11,000 km since our last ferry trip (Dover-Calais), we boarded the Eastern Dream to sail from Vladivostok to Sakaiminato, Japan.
The boat goes once a week at 2pm, and stops in Donghae in Korea on the way. It’s overnight to Donghae, and another night to Sakaiminato. You can book a ticket all the way through to Japan, and you have the option to stay on the boat in Donghae, or get off for about 4 hours and explore the town. We booked the tickets about a week in advance by emailing the ferry company (DBS cruise) in English, and economy class was already booked up for the second leg of the journey, so it was even more expensive than we expected — nearly 300 USD each. This was one of the occasions where not flying makes travel a lot more expensive. But on the other hand, a lot more fun. (You haven’t lived until you’ve sat in a bar full of Koreans in late middle age politely clapping each other’s karaoke attempts, in the middle of the Sea of Japan.)
Vladivostok ferry terminal is somewhat confusing. It looks and feels like a small shopping mall, and it’s clear how to buy tickets, but not that clear how to actually board a boat. We stood for a while watching the door which we thought would eventually open to let us embark, but as the time ticked further and further past when we’d been told to board, we began to worry that it wasn’t the right door after all. The crowds of people waiting in the narrow corridor were mostly Korean, so we thought they must be going on our boat, but the door we were waiting by said nothing English but ‘Staff Only’ on it…
We spotted another backpacker, who was Dutch, and equally confused by the door situation. Comparing trip notes, the time passed much faster, and soon the unpromising door opened, and let us through.
We got through Russian immigration with barely a glare, which was a relief after weeks of panicking that we’d lose our all important entry and registration documents, and be stuck in Russia forever. Another backpacker on the boat wasn’t as lucky though, and was held with no explanation in a side room until seconds before departure, and then instructed to run for the boat as the gangplank was being detached.
Safely on board we felt a bit giddy — we’d officially left Russia, and nothing bad had happened! And we were going to Japan!!
We went to the bar to celebrate with Bob (the Dutch guy), and an Austrian who was having a Trans-Siberian holiday. After asking for Korean beer at the bar (the ship is Korean, so it seemed appropriate), we settled down at a table and were soon presented with a teapot, a bottle of cloudy liquid, and two bottles of clear stuff marked 20% ABV.
We’d ended up with a bottle of makoli, a milky looking fermented rice drink that’s traditionally served in a teapot, and two bottles of soju, which is basically just ethanol and water, and is Korea’s most popular drink. In fact it’s sort of the world’s most popular drink, since the most popular brand of soju is the biggest selling alcoholic drink in the world. The makoli was nice, but not exactly easy drinking — it’s flat and sour, and about 6%. Very similar to proper cider in a way, with comparable farmyard flavours. The soju was pretty nasty. Also, doing shots seemed a bit much for two in the afternoon, but when at sea…
The first night on the ship, very little seemed to be going on. The bar was pretty much deserted, the restaurant closed before we got there, and the Japanese style bath (or Sauna as the signs on board called it) was empty and dark. The Russia to Korea leg of the journey clearly isn’t that popular.
We stayed up for a while polishing off the vodka we hadn’t drunk on the train, with Bob, the Austrian, and a Russian from our cabin. Before bed we went out on deck for a bit to see if we could see North Korea. All we saw were some very distant lights, and a disconcerting number of nearby ships. By midnight we were tucked up in our bunks.
The economy class bunk room is in the middle of the boat, and has about 70 beds. It’s very comfortable, with a curtain and a little lamp for each bed, and a blanket and small pillow. There’s no luggage space though, so we had our bags wedged into the corner of our beds. Also, we were booked into beds in separate aisles, separated by a wall, for some reason.
There are also tatami mat rooms (Japanese style rooms with straw mat floors and roll out floor beds), but we didn’t specify and were put in the western style room.
Next morning we disembarked, last…
… and had a very brief look around Donghae. We spent most of the time in a very nice coffee shop, using the wifi to try and work out where the heck to go once we got to Japan.
Donghae was interesting, and about 15 degrees warmer again than Vladivostok. We were back to autumn, and the trees were back to oranges and yellows, rather than the uniform white and grey of Eastern Russia. Donghae is a fairly small town, and the first thing I noticed walking through was that, other than buildings, almost all the space was taken up by produce growing. Melons and squashes sat plumply dotted along roadside beds, and cabbages and chilli plants formed neat lines between houses.
We couldn’t find any fruit or veg to buy though. We considered nicking a persimmon, but decided against it. Instead we went to a convenience store and bought the realest food we could find: two boiled eggs, a pack of crackers, a sort of pizza bread thing, some ‘potato sticks’, a sausage, and two beers.
Or at least we thought it was a sausage.
On the boat that evening things were much busier. We’d also bought some instant ramen, expecting the restaurant to be closed again, but crowds of diners filed past us as we sat on a bench slurping our noodles. It still closed at 7.30 pm though. Asian cruise ferries seem to run on a very regimented schedule.
After dinner we took in the show, where the bar staff performed as a surprisingly convincing rock band, then danced energetically for 20 minutes to a mashup including Gangnam style (obviously). The other (Korean) passengers were clearly enjoying themselves. Two or three of them even got out of their chairs and stood neatly behind them doing a sort of shuffly dance, arms waving rhythmically in the air. After the show it was time for karaoke, and a full microphone set up was erected in the middle of the stage/dancefloor that took up half of the onboard ‘club’. We politely applauded with everyone else for the first couple of songs, and then escaped to the onsen (Japanese communal bath), which had now been filled up.
Safely on separate sides of the boat, we each enjoyed a rather wavey soak, looking out at the boats passing by (slightly too close for comfort while stark naked).
