Siberia - Irkutsk and Heading for Yekaterinburg

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Europe » Russia » Siberia » Irkutsk
July 15th 2011
Published: July 16th 2011EDIT THIS ENTRY

Hi from the actual Trans-Siberian Railway!

I’m three hours into a 54-hour train journey from Irkutsk to Yekaterinburg. I have been very lucky so far in terms of cabin mates but it’s not looking so good this time – so far. I am in an all-women kupe (by choice) with a mother, about my age, and her daughter in her 20’s, plus a third woman who is 40-ish and may not be related. By the time I arrived the mother and daughter were settled in the kupe, spread their food out on the mini-table and were having dinner. Maybe they got on yesterday. It’s very hot¸ per usual in these trains, but everyone will soon go to sleep. The third woman disappeared and I just noticed she’s been flat out asleep in the bunk over me all this time. Next door is a newborn baby and his parents and a fourth person who may not be related (poor guy) and two doors down the other way is a baby of about 11 months who has been howling.
I finally found a Russian-English phrase book today so I hope I’ll be able to use the phrases with my cabin mates, thereby fixing the vocabulary on my fragile memory board. In an ideal world all my Russian language books would have arrived in Beijing weeks ago and I would have been able to do a two-week refresher course by my myself so I had a lot of phrases in my head when I arrived in Russia. No such luck.
Speaking of being a visitor to Russia, I am surprised at how negative the backpackers I’ve met have been about the Russians they’ve met. They say they are unfriendly and unhelpful, but they want the tourist dollars. At the same time they do not want to bother learning English, the international language nowadays. (Where have you heard that before?)
While getting directions I had a chat with a young Russian woman with excellent English who said she is completing her degree in Hospitality. She has already spent one summer in the States, working in a doughnut shop, and a few months in New Zealand. She already has plans to go to New Zealand as soon as she graduates. She said that few of her classmates have any English and they seem to have no desire to learn it. She said that, at the same time, Russians are surprised and delighted when foreigners make an attempt to learn Russian. She said that was maybe why I had a more positive impression of Russians.
I find the Russians distant and reluctant to be of assistance unless you are up close to them, like sitting beside them on a bus – where they can’t easily walk off! The women are more helpful than the men who seem to be amazingly gruff and what we would call rude and dismissive.
The young woman showed me to a book shop where I finally bought a Russian-English phrase book. She had also pointed out the shopping centre next door where you have to go up an escalator to a cafe. I went up and was met with a maze of corridors in all directions. I asked two young men getting off the escalator “Gde kafe?” (it’s the same word in Russian) and they just stared at me and walked off. So I stood there and smiled at each passing person and repeated “Gde kafe?” and was ignored. Then a salesgirl came out of the shop and showed me the direction. It still took about four more enquiries until I found it at the end of the warren. The waitress was helpful and I was able to buy a nice meal. So you meet all kinds.
Then I discovered that from the second floor I had to walk down two flights of stairs, carrying all my gear. Groan. A man came along and kindly offered to carry my little wheelie suitcase (where I keep my rock collection!). Whew. This is all so different from China where people are so eager to help, even if they don’t speak English. In Beijing if you ask for directions to a place they are likely to actually take you there, even if it entails a walk of 15 minutes or more. Not only do men leap up when I get on a bus or subway car, but I rarely have to carry my gear up or down stairs. I think it is partly because they have so much respect for elders in China, but also because I may seem very old to them, where the life expectancy is 64. Sometimes when the assistance from officials is very enthusiastic I wonder if they are thinking, “She’s not dying on my patch!” Regardless of their motivation, I find the Chinese to be consistently friendly and helpful.
But I digress. I left off when I was about to leave Olkhon Island. The mini-bus ride back to Irkutsk was quite speedy and uneventful, except that when we reached Irkutsk I got my backpack from the storage area at the back of the mini-bus and put it on. As I was walking I started to see grease on my hands, and my clothes.... yuk. I’ve been scrubbing but I can’t get it out of my clothes.
I had noticed a very nice church near the bus station so I trundled off to see that and take photos for you. Kasansky Church. Then I went to the Volonsky House Museum which was home to the family of one of “the Decembrists.” They were aristocratic army officers who initiated a rebellion in Palace Square, St. Petersburg against Czar Nicholas I on the 26th December 1825. The 121 who survived were exiled to Siberia for what was to be 30 years. The notable follow-up was that some wives and children followed them into exile and settled in Irkutsk. They endeavoured to set up a Western society there. They started schools, hospitals, a concert hall, edited newspapers and founded cultural and scientific societies. When Nicholas I died in 1855 they were granted amnesty and many of them returned to St. Petersburg but their legacy lived on for decades. It was interesting to see what their family lives were like in Irkutsk 170 years ago. I wonder if the current rock band “The Decembrists” has anything to do with the originals.
