I read a translated poem about Russia being "the Motherland" and its vast bosom years ago. Having driven through a significant part of it, I can agree on the "vast" part...
Also, as I am on a train and without access to the Internet, I will refrain from linking to a lot of pages; sorry. (Turns out I am posting this a week later, but I will still not link to stuff now; no time).
Russia in general
- All receipts you receive are torn before you get them; this is most likely due to the old Soviet voucher system, more on that below.
- Russia was hot with temperatures ranging from 27 to 32 degrees Celsius between Moscow and Ulan Ude.
- There aren't a lot of pedestrians bridges, but a lot of pedestrian tunnels. The sides of those tunnels are packed with tiny shops, often only two meters wide and 50-70 cm deep. Everything from stockings to candy over glasses to flowers and watches is being sold through a tiny window by some poor woman who somehow managed to get in there.
- Toilet brushes stand in water. In Germany, that's a sure sign of a really dirty toilet; in Russia, it's the thing to do. If you are lucky, there's blue cleaning stuff added to the water. If not, it will still have color. You are free to guess which.
- Queuing is war.
Our remaining time in Moscow was spent with touring the usual suspects; the Kreml is a lot less impressive in real life, the Red Square is tiny when compared to the stories I heard about it and the Chapel ofi St. Basil is even more colorful and impressive in real life. Lenin's body was inaccessible because workers built seats for the May 9th parade to the left and the right of it and they apparently thought it would be a good idea to block access to one of the main tourist attractions while doing so. A river tour of Moscow was a nice cool-off and we got to see quite a few things.
We managed to see the weekly military parade within the Kreml grounds, but it was mostly pomp and little substance. The National Treasure which you can access with an extra ticket within the Kreml grounds is nice, but less impressive than the tourist guides would make you believe. That being said... There's another museum within the museum and.... Whoah... Tourists pay extra, visitors go through the only non-security-theater check I encountered in Russia, guards are armed, people can only enter and leave in batches, and the stuff which is presented is mind-boggling. Disregarding the fist-to-calf-sized chunks of gold and platinum which are still in their original form directly from the mine, there is real, actual treasure galore. Little heaps of uncut and cut diamonds, an outline of Russia filled with cut diamonds and other random "we have this stuff" displays can be found as well. Then, you have various tiaras and other jewellery made from various gems. Not incorporating, but largely made of. All that pales in comparison to the crown, royal apple, scepter, etc. It's hard to put the amount of tiny multi-colored light points that shine at you into words. I was just standing there, swaying back and forth to catch the moving pattern of pinpoints. It's said that this collection is equalled only by the ones in the Tower of London and the one Shaw of Iran had and boy do I believe it.
Getting up there was funny.
The old-style Soviet queuing system was used:
- Go to a counter to tell an attendant what you want; receive stub
- Go to another counter, hand over stub to another attendant, pay for what you want; receive voucher
- Go to third counter, hand over voucher; receive ticket for tower The whole thing was made even more absurd by the fact that counter one was in the middle, counter two to the right and counter three to the left. As Russians do not believe in queuing and everybody just tries to get in first, this made for a nice little exercise.
"Security" for approaching the tower was multi-level, the guards see you approach along a long walkway way in advance and the main guard shed had several small cabins separated by thick glass. So good so menacing. But in a twist that would make Bizarro and Garry Larson proud, I was required, by means of metal detector gate, metal detector wand and even an x-ray machine to remove every shred of metal and other hard objects from myself and the camera bag and put them onto a table. Once I was without anything except my clothes and the bag was completely empty, I could pass. Everything I had had to remove was just laying there, not inspected in the least, for me to stuff back into pockets and bag and to take with me. This "everything" included a Spot Messenger 2 with lots of green and red blinky lights. The guard did not even glance and it. Security theater? Security theater.
The view from 364 meters down on Moscow was nice, but there was a lot of Smog so I couldn't see very far. Jumping on the glass floor while looking down was a lot of fun, though.
Subway to Thiefing
I bet Christopher Nolan rode the subway in Moscow at least once. That unnerving sound you hear during several key scenes in "The Dark Knight"? Two thirds of all subways make the same sound while moving.