Bed that night was in swanky second class, which was exactly the same as economy class, but with a sink, and only 8 beds in each room. The rooms were gender segregated, so we were across the hall from each other this time. My room was nice and quiet, as there were only three of us in there.
And then, overnight, we were in Japan.
This time we were herded off the boat first, and a very nice lady helped us through immigration. Then a very polite man searched our bags, and those of the four other non-Asians on the boat. Finally, an even-politer lady took me into a side room and thoroughly felt me up. Then they let us in. Welcome to Japan!
In what soon became clear was typical Japanese style, there was a conveniently-timed-free-shuttle-bus from the port to the railway station, where the man behind the counter insisted he didn’t speak English, then was exceptionally helpful for the next 10 minutes, in English.
Rail passes in hand, we got ourselves a vending machine hot beverage, and boarded the train. We were on our way, and already in love with Japan.
When the train pulled into Vladivostok in the early hours, crowds spilled onto the platform. Gaggles of teenagers on a school trip, families with acres of luggage, older couples carefully passing down suitcases, and men with thin coats and small holdalls.
But within minutes they were all gone. We were alone on the icy platform, and the train pulled away passengerless, off to a siding somewhere. We retreated inside the station building, and sat on plastic chairs in the small over-bright waiting room. Our plan was to wait it out here until morning, but the harsh light and uncomfortable chairs, and my stomach-aching tiredness, motivated me to go and investigate the station resting rooms.
I’m not sure if they’re uniquely Russian, but I’d not heard of station resting rooms before, and I was intrigued. From the descriptions I’d read I was imagining a large dormitory hidden in the station, where people would rest for a few hours or a night while waiting for their train.
I was keen to try them out, for curiosity as well as tiredness, so we checked in for the remainder of the night.
In fact, the Vladivostok rooms are a moderately swish hotel, though they are right in the station, which was very exciting. You enter directly from the station lobby, and from our room you could see the platforms. It wasn’t all that cheap — close to double the cost of two hostel beds for six hours in the cheapest twin room. This ‘basic’ room was huge though, and came with towels, a telly, and a fridge. There are shared showers and toilets down the hall.
Happily rested, we checked out at 10 am, and went to collect our tickets for our ferry the next day to Japan. The port is right next to the railway station, and our boat was already there waiting for us.
Our stay in Vladivostok was brief, but filled with good food and good company. We couchsurfed with Anna and Ivan for one night, and they were spectacularly good hosts. Anna picked us up at the train station and we went for lunch, then she showed us some sights while doing a bit of work (she works as a courier).
I really liked Vladivostok. It has an energetic feel about it. There’s street art everywhere, and steep, café filled streets rolling down to the bay. Distinctly cosmopolitan. It was a huge change from Siberia. Apart from anything else it was about 15° warmer.
There are hints of Asia too, in the cuisine, and the mostly Korean cars, some of which are small, which seems to be a complete no-no for modern cars in the rest of Russia.
Vladivostok is less than 100 miles from the borders of China and North Korea, and is home to a North Korean theme restaurant called ‘Pyongyang’ where North Korean women work for a limited period of time as waitresses, under the eye of North Korean bosses.
This part of Russia belonged to China until 1860. In the 1920s something like a quarter of the population was Chinese, but in 1937 Stalin expelled the Chinese from the city, along with other non-Russians, and the city was closed to foreigners until 1991. I imagine the 25 years since have changed it unrecognisably. Now it’s every bit the global city, or at least appears so on the surface. Our Russian hosts cooked us a delicious spicy Korean soup for dinner, and insisted that most people in Vladivostok keep chopsticks at home because they eat Asian food so often. But I didn’t see any Chinese restaurants. I later read that the authorities target the Chinese, extorting bribes and shutting down businesses, and that beatings are common to the point that Chinese people fear to go out at night.
The Russians are certainly keen on Asian consumer goods though. Enthusiasm for plastic phone accessories definitely seemed to have increased with our proximity to Asia. On our way to lunch we spotted a phone shop with a very Russian approach to trademark law.
After lunch Anna took us to a scenic lookout over the city and the bay, where we spotted our boat again.
Amongst the obligatory padlocks on the railings was one that surpassed all the ridiculously oversized statements of locking up love we’d seen before.
I think this is part of a car.
After the lookout we visited a WW2 submarine. In the mess a framed picture of Stalin hung proudly on the wall. Next door was a bank of containers where stacks of missiles were once safely stowed.
Anna took us for pancakes and tea after the submarine (thoroughly Russian), and then drove us back to their home in the suburbs, through snarls of traffic (also thoroughly Russian). But their home, and their conversation, was much less thoroughly Russian than we’d experienced elsewhere. We were well supplied with Russian hospitality though (in the form of constantly flowing tea and sweets). Perhaps it was just that they’re well travelled — they’d been all over Asia, and spent the previous summer volunteering in Israel. But I think port cities everywhere do have a certain connected feeling about them that Vladivostok shares. The people who live there tend to be more open to the world than their land-locked compatriots.
Or perhaps my head was just in Asia already. As we neared their place the sun set on our last day in Russia. Next, Japan.
In total we spent 7 days and 7 nights on the Trans-Siberian railway. Most of this time was spent staring out the window.
As we rolled out of Moscow at ten to two on a Tuesday afternoon the city began to thin out, and the landscape became softer. Concrete housing blocks became less and less frequent, and eventually more or less disappeared. They were replaced by little wooden houses with brightly painted windows, packed in close together between wooden fences enclosing modest vegetable patches. Then these thinned out too, spaced wider and wider between the late autumn trees, which clung onto their last golden leaves. For the first day and a half we were still in Europe, and it still felt like it. Perhaps a poorer, simpler Europe than most of it is now, but familiar.
