Friday, 17 December 2010

My Last day in Russia, Ulan Ude, 9 December 2010

I Stood there in the passage way of the train with all my bags, I let the three other men who joined me in the middle of the night stinking of stale tobacco.  The landscape was completely black apart from the fast approaching lights of Ulan Ude train station which were soon upon us.  The train slowed sown and crawled into the station at a leisurely pace at 6.13 on the dot.  I moved down towards the door of the carriage, bidded farewell to the Provodnitsa and climbed down the steps onto the platform below.

Dimitri had informed me that a man would be there to meet me to drive me to the hostel as it was early in the morning.  However, I couldn't see anyone waiting for me.  I decided to stand there for 10 minutes and see if anyone would turn up and that would be the 'cut off point' where I would get one of the thousand taxi drivers trying to get business in this early hour to take me.  I did not have to wait long before I was approached by a man who asked whether I was Adam.  Usually I would get very annoyed at being called Adam but I have learned during this trip I will need to let it go and not dwell on it.  When it happens here, it is an honest mistake, when it happens at home, it is the ignorance of the people.

So with my new Russian chauffer, I placed my bags in the boot of his car and we were away.  This was the first time I had been in a car in Russia. It was pointed out to me by Christian that some cars have oddly have their steering wheels on the correct side, the right side and others have them on the left side.  I never noticed this until he showed me.  Since then I have noticed more cars with the wheels on the opposite side to what they should.  I thought perhaps these are imported Japanese cars or another fact is that a lot of cars that have been written off in the UK are bought by foreigners and exported abroad where safety standards are non existent.

We drove for around 5 minutes to the hostel and the man was pointing out the main attractions of the city.  We pulled up into a quiet part of the city and was greeted by the mans wife.  They quickly got me into my room and told me about Ulan Ude and where I need to go to buy my bus ticket to Ulan Bator.  As it wasn't even 7am I thought I should have a couple of hours rest before heading into the centre to get my ticket.

The hostel was a small bungalow with three rooms a kitchen and bathroom.  Every where I turned there were electical devices that had signs on them stating that they were broken.  I was apparently sharing the bungalow with a Russian Mother and her son who were there for a basketball tournament.

I woke up a few hours later and climbed into the shower.  Why is it that anywhere you travel, you always feel dirty at the end.  After cleansing myself and putting on some warm clothes I headed out of the front door.  In fact, I got to the front door and was stopped in my tracks as the front door was locked despite the lady saying the door always remains open.  The problem was, I didn't have a key and was effectively a prisoner in the hostel.

I began by knocking loudly on the front door hoping that someone would hear me and release me into the wild.  That didn't work, so I got out the peice of paper with the hostel details on them and thought I would call the owners.  There wasn't a number!  I thought OK, the internet must have contact details for them.  They didn't!  I got out my Leatherman and tried to open the door as the lock looked as though it could be opened with a phillips head screwdriver.  It couldn't!  To my relief I spotted a neighbour passing and began banging hard on the door and shouting "hello, I'm locked in!"  Luckily he spotted my pleas for help and came to my rescue.  He went to the owners bungalow which was behind the hostel and they came out to unlock the door that trapped me.

Having been released from the confines of the hostel, I walked towards the tram stop that would take me into the centre of Ulan Ude.  The first thing I noticed with Ulan Ude was that the demographics of the population had much more asian features than those in Irkutsk.  Travelling overland gives you the opportunity to see the subtle differences in the people and landscape.  However, this seemed to be a big jump.  I suddenly felt more like a tourist and was being looked at more often.  This is the beginning of Asia and the end of being able to fade into the background of the everyday person as I did in St Petersburg, Moscow and Yekaterinburg.

I successfully bought my bus ticket to Ulan Bator which cost 1000 Roubles from a travel agency in an upmarket hotel.

I then began to explore Ulan Ude and search for the biggest Lenin head in the world.  It didn't take much to find it and I can honestly say it is a very big head!  I feel that they must have had plans to do the whole body to and make one giant statue but gave up.

In the same square there were many men creating ice sculptures for Christmas/New Year.  Their work was spectacular and very grand structures that were designed for people to walk over.  Unfortunately they weren't finished but I think it was more interesting watching them being created.  They weren't the first ice sculptures I've seen on my trip as I came across those in Irkutsk.  It seems as though it quite a big tradition here.  Let's just hope that they don't get too warm and melt!!

Having walked around town I decided that it was my last opportunity to send those post cards which I had bought in Moscow, so I walked back towards the hostel where there was a post office.  What an experience.  The Russian queue is tightly compacted and if you leave a inch of empty space in front of you, someone will have it.  I got to the counter and done my usual routine of asking whether she understood English, she said no and so I told her I didn't understand Russian.  I then passed her the letter and thought it would be a simple request.  It was obvious I want to send these cards and all I needed to do was pay her to stick some stamps on it.  She kept saying things to me that I obviously didn't understand, but with the help of the other ten people in the queue they all scrapped the English they knew from their brains and helped me communicate.  Fifteen minutes later I paid the lady and left the postcards behind, which may or may not get to their inteded destination!

