Dredged out these old photographs I had stored on the website Panoramio. Panoramio is a cool Google Mashup which allows you to tag your photographs based on location in Google Maps and view them on a map of the world. However, since Flickr added geotagging functionality I have found myself visiting far less often.
Archive for the 'Europe' Category
I think my body forgave me for my few days of excess because I woke up on the morning of the 2nd bright and early and raring to head off to Ayutthaya. First off though, we had to get in touch with Claudia, an old friend of both Samantha and myself, who was arriving in Bangkok to being a 4 month study period ina town south of Bangkok (the name escapes me now). Claudia was flying in from Holland with basically no idea of where she was going or when she was getting there and our planning for her arrival was just about as well planned. We had booked a room for Claudia but had no idea when she was arriving and had no means of getting in touch as our mobiles didn’t work and hers would obviously be off because she was flying. We had told reception that somebody may or may not be coming to take a room at some point during the day and our plan was to wait atthe hotel until about 10am at the latest and if there was no news, leave a sorry note at reception and head off. Besides, we couldn’t lose out last day in Thailand waiting for somebody who might not even make it, right? That was how I was justifying leaving our friend alone in a Bangkok hotel anyway. Luckily, it didn’t come to that and while we were getting ready to head down for breakfast, our room phone rang with Claudia on the other end so we grabbed some food while she got ready and headed off for a little adventure.
There are several ways to get to Ayutthaya from your typical Bangkok hotel/guest house. Most hotels offer a car service that will drive you there and back. One shifty looking gent offered to drive us to Ayutthaya and wait for the day before driving us back to the tune of 2000 baht. We laughed and headed off because I knew we could get there for a fraction of that price (even though a driver for a day for 50 euros is hardly unreasonable…). We chose to travel by bus from Bangkok North/Northeastern bus station in the north of Bangkok and it set us back only 35baht each. The buses run from early morning through to around 7pm and are clean, air conditioned and fairly pleasant. Our bus even had a TV which was showing showing some strange show where a giant lizard fought with a huge millipede. It was brutal to say the least. Alternatively you can travel by train for even less (15 baht…thats right 25pence for a 2 hour train journey…) which turned out to be how we decied to come back. That is a story in itself, though. There are also boat tours that can take you up there but they were well out of our budget. I seem to remember prices being around the 6000 baht area for a full day cruise and tour guide etc but that sounded not only excessively expensive but also a bit dusty and boring.
A bit about Ayutthaya
Most people we mentioned this part of our trip to pretty much all responded the same way: “Where?”. Well, I am no historian but I figured I would write a little about why we would jump on a bus for 2 hours to some place nobody seems to have heard of instead of spending more time in the wonderful Bangkok. So here goes, Joe’s history of Ayutthaya:
The kingdom of Ayutthaya (Thai: ??????) was a Thai kingdom that existed from 1350 to 1767. King Ramathibodi I (Uthong) founded Ayutthaya as the capital of his kingdom in 1350 and absorbed Sukhothai, 640 km to the north, in 1376. Over the next four centuries the kingdom expanded to become the nation of Siam, whose borders were roughly those of modern Thailand, except for the north, the Kingdom of Lannathai. Ayutthaya was friendly towards foreign traders……………………..
Okay! Okay! I don’t know how much more I will bother to put here before you realise I am just copy and pasting this all from Wikipedia. Just go read the rest here if you really give a damn. On with my story.
What we did!
