12 Hours on the Russian Sleeper Train

Recently I went on a trip to Russia during World Cup season. I'm not a fan of football myself but I do have a Viking who desperately wanted to see Iceland's first time playing in the World Cup, so the trip was booked and off we went.
We weren't really prepared for this trip at all, we'd booked the flights and hotels 3 weeks before we left, didn't have any currency, and hadn't thought out our cross-country travel well. We were flying from Keflavík to Budapest, Budapest to Moscow and then travelling to different cities for games. We'd booked flights for our journeys between the cities, all except one, Volgograd to Rostov-On-Don, and then onto Taganrog.
There was no flight that we could've taken. There was an extremely long bus journey which we thought would've been too uncomfortable so we booked a 12 hour sleeper train. Except there were no overnight journeys available, the options we had were to leave at 4am, or 7:40am. We chose 7:40am. There was only a second class 4-berth cabin available.

Our tiny 4-berth cabin

We had stayed in Volgograd for 3 nights, and had learned that our hotel wasn't in a great location (right on the outskirts of the town) and we couldn't necessarily rely on taxis to turn up. Apparently the drivers don't like driving so far out of the centre (which was only 20 minutes away!). We waited for our taxi, and waited. A few times we asked the lady on hotel reception if she knew how long our taxi would be, the answer was always '5 minutes!', we waited for 40. We were getting dangerously close to the train's departure time. Finally our taxi showed up and got us to the train station with less than 10 minutes until the departure. We ran through the security (Russian train stations have airport style security, bags have to be scanned), and found a World Cup volunteer to help us find our platform. He looked at our ticket and looked alarmed as there were only a few minutes left, he ran with us through a maze of tunnels connecting the platforms. We would never have found the right platform ourselves. Frustratingly, while we were running up some stairs towards the train, suitcases in tow, one of my shoes fell off! Biggi picked it up behind me and told me to carry on running, I could put it back on when we were on board. The volunteer shoved our tickets in the face of a train conductor and shouted something in Russian. The conductor shook her head and pointed down the platform. Our carriage was right at the other end of the train, and leaving in 1 minute. We ran as fast as we could, exhausted. The volunteer stopped the train carriage from closing and helped take our suitcases on board. Another conductor (who didn't speak English) took our tickets and asked for our passports. He then said "nine" and pointed down the carriage. The cabins had Roman numerals on them, we walked along until we found IX. There was already a couple inside, wearing Iceland football shirts. They smiled as we walked in and asked "Ertu frá Íslandi?"

They'd occupied the bunks on the right hand side, so we took the left. I climbed onto the top bunk using the smallest ladder I've ever seen, mostly having to pull myself up with my arms. Above the door was a shelf to store luggage. Biggi and I only brought carry on cases but the other couple had full sized luggage. Everything just about fit but if we'd all brought large cases there wouldn't have been enough room.

Barely enough space to store luggage!


The cabin was tiny and old. I wasn't expecting it to be nice, or even modern, but I was expecting it to be better than it was. It looked as though it hadn't changed since the war. The foldaway ladders to reach the bunks were wobbly, the walls were grimy, and the little nets on the wall to store belongings looked as though they were starting to rot away.

Small nets for storage


The conductor brought linen for us all, clean and packaged in disposable plastic bags. We had pillows and duvets on our beds, but in 30°C heat, the duvets were useless. We all chatted for a little while before trying to get some sleep. The game in Volgograd had been the night before so everyone had stayed out late. Sleep was near impossible to come by. The train was loud, hot and rickety. The air conditioning didn't work,and the tiny open window didn't provide much relief from the heat.
About 30 minutes after departure the conductor came in to mop the floor, he didn't say a word as he picked up our shoes and took them into the corridor while he mopped. After he left I gazed out of the window for a while. The terrain reminded me of an African Savanna, then I spotted two camels! I thought I was seeing things, maybe having a mirage from the heat but when I shouted "Camels!" everyone else could see them too. It was incredible.

