Amsterdam >> Moscow
After a tiring weekend through which I was never well, it was relaxing and exciting as the train made it's way through northern Holland as the sun slowly set. The train itself consisted of about twenty carriages, many of which were ultimately headed to Copenhagen, Prague or terminating in Warsaw. We all shared the same engine pulling us and carriages would frequently be added to removed from the chain during the whole journey. Indeed, I'm pretty sure that mine was the only carriage actually going to Moscow.
I had booked a compartment to sleep three people, figuring I couldn't justify the cost of a double or single sleeper and also figuring at the time of booking that it was bad practice to shut myself away. However, I was in no mood to be social now, preferring rest and no more company than my iPod and the view. At each stop over the coming 38 hours I would peer anxiously through the window to see if there was anyone likely to be joining me but my luck held out and I made it all the way to Moscow without any new additions.
The German buffet car in the morning was surprisingly good and cheap. The Russian buffet car in the evening was even-more surprisingly good but very expensive! As is obligatory to cross into former-USSR territory by train, all the carriages had to be jacked up at some point so the wheels could be removed and replaced by slightly-wider Russian Guage. Unlike last year's trip to Kiev where it happened at 4am, this was on a sunny afternoon so didn't have any of the same creepy vibe. Indeed, we could open the train door and sit on the steps watching as they worked on our wheels.
Before heading off on such a trip, you can't help but check, worry and check again to think of anything impotrant you might have forgotten. It may seem slightly unnecessary, but Monday afternoon provided a salutory lesson of how easy it is to make a naive mistake and how great the consequences can be. The night before, at the first stop of Utrecht, I saw a Dutch lady hugging and kissing goodbye to half a dozen friends and family before boarding in the next compartment to mine. She was going to Moscow and ultimately China also. Sometime later she was joined in her carriage by another couple of ladies who I think were Russian.
As we approached the Belorussian border, train staff distributed an entry form for everyone to fill in. Initially I thought this was some kind of "Rate our service" survey, until I remembered how far from the UK I was. Half an hour of hard graft trying to translate the cyrillic characters had only managed to explain a couple of the questions whilst another twenty or so were still a mystery to me.
I saw the Dutch lady in the corridor and, aided by a bribe of a chocolate biscuit, got her to help me. She couldn't read any of it either but the Russians with her had helped her so she was able to show me most of it and was able to get one of the them to help me do the rest. Whilst this was happening, one of the train staff apparently told her "For ten dollars, he doesn't have to fill it in himself". The lady replied that I only had five Euros in my wallet, to which he replied "Then he has to fill it out".
When it came to the Belorussian soldiers boarding the train to collect these, it transpired that the Dutch lady had not got a transit visa to ride through the country because she didn't realise that such a thing was necessary. Which I guess is a simple mistake to make. So, she had to pack up her stuff, get taken off, get sent back 35km into Poland, buy a transit visa, book herself on a new train then recommence her journey. Well, I say that, she could be breaking rocks in a hard-labour gulag by now for all I know, but this was certainly the scenario that they outlined to get her to leave the train peacefully.
The train had slipped up to three hours behind schedule at one point but was just one hour late when we finally arrived at the slightly underwhelming Beloruskya station. I was about the last person to leave the platform and found a Russian lady holding a taxi-like sign with a woman's name on that contained "...Van de...". Figuring this might be the Dutch lady who had been thrown off, I tried to explain that her visitor might be delayed. I speak no Russian and she spoke little English, so I ended up pointing at my Belorussian transit visa, pointing at the name on her sign, making an obvious "no" gesture and miming someone being dragged away by their ear. She seemed to get a rough understanding of it.