Sunday, September 28, 2014

In transit on the trans-siberian

Monday 25–Thursday 29 August 2014

As you can see from this map, the stretch between Irkutsk and Moscow was the greatest one we would traverse on our entire trip. That's a distance of over four-thousand kilometres and four nights of continuous travel, apart from brief stops at stations along the way. So great was the journey, in fact, that I've dedicated this entire post to it. 

Our cabin for this leg.

As with all the trains so far, Til and I were the odd ones out who'd been allocated berths in a cabin with two other strangers, rather than people from the Vodkatrain group. Sometimes it sucked being separated from everyone else, and other times it worked out because we got to meet interesting people, or have more space to ourselves when the other berths were empty.

On Monday morning we woke up and lazed around until we heard a party horn go off at around 10am Irkutsk time, so we all went and wished George a happy 25th birthday. A little while later he'd gone to contemplate life and the universe while gazing pensively out the train window, so we took the opportunity to stick balloons all over his berth.

Russian party hats.

George ruminating.

Originally the plan was to fill the whole cabin with balloons, but there were fewer than anticipated in the packet, so this had to do.

Soon after that we had our first of many run-ins with an older French couple we would come to call 'the Frenchies'. The husband of this belligerent duo seized the first one of the group he could find, an unfortunate and bewildered Zac, and began ranting at him to tell us all to be quiet. 

He wouldn't have been happy shortly afterwards, when the Sundowners tour group (or the 'oldies') the people doing the same tour as us but aimed at older folks and costing bit more stopped by to sing George 'Happy Birthday' and we all joined in. After that George went to smooth things over with the Frenchies and explain that it was his birthday in anticipation of the probably rowdy night that was to come, even offering them (and the provodnitsas) some of his birthday cake. But alas, as we were to learn, their fathomless irascibility could not be so easily appeased.

The oldies crowding around George's door.

After that it was time for a very special lunch. The day before in Irkutsk we'd been to the most Western supermarket we'd seen in a while, where we were able to procure most of the ingredients (or approximations of them) that I'd usually have for my favourite lunch at home: my delicious salad wraps.

A liberal slathering of avocado, which must be quite an exotic fruit in Irkutsk, because they were all pretty shrivelled and brown. But I wasn't complaining. Then we substituted my usual dip or hummus with some (pretty decent) pesto. Then there's roughly julienned carrot, cucumber slices and cherry tomato halves. These babies, accompanied by a tall, frosty soy iced mocha, are more often than not the highlight of my day at home. What can I say? I really like food.

Mmmmm. Goofy eating face.

George invited the oldies to join the rest of us in the restaurant car to partake in some double-decker birthday cake (also from Irkutsk).

Filling the whole restaurant car (which was decorated in a sporting theme for the Sochi games).

Maybe it was the dirty looks being shot our way by the Frenchies, prowling around up their end, or just cabin fever, or whatever, but we started to spend a lot of time in the restaurant car over these four days, starting with after the birthday cake. I'm pretty sure the bunch of us stayed there for the rest of the day, getting increasingly rowdy as we ordered more drinks and my personal favourite Russian dish, fried potatoes with mushrooms and onions, and (in mine and Til's case, at least) debating sexism and animal rights with Ajay, Chris and Matt.

We only left when it was time to go play the game of pass-the-parcel that had been put together especially for the occasion, with dares as well as prizes. We all crowded in to one of the cabins and started the game, the highlights of which included: me going to kiss the provodnitsa (on the hand – the dare didn't specify where, luckily!)

George eating a cupful of oats soaked in red wine

Max kissing George

and Emma doing a 'thongy' (drinking off someone's thong).

Team Switzerland (an actual Swiss banker we met on the train).

We were probably only back in our car for about half an hour while we played the game, but that didn't stop the Frenchies grumbling about it. Every time we'd see them over the next few days, He-Frenchie would ask whom we booked our tour through so he could complain, no matter how many times we told him. He'd also refuse to move to let you through to the toilet.

Then it was time to crash the restaurant car once again and party hard.

Drinking through a curtain.

Team Switzerland doing his nudie run, as per his parcel-designated dare.

The random creepy off-his-face Russian dude who kept hanging around.

Our partners at the disapproving couples' table (not really).

George humouring the creeper.

The defining moment of the night for me came when Ajay disappeared and later reappeared in the restaurant car wearing nothing but his underwear, unknowingly bleeding from the forehead and with hash symbol 'abs' drawn on his stomach. 

Ajay was also the centre of controversy earlier when he outdrank a Russian, who proceeded to throw up, and later when some Russian guy in the restaurant car took exception to some of the nudity and chose to take it out on him, putting him in an arm lock. 

Here's some footage from the celebrations:

The next day Til and I got our new cabinmate, a solemn Russian automaton of a man who just looked at us blankly when we said hi. We came to think of him as 'I, Robot' because we never saw him speak, smile, eat or drink. When we stopped at some station in the middle of Russia for fifteen minutes he went to stand outside, where he just stood staring at the ground for the entire duration of the stop. Probably using microscopic solar panels embedded in his hair fibres to recharge his battery or something.

