RUSSIAN TRAINS

 

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17th July 2013
It’s 10.18 pm local time wherever we are in Russia – actually I’m not too sure where the change of time zone is so it might be 9.18pm – either way it is bright daylight and there seems there are many hours before the sun sets.

We are in a ‘platzkart’ train carriage in between Omsk and Ekaterinburg. Not sure what ‘platzkart’ means but probably ‘common cart’, or ‘open cart’ or something like that. This is a 3rd class train and the first one we’ve been on. Our train ticket budget has nearly wound up and we have only booked to Odessa in the Ukraine, thus we need to save some of our dosh. Anyway – it’s quite communal and interesting. The beds are meant to be harder but there’s not much difference really. The only difference to second class ‘kupe’ is that here there are no doors containing the set of four beds and this means they put an extra two beds down the ‘corridor’ side of the train. Here are some pictures.

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And I must say the tables are bigger also so the three little kids had hours of fun playing Lego – I just love Lego for the hours of peace it gives.

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We were allowed to buy only 5 tickets so we have 4 in one compartment and one upper bunk across the walkway where Toby is sleeping now. Under him is a gorgeous old man with a thinnish moustache – very particular with how he makes his bed with the sheets and how he rotates between lying down trying to sleep and then rolls up his mat, pulls the middle of the bed up to make a table and has a cup of tea with one wafer biscuit all in perfect harmony with his innecel wisdom. The people in the next side compartment thought it was just hilarious when our five all put on headphones and watched Mamma Mia (yes again!) on the computer thanks to our amazing purchase of a five port adapter at JB Hifi before we left Oz.

It has worked a treat when dinner is over and there is still 5 hours of daylight or when you are getting an 11 pm train and need to sit in a train station and wait. It’s quite a little community in here – everyone tries to chat and catch up on where we’re going and why our kids aren’t in school etc but language is so difficult to impart any great details.
Speaking of community – our neighbours on the other side have just turned on their music quite loudly – not the best when all my kids bar Toby are asleep and Toby just struggles when it’s so light – he is loving reading on his kindle and we just have to let go of trying to get him to sleep earlier when we have no control over the darkness of the carriage or any of the many other variants. We do need to get to sleep though cause our train arrives at 3.02am local time at Ekaterinburg – the border between Europe and Asia. Wish us luck – I better catch some shut eye and I have so much more to write about trains later……..

21st July 2013
(Gorgeous sister in law – Carolyn’s birthday – very funny – Sandy just tried to call her and got a gruff Russian man on the phone – forgetting to put +61 before the number – LOL!)

As I sit here with my feet up, Sandy on the other lower bunk reading ‘War and Peace’ on her phone and thinking about a siesta, kids above chilling out for a couple of hours of the afternoon with a movie, the wheels of the train go round and round and progressively get closer to St Petersburg – and the scenery outside is…….surprise surprise – lots of green thick woods with some purple and yellow weeds along the tracks, a blanket of green against the frame of a crystal blue sky.

Pretty much ever since we left Eastern Siberia outside the triple glazed train window is this moving picture of green thick woods – no wonder Russia is called the lungs of Europe – so much forest. Also no wonder that almost every country home is made of wood – and decorated quite ornately with some groovy chiselling skills.

They kind of look like they wouldn’t be that warm in winter though apparently with the mortar wood heaters they have it is toasty – it would have to be when the average temperature for most of the country is about -20C. Sandy has been totally fascinated and freaked out about how different the seasons would be and a winter Russian visit is definitely on the cards but just yesterday she said that she would be fascinated in another life to spend a year in Russia to experience all the seasons. Mmmmmmm! Not too sure about that, though I could be talked into it this life if it was St Petersburg so I could be a regular at the ballet and opera! It’s funny cause I know I’m going to just love St Petersburg and we haven’t even got there yet – not till 8.30am tomorrow morning. (Sandy says ‘Check your expectations’).

Anyway – back to train travel…….
The carriages are quite comfortable and surprisingly clean- each time you get on you’re given some fresh linen in a plastic bag and you roll out a bed mat like a futon to put onto the bed – though its nice during the day to just sit on the mat without the linen to keep it fresh for the night. There is normally one attendant per carriage and they are generally very friendly and intrigued with the family travels. Only one of them knew a smattering of English and I was intrigued with her life as she lives in Vladivostok and goes on the train for 7 days across the country and then 7 days back and then has a few days off – this is her life – she was always there – except at night when I guess she went to a sleep compartment and someone else took over. I wish I had more language to enquire into her family and how does that all work, or if she has any family at all. They kind of take a bit of pride in their cabins – they clean them a few times a day by sweeping and mopping the floors in each compartment (interesting as we all try to lift our feet) and keep the toilets quite clean. It often feels like we enter their circle of trust and they are there to look after us. It’s very comforting.

A word of advice when booking trains in Russia – much cheaper (well about 10-20% anyway) to buy the tickets personally at the train station though make sure you have some written Russian notes about what you want to do and also buy as far in advance as possible cause it fills up quickly – especially in July when most Russians are on holidays and train travel is such a big part of the psyche!
I was at the very ornate train station in Omsk

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(which is definitely the busiest we’ve been to) waiting in a line with about ten people in front of me. I was equipped with my Russian cheat sheet that said we wanted to buy 5 tickets instead of 7 as our youngest children sleep together with us and also equipped with the exact train code and number we wanted and even the seats. I was in line for an hour and was next to be served – when two people came in front of me – apparently their spots were being saved! They were a bit musclier than I and definitely knew more Russian so I had to just be happy with swearing at them in English and giving them greasy looks.

