Siberia, May 2, 1999
The only way to cross Asia, The Trans-Siberian!
|December 2, 1998
Trans Siberian Trip
The Trans Siberian trip was an absolutely fantastic experience - it lived up to all my expectations and more.
I will first give you a few facts about it and then mention some of the highlights I had along the way. The Trans Siberian railway is the longest railway journey in the world. It is a 7 day journey covering about 9300km (equivalent to travelling from Johannesburg to Durban about 16 times). It starts in Moscow in the west of Russia and ends in Vladivostok on the eastern coast of Russia. This is approximately a third of the way across the world and it crosses 8 time zones. So when it is 2pm in Moscow it would be 9pm in Vladivostok. The flight between Vladivostok and Moscow takes 9 hours.
The train is not a luxury train like the Orient Express or the Blue train but a regular working train transporting your average Russian from one point to the next. This stretch of railway track is the busiest in the world with many trains covering various distances along it but only one train, the 'Rossia', which I used for most of the journey, covers the whole 9300km stretch. Most towns in Siberia are found along this train route and to a large extent it is the main link between different parts of Russia. I did the journey over 2 weeks as I stopped in 4 cities along the way staying about 2 days in each and then catching the next 'Rossia' train that came along.
I had been planning this journey for quite some time and more recently Ana mentioned that she wanted to do this trip too so I invited her to come along. This was all arranged but 2 days after she arrived in Moscow she broke her ankle very badly [at The Hungry Duck!] and had to be repatriated back to the UK. She is on the mend now. She has been very fortunate as she managed to get accommodation near the hospital where she has to go for regular treatment. She also got a good short term auditing job within a week as she had resigned from her previous job. I think it will take quite a few months for her to get back to normal but she is optimistic and in good spirits.
I decided to do the trip on my own anyway and left from Moscow on 11 April and then flew back to Moscow from Vladivostok on 26 April. The train ride was an adventure in its own right. Our sleeper coach had four beds in each compartment so virtually all the way I shared the compartment with three Russians. The compartments were very comfortable with curtains, carpeted floors and even a mattress for extra comfort. In the passage there were potplants hanging along the windows with real plants in them. At the end of the corridor there was a samovar where you could get boiling water at anytime for coffee, etc. One of the negative aspects was that there was no shower so you had to use the basin in the toilet and have a sponge bath for all the time you were on the train. I was therefore relieved to be getting off at different towns every two or three days along the way.
None of the people with whom I shared my compartment on all four legs of the journey spoke any English so the trip ended up being an extensive Russian lesson. The first leg of the journey, from Moscow to Yeketerenburg I shared my compartment with a middle aged man. Initially the conversation was strained as I was trying to work out how to cope with the situation. Later things warmed up and we managed to chat about where we came from etc and I even managed to get advice from him on buying train tickets.
The second leg of the journey, 3 days from Yeketerenburg to Irkutsk was far easier. I was far more confident in slinging my limited vocabulary at my new Russian companions, a 27 year old Engineer, his Economist wife and their 9 month old son. They had learnt a bit of English at school. This proved to be an ideal situation as they were not confident enough to speak any English but they had a pretty good idea of what I was trying to get across in my mixture of Russian and English. My dictionary got used a hell of a lot as they were keen to communicate. I was astounded at the variety of topics we managed to cover ranging from chatting about our respective families, our jobs and even the political situation in Russia and RSA. It was all very relaxed and about two to three times a day over the three days things would naturally develop into a serious conversation.
The third leg of the journey, 3 days from Irkutsk to Khabarovsk I shared a compartment with a 25 year old navy chap and a brother and sister in their mid fifties none of whom had any English background. By this stage after 9 days of interacting mostly with people who spoke only Russian this situation was starting to feel quite natural to me. Although the interaction was a little difficult with the help of the dictionary we ended up having a good idea of each other's life history The sister was so curious that I am sure that she could have coaxed information out of someone who had lost all their senses.
