Published: September 18th 2006September 17th 2006
For the last four days we have been enjoying Moscow in the September sun. What we’ve seen and done since arriving here is worthy of a blog entry in itself, so I’ll save it for later…
For the moment, here’s how we spent almost four days travelling here by train; during which time we witnessed Central Asia unfold into Siberia; we saw miles and miles of Siberian nothingness; and we finally felt that we are back in Europe after two and a half months in Asia. We also experienced the humour and warmth of Russian hospitality, and the notoriously unfriendly face of the Russian service sector. The long road to Moscow Part One - The Turkestan-Siberian Journey Almaty to Novosibirsk
Indie and I purchased platskart (3rd class) tickets for this two-night, 40-hour journey. The platskart section is crowded and you really feel packed in - the carriage is hot and buzzing with activity. We were unfortunate to be on an ancient train, which creaked along at snail’s pace, and which was quite dirty and unkempt. However, we were very fortunate to be sharing out cramped four-bed section with two warm and friendly Russian ladies
- Nina and her granddaughter Elena. Over the course of the journey Nina revealed herself to be a wily old veteran of platskart travel. In general we are struck by the sheer warmth and generosity of most Russian people we have met so far. Nina and Elena explained that they’d been holidaying in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, and that they were en route to their home in Irkutsk, near Lake Baikal in the heart of Siberia. They cordially invited us to stay with them and visit their region, which is said to be beautiful. Alas, time is not on our side.
Nonetheless, Nina and Elena outdid themselves in the generosity stakes by inviting us to share their meals and offering us their food time and time again. Travelling with them was a quality experience!
It was also just as well that they were so generous with food, because I notice a recurring theme in our travels through Asia - underpreparation! Remember when we arrived at baltic Lake Karakol in China wearing only shorts and T-shirt? For this journey the responsibility for buying food supplies was shared, and we both let the side down badly! For a start, going shopping
Indie, freezing on the second day of our journey through icy Siberia
At this point Indie turned to me and said "in Moscow we should go to McDonalds. It's always warm there!"
when you are already hungry is a bad move wherever you are. It led us to purchase a medley of unnecessary and not altogether practical items. I’m talking about a complete lack of foresight in our failure to buy staple food products like bread and potatoes, or even meat and cheese. Instead, our whimsical walks through Almaty’s supermarket aisles left us with the following:
-pitted green olives
- chocolate spread
- oregano and black pepper mixes
- pot noodles
- an apple-filled pastry
- hot dog buns
I guess in hindsight we weren’t that underprepared, but we soon felt it when the Rusky ladies started setting up their sumptuous dinner. They shared their baked potatoes, sausage, tomatoes, tea and naan bread with us. At other points in the journey they also invited us to drink tea (and cognac), and to eat watermelon, milk chocolate and chocolate caramel sweets. They even showed us how to best lay our beds in the limited space on the train. Who says the average Russian is unfriendly?
On our journey we were also the object of entertainment, and frequently amusement, for the locals. The Kazakh and Russian travellers
bombarded me with questions - “do you have a kilt?” (then “show us it!”), “why are you coming to Russia?”, “where did you learn Russian?”, and “who was William Wallace?”. Indie was also the object of much interest. I think many people here find it hard to comprehend that there are British citizens of Asian descent. They asked me “is Indie British?” then pointed to his face, smiled and laughed, and added “but he is surely an Indian!”. Although it seemed ignorant, it was all good-natured. They would ask about Bollywood movies, why he didn’t speak Russian (I tried to explain that it’s not exactly a common subject in the UK). Even though I made it clear that Indie does not speak their language, some people continued to fire questions at him in Russian!
The nadir of ignorance came in the form of a question by a Kazakh immigration official when we were leaving the country. Scrutinising our passport details, our Kazakh visas, and for several minutes, our passport photos, she opened my passport, pointed at the words “British citizen”, then turned to Indie and condescendingly asked him if he really was a British citizen! It was incredible -
she was implying that he might be a rogue Indian who unlawfully holds a UK passport…
Kazakhstan is mainly vast expanses of pure nothing. The country is enormous - bigger than Western Europe. In fact it’s even bigger than the whole of the 12-country Euro area. Indeed, there are only eight countries in the world that are geographically bigger than Kazakhstan. However, it’s population - 15.4 million - is little over that of Beijing. The experience of traveling through Kazakhstan is therefore strange - there is just mile after mile of nothing! It was very relaxing to sit in our buzzing, crowded carriage, looking out of the window as we smoothly moved north. Central Asia slowly dissolved into Russia. Apart from the desolate stations we stopped at along the way, I saw almost no people at all outside the train. Novosibirsk
Our first impression when setting foot on Russian soil was “it’s bloody cold!”. The fall in temperature was dramatic. It felt like we were in Europe once more: the city was very clean and ordered. There were nice parks everywhere. In general it seemed modern, affluent and sterile. I was also surprised by two
things. First, people seemed to be in such a rush. They were hurrying around from place to place. In Asia the pace seemed far slower. Second, outside the train station there were food company PR reps handing out free pots of yoghurt. Not once in Asia did I see food being given away - indeed we saw a lot of people who looked hungry. It was strange to travel through a continent where starvation and famine has wiped out millions of people (for example when Mao’s collectivisation plans backfired in China) to arrive back in ‘the West’, where food was being given out to passersby, many of whom were in too much of a hurry to stop and try it.