Sometimes a hunk of smoke spewing industry would jut out of the horizon, looking huge and hulking alongside the trees and simple homes. Prone to romanticising simplicity, I found the precarious little wooden homes marooned in the forest idyllic. I wondered if the people living in these places appreciated a life with land and space, but little else, or hankered for warm dry concrete flats in the city. Some of the plots looked like dachas (weekend cottages where city dwellers grow their veg, and escape the city heat in high summer), but others looked lived in permanently, though there were almost no people to be seen.
As night fell we reached our first long stop, and our first Russian snow. I went and stood in it in my sandals, much to the interest/disgust of the Russians standing smoking next to the carriage, as far from the snow as they could get. I couldn’t put my shoes on because I’d stubbed my toe on the floor level flush lever in the train loo, and it was wrapped up well to staunch the bleeding.
On the platform hawkers hawked snacks, drinks, and life size cuddly crocodiles. We didn’t buy one, because he wouldn’t have fitted in our bunks. We had the cheapest beds on the train — just over £100 each for the 9288 kilometre journey. These are the lateral bunks in third class, which are about half an inch longer than me, and an inch wider. I could just lie flat, but Arthur had to fold himself up.
The third class carriages sleep 56 people dormitory style. The lateral bunks are lined up head to toe along the length of the carriage. They’re the smallest, but we went for them anyway because if you have the top and bottom you get your own window and table (which folds down to complete the bottom bunk at night). Also, they were really cheap.
Above the top bunk is a shelf which just about fitted both of our backpacks on. There’s also luggage space under each of the two seats, where we kept our shoes, and any food that wouldn’t be too damaged by the heater blasting out superheated air between the seats.
Each bed comes with a pillow rolled up in a mattress. You pay a couple of pounds to have sheets and a pillow case for your bed, which is money well spent as the mattresses clearly pre-date the fall of the Berlin wall. There are also blankets, which we occasionally needed when the temperature plummeted briefly in the early hours of the morning.
We were able to select the exact bunks we wanted by booking online using the English version of the Russian railways website. This was really difficult to find (if you click on the English icon on the Russian website it takes you to a corporate website instead), but very easy to use once we found it. We went for bunks in the middle of the carriage where possible, to minimise the chance of being woken up by people going to the loo in the night. I’m not sure this made much difference really though, and perhaps being near the Provodnitsa’s end of the carriage would have meant a bit more fresh air, as the door at this end is opened at every stop.
The provodnitsa is responsible for the carriage, and guards it fiercely every time the train stops. She checks the tickets of passengers getting on, wakes you up when your stop is approaching, doles out bed sheets, keeps the carriage clean and the tea urn topped up, and sells snacks and drinks from her compartment at the end of the carriage. Each carriage has two of these attendants, who work 12 hours each. Usually the more senior provodnitsa would get the day shift, from about 7 am to 7pm. On our first train the day time provodnitsa was a stern middle aged lady with tightly curled, iron grey hair. The night time attendant was young, and more inclined to smile, but still no-nonsense. My favourite provodnitsa was the night time one on our last train. She was probably in her late forties, but had spurned the rollered dyed hair beloved of older Russian women, and sported trousers rather than the above the knee skirt which I’d previously assumed was compulsory uniform. She was instantly welcoming, and always smiling, except when she repeatedly expelled drunks from our carriage. This she did without, as seemed to be standard method, enlisting the help of the security guards and (armed) police who sporadically patrol the train.
On the long distance trains the carriage attendants were almost all women, though on the train from St Petersburg to Moscow they were almost all men (provodnik). I suspect this is to do with Russia’s less than egalitarian culture, though I don’t know. Perhaps this is the most popular route, and the few men who do the job get to pick and choose — it’s only 9 or ten hours, so doesn’t necessitate long stretches away from home. The Moscow to Vladivostok train, in contrast, takes 12 to 16 days for a round trip. Or perhaps the men doing this job are more likely to be supporting families, so can’t be away for so long. It’s still not uncommon in Russia for women to stop working once they have children. Though, it’s getting less common as Russia moves away from agriculture and manufacturing and towards a service sector based economy. There’s still a widely held view that service sector jobs are women’s work, so as these jobs fill more of the market women are more likely to work, and to be the breadwinner.
On the first night squashed into my bottom bunk I lay awake for quite some time. Initially I was kept alert by trying to decide if the man in the next bunk had been silently murdered, or was just sleeping, as all I could see of him was his lifeless hand dangling off the edge of his bed, being gently jiggled by the motion of the train. I’d almost begun to drift off regardless, when the symphony of gentle snoring that filled the carriage rose to an entirely un-melodic crescendo. On the other side of me to probably-not-murdered-in-his-bed man was a gentleman who definitely didn’t fit into the narrow bunk, and had begun to emit a cacophony of grunts, groans, snorts, splutters, and heavy breathing that suggested he was either being laboriously suffocated by a particularly vindictive walrus, or was having an especially good dream.
The next day we woke to blankets of soft pillowy looking snow. Perhaps the lack of sleep had something to do with this perception.
We thought that this meant snow and cold from then on, but actually the climate seemed to waver wildly along the way. The snow melted throughout the day, but in some places it seemed it had never been there, while others looked like they’d had weeks of snow already.
After the clean white early morning, all that day and the next the view was grubby. Mud and slush abounded where there were people, and we wondered if it had been foolish to ignore the advice that late October was the worst time to do this journey. Perhaps though, it was the filthy train windows that gave everything a brownish, unhealthy tinge. Endless freight trains trundled past us all day, full of oil, military vehicles, and Korean cars.
There was some brief excitement when late on the second evening we reached Ekaterinburg, and so, finally, the Ural mountains, and a break in the flatness. Unfortunately, it was dark, so they passed us by unseen. Somewhere past Ekaterinburg, while we slept, we crossed from Europe into Asia.
