A Travellerspoint blog

Picnicking our way to China

Life on the Trans-Siberian train falls into a steady routine

overcast 20 °C

Trans-Siberian Railway, Russia

Awakening to our regular routine we enjoy tea and coffee from the Samovar along with breakfast in our upper bunks. At the end of our bunks a shelf extends into the space above the corridor. This serves as an excellent pantry and storage space. It is starting to feel very much like a temporary home, from home. Daily life on board continues to resemble camping, although, as the temperature starts to drop and an adhoc rain shower passes over, the permanence and resilience of our roof, over canvas, is appreciated.

Typical Siberian countryside

Typical Siberian countryside

Our first, thirty minute, stop of the day is Krasnoyarsk. This provides just enough time to view the Lenin mural outside the station building. Whilst we know the schedule of the train leaving her behind, with most of our worldly goods on board, is still a little disconcerting. For that reason, with pictures taken and fresh bread for lunch we return to our compartment, with plenty of time to spare.

Lenin mural outside Krasnoyarsk station

Lenin mural outside Krasnoyarsk station

As in previous days, with the train back in motion we return to the restaurant car mid-morning for a cup of tea, a comfortable seat and a catch up on blogging and reading. Walking down the train reveals the track flashing past us as we hop between railway cars. Whilst a walkway exists it is not completely enclosed, as we have seen elsewhere. As has become common the restaurant car is deserted apart from two rather bored and sullen looking attendants. Whilst the service is somber, if not rude, the view outside of forests and arable lands passing by continues to provide interest.

Our trusty Samovar

Our trusty Samovar

We are now halfway to Beijing, having travelled some 2,500 miles of our 5,000 mile rail journey. As morning passes into afternoon the railway skirts the foothills of the Sanya Mountains, endless taiga forests (northern pine, fir, spruce and larch forest) and a real sense of wilderness and remoteness is generated.

A river crossing somewhere in Siberia

A river crossing somewhere in Siberia

In places the taiga forests become broken by large swathes of mildly hilly arable land, the landscape resembling that of North Yorkshire, where small wooded copses dot the landscape. It was surprising to find such a visual reminder of home in, what is often portrayed as, the barren Siberian wilderness – which so far has failed as an accurate descriptor.

The Lada spotting game becomes too easy in Siberia

The Lada spotting game becomes too easy in Siberia

Later in the afternoon we stop at Nizhneudinsk (we think!) where Cossacks first built a small fortress in 1649 and for over two centuries served as important centre for gold and fur traders. Yet, with the temperature of the train kept at a pleasant 21c but the chilly outside temperature dropping below that we limit our exploration to purchasing water and a rather tasty waffle stick, filled with caramel, from a local Babushka.

The author enjoys a well-earned beer

The author enjoys a well-earned beer

Outside of these small towns, the villages and hamlets pass us by periodically. With a general mournful and sad looking exterior their typically wood buildings with corrugated iron roofs look inhospitable in the height of summer. It is difficult to understand how their residents struggle through the privations that a Siberian winter must bring. What vehicles we see on the road are generally extremely old and uncomfortable looking. Ex army vehicles, mix with dilapidated buses and a multitude of old 1980s style Ladas, for it is the latter that appears to be the made of most common use, if not choice, in Siberia. The large black limousines of Moscow are now long gone. This is Asian Russia a land that time appears, genuinely, to have forgotten.

Soliders, beer and a long journey. Great!

Soliders, beer and a long journey. Great!

Returning to the restaurant car for supper, Trey is fortunate that her first choice – an excellent garlic filled meat Borsch – was available. None of my choices could be supplied by chef, that evening, so yet again I am relegated to a cold picnic, later in the compartment. Tomorrow, we will leave the train in Irkutsk for what we both hope will be warm food, a warm shower and a WC that is not constantly bouncing.