Again this was a relaxed situation as the three of them often spoke amongst themselves and I tended to listen in. Although I didn't understand everything, by watching their expressions and hand movements and picking up a few words and phrases I knew the topics that they were discussing and had a general idea of what was being said. Occasionally I would come into the conversation and when it become too much effort they would go back to chatting amongst each other. I felt very much part of the group even though I didn't always actively participate.
On the last leg of the journey, overnight from Khabarovsk to Vladivostok I shared the cabin with a thirty year old chap, and a middle aged man and woman. I had a few drinks before hand and this had really loosened my tongue so I had no hesitation in starting up a conversation and chatting without a problem (or so it seemed to me) and everyone seemed to enjoy the interaction.
Another highlight was the sharing of food. I have travelled a fair deal and nowhere have I came across the hospitality to the extent that I encountered on this train journey. All my travel companions without exception offered me food and drink. I also tried to reciprocate and the result was a wonderful meal which we all enjoyed.
The most memorable of these meals was the occasion where the brother/sister group took out raw smoked omule, a fish from lake Baikal. The brother then proceeded to gut them. The sister held out a bowl and out of the stomach came fish eggs - caviar. The brother then cut up the fish into chunks which was placed on the table together with potatoes, pickled mushrooms and gerkhins, bread and sausage.
To drink was of course a full bottle of vodka which was produced at every meal and which had to be finished. We would start off by having a triple tot of vodka each which was downed after a toast and immediately had something to eat. During the meal we would have a few glasses of vodka which would also be downed. On this particular occasion I was so impressed with the spread that I brought out another bottle of vodka that I had in my bag and it was happily accepted.
The sister made sure all we men were well looked after by refilling our glasses and urging us to eat more. She reminded me of a broody hen clucking after her chicks with her 'it's tasty', 'have some more' etc - it was great. After this meal we all had a nap and with half a bottle of vodka in me, I of course slept like a baby.
At times they also brought out a rectangular block of smoked pig fat [Note: called sala, it is a favorite Ukrainian dish] which was about 10 cm thick with rind all around. This probably amounted to 100% fat and I couldn't see myself putting that in my mouth. This was cut in thin slices and eaten with bread. I reluctantly tried some and was totally sold on it. The smoked flavour penetrated the fat with a delicious result - I had to stop myself from eating too much. I tried to do my bit so whenever the train stopped I sometimes bought beer, fruit, boiled eggs, cooked potatoes, meatballs with a pasta coating, etc. So as you can now imagine mealtimes were quite a bonding experience.
After eating, sleeping and talking there was still a lot of time to kill on this long, long train journey. I was fairly well prepared and had brought along my walkman so listened to music, Russian dialogues and even to a couple of yoga tapes. I also tried to find out a bit more about Russia in general and the towns we were passing in particular by reading my Russia Lonely Planet Guide and another guide focusing on the Trans Siberian route. This guide had a map identifying each town and significant places we passed together with some notes on it.
The experience would not have been complete without reading a book by some Russian author. I opted for Leo Tolstoy's 'Anna Karenin' which is an amazing book but which I am still trying to finish so it is just as well that I didn't go for his super thick 'War and Peace'. I also kept a diary which I tried to keep to date on a daily basis. Finally I spent a lot of time just staring out of the window.
The scenery varied quite a bit mostly due to the change in weather as we went along. For the first third of the way everything was covered with snow. Later there was just patchy snow and the last few thousand kilometers there was no snow at all and nature was just in the process of reawakening. I was quite pleased with this as I got an idea of what Siberia looks like in both in winter and spring. Some of the most spectacular scenery along the route is supposed to be the stretch between Irkutsk and Ulan Ude alongside lake Baikal. Unfortunately this turned out to be a non event as the lake was completely frozen and there was only white as far as the eye could see. The vegetation did not vary dramatically and for most of the way we passed through lightly wooded area.
Every now and then we passed small villages with old wooden A-shaped cottages which all looked more or less the same. What surprised me is that the architectural style of these cottages did not change much over the 9200km distance. At this time of year things still looked a little grey and bleak but I would imagine that in late spring and summer the scenery would be much more colourful. Each of the towns also included a lot of highlights. I will mention just a few of them.