I then set off then to look for the Russian phrase book and some dinner before the train. That’s when I met the young woman with good English that I mentioned earlier and had dinner in the cafe. In the end I was in good time for the train and here I am.
Saturday afternoon, 28th May
I’m still on the train and having a very interesting time. My cabin mates turned out to be great. They were not related, the young woman (Anna, 26, a law student) got on a day before me and the older woman, Lydia (72) had already been on the train. Soon after I got on everyone went to bed so it wasn’t until the next morning that we got to know each other. We have been “chatting” all day and they’ve been very encouraging re my spoken Russian. They keep telling me words and asking questions. Meanwhile, Lydia crochets all day. She is a widow with one son in the east somewhere and she is travelling for 6 days to visit her grandchild who just finished exams in Moscow. When she finished the lacework she made me a present of it! I was delighted. Lillian (49) is quiet and sleeps an incredible amount of time, maybe 20 hours in the day, and chats with the others in between naps. It’s amazing how one can strike up friendships on the train. Last night Anna was getting off at about 2:00am and it was expected that we would stay up to see her off! After knowing her one day. We all went out onto the platform and there were hugs all round.
That night a woman of about 35 slept in the bunk Lillian had vacated. The next day we discovered she had two daughters in another kupe down the hall. They were travelling for 2 days to visit her 82-year-old grandmother in Perm, in the Ural Mountains. She would leave the girls, 5 and 13 years of age, with her grandmother for a month because they had finished school and she had to work. Katya manages a chain of 9 Expedition shops in Irkutsk that sell outdoor gear and plans expeditions to Lake Baikal and other parts of Siberia. She has to travel the 2 days back home on the train, then repeat the two journeys again next month! Yikes.
For a bit of diversion I went for a stroll through the five 3rd Class platskartny carriages behind ours. Ohmigod I was so glad not to have gone there. When I opened the carriage door about 30 sweaty faces stared at me. The carriage was crawling with people and each 4-bunk section has no sliding door for privacy so the passengers are in each others’ laps. It was so hot and they looked pretty miserable, playing cards, eating, reading, or just staring. It reminded me of some movie about refugees being shipped into the wilderness. After I had passed through five carriages I was pretty impressed with their stamina. Those tickets must be a lot cheaper. The Chinese third class wagons are much better than that, I think, and not so crowded. In Mongolia I was in a third class carriage where I was supposed to sleep on the chairs & table converted to a bunk. They had that kind here too and people were lying on those short, narrow bunks in the daytime.
As I may have mentioned, anyone who thinks that a long train journey would be boring has to come on the Trans-Siberian. Never a dull moment. All human life is here. Each carriage has a pair of women “managers” (for want of a better term) called a provodnitsa. They seem to work 10 - 12 hour days, taking turns. Passengers just call them “Devutchka!” which means “Young lady”, ( that has been a misnomer for the main one here for at least 20 years). The term seems a bit rude to us, but they call all service women devutchka. The second one here is in her 20’s. During a stop I noticed an engineer who, at every stop of more that 10 minutes, goes to each undercarriage and bangs some mechanical part with a metal bar. That’s very reassuring for us passengers.
The provodnitsa checks your ticket before you get on, locks the toilet doors 30 minutes before a stop and doesn’t unlock them until 30 minutes after we roll again. She makes sure everyone is on the train after a stop, then passes out a sealed package with two sheets, a pillowcase and a small hand towel to each new passenger. It’s her responsibility to ensure that no passengers (i.e. drunks) disturb others unduly. The babies either side of us were crying last night but it’s amazing how you don’t hear them over the rumble, crunches and lurches of the train.
In each of these kupes there are two sets of bunk beds. The bed part is padded and covered with “leather” or upholstery fabric. Each bed also gets a 3” thick padded mattress, which is rolled at the end, and a large pillow. The linen is for these. I was advised that one of the less obvious advantages of having the lower bunk is that you have to lift up the bed to store your luggage and it is therefore more secure. There hasn’t been competition for storage space because my cabin mates seem to each have brought only a small bag of belongings. (RyanAir would love them!)
