Moscow to St. Petersburg on the High Speed Train
It is early December and I am off to Russia again.
I will be visiting both Moscow and St Petersburg and I will be catching the Sapsan high speed train between the two cities.
Santa’s Official Gateway
This year the trip takes in Helsinki and I am very impressed by the way the airport there is already decorated for Christmas. Although I am not really a fan of the festive season itself, I always seem to feel good about travelling at this time of year.
It takes me back 30 years to a much-longed-for trip home from Japan. I returned to Europe, just before Christmas, on a KLM 747 that had been decorated with wreaths and was staffed by flight attendants dressed in Santa hats who served us with festive Dutch treats. It wasn’t really that special, but somehow it left me with a soft spot for travelling at this time of year.
Helsinki Airport styles itself as “Santa’s official gateway” and it takes its role very seriously. The shops have real sleighs full of festive merchandise and there are even reindeer hides on sale (135 euros). Just outside the Finnair lounge there is a large Christmas tree tastefully decorated in the company’s blue and white colours; inside there is plenty of hot glogg (local mulled wine) to enjoy with gingerbread or a selection of delicious Fazer chocolates. Their slogan “cold days, warm moments” seems appropriate.
In Moscow there is already a decent covering of snow on the ground and the trucks are hard at work clearing the roads. I love to stand on the street corner and watch several of them approach together and then work in formation. On the Moscow ring motorway there can be as many as 8 working in sequence at once. There is no doubt about it; the Russians can cope well with winter.
Moscow always looks great in the winter. At night the city positively shimmers and floodlights reflect off the snow to make the buildings look even more beautiful than normal.
There is lots of festive spirit in the air here too and there are decorated trees everywhere. The shops have attractive displays in their windows and a mixture of local and western Christmas music can be heard as you walk past.
It is getting quite cold, at least minus 5, and people are dressed up warmly as they huddle in the entrances to the metro stations waiting for their friends to turn up. Inside the cafes and restaurants everyone looks extra warm and cosy.
Even in the daytime it never really gets light; there is a discussion whether the city will see more than the 16 minutes of sunshine that it received last December.
We spend two days travelling around the city by metro and car. There are some new clients to see and some familiar offices to visit. On the first day there are also delicious California rolls for lunch at Tanuki – the local sushi chain.
In the evening there are old friendships to rekindle over beer, black bread and smoked fish. At the Pilsner beer hall they are having a campaign called “Back in the USSR”. It is a sort of revival of the food popular in the old Soviet Union around the time of the New Year holiday. The atheist USSR pushed New Year hard as a replacement for Christmas. There was no doubt a lot of resentment back then, but now that Christmas has made a comeback there seems to be at least some nostalgia for the old times.
These are warm easy conversations with people I have known for many years and whose company I really enjoy. We cover a wide variety of topics ranging from the history of the Orthodox Church to the way that the EU sanctions have led to tomatoes now being imported from Brazil.
There is also a lovely true story featuring Ded Morroz (Grandfather Frost) the Russian “Father-Christmas-like character. I am told about a local man who dresses up as the character to visit children in an apartment block. He gets a free shot of vodka at each stop and becomes drunker and drunker until he can no longer stand up when he reaches the 5th floor. Years later the people on the ground floor remember him with lots of affection, but those on the top floor just think of him as a drunken bum.
Back in Space
On my last evening in Moscow we make a return trip to the VDKH. A new space museum has just opened in one of the old Soviet-era halls. It is a long cold walk from the metro station so we sustain ourselves with mulled wine from one of the vendors along the way. I am told that under Russian law mulled wine is never classed as an alcoholic drink even when it contains quite a lot of alcohol. The lady selling it assures us it is non-alcoholic but just one sip proves her wrong.
There is a large skating rink in front of the museum hall. The skaters do a big loop around the 50% scale model of Gagarin’s rocket that sits in the centre. On the way round they pass a Sukoi fighter jet, more Christmas trees and several little huts selling premium Finnish coffee.