No air conditioning, or maybe no Icelanders allowed...


Eventually I fell asleep, not for very long but I felt more rested when I awoke. I woke up to a young girl standing in the doorway speaking Russian. The others woke up too and the Icelandic lady in our cabin spoke a little Russian! She translated for us. We could order our breakfast and lunch ife we wanted it. Biggi and I hadn't eaten a proper meal for a few days so we couldn't wait for our breakfast! There were 2 set menus so we ordered one of each to share. There were no vegetarian options for me but the breakfasts came with a few veggie things.

After half an hour the girl returned with our food. They'd only got one of the set menus in stock so we both received the same. She said the price and Biggi said he'd like to pay with card (we had no currency!), she told him he'd have to go with her to the dining cart. He left and I sat down to start eating. The cheese sandwiches included were made on stale bread, the cheap cheese slices were melted in the plastic wrap and the fried eggs contained chopped up pork. I shovelled the fried tomatoes onto the tiny cheese sandwich and wolfed it down, still starving. Our meals were supposed to come with a cup of tea each. I found 2 tea bags in the bag our food came in, but we weren't provided with cups or hot water! Biggi was taking a long time to pay, the Icelanders commented on it. After over half an hour he returned with some bottles of coke and water and told us that they'd charged him 4 times for the meal. None of the staff spoke English, and although he could clearly see that the payment was going through they kept telling him he had to try again. He also found a carriage with air conditioning, near the food cart, which was about 10 carriages away.

The other couple decided to explore the rest of the train and find the air conditioning, we decided to try to get some more sleep.

Ridiculously tiny ladder open...

Ridiculously tiny ladder closed.


A few hours later the couple came back and told us it was lunch time, and lunch had to be taken in the dining cart. We followed them through endless carriages. There were large gaps in the floor where the carriages connected, I could see the train tracks below and I felt terrified walking between carriages.

We finally reached the air conditioned carriage, the cabins looked a little nicer. This might've been first class, but it still didn't look very comfortable. We found a table and waited for the food that we ordered earlier, a waitress brought menus over to us. We realised that they didn't know we'd already ordered so we asked for a couple of bottles of water and decide to skip lunch as breakfast had been so bad. I opened my water bottle and we walked over to pay. The lady told us we couldn't pay we card, the machine only had 4% battery charge left on it and she wouldn't even let us attempt to use it. We told her that we had no money and she scoffed at us. With help from the Russian speaking Icelander we told her that we'd come back to pay later, there was a long stop coming up and we hoped there'd be an ATM there.

The dining cart


Eventually we had a break from the train, we had 30 minutes to find food and money.
We walked up and down the platform, there were no ATMs. We asked workers on the platforms where we could get cash from, they shook their heads at us. We panicked. We stood in queue to buy food and hoped we could somehow get money from the cashier. The Icelandic man in front of us had been in the dining cart with us, he started talking to us and asked if we needed cash. He gave us 5000 roubles and his bank details to send money back to his account (Takk fyrir maður!). We were relieved. We stocked up on food and water at the shop, which was much cheaper than the train had been. We boarded the train again, paid for our water bottles and then returned to our cabin.

We'd been on the train for 8 hours and hadn't used the bathroom yet (partly out of fear of what it would be like). I opened the door to the toilet next to our cabin and was mortified. A rusted steel toilet and sink stood in the tiny, filthy room. There was a foot pedal to flush the toilet, the bar of soap looked as old as the train, and barely touched. I suspect everyone else was scared to touch it too, afraid of catching some deadly disease. Finally, to my horror, no water ran from the taps.

The terrifying toilet

The broken sink


I rushed back to the cabin and decided to stay in there for the rest of the journey despite the heat. A few hours later we finally pulled up to the platform at Rostov-On-Don and I almost ran off the train! My first mission was to find food; finding a proper meal was hopeless but I found a place selling cabbage pies and cold potato wedges. That was good enough!

Now we just had to find the bus to Taganrog...

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