Articles tagged with "russia"

Through Belarus

Through Belarus

I’d only meant to spend a couple of days in Moscow at first, but it had held on to me for six days and I really wanted to stay longer. But I was still almost two thousand miles from home and I had to be back at work in just over a week, so I bought a ticket for a train to Warsaw, via Belarus, and reluctantly left Russia.

Compared to the epic crossing of the vastness of Siberia, I thought the journey might seem quite quick, and it did. We left Moscow at 3pm, and it seemed like about five minutes later that we reached Smolensk. The Russian border was somewhere soon after Smolensk, but we didn’t stop. It seemed that Belarus and Russia were only nominally separate countries.

One thing this journey lacked was food. All throughout Siberia there had been home-made food being sold on station platforms, and it was delicious. In western Russia no-one was selling, except for a woman with a box of ice creams on Vyazma station, three hours out of Moscow. One ice cream is not an adequate dinner, and I would have eaten something more filling in the restaurant car, except this train didn’t have a restaurant car. The only other food available was a free croissant in the sleeping cabin.

We entered Belarus at sunset. I was sad not to be seeing any of this enigmatic country, but I only had a transit visa so I couldn’t stop off. I woke up in the middle of the night when we stopped at Minsk station, and got off the train to stretch my legs. I was feeling quite adventurous, being in what is always described as Europe’s last communist dictatorship, and a country with isolationist tendencies of almost North Korean proportions, but this feeling was shattered when I noticed a McDonalds in the station building.

I slept again until the border with Poland, which we reached at dawn. We stopped first at Brest, where everyone piled off the train into duty free and stocked up on booze. Vodka and toblerone were the only things on sale in the station shop. By now I was starving beyond belief, but didn’t fancy toblerone for breakfast, so I stayed hungry until we finally rolled into Warszawa Centralna station at 9.45 in the morning.


Metro tour

Metro tour

On my last day in Moscow, I invested 3 roubles and 50 kopeks – about seven pence – in a trip on the metro. It’s famously grand, and I’d already travelled on it a lot, but today my mission was to take photographs. I travelled around the brown line, which has the most lavishly decorated stations. Each one felt like a museum, with Socialist Realist murals covering the walls, chandeliers to light the corridors and a well-kept feel. In all the tearing down of statues that accompanied the fall of communism, it seemed like some kind of oversight that all these stations were left with all their communist regalia.

Besides being impressively decorated, the metro was also much more frequent and seemed to be more reliable than the London underground. I never had to wait more than two minutes for a train, even late at night, and never had a breakdown. My favourite station was Kievskaya, which had the most impressive murals and grandest atmosphere.


VDNKh

VDNKh

If the VDNKh was a country, it would be as big as Monaco and the Vatican City put together. This huge area in the north of Moscow is the site of what used to be the Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy, and is now a massive marketplace, where everything you can get in Moscow is on sale. I went there with Andrew and Paul who had been on the train.

At the entrance to the VDNKh is a monument to the Soviet exploration of space. By all sensible measures, the USSR dominated the early space race, being the first to put a satellite into orbit, a person into orbit, and probes to the Moon, Venus and Mars. In later years their dominance was eroded, and the Russian space programme suffered a crushing blow in 1996 when a Mars-bound probe, on which scientists had worked unpaid for years since the fall of the USSR, exploded in the Earth’s atmosphere. Now they mainly do rent-a-space-station activities, taking obscene amounts of money from a select band of obscenely wealthy people to put them on the International Space Station for a week.

They achieved so much but fell so far, and for that reason I found the soaring monument quite poignant. The rest of the VDNKh was also pretty poignant, with giant pavilions formerly the site of exhibitions from all the Soviet republics now filled with market traders. Along broad avenues between the pavilions, fountains played under the hot sun, and triumphal arches towered over it all.

The whole time I was in Moscow I felt an atmosphere of fading grandeur. The city had been the capital of a superpower. The power had faded but the relics were left behind. Nowhere was this feeling stronger than at the VDNKh, where the former celebration of the achievements of communism was now overrun with pure capitalism. As the sun began to set, I head back to the Hostel Asia.


