Having done a couple of road trips for the blog, I thought I might turn to a rail trip for a change.
Start: Riga, Latvia
End: Riga, Latvia
Route: Latvian and Russian Railways, via Moscow, Arkhangelsk, Murmansk and St Petersburg. Sorry about the map: Google Maps doesn't really do Russia yet.
Approximate travelling time: 6 nights, one full day
Distance: I have no idea, and there's no easy way to calculate it. As the crow flies, it's 523 miles from Riga to Moscow, 868 miles from Moscow to Arkhangelsk, 1280 miles from Arkhangelsk to Murmansk, 632 miles from Murmansk to St Petersburg, and 302 miles then to Riga. That's 3605 miles, so probably closer to 4000 by the time the railway's indirect route comes in.
Ridden on: Russian Railways, in first (SV, spalny vagon) and second (kupe) class.
Travel intensity: A bit long between Arkhangelsk and Murmansk on the 36-hour slow train, but otherwise very comfortable overnight trains.
Advisory notes: Read Seat61.com before considering any rail trip anywhere. Visas are required for most states' citizens. Train tickets can be bought most easily from abroad by travel agents. I didn't think the markup was excessive, but if you have friends in Russia you could certainly ask them. You will need a Russian phrasebook if you're not fluent in Russian, and do buy one for the Russian market in Russia rather than one for the English market at home: better that you deal with the pidgin English than a customs agent deal with the pidgin Russian. Read up on customs before you go, and remember that only the mentally ill smile at everybody in Russia. It's a thing. All trains in Russia run on Moscow time.
Start: Riga, Latvia. I flew into Riga on I think a Wednesday in June, mainly because I fancied seeing Riga after a visit to Finland that Easter, and because doing so and then heading into Moscow on the train saved me £200 on flying directly to Moscow. I greatly enjoyed my one night and two days in Riga, although beware that it seems to be a European stag/hen party destination on the weekends. Vecriga, the old city, is eminently walkable and very beautiful, with notable Hanseatic influences and a marked lack of ugly Soviet buildings. The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia was a sobering and educational experience, and the walking tours that leave from right next to it were well worth the very reasonable fee.
I left for Moscow on the Latvijas Ekspresis, which is exactly what it sounds like. It was a train very similar in all but paint colour to all the trains I travelled on in Russia. Riga's train station has some great little shops attached to it, and I particularly appreciated the takeaway pelmeni (small dumplings in broth), which I had for a late lunch on the platform as I waited for the train to arrive and did some people-watching. The train eventually arrived, going backwards, with a provodnitsa (carriage attendant) driving it out of the last car.
For all but the slow train from Arkhangelsk to Murmansk, I splurged on SV, which is short for spalny vagon: first class. That gets you a narrow but comfortable bunk in an airconditioned cabin with one other bunk, luggage storage space underneath the bunk and the bed already made up for you. I only shared my cabin on one of the four legs I travelled in SV, and I appreciated the privacy and extra room compared with kupe, second class. (Plus, for those with sensitive noses, Russian people don't seem to use an awful lot of deodorant, which can be difficult in the summer months, so fewer compartment-mates can be an advantage.)
Photographers, however, will wish to know that the windows in SV cannot be opened because of the air conditioning, while in kupe the top opens a good six inches. Useful for photographs, because the windows can get dirty. Outside the compartment (which tends to be on the left side of the train) is a corridor, decorated in varying degrees of kitsch according to the class of service you're travelling in. At either end is a bathroom with toilet and washbasin, but do bear in mind that since these are the straight-onto-the-tracks kind, they're always locked when approaching cities and stations. A timetable (in Cyrillic) is posted, so plan your beers carefully.
The ride through the Latvian countryside took a few hours, through forests and little towns, and we approached the Russian border at dusk — this far north in June, it never really gets dark — where we stopped and underwent Russian border checks.
This comprised two female passport officers with hair from Dallas, who didn't speak any English. Fortunately, I had a year of university Russian and a razgovodnik, which means phrasebook in Russian. Here's the trick I mentioned above: buy a Russian-English phrasebook for the Russian market in Russia (or Latvia) rather than an English-Russian phrasebook for the English market in your home country. Some of the English was a bit odd, and I shudder to think what the Russian in an English-market phrasebook was like.
Anyway, the phrasebook got me through (eez thees your pyassport?), despite some concerns about the lack of stamps in my UK passport — since it was a couple of years old and I'd only been to the EU on it, I had to mime the fact that nobody stamps passports within the EU any more. The Customs man was next, and I handed over the phrasebook, opened to the "Arrivaling in Countrys" (sic) page. "Khev yoo enny oo-eppuns?" he asked. "Nyet," I said, and pointed to the next one down, "Deynzherus arteekls" ("Nyet") and "Controult sabstentsez" (also "Nyet"). He nodded at me, I nodded respectfully back, and they left me alone with my iPod.
