Slow Train To Dawn

Trip Start Sep 26, 2006
Trip End Jul 29, 2007

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Flag of Poland  ,
Friday, September 8, 2006

9PM in Cologne Station. I lugged my rucksack (already thinking about ways to lighten the load) onto the platform and awaited the sleeper train for my first overnight rail journey, well, ever. As the futuristic-looking uber-sleek "ICE" trains slid down the platforms, I started to form an expectation in my head of what the sleeper would look like, so when the clanking old-school diesel chugged up to my platform I was a little surprised. This may be 21st century Germany, and my ticket may say Deutche-Bahn on the front, but this is a resolutely Russian train, and looked like a Shirehorse at the Grand National next to all the German hardware. Ah well, I'm going to be travelling all the way to China like this, may as well get used to it.

I found my cabin, and then my cabin attendant found me. A very scary Russian woman with a face like a sack of hammers started to explain how to use the folding sleeper bed, in very fast Russian. Faced with my blank look, she tried again, in louder and faster Russian. Now my German is crap, and wouldn't have helped anyway, but my Russian is non-existent, and the phrase book I promised to buy myself is still on a "to-do" list somewhere. Eventually, I managed to explain I was English, and through pantomime she showed me my bedding and pointed out I was to use the middle bunk (of three), in accordance with my ticket number. She pointed out that I had the cabin to myself now but people may be in there at a later stop; I got this from waved hands that somehow conveyed "the future". No, I'm not sure how I got that either. Because of that, I pointed to the top bunk, trying to suggest it would be easier for new arrivals if I was 'out of the way'. Oh, no, rules are rules, so onto the middle bunk I went. Still feeling tired I decided to try and get some sleep before any new arrivals joined me some time in the next 33 hours. Amazingly, the bunk was comfortable, my earplugs kept out most of track noise and the rocking of the train actually helped me sleep.

At 1.30AM all Hell broke loose as about a million German school kids poured onto the train, and randomly started opening cabin doors looking for their berth. I assume they were on some kind of block booking because scary Russian lady seemed to be hauling them into cabins at random, and of course, being school kids they all wanted to be with their friends so they would immediately leave again, looking for their buddies. This game of musical chairs went on for about 20 minutes, and then two girls, about 16 years old were chucked into my cabin. Now, while I'm sure my look of urbane, slightly amused aloofness from the proceedings may have been reassuring if we'd actually had a language in common, at nearly 2AM, the random English guy in the middle bunk with eyes like pissholes in the snow probably looked more Axe-Murderer than Noel Coward, and I can kind of understand their reluctance to accept their accommodations. Much muttering to teacher in the doorway of the tiny sleeper cabin later, it was girls out and two young lads thrown in. A quick check established they had pretty much no English either but seem friendly enough. Amazingly I went straight back to sleep and had no problem sleeping through excitable German teenagers yakking all night. I count myself lucky, if they'd been British kids, the train would probably be on fire by now.

I've noticed that after we crossed into Poland the train suddenly got a LOT slower.

This morning I went looking for the dining car. There is no dining car. Shit. The sudden appearance of bags of sandwiches and pots of instant noodles from my bunk mates' bags made sense. Fortunately I have some food and a lot of water, so its not the end of the world, I could stand to lose a few pounds anyway.

I was wrong, there is a dining car. Its closed. Shit.

We're somewhere in Eastern Poland and scary Russian lady arrived a few minutes ago with a form for me to fill in. In Russian. In Cyrillic only. I've got no clue, I managed to wean some information from her that makes me think it's a customs declaration, but I don't really know what goes in what column. I've worked out some of it by looking at my Visas, but I've noticed that Cyrillic spelling seems to be flexible and I don't even know if this form is for Belarus or Russia itself. I'll throw myself on their mercy when the time comes.

NB. We've just arrived at the Belarus border. If they throw me the gulag, Je Ne Regrette Rien!

Its 11PM and we've just left Minsk. Customs was a few hours ago at Brest, and fairly painless; as I wrote my Customs declaration in Latin script not Cyrillic I think it could have been my laundry list for all the Customs guy cared.. After Customs the train slowly went backwards and forwards in out of Brest station for a while, and then we were wheeled into a big shed and we were treated to the locomotive equivalent of a pitstop; our coach was raised up on a crane and off came the wheels (bogeys? Bogies?)! From somewhere I remembered that Russian trains run a different gauge from European trains but I just hadn't made the connection that it meant pulling the wheels off! It was an interesting exercise to watch, and now our train sits a few feet higher on bigger wheels, which has given the ride a slightly wobbly feel, more like a boat than a train.

While we were watching the wheel change I got chatting to one of the German School kids' teachers, Anne, a very nice lady, who gave me an apple (I thought it was supposed to be the other way around with teachers). The kids are all off to Moscow as part of an exchange program (there's a horde of Russian school kids heading West as I write this), and of course they all shame my typical English lack of language skills. Anne took the opportunity to get the kids to brush up on their English, and I've been talking about London, English football and my trip all afternoon. The kids seem slightly incredulous that a grown man would give up a job just to go travelling; give 'em a few years, then they'll get it.

Moscow lays a mere ten hours away (I'm starting to get blasť about the distance already). And so to bed.
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alliandre on

Nice travel blog
Be sure to keep it up. It's an interesting, and amusing read.

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