September 26, 2006

second person siberian

train-in-motion blurry-view samovar.jpg mikey-unimpressed

It's when you fight your way through the hordes and out of Moscow's metro and walk into Yaroslavsky Station that the sheer scale of the journey starts to really hit you, when you look at the time-zone markers under the diagram of the rail network, and the way those numbers mount up as the track sweeps eastwards: +6, +7, +8. Eight time zones. A third of the world.

On the platform, in the night, the #2 "Rossiya" running from Moscow to Vladivostok seems to run on forever, although it's actually only a train of some 20 cars - "wagons" in Russian. Your first-class wagon is near the middle of the train, and your two-bed compartment boasts saffron drapes and mirrors, a selection of Cyrillic-language newspapers, a radio and even a television - although the only channel it gets is CCCCC, the Closed Circuit Corridor Camera Channel, to save you from sticking your neck outside your door.

Mikhail and Natalya, your provodnitsas, or car attendants, introduces themselves; they live on this train, will ride it to Vladivostok and back again, and it's their job to care for the car and its passengers, to bring you beer or water or food from the dining car. Without a whistle or warning, and bang on time, you start to move: through Moscow's vast and and teeming suburbs, past commuter trains glowing ghostly in the night, tired passengers sitting on wooden benches and staring at nothing. Mikhail comes to take your ticket, gives them a little rip right across the hologram sticker, passes back your copy. One beer later, and it's late, and you wrap yourself in the soft first-class linens and let the train gently rock you to sleep.

You wake to trees. And indeed there will be a continuing arboreal theme to the scenery throughout the rest of the voyage. The forests through which you pass are of birch and pine, and almost like the birch and pine you know - but not quite. They are too tall, too straight, nothing but trunk and tiny spoke branches. It is like ten million densely clustered needles sticking straight up, like a sea of spears. Power lines parallel the tracks, sometimes near, sometimes far. Roads run alongside the tracks for a time, then veer away.

Over the next day, when you happen to glance out the window, or when you fold down one of the windows in the corridors that opens and spend a few minutes just gazing at the passing land, you see, mostly, the same unchanging, ever-changing thing; taiga forest. Often there is cultivated land beyond. Sometimes there are clearings of tufted, boggy grassland. Sometimes there are people on or near the tracks, railway workers in orange vests, or random passersby in dark jackets, or old women washing clothes in a nearby pond. Sometimes you pass houses, sagging wood and brick - mostly wood - surrounded by shacks that look like African shantytowns. And sometimes there is only the shacks. Piles of firewood are everywhere. Winter is coming.

There are towns and cities, too; Legoland cities of Stalinist concrete blocks, occasionally leavened by neighbourhoods of wooden houses. Other trains howl past in the other direction, mostly freight trains of shipping containers and tanker cars and logs lashed to flatbeds, more and more as you continue further east, into the industrial heartland of Russia, along the world's busiest freight rail line. You pass gargantuan factories, mostly abandoned and rusted and crumbling. In major cities you stop for ten or fifteen minutes, and walk up and down the platform, stretching your legs, wary that the train might leap away at any moment - for there is no warning before it departs, except that of the provodnitsas. It's a little odd to walk on ground that does not move. Wrinkled old women push carts full of chocolate bars and chips and beer bottles, or carry bags full of peanuts and oat-honey bars and bread and dried fish, and try to sell them to the train passengers.

They get few customers. The train is half-empty. Summer is high season; autumn is quiet. Half the first-class compartments are empty and locked shut all the way to Omsk. In the dining car, Igor, a huge middle-aged man with a boxer's build and only a few remaining teeth (mostly gold), does all the cooking and cleaning while being henpecked to death by three old women who spend all day sitting at a table drinking tea. No more than two other tables are ever occupied by passengers while you are there. You spend the second night drinking beer, swapping tales of Russian bureaucrats, and not playing cards with the friendly Swedish couple next door. In the morning a knock comes on the door, and Natalya slides it open. "Omsk," she says.