I, Robot. Coincidentally, that happens to be one half of the Frenchies walking behind him. Perhaps they were colluding.

The other half of the Frenchies.

A little boy running alongside the train as we pulled out.

A worker sitting down at the end of the station.

Judging from his frosty response to our initial greeting, we assumed that I, Robot wasn't programmed to speak English, but when the cleaning lady came around with a big garbage bag and gestured to a plastic bag under one of the beds, speaking in Russian, he translated for us: 'Is it garbage?' Perhaps he merely needed an imperative from a Russian citizen before he was authorised to communicate with us, I don't know. He also surprised us with a warm farewell when he left, though, so maybe he was just on a four-day journey to discovering his humanity.

That was another day we spent most of our time in the restaurant car, playing Presidents and Assholes or, if it was just Til and I, Spit. After a while we noticed the wiry young waiter watching us with interest, so we invited him to join and learned as much as we could about him given his limited English and our nonexistent Russian. His name was Anton, he was circa twenty, from Siberia, and had a passion for being a barman. After a while he tried to teach us a Russian game, but its rules were beyond us.

Funny menu.

Til and I with Anton.

Later when there were more people in the carriage, Anton joined us again. This time two other young Russian guys, Dmitri and Latif, were watching us, so we got them involved too and had fun teaching them the rules without a shared language. Dmitri bought us all a round of Cokes, presumably to thank us for letting them join in.

That was our third night on the train, and it was safe to say some of us were going a little stir crazy. After spending basically the entire day in the restaurant car, we returned to our cabin at what seemed to us like 10pm. It's hard to say what time it was actually. We crossed through five of Russia's eight timezones, gradually acclimatising to Moscow time while we were on the train (Russian trains run on Moscow time, I guess because it'd be absurd to keep changing as you went across the country).

In any case, we weren't drinking or being loud, but Isabell, Chris and Anika stopped into our cabin and sat on the now-departed I, Robot's empty berth while I reclined on Til's bed. Both Anika and Chris were a bit hysterical, and Chris was coming up with conspiracy theories about the trans-Siberian, so we began to laugh probably a little too loud for whatever time of night it was. All of a sudden, our doorway was darkened by none other than She-Frenchie, shouting 'Goodnight!' before slamming our door shut. Already in a silly mood, we of course erupted in laughter at the incongruity of this encounter, fuelled even further by hearing her progressing down the hallway slamming everybody else's doors.

The next thing we knew, He-Frenchie had wrenched our door back open, slavering like a crazed bulldog and shouting in French and/or heavily accented English. Seeing my recumbent form as the closest viable target, he seized me by the collar and begun shaking. I was pretty shocked, and instinctively just tried to pry his hands off my shirt. I couldn't make out a word he was saying, so I was also just trying to work out what he wanted. I later learned he'd been saying, 'Be careful, British.' So I guess he thought we were all British or something. I could see Isabell arking up over his shoulder, yelling 'Hands off, please!' while the provodnitsa who'd blushed at my hand-kissing the night before screamed in Russian behind him and She-Frenchie slapped him crying, 'Giles, no!'

After maybe fifteen or twenty seconds of me failing to pry his fingers open, I finally snapped into gear and stood up, at which point he rapidly backed off. 

So that happened.

The next day a bunch of us went to the restaurant car to play Scattergories and the Frenchies passed through. I glared at them, but they scrupulously stared straight ahead. My guess is that they were coming down for food, saw us, and decided it was too awkward and continued on through, because there was no reason for them to keep going otherwise. Then when they returned after some time, probably realising we weren't going to leave any time soon, George gave them a stern talking to and extracted a grudging apology from Giles.

The Frenchie encounter was pretty much the climax of the journey. Not much happened after that.  I read some Pushkin. Ate some delicious piroshkis. Paid exorbitant prices to charge my laptop in the restaurant car so I could finish one of these blog posts. That was pretty much it. I think we all just settled down and waited to arrive at Moscow at 4am that night, surrendering ourselves to the trans-Siberian, defeated and desperate to get off. Russia will do that to you ... Wear you down. Just ask Napoleon.

The wonder that is a piroshki: like a cross between a doughnut and a pie filled with potato or cabbage.

Passing the time with some travel journal writing.


Friday, September 19, 2014

Littoral larks at lake baikal

Thursday 21–Sunday 24 August 2014

Into Russia

We awoke late on Thursday morning after the – by this point – familiar experience of a night of sleep interrupted by officials demanding and returning our passports, foisting and retrieving customs declaration forms upon and from us, and searching our cabins. Our first stop once we crossed the border was the dreary little town of Naushki, where stray dogs roamed the platform, dissolute in the drizzle. We joked that the rain and gloom was a fitting introduction to the country. 

'Having an appropriate time in Russia.'

Isabell on the train. The reflection kind of makes her look like a Hasidic Jew. Not intentional.

