This (Sunday) morning I reached Volgograd after a couple of long train journeys.
Setting off from Warsaw on Friday afternoon, I found the other three places in the compartment occupied by a Russian couple and a younger woman. The women greeted me warmly enough, the man looked away sternly. It’s already their smelly pit, unmade beds and all, I thought.
“Three-three” a German woman shouted down the corridor when Ronaldo got his hat trick. An English voice was saying on the phone I’m a woman, I don’t really like football but we’re going for his birthday.
When we reached the frontier with Belarus the younger woman pointed out that a bottle of beer I’d brought had fallen over and was leaking over the carpet. I jumped to clear it up. Wait, they gestured, till the passport and customs inspections are done, we must stay still and submissive.
The embarrassing pool spread.
Eventually I could mop up. Looking for a plastic bag to put the sodden tissues in, I discovered that the smell I’d originally noticed was coming from the cheese I’d brought for the journey.
I fled to the restaurant car.
There I met a Russian who confessed that their 5-0 win over Saudi Arabia had given him some hope. He said he began supporting CSKA in the fifties, at the age of seven, to spite his father, who used to discipline him for his poor school results and supported Dynamo Moscow. He told me about his deal with the provodnitsa (conductress) to smoke in the toilet. He’s the only Russian I’ve met so far with faith in his team.
A young woman from Vladivostok joined us. She was interested in the older man’s smoking tips, but said that Russia will win the world cup when Brazil are world ice hockey champions.
We reached Moscow, around eleven. As he left our compartment, the steely man turned to me for the first time: I hope your team will win.
Yes, but what about your team, Russia?
Не будет (it won’t happen).
German fans getting off the train in Moscow
I caught the metro to Paveletskaya station and went to a café inside a supermarket. They didn’t exactly serve beer with their pirozhki. Nearby, however, was a stall with 16 beer taps. You could get the beer of your choice decanted into a brown plastic take-away bottle and no-one cared if you didn’t take it away.
Outside, Argentinian fans (thickest on the ground throughout the city, it seems) were drinking the same stuff.
Back at the station, I queued up to pay for the toilet. Do you have a World Cup Fan Card? OK, then you do not have to pay.
The sleeper for Volgograd left around two. I shared my compartment with a sedate Englishman, and the restaurant car with a drunk Russian so noisy that no-one else could be heard.
(A couple of Israeli fans, following England, were pointed out to me.)
The bar ran out of beer.
At nine we had a half hour stop at a place called Gryazi (“Mud”, according to Google Translate). When the train stops so does the air conditioning. We piled out onto the platform, crossed the neighbouring track and headed for the booths selling sweets, snacks and soft drinks.
Then a train came in and stopped on the track we had crossed. We were cut off. Were we supposed, like Nelson at St Vincent, to charge across one train in order to board another?
(Our train is hidden by the one in the picture)
Luckily our obstacle steamed out of the station five minutes after arriving.
I woke around six. The sun was long up. The grasslands rolling by with hardly a village or a fence or a cow must be the steppe.
As you come into Volgograd the Sword of Stalingrad statue is on your right, the stadium for tomorrow’s match t on the left.
From the station I walked down to the cliff below which flows the Volga. Paintings of Harry Kane and Mo Salah ornamented the way.
(travel: Sorock-Volgograd by car, sleeper train, metro, sleeper train: 1754 km; 46 hours 1 minute; 38 kph; 28 eurocents/km)