4am: I was glued to the window, watching sweeps of green swoosh past my window. Russia’s White Nights were at their peak, and I’d hardly slept a wink. Not because I hadn’t drawn the curtains — I just didn’t want to miss seeing everything. The overcast sky only enhanced the verdant countryside as the train rattled over 400 miles, past lush fields, tall birch trees, and fir forests. With my ipad at the ready, I snapped pictures. They blurred from the jerk of the train but I still sent them to my friends and family back home because I had WiFi.
I’d boarded the train five hours earlier, giddy to have found an empty two-berth cabin and ecstatic for the internet connection, which was absent on my direct 10-hour flight from Los Angeles to Moscow. My ‘kupe’ felt luxurious compared to a plane seat. Slow travel was scoring some serious brownie points.
.Booking a trip to Russia requires creative coordination. Delays in visa application paperwork meant I had to begin my trip in St Petersburg instead of Moscow. The imperial city is one of the most beautiful spots in the world yet one of the hardest to fly into. I could either fly direct to Moscow and wait for hours in the airport before catching a connecting flight;or fly to Moscow direct and board another airline to decrease transit time, but that would mean landing in St Petersburg at some ridiculous hour of the morning; or fly with a European carrier, transit at their hub and catch a connection, which would average about 30 hours of plane travel.
In my research, I’d figured out a better option: I could fly directly to Moscow and catch an overnight train to St Petersburg. This would mean no wandering around empty airport halls, no sleeping in airport lounges, and an arrival time of 8am as opposed to 2am. It’s not the swiftest way of getting there, but the experience of traveling on one of the country’s oldest railways was exciting. With scenes from North by Northwest reeling through my mind, I opted for a first-class cabin.
My Transaero flight had landed at the modern Vnukovo airport at 7.30pm the night before, where I boarded the point-to-point Aeroexpress, which whizzed through Moscow’s apartment-clad suburbs before reaching the center. Prebooking train etickets was easy. Getting to the long-distance terminal, Leningradsky Vokzal, via the subway proved more challenging. I’d transferred at the nearby Kievsky station, where, at 9pm, the subway buzzes as if it’s peak hour. Unfortunately, what the underground metro system offers in gilded opulence, it lacks in facilities for the elderly and travelers. Once I’d gotten off at Komsomolskaya station, I was helped up the stairs by a few kind Russian boys to the mile-high escalators. In spite of the trek and luggage handling, I thrived on Moscow’s energy. After a short walk around the corner of Komsomolskaya Square, I finally made it to the 150-year-old Leningradsky terminal.
The best part about catching the train is the non-existent security line. This means that if your train is scheduled to depart at 11.30pm, boarding at around 11pm is OK. No stress, no fuss, but next time I’ll note that the first class cabins are located at the front of the train, as I probably let my seat at Costa Coffee at 11.20pm and hustled down the station with seconds to spare. Checking my name off, hauling luggage onboard, I flung myself into the empty cabin, and was promptly been offered a cup of coffee by the kind train attendant. Sweet relief.
6am: I was still in bed, belly down, with my head pressed against the window. To my left, the small table jutting from beneath the window was no longer a pristine setting but a display of midnight feasting: The two crystal glasses had been christened with water and wine; the unwrapped chocolate bar was half eaten; and the bread rolls – well, they’d been delicious. The only thing left untouched was a green apple laying next to a white vase with a yellow rose. On the floor — a pair of flimsy slippers, yesterday’s Russian newspaper, and an amenity bag with ear plugs and sewing kit. Next to the wardrobe was a sink, where I’d left an open sachet of detergent after doing some laundry. The TV in the top left corner had been playing a black-and-white Russian movie, but I’d switched it off before turning in. The sound of the wheels on the tracks was my white noise. I didn’t mind the gentle rocking either.
I reveled in the luxury of space, stretched out my legs, charged my computer and camera, and caught up on emails before venturing out of my comfortable nook to the (clean) bathroom, located at the end of the hallway. The air was cool; the row of cabins, still. We were about an hour away from the destination when, after getting dressed, there was a knock on my door and a “dobroye ootro” (good morning) by the smiling attendant from the night before, who was holding a breakfast plate of crepes with smoked trout, slices of cheese, and a black coffee. The food was simple and lovely – a warm welcome to the country that so loves its cold cuts and appetizers.
As the train pulled into the Moskovskaya train station in St Petersburg, I was relaxed, recalibrated, and excited to see my mum and sister, who were at the station, waiting to greet me. I alighted to hugs and kisses in the open air, relieved that there wasn’t a long drive from an airport to the centre — I was in the midst of it all already. As we strolled and chatted into the heart of St Petersburg, it occurred to me just how much slow travel allows you to savour the journey. I’m a hopeless romantic, and despite the rigmarole of train transfers and lack of sleep, the seamless train experience made up for it. I wondered when I’d have the luxury of such thinking time again.