Saturday, November 4, 2017

To Rezekne and Back: how to travel the hard way

While I was in St. Petersburg this year I needed to make a quick trip to Latvia for a wedding.  This being me, I ended up purchasing the ticket there just a few days before the wedding and the ticket back after the wedding. Obviously my itinerary ended up being quite silly. 

St. Petersburg - Tartu LUX Express 11:35pm - 7:15am

Rezekne - St. Petersburg train 8:02 pm - 9:31am

St. Petersburg to Tartu

My way there took me through the Estonian town of Tartu where I was being picked up by some other wedding guests and we were all driving over to Rezekne.  This happened because with my last minute ticket purchases it was the only route that got me in to Rezekne in time for the wedding.  LUX express runs this route multiple times a day from early morning to late at night but my timing didn't let me take the early morning bus. The bus that would get me in to Tartu early enough left at 11:35 at night and got into Tartu at 7:15. Not a bad time overall. Enough for a nap of some kind, I thought. I wasn't taking into account the fact that we would all be woken up to go through immigration twice: exit immigration from Russia and entrance immigration to Estonia and the EU; or the fact that I was travelling right before the white nights would hit the region.  Genius me left my eye shades in the bag under the bus and ended up awake for most of the journey.

The actual bus is much nicer than I expected.  (I have no pictures as it was full and I was very tired by then).  The seats are wide and have a LOT of recline, enough to sleep if I had thought to bring my eye shades on board.  The bus also features power ports at every seat, personal entertainment systems with an exhaustive selection of movies and shows.  There is an on-board WC and also free hot drinks along with a bottle of water distributed by the driver during boarding.  The overhead bins are small, though, so any luggage or standard size carry-ons are put under the bus where you won't have access to them until you de-board so be aware of that.

And here are some photos I took in Tartu as I tried to stay awake and not look like a homeless bum sleeping on the park benches.

Rezekne to St. Petersburg

To get back from Rezekne I opted to take the train as no bus was available since I was booking so late.  There is only one train a day and it leaves at 8:02pm.  Since there was very little to do in Rezekne on a Sunday after seeing their one statue and walking past all the churches and enjoying some sun in front of GORS (the cultural centre) I opted to spend the rest of it working inside the train station.  I actually liked the station, for all that I'm pretty sure that it hasn't been updated since the 20's.  There was free wifi, a spacious waiting room and some nice seating.  A cafe was in a separate building outside and looked like it came right out of a Soviet photo and the bathroom was also located outside in a separate building.

A church in Rezekne

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An older building across from the GORS

GORS! The wedding was registered here

The heart tree, an alternative to locks on bridges

Rezekne train station from the front

Reekne train station from the train track side

Entrance hall

Waiting room

Train tracks! It's lots of fun to sit and train watch as the long transport trains go by

Now, onto the bad stuff:  I found the place cute and quaint but I can be strange like that. 
Major things first: 1) the bathroom is a squat toilet over a septic system with no doors on the stalls.  It was clean, but there was no toilet paper, and it smelled as much as you would expect; 2) the waiting room in the station doesn't have electric outlets so there is no way to charge anything; 3) while most tickets can be purchased by debit or credit, the ones going to Russia can only be bought with cash (as I learned to my detriment) and there is no ATM inside the building.
Minor stuff: There are no stores beside the station, it is a 5 minute walk to the nearest one (fine on its own but irritating if you have luggage); the pavement feels like it hasn't been renewed since Soviet times; the ticket counter closes in the middle of the day for a few hours as there are no trains then.

I had not realised that I wouldn't be able to pay by card so I didn't have any cash on me.  This meant that I ended up schlepping all the way over to the main street to find an ATM that worked (it was Sunday, most places were closed) with my luggage.  This was the time when I became incredibly thankful for my little Briggs and Riley spinneret as it held up so well on the atrocious pavement in Rezekne. (I'll be writing a review on in in the coming months)  It was a good 15 minute walk which under normal circumstances would have been fine but I was still tired from the wedding and I had a suitcase with me.  And then it started raining on and off.  It really was a lesson to me to book ahead of time.  After all my efforts I ended up with a Platzkart ticket for the train.  Russian trains have three or four classes of service depending on the route.  There is first class with an occupancy of two in a closed compartment.  Then they have second class with an occupancy of four in a closed compartment.  Last there is third class, known in Russian as Platzkart, which has no closed compartments and each section has four beds on one side and then two along the aisle.  The last possible class of service is sitting only and was not available on this train as far as I know.    

While Platzkarte is generally the lowest class and the lack of compartment doors seems strange and uncomfortable at first, the actual expreince isn't bad at all. Its better than the DeutscheBahn system of sticking six people into one compartment a I experienced on a trip to Munich many years ago.  As you can see in the picture below, the compartments have one lower bench that doubles as a sitting area and one bunk on each side of the wall.  Above the second bunk is a storage area, mostly used for bedding. During the day the upper bunk is often folded up to create more space, though even with it down there is more than enough space for people to sit on the lower bench. 
The opposite area contains a drop down table and two single seat benches along with a drop down bunk above the windows. If no one is sleeping there this area is usually kept as is, otherwise the table drops to create a bed. If you have any bags, the storage area for them is under the seat of the bench.

A very shaky attempt at not taking photos of people's faces.  You can see the height difference between the lower and upper bunk though, and the table.

This is the corridor of the Platzkart car.  You can see the benches of people who have already gotten up and put away their bedding.  On the top you can see what looks like a third bunk but is actually just the storage area.  

The single seat bench on the far side of the car

At the start of the journey the beds are made, with the mattress and sheets already laid out and a sheet, blanket, and pillow sitting on the side. The next day the expectation is to take off all the bedding and to roll up the mattress for the conductors to collect. Be aware that there is no air conditioning on the trains so it may get very warm. The way to deal with this is to open the window. Check with your fellow section travellers before this because the wind may be blowing directly in their direction (experience talking right there).

My bunk in the morning with the mattress pad and pillow still there.

Tickets procedure is different on Russian trains. The conductor will check and take the ticket at the start of the journey and hold on to it until you arrive at your final destination. When crossing the border the conductor will walk through the car waking passengers and distributing immigration cards. Immigration agents will then come through the whole train checking passports, visas, and also doing a customs check so be prepared for a long wait, especially if there are any complications with other passengers. 

Russian train ettiquette is also very interesting. During the day there is an expectation that the bottom bench is for everyone to sit on. It is also considered polite to offer any snacks you may have brought along to the people in your section. Hot water and a cup are provided should you wish to (and have brought with you) have some tea. I will put out a warning to not get into card games with people on the train because there are a lot of card sharps who prey on unsuspecting travellers. 

My final arrival in St. Petersburg was in Vitebsky Station.  All train stations in St Petersburg are located beside a metro station which makes transferring to your final destination easy.

What can I say about the whole thing? Well, it wasn't too bad. That's really it. It was fun in a strange kind of way and a good lesson on purchasing tickets early but I wouldn't want to repeat it in its entirety. The train journey was pleasant but I now know to pre-purchase a bottom bunk. 

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