In all honesty I could not remember a single thing about the train from Riga to Moscow, except that we arrived at the border at 2130 on the day before my Russian visa started, and that it was left to my fellow passengers to argue fervently on my behalf until the robust female Russian border guard sighed and stamped my passport and people mumbled receptive acknowledgements when I grinned and mumbled a thanks (the border people were still nearby) to the general company.
Fortunately I wrote some stuff down and reading it back now after spending a total of 220 hours on trains as far west as riga and as far east as shanghai, i can say that what i wrote contained themes that echoed along the desolate expanses and uncountable scrag-ends of cities (coming into the outskirts of a city on a train is sort of like sneaking up behind it when it hasn't got it's makeup on) out of the window, and the cosy and time-paused warmth of the carriages.
The first was the physicality of the train itself. The 'Moskva Express' was a huge hulk, much wider and higher than British trains and with a little step ladder to get into the carriages, which even the most dainty of local old ladies swung up neatly. Each of the 'hard sleeper' carriages was split into open compartments containing 6 beds in sets of two across three sides, with the top bunk folding down during the day and the bottom one being the seating. At the end of each carriage was a coal-fired boiling water dispenser, a list of times of station stops and a little room where a conductor sat, responsible for the safety and happiness of his carriage. The train tickets are much cheaper than planes (maybe 1/3 of the price) but take much longer, so as a consequence the carriage is made up of the type of people who know the value of things, young and old, that I find are by far the most wise and interesting.
The train rolls on, and to my left the gathering darkness of the forest outside the window slowing brings into focus the reflection of f an old man with eyes like he has been in Douglas Adams' Total Pespective Vortex. Opposite and above is curled a woman of about 50-60, who earlier gave me a gherkin and whose wrinkles are squashed into a spiders web by the hand supporting her head. In the middle of the night I awake badly needing a wee as the train slows into a station. I arrive at the toilet just as the conductor locks the toilet (so no-one shits down onto the tracks in the station) and engages me in a discussion of the premier league, , but now i REALLY need a wee in an irrational way that happens in the middle of the night when you stand up quickly and I tell him as much, but as there is a copper on the platform I cant piss under the train and then I resolve to piss in a ... well to cut a long story short i ending up pissing all over my pants and the floor of the guard's washroom and thank the god of chamberpots that it is the middle of the night and i can waddle my steamy crotch back to the triage area of my bed without the whole carriage thinking that i was incontinent.
I arrived in the sunshine at Moscow's Leningradski station at 7am two days later. After getting completely lost, having de ja vue (all the major stations look EXACTLY the same and i kept finding them and thinking i had been there already) and stomping round the wide and traffic-filled streets of Moscow all day, I met my couchsurfing host Dima at the end of a Metro line at which a Kyrgyzstan national thought that I was his countryman. This mistake potentially explained a lot- people had been rude to me all day (pushing me out of the way on the metro, closing the metro ticket counter in my face when I finally got to the front of the queue) and Russians- especially in Moscow- are known for their dislike of people from the further reaches of the former USSR. Something akin to Mexicans in america. I didn't know whether to feel better for this revelation or worse.
Dima and Roman (Dima's flatmate who had just hitchiked to massive distance to the Ukraine and back, only spending 4 hours in the Ukraine, just for kicks) were perfect hosts, showing me the sights (we sneaked into a beautiful piano lesson in the Moscow conservetoire until we were noticed and kicked out). They lived in an old soviet apartment block and ate the suitably russian meal of smoked mackeral and boiled potatos on my first night. On the second night I saw the couchsurfing 'community' in action, going to a 'Banya', like a Turkish bath with sauna, steam room and ritual flogging with hot leaves. It was very interesting, a members of the small, young, middle classes of Moscow with expats, students and one other surfer, a french girl from Brittany on her way to Mongolia. Later Dima showed me some totally hilarious videos of Boris Yeltsin behaving like a drunk teenager on youtube- they were well worth looking at and made me think he was probably the greatest ever russian leader.
Moscow is certainly beautiful in the extreme- huge, historical and supremely detailed buildings, leafy parks with statues, metro stations with chandaliers on the ceiling, oil paintings on the walls and gravestone-sized slabs of marble on the floors. This, and my couchsurfing hosts, are about all I found positive in this imposing city. The people on the whole were unresponsive to my parkbench greetings. Prices were comparable to London and all the public toilets cost the equivalent of 50p. People were dressed immaculately and showed the wealth they had, or were in the throes of base poverty and sleeping on the metro circle line. Money was clearly the dominent father, son and holy spirit. Fat men dressed as Lenin and Stalin charged 50 roubles for a photo with them, competing with a monkey dressed as a baby (same price) and every multinational food outlet you could imagine for the tourist dollar. Russian police imposed huge on the spot fines for visa irregularities that had no basis in fact. The Courgettes were pumped with so much water to make them bigger that my 8-egg omelette i made for the next train ride didn't stick together.
But no mind- i scooped it dripping into a cut off yoghurt container and got on a train that would take me the longest distance yet- over 3000km and 72 hours over the Kazakh steppe to Almaty.