I’m very proud of myself for bringing the Baa Baa blind, which is a 3’ X 5’ thick sheet of blackout fabric. It is so easy to rig it up each evening and I don’t notice if someone turns on the light during the night or if the sun shines in the window, I’m so snug in my dark cocoon. I may have mentioned that it is de rigeur for passengers not to wear outdoor shoes in the carriage. Slippers of some kind are required. I brought along a pair of flip-flops/tongs but next time I’ll be wiser and bring slip-on plastic shoes without the toe divider which is so annoying since you have to wear socks.
The bathrooms only have cold running water, but I’ve found that to be OK for two days at a time. I read on a train journey website that you can bring a 2-litre plastic bottle with holes in it and the bottom removed, fill it from the tap and hang it on a hook in the bathroom, to have a sort of shower. Yeah, after my experience with the booby shower pump in Nikita’s, I might just try that next, to provide another chapter for “Weird Showers I Have Known”. Actually the driver who made the lunch for us on Olkhon sort of used that idea. He had a 2-litre plastic bottle with the bottom removed and a 1” hole cut on either side at the bottom. He filled the bottle with water, hung it upside down via the two holes stuck onto the branch of a tree, then when people wanted to wash their hands they just loosened the cap to release the water. I thought that was ingenious.
It amazed me on this train when yesterday morning I saw our provotnitsa in the aisle with a bucket of soapy water, washing down all the walls and windows. She came into our kupe and did the same. Then she vacuumed the entire carriage, going into each kupe. I was amazed and now I see that they do it every day, even twice today. I know that they clean the bathrooms a few times a day.
Last night I got cold in the wee small hours so today I asked her for a second blanket. She proceeded to tell me how the heating system works. She said that it is electric through the winter and up until May, then the provodnitsas have to shovel coal into a furnace that they access from between the carriages. There is one such furnace for each carriage. She proceeded to open the coal bunker, fill a bucket with coal, then open the furnace door and shovel in the coal. I was amazed. I had also been surprised in Mongolia to see that the 2-foot high steel samovar/Burka of boiling water was heated by a coal fire fed from the rear.
I notice that there are no traders on this train and there is no trading on the platforms during our stops. The train from Mongolia thatw as full of traders must have been a special one for some reason. I read that you can buy a ticket to Irkutsk at U.B. station for $30 but I didn’t find out if that’s true. Maybe the traders with me had that good deal. On this train there is a woman trader that goes through the carriage a couple of times a day, selling snacks, and occasionally a man comes through selling magazines.
If you want to know when the train is going to stop and for how long you can read the framed schedule on the carriage wall. It is all in Moscow time, which is 5 hours different from Irkutsk. All the schedules, tickets, clocks at railway stations, etc. etc. are set at Moscow time, which can be very confusing until you get the hang of it. Lydia was following our progress on a train schedule book she had had for years. It wasn’t like ours might be, full of lists and numbers. Not at all, hers was about 3” by about 8”wide, with a fabric cover and looked like the printout from a cardiograph, with all the peaks and valleys. At each point there was the name of the stop and how long the stop would be for. In Ireland the rail company say they can’t keep up with the cost of printing new train and Dart timetables. The Russians have that one sorted – Lydia’s book was printed in 1972!! Obviously they decided on a train timetable aeons ago and have seen no reason to change it. Everyone knows exactly at what time a certain train will stop in their town. It must make planning a journey very simple, though. I needn’t tell you that the trains run like clockwork.
I must inform you, because you may have been wondering, that there has been virtually NO scenery in the two days since I left Irkutsk. It has been the same thing out both windows – forests of about 20ft high silver birch trees. Thankfully they are green at this time of year. The only interruptions to this sea of trees are the few small villages of old wooden houses with apple blossom trees and the train stations where we stop.
At least I think they are silver birch trees, judging from the bark. They could be poplar. When I was in Odessa, Ukraine a few years ago I remarked on the plethora of poplar trees, which are easy to recognise at a distance. My interpreter explained, “Yes, they were Stalin’s favourite tree. Communities used to plant lots of them in the hope that it would put him in a good mood if he came to the area.”
I have to stop now because I realised today that I left my 2-pin adaptor in my room in Nikita’s when I was recharging my camera batteries. Darn! I didn’t realise it until I was on this train and now my netbook battery has run down. I’ll have to wait to recharge at the hostel tonight before I can do any more.


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