Published: August 12th 2012August 12th 2012
Day 46 – Wednesday 1st
August 2012 to Day 57 – Sunday 12th
Hello from Russia Comrades…….
These last 14 days have seen us cover 5 times zones across the largest country in the world to now only be 1 hour behind Australia (East Coast Time). We travelled 5,990kms (let’s call it 6,000km) from St Petersburg to Irkutsk via Moscow on our first leg of the Trans-Mongolian railway. Leg 2 is from Irkutsk, Russia to Ulaanbaatar, UB for short, in Mongolia and the final stage is from UB to Beijing, China. The Trans-Siberian remains in Russia the entire journey from St Petersburg all the way to Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan.
The actual trains the ‘Trans-Mongolian’ and the ‘Trans-Siberian’ don’t actually exist unlike the ‘Orient Express’, the ‘Ghan’ and the ‘Indian Pacific’. They are just routes that you travel using a combination of local trains.
Day 46 saw us arrive in Russia. The overnight ferry from Helsinki was smooth all the way and once we arrived, we knew immediately that we had left Scandinavia and Nordic Countries. The run down buildings and half completed infrastructure such as roads, footpaths and other buildings show signs
of the economic struggle facing Russia. Then you see Bentleys, BMW’s Rolls Royce’s and many other expensive foreign cars on the roads. Russia is one of those countries where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Opinions are still divided among some people whether post-Soviet days are actually better than today. We even came across an actual communist meeting near Red Square in Moscow. As it was only a small gathering, the authorities allowed them to continue.
St Petersburg is a colourful city with many impressive buildings from the days of Tsars, Emperors and Kings combined with many larger, greyer and less impressive buildings of Soviet times from the 1940 and 50’s. It has a canal system running off the main river and we had the opportunity to get out on the water for a great view of the city.
We made it to the city centre and then by foot (yep, we missed Jeff) we finally found our 2 bedroom apartment. You never know what you’re going to end up with when you book on-line!!! It was massive and even had a piano!!! It was clean and tidy on the inside, but dodgy on the
outside and with a broken elevator in a rundown building. But with the two front doors and six locks, it was safe.
We were put in contact with a young lady called Sania by Nina, a friend in Moscow. We were very fortunate to have her assistance for a few days showing us around the city. Sania and Delmara, Sania’s mum, made things a lot easier and definitely cheaper and quicker. Instead of going on a tour to visit Peterhof Palace, we took the local train and bus to visit. This saved us a couple of hundred dollars. Peterhof Palace is about 30-40km from the city and has the most impressive combination of fountains one has seen. Peter the Great visited Versailles in France and then decided to build something more impressive.
They also took us to a number of other sites in the city and each time we wouldn’t talk and Sania would buy the tickets. There are two prices, prices for Russians and prices for foreigners!!! After some time with Sania on the Metro, we become confident ourselves and managed to visit a few other sites alone!!! Sania speaks English very well and her mum, Delmara,
spoke none, this kept Sania extremely busy translating each day.
The train to Moscow was the first leg of our Trans-Mongolian experience. We had a tidy air-conditioned 2nd
Class cabin and the 5 of us squeezed in with Harrison and Hunter sharing a berth.
We were very lucky to be staying with a Russian family in Moscow for 4 days, Nina, a lady we meet in New Zealand a few years ago has remained in touch with us and said that we must stay with her if we are ever in Moscow. Well, 2 years later here we are. Nina and her husband, Andrev(apologies for wrong spelling) and their 3 children (2 are adults and one is 12 years old) live in a 3 bedroom apartment about 30 minutes from the city centre. With an ‘unofficial’ population of close to 20 million, 30 minutes from the city centre is very central. As is it summer holidays, we didn’t get to meet two of the children as they were both away with one visiting grandparents and the other at a Math Camp over summer!!! Nina and Andrea are both computer programmers and Peter their oldest son is in his
last year at university studying I.T.
We all experienced some traditional Russian cuisine and the boys now have a new favourite meal – Russian Pies!!!! Instead of ordering Pizza, Russians order Pies complete with home delivery. Melissa and I also tried some home-made Chugga. It’s a hot drink. Don’t ask what it’s made from, but it was better than we both thought!!!!
Nina and Andrev took us to the Kremlin and Red Square. St Basils in Red Square is certainly as impressive as it looks in print or on a screen. We also did a river cruise on the Moscow River and went up the Moscow TV Tower at a height of over 500 meters. The actual observation deck was at over 350 metres. From here we saw where 20 million people live. Surprisingly Moscow has a lot of green space and parks.