This is the city where Boris Yeltsin was born and where they imprisoned the Tsar and his family before they were executed in 1917. I had a look at the rather unimpressive memorial to them. Across the road was the Asension church, a Russian Orthodox church. I went in during a service and decided to stay a while. I didn't really understand what was happening but watched the 6 priests in fascination while they walked in a main door and out side doors, waved candles and burned incense, prayed and read from the bible, chanted and sang ,knelt etc and then repeated the whole process again. One and a half hours later there weren't any signs of it ending and so I sneaked out - apparently these services carry on for about 4 hours.
I managed to go into a Russian workers canteen and joined the queue after getting a tray and cheap tin knives and forks. I pointed to a salad starter, borshch soup, chicken with cooked buckwheat and sauce, thick cream for dessert and kvas, a drink that is like punch. All this cost only 15 rubles which is dirt cheap. I wouldn't classify it as the tastiest of meals but it certainly was very filling.
For each the two evenings I was there I went to see a variety concert which featured the Yeketerinburg orchestra, traditional instruments, opera singers and folk music and singing. What impressed me was the number of small children that were there who seemingly were enjoying it.
Here there were whole neighbourhoods of decrepit double story wooden buildings which seemed on the verge of falling down but which in it's day must have looked very attractive. In the city centre there is a huge market selling a huge variety of goods was very colourful and vibrant. I stayed in a room let out by a Russian woman in her 50's who had been married to an American man who had lived here in Irkutsk until he died a few years ago.
There was a play on the circuit called 'From America with love' all about their love story which would be interesting to see at some stage.
Lake Baikal/ Listvianka village
This is the biggest fresh water lake in the world with over 800 species of plant and animal life found only here which are being threatened by pollution from some factories in the area. Unfortunately most of the lake was frozen except for a section leading to a river mouth where the water was crystal clear which gave me a good idea of what it would look like in summer. Also I explored the village including the church and nearby museum. For lunch I bought some freshly caught and braaied fish as well as potato pies and a beer from the village market area on the lake shore and had a fantastic picnic.
I met a local who showed me around town, invited me for lunch and introduced me to his wife and little daughter. In the evening I was again invited to their home where they had a dinner party and invited a group of their friends over. One chap had a guitar so after supper he played and they sang some Russian songs. I was quite relaxed even though I was the centre of attention and none of them could speak any English. The next day he again took me to some more of the sights and we also went to local restaurants for meals and of course the obligatory vodka. By the time I caught the train that evening I was a little light headed and quite loose tongued.
Price Waterhouse has a office out here and my boss suggested I pop in which I did and got to meet some of the staff. The next morning, one of the PW employees, an American expat and her Russian husband took me to a fort musum and then drove me to a couple of the forts that dot the hills in the area which are all linked to each other via tunnels. Vladivostok was a closed city until the 1980's so all this was very intriguing. I also went to a submarine museum and got to explore the inside of a submarine including the torpedo launching area etc - good fun. This was my last stop and from here I caught a 9 hour flight back to Moscow and spent about 3 days trying to recover from the jet lag.
I hope that you have enjoyed reading about my little adventure as much as I enjoyed the experience. Russia has a lot to offer and knowing the language a little bit made a very real difference in my case. A lot of people including many Russians told me that this was a dangerous trip and that I was a bit crazy to do it. Maybe I was very lucky but not once did I feel threatened during the whole journey. Rather I experienced a lot of kindness and that unique Russian hospitality. This is definitely not the end of my explorations of this region. I have a few ideas which may not be as grandiose as the Trans Siberian trip but will hopefully be as exciting.
September 17, 2002
Trans-Siberian Railway: Life and Fun across 9000 kilometers of taiga, steppes and plain wilderness
Siberia - the name chills. Siberia, to many, invokes images of an eternally cold land of exile and dark, endless winter. Siberia represents vastness as well as emptiness, a strange unknown territory stretching into the borderless horizon. There are shreds of truth, as well as misconception, in these popular images.