Arriving back at the hostel, I was again confronted with a locked front door and had to knock until the Russian mother came to let me in.  I tried to ask her not to lock the front door as I had no key.  I thought she understood until I tried to leave at 6am the next morning.  I had to wake her up to let me out, I was quite happy to be leaving that place,

My bus was scheduled to leave at 7am and I was warned that it would be -30c so was advised to wrap up warm before I left.  I left the hostel and it was pitch black.  The cold was certainly there and I struggled to breath at some points on my walk downtown.  I got to the bus with plenty of time to spare and was the first person to get onboard.  I wasn't sure how long the journey was going to be but was excited that in a few hours I would be in Mongolia, the unknown land full of nomads. 

It was a sad but symbolic moment when I stepped off Russian soil for the last time and onto the bus.

More people started to arrive and at 7am precise, the bus moved off and headed out of Ulan Ude to the Mongolian border where I was hoping Russian border officials would let me leave without too much of a bribe!!!

Please note that photos are being added as and when I can.  There have been a few uploaded already and I will do the rest soon, so keep checking!

Monday, 13 December 2010

Irkutsk, Baikal, Birthday Celebrations and a Hangover, 6 - 9 December 2010

I removed the glove of my right hand exposing it to the -20c night temperature of Irkutsk so I could punch the security code into the mechanical lock of the door to the block in which my hostel resided.  I hit the numbers and heard a clunck as the lock released the door and I entered the building and I climbed one flight of stairs and knocked on the door that had a helpful sign requesting me to knock.  The door opened and a young Russian man greeted me with a handshake and introduced himself as Dimitri.  As I walked further into the apartment, the bathroom door, which was now behind me, opened and a someone proclaimed "I recognise that voice".  It was Christian who I had met in Yekaterinburg.   He said he had arrived just a few hours before me.

The hostel, called International Friendly Hostel is a small apartment which was decorated quite drably, to be honest, I don't think it had been decorated since the fall of the USSR.  In a strange way it was charming and felt very homely.  After Dimitri orientated me and showed me maps of Irkutsk, I headed out to get a few beers and some food from the nearest 24 hour shop which turned out to be quite a long and very cold walk.  I left the hostel and since being there it had begun to snow and the roads had been covered in a fine white layer.  Irkutsk is known as the Paris of Siberia and I could see why.  It is an absolutely beautiful city and walking through the deserted streets and making my mark in the unbroken snow, I felt a sense that this was a completely different city to Petir, Moscow and Yekaterinburg.  It was extremely calm and quiet.

I found the shop and it was one of those where you had to ask the lady to fetch what you wanted so with broken Russian I got a few bits and pieces, but the problem came when I wanted beer.  There's such a wide selection, I didn't want what I got but it was the only brand I knew how to pronounce.  I soon got back to the hostel and cracked open the beers.  Christian had also opened up a rather potent bottle of vodka that stripped your mouth of all you taste buds and burnt as it made it's way into your stomach.  Absolutely disgusting! 

The following day Christian and I took the bus to Listvyanka, a small town on the shore of Lake Baikal.  Unfortunately after the bus journey there it was so cold and there wasn't anything happening.  Apparently this is the dead time of year when it's cold but the lake isn't frozen over yet.  When the lake is frozen they have ice skating and plenty of other things happening on the ice and of course in the summer people flock there to swim and dive.  Lake Baikal is the the oldest, deepest and largest (by volume) fresh water lake in the world.  I would love to take time and explore the area surrounding the lake but unfortunately I believe that should be a persuit for the summer, not the winter as it can reach -40c during the winter months.  We went into the tourist information centre to ask for some advice on what we could do there and were pointed the direction we needed.  As we walked down the promenade it soon became clear that nothing was open, but we continued to walk until we reached a yard with an open gate.  We looked around, couldn't see anyone but a old boat that someone was working on, so we tentatively walked in hoping that we wouldn't be shot at.  The yard was full of delapidated buildings which seemed to have housed quite a successful industry in the past.  Around one corner we noticed a plume of smoke escaping from a shed and realised that they were smoking fish.  Omul is a unique fish to Lake Baikal and they prepare it by smoking it.  Christian really wanted to see some being smoked but we weren't able to.

After exploring the now empty buildings we came to the shore again where we found the most amazing icical hanging over the lake.  Following a few photos being taken we took the opportunity to smash something and started to destroy the icicals.  It was satisfying snapping of these huge shards of frozen water and throwing them to smash others.  We spent quite a while doing this until the ice got it's own back and Christian managed to slip and fall into the lake.  At this moment we thought we ought to stop and move away from the ice.

Having walked out of the yard we wondered around town for a while and then decided that there was nothing more that we could do there so we headed back to the bus stop to buy a ticket back to Irkutsk.  Having bought our tickets we had around half an hour to wait so we decided to go into the little cafe and have a couple of coffees before the bus arrived.

The road back to Irkutsk was breathtaking, hugging the lake and winding its way up and down hills and through thick pockets of forrest.  The surface of the road was incredibly icy and I put all my faith into the expert skills of the driver.  I felt quite safe until he was trying to overtake a slow moving truck whilst another vehicle was approaching in the opposite direction.  The driver braked, swerved back onto the right side of the road and you could feel the back end of the minibus loose its grip for a moment.  This didn't worry the driver and he continued to overtake the truck.  As I was write this Great Britain is currently under a snow and has ground to a halt as usual.  I believe all drivers should come out to Siberia during the winter and learn how they continue to drive on ice with normal tyres and no accidents.  It might be the bottle of vodka they drink before they get in the car that gives them such fearless skills.

