Longest Train Journey in Europe.
It’s not that I have a fascination for trains, I just like travelling.
When a group of friends decided that our next girls weekend trip would be to Moscow, I was googling around to find places to go and cool places to visit , when I came across an article about the Moscow to Nice train.
I’d never heard of it but it stopped me in my tracks, it just sounded such an adventure that within a few short moments I had decided that I would take this two day, two night train back to Nice.
Maybe it was the fantasy and romanticism surrounding the classic long train journeys of the past that I’d seen on films or read about in books.
Maybe it was something about doing things differently in a fast and accelerating world.
Maybe it was the luxury of having two days in a place where the world couldn’t find me.
Whatever the thoughts behind the decision – the decision was made and the ticket booked.
And that’s how I found myself all alone in Moscow on a Thursday evening as the glinting sun fell behind the massive board hordings on the roof of Belarussy station.
And when the big red and grey train trundled in I coudn’t hide the smile from my face.
There weren’t many passengers, it certainly wasn’t a big crowd, but we waited on the platform together, checking each other out and introducing ourselves. We were going to be together for the next 50 hours.
As I was travelling alone, I was hoping to find others like me, who were English or French speaking and looked clean and interesting.
But the group was friendly enough and there was a real sense of excitement amongst many of us. Many were taking photos next to the train, and we were taking photos for our fellow travellers.
Like clockwork, all the doors opened at once and in complete synchronicity all the uniformed, perfectly made up stewards/esses stepped on to the platform and put down the little bridge between the carriage and the platform then in perfect symmetry they all stepped to the right of them and smiled. It was an elegant performance and reminded me of a world I’d seen on telly circa the 1950’s.
I was first on, a perfunctory look at my passport and ticket and Oxsana directed me in English to cabin 4. Perfect I thought, an English speaker! I later found out that ‘4’ was one of the 12 words she knew.
Like all the cabins in 2nd class (1st was much more expensive and I couldn’t justify it at the time) there was space for 4 couchettes, 2 up 2 down. Then 3 women joined me, jabbering away hardly pausing for breath. One spoke with me in a very broken English, but hey it was way better than my Russian. They all seemed lovely and smiled often at me, and I thought that I’d be spending my next two days observing 3 Russian friends in their late 50’s with maybe a few interactions with me….
After 20 minutes two of them got up and waved goodbye to the third, luckily the one who spoke English, and they left the train. They had just jumped on board to have a final chat with their parting friend.
A younger man then came in with only one small holdall. He looked quite scary, shaven head, tattoos, a young version of Magwitch came to mind. He had no expression, welcoming nor threatening, and he indicated with his eyes and a tilt of his shaven head that he would get up into his couchette, he had the top bunk.
How he did this was quite amazing, he was slender and obviously strong, difficult to see in his baggy sweatshirt and jogging bottoms, but he put one hand on each top bunk and lifted himself up (think of Olympic Eastern Europeans on the Gymnastic Rings ) then threw his weight onto one hand and let go of the other whilst springing even higher and turning towards his bunk and twisting in mid air so that he fell silently onto his bunk in a sitting position. (Crowd applauds, judges give maximum marks) But he did this so quickly and with no sound that unless you actually watched him you’d never believe this was humanely possible. It took me a while to work out what he had done.
Then we were off, our train clickety clacked out of the station and there we were, stuck in a sealed (almost) capsule away from the world for 2 days and 2 nights.
And no one knew me, and I knew no one.
Introductions were made in our little threesome cabin, Inna a 59 year old Russian, now living in Poland with her second husband of 10 years, and Jennya the mute. Who spoke nothing but monosyllabic Russian. It was so bad that Inna must have decided that I make a more interesting cabin companion even though she hardly spoke enough English to make a sentence. But she was lovely we worked out through charades what we both did for a living, she was a NLP practitioner and naturopath. Really interesting lady. Upcycled furniture and had 200 rose bushes, boy was I glad that I had some photos on my phone of 4 chairs I had just recovered, I felt that I could hold my own with my super talented new Russian flat mate.
