After months of planning we begin our journey by rail
11.08.2011 - 15.08.2011
Norwich Thursday August 11 Day 1
Sam and Bea take us to Norwich station and just like that, our journey begins. The photo show us standing there with our backpacks, front packs and guitarpack looking for all the world like a couple of fish out of water. Despite our collective travel experience, the impending journey has filled us with fear and trepidation on all counts - will we make all our train connections? Will we find our hostels? Will be be safe from foreign thieves and vagabonds? How will we cope with the language barriers? Will we kill each other after two weeks?
The train heads off and after a few minor worries (train stops for half an hour near Stowmarket and I get searched and my knife confiscated at the Eurostar security check-in) we finally settled in the bar with a beer to wait for the hi-speed train to brussels.It is here that we meet our first fellow travellers, Sean and Hayley from Cardiff, a father and daughter combo who are also planning to ride the Trans-Siberian to Beijing then off on a worle-wind tour of S.E.Asia and South Africa. He is a published travelwriter and I notice that he is constantly making notes in a fat book while his daughter hogs the laptop - after we board the train I see them once more on my way back from the snack bar before they are lost to us in the melee that is travel.
At Brussels we recognise a young man who was on the train from Norwich - we've been away only a few hours and are already looking for signs of home. He is a German from Cologne but works at the Camera warehouse in Norwich. Small world but we are still less than 200km from Norwich.
Weather: Warm and humid
Accommodation: The Bermuda Triangle B & B; Marsilstien 2, 50676, Koln, Germany.
Our B&B is a fine example of the perfect German accommodation. Comfortable, well appointed room; immaculately clean and a fabulous and abundant breakfast (we make some sandwiches for later with the fresh roles, hams and cheeses that are on offer.)
The owner is a German who had lived for 16 years in Russia. When he finds out that we are headed there he says,
" Russia - be careful, very careful."
I ask "what off...?"
He replies, "Everything!"
Jeez, thanks a lot mate!
Cologne, Germany Friday 12 August Day 2
A day of sightseeing in Cologne, a city that was flattened in the war, the awesome cathedral the only survivor and the focal point of the city. An open topped bus tour struggles to show us the Roman and medieval splendour of the city and although we manage to amuse ourselves for most of the day their is a period where we are reduced to killing time. Sheila has buggered her feet and has painful blisters while we are both feeling slightly sick, very tired and once again anxious as we await our next travel connection - the night train to Warsaw. The area beside the cathedral is a large open square where people congregate to wait, chat, loiter, hawk souvenirs and generally hang out or sit on the steps leading up to the big church. A gang of teenagers a getting pissed on the steps, a vodka bottle smashes, a girls starts a fight with a rather gormless looking boy who still won't leave even after she punches him. The teens remind me of the Goths and skater who hang about the Forum in Norwich, though their foreign voices make them feel far more intimidating to me than those kids back home.
The ICE Train to Warsaw departs Cologne at about 10.30pm. We spent the last couple of hours sitting on our packs in the vast platform concourse under the 4711 neon sign. Waiting for the train is like waiting for a plane, though far more romantic with the smell of deisel, the hooting of horns, the foreign voices echoing out of loud speakers, the exotic European destinations flickering on the schedule boards. Then the train arrives - our first sleeper. The tickets work and we are suddenly on board and ensconsed in our cosy two berth cabin - our new home for one night - you have no idea how relievved and over-joyed we are to be here, safe and on the move again.
Difficult to sleep - hard mattress, small pillow; clattering, screeching, rocking and breaking of the train. Night stops, whistles, foreign voices on dark platforms, rain lashing against the window. I know I must have slept at some point but I remember looking at the glow of my watch on the hour throughout the night.
Saturday 13 August Day 3
07:45 - Rain stopped and the misty dawn reveals a green rural landscape. We pass a station called Torzym - we are in Poland.
Noon - Grotty central station. We disembark after several idiot checks of our compartment. Once again we are at the mercy of a foreign land - why do people travel? Outside the first thing you see is a monstrous skyscraper built in an odd gothic style (I learn later it is a legacy of Josef Stalin).Taxi driver refuses to take us to our pre-booked hostel, for reasons we cannot decipher. We are rescued by an elegant and attractive woman with a small dog who says in English "You come with me, these taxiddrivers are ignorant!" The driver still refuses us and she starts shouting vehemently at him in Polish as we walk away in search of another. We find one and are soon on the way. She is a European Union diplomat of some kind who works in Luxembourg. She takes her lapdog with her each week and must catch the train as planes won't take dogs. She refuses money for the cab when we are dropped off and we are left in front of a niondescript door that leads to the Helvetia Hostel. I'm imagine that this won't be the last time on this trip that we encounter bad cabbies, or rely on the kindness of strangers.
