Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Krasnoyask to Irkutsk to Ulan-Ude

Waking up on the train, still hours outside of Irkutsk, the landscape finally resembled the Siberia of our preconceptions. The night before also, was full of stereotypes. We finally shared a compartment with a young drunk soldier and his comrades (we had braced ourselves for this to be a nightly occurrence . We think only one guy was actually ticketed in the cabin, but the friends had obviously been using it to drink, store their luggage and eat sunflower seeds for days. Getting on at 1am, we found our compartment stuffed with suitcases, even in the luggage space under our side (a train faux-pas). I huffed and sighed and shot withering looks at the lump on the other top bunk. A young drunk guy with a premature vodka belly stood in our doorway and tried to convince us (in Russian) to take the two bottom bunks. -- The way it works is that the top bunker has to share the bottom bunker's bed during the day, so we knew we wanted the same side. We also have a system where if the other passengers are two guys I get the top bunk for privacy (ish), two women, Matt gets the top bunk, and a couple, we match them.

Anyway, after waiting for the Provodnista to collect tickets and hand out linen, and listening to some "hey big man, sit down", "America!" and "Obama bad, Putin good!" an older lady appeared in the door of our compartment. She was so pleasantly flustered, and polite to the burly dude obviously sitting on her bed. She reminded me of Betty Gannon, and not just because she seemed to have a dozen kids all wearing matching herbalife jerseys. I rejoiced as she put her stuff away, and climbed into the lower bunk. She of course disappeared (likely to settle her brood) and the "big man" came back with his reinforcement, a guy who may have spoken 20 words in English, sober. We turned off our lights and pretended to sleep, while they sat on the lady's bed slurring random English words and laughing.  The older lady reappeared and retreated a couple times, until the provodnista marched into the compartment in her fabulous boots and chewed out the soldier. Big man and the drunk english speaker came back briefly to ask Matt "you will come communicate with us?", but he respectfully declined.

The battalion loaded out around 5am, and we got to spend a quiet day watching the frozen taiga fly by with Betti Gannonovna.

Our train cabin. Each train was a little different but the general idea was always the same.
Sadly, we arrived in Irkutsk after dark, and left before sunrise in the morning. Due to a series of misadventures, we found ourselves negotiating with a charming marshrutka driver to get on the 7hour mini bus ride to Ulan Ude. We skirted Lake Baikal and at least saw the "Pearl of Siberia". It is a big lake, but I think it's impressiveness will be better appreciated when we come back in summer and can actually swim and dive. It is the deepest, and one of the clearest lakes in the world with visibility up to 50m (164 ft), it also has 20% of the world's defrosted surface freshwater and flora and fauna not found anywhere else. So yeah, we wanted to visit, and will someday. 

So, who's up for a Korea -> Vladivostok -> St. Petersburg -> Scandinavia trip (summer) a few years from now?

Monday, October 29, 2012

Krasnoyarsk, Russia

The view from town across the Yenisey River.
An old wooden house in Krasnoyarsk as snow falls.
Bree enjoying the snow flakes.
We again arrive into town on the night train, and set out for our day in Krasnayorsk before catching another overnighter. Unfortunately it was Monday, and all the museums and galleries are closed on mondays. (That's not entirely true, we did stumble upon the Museum of Literature about 10mins to closing time). Krasnayorsk is architecturally drab, but located at the foot of a mountain range, on a river. As we looked across the water to the growing developments creeping up the ski hill I felt a little homesick for North Vancouver. This may have been a great city, if not for the cold and the lack of activities. As it was, we visited three different cafes and really mastered our coffee ordering and menu reading techniques.

- Bree

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Tomsk, Russia

One of the many sinking wooden houses.
Tomsk is known for it's 'wooden lace' architectural details.
Children build a fort in the snowy banks of the River Tom.

Soviet Oppression Museum, housed in the former KGB headquarters in Tomsk. 

After 3 nights sleeping on the train, (and wearing the same clothes) we were happy to check into the hostel in Tomsk. We set out to see all of the wooden architecture Tomsk is famous for, and found a couple "wonderfully dilapidated" wooden buildings with intricately carved eaves, window and door frames. Like Tobolsk many of these buildings seem to be sinking into the ground to the point that some of the windows are now below ground level. Unlike Tobolsk most of the buildings seem lived in. 