Let's get the facts first. To geographers, Siberia is all the Russian territories east of the Urals Mountains, although politically, the popular definition of Siberia in reality also includes parts of the Urals Federal District and the Far Eastern territories of Russia. All in all, 14 million square kilometers with only 30 million people, stretching across taiga, steppes as well as vast forest lands. This is a land of great rivers - the Ob, Lena, Angara, Yenisey and the Amur - all among the world's longest rivers. 53,000 rivers flow across its plains and 1 million lakes altogether. This is also a land of extreme temperature differences. There are places where annual temperature range from - 50'C to 45'C.
What holds this vast territory together is the legendary railway - the Trans-Siberian Railway - also the longest in the world, more than 9200 kilometers between Moscow in its western end and Vladivostok on the Pacific coast. This is not a special tourist train. In fact, it comprises a number of lines and sub-lines that stretches from the west of Russia across the plains of Eurasia, some of which covers almost the entire length - such as Train Number 1 and 2, known as the Rossiya (Russia in the Russian language), or the Baikal Express, which runs from Moscow to Irkutsk near Lake Baikal. There are also services (Number 4), which run to Beijing via Ulanbataar (Mongolia).
The TransSib is a working train. It is the lifeline of Siberia. There are few roads in Siberia, or rather, there are few intercity-roads of reasonable quality connecting cities and settlements in Siberia. As such, it is the TransSib that link these parts together with Mother Russia. It takes 7 days nonstop to travel from Moscow to Vladivostok, and it cuts through almost the whole length of Russia - 8 time zones in total where the train passes through, through many interesting (as well as absolutely boring) cities and locations.
During the past few weeks, I have been traveling across Russia on some of these trains, on Second Class tickets. I have met a number of interesting people along the way - not just travelers like me, but also ordinary Russians. In the confined space of a few carriages, people have no choice but to interact, or worse, tolerate each other. There is little space for those with an attitude problem. One simply has to live in close quarters with strangers. Of course, some people recommend spending the night in cities along the way and skipping long stay on the trains. That is certainly desirable if you get off to visit interesting places, but if you do that all the time, you might miss out the interaction with the locals, which in my opinion, is the most enriching experience of the entire journey.
It's a matter of luck who you end up with. The worse it could was in the case of an Irish travelers I have met, sharing the compartment with a belly-challenged xenophobic man who ignores his presence, and sleepwalks naked at night. Even in that case, you could well spend most of your time with other people in the train. Most trains carry more than 400 people and you must be really unlucky to find a train full of 400 morons. I was somewhat fortunate. During the 8 nights on the trains (more than 7 because I have got off and on at some locations, and hence got onto trains of varying speed and types) and numerous daytimes I have spent on the main line, I have played cards and gotten drunk with Russian soldiers, veterans of the Chechen war and sailors of the Russian Pacific fleet, discussed politics and development issues with North Korean diplomats (while trying my best to use politically correct terms so not to use Bush's language on the so-called Axis of Evil) and chatted in sign language and pidgin Russian with motherly babushkas (Russian grandmothers) who doted me like their grandson and stuffed me with endless supply of cakes, cookies and other goodies (while thoroughly disapproving my drinking binges with the young soldiers and officers).
The TransSib is also notorious for one thing - boredom. It's the perfect train to read all the books that you have begun and never finished. The only problem is you can't bring too many on the journey for the weight. And forget about posting them home along the way. Soviet-era laws still applicable in New Russia say that it is forbidden to send abroad all printed media, including those published outside Russia, such as your Harry Potter and the Official IYH Guide to Hostels in Africa, the Americas and Australasia.
For 5000 km from Moscow to Irkutsk, the landscape is fairly homogenous. The initial sight of quaint Russian villages and their wooden houses, sometimes brightly painted, intrigued most of us. However, if you have 4 days of that and most of the time nothing else except for endless forests of birch trees and occasional plains of endless emptiness, you go a little mad and start seeing kangaroos and dinosaurs as well. Many people even gave up on books or simply lie on their couchettes, slipping in and out of consciousness and Dreamland. Or you have endless feasts and drinks - the TransSib is not a journey for those on slimming programmes. TransSib etiquette requires one to lie out all of one's supply of food and drinks, and share it with fellow travelers. And friendly locals might take your refusal at an offer of food as rudeness. The supply never runs out, for there are numerous stops where supply is constantly replenished. It's an opportunity to get acquainted with food products and brands in obscure Russian provinces.
