Vladivostok to Irkutsk
Detailed Description of the East
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Another little town in Siberia
Tiny wooden houses clustered in a valley. Each with a picket or paling fence, surrounding a large garden, sheds and many massive wood heaps.
There are no made roads and very few cars. The roads are full of potholes and are mostly used by people walking. Well-beaten paths cross vacant ground, run along beside the railway, head to the nearest fishing spots and over all kinds of little timber bridges. People seem to walk long distances, and we've often seen them making their way along the railway lines, stepping on the sleepers, where there is no road or path.
The houses are weathered timber, with blue or deep aqua window frames and shutters, which are decorative, with curved details and swirls. Of solid logs or slab built, they are mostly simple rectangle shapes with a single gable roof.
Further east, from Vladivostok, the fences were very lightly built – there were no animals being kept. We've now travelled 3000 km in three days, and today we saw more and more cattle, which roam or are herded (sometimes by a person on a bike) in the open areas around towns. There aren't fences to contain them, instead, the garden fences here are taller and stronger, to keep them out.
At first, the gardens were full of quite well-grown potato plants, but not much else. Every family has quite a few spud beds, up to an acre or so, all hoed by hand. Then we began to see some other veges, like leeks and cabbages, and even lettuce and raspberries, and the most amazingly imaginative homemade glasshouses. Then today, as the train crossed the mountains east of Ulan-Ude, there were heavy snow falls, and the baby potato gardens looked very sad.
We're not in Japan now....
Almost everything in Russia is not like Japan, and the trains are a great example.
They travel much more slowly, they are heavy duty old things, there is no platform – you walk across tracks to get to your train, and getting a ticket takes hours and is actually almost impossible. But they are punctual and smooth like Japanese trains and they are a lot of fun, once you actually get on one.
We have travelled platskartny (third class) which is very cheap and very sociable. There are two levels of beds, with linen and blankets and pillows supplied. There is a samovar at the end of the carriage for making drinks and noodles and (in our case) porridge. The carriage is run by a pair of provodnitsas, women who keep everyone in line, make sure we get back on the train after stops, hand out the bed linen, keep the carriage clean and tidy and if you are lucky, even make meals for you.
The highlights of the day are when the train stops for 15 or more minutes, and the provodnitsa undoes the door and puts down the steps to let us out. Most people rush out and smoke, but we head for the row of tables, shopping trolleys and ancient prams which are used by local women to sell delicious homemade food. We've had salads of potatoes, coleslaw kind of stuff, meat pastry things, steamed dumplings, fish, cabbage rolls and wild blueberries.
On the last train, where we travelled for about 50 hours, we were lucky to have a really lovely provodnitsa. She spoke to us all the time in Russian, and we worked out a few things, but mostly we got by with gestures. She made us chai (her own blend of herbs), put blankets on us at 3:00 in the morning, and cooked us some borscht with tomato, meat and lots of sour cream, in her tiny room. This morning she suggested that I get something from a little shop on a platform, but I took too long. She came running in, grabbed my wallet and threw the money on the counter and dragged me back to the train, laughing. We learned to say bal'-sho-e spa-si-ba (thank you very much) to her, often.
Everyone else on the train was Russian, and we got lots of stares. We don't exactly know how we stand out, but it's obvious that we do. It was great to make some good friends, play cards and laugh at how badly we are speaking one another's language. We were really sad to say da svidaniya (goodbye) to Pasha, a really bright and curious 11-year old boy who has learned heaps of English in the past two days.
He would say “Werry good”, whenever we got something right, and “Yezs” in the most correct and earnest tone, when he understood something. I got him to understand “excellent” - he loved using it, and being told his pronunciation was excellent. We taught him and his babushka how to play “Set”, a favourite card game from home. Great fun. It is absolutely incredible how much we all found out about each other with only a few words we understood for sure. Marina, a lawyer going home to Ulan-Ude and Abdul, from Tajikistan were really interested in details of Australia, and especially how expensive it is, and can we surf? We handed out contact details to lots of people – a mechanical engineer called Ilya and his viola playing wife from Vladivostok were really keen to visit Australia.
