Category Archives: Russia

Mongolian banana smugglers (Trans-Siberian/Mongolian Leg 2)

Mongolian banana smugglers..
(Trans-Siberian/Mongolian Leg 2)

The first leg of our Trans-Siberian journey was about 77 hours. This next leg, as our train veered South from Siberia into Mongolia, was a paltry 30 odd hours. Nothing for battle hardened rail pros like us… we thought.

The train was a Mongolian one. Rather unshockingly, the staff were also Mongolian. Instead of our scruffy jack the lad Chinese carriage guards, we now had carriages staffed by a battle* of smartly dressed, diminutive, and severely efficient Mongolian ladies. *Unsure of collective noun for female Mongolian train guards.

Our carriage was totally packed with rowdy Mongolian blokes, we guessed maybe returning home for the weekend (Work can apparently be scarce in Mongolia these days). When we showed the guards our tickets they began to swear and fret amongst themselves, and seemed pretty unsubtley annoyed with us. After some heated debate they shoved us through the throng into our room, where we immediately gathered the cause of their annoyance. We had the tenacity to have prebooked beds, which happened to be in the cabin the staff seemed to have commandeered as an extra chillout room. The table was full of tea flasks and various train guard paraphernalia  and the under-seat luggage storage was full to the brim with boxes of Bananas (Yes, we were puzzled too). We attempted to shove our luggage where we could and were just about to get settled in, when the guards burst in and began pleading to us in Mongolian, whilst starting to collect our bags and coats. We gathered they wanted to move us, but we were slightly reluctant and tried in vein to explain (reasonably in our view) that we wanted to keep the beds we had paid for, with the numbers printed on our tickets. By using a mixture of bafflement and bribery (we gathered through mayhem that they were trying to assure us we’d have the new cabin to ourselves), the whirling guards somehow managed to get us into another cabin.

So, bruised an bemused, we once again began to settle in, this time without interruption  Our Mongolian matriarchs were also (almost) true to their word, and we did have it (almost) to ourselves for the duration. Bizarrely  half of our luggage space was still full of fruit. It seemed that a couple of the blokes on the train were traders, and had some sort of dodgy deal going with train guards – It did cross our minds that we may get done by customs for trying to smuggle in fruity contraband, but thankfully the border crossing went smoothly.

The border crossings on Trans-Siberian/Mongolian trains are still something we are yet to make head or tail of. The train is checked by both countries on their respective sides of the border, and there is a huge amount of time where absolutely nothing happens, and nothing is being done by anyone. Our total Russia-Mongolia border took around 8 hours, and apart from a bit of crawling and shunting, we were stationary for nearly all that time. Passports, Visas, immigration and custom forms are all checked, and rooms and (sometimes) bags are inspected. This happens on both sides of the border, and usually only takes between one and two hours each side… What’s going on for the remaining 4-6 hours is total mystery (apart from when they change the undercarriages to fit the different gauge of track when trains enter or leave Russia).

Our Russian part of the border crossing was in Ulan-Ude. The station is in the middle of nowhere but we were allowed to get off and stretch our legs and use the toilets – train toilets are out of bounds during stops, and 30 minutes before and after. This makes timing toilet visits one of the foremost concerns of the entire train journey… Anyway, at Ulan-Ude the train was split, most carriages carried on across Russia, but one carriage was left to enter Mongolia. Because of this, anyone who was destined for Mongolia from the other carriages were all quickly bundled into our carriage, and so a couple of Mongolian students promptly sat on our beds and cracked open the instant noodles. We left them to it and went for a potter around the train station. As we ambled around taking pictures and enjoying the leg stretch, we noticed a train engine couple itself to our carriage, and slowly begin chugging away. Our brains were telling us that there was no way the train would just leave without us, without any indication or signals at all, but our eyes told us a different story. In the true British tradition of running-for-a-bus-but-trying-not-to-look-like-you’re-running-for-a-bus we briskly walked after the train politely trying to get the guards attention who was hanging out of the back door. He made an indiscernible hand signal to us, and the train carried on into the distance. After we realised our power-walk-pursuit was futile, we stopped and stood in silence watching our train shrink in size, as is the nature of perspective. Just as the shocking realisation that all out bags, money, and documents were heading off without us, we noticed the train actually stopped shrinking, and then began to look as if it was growing again. Initially I thought this must be an optical allusion, akin to that when a wheel looks to be spinning backwards at a certain speed, but low and behold, it was really coming back towards us. It was of course, just changing tracks. We slowly turned around, only to see groups of locals chuckling to themselves on the platform. The train reversed passed us at an agonizingly slow speed, as more locals peered out of the windows, laughing at the numpty tourists who thought their train was leaving without them. We pretended not be embarrassed  but the colour of our faces may have suggested different.

