to Russia with Love

August 29, 2013

We studied Russia when I was in seventh grade. Actually, it was probably the USSR, back then. This was before I became the world traveler that I’ve become, when foreign places were exotic and beyond my imagining. When I knew I was coming to Mongolia last year, the seed was planted to take the Trans-Siberian Railway to Moscow. I can’t even tell you how I knew about the Railway, but it was a promised adventure that called to me: even if nothing were to happen, the journey itself was sure to be amazing. My friend, Lillian, bought me the Handbook and before I’d even left the States I’d read it cover to cover. Well, now that the trip is in the past tense, I’ll do my best to give you a sense of what it was like to go “To Russia with Love” without the chronology that usually bogs me down. Pics are available here!

The Travel Buddy
Too easily taken for granted, the travel buddy is a crucial element to the overall travel experience. A good travel buddy can make a dull trip memorable, just as a bad travel buddy can spoil an otherwise wonderful time. What makes it tricky is that “good travel buddy” means different things to different people. As an example, I like sharing food. While that may not be a prerequisite for traveling with me, it certainly adds to my happiness. Luckily, I’ve been blessed with some great traveling companions and the Russia Travel Buddy falls into that category. Will and I were at the same training site during PST. (Since he was the most committed to language study, and we were neighbors, I occasionally invited myself over to his house so that I could focus, and he welcomed me even though I was probably more of a distraction for him.) We’d both talked about going to Russia, but it was his nudging this spring that made it happen. At one point, about two weeks into it, I suspected that we were both a bit too easygoing in that whatever suggestion was made the other was likely to agree, even though the person making the suggestion wasn’t necessarily deeply committed to Option A… once that tendency was acknowledged, it was easier to offer an Option B. But if the worst thing about your travel companion is that he is too agreeable, at the end of the day, that’s a good thing.

The Plan
Pretty much, the plan was to not have much of a plan, to allow spontaneity, to eat good food and to meet new people. Mission accomplished, but not without some kinks. By buying our tickets only to Moscow, we were continually planning the next leg of our trip—scrambling to find internet, purchase tickets online, then finding the right machine to print e-tickets. We wanted to see Red Square in Moscow, The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, and Lake Baikal: check, check, and check. The built-in flexibility allowed us to include Gorky Park in Moscow and a day of bike riding around St. Petersburg, both highlights for me! Will and I were also on the same page about couchsurfing (an internet-based, global network that connects travelers to hosts who provide a place to sleep, free of charge). We wanted to couchsurf for a few reasons: it’s an obvious way to save some rubles; not speaking the language, it would be helpful to have locals who could give us some tips; we also wanted to know the real Russia, to have real people in mind when we thought about it afterwards. This paid off ten-fold (see The People, below)!

The Visa, etc.
Internet research on this was a quagmire to wade through! First, you need an Invitation letter. A legit hotel will provide the Invitation letter, but with couchsurfing that wasn’t an option. The weird thing is that you can buy an Invitation letter, using dummy information, calling into question the purpose of it. The Visa is pre-approval to enter the country. When applying for the Visa, in addition to the Invitation letter, you also need to complete a 40-question application that includes colleges that you’ve attended, countries you’ve visited, current and previous two jobs… it was tedious. Finally, within five days of entering the country, you have to Register—basically, officially file that you are there. Again, legit hotels (even some hostels) can Register for you, but going the couchsurfing route, it was on us. I’ll spare you the tiresome details, but if you want more info, just ask.

The Train
I should mention that in the end we didn’t ride the official Trans-Siberian which only leaves once or twice a week. You’d think this would bother me, but my draw to the adventure was traveling by rail for the duration of the journey more so than the type of train. Besides, I’m pretty sure the basics are the same across trains (but the prices varied every time I did a search, so those listed are just to give you an idea).

Spalny vagon—first class—2 berths in a compartment. As Peace Corps Volunteers, we did not consider this option. (As an FYI, the cost was between $500-600 UB-Moscow, $700 Moscow-UB.)

Kupe—second class—4 berths in a compartment. This was our intro to the trip. In the end, it afforded us the best sleep and a chance at privacy. Although our car’s broken air conditioning made for an uncomfortable first two days, our fellow traveler got off on the second day and we didn’t get any others. We rode for a full 4 days, passing the time reading, playing Yahtzee, enjoying the scenery, eating, and sleeping. We chatted with a Mongolian man who shared some food and insisted we take the “How financially savvy are you?” quiz in his magazine (in Mongolian). We took turns getting off at the stops that were long enough for walking around the station, sometimes beyond. We traveled over 6000 km (nearly 4000 miles) for about $200. As we say in Boston, “that’s a bahgain.”

