The first leg of our Travel Around the World Without Flying
Probably because it took so much planning, I found it hard to believe that the day had arrived. We were really setting off on our round the world tour. Nevertheless, the day did duly arrive and we packed our rucksacks and left them waiting by the front door. I’ve broken this trip down into stages because that’s how I thought of it at the time anyway. Secondly, because it’ll be so much easier to read that way. Stage one meant travelling from London to Moscow by train.
Firstly, just a word about rucksacks. If you’ve read my blog post on choosing the best luggage for travelling then you’ll know all about my rucksack. This was the one and only trip we used rucksacks. I just found it far too awkward and heavy. We did a trial pack before we left and I had to take loads of ‘essentials’ out. Otherwise, I couldn’t lift mine off the floor. I can pick it up now. Moreover, I did lighten the load somewhat by removing a packet of sweets and eating them.
In fact, I nearly abandoned it and re-packed into my wheeled holdall. However, I was convinced that I needed a rucksack for this kind of trip so I decided to manage. I worried I would struggle on stairs in railway stations with a case but really that was a mistake. I just needed the right case. Paul always packs a lot lighter than me and his rucksack wasn’t too bad. However, even he agreed with me that it wasn’t ideal.
Watching the weather
Paul is an avid weather watcher so we always have an up to date forecast. I’m always surprised by the weather although I have put a weather app on my phone now. When we did this trip I didn’t have a smartphone. It was only 2014 but don’t things move on quickly with technology! Anyway, the weather forecast for the trip was looking pretty good. We expected snow on the ground in Moscow. However, the weather report assured us it was all gone and temperatures should be above freezing. Siberia is completely different of course but we’d be on the train then so didn’t need to worry about it. After all the rain in the UK before we left, I was hoping for a generally dry trip so we could do plenty of sightseeing outdoors.
So the big day arrived and we set off. We left home pretty early. Remember, I said I called this blog 6oclocktrain because we always seemed to be on an unreasonably early train every time we go anywhere. Well in order to travel from London to Moscow by train we set off from our local station at 6.30 am in the morning. We had to catch the 8.58 Eurostar from St Pancras to Brussels. Although I’ve made the trip into St Pancras many times, I still found this part of the journey quite exciting. Instead of heading into London for work or to the library we were off on an adventure.
Now, I’ve walked past the Eurostar sign at St Pancras many times. Always, I looked enviously at all the lucky passengers turning left into the Eurostar lounge as I walked by on my way to work. So this time, I was looking forward to turning left towards check-in rather than moving quickly past towards the tube. I can’t believe the Eurostar has been running so long and this was the first time I’d been on it, to be honest.
Eurostar train to Brussels
Check-in was very easy and within minutes we were through baggage check and into the waiting lounge. I already knew by now that the hardest bit of this journey was going to be the rucksacks so it was a relief to put them down for a while. We spent some time relaxing in the lounge area and waited. Everything at Eurostar seems to be very efficient. In no time at all, we were settling into our seats and then heading out of London. Across Kent and towards the Channel Tunnel. The journey was very uneventful.
We bought our London to Cologne rail tickets through a German Railways special offer. It was certainly a great deal as I think it cost us less to get from London to Cologne than from Bedfordshire to London! Everything was very straightforward apart from the fact that you can’t choose your seats on the trains. If you book direct with Eurostar you can. I changed our Eurostar seats from behind a wall to by a window on the phone. It wasn’t a problem and we now have much better seats. We usually travel to Europe on the Eurotunnel because we take the car and so I was really looking forward to my first trip on the Eurostar. I wanted to be able to see something even though, as it turns out, there really isn’t that much to see.
A brief stop in Brussels
We had a few hours to wait at Brussels station. Although there was a quicker connection I like some contingency for late-running trains so I left a bit longer gap. We ended up having Chinese food for lunch in the food court under the station. It was very good and good practice for later on in the journey.
Then onto the ICE train to Cologne. Germany trains are always very pleasant and it was a very comfortable journey although not the best of seats. Again, a limited view since we only had a small piece of window. This really made me much more careful about booking train tickets and getting good seats. I’m a bit obsessive about it now but you live and learn. Still, it was March and it was getting dark by then anyway so we didn’t miss much.
