Every trip to Russia is memorable, but this one was special. An opportunity to attend a major world event in the motherland, to see Russia in all its glory, and evaluate how well the country handled the massive influx of foreign tourists visiting Sochi for the Olympics. At the same time, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to take my first train journey. The rails are deeply rooted in American history and remain active today. However, they are primarily used for freight shipments rather than passenger transport. Most Americans have cars, our road infrastructure is excellent, and we're a very mobile nation. There's no need to ride a train long distances when you can simply drive yourself anywhere in America and enjoy magnificent sites along the way. So, I've never once taken a train ride in the States.
My journey to Sochi began in St. Petersburg, my favorite Russian city. It was here that I boarded the high speed Sapsan train, which carried me to Moscow. Overall, an impressive experience!
1. On this trip, I stayed at the Hotel Oktiabrskaya for two nights. Great place! Centrally located on Nevsky Prospekt and right across the street from the rail station. Initially, there was some confusion because the hotel has two separate locations which are in close proximity to one another. One is a fancier, modern hotel and the other older. I was booked in the older hotel, and the friendly staff guided me there with ease after I checked-in at the wrong place. The room was large, with a nice desk and excellent Wifi. Absolutely no complaints, except that it was too warm. A common problem for me in Russia, where hotels and restaurants seem to prefer a sauna environment for guests, even when temperatures outside aren't so cold. Problem solved by opening the windows at night. Below is an iPhone photo taken from the window of my room. Nice view! I think it's a metro station?
2. I've been to Moscow five times now, and I still don't like it. I can't keep up with the pace of life there, but in St. Petersburg things are different. I'm always immediately comfortable here, more so than any other Russian city. People are friendlier, more willing to help, and the city is aesthetically pleasing. Special thanks to my readers Anna and Aryna who took time to meet with me. Unfortunately, it was rainy during this visit but I still managed to climb to the top of St. Isaac's Cathedral again for great views.
4. After two days in the city, I departed from the Moscow Rail Station on Nevsky Prospekt on an afternoon train.
5. The station is modern with wide walkways, although there were not many passengers boarding the afternoon train. I think the Moscow to St. Petersburg Sapsan route is primarily used by business travelers. These people likely take the first train in the morning and late trains home. English signage on the platforms - very helpful!
6. Fellow passengers.
7. The train is designed and manufactured by the German company Siemens Velaro, producing a very sleek design. The train looks similar to high speed trains operating in America.
8. I was completely unfamiliar with the process of boarding a train, but it's equivalent to air travel. You must go through security checks when entering the station, and an attendant checks your ticket before boarding the train. It's necessary to show your passport for identification. Automatic check-in ahead of departure is possible on Sapsan trains. In general, the Sapsan staff was very friendly but this woman was an exception. Upon seeing the camera, immediate panic set in and she began to aggressively scold me.
9. Attendants stand at doorways to guide passengers. Although this is a common business route, English language skills of the staff were very poor. For example, this woman wore a British pin on her jacket designating her as an English speaker. However, her skills were minimal and she couldn't answer some of my questions. Still, very friendly and she made the effort to assist and communicate. This is important for foreign travelers and much appreciated!
10. I always pay close attention to handicap access in Russia. In America, there's a solid infrastructure for disabled people but I'm sad to note the same is not usually true in Russia. Difficult for those in wheelchairs to have free and easy movement in public places. I was pleased to discover a special car for disabled passengers on another train sitting on the platform. Moreover, the staff went out of their way to assist this passenger, helping him on the train and to his seat.
11. Special handicap bathroom on the Sapsan.
12. The regular restrooms on the Sapsan are clean, large and contain a normal toilet. Enough room for me to take a self-portrait.
13. I find it impossible to pack light for trips and always carry a large bag, stuffed with hair products, lotions, clothes, etc. Best part about this train is the storage space! A lot of luggage racks that can handle large suitcases. I think it's the worst part of air travel! Trying to stuff your bags into the overhead bins, and many times there's absolutely no space for them. Not a problem on the Sapsan train.