Jennya I have no idea, all we could glean from him is that he was going to Italy because his Grandfather asked him to? But he didn’t speak Italian and his GF wasn’t in Italy, and he only had a very small holdall and a laptop. It just didn’t seem very convincing about why he was going to Milan.
A bit odd, but I was sure by the next day he would be a little more lucid.
I took a little wander down the carriage and peeped into the other cabins. We were number 4 of 8 , number 1 was unoccupied number 2 had 2 women who, when we were lining up on the platform deliberately ignored each other, obviously they were in the midst of a squabble. Anyhow they were both reading and seemed quite comfortable. Cabin 3 was two men and a woman, all quite Russian and normal, I think they were the same family, they all had the same nose anyhow! These people had been on the platform taking photos of them and the train, so I assumed that they too were on the train for an adventure as opposed for practicality.
It got a little more interesting in cabin 6.
I walked past their room after 30 minutes underway. They had all got their pjs on and had pulled their beds down and were all sitting up in bed. It was 7pm. They were also hugely overweight, the type that if you met them in the corridor, you wouldn’t be able to get past even if both of you were sideways on and doing the bumsie shuffle.
Anyhow there was no danger of that because I never saw them leave their cabin, nor did they get out of bed. NOT ONCE!!! And they had their door open all day everyday. They just sat around in their pyjamas as if they were in a sleep treatment centre. Sometimes they played cards. All very jolly.
If they wore fitbits, they would still be in single digits by the end of the day. I got the feeling that they didn’t live much differently in their non train lives.
But the real problem was in cabin 7. A very old man who like his neighbours got undressed as soon as he entered the train, but he was naked, except for a pink towelling dressing gown that came to his knees. He never changed throughout the 2 days. I did pity his fellow travellers, an old mans dangly bits peering at you all day long through a gaping open terrytowling womans dressing gown would not be comfortable, and in a cabin there aren’t really many places where you can avert your eyes.
What is with Russians and trains and not wearing clothes!!
I did start to regret having a second class ticket. Was sure that in first everyone would be dressed in evening gowns and standing around a piano, sipping martinis, chatting about the escape from the Bolshevicks or something similar.
Anyhow back in the slums of second class where people had given up hope of respectability is where I had to stay.
I was so glad to have Inna, she is one of those rare people that are so generous in their thoughts and want to share them with you, she was genuinely interested in me and I her. We had lovely chats/charades.
Oxana came round and made us all a cup of tea, I bought out a pack of biscuits but only I ate them. I don’t know whether it’s not the right protocol or whether they genuinely didn’t like them but then it put me in a difficult position, because I really wanted a second one, but felt like it was too greedy to be eating in front of the others in my new family.
I wandered over to the restaurant car, thinking that there would be some action and maybe more people in it.
It was two carriages away, The doors are so heavy between the carriages. I really struggled at first, but as this was the only entertainment my muscles soon built up and technique honed and by the end of the second day I was thrusting them open with the flick of my wrist.
The restaurant car was quite lively and I had a beer, or two. People spoke to me in very broken Russian, still no one shared any of my languages. I used almost all of my remaining rubles an asd they weren’t good for anything else I used them mainly on alcohol. Hooray for beer. And rubles.
I was hopeful about the loo and shower cabins, having done my googling of this train and in fact they were ok, not too scary, and spacious enough, good water pressure and kept very clean. Kind of like the loo block on a nice camp site, functional with no hint of elegance.
EEK no separation of sexes.
I hate that. I bet first class had that plus an attendant and much fluffier towels. Probably perfume too.
It was getting late (8.30pm hahha) so I pulled down my bed and Inna and I sorted out the pillows, then we did the same to hers.
Jumped in and kept the little reading lights on and relaxed in the rhythm of the train. My cabin were all reading in bed.
Complicity in silence.