Siberia starts some 2300 km from Moscow, or one-quarter of the way to Vladivostok. Omsk is its first major city. It has a history. Dostoevsky was exiled there for four years, almost flogged to death, and dragged out to face the firing squad for an execution that turned out to be mock. For a couple of years, during the civil war, it was the capital of White Russia, until the Bolsheviks came. Today it has a city core of public parks and nineteenth-century stonework, not unlike St. Petersburg, surrounded by rings of squat Stalinist architecture.

But the twenty-first century has caught up, and how. Omsk's buildings may be shabby, peeling, faded concrete, but the ground floor of all those along the major streets are brightly painted, brightly lit, brightly branded boutiques and bars and salons and restaurants and supermarkets that wouldn't be out of place in London or Frankfurt. You stay at a sparkling new hotel at the junction of two rivers, go for a quick run on a pretty pedestrian trail that runs along one of them, eat cheap pizza and drink overpriced Czech beer, and watch Gladiator on cable TV.

In Omsk you observe, not for the first time, that Russians look very Russian. Especially the men. Even more than you had expected. The whole country is straight out of Central Casting, from the burly middle-aged men and women, to the lean soldiers on the streets, and the fine-boned kids who run the Internet cafes, and the beshawled babushkas on the Moscow metro, and the heavily dolled-up women on the boulevards (spike-heels and tight jeans/miniskirts seem to be the twentysomething woman's uniform here from sea to shining sea.)

The next morning, armed with the scantiest of Russian, a phrasebook, patience, and a sense of humour, you buy tickets to Krasnoyarsk from a woman who speaks no English. This time you ride kupe, second-class, four-bed compartments. This train is two-thirds full, and all your fellow-passengers are Russian - this is no international train, Krasnoyarsk is the end of its line. The compartment is uncomfortably heated, but the bedding is comfortable enough, there are cups and saucers, tea bags free in the dining car, and of course the samovar at the end of every car, next to the provodnitsa's cabin, providing endless boiled water. Next to the samovar is a thirty-seven-point four-colour diagram detailing its design and operation. The provodnitsas here are brusque but friendly; their reputation as battleaxes so far does not seem deserved.

Here the taiga forest appears only in fits and spurts; the trees are smaller, branched more elaborately against the wind, often lonely in a landscape of colossal, marshy grassland, on which the courses of flood-plain rivers are marked in brown. Feathergrass and cat-tails sprout waist-high, swept into ephemeral patterns by the ever-gusting wind. In the night, just west of Novosibirsk, you cross the kilometre-wide River Ob, dark water full of barges and the multicoloured streaks of reflected city lights, the fifth longest river in the world.

Today you arrived in Krasnoyarsk (on the shores of the Yenisey River, seventh longest in the world.) You were driven through a bustling downtown with some amazing, lacelike wooden architecture, then through long suburbs of scarred apartment blocks, past swastika graffiti, to your homestay in one of the endless anonymous Legoland buildings. The stairwell, like those in St. Petersburg, is dank and grim and crumbling, ominous and inhuman, decorated only by a huge heating duct - but the apartment into which you are invited is cozy and comfortable, all lacy curtains and flowerpots. Your hostess is a formidable old woman named Galina. It's a bit like living with your grandmother; that is, if your grandmother spoke no English.

Tomorrow, you will venture out into the taiga for the first time, into the jagged outcrops of the Stolby Nature Reserve; and soon thereafter, Lake Baikal. After 59 hours of train travel, at an average speed of 60-70 km/hr, you are slightly more than halfway to Beijing. You are not yet halfway to Vladivostok.

September 21, 2006


moscow-dawn st-basils gum-guess moscow-subway

So this is Moscow.

Eh. You can keep it.

Mostly it's a sprawling labyrinth of concrete towers, shopping complexes, BMWs and construction cranes. My timing probably has something to do with my reaction - the Kremlin is closed to the public this week, the Bolshoi is entirely wrapped in scaffolding and canvas - but I'm confident I'd take St. Petersburg over this town any day of any week.