When your job is stuck in a chair indoors, serving people who have been in line for ages and sounding a bit irate – I guess the energy might rub off on you. The lady that served me was such a grump! She insisted on seeing all 7 passports, said that despite Emilio and Zoi being small enough to sleep with us they were over five so need their own ticket and because Toby and Yasi were just over 10 yrs old they needed to pay full price. Who really cares? Well, she did apparently, as if I was trying to rip off her own family! If that wasn’t enough there were no ‘platzkart’ 3rd class tickets left so we had to go 2nd class but also because there were seven of us we could only have 3 each in two neighbouring compartments and one top bunk in a third compartment. As if we would make one of the kids sleep alone with 3 strangers! The fact that I told her everyone else we have bought from let us buy 5 tickets didn’t matter to her – she was going to stick to protocol and wasn’t going to budge! Oh also to add to my blood pressure she wouldn’t accept credit cards so I had to buy the tickets since they were printed up and I had to cross the hall to the ATM to get about $1000 from ATMs that only let you get about $150 per transaction – when I got back to the line I could feel the vibes from everyone else that was waiting behind me. Thanks a lot little Miss Grumpy from behind window 11 at Omsk train station – have a wonderful day!

Next bit of advise is be prepared – normally when I have travelled in the past I just love getting to a place and not having any accommodation booked and seeing what happens. This obviously doesn’t work so well with kids especially when we are travelling with a heavy pack each and then some extras and a bag of food and a bag of water……..when we got to Omsk we only had about 30 hours there and didn’t have enough wifi in the previous week to look at options so we thought we would just go to a hotel near the train station. Well – that is easier said than done in an industrial, university city that hasn’t heard the word ‘tourist friendly’ at all. We originally picked Omsk as a stop cause we were going to have a sojourn in Kazahkstan and it was close to the border – but the lonely planet that we flicked through in Irkutsk said ‘Not very exciting – wouldn’t do a detour to come here’. We already had our tickets so we thought it would be fun to explore for a day anyway.

Initially we tried to stay at the station resting rooms though they only rent rooms for 6 or 12 hours – the lady was lovely and told me i could get a trolleybus for 3 stops and there was a hotel there – While Sandy and the kids waited at the station I went out and walked the way she said to go – no hotel – not even any building that looked like a hotel- absolutely no one spoke a word of English, not even the ‘Greek travel service’ spoke any English or Greek for that matter, and the lady at the bakery almost quivered in fear that I didn’t speak much Russian as she handed over some yummy refined carbohydrates. So I retreated back to the station with my tail between my legs and only some cinnamon buns to show for my hour or so away.

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What to do? – Sleeping on the station floor was a regular thing I did in my 20s though I don’t think we could’ve sold that to the kids without a mini riot. After touching base with Sandy and the kids and picking up some fresh smilely Kalika energy we went back to the station resting rooms’ woman and I think my humbleness and Kalika’s smile won her. She gave us a room for 24 hours – we didn’t even need to leave the station – just walk up 3 flights of stairs!

Other lesson is buy or book early – Sandy bought our Omsk – Ekaterinburg tickets while we were waiting in Irkutsk and even though the lady was niceish and sold us 5x3rd class tickets, the train we wanted was booked so she just put us on the next train arriving at 3am and didn’t mention this to Sandy until she handed over the tickets! OMG was my first reaction, not possible was my next and then – oh well what other option do we have when we didn’t have time to spend 3 hours per day for a month on the Internet before we left so that all would be booked and easy.
Surprisingly it worked well – it was a good community feel in the carriage, it was only for 12 hours and we only and to shake one of them to wake up. Also really lucky that our lovely SERVAS host – Valentina was nice enough to come and pick us up at that hour of the morning and take us to her apartment before she had to go to her other home and get ready for work! Such a lovely and friendly woman. And we really enjoyed Ekaterinburg though I’ll leave that for the kids’ blogs. So nice to have our own space and we even cooked a meal for ourselves – pasta with veggie sauce – everyone was very excited. The kids had their first bath since Australia, so nice to luxuriate. Thanks Valentina.

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For those of you who don’t know what SERVAS is it’s basically an organisation that started after World War Two to promote cultural understanding and world peace. It was written up at the same time as the Bretton Woods Agreement that carved up Europe. Servas consists of a group of hosts and travellers from all over the world. If you’re a SERVAS traveller then you can contact hosts to see if they are available and stay with them for at least two nights and basically share their world and share some of yours. Valentina was our first SERVAS host on this trip though we are going to another host in St Petersburg tomorrow and then another in Moscow. Yes it does save some money in accommodation though that’s not really the point – it is just wonderful to experience a city or place from a local perspective. It’s quite enchanting.
Just looked out the window again – more green woods.
By Baba Christos

One thought on “RUSSIAN TRAINS

  1. These trains are like you are in some weird kind of time bubble, little communities away from everything. Time just goes and the times don’t change, very interesting.

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