We had a lovely week in Moscow, although it took a few days to fully recover from the journey from Beijing. We were lucky enough to have gracious hosts who lent us an apartment, showed us around, and generally made our time very special. Thanks guys!
We did the touristy stuff – Red square, Kremlin, GUM, St Basil’s cathedral etc, but Moscow was suffering the effects of a Europe-wide heat wave, so we paced ourselves, and spent just as much time chilling in cafés, eating ice cream and hanging out with our friends. Moscow is certainly more colourful, friendly and Western than 20 years ago when I first visited – if you can ignore the fact its effectively a police state, where journalists are routinely harassed and people who disagree with the state are forced to leave, you can pretend you are in any cosmopolitan European city.
One day we went to the Cosmonaut museum, all about the Russian space programme, including a full size replica of the main module of the International Space Station, which was cool, and the first two dogs (stuffed) who survived a trip to space….(Belka and Strelka) which was a bit grim. At least they didn’t stuff Yuri Gagarin…..
Another day we went to Afisha Picnic, a music festival with a weird vibe, possibly due to being alcohol free. It was very odd, with many people dressed to the nines (expensive dresses, high heels, designer jeans they didn’t want to get grass stains on…) and lots of stalls promoting products…. The music seemed somewhat irrelevant to the high rollers of Moscow who were more interested in showing off their designer gear and posing on beanbags. There was a fun kids area though, and we were happy to see Belle & Sebastian play a brilliant set. Dancing down the front with Lauren on my back was possibly not the most sensible idea though…. And I can’t even blame alcohol….
Soon it was time to cross our 23rd time zone, this time to Brussels, which would be our last stop before ending our round the world trip in Lisbon, from where we set off almost exactly a year ago.
The compartment we were allocated in first class is certainly a step down from what we had on the Chinese train. We had been told that first class included a shower shared with one other compartment, electrical sockets, air conditioning and one meal a day. None of these pertain. Well, you can open the window (if you have the strength and as long as you don’t mind not being able to shut it again), that’s the extent of the aircon. Don’t get me wrong, we are perfectly comfortable – Lauren said ‘I don’t like showers anyway’ and I did come equipped with wet wipes. The socket situation is a problem – there is one in the corridor that works occasionally but after all the lights went out unexpectedly and the attendant fell over my cable for the laptop in the dark, I have decided we can’t use it unless we leave our devices there. Plus, it only works about 20 percent of the time… We did bring actual books for just this possibility but Lauren has finished hers already on the second day. She is a voracious reader these days.
The scenery up to the border through Mongolia was beautiful – lots of rolling hills and rivers. Obviously its not easy getting pictures from the train, but these give you an idea…
The border crossing into Russia happened late at night – we arrived around midnight – but was much quicker than the China-Mongolia crossing as the wheels didn’t need changing. Out of Mongolia was fast and polite. Into Russia was brusque, serious and intense. First they came round and scrutinized passports and visas. A woman inputted every detail of our passport and visa into a hand held device, then scanned/examined (?) every page of our passports, with some kind of handheld electronic camera/magnifying glass… Then she stamped my passport and returned it, with the immigration card, but took Lauren’s and disappeared, clearly not happy with something…. Not sure what happened but 10 minutes later she returned, stamped it rather aggressively, and then tore off the part of the immigration card we are supposed to retain – tearing right across her stamp on ‘my’ section and presenting me with the two bits that I will probably get into trouble for.
After that, ‘border security’ came through and there was no being nice because I had a child – we were made to leave the compartment while a young military guy inspected everywhere – not a problem, but would it have hurt to say please? He barked orders at us (in English) and seemed impatient with the whole process. I thought we were done after this and put the door to so that Lauren could try to sleep (it was well after 1am by now). A minute later a tall guy in uniform berated us loudly in Russian, and wrenched the door open, so we left it like that. Then a woman with a face straight out of Kafka marched sternly past, carrying a video camera and filming each of us. Still not done, we were then visited by customs who made us open our bags and poked around amongst the dirty underwear and pot noodles until satisfied we weren’t bringing in anything illegal.
Still we were not allowed to close our door, but Lauren dozed off eventually as I stayed up until around 3am when we finally left.
After a disturbed sleep, we woke around 9am, to be told it was actually 4am as we were now in Russia and Russian trains work on Moscow time no matter how many time zones they are away from Moscow. We are 5 time zones away. Its very confusing. We have decided that I will have my watch on Moscow time and Lauren will changes hers as we cross each time zone, until we ‘meet’ in the Moscow time zone…
We were travelling along the shore of beautiful Lake Baikal, supposedly the ‘oldest’ lake in the world and certainly the deepest. At times there was nothing to see but vast expanses of water, at others people were camping on beaches and even swimming.
After a breakfast of slightly stale cinnamon rolls and instant coffee/mint tea, we spent the morning reading and attempting to charge various devices. Around 09h45 (Moscow time) or 14h45 (Lauren’s stomach time) we arrived in Irkutsk where a stop of 45 minutes gave us the opportunity to dash off the train, find an ATM and buy lunch.
