How to Take a Train in Russia

I was talking to my dance teacher the other day about the cost of travelling in Central Asia, and mentioned that trains are usually used by the locals instead of airplanes. It takes longer to travel by train, but it’s more comfortable and cheaper, and you feel less like a tourist. On the other hand, I realized that I was rarely confident in encouraging non-Russian speakers to take the train. So this is a summary of taking a train from Moscow to Kazan.

First, you need to find your way to the train station. Coming from either airport in Moscow, this means using the Aeroexpress local train from the airport. Aeroexpress is kind of an intermediate world between the business/ tourist atmosphere at the airport and the real world of Russia. To get to the Kazan train station (Kazansky vokzal), you need to transfer to the metro at the Belorussian train station. There are at least four train stations in Moscow, with trains departing in various directions. My arms are always sore the day after travelling from dragging my luggage around at this connection. The actual metro has long beautiful elevators, but there getting there involves lots of steps. I also never quite manage to make my way inside before the heavy doors at the entrance to the metro station start swinging back at me. The metro stations are all uniquely decorated, but in my provincial opinion, not as nice as the Kazan metro stations. Coming from New York or D.C. however, they are shockingly beautiful, like the entrance to a museum. Also, you have to queue to get a ticket. Russian style. Which means being highly aware of the flow of traffic, and sticking as closely as possible behind the people in front of you, so that you don’t get pushed out of the way. After dodging more swinging doors on the way out, I smile to see the Kazan train station with its identifying miniature tower of Soembikye on the roof.

The train station is always filled with travelers and wandering salespeople. As with the metro, it is a dangerous place for pick pockets. I have seen a drunk Russian man wake up from his stupor and shout that someone stole his bags from under his feet while he slept. It is highly traditional (even going all the way back to pre-Revolutionary Russia according to my novels) to buy a roast chicken for dinner on the train. The food in Moscow is generally expensive, but everyone likes to splurge for the train journey. I also buy fruit and bottled water, then have some tea while I settle to wait for the train to arrive.

The train pulls into the station a good half-hour before departure time and I make my way out onto the platform. Last time, I was lucky and had a wagon near the station. The conductor asks for my ticket and passport and helps me get my bags on board. When I’m leaving, my friends always come to the train station with me. As accompanying persons (provozhayushie) they can come aboard, too, to get me settled, and say goodbye.

This is also the most interesting moment, because you never know who will be travelling with you. Older women (babushki) are the most fun and talkative. I hear all about growing up during the war and the shortages. One woman recalled how she spent a whole winter confined to the house, because her mother couldn’t get a winter coat for her. They tell about falling in love, going to university, being young and energetic, enjoying life and work. Everything was different in those days, and even the Russian youth of today don’t remember, so they keep talking about how hard it was to find things in the stores, how they had to have their connections and friends in other cities, and about the endless wait lists to get an apartment. They talk about raising children, and seeing them married, and then the chaos of the 90s, when people lost all their savings and their jobs, but held on to all of the important things in life. Then, so and so many years ago, they say, their husbands died or left them, but they have a daughter working in Moscow and such smart grandchildren, getting perfect scores in school. And they lean back and throw their hands up in the air and say, well, well, such is life, such is life, and then add more sugar to their tea and pull plastic bags of cookies and pastries from their luggage and offer them to everyone nearby. And then the stories start again.

Another time, I watched across the aisle as a bright, young woman with her hair and makeup perfectly done in the extravagant Russian style seated herself and started reading a fashion magazine, while from the other direction, her seatmate arrived, obviously fresh from some camping trip in the country, with huge military surplus bags of gear that he vainly tried to fit in the storage area without disturbing her. He ended up curled up on top of his dirty packs, reading a thick, torn copy of War and Peace. I don’t think those two ever quite made eye contact.

The whistle blows, the conductor calls for all accompanying persons to exit, and the train starts rolling slowly out of the station. With my coat hung up and luggage stowed, the little corner of six berths starts to feel like a temporary home. Everyone takes off their shoes and switches to slippers of some sort. I am not very good at remembering to bring slippers, but it is awkward to keep wearing your outdoor shoes. We eat dinner and talk or read. The conductor comes around to collect tickets and distribute bed linens.

Most people prefer to reserve the lower bunk, but my theory is that if you like to be free to go to bed early, it is more convenient to reserve an upper bunk, because you won’t disturb anyone else. I also don’t understand how some people are afraid of falling from the upper bunk. Apparently it happens occasionally, because the train company offers insurance payable in the case of this exact event. Personally, I think the train company makes plenty of profit on that insurance, and I also think it is fun to climb up and down to and from my bed. I have not made many converts to this point of view, though. When travelling with my friend, he insisted that I take the lower bunk, because everyone in the train would think he was being un-chivalrous if he didn’t give me the preferred spot.

Most people get undressed for bed to some extent. In the winter, you can just take off your top layer, or girls will hold up blankets for each other to create curtained spaces for changing. It is always warm on the trains- in summer from the outside weather and in winter from the ample heating. Sometimes I fall asleep easily, but even if I am wakeful it is relaxing to watch the miles of forest and small villages flow by outside the window. You quickly realize that Russia is a vast country.

If you are still awake somewhat after midnight, depending on the departure time, the train comes to a long stop at a bright station, waiting for the night to pass so that the arrival tomorrow morning will be at a reasonable hour. Local entrepreneurs walk up and down outside the windows, showing off souvenirs for sale. I drift off to sleep and am barely conscious of the change in lighting as the train moves off again, across the dark countryside.

In the morning, the lights come on early, and the conductor, addressing the passengers like children in playschool, calls for all the boys and girls to wake up. There is more than an hour yet to travel, but the rest room will be closed for the sanitary zone near the destination city. The restroom is not bad by Russian standards. There is usually both toilet paper and soap available, but it takes some dexterity to avoid touching any dirty surfaces.

I order tea from the conductor. She gives me a fancy glass and metal cup with sugar, lemon, and a teabag. There is hot water freely available from the samovar, and on trips when I am more organized I bring my own cup and teabags with me. I also dampen my towel with some hot water from the samovar to wash my face.

After breakfast, the sun is finally coming up and everyone starts to pack up their bed linens, and return to their outside clothes. I drop my pile of sheets in the pile near the conductor’s office, and my trash bag in the bins opposite the restroom. As we approach Kazan, I look for the white walls of the hilltop fortress (kremel’) and the bright blue curves of Kul Sharif mosque. I still have to gather my bags together, put on my boots and coat, and clamber across the tracks to the station, but I already know that I’m home.

16 thoughts on “How to Take a Train in Russia”

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