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The Last Leg

I am now on the last leg of my journey, from Ulan Ude to Vladivostosk, a cool 4000-odd km. It is taking three days to do it, so I am really getting into the rhythm of train life. At this stage it is worth noting that I am doing it as a bit of a ponce in first class, with a cabin to myself. At one level this is great, as I can spread out a bit and generally have things as I wish. However, part of the joy of this trip has been to meet people, and there’s no better way (I suppose) than to go third class, with 5 other people in your cabin. Mind you, there is a really nice German crowd who are my age (i.e old) doing it this way, and their co-cabiners are a group of Russian soldiers who just talked all night. My friends look pretty crabby this morning.

The weather yesterday was truly stunning and I managed to get some decent photographs of the Shilka River (pictured) which looks huge to me, but is only a tributary of the mighty Amur. It is difficult to describe the thought processes as these extraordinary views come and go – you haven’t savoured one properly before another twist of the track brings another. Even though I have got my decent camera it still doesn’t quite “can” it, somehow. My only hope is that playing back these photographs and video at a later date will fire off some connectors (if they haven’t been killed off by the Russian beer). Still, we are lucky these days, as in Soviet times they would fasten all the blinds on this leg as it was considered a sensitive area, being only 50km north of China.

I now consider myself something of an expert on the different trains. I am now on Train No.2, one of the proper Trans Siberian trains that does the whole journey in one go. It is very smart: quite extraordinarily the staff don’t feel the need to get paralytic at my expense and most things on the menu are actually available (except orange juice, something consistently like the proverbial rocking horse poo all way down the line). I am in “Business Class” and I have the carriage to myself, my provodnitsa explaining all the stops to me as we go, me understanding everything(!). I’m glad I went on the other trains, though, as I really felt that I got to know ordinary Russians and something about their lives.


Ulan Ude

I arrived in Ulan Ude on the overnight train from Irkutsk. Whilst I got some lovely evening views of Lake Baikal as we went round it (Ulan Ude lies to the south of the Lake), it would have been better to have completed this part of the trip in the day – worth thinking about if you intend to do this. The consolation was that we came into Ulan Ude alongside another majestic Siberian river, the Selenga, at dawn and I got a couple of decent pictures with the proper camera (I invested a fiver in a little doofer that clicks into the iPad and allows for a USB connection – really good), one of which I have attached to this post.

My hotel (the Saagin Morin) here in Ulan is a classic piece of Soviet architecture which looks a bit forbidding on the outside, but really friendly and efficient on the inside. They do brilliant coffees, which was a bit of a life saver as I hadn’t slept at all well on a hot train but did not want to waste the day catching up on my sleep, so quality caffeine was the order of the day. I decided to struggle on through to mid afternoon and then crash, as my next train is 02:45 tomorrow morning. My heart leapt when I heard that there was a swimming pool, so dashed down with my togs, only to find what can only be described as a birthing pool. I know I have developed a bit of a tummy with all this sitting around, but that’s ridiculous. Heho.

Ulan Ude feels really Mongolian. Due to its armaments industries it was not open to tourists for a long time, it has an oddly dual feel. On the one hand there is the obligatory Russian stuff (big square for people in funny hats to get all excited in October, huge and crumbling government buildings and a statue of Lenin’s head, the biggest in the world I’m told), but on the other an alternative centre that reflects its Buryat Mongol heritage, which is lovely. The weather is really pleasant (21 ish C and sunny), so I decide to take a big wander. It feels less prosperous than, say, Novosirbirsk but no less thriving. It’s very dusty and much of the newer buildings look a bit thrown up, although there are plenty of the older wooden structures that look far more suited to the conditions. I am told it gets bally freezing here in the winter, and you get the feeling that people were out enjoying the warmth with that in mind. It will be interesting to see how such a place as Ulan Ude develops – it does feel a world away from somewhere like Yekaterinburg (which of course it is).