Lenin

Lenin

I changed hostels after a couple of days in Moscow, because some people I’d met on the train were staying in the Hostel Asia, and it sounded much nicer than the Sherstone. So I headed over there early one morning with all my colossal backpacks, only to find that the lifts weren’t working. The Hostel Asia is on the 15th floor. It was a very hot day. I did not feel happy when I reached the top.

After recovering over breakfast, I headed to Red Square once again, and went to visit Lenin. My glimpse of Mao had been a very brief one, but Lenin turned out to be much more civilised. The queue was quite long and it didn’t move very fast, but once I made it inside, there was no great pressure to move on. He was more subtly lit than Mao, and looked much less orange. In fact, he looked remarkably good for someone who had died 76 years beforehand. Some might say he looked suspiciously good.


Red Square

Red Square

I spent my first day in Moscow just wandering randomly. I bumped into a girl who had been on the train, and we had lunch together. She joined me on the random wander, and we walked down from Arbatskaya where we’d eaten to the Moskva River, along past the grotesque statue of Peter the Great, which is one of the tallest statues in the world, and then to Red Square. All roads led back to here in the end. Among the downsides of this iconic place were frequent police checks which clearly targeted foreigners, and large numbers of people trying to sell stamps and banknotes from Soviet times at vastly inflated prices. But the upsides were the spectacular sight of St. Basil’s Cathedral, the Kremlin, Lenin’s mausoleum, and the feeling of being at the very heart of Russia.

On my second day I met some more people who had been on the train, and we went into St. Basil’s. Like the Tardis, it was far bigger on the inside than it appeared on the outside, and its twisting corridors were full of pre-renaissance art. We also went to the Kremlin, which was very impressive, but I’d made a major tactical error with my camera: bags had to be left at one of the gates, and I’d left my camera in my bag, so I didn’t get any photos of the views over the river, the churches on Sobornaya Ploshchad, and the giant Tsar Kolokol bell, which cracked before it ever rang a note.


Into Moscow

Into Moscow

I don’t think I’d been tipping when I ate in the restaurant car. In China, there was no tipping. The first time I tried leaving some change on the table, the waiter came after me with it, thinking I’d left it by mistake. Russia was completely the opposite, and tipping lavishly is vital, especially when there is only one place to eat and you have to go there every day. But I had got used to not tipping, and I kept forgetting. By the final morning they had clearly got fed up of me. I was going to have a final breakfast with a bunch of people I’d been hanging around with, but the woman in the restaurant car wouldn’t serve me. Everyone else got their food, but my order was met with a look of extreme disapproval and a sharp “nyet”. Then we tried to play cards as we watched western Russia pass by, but the woman came over and shouted at us until we left.

Being hungry just added to the slightly melancholy air of my final morning. I actually didn’t really want to arrive in Moscow, and I would have been quite happy to sit on the train for another six days. The kilometre posts were now in triple figures, so we’d travelled more than seven thousand kilometres, and I watched them slowly count down. It seemed odd to feel so close to the end, when were still a few hundred miles away yet.

We got to Moscow’s pointy-roofed Yaroslavsky Station fifteen minutes early, after a journey of 132 hours. Just before I’d left Beijing I’d e-mailed a hostel to book a bed and a lift from the station, but they hadn’t replied so I wasn’t sure if I would be homeless or not, but there was a man outside the station with a battered car and a sign saying ‘Roger’, so off I went to the Hostel Sherstone.

I headed straight out into Moscow. I got lost on the way to Vladykino metro station, which was a good distance away through grim-looking estates full of box-like apartment buildings, and then got lost at the other end as well. Borovitskaya metro looked quite close to Red Square on the map, but I walked for quite some distance before I suddenly found it. I’ll never forget the sight of St. Basil’s Cathedral appearing in front of me, more preposterous and impressive in real life than it ever looked in all the photos I’d ever seen of it.

That night, back at the Sherstone, after I’d gone to bed and was laying in the dark, I had the sound of the train in my ears, and I felt like I was still rocking about as we clattered along the longest railway in the world.


Over the Urals

Over the Urals

Today we crossed from Asia into Europe. The arbitrary line is marked by an obelisk which I imagine would be almost impossible to get a decent photograph, or even view of, from from the train, but everyone tries anyway. I tried, along with Martin from Sweden who I’d met in the waiting room at Beijing Station, and who’d been a regular in the evening games of Shithead. We walked down the train trying to find a window to try and spot the obelisk from, but people had been staking them out and every one was already occupied. Eventually we got to the restaurant car, and there was a door by the kitchen which was open, with just a small piece of rope to stop passers-by falling from the train. We thought this looked like a good place. But with two kilometres to go, the dragon who ran the restaurant car came and shouted at us, moving us on and looking like she wanted to kill us. By the time we found anywhere else with a view, we were already in Europe.

