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 CafĂ©, 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?