In the summer of 2003, my friend Olga and I roughed it out across Russia on an epic trip that began with a ferry ride from Sakhalin Island to the Russian mainland and involved 45 days of train travel across Siberia and into the heart of central Russia. We traveled as far as Voronezh, and as far as Karelia’s Valaam Monastery. The train journeys that we took back then were not comfortable. For example, the ride from Irkutsk, Novosibirsk, in a ‘platzkart’ (undivided dormitorywagon) was the most uncomfortable. Two decades and a pandemic later our adventure spirit had not diminished. However, we weren’t ready to board the Trans-Siberian yet. We, instead, chose to take two train rides in southern Russia – a six-hour journey from Astrakhan to Volgograd and a 22-hour ride from Volgograd to Sochi.
As someone who has traveled on the Moscow-St. Petersburg high speed Sapsan train regularly, I was aware of the huge modernization projects that Russian Railways have undertaken in the past decade. However, I wasn’t expecting much from my most recent journeys. Because of Russia’s vastness and sheer size, some routes and sections have been left behind.
Vast and empty stretches of land
It’s hard not to be impressed with how punctual the trains are in Russia. Our train from Astrakhan left exactly as the clock struck 16: 40. As with all Russian trains, there was a map on the wall that showed the arrival and departure times for each stop.
The ride to Volgograd took us six hours and nine minutes, which was quite short for Russian standards. We didn’t have much interaction with other passengers. It was exciting to see the river crossings, particularly the truss bridge that crosses the Akhtuba River. This bridge had been recently extended to make it a double-track. The Privolzhskaya Railway, also known as the Volga Railway, connects European Russia with Olya (a port on Olya’s Caspian Sea coast). It runs through Kazakhstan in a small portion. It is currently being upgraded to accommodate the North-South International Transport Corridor.
We saw very little human activity once our train left Astrakhan. The exception was in areas close to stations. As I watched the sun set over Astrakhan Region’s vast emptyness, I played Alexander Borodin’s symphonic poem “In the Steppes of Central Asia” on my phone. I imagined how caravans used to travel along the route carrying valuable goods from Asia and Persia to the Volga.
At the peak of twilight, Olga and I toasted to the vastness of Russia by drinking coffee in a glass that was in a podstakannik, a traditional tea glass holder that is the trademark of a railway journey in Russia. The prices of tea, coffee and snacks sold by railway employees are slightly higher than the usual. Many travelers bring their own snacks, tea bags, and instant coffee to avoid this. All trains have a boiler that boils water. Instant noodles seem to be a popular choice on Russian train journeys.
A new friendship in our train compartment
The Russian stereotype about not talking to strangers gets thrown out of the window on longer train journeys. It’s very hard to spend days with four people in one ‘coupe’ train compartment. The Krasnoyarsk–Adler Express, which ran from Volgograd and Sochi, was a train that linked a city at the heart of Siberia with a Black Sea resort.
When we purchased our tickets, Olga, my friend was concerned about sharing a coupe of vodka-loving men who would eat fried chicken every day. Our coupe contained a young, sophisticated, but friendly woman, who was moving with her daughter, seven years old, from Orenburg Region. She was coming from Goryachiy Klyuch, a resort town famous for its balneotherapy spa.
The mother and her daughter shared horrifying stories about how their village was affected by the pandemic. Although they were among the first to be vaccinated in their village, they didn’t feel safe staying there. I documented our nearly-day long interactions on my personal blog.
Olga was not completely unfounded in his fears about vodka drinking. There was a day-long party in another coupe in our wagon and a friendly man in his 50s who said he was on holiday wanted me to join in the revelry, but I passed. I was happy to hear stories about life in Siberia and to see the optimism and hope in the faces of those who shared a coupe with us.
How we went through a creepy platzkart in the salon car
The train could not exactly be classified as super comfortable, especially when compared with some of the more modern trains on popular routes in central Russia, but it was clean and reasonably spacious. The bathrooms were clean and maintained a high standard. This is a crucial factor for a long journey.
We wanted to taste the food in the salon cars, but to do this we had to cross a wagon called a platzkart. This was quite an experience. There were many smells in the ‘dormitory-on-wheels’, including alcohol, dried fish, fried chicken, and some that weren’t immediately identifiable. We realized how fortunate we were to have two tickets left in the coupe when we crossed the platzkart wagon.
The salon car was quiet and exuded an old-world elegance. It is rare to find a better experience than eating a delicious meal while taking in the beautiful scenery and landscapes of a country. The lunch-set menu included pasta, salad, and a non-alcoholic drink. We enjoyed the food, despite the lackluster pasta.
Even though we weren’t on a luxury train, our service was exceptional. Russian Railways has spent a lot of effort and time in training their employees. This is evident in the excellent service that you receive even on trains far from Moscow or St. Petersburg. Petersburg.
An excellent tip for souvenir-buyers in Russia is that train attendants can sell all sorts of goodies at the station. Two high-quality podstakanniks were purchased by me, one featuring an Alexander Pushkin theme and the other with an embossed Russian doubleheaded eagle (symbol for the Russian Empire). These tea glasses holders came with a cup and were made in Russia. They are far more durable than those used by railways to serve tea. The prices were also much lower than those found in souvenir shops.
Like a train station from a movie
Our train ran almost parallel to the Volga-Don Canal for a while, so we were able to get a few glimpses of this ship canal. The train moved southwestward, and the steppe-like passage became cultivated agricultural land. It was dark by the time that the train reached the scenic areas of the country.
We had a scheduled stop of 96 minutes at a station called Kavkazskaya, which was a two-floor red brick building that absolutely oozed character. The attendant in the wagon told us that there were several nice cafes near the station so we decided to give it a try. Olga and me both felt that we had been there before. However, neither of us had. Then it struck me that the interiors of the station had a resemblance to the one that was portrayed in the Eldar Ryazanov-directed 1982 movie ‘Station for Two’.
We walked out of the station and found a café where we asked the waiter why Kavkazskaya was named that way. When he told us we were in Kropotkin, he smiled and said that it was only Kavkazskaya that was named.
We were told that the town, which was named after geographer and revolutionary anarchist Prince Pyotr Kropotkin, was on the right bank of the Kuban River and was actually a pleasant place to spend some time in. We were tempted to wander off and discover what surprises this town might have in store, but we decided to return to the train once we had finished dinner.
How I almost missed my train
I’ve always had an irrational fear of being left behind by a moving train on a platform. When I saw the weight of the suitcases my new friends were carrying, I couldn’t help but offer to help them. The map in the wagon said the stop was for 40 minutes, so I knew that I could easily help them take their suitcases to a taxi at the station entrance. After carrying two very heavy suitcases up the stairs to the station’s main entrance and down, I wished Ludmilla (and her 7-year old daughter Anna) a happy new year in Goryachiy Klyuch. It was 2: 30 AM and my mind was not functioning at its best. The horn sounded and I knew it was my train. I was sure I would miss it. I ran for it, but by the time I got to the platform, I realized it was not my train. There were at least another 20 minutes before my train left!
Around 6 AM, while we were still in deep sleep, the wagon attendant knocked at our doors and informed us that the train was nearing Sochi. We would have continued on for half an hour if she hadn’t woken me up.
These two short train rides rekindled our sense of adventure. We need to find a way for the Trans-Siberian to be rerouted from the European region of Russia to its eastern end.
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