Friday, 26 July 2013

An Inter-city train experience

Friends have asked whether we intend taking the Trans-Siberian railway while we are here.

No – absolutely not.
I started pacing the deck after one day into a 4 day ferry trip up the Patagonian coast of Chile. So I know that watching trees go past from a railway compartment is not going to keep me amused for more than half a day.

But if that wasn’t enough, I just saw a couple of friends off on their 4 day trip to Irkutsk, and that experience was enough to completely sour me on Russian railways. 

They had made their booking through a travel agent and a couple of days ago we picked up the tickets from an office in the suburbs. That took about half a day and if I hadn’t been there to help them I have no idea how they would have found the place.

Okay, so now they had these PDF printouts with all the travel details, bar coded etc. Looked like tickets to us. We then invested some further time visiting the station (there are a lot of railway stations in Moscow) – a bit of sensible prior reconnaissance.

This morning we turned up. Usual railway station chaos. Almost nothing in English – the railways here have yet to grasp that most international travelers rely on English as a lingua franca – and the departure platform of the train only came up on the board about 30 minutes before it was due to leave. 

Kievsky station (which is much nicer than the one my friends left from)
 So then we waited on the platform outside the designated carriage until the door was opened, then showed the ‘tickets’ and passports to the carriage attendant. She refused my friends entry and babbled away beyond the coping capacity of my basic Russian language skills. Fortunately a young English-speaking Russian was standing nearby who advised us that these ‘tickets’ needed to be exchanged for ‘real’ tickets back at the station ticket office (there was no advice about this requirement on the PDF printouts). 

With 20 minutes to go we sought assistance at the ticket office – again, no English was available – again, we were fortunately rescued by an English-speaking Russian who was passing by, a young woman, who showed us how to operate a ticketing machine (which had, of course, no English-language option) to extract glossy little ‘official’ tickets. How these tickets were in any way better than the computer printouts I have no idea – particularly as we had to use the printouts to obtain these new tickets . I mean, for heaven’s sake, I print boarding passes for aircraft from my home computer all the time.

With just 10 minutes to go, my two friends managed to board the train. I had a look at their compartment. They had purchased exclusive use of a four-berth cabin. Just as well. It was basic and would be cramped - even for two. Had it been a prison cell, the inmates would have been justified about complaining of inhumane treatment.

Afterwards I went shopping to de-stress. I never thought I would find dodging shopping trolleys in the chaotic aisles of an Ashan supermarket so relaxing. 

My advice for anyone thinking of travelling by train in Russia – fly. 

(I will make one exception - the fast train between St Petersburg and Moscow, the Sapsan, is worth the effort)

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