Inside the train we read, stared at the scrubby land rolling by, and drunk tea. Lots and lots of tea. In between drinking tea, we ate. I think it’s fair to say that we over-catered for our first three day stint on the train:
1 packet of crisps
1 bag of peanuts
1 bag of cashews
1 bag of bread rings
1 bag of chocolate cake ball things
6 sugar puff sticks (unbranded, but they were sugar puffs in stick form)
2 bars of chocolate
1 packet of boiled sweets
2 bags of dates
1 bag of dried apricots
1 jar of cornichons
6 boiled eggs
1 block of cheese
1 packet of cheese triangles
1 packet of crackers
2 loaves of bread (1 fresh, 1 dark that lasted a week)
2 breakfast pastries
1 box of porridge oats
4 yoghurts (that are somehow OK to be stored at room temperature)
1 pack of coffee creamers
3 boxes of tea
1 litre of juice
1 litre of vodka
2 litres of water
12 cuppa soups
6 packs of instant noodles
1 pack of napkins
1 pack of wet wipes
We probably used two thirds of this stuff, but only because we were really trying… We weren’t sure how much stuff we’d be able to get along the way, but it turned out that there were plenty of opportunities to provision. The train made lots of stops, and three or four times a day would stop for 20 or 30 minutes, giving you plenty of time to do some shopping from the kiosks selling snacks and instant noodles, or the ladies walking the platform selling pastries, cooked chicken and boiled eggs. It might be a bit more expensive, but you could probably turn up with nothing and just buy stuff when you can.
My favourite platform food was pirozhki, which is sort of like a Cornish pasty made of bread dough instead of pastry, and then deep fried. The filling is often meaty, but sometimes it’s just vegetables, and one lady was selling mashed potato filled ones.
One thing we didn’t use at all was the vodka.
It turns out that the vodka fuelled party train of Trans-Siberian rumour is no more. Putin has been cracking down on Russia’s drinking culture, and the train was a sober and quiet affair generally speaking. In 2005 train station kiosks were banned from selling alcohol, and in 2012 beer was classified as alcohol for the first time (previously it was considered a soft drink). So you can’t even buy a beer at the station kiosks. Except of course you can, you just ask for beer (“Pivo pazhalsta!”), and they whip one out from under the counter, and monstrously overcharge you for it.
One exception to this staid atmosphere was a memorable evening on our last train, where a very merry Uzbek miner got Arthur in to a mildy competitive bout of vodka drinking, much to the consternation of the rest of the carriage. I sat there accepting the snacks that were handed round to all on every shot, and mercifully avoiding the vodka. But I decided to retire back to our seats once I’d been asked for the thirteenth or fourteenth time why we didn’t have any children, while being nudged suggestively and winked at by our Uzbek friend, who had little other German (and no English). It was probably a good decision, because after that things turned to arm wrestling, and then to Arthur being berated for having a wedding ring which was much too small.
I stayed out of it. Though I did make Arthur a cup of tea after our bunk neighbour, who was on his way to Vladivostok to go into the Navy, began repeatedly shaking his head and looking in Arthur’s direction with deep concern.
Drinking is allowed in the buffet car, where the beer costs the same or fractionally more as at the station kiosks (or at least as the foreigner price at the kiosks). It’s also usually cold, so is the superior option. Though on one occasion the electricity had failed in the buffet car, so the beer was at room temperature, while the room was at fridge temperature.
You can’t buy vodka in the buffet car, except that you can.
All of this under the counter alcohol selling suggests that cracking down on drinking hasn’t reduced alcohol consumption slightly, as the statistics suggest, but has just driven some drinking out of taxation and under the counter. Possibly literally, given that you can’t regulate what’s being sold if it’s not legal, so the drinker’s ability to stand up is even more likely to be curtailed.
Heating malfunctions notwithstanding, the buffet car is a nice place to hang out and have a bit of a break from your carriage. It was a welcome escape when the lady opposite us accidentally kicked her 5 or 6 year old son’s full potty over the floor and our feet, then went out for a cigarette anyway.
Even without wee to flee, we went there at least once a day to drink beer and play bananagrams (which is like speed scrabble without a board, if you haven’t had the pleasure).
Generally there was nobody else in there, or a couple of Russians also having a quiet beer. On one occasion we bumped into 6 other foreigners having their dinner, which was a nice opportunity to have a conversation, as we met no other English speakers. They were all on organised tours, four of them were on one called ‘vodka train’, so they were a bit miffed at the lack of vodka. This is when we found out that the buffet car does indeed do vodka.
The three trains we took all had very different buffet cars, despite ostensibly being the same type of train. The first one was a modern plastic canteen style establishment, with tasteful lime green chairs. The second was a bit more old fashioned, with curtains and slightly more comfy chairs. The third had table cloths, elaborate drapes, round tables, and a bar. In the fancy one they didn’t stock our preferred 150 ruble (£1.55) cans of beer, so we had to stump up 200 rubles for something a bit swankier. They all served more or less the same food, which we didn’t try because it didn’t look especially appealing, though it wasn’t too expensive (£4-£8 for things ranging from soups and salads to a meat based meal).
We did sample the buffet car coffee once, but it was tiny, instant, and not even cheap. After the first train we brought our own sachets of ‘3 in 1’ instant coffee for 15 rubles a pop. They were impossibly sweet, which disguised the instant coffee taste nicely. I expected that not showering for three days would be the most uncomfortable part of the Trans-Siberian, but despite it averaging 30 degrees in our carriage, the lack of real coffee was the worst bit. Tough life, I know.
The heat was pretty uncomfortable. Russians have a fear of the cold which drives them to heat buildings to roughly the temperature you cook meringues at. At one point our carriage reached a blissfully cool 26 degrees, but usually the cheery digital sign at the end of the carriage read 31, even as it tumbled below -20 outside. At one point it was so cold outside that you couldn’t touch the doors between the carriages with your bare hands, or they’d stick. Inside it remained 31 degrees.