Our day in Ayutthaya was easily the cultural highlight of the trip (unless you call getting hammered on the Khaosan Road a cultural experience). The historical park area of Ayutthaya is incredible and there is so much to see you could never fit it all into one day so we thought it best to just hit the ‘must sees’ as highlighted by my Lonely Planet. On arriving we jumped into a Tuk Tuk so I could fulfil a little promise I made. One of my Christmas gifts to Samantha was an IOU note saying: “IOU one elephant ride around Ayutthaya” so it was off to the Ayutthaya elephant kraal with my fingers crossed that things were back up and running since the flooding of Ayutthaya a few months back. Before heading out I had sent several e-mails first to the elephant camp where the working elephants live and to Eleaid, a charity based in the UK, that are devoted to spreading awareness about Asian elephants and the many problems surrounding them. Instead of going into a long rant about the abusive treatment of many elephants in Thailand (and other parts of Asia) in the name of the tourism industry, I will simply provide a few Links (here, here, here) where you can find out more information. In the mean time rest assured that the kraal we travelled to was recommended by Eleaid and even the camp invited us to go and visit sometime. For 20 baht you can buy baskets of food for the elephants and feed them yourself. The younger elephants are walking freely around the place while the elephants ‘saddled up’ are behind a barrier but seem to be pretty practiced at stealing food with their trunks while you are not looking. The ride itself was great fun and despite not being able to see much of the temples up close (the elephants can’t enter the temple grounds) it was a really enjoyable way to see the area. Besides, I was sitting on a massive elephant, I didn’t really care.
They say that when you have no plans then nothing can really go wrong, and that was definitely true of today. We set out to visit some of the larger temples in the area, browse a few markets and get some sun on our pasty limbs and we did just that. From the impressive ground of Wat Phra Si Sanphet to the famous buddha head wrapped in a Banyan tree at Wat Mahathat we strolled (or Tuk Tuk-ed) around Ayutthaya catching up with Claudia (I hadn’t seen her in over 5 years!) taking in the sights and sounds and generally having a great time. We had a really pleasant meal by the river and got the ferry over to the train station to head back to Bangkok as the sun set on a wonderful day. The train, however, was a different story. At first we thought we wouldn’t make it on as it was so overcrowded, and when we finally did, we realised that we would be spending the next 2 hours standing uncomfortably between other passengers, drink vendors and sacks of rice. It was worse than the Hong Kong MTR at rush hour, and a lot longer too. I apologised to the girls for bringing them back this way (of course the train was my idea…) but we made it eventually back to our hotel. I felt like one of the elephants back in Ayutthaya, tired from a long day of walking around in the sun and craving a good watering and a feed.
What I got was a VERY good feed and plenty of watering (i.e. more Thai whiskey…). We headed out to town at around 2am to see if anything was still open, but were greeted with nothing more than deserted streets. It was the first time we had truly registered the impact of the bombings and it made me feel almost guilty for having so much fun. A cab driver tried to convince us that the only place to party on a night like tonight was Patpong, Bangkok’s notorious sleaze street, and we fell for it. I have seen Patpong in full swing, and despite the sleaze and crust, it still holds a strange sort of charm in the same way the Red Light District of Amsterdam does. It is Bangkok institution and everybody goes at some point. However, tonight was a different story. I would seem since the bombing, the ‘sensible’ tourists had returned home or stayed in (as we should have) and only the lowest of the low were out on the prowl. I mean transexuals are part and parcel of the Bangkok experience and really don’t weird me out or even make me turn up an eyebrow, but tonight the street was littered with the sort of Ladyboys that give Ladyboys a bad name. They in turn were surrounded with the sort of people that give people a bad name. In short, it was disgusting and one look at the road led us straight back to the cab and back to the hotel where we made the decision that sleeping is for losers. Instead, we drained out minibars and when sunlight came around felt very silly for doing so, because out flight home was in an hour or two. So we negotiated our way to Bangkok airport in a bleary eyed mess and somehow found our way back to Hong Kong.
I guess the story ends there.
Photo’s on my Flickr as Usual!
Ahhh my desk. My keyboard. My headset. My broken desk chair. All of these things I had forgotten about over the last few days are back once again. Maybe I have become accustomed to my holidays being at least a few weeks long during my life as a student, but 4 days will always be too short. Especially for Thailand!That said, we crammed a hell of a lot in, and therefore I have a hell of a lot to cram into this post! So letâ€™s get going!
All the way to Thailand, Samantha and I had been arranging mock schedules for the evening which would allow us to fit in a swim in the hotel pool, a nice dinner as well as a few drinks before getting an early night, ready to be fresh faced for my friendâ€™s arrival from Singapore on the morning of the 31st. Like most of these plans nothing happened the way it should have and the night went more like this: We got to the hotel, faffed around in the room for too long, had a delicious Thai meal before doing a bit of shopping on the Khaosan road. After that, there was nothing else to do but get our party hat on and have a corker of a night out dancing to an amazing ska band and hitting the Thai whiskey with reckless abandon. We even managed to fit a swim in but it was at around 2AM, in our underpants, well after the hotel pool had closed. I don’t mean to gush, but I guess there is nothing else to say about the night other than it was the sort of night out that you dream about having with a girl.
