Friday finally saw the start of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. The Black Sea city has had a rough ride (and a costly one, expenditure having exceeded £31bn, making it the most expensive Games in history). Given that Krasnodar Krai is one of the few areas of Russia with a subtropical climate, the resort seemed a strange choice. Indeed, ice events are being ‘clustered’ indoors on the coast, while actual snow sports will take place miles away in ‘nearby’ mountainous Roza Khutor. However, the more notorious aspects of the Russian Federation’s debut Olympics hosting (disregarding corruption scandals) have brought into question the wisdom of travelling to the largest country in the world at this time.
Russia has never been a particularly safe destination, but those with the travel bug will make the journey for a taste of its historical and cultural sides, from the Imperial to the Soviet and beyond. Nevertheless, the danger is real. There’s been the furore over its 2013 violence-inciting federal law prohibiting “homosexual propaganda to minors”, the ‘anti-gay’ law prompting a worldwide backlash that has included a boycotting of the Games by several sportspeople. While that outrage continues lividly, for those still wanting to travel to Russia the risk of terrorist attacks is perhaps of greater concern, in no small part due to Sochi’s proximity to the Caucasus Emirate. Organisers fear militants may try and target the Games and real threat was sadly evidenced by the December Volgograd train station bombings.
Interestingly, a large part of the Games’ extortionate costs have been spent on road and rail infrastructure. And if there’s one country which demands exploring by rail, it’s Russia. Arguably a safer option than flying – given its worrying aviation history (not least the terrible Kazan plane crash in November) and particularly now that the US has warned of potential ‘toothpaste bombs’ on direct flights to the country – travelling Russia by train is the favoured transport of its people and an experience which shouldn’t be missed. For Russia is truly a land of extremes, of dichotomies: at once the country which gave birth to Rachmaninov, Dostoevsky, Mussorgsky, Tolstoy, and a myriad of other greats; at the same time, a cess pit of truly atrocious history and unbelievable cruelty whose government is one of the most corrupt in the world. This said, it is these very contrasts which draw visitors from around the globe; an intriguing inability to pinpoint what exactly Russia is.
Instead of cruising down the Volga on the usual river trip between vibrant Moscow and European-influenced St Petersburg, the character-broadening experience of hopping on a train to sightsee the divergent and more off-the-beaten-track destinations Russia has to offer is something every globetrotter should pencil in (if you’ve seen the ceiling of the Kazansky railway station in Moscow, the glamour of London St. Pancras and the humdrum Eurostar fades somewhat). There are three train types: regular, overnight, and high-speed. The first is self-explanatory, the latter serves the largest cities, while luxury overnight trains like ‘the Grand Express’ and ‘the Red Arrow’ are part of Russia’s historic make-up.
The Trans-Siberian railway is world-famous, being the longest railway line on the planet. It has to be, really, Russia spanning two continents and eleven time zones. It stretches, in fact, from Moscow all the way to Vladivostok (ironically known as ‘Russia’s San Francisco’). Yet, along the way there’re the Siberian city of Irkutsk, the Tartar capital of Kazan, Volgograd with its military history, Yekaterinburg in the Urals, and Nizhny Novgorod (actually one of the largest cities in Russia). Further, one can stop at the mountain resort of Dombai, Kamchatka with its volcanoes and street-roaming bears, the religious centre of Kizhi, Lake Baikal (the ‘pearl of Siberia’), and even pay a thoughtful visit to the Solovetsky Islands of gulag history.
As Fyodor Tyutchev wrote, “Russia, by mind, one can’t understand”; by train, one might.