It was actually really cosy being so physically close to people I had only just met. I was glad Inna was there as being alone with the mute could have been a little scary.
Because of forementioned beers, at 4am, I needed to pee. Really badly. I lay awake trying to work out if I could delay the inevitable till morning, but then I realised that (a) I couldn’t and (b) if I didn’t I would be peeing on the seat I’d be sitting on for 2 days.
Inna was gently snoring, like my little old cat does, more of a purr really.
Then I realised that there was NO SOUND at all from the upstairs bunk, had Jennya got up and out too? I didn’t particularly want to meet him in the corridor at 4am.
I waited another few minutes, no one came in the cabin so I put my slippers on and padded off very quietly to the loo block. When I stepped up in the cabin I realised Jennya was sleeping. Completely silent.
I came back and the cabin door had automatically locked.
And I was outside in the corridor.
I knocked quietly hoping to wake just one of them up. But not loud enough obviously to wake Jennya.
I waited and waited and then had to go and wake the stewardess up.
She was sleeping on her bed in full uniform and make up. She couldn’t have been nicer and got up in a nanosecond and opened the door for me.
I got back in bed and then wide eyed it dawned on me…. I realised that Jennya must be ex KGB or some sort of assassin, all the pieces fitted into place
How he looked, his agility, and strength, how silent he was and the fact he didn’t give out any information plus was happy to sit in a top bunk and not move for hours . Obviously a veteran of many stakeouts
I hadn’t seen him eat nor drink either. He was like a super android killing machine, and now I knew and had to act normally before he killed me.
Despite all that, boy did I sleep well. The rails in Belarus have a vibrational quality, it was like sleeping on a washing machine in a soothing spin cycle. I imagined it was the similar sensation that parent of non tired children try to achieve by driving their kids around at night to get them to go to sleep. Anyway it worked.
Unfortunately no ones alarms did.
So I was woken by Oxsana when she opened the door at 7am.
“Quick you now passport”.
Blearily we all three blinked awake and rummaged in bags to get our passports. I opened the window blind with my foot. I love trains.
Within 5 seconds the butchest most sternfaced border guard I’d ever seen (and I haven’t seen many) entered our cabin.
‘Broukaiskapassiportski’ she growled.
Seriously, she would get a LOT further in life if she came bearing a few Starbucks frappolattés which we would have happily given her double the money for.
She snatched my passport from my sleepy hands, opened it and put it side by side to my face, obviously checking the photo likeness.
Which may not have seemed very similar because I didn’t take the pp photo when I had woken up after sleeping on a train and had my hair in 20 different directions with make up smudged under my eyes…
I tried to give her a welcoming smile.
“Krasnishkovski Blearivsy” or whatever she shouted at me. I took it to mean ‘don’t smile’
Inna laughed, I laughed at how crazy this was, me still in bed in my pjs trying not to smile, so my face took on a demented gurning non grimace trying not to laugh look.
I actually snorted too.
It wasn’t good.
I got barked at again in some harsh foreign language then the dumpster angry guard took my passport and then followed the same routine with my other sleepy roomies.
Then as quick as she came in she left.
Oxsana said No toilet and shook her finger in that direction.
Great the loos were out of bounds because of the immigration controls.
I really wanted to clean my teeth but was thankful that I’d been to the loo 3 hours before.
So then they turned all the electricity off, locked the loos, took our passports and locked us in a siding for TWO HOURS.
Seriously the Belarus welcoming party board has some way to go.
We couldn’t leave our cabins, use the loo or even HAVE A CUP OF TEA!!!
So anyhow we all snuggled back down as what else was there to do, and dozed for a couple of hours.
Only to be woken by another border controller who this time made us open our suitcases or in Jennyas case they didn’t…. hmmmmmm.
A few minutes later we started the engine and rolled in to the station, the angry woman finished the chapter in her book ‘ A Guide of Intimidation and Torture Techniques for SS Guards – Made Easy’ and gave us back our passports.