There are some cool bits. The metro is indeed magnificent (but its grandeur is threadbare, and it's full of barricades that herd people into seething bottlenecks.) GUM, on Red Square, is surely the world's most beautiful shopping mall (but it's still a shopping mall.) The sculpture garden across from Gorky Park is quite cool (but Gorky Park itself is disappointing; most of it is occupied by a tacky amusement park.) The Kremlin, St. Basil's, and the Alexanderovsky Gardens are a bit like having a colossal fantasyland castle in the heart of the city (but sort of throw the gloomy industrial bustle of most of the rest of the place into sharp relief.) The peoplewatching on Arbat is outstanding (though Arbat itself is half souvenir shops and fast-food stores.)

My favourite thing by far, so far, is the Exhibit of the People's Economic Achievements, aka VDNKh, which was once sort of a Soviet Epcot Centre. Its kilometres of boulevards and gardens are decorated by huge statues of heroic Communist figures, massive golden fountains, Soviet space shuttles, a titanium spire that has to be seen to be believed, and gargantuan pavilions, one for every republic of the USSR and others catchily named things like "Pavilion No. 71." Nowadays said pavilions have mostly been converted to stores selling cheap consumer goods, the airplane hangar has become a farmer's market, and bouncy Russopop booms out of speakers hidden in the columns that dot the grounds. It's kind of the utter apotheosis of kitsch.

The occasional frissons of feeling like I'm living in a spy novel are also kind of fun. Stepping off the St. Petersburg train into the Moscow night; walking along the fearsome walls of the Lubyanka, that looming monolith that I think would look menacing even if you didn't know its long and bloody history of dungeons and KGB interrogation chambers; being accosted by a policeman (by the rather unfriendly expedient of coming up behind me and jabbing his finger into my back) who demanded to see my documents - "Passport, visa, Moscow registration!"1 - " and wasn't satisfied by my attempt to forestall him with a mere photocopy (I'm reluctant to hand out my passport unless it's actually necessary) - "Problem! You come to polizi stationi!" - and, when I gave in and gave him my passport, scanned my registrations minutely for errors before pronouncing "OK!", passing it back, and waving me on.

It's nice to see that some of the old Soviet traditions like random identity checks haven't died off. Two more cops were doing the same thing outside the VDNKh to anyone who looked Caucasian (ie dark-skinned.) I wonder why I looked suspicious. I am very obviously a tourist here; I consider myself relatively nondescript, but almost nobody has confused me for a Russian. Perhaps that's for the best.

eta: also of note: there's a lot of money flooding through this city - luxury brands everywhere, BMWs clogging the street, hordes of women in thousand-dollar outfits, enormous numbers of bahkomats (bank machines) and even more enormous numbers of burly security guards, plus a very-very-cool Fabergé retail store - but you still can't drink the tap water. Also, the public toilets are Porta-Potties manned by babushkas who charge you 5 rubles a go.

I'm a little footsore; in this last week I've probably done more sustained walking than at any time since ... sheesh, probably since trekking around Annapurna in Nepal. But my poor feet will get a couple days of rest soon enough: tomorrow night, we embark on the 38-hour train journey to Omsk. About halfway there, just west of Yekaterinburg, Europe becomes Asia. I wonder if there's a WELCOME TO ASIA POPULATION 4,000,000,000 sign at the border.

1You're supposed to get your visa paper (not to be confused with your visa) stamped every time you stay at a hotel for three or more days; lack of such stamps will cause great suspicion, apparently, even though it's entirely possible to spend a month in this country without spending three days in one place, particularly if you're taking the Trans-Siberian.

PS: Hermitage pix are up, but no Moscow ones yet - none of the Net cafes here do USB.

September 17, 2006

the hermit of the hermitage

hermitage-5 hermitage-18 hermitage-21

I am posting from an Internet cafe inside St. Petersburg's rather staggering Hermitage Museum.

