Russian trains are the best place to enjoy time as it goes by. From Vladivostok in the Far East to St Petersburg in the West, Astrakhan at the Caspian in the South, Arkhangelsk by the White Sea in the North, many are the places I have reached by train in Russia. What is so special to me about travelling by train in Russia?
A. You’ve got so much time, as you never do in life.
I call myself a Life Maximiser: I am always on the look for efficient ways to get the most out of my life despite the little time I have. But Russian trains are slow, very slow. And intercity distances are huge, really huge.
So when I board a train knowing very well that I will not arrive before at least 15 if not 26 hours, I change my mindset: so much time is luxury.
What can I do during these 26 hours? I can sleep. I can read. I can study Russian. I can stare. I can catch up with myself. I can think of nothing. I can reach my destination having done a lot yet having recharged batteries at the same time.
B. Non-digital life, do you remember that?
Enjoying so much time would not be the same if you had your smartphone and Facebook. Luckily journeys are long, electrical plugs are scarce, and mobile network is sporadic.
I call this analogous travel. Read a book instead, with a cup of tea. And sleep. Smile to your neighbour. There’s nothing else to do, and guess what? It’s great.
Sometimes people play domino and invite me to join. How long have I not been playing domino in my digital West; why did we abandon these things? It’s great fun after all. I wish I could keep this mindset when I’m travelling in Europe, but in the reality this works only when you really have time (see point A).
C. How comfortable can comfortable be?
I used to abhor night train travel, I think since a school trip to Austria when I was thirteen. It was horrible, couches were tiny, I was lying in my clothes, we were suffocating in that mini compartment. And: the train journey was not long enough anyway to get a decent amount of sleep.
Got the same childhood trauma? Forget about it. There is nowhere on earth where I have a better comfy sleep than in Russian trains.
As soon as the train departs, everyone swaps their outfit for comfy pyjamas. Then the provodnitsa (the leader of the coach, who usually has a hard to describe Stalinist bureaucratic yet motherly patronising personality) brings you bed sheets and you can roll out your mattress and make your bed.
And what a bed! Just the humming of the train and that comfy couch is enough for me.
When I left Moscow to Arkhangelsk on a late evening of January 2013, I was looking forward to the 18 hours I would spend on the train. I did not expect it would be already the middle of the afternoon when I’d wake up!
D. Is it Russia at its best?
At least it feels like it.
The motherly culture, where everyone is so kind and so caring (once I was so drunk that an old lady prepared my bed and kissed me good night).
The incredible hospitality, where someone will always offer you a cup of tea (or a few shots of vodka, see above).
This typical way Russians believe I am crazy to spend my holiday here (as if the only reason to come to Siberia was deportation) but, once reminded by me how great things are here, pour their heart out about how great things are here (and give me more tips on how to make the full out of it).
These old babushkas that come in the train with a bag full of smelly dry fish that they sell to cover the price of their ticket (and how fast word-of-mouth spreads in the whole train, so the fishes are all sold in just a few minutes).
These chatterboxes that Russian women are, with their language that is so wordy and so melodious (and how they don’t leave me alone, patient enough to repeat the same question ten times until I finally get it).
E. You need to know the rules to fully appreciate it.
I mean “rules” as standards, guiding principles about “normal” behaviour on a train. The first time you board a Russian train, you may not know this.
Experience makes you learn the rules until they become like a second skin to you. Until you also get on the train, lift the couch, hide your bag underneath, sit and do strictly nothing until the train departs (yes that’s a rule), then nod at the ladies around who watch none comes while you’re getting your pyjamas on, slowly pull out your food from a plastic bag and spread it on the table, and wait until the provodnista brings your bed sheets so you can make your bed…
Oh! I miss that. I have heard that Putin has plans to modernise the Russian train network. To be honest, I don’t blame him, but I am afraid that this is a whole culture that will disappear.
I once took the Samsan – the superfast train that takes you from St Petersburg to Moscow in just a few hours instead of a night – and my mindset that day was the same as when I am on the Eurostar or the Thalys fast trains hopping from European capital to European capital – that’s commuting, not travelling, and as such much less fun.