Written by MALUSE on 16 Jun, 2012
I've been twice to Leningrad but never to St. Petersburg. "So what?", you may think, "I've been to many places twice and to others not at all." That may well be the case, but here we're talking about the same Russian city. Its first name…Read More
I've been twice to Leningrad but never to St. Petersburg. "So what?", you may think, "I've been to many places twice and to others not at all." That may well be the case, but here we're talking about the same Russian city. Its first name was Saint Petersburg, this was changed to Petrograd in 1914, to Leningrad in 1924 and back to St. Petersburg in 1991.Every year in the middle of June I remember a special night in Leningrad. I used to teach Russian at a secondary grammar school in Germany and went to Moscow and Leningrad twice on a one-week school trip with a group of students. We flew to Moscow and stayed there for half a week, then took the night train to Leningrad for the other half and returned to Germany from there.It wasn't possible then to organise individual trips. Adults had to go with Intourist, the state-run tourist office. We had to go with Sputnik, the sub-organisation for youngsters. Before leaving the group leader (me) had to send a list of wishes, what we wanted to do and what we wanted to see, as well as a list of all names, addresses and passport numbers in twenty copies. (Wherever we went in Moscow and Leningrad, we would find someone waiting for us with a copy of this list in their hands. Spooky).At the airport groups were welcomed by an interpreter/chaperon/watchdog who accompanied them all the time, no matter if they knew the language or not. In our case she (it was usually a woman) had our wish list which had transmogrified into a strict programme with some of our wishes but also items we hadn't dreamed of like visiting a summer camp on the Baltic Sea for the children of a textile factory in Leningrad (which turned out to be quite enjoyable) or a discussion with a group of Young Pioneers, the youth organisation of the Communist Party (we didn't go).For my second trip I had asked a friend to accompany me with whom I had studied Russian at university. The group consisted of fifteen well-behaved 17-year-old girls. I knew they wouldn't be trouble, but one can't do such trips alone. If a teacher has to accompany someone to hospital, for example, there must be someone who can stay with the group.When we arrived at Moscow airport, we found a woman waiting for us, crumpled, crinkled and dead-tired. For some reason the Moscovite interpreters/chaperons/watchdogs were all occupied and Sputnik had called someone from Kiev. Ludmilla had been on the train longer than we had been on the plane which explained the way she looked. She turned out to be the best possible choice! She had been in Moscow and Leningrad many times, wasn't interested in making us 'work off' the items on our programme and, above all, wasn't afraid of any reprehensions. We studied the list together, she asked us if we wanted to go to wherever we were meant to go. When we declined, she called the people and simply said that we wouldn't come. She was a real treasure. She often stayed in her hotel room having seen the sights innumerable times and embroidered blouses with folkloristic motives. (She later made a beautiful one for my mother). We did what we wanted to do which was mainly walk around and inhale the atmosphere.When we were in Leningrad my friend and I decided to thank Ludmilla by inviting her big-style to one of the best restaurants, the one on the ground floor of the 5-star Grand Hotel Europe on Nevsky Prospekt in the centre of the city. Nowadays we couldn't afford a night out there any more, but then, in the Soviet Union, we were rich with our Deutsche Mark against the Ruble. There were several other groups of people dining together, many from Western Europe. I'm not especially impressed by caviar, but we had it there, red one and black one, together with blinis (a type of thin pancake) and other specialities up and down the menu, accompanied by champagne from Crimea and a shot of vodka in the end. There was a small orchestra with a very good singer, a tenor, who specialised in Italian arias. No idea why he didn't sing Russian songs. Maybe the musicians thought that foreigners feel good when things aren't too foreign for them. (Which is indeed often the case). When midnight came, the festive evening ended rather abruptly. A grim, elderly charwoman appeared with a bucket full of water and a floor mop and began cleaning the floor between the tables. So we left. We went to the nearest underground station, not drunk but tipsy enough to take the wrong underground train. Our hotel was far away from the centre somewhere in the periphery. When we noticed that we didn't recognise any of the names of the stations we passed, we got off. It was after midnight then, but not dark. The days in the middle of June are called the White Nights in this northern city. This is a period when many great cultural events take place. The sun shines until 10 / 10.30 pm and starts shining again at around 5 am. In between the sky is light grey. We had no idea where we were, our interpreter had never been to the outskirts before. Understandably, as all sights are in the centre. The good thing for my friend and me was, of course, that we had someone with us who could speak the language perfectly. But this didn't help much as at that time of night the streets were empty. We didn't feel too good as you can imagine. After some time the door of a high rise building opened and a young couple, dressed normally, and a young woman in a long nightie came out together with a dog which they wanted to walk. When they heard that we were lost, they decided that the dog wouldn't mind where it was walked. We were already near our hotel but approaching it from a different side, so we hadn't recognised the area. When we saw our hotel, we parted thanking our three saviours profusely. Our students had also enjoyed the light night and walked around at a time when it was already pitch dark at home but none had such a nice story to tell. You can imagine that I have fond thoughts when thinking of this city and its people! Close