I know, I should probably be looking at art. But one can only walk down so many colossal galleries, passages and corridors, beneath fifty-foot-high ceilings carved and gilded and filigreed and hung with chandeliers the size of Volkswagens, past what seems like half of all the world's classical (ie pre-1920) art, before one needs another breather.

To paraphrase my travelling companion M., one gets the sense that Peter the Great took his chief architect to Versailles and the Louvre, then turned to him and said, "You see? Like that. Only much bigger."

I'll probably upload pictures and expand this into a real post tonight.

eta: OK, pictures tomorrow. Most Russian internet cafes aren't so good at the extra services.

So I could totally live here. I mean, if I spoke Russian. And if it was always summer. It's all monuments and palaces and gardens (not parks) and ornate 19th century buildings, but it's really livable, too, cafes and bars and gathering places, majestic without resorting to the inhuman scale of, say, central Paris. And the blinys - Russian for "crepe" - are great. No Nutella, though, alas.

The whole city is crumbling, of course; and the whole city is being reborn ultramodern at the same time.

It's the little things, as always, that you notice. The massive drainpipes that carry rainwater from roofs down to ankle level, every fifty feet down every side of every block. The security booths in city parks, the wrinkled bureaucratic babushkas stationed as building security, and in virtually every room of the Hermitage, ready to snap at you if, God forbid, you rest your camera on an air conditioner for stability, or in some places if you go the wrong way through a room; relics of the authoritarian mentality. The profusion of marriages. The scarred walls from sixty-four years ago, when this city was victimized by one of the longest and most gruelling battles in history. (Hitler never actually conquered Leningrad, as it was then known, but his forces surrounded it and besieged it for "the 900 days." The only supply route was a winter-only road across a frozen lake. At one point the rations for residents were down to 200 grams (less than half a pound) of sawdust-thickened bread per day. But somehow they held out.)

Of course it's far from idyllic today. Last week a race riot broke out in a small town not too far from here, and the resulting pogrom drove every Caucasian (ironically, here that means "dark-skinned," as opposed to Slav "light-skinned") out of town; street gangs looted, burned, murdered. Homeless alcoholics stagger regularly past, even on glittering Nevsky Prospekt. Also last week, the deputy head of Russia's central bank was assassinated, presumably by mob figures irritated by his attempts to crack down on money laundering.

Still, it's got a definite decaying, skyrocketing, phoenix-like charm. We'll see if it's just St.P. or if it holds through the rest of the country. Tomorrow night to Moscow, in'shallah.

initial impressions

electrical-tangle petersburg-canal one-gun-salute nevsky-prospekt

Dump any notion you ever had of Russia as a drab and dowdy place. St. Petersburg is swimming in colour, seething with life. I've only been here a day now, but it's already staking a genuine claim to becoming my favourite European city.

That despite the fact I got pickpocketed in the metro this morning - for the first time ever anywhere - amidst the press of the shoulder-to-sholder crowd. Fear not, all I lost was a day's spending money (R800/US$30); my ID, credit cards, and US$ stash are tucked away rather more securely. And a good thing too.

The puppet theatre where I am staying is, alas, closed for renovations. (Had I known this, I would have stayed elsewhere, but it's comfortable enough in a Stalinist-hostel kind of way. I have my own room; I'm kinda too old for dorm beds nowadays.)


Mild culture shock hit before I ever got out of the airport: I ordered a Pepsi to change money, and got a Pepsi Cappucino, coffee flavour cola, which tastes pretty much like it sounds. Thence a rattling, belching, rusting old bus with a babushka ticket taker, down wide green boulevards into the city proper, into the metro, up at Nevsky Prospket - and up - and up - and up. If there's a deeper subway system anywhere, I've never seen it.

Nevsky Prospekt is the spine of St. Petersburg, a massive boulevard walled by ornate buildings, palaces, cathedrals, department stores, McDonald's, Armani, Citibank, etc., and covered by a tangled spiderweb of streetcar wires. Glittering spires, domes, and pillared colonnades are visible around virtually every corner, and the city is broken up by wide canals, massive public squares, and green patches of public parks. But dig a little behind this glittering exterior and you'll find traces of seventy years of Soviet neglect: interior stairways that appear to have been bombed and then littered with construction materials, scarred and faded walls. When you cross the street you stand an equal chance of being almost-run-over by a groaning Lada or a sleek BMW.

