This is an old blog/journal writeup of mine from my adventure on the Trans-Siberian railway. Between the end of May and the end of June 2003 myself and a friend (Ed, of the China blog fame) traversed the full length of Russia on a train. Starting in the far-eastern city of Vladivostok, we spent 3 weeks getting to St. Petersburg, and then continued the train’s momentum all the way to Berlin… Thus it was one of the longest train journey in the history of the universe. I will continue the story as if I was the first and only person to achieve this feat, just because it makes me feel extra cool. Like, 7% more cool than normal.
Anywho. Here it goes!
‘About the Trans Siberian Railway’
The Trans-Siberian railway (usually called “TransSib” in Russia) is the world’s longest and the most famous train route that goes through the entire length of Russia. It crosses the whole continent: starts in Moscow, passes through the European Russia, crosses the Ural mountains (which separate Europe and Asia), continues into Siberia’s taiga and steppes, and finishes in Vladivostok – the Russian Far East coast. The Trans-Siberian is an immense route: along more than 9000 kilometres of its length you see different landscapes, meet many different people and cultures (especially, if you hop off the train at few points), get to see the magnificent Lake Baikal in Siberia, and just enjoy the trip in the train. The original Russian name for this railway is “The Great Siberian Way”, and the name “Trans-Siberian” was given to this route by the West, but it became very popular and wide-spread.
This railway is the backbone of Russia. It is the only overland route going through the whole country. This unique status makes the railway still quite important for the economy and safety of the country, as it was supposed to be, more than 100 years ago, when it was built. Moving non-stop, it takes more than six days to travel along the whole length of the Trans-Siberian railway. After crossing Siberia (soon after Irkutsk) the route divides into three different sub-routes: The Trans-Siberian Route: Moscow – Vladivostok – the original Trans-Siberian railway, which goes all along Siberia and through the Far East (to the Pacific Ocean, or more correctly, the Sea of Japan). Then there is the Trans-Mongolian Route: Moscow – Ulaan-Baatar – Beijing. On that stretch visitors can see the Siberian plains and forests, Mongolian steppe and even a part of Gobi desert along this route that goes through Mongolia to China. Finally the Trans-Manchurian Route: Moscow – Beijing – a direct way from Russia to China that goes around the Eastern border of Mongolia, not crossing it. It is an option for those who are not interested in going to Mongolia due to visa problems, or who can’t get tickets for other trains.
Constructed between 1891 and 1916, the Trans-Siberian railway’s function was the supply and protection of Russian Pacific Ocean territories. Russians call these territories “Dalniy Vostok” (Far East). The main route between St.Petersburg and Vladivostok was already completed in 1903, but there were many temporary structures, so for 13 more years permanent bridges, tunnels and stations were added. The construction started on the 19th of May 1891 and it was finished 5th of October 1916, when the bridge across Amur river started to operate. Prior to this, there was no steady connection between European Russia and its Asian areas. Meanwhile Japan, China and England all were interested in Asian territories to be out of Russian control and Russia had to play hard to secure them.
Ultimately, the construction of the Trans-Siberian railway led Russia to develop Siberia and the Pacific shore. Nowadays the Trans-Sib is a very important lifelink for Russia; the route is the shortest way between Europe and Asia, and Russia is cashing in big-time by transporting goods from China and Japan to Europe. The length of the main route is 9297 km. The largest bridge is above Amur river – 2612 meters. The longest tunnel starts at 8140 km, and is 2 km long. The Trans-Siberian route crosses 10 time zones, goes through Europe (19%) and Asia (81%): the continental border is marked with small obelisk at 1777 km near town Pervouralsk. The Trans-Siberian passes by 87 cities and towns, and the route crosses 16 big rivers including the Volga, Ob, Enisey, Oka, Amur, and a bunch of others. Some 200km of the route pass Lake Baikal and 39 km of the way is along the shores of the Sea of Japan.
‘Thursday, May 29th 2003’
The guards on both sides of the Russia-China border turned out to be rather friendly and relaxed. From the border post it is about 80km to the nearest town, so everyone takes a standard cross-border bus. While on this bus I chatted with a bunch of Russians who gave us info about the next step. A Chinese man who also was traveling to Vladivostok offered his help, which made us relax a bit more.
Riding on the bus along the border, one sees the many kilometres of heavy defence lines: bunkers, tanks, radar stations, and the like dotted the landscape. Only a few years ago, the whole region was off limits to foreigners. In Ussuriisk we transferred onto another bus which brought us to Vladivostok at 6PM local time. In Vlad we hopped into a taxi and tried to find the hostel listed in the Lonely Planet guide. Having purchased an outdated version of the guide proved a weak decision, as the hostel in question had already gone out of business. Fortunately I got some help at a computer store next door, and they sent us to a similarly affordable and quite cozy hostel just a few doors down. The hostel was about 15 minutes from the downtown area. I hiked down to the train station to figure out the train ticket situation, as our original travel was scheduled for the 27th, and now it was the 29th… While at the station I got help from some guy also shopping for train tickets. My Russian skills were not good enough at that point, and it would take some talking to get the tickets re-issued for the next day. After an hour of arguing at the window, Valeria (the friendly fella helping me) said that he will come back here in the morning and take care of everything. Very stark contrast to the China situation, where no one could be arsed to help. Back at the hostel we were sharing a room with a young Russian sailor named Max who entertained us for the evening (we were knackered and completely uninterested in getting out “on the town”). After watching a Russian-dubbed episode of The Simpsons, we crashed.
