It's 2.29am and I'm standing barefoot in a t-shirt on Brest station platform taking a breath of fresh air before the gigantic Russian Warsaw-Belarus-Moscow express train makes its departure for Moscow at 2.52. It's got pretty hot in the four berth carriage we're sharing with two others. The air-con is off because most of the systems are off on the train whilst they change the wheels to fit the wider gauge Belorusian-Russian railway system. You might ask if it makes a bit of noise? I can tell you that it makes a lot of noise.
It started at around eleven in the evening when our train arrives in Terespol in Poland and we have to show our passports to the Polish border control in order to leave Fortress Europe. The train then trundles a few miles to Brest in Belarus and then there's a whole entourage of attractive, uniformed Belarusian guards inspecting luggage, looking under the seats (presumably for stow-aways) and making us fill in forms. They take our passports away for quite a long time, but eventually we get them back and we're on our way. I am handed my first real propusk, which is my entry permit to Russia and Belarus; this makes me pretty happy. Now we're off to have our wheels changed and spend the next two hours shunting up and down the railway line. There's clunks, bangs, shunts, wallops, smashes, crashes, drops, pushes and pulls. I wanted to stick my head out of the window and cry "hey don't you know people are trying to sleep in here?!".
With our new wheels in place, we finally slide into a platform at Brest and then wait a further forty minutes or so to leave. It's quite surreal because here I am on this Soviet-style train station, which is all very utilitarian looking and devoid of adverts for sugary drinks and car insurance promoted by ageing rockers, but it's clean, solidly built, and has an air of efficiency; like they built the thing to be a train station, and that's what it is. I look up to the main station clock tower, the clock hands illuminated in the night sky with the name БРЭСТ (BREST) in large letters beneath. We only have transit visas for Belarus and aren't booked to get off in this country, so I feel a little like a fish in a tank looking out on a World I can't explore. A voice announces the train over the public address system in Belorusian and English to pretty much nobody, except me and the train guards.
I am cooler now and I get back on the train. At 2.29 on the dot it's off and all the systems kick into gear; the air-conditioning fires into action and ten minutes later it's got quite cold and I rummage around on my top bunk for the blanket.
Our compatriots in the carriage are an English guy, who has worked in Moscow for 13 years as an English teacher, he's a trainspotter who's travelling from Belgrade, and an elderly Russian woman, who doesn't say much, but keeps insiting that I sit down on her lower bunk and use the table. I do this from time to time just to accept her kind hospitality, but we don't get into the probably impossible conversation that would ensue due to lack of common tongue.
We arrive in Smolensk at just after eleven in the morning and are met by our host, Vladimir, with whom we've booked an Airbnb flat for two nights. He takes us back to the flat, which is really rather nice and tastefully done. He's already let us know that there is no hot water in the building and that he's going to get an electric shower fitted to make our stay more pleasant. He's arranged to meet the electrician at the apartment soon after we arrive there. The guy arrives as planned but declares that he needs more equipment to fit the shower. Vlad has an appointment (he's a masseur) and will return in a couple of hours to meet the electrician and take us out to see the sights. It turns out though that he has every intention of planning our visit and showing us around his city. So we arrange to chill for a couple of hours and he comes back and takes us for a walk around the centre.
Smolensk is a beautiful place. Situated across a valley, the city centre and it's striking churches, cathedral and other public buildings, are on one hill and overlook the river Dnieper and the railway and station in the valley below. On the far hill, to the North, we can see more modern blocks of flats and these must be the newer suburbs. We walk around the lovely Central Park and Vladimir tells us about all the statues and monuments to "this guy who founded the park", "that guy who led the battle that defeated Napoleon", "this guy who did something important during the revolution", "that guy who liberated Berlin from the Nazis"; you get the picture. Here there's a lot of pride in being Smolenskayan, in being Russian, in generally being part of a large and patriotic nation. Smolenskaya Oblast (Smolkensk Province) has been in various hands over the centuries: Lithuanian, Polish, Belarusian and Russian. It is in these last that you get the feeling that everyone here feels they are. That said there's a lot of monuments to the Polish fighters who defended the city in the Nineteenth Century. The park is very typical of Russia; a place for people to meet, eat and spend time with their children. It is approaching the end of the working day and we can see families starting to arrive, young lovers walking hand in hand, and grandmothers pulling woollen hats tightly down over tiny heads despite the early evening warmth. There are cafés, pedaloe boats for rent (200 roubles £2.50, for 30 mins), kiosks selling ice creams and toffee apples and a cage of incarcerated red squirrels, one of whom is showing signs of mental distress. Alex says she doesn't like zoos and Vladimir replies that he doesn't either but what if the mother bear has been killed by hunters then isn't it good to give a home to the babies.