Also, I had an encounter with a pickpocket down there; very classical, too. Guy approaches quickly, talks loudly and sounds as if it's really important (in Russian... duh... that's sure to keep me interested). His approach made me turn and protect my left leg pocket automatically, most likely marking the target for the tiny woman standing behind me. Now, I have to tell you something about my usual travel layout. As my normal pockets are very deep, it looks as if their content was in the leg pocket. Plus, there's an extra, hidden leg pocket where I keep the passports and train tickets. The outermost leg pocket is protected by a velcro flap, but it contains nothing of value; usually the appropriate phrasebook, local map, maybe a tissue or chewing gum. Due to this layering, the outermost pocket looks as if it's full to the brim with stuff. Also, I took pains to make it a habit to protect said leg pocket with my hand, nothing else. This looks as if that's the target, but what I am actually doing is protect my normal pocket with my forearm. The right side is different, but the most easily accessibly pocket always holds some small change. I pay from that stash but my actual wallet is well out of reach. Anyway, once the guy ran off, talking to several others, most likely marking all them for the actual pickpockets, I wanted to enter the subway. While the Russian-style queuing took place, I felt an unusual tug at the velcro flap. I looked down and saw a tiny woman to the left of me with a jacket held over her right side with the left arm; I look up to check no one is trying to steal from my permanently assigned female, feel another tug, look the woman into the eyes, look up again and around me, look down again and she is gone. All that took maybe three seconds and I had boarded the subway after an additional two.
In hindsight, it makes sense to choose the time of entry for attack. It's crowded, you are being pushed around, and once you are in the subway, it will start moving more or less immediately while the thief remains in the station.
In this case, she would only have gotten a grubby map of Moscow's subway and an English-Russian phrasebook, but she got nothing at all.
Where to begin...
If you think a few hours on a train are a long time, try over fifty hours. Things get so bad, you start getting land-sick while not in a moving train. You even start missing the familiar tunk-cachunk, tunk-cachunk, tunk-cachunk... of driving over rails with gaps in them when you are not moving.
The defining element of the Trans-Siberian Railway are birch trees. And birch trees. And then more birch trees. You would not believe how many birch trees there are. This is made "worse" by the way the Russian Railway protects their rails. Left and right of the track, there's a cleared area of maybe ten to twenty meters, sometimes as little as three. Outside of that, they plant ten to twenty meters of birch trees, presumably to catch snow during winter. Beyond that protective perimeter, there's the normal landscape.As a result, on top of the near endless stretches of birch woods, you see most if not all scenery through a layer of birch trees. You get sick sick of birch trees after a few hours and you see them for days on end.
Bullet points to save myself some typing and you some reading...
- More than a thousand kilometers without a single hill. Flat as a pan.
- The whole route is powered by electricity. No diesel engines in sight.
- Many stations are little more than a heap of smoothed gravel, bordered by some wooden planks. Some stations have obviously been built by locals and are even less well-defined.
- You can see people in the middle of nowhere, walking along the railway tracks. At first this seemed counter-intuitive, but most if not all roads out there are dirt tracks. As there seems to be standing water across a third of Russia, this dirt is turned into mud. After walking maybe twenty meters across a parking lot, I had to scrape a heavy, thick cake of black earth from my soles. The railway is the only functioning footpath those people have. Many people even build shoddy bridges towards the tracks from their homes, obviously preferring to walk along the tracks over walking through the village.
- Railway crossings along the Trans-Siberian route, no matter how tiny, have a small cabin beside them. While the train passes, there's one guy or gal standing in said cabin, holding a yellow stick vertically out towards the train. Sometimes, you have not seen any living thing, other than birch trees, for twenty minutes and there, in the middle of nowhere right beside a dirt track, there's someone holding a stick out towards the train. Weird.
- Railway crossings of paved roads will always have two steel plates coming out of the ground, angled towards oncoming traffic on each side. This may not stop a heavy truck at full speed, but a car will disintegrate on these barriers without touching a passing train.
- The railways is important for Russia. Two parallel tracks cut across the whole country, transporting everything back and forth. Where "everything" means mostly coal and birch wood, I guess.
- All freight trains are usually 70 tanker waggons or 100 box waggons long, but you see the odd 100 tanker waggons, as well. You have more than enough time and opportunity to count them and then some.
- There are supposedly women at every station, selling what they cook at home. Unfortunately, this was only true for two stations. The things we did manage to get were very nice; I do wonder why anyone would offer (or buy) cooked and peeled potatoes, though.
- Every waggon has its own hot-water stove. They are powered by coal. Yep, you have a coal fire burning in every single waggon on the Trans-Siberian.