‘Friday, May 30th 2003’
In the morning I visited a pretty good internet cafe and tried to purchase my airfare from London to Toronto (this trip is not completely planned out yet). I am not sure if it worked, as there turns out to be some restriction on internet-based transactions. Later on Valeria came back and tried to sort out the tickets. Lost in the Russian bureaucracy we ended up buying new tickets, despite the promises that the ones I had were flexible. The stretch we missed was from Vladivostok to Irkutsk, but seeing that it only set us back $50 each, it was not the end of the world. The original Trans-Sib itinerary had us in Irkutsk for 7 days, which means we had plenty of time to catch up and to have all things normal again. Hopefully. After the train station Valeria and I went to the hostel to pick up Ed, and we did some touring around Vlad.
We had about 5 hours to kill before the train was leaving, so we bummed around the port area, looking at all the ships coming in from Japan loaded with cars, and visiting the Naval base (Vladivostok is the home of the Russian Pacific Fleet HQ). Because of its high strategic importance, this city of 600,000 was closed to foreigners for many years, but now the tourist industry had picked up and it is a starting point for many expeditions to Kamchatka and Kola Peninsula.
Just before we turned up at the station again we shopped around for bread, sausage, veggies, water, and toilet paper which supposedly is rather scarce on the Trans-Sib. When we got to the station our train, #2, “Rossiya” (“Russia”), was already standing at the platform. Because our tickets were purchased so late, we had different seating arrangements. Valeria came on the train with us to ask the conductor to let us sit together in the same compartment. On board we quickly found our compartment, and made friends with the other passenger, Sasha, from a small town in the Amur Region in the Far East. Built like a 7 foot grizzly, but with a very sunny disposition, he made an excellent travel companion, even if for only 2 days.
The train was a high-comfort unit. Painted in the white-blue-red scheme of the Russian flag, and with each car emblazoned with the twin-headed Imperial Eagle, the whole train was pulled by a high tech electrical unit built by Skoda. There were a total of 18 cars, 16 of the 2nd class, with 8 compartments each seating 4 people, one First Class car which seats two per compartment, and one 3rd class which resembled the Chinese Hard Sleeper – no real compartments, just sectioned off areas each sleeping 6 people.
That last car was stuffy and unpleasant, but fortunately we bought second class tickets which was just fine. In addition, the train had a dining car, and an administration/utility car, where one could take a shower, do laundry, or store excess luggage. At the end of each car one could find a large samovar (a kettle) which provided hot water for teas and soups and whatever else was needed. At the opposite end was the lavatory, surprisingly clean, especially to someone who had just arrived from China. The corridors were clean and neat, and the whole train was very inviting. The “provodnica”, or “female conductor” had instructed us that Ed cannot stay in the same compartment as me because of the price difference, and she asked for 1,400 Roubles or he would have to leave. Clearly this was an attempt at augmenting her salary, Sasha helped out, and she left us alone. Ed couldn’t spend the night however, as later on two more passengers joined us in the compartment, and so Ed had to move in with a Chinese family a few doors down. The two new passengers were a team of railway workers who just drove a steam train to Vladivostok, now relieved and returning to Moscow. We spent the evening chatting about everything (as much as my vocabulary permitted), and looking out the window at the rolling hills of the Russian Far East.
‘Saturday, May 31st 2003’
The overnight was easy. Expecting it to get quite warm at night (four people in one compartment), I was pleasantly surprised to find it rather cool and comfortable. The bunks were soft and comfy, and the bedding very clean. In the morning we chowed down our breakfast consisting of sausage, tomatoes, cucumbers, bread, cheese, and tea. The Russians tasted some, and then offered theirs. It is a common custom on Russian trains to share food, and I was more than happy to do so, as most other people had better stuff anyways! I spent the day chatting with Sasha, and admiring the beautiful landscape. The advantage of train travel is that one does not have to do anything but stare out the window and take it all in for hours at a time. Occasionally I would stroll through the train and visit the dining car, which was quite nice and filled with the wonderful smells of the various Russian delicacies being prepared. The prices were rather high, and we opted out, seeing that sausage and bread was satisfactory for our budget. But we did sit around and loiter, or occasionally purchase a bottle of Fanta… On the way to the dining car one had to negotiate 5 or 6 sleeper cars.
The spaces between the cars, at the joints, were usually occupied by groups of Russians slowly killing themselves with tobacco. Much like the Chinese, Russians smoke waaaaaaay too much, resulting in very low visibility and awful smell at the car joints. I was sure to move as fast as possible through those spots, as tobacco smoke really irritates the fuck out of me. In the late afternoon Sasha disembarked, and was replaced by Andrei, a young rail worker en-route to his home town of Chita. He was traveling with his coworkers Alex and Zhenia. Zhenia who had no ticket and was traveling as a “zayac”, which is a Russian term for ‘rabbit’, referring to the constant threat of being detected by the provodnica and asked to leave with or without the train stopping for the occasion… Zhenia and Andrei turned out to be a very fun duo, and we spent a lot of time together, chatting it up and wandering the stations during stops. They even treated me to a nice fish-and-potatoes dinner and a beverage (non alcoholic), although they were a bit thrown by my refusal to drink beer. At one station stop Andrei and I jumped out to buy some food. After learning that I was from Canada the storekeeper gave me a free chocolate dessert, in exchange for which I took a picture of her, making her very happy and smiley. In the evening Andrei, who spoke some English, helped me meet with the train director who invited us for tea and biscuits. After chatting about various things, the director made us an offer to move into the utility car where Ed and myself would be able to hang out together, and have the whole compartment to ourselves… This was a good arrangement, as the whole car had only 6 people, meaning no lineups for the lavatory in the morning.