The Legend of Baikal

I arrived in Irkutsk last night, after another 30 odd hours on the train from Novosibirsk. The countryside is getting bigger (if you see what I mean), small forests of silver birches giving way to grand vistas of rolling pine clad hills, interspersed with some of the biggest rivers I have ever seen – the Ob and the Angara. The railway now also has to weave its way around the hills, offering a great view of the train, see the video attached to this post. Arriving in Irkutsk, I was struck how Asian the place felt, almost an Indian feel. My hotel, the Legend of Baikal, lay 60km to the south, on the banks of the Lake itself.

And what a Legend it is. My room looks to have been furnished from Red Army surplus stock, stock indeed that appears to have gone through Stalingrad. The room is barely big enough to swing a cat, and said cat would also have had to endure the siege of Stalingrad to allow it to be swung with any sort of abandon. Still, the food is fine, the coffee excellent and the views breathtaking.

The hotel is situated right at the mouth of the huge Angara river as it flows out of the Lake (how cool is that?). In the early morning (I did manage to struggle out of bed at a reasonable time – I am finding keeping up with the endlessly changing clocks a bit difficult) misty clouds cling to the water and hillsides like old dusty cobwebs, and the lake looks silky and inviting. Still, given the temperature (c.4 degrees C) I managed to contain my excitement, for fear of my danglyskii becoming even more inconsequential than usual.

I decided that I would run along the lakeside for a bit as the best way to “get” it. I decided not try to run round it, as I am not “there” with my training at the moment (as my waif-like friends from WADAC would say). Oh, and the fact that the Lake has a surface area of over 39,000 square km. Maybe a few more sessions on the treadmill. As I puff along the shore I am greeted with a mixture of astonishment and a bit of alarm by the natives in their obligatory marble wash jeans (do they wash them by beating them on the rocks at the lakeshore?), until I realise anyone usually coming up behind them breathing so heavily has either slightly dodgy intentions or is running away from a bear. Still, I am obviously foreign, so all fine as far as they are concerned (they all assume that I am German, on account of my blond (?) hair – still, there have been more of them in Russia than Brits in the past, I suppose. I keep my usual rather limp joke about ginger people being part of the master race to myself, for obvious reasons).

Thoughts on the Russian Economy

As I board the train to Irkutsk (how exciting – at the shores of Lake Baikal!), a few rather superficial comments about what I have seen of the Russian economy. Of course (as my work colleagues will no doubt testify), I am not an economist but I have been wandering around Russia for the past week and a few things have struck me, not least those things that seem to jar with some of the Western commentary I have heard.

There is a school of thought that Russia has become a giant, hedonistic kleptocracy that will collapse under the weight of negative demographics (life expectancy here is a bit rubbish – cognac anyone?), corruption, falling oil prices and popular discontent. Indeed only today the Russian newspapers were carrying stories of a trillion rouble hole in the Government’s budget, rescued only by the Rainy Day Fund that was set up when oil prices were much higher, meant for investment, not social spending. I’ve spoken before about rejecting the notion that the bulk of society has lost its compass from my wanderings in Moscow, and my walks elsewhere have served to reinforce that view. The various guidebooks I’ve read exhort the need to watch your valuables etc, but I’ve actually felt safer than in London, and that feeling increases as one goes East. Yes, Novosibirsk is apparently an important nexus in the drug route from Asia, but any large city will have those sort of problems. It is certainly hedonistic in the sense of being bit brash: but that is because they don’t share our odd desire to hide any light we might possibly possess under the biggest of bushels. So, I’ll admit, there are a lot of smoked out Porsche 4X4s, men in silly jeans and women with extraordinary heels, all juttin’ out.

Corruption and kleptocracy? Yes, most probably. But when Westerners comment on this, they tend to imply how much this is a break from the past: however, they might just have been fooled by the Soviet propaganda, with its wonderful imagery of spartan egalitarianism, which was very far from the truth. From the NKVD (KGB) chief (Beria) with a taste for young ballerinas to the wholesale mendacity of the system when reporting on progress against five year plan targets (China, anyone?), the Soviet Union was less ascetic than its gorgeous posters would suggest. And anyway, the Communist system itself went through many different cycles, some of which have echoes of today: Lenin’s New Economic Policy introduced a whole class of economic operators much resented by society (spivskii?) before they were swept away in the Stalinist “reforms” that followed (I went to Kirov’s old shack in Novosibirsk today – how cool is that?). I’m certainly not suggesting that we are about to see equivalent bloodletting in Russia, but that we are at a particular point in its cycle, not on some path to decline.

