Epiphany on the Russia Express

Is a train ride from Makhachkala to Moscow the world's best travel experience?

By / December 2013

No hot-air balloon. No aerial views of the globe. But there’s no better way to see the world than the thousand-mile, 40-hour train ride across the Russian Federation via the Makhachkala–Moscow Express. I’ve survived the journey more than a dozen times. Each time, about twenty hours into the grueling crawl, I swear to myself that I’ll never do it again. Train travel in Russia isn’t for the faint of heart. Despite the lack of comfort, however, I find myself drawn to this particular journey repeatedly. For my money, no other travel experience is better suited for unhurried contemplation and cultural observation.

The typical third-class wagon has two facing bunks with a third situated laterally across the narrow aisle. The inch-thick mattresses are supported by metal slabs. Stretching out is possible, if, like my wife, you’re no taller than 5’2”. Two cramped bathrooms with World War Two-era rusty steel toilets service the pilgrim community at either end of the 54-person compartment. I have learned that it is best to go during the first half of the journey. To be sure, there is a second class section and even an overpriced “lux” compartment, but I prefer traveling third-class, the railcar equivalent of the cheap seats at a baseball game. Here you get to mingle with the hoi polloi. There are more windows, too, through which to appraise the changing scenery.

The train runs through the Caucasus Mountains and along the Caspian Sea, through the sand dunes of the Kalmyk desert, across endless expanses of steppe, over the Volga River (Russia’s Amazon), into the ocean-deep deciduous forests of central Russia, and finally out into the congestion, chaos and concrete abyss of Moscow, Europe’s largest metropolis. Along the way it seems to move back in time as it skirts train depots that harken back to the days of Stalin.

But what mesmerizes me most about the Makhachkala-Moscow line is the rapid-fire trek through diverse world cultures – all beneath the same flag and within the same time zone. It begins with the midday mayhem of Makhachkala, the ‘Wild West’ capital city of Dagestan. Dagestan alone is a kaleidoscope of cultures: Caucasus, Persian, and Turkish ethnicities, some of which contain the most complex grammars on earth, some only being spoken by a few hundred isolated villagers. Parts of this ancient, aggressive land of mountain-dwellers have been Muslim since the 8th Century, and yet Russia’s oldest Jewish community can also be found here.

The presence of forty junior wrestling champions, Dagestan’s most popular sport, on a trip last winter helped me take note of the obvious: warrior blood flows through the veins of the Dagestani passengers. When we first joined the mad fray to board the train, it seemed almost like passengers were attacking it in small clusters. Though unorganized, the ebb and flow of different clans hoisting their loved ones onto the platform did faintly resemble a military maneuver. Instantly, my mind was transported back through the centuries. I pictured brave platoons sweeping down from invisible mountain abodes to beat back the armies of Russian czars, Persian shahs, and Mongol hordes.

Away from the restive Caucasus, from these wild and free mountain peoples of Dagestan, the train retreats into the lazy, little-known land of Kalmykia – a desert republic peopled by the Kalmyk, cousins to the Mongols, descendants of Genghis Khan. Here you can find Buddhist temples in every village made out of wood and concrete. The Kalmyk remain Europe’s only indigenous Buddhist population. Rambling herds of double-humped camels roam the Russian desert. There is a frontier general store in Kalmykia that still uses an abacus to calculate change.

Although there is no restaurant wagon, Dagestani hospitality ensures that no one goes hungry aboard the train. In addition, merchants move up and down the aisles, peddling an unimaginable assortment of wares – soft drinks, sunflower seeds, crossword puzzle books, homemade wool slippers, headscarves, goat-hair shawls, Chinese watches, and Russian jewelry. After dinner, as darkness descends on the desert, a choir of world-class snoring gets under way.

Farther on, the desert morphs into the vast steppe lands that paved the way for the mighty Mongol conquests of the Middle Ages. These are the historic homelands of the Kazakh, Tatar, and other related peoples. They are Asiatic-looking folk, mildly Muslim, nowhere near as religious or as volatile as their Dagestani friends to the south. I have found the endless grass steppe a good place to let the train’s motion sway you to sleep, or whatever state of half-consciousness you can reach in the fetal position on a hard metal slab.

The big, bright sunrise over the barren, eastern steppe comes as an epiphany. On my last trip, the young wrestlers onboard, most of whom had never been more than fifty miles from home, appeared to be grappling with the sudden revelation that the earth could be so vast. Later, around lunchtime, the train happened upon what seemed to be an oasis. The steppe ended abruptly, as if in deference to that fluvial monstrosity, the Volga. The train teetered across what had once been the largest bridge in the whole of the Soviet Union. The wrestlers’ wide eyes suggested they had never gazed upon a river so enormous. Across the river, the drowsy town of Saratov received us without much fanfare on a forty-five minute refueling stop. Saratov acts as a gateway to other rail lines to the east and northeast, on to Siberia.

Due north out of Saratov our train rumbled through rolling wooded hills that flowed into one of earth’s largest deciduous forests. The Russian Russians live here. The passengers who board in these parts seem almost afraid of the others, especially the Dagestanis, while also projecting an air of superiority over them. They scarf their pickles and black bread, and mostly keep to themselves, shooting sharp glances at the non-ethnic Russians around them. On my recent trip, however, one Russian sidled up to one of the Dagestani wrestling coaches and myself, offering us a slug of his wheat beer and a taste of dried fish. At that moment, it was the Makhachkala native who felt uneasy about receiving the Russian’s hospitality, though ultimately the coach accepted the offer.

The sun vanished as we churned our way through the thick of the forest, the scent of birch and pine mixing with the smokers’ exhalations and the train’s diesel emissions. The confluence of smells had about it a liberating quality, assuring us that we weren’t prisoners after all despite the train wagon’s striking resemblance. The night was cut short by the female wagon-master. At 4:30 a.m., she flicked on the lone florescent light bulb overhead and loudly clamored for our arousal. Central Moscow station was an hour ahead.

Rather than a melting pot, Moscow better resembles a zoo, with each minority in its controlled place of economy or residence or entertainment and with that Russian-xenophobic-forest-culture everywhere prominent.

The Dagestani wrestlers had never seen such a teeming mass of humanity, such a blur of lights and roads and cars and shops, such unending columns of grey high-rise apartment buildings. Snowflakes descended on the tracks in a silent cadence, swathing the new sights in an extra layer of glimmer and awe. I disembarked at Moscow’s Kazansky station into crowds and crowds of people. Like the Makhachkala-Moscow train, Russian national unity is neither easy nor comfortable. But the train, teeming with diverse people all heading in the same direction, remains a harbinger of hope and possibility.


Dave Hayton, a regular EthnoTraveler contributor, is a writer living in Dagestan.