The new museum is excellent. It has a different focus to the older museum (still open) located back near the metro station. At the back of the auditorium is a huge globe populated by genuine satellite images. As it turns it gets darker and the image of the world at night, with all the authentic light patterns, is projected onto it.
The next morning it is barely light at 8:00 as I leave the hotel on Tverskaya and trudge up to the Metro station. The Circle Line is not quite as crowded as I anticipate and I manage easily with my bags.
I emerge again at 8:40 at Leningradsky Station and then I battle my way through large groups of incoming commuters, past piles of snow and finally enter the terminal building. The security is tight here and curiously passengers are being checked coming into the station even when they are alighting from trains.
The station is the oldest of Moscow’s nine terminals and serves as the southern terminus of the October Railway. This was Russia’s first main line and it links the capital with the second city, St Petersburg, around 400 miles to the north. The name Leningradsky is one of the few remaining indicators of the former title of a city that changed its name 3 times in the 20th Century – from St Petersburg to Petrograd to Leningrad and then back to St Petersburg again.
I am heading to St Petersburg on the 9:40 departure.
I wait in the great hall. It is not so crowded and it is surprisingly quiet. There are two Scandinavian businessmen discussing payroll software on the bench behind me, but most people are just sitting there silently.
There are plenty of retail opportunities around the hall. As well as some upmarket choices, there are lots of little souvenir kiosks selling tat. There are plenty of eating and drinking places too; there is a Costa coffee, a KFC, and several local Russian places including a Coffee Express and a burger place called Rocket (Raketa). I check out the space-themed menu there and see that there is a Belarusian Astronaut Burger featuring a potato pancake and a vegetarian burger for “aliens”.
I look up at the vast arrivals board. The indicators flash between English, Russian and Chinese. The last bunch of overnight expresses are approaching from the north. As well incoming sleepers from St Petersburg, there are trains due in soon from Helsinki and Tallinn too.
On the adjacent departure board my own train is scheduled. The rest of the days timetable is also displayed and to me it seems weird. After my own train at 9:40, there is nothing going north until 13:30. There is then both a 15:30 and a 15:40 but then another two hour gap and then yet another two trains again within 10 minutes of each other. This pattern continues until 19:40. The obvious question is why don’t they just run hourly. I can’t answer it.
Just after 9am I wander out onto the platform.
The Peregrine Falcon
The daytime Moscow-to-St Petersburg service is in the hands of a fleet of German-built high speed trains. This type of “Siemens Velaro” train first saw service in Germany as the ICE-3 (see photo below) in the mid 1990s and they have since been exported around the world to several countries including to China.
The Russian ones, modified for the slightly wider gauge here, have been in service for almost 10 years and they are marketed under the brand name “Sapsan” which is the Russian word for Peregrine Falcon.
I watch as, just after 9:05, an empty Sapsan set approaches the platform and slowly draws to a halt. After a short wait, an attendant stands outside every door to indicate the train is ready for boarding.
Sapsan 760 (Trip Report)
The Sapsans are numbered in a 700 series. This, the 9:40 departure, is number 760 and with three stops is scheduled to make the journey north in 3 hours 50 minutes. The fastest services, the first trains of the day in either direction, complete the 400-mile trip in an impressive 3 hours 30 minutes.
I present my ticket to the lady standing at the door and climb aboard. The Sapsan has a bewildering array of travel classes. First class with 2+1 seating is at the top and then in descending order, all with 2+2 seating, there is business class, economy plus, economy and “basic”.
I have gone for something slightly different: a reserved seat in the bistro car. It is economy but it offers the chance to sit in the food service vehicle and includes an allowance for food. The bistro car is No 5 in the 10 coach formation. It contains a small serving counter and kitchen at one end and 40 seats at the other. The 40 seats are arranged around 10 tables. 7 tables are reserved like mine and the remaining 3 are kept open for guests visiting from other parts of the train.