The non-existent hostel
We arrived at ~0200 local and made our way to the hostel we had booked a room with. Walking to the correct address, we saw several signs but they all turned out to be for a police station and some other state agency. We walked back, forth, double-checked, triple-checked: no hostel. We then walked around the building through some not-quite-nice back alleys, but other than a few entries to private flats, there was nothing. Thankfully, the booking slip included a number which we called and after at least twenty rings (no kidding), when I had given up and wanted to hang up, it stopped ringing. Dead silence. After maybe ten seconds, someone started talking in Russian. I asked him if he spoke English and told him that we could not find the hostel. He mumbled something about being sorry and that we should wait, he would come down. Fast forward a minute or two and someone walked towards us.
Again, he mumbled about being sorry, that the hostel "did not work" at the moment and that we would need to sleep in his private apartment. He ushered us into some back alley entrance, into his flat, and proceeded to remove the sheets from the couch on which he had slept; after putting on new sheets, we had our "hostel" bed, ready to sleep on. We briefly considered if he would murder us in our sleep, but him and me even got to talking a bit. Over cheese, sausage and rum (at 0300), he admitted that the hostel did not exist and he merely planned to turn his flat into a hostel for the summer while he and his family moved into their summer house (the Russian term of which escapes me, at the moment) in the countryside. He had accepted our reservation as he thought he would be finished by that time. He did not even get started, though. While he sent us an overbooking notice through booking.com two days before, we were on the train at that time, so... booking.com even called him to check what happenend to us as we did not book another place through them. Good customer service/protection, that.
Next morning, he didn't even want to take our money (we paid anyway) and, as a means of compensation, drove us into the city in the morning and to a train museum well outside the city limits, one of the fabled scientist cities, and a large lake which everyone in Novosibirsk claims is an ocean, in the afternoon.
All in all, Novosibirsk was relatively uneventful, safe for one bizarre episode. We took our lunch in a local fast food joint (why do all the good stories happen there, and not at the various truly local places?) and threw the cashier our well-rehearsed "Niet Russkie; anglisky?" with phrasebook in hand and he actually understood a few words of English (beef, chicken, fries). We told him, in our worst Russian, that we are from Germany wished him a nice day and went to sit down. A few minutes later, a girl approached us, literally hopping from one foot to the other and wringing her hands. She told us that the cashier had told her that we spoke English and if it would be OK if she talked to us. We suspected some sort of elaborate ruse, but went with it. Turns out, she had English at school and really wanted someone to practice English on. Two young men passed our table and exchanged a few words with her, sitting down out of sight. When she told us that she had to leave now but if it would be OK if the two boys joined us we suspected a ruse yet again. But those two were law students, one with a minor in English and one with a minor in German; both of them also extremely nervous, asking us if we would talk to them. When they had to leave, they told us that the three of them worked at the burger joint and that their shift was just about to start when the news that foreigners were here spread amongst staff like wildfire. The girl stopped by several times in between cleaning tables, getting in a sentence or two before being cussed at by her supervisor. All in all, this took about twenty minutes and seeing three people so nervous and grateful to talk with us felt beyond absurd.
On the other hand, not a single traveller we met even considered stopping in Novosibirsk during their transit so there really does seem to be a shortage of non-Russians there.
Weird, and memorable.
- Birch trees.
- Lots of burnt underwood, presumably to prevent larger fires.
- Birch trees.
- Sticky, stuffy, 30+ degree waggon with windows that could be opened but which were locked (this is why I always carry a Swisstool with me).
- Birch trees.
Irkutsk / Listvianka / Lake Baikal
Aah, lake Baikal... the oldest and deepest lake on Earth which holds a fifth of the global non-salt water reserves; a must-see in my book.
Quad tours at break-neck speeds, dry-suit diving with Russian regulators, walking barefoot in between and across drift ice that made its way onto the shorei, and extended hiking around the lake's coast...
All of which I could not do because I was ill and had to spend two solid days in bed.
The draft from the open window in between Novosibirsk and Irkutsk was enough to give me a rather bad cold which peaked at Lake Baikal.
Still, the area was lovely and we were glad to be out of a train and able to unpack our stuff without having to repack immediately for once.
I am not sure where my current losing streak with regards to diving is coming from (Grimsey, diving north of the Arctic circle with birds that plummet into the water and hunt fish: Only guy who does this is on the Icelandic mainland that day; Svalbard, diving north of the Arctic circle in permanent darkness: The few people who do this privately did not reply while I was there; Baikal, oldest, deepest, largest lake on Earth: ill), but I will most likely return to Russia for a week of ice diving in Lake Baikal next winter or the one after that.