Back in Irkutsk I took a walk around and it does surprise me that they still have Karla Marx Street, Lenina Street and still have a statue of Alexander III.  It's bizzare how the Communistic leaders have their streets leading to a statue of a Tsar whom they wanted out of power.  It's the case all over Russia, both the communist leaders and imperial family are celebrated.  They say that it's all part of their history and that it cannot be simply removed from the books.  However, they jumped at the chance to build the church in Yekaterinburg to mark the spot where Tsar Nicholas II was executed just 20 years after Boris Yeltsin ordered the destruction of the house that it happened in.  Does this mean they didn't like the Russia of 1918-1990 and they would have rathered be under the rule of the Imperial Family?  This cannot be the case as you've got Lenin embalmed in his mausoleum in Moscow that attracts hundreds of Russians that want to pay their respects every week and still countless number of statues devoted to the Tsars, Marx and Lenin.   don't have an answer for this but it is worth considering when in Russia.

During my last evening in Irkutsk, Christian and I decided to find a restaurant that served good local food.  After a while of walking in and out of deserted restaurants we found one that had some people in it.  We went in, checked in our coats and were shown to a table.  I chose the Omul and it was definitely worth it as it was delicious.  As we finished our meal a couple lads in their early twenties approached us and asked where we were from.  They had come from a group of people sitting in the corner celebrating one of their birthdays.  We got talking and were soon asked if we wanted to join them for a drink.  Of course it is rude to decline such an offer in Russia and we went over and were introduced to the rest of the group.  The group of students were all students studying engineering at the local university.  They soon ordered a bottle of vodka and some things to eat between toasts including some roar Omul.  After sharing two bottles of vodka and some beer a war of arm wrestling broke out and of course the Russian might overpowered both German and English.

You could sense that the waitresses were anxious for us to pay our bill and leave as it was getting quite late.  We paid our bill and tried to give the Russians some money for the drinks but they absolutely refused and continued to say that we were their guests.  The country seriously does get better and better and my preconceptions of Russia have just about faded completely away.  We then asked whether they wanted to find another bar to have a drink in but they weren't so keen on that idea and we ended up in a shop buying bottles of beer, Kalimari and dried Omul.  The guys then took us to the park opposite next to the opera house and cracked open the bottles and began to drink in the freezing whether of Irkutsk,  After a while they said that we should go back to our hostel and Christian and I were convinced they wanted to come inside and continue the party, someting I'm sure would have upset Dimitri who was sleeping in the front room.  When we got there though they it became clear that they just wanted to make sure we got back alright and said a quite long goodbye with plenty of handshaking.

By this point we were both quite drunk, Christian more than I as he had another bottle of beer, but he insisted that we go and find another bar.  So we embarked on a mission to locate a decent bar with Russian ladies inside but we failed miserably and within 20 minutes we were back inside our hostel.

What an absolutely brilliant night though and another example of the fun you can have in Russia.

Christian was so drunk when he got into bed he asked me extremely politely whether I could get him some water, which I did.  However, within a few minutes he climbed down from his top bunk but managed to tip the whole bed over.  Luckily nobody was in the bottom of it!

The next day was our last day in Irkutsk and was a write off due to a hangover from the beer and vodka.  We both caught the same train that evening however, I was heading to Ulan Ude and Christian was heading straight to Ulan Bator, Mongolia.  I was going to go straight to Ulan Bator too but Dimitri convinced me that I should get the train to Ulan Ude, stay a day and night there and then catch a bus to Ulan Bator.

My last Russian train journey started off brilliantly, I got into my compartment and found myself to be the only person.  I thought that it was excellent and that I would be able to get a good nights rest to recover from the one before.  During the journey though three men joined me in the middle of the night and all stunk of cigarettes.  The smell made me nauseous and I struggled to go back to sleep.

Beep Beep!  My alarm went off and soon after the Provodnitsa entered the carriage to say we were approaching Ulan Ude.  I collected my sheets and returned them to the Provodnitsa got my bags together and the train soon pulled into the station at 6.13am on the dot.  Welcome to my last destination in Russia, Ulan Ude.

More on that in my next blog!

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Going deeper into Siberia, Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk, 4 - 6 December 2010

Hello everyone.  Once again I bring you an account of a journey on the Russian Railways.

A short while after I had settled into my chair in the waiting room, the lady approached me and informed me in Russian that my train had arrived and was at platform 1, so I collected my bags and dragged myself to the platform.  In one of my bags I had a bottle of Russian vodka that I could share just in case I was put into the same situation as I was on my trip from Moscow.  The train arrived as soon as I left the warmth of the terminal and was thrust into the ice cold outside.  I found my carriage as quickly as I could, checked that it was the correct train with another passenger and climbed aboard.  I walked clumbsily down the carriage searching for my berth and soon found it, I opened the door and to my shock, someone was already in my bed.  The person wasn't present but their pocessions were.  As I was thinking what to do a man approached me from behind and done the typical Russian thing and started speaking at me whilst I repeated I don't understand.  Another passenger intervened and stopped this man from speaking and reiterated that I was English and that I didn't understand him so there was no point in talking at me.  I was soon made aware that the Russian gentleman wanted to swap beds with me.  I had no problem with this but wasn't sure on what the Provodnitsa would say.  I soon found my new bed and settled in.  The attendant came round and checked tickets, he pointed me down the carriage and I explained I swapped, he didn't seem to care all that much so I continued to make my bed.

