As promised a while back when I wrote about why night trains are a great way to travel in Russia, this is the first post about the most iconic Russian trains. Today I want to present you the Artika train (Artic train), that takes you from Moscow to Murmansk, above the Artic Circle, and/or back.
Murmansk is by far the largest city north of the Arctic Circle (with a population of around 300.000 people) and is a major port on the Arctic Ocean. It is located in the extreme northwest part of Russia, on the Kola Bay, an inlet of the Barents Sea on the northern shore of the Kola Peninsula, close to Russia’s borders with Norway. The city is named for the Murman Coast and Murman is an older Russian term for Norwegians. While still having long, harsh winters, Murmansk enjoys somewhat warmer temperatures, relatively speaking, than other regions at similarly high latitudes due to the moderating effects of the Gulf Stream on the Barents Sea.
As I wrote in my post on the first nuclear propulsion ship in history, the Lenin, I have always felt a special desire to visit this city. When I was still in school Murmansk was one of those places you looked at on a map, knowing full well that you could never go there. I mean, to go to Murmansk in the ’80s it wasn’t even enough to be a citizen of the USSR. The city was a center of Soviet submarine, icebreaker and nuclear-powered icebreakers activity and it was therefor one of the “closed cities” where you had to have special permission or special orders to go. In other words, if you just wanted to visit Murmansk for a few days you basically had to be an admiral in the Soviet fleet or a western spy, the likes of James Bond!
Today, on the contrary, you can easily fly into Murmansk or, even better, take the Arktika train. The 2.092 Km trip (one way) takes 35 hours (one day and 11 hours) and takes you through 29 stops, among which Tver, Saint Petersburg and Petrozavodsk. Saint Petersburg is reached after 9 hours of travel and it is only the fourth out of almost 30 stops. That is because between Moscow and “the Venice of the North” there is a huge number of trains every day, while not so many venture so up North and serve all the communities “above” Saint Petersburg. During the trip you get to enjoy the beautiful landscapes of the Republic of Karelia with its 60,000 lakes (yes: sixty thousands!) The train also passes by the shores of lake Ladoga, the largest lake in Europe. The train leaves Moscow at 41 minutes past midnight and gets to Murmansk at 5 before noon the following day. That means that you get to spend two nights on the train, but if you travel in the summer time, don’t expect there to be any dark on the second night as from mid-May to mid-July when twilight last all night already in Saint Petersburg and the “midnight sun” lasts for a longer and longer part of the year the more North you go.
At the time of writing a ticket from Moscow to Murmansk costs less than 6.000 Rubles (85 Euros, 100 USD) in platzkart or third class (which I think is the best way to travel in Russian trains to meet fellow travelers) to a little more than twice as much for a first class compartment for only two people, if you want quite, privacy and a bit of luxury. The train also offers a restaurant car (open to everyone regardless of which class you are traveling in) that serves hot and cold food, alcoholic and non alcoholic beverages.
In spite of being Third Class the platzkart is a great way to travel on Russian trains and not just because it is the cheapest. Unless you are in a group of precisely four people, the second class (called “coupé”) may be less than ideal. In second class there are four passenger in each compartment and you might get stuck with a fellow traveller you don’t get along with. The same principle holds true even for first class, if you are traveling alone or in a group of three or five people. In third class the train car is not divided into closed compartments, there is no wall between compartment and corridor, only four bunks along the long sides of the compartment, and two more mounted on the corridor wall, with the lower bunk folding in the daytime to become two seats. When you book your ticket you can choose whether you want an upper or lower bunk and if you are travelling as a couple (or a couple of friends) you can book the upper and lower bunk on the corridor wall, so you get a private table just for the two of you. A train attendant travels in each car and the ambient is generally therefore very safe and well-behaved. For the night you get a mattress, a pillow, a warm blanket (which you will almost never need as it is very warm inside the train, especially during winter!) and fresh industrially washed and pressed bed linen, pillow cover and a small towel packed in a seal plastic bag.
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