Sunday, June 28, 2009


Continuing on from my last few weeks report about expectations on travelling on the Trans-Mongolian /Trans-Siberian Railway I wanted to round up with a brief overview of Russia, which is the country I should be travelling through by the time you read this. Totally inadequate of course, as I will be covering seven time zones in Russia alone during the trip. While stopping for a couple of days around Irkutsk, I will be going to Lake Baikal - the largest unfrozen fresh water lake in the world. A little known fact is that Baikal has been created from the slow splitting of the continent apart from north to south. In a few million years, if we haven’t destroyed the place ourselves first, it will become a new ocean.
Before the Trans-Siberian railway, it was quicker to travel from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok by crossing the Atlantic, North America and the Pacific than by going overland. Coasting along on a wave of petrodollar profits, Russia is in far better economic shape than at any time in recent memory. Inflation is under control and three quarters of state run enterprises have now been fully or partly privatised. Despite these improvements, Russia’s economy has a long way to go before fully capitalising on its astonishing natural resources. The boom and bust period of the late 1990’s as well as the abandonment of the social safety net provided by communism, has left many people worse off. The way of life of a Nenets reindeer herder in Siberia is radically different from that of a marketing executive in Moscow or an Islamic factory worker in Kazan. As Russia grows more prosperous, the gap between rich and poor becomes larger. That said, there are common features to life across Russia. For the majority of urban Russians, home is within a drab, ugly housing complex of Soviet vintage. These apartments are typically cramped and have no attached garden, however a large percentage of Russian families have a ‘dacha’, a small country house. Moscow and the like can be seen to empty out at the weekend as people head to the country. Around Irkutsk, it is possible to see the dacha along the sides of the railway tracks.
Railway stations, especially in Russia, are said to be an interesting experience where you can purchase all your food from babushkas (grandmothers) who sell on the platform and through the windows of the train. This is less obvious in China and Mongolia apparently because they have enough supplies on bard to suffice for the journey. The difference is that although there is supposed to be a reasonable selection of food to choose from on the menu in the Russian trains, in reality many items are not available, so the babushka then becomes the most important person in the travellers life, if he or she is to survive the long run up to Moscow. Finally - some etiquette in case you ever find yourself there and don’t know how to behave.

Russian Etiquette
If you are invited to a Russian home, always bring a gift, such as wine or a cake.
Shaking hands across the threshold is considered unlucky. Wait until you are fully inside.
If you give anyone flowers, make sure there’s an odd number as even numbers are for funerals.
Remove your shoes and coat on entering a house.
Once the festivities begin, refusing offered food or drink can cause grave offence.
Vodka is for toasting, not for casual sipping. Wait for the cue.
When you are in any setting with other people, even strangers such as those in a train compartment, it’s polite to share anything you have to eat, drink or smoke.
Traditional gentlemanly behaviour is not just appreciated but expected, as you will notice when you see women standing in front of closed doors waiting for something to happen.

1 comment:

Theresa Durant said...

Thanks much for the Russian Etiquette, makes me eager to meet a Russian so that I may use this knowledge... though I will be sure not to stand in front of a closed door if and when in Russia...