Friday, March 28, 2008

Riding the Trans-Sib to the middle of nowhere…

There are a number of trips that the world offers which have immediate resonance with both those who live to wander and those who do not. Undoubtedly, one of those is to ride the Trans-Siberian railway. For a long time I have looked forward to doing just that. Those I’ve met who have done so give mixed reports. Some are enthralled and others are bored (numerous mentions of millions of trees). On a pissed night with Dingo, a trip to Moscow-St Petersburg was transformed into an attempt to find out just what it is like to ride the rails of the longest railroad in the world – roughly half-way round the globe!

Soon Dave and Thilo were in on the embyonic plan. The potential spanner in the works was that now being corporate whores and all we could only take 16 days – not long for 9,500km. Further, coming into summer we heard that berths can be hard to find and to book at home costs at least $1,000 for the train alone. Solution – go the opposite way to the crowds and buy no tickets at all. So instead of setting off from the capital and heading south through Mongolia into China we stuck to Russia and bought our flights to Vladivostok – the ‘Lord of the East’ – and planned to fly it by the seat of our pants. What is the worst that could happen – late back to work… tragedy.

Now to say Vladivostok is far from London is an understatement. Although it is not on an all too dissimilar latitude, it is in fact just a few km’s from North Korea and just across a short channel of water from Japan. Truly far east. Only Aeroflot (God-bless-em) sell tickets from London and with a most of a day stop in Moscow.

So straight from work via a few pints with Jez (Aussie travel mate from Colombia who happened to be in London), a comedy incident with Dingo nearly pissing his pants on the tube and a landing in Moscow where the passengers gave a earnest round of applause (it concerns me that this practice stopped a generation ago in most parts of the world but continues with verve on Aeroflot).

Moscow the preview:

The main thing that struck me when entering Moscow that early morning were the quasi-futuristic Soviet towers that rise out of the city. Like something crossed between 1984 and Gotham City. Being someone whose early years were spent on the other side of the iron curtain, standing beneath the old ministry of foreign affairs my mind moved to those for whom entrance did not necessarily come with an exit…. Quite likely James Bond inspired biased tosh, but I can’t deny the feeling.

We settled down for an early morning kip beneath the Kremlin (no the guards were not particularly amused) and on waking explored the magnificent old fortress. I was seriously impressed by the grandeur of the setting on the river. Red towering walls enclosing the golden domes of cathedrals and grand palaces. Of all sites, three were most evocative. The marvelously imaginative St Basil’s with its curling and twirling multi-coloured domes (strangely much smaller than I imagined it), Lenin’s cubic tomb (again, like with Mao and Ho Chi Minh I managed to resist the urge to see a little plasticated man – especially as I understand one of Lenin’s dying wishes was to be buried next to his mother in St Petersburg – Stalin was never the nicest or most trustworthy of men now was he) and the Red Square itself. One of those central meeting places of humanity which have an atmosphere unto themselves.

At record 30 plus degrees in May it was a fine excuse to take shade and in doing so take just about my favourite picture of the tip – don’t know why but…… it just curls my grin…

Dingo, Dave and I wandered out into other parts of the city. A strange mixture of real poverty, old soviet tower blocks and obvious signs of new money. The number of luxuries in windows and price-tags on certain streets in the center is mind-boggling. From the cheap side the Kremlin is even more striking with its shine and beautiful gardens . People have told me it pales in comparison next to St Petersburg – now there is a site I must see.

To one side of the Kremlin is the most magnificent church. The old one was crushed by Stalin to make way for a planned super-skyscraper. The monstrosity was never built and now the church stands again. A story of the prevailing strength of religion. On more than one occasion in Russia I saw queues outside churches on a Sunday . More than 70 years of official Atheism seems to have lead to a rejuvenation which stands in stark contrast to Western Europe.

For a brief moment, a sorrowful chorus in one of the cathedrals of the Kremlin knocked me aghast. A faith that was at once so familiar and distant. The lady's voice touched me immensely and I was left with a desire to learn more about this particular stain of orthodoxy.

Vladivostock:

As always, it was great to see Thilo. After meeting at Moscow airport, we ceremonially downed a beer and before we knew it landed in Vladi – the night is very short when you travel due East.

A weekend walking up and down the gray hills of this once closed city with its grand bay and rotting remnant of the Pacific fleet. It was comic trying to order train tickets while still trying to get my head around Russian Cyrillic script. While achieving such small things we sipped bevies with locals over-looking the pacific stretching before us. A cold place even at this time of year. The recent jump in Russian prosperity has not exactly flowed out to this region, but there are contrasting images from the rot and graffiti in new shops and Japanese tourists.