What about the political situation? Western commentary has been full of the latest twists of the Khodordhovsky case, the “draconian” anti gay legislation and other episodes to paint a picture of a worsening regime from a human rights perspective. Clearly I am not particularly qualified nor inclined to wade in on this one, except to pass on what I hear and see. Which is that most people seem monumentally disinterested.


Into Siberia

I arrived in Novosibirsk at daft o’clock this morning, when I managed to do my first ichat with the family (the train’s connections are slow, periodic and expensive – which also explains why these articles come out in a bit of a burst). Wonderful, not least the remarkably good “line” – no one else on it at 3am!

Novosibirsk is not on everyone’s itinerary, as it is essentially a modern construct (built initially to house the Trans Siberian Railway workers building a bridge over the huge River Ob) that grew as a result of the railway (“build it and they will come” – are you listening HS2?) that benefitted from the huge relocation of industry eastwards during the Second World War. Thus it is drab and lacking in the delicate architecture in other, older towns. However, as an essentially Soviet construct I was keen to see what had come of it and its surrounding areas. In particular I wanted to go to Akademgorodok (literally “Geeksville”) which had been established in Soviet times to further scientific research and to bring on the brightest young pupils. It is laid out very logically, with neatly intersectioned streets – think Milton Keynes but with quadratic equations. Much of the commentary now is focussed on how such utopian dreams are in ruins, another casualty of history. It doesn’t feel like it when I made the 20km trip to visit. In fact, it felt a bit like the West Coast of the States, full of people for whom a T shirt is the height of taste and whose supreme brainpower is matched only by their complete lack of empathy for the problems of those with only average grey matter. I saw loads of people with trousers too short (a clear sign of genius) and even one man sporting a Rasputin beard and full ski goggles. From the guidebooks I had been led to expect utopian decay, but I was immersed in a real community, even with its own farmers market.

Which brings me onto them and their history. The people of Novosibirsk seem unapologetic about the past (their statue of Lenin stands proudly still in the main square – see the picture), and indeed they acted as if nothing had changed in the last 30 years – they are proud of their history and whilst they would probably acknowledge a few episodes of over doing it, their world is defined by the Great Patriotic War, and so would point to the extraordinary changes their society went through that helped to defeat the Nazis, changes that would not have been possible without the nihilistic fervour of the revolution and the five year plans, an offshoot of which is the Akademgorodok. Over a pint at the local Irish Pub (phew – civilisation) it struck me how much such utopian change has been smeared on age old Russian culture – it was never really communism, more commune-ism, something the Russians have been comfortable with for eons and continue to revolve around. Plus ca change.


Onwards East

I arrived at the end of my first leg of my trip in Yekaterinburg, 1,600 km East of Moscow and famous for many things – of course it was the place where the Tsar and his family were murdered, but also the home town of Boris Yeltsin: we all think of him as a faintly comical man who was a bit worse for wear on occasions, but his contribution to modern Russian history is quite pivotal, as a dashing candidate for the President of the Russian Republic in the dying days of the Soviet Union and as a key man in the chaotic transformation from the state run economy of Soviet times to the peculiarly muscular capitalism we have now. I only had time for a quick walk around (some) of the town and a quick shower before getting back to the station for my next leg, to Novosibirsk, leaving at 01:50 in the morning. I got to the station early, and had the chance to wander around a bit: outside at that time in the morning everything was a bit dodgy, with feral stray dogs competing with toothless (and, in some cases, limbless) beggars for my attention. Inside, the station felt like a big old schoolhouse where there were many travellers waiting for my train (and many others – it is clearly the only way to travel long distances, the roads I saw from the train were pretty rudimentary). I was surrounded by knackered tartars, kazaks and plenty of soldiers in transit as we waited, my ginger hair, florrid complexion and Crew Clothing polo shirt blending in nicely.