14. Separate storage space for coats. It seems a lot of Russian women have these fur coats! I don't know whether most are fake or real, but I see them everywhere.
15. Seating patterns in economy class vary - either two seats on the side, or four seats and a large table. It's possible to make new friends on the journey! Russian ladies traveling with a British chap. Very friendly and on their way to Moscow for a weekend getaway.
16. Tea and coffee are served during the train ride. During this trip, I remembered the horror of driving the long route from Moscow to St. Petersburg via car during my first visit to Russia. I can't imagine I'll ever drive this route again after taking the train, although I'm grateful I got to experience long distance travel on Russian roads. Once is enough, and there's no desire to repeat the process.
17. This attendant spoke no English, but again service with a smile. I think other service personnel in Russia should take lessons from the Sapsan staff. Very good and efficient customer service on the train. Notice the TV in the background? Television programming also is shown on various television sets during the journey. No choice in programming.
18. This was the first high speed train in Russia, and travel time between Russia's two major cities is only four hours. The train can travel at speeds of up to 250km/hr (155 mph). The ride is smooth, much smoother than the standard train I rode from Moscow to Sochi. I'll discuss this journey in a separate post.
19. I sat in the economy section of the train, but three class levels are available for purchase. There's food service in the premium and first class cabins, where the seats are a bit larger and more cushioned. You also get to drink out of regular cups rather than cardboard ones. :) I've flown business and first class on airlines before, and the service distinctions are the same as the train. Better meals, more comfortable seats, individualized attention, etc. in the costly cabins.
20. First class cabin, with fully extendable leg rests. Price of the tickets vary depending on how far in advance they are purchased. In general, the first class cabin is four times more expensive than economy class.
21. A separate cafe exists for hungry economy passengers. The menu has a lot of choices and everything is translated into English. Hooray!
22. My choice - this chicken dish with light tomato sauce and veggie. It was surprisingly tasty!
23. Alcohol also is served on the train, and this passenger apparently had too many beers based on his behavior. He wanted to chat with me for a long time, but barely spoke English so it was impossible. He kept saying "birthday," so I think he was celebrating his special day alone and wanted some company. Amusing character! Many different personalities on the train.
24. There were only two stops on the journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow, but unfortunately I don't remember the stations. On this trip, I encountered the most friendly Russians. Smiles everywhere, something I haven't seen too much of in my previous trips here. Locals waving and posing for the camera at one of the stops.
25. The sign indicates that Wifi is available on the train, but I couldn't connect from economy class. Perhaps it's only available in the premium cabins? I've noticed this is a recurring problem in Russia. Presence of Wifi signs, but then no connection or a very bad one when you try to use it.
26. One problem was absence of plugs on the train. I saw only one in a hallway. However, the conductors were very helpful and offered to charge my phone in the Chief's cabin. Here you can also see that big brother is watching all passengers through security cameras and screens. I felt completely safe on the train, and security in the stations was top notch. All baggage is screened before boarding the train.
27. All businesses in Russia are trying to capitalize on the Olympic Games, and souvenirs are even available on the trains. My favorite Olympic mascot? The bear, of course! :)
28. My first train journey on Russian Railways went smoothly. The Sapsan ride was fast, comfortable and departure and arrivals were exactly on time. I know there are many routes throughout Russia, with different trains varying in quality and service. I wanted to test various options, so the following day I boarded a standard train from Moscow to Sochi for a 26 hour journey to the Olympic Games!
I would not hesitate to take the Sapsan train again. To me, it's more convenient, comfortable and efficient than air travel. By the time you make it to the airport, clear security, wait at the gate for departure, etc, the travel time via air and rail are about the same. On the train, there's a lot more space, friendly staff, and more freedom of movement.
We have a similar high speed train in America called "Acela," which is operated by Amtrak. It carries passengers on popular East Coast routes (e.g. Washington, DC to New York City and Boston). I think I'll take a ride soon, as it would be interesting to compare the quality of service between American and Russian high speed trains.
How about you? Have you ridden the Sapsan train between Russia's two major cities, or do you prefer air travel? Impressions?
In the next post, I'll tell you about the long train ride from Moscow to Sochi.