Trans-Siberian rail ticket; driver not pleased, though still smiling through gritted teeth as he liaised robustly with a frustrated intourist official with me muttering ‘ have to get with it, no more slip-ups’.
Suddenly Ant O’ F responded ‘ How is it going with unchummy braided officers, 2nd question – do u want 10 raffle tickets?’. NO!