My new train was a little older than the last, having a faint whiff of Art Deco about its interior which I liked, but no air con which I didn’t. After a bit of kip (I am now 5 hours ahead of London time, 2 hours ahead of Moscow time which is all a bit confusing as the train is on Moscow time) I am back to the regime of reading, Morse and watching the countryside go past. It’s now changing: it’s flatter, wetter and less populated (if that is possible). It is difficult to describe how natural the rolling hills feel, in that they appear completely untouched by man: when you look out on the fields in the UK, there are generally hedgerows etc, and the ground itself reveals the evidence of cultivation (or, at the very least, husbandry), but here the few wooden shacks look precariously temporary, the woods and grassland look ready to swallow them up at any time.

I now have a new set of fellow travellers. The provodnitsii have different uniforms this time (Russia is definitely a place of uniforms: endless varieties of epaulettes, badges and funny hats) and the crew at the bar are younger, initially more inscrutable. I get talking to some soldiers who are travelling back to points East on leave, and at last find words in common: machine gun seems to be understood, as does tank: how lovely! there follows a sort of game of charades with sound effects as I describe my soldiering, watched with some bemusement by the hostesses. The soldiers, most of whom look about five, gaze upon me as some relic left behind by Napoleon when he was last here. I appear to get funnier, or at least they get more and more drunk on cognac (with the hostesses, who become completely paralytic) leaving me to savour my comic genius, pick my way though the now snoring audience (thank heavens for staying on weak Russian beer) and prepare for my next stop, Novosibirsk, again in the dead of night.


Life on the Train

Many people will wonder what life is like on the train. If I were to cover the full 9,200 km to Vladivostok it would take a week, which would drive me a bit potty. However, even 30 hours and 1,600 km to Yekaterinburg was by far the longest train journey I’ve ever made, so what was it like? Well, in the previous post I’ve described the bewitching effect of just watching the world go by, and I’ve included a short video of that view to this post. I slept pretty well (the vodka?), and woke refreshed. It pays not to get too hung up on the exact time by the clock: the trains run on Moscow time, but Yekaterinburg is 2 hours ahead. You sleep when you’re sleepy, eat when you’re hungry. The food is fine, although not particularly modern: perfect for me. Sleep is constantly interrupted by the banging and clanging of the big train on the rails (the train is truly huge), but by the same token, that constant movement helps you get back off to sleep. I found I divided my time into reading (going over what I should have remembered about Russian history from University!), an episode or two of Morse, and pottering to the bar to get a coffee/beer.

One of the most interesting parts of the trip is to meet your “fellow travellers” (they are so keen on that phrase in these parts). Whilst I had a cabin to myself, there was plenty of time to chat to others. There was the delightful couple, he from Ireland, she from Switzerland who had met on a minibus tour of the US and were on a long date across Russia, an older Russian with a glamorous but high maintenance girlfriend, and two sisters who taking a break from their respective families who seemed to just want to drink and smoke constantly (there are no restrictions on smoking here). Then there are the provodnitsii, the ladies that run the train. One quickly realises that any questions they ask are really instructions – I will have lunch at 12, and it will be borscht and chicken. There was much cackling as they tried to coax some Russian out of me and vodka into me – I ingested rather more than I transmitted, I’m afraid.

The Train!

I finally made it to my first real leg of the tour yesterday evening. A taxi picked me up with two hours to go (the traffic is dreadful – traffic jam followed by a collective drag race to the next traffic jam, I’m glad I’m on a train for the rest of the journey), and we got to the station with enough time for me to sniff out a bottle of white wine for the journey, thank heavens. Must keep the fruit intake up. My cabin is very spacious (the gauge is much wider in Russia – so typical) and air conditioned, which is a boon as the weather is sweltering. The bed is basically a futon, pretty comfortable. I was immediately assailed by a jocular babushka (old lady – they basically run the place in Russia and are the provodnitsa or hostess on the train) with some low quality souvenirs to buy, which I duly did as she is part of the train staff and will be with me for the next 28 hours to Yekaterinburg. We pulled out of Kazansky Vokzal (the Russian for station, so called as the Tsarist engineers were so taken with Vauxhall Bridge when over on work experience) with much industrial clanking and pottered through the suburbs of Moscow. I was going to see whether I would be bewitched or insufferably bored.