We woke up far from fresh-faced the next morning, but refused to let it get the better of us and after an awful hotel breakfast we headed meet my friends Julien and Cecile at their hotel on the other side of town. We toyed with getting a Tuk Tuk over to the hotel but after haggling it down from 200 to 150 baht we figured we would get a meter taxi to see the price difference. The cab cost us just under 60 baht (thatâ€™s about 1GBP). When we met them and decided to get going on our day tour of Bangkok we stopped worrying about these small sums of money and jumped into a Tuk Tuk to see as much as we could. The day was great and we traveled to several of the more impressive temples of Bangkok, saw the Grand Palace and the largest markets in the city before heading on a longboat cruise down the canals. There are lots of photos of the day (as well as the rest of my trip) on my Flickr.
The Bangkok canal system was an unexpected surprise and a great experience. I never realised the number and length of the canals around Bangkok, nor did I realise the lifestyle of the people who live along them. Bangkok its self is a city as busy and metropolitan as any of the big Asian capitals. Skyscrapers, traffic, pollution and everything else unremarkable about any city in the world. However, a short boat ride transports you to a different world of canals, floating house and bank side monasteries. Watching the families starting their New Years celebrations on the canals while their children swam and fed the fish I felt like we had either gone back in time or I had fallen asleep for a while and the Longboat driver was taking the piss a little and had whisked us off to a distance fishing village for the afternoon. After an hour or so of wide eyed gazing, though, it was back to the smog.
As the sun set over the Chao Phraya River our thoughts turned to the night and the New Year eve party ahead. We had already draining the best part of two bottles of Sang Som (Thai whiskey) between the four of us during the day, so it wasn’t going to take much to put us into 100% party mode… We headed back to our hotels with the promise of meeting at our hotel bar later that night to begin our celebration. I’m not even going to bother describing the night in detail. It was the best New Years I have ever had, and that is saying something considering the scale of some NYE parties I have had. I guess it wasn’t the scale of the party that defined it though. In Julien, Cecile and Samantha I had the best company imaginable and we made an awesome party unit together, but was more than that. The vibe was electric regardless of the bombings that took place earlier that night. The Khaosan road was packed solid with hundreds of partygoers and the bars and clubs were heaving. People were singing and dancing in the street and the land of smiles cast its spell over all present. There are a thousand and one little stories about what happened at what bar, who sprayed silly strings in whose eyes and who was dumb enough to buy a bunch of knockout buckets (me) but to put it short it was a perfect New Years.
Of course, it finished up with us in the pool in our underpants again…
We woke up the next day feeling like utter crap. Horrible. After ensuring all our loved ones knew we hadn’t been blown to bits we set off to see what we could see. Basically, everything we wanted to do went wrong in some way, so we resolved to just wander down to the market area of the Chinatown district of Bangkok. It was all pretty nice, but very crowded and we were all feeling a bit sorry for ourselves. As such, the day was fairly uneventful and most of it was spent reminiscing on the zanier moments of the night before and stopping every 10 minutes to drink water. In the evening we thought it safest not to hit the town as further bomb threats had been made and most international governments has requested tourists avoid crowded spaces in case more bombs went off. They didn’t, but if I had gone out the strain of drinking more Thai whiskey would probably have killed me anyway. So we said goodbye to Julien and Cecile who shot off to resume their lives and got an early night ready for our daytrip to Ayutthaya the next day.
Which will be in my next post!!
I drank some tea.
I wondered what the hell a man does with himself in Irkutsk.
I fell asleep.
