Friday, December 30, 2011

The end of the line...

Ulan Ide to Vladivostok is about 3,600 kilometers.

That's roughly the distance if you drove from L.A. to New York.

Allow me to share the highlights from the last leg of our Trans-Siberian journey. Just when we thought Russia couldn’t get any more interesting….

Let’s start with the Old Believers. We met a community of people who consider themselves to be the “Old Believers” of the Russian Orthodox church. They got upset around 300 years ago when reforms were made . So they broke off and decided to keep doing things the old way. That made the Zarina of the Russian Empire mad and she started sending them to Siberia. Nowadays, for a small fee, the descendants of Old Believer exiles will tell you all about Old Russia, do folk dances and make dinner. They also make you do an introductory dance outside their house in  temperatures dipping to minus-20 Fahrenheit. This stop was also the scene of the most traumatic outhouse experience (of the many) that I had on this trip. Think pitch black night and gale force Arctic winds.

Eating Mongolian food. Once you get to Ulan Ude, you know you’ve entered very un-European Russia. Lamb testicles were on the menu. We stuck to regular old dumplings.

Oh, and the biggest Lenin head statute in the world resides in the main square of Ulan-Ude….try to contain your excitement.

Lake Baikal – truly majestic, even when it’s almost frozen. Dried fish, native people, and little gingerbread-like houses greet you there.

Back to the train. Everyone got really bad cabin fever by kilometer marker 8,000. Crankiness and some kind of toxic shock syndrome (from all the ramen noodles) started to set in. Group got very “Lord of the Flies” on each other. 

Birobidzhan and Khabarovsk are very cool cities. They are attractive places and feel a bit exotic thanks to the cool history of the Jewish Autonomous region of Russia. Stalin thought he could create a paradise for Jews in Siberia. That didn’t work out so well. Yet, by modern Russian standards, there’s a sizable Jewish community in this area. Khabarovsk, by the way, has an impressive distinction: It’s the coldest city in the world with more than 500,000 people living in it. It was, indeed, the coldest place I’ve ever visited.

Ice sculptures. We saw lots of pretty ice sculptures going up in all these cold cities. I guess they can keep them up for most of the year. So their artwork got pretty elaborate.

Vladivostok was pretty beautiful! It starts to feel like what you would expect from Asia and you truly understand how far you are from Moscow. The people are really nice. The town is getting dolled up for a big APEC conference next year so there is lots of construction going on. Sadly, you aren’t exactly on the Pacific Ocean but it’s the Sea of Japan which felt cool enough.

Vladivostok is 80 miles from North Korea – likely the closest I will ever get. And it’s slightly under 80 miles to the Chinese border. We managed to find a North Korean barbecue restaurant which was fabulously exotic to us.

For some reason we aroused lots of suspicion in Vladivostok. We realized that we were being followed by FSB (the new KGB) agents. We were only there for two days but it was enough to get to know our “minders”. We still don’t know if they were just bad at their jobs or if they wanted us to know they were watching us. But it became obvious, as we kept seeing the same two guys everywhere: the hotel, the stores where we shopped, on the elevator (conveniently getting off on the same floor as us). They were even bold enough to photograph us. I then got bold enough to photograph them (see below). This had happened to us in Belarus as well so we’re getting used to it. But it was still freaky, and I hated it. You can’t help but feel violated when you know you’re being watched. But other than that, Vladivostok was great!

If you do this trip (and I think you should) definitely find a fun route to fly home. We headed to Maccau and Hong Kong en route to Moscow – just for the weekend. It was a great Russia break and we were able to warm up a bit.

The Old Believers

Traditional Russian meal

One van that had no heat-it was so cold inside the vehicle that we could draw in ice on the windows.

You don't need a stroler if you've got a sled in Lake Baikal.

Lake Baikal getting ready to freeze.

Yuri teaching me how to cut up a sort of smoked/dry local fish.

He did the whole dissection without ever putting down his cigarette.... I didn't like the fish.

Mongolian food in Ulan Ude

Ice sculptures in Ulan Ude

The largest Lenin head in the world! It was dark and hard to take a pic...

More ice...I really liked it...

One of the many desolate Siberian roads....

The monument that greats you in Khabarovsk

The end of the line!!! In Vladivostok!

The very strange North Korean barbecue place

Finally at the end of our journey

One of the unfinished bridges in Vladivostok

Pretty amazing WWII memorial honoring just the members of the Russian Navy from Vladivostok how died-there  were so many names.

