Bolshoi in Russia: Train to St. Petersburg and other excuses for obscene vodka-drinking

Greetings from Moscow! Bolshoi in Russia is my variation on Big in Japan. (Bolshoi means “Big” in Russian. Get it?) Stay tuned for my live dispatches from Russia.

There are two ways to travel between Moscow and St. Petersburg and they cost about the same. Either you fly–and you have to be prepared to fly Aeroflot or worse–or you take the train. They cost is about the same: $100 one-way. It was a no-brainer for me. I boarded the fast train to St. Petersburg this weekend hoping to catch a glimpse of rural Russia along the way. I don’t think we quite pulled out of the Leningradskaya train station when the first vodka came out.

Train experience

I had no complaints about this train. It is a pleasant, 5-and-a-half-hour ride through flat, yet picturesque countryside. You can still see signs from the communist times on abandoned buildings by the train station: “Power to the workers” and stuff like that. The farther away from Moscow you get, the nicer the landscape is. We were thankful we took the fast train. There is also a slower, overnight train, that takes about 8 hours, but I honestly can’t imagine doing vodka shots one minute longer than we did. The overnight train costs the same as the fast one. The advantage, I guess, is that it save you one night’s hotel. (Big savings in this expensive piece of the planet). There is also the new super-fast train that makes the trip in some 4 hours, but it’s still very new…hence totally overpriced.

The neither-super-fast-nor-totally-slow train we chose was new and comfortable. They even had waiters on the train and should you wish to order vodka right as you leave the station, you made do so. It costs about $30 for about 8 ounces of it (which is about 5 times as much as you would pay for it if you bought it in the store before boarding), but they do bring it to you in a flask, with crystal shot glasses. When was the last time New Jersey Transit did that for you, ah?

You get assigned seats and maybe you-like us-will be fortunate enough to sit next to a couple of drunk newlyweds. I am told this is not how the “typical” train ride from Moscow to St. Pete’s goes. Usually, this train ride is really sophisticated, packed with business commuters from the two cities. The three of us were lucky (or extremely unlucky, depending on your point of view) to get seated next to the newlyweds, who brought lots of homemade food and wine on board with them. Frankly, we were all about joining their wedding party. I even got to sing a Russian war song I first learned at school at the age of eight. I was proud I still knew the lyrics.

Train wedding and other excuses for daytime drinking

I have seen a lot of odd wedding parties in my life (including one in which the couple chose Kanye Wests’s “Gold Digger” as their wedding song). However, I can’t say that I had ever experienced a wedding celebration on a commuter train before. The newlyweds were a couple of kids-20, maybe 25 years old artistic types (see picture). They even brought their book of published poems, and played music they’d recorded. They were still in their wedding outfits because they literally just got married in Moscow and were traveling to spend their honeymoon in St. Petersburg.

Here is the thing about traveling in Russia. It is pretty hard to meet locals, unless you are willing to drink with them. Drinking is bonding. I mean, really, can you refuse to drink vodka (and eat sandwiches filled with God-knows-what) with newlyweds sitting next to you on a train of all places? You can’t. That’s exactly my point. It is virtually not possible to avoid drinking alcohol in Russia, even in the oddest circumstances, such as being on a commuter train from Moscow to St. Petersburg.

The excuses to drink any time of day in Moscow are endless. I could see that developing an alcohol problem would be really easy here. As I overheard yesterday: people drink vodka because “it makes life go by faster.” Often, that could be a good thing here: spend a cold, rainy day or two in Moscow, trust me. There is nothing enticing about it. Vodka: you can always count on it.

Finally, St. Petersburg!

We pulled into the Moskovskaya train station in St. Petersburg around 10 pm. Russian train stations are always named after the destination they service. The train station from which you go to Moscow is called Moskovskaya, the train station from which trains go to Kiev is Kievskaya, etc. Needless to say, there are a lot of little train stations everywhere and they all service only that one general route.

Here is the thing that was strange. It was 10 pm and we were a little tipsy. That’s not the strange part. The weird thing was that it was broad daylight outside. I forgot how far north St. Petersburg was. They actually get white nights here in June. Even at the end of May, it was getting dark between 11pm and midnight and it was daylight again at 4am. I noticed the extra hours of daylight gave me extra energy. You need all the extra energy you can get in St. Petersburg. You want to see as much of it as possible. It is a stunning city! More on that later.

From Russia, with love.