Moscow and the Trans-Mongolian

Jun 15, 2010 by glennji
Yesterday we boarded a night-train in Warsaw, bound for Moscow. It was a small cabin, but we had it to ourselves — the carriage attendant took one look at our backpacks (and generally shabby appearance) and pointed out this was “first class” — the benefit of buying our tickets far in advance (i.e. before the Icelandic volcano decided to mess up air travel for all and sundry). We stowed our packs and sat on the hard seats, waiting for the train to whisk us away to strange new adventures!

Eventually we began to move, albeit slowly, out of the station and into the unknown. We travelled for perhaps 20 minutes at this glacial pace — we wondered if the ride took 23 hours because it travelled at this speed for the whole way — before pulling up in the middle of nowhere and stopping to let a bunch of uniformed soldiers onboard. Aha, passports! An inspector eventually made it to our cabin and rattled off something in Polish; we shrugged, looked at each other, and handed over our passports. He spent a good five minutes inspecting them — looking at the photo page, the VISA, the front cover. He asked us questions, which of course we couldn’t answer, but guessed: “We’re from Australia,” I repeated over and over.

“Austria?” he asked, to which we repeated ourselves and pointed: at the passport, the flag sewn to our packs, the little koala souvenir from the Aussie shop in London. “Aah, Aus-TRAAAH-lya,” he said as the penny dropped, then stepped out to converse with his partner — we heard “Aus-TRAH-lya” a couple of times. Eventually he gave our passports back — we mumbled, “Spasiba” and “Djiekuje”, not knowing whether he was Russian or Polish or something else altogether — and moved on.

Five minutes later, we repeated the whole process with a new guard. Clued-in, we happily parroted: “Aus-TRAAAH-lya, mate”, which seemed to work. He took our passports, inspected, stamped and returned them. Phew! The soldiers departed (eventually) and the train moved on — we’d been on board for over an hour now.

Another 15 minutes slow travel and we stopped and repeated the whole thing with another bunch of soldiers. (Were their uniforms different? I couldn’t tell.) The first guy inspected our passports closely — he swiped them through a machine, stared with a “lupe”, sniffed them, licked them — then handed them back. The second guy didn’t even care about our passports, choosing to search our cabin instead (we stood while he looked under the seats and on top of our packs). By the time the third soldier arrived with our carriage attendant in tow, we didn’t know what to think. Was this normal procedure? Was there something weird about our VISAs? The fact that we bought the tickets through Deutschebahn rather than a Russian company?

A bit of back and forth — he was all business, and took our linguistic lack in stride — and he departed, giving our passports to the attendant with the promise, “Tomorrow”. We hoped he meant we’d get ’em back…

The train moved on, and actually got a little speed up. We thought we were home-free, and started preparing our dinner for the evening: fresh vegetables from Krakow, a little kielbasa and a loaf of bread from Warsaw. “We’ll open the wine to celebrate going for a kilometre without stopping,” we joked. It wouldn’t be so bad, but when the train stops the air-conditioning also stops — our cabin temperature crept up to 30 degrees before we realised and had to open the door to let some air in.

But of course, a mile down the road we stopped again — this time to change our wheels to the Russian gauge. Were we ever going to get there??

A long and detailed process, changing wheels. We were lifted up on enormous hydraulic jacks while men in coveralls fussed and fiddled about underneath. Here’s a tip: they don’t like you turning on the tap in your room while they’re down there; I’m just glad we didn’t need to use the toilet!

Eventually we were re-wheeled and shifted onto Russian tracks, a process that required us to sit at a platform for another twenty minutes. Oy! We finally started moving, thankfully, and shortly after that the attendant turned our seat into a bed for Dee. Meanwhile I climbed up the rickety metal ladder (missing the bottom three rungs, so I had to Spiderman it a little) and lay on my hard top bunk — there wasn’t enough room to do anything BUT lie down, mind you, and I spent the night imagining I was a cosmonaut on the Mir space station.

But we made it, and today (after a night in an expensive hotel) we’re feeling much better. We visited the Red Square, despite the rain, and are now in a cheap-as-mud restaurant sampling Russian food and beer while we wait for our Trans-Siberian train.

So yeah, this will likely be the last post for awhile — we’re on the train through Siberia, Mongolia and into China for the next week or so. In a minute we’ll head back to the hotel where we’ve left our packs, and steal some wifi to post this and upload the photos — go to Flickr if you wanna see Moscow in the rain!

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