Friday, December 18, 2009

The Siege Of Leningrad

This time in the run up to Christmas, instead of talking about my daily experiences I wanted to take you back to the siege of St. Petersburg in 1942, then known as Leningrad. I am aware that we live in a multinational society and manage to live more or less in peace without the old spectres of history past haunting our newly found camaraderie. Therefore, this is not an attempt to recall the past to score points against any nationality, race or creed, but simply a story of humanity continuing to be creative in destructive times.
During the 900 day siege of Leningrad, which lasted from 1941 to 1944, the city’s almost three million civilians refused to surrender. Food, heat and almost everything else, was heavily rationed and reached an all time low at one point of only 125 grams of bread per person per day. In just two months, January and February of 1942, 200,000 people died in Leningrad of cold and starvation.
Besides their daily struggle of defending the city, the Leningraders were also writing poetry and music. It was then that the renowned Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his famous Seventh Symphony that immediately became a stirring anthem to the world. Problem was, the Leningrad radio orchestra was now too small to play the Seventh Symphony. The score called for 80 musicians and there were only a handful of them spared by famine and the enemy bullets at the frontlines. Shostakovich made a radio announcement inviting the musicians who were still alive to join in. Unit commanders dispatched their musicians with special passes, which said that they had been relieved from combat duty to perform the Seventh Symphony by Dmitri Shostakovich.
Finally, they all got together for the first rehearsal, their hands roughened from combat duty, trembling from malnutrition, but everybody still clinging to their instruments as if for their own life. That was the shortest rehearsal ever, lasting for just 15 minutes because that was all the emaciated players could afford in energy. Conductor Karl Eliasberg barely able to stand himself, now knew that the orchestra would play the symphony.
August 9th, 1942 was just another day in the besieged city. But not for the musicians, though who, visibly uplifted, were busily preparing for the first ever public performance of the Seventh Symphony. Karl Eliasberg later wrote recalling that memorable day: ‘The chandeliers were all aglow in the Philharmonic Hall jam packed by writers, artists and academics. Military men were also very much in presence, most of them right from the battlefront…’
The conductor, his tuxedo hanging loosely from his emaciated body, stepped to the pulpit, his baton trembling in his hand, and suddenly the hall filled with the stirringly beautiful chords of one of the best musical pieces Shostakovich had ever written in his whole life.
When the last chord trailed off there was silence. Then the whole place literally exploded with thunderous applause. People rose to their feet, tears rolling down their faces.
Buoyed by the deafening success of their performance and visibly proud of themselves, the musicians were happily hugging each other. The concert was blasted throughout the streets of the war torn city by a series of hastily erected speakers. Tens of thousands who risked their lives and gathered to listen to the music were visibly uplifted by it. Today, walk along Nevsky Prospekt and you will see a small insignificant single grey loudspeaker still attached to an old lamppost near Kazan cathedral that has been left in honour of that memorable day. Triumph over adversity always creates a sense of hope for humanity. Back to the present day and another year is almost over. I want to thank all my readers and supporters over the last year. I sincerely hope you all have a wonderful Christmas and a better year in 2010.

Day 21 - 30th July 2009

St. Petersburg was the dream of Tsar Peter I (Peter the Great) and was built around 1700 in an incredibly short number of years. What caused it to be located so far west were the constant incursions by the Swedish navy along the vast Neva river which flows through the city’s heart today. Peter originally built a fortress on the shores and always envious of the cultural heritage of his western royal cousins in Europe (and, it has to be said, somewhat embarrassed by the peasant population of Russia), ordained that a new cultural capital be built on the spot to outshine all other cities that had gone before in Russian history. The result was a city that grew virtually overnight at incredible expense to the crown. It’s location proved to be a major problem, with extreme cold temperatures in winter and scorching summers infested with mosquitoes. However, it continued as the capital well past the reign of Peter’s daughter Catherine the Great. After around two hundred years as the capital it was renamed Leningrad and relegated to the minor divisions after the Communist Revolution of 1917. The grandeur is now faded in many areas but the cultural heritage and remaining buildings still manage to take the breath away. Walking along the main hustle and bustle street of Nevsky Prospekt led me to the Winter Palace that was home to ‘The Hermitage’ - reputed to be the largest art gallery and museum in the world. Apparently there are so many artworks in the museum that if you were to spend one minute in front of each artwork you couldn’t view everything in the entire collection in your lifetime! The attendants never get to see more than their own sections during their whole careers. Artworks by all the well known suspects of the last century adorn the walls as you would expect and the attendants in these areas were completely bored and not the most pleasant. Understandable really, if you are asked the same, mundane questions day in, day out I suppose, as these areas are the most frequented.

I accidentally wandered into the section for the Indian and oriental arts and was surprised to find the place completely empty. Obviously no one visits there very often, save students and enthusiasts of these eras, and the attendant, an older lady, was delighted to have someone to talk to. She walked me around all the exhibits and explained in great detail about the history of each piece. I nodded enthusiastically as she elaborated but hadn’t the heart to tell her I didn’t speak Russian. She was so pleased that someone had called in to see her that she shook my hand warmly as I left.
Crossing the square and by-passing Madonna’s crew going through their routine in advance of her concert I headed for the canal and a trip around the city by water. This gives you the opportunity to view a city from a different vantage point, and also time to rest your weary feet.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Day 21 - 30th July 2009

St. Petersburg was the dream of Tsar Peter I (Peter the Great) and was built around 1700 in an incredibly short number of years. What caused it to be located so far west were the constant incursions by the Swedish navy along the vast Neva river which flows through the city’s heart today. Peter originally built a fortress on the shores and always envious of the cultural heritage of his western royal cousins in Europe (and, it has to be said, somewhat embarrassed by the peasant population of Russia), ordained that a new cultural capital be built on the spot to outshine all other cities that had gone before in Russian history. The result was a city that grew virtually overnight at incredible expense to the crown.
It’s location proved to be a major problem, with extreme cold temperatures in winter and scorching summers infested with mosquitoes. However, it continued as the capital well past the reign of Peter’s daughter Catherine the Great. After around two hundred years as the capital it was renamed Leningrad and relegated to the minor divisions after the Communist Revolution of 1917. The grandeur is now faded in many areas but the cultural heritage and remaining buildings still manage to take the breath away.
Walking along the main hustle and bustle street of Nevsky Prospekt led me to the Winter Palace that was home to ‘The Hermitage’ - reputed to be the largest art gallery and museum in the world. Apparently there are so many artworks in the museum that if you were to spend one minute in front of each artwork you couldn’t view everything in the entire collection in your lifetime! The attendants never get to see more than their own sections during their whole careers.
Artworks by all the well known suspects of the last century adorn the walls as you would expect and the attendants in these areas were completely bored and not the most pleasant. Understandable really, if you are asked the same, mundane questions day in, day out I suppose, as these areas are the most frequented.
I accidentally wandered into the section for the Indian and oriental arts and was surprised to find the place completely empty. Obviously no one visits there very often, save students and enthusiasts of these eras, and the attendant, an older lady, was delighted to have someone to talk to. She walked me around all the exhibits and explained in great detail about the history of each piece. I nodded enthusiastically as she elaborated but hadn’t the heart to tell her I didn’t speak Russian. She was so pleased that someone had called in to see her that she shook my hand warmly as I left.
Crossing the square and by-passing Madonna’s crew going through their routine in advance of her concert I headed for the canal and a trip around the city by water. This gives you the opportunity to view a city from a different vantage point, and also time to rest your weary feet.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Day 20 - 29th July 2009

We caught the train in the late morning for the last 650km of our epic train journey. The quality of the trains had improved with each leg of our journey. I felt sorry for anyone travelling the Trans-Siberian Railway the conventional way - west to east. Their trip would only get gradually worse. This last train was the first time we had toilet paper supplied free! We even had a free hot lunch with all the trimmings. Oh, the extravagance of it all! St. Petersburg promised to be the jewel in the crown of former communist Russia. I looked forward to it with anticipation….

