It’s a slightly different experience, travelling by train in and around the former USSR, as compared with travelling in the UK.
For a start, the trains tend to be a bit longer. Not much longer in the case of the train I went from Bucharest to Chisinau on, but for example the long-distance services in Russia are huge – to the extent if you stand in the middle, on the platform, you can’t see either end.
The carriages are a big higher than UK ones, and you have to climb up a couple of iron steps to get in. Once inside, there’s a long corridor along one side of the carriage, off which there are a series of sliding doors to each compartment, which in second class contain generally four ‘sofas’ arranged like bunks, in a 2×2 pattern. When I travelled 1st class on the Trans-Mongolian back in 1996, there were only two ‘sofas’, arranged either both on either side of the compartment, or one on top of the other like two bunks, depending on the train. Bedding is provided (generally a thick ‘base’ to sleep on, a couple of blankets, a large pillow and a pillowcase). Each bed has a small light, there’s a small table by the window, and small curtains that oft don’t cover the whole window.
At first glance there isn’t much space to store stuff, but the bottom bunks ‘lift up’ to reveal storage space below. Some of the more wily passengers on some routes – especially the ones in/out of the EU – use all manner of interesting storage spaces for smuggling stuff – it’s amazing where you can hide a pack of cigarettes.
There’s a toilet at one end of each carriage, and an urn for hot water at the other. On the longer distance routes, the train stops at major stations for maybe 20-30 minutes so you have time to go shopping for things like pots of dried noodles which you then use the urn to make.
Not long after the train departs, the conductor comes around and takes your tickets. They return them to you at the end of the journey (on my trip into Moldova they returned the ticket but not the conformation of the seat reservation). I have no idea why they do this …
Crossing the international border from outside the ex-USSR to inside requires changing the bogies – the wheel base that the train runs on. This is because Soviet railways have a different gauge/size to non-Soviet railways, apparently because it made it harder for countries to use he rail network to invade them. The process of changing the bogies involves moving the train to a specialist piece of line with both gauges on it, lifting each carriage separately, rolling the old bogies out, sliding new ones underneath, and reattaching the carriage. They’re only attached by a couple of nuts and bolts. It took around an hour for the train into Moldova to be changed.
Events at crossing the border depend largely on which border is being crossed, but generally it’s exactly how you’d expect – stop before the border and get passport checked, the train moves across the border, then stops beyond it as passports are checked in the new country. Customs are more thorough exiting than entering (on the way into Moldova the conversation between us in the compartment and the customs official in the carriage went ‘Have you anything to declare?’ / ‘No’ / ‘Okay then’). In addition, a doctor came round and asked if we were all feeling okay – this as an even quicker conversation.
The only snag with many of these border crossings is that, as the journeys are long, they’re often overnight, which means the borders are often reached around 3-4am. Since the process of crossing the border may take a couple of hours if the train’s quite long, this often means disturbed sleep.
The trains are also often slower than buses doing the same routes, and more expensive. However, being longer and having a bed rather than a seat, means you are more likely to be able to get some sleep at least.
Of course not all trains in the ex-Soviet Union are like previously described. The one from Minsk to Vilnius was a two-carriage effort that looked for all the world like something you’d find plying regional railways in the UK. Except much nicer, obviously (mmm London Midland, mmm East Midlands Trains…).
Still, I guess the journey is only three hours and that includes the border post.
The recorded announcement at the start of the journey was I three languages (Belorussian, Lithuanian, and American) and for some reason accompanied by the sound of panpipes. In addition, the digital display in the carriages tells us useful things like current speed (80km/h in Belarus, rising to 114km/h in Lithuania) and the temperature (13 degrees C at the start of the journey outside, 22 C inside). Seat’s not very comfortable though, and I’m a bit squashed-in (my backpack is under the seat but doesn’t quite fit, and there are people sitting opposite me).
The driver sounds like he has a very shrill hand-held whistle that he blows on entering a station. This is different to the train’s horn that he blows at every level crossing.
Leaving Belarus was very quick (well it’s a small train) and consisted of a gaggle of guards coming on en masse and processing everyone like ticket inspectors would. I’m still impressed by the way they have laptops to process things with (complete with barcode-reading slot so they can scan in things like the passport and even the ice-hockey ticket.
Passport and customs for entering Lithuania were in Vilnius Railway Station itself, like Eurostar.