The Mongolian border crossing consisted of stopping just outside a remote ramshackled farming village, at a small hut with the words ‘Mongolian Customs’ spraypainted on the side. The train was saluted by a row of smiling soldiers and then the standard border crossing procedure began. Our cabin door slid open, and we were strangely saluted by a tall Mongolian GI Jane. She didn’t seem too friendly and proceeded to almost take out cabin apart, taking of roof panels and all sorts.

Considering all you have to do is fill in a couple of forms, and sit there for hours, eating and drinking tea, border crossings are a remarkably stressful experience. They also do an amazing job of shattering romantic Trans-Siberian notions. Because you can just sit there and chill out while it all happens, it’s still slightly preferable to the cattle market treatment you have to go through when flying, it’s just the length of stationary time that’s the main downer.

Although it has the lowest average temperature (over a year) of any capital city, UlaanBaatar apparently has clear skies most of the year round. We arrived at six in the morning, to a -6 degree blizzard and a good few inches of snow. Of course.

Trans-Siberian/Mongolian Leg 2
30/03/13 – 01/04/13

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Lake Baikal – a bit nippy…

Lake Baikal – a bit nippy…

After a bumpy one hour drive in our ancient Korean minibus, we arrived in Listvyanka, on the shores of the mighty Lake Baikal. We arrived on a particularly clear day and the views were incredible. Across the vast desert of frozen lake we saw the imposing belt of the Zabaikalskie (I think) mountains on the opposite shore. As we were there for 4-5 days I thought we’d plenty of time to snap some pictures, but typically the mountains remained hazy under a distant mist for the rest of the time we were there. A little annoying, but it did give the impression of the lake simply being a vast, endless, frozen ocean.

I can’t accurately describe how breathtaking the lake and the surrounding scenery was, especially with the winds howling and the ice creaking, and the pictures don’t even nearly do the place justice – but hopefully they give a better sense of it than any feeble attempt of a description by me. Listvyanka however, is a little bit of a stain on Baikal’s majesty. Its essentially a 4 mile road along the shore, stretching from the Angara Eastwards, dotted with faux-Old-Siberian houses, hugely tasteless pink Kremlin style second homes, and the odd souvenir shop. In places it was quite charming, with genuine little fish markets and a nice village atmosphere. Further back from the shore there were authentic little pockets of real Siberian village life, with wooden houses and the like, but mainly everything was geared towards the tourist trade. The place seemed sparsely populated, with very few tourists due to the off season, so hopefully we saw a bit of natural local life. I imagine it’s quite a tourist trap in the summer.

Its a small world, as we found out when we bumped into Frank and Lia by the lake. Their Californian bones were suffering in the biting wind and double figure negatives (as were ours) and they were on their way back to Irkutsk to get the train to UlaanBataar. We also met top German bloke called Mo. He’s a serious solo traveler  into hardcore day and week long treks and the like. When we met he invited us on a 4 day trek along the lake. We politely declined due to timing issues. We bumped into Mo a few days later as his trek was cut short by some tracks being impassable in the winter weather. So, he joined us in our hostel in the evening for some pasta and beers. Being an experienced traveler, we got a lot of good advice about China and on-wards,  as he’d just come from that neck of the woods, and was heading in the opposite direction. Next day he set of on a disappointingly meager (to him) two day trek along the Ice.

Our hostel (Baikler eco hostel) was pretty amazing. A purpose built log cabin set up that was extremely cosy, with a friendly and laid back manager named Natalia. It wasn’t as cheap as we’d of liked, but still cheaper than much of mainland Europe. (We later found many locals have bed and breakfast signs outside their houses, you can’t book in advance online, but by far the cheapest way to stay is just to turn up and find one of these. Plus, if you’re lucky you get more of a taste of the local culture). Worth a comment is our hostel’s dubious use of the word ‘eco’ in it’s moniker. Apart from a couple of solar panels, and water pressure equivalent to being dribbled on by a parched tortoise, there seemed to be very little ECO about. No recycling bins, and electric panel heaters everywhere, all seem like things conducive to a decidedly un-eco hostel.

In the hostel we met a spiffing British couple called Richard and Susie, who have quit their jobs to travel the noodleier parts of the world in the East. Like us they’re trying to avoid flying. Their blog is very funny and worth a gander: noodletour.wordpress.com.

From the hostel we could arrange various activities like dog sledding and snow mobiling, but these were a little out of our price range. One attractive option was to take out the ‘Ice bikes’ with studded tyres, and ride along the lake for the day. We were really looking forward to this, the lake is only 40km in width at Listvyanka so we maybe could of ridden to the other side and back in a day, or at least up to the next village, only accessible by Ice (or water in the summer). As is our luck, one bike had a puncture and they couldn’t fix it in time. Oh well.
You may think cycling on the Ice sounds like a crazy idea, but the majority of the lake is frozen a metre thick until summer. The locals use the frozen shoreline as a temporary road for driving to nearby villages. Vans, 4x4s, and old rusty soviet saloons are a regular sight on the Ice. We even saw cars driving right along the edge of the ice (where the frozen lake releases the flowing Angara) from Listvyanka to port Baikal.

