Monday, 3 September 2012

Sleeper Trains and Russian Border Guards

We glossed over our first experience on a sleeper train for no other reason than it’s taken us almost a week to get over the whole experience.  And frankly this did not bode well for a trip of several months which has been planned around travelling by train.

When booking our tickets from Cologne to Warsaw back in the UK we had settled for a couchette which is effectively 3rd class – up to 6 berths to a cabin – mainly because we couldn’t really understand the booking system. 
When we pitched up it could have been worse, there could have been 4 others sharing the small space with us on the 14 hour journey to Warsaw.  As it was, there was only one unfortunate Polish lady who had already claimed the upper hand, territory-wise, by joining the train sometime before Cologne, making her bed, and therefore making the space her own. 

In my defence, I tried communicate with her in German (I seemed to know more German than she did which isn’t saying much), and Russian, but she simply looked blankly at me in Polish.  There were lots of polite smiles exchanged before and after official sleeping time (which in her case was from 5 minutes after we boarded the train until 5 minutes before disembarking at Warsaw.  She could certainly sleep.  And snore.  But I’ll get back to that.
Paul and I had been allocated the two upper bunks.  They were very narrow, very hard, and very close to the ceiling.  Paul just about squeezed into place but it was a case of once you were ensconced, you really didn’t want to move because the noise you made would wake the whole train (and probably terrify your sleeping companion).  And as I mentioned before, our Polish neighbour snored.  As did I.  However Paul can poke me, shout at me, wake me up, and get a bit miffed with me (which he frequently does) whereas this is not acceptable behaviour towards a strange lady on a sleeper train in Germany/Poland, when you look like the wild man or Borneo at the best of times.

And, of course, it’s non smoking.  Therein lies the major issue.  Electronic cigarettes are all well and good (and they work to a point) if the German conductress will actually allow you to use them on the train.  But she wasn’t having any of it on her train and this caused a certain amount of indignance, short temperedness and other telltale signs of nicotine withdrawal.
It was also cold and we were only provided with a sheet and a blanket.  And despite the fact that Paul claims I snored all night, I had a terrible night’s sleep and my back was killing me by morning.  Paul on the other hand, had no sleep, no nicotine and no space and by the time morning arrived, was ready to kill someone.  Anyone.

However, we made it through the night (just), and by the time we arrived in Warsaw we were rather dishevelled and shell shocked by whole experience.  And not a little apprehensive about the rest of our journey which had, after all, been planned primarily around rail travel in Russia, China and south east Asia.  If we felt this disheartened after one night, God only knew how we would feel after 4 months!
Relative Russian Luxury

This leads nicely to our next overnight journey on a train which was, I am happy to report, a whole difference kettle of fish.  We had booked bottom bunks in a proper 4 berth sleeper compartment so we knew that the journey from Vilnius to St Petersburg would be a little more comfortable.  The fact that we had the compartment to ourselves made the trip even more so.
How exciting! Our train to Russia has arrived on the station!
We hoped (well, we both prayed actually, just in case there is a God) that the Russians’ reputation as prolific smokers and their general attitude to smoking as a compulsory pastime for anyone over the age of 12 would mean that there would be somewhere on the train we (more importantly, Paul) could smoke.  In his own words, he can put up with anything, absolutely anything, as long as he can have a fag.  This hope was confirmed to smiles of elation (see below). 
There was the small matter of crossing the border in the early hours (45 minutes while we left the EU from Latvia and then just over an hour before entering the Russian Federation).
We weren’t nervous as such but there remain many differing reports of corruption and conflicting advice about different forms to complete, rules and regulations, so we really did not know what to expect.  It was a mistake on my part to have a flick through Bryn Thomas’ guidebook to the Trans Siberian Railway and to be reminded of the research undertaken about Russian Border Guards - about 60% are considered to be so unstable that they should not be allowed anywhere near a firearm.  I closed the book rather quickly and thought happy thoughts…
One happy and very relaxed Wooky
Then I managed to get a fit of the giggles as we were checked over by Latvian passport control.  I was given a stern talking to by my travelling companion, accompanied by a look which said “You really have no idea how to behave in these circumstances” and “I can’t take you anywhere”.

By the time we reached Russia’s Border, it was about 3.00am, and Paul’s hunger and comedy genius kicked in at about the same time.  He had started to munch his way through anything vaguely edible just before we stopped at Russian Border Control, and this nibbling was punctuated only by what I can only describe as a stand up comedy routine crossed with a Victor Meldrew rant of extreme proportions.  Hardly appropriate in the circumstances and causing further fits of giggles from me.

However, the Russian border guards came and went without incident.  They knocked politely on our door before entering, pleasantly requested our passports and disappeared  them for half an hour before closing the door behind them.  They were followed by the man we assumed to be from Customs when, after imaginative use of sign language, he managed to communicate to us that he had been sent to check our bags.  We needed only to lift the bed under which our bags were stowed, he cast a cursory glance at them (clearly there were not big enough to house any stowaways), nodded and smiled, and then continued on his merry way. 

We sat for the remainder of the hour or so, in relative luxury (Paul was still munching away, coming out with the odd one-liner), until the Russian border guards returned with our passports, handed them back to us, turned the light off in our compartment and shut the door behind them.  We were rather disappointed they didn’t tuck us in before he went on his way.
And soon we were on our way again, heading through Russia and to the beginning of our trip proper.

For the rest of the night, we settled down to sleep and woke up about an hour before we arrived in St Petersburg, just in time to make a coffee using the hot water from the samovar at the end of our carriage, and eat what was left of our supplies (not much after Paul had almost scoffed the lot!).

It is definitely the way to travel.  And don't believe what people say about Russian Border Guards.  They are definitely more cuddly than people would have you believe.




  1. I'm finding that sleeper carriages colour scheme quite erotic, or maybe it's just Pauls casual recline.

  2. Paul's smile says it all ;) And there is still a full 'Maxima' bag of goodies to munch on ;)

  3. Great stuff! My first read of your travel blog, been looking at your facebook pics.
    I'm off to Thailand on Saturday, 2 flights and a taxi and I'll be there!!