Russians are generally not a happy bunch. In Australia, when someone asks ‘How’s your day been?’ good or bad we will generally say ‘Good thanks’. In Russia, there are no pretend similes and if you ask someone how their day has been, they will tell you, even if it hasn’t been a good day.
Customer service is just a financial transaction. You pay, you get!!! Generally no emotion or similes, however, with my attempt at some poorly spoken Russian I would occasionally get a simile. The Russians are a tough crowd. I don’t even think Jason Churchill could work this crowd at a footy match!!! Russian’s don’t even smile for photos and this made for some interesting times trying to get Nina & Andrev and Sania & Delmara to simile for a photo. By the end of our visit, they all cracked a smile for us!!! Maybe it was just to please us.
A massive thank you Sania, Nina and Andrev for an amazing visit to both St Petersburg and Moscow, we were very fortunate to have experienced these two cities with you. We certainly hope to return the favour one day soon.
We left Moscow on train number 2 to Irkutsk. Melissa and the 3 boys are in 2nd
Class and I’m way back in 3rd
class. Our train attendant, the person who looks after our carriage, didn’t mind that I joined Melissa and the boys in 2nd
class is an open carriage and you sit on your
bunk pretty much for the 3 days/4 nights!!! We stocked up on noodles, chips, chocolate and water for the 74 hour trip. The trains have an unlimited supply of boiling hot water for noodles, tea and coffee.
We’ve heard a number of stories of the old cranky train attendants on these trains, but ours is young and has a smile. When she came to vacuum our carriage on day 2, I don’t think she had seen 5 people so easily pleased. (Only because we got out of her way, smiled and thanked her!!!)
Here’s a tip for the Trans-Mongolian – be organised!! For most of you that know Melissa and I will know that we are!!! We have a spot for everything in our carriage. Food, water, music, kindle, iPod, iPad, playing cards, money, documents etc. all have a spot and Nathan, you will pleased to know that the iPod speaker that you can attach to the window is getting a good workout.
During the first leg we only ate in the dining car once. This was for a few reasons. 1. When we want to eat, mainly breakfast, lunch or dinner we couldn’t due to 50
odd Germans who have obviously paid some tour group a large sum of Euro’s for a private tour and have pretty much booked the whole thing out each mealtime. 2. The prices are more than a restaurant in Moscow and half the size. 3. The boys love noodles and other snacks in the cabin. 4. It’s more of an adventure buying produce from the locals on the train platform every 3-6 hours.
In between, noodles, tea and coffee, card games, homework and stopping every 3-6 hours at a small Siberian town, the days go surprisingly fast. As we head east, we start to see a change in the faces of the Russian’s to begin to look more Mongolian and Chinese. At each stop, the local woman will try and sell you everything from baked meals to drinks, clothing, toys, and Russian souvenirs. The train would stop at each station for as little as 5 or 6 minutes and up to 45 minutes. During that time you dare not venture too far from the platform as we couldn’t think of anything worse than for the train to leave without us and with all our bags on board!!! We would be
stuffed big time. I’m not even sure what would happen??? If this has happened to any fellow bloggers out there, let us know. I’m sure it would be an interesting story!!!
We arrived in Irkutsk after 6,000km and found our small hotel. Russia is not like Finland and Irkutsk is not like Moscow!!! Most people visit Irkutsk to break up the Trans-Mongolian or Trans-Siberian trips as it’s roughly the half-way point. The area where our hotel is located is near the train station and most of the streets have many roaming dogs and no footpaths, just a dusty track. But when your city is covered in snow 75% of the year, who needs footpaths hey? The number one attraction is Lake Baikal. Have a look on a world map, you can’t miss it. It’s massive. Here are some stats for the likes of Jono, Scott, Nathan and Ralph. It’s 689km long and holds 20% of the worlds (un-frozen) fresh water and the deepest point is 1,643 metres with an average depth of 750 metres.
We did a trip on the lake and if you’re wondering where all the Hydrofoils from Sydney ended up? The answer is Russia. They
are in St Petersburg and here in Irkutsk. And yep, they were built in the 1970’s. The boys had a swim and Melissa and I had coffee instead.
It’s Sunday night (Day 57) here and tonight we head to Mongolia for 3 days before heading to Beijing.
Until next time……Team Free signing off.
There are more photos below