Russia letter: 15 hours on a train shows another side of World Cup
Mammoth train journey is an odd experience but most Russians take it in their stride
The central railway station in Samara. My train from Samara to Kazan was old and a little ramshackle, though clean and much more comfortable than I had expected. Photograph: Getty Images
I was away less than 36 hours, but Kazan was a very different place by the time I returned there on Sunday from the England game in Samara. The World Cup had moved on, and while the information centres were still staffed by a handful of volunteers, there were barely any foreign fans left to ask any questions.
It had been very different at 6am on Saturday. Having seen their team go out the previous evening, the Brazilians were still applying alcohol to the wounds, and the bars, mindful that the good times would be departing with the South Americans, were still eagerly supplying it.
Samara was just 350km away but the roads aren’t great, and so the journey, with seven English reporters in a locally-hired minibus, was scheduled to take five hours. But our driver turned up very late, and then announced he didn’t actually know the way to Samara.
“Just get on the motorway and follow the signs, no?” somebody suggested slightly grumpily.
It turned out he didn’t know which was the right motorway or how to get onto it. None of us had had enough sleep to take it well.
The other seven were either staying after the game or heading straight to the airport for the first leg of their journey home, but with limited accommodation options and a flight booked from Kazan to St Petersburg that I didn’t want to waste, I was going straight back.
Some of those who had already done the trip suggested that the roads were too poor to be travelled at night, so I opted for the train – all 15 hours of it.
I had wanted a taste of the epic Russian train journeys I have read about, most recently in a biography of Shostakovich whose evacuation by rail to safety from Leningrad (now St Petersburg again) during the second World War took weeks. Wartime overcrowding aside, the fundamentals haven’t changed much with time, and deep down I did fear that my 15 hours might be amongst the worst of thousands I have spent away at tournaments over the last 20 years. Instead, the actual football aside, they turned out to be amongst the most enjoyable.
The experience is an odd one to the uninitiated, but most of the Russians I encountered were taking it in their stride. Third class, which I had initially had a ticket for, is essentially a big dorm with 40-odd beds. Each costs about €17.
Second, which I had upgraded to the day before when a place suddenly became available, costs €24, and involves carriages comprised of a dozen or so four-bed compartments.
Dmitri, Natalya and Nadieska, two sisters, I think, and the husband of one, could not have been nicer, which was probably the most positive part of the experience
There is an attendant for each carriage, who sells some basics, bottled water, snacks etc, and a boiler so that people can freely make tea or coffee and the like with whatever they have brought themselves.
I realised the value of previous experience in that department when the people in my compartment produced large local pot noodle-type packages at lunchtime on Sunday. Ruefully, I started on my sixth banana.
The others offered me some of theirs, to be fair. Dmitri, Natalya and Nadieska, two sisters, I think, and the husband of one, could not have been nicer, which was probably the most positive part of the experience.
None had more than a few words of English, and once we got moving there was generally no phone signal which ruled out the translation apps that have fundamentally changed many of the encounters you have on these sorts of trips, so we never got much beyond the basics. But the basics – a bit of mutual respect, good humour and generosity – felt pretty good.
For them the trip had started badly. While the train was still getting out of Samara and the phone signal endured, everyone was frantically trying to keep tabs on the Russia game. At first it was being streamed live on a phone, tablet or laptop in every compartment – and there huge celebrations when Russia scored – but gradually it vanished on one after another, and after a spell when crowds gathered at the doors of those who still had pictures, most gave up, leaving a handful to sit looking at blank screens in growing desperation.
A while later a text containing bad news made it through to Dmitri. “Russia, no,” he said sadly. The night might have been a very different one had that penalty shoot-out gone the other way.
Bundle of bedding
I was struggling slightly due to the lack of sleep the previous night, and keen to crash out, but not thinking straight enough to make much sense of the bundle of bedding and packaged sheets I’d been given. Nadieska, who was sort of running our little show, nudged me aside and expertly made it up for me.
My roommates had a couple of friends around for beers, and I joined them for some small talk on the lower bunks
Anastasia, the young attendant, barely out of her teens, I would have thought, arrived just then and looked put out. She had a bundle of wipes in her hand and asked me in broken English and with a concerned tone if my bed “smells of fish”. That’s a pretty hard thought to unthink but after a lot of looking like someone in the early part of an air freshener ad, I concluded, to my huge relief, that it really didn’t.
It was the start of a long round trip for her; 33 hours to Kirov, then 70 there spent on the train, and 33 back, followed by a few days off before she did it all again. It didn’t seem like much of a life for someone that age but, having only started the job last month, she insisted she liked it.
For me the remaining time passed quickly. My roommates had a couple of friends around for beers, and I joined them for some small talk on the lower bunks, such as we could manage, about the World Cup and my impressions of Russia and its people. I then headed three feet up to my own bunk.
The grandest trains are beautiful affairs by all accounts, but ours was old and a little ramshackle, though clean and much more comfortable than I had expected.
The repeated stopping and starting – sometimes in stations, often not – results in the odd jolt, but to my surprise I slept very soundly. After that, there was a few hours of reading, the occasion bit of chat and more trading of food before we rolled into Kazan. It was early afternoon.
I got off while the others continued on their way to Zuevka, another 15 hours away. A small part of me envied them. My flight, I knew, would be short but soulless by comparison.