Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Except without the Planes. Or the Automobiles. Basically, ‘Trains’ is what I’m saying.


Irkutsk
Irkutsk has a statue of a ‘cello. Good start, city.

We arrived in Irkutsk yesterday after 4 nights on the Trans-Siberian. In the past 2 and a half weeks, we’ve racked up aroundabout 5000 miles on trains and travelled 8 timezones  away from London. It’s been a bit of a rush to be honest, we barely spent any time at all in Brussels or Warsaw and could probably have done with an extra day in many of the other cities. Our aggressive pace has been mostly due to needing to get to Kathmandu in Nepal for 22nd September. Now we’re out reasonably far east though, we have the opportunity to calm things down a bit.

Until the transsib, all our other journeys have been pretty short and sweet, from 2-12 hours long, even the overnighters. Four nights is a lot longer to commit to a journey though, and I say this as a man who got frustrated with the 50 minute journey from Cambridge to Kings Cross. If I had to pick one word to describe the trip though, I’d probably pick ‘quiet’. Despite all the tales of drunk russians and partying westerners, there was very little noise at all, indeed we neither saw nor smelled vodka for the whole journey. We took trips to the dining car but it was pretty much deserted – only one or two tables ever had people there. I don’t know if it was just the time of year (late August being end of holiday season) or the train itself (the ‘Vostok’ is the Moscow-Beijing trans-Manchurian train), but it was very relaxed and, well, as I said, quiet.


Our Compartment on the Trans-Siberian
Our compartment

This left us lots of time to lounge, read, listen to music and podcasts or watch TV on my tablet. Every few hours there was a station stop to stretch our legs and stock up on soft drinks, snacks, beer and occasionally fruit. There were some pretty naff woven raffia hats and toys available for purchase, as well as some slightly dubious (and faintly racist) pictures of massages.  You could also get fur-lined boots and woolen blankets, we declined politely.

Irkutsk itself is quite pleasant and very warm. The timezones appear to be slightly odd here, so we get sunrise at 6:30 but sunset after 9. This skews noon and the afternoon heat to pretty late on. The city is definitely making an effort with tourists, weve come across far more random shopkeepers and restauranteurs who speak decent English here. Tomorrow we have an 18km hike along the shore of Lake Baikal and then three days staying in a small village by the lake called Bolshoi Koty.

The long journeys have meant I’ve finished the Henry VI plays for my Shakespeare blog (http://shakesonatrain.wordpress.com). Titus Andronicus is next.

Things to do on the Trans-Siberian

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  1. Write blog posts.
  2. Write fiction.
  3. Read William Gibson.
  4. Read Middlemarch.
  5. Listen to comedy podcasts.
  6. Learn useful Russian words and phrases.
  7. Devise an exercise regime that can be done in the compartment with minimal risk of falling over.
  8. Watch Top of the Lake on Loz’s tablet. (Zoe Bartlett sure is all grown up.)
  9. Make tea. (Black, Russian-style, but without the jam.)
  10. Nap.
  11. Allow Loz to teach me to play cards. Somehow manage this without it devolving into a marriage-threatening argument. (This plan still in beta.)
  12. Walk the length of the train. Trip over numerous small children and power cords. Almost choke at ends of each carriage, where people are allowed to smoke.
  13. Hope the babushkas at the next stop have some fresh fruit to sell.

Everything you read about the Trans-Siberian will tell you that there is not in fact any service with that name, and that there are three different lines that cross Siberia, terminating in different places; the true Trans-Siberian in Vladivostok, and the Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Manchurian in Beijing. The train we’re on is the Trans-Manchurian route, running from Moscow to Beijing in seven days, but we’re getting out at Irkutsk this time, after four nights and three days. We’re travelling spalny vagon, or first class, for this leg of the trip. There’s really only one difference between this and kupé, which our previous overnight trains have been; each compartment contains only two bunks, rather than four, so we have our compartment to ourselves. The bunks fold up in the morning, back into seats, and we can fold down our small table. Our carriage has two provodnitsas, Svetlana and Natalya. They take tickets, hoover the carriage, sell snacks and drinks, and, most importantly, keep the samovar in each carriage full of hot water. Instant noodles and porridge are consequently quite popular on board. The train makes three or four stops each 24 hours, where you can jump off the train for 10 or 20 minutes, stretch your legs, and replenish supplies from the babushkas who sell on the platforms.

