The Evil Aid Takes on Russian Railways: Part 1

As I mentioned in my earlier EDS-info post, I took a little trip last weekend from Moscow to St. Petersburg.  Nowadays the NEW! and MUCH IMPROVED! Russian Railways company offers travel options for individuals wishing to travel from capital to capital by rail.  For example, the company now boasts the high speed Sapsan train, which makes the journey during the daylight hours in just under five hours.  I have taken the Sapsan. And I am not ashamed to admit that I both love and prefer the Sapsan to the method of travel I am about to describe to you.  The Sapsan is sleek. It is fast. It is clean. And most importantly of all, it is COMFORTABLE. If you have ever traveled on DeutscheBahn, this is just like a DeutscheBahn high speed line second class experience. (Why is that? Hint: The Sapsan is a German train.  Rather, the Sapsan IS DeutscheBahn in a Russian costume. Of course it is.)  And as a civilized means of transport, the Sapsan is fully accessible to people with disabilities.  Gasp! Even if you use a wheelchair! Gasp!  (There are not only spaces for wheelchairs, but disability access toilets.) I swore a couple of years ago, when the Sapsan first came online, that I would NEVER travel to St. Petersburg again on the overnight train. NEVER. Famous last words…

Let me be clear. I do not generally dislike the Russian overnight train ride experience.  On the contrary, it is my preferred means of travel throughout this vast land.  It is much cheaper than Aeroflot, the only Russian domestic airline that relies on sturdy Boeing aircraft.  The Russian budget airlines hold fleets of creaky Soviet-made Tupolev jets, which have a less than satisfactory (re: lots and lots of crashes in recent history) record.  And anyway on the train you actually get to SEE Russia.  And only in doing so do you begin to comprehend its vastness.  Plus, as an added bonus, you meet all kinds of interesting people.  All kinds. Believe me.  So.  Three cheers for Russian overnight trains! Unless those trains are going between Moscow and St. Petersburg.  You see the journey time is too short, in my humble opinion, for an overnight trek.  No matter how you slice it, once the boarding and settling in and washing up processes have come to a conclusion you can only hope to achieve a maximum of four hours of sleep.  Maximum.  And that’s under the best of all possible circumstances.  That is, if the wagon isn’t too hot or too cold; you are not in a spot that leaves you shrouded in a cloud of stale cigarette smoke, which inevitably wafts in from the between-carriage vestibules; your neighbor is not malodorous, vodka swigging, and chatty, and you have a real mattress.  Not all Russian train mattresses are created equal. Some are total crap, while others permit sleep.  You never really know which one you will end up with.  And to make matters worse, I have found that my bendy EDS body is particularly fussy about the mattress issue.  More than once I have been issued a threadbare Soviet mattress on such trains, and have subsequently spent the entire night awake due to severe hip and back pain.  So as you can see, there are a great many things that can go wrong on the train to St. Petersburg that conspire to deprive you of your meagre fours hours of shuteye.  As someone who constantly fights the physical fatigue that accompanies EDS when she does sleep at night, I find that when I have barely slept my body mounts a full fledged insurrection in protest.  Considering all of these factors, I have therefore deemed the Moscow-St. Petersburg train/sleep gamble simply not worth the bet.

But. This time I was traveling with a good philosopher friend who happens to be Russian.  She had not been to St. Petersburg in years, and confessed a serious nostalgia for the overnight train rides of her Russian youth.  As she described riding the rails between Moscow and St. Petersburg with her school friends, her eyes actually got misty and she teared up.  How could I say no to this?  So I agreed. And suddenly it was upon us to figure out how to do Russian trains with a mobility aid in tow.

There are two standard types of overnight Russian train carriages: platzkart and kupe.  (There are also luxury models, but we won’t talk about those, because honestly they cost so much, you may as well just go ahead and book a ticket on Aeroflot. In fact, you’d probably save money.) Platzkart is the cheaper of the two options.  Each compartment contains six bunks: four in a cubby and two ‘peripheral’ bunks across the aisle.  EVERYTHING is open. That is, there is NO privacy. No sliding doors that look, sealing off the individual compartments.  No nothing.  This basically means you have at least twenty or more neighbors.  Everyone can see and hear everything that goes on.  It is a truly collective experience.  Kupe on the other hand offers a lot more privacy and in theory a bit more security.  The carriage is divided into compartments, which each only have four berths.  These compartments are separated from one another via a sliding door that closes and locks.  You might think to yourself, how could that not be safer?  Well. It is not always.  If you are traveling alone, you do not get to select your three compartment mates.  And further, there is not always an option that allows you to choose exclusively female fellow travlers.  So if you are a woman traveling alone and you select kupe, you could easily end up locked in a four bed compartment with three unknown Russian men.  Um. Not ideal.  And honestly, for this reason, when I do take a Russian overnight trains alone I usually go platzkart.  But again, I digress.