WWII Memorial

One of our FSB agents taking pictures of David. The nerve!

Rewarding ourselves with some warmth-Maccau

Palm tress and pointsettas-made me very happy!
Lovely Vladivostok

Monday, December 12, 2011

The 60 Hour Train Ride

To say that it is disorienting to be on a train for almost three days is an understatement. You can easily forget what day it is and you never know what time it is. The train keeps flying through time zones but you’re never exactly sure when that happens. I have never been so appreciative of the president taking away a few Russian time zones, which happened during our stay here. There were 11 different time zones when I moved to Russia in 2009, now they are down to 9. You know the phrase, "the sun never sets on the British empire?" I think it applies to Russia. When one part of Russia is dark, there must be some timezone, somewhere, getting light.

The train I’m on for the 60-hour leg of the trip is a slight improvement over the one before. It is called the "Rossiya" - train number 2. There is a super high-class train called the Goldern Eagle but we can't afford that one. But truthfully, the trains are not bad at all. For me, if there are no bugs and it’s warm then I’m probably going to be ok. It doesn’t hurt when the bathrooms are clean either but you shouldn’t ask for too much. It is also not bad to have a head cold on a 60 hour ride because you can just sit around and nurse your cold the whole time. There is really not much else to do. I’ve gotten through one book so far (The Russian Court at Sea-Frances Welch), a few magazines and travel guides.
Sleeping can be a challenge. There is absolutely no softness to your “bed” which is actually just a bench with a thin, prison-like mattress over it. If you sleep too long in the same position you might end up bruising yourself by the time you wake up. Or you might not sleep at all. People come and go all night long, getting on and off at various stations. People also stay up all night partying.
One of the things the Trans-Siberian is known for is making friends and sharing food and drink. Last night we found a lovely cabin neighbor who had brought along (mind you he was travelling alone) 2 bottles of champagne, a bottle of aged Chivas whiskey and a bottle of rum. He also had a stash of food including Russian black bread, salami and some kind of spread. He was beyond hooked up and he invited us in to share. Some of our party stayed up until well after 3am chatting, drinking, etc.
Food and drink are what you think about the most on a trip like this. Eating is the only thing you have to actually set a schedule for. And as a good American you must have a schedule, you can’t just relax and do nothing. But you are conscious the entire time of not wanting to eat too much because you are getting zero exercise. The meal car on this train leaves a lot to be desired. And it is clear the people who run it are out for tourist dollars. The train does keep a huge vat of hot water - in the spirit of the Russian samovar - on each train car. So access to hot water is never restricted and always available. I have eaten my weight in ramen and drank so much tea that I am constantly in the less than amazing bathrooms.
There is a woman named Natasha who roams the halls in a black leather skirt and high heels. She has the biggest fake blond hair you’ve ever seen - very Barbie like. She appears to be selling cabbage-filled pies. Yet she only offers pies to men. With my own eyes I saw her sit on a man’s lap while “selling pies”. The reason I know her name is because she told a man her name and he told me. I’m pretty darn sure she hustles more than those pies…. I mean, why wouldn’t there be “ladies of the trains” in Russia? It somehow fits with this feeling of travelling through some forgotten frontier land where the biggest industry used to be the national prison system. You begin to get the feeling that Siberia is run by it’s own sort of “law of the land”. We are so far removed from anything I don’t know how anyone could have a clue about what goes on here….
At certain stops it is nice to jump off the train and get a breath of air. I don’t say “fresh” air because sadly, it’s not. You think it’s going to be crisp and refreshing because it’s so damn cold but it is actually filled with the fumes from all the incoming trains. It is also so cold that it is not refreshing, it hurts your throat, and you end up coughing. The fear of straying too far from the train is always with you. I have no greater fear than the train leaving without me and stranding me in Siberia.
I wrote these words on hour 58:
Going to lose my mind. Have serious cabin fever. Must get off the train. The food car workers have become our sworn enemies. During our one meal there they charged us too much, didn’t have enough change, there was hair in our food. And to add insult to injury, they told a passenger that he could not work on his laptop at a dining car table - even as the “manager” of the place sat there typing away on her own laptop. We have existed on cups of instant noodles, bread, cheese, instant oatmeal and granola bars. I want a veggie stir fry very badly……
Before the 60 trip-a quick stop at the memorial to Tsar Nicolas II and his family. Since we didn't have skirts on they made us wrap these apron things around us. To demand women wear a skirt in sub-zero temperatures in un-Christian!

The sign announcing our train and it's track.