The air between the blind and the window wasn’t 31 degrees though, judging by the ice that formed on the window overnight.
Once we were in Siberia proper the snow was almost a constant feature. After Krasnoyarsk the landscape got more interesting, with rolling hills to wind between. The cottages nestled there looked more cheerful than the ones on the endless flat planes of the first few days. Perhaps it was the sunshine.
After Irkutsk there was even less to see, just mesmerising birch trees sliding by. Houses were few and far between, and often in ruins. The stations got stranger, and more Soviet. This is land that was barely inhabited before the Soviet push to do so (through propaganda, coercion and force). Those who lived there before the turn of the 20th century were mostly nomadic. Now the population density of Siberia is three people per square kilometre. Really most of those people are in a few cities, so the true figure dwindles to zero.
In these places that really feel like nowhere the train is an important event. When the train draws in at Yerofey Pavlovich there is chaos for a moment as a crowd rushes to meet the train. People disembark, laboriously passing boxes down from hand to hand. But within moments everything is still. The only sound is a nearby train creaking slowly on its way, and the crunch and groan of the last battered Jeep taking its passengers home. There are only small knots of people left on the platform, finishing cigarettes. Then the train moves on and the gleaming canine guards are left to look out over stillness.
From Irkustsk to Vladivostok we only saw two passenger trains going the other way. And then, finally, after 8 days, very many cups of tea and more than 9,000 kilometres, we were there.
Irkutsk really felt like the Siberia of my imagination, especially when the snow came, and the temperature dropped to -12.
St Petersburg, Moscow, and even Krasnoyarsk felt something like places I’ve travelled in Europe, but in some senses Irkutsk reminded me more of travelling in South America. It was the first place where we were hassled by taxi drivers, constantly for about 10 minutes while we stood waiting for a bus. At a bus stop. One of them even tried to convince us to take a taxi to Olkhon island, which is 5 hours away. Seriously?
When the bus came, the fare into town was 12 rubles, which is about 12 pence. In a cafe that we went into to warm up and use the wifi a cup of tea was 14 rubles. You could easily pay ten times that in Moscow. (A cheap cafe having wifi slightly ruins my point, but wifi and fancy phones are ubiquitous everywhere we’ve travelled so far. The world is getting smaller.)
Apart from the prices, the streets had something in common with Peruvian and Bolivian ones. While we waited for a minibus to whisk us away to lake Baikal we observed a car pulling into a road side parking spot, only to fall into a hole. The bemused driver got out to stare at the corner of his car embedded in the tarmac, wheel hanging in mid-air, and was soon joined by a clutch of passers by who stood immobile, looking equally flummoxed.
When the snow came there was no salting of pavements or roads, and they became tractionless ice overnight. On steep hills cars screeched and wheel-span, but the drivers persisted, in a cloud of exhaust, until they jerkingly made it to flatter ground. Picking my way gingerly along the street in my sensible shoes, I was overtaken by Russian girls in six inch heels.
The mix of elaborate and permanent official buildings (train stations, goverment offices and the like), and precarious temporary looking homes and commerce reminded me of South America too. Markets crowd the centre of town, and shops are run out of garage-like spaces. Houses that look abandoned and tumble down turn out, on closer inspection, to have curtains and flowers in the windows, and smoke coming from the chimney.
I suppose this comes down to money. Irkutsk feels poorer than the other places we visited in Russia. Though the occasional brand new 4 by 4 still passes, the streets are mostly full of ancient buses and Soviet era cars, when they’re full at all. We even saw a pony and trap.
Irkutsk does have some grandeur too. It’s famous primarily as the place where many of the Decembrists were eventually banished to (after years in Siberian labour camps) following their failed revolt in December 1825. The revolt was an attempt to alter the constitution, to limit the power of the monarchy and abolish serfdom, but failed after loyal troops opened fire on the Decembrists (or dentists, as my autocorrect prefers).
Several of the Decembrists exiled in Siberia were from the nobility, and were followed into exile by their wives. These women are presented as saints showing unwavering wifely devotion, which is a bit rich given that they seem to have managed a pretty comfortable life in Irkutsk. I get the impression that their exile was more of an inconvenience than a tragedy, and even afforded them more freedom in some respects.
We visited a Decembrist house in Irkutsk, where Prince Sergei Volkonsky and his wife Maria lived with their two surviving children. Their first child, born before the December revolt, was abandoned in St Petersburg by Maria when she left for Siberia, and died the next year. I’m not sure how that fits in to the saintly image. The house is grand, and full of grand things. The rooms were filled with elaborate pottery and trinkets, and delicate wooden furniture varnished to a mirror-like shine. There was a piano, a bay window for sewing in, and a sun room for growing plants. It seemed like a pleasant, serene and spacious home.
Perhaps this home was a terrible step down for the Prince and Princess, but I didn’t feel very sorry for them. Certainly not compared to the ‘common’ soldiers who were exiled here with nothing, and had to eke out an existence from the frozen soil.
Apparently Maria Volkonskaya was known as the Princess of Siberia though, and Pushkin was purportedly in love with her, though this is probably fiction. While in Irkutsk she set up a foundling hospital, fittingly, and a theater. The Decembrists do seem to have had an impact on Irkutsk, bringing European culture to a place that at the time was mostly populated by native Siberians and gold traders. At some point the city came to be known as the Paris of Siberia. They also seem to have brought at least a veneer of gentility — before this Irkutsk had been the murder capital of Russia, with at least one occurring every day.
