Note: I have had this on my computer for a while, so the post is about 2 months late. Also, Nicki used her superior writing skills to contribute to this post.
We arrived in Irkutsk after two nights spent with a local alcoholic aboard the Tran Siberian Express. Two Australian girls from our train, who worked for the embassy in Ulaanbaatar, assured that this was a ‘real’ Mongolian experience. While the visits to local Ger families and circular desert camel rides may have felt staged for our entertainment, the unusually tactile hospitality and apparent drinking problem of our bunkmate, was a truer reflection of daily life and culture. Todd noticed that in contrast with their land neighbours – the Chinese, where drinking is the pastime of the rich and the foreign, alcoholism in Mongolia is at least available to everyone.
We caught the bus out to Lake Baikal, where we hoped to find some similarly entertaining sorts. On arrival in Listvyanka, we delayed the search for our guesthouse by stopping at the first appealing café we saw. The apparent owner greeted us with some enthusiasm, and quickly established that we don’t speak any Russian. He demonstrated his own confident grasp of a second language, before cheerfully overcharging us for some paella and Greek salad. Elsewhere in Asia, we would have challenged this obvious foreigner-pricing system. In Siberia, we thanked him and paid up.
Soon after, a fellow Siberian and early bird (the beer can in his hand almost empty before 10am) greeted us. After failing to engage me in any Russian conversation, he became less than impressed with the failings of my education. “You should speak Russian,” he told me, then laughed the hollow laugh of someone who was not amused. In a move contradictory to the obvious distain he felt for us, he decided to help us take a taxi to our guesthouse. This involved a long wait, during which time we considered that he might be planning to drive us himself. Having witnessed the contents of his liquid breakfast, this idea did not appeal much. Eventually, we followed him out to the street where he attempted to flag a car, any car. To every reluctant passerby he shouted “Tourist! Tourist!” Not speaking Russian didn’t hinder this translation: “You can charge them more, because they are foreign.”
Eventually an actual taxi did arrive, and the driver didn’t take advantage of our nationality in any obvious way. He dropped us outside our guesthouse, a wooden cabin at the top of a long hill. High walls surrounded the place, and there was a buzzer-entry system at the gate. Looking around, I saw that each house on the hill was equipped with the same security. The absence for a viciously yowling guard dog was the only thing distinguishing our guesthouse from the other properties. Our host was a not unfriendly lady who spoke English well and appeared to expect no Russian from us. She, like middle-aged women of all nationalities, developed a fondness for Todd and his excellent manners, and we were allowed to shower and deposit our things before our room was ready.
In the reception, a sign told us that we must immediately register our passports with the authorities, in accordance with Russian law. Being all too familiar with Chinese law and its bureaucratic, time stealing, completely invented administration requests made of foreigners; we asked our host if this registration was really necessary. Would anybody even check? “Maybe… if Putin becomes angry with Britain…” was her vague response. After weighing up the unpredictability of Putin against the certainty that Theresa May will eventually alienate us from every country in the world, we chose the 12-pound registration fee over gambling with our civil liberties.
The next day, we hiked the 24KM route around a small slither of Lake Baikal. It was more beautiful than any of the lakes I have seen in China, and had it been elsewhere in the world, we would surely have been in the company of many other lake enthusiasts. In fact, we met only a scattering of hikers along the way. Before leaving, our hostess did tell us that the hike is no longer permitted and, should we meet any guards, they could fine us and send us back. She didn’t seem to see this as a reason not to go, and so we set off regardless. I was reminded again how strange it must be to live in a country where the application of law is so unpredictable
At the end of our hike was a tiny village with a dock for boats back to Listvyanka. There we met an Israeli couple who had been waiting since the night before to catch the only return boat at 6.30pm. We enjoyed a brief moment of empathy with these fellow outsiders in this hostile country. Two hours early for the boat (thank you, Todd), we ate pastries and twixes (double the size in Russia – two giant fingers, not four) in the only village shop. We scoured our bags at the request of the shop owner, who collected foreign coins. He seemed fairly pleased with our gifts of English, Chinese, and Indian currency. I felt similarly pleased that failing to keep a clean and orderly bag had, for the first time, contributed to someone else’s happiness, rather than just my own frustration.