Another steam engine

Another steam engine

Posted by jamesh1066 14:12 Archived in Russia Tagged trains russia trans-siberian Comments (0)

Babushka’s, Lenin and Vodka

Life on board the Trans-Siberian continues at a steady pace

overcast 22 °C

Trans-Siberian Railway, Russia

After three nights on the train, the change, in our typical day starts to become the norm. Life on the train is very much like camping but without the challenge of rain and wind destroying ones sleeping compartment. Basic hygiene is a struggle but maintainable, even with a lack of showers. Rudimentary but functional are the water closets, kept relatively clean by the ever vigilant Provodnik. Yet, beyond that life is very tolerable, even pleasant. The restaurant car serves cold beer. We have sufficient provisions to feed Napolean’s army, should he ever have made it this far to the east and if a break from reading, blogging or snoozing is required one need only look out of the window to see sweeping grasslands or majestic beech forests passing by.

Our lazy carriage attendant cannot even bother to wear his uniform

Our lazy carriage attendant cannot even bother to wear his uniform

Throughout the day the ever passing scenery changes little. When the railroad was built this stretch of rail was notorious for swamp, mountains and steep river valleys. Starring out of our compartment window water and marsh grass is still very much in evidence. The engineering challenges behind this railroad must have been enormous.

Hard at work, blogging

Hard at work, blogging

It was in 1886 that Tsar Alexander III first approved the idea of a Trans-Siberian railway. Topographical surveys were taken along the proposed route between Tomsk and Stretensk and around Vladivostok. In 1891, following a Grand Tour of Greece, Egypt, Indo-China and Japan Nicholas, Tsar Alexander III’s son and heir, arrived in Vladivostok to lay the first stone on the Ussuri line to Khabarovsk. By 1900 the first Trans-Siberian services were in operation, utilizing the train-ferry Baikal to transport passengers across Lake Baikal, with convicts and exiles being employed in their thousand to facilitate construction.

The view from our compartment of the Taiga forest

The view from our compartment of the Taiga forest

The frigid lakes steep rocky cliffs, which dominated the shoreline, proved to be the railroad engineers most formidable obstacle. Yet by 1901 it was determined that the ferry was not a successful solution and so the construction of the Circumbaikal Line along the southwestern shore of the Lake began. The 1904 Russo- Japanese war placed the railroad under an untenable strain, as reinforcements to the Far East were required. Temporary tracks laid across the ice of the Lake, to expedite military movements, plunged through the frozen water, with great loss of life. The Circumbaikal Line replaced the lake ferry but not until after the 1904 war was lost. This line was to be used until the 1950s, when, with the damming of the Angara River an alternate route around the Lake was provided for, leaving the 94kms of the Circumbaikal Line becoming a neglected Branch line.

Trey relaxes

Trey relaxes

By 1916 and with the completion of the Khabarovsk bridge (at 1.8 miles the longest on the Trans-Siberian route) over the Amur river, the establishment of the Trans-Siberian route as it exists today, was possible. The success of the railroad can be measured in the growth of new towns along the line. Many new stations were built before towns had developed around them. In 1911 Siberia recorded about nine million inhabitants. By 1959 the number had increased to nearly 23 million. With this growth electrification of the line commenced in 1929 but was not finished until 2002, allowing a doubling of train weights to 6,000 tonnes.

A typical Russian train

A typical Russian train

As our train progresses to the East the concept of time becomes more complex. With the train perpetually operating on Moscow time but with local time, currently, four hours ahead of Moscow, one is tempted to sleep until lunch local time. Indeed, being late to rise and late to bed is generating a sense of jet lag, which we had hoped to avoid with overland travel. The ever changing time zones also make for short days. Each day on the train we ponder where the time has been spent for we have no museums to peruse of sights to visit.

Outside a railway station somewhere in Siberia

Outside a railway station somewhere in Siberia

Riding the train all day we disembark briefly at Omsk, for a thirty minute stop. Outside the station a fine statue of Lenin gazes down on us. Yet this large station has few of the Babushka’s we have become familiar with. Further along the track at Barabinsk, some 2,200 miles east of Moscow a chilly stop at this once place of exile for Polish Jews provides a plethora of Babushkas loaded with beer, dried fish, fruit and vegetables for sale, to potentially weary but hardly starving travelers. With her brave culinary tendencies Trey negotiates the purchase of a plastic bag of small bread rolls. Unsure of their nature a ponderous bite confirms they are rather bland potato breads – essentially, boiled potato baked in bread. Worse, they are not even a very good example of this local delicacy. A similar delicacy – the cabbage roll – proves to be slightly better but not even the offer of lashings of sweet Chili sauce allow the potato bread to be fully consumed. Undeterred we stretch our legs enjoying the spectacle of otter pelt sellers with the various hats and scarves for sale.

