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In the summer of 2003, my friend Olga and I embarked on an epic journey across Russia, starting with a ferry crossing from Sakhalin Island (Far East) to the Russian mainland and a 45-day train journey through the heart of Siberia and central Russia. . We went south to Voronezh and north to the Valaam Monastery in Karelia. At that time, our railway trips were more or less comfortable, and from Irkutsk to Novosibirsk was the most difficult. After almost twenty years and a pandemic, the feeling of adventure had not left us, but we were not yet ready to return to Trans-Siberia. Instead, we chose to travel to the south of Russia by two trains – six hours from Astrakhan to Volgograd and 22 hours from Volgograd to Sochi.
As a regular passenger on the Sapsan Moscow-St. Petersburg high-speed train, I was well aware of the huge modernization project undertaken by Russian Railways over the past decade. However, I did not have high expectations for my recent visits, because the size and grandeur of the country meant that certain lines and certain sectors were overlooked.
Large areas of vacant lands
It is difficult not to admire the punctuality of trains in Russia. Our train left Astrakhan at 16:40 as scheduled. As with all trains in Russia, each stop had a wall-mounted map showing arrival and departure times.
Since the road to Volgograd was very short by Russian standards (six hours and nine minutes), we had no contact with other passengers other than a strange nod. I enjoyed watching the river crossings, especially the farm bridge over the Akhtuba River, which has recently been widened into a double lane. The Privolzhskaya (Volga) railway connects European Russia with the port of Olia on the Caspian Sea. A small part of this route even passes through Kazakhstan. It is being modernized for the North-South International Transport Corridor.
After our train left Astrakhan, we saw almost no sign of human activity, except near the station. While watching the sunset in the endless emptiness of the Astrakhan region, I listened to Alexander Borodin’s symphonic poem on my phone. In the steppes of Central Asia and I imagined how caravans once used this road to transport valuable goods from Persia and other parts of Asia to the cities of the Volga.
At dusk, Olga and I fry the breadth of Russia as we drink coffee from a cup covered with a traditional tea cup podstakannik, a symbol of train travel. Railwaymen sell tea, coffee, ice cream and snacks at a slightly higher price than usual. To prevent this, many travelers bring snacks, tea bags and instant coffee, because all trains have a pot that releases hot water. Instant noodles seem to be everyone’s favorite dish on Russian rail travel.
Also read: Discover Kachin, a small historical city in Russia
New friendship in our compartment
The Russian stereotype that you shouldn’t talk to strangers is broken on long train journeys. It is very difficult to spend a day in a “compartment” (four-seater train compartment) without communicating with people. We took the Krasnoyarsk-Adler Express from Volgograd to Sochi by train, connecting a city in central Siberia with a Black Sea resort.
When we bought our tickets, my friend Olga was anxious to share a coupe with two other men who had been drinking vodka and eating fried chicken all day. For her comfort, our compartment was occupied by an experienced but sympathetic young woman who had moved with her seven-year-old daughter to Goryatchi Kliuca (literally “hot”) from a village near the border with Kazakhstan in the Orenburg region. spring ”in Russian), a resort known for its balneotherapy center.
The mother and daughter told horrific stories about their small villages, which were hit hard by the pandemic. They were among the first people in the city to be vaccinated, but they still did not feel comfortable staying on the ground. I mentioned our exchanges, which lasted almost a day, on my personal blog.
Olga’s fears about men drinking vodka were not completely unfounded. There was a party all day in another compartment in our car, and a handsome 50-year-old man who said he was on vacation asked me to join the party, but I refused. I was very pleased to hear stories about life in a Siberian village and to see hope and optimism in the eyes of the people who shared my compartment.
Cross the terrible platz card
The train could not be classified as completely super comfortable compared to the more modern ones, especially on the popular Central Russian routes, but it was clean and spacious enough. The toilets were also spotless and cleaned regularly. This is obviously an important factor when considering a multi-day trip.
We wanted to try the dishes in the carriage, but for this we had to go through a platzcard carriage, which is an experience in itself. The “wheeled dormitory”, along with other known and unrecognized odors, gave a mixture of different odors, from alcohol to dried fish to fried chicken. As we passed, we realized how lucky we were to have two of the last few tickets left in a compartment!
The food machine was empty and had the elegance of the old world. When looking at the changing landscape of a country, there are few experiences that compare to good food. Our train had a special dinner menu consisting of borsch, salad, pasta and soft drinks. Despite the unimpressive pasta, we enjoyed the meal.
Although we were not on a luxury train, the service was absolutely first class. Russian Railways has spent a lot of time and effort to provide the best possible training for its employees, and this is evident in the service you receive, even on a train trip away from Moscow and St. Petersburg.
One tip for those who want to buy souvenirs in Russia: Train guides sell a variety of items on board. I managed to get two high-quality podstakannik, one with Alexander Pushkin and the other with a two-headed Russian eagle (symbol of the Russian Empire). The teacup cups were made in Russia and were of better quality than the Railways’ tea table. Also, the prices were much lower than in the gift shop.
Also read: What I did in the mountains of Krasnaya Polyana in winter (photos)
Like a movie station
For a while, our train went almost parallel to the Volga-Don canal, which gave us a little look at this shipping lane. As the train moved southwest, steppe-like crossings gave way to cultivated fields. Unfortunately, it was already dark when the train entered the most picturesque parts of the country.
We had a 96-minute stop at Kavkazskaya station, a two-story building built of red brick. We mentioned that there are several nice cafes outside the station, so we decided to give it a try. Olga and I felt that we had been to this station before, but this was not the case. Then I realized that the inside of the station is like in the movie Two-person station, Directed by Eldar Riazanov in 1982.
After leaving the station, we found a cafe and asked the waiter if he knew why the city was called Kavkazskaya (“Caucasus”). He smiled and said that we were in a town called Kropotkin and that only the station was called Kavkazskaya.
We were told that the city, named after the geographer, revolutionary anarchist and Prince Peter Kropotkin, is located on the right bank of the Kuban River and is actually a great place to spend time. Although we wanted to take a walk and see what surprises this city has prepared for us, we used common sense to return to our train after dinner.
How I almost left my train
I always had an illogical fear of being left behind by a train moving on the platform. However, I couldn’t help but notice the weight of the suitcases that my new friends in the coupe were carrying. He wrote on the map on the map that the parking lot was 40 minutes away, so I knew that I could easily help them take their luggage in a taxi at the entrance to the station. After taking two incredibly heavy pieces of luggage up the long stairs to the main entrance of the station, I wished Lioudmila and her daughter Anna Goriatchi Kliuch a happy new life. It was 2:30, and I was not feeling well. As soon as I heard the horn, I thought it was my train and I would miss it. I ran and when I reached the platform I realized that the sound was coming from another train. At least 20 minutes before my departure!
At about 6:00 in the morning, while we were fast asleep, the flight attendant knocked on our door and announced that the train was approaching Sochi. If he hadn’t woken us up, we would have traveled another half hour to Adler’s final destination.
These two short train journeys revived our sense of adventure. So we have to find a way to take over Trans-Siberia again, this time from the European part of Russia to the eastern end of the country!
In this other article, find the story of our author’s visit to Sochi.
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