Saturday, 27 November 2010

The Moscow Metro

I'm not a train buff. Honestly. Sure I'm doing most of my traveling by train on this trip and I have the upmost respect for rail as a form of transport, but I'm not some anorak nerd who recites locomotive production numbers and all that stuff. I can tell the difference between an electric and a diesel train, and I can tell if it is new or old, but I don't care too much beyond that. If I score a comfy bed with good cabin mates then I'm happy and that's all I need to know about a train, with bonus points if the ride is quiet and smooth with friendly staff.

But then there's the Moscow Metro. This is something very special, and really has nothing to do with the trains themselves. It's all about the stations and the network.
Here's a subway network that carries more people each day than London and New York combined, with a dozen lines and something ridiculous like 150 stations. And not just any stations. These are the most ornate, opulent, beautiful, metro stations in the world.
And efficient? You better believe it. Trains run on every line through every station every 2 minutes. The trains always seem to be busy, with standing room only almost always, but never packed.
The trains themselves are getting on a bit, and the crazy Russian drivers hammer along the rickety tracks like they're driving a roller coaster, but none of that detracts from this being the single most efficient transport system I've ever encountered. By a long way.
Oh, and the price? About $1 a trip. It doesn't matter where you get on and off, just a single fare to get you through the initial station gate and you're free to go wherever. Change trains, lines, stop at as many stations and take as many photos as you like of the stations (just don't get caught photographing the guards, they don't like having their faces in photos).
You can quite easily spend a whole afternoon touring the Metro for the price of a single ticket. In fact I did. The only difficult thing was working out a route that would take me past some of the best looking stations.

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Friday, 26 November 2010

Привет Москве!

I promised my grandmother I'd take a photo of me in Red Square wearing a fur hat that belonged to my grandfather.
My train pulled into it's station in Moscow at 4am. Ouch. I don't even remember which station it was. Moscow has heaps, and after only a few hours sleep everything was a bit blurry.
What made it worse was the fact it was raining. Not snowing, raining. Damn, my umbrella was packed up somewhere in the middle of my big bag, I didn't plan for rain. This is Russia, it's supposed to snow, not rain.
But never mind. I was collected at the end of the platform by a driver who was to take me to my hotel (big thanks to Simon at Flower Travel in Melbourne, your arrangements have all been flawless). Seeing as it was 4am, I had no idea what I was going to do when I got to the hotel, but I'd cross that bridge when I came to it.
So I packed my stuff into a car and away we went. The driver had the radio blaring a commercial station when we took off, and in case it wasn't already loud enough, he cranked it up to 11.
So my introduction to Moscow was driving through the city at breakneck speeds at 4am with my sleepy ears bleeding to Michael Jackson, Abba, Aerosmith, and the Prodigy's "Smack My Bitch Up". I had a huge grin on my face. I couldn't have chosen a better set list. Welcome to Moscow. Leave your political-correctness on the train. Everything was perfect.

After a while we arrived at my hotel. It was a bit further out of the centre of the city than I expected, but not far from two metro stations, so transport wouldn't be a problem.
The driver dumped me and my stuff at the hotel door and then screamed off to the sound of Elvis fading into the dark.
It was about 4:30am. I figured I might be able to leave my bags in the hotel and then go exploring for an hour or so until the Metro started for the day, then I could head into the city and come back to check into the hotel after lunch.
But I walked into the hotel and was greeted by Katerina, the most wonderful and helpful receptionist I've met on my trip so far. She sorted me out and allowed me to check in to my room at 4:30am (no charge for that night). Awesome! I was upstairs and asleep within 5 minutes.

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Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Russian Hospitaility

As I'm writing this I'm mid-way through the longest single leg of my Trans-Siberian rail journey, traveling from Irkutsk to Moscow. A journey of four continuous nights on the train and a five-hour difference in time zones, all the while sharing a "soft sleeper" cabin with three other passengers. This is the train ride my little one and two night overnight trains through Vietnam, China, and Mongolia have been preparing me for.
And it's hard for me to put into words what an experience it has been. On the surface it's just a long train ride, but that doesn't begin to do it justice. The train itself and the incredible, beautiful, unending snow-covered landscape that unfolds before us is just the stage for the show. The real experience comes from the people I've met and the real-life movie that I've become part of.
Although I expected passengers to get on and off the train during the journey, I didn't really think how that would effect my experience. for some reason I expected to spend the whole journey with basically the same group of people. Instead I've shard my cabin with seven different people so far, and I still have two nights to go. Two of the bunks in my cabin are currently empty, and each station we stop at is a lottery about the possibility of new roomies.

As I write this now, a little girl from the next cabin (aged maybe 2) keeps popping her head into my cabin and waving to me. When I wave back she bursts into laughter and waddles back to her dad out in the corridor. Even the quiet times are interesting here.