The scenery is hypnotic, though; it’s hard to look at it for long without your eyes closing. The weather has been flawless since we left Moscow, and the countryside doesn’t look all that different from England, woods and fields, except that the forests are mostly pine and the train can run for hours without passing any sign of human habitation. The train timetables are all defiantly on Moscow time throughout the country, in spite of the absurdities this creates. Already we’re four hours ahead of Moscow time, and we need to keep track of both, for the dining car, with its own logic, sticks strictly to local time in its opening hours.

It’s nice to be away from cities, now, and looking forward to hiking and swimming (and a shower) in Siberia. In the meantime, the train is a sort of limbo. Should you eat now? Read? Let your eyes close? Just stare out the window? Try to adjust mealtimes in line with local time, or just eat when you feel hungry? The result is a kind of dreamy, abstracted state where everything seems worth putting off, at least until the next stop at a station galvanises us into our boots.

Ja <3 Moskva

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So, Moscow. I didn’t know what to make of it at first, but it grew on me, slowly. We spent less time pursuing the usual tourist things this time, and more assembling supplies for our four days on the Trans-Siberian, which took us out of the centre of the city and into the parts Muscovites experience. Our first day, after getting off the sleeper from St. Petersburg at 8am, we were forced to wait several exhausted and grumpy hours to check into our hostel, which led to Day 1 being something of a write-off. Day 2 took us on a quest to find outdoors shops to acquire some insulated mugs and a pocketknife; we succeeded, at the cost of a fairly amusing pantomine performance of ‘no, a smaller knife than that… no, a bit bigger…’ with the Ukrainian shopkeeper. (Russian outdoors shops appear to be slightly less about the hill-walking, and more about the enormous guns and, for some reason, metal detectors.) We did take in Gorky Park on our way, though, and found it beautiful – forest paths, lakes, cafes, a tree-walk, and an entire squadron of ping-pong tables. In the evening, we ate at a vegetarian Indian restaurant that seems to serve as a counter-cultural hub, listening to an American argue vociferously with a Russian about the impact of the homophobic laws on the Russian arts. (‘The Marlene Dietrich exhibition was such a success, but the Greta Garbo one isn’t going to come here now!’) Walking home, we got drenched to the skin in a thunderstorm.

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Our last day was grey and consistently rainy. We did our duty as tourists; the bus tour, a walk around the Kremlin, St. Basil’s cathedral., the GUM department store The city has obviously had significant money invested in it in recent years, and gives off the vibe of being a modern European city much more strongly than St. Petersburg and its faded grandeur. At the same time, it gives off the sense that it, like London, has acted as something of a black hole, sucking in all the money from the surrounding country in a way that has left it resentful. Construction is everywhere; architecture has been preserved; parks are green and pleasant; things glitter; every Western designer has a glossy boutique. It could have been a London on its best behaviour (and with comparable prices for everything). But both of us had started to get tired of our whirlwind tour of cities and museums, and weren’t sorry to pack for Siberia.

Oh My God All the Brides

I liked Moscow more than I think I expected. Amy’s made some points about the concerns we both had coming to Russia, given their recent degeneration in terms of LGBT rights. Given this and a sort of semi-constant sense of paranoia about the police that is exuded from Visa requirements through travel books (not to mention the Night Watch films) and warnings from hostels, I think I had built Moscow up to be a bit of a pit stop with our heads down before we got on with the serious business of the Trans Siberian. It’s definitely easier to like a city if it’s sunny, but after a shaky start, I found Moscow to be more vibrant and buzzing than St Petersburg. The metros in both are stunning halls and columns of marble – although they could do with (significantly) better signage. St Petersburg just feels a bit fading though, decaying. Moscow is expensive, but more interesting.

After a quiet first day, we headed down to a trekking shop to pick up a couple of things for the Transsib before a long walk back to the City through Gorky Park. Gorky Park is truly lovely, wooded and hilly in sections, pouring down to the river, as well as long promenades, lakes, cafes and social clubs for kids. A very pleasant way to spend a sunny afternoon.