Beer and snacks are freely available

Beer and snacks are freely available

With evening drawing near outside but still mid-afternoon train time we enjoy a picnic supper. In addition to our hearty meal (the Simnel cake gifted by my sister at the start of this trip is proving particularly tasty) Trey decides to tuck into her small but effective bottle of Yekaterinburg vodka. Mixed with a little grapefruit juice her excitement over the journey grows, with a genuine passion to leave the train, briefly, when we stop at the grand Siberian station of Novosibirsk, at midnight local time. Fortunately, sleep overcomes her and we slumber until the clatter of new arrivals, down the corridor, awakens us. A small child obviously does not like her sleeping arrangements but sleep eventually returns with the gentle rat-a-tat of the railway sleepers and at least four distinctive pitches of snoring encouraging rest.

A railway platform and steam engine somewhere in Siberia

A railway platform and steam engine somewhere in Siberia

Posted by jamesh1066 14:07 Archived in Russia Tagged trains russia trans-siberian Comments (0)

The Romanov execution site and swapping sleeping companions

Stretching our legs for the day, en route to Irkutsk

sunny 24 °C

Yekaterinburg, Russia

Whilst many travelers, including our friends from the restaurant car last night, travel non-stop to Irkutsk and often beyond, we had chosen to break our journey briefly in Yekaterinburg. We would spend the day here before departing on an Irkutsk bound train later that evening.

Overlooking Yekaterinburg station

Overlooking Yekaterinburg station

The previous day temperatures on the train had remained similar to those in Moscow. With no air-conditioning in the compartment by late afternoon the heat had become a little unpleasant. Disembarking in Yekaterinburg mid-morning that same warmth and sun now felt pleasant as we sought out a hotel that might provide hot showers. Securing a room, for the day, at the closest hotel to the station and after a good wash we headed into the city, home town of Boris Yeltsin and more importantly execution sight of the last Tsar of Russia.

Romanov Memorial, Yekaterinburg

Romanov Memorial, Yekaterinburg

From the station Sverdlova avenue leads straight to the spot where Tsar Nicholas Romanov II and his immediate family were executed by the Bolsheviks on the night of July 16th 1918. At the time the fall of the monarchy in 1917 was widely, and perhaps rightly, welcomed in liberal circles in both the West and Russia itself. Yet feelings change. Whilst Boris Yeltsin, then Governor of the city had the place of their execution demolished, for fear that it would attract monarchist sympathizers, today, an iron cross, from 1991, marks the site, and a second marble cross, from 1998, remembers when the Romanovs remains were sent to St. Petersburg for burial in the family vault.

Church of the Blood, Yekaterinburg

Church of the Blood, Yekaterinburg

With the Romanov family now elevated to the status of saints a massive Byzantine style Church of the Blood dominates the site. Newly erected the church contains the most expensively commissioned icon in Russia. As a place of pilgrimage for the faithful our Saturday afternoon visit also demonstrated its status with the newly married. A veritable convoy of wedding limousines and suitably decorated private cars were in attendance each time we passed the church. With Bride and Groom posing for pictures we could only assume that visiting the Church had become something of a modern ritual, perhaps ensuring that the favor of the long past Tsar is still offered to the loving couple.

Outside City Hall, Yekaterinburg

Outside City Hall, Yekaterinburg

Wondering further into the city very little held our interest. Whilst a variety of regional art, photography and geology museums were open we simply enjoyed the opportunity to stretch our legs after two nights on the train. Lunch and dinner in the city followed by a short provisioning trip to the local supermarket soon had us eager for the continuation of our trip. Having now covered some 1,200 miles we had a further 2,500 miles and 3 nights to travel before we would arrive in Irkutsk, having travelled by then some 2/3rds of the distance to Beijing.

Overlooking City Pond, Yekaterinburg

Overlooking City Pond, Yekaterinburg

As in Moscow the station was alive with passengers and their bags, looking to board a variety of trains heading east and west. As we had now grown to expect all trains were on time, ours being no exception. All train schedules and train stations operate on Moscow time, in Russia. Therefore, whilst we arrived at the station by 22:00 for our 22:30 local time train the station clock advised that it was 20:00. Slightly confusing but the simplest way to cope with the multitude of unmarked time zones that we have and would pass through.

