Train 34

I’ve taken the Moscow-Tallinn train any number of times. The scent of coal smoke, used to heat samovars for tea water on board, is indelibly printed on my brain as the scent of beckoning horizons.

It’s an old Soviet train, built solid and ugly, but it stays warm and nowadays, they even usually keep it stocked with toilet paper (though I have a small roll in my daypack, just in case). Most of the cars are four-bunk sleepers, though there’s one utterly miserable wagon that just has chairs, many of which are broken. I’ve gotten stuck there one time, in a chair that wouldn’t recline, when all the bunks were sold out and I had to make a visa run. Like most of the people in that car, I spent as much of the night as possible in the restaurant wagon; a group of other seater-car refugees, Estonians all, took in on themselves to convince me that Estonian vodka is better than Russian. I will agree, it is quite fine – but I think the dark Baltic beers are the best.

The restaurant wagon is a relic of another age, like one of those old truck stop diners you find in rural areas, and the finest part of the trip. Cheap lace curtains, vinyl seats, and fake flowers on the tables – but the food is good, the beer is great, and the person sitting next to you is might strike up a conversation that could go for hours.

Moscow-bound, you go through customs in Narva and Ivangorod, twin fortified towns on opposite banks of the Narva river, at about 11 p.m. – far more civilized than the 4 a.m. border inspections when you travel Tallinn-bound.

Past customs, the train’s rocking soothes you to sleep. The bunks are nothing special, but I love sleeping on trains, sometimes waking to watch the world roll by outside the window, but mostly comfortably curled into my corner, safe and warm, ready for a new country in the morning.

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