Our time in Russia had once again drawn to a close. We made our way to Leningradsky Vokzal which, built in 1851, is the oldest railway station in Moscow. Inside the station we found the usual chaos you would find at a busy railway station as well as a few bonus uniquely Russian flavours. As we waited at one of the ticket windows a well-dressed motherly looking woman walked up to us and started crying uncontrollably whilst telling a long story about how she needed money for a ticket due to some unforeseen circumstance. It was quite a sad sight but impossible to tell whether or not it was a scam.
Security was tight, and all sorts of security personnel and police roamed about and manned metal detectors at entry points to the station. I went out onto the platform to see if our train had arrived yet. The ground rumbled as an old diesel locomotive reversed its carriages further down the platform, eventually coming to a halt. On the other side of the platform a train stood idle with smartly-dressed rail officials guarding the entry to each wagon. Each sleeper wagon had its own dedicated staff member who performed the roles of ticket inspector/cleaner/housekeeper. I went back inside and returned with our luggage only to find that, in true Russian fashion, a jostling mob rather than a single line had formed around each wagon door as if there were not going to be enough room for everyone on the pre-booked train.
I was hoping that we would have our 4-person sleeper cabin to ourselves and had purchased a decent supply of Kronenbourgs and salted Russian squid strips for the journey. The conductor appeared at the door of our wagon and started admitting passengers. We presented our tickets and made our way down the narrow corridor to our compartment. A rather interesting interior of timber-pattern panels adorned the walls in the cramped space, and the only place to put luggage was under the bottom bunk or in a space above the door. Soon a woman in a grey overcoat appeared at the door and joined us in our room. Shit. She looked to be in her 50’s and claimed to be a computer programmer in Moscow. She spoke of harsh economic times and said she was meeting a friend in Tallinn and only visiting for the weekend. Soon the conductor came and collected our passports so she could compile a manifest to hand to Immigration officials at the border. She took a double take when we handed her ours. I don’t think the Australian passport often makes it onto the Moscow-Tallinn night train.
It was not long into the journey but the Kronenbourgs were running low as we spoke about past times and memories. The train rattled and lurched out of Moscow, and soon all you could see out the window was your own reflection. We decided it would be a good time to head to the restaurant wagon and began navigating our way from carriage to carriage. We passed other compartments, many with open doors, wherein total strangers became new friends seated closely together in the communal environment. We soon arrived at the C class area, entire wagons of open bedding arrangements, groups of four bunk beds to the right of the aisle and groups of two on the left. Quite a sight if you’ve never seen anything like it before, and rather like a troop train heading to the front. Don’t even try to sleep if your bed happens to be near a loud bunch of youth or vodka enthusiasts.
We eventually arrived at the restaurant wagon, a dimly-lit booth type layout with padded seating where table service was provided by a young lady who also spoke Estonian. I could feel the eyes on us as we sat down at a booth for these were interesting times in Russian-Estonian relations. Only a few months ago Russian FSB agents had allegedly abducted an Estonian undercover police officer, Eston Kohver, from inside the Estonian side of the border. He was then accused of spying and is still being held by Russia. The rouble had collapsed in a big way, and I wondered how many Russians had cancelled their trip because of the exchange rate as Estonia used the Euro which was absolutely destroying the rouble.
We ordered a few rounds of Saku, an Estonian beer that I would get to know well in the near future. A fellow wearing what closely resembled a cape walked into the restaurant wagon with a bottle of vodka and began drinking on his own. He was soon joined by several others who were speaking a language I was unfamiliar with, Lithuanian perhaps. We drank well into the night and soon found ourselves to be the only ones left in the restaurant. We returned to our compartment to find our roommate asleep and the lights off. We fumbled and climbed about trying to get into our beds, and eventually the sounds of the train on the tracks was all we could hear. It had been a while since I had fallen asleep to the sound of a train and it brought back memories of earlier times.
It seemed like I’d only just closed my eyes when I awoke to a heavy jolt. I drew aside the curtains and realised that we were approaching the border. A group of Russian border police with sniffer dogs stood around smoking and watching as our train passed by. Soon the conductor began knocking on each compartment and telling us we had arrived at the border and to get dressed and await an inspection. It wasn’t long before the border police arrived and began lifting up mattresses and searching through our compartment. What they were searching for I am unsure of, but can only guess they were looking for people hiding as the space was big enough. They looked as if they themselves had just woken up as they stumbled around in a rather uncoordinated fashion. They stamped our passports and made their way on to the next compartment.
I glanced out the window and noticed a long oil train sitting stationary on another track. I wondered if it had been held up and unable to cross the border due to the western sanctions or if the shipment had been cancelled altogether due to the plummeting oil prices. Our train slowly crossed into no man’s land and over a bridge as we entered Estonian territory. As the train slowed down we passed groups of Estonian border police waiting to board our train, and straight away one could see the difference in their uniforms. Although situated right next to Russia, Estonian uniforms were more westernised and familiar looking. A female officer entered our compartment and started speaking Russian to us until she saw our passports. She had a Russian name, and I then remembered reading that over 30% of Estonia is populated by ethnic Russians. She stamped our passports and went on her way, and after the train continued it only seemed like an hour until we arrived in Tallinn.
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