A city asleep

A city asleep
Irkutsk, Russian Federation

Irkutsk, Russian Federation


Outside the station in Irkutsk I meet Laïm, who is also trying to dodge the touting taxi drivers. Together we walk across the bridge over the Angara river into the town centre. It is 08:30 on Sunday morning and the place is deserted. We stop at the only open café, the Irkutsk equivalent of the one Alan Sugar sends his losing teams to. It is grim! We compare itineraries. Laïm tells me I should have taken the cheapest class on the train here instead of the mid-range option. He has fifteen days for Lake Baikal while I am making do with just two. Somewhere there is always someone who has done your journey faster, slower or cheaper. They have seen more or gone further. None of that matters, of course. With the effects of three days on a train gradually lifting, I hoover up the free snacks and tea on offer at the charming tourist information office, say goodbye to Laïm and get the first bus to the lake.


Advertisements

Coincidences

Coincidences
Irkutsk, Russian Federation

Irkutsk, Russian Federation


Kaili from Singapore flew from Latin America to stay in the same St. Petersburg hostel as I did. She then had a solitary, homeless day in Moscow akin to mine in Yekaterinburg, before making the same train/bus connection to the same hostel on the shores of Lake Baikal as I did. Here when we meet in person, we also establish that we booked the same hostel in Ulan Bator for Tuesday night. And the same train to Mongolia. Through the same ticket agency. In the same carriage. In adjacent seats. Sometimes it feels like there is only one line around the world.


A soldier and a sports team

A soldier and a sports team
Krasnoyarsk, Russian Federation

Krasnoyarsk, Russian Federation


Dep: Thursday 28th May 22:21 Arr: Sunday 31st May 08:28 I am as acquainted as I am ever going to be with Piotr, my twenty-five year old cabinmate for the entertaining journey to Irkutsk. Without a common language, we settle into narrow, mono-syllabic conversations such as: “St. Petersburg, like?” “Da. Yes. Like.” “Omsk, big?” “Yes.” Thanks to his smartphone’s translation app I learn that he is a soldier with a pregnant wife. Actually, I am willing the internet to collapse so I can unleash point it®. point it® is a charming dictionary full of eighties photographs of things to point to when language fails. Images range from the practical (foodstuffs, maps) to the obselete (floppy disk and video cassette) that have mystifyingly survived fifteen years and two million copies sold. A Krasnoyarsk – based sports team’s twelve hour cameo livens up proceedings. On their way home from a tournament in Novosibirsk, the two girls on the team are barely settled into the top bunks of our cabin when the rest of the squad – all guys – are hovering at the door. They arrive as bodyguards but quickly pile into our four-berth cabin as inquisitors once they realise I’m English. “Do you like Putin?” “Are Russian women more beautiful than English women?” “Is English coffee better than Russian coffee?” “Alex Ferguson?” Their disbelief that a Western European would travel this way takes another well-aimed swipe at the Trans-Siberian tourist legend. It’s about time I improved my Russian!


Life on the Russian railways

Life on the Russian railways
Novosibirsk, Russian Federation

Novosibirsk, Russian Federation


Outside, the inexhaustible tracts of silver birch trees are studded with corrugated iron roofs and patches of grassland. Contrary to some of the more nostalgic legends woven into the fabric of this journey, the scenery is neither evocative nor life-changing, it just is – in abundance. Each train carriage is governed by a Provodnitsa. She dishes out bedding and meals, and threatens whenever a rule is contravened. She is a matron dressed as a stewardess. As the hours dawdle by without routine, it is best to let her domestication take the lead. “Chicken, fish or beef?” Her question wakes me up each morning. Three insipid courses are served within the following hour. At the end of the afternoon there is no option but to empty instant noodles and samovar-heated water into a Thermos and stare at the forest while they coagulate. One day, resisting the onset of inertia, I clack the doors over the noisy, swaying gantries between the carriages in search of the restaurant car. There, a surprised cook stares as I meet the eyes of the solitary diner, a regiment of empty plastic chairs ranked around him. His grim features quickly refocus on a limp watery broth that I recognise from my own breakfast as I retreat to the cabin. Every few hours the forest breaks and we topple out of the train into a siding for some scheduled unconditioned air. Us passengers congregate briefly around locals parading fresh fish and breads on the thin strip of tarmac while the Provodnista keeps watch. Best not to stray too far, her rapid gesture is as much notice of departure as we will get. These are the foundations, then, onto which the Trans-Siberian experience is constructed. It is in reflection and acquaintance that they will be embellished into an epic.