Written by sararevell on 24 Aug, 2007
When we decided to book tickets for the Trans-Siberian I really had no idea of what life would be like on the trains. The first train from Moscow would take three days to reach Irkutsk and I wondered if there would be enough to divert…Read More
When we decided to book tickets for the Trans-Siberian I really had no idea of what life would be like on the trains. The first train from Moscow would take three days to reach Irkutsk and I wondered if there would be enough to divert us.We boarded the train in Moscow close to midnight so our first few hours were spent sleeping. On our first day, we became friends with our neighbour Sam who was traveling to Perm for the upcoming 1st May holiday celebrations. He spoke excellent English and introduced us to the elderly gentleman sharing his compartment who was returning from Moldova where his daughter lived. He lamented the desperate state of life in Moldova and also Georgia where he said unemployment was high and job opportunities scarce. He told us how he drove trains on the Trans-Siberian route during World War Two and was now able to travel by train and in first class at no cost.By 7.30pm the train had reached Perm and we said farewell to Sam, sad that he wasn’t traveling to Siberia. Besides being an excellent translator, we learnt a lot about Russia from him and his roommate and they had kept us entertained that day with their stories and wonderful senses of humour.While the second and third days were quieter for us, we managed to fill the time with reading, journal updates, eating, drinking tea and jumping out at various station stops to snap photos and get a breath of icy cold air. It was good to step outside although we always stayed close to our carriage, even at the longer stops. At every stop you hear the melodic clinking of metal against metal as station workers tap critical connections up and down the train to ensure that nothing has come loose since the last station.We tried to follow significant landmarks indicated at certain kilometer markers in our guidebook but sadly it seemed that we passed the majority of them, including the Europe-Asia Border Obelisk at kilometer 1777, in the dead of the night. I began to wonder if doing the journey in reverse and starting in Beijing would have allowed us to see more of the major sights during the day.We relied on two books for our journey: Bryn Thomas’ “Trans-Siberian Handbook” and the Lonely Planet’s “Trans-Siberian Railway”. I would have to say that Thomas’ book was the more detailed and accurate of the two but it was also the most recently published. In addition to reading up on the scheduled stops for the day, we also brought along some fiction. “War and Peace” is apparently a popular Trans-Siberian literary companion but we opted for two more manageable but equally fitting novels: “The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom” by Slavomir Rawicz and “Peking to Paris: Prince Borghese’s Journey across two Continents in 1907” by Luigi Barzini. Both are fascinating reads. The first is about a prisoner of war who made the impossible journey on foot from Siberia through Mongolia, China and Tibet to India. The second records a race that follows almost the same route as the present day Trans-Mongolian and Siberian railways but one in which the competitors traveled all the way from Peking, through Mongolia and Siberia to Paris completely by car. Incredibly, Prince Borghese and his three-man team completed the race in the space of two months.Looking out of the window of our peaceful first class train cabin, it was hard to comprehend how anyone could survive being out in the Siberian wilderness for very long. Even now, towns and homes are few and far between and the environment looked bleak. On the morning of our second day, we began to see patches of snow, which grew in size the closer we got to Irkutsk. We also couldn’t help but notice that the landscape remained fairly unchanged for a long time. It wasn’t until the final day that the lines of birch trees stuck in the hard mud gave way to a flatter, greener and snowier terrain. There was also one very depressing and unnatural feature, which I doubt would have been apparent in Rawicz and Barzini’s time. From Moscow to Irkutsk, there was a constant stream of litter dumped out by the tracks, which seemed to reinforce what I’ve read about Russia’s appalling environmental record. I have to say that if one thing destroyed my idea of the Trans-Siberian being a romantic epic journey, the discarded plastic bags and other rubbish was it.Another aspect of traveling along this route which surprised me was the lack of station vendors. So many accounts tell of persistent sellers offering cheap souvenirs, coveted handicrafts or local delicacies. I don’t know if it was just because they didn’t hang around our carriage (as obviously the train is quite long) but we saw very few hawkers. The only place where they seemed to be in abundance was at Lake Baikal where I bought the Omul, otherwise they were very restrained. This fact seemed particularly unusual at the Russian-Mongolian border where we were stuck for hours in the middle of the day. There were a couple of people displaying their wares on a bench but the main station shop was closed