A rather heavy night out involving being turned away from (likely) mafia run clubs, far too much vodka (of course), mirrors, obscene dancing, saving Dave from himself (no more comments here – that is Bassett by the way) and wee hour street wrestling…..left us with a hangover that was good to put on a train after a bit more rambling.

The old green train to Kiev. It looked exactly as it should and I had a contented smile on my face as I climbed aboard in the dark and waived goodbye to the old rail-yard. We were off and thousands and thousands of km’s lay before us.


Three Straight Days:

Before we had time to explore our surroundings a perhaps overly jolly Russian couple had jumped in our Kupe (2nd class little compartment – if you remember old British Rail swing-doors, basically one of those individual compartments but with swing down beds – very comfortable all in all – sleeps 4, sits – oooh well in our case up to 12…).

Vodka cameout of everywhere and being offered all around. Russians seem to share much on these long journeys and hard alcohol is a core part of that. After a bit of time and one of the boys being made to feel rather uncomfortable by strange flirtation from this buxom woman, we managed to usher them out in as polite a way as possible. A reasonable course of action when you combine our knackeredness with the coincidence (arising from friendliness or other motive) that led people to attach themselves to the only non Slavic people on the train (I use this phrase to include numerous Ukrainian staff on the Kiev train) within moments of stepping on. A few more vodkas and I slept like a baby.

On we rolled for three days. Skirting up and past North Korea, and across the stretching boggy plains that run past Manchuria and Mongolia. For me this was a blissful time and just what I needed. After working into the night in the London legal world, to be “trapped” on a train was ideal. I barely even read. We played poker, explored up and down the train, smoked continuously, and drank. Personally I spent hour upon hour staring out the window as the seemingly endless expanse slipped past. Quite, quite calming. It allowed my mind to breathe. To think.

We found only a couple of others on the train that spoke any English. The nice Ukrainian attendant of our carriage and this slightly odd semi-lawyer type person who seemed a bit like a shadow – like one of those dogs who has been beaten so many times that he would shrink back at barely the lifting of another’s hand. What was even stranger about the latter was his companion. A bear of a man. An ex-soldier who took a particular liking to Dingo. He explained through his interpreter, sign language and sound effects how fucked up fighting had been in Afghanistan and how he killed. His reaction to Thilo (a German) was, as I remember, a greeting of “Achtung…tut tut tut tut tut” or something along those lines. After a few vodkas we wandered back, but not before Dingo had had the life squeezed out of him by the most affectionate of bear-hugs.

Dingo enjoying the experience

The diet on such a journey and indeed in such region seems to be fat, with a bit more fat curdled in fat, with some pickled veg and cabbage on the side. Not great for your guts but good to soak up the local favourite. I swear the meal in the dining carriage could have clogged the artery of an ox. Only a fool would complain to the chef- a most memorable sight – a huge bellied man, in his greased up wife-beater, covered in a few days' worth of sweat. He looked like he should be shovelling coal into a steam engine…. So as far as we were concerned he cooked just fine.

At each little stop you would get off and wander round for a couple of minutes. Nice to stretch your legs, buy some slightly different fatty food, and watch the people of each town come to life as the train came in, bringing opportunities for sale with it. The majority of these places were small, poor and shacky. These are people far from most things in a simply huge country. Only once did we really attempt to break out. That was at Ulan Ude, a large town of mixed Slavic and central Asian folk (very closely related to the Mongols) with large industry. A huge rail junction where trains split south to Mongolia or East as we had come. The book had informed us that the biggest Lenin head in Russia was but only a km or so from the station. As soon as we stopped (for a scheduled 30 mins) Thilo, Dingo and I set off. It felt so free and even naughty to run from the train, up over the bridge and out. We ran like fools in the rough direction but found no head. It is quite a feeling, being out of sight and away from a train with all your belongings on it. Your only back up is that you “think” it is stopping for half an hour. Despite all the potential drama, and after a good run and Thilo staring at some beautiful lady (classic pretending to take a photo of something else and getting caught) we made it back with a little to spare.

Off again and we were getting close to our first proper stop - Irkutsk and on to Lake Baikal. Without a doubt one of the most special places I have ever seen. I opened my eyes and left a part of my heart there.
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