Published: December 21st 2011October 28th 2011
Moscow By Night
Christmas came early for me when they lit up Red Square.
What the hell time is it anyways.
See, the Trans Siberian Railway runs on Moscow time but depending where you are on the route, it can be Moscow time plus (up to) another seven hours. Confusing? Damn right. As you cross multi-time zones heading east or west, it doesn’t matter how vigilant you are, you lose track of time. The Australians all erupt into a lively debate of what time it is, really. To add to the confusion, all the stations along the system have their clocks set to Moscow time, so local time is allusive.
We spend an extraordinary time guessing and consulting the train schedule. We are wrong constantly. The clock at the Irkutsk station says noon, but it is pitch dark out, so it can't be noon. If it is 7 hours ahead in Irkutsk then…or wait, is that 6? We don’t know. As soon as we start pouring shots of Semogon no one cares what the hell time it is anymore. N ozdorovia!
I can liken train travel to something I am intimately familiar with, a tiny jail cell furnished with four bunks and four cellmates. Our Kupeyny or Kupe, is one of the
She Sells Cedar Seeds
Lots of little stands like this one along the route, the cedar seeds pretty popular
twelve individual rooms on each carriage. It is so cramped it’s almost ridiculous. Therefore, this space must be utilized fairly civilly and orderly, my cellmate in the bunk above clips her toenails...which rain down on me as I write this. "Sawrry" she says in Australian. I already have cracker crumbs in my hair from an earlier assault. Trying to keep a sunny composure after three days of solitary confinement with four strangers, and I am starting to understand why the inmates at my job are always so pissy.
Anya, our Provodnitsa (carriage attendant) is a drill sergeant with a severe case of OCD. She shuffles up and down the aisle in her slippers slamming shut windows we have just opened to get relief from the stifling heat and endless cigarette smoke. As I write this, she is frantically vacuuming. Although I had planned for it, nothing prepares you for the struggle to uphold an appropriate level hygiene and freshness in such a confined space. My blanket smells like old man balls.
Our 8,000 km journey gets underway after we leave Ulan Ude. That’s right, we are about to horizontally cross Russia, minus a few interesting stops along the
Kungur Ice Caves
...minus the ice, but still fascinating to go miles underground.
way. The Trans Siberian railway is a marvel of ingenuity and sometimes the only link for those who live across the wastelands in this largest country on this planet.
If you do decide to get off or on at any of the stops along the line, you have exactly two minutes to embark or disembark. Sound fairly effortless? Um…no. Especially the getting on part. Case in point. While waiting in Omsk for our train to appear at the empty platform, The Australians and I prepare like we are about to run a marathon. Some of us stretch, others run in place, most are just quietly contemplating what is about to take place. I’m near tears. I know I will have to sprint a distance of at least a 1/4 mile in thirty seconds with a gigantic backpack on my back, and I'm slightly stressed…don’t forget, I have a sprained ankle. Besides, I'm pretty sure if I don't keep up, the Israeli Assassin is prepared to put me out of my misery.
A train whistle sounds in the far distance. We all simultaneously stare. Sure enough, here comes the Trans-Siberian barrelling down the track towards us. Seven a.m. right
As the Snow Looms
Great shot of a church with the dark skies threatening snow
on schedule. A whoosh of freezing air knocks some reality into you as it screams by, with no real indication it will be stopping anytime soon. Run! Someone shrieks. I glance sideways to note we are at approximately carriage number 39. Metal brakes screech at a decibel that makes your teeth hurt. 38. 37. 36. We need 11.
Time to kick it into overdrive. Some of the Australians are laughing only because we look like a herd of mutant turtles on a bizarre obstacle course. I flash back to that TV commercial where OJ jumps over luggage at the airport. Some of the Babushkas have started to run along side us, we knock them over as they wave little baggies of Blinis in our faces, trying in vane for that last minute sale. Like a true Canadian, I’m apologizing and trying to help them up, all the while explaining why I don't have time to buy a Blini....and I’m falling behind. The Australians are yelling at me, Oi! Canook, get a move on Mate! I dig deep.
The dreaded sound of the train whistle sounds just as we get to 14. We only have seconds left to get
A Girl Waits
The backdrop of a typical russian town.
on. The Provodnitsa at carriage 14 refuses to drop her stairs. The Israel Assassin is frantically waving our paperwork that says carriage 11, but this is carriage 14. We all know we will not make it to 11 without the train lunging forward without us, so we beg the Provodnitsa to let us on here. The plan is to move up the remaining three carriages by interior. “Neyt, neyt!” she barks. We plead, implore and try to look pitiful and stupid. A Mexican standoff ensues. “Go!” she points ahead to carriage 11.