‘Sunday, June 1st 2003’
We slept great! Our new compartment had less decor, but it was much quieter (no snoring) and spacious. For breakfast we had finished our sausage and cheese, and were now digging into the canned tuna. Zhenia and Andrei came by with their food, and we all shared. I found that there was very little time to be bored on this train, as everyone was interested in chatting with me (crazy but true!). An older lady next door, few of the provodnicas, our former co-passengers, and other travellers were very happy to see us and very curious about what we were up to. I realized later on that the Vladivostok-Irkutsk run is not visited by many foreigners, and so the people weren’t as used to the backpack-laden weirdos as folks on other lines. (Most people travel from Moscow to Irkutsk, and then head south to Ulaan-Baatar in Mongolia and then Beijing.) Later on that day we rode through some extensive forest fires. One could smell the burning timber and occasionally the flames made it all the way to the tracks. Looking at the sun, it was obscured by the smoke and resembled an orange suspended in the sky. Apparently, Siberia burns every year, and this is a natural occurrence. At one point I bumped into a Brit traveling on our train, and we had an interesting conversation about the differences between China and Russia, and about the various do’s and dont’s of Russian bureaucracy. John the Brit was traveling on business as he works for a UK exploration company which operates a mine somewhere in Siberia. An colourful character, if not a bit unusual to meet in a remote spot like this!
‘Monday, June 2nd 2003’
We woke up in Ulan-Ude, not far from the east coast of Lake Baikal. Our breakfast was the usual fare of bread, tomatoes, and canned tuna. Afterwards I ran into some Russian soldiers who were traveling to Novosibirsk on their annual 40-day leave. The “Three Sashas” were a great bunch, and we sat around eating smoked fish, drinking bitter Russian beer and trying to understand each other. While socializing with “The Sashas” the train now made it to the shores of Baikal, which was bathed in bright sunshine. An incredibly beautiful sight it was – Baikal has next to no industry around, thus everything is pristine and wonderful. It contains 20% of the world’s total unfrozen freshwater reserve. Known as the ‘Galapagos of Russia’, its age and isolation have produced one of the world’s richest and most unusual freshwater ecosystems. Preoccupied with the sights, I didn’t notice that the Sashas had now moved onto vodka, and insisted that I drink “for Russia”. I had about 3 drops of the most rancid-tasting stuff which had to be a combo of battery acid and rocket fuel… We munched on some more of their excellent smoked fish, after which I bid farewell and retreated to my cabin. We were closing in on Irkutsk, and I slowly grew more stressed out, knowing that I would have to put my brain in high gear again, not very nice after the 4 days of worry-free train travel. We arrived at 3:30 PM, and after shaking hands with the train director and some other folk we met on this trip we headed for the cheap hotel downtown. While there we were told that we can’t get our visas registered (a stupid Russian requirement), and that only Hotel Angara registers visas. Knowing that it is somewhat important to do, we headed for the Angara, an ugly remnant of the communist times, where we got a decent priced if a bit ratty room. The greatest thing was that it was equipped with a shower, which we instantly decided to test. We did a quick run across town to the long distance bus station and found out that the buses to Khuzir ( a village in the wilder part of the Baikal region) were not running yet as it was too early in the season. Determined to spend a few days at the Baikal itself we settled for the village of Listvyanka, a village much closer to Irkutsk, but nevertheless on the Baikal. We bought our tickets for the next days departure.
Irkutsk is an interesting city. It has an even split between the concrete communist architecture and the old-style wooden housing. This 300 year old city is home to 630,000 people, and is a centre of civilization in Eastern Siberia. It also serves as a departure point for Lake Baikal excursions. Back at the hotel I popped into the business centre in order to use the internet. While there I quickly made friends with the staff, did some more drinking “for Russia”, and enjoyed some of their yummy snacks. Running out of the mandatory vodka, Alexei (the centre director) and myself headed out to the liquor store (read: any store), and then back for some Russian hospitality. While the booze was somewhat torturous to my viscera, the upside was that the internet became free of charge. Somewhat thrown by the way the day was dragging, I learned that in Irkutsk the sun sets at 10:20 PM. This was a signal to GTF out of that vodka-soaked business centre and back to my room, and slip into the peaceful arms of Orpheus.
‘Tuesday, June 3rd 2003’
In the morning we filled up on the hotel’s complimentary breakfast buffet, after which we headed for the bus station and took the 1.5 hour bus ride to Listvyanka. After battling with a long series of bus-unfriendly hills (some of which seemed intent on killing the bus and its occupants), we finally made it to the village, where we were quickly intercepted by a friendly local who offered us a stay at her cabin. It turned out that for 300 roubles each we got ourselves a whole log cabin, complete with a fireplace, a wood stove, two rooms, and a collection if deer antlers.
The cracks in the logs were insulated with moss, and the whole place smelled wonderful.
