Yubanaswa Chakraborty: As we were walking out of the station– the security guard stopped us. Not to search us, not to interrogate, he offered me a Soviet coin as a gift, and asked for a Rupee coin! Unfortunately, we didn’t have any.
London to Moscow
I have taken the Eurostar on many occasions, but all of them were trips to Western Europe. This time it was different. The 2-hour train to Brussels was just the beginning of a very long adventure. Our destination being my hometown in India– Siliguri– we had over a month of travelling on the cards. We left our present home London on a fast accelerating super-fast train. Within five minutes we could see the Dart-ford bridge move back and the rolling hills of Kent appeared outside the window.
Our train crossed the English Channel. The engineering marvel– channel tunnel– was the deepest point of our entire trip– 100 meters below MSL. This time around, I could not stop thinking about what is going on above the ground. In the past I have been to Calais on many pleasure trips. That was before the jungle sprung up.
‘The Jungle’– as it is notoriously called today, started as a facility named Sangatte, opened and administered by the French Red Cross. It is now a wound on our so-called civilized world– a constant reminder of what is going on around the world. It is a tiny glimpse of the hell outside of our cocooned existence.
And first stop– Brussels. We had a break of four hours before our next train. Time enough to pay a quick visit to the city centre. As we stepped out into the city of Tintin, it was almost under siege. Still bleeding from the terrorist attack of 22nd March. Heavy presence of Army– probably the time of Tintin was similar, only that it was the German military that occupied the streets back in those days. But one way or other a war had reached the Belgian capital once again! Our train moved a bit too fast to be able to spot anything at all!
Our stop was swift– a beer at the famous Delirium cafe, some waffles and fries. A quick run-around of the centre. Back to Midi station and hop on to the German ICE!
By sunset, we were standing on the bridge over Rhein in Köln. The bridge is famous for the countless ‘love locks’ – a European tradition where people put up a lock on bridges and other structures. This is meant to preserve the love forever. We gave up one of the two numerical padlocks we had bought for the journey. It was a small trade-off, put your luggage at risk, but secure the marriage.
There was nothing much to do in Köln, after our marriage was safeguarded. We sat on the stairs of the famous cathedral – an overwhelming structure right next to the station. Then we hopped on to the night train to Warszawa and slept off.
Next morning, it was lush green Polish countryside outside the window. By noon, we arrived at the Warszawa Centralna station.
Warszawa was a modern metropolis, with the reminiscence of the Communist era lingering on. It was much like the other east European cities with a communist past– like Budapest or Bratislava. Deconstructing the urban landscapes of such cities always boils down to– Trams, Large apartment blocks, Trolley buses and McDonalds. The last bit – however unhealthy– is the actual symbol of the winds of change of the post 1989/91 era in Europe. All of them were ticked off in Warszawa (and later in Moscow). We had a day of roaming around– aimless, we walked around the touristy old part of the town, and the modern parts– the business and residential districts. Warszawa was but the launching pad of our ‘real’ journey. The one beyond the European Union. Journey into the ‘second world’ the former Soviet Union.
The exciting part of the journey started the very next day! On board Russian Railway’s flagship Paris-Moscow express. Our 4-berth compartment had only one co-passenger, an old Russian lady. I clutched on to my Russian phrase book, but even then, there wasn’t much conversation happening. We kept to ourselves for now.
Soon we slowed down for the border at Terespol. EU ends here. Excitement starts. The cute looking Polish lady officer frowned at Beena’s passport.
‘Hmm hmm’ – and she consulted with her fellow officer – ‘India? Ya!’ – and I have never seen any one more excited to see an Indian passport! It was almost like discovering a new country– she called all other officers and showed them our passports, each of them took keen interest to see how it looks like. Understandably we were rare species. Not many cross this border!
We got our exit stamps with a smile (or a giggle) and without any questions asked. The train moved slowly. The tracks went past open gates. Those were the gates of the European Union. And everything changed in a moment!