During one of our many foot based excursions onto the ice, I heard a muffled thud behind me, only to discover Amy spreadeagled on her back looking rather dazed. She had incurred yet another head injury (she is prone to these, and blames a long history of head injuries on her terrible memory). After a reasonable amount of sympathy, I then discovered the shocking truth that during her fall she had been holding our digital camera. Inconsiderately  the camera wasn’t her primary concern as her legs disappeared from under her. Luckily the camera still works perfectly, apart from the the LCD screen. There is no viewfinder. This means we can only blindly take photos by pointing at things, then checking what they look like on the computer later. Based on this, we’ll just be using our camera phones from now on. (I don’t think the LCD is broken, maybe just disconnected inside, if anyone has any suggestions please throw them this way).

A famous local inhabitant of the lake is the Omul. Omul have the unfortunate characteristic (for them) of being amazingly delicious, and the local humans whip them out of the lake by the bucket load. Smoked Omul is the local specialty  and it is easily the best smoked fish I’ve ever tasted. Colourfully dressed old Siberian women sell the fish at the market, whilst the blokes our out on the lake boring new holes into the ice for the next days catch. When we bought our fish, we wanted to keep them warm till we got back to the hostel, so being the enterprising sorts that we are, we stuffed them inside my insulated skiing gloves, and put them in my bag. On the way home, we stopped at the shop, and as we were sorting out the shopping, a pair of gloves dropped onto the counter, and out flopped the heads of two fish. The girl in the shop paused, looked at us, looked at the two dead fish poking out of a mans glove, and strained a smile. Amy tried to explain by doing a mime of shivering, that we were trying to keep the fish warm, but unsurprisingly this just wierded the girl out even more. We laughed awkwardly and headed for the door.

Our last full day at the lake we decided to head to the apparently beautiful local viewing point, situated high up on a hill at the source of the Angara. Possibly the Listvyankans want to keep this spot tourist free as, although it was on the map at the hostel, finding it involved meandering down some nondescript tracks, with absolutely no signage, and we were just about to give up until we turned the corner and found… a ski lift up the hill. Never ones to pass up a go on a ski lift, we hopped on. The views of the lake and surrounding area were brilliant, I’ll avoid the corny description, but have a scan of the photos for some idea.

When we reached the bottom we decided to nip into a cafe for some borscht  only to discover my wallet was gone. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt such a sinking feeling. All my cards, driving licence and cash were in it. In a hurried game of charades and telephone translating, we managed to explain our predicament to the lady in the ticket booth, and she let us get on the lift for free, with the aim of us looking on the floor on the way up, then hopefully locating it. There was no sign of it on the way up, and we spent a long time searching for it at the top. We were absolutely gutted, I hadn’t planned on an eventuality like this.

Suddenly, like the voice of an angel, one of the lift operators shouted me over, holding something proudly aloft. I felt like giving everyone in sight all the cash in my wallet, I was that glad just to have the rest of it back (I didn’t though, I’m not mental). Apparently it had been hanging of one of the seats precariously and had done around 3 or 4 laps of the ski lift. This type of luck doesn’t usually befall us two, but the relief was almost indescribable. Needless to say, I now only carry certain things in my wallet, and have emergency cards and cash elsewhere. Most people are probably clued up enough to do this from the start, but if not, it’s one of the few pieces of advice I could give.

We were sad to leave the peace and quiet of the lake behind, especially knowing we had to deal with the mayhem of Irkutsk one last time. Eventually arriving at the train station, we had a couple of hours to idle away, and as per usual, we instantly attracted the local nutter. A Buryat guy and his girlfriend. Buryatia is an autonomous state in Russia (On the Russia-Mongol border, its capital is Ulan-Ude) and its inhabitants are the real ethnic Siberians (they look Mongolian in appearance). Although they speak Russian, and would hold Russian federation passports, I think they see themselves (reasonably so) as purely Buryat. I believe there are quite a few autonomous states similar to this in the Russian federation, with ethnicities different to the standard slavic white Russians (these all arrived in Siberia as the railway was built). It stands to reason with the vast size of Russia, but never really crossed my mind before… Anyway, this guy was a laugh at first, but he could barley speak a word of English (or Russian to be honest, he was that pissed). I gather he instantly fell in love with Amy, and may well of offered her his hand in marriage, his girlfriend certainly didn’t seem impressed. After about an hour of the same 30 second conversation repeated again and again “What names? English or Deutch? Me Buryat. I English very bad. hahaha” we found an alternative way of conversing – through the medium of English premiership football team and player names. The system involved taking it in turns to mention a player or team, whilst the other then nodded and smiled, mentioning another team or player somehow related to the previous. Surprisingly  this became tiresome very quickly. As luck would have it, they eventually got kicked out by security (We guessed that they weren’t waiting for a train, and used the heated station waiting room as a hang out spot, to drink and baffle tourists).

