Tales from the Trans-Siberian
Early this summer our newest staff member – Chris Plumb, took an epic Trans-Siberian Adventure form Vladivostok to St Petersburg including a side trip to Mongolia and part of the journey on the private Tsars Gold Train. Below is his complete blog on this trip – enjoy!
PART 1: Vladivostok - Ulan Ude - Ulaanbaatar
So here I am passenger 777, between the western devil 666 and oriental fortune cookie 888. Why 777 well I’m travelling across Russia from Vladivostok on the Trans-Siberian railway, completed in 1916 and operated by the Russian state company PZD (Rossiiskie Zheleznye Dorogi) on train 7, coach 7, berth 7 toward Moscow and St. Petersburg, so the number seems a good middle of the world fit and compromise to me. Also, I quickly find out that the beer is called No.7 so that’s good enough number for me.
Having spent a full day touring the old military installations of Vladivostok with my guide Natalia, what am articulate, intelligent gifted woman she is, and we get along just fine in this the birthplace of Yul Brynner. As the noon day gun releases its energy next to statute of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn on the waterfront I can’t help but think how terrifying the sound of a naval salvo must have been to the non-military ears.
I’m now on the train for 2 nights in the direction of Ulan Ude and as the sun rises and I sip my coffee with hot water from the samonavar, complete with packaged bruschetta from the UK and local dried fruit, we pass numerous railway yards, old industrial complexes and mile after mile of forest of silver birch and pine trees toward Khabarovsk in 1 hours’ time. My 2 fellow train compartment travellers, Ivan a musician (drummer) returning home after a 2-year tour in China, and Dmitry (well I called him that although he never spoke to me nor Ivan for the whole 12 hours he was on the train), both native born Russians are still asleep. Hence quietly sitting here penning these lines as I watch the morning steaks of sunlight stream passed my carriage window.
As we stop for 30 mins, time to stretch the legs and walk 18 carriages toward the front of the train and take the usual tourist snaps and wander back along the platform (seeing, smelling, perhaps tasting the local vendors wares), but where though for it’s only a small shop selling drink, chocolate and tinned food.
The next to join me in the train compartment are a middle aged Russian couple, he a huge guy, presumably a hired thug in his younger day and his wife who’s brightly dressed. We exchange pleasantries but that’s about it, as they leave the train to meet their family after about 8 hours. Then I’m joined by Sasha 23 and his 2-year-old cat, who’s got an allergy. Luckily through the Google Translate app we can communicate as it seems I’m the only native English-speaking person on the train.
The only other foreigners on the train are 2 Spanish girls in carriage 15 and a party of 10 Chinese in carriage 5. Dinner tonight was a salad, beefsteak and spaghetti, washed down with a litre on No. 7 all for 1,800 roubles (€28, US$32, £25)
Sasha and the provodnitsa (lady conductor) are chatting away in the compartment whilst I pen these lines and contemplate a coffee before bed in a few hours’ time. I skipped the opportunity to stretch my legs when we stopped at Chenyshevsk- Zabaykal after 2705 kms, being half asleep, well it was 04:43 in the morning.
I’ve just finished the latest Jack Reacher novel “Night School” and pray that the young North Korean leader Kim Jong-il doesn’t have a similar idea in his mind for the world. It seems the 3 superpowers USA, Russia and China are presently reluctant to take any action, (read Tim Marshall’s excellent analysis in his book Prisoners of Geography for more). I’m sure however the Russian must have a plan coded named RYAN after the Russian for nuclear missile attack “raketno – yadernoye napadenie”
What an interesting day in Ulan Ude with my young guide Ivan, who’s 22 and awaiting his military call up papers. First speaking with an Internationally recognised lama at the teaching monastery in Atsagatsk Datsan, all about the difference between religion and belief in the modern world environment. Then it’s making borsan (meat filled pasta pies), playing dice games with sheep’s ankle bones and trying to hit a target with modern bow and arrows in the Buryat village. My bed for the night is back in the city of Ulan Ude in an apartment with Olga a 71-year retired Russian/French language teacher, so it’s back to school boy French, but we get by very well and I wish her “bon chance” as I go to the train station for my onward journey to Mongolia.