for lunch! I don’t know how often trains pass through here but I was amazed that they wouldn’t be taking full advantage of a bunch of trapped foreigners with time to kill and rubles to discard.The border crossings into Mongolia and China would have been fairly painless had we not had to wait around for 5-9 hours at each stop. At the Russian-Mongolian border it took 7 hours before the train even crossed into Mongolia. Our carriage with its guardian provodnitsa was left alone, detached from any engine for hours and we couldn’t wander too far as homeless children begged for empty glass bottles and offered to exchange rubles for Mongolian Tögrög. With our visas all in order, an onward ticket in hand and only two backpacks, customs and immigration was no problem for us although interestingly when entering Mongolia we had to declare if we had SARS or not.For some unknown reason, the crossing into China took almost half the time as the crossing into Mongolia. This is hard to understand when you consider that in addition to clearing customs and immigration, you also have to wait while all the bogeys on the train are changed out for the narrower standard gauge used in probably every country in the world except those that fell within the former U.S.S.R. In our guidebooks it indicated that passengers had the option of leaving the train before it moves to the bogey-changing shed but if that opportunity presented itself, no one in our carriage noticed. We all stayed on board (with crossed legs as the toilets are closed for the duration) as our carriage was shunted to and fro and eventually elevated so the wheels could be changed out beneath us. It’s an unusual sight watching the wheels of your carriage roll away into the dark of night. At 1.15am the toilets finally re-opened and everyone scrambled to be first in line after what was certainly a very unique border crossing experience.The trackside littering had cleared up once we reached Ulan Baatar, but then it would take an incredibly resilient race of people to dump out their rubbish across the Gobi Desert. Through Mongolia the views are fairly consistent. Sand, sand dunes and the odd cluster of gers are all you really see on this route but it is in some ways more dynamic than the Russian taiga as it’s not every day you can take a train through a desert. Once we crossed into China the landscape changed again and almost immediately you become aware of the population increase. Fields everywhere are neatly ploughed and even the smallest green spaces have been cultivated. People ride bikes along dirt trails beside rice fields. The flat plains give way to misty forests, which eventually reveal glimpses of the Great Wall of China. Not long after, the trees are replaced by towering blocks of offices and flats and the air becomes soupy with a smog that welcomes you into Beijing. Close
Describing the Mongolian dining car will be a short exercise as for most of the journey through Mongolia, there wasn’t one. From Irkutsk to Ulan-Baatar we relied mostly on supplies bought in Irkutsk. We stocked up on bottled water, orange juice, biscuits, beer, yogurts and…Read More
Describing the Mongolian dining car will be a short exercise as for most of the journey through Mongolia, there wasn’t one. From Irkutsk to Ulan-Baatar we relied mostly on supplies bought in Irkutsk. We stocked up on bottled water, orange juice, biscuits, beer, yogurts and also a few “instant” meal pots that only required the addition of hot water. We bought some instant noodles but a couple pots turned out to be instant mash potato, which was a little strange but not totally unappetizing.Four painfully slow hours after leaving Irkutsk the train reached Lake Baikal at midnight. At this station, vendors patrolled the platform with buckets of smoked Omul fish. I’d been foolish enough not to buy any in Listvianka so you can imagine my joy when I was presented with this final chance to try some before the train turned south towards Mongolia. For a few rubles, I purchased one Omul fish without even leaving the train. I took it back to our cabin and made short work of it. Its taste was reminiscent of mackerel and all the better as it was enjoyed with a crisp Russian beer.Once the train reached the Russian-Mongolian border we hunted around for a shop in which to spend our remaining rubles and resorted to buying more biscuits and other unhealthy snacks to see us through to Ulan Baatar.A Mongolian dining car was eventually attached for the stretch from Ulan-Baatar to the Chinese border. It was incredibly ornate with carved wooden partitions and red and gold seats. Sadly we didn’t have a chance to dine there as the over-efficient service on Train 024 included a boxed lunch at noon, which was delivered directly to our room. The meal included an improvised club sandwich constructed out of 3-4 slices of white bread with layers of tomato, cucumber, salami and lashings of mayonnaise. In addition there was an assortment of pickled carrots, cabbage and red pepper as well as two blocks of rice, seaweed sushi and a piece of breaded fish in a gravy sauce that tasted like kidney! It was definitely a curious collection of bites but it held me over until we reached the border.The next morning and we were in China and the exquisite Mongolian dining car had been left behind and replaced with the Chinese car. What the carriage lacked in beauty however, it made up for in cuisine. We ordered two plates of sweet and sour pork with rice and two cups of tea. It was the first truly tasty meal we had received on any train and was a sign of things to come in China. The sauce was less sweet and the batter less stodgy than the western equivalent but this was a good thing. The bill for the two of us came to reasonable $8 and once our dishes were cleared away we were invited to vacate our seats, as this was one dining car doing swift business and they needed our table. Close