After a brief moment of calm before the train arrived, we moved onto Trans-Siberian (technically now the trans-Mongolian) Leg 2…

Other things we have learned about Listvyanka, Baikal and East Siberia:

Rural hospitality. As is probably the case in most places in the world – the more rural – the more hospitable people tend to get. In Irkutsk we were stared at and whispered about, and people wen’t all that friendly, even for Russian standards. By the lake, everyone was much friendlier. We even saw quite a few smiles! I guess they see more tourists there, but it was nice to buy fish from smiling old ladies and to get the occasional (only occasional) smile on the street.

Its Cold. Yes, you heard it here first. Its absolutely brass monkeys in East Siberia. To the locals, the measly -5 to -15 temperatures we experienced were but a joke compared to their -30 to -40 winters. These are the kind of temperatures where one might see the apocryphal frozen wee stream. (I’m still doubtful about whether that really happens).

Techno Techno. Siberians, and Russians in general it would appear, are rather partial to a bit of hardcore techno. We thought our bizarre dining experience on the Trans-Siberian may have been a one off, but we were sadly mistaken. Sit down in any type of establishment to eat, and the default ambient music is techno, regardless of whether its fast food joint, or a quaint local cafe. Even our little local shop on the shores of the lake curiously had speakers on the outside, and blurted hardcore techno music across the frozen wastes. It was very unnerving to stand out on the frozen lake, looking at a seemingly uninhabited village, and be serenaded by a wall of techno.

Listvyanka and Lake Baikal, Siberia, Russian Federation
26/03/2013 – 30/03/2013

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Domestic Bliss in East Siberia

Domestic Bliss in East Siberia

We arrived at Irkutsk train station at 4.30 in the morning. Not only were we slightly alarmed to find out that there is more than one 4 o’clock in a day, it was also rather bracing -15 outside. Although it didn’t feel amazingly cold initially due to the lack of wind, in terms of numbers, this is the coldest temperature either of us have experienced. We were soon to find out that to the Siberians, this is practically shorts and t-shirt weather.

After around a ten minute walk we found our hostel – only to be stood there for 20 minutes ringing the bell with no reply. 24 hour reception my arse. Just as hypothermia was about to set in, we made the executive decision to go back to the train station waiting room and wait there for a few hours. Frank and Lia were still their due to their hostel not allowing them to to check in, or even dump their bags or wait in the common room, till midday. All four of us had had our first taste of the famous Siberian hospitality.

We tried our hostel again at about 8.30. After about 10 minutes of ringing the bell, we were about to give up, when we eventually got buzzed in by our bleary eyed host. Turn’s out they were in all the time – just heavy sleepers apparently. The hostel was basically a nice 3 bedroom flat (1 dorm and 2 privates) that belonged to our hosts Dasha and Anton. We later found that during peak season, they just employed a couple of girls to run the hostel and lived elsewhere, but off season, they closed down the dorm and moved in themselves, just renting out one private room. Dasha was the one who sleepily and apologetically greeted us, sitting us down and feeding us a nutritious breakfast of various home made birthday cakes. It was their little girls birthday the day before, and the whole hose was strewn with balloons and cake. I would hazard a guess that the reason for our difficult entry was that Anton and Dasha had overdone the “birthday cake” at the party.

Our hosts were really affable, and made us feel instantly comfortable in what was essentially, their home. They gave the impression that you could totally keep yourself to yourself, or sit with them bending their ear all day, and they wouldn’t mind either way. Although they were very nice to us, we did detect some very fraught underlying tensions in the relationship  It turns out Anton runs his own adventure tour company Baikal adventures (http://baikal-adventure.com/). He was born and bread in the region and you could tell that he was bound inseparably to his work and the great outdoors in which he thrived. Anytime we ate or passed through the living area, he would show us some of his promotional videos, laughing to himself as he watched and always pre-empting what was about to happen, by telling us, what was about to happen. In these situations, the couple would constantly bicker in Russian, smiling falsely  hoping in vain that we may think they were just convivially discussing the weather or something. We’re pretty sure the bickering was around the fact that Anton spends half the year away taking tourists on adventures, only to spend the rest of his time at home, watching videos of said adventures. Anton we guessed was responding with something about being the breadwinner, or putting food on the table… They may of just been arguing about who’s turn it was to put the bins out, but is was a good game to play nonetheless, and I’d put a few quid on our assumptions being correct anyway. Anton and Dasha also had a lovely  but rather weird dog that like to slowly and submissively crawl up to you for a stroke and a tickle. (Note – Anton’s videos on the web and youtube are worth a look, he does everything from Ice climbing to kayaking – pretty amazing work if you can get it. Tours are expensive but would be great to do one day)

Irkutsk itself was an experience. And at times, not a particularly pleasant one. As we walked into the city centre from our hostel – we were initially greeted by what looks like a thriving, modern, 21st century city – situated on the big, healthy looking Angara river. What we soon found as we got under the surface was quite a large rich – poor divide, and what appeared to be a serious general alcohol problem. There’s a University in Irkutsk, and at times the place had a fairly buzzing student vibe, but then just round the corner there would be groups of haggered drunk looking guys, and dodgy looking folk trying to sell various dodgy items on street corners. At one time we were sat down checking the map when a drunk guy came up to us, shouted something grumpily in Russian, and then proceeded to have a massive wee all over the floor right next to us.

