Slow Travel: Moscow to Warsaw by Train
Living in Warsaw means I can have breakfast at home and make it to Moscow by lunch. Which is amazing, considering I spent the past two decades living in California, a grueling 24-hour journey from my former native city. So, last week, I took full advantage of my new expat residence and hopped over to Moscow for the weekend. But when it came to the trip back to Warsaw, I decided it would be fun to take the train.
I used to take trains all the time. Back when I lived in Russia, I took an annual 20-hour pilgrimage from Moscow to Donetsk in eastern Ukraine to visit my family. Then, one year, flights became as cheap as the railroad and I switched. Sadly, the luxury of flying to Donetsk didn't last long because in 2013, the city became a war zone and Donetsk's fancy new airport became a pile of rubble.
But I digress. My point is that it's been a while since I've taken the train across a border, so last week, I decided to give it a try. Trains have a romantic reputation and I wanted to see if there was any truth in it, any reason they shouldn't go the way of the cassette player and the CD-Rom, considering they're neither efficient nor affordable. In other words, I wanted to know if I - if we as a people - have been missing anything by flying over borders.
End points: Moscow Belorusskaya Station - Warszawa Centralna
Total travel time: 19 hours
Total cost: $125 ($120 ticket, $5 tea + food)
I couldn't imagine many people were taking the 19-hour train from Moscow to Warsaw since it cost exactly the same as a 2-hour flight. I was picturing riding to the soothing ta-dam ta-dam of the wheels on tracks, watching Russia's fields and forests fly by. No internet. No phone. Just ta-dam ta-dam ta-dam. Maybe a grandma with a bucket of freshly boiled potatoes on some station. Maybe tea in the decorated metal tea holder served on Russian trains, which has now become a coveted souvenir. Maybe a good book. Total nostalgia, in other words.
When Mr. heard of my plans, he was positively jealous. He's crossed India via train and has dreamed of doing the Trans-Siberian across Russia, so to his ears this small trip of mine was sounding even more romantic.
But as soon as I made my decision, I learned that Russian trains have changed since my last riding days. I realized it when the sleek online booking system offered me a bunk in a four-bunk women-only compartment. Apparently, women- and men-only compartments were now a thing. That was a nice surprise! Unlike airplanes, trains require intimacy with strangers because you're sharing small living quarters for a long duration, so who your bunk mates are can make or break a trip. For a young woman to ride with men, as you can imagine, is often an unwanted adventure. Through the years, I've ridden with my share of curious, snoring, smelly, drinking men, though the most memorable had to be the kindly schizophrenic who wouldn't shut up about his conspiracy theories.
So, the women-only compartment it was.
However, as soon as I boarded the train and found my compartment, I knew I miscalculated. Inside, I was greeted by a lean, tired-looking woman with an enormous duffel bag and a sports jacket in the colors of the Russian flag, who was certain I had been waiting my entire life to know everything about her fascinating story. How her husband talks too much about politics and throws away the cutlets she cooks him after she leaves. How her twin daughters are training in pro tennis in Lodz. How they (who is they?) almost broke her daughters in Spain.
"Not easy raising athletes. If you'd ask me if I would do it over again, I'd say I would not. Definitely not. It's so hard. I'm so tired. I've aged. My husband tells me I haven't, but I've aged terribly. With all we have been through. Losing work, selling our car, just to send the girls to.... etc."
After an hour of this, I could seriously write her full obituary. And a big part of me really wanted to.
Luckily, I made a smart decision to book an upper bunk, which was where I sought refuge from my quickly overpowering desire to tell her to shut the hell up. There, after she asked me a few more questions and tried to lure me back down with coffee and candy, my roommate finally quieted down and I fell asleep to the lovely ta-dam ta-dam of the train wheels on tracks.
I woke up in Vyazma, a small town, where behind the train station that still bore Soviet insignia (I've noticed that unlike Poland, Russia hasn't made much effort to get rid of all their hammer and sickles...) I found the old Red Army train you see at the top of this blog post, just kind of sitting there. Though it doesn't look like much, Vyazma has been around since the 1200s, witnessed Russians kicking Napoleon's ass, and was the site of two German death camps when it was occupied during WWII.
When we got back on the train to continue toward Belarus, my roommate cornered me for Part II of her story, but then someone called her and I used it as a chance to escape to an empty compartment I spotted at the end of our train car. If she asks, I'll tell her I had to work, I thought. The fact that I felt I needed an excuse at all should tell you about the strangeness of the Russian train etiquette.
So there I was happily typing away as Russia's fields and forests flew by when my roommate ran by, stopping to tell me that she had an emergency. Then she flew off toward the bathroom. Freakin' drama queen, I thought. But then out of the corner of my eye, I noticed her running back with a wet towel. Hmm. She probably spilled her coffee on my stuff, I thought, and decided to go check out this "emergency".
I found her furiously rubbing a wet spot on her bedsheet.
"Tea spilled?" I asked.
"Worse," she said, continuing to rub away.
