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In the summer of 2003, my friend Olga and I traveled through Russia on an epic journey that began with a ferry crossing from Sakhalin Island (Far East) to the Russian mainland and involved 45 days of train journey through Siberia and the heart of central Russia. We went as far south as Voronezh and as far north as Valaam Monastery, in Karelia. At the time, the rail journeys we undertook were more or less comfortable, the platzkart (dormitory car without separations) journey from Irkutsk to Novosibirsk having been the most difficult. Almost two decades and a pandemic later, our sense of adventure had not left us, but we were not yet ready to get back on board the Trans-Siberian. Instead, we chose to make two train trips in southern Russia – a six hour one from Astrakhan to Volgograd and a 22 hour one from Volgograd to Sochi.
As a regular passenger of the Sapsan Moscow-St.Petersburg high-speed train, I was well aware of the enormous modernization project that the Russian Railways had undertaken over the past decade. However, I did not have high expectations for my last trips, because the size and immensity of the country meant that certain lines and certain sectors were neglected.
Vast expanses of empty land
It’s hard not to be impressed by the punctuality of trains in Russia. Our train from Astrakhan left exactly at 4:40 p.m., as scheduled. As is the case with all trains in Russia, there was a map stuck to the wall showing the arrival and departure times at each stop.
As the ride to Volgograd was very short by Russian standards (six hours and nine minutes), we didn’t have much interaction with the other passengers other than a weird nod. I was eager to see the river crossings, especially the truss bridge over the Akhtouba river, which had recently been widened to become a double lane. The Privoljskaya (Volga) Railway connects European Russia to Olia, a port in the Caspian Sea. A small part of this route even crosses Kazakhstan. It is being modernized for the North-South International Transport Corridor.
Once our train left Astrakhan, we saw almost no sign of human activity except in places near train stations. As I watched the Sun set over the vast void of the Astrakhan region, I listened on my phone to the symphonic poem by Alexander Borodin In the steppes of Central Asia and I imagined how, at one time, caravans used this route to transport valuable goods from Persia and other parts of Asia to the cities of the Volga.
In the height of twilight, Olga and I toast the vastness of Russia while drinking coffee from a coated glass. substakannik, a traditional tea glass holder that is the hallmark of Russian train travel. Railroad workers sell tea, coffee, ice cream and snacks at slightly higher prices than usual. To avoid this, many travelers bring their own snacks, tea bags, and instant coffee, as all trains have a boiler that dispenses boiling water. Instant noodles seem to be everyone’s favorite dish on Russian rail journeys.
A new friendship in our compartment
The Russian stereotype that you shouldn’t talk to strangers is undermined on long train journeys. It is very difficult to spend days in a “koupé” (train compartment for four people) with people without interacting with them. We took the Krasnoyarsk-Adler Express from Volgograd to Sochi, a train that connected a city in the heart of Siberia to a resort on the Black Sea.
When we bought our tickets, my friend Olga was worried about potentially sharing a koupé with two other men who would drink vodka and eat fried chicken all day. Much to her relief, our compartment was occupied by a sophisticated but sympathetic young lady who was moving with her seven year old daughter from a village in the region ofOrenburg, near the Kazakhstan border, in Goriatchi Klioutch (literally “hot spring” in Russian), a resort known for its balneotherapy center.
The mother and daughter told horror stories about their small village which has been hit hard by the pandemic. They were among the first people in the town to be vaccinated, but still did not feel comfortable staying put. I recorded our exchanges, which lasted almost a day, on my personal blog.
Olga’s apprehensions about the men drinking vodka were also not entirely unfounded. There was a party all day in another koupé in our wagon and a nice man in his 50s who said he was on vacation wanted me to join in the fun, but I refused. I was more than satisfied to hear stories about life in a Siberian village and to see the hope and optimism in the eyes of the people who shared my compartment.
Crossing a spooky platzkart
The train couldn’t exactly be classified as super comfortable, especially when compared to some more modern ones on popular Central Russian routes, but it was clean and reasonably spacious. The toilets were also spotless and cleaned regularly. This is obviously an important factor when considering a multi-day trip.
We wanted to try the food in the dining car, but for that we had to walk through a place tag, which was an experience in itself. The “dormitory on wheels” gave off a mixture of smells ranging from alcohol to dried fish to fried chicken, among other recognizable and unrecognizable scents. When we walked through it we realized how lucky we had been to get two of the last few tickets left in a compartment!
The dining car was empty and had an old-world elegance. Few experiences compare to eating a good meal while gazing at the changing landscapes of a country. Our train had a special lunch menu that included borsch, salad, pasta and a soft drink. Despite the unimpressive pasta, we enjoyed the food.
Even though we weren’t on a luxury train, the service was absolutely first class. Russian Railways have put a lot of time and effort into providing the best possible training for their employees and this is clearly seen in the service you receive, even on a train journey far away from Moscow and Saint -Petersburg.
Here’s a tip for those looking to shop for souvenirs in Russia: Train attendants sell a variety of items on board. I managed to buy two high-quality podstakanniks, one on the theme of Alexander Pushkin and the other with a Russian double-headed eagle in relief (symbol of the Russian Empire). The tea glass holders, supplied with a glass, were made in Russia and were of a much higher quality than those in which the Railways served tea. Also, the prices were way lower than they would have been in a gift shop.
Like a movie station
Our train ran almost parallel to the Volga-Don Canal for a while, which gave us some glimpses of this shipping lane. As the train headed southwest, the steppe-like passages gave way to cultivated farmland. Unfortunately, by the time the train entered the most scenic parts of the country, it was already dark.
We had a scheduled 96 minute stop at Kavkazskaya Station, a two story red brick building that exuded character. Our car attendant told us that there were a few nice cafes outside the station, so we decided to give it a shot. Olga and I felt like we had been to this station before, but that was by no means the case. I then realized that the interior of the station looked like the one in the movie A station for two, realized by Eldar Ryazanov in 1982.
After exiting the station, we found a cafe and asked the waiter if he knew why the town was called Kavkazskaya (“Caucasian”). He smiled telling us that we were in a town called Kropotkin and that only the station was called Kavkazskaya.
We were told that the city, which was named after the geographer, revolutionary anarchist and Prince Pyotr Kropotkin, lies on the right bank of the Kuban River and is actually a pleasant place to spend time. Even though we were tempted to wander around a bit and see what surprises this city had in store for us, we used common sense getting back to our train after dinner.
How I almost missed my train
I have always had an irrational fear of being left behind by a moving train on a platform. However, when I saw the weight of the suitcases my new friends in the koupé were carrying, I couldn’t help but offer to help. The map in the wagon said the stop was 40 minutes, so I knew I could easily help them carry their suitcases to a taxi at the entrance to the station. After carrying two incredibly heavy pieces of luggage up a long staircase and up to the main entrance of the station, I wished Lioudmila and her daughter, Anna, a happy new life to Goriatchi Klioutch. It was 2:30 am and my mind was not at its best. As soon as I heard a horn, so I imagined that it was my train and that I was going to miss it. I ran and by the time I reached the platform, I realized that the noise was coming from another train. There was still at least 20 minutes left before mine left!
At around 6 a.m., while we were in a deep sleep, the flight attendant knocked on our door and told us that the train was approaching. Sochi. If she hadn’t woken us up, we would have traveled another half hour to Adler’s final destination.
These two short train trips rekindled our sense of adventure. So we have to find a way to take the Trans-Siberian again, this time from the European part of Russia to the eastern end of the country!
In this other article, find the story of our contributor’s visit to Sochi.
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