As I step aboard the Sapsan I can immediately recognise the German origins. The train is spotless and well lit. The colour scheme; the light woods, the red digital writing on the information systems and the blue seats are all very familiar from the ICE.
I take my place in the aisle seat on the table for four. At each place there is a paper menu and on the table there is a sign reminding me that the price of the ticket includes 2000 Roubles of food.
The waiter is there almost immediately. I had actually figured on waiting for lunch later, but it is obvious at 9:30 he wants my breakfast order. Among the things on offer are blinis with caviar, kasha (Russian porridge) as well as “English Breakfast”. I choose an omelette, some bread, coffee and water. That takes care of less than 500 Roubles of my allowance. It is clear I will struggle to spend everything.
Soon after I have ordered, two women sit themselves down opposite me and then just before departure a man excuses himself into the window seat next to me. No one has any English, so I have to guess who they are. The girls, I decide, are Muscovites, old friends off for a weekend trip maybe. The guy is a businessman, based in St Petersburg and on the way home after a business trip to the capital.
At 9:40am exactly, Sapsan 760 sets off on its journey north.
We pick up speed. The speed indicator at the end of the carriage hits 140km/h whilst we are still in the suburbs of Moscow. Through the window I can see the last few commuters waiting on snow-filled platforms for their electric trains into the city.
After 12 minutes we are up to 160km/h and suddenly we are clear of Moscow and into fields beyond. There are lots of deserted dashas now and already the forest is appearing on each side.
This is my third trip on this line. The first, ten years ago, was on a day train that took over seven hours. I ignored all the advice from Russian friends who suggested the sleeper. I insisted I wanted to see the scenery. They told me the scenery was just unending forest and wasn’t really worth seeing. It took me a pretty uncomfortable 7 hours to work out they were correct. I learnt my lesson and took a sleeper to Helsinki a few years later.
The food arrives and it is in little mini microwavable containers. The coffee is served in paper cups. It is not exactly tasteless but it lacks any imagination.
The man next to me is already asleep. The girls are starting to look at the menu. It is obvious they are trying to spend as much of their allowance as they can. This takes time and they turn the waiter away no less than 3 times. In the end they order blini with caviar and a selection of cakes.
On the table opposite they have started on alcohol. The “beer and strong alcohol” listed on the menu is included in the allowance and it is expensive enough to make a reasonable dent too. It is not a bad idea, but at only 10am I have no urge to join them.
There is still plenty of snow outside and the indicator shows the temperature at minus 4. The speed is generally at 200km/h but occasionally hits 225km/h. The track condition means that these Sapsan units never get anywhere near the 300km/h plus that they are actually capable of.
The girls are joking and laughing as they spread Caviar on their blinis.
The train is busy and there are plenty of staff walking up and down. There are security staff, train managers and a constant stream of dining car and business class attendants. There is a woman pushing a trolley full of dolls and model trains and a man handing out newspapers. One of the girls chooses a copy of Izvestia. She attempts to read it several times but never really gets past glancing.
11:00 and the food has been cleared away. Everyone else at the table is now asleep. I am reading John Le Carre’s novel “Our Game”. It is a story set in post-Soviet Russia.
11:20 and we make the first stop at Vyshny Volocheck. It is getting a little warmer, minus 2 but there is still a lot of snow around on the platforms. There are a few people getting off but no one seems to be waiting to get on.
We make further calls at 11:40 at Bologoe and finally at 11:59 at Uglovka.
Ordering for lunch begins. There is a lot of discussion and calculations. The girls don’t want lunch and ask if they can get items to take away instead. There is a lot of thinking. The girls are intrigued by the little square Sapsan chocolates they bring with the coffee and they ask for a tin of them to take home. Is that really against the rules ? Eventually the waiter relents and brings paper bags containing the chocolates.