The Trans-Mongolian journey from Irkutsk to Ulan Baatar was a very different experience from our first train. The accommodations were far more basic and the carriage interior was a stark clinical white with no noticeable efforts of decoration. The cabin configuration was the same but…Read More
The Trans-Mongolian journey from Irkutsk to Ulan Baatar was a very different experience from our first train. The accommodations were far more basic and the carriage interior was a stark clinical white with no noticeable efforts of decoration. The cabin configuration was the same but this time the beds were hard and unmade. We had clean white sheets, and a slightly tattered, bristly red blanket for warmth. They did provide a towel although the bathroom amenities were also very basic and there was no paper or soap in the toilets and most definitely no shower room.We had to ask for utensils such as mugs for tea and a spoon for eating the delicious yogurts we discovered in Russia. The provodnitsas were more elusive and seemed less predisposed to providing helpful information such as the length of station stops. There was no train schedule available so stopping times at platforms were guesswork on our part. These very minor inconveniences and discomfort added to the greater sense of adventure we felt on this leg of the trip, especially when we reached the Mongolian border, which had the appearance of a wild west outpost.The first class carriage from Ulan Baatar to Beijing, however, couldn’t have been more different again. The cabin and the corridors were clad in laminated wood, giving the carriages a warm, orange glow. In the room, two bunk beds were situated one above the other on one side of the cabin, leaving the other side free for a small single seat where you could sit and watch the Gobi Desert roll by. Unfortunately the windows were covered in dust inside and outside by the pervasive desert sand although some of the taller people made an attempt at cleaning them at various stops so we could get better views. The upper bunk bed could be pushed up against the wall, allowing the lower bunk to become a long seat during the day. The bunks seemed wider than the others on our trip and were soft and cushy and there were plenty of blankets and sheets on hand.There was a private bathroom with a sink and a shower for every two cabins. The bathroom had two doors so you would have to lock your neighbour’s door when you wanted to use the shower, which was essentially an extension hose from the sink unit but worked quite well. There was also a shallow closet for hanging coats and within which we found a large flask for storing hot water from the samovar making it more convenient for us to refill our white teacups as when we wanted. And just when we didn’t think the service could get any better, we were served a complimentary boxed lunch to our cabin at noon. In these conditions, we could have gladly stretched out the journey time from Ulan Baatar to Beijing train for a day or two more if conditions had allowed. Close
(continued from Part I) Our beds consisted of two cushy bunks, with large puffy pillows, a substantial duvet and an additional blanket. There was no danger of getting cold as the heating was kept at a comfortable temperature. It was, however, a sharp contrast to…Read More
(continued from Part I) Our beds consisted of two cushy bunks, with large puffy pillows, a substantial duvet and an additional blanket. There was no danger of getting cold as the heating was kept at a comfortable temperature. It was, however, a sharp contrast to the outside temperature, which was so cold that it often sent us running back to the train for warmth at the infrequent 15-20 minute platform stops.The cabins were decorated with four metallic landscape pictures (the locations of which I couldn’t quite discern) and three large mirrors. The curtains were a strange blue and yellow shiny silky material with colours matching the bedcovers and the narrow blue and gold rug that ran down the middle of the room. There were also thick pull-down blinds on each window, which eliminated the light altogether if needed. Piped music played on speakers as we had boarded the train but thankfully there is a volume button within the compartment, which allows you to turn it off.At the end of each carriage is the infamous samovar dispensing a never-ending flow of hot water. On the first morning, my husband came back with two fresh cups of tea with milk in glass cups, which we would wash ourselves and re-use over the next three days. All in all, it’s somewhat of a luxurious camping experience.I saved the best for last: the story of how we found the shower. In the room next to us was a young guy traveling from Moscow to Perm. He spoke excellent English and we were extremely fortunate in that we were able to spend our first day on the train in his company. My husband told him about the legendary on-board shower that we had read about in our guidebooks. Our new friend promptly asked the provodnitsa, who confirmed that there was a shower in wagon five. We in turn asked the provodnitsa in wagon five and lo and behold, she unlocked the door to a shower room. Granted, the shower was more of a dribble but there was enough water for me to have a hair wash the following day. So if you happen to travel on the Baikal, take a look in wagon five, or employ the services of a willing Russian speaker to find out where the elusive shower is. Close