Shortly after we moved off I fell asleep, lulled by the trundling of the train, and woke up with my watch saying 8:15 when the provodnitsa, the carriage attendant, knocked on the door. It was a few minutes later that I noticed the Ostankino Television Tower going past the window. Oops — in a schoolboy error I'd forgotten to put my watch forward at the border, so I quickly nipped to the loo and sponged myself down and brushed my teeth before we arrived at Rizhsky Vogzal, the Riga station in Moscow and I jumped on the metro to my hotel.
My insane suite at the Ukraina, looking from the king-sized bedroom through the sitting/dining room to the study. The first bathroom is immediately to the left, and the second one is off the study. I know, insane.
I'll save most of my impressions of Moscow for a post on the city itself, because they are extensive: suffice it to say that Moscow in June is incredibly delightful, and Moscow any time of year is fascinating. I stayed at the Hotel Ukraina, which is in one of Stalin's Seven Sisters skyscrapers, and it was superb. Expensive — like every hotel in Moscow — but a couple of minutes from the Kievsky Metro station and with a superb observation deck at the top. I'd ended up booking it through Expedia, and for some insane reason a six-room suite was cheaper than a hotel room. It was incredible. They're renovating the hotel, which is a shame, because my six-room suite (for US$120/night) was wonderfully eighties retro, but I'd stay there again in a heartbeat.
I left for Arkhangelsk afternoon from the Yaroslavsky Vogzal, making sure that I stocked up on junk food and beer for the train at the supermarket just across the road. This station is actually the one that the Trans-Siberian trains serve, so it was good practice for a trip I very much hope to do in the future. We trundled through the afternoon and the night to Arkhangelsk, and I really enjoyed just putting my feet up and doing not very much at all.
Every few hours, the train stopped for thirty minutes or so at a station, sometimes a tiny one in a little town in the middle of nowhere, where the platform was just some tarmac and the only building to be seen was a small shop selling train necessities (usually ice cream). A small army of babuskhas, little old Russian ladies pushing prams full of stuff, would descend on the train to sell any number of things from fresh dill and onions to sandwiches, potato dumplings and other things that were doughy and delicious.
Other times, there was a slightly larger town with convenience stores a minute's walk from the train, where I bought some wonderful sausage and some excellent beer. The trick is to ask the provodnitsa (carriage attendant) what time the train will leave, to lock your compartment door, and then to make sure you're back on the train in good time, remembering that all trains in Russia run on Moscow time. That wasn't an issue for me here, but going east to west it could well be.
For me, train travel in Russia is very much like time at the beach, except without sand in your pants. Wake up, have a little breakfast, look out the window, chat for a while, listen to some music, read, get off at one of the thirty-minute stop stations, have an ice cream, buy some more beer or Sovetskoye Shampanskoye, the very drinkable Russian sparkling wine that's sweet and wonderful when cold. Then perhaps some lunch, a snooze, some more reading, another stop...it's eminently relaxing. And then you arrive at a fascinating new city and have some time to explore. What's not to like?
Arriving in Arkhangelsk in mid-morning, I whizzed in a taxi over to the Hotel Dvina, where I was staying, for a shower and a shave and a fresh set of clothes. Brandishing a newly-acquired map — because, seriously, when will the Lonely Planet make decent maps in their guidebooks? — I wandered through the sunny, warm streets to the Arkhangelsk regional tourist information centre.
The Lonely Planet calls the tourist information centre in Arkhangelsk "excellent". I call it the best, most friendly, most helpful tourist information office that I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. The staff spoke impeccable English, were extremely helpful, and gave me excellent laser printouts that helped me get exactly where I was going on the bus. Top marks to them.
After a day on the train, and knowing I had thirty-six hours to look forward to the next day, I headed out to Malye Karely, which means "little Karelia". I took the local bus for next-to-nothing, and really enjoyed sitting and watching the town go by and fade into the countryside. Malye Karely is a series of old Karelian buildings, wood-built, in the middle of a forest. I'd never really seen the vibrant, electric green of deciduous forests in the far north before, and it was beautiful, and even though the only English descriptions were those in a fistful of printouts from the tourist information office, I had a wonderful time wandering around in the fresh air.
Back in town, I explored the Dvina waterfront and enjoyed a Russian band singing 1950s hits like Johnny B. Goode with a plate of barbecued lamb and beer, chilled out and retired to my hotel room while it was still light outside at ten o'clock or so. The next morning, I ventured into more of the town itself, taking pictures, picking up a detailed map of the route between Arkhangelsk and Murmansk, my next stop, and got arty with some of the Soviet-era buildings. I also made arrangements for my time in Murmansk, checked my email at a web cafe, and had some really good sushi. (In 2006, it was all the rage across Russia. I don't know if it still is.)
Later that afternoon, after coffee and cake on the waterfront, I headed back to the train station for the slow train to Murmansk. I should explain about my destination choices, I suspect: I chose Murmansk because it was far in the north and I fancied a visit above the Arctic Circle in the summer. Plus, it was a closed city in the Soviet era, and is just around the peninsula from the Polijarniy Inlet, whence the fictitious submarine Red October sailed in the Tom Clancy book of the same name. Since the film is one of my all-time favourites, I fancied a visit.
