Wednesday, September 29, 2010
Sunday, September 26, 2010
Friday, September 24, 2010
Tomorrow I leave Russia since it is the final day of my visa. I'm a bit sad because Kristen left St Petersburg late last night to catch her flight back to NZ which leaves from Moscow. I'm going to Helsinki which is only a six hour train trip away from St Petersburg so it didn't make sense for me to go back to Moscow. Going to Helskinki one of the easiest ways out of Russia since Ukraine and Belarus both involve visa hassles. The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania don't and I thought of going to them but I will go to Finland first, then south through the Baltic states and into Poland. As well as being an interesting route, I will have no hassles with visas in any of those countries.
We spent two days exploring the massive Hermitage art gallery and even then, there were parts that I didn't see. It's too difficult to pick out the highlights because everywhere I looked there was something interesting. As well as the artworks, the rooms in the building were spectacular in themselves - it was the Winter Palace of the Russian royal family.
Tuesday, September 21, 2010
Monday, September 20, 2010
Thursday, September 16, 2010
Sunday, September 12, 2010
We spent one night in Novosibirsk, a city that was only founded after the Trans-Siberian Railway was built. The temperature is dropping and I’ve caught a cold so I’m on the lookout for a scarf and woolen hat. We spent a night in Omsk and briefly had a look at the Literature Museum which had a section on Dostoyevsky who spent several years in the 1850s in Omsk when he was exiled to Siberia for political activities. I was excited to see hand-written pages by him though I have no idea what they say. Now we’re back on board a train heading for Yekaterinburg, a place probably most famous for where the Tsar and his family were executed by the Bolshevik revolutionaries.
The trains have been very comfortable so far. We’ve caught overnight trains with sleeping berths the entire way, except for the six-hour journey from Novosibirsk to Omsk. Early on, we booked second-class tickets which gave us beds in four-berth cabins. As we’ve headed west, the prices have gone up so we’re now in third-class which have open cabins and more beds packed in. This actually is not so bad, because the open-plan design means it is less stuffy than the closed cabins. We stock up on snacks before getting on board but also buy food from sellers on the platforms and from the onboard sellers.
There are kilometer markers along the tracks, indicating distance from Moscow. When we first crossed the border from Mongolia, the marker was Km5900. As we’ve travelled west, the distances from Moscow at the places we’ve stopped have been: Ulan Ude 5642, Irkutsk 5185, Krasnoyarsk 4098, Novosibirsk 3335, and Omsk 2712.
War and Peace update: a guy betted he could drink a bottle of rum while sitting on a high windowsill and did so. A Prince Andrew moaned about his wife and women in general. I’m taking a break from all that excitement to read ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ by Alexander Solzhenitsyn which is about being in a labour camp in Siberia.
We caught a bus out to where we thought we could get a chair-lift to have good views of the rock pillars but once we got off the bus couldn’t find where to go next. But two men spoke to us and through our tiny bits of Russian and their tiny bits of English, we got the idea that they were willing to guide us to the right place in exchange for 500 rubles. So we set off on a walk uphill through a birch forest. This was a steep walk and hard-going considering that we hadn’t prepared for any kind of trek. There were also annoying insects biting us which we later realised were ticks, and possibly encephalitis-bearing ones. Just as we were getting tired and about to turn back we spotted a large stolby through the trees and climbed it for good views of other stolbies and Krasnoyask and the surrounding area. It was a bit of a risky venture, being led into a forest by two stangers but I stayed at the back and had my pocketknife handy in case there was any trouble. Once we got back to town we were still finding ticks on us, and so took showers at the railway station before boarding our train to Novosibirsk.