Departs Moscow Yaroslavsky Station at 11.29pm from 5 Komsomolskaya Ploshchad.We arrived at Moscow’s Yaroslavsky Station in good time for our 11.29pm departure. Missing the train when traveling on the Trans-Siberian didn’t seem like a wise move so we tended to show up 1-2 hours before…Read More
Departs Moscow Yaroslavsky Station at 11.29pm from 5 Komsomolskaya Ploshchad.We arrived at Moscow’s Yaroslavsky Station in good time for our 11.29pm departure. Missing the train when traveling on the Trans-Siberian didn’t seem like a wise move so we tended to show up 1-2 hours before the departure times just to make sure that we were in the right place and knew exactly which platform our train would be departing from. Even at the late hour Yaroslavsky Station was especially busy so it took us a while to find a seat in the vast waiting room. We then searched for an ATM so we could withdraw enough cash to last us for three days although when we found out that most of our meals would be included it negated that concern.About 45 minutes or so before the departure, we carried our backpacks down to the platform and were soon allowed to board the train. We found our wagon fairly easily and the provodnitsa showed us to our compartment. Each wagon is assigned its own provodnitsa. Ours was a short, firm but friendly lady, bundled up in a blue overcoat. She worked shifts (though we rarely saw her “night” counterpart) and was responsible for sweeping and hoovering the carriage corridor and each compartment at least twice a day. She would also lock our compartment from the outside when we wanted to visit the dining car.The room was small and cosy with single bunk beds on either side separated by a flip-up table. With only the two of us, there was plenty of space to store our luggage as well as wall hooks for hanging coats and towels. Both beds lifted up to reveal storage space underneath the entire length of the bed and above the sliding door, there was a television screen with space around it for more bags. The TV monitor hooked up to a DVD player and the provodnitsa had a collection of DVDs, which she showed us in case we wanted to watch a film. She asked us on numerous occasions and seemed amused that we were able to keep ourselves occupied the whole time without watching a single film during the entire trip.Before we discovered the joys of the shower room, we took an improvised wash in the bathroom, which consisted of a metal toilet and small sink. As one might imagine, it isn’t the prettiest room on the train but it’s bearable and regularly cleaned and you become quite adept at stabilising yourself as the train jerks abruptly from side to side. In the first class wagon, they provided us with a small travel kit that consisted of toothpaste, toothbrush, soap, wet wipes and a shoehorn. There was also a timetable left on the table, which detailed the time of every single stop between Moscow and Irkutsk and for how long the train would stop at those stations (continued in Part II). Close
Svezhy Veter Travel Agency426000 Izhevsk Karla Marxa 228a, RussiaTel: firstname.lastname@example.org www.sv-agency.udm.ru There are various ways to book tickets for the Trans-Siberian train. We had read stories about people who just turn up and buy once they’re in the country as this is one way to…Read More
Svezhy Veter Travel Agency426000 Izhevsk Karla Marxa 228a, RussiaTel: email@example.com www.sv-agency.udm.ru There are various ways to book tickets for the Trans-Siberian train. We had read stories about people who just turn up and buy once they’re in the country as this is one way to obtain tickets at the cheapest price. On the flipside, by doing this you risk not being able to find tickets for your preferred departure date.We were taking some fairly expensive camera equipment with us and thought that traveling in a first class compartment would be a safer way to go. We also needed to be in Japan within about a month of leaving Moscow so we decided that buying our tickets in advance would probably be the most sensible thing to do.We found the Svezhy Veter Travel Agency through online and guidebook research and they looked like an established company. The final price, which was close to $1,000 per person for the entire trip, was a little higher than we would have liked, but when you consider all that this included it wasn’t too terrible. In addition to the actual train travel all the way from Moscow to Beijing and organizing our two stops along the way, the price included the six nights accommodation on board the trains as well as two meals a day for the three days we were on board the Baikal train from Moscow to Irkutsk. The final ticket price is dependent on how many stops you make (it’s cheaper if you don’t make any at all) and also on the level of accommodation you choose.There are other companies that arrange package tours for the train journey. One company, called "Vodka Train" caters to the 18-34 year old age group. We met four people traveling on this tour and whilst they traveled on their own on the train, assigned guides met them at each stop. They had to share a four-person compartment but were fortunate in that their group size was small and they all seemed to get along so well.There was a mixture of other ages and nationalities on the trains, some like us who had arranged their tickets and accommodation independently, and others who were traveling in small groups and had tour guides meeting them at each stop.Our first point of contact with Svezhy Veter Travel Agency was to email them with the dates we hoped to travel on. We wanted to leave Moscow around April 29th and make stops in Irkutsk and Ulan Baatar so they advised us on taking the following schedule and calculated our ticket price from this:29th APRIL - Train 002 "Rossiya" leaving Moscow at 21:22 and arriving in Irkutsk on 3rd May at 02:33 Moscow time (All the trains in Russia run on