May 18, 2012
The General Staff Building, Saint Petersburg
As is Russian custom, I sit quietly for one minute before commencing my journey. My hostess in Saint Petersburg sits facing me as if deep in thought. When the minute is up, she stands, blesses me with the sign of the cross and hands me a parcel. "For your journey," she says softly.
Outside, her son, Andrey is waiting and hands me a cell phone as I get in the car. "Don't forget to keep in touch." He breaks the solemnity of the moment by roaring out of the parking place.
He refuses to wear a seat belt as this infringes into his freedom. Driving like a maniac he quickly crosses the impressive former imperial capital. For me, crossing the Neva River is always a visual banquet. Nowhere else in the world one sees so many architectural wonders with one sweep of the eye.
After briefly getting stuck in traffic, Andrey delivers me to a little known back entrance of the Moskovskaya Railway Station. "The cops only watch the front entrance," he says.
Andrey has a thing about cops. I wave as he zooms out of the narrow alley.
Moskovskaya Railway Station traks 8 and 9
Russia is a land of trains. There is no city which is not served by rail and the trains are generally full. For Russians getting from A to B is not only a journey but a social occasion, an opportunity of meeting new friends.
I am early but the train is already in position. I notice it is going to Mashkalan in Central Asia, it will take four days to reach its final destination.
The conductor for my coach is a friendly Asiatic who checks my passport against his list of passengers and shows me to a compartment for four.
Konstantin, a furniture salesman is the only other occupant of the compartment. There is no noise or sensation of movement but industrial buildings are passing by. The conductor asks if we would like lemon tea. He gets two affirmatives.
The author leaving Saint Petersburg
With a large glass of tea in a silver holder in hand life is good. Birch forests replace the city as the train silently glides south. The ground inside the forests is still covered with snow.
We pass a village. Konstantn shows me where he has a dacha, a country residence.
The low overcast blanketing the Baltic coast vanishes and sunlight crowns a pine forest. Ahead, towering golden clouds rise like a wall. Soon we are in a submarine. and the long spring day abruptly turns into night.
Time to take the goodies out of the bags and soon we have a banquet on the table and a bottle of vodka. As the storm rages outside we are engaged in warm convivance toasting each other and sharing good food.
Life on a train is very good.
The conductor brings mattresses, pillows, pillow cases, sheets and blankets. We make our own beds.
Unaware of the horror I will learn soon and helped by the vodka I quickly fall asleep.
To be continued.
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