You’d think they would see a fair few tourists in Irkutsk, especially as tourism at lake Baikal grows every year, however you’d of thought we were walking around naked with the amount of stares and whispers we got mooching around town, even without all our rucksacks. It was strange, as we couldn’t think what looked so strange about us, as we are white and western looking like most of the population (apart from the Buryats and Mongolians) and our clothes didn’t seem particularly outlandish or different. We obviously stuck out like sore thumbs though.

The modern developments in the city were all pretty ugly, whilst there were some impressive Soviet era government buildings (The two main streets in the city are Karl Marx street and Lenin street). The stars of the show were the traditional Siberian wooden buildings. It’s a shame the most of them seemed to be falling apart, but the wide dusty streets and wooden buildings gave the place a bizarre wild west feel. The mix of streets lined with disheveled  once masterly crafted, wooden buildings, bookended with concrete hotels and restaurants was a very strange sight to behold. We wanted to visit the Taltsy outdoor museum of Traditional Siberian wooden architecture, but couldn’t find it and ran out of time. The rest of Irkutsk’s tourist trade seems to be solely based the cities claim to the title of ‘tea capital of Russia’. Up until the mid 20th century, nearly all tea imported into Russia from China along the tea roads, came through Irkusk, where it was distributed around the country. Surprisingly (to me at least) we have found during our time there, that the Russians are as big, if not bigger, on tea than the English. They love a brew, although they are prone to doing weird things like plopping jam in it.

Irkutsk was an interesting place to visit, but I can’t say we were too sad get on our minibus to Listvyanka and lake Baikal. Little 20-30 year old Korean minivans seem to be on of the primary methods of public transport around (and out of) the city. There are certain points n the city where they hang out, with a little sign in the window denoting destination. They wait till all 8-10 seats are filled then shoot off recklessly onto the apparently lawless roads and highways.

Other things we have learned about Irkutsk:

Sardines. Sardines in a can to be precise  No matter what time of day, the various minibuses, buses, and trams that hurtle around the city always seem to be packed to bursting with all ages, grumpily bashing into one another. The trams are particularly bone shaking.

Goodbye cruel world. I don’t think the locals are that fond of Irkutsk, as one of them indicated quite strongly by hurling himself off the bridge into the Icy Angara. We saw the emergency services zooming towards some kids playing under the bridge. We thought this seemed like an extreme response to kids having fun, until we saw them putting a very damp and cold guy in an ambulance. We then saw witnesses showing the police where he flung himself off the bridge.

Rush hour 5. The level of danger and carnage on the streets at rush hour make the perils encounters by Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker, in the ludicrous 90’s blockbusters of the same name, seem comparatively pedestrian.

Irkutsk, Siberia, Russian Federation
23/03/2013 – 25/03/2015

See previous post for the first leg of our Trans-Siberian journey

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Vlad and Bong’s starlight express (Trans-Siberian leg 1)

Just like the Great Wall of China never succeeded in keeping out the Mongol Hordes (or any foe in history for that matter) – China’s 21st century (fire)wall has failed to keep us from broadcasting our cutting edge travel news – Thanks for the VPN Joan… Still to come: Shocking exposes of what we ate for breakfast and how many times we fell over.

Vlad and Bong’s Starlight Express (Trans-Siberian leg 1)

So, before we started our long awaited first leg on the Trans-Siberian railway, we had to reach Moscow’s Yaroslavsky train station. The Metro (underground) system had previously seemed like a pretty straight-forward experience, follow the coloured lines to the desired station name – easy – however this quickly changes when you’re under immense pressure and carrying your entire life on your back. Indications of what colour line we were on seemed few and far between, and station name signs seemed suddenly became non-existent. Luckily for us we’d met a nice Californian couple (Frank and Lia) at our hostel, who happened to be getting the same train as us. Unluckily for them, they decided to let us take the lead in getting us to the train station. They followed us on a 15 minute trudge to the Metro through Moscow’s harsh conditions, and were all the while simply too polite to tell us how they found our route choice a little confusing, due to there being a Metro station only a couple of minutes away from the hostel in the other direction, and getting on at that station would have taken us straight there with no changes – Oops.

We eventually arrived somewhere near where we had to be. Somewhere near, but not actually there. The strange looks that had accompanied us the whole journey intensified as we frantically bumbled around, resembling four giant beetles, trying to find our station platform. After being mistakenly sent on a circular goose chase by some stern looking but well meaning guards, one of them by way of recompense, actually guided us to our platform. We promptly celebrated by cracking open a few beers, and waited for our train to arrive.