I woke up a few hours later face first on the kitchen table to see a couple of oddly familiar looking girls. It soon dawned on me that I had seen them one night in the restaurant car during the last leg of the Trans-Siberian but never bothered going over to say hello. They started discussing their need to renew their VISAs, and it dawned on me that I needed to too. Fortunately I had picked up some good advice from a lost hippie who was hanging around the hostel earlier that the Hotel Angara in the city centre performed VISA registration for an unlimited period for a meager 200 rubles, whilst our hostel hostess was trying to charge us far more to only register it for the days I would be staying at the hostel. I saw this as the chance to make some friends and get something constructive done so I pounced and the next thing I was wandering the streets of Irkutsk trying to track down the hotel with Emily and Ellie. The three of us wandered from the hostel to get something to eat, having no idea that we had been snared into a strange web that had been spinning around me and everybody I met. A web which would eventually bring me back in contact with several groups of people I had met at completely unexpected points along the rest of my trip. We compared itineraries and it turned out we all had the same plan of seeing what we thought of Irkutsk before heading down to spend as much time as possible by Lake Baikal, it was clear we would be hanging out for a bit.
As for Irkutsk, well, I didn’t think much of it to be honest. Like so many historical cities worldwide, Irkutsk is now trying too hard to be a modern city and all the new construction and ubiquitous road works have placed a dusty, noisy mask over what is left of the true charm of the city. The highlight of Irkutsk has to be the wooden Decembrist houses scattered throughout the winding streets. The Decembrists (aside from being a rather good band) were a rebel group of Russian army officers who returned to Russia in the early 1800s, after extended periods in Western Europe, with drastically altered views on how their country should be run. Having experienced the more liberal forms of rule there which existed, and succeeded, with far less Monarchist influence they returned determined to make a change to the Tsarist regime which continued to reign supreme in Russia. When Tsar Alexander the 1st popped his clogs in 1825 they saw their chance to seize control, so in December they marched into Senate Square in St.Petersburg with hundreds of their troops and demanded change. Unfortunately, the powers that were weren’t too keen on crazy ideas like democracy, human rights and the elimination of serfdom and on top of those now known as the Decembrists didn’t manage the whole ordeal too well, and in the end 5 of the head honchos were eventually hung (in bizarre circumstances) and everybody else sent off to a lifetime of labour as far away from civilisation as possible. In Siberia. Anyway, to cut a long history lesson short, seeming they were stuck in places like Irkutsk for life, they made the most of it and erected some impressive wooden houses.
The houses have withstood a fair few harsh Siberian winters and many still stand (sometimes only just) today. For many of them the history of the buildings is more impressive than the structures themselves, whilst for others are equal in both appearance and substance. To be brutally honest though, despite my initial intrigue I became fairly numb to them fairly quickly. Maybe I missed the point, but Irkutsk just didn’t hold much more appeal to me after this. I was eager to get to Lake Baikal, a place I have dreamed about going to for years, so I got down to some research and decided that the best place on the banks of Baikal for me to visit would be Listvyanka, a small port town opposite Port Baikal on the southwest tip of the lake. Located just off of the Circum-Baikal railway, Listvyanka sounded just the way to experience Baikal and soak up the unique lakeside culture whilst not straying too far from Irkutsk where I would need to return to in a few days. Luck was on our side and we were offered some (supposedly) nice accommodation at a small art gallery right by the lake for next to nothing and we got an early night in order to get a bright an early minibus to Listvyanka the next day.
Okay, so we didn’t get such an early night and wound up at a horrible Russian Karaoke bar with some Irish lads we met belting back more than our share of Vodkas and I was a bit of a sorry sight at 8am the next day. We delayed our departure a bit and decided we would instead head over and get a group taxi from the Main bus station when we felt up to it. At around 11am we finally set off for Baikal in style; crammed into the back of a minivan laden with backpacks, suitcases and fishermen, nursing the slightest Vodka induced headache. I realized the driver was clearly insane as we hurtled through the busy streets weaving in and out of trams and humans at break-neck speeds and off into the countryside. Once out of the city the road to Listvyanka is as straight as an arrow and lined with beautiful pine forest which I could just about make out as it flew past our window. The ride is about an hour and a half long (whilst traveling at these speeds) and fairly uninteresting unless you REALLY like pine trees. However, as we skidded, tilting around a corner at 1000mph the trees dropped off into the sea to reveal Lake Baikal in all its glory. I was lost for words. For the first time in my trip I wasn’t thinking about what country was next on the list, when my next train left or where I would sleep tonight, I could only stare in wonder at the sheer size and beauty of this lake in the blistering midday Siberian sun. Eventually I managed to blurt out something, which considering I was in the back of an over packed deathtrap of a minivan with a suitcase and large backpack crushing my legs, was a little bit daft:
“Right now, there is nowhere else on this, or any, planet I would rather be”.