I counted my pages.
Just in case.
And we rolled out of Belarus.
The moment the loos were open again and the kettle whistling, I thought I’d wait a little for my other passengers to use the facilities first, but in our section I think there were only two of us that had a shower.
And they were both in my cabin.
I got washed dressed, and so did Inna, Jennya hadn’t got undressed, so was ready straight away, ready to go/pounce. One other cabin, got dressed, the rest lounged about in pyjamas for another 6 hours.
I went to get some breakfast and ordered scrambled eggs, and a cup of tea. Heaven.
Then I asked for the bill.
And in Euro I enquired?
Blank look on stewards face.
Bugger I didn’t have any left. Or I only had a few I thought. I turned my purse inside out and had exactly 623 rs At least I could pay my bill.
But the restaurant car only took roubles and I still had 30 hours of travel time with NO CURRENCY and NO FOOD except 1 opened pack of biscuits.
This trip suddenly was turning into a fast.
I despondently padded back to my cabin with my head low. Trying to conserve as much energy as I could.
In the cabin, Inna and I had a great charade/chat about living as an expat. Its amazing how much we could communicate with very broken English.
Jennya had not changed his clothes nor consumed any liquid or food for nearly 20 hours. He stayed silently in his top bunk.
And then before we knew it 24 hors had passed and we were in Warsaw which meant Inna had to leave.
We waved at each other all the way down the platform just like in a movie and she blew me a kiss.
So then it was just me and the assassin.
Luckily before he could get out his toolkit of death Oxsana came in with the hoover and then had to change the sheets. I helped by holding the duvet cover corners and she was very grateful. I then followed her to all the cabins and became her little helper bee.
Then once again the train stopped and the Polish border controllers boarded. Passports again but as we were in the EU mine was just given a cursory glance.
A few hours later we stopped to change wheels and a new carriage was added… the EU restaurant car.. which took EUROS hooray I didn’t need to starve for one minute longer. As soon as they were open I was in and spent a very jolly afternoon drinking beer with martini chasers. I mean, I wasn’t driving, and had to share the cabin tonight with a serial killer so needed to do some emotional numbing. More martini it was. (the cocktail list was v v v limited) But finally I was back in the EU I had 4g and wifi unlimited …. So I switched on and settled in..
The restaurant car was very jolly and all the staff spoke English so that was also very welcome.
As it was getting dark I stumbled back to my cabin. Jennya still was in the top bunk and he smiled at me!!!! I smiled back and we had a game of charades whereby I tried to ask him if he had eaten anything, he may have said no, I asked if he wanted some biscuits and he took one!!!
So now we were friends
That’s all it took.
Or he was buttering me up as we had to sleep in the same cabin and the door would be shut all night.
Anyhow I was 5 sheets to the wind so I didn’t actually care. Plus I was on line and had secretly taken a photo of him and posted it on facebook to my friends, so at least my death would be avenged. I got into my pjs, Jennya respectfully turned to face the wall to make it easier for me, a gentleman assassin, and then I snuggled up into my very comfy bed and put my little reading light on.
I had taken a Jeffrey Archer book from the clinic. It was really good.
That night we were going through the Austrian Alps and as the train was chugging up and down and over the passes, I was either squished against the wall or trying not to fall out of bed, it was a pity that it was in the dark as I imagine the views would have been spectacular.
Overall I slept really well and didn’t really wake up till 10am!!!
And I was alive!
Once again I was the only one to use the shower, or maybe there was a better one that everyone knew about and they couldn’t let me know.
Then for the first time in 40 hours Jennya got out of his bunk and I found him a little while later in the restaurant car with a man who was buying him breakfast. Very odd, that he had a ‘friend ‘ on the train who had ignored him till now.
I got the feeling J had no money on him. His handler was paying for everything, plus J had changed clothes, he was now wearing a t shirt and I could see all the hand drawn tattoos in full detail.