In my compartment there were two middle aged Russian gentleman.  I introduced myself to the one that was awake and he didn't seem all that sociable so I said I was going to rest for a little while.  An hour or so later the men had swapped what they were doing and I introduced myself to the other one.  This gentleman had lost a lot of fingers on both hands.  I presume he had lost them through frostbite. He came from a town near Magadan and I got the impression that they were fishermen.  I don't know why, but that's the feeling I got from them.  Niether of the men spoke English or were very sociable so I spent most of the journey reading or watching films on my Zen.  This suited me quite well as I still wasn't feeling that well and I though rest would do me the world of good.

During the evening a lady became the fourth person in our compartment.  She immediatly noticed that I had a cough and a temperature.  She fished around in her bag and revealed some pills.  Her name was Christina and alleged that she was a pharmacist.  I took the pill, not sure what it was or whether she was a pharmacist but thought, what the hell!  I don't think it did anything to help, but again it shows the fantastic hospitality you receive from Russian people.

The journey was long, but I continued to watch movies and just read my book.  I confused myself with regards to the time zones too as the schedule on the trains were printed in Moscow time, I thought I would revert my watch back so I could keep track of what stations we were stopping at.  Two hours different isn't so bad, but then it goes to three, four and Irkutsk is five hours ahead of Moscow.  I found myself living in Moscow time and wondering why the sun was going up so early. 

The only conversation I really had on the train was with a twelve year old boy who was in the compartment next to mine.  Unlike older Russians, the boy gestured when he spoke and pointed to things so I could understand what he was saying.  He taught me a lot of words one evening but I couldn't remember them all.

The train wound it's way steadily through the snow covered wilderness of Siberia and it reminded me of something somebody said to me, Russian trains are always on time because they are never in a rush.  It's so true.  The train makes it's way steadily across Russia, stopping every now and again for a rest.  However, someone later told me that the drivers are paid bonuses according to their 'on time' record, so they make sure they create a schedule that they can keep.

One morning I was lucky enough to wake up during sunrise and oh my god, it was one of the most beautiful things I have seen in my life.  The sun peaking over the horizon, it's beams of light bouncing of the ground, dispersing throughout the frozen air and once in a while framed through the trees.  My description cannot possibly describe the beauty of this and unfortunately I didn't get a photo of it to share with you.  I was hoping to get one the next morning, but unfortunately I missed it as I was going East, it was constantly getting earlier.

During my last few hours on the train journey, an English speaking Russian version of a friend of mine, Laura Landamore, took the place of the pharmacist.  The girl was a training, travelling Russia training people up on technology.  I was so happy to finally be able to converse a little with somebody in English and somebody who was able to translate at least a little of what the other passengers were saying to me.  Apparently one of the guys was fascinated as to why I didn't eat much on the train, because he was constantly munching away on anything he could get his hands on.  This meant the Russian guy made me sit down whilst he made me tea and force fed me some chocolate cereal.  Again, another experience of excellent Russian hospitality.

I arrived in Irkutsk around 6pm and followed the directions I noted down before I left Yekaterinburg, they seemed simple.  I got on number one tram outside the station and asked the attendant to alert me when I got to the stop I wanted.  The next direction was to walk in the direction of the church.  PROBLEM!!!  It was dark and I saw no church whatsoever, so I checked on the map but there was no church mentioned so I took an educated guess and walked towards civilisation but soon discovered that yet again I had walked in the wrong direction and soon came to the end of the road.  After retracing my steps, I discovered that if I had walked one hundred yards the other direction I would have soon a huge white church, but it was not lit up and was under renovation.  The rest of the directions were easy to follow and I arrived at my new hostel a few minutes later.

In the next installment, I will tell you about my time in Irkutsk, a visit to Lake Baikal, Icical destruction, Russian Birthday celebrations and my trip out of Russia and into the wild Mongolia!



Saturday, 11 December 2010

Eurasian Flu and Walking in Ice, Yekaterinburg, 1 - 4 December 2010

The presidential house.
Wading my way through the thick snow on the paths with my backpack, struggling to breath through the bout of Eurasian flu I picked up somewhere, I finally made it to my hostel.  A little later than anticipated due to the time difference from Moscow.  All train times in Russia are given in Moscow time, which can be extremely wierd when you turn up to a train station in Siberia and the clocks are all 5 hours slower than the local time.  I was sure that on my e-ticket the time stated said local time.

After I found the building I tried to call up to the hostel, however no one answered.  Luckily a couple came through and entered the building and I slipped in behind them.  Absolutely exhausted, I climbed the seemingly endless steps and triumphantly knocked on the door.  However, to my distress, nobody answered.  I was too tired to move anywhere so I made the decision I was going to camp out on the mezzanine and hope someone would come and let me in.  I must remind you that I was still bursting for the bathroom at this point.