Day 19 - 28th July 2009

Saw me visit Lenin’s tomb. Sitting in the middle of Red Square is the mausoleum where Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s body is held, suspended for eternity. An impressive location for the man who, it could be rightly claimed, changed the course of modern history. After queuing for an hour or so to enter the chamber, and going down and down through countless sets of guards and doors into an ever colder environment I finally reached the refrigerated central chamber. I was amazed to see his glass sarcophagus was lit up in what was otherwise a dimly lit room. We were firmly urged to keep walking so managed to spend maybe 30 seconds in his company as we walked down one side, past his feet and back up the other. He looked like a waxwork dummy. Perhaps that’s all he was. I remember hearing that Mao was rumoured to have a waxwork replica that stood in for him when he was being re-stuffed. Lenin was also surprisingly small - considering the size of his brain. Outside we walked past plaques in the wall where all the previous leaders had supposedly been entombed. Stalin, Kruschev, Breshniev. They were all there. We all go the same way in the end.
Leaving the square I saw people standing on a bronze plate in the street and throwing coins over their shoulders. After enquiring what it was all about I was told it was to mark the dead centre of Moscow and throwing a coin over your shoulder was considered good luck. There were three old ladies standing around the people throwing coins and as each hopeful stood on the copper plate, made their wish and cast their money in the hope of great fortune, the old ladies would fight over the coins. They would check to see if the coin was silver or copper. Apparently the copper ones weren’t worth bending down for as they just seemed interested in anyone throwing larger denominations. They were the only ones making a fortune that day. A walk later by the Volga river brought me to the Moscow modern art museum. Nearby a gigantic statue of Peter the Great dominated the landscape. It must have been at least fifteen stories tall. An incredible sight that just took the breath away. An early night was called for as the next day we headed for our final destination in Russia - St. Petersburg.

Day 18 - 27th July 2009 Monday

Churchill said it well when he described Russia as ‘a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma’. I always expected to see the country behind the curtain as a sad and grey world of long queues for food and a sense of desperation borne out of long years of hardship. Perhaps that is still prevalent in the outlying areas well away from Moscow. After all, it took me the best part of a week to barely scratch the surface of a country that covers two continents. The biggest single country in the world. Big statistics, big place, big impressions. It definitely made a big impression on me. Average monthly wages range from €150 in the far reaches from the empirical heart of the capital, and rise exponentially as you approach the political centre to somewhere in the region of €800 or more per month. As I sat there in Red Square on a beautiful sunny day fanned gently by a light cooling summer breeze I watched hordes of tourists descend on these images so well known from postcards, television and movies over the years.Pokrovsky cathedral was an architectural wonder to behold and being set at the end of Red Square acted either as the opening act or finale to what must be one of the great spectacles of the modern world, depending on which way you enter the square. Buildings so grand in style and so large as not to be able to take everything in at one or even two glances. Perhaps Russia, and more particularly Moscow, was essentially at one time a closed world to the west but as I listened to the languages and accents around me, I could see it had opened up into a cosmopolitan and welcoming space. How tolerant that would be were you to exercise your democratic rights as you would expect them to be upheld in other western countries I don’t know. I certainly didn’t intend to find out either. The day was Monday and, like Mao, Lenin was out visiting his relatives that day, so I left a note to say I hoped to get a chance to call in and say hello the following day.The numerous buildings around seemed to be brocaded in gold. I wondered how they stopped it all from tarnishing? The colours transfixed the gaze, all helped of course by the bright sunshine.Perhaps it wasn’t quite so breathtaking in the depths of winter. That night we had tickets for the last night of the season’s Bolshoi Ballet. At €125 a ticket it was expensive, but surely one of the must-sees of Moscow? We rushed back to get showered, get much wrinkled clothes as unwrinkled as possible, and headed out on the town.The Bolshoi was everything I expected it to be and being the last night, there was a full house. The old ladies in the balconies used their theatre glasses to look, not at the dancers, but at the audience. To see and be seen was as important at this cultural gathering as the dancing. No late night at the after show party for me, as the following day I had an important appointment to keep with Lenin.

Day 17 - 26th July 2009 Sunday

The last day on a train for a while, thank God. A 5.30am start due to all the time changes ensured a fuzzy head. The last time change to Moscow time was finally around the corner - literally. The sun shone for the first time in a few days and we had breakfast in the restaurant car as a treat. There was less than 1000km left to go!!
The entrepreneurial kitchen assistant kept coming round the compartments selling fried doughnuts. I looked at her and said ‘Meat?’ She nodded and said ‘Meat’. It was, just.
It was very quiet on the train now with most people having left the train during the evening or night before at the large cities en route to Moscow. Plug girl and friends made themselves pretty in advance of arrival. Anticipation grew as we entered the outskirts of the city at last. Graffiti is graffiti the world over. Finally, after passing through industrial areas, the train slowly pulled into Moscow and a fanfare of music announced our triumphant arrival.
We were met on the platform by a guide who gave us all the information we needed to travel onwards to St. Petersburg after our time in Moscow was complete. He walked at about one hundred miles an hour and spoke at the same speed. I had trouble keeping up while carrying all my bags. Outside, we ran the usual gamut of hoards of poor people hanging around the entrance to the station, then as soon as he had shown us the entrance to the Metro he disappeared like magic! He gave us everything we needed but did so in about 3 minutes flat. We were left feeling bewildered as to what to do next, but eventually talked over what he had said and managed to pick out the information we needed to find our hotel.
We took the Metro to our hotel in the Arbatskaya area, a suburb of the city that had become renowned as being the cultural capital of the city. As we staggered from the Metro, the first impression of Moscow was a forward thinking, bright and colourful city with fantastic buildings and crazy traffic constantly travelling at breakneck speeds. Asking directions we were advised to use the pedestrian underpasses below the roads at all times, because the traffic was so heavy. The hotel turned out to be in the embassy quarter and was thus full of private clubs and call girls touting for business, but still pleasant and unthreatening. Harry Potter was on in the cinema, as it had been in every city en route, in every language. The magic of advertising. There were churches galore with golden towers shining, reflecting the sun and singing out their message of freedom of faith in the new regime.
After an expensive meal at the Hard Rock Café, the first western style food in a long time, we went back to the hotel to give our clothes a well deserved hand wash. I woke up during the night thinking I was back in China. The room looked like a Chinese laundry with all the wet clothes lying on every available surface. Moscow had called to us, and we had finally arrived. Red Square and Vladimir Ilyitch Lenin waited for us patiently…

