26 October 2008

Amsterdam to Moscow: borders and bogies

The journey started from Amsterdam (where I live) on 1 October with the relatively short 6 1/2 hour train journey to Berlin. From there we travelled onwards to Kiev. One thing you quickly learn to appreciate is how small Western Europe is – with Berlin its outermost border. We left the Amsterdam train at the city’s impressive new Hauptbahnhof (central station), but the Kiev train starts at the distinctly less fashionable Gesundbrunnnen. The surly, square-hatted, blue-uniformed train assistants lining the platform welcomed us to the former Communist bloc.

As the train crossed the Polish border, we passed a fleet of Volkwagen vans being imported into Germany. The train passed through Poznan and Warsaw on that first night, and when I awoke it was a beautiful autumn day in the countryside of south-east Poland.

Not long after we passed another border – into Ukraine. The border police there scan your passport with expensive-looking EU-funded equipment (by contrast, the Russian and Chinese officials later in the trip just stand you up and stare at you long and hard). The train then crossed no man’s land and back again, reversing and entering a train shed where the bogies are changed. I have no idea why they are called this, but it refers to the whole undercarriage of the train. As we remained in our carriages, the train was taken apart, with each carriage lifted up to have one set of wheels rolled out and another set rolled back in.

Aside from the curiosity of the train-lifting show, I marvelled at the administrative logic that presumably underpins this whole exercise. If the point is passenger convenience, then surely changing trains rather than a long border stop would be preferable. If the point is practicality, then I would have thought that adjustable wheels or twin sets of wheels that could be raised and lowered should be more convenient. So I’m tempted to think the whole scheme – which is repeated on the Russia-China border – has been designed by committee, then entrenched by years of repeated practice until that is just the way these things are done.

The Ukrainian countryside was also bathed in autumn sunlight and, aside from discovering courtesy of two British travellers that Chernobyl is now a tourist destination, the remainder of the trip to Kiev passed uneventfully.

We arrived late at night, but to a busy station whose grandeur showed no signs of fading. English got us nowhere with the station staff here, or in Moscow, but we managed to book an onward sleeper train leaving shortly after midnight. The attractive wooden carriages ushered us comfortably to Moscow, where we arrived the next afternoon.

1 to 3 October.

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