Platzkartny—third class—one car, ~50 berths, no doors: it’s like a hostel on rails. We chose this option for the Moscow-St. Petersburg leg. It’s possible to make that trip in under 4 hours, but we thought the 9-hour, overnight train would give us more time for sightseeing. Well, there are people who are pros at this—beds made, in their jammies, fast asleep before the train left the station—but for us, it was an unkind introduction to Platzkartny. We purchased the tickets the night before. We paid $85 to unknowingly get, what the guidebook warned us to “avoid at all costs,” the absolute worst berths on the train, along the corridor, next to the bathroom. Neither of us could pinpoint why we’d slept so poorly; likely it was a combination of location (and resulting foot traffic), limited sleep time by the time we’d gotten around to it, and the fact that the lights never completely went out (presumably a safety feature). Fortunately, we weren’t too resentful of this and we gave it another chance, from Moscow-Irkutsk. We still had the side bunks, but this time they weren’t the worst seats in the house. Still not great sleep, and maybe by this point, the novelty had worn off and the train was merely transportation. That was a 3-day journey for about $250.

Seat only—after our miserable night’s sleep on the way to St. Petes, we knowingly took a chance with the seat-only option from St. Petes-Moscow, another overnight train. We reasoned that since we were just connecting to another train, with a berth, for a 3-day journey, what did it matter if we didn’t sleep since we’d get plenty of sleep on the new train. As you can imagine, we were actually quite surprised, and relieved, to find plush reclining chairs! Subsequently, we were a bit chagrinned upon finding out that we were in the wrong car… off to Common Class, where 2 would-be-berths-in-a-compartment-used-as-seating-for-6-people awaited us. Without any partition between people, it could have been a long night of having someone fall asleep on your shoulder or in your lap. Thankfully, there were only two others (rather than 4!) and they’d perched themselves at the table by the window (which we’d surely have done if we’d arrived first). This left half of the bench to attempt to curl up on, which seemed a lot more promising than it turned out to be. Somewhere in the night I thought, since I wasn’t sleeping, that I’d use the restroom. I must have fallen asleep at some point because the door was closed and I didn’t remember that happening. Well, despite my attempts at opening it quietly, I’d disturbed the heavens… a man, with his eye mask pushed up on his forehead, appeared from above—he’d been sleeping in the overhead luggage compartment! Fortunately, he understood English and climbed down to help un-stick the door. This was, of course, after I’d yelped at the sight of him. The cost of this story was about $50.

Each car has an attendant, the Provodnitsa. She was in charge of checking our tickets, distributing the bed linens, keeping an eye on who entered the train at station stops, etc. The kupe train was carpeted and the hall and compartments were vacuumed every night. The uncarpeted Platzkartny car was swept and mopped every night. There is a bathroom at each end of the car. We weren’t supposed to use the one near the Provodnitsa in the kupe, but it wasn’t a problem in the Platzkartny (with twice the people, I should hope not). There aren’t any showers onboard, but there is a drainage hole in the bathroom floor if you want to wash up using the sink. I’m a seasoned Peace Corps Volunteer in Mongolia; baby wipes will suffice. The toilets themselves flush onto the tracks. For this reason, they are unusable (i.e., locked) while in the stations and for some amount of time before and after.

The People
This part will be the most difficult for me to capture with words because it is the most personal. The expectation of couchsurfing is that a surfer will be given a place to sleep. That’s it. And by that measure, our hosts were exceptional. A hot shower after a 4-day train ride; use of a washing machine after 2 weeks of traveling; a home-cooked dinner after countless pre-packaged “meals” on the road, our hosts really put themselves in our place and identified what we must want most and offered it up gladly. They also saw us as tourists in their communities and knew what we would want to see and helped make it happen, often as tour guide. The trust that came with the keys to the apartment or allowing us near their small children shouldn’t feel undeserved, since Will and I are trustworthy people, and yet, I still marvel at their wholehearted welcome of us.

Prior to going on this trip, I was led to believe that Russians would be difficult, even intentionally so. Yet, our hosts’ hospitality was amplified by the woman who, speaking no English, literally walked us to our train platform, which I suspected was not at all where she was going. In two different cities, when we were seen reading our maps, people asked if they could help direct us.

I left Russia feeling I knew it better than I know places I’ve been to more than once or have spent more time. I left Russia looking forward to my next visit.