Day 16 - 25th July 2009 Saturday


Woke up to day three on the train at 6am. We had already passed through two time zones yesterday and upon waking today just passed through another one. My body clock was totally out of sync and my digestive system was reacting badly. The fact that I was in Russia I suppose I could have said that it’s revolting but that would have been stating the obvious! The time had changed to Moscow time minus one and I got up for a quick wash in the train toilet. The was a rudimentary sink in the toilet and a hole in the floor for spilt water. Kind of like a wet room. I used the top of my aftershave bottle as a plug to hold the water in the sink. Plugs are a rare commodity in Russia apparently. Holding on while the train rode a curve I tried to get as good a wash as possible in the cramped conditions. Three days non stop on a train get to you after a while. The scenery outside changes, although I had to admit that this last two days all I had seen was green fields, trees and rivers. Very nice but it looks just like a never ending Irish landscape. Inside the train though you try to read, write sleep and eat. Not much else to do except go to the restaurant Car and drink. Food wise you can bring your own food with you - much cheaper. Or if you don’t have your own and don’t want to eat on the train you can wait until one of the 10-15 minute stops at a little station somewhere and buy supplies from the babushkas on the platform. I have seen everything from doughnuts to crayfish for sale. I asked what was in the doughnuts and the babushka said ‘Meat’. What sort of meat? I asked. ‘Meat’ she said. Hmm. So I had some and, sure enough, it was meat. Not sure what type of meat it was but it was definitely meat.
At 12 midday we left Siberia. At 5pm we crossed the border between Asia and Europe at last. Another white obelisk marked the invisible line between the east and west. There was always a saying when boating that every day a yacht would shrink by a foot in length the longer you spent aboard. By the end of a week or so you were so glad to get away from your crewmates and back on dry land. I can vouch that a train suffers from the same reduction fever and you really need to be very good friends with your travelling companions before you begin such an undertaking.
A girl three compartments down had a habit of hogging the only working electric socket in our carriage for her mobile phone. Our Chinese guide and fellow traveller needed to charge her laptop and did so when the plug was available. Within half an hour ‘Plug Girl’ had unplugged it without warning as she needed to say lovey-dovey things to her anticipatory boyfriend waiting with baited breath in Moscow. When she arrived she looked like she had just stepped off a Milan catwalk. If her beau had seen her for the last three days with unkempt hair, no make up and wrinkled vest and hot pants and/or pyjama bottoms he would maybe have thought twice about arriving with a bunch of flowers that probably cost him half his month’s wages. Anyway, plugs went in, came out, went in and out again. No words were said but there was a slow kind of east/west attrition only warmed up by the hair dryer and curling tongs in use when the plug had been, yet again, reclaimed by the east. I told our companion that maybe she should politely ask the girl if she was finished with the socket for a while thus thawing international relations, but her point was that she didn’t know the words in Russian. I looked up the phrasebook and a little devil whispered to me…..
I showed her the Russian phonetic translation for what she thought was ‘Are you finished yet?’ which she practiced a few times before heading up the corridor. When she said it to plug girl I was later told that she looked confused at first, then had a dawning look of understanding in her eyes and finally looked quite horrified. She said ‘Nyet!’, unplugged her hairdryer and backed into her compartment while closing the door sharply. Our companion, confused, relayed the experience to me. I had to explain that I had told her, quite accidentally of course, that she had actually said something like ‘Are you married?’ Or ‘Are you free?’ or some such statement. Either way it solved the war of the plug quite succinctly I thought. It also helped pass the time rather well.

Day 15 - 24th July 2009 Friday

Train stops, train starts. I wake up, look out, fall asleep. This happened a number of times during each of the nights as we made little calls to out of the way non-descript places. The guidebooks would give the names of expected stops along the route but these places didn’t even merit more than a mention of expected stopping time and subsequent journey time until the next stop. By the morning, well 6am or so, it was pointless to try to sleep any longer. I would watch the telegraph wires pass by like continuous lines drawn by black indelible marker pens across the sky, broken only by the brief flash of a supporting pole each 25 metres apart. I could tell they were at 25 metre intervals as there were always kilometre markers along the left hand side of the tracks. These would count down towards Moscow in tenths of a kilometre. Then at every two kilometres you would get the distance left to travel - 2000, 1998, 1996 and so on. How often I watched those markers count ever slower. It was always a great feeling to wake up after a few hours sleep and see that you had covered up to 400 kilometres during the night. The main excitement came from watching the numbers go from four figures down to three, from 1000 to 998. This was punctuated by time zone changes, upset stomachs and sleep patterns. Oh, what fun we had. We waited with baited breath to see the obelisk that marked the halfway point between Moscow and Beijing. The excitement built as the moment came closer and we expected to see a grandiose pillar of biblical proportions. It was so small we almost missed it. After that we settled back into our routines as best as possible until the next excitement, which in this case was the male Provodnitsas doing the vacuum cleaning around our feet. Like I said, small things become big things when there is little to do. The enterprising lady in the kitchen knew we were a captive audience and came round regularly with hot fried things - not sure exactly what they were, just things - a great way to boost the coffers. During a stop at Malinsk we bought fried doughnuts on the platform. Everything was fried. They were washed down with copious amounts of vodka which helped dull the excitement. The landscape of Russian steppes was continuous and more or less monotonous, not because it wasn’t pretty but because it went on forever. Day in, day out, the view was only punctuated by white, blue and yellow flowers interspersed between the birch trees and the small towns and villages where no-one ever stopped. Alexei, our travelling companion, made it safely to Novosibirsk and I wished him the best of luck with his English tests and with his new life ahead in space age Ireland. I would love to say that Alexei regaled us with his wit and innate charm. I really would, but sadly that was not to be.