I’m no longer passenger 777 today, but now 362/9/3 on my way to Ulaanbaatar, the train is more modern, almost brand new and after an early start I meet up with 2 Spanish guys. Jorge a 23-year-old farmer from north of Madrid and Placido a 67-year-old retired industrial kitchen equipment manufacturer. Be prepared though because despite having a logo of two horses on the side of the engine this isn’t the “pony express”, as we wait needlessly in my opinion 4 hours on the Russian side of the border, and a further 2 hours at the Mongolian check point. So, Elvis, Billy Joel and Robbie Williams, (and many more), become our salvation, as well as discussions about Brexit and they both agree with me that presently individual countries are losing their national identities under present EU planning of ever closer union, and that protecting one’s borders from the flotsam that is Africa and the Middle East is vital. There is little to buy much in the way of food, other than bread, cheese and sausage meat, combined with apple and banana, so that’s tonight’s dinner along with my packaged chilli soup, as the train doesn’t have a restaurant car, in fact we are only 1 coach anyway. But on arrival in Ulaanbaatar we seem to have picked up 18 other carriages from somewhere.
Following a quick shower and breakfast my new guide Davka, a sweet, bubbly, young 35-year-old lady, takes me on a tour of city square and the only remaining Russian monument overlooking the city. I’m surprised how modern everything is with apartment blocks going up everywhere. We then drive out into the countryside, (this is more like it), passed rolling hills with goats, sheep and cattle frequently crossing the road until we reach the Chinggis Khaan monument. Built in 2008 as a tribute to Mongolia’s famous founding father, (he united all the scattered Mongol clans and tribes and established a united state, the Mongol Empire upon his taking the throne in 1206).
Nearby is my home for the night a traditional ger, highly decorated with hand painted furniture and complete with animal dung for the central hot stove. We also walk about 2km and visit a neighbouring local family to see how everyday farming people live.
And so, I leave the Mongolian steppes, and find myself stepping onto a luxury train the Tsars Gold toward Lake Baikal and Irkutsk.
PART 2: Ulaanbaatar - Ulan Ude - Irkutsk - Lake Baikal - Novosibirsk
This train, the Tsars Gold was in the past the favourite mode of transport for Russian premiers Brezhnev, Yeltsin and Gorbachev prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 and from some of the ornate panelling you can see why. The train has 4 restaurant cars and a maximum of 21 carriages which makes it 500m in length. Aboard we total 157 passengers from 15 different nations, but as it’s a German run company then not surprisingly the majority 89 are from that nation.
Lunch is an excuse to down a Vodka and toast “nostrovia” cheers to someone’s birthday, followed by an enormous piece of cake and before we round off the day listening to a classical concert in the state opera house back in Ulan Ude, I catch a crew cut from the local Old Boy barber shop.
As the train rumbles on (we only travel at speeds between 45-65km/h) into Irkutsk, over breakfast Larry (a retired Californian accountant) and I talk about the dangers of the NY subway back in the 1980’s and the need of awareness in South Africa. I guess as a street wise kid from London’s East End this just come naturally to me, and yet here in Russia, I’ve not experienced or felt any danger as a tourist whatsoever.
On arrival in Irkutsk we tour the city highlights including a superb visit to the Decembrists (a revolutionary movement when in December 1825 some Russian army officers led a revolt against Tsar Nicholas) Museum and are treated to a classical concert and operatic extracts from 19th Century Russia, while toasted with champagne. I’m moved to tears as this is special.
Lunch is taken in a local family’s Dacha (summer/holiday home) and the food is typical of the region.
Now heading the following day toward Lake Baikal, we learn about the characteristics of this natural phenomenon, the largest freshwater lake in the world. Later in the chilly air we take a boat trip from Port Baikal to Listyanka and visit an olden wooden village Talcy which dates to 1667.
After lunch which I’ve complemented by buying an omul (locally smoked grayling) I’m lucky enough to ride for a few kilometres on the front of the engine on the old Circum-Baikal line and just drink in the superb scenery and snow-covered mountains of Khamar – Daban to the south. Andrey our guide a 55-year-old retired ex oil drill worker from Schlumberger is excellent and so knowledgeable.
In the early evening along the shoreline whilst we devour our BBQ chicken and pork I discuss with Svetlana, a Latvian tour guide, Amol an Indian business development executive, Jerry a general counsel lawyer from the US, Margo a retired teacher and Andrew an institutional financier in renewable energy, both from Australia, why the USA is so powerful in the world and what could lead to its demise. (Answer restriction in its ability to raise capital from abroad and commodities priced in another currency). After numerous shots of vodka, Joy tells Jerry in the usual Aussie style to “shut the F up” hence case dismissed.
Last night after the BBQ was a bit of a party in restaurant car C as everybody was in the mood for a sing song, but they haven’t got the right connector to plug my iPhone into the sound system so as we can dance along to my playlist, so job no. 1 in town today is to buy the right lead.