Hostel Helvetia, Kopernicus Street, Old Town, Warsaw.
A cool, clean, colourful travellers' hostel just off what must be the most picturesque boulevard in town. We are greeted by a helpful and attractive girl named Lola who immediately makes us feel welcome. We relax in our private room and once again breath a huge sigh of relief. Later, after showers and a change of clothes we hit the high street. It is an elegant thoroghfare with only bus, bikes and taxis. It leads down to the beautifully restored Old Town. Cafés and bars line the street along with grand baroque building and ornate churchesA the end of the boulevard there is a huge plaza with colourful old buildings, a church with green copper spires, a view over the River Wista, buskers, chopin-playing pianists, bubble-blowers, gypsies and hards of tourists in the hot afternoon sun. I have my first cold Zychiew beer and suddenly realise that I am wobbling with my equilibrium upset by all those hours spent on a rocking, rolling train.We wander through the narrow alleys and streets for a couple of hours until we realise that we are absolutely exhausted. We return to the hostel, have a nap then head out again in the evening for a proper dinner before collapsing for anight of dreamless sleep.
Sunday 14 August Day 4
Awoken by a fierce thunderstorm, then Sheila is briefly locked out of the room after a trip to the loo - nighttime on the road is dark and unfamiliar. At breakfast we see the hostel is packed with travellers of all ages and nationalities. As we are packing to check-out, Sheila discovers that she has left behind all her valuable underwear - a disaster for her. This neccessitates us leaving early for the trasin as there is a Mark & Spencers near the station. To avaoid nasty cabbies we ride the local bus to the station - a tiny fare and an easy journey - we feel like we are really doing the travel thing properly when we do what locals do.
We are speeding across eastern Poland toward the border with Belarus on the Polonez Express in another private, two berth compartment.
Terespol, Poland - the border town. The smell of barbeque woodsmokes wafts in from outside as the Polish border guards move through the train to sign us out of the European Union. Across the tracks I see a Russian train heading west.
We move on across a fenced and razor-wired no-mans' land to the Belarus border. The customs and border officials once again move through the carriages. They are scowling and slightly scary in their rather ridiculous big military caps. A plain clothesman asks to look through my bag, then changes his mind - psychological mind games I suppose.
The train moves on to a Belarusian station where several old women wave cooked chickens at us from the platform. Suddenly they are on board the train and one has managed to get into our cabin and shut the door to keep out the competition. I succumb to her toothless charms and we buy half a roast chicken, some boiled potatos, a baggy of gerkins and a couple of cool beers. We are overwhelmed a bit by the unexpected experience and she probably overcharged us (my bargaining powers are yet to be fully developed). However the food is delicious and much needed. We had packed in advance bowls, mugs and 'sporks' for just such an occasion, though I didn't expect to see the legendary "platform babushkas" this early in the journey.
While we eat the train is shunted into a huge shed where the bogies are changed. This is one for the train buffs -the carriages are hydraulically raised and the wheel units replaced with different gauge Russian ones. The process will be reversed when we finally leave Mongolia for China - but that is a mythical distance away at this stage.
This train gives new meaning to the word 'Hurtle'. It plows through the night, grinding and scraping along its track with a relentless determination, slowing or stopping for nothing. Hills, bends and contours of geography mean nothing to this iron horse -as it stampedes throughthe sad belarussian night, enroute to Moscow.
Monday 15 August Day 5
11:00 Moscow time
Our first view of Russia - forested hills, wooden houses dotted about in clearings, a golden onion domed church, more forest, ruins of factories, fallen down log cabins, well tended village stations with what we see is typical Russian railway architecture - far grander and cleaner than any of the villages they service. Then, just after noon we enter the encroaching chaos that is Moscow - scruffy suburbs and grim apartment blocks followed by a forest of glass towers, motorway flyovers, graffiti covered concrete, shady figures lurking in groups under dingy bridges - "Dogboy" country. (Dogboy is a novel about a feral child in the outer suburbs of Moscow).
Belorussky Voxal, Northwest Moscow - the terminus for trains from the west.
It is time to vacate our temporary home and haven. We hitch our packs onto our bags and slog warily along the platform toward the hubbub and mayhem that is modern Moscow, the words of warning from the German B & B owner still echoing in our minds .