Transport eventually arrived at ten o’clock but fitting all of the luggage into the small coach proved more difficult than cracking the Rubik’s Cube Puzzle. For Kim and I, who only ever travel with cabin baggage, the size and quantity of our fellow travellers bags and suitcases was simply jaw-dropping, we were only away for a week but there was more luggage here than would be needed for a six month polar expedition; I doubt David Livingstone took as much as this when he went searching for the source of the Nile; more bags even than you would expect to find in the average suitcase department of a High street department store.
Eventually, one way or another everything was fitted in somewhere and the driver set off for the railway station on the other side of the city. He left the island and nudged his way through the twenty-four hour traffic queue on Nevsky Prospekt and after an hour or so he pulled up at the front of the station on Uprising Square and we left the coach, reclaimed our cases and made our way into the Moskovsky Rail Terminal.
I was mildly disappointed by this, I’m not sure why but I was expecting something rather grand but instead of a cathedral sized concourse with towering cast iron girders and statues celebrating the importance of Russian railways the station was memorable only for its ubiquitous layout and style lined with shops and cafés, clattering information boards as they regularly updated and self service ticket machines.
We were still excited about this of course because an overnight train rattling through the Russian countryside was something we had been looking forward to in anticipation of it being one of the highlights of the trip. Our platform identified we walked a long way past the workmanlike station shunter engines manoeuvring the carriages into place in their splendid cream, brown and gold livery and walked a long way to our designated carriage.
The train was the Grand Express, a privately operated overnight service and advertised as ‘a luxury hotel on wheels’ and goes on in more detail, ‘You will be impressed by the level of service on Grand Express. It is Russia’s first privately owned luxury passenger train, offering overnight trips from Moscow to Saint-Petersburg. Only ‘Grand Express’ can offer you spacious sleeping carriages with toilets, shower cabins and air-conditioning, with wide sofas and LCD-TV sets, with DVD-players and Wi-Fi Internet access.’
We walked past the Grand Delux class carriages, we weren’t travelling in these, the Grand Class carriages, we weren’t travelling in these either or in the Premium Class and finally we reached first class and although I expected to continue walking to second or third class it didn’t go any lower than that and we were invited to step aboard and inside our first class compartment which we were sharing with two other Travelsphere travellers, Andy and Gaynor.
I had had expectations of a walnut veneered compartment with en-suite facilities and table lamps shining like glow-worms as in the Bond film ‘From Russia With Love’ or ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ but it turned out to be nothing like, tiny and functional but pleasant and comfortable and we sat down, opened the wine and waited for the moment of departure. It was punctual too because precisely on time there was a little jolt that meant we were moving and we glided out of the station and began the six-hundred and fifty kilometre journey east to Moscow.
While everyone negotiated their sleeping arrangements and settled down we sat and watched the lights of the city suburbs slip by but by the time we were into the country it was too dark to see anything so thoughts turned to bed and sleep. I had been allocated a top bunk which was quite high off the floor and rather difficult to get into but once this had been achieved I lay under the pristine white duvet and wondered if I would be able to drop off. I don’t think I thought about this for very long however because the motion of the train and the rhythmic sound of wheels on rail soon sent me over and I only stirred once in the night when I was aware that the train had momentarily stopped to allow a faster train to pass and except for snoring in an adjacent compartment it was completely silent.
I woke early at about five-thirty and left the bunk and the compartment and joined some other early-birds standing in the corridor and enjoying the view. Mile after mile of nothing but unspoilt countryside with meadows and forests, rivers and lakes and the occasional town or village with gaily coloured roofs and dirt roads. The line is almost completely straight except for a seventeen kilometre bend near the city of Novgorod.
The story goes that when planning the project, Tsar Nicholas I became frustrated by the constant bickering over the route and stepped in and selected the route himself by taking a ruler and drawing a straight line between the two cities on a map but accidentally drawing around his own finger on the ruler. The planners were supposedly too afraid to point out the error and constructed the line with the bend. There is no truth in that of course, the construction had to deal with an inconvenient steep gradient, but it’s a nice anecdote!
Eventually the train began to approach the suburbs of Moscow, the largest city in Europe and by some measures the sixth largest in the World so there was still a way to go as we were served a small breakfast that we doubted would see us through until lunchtime before preparing for arrival. After eight hours the train approached the centre and eased effortlessly into Leningradsky Station the terminus of the line and the disembarkation process began as we stepped down from the train into a chilly morning but with the benefit of a glorious blue sky.
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