After the Volkonsky house we wandered (past a statue of Maria Volkonskaya) to Kazan Cathedral. Outside was a wedding limousine with blacked out windows. Inside were plenty of shiny brightly painted icons, being made shinier by an army of pre-teens. At least half of the people in there were cleaning the place, hindered slightly by having to cross themselves, and perform several bows, every time they approached a new icon to clean. Cross themselves with two fingers of course, this being a Russian Orthodox church. Crossing yourself with three fingers was the norm before 17th century reforms split the church. Those who’ve stuck with three fingers are known as Old Believers, and believe that using two fingers will send you straight to hell. Their beliefs have tended to drive them into isolation, and in Siberia in the 1980s an Old Believers village was discovered where the residents had never heard of Stalin, or electricity.
Outside the cathedral, Simon, a Swiss guy from our hostel who we’d spent the day with, was accosted by a very excited Russian man. He’d clocked Simon’s German brand of coat, and was clearly keen to speak German to somebody. It wasn’t totally clear, but it appeared he’d come back from Germany, where he worked, to volunteer at the Cathedral. Clearly the icon cleaning workload was so high that they’d had to begin recruiting from overseas.
Comparing Irkutsk to Paris seems fairly absurd these days, but the old buildings that remain in repair do give a sense of former glory. And it does seem bustling, and even almost prosperous, compared to the expanses of endless trees, smoke plumed industry, and ramshackle farms that we’d passed through for days on the train. This lively atmosphere would have tempted me to stay longer than the day we gave it. However, the Siberian cold had got to me, and I was nursing a head cold and a chesty cough. Getting back on the train and lying down for three days solid seemed like just the thing to do, so that’s just what we did.
After being cooped up on the train for three days I was itching to get outdoors, and after being cooped up in cities for three weeks I was itching spend some time surrounded by fresh air and trees rather than exhaust fumes and Soviet apartment blocks. So I had high expectations of Lake Baikal, which is nature to the extreme. It’s full of superlatives: the deepest, oldest lake in the world, the largest by volume, and one of the clearest. Three quarters of the species that live there are found nowhere else.
We headed straight from the train to Listvyanka on the shore of the lake. Here we imagined we’d hike in pristine forests next to the clear water, and relax at our hostel, which came highly recommended, and had a banya.
A banya is a Russian sauna. It’s usually steamier than a Scandinavian style sauna, and so can’t be quite as hot, but isn’t as humid as a Turkish bath. As the sign posted prominently in our hostel helpfully explained, this is because hot dry saunas ‘only dry the skin’, and baths that are too humid are also ‘bad for the body’ in some unspecified way. What the sign didn’t explain, was that the hostel banya was closed for the winter, so our plans to soothe our muscles in hot steam after hiking were dashed.
The hostel was generally a bit underwhelming, after the rave review the guidebook had given it. It was a cosy log cabin, as we’d imagined, but the welcome we got was a bit frosty. Though lots of people in Russia were instantly friendly and warm, there were also plenty of cases where you really had to look for signs that your attempt to use a good or service hadn’t ruined the proprietor’s day, or possibly life. A crack in the stone faced armour would usually eventually turn up, but patience was required.
This was definitely one of those cases. I felt mildly told off by the end our brief hostel tour, but this was nothing compared to the lambasting we got when we asked about hiking routes in the area. The proprietress told us, in a tone of escalating disgust, that there weren’t any marked trails here, or in fact in Russia (It’s not like Europe you know). Trying to explain that we weren’t expecting sign posts (as in Germany for example), but just some sort of path (as in much of the UK) just prompted repetition. Apparently the paths are just made by locals, and locals can follow them, but tourists will just get lost.
Asking if there was anywhere we could get a map prompted an outburst of full blown contempt.
There are no hiking maps of the Baikal area.
How about just a map then, to show the contours and rivers and so on?
No, no maps exist.
I found this highly unlikely, especially as we’d heard you could get a hiking map at the Irkutsk tourist office, which was closed when we tried to do so on the way, despite a large sign proclaiming it was open. But we clearly weren’t getting anywhere, so we went out to have a look at the lake.
The village was teeming with Russian day trippers, and there was a nice atmosphere on the sunny, chilly beach as we wandered along merrily licking ice creams (our first of the trip). Arthur sampled the local smoked fish, and I had a tasty potato pancake and a dill smothered salad, which was actually quite nice, despite my suffering from early stage dill fatigue.
Though it was quite cheery in the sunshine, Listvyanka was a little bit disappointing too. The views of the lake were spectacular, but on land everything was a bit tacky and tatty. We sat on the beach musing over what to do. We’d just booked into the hostel for one night, hoping to go hiking from there, and perhaps to camp out. It seemed like hiking was off the cards, so there wasn’t any reason to stay. We would have hiked out without a clear route, camped, then hiked back the way we came, but snow was due the next day so this didn’t seem wise. We thought about moving to a village further south, and hiking from there along a path that follows an old railway line, and definitely exists. The other option was to go north to Olkhon island, which is more remote, and so might be more what we’d hope for.
Undecided, we went for a walk in the woods, which hinted at what we’d expected from Baikal. Tall straight birch trees filtered the sharp light reflecting off the lake, and the only sound was the occasional woodpecker, tapping away, and our feet crunching the snow as we walked. But we couldn’t venture too far without a map, and with the dark and cold falling.
Somewhat morose, we made it back to the hostel as the stars were coming out.
Within an hour we were sat at the kitchen table eating dinner and drinking beer, and had a three day walk along the lake arranged, complete with evening banyas. The hostel lady had suggested that another guest, a Russian girl who was walking along the lake anyway, take us along for a nominal fee. From feeling unwelcome and disappointed we’d instantly gone to feeling extremely fortunate, and extremely grateful for both of them going out of their way to help us.