When I first got on this train in Irkutsk, I had the cabin to myself. Normally this might be a good thing to have some space and privacy, but the prospect of four days alone is enough to drive anyone mental, and I didn't come here to just be a spectator anyway.
But I needn't have worried, About 2 hours later I got my first visitors; A young Russian couple in their early 20's named Pasha and Nastja traveling with Nastja's mother; Tatyana.
Neither Nastja nor Tatyana could speak a word of English, but Pasha's English was pretty good. Certainly good enough to have some decent conversations and learn about his home and talk about Australia, etc. They come from a small town of 500 people near Tomsk, and the main source of income for the people there is a coal mine. Tragically in May this year there was an accident killing 17 of the workers who live in the town.
I spent my first night with these quiet yet friendly people. They were happy to chat but also kept to themselves a bit. I think they perhaps didn't quite know what to make of me, but were still hospitable and polite, if a little serious. As well as chatting I had plenty of time to read and listen to music and relax by myself. This was a good easing into things without being thrown into the deep end.
They did seem to appreciate my terrible attempts at speaking Russian from my little phrase book. Tatyana was in fits of laughter!

They left the train the following afternoon and for the next few hours I had the cabin to myself again, in fact the whole train seemed pretty empty.
Then we arrived at a fairly big station and while my cabin still had three empty beds, I heard people move into the cabins beside me.
Soon after I noticed a young woman standing out in the corridor gazing out the window while she charged her mobile phone (there are power sockets in the corridors). She saw my cabin was empty and asked if she could join me. I soon discovered why she was so keen - the people she was sharing a cabin with next door included the same 2 year old child that has been popping her head into my cabin as I write this entry, except last night she was crying her head off and her parents were trying to get her to sleep.
So Ksacha and I spent the next few hours chatting in my cabin. She has a job designing nails (as in decorative fingernail designs), but is also studying English at university. This meant her English was excellent and it was so refreshing to be able to have an in-depth conversation where we could actually discuss complex things without running into language barriers. These moments have been few and far between over the last month, so I take them when I can. We only spoke for a few hours but discussed many things including music, politics, photography and travel. Her father is a portrait photographer, and although she is studying English to become an interpreter, her heart is more in music and the arts, so she's having second thoughts about her career.
Then we pulled into another big station and the trans-sib lottery dealt me up some new cabin-mates and condemned poor Ksacha back to her cabin of infant noise hell for the night.

I went out into the corridor to make room while my three new cabin-mates moved into their bunks. There was a man aged about 30 traveling alone, and a man and wife couple in their 40's. I wasn't quite sure how this was going to pan out, but things soon became very clear when I walked back into the cabin and Alestar, the guy traveling alone, pulled out a bottle of cognac and plonked it on the table, followed by Andrey and Tatiana with the bread, cheese, pork, and tomato. The best I had to offer was some decent chocolate and some mixed nuts. It was going to be one of those nights.
And so it began. The most memorable yet a bit hazy night of my trip so far, sharing a cabin with these wonderful people.
Alestar is a fireman while Andrey is a military doctor and his wife Tatiana is his assistant. I'm not sure what rank Andrey is, but I get the feeling he's a pretty highly-ranked officer. He and Tatiana have been together 15 years, since he was a luitenant. He is now 48 and has had many promotions since then but I couldn't understand the specifics.
The language barrier presented it's ever-present head throughout the night, but that proved to be half the fun. Communication just became a hilarious drunken game of charades/pictionary. It didn't really matter.
After the cognac, a bottle of vodka appeared from somewhere. Then we stopped at a station and Alestar disappeared and came back with some Russian champagne. Then finally when the champagne was gone and Alestar had gone to bed, Andrey and I continued on beer while Tatiana stuck with tea.
You couldn't imagine a more lovely couple than Andrey and Tatiana. The most warm, friendly, unassuming, patient, down to earth and kind people you could hope to meet. And to be having a night like that in the context of a train traveling across Siberia is an experience money just can't buy. That alone makes a trip like this worthwhile.

My little 2 year old friend just poked her head in the door again, but this time the train lurched and she banged her head on the door frame. It ended in tears instead of laughter. Maybe that's the end of that game.
I should point out that on this train, time doesn't work in the normal way. My journey from Irkutsk to Moscow spans a five hour time zone difference, so at any point we are just somewhere in between Irkutsk time and Moscow time, but nobody really knows where and it doesn't really matter anyway. The whole Russian rail system works on Moscow time, so I just set my watch to that so I can at least keep track of where we are when we arrive at a station and I look at the schedule. But it's been dark outside for hours and my watch says it's only 4pm, so it makes no sense to try to live by Moscow time until I get to Moscow.

So Andrey and Tatiana left the train just before I started writing this entry, and Alestar is getting ready to leave at a stop soon. I wonder who my next companions will be?