Later, had it not been for our well-trained Chinese queue pushing elbows, we wouldn’t have made it onto the boat at all, as there were far more passengers than there were available seats. As we sailed away, we guiltily avoided eye contact with the Israeli couple left behind on the dock. I hoped that this move, reflecting an undeniable ‘I before we’ mentality, was a result of our desperation not to spend a night sleeping outside, rather than a sign of a more permanent mark left by China on our humanity.
After a couple of decent showers and sleeps, we were ready to board the train again. Siberia had made a strong impression on me as an undiscovered and intimidating place. The military, the high gates, the general hostility towards foreigners and the vicious dogs, all interlaced with the beauty of the sunsets, the forests and the hills in my mind. In a dormant postcard picture, Siberia could be mistaken for any corner of the natural world. The living and breathing atmosphere here, however, is unquestionably Russian.
Our arrival in Omsk was a welcomed one, if only to stretch our legs. Our travel companions always questioned why we were visiting Omsk and we did not have any justifiable reason for doing so other than to break up our journey. As it happened, Omsk sat at the perfect spot between Irkutsk and Moscow. In hindsight, we look back pretty smugly because it all went to plan. Staying in Omsk may have seemed random but it meant we divided up every leg of our journey into 2 nights and one whole day, thus maximising sleeping time on the train.
Unlike our other stops on this trip, we were to be staying in an AirBnb-esque apartment in the city. This gave us free reign of a house to do our laundry and make our own food (we were over the greasy taste left in your mouth after a tub of instant noodles). I ended up going to the supermarket to with bread, cheese (a commodity lacking in China), cucumber and mayonnaise, to make a sandwich at home. It was at this point that I realised I am becoming my dad; he is always one to choose a homemade sandwich over an expensive lunch out.
Despite the sandwich, we organised our evening around where we were going to eat. We found a nice place on TripAdvisor, which required us to walk along the river. Here we tried some good food and embraced the large vodka shots that Russia keeps teasing us with.
We did see a few sights in Omsk, but hardly enough to call it a place worth visiting (other than for a nice stop over).
However, we did discover one place of excellence in Omsk after a nice sleep. A Ukrainian restaurant with the most amazing food (food again) which set us up nicely for our final leg on the Tran-Siberian tour (although we accidently consumed more vodka and beer which made for a haphazard entry to the train station)
When I asked Nicki what I should write about Moscow she replied ‘we didn’t see everything and we should go back!’ .
Moscow was everything that I thought it wouldn’t be. It is modern, cosmopolitan, clean, friendly and enjoyable. We will certainly be returning to see a bit more of is, perhaps for the World Cup next Summer?
Our first experience was in a café not far from Red Square, where we loaded up on vitamins from a smoothie bowl reminiscent of those in the hippy paradise of Ubud, Bali.
We then headed on foot the Red Square where we got a sense of achievement upon seeing St Basil’s Cathedral. It was as if the train journey had been a challenge and this was the end goal. Yet, we had not really done anything except follow a timetable. Somehow the getting to the end of the trans-Siberian railway had felt like an achievement.
We spent quite a bit of time exploring the Red Square, taking in the Kremlin and the National Museum (which should not be visited without an audio guide, unless you read Russian). We chose not to see Lenin’s embalmed body until the next day because of the massive queue. We later discovered that you cannot see him on a Monday, so we had missed our chance.
We took advantage of the alfresco cafes by enjoying a beer and some cheese outside.
The free walking tour of the city ensured we were up early for our second day in Moscow. It was a really good way to get to know the city better and our guide was really open and honest about the cities soviet past. She showed us the former KGB building (which still looks haunting) and was not afraid to throw out a couple of jokes about Putin.
Buzzing from our tour and with an endless list of places we wanted to visit we headed straight for a soviet style café in the GUM shopping mall. Nicki was very keen the embrace this.
My choice for the day was the Gulag Musuem, slightly out of the centre but accessible by metro. Like Lenin, it was closed on a Monday so we agreed to go to Nicki’s top pick: the metro stations.
We were following in Joanna Lumley’s footsteps again and found the 5 best stations to be situated on the coffee line (named after the urban legend that Stalin placed a coffee cup on the provisional metro map and so the architects built stations on a circular line rather than question him). In fairness, the metro stations are spectacular and, save for needing a wee, I was very impressed with each one. Nicki more so.
That evening we ate in a dumpling restaurant recommend to us by the lady from the walking tour.
I feel like I’ve very quickly written about an action packed few days in a few paragraphs. But, we left with a desire to return, and that speaks volumes for the impression we got of Moscow.