Moscow time, irrespective of where you are!) OR Train 010 "Baikal" leaving Moscow at 23:29 and arriving in Irkutsk on 3rd May at 04:30 (which was 9.30am local time).5th MAY - Train 364 leaving Irkutsk at 15:10 (local time) and arriving in Ulan Baatar at 06:20 two days later.11th MAY - Train 024 leaving Ulan Baatar at 08:05 (local time) and arriving in Beijing at 3.30pm the following day.Once we confirmed the trains and dates with them, we pre-paid for the tickets by credit card. It was somewhat disconcerting having to pay the full amount up front to a company half way around the world but I guess we can vouch for their honesty now!Our schedule funnily enough followed exactly that of the Vodka Train group. If you have more time, I would definitely recommend spending more time in Mongolia than we did. There isn’t much more to do in Listvianka than we covered in our two days although if you go during the summertime, there are greater opportunities for hiking and camping at other parts of Lake Baikal which could extend your stop there out to a week or more.Tickets for the Trans-Siberian are only issued 40-45 days prior to the travel dates. Given our travel plans, we arranged with the Svezhy Veter Travel Agency to pick up our onward tickets at each stop. We were sent email instructions with details of where we should go in Moscow and Irkutsk to pick up our tickets and who we should ask for. It all felt akin to a reality TV treasure hunt but when we arrived at the various offices, our tickets were waiting for us. The only time we experienced any problems was with the tickets from Irkutsk to Ulan Baatar. There is no first class section on this train so in order to have the compartment to ourselves, we paid for all four berths but had mistakenly only received two tickets. It was resolved eventually but involved a long and painful drive across Irkutsk where the rush hour traffic is unbelievably bad! Fortunately in Ulan Baatar we had the option of having the tickets delivered to our youth hostel, which we gratefully accepted.Overall, purchasing and obtaining the tickets through Svezhy Veter was easier than it would have been trying to negotiate with our limited Russian language at the Moscow train station. Admittedly it costs more, but we were able to lock in all our departure dates without having to worry about whether we would be get a bunk or not. Trains across Siberia and Mongolia are not a daily occurrence so booking ahead, especially if you want to make stops in more remote towns in Siberia and Mongolia is probably a good idea.If you do book through Svezhy Veter (or any agency for that matter) I’d strongly recommend asking them exactly what your ticket includes. We met a friendly, English-speaking Russian on the Baikal train who examined our tickets and after checking with the provodnitsa, informed us that we were entitled to two complimentary meals a day in the dining car. Svezhy Veter had made no mention of this to us, which seemed like a major omission of information. Even though their booking service is efficient I got the sense that their system is so standardized that beyond giving us the ticket pick-up details, they neglect to provide any additional information to their customers. It seems like it would be a courteous and helpful gesture if they provided their customers with a leaflet or email with Trans-Siberian advice and tips such as the one we received from the HOFA homestay organization in St. Petersburg. Close
Written by 80 Ways Tim on 25 Jul, 2005
Before we left, my mum organised a 'Bring & Buy' sale to raise funds for the trip. The idea was to sell enough junk to pay for our Trans-Siberian railway tickets. Friends and family gave vast quantities of goods for sale at the event, displaying…Read More
Before we left, my mum organised a 'Bring & Buy' sale to raise funds for the trip. The idea was to sell enough junk to pay for our Trans-Siberian railway tickets. Friends and family gave vast quantities of goods for sale at the event, displaying both the level of generosity they had and the amount of rubbish they kept.
That day, we filled out a church hall with books, CDs, games, clothes, cakes, and general junk ranging from garden gnomes to hairclips, crockery to a wheelchair. Unfortunately, what we were lacking were customers, so I took it upon myself to wander the streets of Esher, carrying cakes baked by mum in an attempt to draw customers. The greedy pedestrians soon devoured the first cake, and Thom and my brother joined me for a second round.
The goal was not just to sell cake but also to draw people into the hall so that they'd buy more goods. One of the few people that fell for our sales pitch was a guy called Paul who was wheeling his daughter down the road and agreed to have a look around (albeit only because we didn't have any change for his ten-pound note).
After we gave him the whole story (excitedly showing him the day's Guardian, whose pages we had graced with two sentences describing our project), he told us he had taken the Trans-Siberian himself and had a great time. He also gave us a little tip.
When he went on the train, he took a bottle of whiskey from home and gave it to the chef in the restaurant car as a gift. For the rest of the journey, he maintained, he received extra large portions and particularly attentive service. He recommended that we do the same, and we did.
From the duty-free store on our ferry across the Channel, Thom picked up a bottle of Scottish whiskey. I had envisioned a small, hip-flask-sized container, but Thom brought back a great big bottle containing the best part of a litre of spirits. He had to carry the thing in his backpack for over a week, but now that we were onboard the train, the time had come to deliver our present.