A layover

A layover
Yekaterinburg, Russian Federation

Yekaterinburg, Russian Federation


I didn’t intend to regurgitate history already set out elsewhere in this blog, but I’ll make an exception here: In 1918 the Russian Royal Family was moved to Yekaterinburg. Later that year they were shot and bayoneted to death in a basement at the order of the Bolshevik government official Yacob Sverdlov. This grisly claim to fame stays with me as, after a long-awaited shower in the station lounge, I wander somewhat uneasily through Russia’s fourth largest city. Thunder rattles around the lavishly prominent Church on the Blood, the memorial built on the site of the Romanov brutalities. Meanwhile I see four policemen remove a teenager from the banks of the River Iset following some unknown misdemeanour, each one hauling a limb. Before the humidity intensifies, though, the weather is glorious. A light breeze is a blessed alternative to carriage air conditioning, and the classy riverside promenade is a great place to appreciate it at the start of this day-long break in the journey east. Furthermore, having subsisted largely on instant noodles and granola for two days, I disregard my food budget and find lunch in a decent Georgian restaurant. I enjoy aubergine wrapped around humous and walnuts followed by a pot-cooked lamb stew. On the waterfront, buskers in the shadows of the church begin a lilting rendition of Girl from Ipanema and history finally retreats enough for me to enjoy the stroll back to the station with renewed optimism.


‘Trans-Siberian’: St Petersburg-Yekaterinburg

'Trans-Siberian': St Petersburg-Yekaterinburg
Kirov, Russia

Kirov, Russia


I spend today on the train. I see an elk and three goats out of the window… …and really that’s about it, apart from the trees. So many trees! It’s as if I’m running some sort of drop-in centre in the cabin. Natascha and Igor’s eleven hours are up and they are replaced by Ramon. He is good natured and also speaks some English. As we shake hands when his eight-hour journey to Perm comes to an end he says solemnly, “Your way is long. Good night.” One from the Legolas dictionary of English, that. We arrive five minutes early, 1.5 days after leaving Saint Petersburg. The matronly carriage attendant gives me a look as I step off for a fifteen hour layover in Yekaterinburg as if to say “you did it kid.”


‘Trans-Siberian’: St Petersburg-Yekaterinburg

'Trans-Siberian': St Petersburg-Yekaterinburg
Vologda, Russian Federation

Vologda, Russian Federation


Dep: 26th May 17:09 Arr: 28th May 04:29 The heavily romanticised notion of the Trans-Siberian experience involves a wild-eyed horse trader from Omsk, several bottles of disreputable vodka and an incomprehensible card game. Babushkas flood the train at every stop peddling lighter fluid, hairy fish and potatoes with green stuff inside. Time distorts as endless spindly trees flash past the windows. In fairness, my first journey on the Russian railways is spent getting to (rather than in) Siberia. Yekaterinburg is 2000km away in another time zone. It all turns out to be rather civilised. Opposite me on day one are Tascha and Igor on an eleven-hour work trip to Vologda, halfway to Yekaterinburg. Thankfully Tascha speaks a little English so we can communicate. Some of their fifteen colleagues also onboard – Nick, Nick and Marcus – join our four-berth cabin bearing salami, cheese, tomatoes and the end of a bottle of cognac. “My wife bought all this”, one of the Nicks says, pointing to the food. Then suddenly in English: “She is Scrooge McDuck!” I haven’t a clue what he means but I find this extremely funny anyway! We drink three times (“little, little” advises Nick) and I get the opportunity to make an ‘English toast’ before the carriage attendant – provodnitsa in Russian – tells us to stop. Tascha, Igor and colleagues are all gone by the time I’ve surfaced the next morning, a panpipe rendition of House of the Rising Sun blaring on the carriage radio. Maybe the horse traders don’t operate this far west of Omsk.