Tuesday, September 7, 2010
Wednesday, September 1, 2010
After our trip to the Mongolian countryside we needed quite a few days’ rest in Ulan Bator, or at least I did. We had vague plans of taking another trip out of the city, perhaps to a national park, but they never came to fruition mainly due to inertia and probably fearing that it could be as disappointing as our first trip. So Kristen and I ended up spending about ten days in UB, visiting museums and other sights, including the Gandan monastry, one of the few Buddhist monastries in the country that wasn’t totally destroyed by Stalin in the 1930s. (Although nominally independent, Mongolia was a Soviet satellite state from 1920s to 1990.) There are also some great dinosaur skeletons in the Natural History Museum and apparently Mongolia is a major area for discovering dinosaur remains. I also enjoyed the Mongolian History Museum. The most famous person in the country’s history is of course Genghis Khan and it was interesting to learn about his empire that stretched from east to west in the 12th and 13th centuries. Genghis has a reputation in the west simply as an aggressive conquerer but in Mongolia he is regarded as a progressive hero. There seem to be good grounds for the latter view. While Europe was marked by religious absolutism in the middle ages, Genghis practised religious toleration, permitting Christian churches and Muslim mosques as well as Buddhist temples in his capital.
One of the biggest disappointments of Mongolia is the unfriendliness of the people. I had my expectations lifted by reading in several guidebooks that Mongols are a very friendly people who will always welcome to you into their homes. Well, the families on our trip were not like that and if anything, the people in UB were worse. Shop workers were almost never polite, grunting in response to anything said to them. Asking for help usually resulted in lazy dismissals or being rudely laughed at. Hotel staff were grumpy. There were a few friendly Mongols but even though there are some places I’d like to come back to visit one day, I don’t see myself returning to Mongolia anytime soon.
We managed to book tickets on the busy train to Ulan Ude in Russia for August 29 (two days later than we wanted), departing at 9pm. We hadn’t found out how fast the train was and so had no idea when we’d be arriving but after confused conversations with the other passengers sharing our cabin, we got the idea that we’d be arriving in Sukhbaatar (a city at the border named after a hero of Mongolia’s fight for independence from China in the 1920s) at 7am. I awoke just before then and was the only passenger to do so. For half an hour I wandered along the platform, looked at the city, found a cup of coffee and played with a puppy while everyone else slept. Eventually others began to stir and we began the elaborate process of being checked by Mongolian immigration, traveling a few more minutes over the border and then going through Russian customs and immigration. This took an unbelievably long time, starting at around 8am and it wasn’t until 3.30pm that we finally started off on our way again. Something dodgy was happening in the cabin next to ours - a woman from there had previously stashed some clothing in our cabin. Customs searched her cabin thoroughly, confiscating stuff and they eventually came to our cabin and asked whose the clothing was and then, when we said we didn’t know, they took that too. I think the woman was smuggling clothing across the border to sell. I wondered if she would get into much trouble, having heard that Russian border officers can be scary, but we saw her later and didn’t notice any bruises. We had no problems at all. Those Russian visas that were so difficult to get were all in order and we were as joyous with relief as it’s possible to be on a train when one has not had enough sleep.
From the Russian border, a restaurant car had been attached to the train and we spent a while in it drinking beer, enjoying the very Russian decor and wincing at the awful Russian electro-pop that was being played too loud. I had been wondering what Russia would be like over the border. Would there be a sudden change from asian people and culture to caucasian? Or would, as I suspected, people and things look just the same as in Mongolia, with only a gradual change as we headed west? As it turned out, the change was more drastic than I was expecting. Suddenly the houses were more western-looking and while asiatic people were still very present, there were now many more people with paler complexions.
We arrived at Ulan Ude at 9pm last night. The city’s main claim to fame is possessing the biggest Lenin head in the world, an eight metre bronze sculpture that dominates the central square. The people here are a mix of roughly half caucasians and half mongols with plenty of people who look like a mixture of both. It’s interesting to see how integrated they are. They do not stick to their own ethnic groups and it is common to see friends of different races together. I wonder if that will continue (as I hope) or will the striving for ‘ethnic cleansing’ that has so marked eastern Europe in the late-20th and early-21st centuries (and is happening again in the Balkans according to recent reports) come here too. We’ve bought tickets for the train to Irkutsk leaving tonight and will spend several days there, giving us a chance to visit Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest and oldest lake.