It had always seemed like a good idea: buy a bottle of whiskey, give it to the chef, get extra food. But the reality suddenly seemed different. Who was to say the chef would appreciate the whiskey? Who said he was a whiskey drinker? Who said he was a he? Who said he wasn’t a petite little Chinese women who made a mean chicken chow mein but wouldn't touch spirits with a barge pole? Naturally, we did some reconnaissance first.
"He's this big Russian guy with a big moustache and a funny leather waistcoat that looks like a gun holster," Thom said excitedly. "He looks like he'll appreciate the whiskey."
Now we still had to present him with it. It wasn't a normal social situation, walking up to a complete stranger and giving him a bottle of whiskey. What did we expect, that he'd welcome us with wide-open arms, thank us in perfect English, knock back some whiskey, then give us a mountainous portion of food for free? Well... yeah. But now that we were there, the likelihood of him giving us such a response seemed all too unlikely, and we were a bit hesitant as to how to proceed.
We figured we should introduce ourselves first, so we went down for some lunch, and whilst he was serving us, I looked up. "What is your name?" I asked in Russian. Kak-vaas za-voot is how I remember it and how I said it. To my surprise, it worked, and "Victor," came the response. "And you?" he asked with an upward nod of the head. Brilliant! We had broken the ice that would soon be filling our whiskey glasses. That was, of course, the other problem, as Thom pointed out: "You realise he's going to expect us to drink some of this with him."
So, armed with our Russian phrasebook and the translation of what our trip was all about, we marched into the restaurant car and handed Victor his prize. I feared a look of complete bewilderment—a look that said, "Why the hell are you guys giving me a litre of whiskey!?"—but instead, because he wasn't going to drink while serving, he told us to come back at six o'clock .
We had a date with a Russian guy and a bottle of whiskey.
...to be continued...
Written by 80 Ways Tim on 06 Jul, 2005
The train was just like any other and the cabin pretty standard, but somehow, to both of us, it was the most exciting place in the world. Grinning so much that my cheeks ached, I had the distinct feeling that our journey was officially underway.…Read More
The train was just like any other and the cabin pretty standard, but somehow, to both of us, it was the most exciting place in the world. Grinning so much that my cheeks ached, I had the distinct feeling that our journey was officially underway. Thom’s "end of the beginning idea" might sound a little melodramatic, but that’s just how it felt.
The Trans-Siberian (or Trans-Mongolian actually) was the only leg of the journey that we had really booked in advance and one of the very few parts that we had always been resolute about. I had personally been looking forward to it for months, if only because it would give an enforced opportunity to relax. No rushing around; no need to do anything during the days (indeed, not much opportunity); no Internet, so no chance to organise things; just time to kick back and relax.
One of the (many) unknowns about the train, for us, was who our roommates would be. Five days straight in a room with two strangers leaves all sorts of possibilities open. Our first companion arrived, and after a few tentative exchanges, we worked out that we both spoke English, and things were easy from then on. Her name was Zoe, she was from Australia, and like us, she was headed for Beijing via Ulan Bator.
Our next arrival was quiet little Mongolian girl. We said hellos and exchanged names (Aza was her name, I think), but the language barrier kept things at that to start with. A friend came into the cabin with her, and they set about sorting things out. Whilst we were happy to just sit back and stare out the window (the train wasn’t moving yet), they were keeping themselves busy. First, they flicked down these metal bars from the walls that they used as steps to gain better access to the storage compartment above (we were aware of neither the purpose of the bars nor the existence of such a compartment). They flicked a switch and lowered one of the overhead bunks, then lifted up the seats that we were on to reveal yet more storage and also our bed linens. This wasn’t their first time.
As the train jerked to a start, Thom and I cracked open a celebratory beer (a fond favourite brand we hadn’t seen since being in Kyrgyzstan) and revelled in the elation of having gotten this far. But our Mongolian companions were not done. They returned in numbers, piled into our tiny cabin, and closed the door with a (not entirely) reassuring grin.
The girl climbed onto her bed whilst a woman—we presumed her mother—passed up a screwdriver. Off came a hatch in the ceiling and down came some more packages. Yet more secret compartments we weren’t aware of! But hold on a second—why would you need a screwdriver to access a cupboard? Why were they bringing things out of the ceiling? They then proceeded to remove the main ceiling fitting and bring out more bags of stuff: deodorants, jeans, jumpers, etc. The three of us exchanged bewildered looks of amusement as thoughts of smuggling operations ran through our heads and our level of entertainment, already high from having just made it onto the train, reached a peak!
This was too good to miss, so Thom dug out the camera and started to film. There was the young girl up on her top bunk, the mother piling up parcels that filled the cabin, sprawling over the seats and our knees like a room filling with water, and various accomplices opening and closing the door to shift the goods elsewhere down the train. The mother didn’t appreciate us evidencing their acts and shook her head. We complied with the request, of course, but it only further sealed in our minds the idea that we were sharing a cabin with a quiet little Mongolian girl who was, in fact, the head of an international smuggling network.