I meant it.
Okay, so I was at work this week thinking about the Trans-Siberian railway and I put together my Top Ten Survival Tips. Of course, these are only formed by my experience on the railway and are just a bit of fun, but with any luck they could help anybody who is thinking of taking this amazing trip! Here goes…
1. Come Prepared
Any travel guides you may have (buy one, you won’t regret it) will be sure to have a decent list of useful stuff to bring on the Trans-Siberian railway, but here are a few extra tips. If you are staying on the train for a long stint, bear in mind that you won’t get the chance to access much more than pretty basic supplies for most of the trip so come prepared. There is nothing worse than waking up freezing cold and thirsty at 3am in your pitch black carriage, gasping for a sip of water of reliable origin.
The different numbered trains vary slightly in terms of what you can purchase on board and the facilities offered as standard. Some may have plentiful toilet paper supplies, others don’t, some provide cutlery and mugs, others don’t. In other words, it’s best not to take any chances. One piece of kit you should definitely bring is a plug for the toilet sinks. Nearly none of the bathrooms have these so if you want to fill the basin up for a wash or shave at any point you are going to need one. As for food and drink supplies don’t expect anything other than basics along the route, so if you can’t go without smoked salmon or quails eggs for a few days then bring your own.
2. Stay Safe
Traveling the Trans-Siberian is like traveling anywhere else and the same safety rules apply. Be aware. Remember that you will almost always stand out as a tourist and, therefore, a target. Just don’t make yourself an easy one. Generally speaking, the Trans-Siberian route is pretty safe, however, it always pays to stay savvy. Keep an eye on your stuff, and even if you get the impression that you are in a carriage with some nice people, you never know if they might be tempted to make off with a little ‘souvenir’ when they jump off at their stop in the middle of the night. Single women (and men) traveling in 4 berth cabins should be careful too, you may get stuck with some people who you really don’t feel happy with. Be sure to make your Provodnista aware if you feel unsafe or uncomfortable at any time. It is not unusual for solo traveling ladies to travel in third class on many trains as you will be unlikely to find yourself alone with an inappropriate passenger with the extra people around. When you are off the train, be aware of trackside pickpockets and as ever when traveling keep your money and documents somewhere safe, and preferably with you at all times. Remember also that when you get off the train, anybody else can still be on it so don’t leave any gifts on display for them. Don’t worry too much about people coming from off the platforms onto the train, though, Provodnistas are fiercely protective of their carriages and will always be manning the door whilst you are catching some fresh air.
I came off my train without a mobile phone.
3. Keep an Eye on the Time.
All carriages have a timetable on the wall containing times for all the major stops along the route. Keep an eye on these so that you are ready to hop off and mosey around the stations and pick up supplies when you get the chance. Some of the stations have some worthwhile attractions to check out, whilst others are completely featureless. All, however, offer fresh air and, normally, the chance to at least pick up a few supplies. It’s worthwhile setting an alarm for early morning stops, and waking up to realised you missed the last stop by an hour and the next isn’t for another 6. Late night stops can generally be missed, as the vendors tend to shut up shop and trackside merchants are scarce, especially in the winter. Also, keep an eye on the time zone changes and local times. All trains in Russia run on Moscow time, so donâ€™t be surprised when it is pitch black and the train clock reads 5pm. Also, if you are taking the Trans-Manchurian/Mongolian train, be aware that your ticket will state Moscow times for your Russian departures then swap to local times for your arrivals once you cross the border.