Sharing our compartment for this part of the journey was a single, elderly Russian lady. Able to speak some German we communicated a little before retiring to our top bunks. By morning she had departed the train, replaced at some point during the night by another elderly couple who stayed with us for the rest of the following day. The ever changing travel companions was at first strange but something we, surprisingly, soon became accepting of.

Posted by jamesh1066 13:05 Archived in Russia Tagged train russia trans-siberian Comments (0)

East to Siberia and beyond

A new month and a new journey

sunny 23 °C

Trans-Siberian express, Russia

As the schedule promised our Yekaterinburg train arrived some 20 minutes before it’s 00:30 departure time. Innovation on this sector of our journey allowed us to board using an electronic ticket. All we need do was produce our passports. Oh, that Russian bureaucracy were that easy to conquer. With the majority of passengers boarding our carriage with a ticket our Carriage Attendant or Provodnista told us in very expressive Russian that we could not get on the train, without a ticket. Given the late hour where we were to secure the said ticket was not apparent. With growing concern our attempts to understand how we might resolve the problem met only with unintelligible Russian and no helpful hand gestures. This could be an interesting night!

The upper bunk party begins

The upper bunk party begins

Our concern was, somewhat, abated when a Russian speaking couple were also given the same lecture about apparently requiring a paper ticket. Whilst they also looked concerned they did not make a run for the Ticket Office (if they had I would have followed) but produced a stream of what one can only guess was extremely pertinent comments about the lack of organization. Finally, with departure time nearing a paper list was produced. Our names upon it we were allowed to board. Next time we will just get the paper ticket, like we have for the rest of the journey!

The Taiga forest

The Taiga forest

Our four-berth compartment was very similar to that we had in the Ukraine. Yet, this time we would have to share. Prior to boarding Trey had been concerned about sharing with someone who might smoke (which is not allowed) or had a personal hygiene problem (which is a very common issue in Russia). What we faced was worse. A young lady, travelling with her father, daughter and cat! Trey is extremely allergic to cats I am allergic to small children keeping me awake all night! In a four bunk compartment this might still be an interesting night. As it was our time in the small compartment passed pleasantly and without problem. The cat hardly moved which helped with Trey’s allergy and the little girl just smiled every time she saw us. Indeed, later in the journey we played a jolly game of peek-a-boo (or cuckoo it would appear in Russia) much as my little niece enjoys playing, back in England.

Guess what I can see!

Guess what I can see!

Entering our compartment, hand gestures and smiles were enough to get our baggage stored, beds made and the lights out. Thirty minutes after departure we were both fast asleep, rocked by the gentle sway of the train as we headed to the east.

Siberian countryside

Siberian countryside

Waking later that morning after what must have been one of the best nights sleep I have ever had on a train we could lie in our upper bunks watching the ever changing but constant scenery of pine and beech trees pass us by. Infrequently, we would pass small villages of wooden houses apparently locked in a century different from the one we had left in Moscow. Most stops were for a few minutes yet at various times each day we would stop for thirty minutes or so. This allowed us to stretch our legs, purchases any essentials and partake of the food stuffs being sold by the many Babushka’s we were to see. Potato bread, eggs, pastries, fruit, ice cream and complete meals were often available. A lack of Russian was not a problem here. Hand gestures and pointing soon secured the desired produce. With provisions of our own and those available at stops, such as this, we were not going to starve as we crossed the time zones and landscape of Mother Russia.

Babushkas sell food on drink on nearly every platform

Babushkas sell food on drink on nearly every platform

It was during this first day on the train that we fell into the relaxing schedule of rising late, enjoying a leisurely breakfast, reading, partaking of a mid-morning nap, luncheon, reading, mid-afternoon nap and supper. Clearly, the toils of Moscow needed us to re-energize and so on this first day on the train we spent a happy day snoozing, eating and watching the forests of western Russia pass us by.