Perhaps the language barrier played a part, or just different ways of communicating, but this overwhelming helpfulness was so opposed to my previous impression that I felt very guilty for jumping to judgement.
The next morning Arthur, I, Natasha and Sabine (a German traveller who’d also come to Baikal for the hiking, and even had a mythical trail map) set off on the Great Baikal Trail. This trail is work in progress, which should one day run all the way round the lake, but several long bits of it have already been constructed by volunteers. One of these (clearly marked) stretches runs north from Listvyanka.
It was beautiful and quiet, and all day we followed the edge of the shining blue lake in crisp sunshine.
At lunchtime we stopped to share food and tea. When I owned up to being vegetarian, Natasha informed us that vegetarians can’t drive (their reactions are too slow). Russian superstitions are many and curious. For example, women shouldn’t sit on cold benches because if they do they’ll never conceive. The superstition that flowers should only be given in odd numbers seemed fairly tame in comparison when I read it, but seeing a man walking down the street concealed behind a bunch of flowers larger than the average family car, the practical implications of this belief dawned on me.
Pleasantly weary we arrived in Bolshie Koty (big cat), a collection of houses only accessible by boat, or a very rough 20 km track.
The village was more or less closed up for the winter (the locals mostly pack up and move to Irkutsk when the snow comes), but Baba Nina was still there to put us up in a little house in her garden next to the lake. Smiling and abrupt, she showed us our lodgings, cosy and hung with rugs and blankets, and offered to cook us dinner.
Next was the banya. Sitting sweating in the steam and woodsmoke, in a little wooden house perched on the shores of a vast blue lake, in a near abandoned village in the middle of Siberia, was a brilliantly unusual experience. Especially the part where we hit each other with bundles of birch twigs, mercifully pre-soaked in hot water, as tradition demanded.
At one point Natasha stuck her head round the door and instructed us that we had to jump in the lake afterwards. Obviously. We were unsure if this was indeed de rigueur, or just an opportunity to laugh at the sweaty Europeans, but we did it anyway.
Running barefoot through an empty Siberian village, in the rapidly cooling dusk, in your pants, is an even stranger experience. Hopping awkwardly over the rocks and bits of broken tractor that dotted the path, the banya seemed a lot further from the lake than I’d remembered.
And the lake was cold. Very very cold.
Afterwards we sought out beer. It took five minutes to get past the irate dog standing between us and the door of the miraculously still open village shop, but when we got in we were rewarded by a bundle of six tiny kittens curled up sleepily in a bed in the middle of the floor, warmed by a sputtering woodstove.
Similarly cosy that night we went to sleep after a delicious dinner, where Baba Nina had tried to trick me into eating chicken despite my protests, by hiding it under my cabbage. To her disappointment I foiled her, and in the conversation that followed, I think she was saying (complete with throat cutting gesture) ‘I killed a chicken for you and you didn’t eat it!’.
Arthur thought she was saying ‘You can’t all sleep in one room, if I catch you (Arthur) in here I will kill you’.
Next morning we woke to a luxuriant blanket of snow. In six inches of snow we couldn’t carry on as planned along the narrow cliff path. Our options were to wait for a boat to go to Listvyanka, at an unknown time/date, or walk back along the 20 km track, which was wide and safe enough to be more or less passable.
We took the track, and set off through a wonderland of untouched snow on every surface.
(The building on the left with the chimney is the banya.)
After bidding Natasha goodbye (she would wait for a boat, or for the snow to melt), we set off up the hills that lay between us and Listvyanka. It was cold, and wading through the thick snow with uneven ground underneath was hard work. Sometimes your foot would crash through unseen ice into a puddle, or slip down an hidden gully. Just as we were tiring of slipping and tripping through the untouched snow, a man overtook us on a quadbike, compacting our route.
Several miles later we came across his quadbike mired in the mud that lurked under the snow, with footprints leading away towards Listvyanka. Tired and cold by now, we took this to mean that the village was close.
It was not.
By the time we reached the outskirts quadbike man had returned on the back of his mate’s quadbike, rescued his steed, and the two of them had sped past us again in convoy. When we finally reached the deep snow quiet of the now near deserted village, we were somewhat relieved.
The hostel seemed particularly warm and cosy on our return.
Next day was sunny, if nearly as cold, and we went for a shorter walk to a lookout point. As we reached the top, the faint sound of chanting reached my ears. The local faith has elements of Shamanism and of Buddhism, and you see ribbons tied to trees and anything else that will have them in sacred places, often high spots. This hilltop was streaming with prayer ribbons, so I was intrigued to be stumbling across what could only be locals worshipping.
But as we reached the top, the chanting clarified into comprehensible words. Hare Krishna. Of course.
The spot was beautiful though, as was the walk there, and in the sunshine the cold seemed less dangerous, though still harsh enough to drive us back inside sooner rather than later.
The next day we headed back to Irkutsk, through the early morning mist, sad to leave, but almost glad to be getting back on the overheated train…
After 70 hours on the train we were very glad to arrive in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia’s third largest city. We’d read that the city was vibrant, flush with new found oil wealth, but before long I began to wonder why we’d come. Walking from the station we saw nondescript concrete, and the occasional old wooden house sitting slightly askew, paint peeling. The old buildings hinted that these streets might once have been beautiful, but now the air was hard to breathe, and everything was grey with dust. The only place that wealth manifested itself was in the stream of oversized cars that clogged the roads, their expensive paintwork caked in dirt.
However, after spending the best part of two hours wandering the streets looking for our hostel, we were very very glad to get into our room. Our hostel, despite being called ‘Hovel’, was lovely. An IKEA meets Mondrian plywood paradise. I was particularly excited to have a bed who’s length exceeded my height by more than a millimetre or so. In a haze of weary elation, opening the blind to find the poker face of Jesus seemed perfectly natural.
