Wednesday, 15th June 1988
We boarded the 18:35 train to Berlin.
I had booked a 4-berth compartment on this train and it was exactly the same type as we had just spent 5 nights in. As we were settling in we were joined by our two compartment mates. One was a Polish nuclear scientist on his way back to Poland after a conference in Moscow and the other was a Russian Artist on his way back to visit relatives in East Germany. The Russian was carrying a copy of Pravda.
One of the things about the Trans-Mongolian train that I had found disappointing was the fact that most of our fellow passengers had been westerners. There had been little opportunity to really interact with Russians. This trip, I thought, was going to be a bit more authentic.
Our Russian cabin attendant seemed absolutely disinterested in his job. Every task from the provision of the hot water or the supply of the blankets, to answering basic questions about the schedule, seemed to be carried out with total and obvious resentment. Aiko suggested it was a cultural difference. I told her that he was just a rude bastard.
The train left on time and we made our way almost immediately to the dining car. Everything felt familiar to us and the menu was pretty much the same as we had had on our trip from Beijing. Though, unlike on the previous train, there were no prices in dollars.
The lady dining car attendant explained with a series of “nyets” that she would be only accepting roubles. We tried to bribe her in dollars but she wouldn’t have it. We then spent our last 2 roubles on a single bowl of beef Solyanka soup and some bread. We shared it and then went back to the compartment still quite hungry.
We spoke a little to the Polish guy. His English wasn’t bad and with the help of Aiko’s “Make friends for Japan book” we explained all about life in Tokyo to him. Even by 11pm it was still light outside and the Russian explained a little about the Leningrad “white nights” to us. He told us that in winter it would already be dark by 3pm.
We fell asleep soon after 11pm still hungry.
Thursday, 16th June 1988
I slept remarkably well.
I woke up to find the cabin attendant almost tugging the blanket off me and shouting “Brest, Brest” almost directly into my ear. It was 7:30am and we had arrived at the border town of Brest. We had slept through the whole of the Soviet Republic of Belarus and now Poland lay directly ahead.
I woke quickly, rubbed my eyes and sat up in the bed. The Polish guy handed me some of the coffee he had just made. The train was still moving then but after a few more minutes it stopped.
As Poland’s Railways use the Standard Gauge, and as Standard Gauge is narrower than Russian track, the wheel sets would now have to be changed before we could cross the border. The whole process of wheel changing we had observed at the Chinese-Mongolian border was now to be reversed. This time though we could remain on the train whilst the wheels were changed. It was to be a lengthy process.
Looking at the opposite track, I understood that underneath the train there were now three rails. Our wheels currently sat on the two outer rails but there was another rail just a few inches inside one of the outer rails.
The locomotive was removed and the carriages were all uncoupled from each other. Then four men, two on each side, manhandled our coach into position over 4 large jacks. The coach was then lifted slowly 2 feet into the air thus freeing the 2 wheel sets to move forwards. The men on each side then pushed the sets forward towards their comrades working on the carriage in front of us. That team then pushed them to the next team and so on until all the Russian wheels had emerged from the front of the train.
Next the Polish wheel sets were fed from the back of the train using the slightly narrower track. The team underneath our carriage passed the new wheel sets towards the front of the train until they were sure they had supplied everyone else. Then finally they stopped their own two sets and began to move them to the exact position under our carriage. They jacked the coach down, the coaches were re-coupled to each other and finally a new locomotive was reconnected at the front.
At first we thought the fact we didn’t have to get off was great. Then we both started to want to go to the toilet. The train toilets were locked as there were men under the train. We couldn’t get off either. The process took over two hours and meanwhile we were in agony. Only when the whole thing was completed and we were edging forward did we manage to persuade a cabin attendant in the adjacent carriage to unlock the toilet door.
The train stopped again and there was a Russian customs check. It was pretty uneventful. We then moved forward across no-man’s land and stopped again. The Polish immigration officials boarded the train but their passport check was very quick and we were finally on our way again.
It was still over 10 hours to Berlin.
They had replaced the Russian dining car with an East German one at the border and we were delighted to see that we could now use US dollars. We were less delighted to see that their selection was limited to Frankfurter sausages and bread. We bought two sausages each and actually they were quite good.
As we sped through the flat Polish countryside the Polish guy became more and more animated. He obviously seemed happy to be back in his native land. He explained everything about Poland to us and he spoke especially passionately about Polish food and Polish films. He claimed Polish food was like German food but better and that Polish films were like German films but better.
He also told us that Poland was in a severe economic crisis. I wondered whether I should ask him if it was like a German crisis but worse, but then the Russian joined in and we switched to discussing politics and the differences between the Polish and Russian systems. We then had a very long conversation on the future of the USSR under Gorbachev. It was all fascinating and the time went very quickly.
Eventually we reached the East German Border and a new set of customs and immigration officials got on. As expected the immigration official was willing to sell us an East German Transit visa on the train. The problem was he refused to take dollars. We hadn’t expected this and we were at a loss as to what to do. In desperation Aiko produced a 1,000 Yen note and to our surprise he willingly took that in exchange for two visas. Maybe he had relatives in Japan, Aiko suggested.
As we approached Berlin, we were alone in the compartment. The Polish guy had got off at Poznan and the Russian guy had left us at Frankfurt-on the-Oder. Slowly but surely, the suburbs of Berlin came into view. We saw the little S-Bahn trains passing us on the adjacent tracks. The suburbs turned to city and the train pulled into Berlin Hauptbahnhof (2017 = now Ostbahnhof) at about 8pm.