Overnight in Cologne
As we were just staying overnight in Cologne I booked a hotel near the station. The Breslauer Hof Am Dom hotel is literally a few steps from Cologne Station so it’s an ideal place to stay. You can even hear the muffled sounds of the train announcements when the window is open. Thankfully, with the windows closed it is very quiet. Especially so considering we were right in the city centre. It’s a nice, family-run hotel. No frills but clean and comfortable and a good breakfast for £5 each. They very kindly stored our luggage while went sightseeing the next day. Definitely recommended. We could also see the famous cathedral from our window. So the first stage of our journey was complete. We had set off and the adventure had begun. Now we had time to look around Cologne before taking the overnight train to Warsaw.
We wandered out into the old town to find some dinner and of course, some beer. The local beer is called Kolsh and it is readily available throughout the town. We found a very nice little bar overlooking the square which served the other local staple, Bratwurst and of course veggie pizza for Paul.
Sightseeing in Cologne
We had to check out of the hotel in the morning. However, our train to Warsaw didn’t depart until 10.30pm so we had all day in Cologne. The hotel very kindly stored our bags for us so we have a full day sightseeing in Cologne with no rucksacks. Bliss! We started by heading into the cathedral which is actually right by the station. It is a huge and very impressive building which dominates the Cologne skyline. Although we saw it last night in the dark we wanted to get a closer look in daylight.
National Socialism Documentation Centre
Afterwards, we set off to the National Socialism Documentation museum. This was home to the secret police during the Second World War and has a Gestapo prison in the cellar. As you can imagine it hosted some rather gruesome activities but nonetheless it’s a must-see for anyone interested in 20th-century history. It is a rather unassuming building from the outside but events inside during the Second World War have made it quite notorious. It is the subject of a book called The Walls that Talk which I’ve not read but they did have a copy available on site which we had a look at and it details the stories of prisoners who wrote on the walls to record their suffering at the hands of the Gestapo.
A chilling history lesson
We went down into the cellars which are still a thoroughly unpleasant and rather claustrophobic place to be so goodness knows how it felt to be imprisoned down there. Upstairs they have an exhibition about the building and Cologne during the war. Unfortunately for us, most of it was in German and my translation skills weren’t up to much but we managed to get the gist of it from the photos. The place was packed with German school parties and one group of French students so is obviously a popular museum for schools (if popular is the right word!)
I also wanted to ride up in the cable car and I thought it had just reopened after being closed all winter. Sadly, it had not. I don’t have a lot of luck with cable cars. Someone must know I’m trying to take a trip and close them all down before I get there! As it turns out the cable car was due to open two weeks after we were there. So no cable car trip for me.
A walk along the Rhine
We planned to get a good view of the river from the cable car. Instead, we walked back to town along the river. The Rhine is pretty impressive. It’s a busy river with lots of container ships and bulk carriers travelling up and down. Later in the season, I’m sure there are many tourist boats moored along the river. We passed one of the Viking River Cruise boats. However, it was just being renovated not bringing passengers into the city.
Coffee, chocolate and beer
Feeling weary, we stopped for coffee in a Californian coffee shop. It was pretty comfy in there and we spent some time relaxing and planning our next more. We then wandered up through the old town looking for somewhere to eat. We finally settled on quiche and rolls in a small bakery and then headed back to the river to sit for a while and read our books.
After a rest, we walked further down the river to the Chocolate museum where we had a browse in the shop at the cute and colourful chocolate offerings but resisted the temptation to stock up on any goodies since that would mean carrying them. On the way back into town we found a friendly-looking Bierhaus so decided to while away a few hours over some local Kolsch. We discovered that once you’ve ordered a beer they keep filling your glass whenever it’s empty. Each time, they put a mark on your table to indicate how many you’ve had. Eventually, you have to put a beer mat over your glass and then they know you’ve had enough.
Train to Warsaw
Finally, after a long day in Cologne, we collected our rucksacks from the hotel and headed back to Cologne HaupBahnhof to wait for our train. The train is long so they have zones on the platform so you stand close to where your carriage will be standing. We checked onto the train and found our compartment. Although we booked a 2 berth compartment we were allocated a 6 berth. Just for the two of us so plenty of space to put our bags down and stretch out. Sleeping on a train is weird at first but you get used to it. We stopped and started a lot but even that fails to wake you up after a while. You could watch the information display on the wall which told us how fast we were going and how far to the next station.