As we weave our way toward Novosibirsk and its late afternoon it’s time for the vodka tasting. Four different types, but before you can drink one sip you must remember “drinking without toasting is a sign of alcoholism”. So as we prepare our toasts, first to life – “nostrovia”, second to some theme or other – “nostrovia”, third to the women and girls in our lives – “nostrovia”, fourth to may the best days of your past be the worst days of your future “nostrovia”, fifth to the present company of friends – “nostrovia”, sixth to singing a song – “nostrovia”, seventh, now it’s getting serious, so a shot of dry martini is needed to water down the vodka; and as we pass a line of Russian tanks stationary on a flatbed rail carriage we all take pictures and by now who cares about going to the gulag (forced-labour camp).
It’s finally “midnight in Siberia” as I finish the last beer with Teddy (the train company’s’ very lively German quality manager and by coincidence the final chapter of the book of the same title, only to be woken at 02:15 in the morning as we pull into Krasnoyarsk station for a 15min stop. I think the Russian word “pokhmelye” (hangover) is probably how best to convey my feelings at this moment in my journey.
This morning I’m in the gulag as we listen to an excellent lecture (one of many on this train) by our guide Valarie about political persecution started by Lenin and expanded by Stalin in 1929. A total estimate of between 20-40 million people were incarcerated and it was in 1937/8 when the highest numbers suffered death and starvation. Criminals got priority over political prisoners and it was only reforms started in 1953 following Stalin’s death that numbers reduced and continued to do so in the 1960/70’s under Khrushchev and Brezhnev until Gorbachev ended this system under his perestroika (reform) and glasnost (openness) policies of the late 80’s.
By 1989 Gorbachev’s reforms had been firmly established and now there was no going back for the USSR, to the old days of empire. This eventually led to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the emergence of just the nucleus of the motherland known today as Russia.
PART 3: Novosibirsk – Ekaterinburg – Kazan
On arrival in Novosibirsk, the capital of western Siberia, I’m immediately struck by how busy it is, so it’s not surprising to learn that 1.5 mio people live here and the train station handles 70,000 passengers daily. We’re greeted by a traditional folk group “Madeleins” and welcomed with dance, bread and salt.
Our guide Olga takes us to the opera house in Lenin Sq. and wow how splendid it is. You could spend 8 days here and watch Giselle, Swan Lake, Don Quixote, Carmen and Spartacus all within the time frame, and at a fraction of the price 1,000 rouble (€15, US$18, £14) per performance. On departure, we cross the Ob river and whilst having dinner are royally entertained to a live impromptu violin medley of classical music by Mozart and Beethoven. Now wonder I felt moved to leave Olga with 5 different coloured roses, balshoye spaseeba (thank you so much).
Today it’s Ekaterinburg, and as I drink an early coffee it’s 04:40am (Moscow time) 06:40 local time, through the daylight I can see the Ural Mountains in the distance.
Our city tour first takes us to the moving memorial of those killed in the Gulags and nearby we stand astride the border of Asia and Europe and toast “Friendship between all Nations”.
Today it’s Kazan (meaning cauldron) a melting pot where the Tatars and Russians have integrated over the years, so much so they say, “if you scratch a Russian you’ll find a Tatar”. As we make our way around the streets from the vast train station, police are on every street corner as President Putin is in town today for a meeting at the City Hall. First, we visit the Kremlin (fortress) a beautiful walled complex with its magnificent Kul Sharif Mosque and from the balcony inside the view is breath taking. After lunch in the Hilton we’re treated to a mini varied instrument concert by extremely gifted children, the youngest being just 6. The talent is amazing, these are the future global classical virtuosi of the world. Then it’s off to a Tatar village to see how olden ways have been preserved. Finally, a visit to the Soviet Union museum a gathering of old relics from that era. My feet are ready to drop as it’s been a long day, so I settle for a glass of Belgium beer in the Leuven brasserie on Brauman St. the main shopping plaza.
PART4: Kazan – Moscow – St. Petersburg<br />
And so, after breakfast I bid farewell to my new-found friends from the Tsars Gold train having completed all 9288km of the Trans-Siberian railway and make my way from Kazansky station, one of three centrally located stations to the Kremlin to try and watch the Presidential Regiment ceremonially march in front of Sobornaya pl (Cathedral Sq.) this only happens every Saturday but the ticket queue is so long I give up.
However, on walking around I’m immediately struck by how wide the pavements are and how clean everything is, no litter anywhere. Red Sq. is vast and St. Basil’s cathedral stands out as a colourful crazy confusion of shapes. On entering GUM an elaborate 19th century building that is the state department store, I’m struck by the variety of internationally branded shops and passage ways that connect this bustling centre. My stomach dictates the need for food, so I treat myself to a beer and steak in a nearby Zharovnya Grill Bar in the heart of Moscow, and desert is a plateful of chocolates. Far too many to devour right now, so half are boxed up for me to take to tonight’s performance at the Bolshoi theatre of a classical Russian opera “Boris Godunov”.