Suddenly, we hear that distinctive sound of brakes being released, we all freeze, mortified. She hears it too. For a nanosecond time stands still. With a huff and a few curses, she finally drops her staircase to allow our passage.
Jesus on a Jetski, why do things have to be so difficult here.
The longest haul for us is three days of solid travel on the train. I’m already sick of noodles causing me to venture further from the train during the two minute stops to find edible alternatives. Pirozhki become my food of choice, large donut-like buns filled with minced meat or mashed potatoes
Loved the onion domes with the gold, very nice with the autumn colours.
with sour cream. My pants already say I've lost 15 pounds on my self-induced borscht diet, so I indulge.
Most of the Russians on the train are young military men in varying degrees of drunkenness. At first it is fun, but after a few incidents, we begin to get wary. Luckily, most of the Provodnitsas moonlight as bouncers with this higher-than-God ability to kick you off the train at a moments notice. The drunks appear to respect this…no one wants to be left outside in Siberia. We girls strategically avoid the long treks through steerage to get to the dining car, which lessens the encounters of drink-confident men following us around.
Not all are deterred though. Men wearing slippers with army fatigues and half-empty bottles in hand wander the carriage halls all night, checking us out. Some are in various levels of disrobe, I’m guessing for our benefit. Our door is locked at night to keep them from trying to crawl into bed with us. But honestly, all the carriages are kept a stifling banya, we sweat, they sweat. The Israel Assassin has a screaming match with her inebriated carriage-mate when he lovingly tries to tuck her in
Shopping Russian Style
What do you mean you don't have any Nutella.
with a blanket. I fully expect to find him dead somewhere by morning, surely he doesn't know who he's messing with.
A fairly handsome Russian who had been leering at us for several hours from two doors down, returns from the dining car after a bottle of liquid courage and walks into our carriage unannounced. He is completely glazed over and just stands there. I start with a bunch of rude ‘neyts’ at him, so he turns to leave, but instead, slides our door closed and locks himself in with us. I am off my berth in seconds flat, puffing myself up and posturing to literally push him out, yelling the entire time. He finally gets the hint. It's 1:30 in the afternoon...I think. The following morning, he leaves a peace offering of breakfast blini sheepishly at our door, and retreats. We don’t let it affect us. The Australians sing songs, play cards, read, nap, play ‘who wants to be a millionaire’ until the battery dies. Sometimes we have ten people in our berth with us. Each is offered a tea, or a swig of vodka, or a snack. The time goes by super fast. Russians are so very
The Next Stop Is....Blahblahblah
Endless 2 minute train station stops along the route and I didn't know the names of the small little towns. They had great train stations though.
curious about us, and super friendly.
When this gigantic man called Valareen gets on with his crew, they take it upon themselves to become our carriage protectors. All firefighters from Vladivostok, their trip is made once a month and I'm pretty sure they've seen it all before. Valareen paces our hallway and attempts light conversation, coming by with pictures of his home, daughter, and job site, he constantly chews on homemade reindeer jerky while keeping a keen eye on us girls. He takes a particular shine to the Israeli Assassin. The rest of the journey is uneventful.
I've picked a great time of year to make this trip. Autumn in Russia is sunny and crisp...but not crazy cold yet. Snow falls in random patches, the landscape rolls by, large spance of birch and stands of pine where they haven't been clear-cut yet. We stop in small villages made of painfully constructed wooden houses, efficiently warmed. There is a harsh winter just around the corner you can feel it in your bones. Piles of wood for heating stoves displayed proudly in front of each home...here, a man is measured by the size of his wood pile. Empty garden plots
So Many Choices
I just glazed over trying to pick out one of these
of darkened soil with only cabbage remaining, greenhouses full all summer with tomatoes and peppers now eerily empty. A touch of nostalgia rushes me, all rural Canadians lived this way back in the 1950's. It is a life harder than you can imagine, but satisfying simple. You cut wood or you freeze. You hunt animals or you starve. You garden or go without fresh food. Futre generations would benefit highly by returning to this lifestyle...I'd love to see one of those Kardashians attempt it. As we go through the Ural mountains, I'm feeling a little homesick because everywhere I look, this beautiful countryside reminds me of my motherland...Canada.