Indeed, the most exciting events of an average Trans-Sib day are the stops in provincial stations. Even the sleepiest passenger would suddenly jump off the bed and rush for the great Perm, Omsk, Yerofey Pavlovich or god-knows-what-Siberian-hamlet shopping experience, as he or she would for the summer sales in London, Hong Kong or Bloomingdale's. I have no clue how the Russian Railways selects where to stop and for how long, for sometimes they stop for 2 minutes in a large town of 200,000 people, and sometimes for 25 in some unheard of hamlet. In many places, one is mobbed by local peasants selling anything from warm, hearty pelmeni (Siberian meat dumplings) and smelly dried fish, to toys and clothing.
Of course, the train does have a restaurant car, but if you fancy paying high prices (OK, they are not expensive by western standards but having traveled in many Russian provincial towns, the prices do appear high on the trains) for normal standard food, they are fine. But it's good to spend an occasional afternoon in the restaurant car, do some reading there while having a coffee. The greatest benefit, however, is observing the restaurant staff - they seem to operate in a world of their own. Many seemed keener on their private trading activities than serving customers. At every stop, even at 2-minute stops, they are seen rushing to buy huge quantities of local produce or selling produce bought at previous stations.
Sometimes, they have so much to work on that they shouted for the restaurant customers to help carrying the stuff they bought onto the train. For instance, I have assisted in helping to carry basins of fresh cherry twice, but seeing no improvement in the service I received on subsequent visits to the restaurants, decided to ignore any shout for help during station stops. For whatever it is, the range and quality of food do seem to decrease as the train moves eastwards into the wilderness of eastern Siberia, and that seem to encourage the restaurant staff to spend more time in private merry making. I have seen them half drunk more than once while trying to serve dinner to customers, swinging from side to side, with grinning red faces.
Moscow, the train moved east through cities like Yekaterinburg, where the last Romanov Tsar Nicholas II and his family were murdered by the Bolsheviks; and Novosibirsk, the metropolis and scientific and university city of Siberia. Like most of the travelers, I got off at Irkutsk, the famous city near Lake Baikal. I am tempted to say "on Lake Baikal" - for indeed if you look at the map of Siberia, Irkutsk seems to be on the lake. But on the scale of things in Siberia, it is only over 60km from the lake and yet looks as though it lies on the lake on most maps. Everything in Siberia is huge and one is simply amazed by the great distance covered by this renowned train route.
Lake Baikal - the deepest lake in the world, over 636km long, greater than Belgium and contains one-fifth of the world's fresh water. To the Chinese, this was Beihai, or "North Sea". It was on these shores that the Han Dynasty diplomat and explorer, Zhang Qian, was exiled after arrested by the nomadic empire, Hsiong Nu. Here he married a local woman and after a decade escaped to Central Asia where he convinced the local kingdoms to ally with China in a joint attack on the Hsiung Nu horsemen. This was the beginning of China's old Central Asian empire, which is another saga of its own. A thousand years later, it was a lady from these shores that gave birth to the greatest conqueror in world history, Genghis Khan of the Mongols.
Irkutsk, I took a local Zima (Winter) Express to Ulan Ude, capital of the Buryat Republic within the Russian Federation. Most travelers simply continue on their journey to Mongolia while I resolved to visit the little bit of Mongolia within Russia. The Buryats are one of the great tribes of Mongolia - most Russians I spoke to thought that the Buryats are a separate nation - the old Soviet Union is an ardent practitioner of the Divide-and-Rule concept and its propaganda machinery spoke about the Buryat people happily unifying with their Russian "big brother nation". However, most Buryats I spoke to know who they are - the sons of Genghis Khan. It was their tribe, which gave the Mongol nation Genghis Khan's mother, and later, chief wife as well. They spoke proudly of their great warrior king. The Cold War is over and Mongolia is free again.
