I'm getting ahead of myself, so back to Riga where I am scheduled to catch train 038P. So that I am not surprised by anything on the day I pop into the station the day before to see what would happen. I enter the station and then walk down the tunnel that leads to all the platforms. Platforms and tracks here are synonymous (unlike Poland) and come in pairs 1;2, 3;4, 5;6, 7;8. ... the end, where is platform 11? I go back to the station and eventually find that platforms 10;11;12 are reached from platform 1, obvious?
This kind of wrinkle is why I recce'd the day before. The train was at the platform half an hour before departure allowing plenty of time to go through the checks at the carriage and board. Looking good.
|From Trans-Europe 2013|
I call my agent in London who booked the tickets and they confirm that there is indeed an electronic ticket and I hand over the Russian speaking agent to the ticket clerk, still no joy. I'm not on their list so I do not get on. Time passes, tension continues to rise...
I'm told I need to go to a ticket desk and get a paper ticket, so off I rush. When I get to the counter I'm fortunate to find three Russians in the same state that I am and the counter staff do something and tell us all to go. 5 minutes to get back to train, running up steps and along to platform with 20kg rucksack warms me up a little. When I get back to carriage 13 I wait 2 minutes and a new list appears and I'm on it! I climb aboard find my bed and before I can sit down we're off. That was close.
One of my fellow travelers in the compartment was one of those like me not on the list. His name was Alex and he speaks English. The other occupant of the compartment was a Russian that didn't speak English.
We have six hours travel ahead before we reach Karsava and the border, we should arrive a little after midnight. The shaky start to our trip gives plenty of reason to engage in conversation. Alex works for a Russian telecoms company and has traveled extensively in Europe and North America as well as to Ukraine and Belarus. As student he worked in the UK on a farm for several months. Our fellow traveler was a retired member of the Russian Navy. While he now lives near the Latvian border he served in the Arctic and out of Vladivostok. The rain had internet connectivity and we did some sharing of photos of places we had each visited. Alex had lots of photos of his time in UK and still keeps in touch with the farmer he worked for. They were keen to see my photos of Central Asia and Iran, places they knew little of.
Conversation could sometimes be slow with Alex acting as interpreter but it was a pleasant evening and the time went quickly. We arrived at the Latvian border and formalities for me were quick and painless, they were little more onerous for the Russians. We then traveled through no mans land for several minutes before arriving at the Russian border post. Things were not so simple here, procedures took another 3 hours before reaching their conclusion...
When planning this journey I only had one fixed point, the start. I had a choice of endpoints, St Petersburg or Moscow and eventually came to the decision that if I was going to visit Russia I might as well visit St Petersburg as I'm unlikely to do it at a later date. With fixed start and end points I could start on a route. The route as far as Warsaw was straightforward but then there were choices to be made. There were three "countries" to consider along the way that I have never visited, Lithuania, Latvia and the Russian enclave of Kalingrad. Train travel in this area is not straightforward and the added complication of needing a double entry Russian visa I decided on a route from Warsaw via Vilnius (Lithuania) and Riga (Latvia) to St Petersburg. In retrospect I think it would skip Vilnius and go for Kalingrad.
The journey east was a journey from the familiar to the increasingly unfamiliar. From Cologne onward the terrain changed very little, mostly flat with occasional undulating areas either cultivated with cereal crops of covered in forest. The trains themselves and the track that they run on seemed more like a journey back in time starting with the Eurostar and ICE trains that run at up to 300kph, through slower electric trains that might manage 200kph and finally tired old beasts that rarely exceeded 100kph and averaged much less.
The languages, unsurprisingly, changed from French which I can speak reasonably to German which I can also get by with through to the eastern European languages which I do not speak but at least use the Latin writing system. It will get harder as I continue my journey and have to contend with Russian and the change to the Cyrillic script.