Arkhangelsk was an en route destination, and I chose it because I wanted to visit a Russian city that wasn't Moscow or St Petersburg, and thought that it had a really fun name: Archangel, in English. Seriously, that's the reason, and I'm so glad that I picked it.
The slow train to Murmansk is, in fact, the only train to Murmansk from Arkhangelsk, and takes thirty-six hours. It doesn't have SV class, so I was in a four-berth compartment with a Russian lady named Olga and her fluffy grey cat, Simu. We were the only occupants for the thirty-six hours, and the time passed much as the train from Moscow to Arkhangelsk did: relaxingly. Olga and I chatted with the aid of my phrasebook, and Simu decided that my mesh-sided bag was great for sleeping on, and we shared some drinks and it was exceedingly pleasant.
We stopped at one point at a town in the middle of nowhere, and after stocking up on water, beer and ice cream, I had twenty minutes left. There was a pedestrian bridge over the railway, and I went up to take some pictures, and a Russian freight train thundered beneath me. It was absolutely incredible, even though I thought my head was going to explode with the vibration.
The true beauty, though, was the scenery as the flat lakelands of Karelia started rolling into the hills of the Kola peninsula, with vast forest over mirror-still lakes, interrupted only periodically by Soviet-era towns and small cities, dotted with little wooden houses with high-angled roofs.
I never actually ate in the dining car on the trains, not through any antipathy but because the food sold on the platforms was good, and because every carriage has its own samovar of hot water for soup and noodles, and after watching a couple of Russian people slicing up their sausage and vegetables into hot water and adding noodles, I tried it, and it was absolutely delicious.
We arrived into Murmansk early — 5 o'clock early — the next morning. I, deceived by the Lonely Planet's map, took a taxi the two blocks to the Hotel Arktika, an enormous three-winged beast of a Soviet hotel that was actually very pleasant and very Russian, exactly what I wanted. The room — a Standart room, which means Standard, shockingly enough — was cheap, cheerful and comfortable, if a bit eighties chic. The Arktika's such a Murmansk icon that I wouldn't recommend staying anywhere else.
I spent my time in Murmansk exploring the city, including an afternoon with a guide who took me through the local museum, around the city, up to the impressive Alyosha war monument, and to the World War II cemetery for Russia's allies. The cemetery was a sobering and eye-opening experience: mainly sailors of the Allied navies and merchant navies in the WWII Arctic convoys, I was impressed with how well-maintained the graves were, and how much my guide genuinely seemed to appreciate their sacrifice.
Murmansk is no tourist bohemia, nor is it a beauty, but as an entirely Russian city it shines, and as a Soviet legacy city it's incredibly impressive, with the nuclear-powered icebreaker fleet moored on the far side of the Murmansk fjord. But more than that, it's that it seems like it hasn't changed since 1990, apart from the advertisements and the occasional Mercedes.
If I'd had another couple of days in Murmansk, I'd have explored eastwards into the Kola Peninsula, getting out into the back of beyond, but as it was I was on the train to St Petersburg before I knew it. The drill was pretty familiar by this point, back in SV class, and it was an overnight run, arriving into St Petersburg in the early afternoon.
I hope I don't offend any native St Petersburgers by saying that I didn't care much for it. I found myself agreeing with Tolstoy in Anna Karenina, a book which I otherwise hold in tedious disdain: Moscow is uniquely Russian, while St Petersburg is Russians playing at being European. And that was very much how I found it: the Hermitage, one of the world's great museums, was poorly curated, with cruise-shiploads of tourists tromping through the rooms that were far too small for the importance of the works being displayed.
The city itself seems almost like a modern Chinese replica city: European-style canals with stone buildings, but so similar and all of the same age so that they look artificial. The Imperial Palace at Peterhof was impressive, and the hydrofoil to get there quite good fun, but so tourist-choked that I ended up mainly wandering the gardens. It feels very strange to be detracting from a city, but I truly wished that I'd spent an extra day in Murmansk, or Arkhangelsk, or Moscow. Perhaps I was tired and travelled out, but it wasn't my kind of city at all.
And then it was back to Riga on the Latvian train again, sharing a compartment with an Estonian motorboat salesman who was excellent company, a good night's sleep and five hours to spend in Riga before my flight left.
Final notes: It was a great trip, and I'd do it again in a heartbeat. (Not St Petersburg, though, I'd hit Novgorod or somewhere else instead.)
I used Way to Russia to sort out the train tickets for me, and I thought their rates were very good. Now that I know how Russian trains work, I'd book the Riga-Moscow train in Riga on arrival and the rest in Moscow when I got there. That said, Way to Russia's service was excellent and they got me exactly what I wanted, and I'd recommend them to anybody. I primarily used the Lonely Planet Russia book for planning and reference on the road, with a hearty helping of research on the Internet for good measure.
Real Russia sorted out my visas for me for a £20 fee. I felt that was far preferable to probably buggering up the Cyrillic visa form myself. I was very satisfied with their service and would recommend them too.
Russian trains are wonderful: relaxing, atmospheric and authentic, and they get you to where you're going on time. I cannot wait to do the Trans-Siberian to Vladivostok. I think I might even take the train all the way.