My friend is very understanding about my disability issues.  I made clear when we were choosing trains and carriages that I have never been able to climb up onto an upper berth in a Russian train. This is not to say that I haven’t tried. Oh I have. Once or twice. And the result has always been the same: Epic fail.  So this ruled several trains out, because many only had upper berths left for sale.  Then came the issue of where oh where to stash the Evil Aid for the night.  The platzkart peripheral lower berths were also immediately ruled out as a possibility, because their storage space is tiny tiny tiny. You can fit a small backpack underneath them, but certainly not a long and obtrusive forearm crutch.  And further, if you occupy a peripheral berth, you do not even have a little slot, in which you could prop up your aid.  So basically your option is to sleep with your aid in bed with you, snuggled with it for the night.  This is unappealing for several reasons, not the least of which is because Russian train berths are already super super narrow and hello mobility aids touch the ground.  They are dirty.  Dreaming in bed next to one? Gross.  So we scratched off the possibility of purchasing peripheral lower berths in platzkart as well.  Normal compartmental lower berths, however, we decided would suffice; not only do they have more storage space beneath, which can accommodate an aid, but they also give the sleeper the property rights to a tiny little corner next to the communal table, where she can prop up her aid if necessary.  This restriction meant that we ended up in a kupe on the way to St. Petersburg and in platzkart, in the only remaining compartmental lower berths, which were right next to the toilet (No comment.) on the way back to Moscow.  And the kupe, oh the kupe.  Turned out to be a luxury kupe. Ordinary kupe compartments do provide privacy, but they aren’t much in the way of comfort. Vinyl seats. Creaky tables. Soviet radios blasting. Poor lighting, etc.  Not this one.  This one had plush seats. And reading lamps. And additional fold-down mattresses.  And duvets.  And there was no intrusive Soviet radio. There were coat hangers. Mirrors. And magazines for pursuing.  Behold:

And the best part was, the upper berths apparently never sold.  So my friend and I had the entire kupe to ourselves. I got in my entire four hours of sleep. Shockingly more than I ever expected, as I had really steeled myself for the worse case scenario.  And. Note that the Evil Aid fit perfectly into the tiny little space between my bed and the communal table.  So see. Crutches can travel on Russian trains.  With just a little advance planning…

And I must say, having my aid GREATLY improved my train ride experience.  On the way down our kupe was quite far from the washroom facilities, which were at the opposite end of the carriage. (There was in theory a toilet booth at our end of the carriage too.  My friend tried to make use of it, and then returned five seconds later only to announce “Sloman.” (Broken.)).  As anyone with mobility issues knows, trying to walk onboard a moving vehicle can be comical at best and a disaster at worst. I was amazed at how much my crutch improved my onboard mobility.  AMAZED.  Walking aboard trains has been a HUGE issue for me for as long as I can remember, so much so that it has limited my ability to say make it to the dining car successfully. So this was awesome.  More points for the Evil Aid.  I was further relieved to have said aid with me in St .Petersburg.  Not only was I exhausted and achy, a scenario, which in general causes rapid deterioration in the walking category, but Peter’s “Venice of the North” is not the easiest city to navigate, even for those with no mobility issues.  There are cobblestones. EVERYWHERE. Like Paris.  And the city’s infrastructure is, um, lacking in resources.  So what paving does exist in often derelict and in need of repair (re: lots of buckles and potholes).  Plus. It is humid. Which in the winter means, ICE.  It is actually rather a mobility nightmare, and truth be told, I’ve always had trouble getting around the city too.  Pre-aid, when I had to move from one area to the other, I always dreaded it.  And I complained. Oh how I complained.  Aided, however, Petersburg was not only easier, it was one-hundred times more enjoyable.  That is to say, Evil Aid=empowerment.  I’ve never had such a good (and productive!) time.  So my advice to occasional aided mobilizers is that if you visit St. Petersburg BRING YOUR AID. You will not regret it.

And as for the return journey?  Well. No luxurius, partially unoccupied kupe cabin.  Plain old platzkart, next to the toilet.  Crap mattress, you ask? Why yes. Unfortunately.  Four hours of sleep?  Why no, none at all.  But the Evil Aid, at least, was unaffected.  It bumped along as planned in its next-to-table slot:

I think Russian Railways should start posting a little sign above the space between bed and table that reads “For Mobility Aids Only,” don’t you?

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