The guy in the window has woken up and he goes next. He tries to get a Solyanka and a Strogonaff. He can get the soup but there are hardly any main courses left. He gets a salmon dish but leaves most of it. The girls laugh when the waiter brings him a bag of chocolates as compensation.
It is my turn and I play safe. I opt for a fish sandwich on black bread. I get some water and coffee as well. I have spent less than half the allowance but I am not bothered about the loss. To my surprise I also get presented with a paper bag full of chocolate. Suddenly I have 4 Ritter bars and two Snickers to take home with me.
13:10 and it is obviously getting warmer outside. We are down to minus 1 and the snow has almost gone. First we pass dashas on the outskirts of St Petersburg and then finally we hit the suburbs. At 13:30, bang on time, we slow and come to a stand in Moscovsky Station.
Generally, I am impressed with the Sapsan. It seems to be doing what it was intended to and drawing people away from the airlines. I think they could improve the food though.
I find that I have a spare late afternoon and evening free in St Petersburg.
I decide to take a stroll along what many call Russia’s most famous street: Nevsky Prospect.
I have visited St Petersburg before, both to see clients and also to spend private time seeing the city. My last visit was in summer several years ago. I remember walking along Nevsky Prospect at 3am in the morning and being amazed at how light it was.
This is my first winter visit to the city. Now it seems darker at 3pm than it did in summer at 3am.
Nevsky Prospect is the main street in the city and much of St Petersburg’s shopping and nightlife can be found directly on the thoroughfare or close by. It is also renowned for the splendid architecture, ranging from 18th to early 20th century, that one encounters walking along it.
It is about a 4.5km walk from my hotel on Ploshchad Vosstaniya to the River Neva. There is no snow on the pavement but the wind is bitter and the temperature is falling fast. I am wrapped up warm but it still feels very cold.
I make a stop at the famous delicatessen – Kupetz Eliseevs. It is one of the most striking examples of Art Nouveau architecture in St Petersburg. There is a wonderful retro display in the window featuring little dolls cooking festive food.
Inside it is all warm and cosy. There is a lovely smell of freshly roasted coffee in the air too. The interior with its beautiful lighting and stained glass is just stunning.
I love shops like this. Every great city has a equivalent of Kupetz; there is Peck in Milan, Dallmayr in Munich and Fortnums in London. I will admit I don’t often buy things in these places but I love wandering around them!
I cross the Fontanka River and marvel at the freezing water flowing under the bridge. In a few weeks I imagine it will be frozen solid. It is incredible to think that less than 200 years ago the Thames in London used to freeze up like this.
After crossing the Fontanka the buildings lining the Nevsky become more and more impressive. There is no doubt this is a more attractive city than Moscow. In fact, it is arguably one of the most beautiful in Europe. It certainly has a distinct sense of grandeur and it is easy to feel a sense of awe as you walk around.
I develop a tactic of walking for a bit and then diving into a shop to get a bit of warmth. I quickly become used to browsing books I can’t read, looking at clothes that don’t fit me and examining souvenirs I don’t need.
I linger longer in the historic “Passage” arcade. It is beautifully decorated for Christmas and is filled with shoppers checking out its many small stores that feature a mix of international and local fashion.
I take a detour from Nevsky Prospect and walk alongside the frozen canal towards the cathedral. It is named the Church of the Saviour on the Spilt Blood as it was built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was murdered in 1881.
Just in front of the cathedral there is a line of stalls selling souvenirs. They aren’t doing much business though. Two of the young stall holders seem to be locked in a romantic embrace. As I approach they part and stand in front of their respective stalls trying to look serious. When it is obvious I won’t buy anything, they go back to cuddling each other.
I make another longer stop at Dom Knigi book shop. It is housed in the beautiful art nouveau Singer building. There are English books to browse and in the café there is warm tea with raspberry and thyme served with blinis and pine cone jam.
Opposite the bookstore is the Kazan Cathedral, one of the city’s most famous buildings, It looks magnificent with its galleries curving round to Nevsky Prospect.