It turns out that the weekly 004 train from Moscow to Beijing is a Chinese one. As a result the staff are all, as you would expect, Chinese. (Apart from the Russian restaurant car, but we’ll get to that later). As far as we could tell, each carriage has two guards who are responsible for, among other things, keeping the place in order, tidying up, stoking the coal fired heating, and occasionally donning a hat and opening a door at a station. Unfortunately our two guys (one of whom we determined to be called Bong), felt that only the latter in that list was necessary. To be fair, they didn’t really have time to clean or keep us warm, as they had a busy schedule of staying up all night drinking, chain smoking and watching loud sci-fi movies. During the day we would often see Bong or his friend trundling about the carriage shirt unbuttoned, hair sticking up, and fag hanging from gob. Bongs diminutive, bespectacled partner in crime also had a charming habit of loudly hocking up and spitting everywhere (usually with impeccable comic timing during a dramatic pause in someones story). They sometimes broke up their hectic day by fighting and chasing each other up and down the carriage, and also spent a lot of time preparing and cooking fresh vegetable noodley type dishes, which made us salivate after days of our instant noodle, tea and beer diet. Despite the small issue of an apparent total lack of regard for their passengers  our two guards were, in truth, great fun. Although we didn’t have much to do with them directly, they constantly made us laugh with their daft antics, and provided many an hour of talking points as we discussed what it would be like, living life on the rails, and how we could turn their story into a sit-com.

Based on our trip so far, and other Trans-Siberian travelers we have spoken to before and since, we would guess that everyone’s Trans-Siberian rail experience is going to be totally unique, as there are so many factors involved: Which route? Is it a Russian, Chinese, or Mongolian train? What time of year is it? etc. The factor that will undoubtedly have the most bearing over the experience however, is the human one. What are your fellow passengers and staff like?

Although Bong and his sidekick could certainly be considered slightly less than professional, they were mad characters who simply added to the experience. The only genuine downside was how cold it got when they forgot to stoke the fire. In addition to these two reprobates another notable character on the train was our resident restaurant manager and chef – Vladmir.

Vladmir was a big, burly Russian, and was a man of few words. One word that seemed to pop from his mouth more than any other however, was “Borscht”… For example: Amy asked “Can I have the mushroom soup please?” To which Vladmir would promptly replied – “Borscht”… I enquired about another item on the menu, and received the sagely response – “Borscht”… It turns out, despite what we may have wanted to select on the menu, Borscht is what we were having. Frank and Lia went twice to the restaurant car, ordering the same dish each time, yet were presented with something different both times, and both times it wasn’t exactly what they had ordered. When Vladmir found out that Amy and I were from the UK, he quickly scurried into the back only to return with a tea spoon, engraved with the words “Akbar’s London Tea Room”. Said spoon was presented to us to admire for an awkwardly long amount of time, and eventually was returned to its, no doubt special, resting place. Also worth a mention is Vlad’s (we were on abbreviated name terms by the end) impeccable knack of creating a perfect dining ambiance. Once all the food had been served, he would proceed to direct his laptop at us, and play super loud techno music with accompanying footage from inside the club. – Truly. Bizarre.

As well as the lovely Californian couple, we also made another good friend on the train, a lone travelling Scotsman – Paul. Paul was (is) currently making his way from Glasgow to Japan without flying, and plans to immerse himself in Japanese life, living and working there for a year – A brave feat, especially for a solo traveler I think. We were Paul’s next-door neighbours and we all instantly got on like a house (train?) on fire. Paul the jammy bastard had an entire cabin to himself for the duration of the trip from Moscow to Irkutsk (he was continuing to Ulaanbataar). I say he had it to himself, but Me and Amy quickly became regular fixtures round there – whiling away the hours playing cards, drinking beer, and sharing stories. We had a nice young Mongolian girl in our Cabin, Normin, but she liked to keep herself to herself, so we commandeered Paul’s cabin as the party cabin. You might think 4 days on a train would drive you crazy with boredom  but we never once felt an ounce of it. You quickly fall into a routine of sleeping, eating, drinking, laughing, and watching the world slide by, and before you know it its time to say goodbyes. We were sad to leave Paul, and our home on rails, but the show must go on. We genuinely wish him all the best in Japan, and really hope our paths cross again in the future, We’ll definitely be staying in touch. He’s also blogging about his travels, so why not have a goose? – paulsadventure.com

Both Paul and (particularly) Frank and Lia are experienced travelers who have been all over the place, so it was really good for us to hear their stories and suggestions, and who knows, maybe one day we’ll be the ones with tons of good advice and cautionary tales to share.

Russia has 9 time zones I think, and from Moscow to Irkutsk, we crossed 5 of them. The changing of time zones over the days is seriously strange as your body clock just can’t adjust that quickly. We continued to live by Moscow time for the entire journey, and it became particularly disconcerting once the level of light outside didn’t correlate with the time in our heads. Incidentally all train times in Russia are given in Moscow time on the tickets and at train stations. This seems weird at first, but does make sense when you consider all the different time zones.