We had coffee and breakfast at our favorite Russian coffee chain "Traveler's Coffee" where we met a guy who told us he was an English teacher and could help us translate if we wanted. By the end of the meal he had talked us into coming to his advanced class that night to talk about America with his students.  We did some more wandering, looking for old buildings. Matt spied on some little boys building a fort in a junk pile by the river, but I wouldn't let him go join them. We also went to the Opression museum, dedicated to all the scholars, activists, priests, scientists and artists who were interred (some executed) at the gulags closest to Tomsk. It was a beautifully designed museum housed in the former KGB prison/interrogation rooms. It was very moving, even if there were only about 25 sentences in English total. I guess I didn't realize people were getting sent to the camps from the teens through the 80's. They had a sample gulag cell, and a map of all the gulags across Russia, as well as pictures of the projects the inmates worked on, including the railroads we've been traveling on. We briefly looked at the monuments to all those oppressed by uncle joe, then headed off to class.

The class was about 12 girls and one guy, mostly all students at one of the 6 local universities. Their English was good, and they mostly asked us about our impressions of Russia so far. They also asked if we/Americans had any pre-conceived ideas about Russia. We told them that people were not drinking nearly as much vodka as we expected (Matt was resolved to being forced into doing shot after shot on the train) and that Siberian cities were not quite the wastelands we had expected. I tried to tactfully bring up the stereotype of Russian mail-order brides, but they may have been too young to discuss that.

We tried to follow the guide book's advice and go to a pizza and beer hangout called People's bar and grill. Unfortunately they don't serve beer, but we talked the English speaking bartender recruited to serve us into putting some water with gas in some vodka, sacrilege I'm sure.

We crossed the street to a place called Food Master and found they had enough beer to fortify us for the 30min walk home in -6C/21F

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Random observations + photos (Russia)

Sun rises through the trees in Siberia.
Now it's my turn to write a post while Matt sleeps off his Siberian cold. I think it is a combination of the super dry hot nights (in hostel rooms, on trains), cigarette smoke that permeates everything, and new dust. Even I have a smoker's cough now and I've never smoked.

Elektrozavodskaya station in the Moscow Metro.
Transportation System. The transit systems here are pretty extensive, cheap and seem to be well-used. Some towns have a Metro, but all are covered by a combination of official busses, trams, trolleys and marshrutkas. These are privately owned "routed share taxis"that range in size from mini-vans to small busses. They may or may not have a ticket lady, and sometimes the driver is making change and handing out tickets with one hand while careening through traffic with the other. Our first experience with a marshrutka was in Nizhny Novgorod. We got on with everyone else, but made our way to front to pay then took our seats. We noticed the guy sitting next to us at the back of the bus (with spiked blond hair and acid washed jeans, carrying a hockey stick!) get our his money and pass it to the passenger in front of him. She passed to the man in front of her, and so on to the front of the bus where the passenger who happend to be sitting in front got the ticket and passed it back the same way. All of this was accomplished with the look of stoic indifference so many Russian have mastered. I can't even think of a instance in the US where that would fly.

Fitting In. I really don't think we look Russia. The men are generally clean shaven, except for the priests, and the women are generally really well dressed. Regardless people are frequently asking us for directions. In general people ask each other directions a lot, so maybe it's just bound to be us once in a while. At least it's not the police asking to see our passports and finding a reason to fine us.

Typical Russian street sign.
Cyrillic. Now that we are able to sound out words in Cyrillic, I am struck by how many words are actually english. I guess in fact they are actually French, since, as I am learning from Tolstoy (yes, I am the dork reading War and Peace on the Trans-Siberian, at least it's on a kindle). French used to be the language used by the Russian upperclass. It does make life easier when you are reading a sign and realize it says tualet and does mean toilet.

Siberian scenery taken from the train.
Food. I think this was many people's biggest concern for us on this leg of the trip. Even the guide book said "say you're vegetarian early and often and get used to eating cucumber and tomato salad". In fact we haven't really had to say it at all as ingredients tend to be listed both on menus and in grocery stores, and we are getting good at recognizing the words to avoid. We are eating a lot of potato dishes, omelets and salads. A couple of times we have looked a plate only to realize we are essentially eating cabbage 3 different ways. I am a big fan of a cabbage and corn salad, and a beet salad in a creamy dressing. I have eaten some meat since it is harder to find potato or mushroom dumplings at a restaurant, and I love all dumplings. Even though Perm is the home of the Stroganovs I did not partake in their eponymous beef dish.

Matt reading on the train.
Being tourists. We have been make more stops that many Tran-Siberian tourists, many of them only make one stop between Moscow and Irkutsk, often Yekaterinburg (which we skipped). We have only met one single english speaking traveller, or anyone who looks touristy at all, since Moscow. The girl we met in a hostel was fluent in Russian and staying in the town for a while, not actually travelling. We have also only met a few people who speak broken English. I'm guessing when we get to Irkutsk we will meet up with all of the other backpackers.