4. Befriend Your Provodnista
Your Provodnista is your best friend on this trip! They are in charge of keeping your carriage in order, often lend or sell useful supplies and are generally very useful people to have on your side. Even if there is a foot thick language barrier between the pair of you try to smile, be nice and avoid irritating them as they will inevitably be the person you have to bargain with if something goes wrong. Aside from essentials or potential problems, having a good relationship with your Provodnista could even give you access to some creature comforts like extra pillows or blankets. They are generally friendly and helpful (unless you are unlucky), but they are unlikely to make the effort unless you do especially if there are language difficulties. Basically, a little effort could go a very long way.
5. Bring entertainment
Books, cards, music, games or even a snazzy little portable DVD player. Despite some dramatic scenery there are only so many trees you can whiz past before the view becomes a little monotonous. At other points of the journey, the view can, frankly, be a little depressing. So what better than trying to explain Uno to a Russian teenager, tucking into a foot thick fantasy novel or watching dodgy pirated Moscow DVDs with complete strangers to wile away those long hours between stops.
6. Watch Your Sleeping Pattern
Whether your cabin mates are trying their best to keep you up, you can’t get comfortable on your train bed, you are partying way too hard or you have general lethargy induced by days of not venturing more than a stones throw from the train you spend all day on, be wary of your sleeping patterns. For those prone to napping, it’s very easy to find yourself rocked to sleep by the train at three in the afternoon only to wake up at 8pm and consequently still be wide awake at 3am. Added to this is the fact that the Trans-Siberian railway stretches across several time zones which you cruise in and out of seamlessly. Next thing you know you are wide awake at 3am or falling asleep at noon, all the while gaining or losing an hour for every day or so of travel. Not a nice shock to the system when you finally arrive at your location at six in the morning having been wide awake since midnight.
7. Money Issues
Donâ€™t forget to bring cash. You are unlikely to have any access to ATMs except for at bigger stations, and even then don’t rely on it. So if you plan to pick up any supplies or souvenirs as you go then bring plenty of rubles. Be careful, however, not to bring too much as you are made to declare all of you cash as you cross international borders and if you have a large sum you could run into problems as the Russian Government are funny about tourists taking money out of the country. Also, it is handy to have some US dollars or Euros for changing with the hordes of money changers that will flood your carriage if you are entering Mongolia. They will also take any left over rubles you want to dump. Never accept the first price you are given for your money from these money changers, and be ready for a good haggle if you want to get considerably more togrog for your buck.
8. Stock up at your stops
And enjoy the evolving cuisine as you make tracks across Russia! The food and drink on the train can be pretty disappointing and overpriced to boot. Unfortunately, the only real other source of hot food onboard is anything that be made with boiling water, available in every carriage. However, as anybody who has ever traveled unprepared on a long train journey will tell you, instant noodles get very tedious, very quickly. On the other hands the trackside Babushkas and kiosks, omnipresent at all the main stops, have more than enough to keep your stomach happy. As you move from region to region what you can buy varies, so tuck into varieties of dried fish from waterside towns to bags full of pine nuts in Alpine areas. Also expect a range of dried meats and sausages and other great nibbles throughout. Aside from food you can also pick up all other sorts of supplies from toothpaste to cold drinks and vodka, a key socializing tool on the train!
9. Don’t wander too far from the train!
More of a follow up to the last tip, but important enough to be a tip of its own! Be sure to ask how long you have at each stop if you plan to go for a stroll. Even then, donâ€™t be tempted to stray too far. The best advice is to just to at least to keep the train in sight and be ready to dash back when you notice the platform starting to empty back onboard. If you do find yourself out of sight, then just make sure you are back at the train 5 minutes before you have been told it is due to leave as they normally start getting people back onboard around that time. They will leave without you. That said, donâ€™t be afraid to have a wander, the train is very unlikely to head off earlier than planned.
10. Have fun!
If you can’t enjoy traveling as much as arriving, the Trans-Siberian railway just isn’t the place for you! The journey isn’t a hop from A to B but a completely unique travel experience in its own right. Whether you are working your way across in shorter jumps or traveling several days at a time don’t miss the chance to experience Russia from a unique perspective. Take time to meet new, interesting and often completely mental people. Take in the views, which range everywhere from grey, dreary industrial towns to epic forest landscapes, and fill your memory cards to the brim. Make sure you get your Russian/Mongolian/Chinese phrasebook out and embarrass yourself, sample the varying food along the way, have a good haggle and an even better laugh. Itâ€™s an amazing journey, enjoy it.