A few anxious moments later I heard footsteps clambering up the stairs.  I sat there hoping it would be someone to let me into the hostel.  It was.  It was Katia, the owner of the hostel who had just popped out to get something from the shop.  Apparently she sent me a text message trying to confirm my time of arrival, but my phone had stopped working on the train so didn't manage to get it.  Bless her, she waited for two and a half hours for me to arrive.  She noticed that I was not very well, so after she had checked me in, she marched me down to the chemists and got me something to ease my cough.

I had the hostel to myself, which was great so I could catch up on some of this blog writing and sit there and watch a film on the computer.  It was absolute bliss to have your own space again, to sleep in a room without smelly, noisey and extremely strange individuals.  I thought I was going to have the place to myself for two of my three nights, but as I was cooking dinner on the second night, the door opened and to my surprise in walked Christian, a German graduate who was travelling across Russia heading to South East Asia.  I didn't know it then but we would spend quite a few days together after this.

Frozen River under 6 inches of snow
Yekaterinburg is an absolutely wonderful place.  It has got such a great atmosphere and I felt at home as soon as I started wondering around.  The people were so much different from the people you find in Moscow and St Petersburg, they smile for one.  The snow was knee deep and the temperature reached -25c in the day time.  It was so cold my nostels froze and my eyeballs begun to become hard as my tears froze.  The pathways were completely full of compacted ice and I though it was dangerous to walk on although the Russian ladies seem to have no problems walking along in their high heels.  It absolutely amazed me.

The city is just on the Asian side of the Ural mountains that splits European Russia from the rest and you could begin to see the changes in the demographics.  I personally found the girls much more beautiful than in Moscow or St Petersburg, perhaps it's because their lives are also much more relaxed than those in the big cities and they have time to smile more.  Walking around I got a sense that there is a good feeling there and people are happier.

A student jazz band shows local artistic flare of Yekaterinburg
On my second day in Yekaterinburg, I was invited to the Eurasian conference at the local university where I was promised dancing, art and music.  I certainly saw music and dancing, also photography but they packed up within one hour and I was left there wondering what was going on.  I had a conversation with a micro-biologist/photographer for half an hour and then decided to leave as nothing more seemed to be happening. 

Church on Blood
Yekaterinburg is definitely a place where I would like to return during the summer, when you can go out hiking in the Urals and spend time drinking in the outside cafes and bars.  It has quite a big music scene with lots of jazz bars, but the hypothermic nights makes it unadvisable to go out too far.  I didn't see too much whilst there as I wanted to try and shift the cough before it got deeper into my lungs.  The main sight that I saw was The Church on Blood which is a very new church that was built on the site where Tsar Nicholas II and his family where executed during the revolution as previously mentioned.

During my last night there, Christian left and I was joined by man from Luxemburg and a very sweet Russian girl who was taking an French exam the following morning.

My short time in Yekaterinburg was far too quickly over and I left Yekaterinburg on 4 December to head to Irkutsk on my longest train journey I would have to complete in my whole voyage around the world.  The train was around two and half days and when you're not feeling too well it seems to take a lot longer.  I arrived at the train station early so that I could get my ticket, board the train, make my bed and have a rest.  Unfortunately it was a train that originated in Moscow and was going all the way across Russia to the Pacific coast so it wasn't there and I had to wait around 45 minutes until it arrived.  During my time at the station, I found a waiting room which I went in and sat down, however, I was immediately confronted by this lady asking for money and pointed towards a price list.  I have never had to pay to wait for a train before and found it an utterly bizzare concept.  The price was small and the room was warmer than the platform so I decided to part with a little of my money for a little confort.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

United States of Eurasia! Moscow to Yekaterinburg - The First Russian Journey, 30 November - 1 December 2010

Standing on the platform at Moscow's Kazansky train station, I waited patiently with the wind blowing freezing air into my face.  The actual temperature is never the worst thing, it's the wind chill that gets through your clothing.  It will find any gap no matter how small and how hard you've tried to cover up and seals those holes.

With me there were other people waiting to board the train, either heading to Yekaterinburg or any city in between, as there are many.  My journey was going to take me roughly 34 hours.  I just waited in anticipation, hoping that the people I would be sharing my four berth compartment would be friendly and hospitable.

The moment arrived when the Providnitsas started to open their doors to their patient cold passengers.  I passed the provodnitsa my ticket along with my passport.  After a few seconds checking the details on my ticket and confirming that it was my ticket, she said something to me and waved me on board.  I had no idea what she said, nor did I know what berth was mine, so I cautiously entered the carriage and hoped to find someone to ask.  I was followed on by a youngish guy who was dressed in a black Adidas track suit.  The provodnitsa outside obviously asked him to help me find my bed as he quickly pointed me into a compartment and patted the upper berth on the left hand side.  This guy then placed his bag in the luggage compartment under the lower left birth and I then became aware that he was my first "compartment mate".

My first impression of the train was that it wasn't to such a high standard as the St Petersburg to Moscow train, which was luxurious.  This train had hard brown seats a tiny table and ever window had been filled with expandable filler.  It felt as if my friend Luke Later had been here.  A few years ago three friends and I travelled round Europe in a motorhome and Luke wielding a can of expandable filler filled in every single hole that was visible.  However, it made quite a mess and we didn't know until afterward that it was impossible to get the stuff off your hands!!