Day 14 - 23rd July 2009

Yet another early wake up. For some reason, I couldn’t seem to catch up with my sleep. The patterns were so erratic partly due to all the travels but also due to the time zone changes. The next three days would see six different time zones in total. How I would have loved a lie in! After a lovely breakfast prepared by Alex I did the shopping for the trip as the restaurant cars on Russian trains were privately run since the end of communism, and unfortunately you couldn’t guarantee the quality of the food from train to train. In actual fact, the menu tended to be written each day depending on what the staff were able to buy from the babushkas, or grandmothers, at each station. Even so, there was always the staples of cabbage and tongue, so we wouldn’t starve.
Our diet tended to consist of dried noodles a lot, but this time I tried to supplement this healthy mix by getting fresh roast chicken, cheese, tomatoes, lettuce, pickles and bread. One final and most important thing was a bottle of Chinggis Khaan 42 percent vodka. I can’t stand the stuff but all indications showed we would have to get some to fit in. Besides, with all our gear we couldn’t physically carry enough cans of beer to last three people for three days with nothing else to do. Of course, alcohol was sold in the restaurant car, or PECTOPAH, as it read when spelt in Cyrillic, but at exorbitant prices. Actually, it was only recently that strong alcohol was allowed to be consumed on trains at all in Russia. Thankfully, over the 72 hours that we travelled on the train, no one challenged us to a straight vodka toasting party as we had been expecting so we cut it with pure orange juice to make it more palatable. That said, if I never see vodka again it’ll be too soon.
Getting on the train at 4pm in Irkutsk we said goodbye to Dmitri, a most helpful guide and genuine easy going character. Normally the attendants, or provodnitsas, were women who rules the carriage with fists of iron, making sure everything was kept shipshape and Moscow fashion, and keeping a constant eye on the samovar - the wood burning water boiler always at the ready, day and night, at the end of every carriage. But this time, for such a long run, there were two provodnitsas, both men! In these days of equality, why not? Although they did look a bit funny wearing ladies housecoats when doing the vacuuming.
We found our carriage and also our travelling companion for the next 36 hours. Alexei, I quickly recognised, was a shy bookish type as soon as I had introduced myself to him. Amiable, but quiet, I managed to get some information about his journey with us. It turned out that he was an astrophysicist and was attached to the university at Irkutsk. He had to go a city called Novosibirsk for English tests to prove his English was up to scratch prior to a posting he had been offered in the UK. His English was better than a lot of ex-pats living in Spain, which isn’t necessarily surprising. I asked him whereabouts he was hoping to work in the UK and was pleasantly surprised when he said the Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland. Less than 50 miles from where I lived! Talk about a small world? Here I was in central Asia, on a train, only to meet a local who wanted to live in my small country. When asked about my vocation I explained I was an artist and gathering experiences to create an exhibition in the future. Sadly, we realised that he had no interest or understanding of art just as I knew virtually nothing of astrophysics. Our conversation on each other’s subjects dried up pretty fast. I tried to keep a sort of dialogue up but it was hard work. It wasn’t until much later that I realised he was happy to talk when we were alone. As soon as either of the two ladies in my party turned up he clammed up tightly. I think perhaps, even though he was obviously a highly intelligent man, he was an extremely inward person and maybe a bit shy of women.
I had read that food was always expected to be shared with your fellow passengers and would be reciprocated. All except the smugglers over the Russian/Mongolian border of course. I offered Alexei bits and pieces of our purchases which he accepted graciously, but he never once offered anything back. Perhaps his money was a lot tighter, but if he had shown a little more generosity I would have returned it tenfold happily. I asked him why he was going to Novosibirsk by train and he said it was the cheapest way. Car was not an option because of the vast distances involved, and although there was a two hour flight available it was just way too expensive for him to contemplate. So he had to persevere on a train for 36 hours with three wrinkled smelly travellers drinking vodka and pure orange and eating noodles messily with chopsticks. I hope it doesn’t put him off his Chinese food in Ireland.
When destined to spend a long period on a train such as this you try to make things last as long as possible just to avoid the boredom. We spent at least one hour to make up our beds, going to the toilet to brush our teeth (still couldn’t work the tap at this stage) and getting ready for sleep. I spent the time getting caught up with some notes of my experiences of the day and we settled down as best as was possible for the night. We all slept with our heads towards the window, Alexei turned the opposite way. The train’s rocking and rolling helped lull me to sleep and I dreamt about painting pulsars and quasars floating round the head of Einstein. I wonder what Alexei dreamt of?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Day 13 - 22nd July 2009

4.30am. Wide awake. Not because I wanted to be but because the four bed dorm we were in had a big glass window with no shutters or curtains. Coupled with the fact that my head was right below the window ensured I got my full early morning fix of vitamin D. The heavy rain clouds had passed on and the sun was trying in vain to burn the mist off the lake. Considering that Baikal never gets much above 15 degrees in the height of summer, being so deep and frozen for most of the year, it was hardly surprising that such a process tended to take much of the day. We got up and walked across the garden to the outhouse among the trees where a wooden shower house had been erected. Everything was wooden around this village. There were a lot of trees. At least there was hot water.
After a simple breakfast we kept the appointment we made the previous night to meet the former inhabitants of the village. The mosquitoes had calmed down enough for us to enter the hallowed ground. Each grave had a plain wooden or painted metal fence around. Some painted black, but the majority were painted bright blue. This colour seemed to be very prevalent as we had seen it at every train station on the journey. As you left the stations you always noticed that nearly all the houses had the same colour scheme, a certain shade of light blue. When I was growing up in Belfast there was an old joke that many shipyard worker’s houses were painted red inside and out from the ‘acquisitions’ of red lead paint used to prevent the hulls of great ships from rusting during the building process. You were safe as long as you didn’t lick the walls! Perhaps the same went for the former communist workers in Russia. Corporate railway colours became this year’s new black. ‘You can have any colour scheme in the house you like dear, as long as it’s railway blue’.
Looking among the gravestones we could see photographs of those reposing below. It was always better to see an old face than a young one. You knew the person had lived a long and hopefully happy life. The younger, fresher faces had had their time cut short. I wondered what had caused their demise, illness perhaps or an accident? Given my ignorance of the Cyrillic alphabet I couldn’t decipher the details, save for the years of birth and death. One grave caught my eye in particular. The grave of a Russian soldier, and his picture complete with fur hat and metal star over the furry peak. Like all graves in the cemetery, his was facing east, so the dead can see the sunrise every day. I couldn’t read his name as it had been obliterated by time and the elements but he appeared no more than in his late 30’s or early 40’s. I wondered had he died in a soviet conflict somewhere. Imagine leaving the tiny village of Bolshiye Koty to fight and lose your life in some foreign land, only to return in a box. Perhaps he was stationed in the area during conflict years and died on duty. Maybe Bolshiye Koty wasn’t his native ground? We will never know, but as these thoughts crossed my mind I could hear a certain Billy Joel tune run through my head. ‘Leningrad’ was about a Russian soldier who became a circus clown after his military service and spent his remaining days making people laugh. A poignant song that makes a valid point. We really are all the same under the skin regardless of where we come from. I have come to realise this more and more as I journey across continents.
Leaving the dead in peace to enjoy the last of the sunrise, we returned to the small dock. There is a myth that states if you put your hand into Baikal you will live 5 years longer, two hands 10 years, both hands and a foot 15 years and so on. If you immerse yourself bodily you are supposed to live forever, but knowing how cold the water was I think all you would do is shorten your life considerably from shock.