The peculiar sensation of time shifting is just one more unusual factor that adds to this completely bizarre, curious, comical, and unexpectedly amazing experience that is: The Trans-Siberian railway.

Other things we learned about the Trans-Siberian so far:

Classy. There are 3 classes of travel on the Trans-Sib, 1st, 2nd and 3rd (platz class). On some trains there is also Upper 2nd class. We were in ordinary second class, but Frank and Lia found themselves unexpectedly in upper 2nd class. The cabins were still 4 berth but were actually clean, and the whole cabin had a more refined wood paneled aesthetic. Upper second class also had a provenista who kept the place tidy and ludicrously hot, many people in this carriage sported shorts and vests. She also sold a few snacks, and would make you a brew for 30 Roubles (60p). In our carriage their were only 3 occupied carriages out of about 10 for the entire journey, and no new passengers got on, whereas in upper 2nd all the cabins seemed full, and people were doing much shorter journeys, Frank and Lia had new cabin mates almost every day.

Trans-Siberian Leg 1
19/03/2013 – 23/03/2013

As you can see from the dates, the blogs a bit behind (pesky trains and Chinese firewalls). We’ve written the posts nearly up to date though, its just a case of uploading them – so expect a few posts within the next couple of days. Hope everyone is well – keep in touch.

Moscow hates you!

MOSCOW HATES YOU!

That’s right, Moscow hates YOU. Don’t take it personally, as far as we could tell, Moscow hates absolutely everyone… OK, perhaps hate is a strong word, but Moscow certainly found us utterly inconvenient, and there was no way our soft, liberal, Western arses were getting an easy ride. After a relatively pleasant (apart from the Belorussian border) train journey, we arrived at Moscow’s Belorussky train station to be greeted by one of the worst blizzards we’ve ever seen. Granted, hailing from drizzly England as we do, our usual experience of snow is the annual one inch of snowfall that manages to bring the country to its knees for an entire week. In Moscow the snow was falling hard and fast, with any surface not been walked or driven on already holding at least 3-4 inches of the white stuff… You may be thinking, snow in Moscow? No shit, what did you expect, stop moaning! But the harsh weather was the least of our worries.

RPHJY KJVVGCFD! SGKHIDFHJ! SHGKSKJ! Confused? Yes? No, I’ve not lost it, this is just a little illustration of how we felt after being repeatedly punched in the eyeballs by the Cyrillic alphabet. Moscow is an modern international capital city, of course it will cater to a huge non-Russian speaking tourist trade wont it?… No. No it won’t. The guidebooks all said it’s worth taking a bit of time to learn the Cyrillic alphabet. They were right. We had thought that some of the Eastern European languages were hard to decipher, but now how we longed for the warm embrace of those friendly Latin letters, we could even overlook the diacritics. At first, not only does it seem impossible to understand the myriad of visual communication being directed at you from every angle, it also seems like this unknown language is constantly SHOUTING AT YOU, BECAUSE TO OUR IGNORANT EYES, CYRILLIC APPEARS TO BE MADE UP OF MAINLY CAPITAL LETTERS!

Also, not many people speak English, so finding a cash machine so we could by tickets for the metro took about 45 minutes of bumbling around in the blizzard with all our gear, getting pointed around in circles, only to eventually find there was one in the exit section of the metro station. After a cramped but fairly standard metro journey, we arrived at the station that was purportedly 10-15 minutes walk away from our hostel (true if you knew where you were going). The directions we had been sent by the hostel were totally appalling, and one hour later, we arrived.

Our hostel, the appropriately named Chillax, was both chilled and relaxed. The staff spoke decent English and were friendly and helpful. The strange thing about Russian hostels is that a lot of the time, locals live there too. You can tell the ones who live there, as they are the Russian guys who stroll around in just their underpants with a can of beer at ten in the morning. We had read that they often act like they own the place and can be rude and bossy to temporary guests. We didn’t experience this, and our permanent residents seemed perfectly pleasant, although I certainly wouldn’t describe them as friendly. One of the negatives to the hostel were that there was only 2 male and 1 female shower. The girls got a worse deal as you had to walk past reception to use the toilet or shower. The place potentially held 30ish people so this many showers and a few toilets could get seriously crowded. All in all it was a decent place to stay, with a large comfy common room, a fully equipped (if small and crowded) kitchen, and an overall very relaxed atmosphere. (Checkout was 12.00 but if you’re train wasn’t till late the night, you were welcome to hang around and use all the facilities till you left).