And my little friend is back waving at the door. It seems it takes more than a bump on the head to keep her out of action. They breed 'em tough in Siberia.

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Saturday, 20 November 2010

Who kutsk? Irkutsk!

When I was planning this trip, Irkutsk was just another dot on the map. Everybody's heard of Siberia and knows it's huge, remote, and full of snow. We've heard about how inhospitable it can be and seen glimpses from storybooks and Bond movies. But can you name a city in Siberia? No? Neither could I before this trip.
Well, Irkutsk is a name worth remembering. It's been one of the unexpected highlights of my trip, and a fantastic way to greet Europe. And let's be clear here, Irkutsk might be closer to Beijing than it is to Moscow, not far from the Mongolian border, geographically still part of Asia, and home to a sizable Mongolian and Chinese population, but the moment I stepped off the train there was no doubt I had left Asia behind. This unmistakably feels like Europe, and is also unmistakably Russian.
I was surprised how dramatic the change was. As I've been traveling north from Saigon, through Vietnam, China, and Mongolia, of course I've noticed the gradual change in climate from muggy 30c daily temps down to -20c and more. For some reason I expected the cultures to change as gradually as the climate. I expected the customs and people to be a bit "blurred at the edges" of different countries. This couldn't be further from the truth. Crossing each border has been like flicking a switch when it comes to cultures.
But getting back to Irkutsk. This is a beautiful, modest, unassuming little city that feels much smaller than it actually is, and is thick with character and charm.
With each arrival in a new city for me, that first taxi ride from train station to accommodation is always crucial for developing a first impression of that city. There have only been two taxi rides so far where I've had to keep pinching myself to convince me that I'm not dreaming. Shanghai for it's sheer scale and the awesome engineering feat that is the entire city, and now Irkutsk for being a living, breathing, authentic small city that truly belongs in a story book. It doesn't beat it's chest and try to tell the world how good it is (well maybe Lake Baikal does a little bit, but not Irkutsk itself), it just gets on with life. I realize I'm not traveling during tourist season, but in the four days I spent there I didn't see anyone who didn't look like a local, or hear any language apart from Russian that wasn't associated with me in some way. This place feels undiscovered by tourists. I'm sure it gets busy during the summer months, but I actually don't understand why foreigners would come to Russia during summer anyway. If you go to Siberia, you need snow. Why else would you come? And ever since I left Beijing I've had the best weather I could hope for. Cold, with plenty of snow in Russia, but bright sunny still days that are perfect for walking around in. The only thing the weather prevented me from doing is going for a swim in Lake Baikal.
Everything I hoped to be true about Siberia really is true. Gorgeous forests, frozen lakes, ornate wooden cottages huddled together, and snow. Lots of snow.

And then there's the people. I know a few Russians back in Australia, so I figured I had a fair idea of what to expect; perhaps a bit of a cool reception when first meeting people, but once the ice is broken they tend to open up and become very friendly and warm.
Of course I shouldn't stereotype because everyone is different, but there are certainly cultural trends that change when you cross borders.

Ordering food has been fun. Sometimes I get a waiter or waitress who speaks english and is an amazing help (giving me in-depth descriptions of dishes, etc), other times I get put in the too hard basket and basically ignored. I can't say I blame them. If I'm lucky I might know the main ingredient (meat, chicken, fish) of the dish I'm ordering, but that's about it. I think the trick is finding a quiet restaurant where the staff aren't busy and more likely to be patient. This might go against the golden rule that the best restaurants are the busiest, but at least you're more likely to get something you actually want.
I did find two excellent restaurants in Irkutsk. The first one was part of the biggest classic Soviet-era hotel in town, and was going for a nice "high-class seedy" vibe (think Leisure Suit Larry) featuring nice 80's mood lighting, plush carpets, a low-slung dress on the singer accompanying the backing CD, and Sveta the waitress wearing a dress so impossibly short it would break a dozen health and safety regulations in Australia.
I ordered salmon and caviar (and beer) and received some beautiful smoked salmon crepes with sour cream and a huge serving of the most delicious caviar I've had in my life. I never understood the appeal of caviar before now, but this stuff was insane and there was enough for me to gorge myself.

I haven't even mentioned where I'm staying yet! Instead of a hotel, I'm staying in a home stay with the wonderful Sergey and Olga, and their lovely and very entertaining little grand-daughter Paulina. This makes a nice change from staying in hotels, and the advice they gave me (along with Lena from Aqua-Echo in Irkutsk) has been invaluable and really helped me make the most of my visit here.

For anyone traveling the Trans-Siberian route, Irkutsk should definitely be a place to hang around for a while. Don't expect a buzzing night life, but if you want somewhere cruisey and interesting to relax and break up the journey then you won't be disappointed.

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