Only 100 meters from the lake, this was an excellent spot. Lake Baikal is a one-of-a-kind phenomenon. This “Sacred Sea,” is 25-30 million years old, and it is the oldest lake in the world. It is 636 km long and 80 km wide, and has 2100 km of coastline. Its basin is made up of three underwater depressions, which together hold a volume of 23,600 cubic km of water. There are a number of islands in the lake, the largest of which is Olkhon, 72 kilometers long. Over three hundred rivers and streams flow into Baikal, of which the six main ones are: Selenga, Chikoy, Khiloh, Uda, Barguzin, and the Upper Angara. Only the Angara River flows out of the lake. The deepest point in Lake Baikal is 1637 m, the average depth being 630 m, and it has an exceptional clarity which allows 40-50 m of visibility. The entire surface of the lake freezes over in the winter. The deepest waters in the lake are supposedly oxygenated (and heated) by thermal springs. Also, weather phenomena here include Sarma, Kultuk, Barguzin – the winds that come screaming down from the river valleys in a matter of seconds at hurricane force, whipping up waves four to six meters high.
The village of Listvyanka is a small settlement on the southern shore of Baikal. It has a tiny port, a few restaurants and bars, a few boat-tour operations, and countless vendors selling smoked or sun dried omul (a yummy fish). Unable to resist, I filled up on omul, tomatoes, and bread (what else!) after which I chilled out at the rocky beach, taking sunset pics (at 10:20PM!)
‘Wednesday, June 4th 2003’
Early in the morning we headed out on a shoreline hike. The plan was to hike out for about 3 hours or so and then turn around. Unfortunately the path turned out to be fiercely difficult, and we only moved about 5km or so. Fortunately we moved out of the range of the local drunks, meaning no more beer and vodka bottles dotting the landscape (as they did around Listvyanka). We plopped down under a pine tree high up on a cliff, and enjoyed a nice omul lunch. Ed is getting very bored of omul and tomatoes. I on the other hand can’t get enough of it. From this spot the scenery was wonderful: birches, pines, cliffs, meadowy slopes, blue skies, smooth water… After our lunch we continued for a bit more, but eventually the path turned out to be treacherous even for a mountain goat. We decided to take a different path through a forest, and after an hour or so we arrived at a remote beach where I decided to do a bit of wading in the water, which was mighty cold, and I lasted only a few seconds. The local saying is that if you swim in the Baikal, you will add 25 years to your life. I think I know why: it is hard to get testicular cancer if the “bits” fell off… Having dipped my feet for a few seconds, I think I added at least a week anyway.
On the way back we joined a group of Russians and Brits and together hiked back to Listvyanka. Upon arrival at our cabin we checked ourselves for ticks which are plentiful in the local forests, causing everyone to panic over encephalitis. After a dinner (MORE OMUL !!! Poor Ed..), I chilled out at the beach, and then at the hut in front of the fireplace. Just great stuff…
‘Thursday, June 5th 2003’
We were woken up by the landlady who brought us a yummy surprise: a breakfast of blintzes and jam!!! This was a wonderful feast, and a nice change from sausage and bread. We packed up and headed for the port where we planned on hitching a ride on the hydrofoil service back to Irkutsk. Unfortunately, we failed in that project: much like in China, no one follows any schedules here, and the hydrofoil never came. We had to settle for a minivan ride back into town. Not as adventurous, but at that point we had no alternatives. We checked into the “Angara”, visited my friends at the business centre, and prepared for the train ride to Novosibirsk. I made a few phone calls and by the end of the day finally managed to secure an AirTransat ticket from London to Toronto, thus assuring a comfy end to this trip…
‘Friday, June 6th 2003’
In the AM we walked to the train station. The weather was magnifi-tastic, and the moods were great. Our train departed at 9:30 AM. This one was not as luxurious as the #2, but given the short duration of the trip to Novosibirsk it was ok. I spent something like 8 hours hanging out the window, enjoying the view as the train plowed through central Siberia: hundreds of kilometres of taiga, tiny villages full of wooden houses, and an occasional city. Every so often the train would make a longer stop, and all the passengers would spill out to buy various snacks such as cabbage donuts and smoked fish. I usually opted out of the donut treats. Whenever I got bored of the viewing (sometimes cut short by the gentle spray of the toilets being flushed in the cars ahead of ours), I would retreat and do some reading, or chat with the conductor and his wife. This leg of the trip was very relaxed and quiet. Not for Ed though: he never told me that he was allergic to birch. Russia is pretty much MADE of birch, and in fact we passed nothing but birch forests for the past 2000 km ! There was a lot of sneezing and coughing going on in our compartment, sometimes causing our co-passengers to worry about SARS.