We risked our hands and feet, so hopefully will be around for a few years yet. The boat was already there and we waited for the same high heeled stewardess to untie the heavy lines with her miraculously unchipped nails. A ten minute run in the hydrofoil and we arrived in Lystvyanka, the slightly bigger little village we had seen the day before. Our guide from Irkutsk, Dmitri, arrived to meet us and gave a quick tour of the village. We stopped at a viewpoint overlooking the lake. Beside us was a tree with thousands of coloured ribbons tied to it like psychedelic leaves. Dmitri explained that although during the soviet years religion was all but forbidden, people still held onto faith and tied tokens of hope to this tree. Onwards to a little market filled with wooden stalls, and the smell of fish being smoked filled the air. A heady mix of what seemed like cigars and salmon assailed our nostrils and tantalised our taste buds. A distant cousin to the salmon, the Omul, is found in Lake Baikal. It’s the only source of this fish in the world and when smoked is considered a real delicacy. Hot smoked as opposed to cold, we bought it while still warm and moist. Delicious! It reminded me of my father returning after a successful day’s fly fishing, and hot smoking his own salmon in a converted biscuit tin with holes punched into it to let the smoke filter out past the recumbent fish.
We had lunch at a lakeside restaurant and asked Dmitri to join us as our guest. When he saw the prices he was horrified, said it was more than he earned in a day and graciously withdrew. The prices were more or less equivalent to a McDonald’s takeaway. After lunch we were asked did we want to see the so called trained dancing bears. If so, Dmitri said we would have to pay extra as it was outside his budget. We declined the offer, not because of the extra fee, but because we could see the small cages they were kept in when not ‘performing‘. I have seen reports on television in years past how some poor creatures were trained to dance. One version was to place the animal on a large flat metal plate. Chain it so it couldn’t escape, and light a gas ring under the plate. Every time they would play music they lit the gas and the poor creature would have to move from foot to foot to avoid the pain of the heat. When the music stopped so did the heat. After a while the creature became so mentally disturbed it would start to dance instantly in fear of being burnt. Pavlov’s dogs taken to extremes. Barbaric. I shuddered to think how these poor bears had been conditioned. We left Lystvyanka thinking it over in silence. Halfway back to Irkutsk we stopped at a reconstructed wooden village museum showing what life was like over the centuries for Russian people, gentry and peasants alike. From fortresses, churches, schoolhouses and private dwellings, we saw how the styles changed. The modern dacha, or country houses, we saw every day by the railway tracks hadn’t actually changed that much in the intervening years. Each of the houses in the museum had decorations that were meant to ward off evil spirits. Doorways were very small and low, not just as a heat saving device in the frozen winters, but also to force the visitor to bow down in deference to the owner as they crossed the threshold. Beds were four poster affairs but the mattress was up high to retain as much heat as possible. The children had a similar type of high bed which they shared. Each child had one plank to sleep on, so you could work out the number of children in a family by counting the planks in the bed.
We stopped by an old church where Dmitri explained something to me that I had always wondered about. Why did the Russian Orthodox Church have two extra bars on their crucifixes, and why was the bottom one always set at an angle. The explanation was that the upper small wooden bar across was to signify the name of Jesus as it is sometimes depicted - INRI - and the angled one at the bottom was meant to represent a foot rest coming outwards, like a two dimensional representation of a three dimensional object, upon which rested the feet of Jesus when he was nailed to the cross.
As we left the church a wedding party turned up. I asked Dmitri how to say good luck in Russian and passed on my best wishes to the happy couple. I forget the words now but they replied with a ‘spaceba’ or ‘thank you’ and smiles. Dmitri explained that the best man and bridesmaid also had another job to do after their expected duties on the wedding day. That of marriage guidance counsellors. If there were any problems in the marriage they were meant to help sort it out and keep the marriage together at all costs. Not a bad thing maybe. Perhaps our western societies might benefit from this approach. If the best man and bridesmaid knew they would have their work cut out for them in future years because of a couple’s incompatibility perhaps they might have tried to talk the couple out of getting married in the first place.

On the main road back to Irkutsk we were told the road was known locally as the ‘Eisenhower Road’. Apparently, well after the war, Eisenhower intimated that he was thinking about visiting the area. The then leader of Russia, President Khrushchev wanted to create an impression of great wealth and power. He ordered that the road between Irkutsk and Lake Baikal be upgraded from a rough track to a high class two lane road. Almost 70km of asphalt road was constructed in only two months at horrendous expense. Eisenhower never came.
Finally, at around 6pm we returned to Alex’s flat overlooking Lenin Street. A quick shower and we caught the last of a service in a beautiful orthodox church nearby. The harmonised voices of one man and two women reverberated around the curved and painted walls of the small church. It was a very moving experience. We stopped on the way back at an Italian restaurant for a pizza. A bottle of red wine was ordered. The first in a very long time. Sadly, a lot of Russian wine is sweet and this was no exception. Hard to get down, but as it was so expensive compared to Spain, drink it we did. The pizza was every bit as strange. The base was made from puff pastry instead of the usual dough. Different but tasty enough. Another reasonably early night was called for. The next day was the start of the big push to Moscow and we needed to get as much rest as possible.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Day 12 - 21st July 2009

Another early start. Picked up by private minibus at 7.45am for the next leg of our epic adventure. We were driven out of the pretty streets in the centre of the city and taken to the hydrofoil terminal on the outskirts. By doing so we saw a lot more of the sort of buildings we had expected. Grey concrete, run down tenement style housing with old soviet propaganda symbols. Hammers and sickles abound, with the odd poster style image of triumphal workers created in mosaics coupled with slogans that I can only guess suggested how wonderful the old regime had been. That said, the place was clean and people were well dressed. Better it has to be said than some ex-pats around Spain. The silent Siberian driver sported long dreadlocks and had the coldest ice blue eyes I have ever seen. We were shown down into the hydrofoil.

The stewardess, resplendent in airline style uniform, stockings and black patent high heels told us our seat numbers. Once seated I could see the deck through my window. The seats were placed low down in the boat so the window was at shoulder height for those below. The high heeled, glamorous stewardess was visible up to ankle level and I could see her carefully untying the lines to release the boat from the dock. Perhaps she didn’t want to ladder her stockings or chip her nails. It was a curious sight from my viewpoint. A big heavy rope being coiled beside a dainty pair of feet encompassed in high heels.
Once free of the dock we quickly got up onto the plane and raced downriver and out into Lake Baikal. A vast stretch of water that is so large you can barely make out the far shore. As it is, the shoreline is out of sight at normal head height because of the curve of the earth, and that is at the narrowest point. Baikal, 40km wide by 500km long, is the largest freshwater lake in the world and totally drinkable straight from the lake thanks to filtering sponges living deep down in the depths. There are species of flora and fauna here that are not found anywhere else in the world. In a few billion years, scientists have theorised that Baikal will become the world’s next ocean by splitting Asia apart. Tectonic plate separation is increasing the area of the lake by a few millimetres each year.
After a brief stop to de-bus passengers at the little touristy town of Lystvyanka we continued about 15km north to the tiny village of Bolshiye Koty. A quaint genuine wooden village with approximately 40 permanent inhabitants. This would swell up to perhaps 500 in the summer as people would use it as a platform to go hiking or camping in the vast forests and hills surrounding the lake. We were met by a young female guide, whose name I have sadly forgotten, and walked the 3 minutes through the village’s dirt track street and along the lakeside to our private home accommodation. A rustic wooden log affair that had originally been a small house. The owners had simply built another house over and around the original to house travellers like us. It would also provide much needed insulation for winter. We were taken to our four bed dorms over the main house and had a wonderful rustic balcony with views over a misty Baikal. Basic but adequate. It’s hard to believe that, come winter the lake freezes up to 3 metres deep. Thick enough to drive a car across in some places. Each house had hoses stretched across the road down to the lake for their fresh drinking water. What do they do in winter, I asked? They simply cut a hole in the ice and drop the hose deeper down to access their winter water supply. Being in the heart of Siberia, temperatures can drop to minus 50 in extreme cases, and surprisingly in summer have been known to hit the high 40’s.

