Published: May 17th 2008May 17th 2008
Last day in Moscow and the train to Irkutsk
Not only did we get to the Kremlin on our last day, but we also saw one of the parades leading up to the May 9 Victory Day celebrations, including very smartly dressed army personnel (white gloves) in jeeps (flags flying), tanks, rocket launchers, personnel carriers, supply vehicles and fuel/water tankers. It was full of pomp and ceremony - and a little scary... We were on a street corner near Red Square and prevented from crossing the street because of the parade, so stopped to watch what was happening. Red Square was also closed - we could hear speeches, bands playing and a gun salute - then suddenly the parade vehicles, including tanks etc, started their engines. The ground shook as a huge rumble filled the air - a tummy churning moment if ever there was one! And away they went up the slope to the square - and we continued to the Kremlin. (The odd thing then was that we saw a second parade, this time of about 20 of the water tanker trucks used to clean the streets, all spraying water and with their horns hooting. Pedestrians (including us) scattered
from the footpath along the way to avoid being drenched.) NB - the photos of the parade are all too large - so none attached to the blog.
By coincidence, and some five thousand kilometres further on, we witnessed a moving small town observance of Victory Day in Listvyanka, a larger version of Haslam on the shores of Lake Baikal. Like ANZAC day in Oz and NZ, the ceremony was held in front of two concrete cairns bearing the names of locals who did not return from war. We don’t think it was a religious service, however the crowd of about 100 old and young people and children listened to addresses by several town leaders, an army representative and to some statements read very passionately by school students in their early teens. Another group of students and a small army contingent (we thought more like army reserves) laid beautiful red, green and yellow wreaths at the foot of the memorials. This all took place at the edge of the main road into town (while the traffic waited) - and directly behind us, literally, was the largest lake in the world (Lake Baikal) with views across to the snow-capped Kamar Daban
mountain range. An unforgettable moment.
Without detracting from the occasion, we were fascinated by the shoes worn by the women in the army contingent - very high heels, bling decorated, knee-high or ankle boots - with skirts that had to be much much shorter than army regulations.
Meanwhile back five thousand km at the Kremlin - we did get our tickets and spent an enjoyable four hours viewing the gardens and buildings of the Kremlin; the latter are surprisingly ordinary once you get inside. It’s very much a working environment - throughout the time we were there dignitaries were being whisked to and from the government buildings and the Senate in a flurry of shiny black cars. The grounds are patrolled by many policemen with whistles which they blow at the slightest infringement by visitors (Fi caused three such blowings!), waving their batons to get one back on track. The gardens were beautiful - all colours of tulips planted in perfect rows and swirls, immaculate lawns and large flowering cherry trees - themes that carry through to the Alexandrov Gardens and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier “His name unknown, his deeds immortal” in the area immediately outside of the
Kremlin. The Kremlin churches were mostly closed, but we did go into the Cathedral of the Archangel Michael where four monks were singing unaccompanied, beautifully. We spent most time in the Armoury, which houses possessions, clothing and gifts to the Tsars - an amazing display, including some beautiful items, but also some of the most valuable gold and silver kitsch ever imagined. For beautiful, we counted the various Tsar’s crowns, jewellery, coronation and other ceremonial robes, exquisite table ware and silver filigree, jewelled cases for bibles, and the Faberge silver or porcelain eggs that Tsars traditionally gave their wives and mothers at Easter. (Each egg contains a surprise - like a Kinder surprise egg - and they included tiny musical boxes, a working model of the Trans Siberian train and a clock.) The kitsch included a four layered gold and silver table decoration fountain, intended for wine; and a large (half metre) silver incense burner in the shape of a mountain with castle atop, so that the smoke comes out of the castle windows. The prize for “over the top” went to the 3,000 piece dinner set given by Catherine the Great to Orlov, her favourite lover. ( she had
In thinking about what we saw and did in St Petersburg and Moscow - there’s very little public comment or acknowledgement on the 70 years of Communism. Maybe we looked in the wrong places. In both cities the more distant past is celebrated - for example in the displays in the Armoury at the Kremlin. This is consistent with the recreation of “heritage” buildings that were destroyed in war or during the Stalinist era. In Moscow, the Church of Christ the Saviour was destroyed by Stalin who planned to build a new Palace of the Soviets on the site but this never occurred. More recently, an exact replica of the original Church has been built, opening in the 1990’s. The same thing has occurred in St Petersburg, and we’ve read that the locals do not distinguish between the “real” old buildings and the modern replicas - all are regarded as originals. In other countries, a modern building would replace what had been lost, and the reasons acknowledged.