The dividing line between the two continents is the Ural Mountains, and we spent the day winding through them. They were very different to the endless steppes of Siberia, with rivers and hills and a generally verdant air. We reached Perm not long before sunset, leaving the Urals behind and now having only 1436 kilometres to go until Moscow.

In the night, an apocalyptic thunderstorm blew up. Lightning flashed all around, and rain lashed the carriages. The train suddenly came to a halt – a Russian-speaker who had asked a provodnik later told me it was because of a lightning strike to the overhead power lines – and we were stationary for a couple of hours. While we were stopped, the thunder was so loud and close that the carriages were shaking. Eventually the storm passed. Somehow, the train was restarted, and we pushed on towards Moscow.


Through the steppes

Through the steppes

With no border to cross during the third night, I got a good night’s sleep for the first time since leaving Beijing. I slept right through Krasnoyarsk and the Yenisei River, which I’d wanted to see, but I woke up in time to see us pass kilometre post 3933, marking the half way point of our journey. One thing that surprised me was how fast we were going. The only other trains journeys I’d done of anything like comparable distance were in Australia, and there the trains never felt like they really got going, rumbling along slowly and averaging about 30 miles an hour. Here in Siberia we were racing along most of the time, eating up the miles, but still needing six days to cover the whole five thousand.

All across Siberia, there were women on station platforms selling hom-made food. At Mariinsk, I’d just bought a tasty bread thing with potatoes and herbs in it, when an out of breath German guy accompanied by two angry-looking Russians rushed up to me and asked me if I could possibly lend him 200 US dollars. I couldn’t, but Andrew from Australia who I’d been talking to had lots of dollars, and by coincidence the German had a lot of Aussie dollars with him, so they came to a deal.

As the train pulled away, we found out what had happened. At a stop two hours earlier, the German had checked with the provodnik that we would be stopping for a little while, and then gone into the station building to buy some water. This involved crossing some tracks. When he came out from the building, there was a vast freight train going by on the tracks between him and us, and by the time it passed, our train had left. He’d got a taxi to the next stop, but arrived there just as our train pulled out. His first taxi driver didn’t want to drive any further, so the two of them got into a second taxi and chased us down. They caught us up at Mariinsk, but then the two taxi drivers demanded extravagant payment. With Andrew’s help, they were paid off, and the German was now laughing about the whole thing. I didn’t think I would have been.

In the afternoon we passed Novosibirsk and crossed over the Ob river. The temperature was 30°C, which seemed strange in Siberia. We had 3335 kilometres and three time zones to cross before Moscow.


Around Baikal

Around Baikal

I was excited to be in Russia. Getting a visa had been the most difficult thing about my trip: I’d got my Mongolian one with the greatest of ease at 10am one sunny Monday morning in June, and so I thought I’d try and get the Russian one the same day. I walked through Hyde Park to Bayswater Road, and quickly found the queue. Equally quickly I realised it was going nowhere, and I decided to come back earlier the next day. I did that, but it was beginning to look like getting a visa would be more difficult than I’d expected, because I queued for two hours, until the consulate closed, and didn’t even get into the building.

The next day was Russian Independence Day and the consulate was closed. The day after that I went into battle for the third time, arriving at the embassy at 8.15am. At 9am the doors opened and the queue moved forward, but it stopped before I got in the building. Three hours later, the queue hadn’t moved and I was still visa-less. It looked like some serious early starting would be required and so my fourth queue experience began at 6.15am, after I’d got the first tube of the day from Bounds Green into town. This time at 9am I actually got into the building, and I felt like a visa was within my grasp. But again I was denied. The queue moved interminably slowly and I got nowhere near the front. When the shutters came down at midday, a scuffle broke out at the front with someone who needed a visa urgently banging on the glass and demanding to see the consul.

I spent the weekend wondering whether to entirely rethink my plans. It seemed almost totally impossible to get hold of a Russian visa without paying wads of cash to agencies to do it for you. I’d already spent almost twelve hours in the queue and now the only option seemed to be to sleep on the pavement outside.