Moscow is a big, busy, and brutal looking city. A mixture of the imposing grandeur of the old Royal buildings like the Kremlin and the Red Square, and the cold, immense, utilitarian, brutalism of the Soviet era government buildings. The crowds and general public at large appear to mirror the atmosphere of the city. Nobody smiles, and it initially feels like the entirety of Moscow and its inhabitants totally hates you… Despite our initial impression, and the title of this post, this isn’t entirely true… What we found was that despite the hostile vibe given off by the public as a whole, most individual Russians we had transactions with, or asked help of, were very friendly. Although, we discovered that the term ‘friendly’ is a culturally relative term. In the UK we’d generally expect some smiles, handshakes, nods, and eyebrow movement when someone is being friendly. In Moscow they will certainly assist with your query, and even go well above and beyond what is needed to help you, the only difference is that if you looked at their stern face and general demeanor, you would never guess that it was help that you were receiving  I suppose the smiles and nods we use are really superfluous, you don’t need them in order to give someone with assistance, its just an extra signifier that help is being given. The Moscovians (Moscovites?) possibly feel that just providing the necessary help that was asked for is enough. Smiling and such is just an unnecessary bourgeois extravagance maybe?

Another thing that adds to the initial impression of hostility is the sheer amount of police/army/militia everywhere. There seems to be no particular distinction between police and army, just many different types of really badass guys with truncheons. Some wear camo, some wear combat police gear, some wear long, official looking grey trench-coats.  All wear big furry hats. They tend to walk around in pairs, often swinging round their batons – which seems unnecessarily oppressive. They also seem to be on every street. Moscow apparently has a very low crime rate. I can see why. (They also have walk-through metal detectors in almost every shop and subway, which are constantly beeping as people walk through, but the security guards just ignore them. I had my penknife in my bag, which sometimes made be a bit nervous wandering about. I wanted to avoid a trip to a Gulag).

St Patricks day we thought we’d go for a few bevvies at the nearest Irish Bar. The bar was packed and 90% Russian (as you would expect) however many were all bizzarley painted in the Irish colours and wearing novelty hats. After accidentally spending £6 on a Guinness (I drank Russian lager after that, but even the cheapest pint was about £3.80) We got chatting to the only two Irish guys in there and had a generally nice time. We also made a new Siberian friend called Slava. Slava is an Officer in the Russian Army, posted in Siberia (and possibly from Siberia too). We had a good piss up as you do, and then Slava proceeded to come home with us, and stay at our hostel for the next 2 days till his flight back to Siberia. (Where he was going stay had he not met us we’re not sure). It’s amazing what alcohol can do to the language barrier. The night we met, we discovered Slavas name, profession (I think he’s studying to be a comms engineer in the Army), and his penchant for 70’s American punk. We even discussed me recently starting to read Crime and Punishment. (He also gave us a gift, see the photos). In the sober light of day, it turns out we don’t speak ANY Russian, and Slava only spoke very little English (one English word per Russian sentence). So next day we ate together and had a walk around the red square, it was all very amiable, but with minimal verbal communication. It was very difficult without alcoholic lubrication. As Amy correctly pointed out, only we could go out for a few beers and end up coming home with a Siberian.

Reading back the above ramblings, it seems at times quite a negative description of Moscow. Which I suppose it is, however that’s not to say we wouldn’t recommend it, or come back. We had a top time overall. It’s certainly not a backpackers haven, but its an incredibly interesting place, and to come back and spend some time and (perhaps more importantly) money really getting to know the place would be great.

Other things we’ve learned about Moscow

Cars rule. Above ground pedestrains are second class. There are huge 8 lane (all same direction) roads with no road markings. Its absolute chaos. If you’re lucky enough to find a pedestrian crossing, they give you about 10 seconds to get across 8 lanes. What about the old ladies?

Going deeper underground. The best way not to die in Moscow is to use the huge network of underground pedestrian subways. You soon find there’s a whole subterranean side to Moscow with shops, sellers and beggars all residing under the cities streets. We even stumble across a whole underground shopping mall when we were crossing one road via the subway.

Park life. When travelling on the cheap, one of the free things you can do in a city is visit it’s park. We realised we are inadvertently compiling a list of best city centre parks, and Gorsky park doesn’t rate very highly. It does rise a place or two due to the fact there is an actual soviet space shuttle plonked in it, but other than that it seemed pretty small and dead. To be fair, we did go in sub-zero temperatures and heavy snow fall. Most Russians are sensible enough to realise these are not ideal conditions for a day trip to the park. We may need to revisit in summer.

Oh dear. Moscow is very dear, especially if you don’t hunt around for places locals or backpackers use. Even then its similar cost to the most expensive European capitals. The only cheap way for backpackers really is to  just buy beer and food from supermarkets and cook your own stuff. This is pretty much what we do anyway unless the place is renowned for cheap beer or cafes (Eg Czech or Poland).

PS – We realised we accidentally smuggled a joint into Russia. This was even more alarming when a friend we made on the Trans-Siberian said he had sniffer dogs check his cabin on the Belorussian border crossing. Anyway, HAHA. Sam and Amy – 1, Russia and the Belorussian Border guards – 0.

– Next post will be about our first leg on the Trans-Siberian. Its nearly done, but we are going out living in Mongolian Gers for a couple of days, so if I don’t manage the post with this dodgy internet, we won’t be back online for another 3 days or so.

Moscow, Russian Federation
15/03/13 – 19/03/12

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