Trains, Australians and Sardine Cans: June 16 (Friday), June 17 (Saturday)


My first long distance train ride was one I will never forget. Jason and Michelle dropped me off at Berlin Lichtenburg station. Providence guided me to eat some lunch at the station and grab a bit of food for the train. For those intending to travel from Berlin to Moscow by train, heed my warning: there is no restaurant car on the Moskva Express. I boarded the train and found my compartment already occupied by the travel companions I was to get to know pretty well over the next twenty-nine hours. Leigh and Adam were backpackers from Australia. Truly, such a ride would normally have been magnificent with such good company. However, there was a dawning realization that we were mind-numbingly and truly fucked! Consider:

a) The cabin was a sardine can measuring just six feet by four feet. The bunks folded in and at the start of the journey there were three seats. Leigh and Adam had stowed away their packs leaving me no room except in front of me (my feet on my pack later exploded the toothpaste tube).

b) We were quickly realized that in all our naivete we had failed to note that not only did no one speak English, they really did not understand us at all. “Russia is going to be interesting”, I thought to myself.

c)Did I mention that there was no restaurant car? Umm, yeah that left three guys with a bunch of fruit and twenty-nine hours to go. Woohoo!

The guide book says to make friends with the “Providentsia” the woman who runs the carriage with an iron fist. Sadly I read this only after boarding the train and well into the journey. We had already made progress in the opposite direction by making her come yell at us for laughing too loud (never mind the Russian rap and disco party next door!)

Within an hour the three of us were fairly comfortable and I got to hear their stories. Leigh had been travelling for seven months backpacking through Europe and Adam had just joined him in Germany. Both were quite the geeks and they were tickled to find out that I worked for BioWare. So comfortable did we become that Adam and Leigh decided to show me the gassy and stinky side of Australia. I of course had no recourse but to mock and later reciprocate… such is life with three guys trapped in a sardine can ñ ladies be warned!

There is probably nothing more terrifying than crossing borders on a train. Granted the Poland crossing wasn’t too bad — Poland being a part of the European Union. Then came Belarus around midnight. I had been a bit worried about Belarus. Shortly after I had obtained my transit visa in Canada, the Canadian government rejected the elections in Belarus and refused a refueling stop in Ottawa for a plane carrying the prime minister of Belarus. Joyful. The “Providentsia” had walked through the carriage handing out customs declaration sheets for the border written only in Russian. When it dawned on her that the simpletons of this one compartment could only read English, she procured the services of two (relatively cute) girls to help us. One would read the Russian into German and the other would translate the German into English. With their help we were able to tick the correct boxes to indicate that ì”We were not carrying radioactive materials or warheads”.

In the dead of the night the train came to a screeching, jolting halt at the Polish-Belarus border whereupon several burly, surly and armed seven-foot Russian and Belarussian guards trampled in. They examined our passports carefully looked us over, grabbed our declaration forms and our passports (to our personal horror) and off they went. Next came a guard to film us along with the contents of our compartment, with a video camera. Some time later when beads of sweat were starting to break out on our nervous faces, the passports were returned, again with searching and suspicious looks – especially at Leigh whose photo looked nothing like him after many months of backpacking. Let me tell you, the whole ordeal was nothing short of nerve-wracking, particularly when I realized I had this to look forward to at least twice more. Yay.

After this border scene from some b-grade movie we were ordered to go to sleep by the “Providentsia”. Which we didn’t. The train was pulled to a hangar where each carriage was separated and then carefully lifted as the “Bogey” (the undercarriage) was changed to fit the wider Russian guages. Three hours later we left the border town of Brest and we fell asleep in our cosy little sardine can. Adam was on the low ceiling’ed top bunk (“Don’t ever take the top bunk”), me in the middle and Leigh on the bottom. Yes, the jokes that could be and were made were endless.

By noon we regained consciousness to enjoy the last eight hours of our train journey. By now starvation had set in and the need for a beer was reaching critical mass. It is amazing none of us turned to cannibalism. I implored my companions to remember that dark meat would not be healthy.

True to Russian railway efficiency we arrived at Moscow Belorussky station on time. I had offered Leigh and Adam a ride with me to Hostel Asia (I had booked a pickup who was waiting with a sign). I suggested they come and if there was room at my hostel, then all good; otherwise at least they could get directions on where to go.

My first impressions of Moscow: A city teeming with ten million people was a picture of some chaos. Large avenues, tall buildings, generic Soviet-style box buildings next to 19th-century-style stations and churches. The driver drove madly through the city, and while he spoke no English, I think he got a kick out of our attempts at Russian.

Soon we were at Hostel Asia. Leigh, Adam and I separated as there was no room for them. Though we exchanged emails and phone numbers, I have no idea what happened to them.

Finally I met up with Keli Ryan and caught up over supper and several shots of excellent vodka. Then it was back to the hotel and out for the night!

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