The sunshine was sadly not to last, utterly drenching us on the way back from dinner. The next day was generally grey and drizzley, but we made our way around some of the more touristy areas, hiking a full circuit around the Kremlin. Red Square was being set up for an International Military Tattoo so we didn’t really get to experience it (based on the advert we saw for the South Korean section, I think they’re doing Gangnam Style. I bet they love that.) The rest of the castle and palace was pretty impressive though.

One feature we’d started noticing in Warsaw was a huge number of bridal shops. This continued in Vilnius, where there was some sort of ‘bride-off’ in the town square, before we started seeing newlyweds walking around in St Petersburg. This got to a ridiculous level on Friday and Saturday in Moscow. There were absolutely tons of newlyweds getting photos taken in the park, in shopping malls, by the Kremlin or by the river. There’s a tradition where you take a padlock, inscribe both sets of initials into it and then lock it on a bridge – throwing the key into the river. There are bridges covered in padlocks – and in Moscow they have got metal ‘trees’ in the middle of bridges designed for this.  It’s pretty awesome.

Stranger in a strange land

I am not at all sure we should be in Russia right now.

Not for the… safety reasons, I suppose. At least not for me. But as a country, it’s racist, it’s endemically corrupt, and increasingly it’s trying to violently legislate a significant number of my friends out of existence. The European stops we made on our way here were the story of the misery and devastation the Soviet regime inflicted through the 20th century. Had the intensification of the homophobic agenda (I don’t kid myself it’s completely new) happened before we’d planned and booked this part of the trip, I’m not sure we’d have come. Should we have come anyway? I don’t know. And all the things I’ve said are also true of the African countries I went to last year. To what extent does visiting a country involve colluding with policies you find repulsive? Where does cultural imperialism stop and standing up for your values begin?

unsettling Soviet art in the Russian museum

Anyway, here we are in Moscow. We caught a compact, modern night train from St. Petersburg, leaving just before midnight and sharing our compartment with a young Dutch electrician named Christian on his second big travelling trip in three years. I’ve more-or-less taught myself the Cyrillic alphabet and now compulsively translate everything I can; street names, Metro stops, advertising posters. That helps a lot; it’s very dislocating not to be able to read a word of what’s around you. The staff in hostels and in a few upmarket tourist establishments speak English; otherwise we’re getting by with pointing, smiling a lot, deploying our few words of Russian, and the international language of money. St Petersburg was a bit of a lull; I struggled to get enough to eat for a couple of days with so much travelling and was low on energy. I enjoyed the Museum of Soviet Arcade Games considerably, the Russian Museum to a degree, although I find a lot of Soviet art considerably unsettling.

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One of the things that being in Russia has been good to remind me of is that not everyone can rely on the police. Even having diligently registered and having the correct visas, I find myself shifting my eyes nervously away from the very many policemen on the streets and in the metro.

For those that are interested, you can see my point-and-shoot photos of the trip here, via Flickr, but you’ll probably want to check out Loz’s stream for a higher-quality setup and more editing.

In Soviet Russia, etc., bla…

Just arrived this morning in Moscow after a few days in St Petersburg and an overnight train. This is our last stop before our 4-night train to Irkutsk, so an opportunity to stock up on supplies. Oh and see a bit of Moscow.

St Petersburg is a slightly odd city, it’s bustling and fully of classic facades and architecture (often painted in pastels – in particular the Pistachio Winter Palace/Hermitage)


St Petersburg

It’s also oddly un-modern, the lack of classic glass and steel structures is fine, but there are telephone lines running across the streets everywhere too. It sits slightly out of character.

Other than that, we stayed in an utterly superb hostel called Soul Kitchen Jr and spent some time wandering the streets of Nevsky Prospect and around the Museum of Russian Art.


St Petersburg

As well as an old Russian Computer Games museum:


St Petersburg

The overnight train was pretty reasonable, in particular the Russian Martial music playing us on and off was very stirring.

Lessons Learned, Vol. 1

Part 1 of ?

1. When getting on an inter-country train, take currencies for where you’re leaving AND where you’re going. Because when you need food or drink on the train, whatever you have guessed, you will find out you were wrong.

2. Heavy things go in the lower part of the backpack.

3. Swallow your pride and ask people for help, or what on earth that announcement meant.

4. You can learn a surprising amount of a foreign language from advertising posters.