‘Saturday, June 7th / Sunday, June 8th 2003’
We arrived in Novosibirsk at 3PM and checked in at the Railway Station Hotel. Bracing ourselves for a rip-off rate, we were surprised to find out that the room was only 400 roubles each – and we got a clean, spacious and private hotel room! This was a very pleasant surprise. Ed was waiting for a catch, but there was none. The only thing was that there was a shared bathroom, but given the price, I couldn’t care less… The view was onto the rail yard, which made for interesting train spotting
The city of Novosibirsk turned out to be an attraction-free zone. This is the 3rd largest city in the Russian Federation, and with its population of 1.5 million, the largest city in Western Siberia. Born in 1893 as a future site of a railroad bridge crossing the great Siberian river Ob. The point where the latter is crossed by the Trans-Siberian Railroad, officially became a town in 1903. After its foundation in 1893 and until 1926 it was called Novonikolayevsk, referring to Nicolas II, the last emperor of Russia. In Novosibirsk we saw two orthodox churches, the standard Lenin statue, and a small church marking the “mid-point” of Russia. At one point we visited an Irish pub. (IN SIBERIA !!!) We pretended to be Irish; Ed ordered a Guiness and I asked them to play a Riverdance tape, which they actually did have…
(Ed offered an explanation of the Irish Pub phenomenon: apparently any time there is a minimum of 4 drinking age adults, then it is a good enough reason for building an Irish pub, no matter what the location. Interesting.) We discovered that one need not spend more than 5 hours in Novosibirsk to “take it in”. Notable attractions other than the Irish Pub were the laughable “traffic-directing” statue of Lenin (supposedly pointing to a better socialist future which never came), and a horrible “Novosibirsk-style hot dog”, which was sick tasting, although well priced at 6 roubles. We jumped back on the train at 9:30PM, and made a beeline for Moscow.
‘Monday, June 9th 2003’
The ride was quick and sweet. We timed it right to be at an open door (pretty dodgy, considering the train is moving at 130 km/h) precisely at the time when we crossed the border between Asia and Europe. The spot (at 1777km east of Moscow) is actually marked by an obelisk on the south side of the tracks, and marked with an <ASIA/EUROPE> sign. We arrived in Europe at 3:37PM, and we celebrated this with a Fanta and some real Russian borsch which was excellent. The bulk of the time was spent on socializing with our sweet 18 year old provodnica, and our co-passenger Roman (from the city of Dixon in the deep north of Russia), and on dangling out of the open door while taking pictures of the landscape.
‘Tuesday, June 10th 2003’
We completed the Trans-Siberian adventure and arrived in Moscow at 5PM. A young Russian couple we met on the train assisted us in calling a hotel and reserving us a spot for the night. We jumped on the metro and arrived at Kievskaya Hotel, only to find out that we DID NOT have any reservations, that there were no spots, and that we are still out in the uncivilized and unreliable world. Fortunately I managed to get us a room at a hostel in the northern part of Moscow. We still faced a bit of a problem: the directions to the hotel were horrible, and even though it was only about 2 km from the metro line it took us about 2 hours to get to it!!! (Instead of the advertised 7 minutes) By the time we settled into our room we were drained and uninterested in anything, so we just staid at the hostel. I spent a long time in the shower washing out all the Siberian dirt accumulated in my hair during the long hours spent sticking my head out the train window.
‘Wednesday, June 11th 2003’
In the morning we popped into the hotel cafe in order to get our “complimentary” breakfast. Expecting a feast, we were surprised to find out that we each got 2 minuscule Belgian waffles and a tea. At that moment I made a solid plan to visit a McD’s. After our “breakfast” we headed to the Red Square. The most striking thing was its size, or lack thereof. I was always under the impression that it would be really big (kind of like the Tiananmen) but it turned out to be tiny. I have no idea how that German guy managed to land an airplane there back in 1987. The Square was blocked off in preparation for the Independence Day (or something) celebrations, with a big parade scheduled for Thursday. Everyone was in a parade mode, with thousands of students and soldiers hanging around for a practice run of the parade. The Square-facing wall of the GUM department store had a giant two-headed Russian eagle hanging from the roof to the ground level, and there were hundreds of floats, flags, and banners. After determining that the Square will not be accessible anytime soon, we decided to proceed to the Kremlin, right next to the Square. Using our fake student cards we got ourselves a 50% discount on the tickets (still 250 roubles), and we waltzed in through the security checkpoint. The tickets included admission to all the attractions inside the Kremlin, with the exception of the Faberge Egg Museum. We spent a few hours running about, taking pictures and taking it all in.
After the Kremlin we headed to the GUM, which was a very posh establishment, apparently in stark contrast to what it used to be during the communist times. It was however a little void of people, possibly due to the prohibitive cost of the goods. At the other end of the GUM we “found” the St. Basil’s Cathedral, which was cleverly ‘uglified’ with scaffolding, thus ruining any photo opportunity. While there, we caught a glimpse of the practice parade, and then headed inside. While less a church, and more of a museum, St. Basil’s is indeed a very interesting design. The floor plan is a bit of a labyrinth, but the calm atmosphere mixed with the orthodox art made for a very sublime experience. Working our way south of the Square, we headed towards one of the “Seven Sisters”, Stalinist era ‘gothic’ monstrosities-turned-apartment buildings. In all honesty, they would be quite impressive, if it wasn’t for the fact that they have been copied and placed everywhere in the Eastern Block. Hiking about town, we made it to the Lubyanka, the former KGB building, still serving as the HQ of the Russian Federation’s security police. While there we were instructed no to take pictures and in fact to just walk away. We still managed to get a few shots in, and check out the building, which, although boring, was rather rich in history. Later in the afternoon, we hopped on the metro and made our way to the Gorky Park. The Gorky is more of an amusement park than a nature experience, especially with the recently imported rides and attractions from the US. The most interesting attraction was the Buran – one of the three Russian-built space shuttles. I did not know this prior to arrival but after the death of the Russian shuttle program this particular shuttle was sold and moved to Gorky Park and turned into a cheap attraction. In addition to the usual (and fascinating) equipment one finds a 40 seat theatre in the payload bay of the shuttle where tourists can enjoy a movie show for a small fee. The underside of the shuttle was still covered with the ceramic re-entry tiles, and the cockpit still had all the instrumentation. What a horrible way to retire a spaceship!