As I approach the end of Nevsky Prospect it is already dark. It is obvious the local authorities spend a lot of money on lighting up St Petersburg because the whole place looks absolutely magnificent.
I divert from Nevsky Prospect again and make my way through the great arch at the General Staff building. Now I am in standing next to the Alexander Column with the magnificent Winter Palace in front of me.
Originally built in the late 18th century, the palace was the home of every Russian ruler from Peter III on. Today it is part of the world-famous Hermitage Museum. All around the square, despite the cold weather, tourists and locals are lining up to take photographs and selfies.
I head over to the edge of the square where ladies have set themselves up in little stalls selling boiled corn and hot drinks. I get myself a mulled wine to help to keep me warm.
I walk on to the illuminated Dvortsovaya Bridge and look down at the ice floes in the River Neva below. The scene is beautiful, fascinating and a bit unnerving at the same time. It is clear that one would not fare too well if one accidently fell in.
I cross over to Vasilevskiy Island and then look back over towards the Hermitage on the opposite bank. It is absolutely freezing but the view is gorgeous.
The view in the opposite direction over towards the Peter and Paul fortress is equally picturesque.
Busking in the cold
As I walk back towards the centre I can’t help noticing that there are lots of buskers everywhere. It amazes me how many characters there are filling the freezing streets.
I see people in various costumes, stilt walkers, guys with illuminated guitars and even a woman dressed as a zebra.
Dancing in Liverpool
I grab a quick dinner and then walk along Zhukovskogo and consider a drink at one of the Jazz bars that line the street. I am not sure though and I am thinking about heading back to the area around my hotel when I see the entrance to a bar called “Liverpool”.
It is a Beatles-themed bar. It is in a basement and it is actually shaped a little like the original Cavern bar with an arched ceiling. There is a little drum kit at the far end of room and the barman promises me there will be a Beatles tribute act along at 20:00. I decide to stay.
I sit at the bar and start to work my way through the British beer selection. I stick with the bottled imported stuff rather than the local draft. The bar fills up slowly. It is obvious this is a Friday night favourite and I am glad to have got here early.
I try to strike up a conversation with the guy sitting next to me at the bar. In contrast to most of the other customers he is around my age. He has no English so we struggle. He is Sergei, we get that far, and when he mimics a driving action with his hands on an imaginary steering wheel, I guess that he is a driver. He shows me a picture of a field of mushrooms on his mobile phone. He is obviously a truck driver with responsibility for driving mushrooms around St Petersburg.
The band turn up. They are locals but they are very good. The lead singer does a passable impression of Lennon and they seem to concentrate on the songs where John sings the lead. They start with “No Reply” and halfway through the song a blond girl appears in a John Lennon hat and starts dancing on the little dance floor that lies between us at the bar and the band. Another brunette girl soon joins her.
As the second song, “I am a loser” , is starting they beckon Sergei and myself to join them dancing. Why not? The 4 of us dance away for the rest of the first 10-song set. It is great fun.
In the break between the sets the blond disappears but the brunette stays with us. She introduces herself as Helena and thankfully she speaks English. She is 25 and tells me she has loved the Beatles since she was 5 years old. She is actually a ballet dance teacher but she can’t get the work so she is teaching contemporary dance to get by. Fortunately Sergei and I now have an interpreter. Helena soon tells me that he is actually a major in the St Petersburg police force. I don’t ask but I assume driving mushrooms around must be a hobby.
We buy each other drinks. I stay and dance for the whole of the second and third set. There are more people dancing now but I seem to be the only non-Russian in the place. It is a really cool atmosphere and when the band play “Back in the USSR” towards the end it feels quite poignant.
The girls disappear at the end of the music but Sergei and I stay for another drink. I chat to the band and they tell me they have visited the city of Liverpool a couple of times. It is close to midnight when we leave the bar. Sergei insists on escorting me back towards the station.
I am fast asleep within 3 minutes of getting back to the room.