As an aside, I saw several people walking to Lake Baikal with buckets to get their water. Other people got it from a well which was still half frozen. If you have running water consider yourself lucky...
Nice city, largely uneventful. The farther east you get within Russia, the more normal women look. In Moscow, just as in Paris, they are way over-dressed and even service personnel will walk with high heels. Thankfully, I don't have to wear heels, but for the other males out there: Walking and standing in these things hurts and thus most if not all people who stand and walk for a living have flat shoes.
We happened upon preparations for a military parade, complete with cordon, viewing podests, at least half a dozen TV cameras etc, but were not sure if it would start soon enough for us to catch our train.We asked someone who told us it would start at 2100 local, at 1945 local it seemed about to start, and sure enough at 1955 sharp, the whole thing went under way. About a dozen groups of 50-100 people each, all in their own, respective uniforms stood against one side of a cordoned-off street and several higher-ups on the other side. Two highest-ups shouted into microphones and the throng of people on the other side shouted back answers. Then, the two highest-ups stood in the back of a jeep each and drove past said throng, stopping in front of each group, shouting into microphones mounted in the back of the jeeps and the groups shouted back once again. After that, all groups marched around the make-shift plaza once, saluting the higher ups. Once they were done, and they took ages, two trucks drove by with soldiers jumping out of the moving trucks and moving into crouching positions. They ran around in a circle a few times and engaged in pretend hand-to-hand combat. I am sure they are skilled at whatever style they wanted to show, but they were overdoing things so badly, they were funny, not imposing. When they jumped over some barriers, the barriers fell to pieces and everyone scrambled to make it look as if that was part of the show. While carrying off the gear, it fell into further pieces which was even more funny. An armoured personnel carrier ended the show; several tougher looking guys jumped off of that one and their mock combat involved fully automatic fire (of blanks), several flashbangs, smoke grenades and, to top things off, the machine gun mounted on the APC moving down the opposing team with blanks.
I never witnessed a "real" military parade in person but this one was somewhat disappointing. On the one hand, there was a distinct lack of ballistic missile carriers and tanks like you see in movies, documentaries and games, on the other hand, the whole thing had a make-do feeling to it. The cordoning police had designated spots to stand on, yet walked around. They were standing to attention, yet checking their cell phones. Several people in one uniformed group were wearing track suits and jeans. Another uniformed guy had a grocery bag with him; yet another one was carrying a huge water bottle. Bikers zig-zagged through the cordon and when the whole show was just about to wrap up the police finally started putting up barriers around the unmoving pedestrians, not blocking the bikers. One little girl was standing well within the cordoned area, watching with big eyes and after she did not react to the police talking to her, they just built the barriers in a curve around her.
And to top it all off, some guy with a cane walked all through the parade with his personal camcorder, trying to direct the whole show while being ignored by everyone. Still, I am sure he managed to mess up some otherwise perfectly good TV scenes.
- Diesel-powered trains.
- Single track most of the time with frequent stops to let other trains pass.
- Distinctively less developed cities, stations, streets, and other infrastructure along the road.
- 32+ degrees in our waggon.
- The train attendant was extremely unfriendly and just generally
miserable even by Russian standards.
- No toilet paper or towels at all on toilets.
- While the other attendants made a point of presenting themselves well, he shuffled around in slacks all the time (not bad per se, but Russia is big on uniforms, so...)
- He took all our tickets and stubs (including the ones not from this part of the journey) and kept them without comment. After we asked for them several times, he barked at us that we would get them back before Ulan Bator. Why? No idea...
- He refused to let us exit the train during the very few stops. We were unable to exit through other waggons as the connecting door was locked. Being stuck in a train sucks.
- Border and customs took NINE HOURS!!! Stuck in blistering heat without a breeze, without access to a toilet, just waiting for bureaucracy to go its way. I checked all doors, we were locked into said waggon and there were no 'break glass to leave in emergency' windows. Especially nice as there's a coal fire burning in the hot-water stove and the whole train is plastered with warning signs about fire and what to do. In our case, presumably, burn to death; preferably without disturbing the attendant.
- The Russian stamp for entering Russia (by plane) has a plane on it, the departure one a train.
- The Russian side of the border is built like a fortress. There are several towers and bridges over the rails so trains can be checked from above, and reinforced holes dug into the ground in which soldiers stand and check the train from below.
3000 kilometers of birch trees