It was late and I was a mixture of tipsy, excited, slightly lost and a wee bit apprehensive about the trip ahead of me as I stood on the tiny platform that marked the starting point of the mother of all train journeys. My awe inspiring Russian language skills had got me this far and now it was just a matter of waiting under the announcement board for my train number to come up. I decided that seeming I had already started drinking I would continue, so I headed to a kiosk to pick up a bottle or two of Baltika 7 to pass the time. Standing outside, I spotted two lads laughing and speaking English and as I passed they made a beautifully inappropriate comment about some people they had been traveling with that made me chuckle. As I returned from the kiosk, they were still at it and I decided I had to introduce myself, it was clear they were waiting for the same train as I was, they seemed like fun, and I was eager to establish some English speaking acquaintances on the train as sooner rather than later. The very moment I decided to say “hello”, our platform flashed up on the screen and so I used that as an excuse to strike up conversation. It turned out this would be one of the better decisions I would make on my trip.
Adam and Jon turned out to be a really nice pair of young lads from London who were in Russia on a program to practice their Russian whilst traveling across the country. It also turned out they were staying one carriage down from my own and had an almost identical itinerary to my own whilst traveling across the trans-Siberian. What’s more: they had a bag full of snacks and vodka and spoke Russian. On getting to my carriage I was feeling very lucky to have met the pair of them and we arranged to meet up and hang out a bit after we left to get settled into our cabins. My luck only seemed to get better when I got to my room to find I have been moved to the Provodnista’s cabin which instead of being a 4-berth is made for 1, with a sofa seat instead of a bottom bunk and a bed on top. I dropped my bag and took a photo of what (I thought) would be my home for the next four days.
Soon after I had made the top bunk bed, my Provodnista was tapping on my door, and told me to make up the bottom bunk as that is where I would be staying. Concerned that I might be staying in the same room as her, virtually rendering my chances of partying in my cabin impossible, I cursed my luck and started making up the bed. However, it turned out to be my lucky day and the top bunk was in fact for an energetic teenager who seemed quite good fun, though we could barely communicate. He declined my offer of a beer but invited me to the smoking cabin for a cigarette, which I accepted even though I don’t really smoke. Whilst standing between carriages, Adam and Jon showed up and had a chat with the Russian lad who turned out to be called Igor, and was the son of my carriages Provodnista. We went back and introduced ourselves to Igor’s mum and then the four of us disappeared into my cabin for the rest of the night armed with some munchables, a pack of cards and a couple of bottles of vodka.
When I awoke, slightly hung over and completely unaware of what time it was, the train was stopped. I clambered off my bed, slung some shorts and sandals on and pottered, bleary eyed, onto the platform. It was a miserable day but the cool drizzle on my face did better for me than a hundred aspirin ever could and soon Igor was waving a pack of cigarettes in my face again. Soon after, the other two had joined us and we went for a stroll to pick up some food and drink. So it continued for the next few days, the four of us hanging out in our tiny cabin or the restaurant car, drinking, smoking and playing cards. We made an effort to get off every time the train stopped to have a little wander or pick up supplies. A few of the stations have some interesting things to see, or an impressive interior or such, but a large proportion offer nothing but a chance to stretch your legs. I could write for hours about the journey and the things we saw and discussed along the way but it would be of no interest to anybody but me. Likewise an exact itinerary of the journey would be a bit of a dull affair. I guess the trans-Siberian railway is a fairly dull affair at its core. I don’t know what possible appeal I saw in days and days on a train traveling through the closest thing there is to ‘the middle of nowhere’ but not for one second did I regret it. A whole host of weird things happened from stealing the key to the rear door of the train and getting photos of us hanging out the back to late night discussions with Russian fighter pilots, but in general most of the time was spent doing…not much really. I suppose ‘surreal’ is the only way to describe the whole occasion.