In the end I decided to do that. Late one warm evening early in my second week of trying to get a visa, I packed up my sleeping bag, thermos and a bag of sandwiches and headed for Kensington for my first experience of sleeping rough. I reached the gate, and to my relief I was the first person there. I bedded down outside, and thought that these were ridiculous lengths to go to. But I was in too deep and I couldn’t pull out of the battle. It was visa or death for me now.

At 2am another visa-seeker arrived, in disbelief that he was not the first in the queue. About half an hour later another person arrived, and people continued to join in ones and twos throughout the night. At 3am it began to rain heavily, and soon there was lightning and thunder. I crawled inside my sleeping bag.

By 6am it had stopped thundering, and an influx of people from the first tubes had started arriving. There were still three hours to wait until the doors would open, and my morale was slipping. I held on, though, and got into the building at 9am. If anyone had tried to push in front of me now, I would have killed them with my bare hands. I went to the window and handed over my forms, pulling twigs from my damp hair and brushing dirt off myself. Half an hour later, my forms had been processed, my passport was taken, and I was told I’d have a visa by the following day. As I staggered away, a security officer was shouting at the queue, saying that they were too noisy and that no more visas would be given out until there was total silence. I left the quietening embassy behind and went home to sleep.

Having gone through all that, I thought that Russia had better be good. And it was, here in the far east. When I got up we were in forests, but soon we reached the shores of Lake Baikal. It looked stunning under big blue skies, with misty mountains visible on the opposite shore. The waves virtually lapped at the tracks at times. We spent a few hours rolling along by the lake before reaching Irkutsk in the mid-afternoon.

In the evening I played cards in the restaurant car. Among the players this evening was a small Mongolian boy, whose parents were traders, travelling back and forth on the train, buying Russian things to sell in China and vice versa. This boy clearly had a lot of time on his hands to perfect the art of Shithead, and he won frequently.


Across Mongolia

Across Mongolia

I woke up at 5.30am, and saw a fantastic sunrise over the Gobi Desert. I couldn’t believe that I was really in Mongolia – to me, no country has a name that sounds more remote and forbidding. And the wild expanses were frighteningly empty. Nothing but grass stretched away into the distance as far as I could see. No signs of human habitation interrupted the view.

We sped across the country. Occasionally a single tent would appear in the midst of the howling wilderness, signifying that some solitary nomad was working the land. Then, in the early afternoon signs of people became more numerous, and we were approaching Ulaanbaatar. There were no buildings in the outer parts of the city – just tents. I’d never expected the capital to look like a giant campsite, but it seemed that even urban Mongolians did not wish to stray far from their nomadic roots, and were always ready to move on at a moment’s notice.

The centre of the city was a different story. Unpaved muddy streets ran between concrete monstrosity buildings, and the whole thing seemed to me to be the ugliest place I’d ever seen. I had been talking to an Australian journalist on the train, who was about to live here for a year working for an English-language newspaper, and I wondered what she was thinking as we pulled into the station. I’d have been thinking “Screw this, I’m staying on until Moscow” if I’d been her.

We moved on. Southern Mongolia had been flat and grassy; northern Mongolia was hilly and barren. The lack of population was striking, and I had a huge craving to come here and trek in the emptiness. That would have to wait for another trip though. I watched the country go by, mesmerised by it.

In the evening I went to the restaurant car. Last night it had been a Chinese Railways restaurant car; we’d ditched that at the border and picked up a Mongolian one, so I got the classic Mongolian meal of mutton. I met a few other travellers over dinner, and once darkness had fallen we played cards until we reached the Russian border at Sukhbaatar. Last night’s border crossing had been slow, but this one was even slower, despite there being no wheel changing operation. We arrived at 9.30pm, and spent a couple of hours going through the Mongolian formalities. Then we rumbled over to Naushki in Russia, and I was not surprised at all that the Russian formalities took a very long time. Part of the reason was the smuggling – a lot of people on the train were carrying a lot of goods on which they didn’t want to pay import taxes, and a lot of distribution of possessions had gone on. Maybe some people get caught; more likely, a bribe or two is paid here and there. Everyone in my carriage got through the customs checks OK, and at 5.30am we powered off into Russia.