So - to the Trans-Mongolian. There’s no doubt that this is a fantastic way to travel home - very relaxing, a gradual transition through time zones, and great fun. We had a
two berth cabin from Moscow to Irkutsk -5,185 kilometres and five time zones across to Siberia. The countryside varied little but is very attractive - sometimes grassy plains, wetlands and some birch and fir trees - other times rolling country covered in taiga (thicker birch, larch, pine and fir trees), interspersed with some very large rivers and mountain streams, numerous small towns and half a dozen larger cities.
We are surprised at the number of settlements along the way - probably at least one every 100km or so. As always when travelling by rail, we’ve probably seen the arse end of residential areas. They are very untidy, lots of rubbish, numerous buildings falling down - quite confronting and distressing. The most common building material is timber - lots of older houses are lopsided (nothing to do with Vodka). They are often brightened up by painted window surrounds and shutters in bright blues and greens with white highlights. Some of these apparently are dachas, or summer houses that many city-dwelling Russians own as respite from city life - shacks in other words.
We’re just coming out of winter here - so the ground around settlements is bare after heavy snow and
this doesn’t add to the look - we’ve seen lots of ice on the ground still and, while most of the trip has been quite warm, it was -2 deg at Irkutsk. Temperatures here range from -35 to +35 - imagine gardening!!
The railway is huge - many towns have multiple tracks, train sheds, overhead wiring etc - and we pass trains on the track at very regular intervals. The line is the main transport system across the country and depended upon for key industries like timber milling, oil and coal. Interestingly the countryside and towns seemed to get more prosperous and better organised, the further from Moscow we travelled.
Life on the train is very casual and doesn’t take much account of time of day. We’ve met some terrific people from Scotland and Holland, and shared coffee, tea, whisky, wine, beer and sometimes some food with them. Periodically the train stops for ten minutes or so - triggering a rush for the door to see what food and drink is for sale on the platform. This varies from the usual dried instant food to freshly cooked pirozhki (fantastic), home baked bread (excellent), dried fish (not sure), an array of
sausages like salami(yum), boiled eggs and salad, waffles rolled with sticky caramel cream (yum too), ice creams, cheese, occasionally fruit, and all kinds of drinks - alcoholic and non. It’s pretty cheap and the best way to eat. The train had one restaurant car with one menu which doesn’t distinguish between breakfast, lunch and dinner - it’s just food and you eat it- the car was decorated with lace curtains, artificial flowers, wrought iron and leadlight - very Orient-express. We had dinner there several nights, but most people did not use it.
The first big break in the train journey for us is at Irkutsk, where we were met by a guide to bring us to Listvyanka - population 2500 on the shores of Lake Baikal. It’s a fishing village squeezed on to a narrow piece of flat land between the lake and steep hillsides and we are here for two nights. The lake looks more like the sea than a lake. At 636 x 60km, it is the world’s deepest lake and it contains one fifth of the world’s unfrozen fresh water - it was still as a mill pond this morning but quite rough once a wind came
up this afternoon - and is home to quite a large omul fishing fleet moored at the wharves.
The town streets wind up several narrow valleys running away from the lake - and housing ranges from some huge summer houses on the shore to tiny broken down wrecks of houses, often surrounded by rubbish - and at this time of the year absolutely no gardens. At first sight we found it a depressing environment - but maybe like Haslam, it has grown on us and we can see that there is lots of new construction and on this, a sunny day, lots of town’s people have been out cleaning up after the winter. (Very little English spoken and our Russian is nil - but we have been nodding and smiling at each other.) In five years, Listvyanka will probably look like any other tourist resort (already about 70,000 tourists come each year) and potentially not nearly as attractive. Apart from the service yesterday morning, we’ve spent the days getting much needed exercise, climbing to a lookout point with a couple we met on the train, drinking coffee and eating at cafes on the shore, and in the local market. The
latter is in two halves - about twenty stalls that seem to sell identical fish (raw and smoked) and the same number that sell goods made from birch wood and bark, and from Bailkal gemstones, which are very pretty. Bargaining is the go - so we did!
Tomorrow we return to Irkutsk and board the train for the two day journey to Ulaanbataar.
There are more photos below