After a bit of a lie down we ventured out again, and began to feel a bit more positively about the place. Some of the old buildings had been restored and turned into museums, and the glimpsed hills around the city were welcome relief from Siberia’s overwhelming flatness.
The next day, as we waited for a bus to take us to the ski resort on the edge of town we watched bus drivers leaping out of their vehicles to wash the all-permeating grime from their windscreens and mirrors. The rest of the bus was left entombed. But it was a beautiful day, and we were headed for the hills, so everything seemed right with the world. With the sun on my skin, the energetic scrubbing of the rotating cast of frantic bus drivers seemed jolly and industrious rather than depressingly futile.
After what would have been an interesting bus tour of the city, had we been able to see out of the windows, we arrived at Bobrovy Log. In winter it’s a ski area, but the chairlift runs all year round, so we took a ride up the hill to walk into the woods a bit and look at some interesting rock formations (called stolby) that dot the surrounding hills. We also caught some reasonably unobscured views of the city on the way back down.
This chap kept us company while we waited for the bus back to town.
It was spectacularly good being out of the city and in the fresh air, and we enjoyed our very brief escape so much that we resolved to get out and about more for the rest of our trip. It’s often logistically difficult to get out of cities, or at least hard to do without spending a lot, but I’m always glad when we do.
Trundling back to the train station for another night on the train we spotted some people taking a dip in the Yenisei, the river that slips through Krasnoyarsk in a mess of side streams and channels. I picked up a book on Siberia by Colin Thubron, to read on the train while we passed through. He visited Krasnoyarsk on his travels, and describes how the hydroelectric dam upstream (which ensures the Yenisei never freezes over) created a reservoir 250 miles long when it was built in 1971, drowning the homes of 48,000 people.
He also mourns the loss of the Krasnoyarsk of the past, a ‘spacious city of gold merchants’ beloved by Chekhov, and explains that the city expanded during the second world war, mostly in concrete put up by Japanese prisoners of war. I read this part after we left, and were off again rolling slowly through birch and snow. Perhaps we’d have passed it by if we’d been forewarned, but in a way I was glad to visit a place which has nothing in particular to recommend it. It’s a slice of life in another world.
Most of our sightseeing in Moscow was done by night. We planned for 2 nights in the city, thinking we’d arrive in the morning and leave at night, which would give us three full days. Things didn’t exactly go to plan…
Long story short, we ended up spending a day and a half making plans, booking trains, realising our plans had a major logistical flaw, cancelling trains, making new plans, and booking new trains. We’d forgotten that the boat we were planning to catch from Russia to Japan only goes once a week, so in order to leave the country before our visas ran out we’d have to catch a boat 6 days earlier than we thought. I had done a fair bit of planning for this trip, but there’s only so much information I can keep in my head, clearly. I guess writing things down might have been an idea.
At least we realised while we still had time to do something about it…
So, we had to abandon our plans to go to Tuva, and to ride the BAM north of lake Baikal. Instead, we decided to stop in Krasnoyarsk for one night, then go to Irkutsk and lake Baikal, before continuing on to Vladivostok.
All of this to-ing ad fro-ing left us with an evening and a morning to see Moscow, so we pretty much just saw Red Square. Some people we met on the train raved about Moscow, so I suppose it would have been good to spend some more time, but to be honest we weren’t that bothered. We’d had enough of cities, and were keen to get on with doing nothing on the train for three days.
I was glad to see Red Square by night though, it made a nice iconic start to our epic train journey.
Walking back from the square to our hostel we crossed the bridge where Boris Nemsov was assassinated. The place was marked by flowers and photographs lining the pavement.
We tried to snap a photo without appearing to, because there were some guys milling about who started staring at us when we stopped to look. They were probably just equally paranoid tourists looking at us because they thought we were looking at them, but it felt pretty sketchy at the time. Generally in Russia Arthur was the one paranoid about taking photos of stuff, and convinced we were going to get arrested all the time, and I thought he was being crazy. We didn’t have any problems in the end, but this was the one time I felt equally uneasy. I imagine seeing the spot just brought into focus a niggling, ‘heck, Russia’s a bit scary actually’ feeling that I have from all the screwed up stuff I’ve read about the political situation in recent years. It’s hard to feel totally safe when you’re subject to the whim of a government who (possibly) murder their political opponents on the streets of the capital.
It’s stuff like this which made even European Russia feel like somewhere completely other, despite all its similarities to Europe.
Also, stuff like visiting the wax coated corpse of a head of state who died 90 years ago.
Lenin is kept in a suit, in a glass box, in a mausoleum in Red Square. His preservation (achieved by regular washes and dunking in wax) was carried out against his wishes, and those of his widow.
It’s a very odd experience filing past the body in the red tinged gloom, under the steely gaze of the guards who stand bolt upright and sombre faced along the route. It’s almost comic, especially as there’s no way of telling if he’s actually a waxwork, but also not very funny at all. Stalin used to be interred with him, until somebody claimed to have had a dream telling them that Lenin didn’t like it, so now he’s got his own room back. There’s still a Stalin statue in the line up of ‘worthies’ outside the mausoleum though. How can people revere somebody responsible for so many deaths?
What’s even stranger is that at various sites there’s respect and seeming adoration piled on both Lenin, and the royal family who the Bolsheviks replaced (and then executed). Make your minds up.
I could only wonder if it comes from a respect for authority that overrides anything else.
And don’t even get me started on the souvenir stalls full of Putin mugs and t-shirts…
So Moscow was a pretty strange few days. I even got unsuccessfully pickpocketed in the crush of people trying to get into Red Square. The two teenage girls who tried it started giggling when I felt my shoulder bag being unzipped and turned round to eyeball them.
All in all we were pretty glad to be out of there, and bound for Siberia.