- бри

Tobolsk + Omsk, Russia

St. Sofia Cathedral in Tobolsk.

Within the Kremlin in Tobolsk. 
Stairway leading from the Kremlin to the old town in Tobolsk.
Lenin statue greets arriving passengers at Omsk train station.
Omsk train station with it's massive chandelier.
We left Perm at 10pm, slept on the train and arrived in Tobolsk in the early afternoon. In the morning we were questioned by some very tan Russians in very broken English about why we were going to Tobolsk and why we were in Russia at all. They repeatedly pointed out that they had flown to Dominicana while we flew to Rossiya. Finally the man (who spoke no English) gave up and just said "You crazy". We agreed, but decided not to point out that he was the one that lived here.

Tobolsk is the former capital of Siberia, and has a very pretty kremlin, the only stone kremlin in Siberia. To get to the town center from the train station the bus drives through 10 km of industrial buildings and soviet-era apartment blocks. The kremlin was quiet, save for a few bus loads of children on school trips. We walked down some wooden stairs to what the guide book called the "wonderfully dilapidated" old town. I should mention we don't have the latest edition of the book so some of the research is 5-6 years old. We initially came upon the kind of condo development that goes up in every western city. We persevered and made it to a few abandoned and crumbling old wooden buildings. There were some homes that appeared to be inhabited, but most were listing to the side and sinking into the ground. I think the dilapidation is probably not so wonderful when you can't keep things on the shelves anymore.

We caught the the night train out of Tobolsk, bound for Omsk. We didn't really plan on doing any sightseeing, it was just a necessary stopover. We did get to see one of Omsk's many Lenin statues, and might have accidentally got some photos of the Omsk railroad station (taking pictures of train stations is still considered espionage). Even in smaller towns the train stations are cool. There are lots of patriotic mosaics, interesting architectural details, or ornate chandeliers.

- Bree

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Perm, Russia

First snows of winter at the train station in Perm. 
The Tatar Mosque in Perm.
It's hard on the streets. A momma scares away birds from some food she found, her two pups(right) chow down.
The very centrally-located and hospitable Hotel Ural.
Another 15 hours on an overnight train from Nizhny and we were in Perm.

We had booked a room at the Friends Hotel in Perm. We took the bus to the location, but when we got to the address there was no hotel to speak of. We searched around for a while, even asking at a Fitness Club that was at the address the hotel was supposed to be. But still nothing. We looked further but aside from a couple large apartment buildings no sign of a 'hotel' Bree and I make a pretty good team when this kinda stuff happens. We just hopped on the bus back to the main part of town and booked a room at a hotel there. It was more money than we'd have liked to have paid, but that is what this kind of travelling has to allow for. Things happen. Hotels disappear. Turns out the other "hotel" had the wrong address on the booking site and was actually within one of the apartment buildings. Great, thanks.

It's been lightly snowing pretty much the whole time here in Perm. It's a nice touch. Bree's feeling a little rundown so we decided to not take the day trip out to the Gulag. There is still plenty to see.

- Matt

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Nizhny Novgorod, Russia

The main pedestrian street in Nizhny, Bolshaya Pokrovskaya.
The State Bank on Bolshaya Pokrovskaya. 
Within the Kremlin of Nizhny.
Monument to the soldiers of WWII.
All geared up at the hostel in Nizhny about to head out to the train station.
A12-hour train ride from Moscow and we got off in Nizhny Novgorod around 5:30am. It was dark and the streets were empty and we didn't have directions or a map of where the hostel was. So we checked our bags at the train station and started walking the streets. We crossed a bridge over the Oka river and walked up a large hill to where the main part of the town is. To say we were excited when we saw an open coffee shop (with wifi!) is an understatement. We got directions and the rest of our 2 days in Nizhny went smooth (save a few extra trips on buses).

Nizhny Novgorod(roughly translated means New Newtown). Nizhny is located at the intersection (confluence?) of the rivers Oka and Volga. The Volga is very important to Russia and is the longest river in all of Europe. It turns out that one of Nizhny Novgorod's sister cities is Philadelphia! No soft pretzels though :(

Before we left, the weather changed from fall to winter and we were (sorta) happy to finally wear the heavy coats we've been lugging around.