Our compartment corridor

Our compartment corridor

By late afternoon the restaurant car, a beer and supper called but not necessarily in that order. On this train the only menu offered was in Cyrillic. Not ideal. As we prepared to start acting various animal noises an English speaking tour group arrived in the restaurant car. Slightly loosened up from an afternoon of drinking vodka this small party of Australians and a lone Canadian provided us with welcome social intercourse for the rest of the evening. Even more importantly they brought with them a bi-lingual guide who could translate the menu for us. With her help we were soon tucking into ham and eggs, chicken and potato and enjoying a local beer. The food was not cheap but the pleasant company and ever changing landscape more than compensated.

In the restaurant car, blogging

In the restaurant car, blogging

Before long a few hours and many more miles had passed and we were once again ready to retire. Yet at one of the stops that evening, whilst we were enjoying the restaurant car, our compartment companions had departed the train. Their luggage gone all that remained of theirs was a small white napkin with ‘Goodbye’ written out in a child’s block letters. Sad that we had not said ‘goodbye’ to our Russian friends we settled in for a pleasant night, alone in our compartment for the first time.

Trey tries to escape through an open window

Trey tries to escape through an open window

With gentle slowing and acceleration sleep on the train fell relatively easily. Unlike many overnight trains that we have taken the line is very smooth and our bunks became a pleasant end to a busy day of doing nothing. Yet during the night one does stir. Dark outside I awoke to the sound of voices in the compartment. Baggage was being brought in and the bunks made. For a few hours we had been alone but now we had new companions. Far too late and dark for introductions I rolled over and was soon fast asleep, waking up the following morning on the very edge of Siberia.

Another steam engine

Another steam engine

Posted by jamesh1066 06:24 Archived in Russia Tagged trans-siberian express Comments (0)

Art and ballet. Our last day in Moscow

Preparations for our Trans-Manchurian trip complete we await our departure

sunny 24 °C

Moscow, Russia

With the Kremlin closed on a Thursday (bad planning and a slight disappointment but an excellent cost saving opportunity!) we take a short walk to the Pushkin museum. Crossing a multitude of main roads, these walks take in not only sidewalks but the many underpasses that lie around the city. As in the Ukraine most of the main roads throughout Moscow provide these underpasses for those wishing to cross the road. Whilst useful for the fit and able they must be a terrible strain on the old and infirm. How anyone in a wheelchair ever navigates Moscow is difficult to imagine and something we do not see for the entirety of our time in the city. Alongside these underpasses a frequent sight are traffic policemen pulling over unfortunate drivers for what invariably, at least to us, appear to be imagined traffic offences. Those pulled over drivers, that we saw, appeared resigned to the ‘fine’ offering us a knowing smile as the officer berated them over their offence but accepted what I am sure would became a donation to their personal fund. Given the volume of traffic officers stationed at road junctions this is clearly a profitable sport and one far more actively pursued that the apprehension of ‘real’ criminals given the number of dubious characters we see chauffeured in large German and Japanese limousines.

For at, apparently, every street expensive cars some parked 3 or 4 deep on the pavement and into the road line up. Indeed, in the business and Government districts it is often hard to see where the road for passing cars lies. Outside of our hotel, some 50 yards from Red Square, at least 4 lanes of parked cars seem to remain throughout the day and night. Likewise any accessible pavement will be utilized for the parking of cars, for which the local traffic officers appear to have no care.

Russian Icons at the Pushkin

Russian Icons at the Pushkin

Arriving at Moscow’s premier foreign-art museum, it is disappointing that the Pushkin Museum has two galleries, that have separate and hefty entrance fees. Both show off a broad selection of European works, mostly appropriated from private collections after the revolution. The Gallery of European and American art of the 19th and 20th-centuries contains an impressive collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings. However, we choose to visit the original museum whose highlights includes works of art from Troy through to 17th-century, including several Rembrandt portraits, Rubens and a pleasant Canaletto (but not one that can compete with a similar representation of Venice housed at the National in London).

The Pushkin Museum's Canaletto

The Pushkin Museum's Canaletto

Alongside these works of art a temporary exhibition, Dior through the ages, had or so it appeared taken over much of the second floor of the museum. Couture, designs and jewelry through the various decades of his work were presented in a stylish and attractive manner. Yet it was not really what we had hoped to see. Tantalizingly, the galleries of ‘typical’ art could be glanced from the exhibition but stern guards blocked our way. It was only after some searching that we found the small, hidden, passage that now provided access to the rest of the museum, providing us with a few hours of quiet contemplation. Whilst in no way magnificent, in terms of both building architecture and contents, when compared to the great art museums of the world, the museum has some interesting pieces and with some of the exhibits labeled in English made a welcome change to more recent museum visits.