The only worse thing I could imagine was that she peed herself. I mean, what else, right? But before I figured out how to politely ask a stranger that question, my talkative roommate explained that actually she threw up. Something about medicine for her kidneys, how she's always had problems with kidneys and told the doctors to give her something else and now look what happened, how will she find the new medicine in Warsaw? blah-blah-blah
I said I was sorry and left when it was clear that all she needed me to do was listen to the rest of her tirade.
Back in my lovely quiet compartment, I went back to writing. The sun was setting over pine and birch forests and the spring fields were showing the earliest sign of a new life. The sky was beautiful - a canvas of lavender and pink that was reflected in pools of melted snow. On my table, was the special train-issued metal cup of tea. Aah, this is what I imagined the train journey would be like. I mean, what can be more romantic than writing your book on a train rumbling through the biggest country on earth?
Then, we passed Smolensk, the last stop in Russia. Smolensk means a lot to Poles because that's where their then president Lech Kaczynski died in a airplane crash in 2010 during his visit to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Katyn massacre. To Russians, however, Smolensk brings associations with Russia's two great invasions as the city lay on the war path of both Napoleon and Hitler.
Smolensk was a brief stop and then our train headed on toward Belarus. Our conductor, a jolly old fellow with a playful white mustache, told us there were babushki selling food in Orsha, the first Belorussian town. Even though I brought some pies with me from Moscow, I was looking forward to a babushka-cooked hot meal. Babushki were one of the highlights of traveling on Russian trains. I remember some stations near the Ukrainian border were crowded with hawkers screaming-singing their wares, which included everything from fresh pickles to boiled potatoes to just-baked piroshki. Everything was home-cooked, delicious and totally safe to eat, so I couldn't wait to see what the Belorussian station had to offer.
By the time we got to Orsha, it was dark and there were only a couple of women standing on the platform. No one was selling anything, so I figured our conductor was mistaken and my piece of cranberry pie would be my dinner after all. But then, as soon as the station's police officer strolled by me toward the end of the platform, one of the awkwardly standing women ran up to me and whispered "Would you like some potato latkes, Coca-Cola, cigarettes maybe?"
She was unzipping her oversize purse with the quick furtive glances of a drug dealer. I asked for potato latkes and she hurriedly handed me a package wrapped in newspaper and plastic bag, along with a freshly-bought small container of sour cream. The whole thing cost 100 rubles ($1.50) and the woman quickly shoved the bank note in her pocket, watching out for the policeman.
Welcome to a dictatorship, I thought, where selling latkes to hungry passengers can get you in trouble with the police.
Our next stop was Minsk, where our compartment received two more female travelers, filling it with bags and whispers. Eventually, we all quieted down and fell asleep. I like sleeping on trains - their peaceful sway and rhythmic clatter are like being in a giant moving cradle. But unfortunately, the night ahead proved anything but peaceful.
2 a.m. - We're awakened by half a dozen Belorussian guards who ask for our passports. When we hand them over, they take them and walk away without an explanation. The train starts moving again. Not exactly a good feeling, so the women in my compartment panic. Then, our conductor explains that we'll get our passports back in an hour and a half, after we "change the wheels".
This is when I discover that Western train tracks aren't the same width as the ones in Eastern Europe, so crossing the border from Belarus to Poland means changing our train wheels. I'm not sure what that means and fall asleep again as the train moves west.
3 a.m. - I wake up because we're stopped and there are loud metallic clangs and low voices of men working outside. I'm groggy and can't see much in the poorly lit platform. I fall back asleep while trying to figure out how on earth you change wheels and tracks on a train full of people, but at this hour the puzzle proves unsolvable.
3:30 a.m. - The Belorussian guards are back. They tell us to get out of the compartment and wait in the hall, while they check our luggage. Luckily, none of us women look like much like a smuggler, so we aren't waiting for long. Still, no fun huddling in a narrow hallway in your socks while big dudes shine lanterns all over your stuff. Then, we climb back up on our bunks and they hand us our passports, with that lingering, suspicious look that you only see on Eastern Europe's borders. I'm sure Mr. would find this entertaining, but I'm less amused. When the guards leave, we turn off the lights and fall back asleep.
4 a.m. - But I'm not asleep for long when we stop again and this time it's the Polish guards that are checking our passports. As you can imagine, at this point, I'm super groggy and regretting not taking the plane. But the Polish procedure is quick and painless. Instead of taking our passports God knows where for processing, they use electronic devices to check them and politely wish us goodnight within minutes.
7 a.m. - "It's time to get up!" says our conductor as he knocks on each of the closed doors. It's sunny and Warsaw is coming up soon. He hands us our breakfasts (a croissant, some instant coffee, a small waffle) and we get ready to leave our home on wheels. Soon, our train passes Vistula and I've never been happier to see this wide river.
7:50 a.m. - Mr. kisses me on the platform. Thank God I'm home.
I wonder if I'd Moscow to Warsaw by train again. There were definitely moments of romantic pleasure - wandering through the old town stations, drinking tea, writing and staring off at Russia's endless land - that only a train journey can offer. But then there is the reality of not knowing who you'll get stuck with in a small room and dealing with burly Belorussian guards in the middle of the night, which makes me want to chalk up this particular train trip to a "been there, done that" column.
But don't worry, Mr, that doesn't mean I'm not down for a different train journey with you through some other part of the world :)