St. Petersburg women are exceedingly stylish, and the attractive ones - who so far as I can tell comprise the great majority - are, let's say, not at all reluctant to show off their looks, and often seem to have been born in three-inch spike heels. The wide sidewalks of Nevsky Prospect sometimes seem less like a pedestrian thoroughfare and more like a parade of models down the world's longest catwalk. Russian men, to a first approximation, appear to go through three stages in their adult life: "awkward student," "Cassius," "Yeltsin."

In A Srange Land

It's very strange being in a place where I don't even know the alphabet, much less the language. First time in ages. Oh, I can mostly puzzle out Cyrillic already, but it's very odd to read things letter by individual letter rather than six or eight words at a time, the way I read English. Russian is enough of a Latin language that sounding out the letters then helps me understand the word - it's an odd satori, halfway through, the first time you suddenly realize a sign says "Electronics" or "Telephone." I have a new understanding of what it means to be only functionally literate. It's intimidating, not knowing the language. It makes you an idiot. And not in the Prince Myshkin sense.

I suspect travel to alien lands is often only easy - mentally, that is - if you started young; in the same way that people who get their driver's licenses in their late twenties are generally forevermore much more timid behind the wheel than those who learned to drive in their teens. I find myself getting more cautious as I get older, more neurotic about plans and preparations, and I think if I hadn't gone to China when I was 23, and Africa when I was 25, today I'd be an organized-tour kind of tourist. Not, he said hastily, that there's anything wrong with that.


Today I went to see an entire woolly mammoth at the zoology museum, found out that said museum is closed, and went to the Kunstkamera collection next door. The museum was half-closed for renovations. Of the remainder, the Great Gottorp Globe could only be viewed with a pre-booked and expensive guide; there were various collections of cultural artifacts from around the world; and then there was the Kunstkamera collection itself, which was - well ...

You see, Peter the Great was one morbid SOB of a teratologist, and in this, Russia's first museum, he installed a room full of freak-show curiosities collected and embalmed by the anatomist Frederik Ruysch, who I bet was no fun at all at parties. The Kunstkamera collection is, for the most part, an assortment of horribly deformed fetuses floating in formaldehyde in big glass tubes, with the occasional two-headed beast or lump of coral thrown in for show. Labels include "Double-faced monster with brain hernia", "Cyclops with occipital hernia", "Skeleton of child with two heads and three arms," "Knife used for amputation." Body Worlds has nothing on this place. It's kind of fascinating - and more than a little disturbing.

Tonight, the local microbrewery (did I mention I'm travelling with a beer fiend?) Tomorrow, the Hermitage, the woolly mammoth, and maybe a run along the Neva, or in one of the local parks.

I flickrd some pictures.

eta: just realized - this is also the farthest north I've ever been. (St. Petersburg is just a handful of latitude-minutes from the Arctic Circle.) How odd.

September 10, 2006

Into the iron curtain

No matter how often I travel, the day before I'm always hit with a sudden panicky bolt of holy crap I'm going to _____ tomorrow! And today is such a day.

In this case the blank is filled in by "Los Angeles." No, that wouldn't normally cause such panic, or indeed count as travel at all - but this time I'm taking the Long Way Round. In particular, I'll be going entirely overland from St. Petersburg to Shanghai, primarily via the Trans-Mongolian branch of the Trans-Siberian Railway.

I'm reasonably prepared. I have acquired visas, and booked flights, and accommodations for the first few nights, and even train tickets for the first few and last few legs. But, er, I haven't actually packed yet. Hey, there's always tomorrow morning, and it's not like I carry much with me.

I'll be blogging and hopefully flickring from along the way, as time and availability of Latin-alphabet keyboards permit.