A scrumptious breakfast with great scenery followed, it was probably the first time I had had time to look out of the window, as odd as that sounds.
And then it dawned on me that this was the last day. The train was arriving in Nice at 6.30pm.
But first we had a few stops.
This is a train where no one gets on, the passengers just peel off at various departure points. But the good thing with the few stops was that we had about 15minutes of platform time standing by the train.
Most of the people in my carriage got out and stretched their legs. The old man in the pink dressing gown walked around the station, in his minimal attire smoking a cigarette.
It was a busy Saturday mid morning in the Czech Republic and the station was full. When our huge train rocked in with Moscow Nice written all over it and we descended, people would look at us in awe and wonder. And at the old man in increduality.
Then another hour or two later and we were in Milan.
The station isn’t pretty.
Jennya got his small holdall and his laptop together and we said a goodbye in different languages, or I think he did anyway. Then I waved him off as we rolled by and he waved at me and then disappeared down the station escalator probably to commit never to be solved crimes, all over Europe.
The PJ and bed family, which I had ungraciously nicknamed the ‘happy as pigs in shit’ family also left the train.
The two women in cabin 2 must have left during the night, or else they could have been Jennyas first ‘kill’ on this trip, because their cabin was empty too and Oxsana had already remade the beds (without me!!)
And then there was just me.
The family of the same nose
And pink gowned man who was HONKING by this time.
So bad that when he walked down the corridor we all scooted back into our cabins and Oxsana then followed 30 seconds later with airfreshner!
By now the scenery had really changed.
We had arrived in Genoa and were travelling on the coast. It was dappled sun and palm trees, the glinting sea and beautiful belle epoque villas of a bygone era nestling on their private bays.
At San Remo, when I disembarked for the last platform stop, a man came up to me with wide eyes and asked in French if I had come from Moscow. I had. I was so proud of my little journey. We had a chat he wanted to know all the details and I could tell that one day soon he too would be taking the train. A fellow train adventurer.
At 6.30pm on the dot we arrived into Nice in a part of the station I’d never been in before.
And dressing gown man was dressed and smelt nice!!! And he came up to me and we talked for the first time, as I had been avoiding him, for obvious reasons, and spoke English perfectly!!!!!
So I paid my bill in the restaurant car (very good value) gave Oxsana a 20€ tip, she said lots of things to me in Russian, I think they were good. I picked up my carry on suitcase, took a last look at my little cabin and stepped off the train.
So what did I learn, if anything?
I did think that I took the trip in order to see the countryside and travel so far across Europe, but actually I hardly looked out of the window.
I did think that I took the trip to converse with fellow travellers, but actually I didn’t really have many meaningful conversations as no one shared my languages.
But what it did reinforce is that people are nice, people are kind, everyone was doing their thing and getting on in their world and when coming together with strangers, everyone was considerate, polite and kind. Thoughtfully trying to make others’ journeys as stress free as possible. Our shared language was a smile, no matter how different we may have appeared.
But most of all what I got from it was a MASSIVE feeling of empowerment. Which actually shocked me, as I didn’t think I was lacking there! But I came off feeling that I could take on ANYTHING, do ANYTHING and that this was MY WORLD, mine to live MY LIFE in and that I was going to take it head on and make it work out for ME.
I realised that I had been smiling inside my head for the entire 50 hours.
I LOVED IT.
Would I have felt this if I had travelled with a friend? I’m not sure if I would. The adventure would have been different, maybe more fun, definitely more chatty!
But there’s a lot to be gained from travelling alone. (or as alone as you can get with an uncontrollable imagination)
I always used to take a month off and backpack around Africa/Asia/South America each year but I stopped that when I moved to France.
I have to get out of my comfort zone in order to make new experiences. And doing a lone trip in a shared cabin with no common language was definitely edging into the fringes of my limiting comfort and safety zone.
Maybe it’s time to buy a new backpack?
Thank you for reading my story xxx