I think I mentioned that our tour leader doesn't speak Russian, so we hire locals to show us around each stop we make. Curiously they are all named Tatiana. After a little history lesson, they warm us up with quirky tales about their towns with that precious deadpan humour. Most bring us home to introduce us to their family members and friends. I realize getting to know Russians and their guarded opinions is an earned privilege, and I'm only a tourist just passing through. But I'm curious about post-communist Russia, so
How ya goin' Mate?
One of The Australians keeps busy while we scream across Russia
I carefully pose my questions while tea is served up. The majority appear happier without communism, but all wish for more jobs locally. When asked if they would rather go back to a communist state, they just shrug. The over 40's seem indifferent, the under 25's hopeful they won't ever have to. Everyone agrees that Russia is at a cross roads, there is a certain feel of change brewing.
We do another train platform sprint to catch the Trans-Siberian heading west. The carriages progressively get nicer as we go. Did I mention they like to blast the heat in the kupes? I fought nightly with each Provodnitsa to turn it down, since our door must be locked for obvious reasons. I learn quickly that in Russia, any woman in a position of power is one to be reckoned with. Whether it be the ticket seller, carriage attendant, or office clergy, they will automatically tell you a blunt ‘neyt’ at any of your requests or enquiries. The trick is to stand your ground and not leave. After a few minutes of absolute uncomfortable glaring silence they will finally give in just to get rid of you. Bonus points, you will
First Sign I learned to recognize
Can't read Russian to save my life, but I learned quickly to recognize this particular sign. Toilet.
actually gain their respect for this. You may even get a smile or amused chuckle from them next go round. And yes, even I am willing to look like a snivelling moron in order to get what I need...I threw dignity aside long ago.
So far, Russians I've met along the way come across outwardly difficult and complex....but as soon as the stranger veil is lifted...extremely hospitable and kind. Kinda like that miserable old Auntie that will buy your underage ass a fifth from the liquor store. The Australians and I make friends with all our carriage dwellers and Provodnitsas to the point of getting hugs and cheek kisses as we depart. But I still can’t get them to smile for a photo though.
Finally, we arrive in Moscow....and it is officially the right time for once! No more plus or minus - we are actually on Moscow time. After dragging all our shit through an insane rushhour in the subway system buried deep under the city, we surface at Arbat street, our hotel conveniently located just a few blocks up.
With only a few days to explore, my agenda is jam packed. I'm determined to not
Old Meets New
Some of the older churches with the newer.
be slowed down by my ankle, but car traffic is insane so I utilize the underground pedestrian throughways & subway, and stroll Arbat dotted with cafes, restaurants and tourist shops.
One small observation, capitalism in Moscow has run amok. Am I really in Russia, or Las Vegas? Gone are the conformities, commercialism has dug its two-headed eagle talons in, deep. I wonder, who is buying all this stuff? Any Muscovites I see on the streets, can't. People commuting cling to Dior or Starbucks bags like it increases their status somehow. The GUM arcade at the Kremlin is full of high-end shops but dead empty. I wonder if all those years of being told what to do by their government is now translating into a society of people being told what to buy? Bombarded by commercial messages everywhere, these people never had a chance.
Moscow turns into a whirlwind. I'm not going to bore you with the sordid details of what I saw and where I went, but it was beyond my expectations...and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute. After all that is why we travel right? Sights, culture, people. The city itself was completely navigateable, and not once did
Pretending to be Icarus
Tatiana(s) explains all the small parks and statues in each little town we visited.
I feel uneasy or concerned for my safety. It was the first country where I can honestly say I blended in and no one paid me notice. Some of the younger Australians night clubbed and went to CouchSurfers meetups. If I weren't coming down with a flu, I might have joined them.
Red Square at night was all lit up and the only thing missing was snow. Oh, and those tricky Muscovites all know English too, especially ones over age 40. We were told that unless they can speak it perfect, they won't. I had lots of incidents where I'm doing my funky translation dance only to have one of them blurt out their response in perfect English, making me feel ridiculous. The days flew by and before we knew it we were retracing our steps back through the bustling maze of the underground to find ourselves sitting at the Moscow train station at 0044 in the morning with hundreds of other Russians waiting until our boarding is called. I'm just trying to stay alert as I'm about to go into a cough medicine coma. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I spot a rather miserable robust
Drill Seargent with OCD
Anya frantically vacuums and keeps our carriage neat and orderly.
Provodnista and my heart races. If I can capture her very demeanour, I will have won the photography jackpot of my life!
But our train pulls away and my cheapy camera goes blurry as it tries to detect-a-smile-mode. I freak out...Silly camera! No one smiles in Russia. AAAAAHHH.
I missed the best picture ever.
We are underway to the city of Saint Petersburg.
There are more photos below