Journey to the East. All aboard the Paris Berlin Moscow Express.

02.02.18 | Germany, Russia, Train Travel, Travel

Another trainsformational journey!

All aboard the Paris-Berlin-Moscow Express. ¦ 2014 02 05 Paris Berlin Moscow (1)
Reading time: 9 minutes.

Journey to the East.

All aboard the Paris-Berlin-Moscow Express.

He who travels far will often see things
He is often accused of lying
For the obdurate people will not believe
What they do not see and distinctly feel.
Inexperience, I believe
Will give little credence to my song.

Herman Hesse, “Journey to the East”

It is mid-afternoon at Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof. I have a ceremonial Bratwurst whilst waiting in the station bar for the train to Berlin. I suppose this is my version of Phileas Fogg’s Reform Club for the start of my journey. As usual for a journey, I have mixed emotions; a great sense of wonder and excitement, along with the worry and fear of the unknown and the missing of people at home.

The nature of the trip is not lost on me either. I will go around the world; a full revolution. A cycling trip, Route 66 by motorbike or the usual gander around South East Asia seem to be the normal mid-life crisis trips. I am going around the world solo and the only rule I have applied is no planes. Recently I’ve had some fantastic trips going by plane, to the US, to the Caribbean and to India. However, I still associate plane travel with work. I am by no means a train fanatic but there is something romantic about being in a railway station rather than being in an airport. It seems every airport is alike these days and one plane is similar to another.

There is still an old-world excitement of a train journey; a journey that will take its time to get from one place to another.

Last year, flying in India and Sri Lanka was pretty much like flying in Europe or in the US, but the train journey I took between Delhi and Agra could not have been more different than train journeys at home.

So the first part of my journey is to get from Frankfurt, my starting point, to Berlin to pick up the Paris-Berlin-Moscow Express. So why am I doing a trip like this? I’m searching for answers as I wait for my train. What I can say is how enthralled I was many years ago watching Michael Palin do his version of “Around the World in 80 Days” and it left an indelible stamp. Maybe I can seek a deep and meaningful answer to the question as I travel slowly. It’s interesting to note that Phileas Fogg was forty-four in the Jules Verne book and Palin was forty-five, the same age as me now, when he took up his second career as a world traveller.

I cross the River Main leaving Frankfurt in the late afternoon sun and the sky is a perfect winter blue for the start of my journey. Through the heavily forested German countryside, the dusk sets in beautifully with a pinky-orange glow and some four uneventful hours later I arrive in Berlin, at the huge, multi-floored Hauptbahnhof. It’s a pleasant start to the journey.

Here in Berlin, my trip gets more exciting and different. I will take the overnight train to Moscow, travelling through the old Iron Curtain countries of Poland and Belarus and into Russia. Not only have I never been to Russia before, I’ve never been on a sleeper train before. This is surely another sign as to how plane journeys have dominated my travel.

I kill the connection time at Berlin with a coffee and the buying of provisions for the overnight journey. The Russian Railways train rolls slowly into the station. The carriage door is blocked by a burly guard who, by making himself understood by hand gestures, wants to see my ticket before I board.

On board, I find my Bettplatz by means of one of three numbers on the door to a very small compartment. I’ve no idea how three people could sleep in here. There is a seat just wide enough for three people to sit on that perhaps is turned into a single bed but I have no clue where the other two beds would be. There are three seat numbers, above one another, on the wall. Mine is the bottom one. All the signs in the compartment are in Russian, French and German. There are two locks above the seat with a sign that, I guess, says, ‘Let the conductor handle it’. Without the conductor, I will be sleeping in a sitting-up position tonight. I do notice that the compartment next door has two bunks made up and a middle aged couple lie on their respective bunks reading.

My small compartment has a corner table with two cups and saucers and a tea pot on it, a slim wall cupboard with two glasses inside and an electric plug socket. There are a couple of pamphlets on the table but again these are in Russian and French only. The only thing I can do is to sit and read and wait for the conductor. I also open some of my wine and cheese. This could be a fun trip.

From Berlin Hauptbahnhof, we briefly stop at Berlin Ostbahnhof and then we are off into the dark night. Alone in my compartment, I smile to myself. The first crazy night of the trip and I have no idea how to turn my seat into a bed. The guard arrives jangling his keys and unlocks my bed. It seems that he doesn’t speak any English; in fact, I’m not sure he speaks at all. It does seem that three bunk beds would release from the wall which is frightening how claustrophobic that would be. Thankfully the guard only releases my bed and so I’m hopeful of no other company. He takes my ticket from the table and disappears.

So far, so good. This has to be the craziest thing I’ve ever attempted. Passing through Frankfurt (Oder) – the other Frankfurt in Germany – I get ready for bed and, hopefully, I will be asleep as the train crosses the German-Polish border. In “Around the World in 80 Days”, people thought Phileas Fogg was a lunatic and I can’t help but agree with them. It is not a good night’s sleep.

Admittedly, my wonder and excitement in the places we stop at is not conducive to sleep at all.