I soon introduced myself to my new Russian friend, called Eric, and asked him in Russian whether he understood any English, to which obviously, he responded "Niet!".  So I just hoped that the other two people yet to arrive would speak at least some English so I could have a conversation over the next day.  Unfortunately Dimitri arrived and he did not understand either.  So I climbed up to my bunk and retrieved my handy phrase book which was given to me by a work colleague as a parting gift (cheers John!).

After many tries to ascertain what they did for a living and why they were going to Yekaterinburg, I found out that Eric was a sniper for the Russian Army and travelling home to his family, and Dimitri was a high ranking Police Officer working in Moscow and travelling back home to Kirov.  I joked with them and pointed to "We need a translator" in my phrase book, they laughed and said "Vodka!".  A little later they disappeared for a cigarette and appeared in the doorway a few minutes later with a big bottle of vodka.  Dimitri searched deep into his bag and found what he was looking for, three plastic shot glasses.  Food also started appearing on the table from their bags, such as sausages, bread and chocolate.  Seconds later, the vodka bottle was opened with the help of Eric's massive flick knife and the first of many rounds was poured.

After every round a suasage was thrust my way by Dimitri.  I could tell Eric didn't much like his vodka as he also took so long building up the courage to take the shot and preparing some water to drink directly afterwards.  I was surprised at my tollerance for vodka, I am not a spirit drinker and could actually quite easily drink.  I always had a belief that I was going to die on a train after hearing stories of gallons of vodka being consumed on such journeys.  Dimitri was also surprised and kept calling me "Russian Boy, Russian Boy!".

The way Russian's drink is quite respectable; you toast, you drink and you eat. You always eat, they say to drink without eating is foolish and only for drunkards, although I'm not sure how you classify a drunkard here.  Multiple toasts were given to me and one of my toasts was, "Strashnoy Tarakan!" which was taught to me by Ann, a former colleague, and it means "Terrifying Cockroach!".  This caused great ammusement.

After a few hours of drinking and talking with my new Russian friends, the exhaustion I had been trying to surpress since I got on board finally became too much, so I made my bed and crashed out.

A few hours after falling asleep, I woke up with a deep cough, headache and felt really hot.  Dimitri and Eric had also crashed out by this point.  I did not feel well at all and quickly fell back into broken sleep.

At 2am the train pulled into Kirov, I heard Dimitri gather his things together so I got up to say goodbye.  Soon after he left a group of other people arrived.  There was two young guys and an older guy.  They had obviously been drinking before hand and were quite loud.  My head was pounding and the fever had set in.  I was hoping that they'd just find their beds and I could meet them the next day.  This did not happen, I was poked by one of the younger men, talking at me in Russian.  I felt as if I should be polite and respond, so I just said "Good evening" and they asked me where I lived and I answered.  They then carried on talking at me and I had no idea what they were saying.  Russian's have the tendency not to use any gesticulations when trying to communicate with non-Russian speakers.  They just repeat themselves over and over.  It really is exhausting trying to figure out what someone is trying to say to you and I had no energy left, so I just said, in English "I have no idea what you're talking about and I'm going to sleep" and rolled over.  Minutes later I was awoken again by "Andre, beer?" to which I responded no to.  If I had not been feeling unwell, I would have participated.

The next day, I climbed down from my bed and started to talk with these unknown people who arrived in the middle of the night.  One man was a Kazakhstani man who claimed to be in the militia and kept making punching gentures and saying, "you OK, you friend!".  I still couldn't help but still be a little apprehensive of him.  The other young guy was a Russian driver of some sort.  Is he a gettaway driver, a lorry driver, taxi driver...  I had no idea.  They then offered me vodka, to which I initially declined but the Kazakh man played the guilt trip and said "Russian tradition, friends...", so I gave in and said a Malyanka (small one).  Small portions of vodka don't exist.  As soon as I had gulped one down, another was poored and offered to me, I said no again but failed.  I told them that this was going to be my last one and that I was only doing it for them and their traditions.

The last few hours of my trip to Yekateringburg were spent talking and the Kazakh sharing photos of family.  As we pulled into Yekaterinburg station where Eric and I were leaving, they all got off the train to give us huge handshakes and bid us farewell.  Having left the train, I was immediately shocked by the sheer difference in temperature between there and Moscow.  There were huge piles of snow where workers tirelessly try to clear the paths and roads.

Eric very kindly offered me a place to stay with his family for the evening, which I would have loved to accept but I had already booked a hostel and the owner, Katia, was waiting for me.  The Russian generosity never fails to amaze me.  People have a very tainted view of Russia and I can honestly say it's all wrong.  I had never felt safer in a capital city than in Moscow.