Its amazing what you can classify as acceptable food when the alternative is pot noodles. Lauren had deep fried chicken wings and chips, I had a beef wrap (which in the picture was actual beef chunks in a wrap with salad, but in reality was a burger in a wrap with a slice of tomato and a gherkin…). Both were grim, but warm, filling and, most importantly, not pot noodles. My approach was to eat as fast as possible and not think. Lauren’s was to take forever over every mouthful, screwing her face up as she chewed and sighing loudly.
We are not fast food kind of people.
The afternoon passed in looking out the window, more reading, updating this blog while my laptop had battery and playing yet more sessions of Machi Koro.
Day three saw us travelling due west across the endless expanses of Siberia. We stopped occasionally for 20-30 minutes at stations, where we would stretch our legs and buy snacks. Lauren was nervous at first about leaving the platform, but soon got used to dashing quickly around the station to get some exercise, even running up and down the steps to the overhead bridges to work up a bit of a sweat.
We drank a lot of tea, read a lot, played a lot of machi koro, and allowed ourselves snacks every couple of hours. The scenery didn’t change much – forests of silver birch, pine and fir, interspersed with beautiful meadows of long grass filled with purple, yellow and white flowers. Occasionally we passed little villages of wooden houses and the odd golden dome of a church. Guys wandered about shirtless, tinkered with old cars, drank beer. Women carried bags and herded children along country lanes, kids played football or mooched about in the fields. We crossed a lot of rivers, occasionally seeing a fisherman or people camping on the shore. There were also spooky remnants of industry, ancient abandoned factories in the middle of nowhere, and modern timber yards. When we came to road crossings the attendants were always middle aged women in high vis orange jackets, hanging out the window of their little blue huts.
We were asked by the two women who are in charge of the carriage to swap compartments. We were a little annoyed about this as we had really unpacked and made ourselves at home. I figured there must have been some mix up with tickets and agreed, but it turned out they just wanted to hang out in ‘our’ compartment which was closest to the galley.
One super annoying thing on the train, which we noticed more in our ‘new’ compartment, was the piped music that can never be properly turned off. Its played from a central point on the train and while each compartment has a volume button, ours didn’t quite work so that when the train was quiet you could just about hear it, which was more annoying than hearing it properly. It was torture for a while, but then we got used to it.
The highlight of the day was discovering the restaurant car. Given we had managed to get Rubles in Irkutsk, I thought we might brave it, despite my memory of Russian train food being of lumps of unidentified grey meat and pickled cucumber.
We walked through around 9 carriages to reach the restaurant car, passing through crowded 2nd class carriages and eerily quiet empty ones. Between the carriages were dark spaces where two metal plates overlapped, bouncing and jumping so that you could see the tracks speeding by below. Wires hung down from above so that my head brushed against them in the dark. Many of the lights were out or broken as we made our way ever further towards the back of the train.
Then, suddenly we were at the restaurant car, and as I opened the door and entered we were greeted by a hot, dimly lit carriage decorated with disco lights and coloured balloons. Russian pop music was blaring out from a karaoke machine clearly made for a much bigger space, and the only other customers were two very drunk guys and a table of Mongolian guys in their 20s. There were artificial flowers on every table, heavily ornate gold brocade curtains, polished wooden benches and tables, and behind the bar a well-padded lady of indeterminate age with a soviet-era haircut who greeted us and ushered us to a table as if she hadn’t seen a paying customer in years. It felt a little Hotel California.
We ordered borsch followed by stroganoff and both were actually delicious. One of the drunk guys wobbled over to our table to shake hands, then left us alone, much to my relief. He and his mate belted out a few karaoke numbers, including a Russian language version of Despacito, which was most odd.
Day four passed very much like day three – reading, machi koro, tea, snacks and dinner in the (thankfully karaoke-less) dining car. More opportunities to run around stations and grab an ice cream, and even 5 minutes of free wifi at one of the stations, so we could exchange a few messages with family and friends.
We officially crossed into Europe at some point, although we missed the monument that is supposedly there. I remember it from 20 years ago, but we couldn’t see it. We were now officially in ‘known territory’ once we passed Yekaterinburg, which was as far as I ever got in my Siberian adventures back in my 20s.
We also spent some time with our Mongolian neighbours – they were moving to Egypt and decided to take the train to Moscow and fly from there. He was a diplomat and had worked all over the middle east. We had some interesting discussions about Mongolia, the middle east, Africa and foreign policy of a country sandwiched between Russia and China, demanding neighbours indeed. Lauren and his 4 year old daughter played together for ages despite no common language.
Suddenly it was out last day on board and we would soon disembark and see our good friends from Mozambique, who now live in Tanzania but were spending the summer in Moscow. Lauren was beside herself with excitement to see the two girls. I was also looking forward to seeing friends, but just as excited at the idea of a shower! It was wonderful to be once more amongst friends, and Moscow was a whole lot more inviting than the last time I had been here, nearly 20 years ago.