Living in a country with grotesque territory is some kind of blessing for a person with itchy feet like me. It just means I will have more things to see and places to explore. As an Indonesian I can’t complain much. Everyone who asks me about my country of origin says, “Wow! You are so lucky. You can go to Bali because it is so close.” However, Indonesia is definitely not only about Bali.
BUT I don’t live in Indonesia anymore. I am ‘trapped’ here in Russia where people tend to say, “Oh gosh. You are crazy. What on earth are you doing there?”
Believe it or not, Russia is known as the world’s largest country by landmass. Don’t believe it? Check your map. I once argued with a student who kept repeating that China is the biggest by landmass. He didn’t want to believe it even after I showed him the map. I guess he just has some sort of bad impression of Russia. I won’t blame nor judge him.
Yeah, yeah. Russia is tremendous and an ambitious person like me has no idea how to explore it all. One by one? Two towns at a time? I really don’t have any idea. And to be honest, I have only been to two other Russian towns besides Moscow! How did I travel? By rail, of course.
Thank you for choosing RZD....
The classic announcement closed our four hour journey from Moscow to Saint Petersburg, marking the arrival of the train on Moskovsky Vokzal. The four hours we spent in Sapsan was nothing. Time flew by faster than I thought.
By the way and this may be off topic, but they shouldn’t thank us for choosing RZD because it’s the one and only state-owned vertically integrated railway company. Simply speaking, it belongs to the government and undoubtedly doesn’t have any competitors.
The good thing about travelling with RZD is that it’s not as horrible as people might think. Conversely, once you try it, you will travel and use it more and more. Although some locals keep telling me and promising to themselves, “I will not ever use RZD or any railway anymore. Travelling by plane is better, faster, and sometimes much cheaper.”
Yet, for a person who is always nervous during flights, RZD comes as an oasis in the desert.
A brief history of RZD
Talking about RZD and using its service is not enough without knowing a bit of its history. Surprisingly, RZD is still really young. It was established in 2003 after it separated from the Ministry of Railways of the Russian Federation.
And what about the railway system during the era of the USSR?
Before the collapse of the USSR, they had something that was known as Soviet Railways (SZD). And after 1991, the one who inherited this system was undoubtedly the Russia Federation. Trying to recover from the fall, Russia reformed almost all of its sectors, including the railways. Although the plan was made in 1991, the reform itself was only executed in 2001. What a long wait…
This reform required them to restructure the railway sector, replace all the gauges (before they were narrow, now they are broad), provide access to other carriers and operators, and of course rebrand. They made new designs which finally fundamentally changed how the company visually presented itself to the world. By design, I mean the logo and the color of the wagons. They bought some new wagons especially for the high speed trains like Sapsan from Siemens. Besides that, they kept using the old wagons for some purposes, repainted and repaired.
Where can I go with RZD?
You can travel to almost every corner of Russia. And also, if you have a thirst for adventure and have extra time to spend, try to set off on a journey to Helsinki from Moscow, from Tallinn to Moscow, Moscow to Warsaw, and even from Moscow to Paris, or Moscow to Berlin. All the tickets can be obtained on the RZD official site.
Where should you book the ticket?
You can visit the site directly through this link: http://www.rzd.ru/ (they have an English version) or simply by downloading the app first, which is now available in the App Store or Play Store. If you plan to travel more than once, don’t forget to sign up for an account, as they sometimes have special offers that you can benefit from. The steps are simple to follow and you don’t need to print tickets; they will send your electronic ticket through e-mail or apps.
Type of classes
There are certain types of classes which you can choose while travel with RZD. If you are so stingy and don’t mind trapping yourself in a dreaded chair during your 20-hour journey, please feel free to choose a normal seat. It is comfortable, but well… I have never tried this class. For further information, check this site out http://pass.rzd.ru/static/public/en?STRUCTURE_ID=5328 where you can get more explanation about which facilities or services you will get based on the class you choose.
My journey with RZD
Sapsan - High speed train, St.Petersburg - Moscow/Moscow - St.Petersburg
Sapsan is not as fast as Maglev in China or maybe Shinkansen in Japan. But, this train is much faster when compared to an ordinary train with the same routes but more stops, and that means you will definitely save time (but not money) if you are in a rush and can’t wait to stroll around St. Petersburg or Moscow (depending on your departure point). It takes only around 3-4 hours to reach your final destination, comparing to an 8-hour journey with other type of trains. The price ranges from 2000 until even 10.000 rubel for a one-way journey. I suggest you book the tickets in advance because even if you cancel your journey, you still can ask the refund (at least 5 hours before the departure). And, don’t forget a smart trick when you book Sapsan: the morning or late train is usually cheaper than at other times.
Much like any other train in Russia, the Sapsan is surprisingly punctual! Make sure that you come earlier than the departure time. Perhaps, one hour before departure because you will pass through two or three checkpoints only to have one more check before you board your train. Don’t forget to prepare your passport and ticket! Unlike any other train in Europe, the Russian government requires that you have a passport to book your ticket and board the train. This is a must!
The cabins on the Sapsan are spacious enough for people of heights no more than 180-190 cm. The predominantly blue chairs are reclining seats, so they can be adjusted if needed.