The theatre is spectacular, the opulence, the splendour of the customs on displays in the four rooms off the main room, and then on taking my seat on the 1st floor balcony in this six tier auditorium, the main curtain is just something else, a real work of art.
Finally, I sink into a comfortable bed in my hotel the Budapest, which whilst the oldest in town being built in 1876 is very clean and spacious and extremely good value for money.
Today I spend 6 hours with my guide Lena, who was born during the Soviet 1960’s and who is extremely knowledgeable and a very very likeable person. We start in the grounds of the Kremlin on a very cold May morning, so it’s an early coffee to warm up as I marvel at the display of captured cannons, the size of one being just incredible and the vast bell that took only 45 minutes to forge. As the day passes we bond and gel well and freely talk about all aspects of Russian life both in the former Soviet Union times and now, with lunch in a Russian bookstore. This is fascinating and I could write a book based on our discussions, but space here prevents me, so you the reader will just have to come and talk with Lena yourselves.
Then we enter the armoury where Lenin protected all Russian icons and treasures by moving them from the cathedral’s and state palaces and put them under one roof within the walls of the Kremlin. I’m moved to tears (quite something for a streetwise Essex kid) as Lena explains in details the background of the costumes, carriages, silverware, swords, guns, coronets and jewellery on display. This really is Russia’s crown jewels and a must see.
And so, a tired and emotional me, becomes passenger 776/5/16 on the late afternoon Sapsan fast train to St. Petersburg from Moscow. A journey of 650km that takes less than 4 hours as we travel at more than 200 km/h, and surprisingly my ticket includes 2,000 rouble worth of drinks and/or food. I notice the whole way is fenced on both sides and wonder which Oligarch got the contract for that and how much of a sweetener did it cost him.
Today I’m in St. Petersburg and commence my day with my guide Marina, a sweet 30-year-old, and Jerry my US client. Jerry’s really interested in the history of past Russian ruler, and despite her young age Marina knows heaps of information, whilst I am just amazed at the wonder of the architecture. Our 3-hour tour stretches into the afternoon as us two guys have lunch in Mama Roma’s a superb Italian restaurant opposite the Faberge museum, which we visit late afternoon and conclude our day with a 2-hour river ferry cruise along the canals and passed the St. Peter and Paul fortress on the Neva river.
Finally, after a 12-hour day I sink into bed and nod off with ease for tomorrow is my last day of my Russian adventure and I’ve only got a few hours in the morning to visit the Hermitage, before returning to the UK; British Airways permitting as they had a problem in the last few days and all flights were cancelled at one stage. (Stick with Aeroflot at least you don’t have to pay for your food and drink with them).
How in my final morning did I manage to cram so much in with Ludmilla my tour guide for the Hermitage, she knows I’ve only got so long but somehow manages to show me and explain all the highlights of this truly spectacular Palace.
PART 5: Epilogue
So, at journeys end, how do I view modern Russia, a global superpower! Well when compared to China then no way. For China is exporting its new-found wealth in its “one belt, one road” policy which spans 65 countries and the other superpowers need to sit up and take note.
Is there freedom of speech in Russia, certainly very much so, is it a police state, not you only see them if the President’s around if it’s a ceremonial photo shoot, but it’s extremely safe to travel around.
Whilst the country has a wealth of oil, gas and natural minerals, and the people admire President Putin for his strong leadership, there is an undercurrent of discontent, certainly in the urban areas. Small business leaders and the general ordinary people crave change, and are frustrated why the bureaucratic system and the Parliament (the Duma) seems to hang onto the old socialist ways and prevent modernisation, unless financially rewarded, but opposition parties remain weak. So perhaps a good start would be the upcoming International Economic Forum here in St. Petersburg during the coming days which is based on the theme “achieving a new balance in the global economic arena”.
To view some of the old Soviet Union’s military might; indulge in the many diverse cultures this country must offer, and to enjoy the classical musical and opera’s that make Russia so well know globally, for their wealth of talent.
I started as passenger 777 and now having traversed the country I feel more like 007, having been very privileged to meet many interesting people along the way. It’s been a life changing, very rewarding cultural experience that’s been easy to plan and accomplish, and I thoroughly recommend it to all those considering such a journey.
I leave with a poignant memory from the Asian/European border that there should always be “Friendship between all Nations and Peoples”, because basically were all the same the world over, no matter what country or ethnic background we originate from.
So, balshoye spaseeba (thank you so much).
From Russia with Love
Article posted by Chris Plumb: 13th August 2017