Whilst alone, most of my time was spent staring out of my little window, marveling at the enormity of the Russian landscape. All along the way, I was pinching myself. Whether at a decaying Siberian industrial town or making tracks through the beautiful Urals into Asian Russia I found it hard to believe that I was finally here; traveling across Russia on the Trans-Siberian railway.
Then, as quickly as it had begun, I was standing on the platform in Irkutsk, saying goodbye. I left the station alone, figured out roughly how to walk to my hostel and set off across a bridge over the Angara River. It was sunny. Painfully bright. In fact, Siberia was damn hot…
…and a very strange place.
Moscow is a huge, sprawling, beast of a city with a population to match. I read on the mighty Wikipedia that is actually the most populous city in Europe and as such expected Hong Kong-esque bustling streets and an overcrowded city centre. However, Moscow being the behemoth it is, you are never faced with the sense of overcrowding that you get even in cities like London. Either that or half of the 10.5m population live underground or something.
In fact, the most crowded place I did visit in Moscow was underground. The Moscow metro has to be the most impressive metro system around and is a tourist attraction in its own right. The stations are all built adhering to the typical “look how big and mighty we are” guidelines and this soviet scale and style is apparent in every station. However, every station seems to be different from the last as well. The walls, floors and ceilings are plastered with classic communist imagery and you are never further than a sickle throw from a statue of some square jawed chap looking determined or an angry looking eagle.
Above ground most of Moscow is equally impressive with its imposing buildings and countless monuments harking back to days long gone. I didn’t get half as much time as I would have liked whilst in Moscow and a couple of days simply arenâ€™t enough. I had a reasonably priced, clean and comfortable hostel in a good spot and could happily have spent a week roaming the streets and checking out the sites. Alas, I had only two days and one night to see what I could so I contented myself with a trip to Red Square and the Kremlin, had a stroll around the epic GUM State Department Store and popped in to check up on Lenin. Having a look at Lenin lying in his mausoleum at the heart of Red Square is definitely an interesting experience but I couldn’t help but laugh. Now I know it might seem the wrong thing to do, however, I couldn’t keep the laughter in when the guy in front of me turned to his mate and loudly whispered, “He looks like he is covered in butter”. When the echoing of my snort of laughter finally hushed over the deathly silent chamber I made a hasty escape under the glaring eyes of some pretty pissed off looking guards and some amused looking tourists.
Red Square and the Kremlin are pretty magnificent but heaving with tourists, Lenin/Stalin look-alikes posing for pictures, crap souvenirs and even a couple of dancing monkeys. Of particular annoyance is the constant presence of Russian police checking VISA validity. Russian Visas need to be registered for every three days spent in a different place; if they are not appropriately registered you are liable to suffer a pretty hefty fine (at worst about US$200) and a lot of hassle. In Red Square (in particular) the number of Russian police ensuring that neglected Visas are found and fined is overwhelming, and in two days mine was checked twice. Of course, being the responsible traveler I am, my documents were all in order but that didn’t seem to stop them trying to extract a ‘fine’. One guard was convinced that the fact I did not have my VISA registered in Moscow despite the fact I would not be there for three days (and had both my incoming and outgoing train ticket to prove it) still constituted a breach of VISA law. I challenged him on this and muttered an exchange with his colleague in Russia before they both grunted and sent me on my way, but by many accounts some people have not been so lucky and been ‘fined’ or paid an outright bribe to avoid whatever it is they would have done if you refused. You may find yourself asking, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”. Well, the situation has got to the point where a separate branch of the police are actually employed in order to keep an eye on the notoriously corrupt Moscow street police.
The last thing I did before setting off to leave Moscow was drop by a supermarket to buy some supplies for the next and most exciting leg of my trip. I had been chatting to a lad in Moscow who had just completed the Irkutsk – to Moscow leg of the trans-Siberian in the opposite direction. After listening to some of his stories I figured my best change of finding some people to hang out with should I find myself in a carriage with absolutely no other English speakers was to buy a few bottles of Vodka, because “all Russians speak Vodka”. So stocked up with snacks, vodka and shiny new ticket I headed towards Moscow station to embark on the longest train journey of my life.
The 5151km #10 train to Irkutsk, Siberia.