Though living in different sides of an international boundary, the Buryats and Mongols (i.e., in Mongolia) are once again renewing their old ties and allegiances. I dropped by the Ivolginsk Datsan, the HQ of Tibetan Buddhism (which is the type of Buddhism professed by the Mongols and Buryats) in Russia. Here on the windswept plains of Central Asia, a shrine of Buddhism has been rebuilt. I met some Tibetan monks from Dharmasala, who greeted me in perfect Mandarin, asking if I was from China. No, I said, I'm from Singapore. China is not well loved in these parts, and Singapore, the tiny neutral nation faraway (and in fact well regarded as a symbol of law and order, progress and development in the former USSR) is always well liked in the plains of Eurasia (more so than in Southeast Asia). And we had a polite chat on Buddhism in these parts and the subtle difference between Buryatia and Mongolia.
I also visited an Old Believers' village. These are Russians who escaped from the central authorities of the Tsars a few centuries ago, to the wilderness of Siberia, simply because they rejected the religious reforms of Tsar Alexis and Peter the Great. They tried to preserve their old way of life, their unshaven chins, traditional Russian costumes and old folk songs, mostly by shunning contacts with the outside world. By the time the Tsars' domains caught up with them, they were simply left alone as weirdos. But Stalin took no fancy of exotic ways of life and minorities, and had their churches blown up. Even then, I have met people who had seen Old Believers come to town with their strange costumes and long beards, well into the 1970's. What eventually led to the demise of their lifestyle was, ironically, the fall of the USSR. The great welfare state had collapsed and people now desire the goods often by the new temple of Capitalism. Young people no longer want to stay in primitive old villages and the more entrepreneurial among the Old Believers now invite outsiders to visit their villagers and have dinner with them for sixty dollars a session - I was invited there free by a friendly travel agency director. Welcome to Disneyland Siberia!
The journey further east is off-the-beaten-track for most TransSib travelers. I met hardly any travelers and spent my train evenings having a little too much vodka with hunky Russian military officers on their ways to garrisons in the Russian Far East (and them trying to teach a non-Russian speaker Soviet-era patriotic songs - that's how drunk all of us became), or philosophizing life with North Korean diplomats (and trying to secure an invitation from organization with names like "Korean Peace Committee" and "Korean International Friendship Association"). Gone were the boring flat plains of western Siberia. Here we have numerous rivers and valleys of pine trees all in the glory of full autumn foliage. Soon, we entered the Russian Far East, once the realm of the endangered Siberian tigers and setting of great Russian trader-explorers and their exploits in their race to the Pacific.
After a short stay in the leafy city of Khabarovsk, where I strolled along the beaches of the Amur River, where fun loving young Khabarovsk citizens play volleyball on what used to be a high tension frontier land between Russia and China. Known as Heilongjiang, or River of Black Dragon to the Chinese, the Amur is one of the longest rivers in the world. Soviet and Chinese armies once crashed here in the 1960's almost bringing the world to the brink of a nuclear war between two former brother communist states. Now traders from both countries trade in consumer goods across this wild-looking river, while local beach bums enjoy the last of summertime in Siberia. The autumn has started elsewhere in the world but this part of the Russian Far East is still enjoying a bout of summertime in September, an anomaly in climatic patterns from the rest of the world.
Here I am in Vladivostok, "Lord of the East" as it is in the Russian language. 9,288 kilometers from Moscow. This is the eastern end of the world's longest railway, and Russia's window on the Pacific coast. Overwhelmed by package tourists from China, I had a hard time finding hotels in this city. This is a strange town where there are Chinese signboards in museums and souvenir shops - all to serve the noveau riche of neighboring China. Whatever it is, I am flying back to Irkutsk tomorrow, and then get onto the Trans Mongolian Express to Ulanbataar. That is another whole new adventure. Good Bye, Russia. And yes, have a glass of champagne on my behalf! WeeCheng has completed the world's longest railway journey!