Many people often ask me "why Russia?" I can afford to travel to much nicer places and stay in more upscale accommodations, but to me there's no adventure in this. Complete boredom. With Russia, there's always something interesting! A complex puzzle to solve, new experiences each journey, and constant brain explosions and frustration with infrastructure and societal interactions as a whole. When I thought about visiting Kazan for a few days, there were two options to get there. Fly or take Russian Railways. I not only chose the latter, but decided to travel in a platzkart to get a true Russian experience. :) At first, I was a little nervous to ride the train dormitory style by myself. This uneasy feeling arose not from my own thinking, but from Russian friends when I posted a status update on Facebook that I would ride alone in a platzkart on the Railways. Responses included - "why?!?", "brave and wild!" and "are you crazy?" What did I think of the experience?
1. I think it's a good way for foreigners to travel if they wish to interact with locals, but not for comfort. The train from Moscow to Kazan was very old and shitty. Train number is 112мц. Avoid it! I'm not certain, but I think the final destination of the train wasn't Kazan but onward into the depths of Russia. The main problem for me is that it was a night train, and I was completely unprepared. Upon boarding, the lights on the train were out, cut on only for a few minutes when the train took off for the conductor to check tickets. After that, complete darkness. Most passengers immediately went to sleep and remained in silence all night. Besides the echoes of loud snores in the air, there was little movement or motion. No one to talk to, complete darkness, and zero outlets for phones or computers. For twelve hours, I sat in boredom, staring in blackness. I can't sleep in planes, trains, automobiles, or even a bed on most nights.
Salvation came in the wee hours of the morning when I encountered a handsome young man. At the sight of a young Russian face, there's always a glimmer of hope that the person will speak English. I asked him in Russian if he spoke the language, and his face lit up! Yes! For a few hours, we sat and chatted at the tiny table by my bunk. He had spent a summer in America, on the work/travel program sponsored by the U.S. government. Most important, he gave me food. I was starving, carrying with me no food or water for the long ride because I thought all trains had a dining car, where such items can be purchased. This train had nothing. No real food, only a dispenser for hot water. My new friend gave me a homemade meat pie and some instant mashed potatoes. Add hot water, and suddenly hunger pains subsided. So, I learned a proper lesson on how to travel on some Russian trains - bring boiled eggs, bread, potatoes and meat pies for survival. :)) And for some, I suppose vodka. After Yaroslavl, I will not touch this poison for a long time!
2. The train from Kazan to Moscow was more modern. For this journey, I picked second class, a private room with four bunks. Of course, it was much nicer, and I was in a room with all females. Here's one of my bunk mates - a Russian fashionista with a sullen expression for the entire 12 hour train ride. All of the women were friendly, but there were language barriers so conversation was almost impossible. On the theme of trains, I attended a hockey game in Yaroslavl, where the local team is named "Lokomotiv." :) About Russian hockey, I can say it's more calm and civilized than the U.S. version. At least the game I watched - there were almost no fist fights. In most NHL games in the U.S., numerous brawls break out each game.
3. After four trips to Russia, I think I have a lot of insight to offer foreigners traveling to the country. Perhaps I'll make a post about it sometime, but the most important thing is to learn the Cyrillic alphabet. Otherwise, you will be completely lost the entire time. In the train station in Moscow, there are almost no signs in English. The alphabet is easy to learn, with many letters and sounds similar to English. It will help you navigate on your own immensely, as a lot of basic Russian and English words overlap, or are very similar.
You'll recall that when I traveled to the Sochi Olympics last year, I took a 24 hour train ride from Moscow to Adler. However, on that journey I was in a private, first class kupe with someone I knew. I've now traveled in all classes of the train - first and second class and dormitory style. Each has something unique to offer. When I arrived in Kazan, I had a long conversation with the hotel manager. I told him how I traveled to the city, and he was in complete amazement that a 42 year old American woman and lawyer would choose to travel in a platzkart. He told me he "hates Russian Railways," and would "rather sit in an airport for 10 hours than take the train." I think this is a bit of an elitist attitude. For me, train travel remains interesting and my impressions of Russian Railways mostly favorable. The most important thing is to research the train on which you will travel. They are not all created equal.
About Kazan, there will be a separate and detailed post. This is now my second favorite city - right behind St. Petersburg.
Do you take the train often? In which class do you travel? Any interesting or unusual experiences with bunk mates? I envision sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll on some of these journeys, especially for train rides lasting several days! :) Share fun stories in the comments. I will be amused and happy to read them.
I'm now back in the USA after a long plane ride home yesterday. Many stories about Russia to follow...stay tuned my dear readers! I've missed communicating with you the past two weeks!
P.S.: All photos in this post were taken on iPhone. Sorry, on this trip I was lazy with the big camera.
Other Train Stories
Romance on the Rails - Wolstzyn, Poland
Sapsan Train to St. Petersburg
American Journey to Sochi: Train Ride from Moscow to Adler