Just after midnight, after the complete darkness of the last few hours, the bright glare of Poznan station wakes me. Then there are a few bangs and rolls over difficult points and junctions and a lot of toing and froing between the stations in Warsaw. This is enough to wake the snoring man next door too. At Warsaw Wschodnia we sit for over twenty minutes with a loud electrical drone which battles with my neighbour who is snoring loudly again. The further east we have gone, the more snow is on the ground. At both Warsaw stations, the snow has been shovelled into neat pyramids along the platforms. I have only ever seen this done once before which was on my last visit to Warsaw. At 04:29, we leave the deserted station and I manage to fall sleep again.

The dawn landscape is stunning. The fields are blanketed with snow and a light-orange sunlight is breaking above the dark tree line. The odd car headlight or house light adds to the landscape. In the compartment, the only sign written in English is the one that tells me that misuse of the emergency exit will be punished.
However, the sign that I take as a good omen for the start of my trip is that the initials of the train destinations are my initials too: Paris, Berlin and Moscow. The tea pot which has these initials on would make a good souvenir.

Before seven o’clock it is fully light with a beautiful blood red sun providing the morning light. We arrive at Terespol, in eastern Poland, thirty minutes early and I hear the other passengers begin to wake. This is our last stop in Poland before the train crosses the border into Belarus, near Brest.

There’s a knock on my door. I hastily dress. A uniformed security guard politely asks for my passport. He checks it and it’s fine. I don’t know whether he is Polish or Belarussian. A stout lady then pops her head in and says what sounds like ‘Tax’, before she disappears again. The train leaves Terespol in the bright sunlight, through the snowy fields, for another ten kilometres until we cross the border and it’s the first time zone change of my journey. I am now in Belarus and the time jumps one hour ahead of Central European Time.

My passport is taken by a blonde female official and I’m given a migration card to fill in. I’m asked by an attractive dark haired woman what my nationality is, what the purpose of my trip is and what’s in my bags. Ten minutes later I get my passport back. Outside my window two Belarussian border patrol guards enjoy morning cigarettes chatting in the snow.

I haven’t been away for twenty four hours yet and this is my third country.

Just outside Brest, at an area with no platforms, a bunch of rotund, middle-aged women get on board to sell beer, chicken and ćevapčići out of plastic bags. I politely decline and I think most of the other passengers do too.

The train now starts to roll forward and back slowly as the carriages are uncoupled and left in their respective places in the railway workshop as the process of changing the bogies begins. The railway tracks in Russia are wider than their European counterparts so there is a two hour operation where each individual carriage is lifted by hydraulic cranes and the bogies exchanged.

All aboard the Paris-Berlin-Moscow Express. ¦ 2014 02 05 Paris Berlin Moscow (3)
All aboard the Paris-Berlin-Moscow Express. ¦ 2014 02 05 Paris Berlin Moscow (6)
My fellow passengers remain in the lifted carriages completely unperturbed by what is going on. I am the only person who seems excited by this. I watch as the carriage opposite me is six feet above its bogies, suspended on four yellow crane towers, allowing space for the new set of bogies to be pushed in, knocking the old set along the joint set of rails further into the workshop to then be used for the reverse operation on another train.

The woman in the window opposite continues with her knitting, with a resigned air as though she’s seen this a million times. I succumb to the waiting too and pick up the tales of Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s “Around the World in 80 Days”. I can’t help but think that the border administration and food hawking could have been done while where waiting here but I guess each carriage is suspended in the air and the officials and sellers would need ladders to get to each carriage. The bogey change is much quicker than scheduled and we wait at Brest station for thirty minutes before we recommence our journey on the wider rails. There is now a long stretch through the snowy Belarussian countryside before we reach Minsk.

My next read is Leo Tolstoy’s epic “War and Peace”. If ever there was a journey to read this tome, this is it; especially for the long days coming aboard the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Time becomes different on a train journey.

At home, the thought of reading so much, meditating or even just relaxing, comes with a guilty feeling. Somehow with travel, the movement of getting from one place to another seems to legitimise these activities. Here on the train, there is nothing else to do.

It’s seven o’clock in the evening and, as the train leaves Belarus for Russia, I wander along to the restaurant carriage. Despite the diagram in Berlin Hauptbahnhof showing it to be the one next to mine, it is actually right at the front of the train. Getting through to each carriage is not easy. The restaurant carriage has a closed metal door that’s heavy to open. I enter and it’s empty except for three staff, two talking together and one behind the counter. The latter sits me down and she throws a menu at me. It’s not very welcoming at all. The menu however looks good which gives me hope for the coming trip, but I just buy some crisps and head back to my compartment to finish last night’s wine and cheese.

Into Russia, the passport checks are quickly dealt with and we push on into the night crossing another time zone at the border. The train crossed a time zone in Minsk too and so I have advanced three hours today. The snow is deeper now, the stations bigger and the amount of railway lines criss-crossing our path has increased with masses of freight wagons parked on sidings, all with foreboding Cyrillic writing on their sides. The towns, more and more, have a communist look, with big, ugly square government-type buildings and apartment blocks. It looks and feels like Russia.

Just after midnight, the train arrives in Moscow Belorusskaja station and right on schedule. In the darkness of Moscow, I’m met by my pre-arranged driver and I am deposited safely in my hotel. Part one of my journey is done.

Pete Martin ¦ Fantafrica: Wandering and Wondering across Africa.

ADAPTED EXTRACT FROM REVOLUTIONS.

 

 

 

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