There was absolutely nothing to do in Koty, except eat and drink, walk around the village taking atmospheric photographs of yesteryear and for me, catch up on some writing. Over a delicious lunch of home made blinis we saw a device sitting on top of the old rusty cooker in the kitchen. It had a dial on it that flickered back and forth and was connected to a car battery sitting on the ground. Considering the basic conditions in which we were living we convinced ourselves the cooker was operated by the car battery and the device on top registered the charge being used. A very Heath Robinson affair. Then it occurred to me that the little box with the dial was only a battery charger and was actually charging the battery. They had mains electric. The charger was simply sitting on top of the cooker. It’s strange how the mind works when you are in an unfamiliar environment. When another of our party arrived and asked the same question about the battery operated cooker, I explained that it was actually a seismological device to warn of impending earthquakes. Given the fact that Baikal is on a fault line people had to monitor the constant fluctuations of the earth’s plates in the region. I pointed out the flickering needle on the dial and said there were hundreds of little tremors each minute and managed to keep this little ruse going for at least 10 minutes before bursting out laughing and giving the game away. Such fun when you have nothing else to do.
We sat on the rough hewn balcony on creaky old chairs and relaxed. I caught up on some more writing and we watched as big heavy threatening clouds rolled down the lake. As they hit the surrounding hills they groaned loudly and threw shards of lightning in our direction. The sonic booms of thunder reverberated around the valleys and took our collective breaths away. Tonnes of fresh water poured down above our heads and obliterated the lake. This was summer in Siberia.
There was only one shop in the village. A room had been converted into a rudimentary store in one of the wooden shacks and the only access to the goods was via the owner through a small hatch in the window. Unfortunately it always seemed to be closed. There was a sign in the hatch that informed potential customers of something, but as it was in Cyrillic we couldn’t understand.
Walking to the far side of the village, in a forest we found the graveyard but there were too many mosquitoes under the trees to get closer. We vowed to return and visit the dead centre of the village next morning before leaving. We had long since exhausted the entertainment guide the village had to offer. I would love to say I got bolshie in Koty but there was no-one to get bolshie with. It was an early night, but not voluntarily. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Day 11 - 20th July 2009

I awoke again around 6am. My sleep patterns had been erratic to say the least with all the time changes and jetlag, and still had to reset themselves. I watched as we gently rolled along through the countryside and observed it change from trees and green hills to numerous ‘dacha’ - Russian weekend retreats where the city dwellers escape to and tend their vegetable patches, used to supplement their diets and attempt to reduce their monthly overheads. As we drew closer to Irkutsk, the city described as the ‘Paris of Siberia’ the landscape became more concrete and factory based. You could feel the human influence creeping in. We slowed to walking speed as we entered the station area and crossed track after track.
About half a kilometre from the station we stopped abruptly. I thought perhaps we were waiting for a train to move off our section of track further up and sat looking out of the window at the people in the train beside me. They sat disinterestedly for a few minutes then slowly one by one they moved over to the windows on my side of their train to look out at the carriage behind ours. I moved over to our compartment window to see what was of interest and saw a small crowd of people being ushered away across the tracks by state police. When I looked down onto the ground I was shocked to see a dead body lying next to our train. It appeared to be the body of a man and going by the state of his clothes had possibly been homeless. His dirty bare feet pointed towards me and he lay face down but I couldn’t see his head from my viewpoint. His left foot showed some trauma as though it had been hit by a train. It was sad to see such an end for someone.
I don’t know how or why he died but if it had been our train that had hit him I think all passengers would have been interviewed. This wasn’t the case, so shortly afterwards we left this man alone, save for the investigators to trace his last movements, and slowly and solemnly we pulled into Irkutsk station.
The sun was shining but there was a heavy mist rising from the large river that ran through the city. A sombre impression on our arrival into this new place and our first major contact with Russia.
We gathered our rucksacks and were met by Dmitri, our main guide on and off over the next few days. A friendly character of former soviet military stock who seemed far too laid back for a career in that field. Instantly we were made to feel welcome and he dispelled the myth that all Russian people displayed a coldness that we in the west found standoffish. After a quick tour through the city we were taken to our accommodation. A home stay on Lenin Street. We were met by Alex, also a young former soldier but now a computer programmer. He took us into his parent’s apartment which was a mix between Soviet era style décor and the beginning of a move towards western eclectic tastes. The mother, we later found out, was at the family dacha over the summer, while Alex and his father worked during the week and supposedly went to the dacha at the weekend.
Although you could tell there were certain restrictions in lifestyle, whether money based or simply personal taste, this felt like a middle class family home. A few more luxuries than you would have expected to see. The home stays provided much needed income and I noticed that the bedrooms that we stayed in had new PVC windows fitted while the rest of the apartment was still awaiting much needed renovation. A very comfortable stay and a vast improvement on our Mongolian experience. Once settled in, and with Alex’s permission, we put our clothes in the family’s old washing machine for some much needed laundering. We made a reccy of our position in the city. We were right in the town centre on the crossroads of Karl Marx Street and Lenin Street. The buildings were colourful and ornate, and such an unexpected surprise. We found prices jumped up significantly though, compared to our previous countries, when we went for a coffee - €4 each!
Walking down by the river Angara later we stopped in a flashy hotel that we knew had internet access. While we sat outside with a coffee a bullet-proof security truck pulled up. Three burly, heavily armed guards with automatic weapons jumped out and made sure the area was clear for their clients to safely enter the hotel. We waited to see who it was - some aging politician perhaps or a fat-cat industrialist? No, just a young couple, her with handbag and him curiously with a small vacuum cleaner. They were followed by one of the armed guards with a large rectangular shaped canvas bag. The guard and young man came back out about 10 minutes later, this time with the canvas bag and a computer keyboard, but minus the woman! What did it all mean? Intriguing…. Perhaps the young man was a multimillionaire eccentric or a cleaner-upper after a major espionage incident? I like to think he was the latter.
Either way we got bored of speculating and left to enjoy other pursuits on Karl Marx Street, namely sushi. We were finding prices went up the further west we went and this bill was no exception. We could barely have had enough to fill a hole in your tooth and the bill came to exactly 1350 Roubles (about €40) which was ironic as I had been reading about Lenin during the day and the little known fact that the registered weight of his brain after death was also exactly 1350 grams.
Also ironic was the fact that we were staying on Lenin Street and that outside the apartment was a statue of the man himself. The link between Lenin, Irkutsk and raw fish has now been welded into my brain. Anytime I think of either of these subjects in the future I will always mentally relate to the others in my head involuntarily.
Sitting out in the little park below the apartment while being overlooked by Lenin’s oversized brain, we drank beers and counted Lada cars as the sun went down. An exciting night. There was at least one Lada a minute drove past Lenin’s statue. That‘s 1350 Lada’s in 22½ hours (a little known fact you can use at dinner parties - courtesy of me).