Our train came to a halt at what looked like a siding. There was no platform to be seen. On one side I could see a goods train laden with timber, and some soldiers and dogs inspecting it. On the other side we could see some grey buildings, bare concrete and grimly coloured. A three coach Belarussian train pulled up on the track beside us, and uniformed officers jumped out. They jumped onto our train and marched in. Precision military steps. An officer knocked on our door and shouted ‘PASSPORTSSS!!!’
As we handed them over– there was an obvious suspicion! Beena doesn’t look anything like her passport!
So, soon her passport was taken away, and a five-member committee was formed by the Belorussian border force, to determine if my wife was travelling under a false identity, if she was a spy and a huge threat to their country. Thankfully they decided that human hair can grow long and short over time, and this indeed was the same person. For a moment even, I started having a suspicion and was looking at her!
But soon that was over, and we had our Visa stamped. We were now legally entering the CIS countries. The train moved into the platform of the border post of Brest. Some local women came up to us, selling all sort of things– from bottled water, to coke– to something wrapped in newspaper– which they claimed to be ‘Chicken’. But we had loaded up our supplies from Warszawa, so I settled for a small can of Beer and a coke. I wanted to buy something from the country, as we were not going to spend any time in Belarus.
Our train the moved backwards, and then forwards, and we shuttled a few times, and finally went to a yard that was filled with railway bogies lying on the tracks, without any coaches on them. I realised the time had come for the train to change its gauge and get a new pair of wheels! This was one of the most exciting things that can happen on a train. The whole train was taken apart, one coach at a time (which is why we went back and forth a few times). Then each coach was lifted by gigantic hydraulic lifts, the European bogies taken away, and the Russian ones set in. The entire CIS and Mongolia (formerly USSR) runs on a gauge that is slightly broader than the European one. There are many theories behind this difference, some says that the Russian engineers made a mistake in understanding whether the gauge distance was the inner our outer dimension. But the more believable theory I heard was that the emperor ordered the gauge to be different, so in case of a war, the Germans or the French (or other European neighbours) or the Chinese to the east, would not be able to invade Russia riding on their trains. Clever move by the Czar, I must say. Maybe he was someone who foresaw the two world wars coming? If this was the true reason, I am sure that Hitler cursed them enough for this!
By the time we left Brest, after spending about five hours to complete the immigration and the gauge change, the sun had set. I was reading all the signs to practice my Cyrillic alphabets. And we were reading up the phrase-book. We decided to go to bed early and planned to wake up early to witness the first sight of Russia.
Travelling through Belarus was slightly slower and bumpier than the European tracks. We woke up early and peeked out of the window to see the Russian villages. Wooden cottages, pine trees and occasional industrial buildings passed by. On the roads there were a few Soviet era Ladas, in the crowd of German and Japanese cars.
By 9:30 we reached the Belorusskaya terminus in Moscow! We were ever so excited. It was a bright warm and sunny morning. I was already going back to the world of Soviet books from my childhood. Two men approached us, offering a taxi ride for 100 Euros.
‘We come from India, we don’t have Euros, we are not rich’– we told them and walked on. The next guy offered us a ride for 1000 Rubles (€15). Finally, we took a taxi from outside, bargaining for 500 Rubles. Nothing could make Indians happier! Although we knew even 500 was a bit steep.
As we were walking out of the station– the security guard stopped us. Not to search us, not to interrogate, he offered me a Soviet coin as a gift, and asked for a Rupee coin! Unfortunately, we didn’t have any.
As our taxi sped through the slightly chaotic traffic of Moscow, massive regeneration seemed to be going on all over. With a 1:1 currency exchange with Indian Rupee, and a city that seemed so familiar even on the first visit, we started feeling at home from the first minute!
Words and photos: Yubanaswa Chakraborty
About the author: Yubanaswa Chakraborty is a software developer based in London. Born in Siliguri, India, he has a degree in engineering and has been a techie for almost two decades now. A passionate traveller and biker, whenever time and money permits, he travels to faraway places to experience new cultures and make new friends.