I have just spent eight days in the wonderful Baltic states. I could tell you how gorgeous they are and how pleasant it is to wander around the old town parts, but you don’t need a visa to visit Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. In fact, you don’t need any knowledge of the Russian language, or for that matter any knowledge of Estonian, Latvian or Lithuanian. Everyone speaks English. So all I can say is that I strongly urge every one of you to visit these beautiful countries, and I’ll get right back to filling you in on what is happening in the neighbourhood to the right.
Each time we crossed the border as we were leaving Russia, and then coming back, it felt like time travelling. Everything is different. In the Baltic states I felt just like I was in Glasgow. And then, when the Moscow-bound train showed up at the railway station in Riga, I instantly knew where and what time I was going back to.
Many things in Russia feel like they’ve been left behind by another century. For example – public transport. From the splendour of the Moscow Metro to the slowly clattering elektrichkas, they all belong to a time long gone.
There are many imaginative and inventive solutions that are classed as public transportation in Russia. Elektrichkas and marshrutkas are definitely my top favourites, just to name a few. An elektrichka is a commuter train designed for short, uncomfortable journeys. The benches fit three people, making sure that rush hours are a complete nightmare for those who, contrary to Russians, prefer to keep their personal space. Marshrutkas are minibuses that go on a certain route and stop at certain places – if one’s lucky – and then at the right one. The passenger only has to shout ‘at the next stop’ to indicate to the driver that he or she wishes to get off. Since I haven’t really managed to master the magic phrase I don’t sound convincing enough, and my wish usually goes unnoticed.
Public transportation in Russia is cheap. It might not be the fastest or the most comfortable way of getting around, but it will definitely spare your purse. Let me present you with some figures. The distance between Moscow and Tver is 160 kilometres; it takes two and a half to three hours on the elektrichka; and it costs merely 308 roubles. That’s £4.16. And then the student ticket is half of that price. I’ll let that sink in… A ticket for a ride on the marshrutka is 15 roubles, which is 20 pence. A tramway ticket is 14 roubles. It cost us £25.50 to get from Riga to Moscow (917.5 kilometres). Of course, we didn’t have the lightest of dreams when we finally managed to fall asleep after being on the train for ten hours, and still facing another six.
Cheap goes hand in hand with old and run-down. The tram will take you to the other end of the city for less than 20 pence, but there is a hole in the floor. When we got back from the Baltics last week and decided to take a taxi from the train station to our halls instead of a tricky marshrutka, our ‘taxi’ turned out to be an old Lada.
There is a place where the old and beautiful mixes the in most wonderful way: the Moscow Metro. The Moscow Metro – having 12 lines and 195 stations – offers plenty of opportunity to find luxurious and impressive stations. If you’re seeing them for the first time you just have to stop for a minute to appreciate the beauty. Of course, this is much to the annoyance of the rushing Muscovites.
A ride on an elektrichka or a train is a priceless window into the true essence of Russia. The first time I took the electrichka I felt like William Blake in Dead Man, in the first scene where he travels from Cleveland to Machine, and the closer he gets to his destination the weirder the people he sees are. He dozes off and when he opens his eyes again, he sees hunters shooting out through the window. I’ve not seen any hunters in fur (yet), but I did see a man carrying a gun. There’s always someone selling something, a wide range of products from pencils to feet correction pads. And of course, where there’s a lot of people, there has to be some music. I saw a Neil Young lookalike being followed by someone torturing an electric violin so the quality can sometimes hit shocking lows, I must admit.
A night spent on a train heading to Moscow, where Russians sit behind set tables, drink red wine and eat dill takes you back in time. It took me back to times that I have only read about. I don’t think I would have been surprised to see Anna Karenina walk past me in the aisle as I was sitting there. This is the feeling that makes it worth studying Russian, and helps me cope with all the craziness of this country. In Russia you don’t have to go to a museum to get in touch with the past. In a bittersweet way, you’ll find pieces of the past anywhere you go.