Day 10 - 19th July 2009

Woke up in SukhBaatar on the Mongolian/Russian border. Another hot day with 25 degrees toasting us in the compartment. It was 6am and all movement had ceased. The station area was quiet and I wondered how long the train would wait at this place until we went through our customs checks. I stepped off the train to find that not only were we not going, but that all sections of the train, the engine and all carriages in front and behind had gone! We were sitting in the station alone - just one carriage!

What was going on? Asking the attendant (or Provodnitsa) how long before we would get going, she said ’Five’. ‘Five minutes? That’s okay then’ I showed her my watch. No, no - five hours was the impression she gave me. Five hours in nowhereville? Such are the train timetable differences between countries; and so we sat for hours as the heat became oppressive.
We could get off, and frequently did, but there was nowhere to go and nothing to do except watch an old man stand on the platform looking at the carriages.

He was undernourished and poorly dressed and appeared in need of sustenance, but seemed too proud to ask for help. He never once put his hand out or pleaded for alms, just stood waiting for something to happen. A Russian man in the next compartment went out to him and they started talking. After a minute the Russian motioned to his wife to pass down some cigarettes which he then gave to the old man. Later, before we left the station, the same Russian passed some bread rolls to the old man which he gratefully received before opening his overcoat and putting the rolls under his armpit to keep for later. All the time he kept his dignity. A far cry from the ‘professional’ beggars that we so often come across in towns and cities across Europe.

By 11am it was all go and the platform filled with lots of people with even more bags. Our carriage had been reconnected to an engine and we even had a couple of other carriages join us. A load of big buxom Mongolian women got on the carriage with bag after bag after bag of purchases. Everything from knickers to flip flops, and large inflatable beds to cured sausages similar to giant chorizos. The woman who came into our compartment was amiable enough and seemed pleasant. She would say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you very much’ over and over again in English. Admirable words and enough to make friends anywhere. I could only say thank you in Mongolian so I was at a slight disadvantage.

She was sweating profusely and seemed quite excited and agitated. She would jump up and down and run from the compartment to talk to her compatriots in other carriages. Then as we started to make our way to the border crossing through green fields and tree lined waterways I offered her some of our food. I had heard that sharing your food and drink was normal practice on the Russian rail network, so I figured it would be welcoming for me to offer her first. She graciously accepted and wolfed down everything offered and finished with a ‘thank you very much’.
Within 15 minutes she began tipping out her bags and produced 10 whopping great foot long sausages on strings. She handed me three of them and I thought what a wonderful gesture. I said ‘for me?’ She nodded and said ‘thank you very much’. I said the same and was touched by her generosity. Then she shook her head and pointed to the window. I didn’t understand. She removed the sausages from me and took the curtain pole off the window frame, then slid the strings along so the sausages were hanging from the pole. After replacing the pole in its holder she pulled the curtain around the sausages so they couldn’t be seen from the inside of the train. As she did this for the other side of the window it finally dawned on me that she was a smuggler.

Sausages were hidden all over the compartment along with bottles of booze, clothes and electrical items. She moved them around the seats so it looked as if they were ours as well. We watched incredulously as she smiled and kept saying ‘thank you very much’. As the first set of customs officials came around - Mongolian - she talked her way round any problems as did her partners in crime in the other parts of the train. Passports were taken in no-mans land and scrutinised as before on the China/Mongolian border. We sat for ages waiting for their return. During this time more soldiers and border guards stood outside the windows to prevent escape. Searches of every possible orifice in the train was carried out again and again, just to be sure. This smuggling was even bigger business than the monastery!

Finally, passports returned, we slowly moved into Russian railspace and just as slowly stopped a few hundred metres up the track. Passports were studied and taken, customs clearance forms filled and refilled and stamped, questions were asked of the regular and obviously familiar faces of the smugglers.

Cabins were searched and re-searched. Yet no-one saw the sausages behind the curtains! One bag remained unclaimed in another compartment and a Mongolian man was taken in for questioning. Our girl, whose bust size had now increased dramatically with 20 pairs of knickers stuffed in her bra, got away with it. She relaxed and stopped her sweating as we pulled into the little station of Nauski, our first Russian settlement. I thought that maybe she would have given us one of her sausages at least considering that she had used us as a human shield for her pork products, but no. All she said was ‘thank you very much’ took everything away and scurried off to leave us with curtains smelling like a butcher’s shop.
We got off the train to be told that we were stuck there for another few hours. There were little wooden stalls outside the train station. I recognised one of the things that were for sale - SAUSAGES! The same sausages I had just shared my first Russian border crossing with. Another long wait in the relative no-man’s land of border crossings and we were eventually re-connected to another train. It was 4.30pm. It had taken us 10½ hours to cover about 5 kilometres. A long day doing very little. Before this we had been on GMT+8 hours to tie in with China and Mongolia.
We went to the restaurant car, an old fashioned affair like something out of the old movies; all dark wood and heavy green velvet curtains. The man who ran it, a big Russian with a deep vodka voice informed us we were now on Moscow time. In fact it was MT+5hours, which was the equivalent of GMT+9. An hour extra even though we were further west.

We passed our first Russian graveyard, all fences and light blue paint. Incongruous, but pretty in a way. Why blue paint we wondered? We retired to bed with the window slightly open to take out the last sausage fumes and during the night it rained in on our heads. Ending the day with thoughts about the Russian dead in the graveyard, little did we know that we would begin the next morning with death on the rails upon our arrival in Irkutsk….

