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Europe » Russia » Siberia » Irkutsk
December 20th 2005
Published: December 20th 2005
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We arrived in Vladivostock, Russia on a cold dark winter's morning, having completed the longest train journey of our lives so far - a journey of 32 hours fuelled by the last of our chinese noodles and lots of coffee. We had travelled on Chinese train N23 from Harbin in northwest China crossing the border into Russia. What made the journey unique was the fact that our carriage, packed solid with enormous Russians, was the only carriage on the N23 bound for Russia. It would be detached from the N23 and joined onto a Russian train as the journey progressed, at one point even being lifted by a crane so it could be moved from the Chinese track system onto Russian tracks. At times though, the effort of keeping all the inbound Russians and tourists (me and David) trapped in this one particular carriage seemed a little odd. Particularly when we had to wait for about six hours to be connected up to a local Russian train that would take us the last one hundred kilometres to Vladivostock, rather than simply change trains. But anyway we made it.

Vladivostock was a surprise - or maybe shock is a better word. It was solid, concrete and bitterly cold. It's appeal lay in the fact that it really did feel like the final outpost, clinging onto the edge of Russia. Our hotel, the aptly named Hotel Vladivostok, once a Soviet flagship hotel was a 1960's tower block. Having been told our room would probably be cold (and it was), the hotel quickly rose again in our estimation because of it's beautiful egyptian themed restaurant. Our sightseeing extended to finding Yuri Geller's house, walking through a submarine and indulging in a Baskin Robbins icecream (having been disappointed not to have found a McDonalds). It was time to move on and make our most epic journey to date - a three day train ride.

The "Rossiya", a train coloured red and blue like the Russian flag was to be our home from Valdivostok to Irkutsk. The thought that most plagued us before and during the trip was whether we would be joined by a band of vodka drinking Russians for this part of our trip. Luckily for us we weren't until an hour before we were due to leave the train, when a man dressed in army uniform came in holding aloft a smoked fish, which he presented to us as a present. Having invited the rest of his cabin into our cabin we worked out, with hand and body gestures, that they were two Russian airforce helipcopter navigators and an off duty trans siberian train driver. Having established that Chelsea were great and that we were about two minutes away from our stop they went back to their cabin to "drink, smoke and eat fish".

Our second, less pleasant Russian experience was an encounter with the Russian police. Our guidebook says that Siberian police are bored and poor and look for opportunities to hassle tourists for 'fines'. At a short stop in the middle of nowhere we were accused of having a certain stamp missing from our passports (in the end, not true) and told that we needed to leave the train (leaving in 16 minutes) to get it sorted. Our joint approach, without conferring, was 'we will not leave this train' and our stubbornness won out in the end. He had quite a good argument going for a while, but made a fatal mistake, showing he was just making things up, when he also told us it was illegal to drink vodka on the trans-siberian. In Russia it seems illegal not to drink vodka all day and everywhere so from that point his game was up.

Impressions of Russia so far. I'll try not to be too stereotyped. The women are incredible. With a thick layer of fur, a thicker layer of makeup and eye stinging perfume they manage to dance along the ice covered streets in tall stiletto boots without a care. The men for the most part look surly and slightly agressive, and altogether solid. The phrase "I wouldn't like to meet him down a dark alley" springs to mind constantly. In terms of helping out us bumbling foreigners i'd have to give them a negative score. For the most part we have been met with vacant stares as we point and gesture, maybe our own fault for not learning Russian - who knows.

One thing is for sure, we couldn't have come to Russia at a better time. We have seen no other travellers since we've been here and the icy cold weather and snow covered Siberian wilderness makes it seem like we're doing something special. At other times it's been hard to avoid the backpacker trail. We are ending our trip in a country where we feel like foreigners.






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21st December 2005

Privet iz Yaroslavlya.
I'm a British student in Russia and I found your diary while writing in my own. Make the most of the good aspects of Russian life - the vodka and fish episode will make a great story when you get home! Use your head and you can avoid the bad people. Jon

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