Following Thom’s lead, I had decided to get a haircut—a shaved head, no less. Our Rough Guide listed a place with English-speaking staff that might help to avoid embarrassing mistakes. We set about finding it, suffering from the usual problem of trying to read road…Read More
Following Thom’s lead, I had decided to get a haircut—a shaved head, no less. Our Rough Guide listed a place with English-speaking staff that might help to avoid embarrassing mistakes. We set about finding it, suffering from the usual problem of trying to read road signs in Cyrillic. A hairdresser’s came into view, but soon after walking through the door, I realised it wasn’t the international haven I was hoping for. No problem—I only wanted a grade 3.
The options, however, were 3mm, 6mm, or 12mm. Now, I thought that ‘mm’ might correspond to grade, but I also didn’t want to get the shortest one. The 12mm sounded like a lot of hair, so I opted for the middle ground—6mm. It was shorter than expected, but then, I could always cover it up with the top hat to avoid looking foolish, right?
Two years prior, Thom and I had made two daring attempts to be the first British people to climb a mountain in Kyrgyzstan called Peak Gorky (there’s a bit more info in my other journal, ‘Good Morning Kyrgyzstan!’). Named after the Russian writer Maxim Gorky, we were particularly keen to find Gorky House. Conveniently, it was just around the corner, and with the exception of a large-scale road block and a parade of black limos in our way, we got there quickly.
It really did just look like someone’s house, and I wouldn’t have thought otherwise, had our guidebook not said so. A series of quirky little red arrows directed us inside, through a maze of corridors and down some creaky wooden stairs. A burly security guard directed us to a cloakroom that was largely empty except for a little old lady rocking on a chair. She didn’t respond to either my Russian greeting or my "Hello" in a Russian accent. She might have been asleep, but then, her newspaper seemed to be moving in her hands. Asleep or deaf, though, she really should have noticed us as we banged on the desk, spoke loudly, and ultimately fell about laughing as filmed the scene. The guard upstairs suggested we hit her on the head, but she had arisen of her own accord upon our arrival.
Gorky’s House was not as exciting as his 6,000m mountain, but it proved to be far superior to his park. Aside from the mountain link, I’m a big fan of the Martin Cruz-Smith novel, so Gorky Park was a definite on the Moscow hit list. However, I had assumed it was a nice green park that we could wander through, but it was in fact a rather cheesy theme park filled with screaming kids and fairground rides.
All we had left for the day was to catch the train. THE train. The train to Beijing via Ulan Bator, over about 6,000 miles and 6 days. It left at half-past eight, and we made sure we were back at our hostel with plenty of time. We had toyed with the idea of one last meal in a Russian restaurant but stuck with our hotel to save time.
We had given our guidebook to the helpful hostel staff and were thus left clueless for our journey to the station (though the staff, proving their helpful status, had given us directions). On the underground ride there and throughout dinner, in fact, Thom had seemed a little distracted. He was, like me, excited about our Trans-Mongolian train ride—what he referred to as "the end of the beginning" of our trip.
Thom was still recovering from his playground incident, and whilst he managed to carry his rucksack, I was burdened with his man-bag and all food bags. When the train finally pulled into our stop, Thom headed straight out the door and started powering up the escalators. Due to muddy ground (or something similar), the subway system in Moscow is particularly deep underground, and its escalators are correspondingly long to the extent that no one ever walks up them—apart from Thom and, apparently, me. I was huffing and puffing behind him under the weight of about six different bags, without enough breath to shout, "What’s the hurry?"
Outside, Thom was looking back and forth, eyes wide and looking slightly flustered. I pointed to a sign that had our station’s name (one of four different train stations) printed on it. We hiked down there, matching pace with the escalator from a minute ago, and realised our guiding star was in fact a restaurant. Thom looked more frustrated. He wasn’t excited about the train, I realised, but worried we were going to be late: "If we miss this train, we’re screwed."
He was right, of course, but we did have about an hour before it left, and everything had worked out well thusfar, so I hadn’t really been worrying about it. Inside the first station we could find, we pointed to our desired station’s name on a piece of paper (written out in Cyrillic for us) and gave the international shrugging/confused look to say, "Where?" "Here!" came the reply as the lady pointed to the floor. She was clearly confused. We tried two other people, but they all said we were in the right place.
A large electronic display board outside confirmed that we were in the right place and that we were sufficiently early for our train to not have arrived yet. And even when it did, before we could work out where our platform was, a helpful attendant, presumably upon seeing our big backpacks, pointed us in the right direction, and we boarded with plenty of time to spare.