Russia, July 29, 1999
The only way to travel in the CISThere are a few Russian experiences that I only dream about having in America, the Poezd is one of them. Beyond the hassle of getting a ticket, the Poezd beats any form of transportation in America.
Poezd = Train
There are several classes of trains in Russia, the better ones being the lower number trains (No. 1-5) going to any given city. The sami luchie (very best) train is the Red Arrow (No. 1) between Moscow and St. Peterburg. I had the fortune to take the train on a few occasions, and I am spoiled forever. First, the train has three classes, CV, coupe, and platzcar. The first class (CV) is a closed train compartment (3m x 2m) with two beds. Coupe is the same with four beds. Platzcar has six beds in an open train compartment. I like to travel by coupe, where I meet fellow expats and middle class Russians in a dignified environment. CV is a bit pretentious while platzcar is a little too proletariat for me.
When you first enter your train car the conductor of that car, usually a woman, will take your ticket. In your compartment will be a table with bottled water and crackers, four beds with sheets and blankets, and four coat hangers waiting for your jacket. You usually change into "house clothes" immediately, most importantly removing your shoes. Then you greet your compartment-mates as they enter and change. It is not uncommon for you to have male and female neighbours, though usually the women are in pairs or accompanied by men. If a woman is traveling alone, the conductor will usually give her a room with another woman in it, and when she changes all the men go into the hallway. People on trains are quite civil.
Once the train starts to move, the parting begins. If it is an overnight train leaving late, as the Red Arrow does, a toast of vodka is customary before you turn in for the night. If it is a daylight train, that bottle will be finished, and followed by another if you are in a good compartment. People bring all types of food onto the train, though I find the food served is sufficient. On the Red Arrow, they serve a package breakfast and, as on all trains, all the tea or coffee you can drink.
The Red Arrow arrives in St. Peterburg (or Moscow) at 8 am after leaving Moscow (or St. Peterburg) at midnight. The conductor wakes everyone up at 7 am to prepare them for arrival, and the smart people que for the toilet immediately. Toilet paper is always in short supply, so be sure to bring your own. Breakfast is a communal affair, with people sharing what they brought and the items in the food packages provided.
When you arrive in St. Pete (or Moscow), you are awake, in the center of the city, and ready to go explore. So much better than a plane flight or a car ride anywhere. I love the trains so much here, I refuse to fly!
May 1999 Update
Wow! Recently I was lucky enough to take an overnight train with a young lady. Now, I'm not sure if you've ever ridden on a train, but I've always thought the movement to be very romantic. That was until this trip. We went in CV class, were it was just the two of us, and... Well lets just say it was even more romantic than I could have ever imagined! I highly recommend a train ride if your traveling with a loved-one.
Tuesday, July 20, 1999, The Moscow Times
Etiquette Travels on Rails
By Daisy Sindelar
For foreigners, riding the Russian railway system can be a little like initiation into a secret society. Step by step you master the sundry rites of passage - all the winks and passwords and sleight of hand - in vain hope of someday advancing to the invisible, fully acclimatized state of the native traveler, who seems to have been born knowing how to put a complete set of sheets on a top bunk bed in 30 seconds or less.
Blending in is a subtle art, but even those visa holders who are getting close elsewhere in life can still be spotted at 50 meters - or, more realistically, 5 centimeters - on a train, There's no way to hide a shortage of railway etiquette.
This has happened to many of us. Perhaps you've barged in on your female coupe-mates as they are changing into their nightwear. Or perhaps you have forgotten your own nightwear, having found sleeping in your clothes a reasonable and comfortable alternative. Maybe you have brought a snack for yourself and failed to share it with your neighbors during the requisite post-departure sit-in, or inadvertently locked one of them out in the middle of the night and fallen promptly back asleep, deaf to their cries.
Maybe you lie snoring under the, covers until the minute the train arrives at its destination, instead of sitting upright, freshly scrubbed, for an hour beforehand. Perhaps, worst of all, you've climbed the ladder without first removing your shoes. Ugh. Instances where all of these things have happened on a single trip, sadly, are not as rare as one might hope. For many, entry into this secret society remains hopelessly elusive.
The little half-cabin that is the room of the provodnik (train attendant) is both the nerve center and the torture chamber of this special society, and in some ways, you haven't experienced train travel until you've ridden in one. Under most normal circumstances, people are not invited to visit them - the passing glimpse you catch on your way to your own room of insurmountable social niceties is usually the closest you come. But sometimes circumstances are such that you miss your train or lose your ticket, and so you stand dejectedly on the platform, abandoned, unhappy and utterly at the mercy of those redvested guardians of the iron road. Occasionally they are too upstanding to play fast and loose with the sleeping arrangements, but more often than not they willingly name their price and usher you on board.
When space is tight, they will even sell you half of their space. Informal studies have indicated that this is especially likely to happen when you are least psychologically prepared to appreciate it. But faced with a night on a platform, it's hard to say no to a provodnik.
Flat Jon and I always say, "Davi!"
The good news is this: All regular rules are off. Your train manners might be lousy, but don't worry - there will be little you can do to offend the sensibilities of your host. Forget the loungewear, forget the shedding of shoes. Your regular streetwear will prove handy over the course of your journey, as you will be repeatedly asked to evacuate the cabin for prolonged strolls in the corridor. The provodnik's cabin is a hub of transaction, both social and commercial, and a humble passenger can often prove one warm body too many. Don't protest when the railway officers ask you for the fourth time to step outside so they can better talk to the gentleman carrying the large black bag - such complaints are the hymn of the over-pampered consumer.
When the provodnik lights up a cigarette in your tiny shared space after concluding his business for the evening, remember that you are the guest, and offer him your hat as an ashtray And when he invites a young female friend back to his bottom bunk, remember that it's 4 o'clock in the morning and you should really be asleep. Maybe she's a brake engineer. And aren't you glad you're not still standing on the platform?
It is worth noting that there are no packaged snacks to be had in the provodnik's cabin. Depending on your attitude towards processed cheese spread, however, this is not necessarily such a tragedy. There are instead ample supplies of clean linens and railway reading materials. If you've ever dreamed of reading about new features on the Krasnaya Strela while propping up your weary limbs on piles of sheets and hand towels, this might be the dream transportation alternative for you. Last but not least, you are spared the jarring rap of the metal-on-metal wake-up call. This bonus will be lost on you since you'll be awake anyway - the provodnik will have grown philosophical in the wee small hours following the brake engineer's hasty departure. But he knows some pretty good stories.