So after a long trek to a tram stop through the unbroken snow with Eric leading the way, I said my goodbyes, got on and headed to the hostel.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Mighty Moscow, 25 - 30 November 2010

I arrived in Moscow a little after 8am.  I bidded Vladimir farewell and stepped off the train and began the hunt for the metro station.  There was a sign pointing towards the metro but it made no sense as I ended up walking into a public toilet!  Perhaps it was a misreading of the Cyrillic on my part.  I ended up walking into the cold outdoors and was unfortunately surprised that the snow that was in Saint Petersburg had not yet arrived in Moscow.  I eventually found the metro station and bought myself a card.  The politeness of the people selling tickets is no different from Petersburg, you ask for one, they take a deep breath, snatch money off you and throw your change and ticket back at you.  Swiping my ticket at the barrier, I entered the metro station and was confronted with a huge mass of people trying to squeeze down two escalators.  I suppose turning up in the capital city during rush hour was not such a great idea.  I took the initiative to stand back and wait for the crowd to die down before attempting to descend into the depths of the metro.  I was joined by two middle aged Russian gentlemen who had so much gold in their mouths I couldn't believe.  They looked a little shifty and asked if I was American, to which I replied no, I am English.  One of them pointed down the escalator and drew his finger across his throat, now that can mean either; if I go down there, they will kill me or if I go down there, there are so many people I will be suffocated to death.  I hoped it was the later one.  We spent the next hour and half together, I shared chocolate and they sang Tom Jones to me.  The crowd eventually died down to a controllable amount at around 9.30 and we all made our way down to the metro.

The Moscow metro stations are the most beautiful and one of the busiest networks in the world. It opened in 1935 and interestingly the Soviet Union consulted the London Underground, the world's oldest underground network, for help prior to construction.  Each station has it's own theme and my favourite station I visited was the Ploshchad Revolyutsii which has bronze figures of Soviet soldiers wielding guns, farmers and other people. 

Having reached the bottom of the escalator it was again time to decipher the Cyrillic alphabet and find out where I needed to go to get to the hostel.  Luckily the Godzilla Hostel website had extremely good instructions how to get there, so it wasn't difficult to get there at all.  The only problem with the metro system I can find is that the temperature difference between outside and inside, going from -15 to +30 can't be that good for you.  I arrived at the hostel and checked in, my first impression of the hostel was that it seemed more like a hotel than a hostel and I was concerned that there wasn't going to be any communal atmosphere where you can meet anybody else.

After checking in I went in search for the Moscow Arts Theatre, one of the most important things for me to see whilst in Moscow, however my first attempt failed.  I found the Constantin Stanislavski Theatre, the Tchaikovsky concert hall and a Moscow theatre but not the Moscow Arts Theatre.  Having failed, I went back to the hostel all disappointed.

That evening I sat at the computer doing the Facebook thing and I could hear a recognisable voice coming from the TV room.  It was Ash, a girl that I had met briefly in Tallinn, literally her and her boyfriend had arrived as I was leaving.  Having entered the TV room, several other people were there, Eugenie (German/Russian) and Eric (French) and we all got on quite well.  We ended getting a pizza delivered from the local Pizza Hut and watched Hot Tub Time Machine, which I personally found hilarious but I'm not sure if the others found as funny.  I also enjoyed a bit of banter with Eric after he corrected me on my pronunciation of Auviour I proceeded to corrected him every time he said a word beginning with 'H' like hotel, he was saying 'otel.  After I made the effort to ridicule him for this he was saying hhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhotel.  Later that week we had a hilarious conversation on how France donated 80% and Germany donated 20% to create the English language.  I love the Anglo Franco relationship!

On my second day in Moscow, I walked around with Ash and I got my first real taste of Moscow. I walked into Red Square for the first time, however it felt a little smaller than I imagined.  Perhaps it was due to the monstrosity of an ice rink they had erected in the centre of the square.  Red square is still an amazing place to be, so much history in such a small place.  Just to stand there and think about those extensive military parades to show the Soviet might.  Lenin's embalmed body remains there in his mausoleum, I never got to go and pay my respects because of the limited opening times and huge queues.  Lenin, a great man with great ideals, shame they never worked!

St Basil's Cathedral sits at the end of Red Square and is truly another amazing piece of architecture.  It's actually a cathedral made up of different churches.  This cathedrals marks the geographic centre of the city. 

Tomb of Unknown Soldier
As we walked into the Alexander Gardens we were confronted by lots of police shutting off an area around a car which had been deserted in the middle.  I have no idea how it got down there.  The police had sniffer dogs and what I presume was a bomb disposal squad.  Moscow is still in a high state of alert after the terrorist attacks on the metro system earlier this year.  Having been on the metro and witnessed how busy and packed it is, I can't imagine how frightening it must have been to all those people trying to escape.  We walked back through later that day and it was all cleared up.  The gardens also has the tomb of the unknown soldier which is guarded by soldiers all day.

On our walk round we got to Arbat Street which is supposedly the Bohemian centre and one of the oldest streets of Moscow.  As the guide wrote, it's a tourist trap, and I can confirm that.  So many souvenir shops and people trying to herd you inside.  However, there were some musician playing down the street and it had a nice atmosphere.  I suppose, like many things, the street would be better visited in summer!

On my third day in Moscow I did absolutely nothing.  Sometimes walking around sightseeing becomes to much to handle, especially in the bitterness of winter.  So Ash, Eugenie and I went to an Italian restaurant and spent the afternoon eating yet another pizza and drinking warm alcoholic drink before heading back to the hostel where we said goodbye to Ash as she headed up to Saint Petersburg.  That evening I met Brigid who is also doing the Trans-Mongolian, I was so relived that I wasn't the only crazy person to do the journey in winter!