Siberia is incredibly beautiful, endless forests, spectacular wildflowers and gorgeous streams and enormous rivers.
It is also over-logged, has sad, deserted villages, and a terrible history of dispossession of native peoples (of which about 30 different groups still remain), wars and the horrendous treatment of political exiles over a couple of centuries. So many people really do look very poor, and fit the Lonely Planet description of the national character very well - “unsmiling gloom and fatalistic melancholy”. But it goes on to say that this is a foil to a dry sense of humour, which we've discovered, and also that, if you make a connection, the smiles and warmth really flow easily.
In public places, there is quite a threatening air, with many men standing in small groups, looking like they are up to no good, and staring. Women eye us very critically and even small girls like one 7 year old in our carriage, are experts at never smiling and rolling their eyes judgementally and haughtily at others. Interesting.
People go to buy their train tickets in a very combative frame of mind, which is necessary, because the ticket lady, who speaks into a microphone from behind glass can be cross and impatient and offers no assistance or information at all. The transaction always takes at least ten minutes, with inordinate amounts of arguing and shouting, and people storming off to try another ticket widow. There are huge queues, and windows shut suddenly, leaving you to start all over again! We have had trouble at Vladivostok, Khabarovsk and Ulan-Ude, and we still don't know if there are really no tickets, or we haven't asked the question correctly. Often we have been backed up by a group of locals who do their best, and who are essential in us ending up with a ticket.
In Ulan-Ude, we are staying with Tatiana, at Olga's homestay. She is our hero, because last night she came to the station with us, to get our next ticket. She was bold and courageous, and even she had to ask lots of people, go THREE times to the ticket window and twice to the information window. She stood her ground and pushed into queues and argued with people, and buttered them up, and we ended up with our 2 tickets to Irkutsk. Yay! We all did a little dance and skipped out of the station.
Our second favourite form of transport is the marstruyky, which are tiny little minibuses which run all over the place, are very frequent and very full. You just jump in and pass your money to passengers near the front, who pass it to the driver, who passes back your change, while he is driving! Today we had drivers who drove along the lines in the middle of the road, forming a third lane, drove diagonally through busy, pot-holey muddy carparks full of people walking, and launched across 9 intersecting lanes of traffic and 2 tramlines at a huge junction with no traffic lights or road markings, without changing down a gear. Awesome.
Hils noticed that a third to a half of all traffic in Ulan-Ude are marshtrutky, since few people own cars. At pl Sovetov, where there is an absolutely gigantic Lenin head,
they pull in and out every few seconds, dropping people off and whisking them away constantly. It is an incredibly efficient system, and it's great not having big buses in town. Interesting that we have hardly seen anyone on bikes, another big difference from Japan.
Lynda is loving the timber architecture, check out these windows in Ulan-Ude.
Running commentary day by day
21 June 2009: The train from Ulan Ude to Irkutsk is going along the edge of Lake Baikal for 200km. Stunning blue with huge pointy snow capped mountains to the South - spectacular. Sharing a compartment with an old bloke and a young bloke. They are playing cards and being friendly and chatty. Sunny. Silver birch forests, streams, occasional small village or town. We are happy.
19-20 June 2009: We are crossing the Yoblonovy Mountains. The temperature can go to -62C in winter and right now it is snowing!!
We are cosy because the provodnitsas love us and make us lots of chai. White everywhere. No English speakers on the train (all locals) - we are learning lots and having a ball. Very crowded. Very social. Extremely wild! We have arrived in Ulan Ude and are staying at Olga's home stay. Much like Zaya's guesthouse (in Mongolia). We are heading down to get tickets with our new Russian friend Tatyana. Ulan Ude is much like Ulan Baator (says Hilary). Got tickets, although it was still a big drama. We are on our way to Ivolginsky Datsan (monastery near Ulan Ude) - more snow on the hills.