Next to the Gorky Park is the Tretyakov Gallery and Statue Park. While we gave the gallery a miss, we wandered the Statue Park where larger-than-life statues of Stalin, Brezhnev and the rest of Moscow’s best-known figures can be found, some adorned with graffiti, others with beer bottles, no longer proud. Behind the park we stumbled onto the new and rather controversial monument to Peter the Great. At about 70 meters in height, the thing is nothing more than a waste of money: a big-ass sailboat with an oversize Peter Pan at the helm. It is oddly out of place, considering that St. Petersburg, not Moscow, is Peter’s city! All this at a time when many of the city’s departments are struggling for funds. (When the monument was first erected, it stirred a huge controversy, and an attempt was made to blow it up, resulting in a permanent round-the-clock security staff being assigned…) But that’s how things work here. My feeling is that someone pushed for this monstrosity to be built because there was a heap of cash to be made in kickbacks and such.
‘Thursday, June 12th 2003’
The complimentary breakfast was once again a disappointment, but we did it just because we already paid for it. We headed to the Square for the parade, only to learn that it was already blocked off by security forces and that apparently the parade is not for the public, but for Vladimir Putin alone. We hiked around until we found a spot at the riverside from which we could barely see bits and pieces of the parade: soldiers and children dancing and prancing in their patriotic ballet. Interestingly, we were situated right in front of 18 artillery canons, dragged there by the Army Parade Team for the big gun salute. When they finally did go off, the concussion made me unwilling and unable to keep my hands away from my ears, thus preventing me from taking pictures of the event, which culminated in a fly-by of four MiG-29’s directly over our heads. Thus, bombarded by sonic waves and showered by cannon wadding, we were enjoying mere scraps of Vlad’s special day…
Shortly before the 18 gun salute a strange competing parade rolled down the street next to us: hundreds of priests and thousands of people carrying crosses, icons, and banners, humming and singing, came out of the blue, escorted by hundreds of riot police. I never managed to figure out what THAT was all about. The parade seemed to originate from the kitschy Christ-the-Savior cathedral, so we headed that way. Built in 1997, the cathedral sported a lot of cheesiness, but fortunately was closed for the day. At that point we were close to the Pushkin gallery of Fine Arts, and it sounded great.
Just before making it to the Pushkin Gallery we were accosted by a pair of shady characters who demanded to see our passports. They showed us their “police i.d. cards”, but we were warned about this earlier, and so we decided to play dumb. I pretended that I can’t understand any Russian, and that the word “passport” had no meaning. Ed responded to everything with random Chinese phrases he learned over the months, and I just responded with a mix of gibberish and English purposely out of the reach of the guys comprehension. The guy was getting visibly frustrated, but the bottom line was that we were not willing to turn our passports (or our money) over to them. I asked him why he cant speak any English, to which he retorted that “when I am in London I will speak English”. I thought “ok, and then I will show you my passport”. We stared at each other for a few minutes, and then they decided to let us go.
Here is a good time to explain the scam: A cop (most often this is done by real cops) asks you for your I.D., which with foreigners invariably means “passport”. You hand it over, they discover some sort of discrepancy – wrong stamp, lack of stamp, or the stamp is wrong colour… Anything. Then they refuse to give the passport back, saying that it will take a few days to clear up, but they offer to speed things up and “forget the problem” if you lube them up with cash. This works especially well for them when the victim is about to fly out of Russia, as they will pay 2-3 hundred dollars which will still be cheaper than the price of a new ticket to New York or Sydney. You can dodge it in several ways:
1) only cary a photocopy of your passport
2) don’t speak English (but don’t replace it with anything they might understand, like Polish or Czech)
3) MAKE A SCENE!
An easy way to create a diversion would be for Ed to punch me in the head right there, but I was afraid that he was only too willing, after being stuck with me on a train for nearly a week. We dealt with it by playing dumb, and pulling out wrong things from our pockets: receipts, bus tickets, museum tickets, Chapstick, ketchup packets, lint… Anything, other than passport. It’s good fun!
We moved on. The Pushkin gallery was excellent. Their collection of renaissance and baroque art was quite extensive, and also they had some good impressionist stuff. We spent several hours there, after which we headed to a posh looking e-cafe, and made our way to the hostel at 1:30 AM, which made for a nice and paranoia-laden hike through the ghetto. We were not concerned about robbers or nazis, we were worried that we would run into the cops again. Nightmare!
‘Friday, June 13th 2003’
We spent the day without a plan, just fluttering about. The Red Square was now open and clear of parade crap. We bummed around, then took a metro to the Novodevichye Cemetery, a burial site for many prominent Russians. Ed and I engaged in a debate about Russian politics somewhere near Nikita Khrushchev’s grave, which eventually resulted in an old woman coming up to us and giving us shit about being too loud in a cemetery. I tried to explain to her that Khrushchev isn’t really SLEEPING, so he is probably ok with us talking, but the old bag wouldn’t have any of it, called the security guard, and had us kicked out. Dumb bitch.
