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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Engine That Could

St. Petersburg is the world capital of grandiose ideas. It was from here that Peter the Great planned to rebuild his vast and primitive empire to a European design, from here that Lenin set out to repaint the whole place red, and from here that most recently of all, the Bolshoi Express was scheduled to depart.


The plan, as conceived by Hugo Kimber of the luxury British travel firm Cox & Kings, was to take a clanking Russian steam train, fill it with a BBC film crew and sundry tourists, load up with champagne, caviar and gypsy musicians, and drive it for 5, 000 kilometers from St. Petersburg to Tashkent.


Through a combination of drive, charm and British pluck, Kimber managed to get this ambitious idea on the rails, but on the eve of the inaugural trip in early April, he looked as though he might be regretting it. He had flown in with his 40 foreign passengers - each of whom had paid ? 2, 500 ($3, 900) for the 14-day trip, including airfare - to find that no one knew where the train was. Suddenly, it seemed he had an awful lot at stake: his company's unsecured ? 300, 000 investment in the project, the hopes and expectations of his high-paying passengers, and the possibility of a very public humiliation on the BBC's Great Railway Journeys of the World.


"Anyway. Never mind. We got this far", said Kimber, hitching up his suspenders, sucking on a cigarette and anxiously pushing his straight black hair back from his forehead in a gesture he would repeat in the next week. Six hours from departure time the train was still AWOL, but as we hit platform one at St. Petersburg Station there it finally was: 16 cars long and 10 feet wide, its elegant maroon coachwork embossed with brass lettering and its staff in their gray livery standing outside each carriage.


Built in Russian workshops in the 1950s and originally designed for top-ranking Soviet officials, the Bolshoi Express was renovated for foreign visitors in 1990. Each compartment was done in polished mahogany and brown flock upholstery with two beds, an armchair, a writing table and a sofa. Every two compartments shared a bathroom in which you could shower sitting down. Outside, a brass band was massed on the platform in ski hats and belted anoraks, playing Glen Miller favorites. Everyone converged on the free champagne in the lounge bar - a 1930s-style confection of glass, chrome and mirrors - from where we watched as Natalia Makarova, Bolshoi Ballerina-turned-BBC-TV-presenter, got on board, waved goodbye, then got off again to do a retake. The band played "Elmer's Tune", Natalia got on, got off again, then got on for the third time catching her scarf in the door. There was a shout from the guard as, straining and grinding, the steam engine heaved us away, out of town, through birch forests still clad in the vestiges of winter.


In the dusty light of evening, country scenes flashed by the carriage windows like sepia stills from a Victorian photo album: a man holding his daughter's hand in the center of a muddy track, a wooden dacha under the moon, and finally a rural station, its platform lined with cold, depressed workers from a communal farm. Some of them glanced through the dining car window; they seemed unsurprised by the white tablecloths, the crystal glasses and the carved wooden dining chairs padded with red velour. I realized then that these people must have seen this many times before. The nomenclatura who used to travel on this train probably used the same plates. They probably had the same chef: the food was well above average.


Kimber disappeared for a day in Moscow and rejoined us after our night at the ballet, looking somewhat frayed after 24 hours of vodka-soaked renegotiation with his Russian partners, Intertrack. There is still no binding law of contract in Russia, so his agreements with his suppliers and subcontractors down the line for coal, oil and water were entirely dependent on mutual trust. Still, he thought the original agreements would stick, and that our adventure had a good chance of success. As a mark of faith, a motley band of railway officials came on board in Moscow to see us off. They stood in the lounge car, looking shady and conspiratorial in their leather coats with curling lapels. They downed a few vodkas, wished us all the best and trooped out, smiling. We rumbled on into the great unknown.


The sun shone all the next day, although it might as well have conserved its energy, because we were seeing Russia at its worst. It was early April, and the landscape lay naked and enfeebled; the grass was brown and the trees were bare.


On the other hand, life inside the train was as wild as you could wish. Long train journeys are unrelentingly sociable, because it's impossible to get to the dining room without falling into someone else's lap. On the second day, I bumped into Dr. Tony, a sociable general practitioner from London who was predictably the heaviest smoker on the trip. In the evening I blundered into Ken, Britain's largest prawn importer, and bounced off into his wife Brenda who runs an exclusive ladie's underwear store in Newcastle. We had to shout to make ourselves heard above the accordion music. The resident gypsy singer seemed almost as drunk as the passengers. Now she was leaning back on the handrail with a six-inch heel jammed in the radiator grill behind her, bellowing out mournful Russian folk songs at a volume sufficient to mask the noise of the train.


With her high notes still reverberating in my ears I finally made my way down to my sleeping carriage, colliding at various junctures into other passengers. As the train hit a final bend I fell into my cabin, briefly registered the foil-wrapped chocolate that had been left by the cabin staff on my pillow, aimed my head at it and woke up in Volgograd.


In this town, formerly Stalingrad, we were delivered into the hands of a local tour guide who greatly overestimated our interest in the Great Patriotic War. Depressed by her tales of Russian suffering, I left the museum and went outside. I found the only German in our party, looking out across the flat grey waters of the Volga.


"My grandfather fought here too", she said, "and I can tell you this - he didn't have any fun either".


My last view of the day through the dining-car window was the floodlit statue of Mother Russia on the hill above Volgograd. My first sight the next morning as I pulled back the white silk curtains was of the station at Astrakhan on the edge of the Caspian Sea. Our staff were lined along the coaches, polishing the big brass emblems. Across the railway links, the BBC crew was setting up, shouting across to Natalia Makarova to disembark from the train for the second or third time.


Sadly, I had to fly back to Moscow from here. The others were continuing round the top end of the Caspian Sea to the ancient Central Asian towns of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand before arriving in Tashkent and then flying back to Moscow. The last I saw of Kimber was a flash of his red socks as he hurried up and down the platform trying to get them back on board. I waved goodbye, wishing him every success.


He deserves it. There have been other experiments like this in recreating the travel of a bygone age, but few have been so ambitious. The famous Orient Express is now reduced to making brief overpriced trips to Venice and back. The only recent scheme to match the Bolshoi in scale and ambition was the attempt to run a Catalina flying boat down the east coast of Africa. I hear that particular project has since gone bust.


The Bolshoi Express is not without its disappointments - such as the dreary scenery. But every trip it makes will be a blow struck for Optimism in the Face of the Impossible, that strange force manifest by the architects of the Winter Palace, the defenders of Stalingrad, and good old Boris Yeltsin. The Israelis call it chutzpah. In Russia it's called something like smelost. I don't know what it's called in Uzbekistan but, as the train did complete its journey, they obviously have it there too - at least for hard currency.


John Collee writes for The Observer.