18 June 2009: On the Train to Ulan-Ude: Picture this: We are in our beds, looking out the window from our upper bunks, so tricky to get into and out of without annoying the surly young slob below. All of our stuff on a shelf 20cm above our heads. Hilary is mounting a carefully planned campaign to make us porridge at the samovar. Spent hours learning/teaching Russian/English with gorgeous 11 year old Pasha from Irkutsk. Lots of drawings with arrows. He is here with his babushka who is exactly my age! Nearly at Magdagachi. Sunny. Train is going to get so hot today. Flowers outside. This is so good - too many things to tell. (via SMS)
17 June 2009: Khabarovsk: Got off in bright sunshine at 20:50 at night in Khabarovsk and it looked beautiful. Then we had two hours of hell trying to buy our next ticket. A crowd of locals gathered to help as best they could, as we got shouted at some more. Another hour spent not finding somewhere to stay and we were knew we were in the middle of one of the lows that make the highs so good. Eventually crashed at the station after midnight.
Can't leave until 18:00 tomorrow. Problem is that people (in hotels and hostels) hang up if you can't speak Russian. Other travellers are friendly. Having a look around today. We are OK but pretty tired.
This morning we have put packs into lockers (much gesturing and assistance required) and have come out to look at this gorgeous town. Stunning 19th century buildings in pink, pale green, etc and metallic blue domed church. the Amur river is huge.
16 June 2009: On the first train!! - Got up early to get to the train. Hello from seat 8, car 3, Train 031 to Kabarovsk!
Again got told off by the two provodnitsa, who were young and very enthusiastic. Once the train got going, they made us tea. The train was old but very sturdy, wooden windows, a samovar like a small steam engine, and 54 beds in our carriage. We had a lovely time checking out little timber farmhouses with extensive gardens and picket fences, fading into open steppe, punctuated with woods. Further north, their were outrageously prolific and very large wildflowers, things like daylilies, peonies, irises, asters and so much more. Incredible.
Then we pulled into a station and saw hundreds of soldiers waiting. Wanted to take a photo, but too nervous. 100 of them piled into our carriage, so Hils and I were sharing with three of them. Took a hundred km to get "chatting" , their names were Artem, Slava and Radmir. They were from Ufa, near Yekaterinburg. They all got off again at Bikin, and we chatted with a lovely bloke from Vladivostok, called Ilya, and his 18 month old son, and viola playing wife. They reckon they are coming to visit us one day.
Beautiful open country, deciduous woods, lush grasslands, many streams and rivers. Tiny cobbled together houses, big vege gardens.
15 June 2009: Vladivostok - Arrived at Vladivostok airport, which felt a bit like Funafuti (Tuvalu). The plane trundled in and pulled of to one side, like parking a car. We all got "inspected" by a customs official in a crimson velour outfit and very bouffant, blonde hair and terrifying face. Customs etc was a bit scary, but only took an hour or so. Got besieged by taxi drivers, but headed for bus 107, a really old number with pretty curtains, which was very full. Checked out lots of interesting farm houses, falling down buildings and half-built places on the 50 km trip to Vladivostok. The city is spectacular, all on hills like San Francisco (or North Shore, Sydney) Lots of trees, wooden buildings amongst Tsar era grand architecture, beside the water.
Found the Amursky Zaliv hotel, which was tricky. It is AWESOME. 1980's bizarre outside, 2009 lobby and our room is 1950's. Looking out to sea.
Headed out again into 7 degree temperatures to buy train tickets - a big challenge with no Russian. Took about an hour and a half. Everyone looks nervous when they try to buy a ticket, and it seems to take a minimum of 10 minutes, with lots of arguing and computer keyboard tapping, stern expressions from the attendant. We got into so much trouble, but at least she was laughing, too. She just shouted everything that we didn't understand (EVERYTHING) louder.
Spent the evening in the very modern lobby of the hotel, using computer and eating chocolate with very dodgy blokes in black suits and skivvies, pointy shoes and expensive watches. Something was going on, but we have no idea.
14 June 2009: Seoul - All is OK, except for the air quality, which is BAD! Slept like logs at the Incheon Hostel, then woke up to study the trans Siberian book. Feeling a bit daunted, mostly excited!