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Day 9 - 18th July 2009

10am start. This was another train day but not until 9.30pm. We walked into the city centre for some brunch after our last lovely warm shower for a while and left our bags with reception to be collected at 6pm. After taking the necessary snapshots we had a delicious brunch overlooking an ancient monastery right in the centre of the city.
It was tucked behind some modern buildings. At least they were when the Russians built them in the 1960’s. After handing over 55,000 tugrugs (the Mongolian currency) for lunch I felt heavier in my stomach but a lot lighter in my pocket.
We walked through the city in scorching heat, such a difference to the cold, wet night in the ger. Again, there was absolutely no point in trying to decipher the Cyrillic hieroglyphs to work out where we were going. The map had pictures of buildings that we used as pointers and we made our way up to a wonderful old monastery still in use. 150 monks live and work in the surrounding buildings and it was interesting to see them going about their traditional business. What was strange was to see monks in full regalia and a mobile phone stuck to their ear.
A direct line to God perhaps? I hope their credit was good. We continued into the grounds after paying an entrance fee and looked at all the people either spinning row upon row of prayer wheels, or holding onto what looked like a telegraph pole without the wires.
Each building was in a certain state of disrepair but still quaint and colourful. The older people looked as if they were perhaps potentially making their last pilgrimage to the place. They were respectfully dressed and hobbled along with their families to help guide them.

Finally we went up to the main monastery and went into the darkened doorway. Inside the body of the church, in fact filling the body of the church was another giant body.
The biggest Buddha I have ever seen, 26 ½metres tall. That’s approaching 100ft! It was incredible. Absolutely breathtaking and totally unexpected.
Golden in colour, it rose over four floors high, going by all the little balconies built around it and was surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of prayer wheels. In such a relatively small space, by church standards, this was no mean feat. We walked around the clockwise flow of people turning the wheels and praying. On some of the prayer wheels people had taped the names and birth and very recent death dates of their loved ones so that each prayer whispered by devotees could somehow transfer good feelings to their newly deceased.
In one corner a monk was making large beeswax candles, obviously to order, as there was a lot of cash changing hands. The candle was then put on the altar and lit for the customer. Big business. You were not allowed to take photographs of the Buddha in such a religious place - unless you paid the attendant an absolution fee first of course. Everything has a price, even access to deities.
We left the monastery and took a short cut through the Mongolian equivalent of the Beijing hutong. A mix of shacks and lean-to’s on the outskirts of the city. Although this area was pretty rough the majority of people seemed quite well dressed considering. The first street we started walking down had a group of young men standing pestering an old Mongolian in national dress. He was slightly drunk and one of the men pushed him roughly away while his friends laughed. We backtracked and took the next street instead and arrived back at the main road without mishap.
Still too early to collect our bags we stopped in a local restaurant just to kill time. A coffee and beer later, we returned to the hotel for our bags and took a taxi to the train station.
Another two hour wait twiddling our thumbs and the train arrived. During that time we were able to watch the comings and goings of train station life in Ulaanbaatar. Nomadic herdsmen in traditional dress waited for trains with their families.
One man had skin like an old leather jacket. He looked about 60 but his wife was barely 30 and his children were not much more than toddlers. Perhaps he wasn’t all that old himself but the harsh lifestyle obviously took it’s toll. Stalls lined the platform selling all manner of dried foods and soft drinks. Bright, colourful bottles filled with E-numbers and additives lit up in the setting sun. We entered the train and thankfully we were lucky again to have a four berth compartment to the three of us. Much more relaxing than having to share a space. This was the train that would take us into Russia in seven or eight hour’s time. I wondered what to expect.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Day 8 - 17th July 2009

2am - The heavens opened and Chinggis was on the warpath. Torrential rain soaked the felt gers and drips started to come in through the roof at the central point. I got up and lifted all the bags and rucksacks off the floor and onto one of the empty beds to keep them dry. The fire was out and it was decidedly colder. I gladly got back into bed to warm up and promptly fell asleep again. 5am - I dreamt I could hear drips of water very close to my head and could almost feel the odd splash back circle my head. Then the real thing started dripping on my head like a Japanese/ Mongolian trade agreement water torture. I jumped up with a start and my pillow and head were soaked. I had to use one of the other empty beds and tried to get some sleep with what was left of the night. After a basic but adequate breakfast, we went to a ger museum where the attendant, an old man in traditional costume, showed us around the equivalent of a camp used in the time of Chinggis Khan. The main ger was surrounded by nine other gers, four on one side and five on the other. Each was dedicated to elders and relatives of Chinggis throughout the years. It was interesting to see all the artefacts but the guides grandchildren stole the show as they insisted on coming with us into each ger.

It’s possible of course that they were his children. Life was hard there, so perhaps he was actually a lot younger than he looked. The older boy was dressed in traditional costume and his little sister was a natural poser with her cute chubby Mongolian features. The old guide passed me some snuff to try and I felt like it burnt all the hairs off the inside of my nasal cavity. The snuff was passed around and one of my travelling companions mad a faux pas by trying to pass it back to the guide between the two upright posts. He was horrified but thankfully explained that nothing should be passed between the posts as this signified the entrance to heaven.

We went outside and were asked if we wanted to try our hand at archery. Of course, we said, and I did wonder about the safety of the offer, as where the targets were, we had previously entered the arena area. What if some other groups arrived as we let go a volley of badly aimed shots in their direction? Thankfully, the arrows had rubber tips so no danger there. After a few false starts we managed to at least get the arrows to go in the general direction of the targets, but we would never make great marksmen in the next Mongolian invasion. As we were leaving a wild and dangerous bareback horse race started with mostly young boys as the jockeys. This was part of the Naadam Festival that is held every year in July.

We had missed the main event by days but this was one of the country offshoots that would take place during the rest of the month outside of the capital. Every year horses and riders were killed in these literally breakneck races across the plains. To die in a race like this was considered a great honour. I passed on the chance to be so honoured. A bumpy ride back to the capital saw us dropped of at our dream hotel. Again there was a guard armed to the teeth watching the door. Was it so dangerous here?

The clouds began gathering again as we headed into town to look around. The second deluge of the trip hit us just as we passed a restaurant bar and we ducked in out of the way. A good excuse for an early lunch. Okay but not great, but at least the local beer was decent. We sat for two hours until the rain eased and ran down the street into a bookshop. Some art book purchases and coffee later we ducked and dived between the cars determined to soak us in the big lying puddles. We had a dilemma. Do we go back to the hotel and lie down or just go on out for dinner?
The large Irish pub on the corner ‘The Grand Khan’ called out to us and beckoned us in. Four hours and three bottles of wine later, each at a cost of 23000 tugrugs, we staggered out thinking how wonderful Ulaanbaatar was. One of our party, a 23 year old student got a note passed to her in the bar by one of the waitresses with an invitation from another customer and with a telephone number on it. She was a bit embarrassed but decided that maybe that was the way that dates were arranged in Mongolia. Needless to say she didn’t phone the number. Later, the author of the note built up the courage to come over and speak to her in person. An amiable Mongolian man around his early thirties introduced himself as Mogi. After a brief exchange he got the message that she wasn’t interested and wished us a pleasant onward journey anyway. We left the bar and headed towards the hotel. Then we got lost, couldn’t work out the street names and drunks and slow passing cars were calling out to us in the darkness. I like to think the drunks were just amiable drunks, and the car drivers were no more suspicious than illegal taxis but we took no chances and made our own way back as quickly as possible. Glad to be back behind the door watching guards we went to bed tired but happy and expecting the hangover from hell to come knocking at the door in the morning.