We met some friendly and helpful locals. We also met some very unfriendly people in customer-facing jobs. I mentioned previously about how travellers had warned us of this, especially ones who didn’t know Russian. I thought that maybe the fact I do would help me a wee bit. Maybe I was being unduly optimistic. What’s more, back in Spring when Indie was enquiring about a Russian tourist visa, he called the embassy in Beijing for info. He finally got
through to a Russian guy, who barked “WE KNOW NOTHING!” and slammed the receiver down!
I went to phone a Russian friend in this telecom service centre place. It was quite confusing for someone who’d just arrived in the country and had never used this place before - there were many cabins and waiting areas, and there were several windows where people looked to be queuing up to buy credit or phonecards. I joined a queue, and when I got to the front I politely explained to the stern-looking woman that I’m not Russian, I could only speak a little, and I asked her to talk me through how to phone a Russian mobile. She bellowed some instructions at me, which I didn’t follow. I explained that I didn’t understand. She cut me off mid-explanation, spitting the following words at me
“I you don’t speak Russian, then get out!”
How about that for customer service?!?
In contrast, a kind Russian man saw that I didn’t understand the whole concept and generously lent me his mobile to make the phone call. Moreover, in the station some local students got talking to us and showed us what platform our train left from. They even recommended
some good snacks and took some photos with us, making us feel very welcome in their country. The long road to Moscow Part Two - The Trans-Siberian Journey Novosibirsk to Moscow
After the crowded, hot atmosphere of platskart, we landed on our feet by getting kupe (2nd-class) tickets for the two-night, 52-hour journey to the capital. We had a two-bed cabin at the end of the carriage. It was out own private cabin and, in comparison with platskart, it was pure luxury. Cool, roomy and comfortable.
We talked and talked, stared out of the window at the flat green expanse of Siberia, and prepared some excellent meals in our wee cabin. Nonetheless, in comparison to the warmth of platskart - where strangers spoke to one another, shared food, and unabashedly asked you question after question - in kupe nobody gives a shit about anyone else. The atmosphere is cool and detached, and the “provodnik” attendants who man the carriage are the epitome of the word misery. They provide scant info, they clearly have no grasp of the whole ‘customer-friendly’ notion of service, and they make you feel like they are doing an immense favour
by even acknowledging your existence.
The fellow travellers in kupe are not much better. They hide in the closed privacy of their locked compartments; they do not look one another in the eye, let alone speak to each another. On the first day I said hello to a few of them, but they barely grunted a response. They often don’t even say ‘excuse me’ when shoving past you in the aisle. After the first day I too abandoned pleasantries. Indie reckons they just look depressed - they are miserable. To be sure, I didn’t see one of them smile during the journey. They make you feel as welcome as a fart in a crowded lift.
In spite of enduring our dour co-travellers, Indie and I immensely enjoyed the Trans-Siberian experience. After almost four days relaxing inside a train, we were ready to go out, see Russia, meet local people and get a taste of the Russian experience. So far, that’s exactly what we’ve done. Moscow has exceeded my highest expectations. So good has the experience been, that I will devote a new blog entry just to tell you all about our adventures here. For the time being, check
out some of the photos from our first day in Moscow, when we visited the Kremlin and spent hours walking around the chilly streets.
And before I forget, Indie on East vs West
Often the world seems too small from the windows of an airplane. This is one of the main reasons why we decided to travel from Vietnam to Europe primarily overland and sea. We really wanted to see the gradual change of life as we went from East to West.
Having lived in Asia for a year and then literally stepping off a train into Europe, the contrasts have really stood out.
We were not in Novosibirsk for five minutes when we were offered free samples yoghurt. We had just come from a place where starvation levels are amongst the highest in the world. We had entered the consume world.
We stepped off a train (coming from Asia) which had a real family atmosphere and boarded a train (headed for Moscow) where if someone smiles you are lucky. It almost feels as if as the weather has got colder so have the people. In the East the people have a lot
less yet it feels they are much warmer and more giving.
As we have moved Westwards, people have also seemed less happy, more agitated and more in a hurry. In the East, people took more time to enjoy the moment and more time to look out for eachother, even strangers like us. Somehow I do not feel that this will happen here.
Colours, clothes, food and sounds and also become less vibrant and blander.
Entering Novosibirsk, the first European city in this trip, however, things felt so much ordered and cleaner then in any Asian city. The air was fresher, traffic was controlled and you could cross a road without risking your life and walk 10m without having to get through crowds of people. We have also met some random students who were very warm and Ian’s friends who we have been living with in Moscow have been unbelievably hospitable.
My girlfriend has spent the last few months working in India. She was struck by how they lived life there; what they valued compared to the UK. On arriving at Heathrow airport she saw a small child who had lost her mother. She started crying. No
one cared. No one responded. Eventually she took care of the small child until her mother found her.
There are more photos below