4am: I was glued to the window, watching the painterly sweeps of green swoosh past my window. With Russia’s White Nights at their peak 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 traversed over 400 miles: lush grasses, graceful birch trees, and forests of fir green. With my ipad at the ready, I snapped pictures. They blurred from the jerk of the train but I didn’t care. I sent them to my friends and family back home because I could: I had WiFi.
This was taken at around 4am during the White Nights in Russia.
I’d boarded the train five hours earlier, giddy to have found my two-berth cabin empty; ecstatic for the internet connection, absent on my fabulously 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, to align with my family’s travel plans. 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; 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 found another, more enticing option: why not fly direct to Moscow and catch an overnight train to St Petersburg? This would mean no wandering around empty airport halls, no falling asleep 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 along one of the country’s oldest railways seemed exciting. With scenes from North by Northwest reeling through my mind, I opted for a first-class cabin.
A fully laid table in my 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 trained through Moscow’s apartment-clad suburbs before reaching the center. Prebooking train etickets was the easy part. Getting to the long-distance terminal, Leningradsky Vokzal, via the subway proved a little 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, my look of dismay at the prospect of Stairmastering it with weighty bags before reaching the mile-high escalators must’ve been apparent because a few kind Russians came to my rescue. In spite of the trek and luggage lugging, Moscow’s energy is energizing. Just a short walk around the corner of Komsomolskaya Square and I’d finally made it to the 1851-built Leningradsky terminal.
Aeroexpress at Vnukovo airport.
The beauty of catching the train versus the plane is the non-existent security line. This means that if your train is scheduled to depart at 11.30pm, boarding at around 11pm is de rigeur. No stress, no fuss, apart from the fact that the first class cabins are located at the front of the train, so I probably should’ve left a tad earlier than 11.20pm (my seat in Costa Coffee in the terminal was so comfortable)! I’d hustled down the station and with seconds to spare, checked my name off, hauled my luggage onboard, flung myself into the empty cabin, and 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 were 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, which was being looked upon by a still-vibrant yellow rose in its white vase. On the floor lay a flimsy pair of 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.
The quasi bathroom.
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.
Breakfast is served
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, chatted, and made our way into the heart of St Petersburg, it occurred to me just how much slow travel allows you to savour the deliciousness of the journey. I’m a hopeless romantic, and despite the rigmarole of train transfers and lack of shut-eye, the seamless train experience more than made up for it. I wondered when I’d have the luxury of such “thinking” time again.
Me, my sister, Katherine, and my mum, Nathalie, reunited. Picture taken at the top of St Isaac’s Cathedral, St Petersburg.