“A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” - Lao Tzu
Thursday, 18 November 2010
Exiled to Siberia
Well the good news is I made it into Russia ok. Only time will tell if I make it out so easily. Filling out seven different forms during the border crossing (where we stopped ALL DAY) gave me my first taste of Russian beaurocracy. I'm sure there'll be plenty more where that came from.
Within a couple of hours of entering Russia I've already been asked not to take photographs by three different officials (in different locations, it wasn't like I kept going back trying to get the same photo over and over). Admittedly there were a bunch of military trucks and soldiers at the station, but I was being careful not to take photos of anything sensitive like customs or immigration areas. Ok maybe I snuck one photo of the soldiers, but I didn't get caught taking that.
But what else was there to do except take photos? When I woke up this morning about 7am we were already stopped at the Mongolian border checkpoint where we did the customs thing and stayed until about 10am before moving on. I got a shock when I got off the train to find our carriage had been left stranded alone while the rest of the train had taken off on some other route during the night.
Then when we did move, it was only 10 minutes up the line to the Russian checkpoint where we stopped again until 4:30pm! Considering sunset happens around 5:30pm, I didn't get to see a lot of the countryside from the train. What I did see during the remaining hour of sunlight was spectacular though.
There wasn't a lot of snow to see in Mongolia (it did start snowing the night I left), but so far there's been plenty in Russia. Snow everywhere and dramatic skies, wide open plains and frosty rivers, villages scattered every once in a while with dodgy old Russian cars, even dodgier old Russian men, and sometimes a conspicuous military presence. The rickety old villages are full of wonky wooden houses with beautiful ornate colourful window frames. Occasionally there'll be cattle, horses or dogs wandering around aimlessly. This is the Siberia from the storybooks.
Within minutes of getting off the drain and wandering around the Russian border station, I was approached by a dodgy looking old guy with a big grin full of gold teeth who was looking for a bit of conversation. He didn't want his photo taken but was quite happy to take photos of me standing in front of the train station.
Onwards to Irkutsk, my first destination in Russia. A city of about 600,000 located near the shores of the huge Lake Baikal, Irkutsk is a centre for research and culture in eastern Siberia. It's also famous for it's old ornate wooden houses. During the communist purges, many intellectuals and artists were sent into exile to Irkutsk, to the point where up to 1/3 of the population were people in exile. This is one of the reasons it became a city that punches above it's weight when it comes to research.