Well, it has been firmly the former. I am travelling with the cabin to myself, so I spent the early evening watching the suburbs blend quickly into the fare that would be my constant backdrop for the next 15 hours – vast birch forests broken by small hamlets of low wooden houses surrounded by tiny gardens (lawn mowing is obviously optional here) and the odd inhabitant out picking berries or something. It doesn’t feel like it will have changed in 100 years, save for the occasional hardy machine dotted about that matched the inhabitants in flintiness. Not sure how they get by, as there didn’t appear to be too much agriculture going on apart from some small holdings. The houses have seasoned wooded walls with corrugated iron roofs. My dinner consisted of some pork with a cheese and mushroom sauce which, whilst not pushing towards a Michelin Star, was perfectly good, washed down with some dutch lager. As my daughter said when she received the snapchat picture of the restaurant car, it looks like an american diner. I rather regretted staying and having a glass of vodka with the train staff as a nightcap (they confidently assured me that this would have a transformative effect on my rusty Russian). Hmm. Still rubbish at Russian, except now with a bit of a headache this morning.


Moscow Impressions

I have just finished my one and only day in Moscow. My memories of it thirty years ago are predictably dominated by the Kremlin, Red Square etc. People have said that it has changed, well not to me. Yes, the ring roads (Moscow is a city of ring roads) were full of people who clearly were under the impression that the city was hosting a Grand Prix, and GUM, the department store on Red Square (pictured), was uber consumerist, but the City has not lost its massive dignity, the architectural homage to the big events of the twentieth century. Those commentators who claim that the end of communism has seen a rather unseemly rush to unbridled hedonism are wrong: the place still exudes a dignity that comes from suffering, and a humble expectation of further thunderclaps to come. There is great inequality, no doubt: however, one nomenklatura has simply given way to another whose currency of supremacy (money) is so much more recognisable in the West. Moscow seems huge and impressive, no doubt helped by the gorgeous weather. Its buildings feel almost Venetian in parts, shared with more Stalinist stuff that speaks of a struggle almost too desperate for this Western ponce to appreciate.

Which brings me to my thought of the day (you have a delicious amount of time with your own thoughts when on your own, even as you feel a gnawing loneliness). Everything is so extreme with Russia: the climate, the politics, the history. Looking at the (still) ubiquitous images of Lenin, he feels less a product of the international (and nuanced) religion of Marxism and more another Russian with a great idea and very little tolerance for other ideas – more like the Russian nihilists of the 1870s. Worth a Wiki.


First thoughts

I arrived at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport this afternoon (not the one that Snowden is reputedly holed up in). I was immediately struck by sights not common elsewhere: there were loads of russian passenger jets just rusting in the fields surrounding the runways. Going through immigration was not nearly as fearsome as the US experience, and I was roasted by 34c heat as I left the terminal building. In the taxi into Moscow there were lots of vans parked on the hard shoulder, selling stuff. We were then hit by a monster electrical storm, causing the roads to run like rivers. Nothing done by half here. I am staying in a basic hotel in the centre, whose main attraction had been the advertised free mini bar – how cool is that? Sadly said minbar consisted of the smallest can of coke in the world and some manky crisps. Serves me right.

It is almost 30 years since I came to the (then) Soviet Union to study as part of my degree, and I’m interested in seeing how things have changed. Well, my first impressions are at both ends of the spectrum. On the one hand, it still feels a brutal, elemental country where the extremes of the weather are written into every road and building you see. On the other, I am sitting in a westernised hotel, sipping a perfectly decent glass of white wine. That would never have happened 30 years ago. I embark on my first train (“Number 16” – how Soviet is that?) at 16:50 tomorrow, arriving in Ekaterinburg (resting place of the Romanovs and Gary Powers (temporarily)) 28 hours later. I am really excited by it.