I woke up early in the morning and despite travelling all night we were still in Germany. We stopped in Frankfurt early morning. Germany is one big place! Finally, we crossed, rather uneventfully into Poland. We had cereal bars and orange juice for breakfast from a stash purchased in Cologne and supplemented with some rather strong coffee from the train attendant.
Subsequently, we arrived at Warsaw Centralna on time at 12.15pm. We didn’t have long in Warsaw and because of engineering works our train from Moscow was departing from Warsaw Gdanska station instead of this one. So what should have been an easy connection turned into a trip across town.
Our first order of the day was lunch. So we headed into the shopping centre next to the station and found an Italian place which served a decent pizza. Then we headed off to get a tram. Crossing the road in this part of Warsaw wasn’t very easy though. We had to keep using the subway and then losing our bearings and getting lost so in the end, we decided to just take the Metro instead. That turned out to be easy enough and we arrived at Gdanska station without incident.
Warsaw Gdanska Railway Station
Unlike Warsaw Centralna which is huge and very modern, this is a very small, suburban station and it’s clearly not used to hosting international trains. Crowds were huge and the information boards weren’t working. It was very confusing but they had supplied lots of orange-clad information people to help. We waited patiently on the platform with masses of other people. The train from Vienna terminated at our platform 15 minutes before our train was due and sat there – and sat there – until a few minutes before we were due to leave. It finally pulled out of the station allowing our train to pull up to the platform.
We were in wagon 1 so it was with dismay that we saw number 25 go by and we had to run all the way to the far end of the platform to board. The train was a Russian one which is very different to the nice Polish one we came to Warsaw on. We had a compartment for just the two of us but it is much smaller than the other one and also a lot older. The carriage attendant spoke very little English and we spoke very little Russian but we managed to get on board and settled in. We even managed to purchase some cups of tea.
I’m a bit disappointed that we didn’t get time to do much sightseeing in Warsaw. I was in the city just before this trip at an academic conference at the university. There’s so much to see and do and I really loved it here. I was looking forward to showing things to Paul. For example, the garden on the roof of the library and the musical benches. We’ll have to go back that’s for sure.
To get from Europe to Russia we had to pass through Belarus on the train. This involved sitting patiently on the train in a station on the Belarus border waiting for everyone on the train to pass through customs and immigration. We were processed quite quickly. We had to fill out some forms but they were in English so no problem there. The immigration officer only glanced at one of our passports and didn’t even open the second one before handing them back. The customs officer asked us something in Russian (or Belarusian???). So I waved my passport at him to indicate that we didn’t have a clue what he was saying. He just shrugged and moved on to the next carriage.
Changing the train wheels at the Polish/Belarus border
For the next hour or so we shunted back and forth occasionally but mainly stayed still while various officials came on board the train. None of them seemed particularly interested in us though so it was just a case of waiting. Finally, we moved into the building where they change the train bogeys so the train can continue onto the Russian gauge tracks. They lift the whole train on some kind of support system and take one lot of wheels out. Then they put another set under the train and lower us back on. It’s really difficult to see what is happening from inside the train apart from the reflections in the windows opposite but you can hear the activity. Lots of banging and clanging. Considering we are a pretty long train the process really doesn’t take that long and we are soon on our way towards Russia.
Plenty of time to relax. We bought a couple of beers off a lady selling stuff on the train. There was no restaurant car or bar but hot drinks were readily available from the attendant. The beds in this compartment were nowhere near as comfy as the previous train and the upper bunk is more of a shelf than a bed but it’s not too bad. The compartment was warm though. Too warm really. I’d read this about Russian trains as they feel the cold. We had the air-con turned right down but it didn’t seem to make a lot of difference. I wish you could open the windows!
We woke up in the morning to snow as far as the eye could see. Before we set off I read online that the snow in Moscow was all melted but it still covers the countryside. We weren’t actually sure that we were in Russia for a while as we’d not gone through another border control. I looked more closely at the Belarus entry cards and they have Russian Federation on them as well so they must serve as entry cards to both countries.
Belarus and Russian Immigration
I only realised this much later and that meant that I had filled out the dates wrong. That worried me a bit but actually, nobody seemed to care and it wasn’t a problem later on. When I did them I thought they were just for the transit of Belarus. We had to have separate visas for both countries so I’m sure they’re completely separate but perhaps they have some kind of agreement for border crossing trains.
