Recently, my classmates and I here in Moscow booked not one, but two trips to elsewhere in Russia. We were lucky enough to travel to St. Petersburg last weekend, and we leave tonight for Nizhnii Novgorod and Kazan. While the payoffs of travel have been amazing, the planning process was anything but simple. However, train travel within Russia has provided us with new insights into Russian practices and cultures which we would not have seen otherwise.
We began planning for our journeys a few weeks ago by researching the train timetables and prices. Usually, Russians take trains overnight to different cities, which is extremely efficient and convenient. You can maximize your time and reduce costs by spending nights on the train. However, trains have three options for sleeping arrangements. The cheapest way to travel is platzkart, which is a wagon of open bunks, but those willing to spend a few extra bucks can have a private compartment of four beds by traveling kupe. We decided, as a group of undergraduate and graduate students, to travel platzkart in order to save money and interact with more Russians.
Our adventure began when we went to the train station, or vokzal to buy our tickets. All those wishing to travel must be present in order to provide the agent with their passport. When we first arrived, we struggled to find the correct window. Belorusskii Vokzal, only a short distance away from our university, has windows for suburban trains, trains to the local airports, domestic travel, and international travel. After trying to buy our tickets at the international travel window, the clerk directed us to the windows for intercity travel. When we found the window, we presented the clerk with the information for the trains we wanted. Our returning train from Saint Petersburg was already sold out, but one girl negotiated finding us a different train home. We then preceded to yet another window to buy tickets to Nizhnii Novgorod and Kazan. Since those destinations are less popular, it was much easier to buy our tickets.
On the day of our trip to Saint Petersburg, we met in the metro station nearby, and our group director showed us to the station. We boarded our train and found our seats. All of us had packed snacks and drinks for the journey, and we quickly made friends with two young Russians sitting near us. We introduced ourselves by offering them some of our snacks, and spent the next three hours talking about our experiences in Russia and studying Russian. Our two new friends did not speak English, so it became a wonderful language exercise to have to express ourselves solely in Russian without the option of falling back on English.
On the way back, I was seated away from my friends. As I was making my bed, two older ladies began to give me advice on the best way to make my bed. They then asked, based on my accent, where I was from and why I was now in Russia. I explained that I was a graduate student of Soviet history. The younger woman laughed and said her mother had lived through most of Soviet history, and both women thanked me for my interest in their history. As it became time for me to leave the train, both women hugged and kissed me, and wished be happiness in my future endeavors.
Train travel in Russia has been one of my most positive experiences this far. It provided an opportunity for me to see Russia and interact with Russians. It is affordable, clean, and overall friendly environment, and I look forward to my upcoming train travel this weekend.
By: Emily Elliott
Term: Summer 2014