Where should you put your bag? Russians are sometimes surprising. On the Sapsan, not only will you find a compartment above your head, but you will also find a special place to keep your suitcase or large backpack just before the entrances or middle of the wagon. If you bring along your jacket or coat and it’s too heavy to sit on your lap, just hang them in the special places that are available for just that.
Hungry? Don’t bother to pack your picnic bag. You can order food before departure on site, visit the canteen, or simply order yourself a snack. A menu is available on your seat inside the magazine. Otherwise, if you choose to wait, a woman with a trolley usually sells some snacks on board, along with coffee or tea.
Let’s we compare the Sapsan, Deutsche Bahn, SJ, and VR
In terms of speed, I like to compare all high-speed trains I’ve ever been on. In this case, I will compare the Sapsan with the VR in Finland, DeutscheBahn in Germany, and SJ in Sweden, which all have approximately the same speeds at around 200-250 km/hour.
The SJ was really fast and smooth. It was almost too smooth, which somehow disturbed me. I started to feel like I was flying instead of riding on a train. It was hard to read or even work because I felt nauseous and had hold my sick bag tight!
In my opinion, the DeutscheBahn and Sapsan are the most ideal. They are fast but still maintain the sensation of being on a train, rather than a flying saucer.
Sorry for my innocent opinion…
Bigger toilet room? For a toilet-lover like me, the bathroom is everything. The best bathroom ever belongs to the Sapsan and VR. They have very spacious and clean bathrooms.
Lighting inside the cabin? I love the Sapsan and DeutscheBahn. The light was not too bright or low. They have dim lights that are enough for me to work with my laptop or even take a nap!
Punctuality? Don’t even talk to me about the DeutscheBahn! Having been delayed for around 45 minutes on my first journey with them made me automatically delete them from this list. If you don’t believe that Germans can be late, don’t hesitate to ask the locals. :D The Sapsan and VR take first place (again) in this category. In regards to SJ, I didn’t have any bad experiences with them, but a little bird told me that they have a record for being late.
From Tallinn to Moscow = 16 hours
Being on a train for about 16 hours is the worst torture someone can endure – said some people. That kind of long, everlasting journey takes us back to the golden era of trains, when everybody enjoyed being trapped on a classic wagon while sipping some tea or coffee and socializing. After airplanes became popular, people gradually left this way of travel behind and preferred to fly. Especially as airplane tickets are cheaper nowadays.
And in fact, a round-trip flight from Tallinn to Moscow to Tallinn is much cheaper compared to what I paid RZD. But, I will never ever regret my wonderful experience with RZD during the 16-hour journey.
We booked a special cabin (cheaper than VIP but surely more expensive than other classes) one month before our departure. It cost 11,000 rubles per person for a one-way journey. If you buy a return ticket, the price is around 25,000 rubles or so.
Like any other silly person, I entered my compartment proudly, as they have only 10 compartments available for this class. Yeah, I should be proud, as most people won’t spend their money ‘in vain’ like me and prefer to travel ‘wisely’, sitting upright for the next 16 hours.
The special cabin is a compartment with two beds available for two passengers. It also has two pillows, two sheets, two blankets, two mirrors, one table between the bed, and one TV. It also includes other amenities that you find on the end of your bed, such as toothpaste, a toothbrush, soap, slippers, an eye mask, shoe polish, comb, and a towel. To put it briefly, it’s a small hotel inside the wagon. In terms of entertainment, this wagon indulges you with high speed wi-fi, a tiny cute TV, and some magazines (in Russian).
As soon as the train departed, we took off our shoes, changed clothes and laid down like kings, waiting for the lunch they promised us, and lunch here was not a joke. Check out our lunch.
To make it short, what we did inside the compartment was sleep, play, read, enjoy the view (if possible), eat, snack, sleep, rest, and rest again.
We only went out if we needed the toilets, which were located at the end of every side of the wagon. The toilets, believe it or not (I refused to believe it before my trip) were clean – less people equals cleaner toilets. You don’t need to stand in line to wait your turn. No more looking at the small board in the corridor to show you whether it’s occupied or not.
After about four hours of the journey, the train slowed down as we reached the border between Estonia and Russia. The best thing when you travel by train is that you don’t need to go anywhere to get a stamp in your passport, you don’t need to stand and wait patiently for a long time. You just need to wait and let the officers come and check you.
The passport control process was so smooth, and included some Estonian officers that lift up your bed checking for something inside, and let their dog sniff your bags, and in the end, they stamp your passport. On the Russian side, they just collected your passport and later gave your passport back. It’s true, entering Russia is easier than leaving Russia. During the process, no passengers were allowed to leave their seats, visit the toilet or just meander along. Pure torture for those who couldn’t resist visiting the toilet for 3 hours.
Finally, we crossed the border around 10:30 pm and people started to rush to the toilet, whether to accomplish their ‘mission’ or to prepare themselves before going to bed.
We slept very tightly, and didn’t know where we were, or in which station we were stopping, until the train had almost reached our final destination – Moscow. I still can’t believe that we had a 16-hour journey – a small training run before we try a real journey with Trans-Siberian. Am I ready for a one-week journey? Hmm, that’s another question…