Next, the Museum of Cosmonautics, was a really interesting experience. The museum is housed in the base of the impressive monument dedicated ‘To the Conquerors of Space’: an enormous silver rocket soaring into the sky on a 100-meter tall stream of glistening titanium. Undoubtedly the most impressive Soviet construction in Moscow, the monument was built in 1964 to commemorate the launch of Russia’s Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. Inside, it exhibits a fascinating array of space paraphernalia from the very first rocket engine, mock-ups of satellites and moon-walkers, cosmonauts’ space suits (including Gagarin’s) and numerous photos from Star City, Russia’s cosmonaut training centre.
Afterwards we decided to head to the Ostankino TV tower, now easily within sight. Erected in 1967, the tower 540 metre tower is the second tallest free-standing building in the world (as of 2003), and the first in Europe. It has a structural weight of over 55,000 tons. Standing so tall, the Ostankino Tower is something of an architectural surprise in a city that is not known for its skyscrapers. It apparently takes just 58 seconds for visitors to reach the observation deck, which, located at a height of 1,105 feet (337 metres) above ground, presents an entirely different perspective of Moscow. Just below the observation deck are the three dining rooms of The Seventh Heaven, a large restaurant. More than a tourist attraction, the tower transmits signals of 11 television stations, 12 radio-broadcasting stations and 17 satellite TV programmes distributed through the wireless telecommunication network. Renowned for blah blah blah blah, it is also a major tourist attraction…
…Or it COULD BE… We hiked for about 30 minutes, expecting great views and a nice snack at Moscow’s highest restaurant, only to find that we couldn’t get in. After inquiring with some people on the street, we were told that there was a fire in the tower several years ago, and the whole thing was gutted and off limits. The funniest thing is that then and there I remembered that it burned out, but since the LP recommended it, I thought that perhaps it was all fixed up and good to go again. Damn. We battled some heavy rains (it was a showery day) and made it back to the Square, where a policeman offered us a visit to Lenin’s Tomb for “only” a 1000 roubles. Yet another scam: everyone knows that the admission is FREE. I told him I had no money. Ed did same, but in Chinese, just to be safe.
Saturday, June 14th / Sunday, June 15th 2003′
Transit day. We took a 9 hour train ride to St. Petersburg, with a lucky seat assignment: no window! Nothing… Just a metal wall… Shit! It was a slow, boring day. I entertained myself by chatting with locals, but really, having no window SUCKS because we were there to SEE the country, not talk about it. We arrived in St. Pete at 10PM. After a few frantic hours spent on searching for a hostel, we arrived and settled in for the night, which, incidentally, was not very dark this far north.
A bit about the city, lifted from Wikipedia:
Saint Petersburg was the capital of Imperial Russia. Founded by Tsar Peter the Great on the 27th of May 1703, the city was built by conscripted peasants and Swedish prisoners-of-war. Peter died in 1725, and since his push for modernization of Russia had met opposition from the old-fashioned Russian nobility (resulting in several attempts on his life and a treason case involving his own son) , in 1728, Peter II of Russia moved his seat back to Moscow. Four years later, in 1732, under Empress Anna of Russia, Saint Petersburg again became the capital of the Empire. It remained the seat of the Romanov Dynasty and the Imperial Court of the Russian Tzars, as well as the seat of the Russian government, for another 186 years until the communist revolution of 1917.
On January 26, 1924, five days after Lenin’s death, Petrograd was renamed Leningrad. During World War 2, Leningrad was besieged by the Germans. The siege lasted an amazing 872 days, from September 1941 to January 1944. The Siege of Leningrad was one of the longest, most destructive, and most lethal sieges of a major city in modern history. It isolated the city from most supplies except those provided through the Road of Life across the Lake Ladoga, and more than a million civilians died, mainly from starvation.
After the fall of communism, the city’s name was changed back to “St. Petersburg”, but many people continue to use the old name.
The story continues: The next morning we decided to take it easy and just take things as they came, with no plan. We visited the Kazan Cathedral during their Sunday mass, which was quite impressive. The building is one of the world’s grandest structures, and the choir was giving it a surreal feel. I found myself strangely elated. Or something. Next stop was the St. Isaac’s Cathedral, even grander in size. St. Isaac’s Cathedral was once the main church of St. Petersburg and the largest church of Russia. It was built in 1818-58 by a French-born architect Auguste Montferrand, who was commissioned to build the most spectacular church – a prime landmark of the Russian Imperial capital. One hundred and eighty years later the gilded dome of St. Isaac’s still dominates the skyline of St. Petersburg. Although the cathedral is smaller than a newly rebuilt Church of Christ the Savior in Moscow, it has by far more inspirational facades and interiors. The facades are decorated with sculptures and massive granite columns (made of single pieces of red granite), while the interiors dazzle the eye with mosaic icons, paintings and columns made of malachite and lapis lazuli. A large stained glass of “Resurrected Christ” located inside the main altar is truly fascinating. The church, designed to accommodate 14 thousand standing worshipers (yeah! holy fuck!), was closed in the early 1930s and reopened as a museum. Nowadays, the church services have resumed. We climbed up to the top of the cathedral and hiked around the dome, enjoying the fantastic views of the city. We then scouted other attractions around town and headed home. At the hostel we found out that the real price of our room was $15 per person, not $25 as requested by the “helpful booking agent”. We made a serious stink with the management, and ended up getting the real price, instead of the “foreigner rip off price”. In Russia scams are dime a dozen…
‘Monday, June 16th – Friday, June 20th 2003’
We didn’t check in advance, but it turned out that both the Hermitage and the Aurora were closed for the day. It was then decided to visit the Peter and Paul fortress, best known for the jail where many opposition leaders were imprisoned by the Tsar, and as the resting place of the Romanov family, murdered during the Bolshevik Revolution. We also visited the Museum of Russian Political History which had a phenomenal collection of propaganda as well as rare counter-revolutionary posters and related material. It also happens to have been Lenin’s office during the period immediately prior to the revolution.