Vladimir appears keen for us to continue, and to go somewhere to eat, we've told him twice that we want to cook a meal for ourselves at the apartment and eventually we manage to convince him that we are tired and that we just want to go home and cook the food we'd bought earlier from a nearby supermarket. On the way back to the apartment we meet the electrician who has finished his work but is clearly doubtful that the shower is going to provide any hot water at all. Finally alone for the evening; time for a much needed shower. Except that shower only manages to emit a dribble of tepid water, and that is when its actually working. We work out that the only way we are going to get clean is to heat up pans of water on the gas cooker and fill a plastic bowl. So we are finally clean but now feeling a little chilly so we switch on the small, fan heater. Then things go a little awry for a while: first the electricity trips out, and then we find we can't open to lavatory door. It is locked from the inside. The light isn't so much of an issue as we find candles, but the lack of access to the latrine causes us to panick. Alex says that while she is happy to wee in a bowl, pooing is another matter. We text Vladimir. No response. Alex starts to pack a suitcase and decides that we will have to go and stay the night in the eight star hotel we passed on the city tour. Mike is determined but, having used every piece of cutlery in the flat not to mention hairpins and a credit card, even his resolve is flagging. Eventually after a lot of playing about with the lock using two knives, we get the door open. We then use another knife to open the communal electricity cabinet on the landing and flick the switch; the light is restored. Phew! Its now that we hear back from our concerned host; he can be with us in 30 mins. Noooooo! A series of expensive texts (40p each) reassure him and we are happily left alone to enjoy a gentle night of rest and relaxation.
The next day Alex and I take our own walk around the town, visit the amazing Uspensky Cathedral (Assumption Cathedral). that stands atop a hill overlooking the city. Anyone can enter but the women must cover their heads; luckily Alex has a headscarf. Inside the church it is breath-takingly beautiful, dripping with gold and jewels, tapestries and icons. Alex buys some candles to light and Mike surrupticiously takes a couple of photos. Old ladies scurry here and there: cleaning scrubbing, fussing over flowers and keeping a beady eye on proceedings. In Russsia it seems that once your children have flown the nest and your hormones run out a clear path lies ahead that leads directly to the nearest church and the service of the pampered priests who swan around in flattering cassocks, their long hair swept back into fetching ponytails. We then find somewhere to eat; a cocktail bar with 3-D depictions of the menu arranged in the front window. Thankfully we are able to put an image to the misleading words that describe each dish: the food was pretty good.
At four PM Vladimir arrives again to take us to see the kremlin (the old city wall and keeps). But first he can't resist driving us around to see other parts of the city: the fire station, the medical college, the diamond manufacturer, the biggest supermarket, the biggest mall, the area of Kruschev-era post-war blocks of flats that have seen better days. It's interesting and I appreciate it. We visit part of the wall and climb up into a keep to savour the views. It's great as it's slightly dangerous with precipitous drops over the edge, large holes in the walkway, dark stairways with crumbling steps, and not a railing, a warning sign, nor a no-entry sign in sight. This is a place where they still feel that people can look after and manage themselves, rather than GB, where litigation and risk assessment has dispensed with precarious fun. There are some young students making a film in one of the keep towers, they look as if they are enjoying themselves and it is uplifting to see. Vladimir mumbles derisively about subcultures and gays. Apparently they don't like gay people in Russia. Alex tells him that in Britain we do like gay people but the conversation stops there. There is rubbish everywhere: broken glass, cans, plastic bottles and bags in drifts collecting in nooks and crannies and Vladimir moans about the mess and why is it that people can't take their rubbish with them. It might help if there were recycling points or even bins nearby but there didn't seem to be anywhere to recycle anywhere in Smolensk.
After that, a trip to the river, then a walk across a bridge, under a subway, through a shopping mall, and to a food court. We're getting a little bit tired and overwhelmed at this point and after letting Vladimir eat something, persuade him to take us back to the Central Park near our apartment to grab a bite to eat there, which we do. It is Alex's second bowl of borshch today, both delicious, both containing meat that she delicately avoids. At last we are allowed to return to the apartment and begin the process of heating up pans of water to bathe. We pack, we read, we fall into a disturbed night of waking and dreaming and tossing and turning; tomorrow we set off again and this is the part that unnerves Mike.
Finally we depart Smolensk this morning on the 9.36 train to Moscow. Vladimir picks us up, delivers us to station, checks the train is running for us and from which platform. Then we say our goodbyes. It's been fun. I enjoyed seeing this city. It's beautiful and well kempt and Vladimir, although not a great conversationalist (he glazes over whenever we said anything about ourselves, didn't feign disinterest when we mentioned our lives and plans and showed no inclination whatsoever to share a conversation), was pleasant and kind enough to show us the sites and explain it to us, even if he kind of "gas-lighted" us into his agenda. We're the first tourists he'd hosted - mainly it's been businessmen overnighting between Moscow and Minsk - and we got the feeling that not too many tourists come to Smolensk, which made it all the more authentic and worthwhile to visit. Perhaps if we'd been staying for longer, Vladimir's plans would have seemed less intense; who knows?
We're now on the 9.36 to Moscow. This takes six hours to trundle through the countryside of Smolenskaya Oblast and is a lower grade train to the last one; it looks like it dates from the Sixties. All the carriages have sleeping bunks and many people in here are lying down, if not asleep. I'm sat up typing this blog and Al is reading on the bunk above me. The man across from me is from Brest and on the way to visit family in Sydney; just like I am eventually (I'm taking the long way round). We have a nice chat, but my Russian is non-existant, and his English is limited, so the topic wanders around a little, but we smile and chat for a bit anyway. We've four days in another Airbnb in Moscow, and then catch the Trans-Mongolian late on Tuesday night. So the Kremlin, Red Square, and the first ever Макдоналдс (McDonalds) to open in Russia it is!