Trey felt bad the morning after at the Pushkin Museum

Trey felt bad the morning after at the Pushkin Museum

With our art lust satisfied we now had to prepare for our Trans-Siberian adventure. Whilst the train would have a rarely seen in the UK, restaurant car, we had been advised to take plenty of food on board. Duly noted we purchased known items such as eggs and bread along with a few unknown meats and pastry items. It was whilst trying to determine a type of meat that I found myself delivering my very best cow impression to a group of rather amused supermarket workers. From their giggles we were pretty sure that the dark colored meat was not beef but were unable to ascertain anything further. Purchasing said meat we were to find out later it was actually smoked ham. One presumes that an imitation of a pig was beyond the reach of the supermarket employees. Shame but no harm done. Provisioned for our train that would leave that evening at 00:30 we looked forward to the ballet we would be attending before departing for the train station.

Looking down on Red Square

Looking down on Red Square

Checking out from the hotel, mid-afternoon, a curious impulse had me ask the Front Desk to confirm that our Cyrillic tickets were for Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Having bought them ourselves, from the theatre ticket office, where no English was spoken, there was only a slight concern. Naturally, the tickets were for Eugene Onegin on September 30th. Oh,dear! Just when we thought we were doing so well with broken Russian, pointing and drawing (the previous day I had been reduced to drawing a picture of a train and carriage, when collecting our tickets, so that we knew which carriage we were in!). Yet, Marina and Victoria on the Front Desk solved our problems. Even though offered, freely, our unwanted tickets were purchased from us, at face value and new tickets secured through the Box Office. We would go to the Ballet that evening!

Fountains in Alexandrovsky Gardens

Fountains in Alexandrovsky Gardens

With little time now until the Ballet a brief walk through the pleasant Alexsandrovsky Gardens, along the Kremlin’s western wall, allowed us to take in both the Tomb of the Unknown soldier and the many children playing in the extensive fountain and water features that appear designed for that very activity. With the heat of summer fast approaching it appears de rigeur to strip down and bathe in this most public of impromptu swimming pools. In need of a drink we purchase from a local street vendor a dark, inviting substance that we assumed was alcoholic, possibly even Stout like. From my first sip it appeared very sweet, almost caramel like. Yet I was never to investigate further. A slight stumble had me throw the entire cup over, what had been, my fresh shirt. Much to Trey’s credit she did not laugh at my misfortune. There was little I could do but allow the warm afternoon rays of the sun to dry up the sticky mess. Not an ideal wardrobe addition for the Ballet, that evening.

Trey enjoys her Kvac - fermented from Black or Rye bread

Trey enjoys her Kvac - fermented from Black or Rye bread

With my wardrobe malfunction addressed we headed for the Ballet. Correct tickets acquired we enjoyed a competent performance of Swan Lake. As a new theatre the interior of the building lacked the warmth and charm of Riga’s opera house yet the orchestra played with aplomb for when is an evening at the ballet, in Moscow, something not to savior.

Swan Lake in Moscow

Swan Lake in Moscow

Returning to the hotel around 11pm we collected our bags and headed to the Metro for the last time. We were to depart Moscow from Yaroslavl Vokzal .

Outside Yaroslavl Vokzal station. The adventure begins

Outside Yaroslavl Vokzal station. The adventure begins

The station was alive with fellow passengers hurrying to the far eastern corners of the Russian empire. Young travelers with backpacks that towered over them, competed with Russian families and their worldly goods and obvious day trippers to the capital returning home after successful business or shopping excursions. With growing anticipation we waited the arrival of our train, the last to leave the station that evening, as darkness drew upon us. The next stage of our eastern adventure was about to begin.

Posted by jamesh1066 06:20 Archived in Russia Tagged moscow pushkin ballet Comments (0)

(Entries 66 - 70 of 94) « Page .. 9 10 11 12 13 [14] 15 16 17 18 19 .. »