On this train, we got hot tea and chocolate biscuits for breakfast. In fact, a kind of cakey biscuit which we really liked and we managed to eat quite a few of them throughout our trip. We weren’t expecting food so that was a nice surprise. Once the staff got used to us they started to practice their English on us. I think we were a bit of a novelty!
Despite our minimal Russian we managed to get by. I can say the basics, hello, thank you, beer! We discovered that a lot of the Russians also spoke a bit of German although my German is very schoolgirl. It is very strange to be in a country where you struggle to communicate even basic information but sign language and mime seem to work wonders although it makes you feel a bit silly.
Using the Moscow Metro
We arrived in Moscow around lunchtime. It was bitterly cold and there was still snow on the ground although it was melting so everything was wet and slushy. The cold really hits you when you come off the train which is on the hot and stuffy side.
We followed the signs for the Metro on exiting the train station but still had trouble finding it. I was looking for a big M sign but there were just small signs on the doors so you needed to be close to see them. On the other hand, once inside we found ticket machines with an English language option which was great. However, they wouldn’t take large notes so we had to brave the KACCA (that’s one of my Russian words) and purchase tickets there. Not to worry though as my limited Russian was up to the task and we were soon on our way down the escalator towards the brown circle line metro. I spent quite some time learning the Cyrillic alphabet before we set off and it did make reading the signs a bit easier. Still slow going though!
Many of the Moscow metro stations are architectural marvels. Not so much the part we were in, however! It did have a very long escalator going down into the depths of Moscow though. We found it easier than expected to recognise our target station and were soon on a crowded but not packed metro train towards our hotel.
Using our basic Russian skills
Of course, learning basic Russian has its limits. When we got off we could read the signs saying ‘exit to street’ but we weren’t sure which street we wanted to exit to. We settled for just getting above ground and hoping we’d be able to see the hotel. This proved to be a very successful strategy as the hotel is very distinctive and easily visible from outside the station. Crossing the road to get to it was a whole different matter though. Moscow roads are very busy, very wide and give you very little time for pedestrians to cross. With heavy rucksacks, we managed to get stuck in the middle of one on some tram lines. Fortunately, there was no sign of a tram before a gap in the traffic miraculously appeared and we were able to make it across.
We arrived bright and early at our hotel in Moscow. The Hilton Moscow Leningradskaya is one of the Stalinist Seven Sisters building and is really very impressive. I chose it because it’s so convenient for our train which leaves from the nearby Leningradskaya station at midnight. Not the sort of time I want to be wandering around in the dark getting lost. This way we could relax in the hotel and then walk over nearer the time.
Lots of pluses to the Hilton Moscow besides the location. They upgraded us to a fabulous corner suite on the 15th floor because it was the only room available for early check-in. Very kind of them indeed. On the other hand, they still insisted on only offering free wifi in the lobby. That meant we were quite limited on our internet access which is a pain. However, we made do.
A taste of Red Square
It was lovely to have a hot shower and change our clothes after spending two nights on overnight trains. Afterwards, we set off to Red Square to have a look round and get some lunch. We found a nice Italian restaurant underneath Red Square in the shopping complex. They were able to give us menus in English and several of the waiting staff spoke English so we had no problems there at all. Afterwards, we walked around the Kremlin walls, saw the tomb of the unknown warrior and St Basil’s Cathedral. Nearby is Lenin’s tomb and the GUM department store (GYM in Russian). GUM is a quite spectacular shopping complex with artificial cherry trees inside along with some very expensive looking shops. We just had a quick look round. By now it was getting late and all the museums etc were closed so we headed back to the hotel.
Fireworks over Red Square
We are able to see right across the city towards Red Square from our hotel room. On our first evening, we saw some impressive fireworks from the Red Square area which we think were something to do with the annexation of Crimea. It was an interesting end to our first night in Russia. Mainly we were just glad of a comfortable bed after 2 nights sleeping on the train.
London to Moscow by Train
So, that’s the end of our journey from London to Moscow by train and we’re really on our way on this trip around the world without flying. I’ll tell you all about our time in Moscow in the next instalment when I look at the journey from Moscow to Beijing.