Friday, March 28, 2008

...the Eurasian Railroad

A good walk around Irkutsk, through the town and along the promenade. The city surprised me with its pleasant atmosphere. Perhaps my opinion was scewed by the beautiful weather which showed the place and its people in the best light possible. After the Babushkas we had become used to, the sight of dozens and dozens of young attractive people all around was invigorating. But beyond this there is the gritty poverty and graffiti which we had glimpsed in Vladi. Some drinks a few hours kip at the station and we were off again, again in Kupe (2nd class), on board for the three days to Yekaterinburg.

The charming thing about being on trains for this long is that not much changes. Life is in stasis while you chug along. Just vodka, chats, cards and meeting locals in the dining cart. There are though subtle changes as you cross such vast distances. Trees became ever more common until that is all you could see for hours at a time, punctuated by the odd town.

The highlight of these few days was at its heart inherently comic. In the dining cart we had started chatting to and having a beer or three with some students. We continued this on a stop at Omsk (I had to get that in there along with Tomsk and Chomsk…hahahaha) and into the night. As it happened they were a troop of comedians, traveling from their university to a comedy competition in Novosibirsk. From fascinating chat this advanced into them showing us clips from their shows and eventually degenerated into Dave and I standing either side of the smokers' end of the carriage (only open air bit by the toilets) with a pack of comedians behind each of us convincing us to shout ever more rude and absurd insults at each other in Russian (“your mother blows goats”) to everyone’s huge amusement.

It is not a stretch to say this evening may have changed my life. It is certainly pivotal. I got on particularly well with one of the guys and he asked me a question that knocked me aback. We showed each other pictures of our loved ones and he asked me if I was married to my girlfriend. I said no and he retorted “why not?”. I did not have an answer. Plenty of vodka, some serious inflicting of thoughts on Dingo and some private inward reflection later I was staring out at the mists of first light over Siberia when I became steadfast in what I wished to do…and 6 months later I did it… but that is another story.


The comic troop shared with us some poignant reflections on youth in Russia. For instance, in general they did not touch the national drink and pastime - vodka. In Russia one consequence of vodka is widespread alcoholism that rips up families and causes men to die years before women. It is in many instances a terrible social evil. The nature of a cold dark country that has traditionally been full of privations is a huge contributing factor, along with the inter-linked psyche of the people. Apparently many kids do not touch the stuff because of what they have seen it do to their elders. I fear these students were very different to the average.

None the less, on our short trip vodka was a convenient social lubricant that, when good, did not even leave the inconvenience of a hangover (I did not believe it, but it is true – my God Smirnoff is shit). We were on top form when entering Yekaterinburg, the capital of the Urals, at 1 am in the morning. We had made it back to Europe and we planned to party. Dumping our bags in the lockers we jumped in a taxi and asked where we should hit the town. After a trip round the center we ended up at an all night hard (I mean HARD) techno club and hit more beers. I was not on top form (due to a bit of a bug) but we managed to have as good as time as possible until the headaches were strong from the banging foundations. We wandered out into the morning light to the central lake, back to the station and a few hours kip.

We squeezed a lot into 24 hours in the city. Again, large parts were crumbling, but at its center were shiny new signs of the commodity wealth from the mountains.

The Church of the Blood, dedicated to the last Tsars, the Romanovs, who were so infamously murdered just a few km from the town, is a beautiful place. The serenity and sorrowful charm of the church touched me. The opera on the other hand just got us into trouble. After a first half that had involved two of us falling asleep (me included – come on we had only slept for 2 hours and this was not exactly an enthralling production) and one of the Daves being caught staring down a pretty flutist's chest with opera glasses from row 1, we thought it was best to leave….. and we did at the interval. Onto a weird British themed pub complete with books by Brunel, Old Speckled Hen and, peculiarly, pretty ladies in short tartan skirts waiting tables - just the place to put us in the mood for our final train journey. A night and a day through thick forests to Moscow.

The Final Leg

This time we went Platskartny, third class, and it was perfectly comfortable. Instead of individual cabins you have blocks of 8 beds with a pathway on one side. Generally more social. All in, the full 10,000 odd km only cost us GBP 200 in train tickets. If we had traveled platskartny all the way we could have knocked a third more off that. Now that is a bargain, especially compared to prices quoted back home for trans-Siberian travel, let alone internal British rail.

(A little calculation. A ticket from Guildford to London peak time costs about GBP 25 for a trip of under 50km. If you extrapolate that out to the distance of the Vladi-Moscow trans-sib estimated at 9,500km, that comes to 190x5 = GBP 4750 – that is nearly 24 times the price per km – interesting)

As our final leg progressed, some sadness crept in. The quasi-trance like state you can reach when you are trapped on a train nowhere near anywhere, with only the worries of the present before you, cannot last.

A rather strange but largely interesting lady entertained us for significant parts of the way. When she was not talking about Japanese tea ceremonies (interesting to a point, but a small one), talk of politics was fascinating. She re-iterated what we had heard through out our trip. Putin is genuinely popular. Why you may ask? Well, a decade ago, shops were empty and people were hungry. Now the shops are full and many people are prospering. Fair enough, despite most of the reason for this being high energy prices, the CEO should take some credit. It is also because after the embarrassment of a drunken Yeltsin, this healthy man comes across well (Russians seem to put a lot of emphasis on this point and Putin harbours this image carefully in state controlled media).

What is seriously worrying is the other key reason for his popularity. International bravado. From a super-power Russia fell fast and hard. This left many of the people feeling bitter. The sight of Yeltsin smooching with the West as the economy plummeted and a few oligarchs took the wealth of a nation must have grated. Now here was a man who stood up to the outside world. He said strong words and flaunted Russia’s remaining power – its nuclear stock pile and fossil fuel reserves. One worries when a man’s power and popularity flows from his shows of strength and conflict with the outside world. It is not so long ago that an embarrassed neighbour rose up under similar rhetoric of being wronged and renewed strength.

These are but only passing thoughts, though worryingly borrowed from some wise people. I dearly hope they do not wander from the realm of conjecture to reality.

Whatever you think of such musings, one has to be concerned about a country where a powerful governor can be elected on the official campaign line that he is better than his rivals because at least he admits he is corrupt (such was divulged by the same lady on the train in relation to her home province of the Urals).

The last night on the train rolled gently by and we came into the vastness of Moscow. The train pulled in and we lit a celebratory Russian cigarette. Walking slowly down the platform, bashing into each other with our packs on, we were pretty chuffed. We had made it almost 10,000km by rail in just a couple of weeks with many an adventure and thoughts on the way and here we were…to have fun.

Thilo went off to see the Kremlin and Dave and I wandered the back streets of the central district taking in the atmosphere. A city of contrast, great past, intimidating present and no doubt interesting future.

One last night out on the town. To a techno club via being overrun by young American climbers who had just done Elbrus (they had signed an agreement not to drink a drop of alcohol in Russia as some of their friends had had “drinking problems” when they were 15 - which would be common to most Brits and called growing up – I mean come on, this is Russia) and Dave and I having another one of our long drawn out crazy philosophical conversations that lead everyone around us to think we were losing the plot (thoroughly enjoyable pedantic discussions that were a feature throughout our trip. Then we were packing for the off.

The eternal flame at the Kremlin

Sixteen fascinating and highly enjoyable days with the boys. Packed with katoshka, omul, vodka, new acquaintances and experiences. Our bare scratching of the surface of this world power has set my mind racing. I have a thirst for more which I will, I hope, one day quench. Like the atmosphere in that Kremlin cathedral on day one, it is the juxtaposition of familiarity and unfamiliarity that has gripped me.
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