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Track Records: Startled Awake In St. Petersburg

When Povilas came back he had a shot glass, a bottle of Jack Daniels and a packet of Marlboro Red in his hands. God help me, I thought.
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"Wake up, quick, we're in St Petersburg!"

I jolted awake with a surge of adrenaline and stared up at two big sparkling blue eyes looking down at me.

For one very confusing split second before the words were processed by my slightly delirious brain, it was an enchanting moment; those eyes, that sentence, those uniquely Russian features of the girl who worked on the train, seemed so crazily romantic.

Then the reality of what she'd kicked in and I flew into a mild panic. I bolted up and stuffed all my belongings into my backpack, with visions of being dragged off to some far away city in my head.

She quickly skipped around where I'd been sitting and did a sweep for anything I might have left lying around, chuckling to herself.

As I huffed off the train, about a minute before it pulled out of St Petersburg station, it occurred to me it was surprising I'd actually fallen asleep at all.

I hadn't for the last 15 hours since Vilnius when I'd been trying to. Not helped by the fact that there weren't any beds left when I booked the train, only hard seats in a hot sweaty carriage.

Then there was Povilas, the tough 50-something Lithuanian man with big arms, tattoos and a shaved head. The night before he said something to me in Lithuanian on his way to the smoking "room" by my seat, and when I'd told him I was English, he took even more of an interest.

"You wait here, wait wait," he boomed, turning back to his seat as if I had anywhere else to go. When he came back he had a shot glass, a bottle of Jack Daniels and a packet of Marlboro Red in his hands. God help me, I thought.

He poured shot after shot of the stuff, one for me, one for him, and we nattered in a sort of gibberish English for a couple of hours, occasionally going to smoke one of his Lithuanian-strength and, it turned out, counterfeit Marlboros.

I wasn't exactly imagining detoxing on this trip but I also hadn't planned on handling the Russian border police at 5 the next morning half-drunk-half-hungover with the nasty headache and rotten complexion that I did, courtesy of Povilas and his whiskey.

That was another strange wake up but certainly not with big blue sparklers looking down on me.

I was prodded in the shoulder while I was semi-conscious, four hours after I'd thrown in the towel on the whiskey, and had my passport taken off me for a slightly hairy hour just over the Latvian-Russian border.

In the end it was all fine although they seem to insist on assuming you're guilty and then reluctantly accepting you're not.

Getting to Moscow from Warsaw via Sestokai, Kaunas, Vilnius and a sleeper train to St Petersburg seems a crazily long-winded way of going about it -- and feels it at times. But the only alternatives are to go through Ukraine, which involves two night trains, or get to Moscow via Belarus which is a bed of nails in itself for various reasons.

All the info you'll ever need on this by the way is at Seat61, the best guide to the Trans Siberian around.

If you're going to go the Baltics route as I did, I suggest getting your tickets the night before and turning up at Warszawa Centralna at the crack of dawn. You can't reserve a seat and even the 07:20 train is jam packed.

I didn't do this. And even after turning up half an hour before it left I ended up sitting/nodding off on the floor of the corridor by the bike compartment feeling downright grumpy. In Suwalki most of the passengers got off and I took a seat - in fact an entire compartment to myself - with a big sigh of relief after five and a half hours.

After the farce getting off the train I thought I was safe. I walked along the platform looking half dead but feeling relieved, and took a moment to soak in the fact that I was in St Petersburg, Russia, the country I'd always been so fascinated by and a mysterious new land to step down onto.

My relief was very short lived. I got a grip of myself and headed for the ticket office; I needed to get the next train to Moscow which my rail timetable told me was at 13.30, and it was nearly 11 now.

Plenty of time, I thought; I'm at the station, once I've got the ticket just grab some food and wait. I was very wrong.

An hour later I was still pacing nervously around the station, past gangs of green, blue, black, grey uniformed officers from it seems every law enforcement and military organisation in Russia looking at me suspiciously.

I couldn't even go to the toilet - I didn't have any Rubles on me and the woman in the bathroom wouldn't let me through without the measly 20 Roubles (40 pence) I needed just to have a pee. And at this point I didn't realise I was in the wrong train station.

Now I know it seems crazy that it would take an hour to even work out where the ticket office is, but when there is not one word in English in a place, let alone even in Western alphabet, it gets a little trickier.

You head to what looks like the ticket office, queue up for 15 minutes, and have a stern lady with a big round head and pink lipstick just shake her head at you with no explanation and you're shoved angrily aside by the person behind you.

Then you do reach the ticket office, queue up again, and work out from the snippy Russian that it's the wrong office, that tickets to Moscow need to be bought from one of the other ones for some reason.

Then you try a ticket machine, which you notice has a Union Jack symbol on it, and go through every step including imputing your name and passport number, reserving a seat, inserting your debit card and punching in your PIN, and then it cancels itself leaving you slightly disturbed about whether that money went out or not (and I later found out it did go out, thank you very much).

So it was in this state that when I finally reached the right window and had written down Moskba 13:30 on my notebook, in Russian writing, which surely would do the job, and still was getting nowhere, that Alexander came to my rescue.

I can't put into words the relief when this lad of about 20 behind me who spoke a little English decided to come to my aid.

He translated for the incredibly irritable lady who was snapping at me from behind the window, I'm sure even saying something along the lines of 'Jeez give him a break' at one point.

He handed me my ticket, and then just before I was going to thank him profusely and dart off to find the train, said one of the most alarming things I've ever heard. "This is not the good station for the train, you know?"

Panic. I could not afford to miss this train but how the hell was I going to get there? Where the bloody hell is the right station then? "It's ok, no problem", he said. "You wait".

I stood there next to the window where he spent about five minutes buying his ticket. Then, to my astonishment, he walked me to the metro station outside, bought me a token to pass through the barriers and went with me - well out of his way - two stops down the line to the right station.

On the way he told me how he had just got married and was about to go into the army. He didn't like Moscow and warned me about dodgy police, thieves, and rude locals there.

We got off the metro with about eight minutes to go before the doors of my train would shut, hurried down the street to the station where he walked me up to the right platform and saw me off onto the train with a handshake and a hug.

I don't care, I'll admit it, I had a tear in my eye as I boarded that train to Moscow. Without any doubt I would have missed that train if it wasn't for Alexander, my Good Samaritan at St Petersburg train station.

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