Happy 312th birthday St Petersburg

Happy 312th birthday St Petersburg
St. Petersburg, Russian Federation

St. Petersburg, Russian Federation


St Petersburg is an immense city. Its imperial grandeur and plethora of world-class sights is hugely impressive, albeit somewhat daunting at first. Take the northern end of the main street Nevsky Prospekt as an example. There you can find (among many others) Kazan Cathedral and the astonishing Winter Palace and Hermitage museum complex. An hour spent in the Palace Square for the city’s birthday concert – see video below – was particularly awe-inspiring. Someone tells me that if you spent ten minutes in each of the rooms in the palace you’d be there a month! After breakfast with Natasha and Michelle from the hostel I can manage three hours in the museum before I have to leave my travel companion Ying-an acquaintaince from the previous day’s trip to Peter the Great’s grandiose summer house Peterhof-and think about packing for the Trans-Siberian later in the day. I leave with the sensation that I have had many times on the trip so far: that there is so much more to see. One of the first things I will do when I’ve used the current crop of train tickets is slow down!


An unexpected lunch date

An unexpected lunch date
St. Petersburg, Russian Federation

St. Petersburg, Russian Federation


“Don’t shoot”. This command lifts my attention from my phone to the seat opposite. I had been studying Russian restaurant etiquette over a quick lunch on the way back to the hostel and it appeared I now had an immediate chance to practice. The empty seat opposite had been filled by an extra from Top Gun, aviators covering much of a purposeful, round face. “Are you shooting me?” This accusation is delivered with an edge. I don’t have a gun, I am just eating lunch. But then I realise, he suspects me of slyly taking (or ‘shooting’) pictures of him and his girlfriend having lunch on the next table while I’ve been on my phone. “No,” I blurt out rapidly, “I’m not shooting you”. I have to reiterate this four or five times before he is satisfied and his girlfriend has come back into the restaurant to find out why he is still there. He leaves warily and I am back in the hostel shortly afterwards.


Europe’s last stand

Europe's last stand
Helsinki, Finland

Helsinki, Finland


I’m a little confused by Helsinki. With its malls and grids it seems to be striving to emulate a North American metropolis. On the other hand the classic architecture, the cool scenic waterfront and the trams scuttling through the streets is all very continental. Nevertheless this final stop on the European leg is fantastic. For starters, Helsinki delivers on three very important requirements following our night in a forest cabin: 1. Hot shower 2. Coffee 3. Sleep This is thanks to Maria’s brother Timo and girlfriend Sara, whose wonderful hospitality coaxes me back into the land of the living. It is also great to see Laura, Maria’s sister, for the first time in many years. Together they are also full of helpful and – mostly – encouraging advice for the trains across Russia, mostly concerning vodka and boiled eggs filled with mayonnaise!   The World Village Festival has come to town, filled with stands and stalls from charitable organisations around the world, and some great live music. For example, Kaveri Special-a band whose lead singer would seem to belong in a Green Day tribute act-launch into some entertaining Afrobeat. After a tour of the city (with a specialist tour guide), in the last hour before my train to Russia, I order an English ale and reflect on how special this adventure through Europe has been. As of today, Europe is home. But where exactly? And how will that be influenced by the real reason I left the UK, the Trans-Siberian railway? It’s time to find out.