Tuesday was spent at the Winter Palace, home to the Hermitage Museum, which is huge and incredible. From the 1760s the Winter Palace was the main residence of the Russian Tsars. Magnificently located on the bank of the Neva River, this Baroque-style palace is perhaps the major attraction of St. Petersburg. The green-and-white three-storey palace is truly impressive: it has 1786 doors, 1945 windows and 1057 halls and rooms, many of which are open to the public. The Baroque Winter Palace was built in 1754-62 for Empress Elisabeth, daughter of Peter the Great. By the time it was completed Elisabeth had already died, and only Catherine the Great and her successors could enjoy their new home. Many of the impressive interiors have been remodelled since then, particularly after 1837, when a huge fire destroyed most of the palace. Nowadays the Winter Palace, together with four more buildings houses the extensive collections of the Hermitage. The Hermitage Museum is the largest art gallery in Russia and is among the largest and most respected art museums in the world. The museum was founded in 1764 when Catherine the Great purchased a collection of 255 paintings from Berlin. Nowadays, the Hermitage has about 2.7 million exhibits and displays a full range of world art from Ancient Egypt to early 20th century Europe.
The museum is home to various works by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, unique collections of Rembrandt, Rubens, French Impressionists (Renoir, Cezanne, Manet, Monet, Pissarro), plus Van Gogh, Matisse, Gauguin and sculptures by Rodin. The collection is huge and very exciting: you can be absorbed for days in its treasures and still come out wishing for more. It has been calculated that if you decide to spend only one minute in front of each exhibit, you will have to stay in the Hermitage for 11 years. I certainly spent a lot of time there… In fact, I have never seen a museum as great as this, and it is a must for anyone serious about art history. In the evening we bummed around taking night shots. This was very interesting, as the sun doesn’t set until 11PM or so, and even at 1AM the sky is still blueish as opposed to black. We had the full “white night” experience…
On Wednesday we made it to the cruiser “Aurora”. This historical ship has been turned into a museum and is located just a few hundred yards from the Peter and Paul Fortress. The cruiser, built in St Petersburg in 1897-1900, took an active part in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. It participated in the Tsusima battle, in which most of Russia’s Pacific fleet was destroyed. After the war the ship was used for personnel training and during the October revolution of 1917 gave the signal (by firing a blank shot) to storm of the Winter Palace, which was being used as a residence by the democratic, but largely ineffective Provisional Government.
On Thursday we took a bus to Peterhoff, the world-famous Royal country residence, a town of parks, palaces and fountains, was founded in the beginning of the 18th century by Peter the Great. The Park was laid out between 1714 and 1725. The fountains at Peterhoff are all gravity-fed and amazing. This is not a nature experience, although two naturists decided to bare-all and take a dip in the Gulf of Finland, causing a bit of a spectacle. We decided to return to St. Petersburg on a hydrofoil. Using my charms I managed to get us student fares for the trip, thus going easy on our wallets. On the way back we passed several Navy ships, a huge hovercraft, and managed to slam full-speed into a log floating on the bay. I climbed onto the roof and Ed took a few snaps of me struggling for balance, and managed to cover my camera with salty spray. On Friday I returned to the Hermitage (part of the reason is that the admission is free for students!). When the museum closed down we bummed around town, visited an e-caf, and otherwise killed time until our train departure time at 11:36 PM.
‘Saturday, June 21st 2003’
I woke up at 10AM or so… Much to my surprise we were not moving, and the car doors were open. I stepped out onto the platform only to find that we were disconnected from the train and just sitting on the side of some dinky station! I turned out that our car gets attached to an express train Moscow-Berlin, which was to arrive at 4PM. “Toto, we are NOT in Russia anymore…”
Hungry, I decided to head into the station. After asking for a bottle of Pepsi and some boiled eggs, I found that I was unable to pay for them, as I only had Russian rubles, and we were in BELARUS!!!!! Thus ended the Russian adventure… The express train arrived, and took us to the Polish border via Brest. Shortly before we crossed the border the train had to go through the gauge change – European tracks are about 10 cm narrower than Russian ones, which means that all the wheels and axles have to be changed. Fortunately this is a speedy procedure, and only took 2 hours. The Polish border guards came onto the train at Terespol, stamped our passports, glanced at our compartment at left. No questions, no paperwork. I went back to sleep. On Sunday, the 22nd , I woke up somewhere around Kutno, and stared out the window until we got to a station in Poznan, about an hour away from the German border. The German border controls were similarly quick, didn’t even stamp my passport, and before we knew it, we were in Berlin. Back in the West!!! From Vladivostok to Berlin on a train. Almost 12,000 km (11,812km) in 24 days. Not a speed record by any means, but a speanktastic adventure!!!
Thanks, Russia! It’s been GREAT!!!
Please go to the “Photos” section for more stuff from Russia…