Switzerland to Moscow
There were still so many things to prepare at the last minute. We rushed around, hoping not to forget anything, becoming increasingly worried about our bag sizes. With a few more bottles of wine for the train and some extra snacks, Eric's pack weighed 26 kg. Anne had to strap her sleeping bag to the top of her pack, which ended up at around 17 kg, plus a smaller 5 kg daypack. There was just time to snap a picture of Anne and her mother in the garden before walking out to the street to catch the tram to the station in Aigle. Today, however, the tram was replaced by a bus. Otherwise we could have ridden the rails from our doorstep all the way to Beijing!
The ride was uneventful, as most are in Switzerland. We met a man on the way to Basel who was fascinated by our plans. Were we really taking the train all the way to China, and planning to be gone for a whole year? Incredible! In Basel we had enough time for a bite before changing to the sleeper for Berlin.
In Berlin, with plenty of time before our Moscow train, we headed for Kreuzberg, looking for a place to eat brunch. Just down the street from the metro terminal we found a trendy café, about as far as we could lug our heavy packs, and splurged on big breakfasts with foamy “milchcafes”. Even the waitress had stories to tell about her journeys. Everybody was fascinated by our plans and encouraged us to enjoy our year abroad.
Predictably, the train to Moscow arrived in Berlin's Lichtenberg station several hours late. For the first (and last) time, we had a cabin to ourselves! The train had only two and three-person compartments, with the shared cabins sex-segregated, so the only reasonable option was a cozy double. The “provodnitsa” (cabin attendant) served us tea in glasses with fancy metal holders, a sign that we were already in Eastern Europe. The train slid through the sunny afternoon, crossed the border with Poland and headed across the flat plains. The embankments had recently been reconstructed. Everything looked the same as elsewhere in Europe. At the Belarus border, later that night we were “welcomed” by gruff border guards. After stamping our customs declarations, the official promptly disappeared with the forms. We had been advised to keep a copy of our currency declarations to avoid scams when leaving the country, but by the time we found out, we were already out of Belarus and into Russia. In the middle of the night the train was broken apart and each wagon was wheeled into a giant warehouse, then raised to change the bogeys. We were no longer in Europe!It took the entire day to travel from Belarus to Moscow. We passed broken-down villages, lone dachas with vegetable gardens. The trackside ditches were strewn with garbage and burned-out wrecks. After sampling the greasy food in the dining car we took a beer back to our cabin. Arrival in Moscow was anticlimactic. In a flurry of bags and passengers we stepped onto the platform and started looking for an ATM. A fistful of rubles in hand, we headed for the nearest metro.