The outside of train #2-the Rossiya

Leaving Yekaterinburg station....

The ticket checking process


A few examples of what you see from the windows...

David hard at work in our cabin

The constantly full container of hot, hot water

The Moscow to Beijing train-we ran next to one another for awhile.

A little more of what you see from the windows.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Yekaterinburg and the Village Sagra

Train stop number two was the city of Yekaterinburg - which means Catherine in English. It was named after Peter the Great’s wife and also St. Catherine, who happens to be the patron saint of mining. It has come to be known for its sad history. The last Tsar, Nicholas II, and his entire family were murdered here by the Bolsheviks after the 1917 revolution. They were killed in a non-descript house which has since been destroyed. A big church has been built over the spot.
This is also roughly the point where the train crosses onto the Asian continent and we leave European Russia behind. The dividing line is the Ural Mountains and Yekaterinburg is situated in the foothills of these mountains.
I spent little time in the city itself and instead went about 40 minutes out of town to the tiny village of Sagra. The population of Sagra is about 100 people. Going to this town was literally like walking back in time by at least 100 years. With the exception of the satellite dishes. I was so touched by the hospitality of the people in this village. The villages of Russia are like places I’ve only read about in books. The houses look more like the Seven Dwarfs or Goldie Locks should live there. There are farm animals everywhere and all the food has come from people’s gardens and the surrounding forests. No one talks about organic farming or locally-sourced vegetables - that is just the only option you have in Sagra. There are old, rusty Russian Ladas sitting outside the little houses. That touch of modernity did hurt my fantasy of meeting tree nymphs or fairies or other creature of legend a little. But fortunately, there were cows and donkeys hanging out right next to the cars, satisfying my pastoral needs.
I met the most wonderful people in this village! I can’t stress enough how I have found almost everyone on this trip to be so nice and welcoming! Two families took me into their homes and set out feasts of tea and cakes and pickles. These are people who live in one-room, tiny wooden cottages. They make very little money and have almost no amenities. Their homes are heated by only a little stove. The first home I went to didn’t have indoor plumbing. You never know what you’re going to get in the rural parts of this country when it comes to the toilet.  Lots of people still use outhouses and that would be exactly what I used in Sagra. It never got above -8 degrees Celsius while I was there. Outhouses in Siberia = not fun.
The second house I visited was owned by a husband and wife. Oxana (the wife) made the best eggplant spread (in New York it might have been called “tapenade” but not in Sagra) I’ve ever had and she didn’t even have a kitchen sink. The running water seemed to all be located in the bathroom. She had only two gas burners to cook on. She had a collection of porcelain souvenirs from faraway places. She showed them to me one by one and was so proud of them. They are all gifts -she’s never been to any of those exotic places. But she did have an indoor toilet which she was really happy about. And so was I…
Outside the house without a kitchen sink but with an indoor toilet I also met the most amazing turkeys (see pics below). This family just had them hanging around like pets that would eventually be eaten. The man who lived there (Oxana’s husband Andrei) loved hunting which was apparent from the number of guns lying around his house. They also had bright red and orange curtains with an animal safari theme printed on them. I loved everything!

I have managed to pick up a brutal head cold. I can’t imagine why. Did I mention how cold it is and that I regularly use outhouses? The patriarch of the village, a charming bearded man named Viktor, thought he could fix my cold. That would be by pouring me a shot of vodka and dumping a bunch of black pepper in to it. Yep, I had to take it - there was no way out. To his credit he did the same shot with me. The spicy shot was of course followed by a pickled tomato. Because that made my throat stop burning. No, it didn’t. But my head did clear for a good 30 minutes and I much appreciated it.

To any Westerner’s eye the village of Sagra was completely impoverished. The people live in a community of under a hundred houses, all made of wood, with no heating and only a few homes have plumbing. BUT Andrei the hunter’s house had a satellite dish and a huge flat-screen television. It reminded me how in Moscow I will often ride on a dilapidated old Soviet-era bus that has been recently revamped with a new digital screen showing the time and temperature or with a flat screen TV showing advertisements. But the bus breaks down every mile or so. While I have met some very endearing people on this trip so far I still don’t totally understand the way things are done here. But everyone in Sagra seemed really happy and they were super welcoming so if they are happy nothing else really matters.


The prettiest turkeys I've ever seen!

Pickles and a traditional Russian spread

Oxana and the village Patriarch

The pepper vodka shot

The Old Lada

Church of the Blood-built over the site of the house where the Tsar's family was killed.

Marking the Europe/Asia border