Calamari, cognac and conversation: Wanderlust reader Luke Darracott reflects on his overland adventures through northern Europe
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Twenty-nine hours north of Moscow a train took me to Karelia for an experience I wouldn’t so easily forget. I still don’t remember his name. It may have been Sergei; he was my only companion on the local train up to the north of the world as I knew it. I had been on many long distance trains by this point and I knew the rituals.
Get in, find your bed, roll out the thin mattress and cover it lazily with a sheet while trying not to step on your three fellow travellers. Then get your food out. Breads, meats, vegetables, dried fish, and beers bought from hawkers on the station platforms. Platzkart, the cattle class: open berths, no privacy, no shared words. Not at the beginning anyway.
Awkward silences as everyone furtively checks everyone else out. An engineering lecturer; a nun in full habit; a quiet Caucasian man; an Englishman. Then the carriage attendant arrive to check tickets and bring out teas with lemon if requested. If you’re lucky she might even have a cheap bottle of cognac stored somewhere. Conversation leaks out until finally you have friends for life.
Kostomuksha was 15 hours north of Karelia’s capital Petrozavodsk, which in turn was 14 hours north of Moscow. It’s a town where foreigners didn’t go. I was a long way from my home. The following days up in Karelia would be filled with fishing in the wild and tracking bears in a part of heady taiga forest where footpaths were a foreign concept and I simply followed the trail of a local man.
I would be beaten by Spetsnaz recruits in the thick heat of a Russian sauna, before leaping into ice-cold recently thawed lakes – being warned that I shouldn’t venture too far out or too deep as the water still had a polar chill. I would enjoy the provincial life of the town, drink beers in the square, sip lemon tea with my host’s babushka and illegally visit a giant iron ore mine, riding around it on a JCB before a lightning storm prompted locals to jump into the town’s waters fully clothed.
I would escape the crowds of Russians and Finns on one of the little islands that dot the sea-sized Lake Onega – the second largest lake in Europe. There was Kizhi Pogost, a UNESCO-recognised collection of ancient and giant wooden churches with silvery domes. Set amid the grass, peppered with yellow dandelions and small rises, it offered views to the magnitude of the water, and its other myriad spires, under a sky more northerly than Reykjavik. But I had to get there first…
At the far end of my carriage some aggressive-looking men were already on the beer and salted calamari. My silver-haired comrade sat across from me and explained his job as a railway worker; his 52 years lost in a sea of wrinkles and weathering.
The light dropped away and the train became its own little tubular world; a world where silverfish lakes shining in the moonlight slid past the window and pine forests became the wallpaper. The Russian White Nights were never totally dark. Sergei offered me warm vodka and sausages on black bread that he bought at our one registered stop: where I had waited like a baby deer outside by the train.
“Davai, we drink. To Karelia.” “To Karelia.” As the vodka took hold, his slurs disappeared into sleep, and I was left to gaze into the half-light, contemplating my position in the world while the gentle shunting of the tracks acted as my lullaby.