Just Outside Minsk
I'm kinda getting used to how big this trip is - just.
Last night we made up the beds and tried to get some sleep as was a slow crawl through Poland as far as Poznan and then a race to catch up time.
The Train "went to bed" around 10 PM (CET) and we were finally awoken at 4.30 AM by the immigration check for Belorussia. The guards were efficient and polite whilst we filled in the immigration and custom forms.
After clearing the formalities, we then had the unique experience of changing the bogies of the carriages from "Standard Gauge" to "Russian Gauge". Unlike the rest of Europe, the Russian railways are run on the standard of 5 ft. This means bigger trains and much more capacity. Changing the bogies was a right pfaff and involved shunting the coaches into a shed; unbolting the bogies; raising the carriages; shunting the standard bogies out; shunting the broad gauge bogies in place;lowering the carriages and finally bolting the bogies to the carriages. We were then gathered up into a new train formation and off we set for our first experience of modern Belorussia. Memories of the old Soviet Republic were very much in mind especially with the Military hanging around.
After all this, I was much too tired to take much notice of what went on. However, I finally roused myself to take a ham slice and a cup of tea for breakfast - bit steep at $15 I thought. Back to sleep whilst we counted down the kilometers to Minsk, the capital of Belorussia.
If this is a precursor to the actual Trans-Siberia, its going to be a real mental battle to cope with the trip: the confinement; the motion of the train; the isolation of being unable to communicate effectively with the other passagers. Of course, the people on the train have a purpose when the reach Moscow; some to see loved ones, others to conduct business, none of them really making their way to the other side of the world as we are.
Cousin Pete of course has found his purpose on this trip. Armed with train maps, he sits there ticking off the mileage on the map. This is his nirvana, his reason to be. Me; I want to get to Vladivostok as quickly as possible and go home.Thinking of the enormity of the journey, it;s nine days on the train, whereas to get back we will do it in just 12 hours. The march of technology eh?
Actually, the figures are something like:
Berlin to Moscow = 1889 KMS
Moscow to Vladivostok = 11,2587 KMS
Total = 11,147 KMS or 6,937 miles
It's just got to be done though. All I'm thinking of is my garden full of the family and friends. That's all that's keeping me going at the moment. Next stop is Minsk - lets hope we get a good break and some photos.
After Minsk, we stopped briefly at Smolensk, which looked as good as other writers had said it is. We are in Russia proper now and the station and trackside buildings are pained in two-tone green - as if the place isn't green enough! I suspect that Cousion Pete is having a hard time wiuthe the Silver Birch trees that constantly line the track. There seems millions of them!
After Smolensk, we settle down to counting down the miles to Moscow. A brief interlude arises when a German family travelling in a compartment nearby enter a blazing row between mother and daughter. The daughter storms off pursued by Vater. They reappear some time later but there is much tension in the air.
We arrive on the outskirts of Moscow and to my amazement it seems like Berlin back in 2001 - one big building yard. It is also very very hot. Some 38°.
The train creeps through the varoius loops that surround Moscow and eventually we reach the terminus. We grab our luggage and leave the train. On the way out Cousin Pete gives the attendent $10 and a Wolves biro - should have been $20 I thought for having to keep the pen!
Just along the platform is a guy with Cousin Pete's surname written on it. This is the taxi man and he leads us out of the station to a black Ford Focus taxi, where he deposit our luggage in the boot. Outside of the station is absolute chaos. People are running everywhere, cars don't seem to have any direction to go and mingle together in a most disconcerting way. We set off and the driving here reminds me of Kingston Jamaica - everybody driving anywhere and everywhere, no nice structured driving as in England. And the Ring Road is so so busy, even this late at night. Everywhere is a building site and skyscrapers are rising into the sky, the ones that are finished are lit up in the most garish lights. It was like a scene out of Blade Runner - Los Angeles 2033.
We reach the Hotel Cosmos, a huge place. As it's night, it's lit up in the Las Vagas style garish lights, trying to emulate Time Square in New York or Piccadilly in London. It's also very full with the big lobby packed with tourists from around the world.
We check in and are directed to the sixth floor. Time for a hot, refreshing shower and a shave - what joy! The room is quite comfortable with clean beds and linen, and a television. The local station makes no sense at all - usually, in Western Europe, you can follow the local speak, but this might as well be in Klingon, let alone only 2000 kilometers away! Oh well, we'll just have to muddle through in typical British style.
We descend to find a bar near the huge lobby and are charged an outrageous $23 for two German wheat beers. In 2007, this is outrageously expensive. Time for bed.
Overall, I can't say that I'm impressed with Moscow so far. It's very busy, very garish, the people look at you with suspicion and you've no idea what they are saying. My spirits are low and I really felt like going home. But after a talk with Cousin Pete, and a few encourtaging messages from home via the mobile phone, I go to bed with a lot of reservations awaiting tomorrow with some trepidation.