- Matt

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Moscow Day 4

The multilevel Izmaylovo Market
Izmaylovo Kremlin, a little Disney-esque
And popular with wedding parties, we saw 4 brides and their entourages just around the corner or on the other side of a bush from each other. 

The next morning we woke early to make it out to a giant flea market called Izmaylovo Market. In the front section was rows upon rows of nesting dolls and fur hats. As you got deeper there were miles of elderly russians selling personal items, antiques, art and army surplus. We knew we were no match for them in the bartering department and were content to just browse. We did buy a few souvenirs to ship home, only to find that  to ship $150 USD (the max allowed) of stuff would cost close to $200. We also got lost trying to find the UPS. Oh well. We had been too good at finding our way and getting by Moscow so far, and had started getting cocky. The city needed to show us who was boss.

The bustling river-front of Gorky Park. 
A double-decker carousel in Gorky Park.

The upside of getting lost was that we stumbled into Gorky Park. Unfortunately, it was not cold enough for all the walkways to be flooded and turned into one long network of ice skating paths (!!!). This would not work in central park, sounds like a lawsuit waiting to happen. As if Matt didn't get enough of space yesterday, there was a scale model of a space shuttle. We were looking for the Fallen Monument Park but kept coming up to construction fencing. I guess we'll do that next trip (when we can also buy lots of soviet era memorabilia and antiques and just carry it all home). 


Friday, October 19, 2012

Moscow, Day 3

Statue of Yuri Gagarin in the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics.  

We finished up our last couple of days by heading out to the Monument to Conquerors of Space (love the name) and the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics which is housed underneath the monument.  Upon entering the museum, a nice but stern museum worker ushered us into a theater watch a film about the history of Soviet-Russian space exploration, all in Russian of course. The soundtrack was perfect Tangerine Dream-esque 80's synth while Cosmonauts floated in zero-Gs. The museum itself had awesome Soviet era spacesuits, a replica of Sputnik, the actual taxidermied dogs, Belka and Strelka, that went into space and the actual capsule that Yuri Gagarin used to return to Earth after his orbit.

Entrance to the All Russia Exhibition Center. 

Once known as the Space Pavilion, this building now houses garden supply vendors.
Then we walked over to what is now called the All Russia Exhibition Center. When it was originally conceived and built in the 1930's it was called the USSR Economic Achievement Exhibition (VDNKh) and was like a world's fair for Soviet idealism. There are pavilions for most of the former Soviet states (Ukraine, Belarus, Armenia, etc.) There are also pavilions representing different aspects of the successes of communism (atomic energy, space, engineering, radioelectronics, etc.). Today, it's sprawling grounds and architecture are still extremely impressive but inside the buildings, crappy 'capitalist' vendors give the place what I would call a 'dirt mall' vibe.


Moscow, Day 2

Kachapuri, Georgian pickles, Sulguni (pickled cheese) with tomatoes, fried Lavash, and kidney bean lobio.

Eliseevskiy Grocery Store, since 1890.

Today we decided to take a day off. We realized we had been travelling for two weeks and, since this is our only job now, we needed a weekend. First world problem I know. We did venture out eventually to wander the streets and then get a delicious Georgian dinner. They say Georgia is to Russia as Mexico is to America: we love their food and have bastardized versions of it in every city, but we would rather their people not come to our country. Khachapuri is georgian bread, shaped like a boat, filled with cheese and baked. When it comes out of the oven they crack an egg on top and immediately bring it to the table. Once there you kind of mix it up, and the egg cooks some, then you cut off pieces and share it. We are still working on getting a photo of one before we tuck in, but you can see the remnants of one on Matt's plate in the Georgian dinner photo. We had been warned that Moscow was extremely expensive. It is, but it's not exceedingly so for a couple of New Yorkers who were just visiting London. I can't imagine how we would have felt arriving in Moscow after India or SE Asia.


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Kiev to Moscow

We were pretty pleased with ourselves for getting to the Kiev train station, figuring out how to read the Russian train ticket, getting settled into the right seats, and even practicing some Russian with our elderly seat mates. Unfortunately all my well-rehearsed phrases went out the window when the stern baby-faced Russian customs guy came on the train at 2am and started barking orders at us. All I could say was "niet russkiy". He gave up on us, and then the immigration guy accepted our Amereeka passports with a sigh. 8hrs later we arrived in moscow and negotiated our way on the metro to the hostel. There are no English signs here, but we are getting good at putting Cyrillic letters to our phonetic directions and memorizing the order of the symbols "B with a hat, O, eLephant, SHleeping E"
More to come!

- Bree