Also at the hostel was Karen who was an American lady who was desperately trying to find work anywhere in the world.  She had just been working on elections in Uzbekistan I believe.  She is also second cousin to Tina Dico, a highly successful Danish Singer Songwriter.  I had many a conversation with her about many subjects during my time at the hostel, I just hope she managed to get back to the US for her to get a job.

On the Sunday I visited the market with Eugenie and it was so cold we had to keep stopping for tea every 30 minutes.  The market was enourmous and full of souvenirs and second hand stalls where you could by an arsenal of weapons functioning or non functioning.  Eugenie bought a few souvenirs to take back to her family.  I would have liked to have done the same, but it's very difficult to buy things at the beginning of your trip as you have to got through the ordeal of finding a post office, trying to get the person to understand and waiting an anxious three months for your parcel to arrive back at home.

After walking around the ice cold market for a few hours we decided to leave as I wanted to go and see Stanislavski's house before it closed.  Eugenie left me on the metro and headed back to the hostel as she was recovering from a cough and cold so wanted to get back in the warm.  I arrived at Constantin Stanislavski's house as it was turning dark. It was an unremarkable house from the outside and I wasn't sure I had the right address or not.  I walked around the back of the building and attempted to pull the door open.  It did open, next I was hoping that I wasn't walking in on some families home.  I was relieved to see a photo of Stanislavski hanging on the wall in the entrance.

Stanislavski's desk, the beginning of great things
As I wrote part of my dissertation on Stanislavski and the Moscow Arts Theatre, seeing his house and his study where he wrote 'An Actor Prepares' and 'My Life in Art' was truly amazing.  These books have been the actors' bible ever since he took the time to experiment with psychological acting and create certain processes for actors to get a more naturalistic performance.  Stanislavski's 'system' was then later taken and evolved into American 'method acting' most people have heard about. It seems strange to think how much influence this one man from Russia had on the world of theatre and film.  He totally radicalised the contemporaneous acting style of Russia which was melodramtic.

His house was more like a mansion, he had is very own studio where he worked with his actors, which at the time I visited was playing host to a concert so I couldn't go in, but I peeked through the doorway.  His study also turned into an ad-hoc performance space.  During Stanislavski's final years, he moved his bedroom next to his study and would write continuously from the moment he woke up.  There was a photo of Edward Gordon Craig's set that he built for Stanislavski and Nemorich-Danchenko for their production of Hamlet, however, the part on the English translation had a line through it so I believe it had been taken away.  This was a shame, because I wrote about this very production in my dissertation and would have like to have seen the original photo. 

Having read his books, studying him for years and using some of his techniques, it was great to see the family side of his life, as we do sometimes forget that great figures also had families and we just see them for their work.  He dedicated the upper floor to his children.  The Soviet Union ordered the house to be made into a museum for Stanislavski and his work. 

On my last day in Moscow I had my last chance to visit the Moscow Arts Theatre and Museum.  I was walking around with a Scottish guy called Will and went into the theatre box office and I had a wonderful time laughing with the lady there as neither of us understood each other.  I asked in very broken Russian whether there were any tickets for that evening's performance, to which she replied Niet!  I was absolutely devastated as that would have been my only chance to have seen the inside of the theatre which Stanislavski and Nemorich-Danchenko founded.  I then asked about the Moscow Arts Theatre Museum and was pointed in the direction of the museum entrance.  We made our way to the museum but there was no one there apart from a security guard who pointed us back to the box office, we were confused but saw that the ticket office was open from 2-7pm so we thought we'd go back and try later.  Around 3pm we visited the Museum again and was politely informed by another security guard that it was closed.  I cannot tell you how disappointed I was not to be able to go into the theatre and the museum.  This was number one on my list way way above the Kremlin, St Basils etc.  I took solace in the view that Moscow isn't that far away from the UK and that I can come back in the future, preferably in the summer!

My time in Moscow saw me make my first two mistakes.  One: getting shaving foam instead of deodorant. Two: Getting 15,000 Rubles out of the cash machine instead of 1,500!  The shaving foam is fine but I'm not sure if I can actually spend 15,000 Rubles before I leave Russia!!

My last night at Godzilla's Hostel was spent with the people I had met whilst there.  We took a trip to the local shop and enjoyed a feast.  I also began learning some more Russian and can now say Salad, Cucumber, Pepper, Cabbage!  It was quite a funny story, we were in a book shop hunting for a picture translation book where you can just point to a picture to indicate what you want.  I hunted around the whole shop and found the only similar thing, which had pictures and the Russian word on the back.  I thought that's great.  I got back to the hostel and showed Eugenie what I had bought and she looked confused, I asked her why and she replied, the word doesn't reflect the picture on the front.  It turned out to be a game of some sort. One day I may learn more words but I'm quickly running out of time in Russia!

I woke up early on the day of departure so I could get packed, return my sheets and towel, chill out a bit and say goodbye to people before heading to the craziness of Russian train stations for my carriage to Yekaterinburg.  My train was leaving at 12:40 and I left at 11 to give me a good margin of error just in case anything goes wrong.  Nothing did go wrong and I took my last metro ride in Moscow and boarded train 092 heading to Yekaterinburg.