When you’re doing the trans-Siberian, you are constantly thwarted in your attempts to do one essential thing: go to the bathroom. If the toilets aren’t closed because you’re within half an hour of arriving at or departing from a station (the toilets empty directly onto the tracks, so some distance is required), then they’re occupied by one of the other thirty or so people sharing your carriage (or else the provodnitsas have locked them needlessly just to punish you for some slight, as we learned in my last post).

So with the toilets on the train closed I decided to have a quick ‘sink shower’ in the bathrooms on the platform. I paid my ten roubles to enter, but was then halted when the woman heard the rustling of my plastic bag full of toiletries. After a lot of gesturing and grunting for emphasis I gleaned that it cost more to wash yourself than it did just to use the toilet. She seemed happy to let me splash my face, but it appeared she drew the line at wetting your hair, so I paid her a little more and she led me not to the showers, but to the laundry, which I gathered was a cheaper compromise.

After that I joined everyone else in the station to mooch some of the free wifi, but it was unusably slow, so I ventured instead out to a few ratty shops about a hundred metres down the road and bought some pulpy juice and a bag of what looked like savoury corn chips but turned out to be weird sweet gross cereal-like corn puffs. That's life, I guess.

Train life

Before long it was time to re-board and settle back into train life, which consists mainly of eating, lazing, playing cards, taking photos, fighting for sockets to charge all your modern accoutrements when the power is working, drinking, stealing George's beloved companion, his hat Marshal Sanchez, and recurrent napping brought on by a pervasive, inexplicable lassitude (how can doing nothing make you so sleepy?).

For some, train life also included mass evacuations of cabins when one of the boys dropped a massive fart.

Great view.

Trans-Siberian selfie!

Charging mayhem.

Keeping entertained.

The cardgame of the trip was Presidents and Assholes, which I mentioned in the last post. That night all fourteen of us crammed into one cabin to play an epic game of it, in which Max was 're-elected' again and again. 

Two worlds: the heavens and the world below. They were a bit abstracted from the game up above, as gods often are, so we below would frequently shout 'Heavens!' to remind them it was their turn.

We also had a decent stop that night and, desperate to avoid our disgusting sour hot noodles, I went out in search of food and returned with a wondrous thing, instant mashed potato. We’d still get a bit over this Russian staple by the end of the trip, but it really beat noodles, especially later when we added tinned corn and peas and salt and pepper to the mix. 

When we resumed our game, we were joined by a shadowy figure outside the window – a Russian man who looked like he might be homeless. So what could we do but give him a drink through the window and get him to join the party. 

Dancing in the shadows.

After that he wouldn't go away, though, so I think George closed the blinds on him.

Irkutsk to Listvyanka

The next morning we awoke in misty forests, interrupted by occasional clusters of ancient, crooked, cartoonish little wooden cottages. In Irkutsk, the hometown of my friend, veganspiration and Russian linguistic advisor Alissa, we met our new honcho Ksenia (or Xenia) on the platform and, after fulfilling the obligatory bureaucratic ritual of registration, headed straight for Listvyanka on the shores of Lake Baikal.

If you look at a decent map, Baikal is the biggest body of water you can see in Russia, just above Mongolia. It's the world's deepest and oldest lake, and it's also the largest body of freshwater on Earth. We were staying about ten minutes walk from the shore at Briz Chalet, an alpine lodge run by a Russian woman who does delicious home-cooked meals for all the guests every day.

This was the way the boys chose to return Marshal Sanchez to his grief-stricken owner. Unfortunately, it would not be the last time this battered cowboy headwear was hatnapped.

At the lake

The first thing we did was head down to a fish 'n' chip shop (or the Russian equivalent) for some breakfast, where I made do with a bowl of chips and a disappointing plain salad. I'm not sure the little shop was equipped to deal with being inundated by twelve hungry Australians, a Briton, a Finn and a Russian all at once, so we spent a good few hours there waiting for and eating our meals. Then we planned to take a boat out on the lake, but had some time to kill, so Ksenia led us on a walk to a nearby beach, where we drank vodka in what she informed us was the traditional Russian manner: first you exhale, then shot the vodka, then inhale the scent of the pickle, then eat the pickle (see below):

 That's the face of pure enjoyment. But the pickle ritual actually does take a lot of the sting out of the shot.

After that we headed back to where the boats were waiting for us. Til got sprayed with a good dose of freezing lakewater when the motor started, and we sped over to where a small rock protrudes above the surface of the water so Ksenia could tell us the legends surrounding it. After that it was time to head to the 'warmest' part of the lake (a balmy 7 degrees Celsius) so we could all jump in.

The moment Tilly got splashed.


The other boat.

Taking the plunge.

'It's cooooolllld!'

Post dip.

After hastily exiting the frigid water and jumping back into our clothes Ksenia led us on a walk along the tracks we would've passed over the previous night on the train and to a little spring you could drink from, where George broke the hose and basically ruined it for everyone (haha). Then it was time to head back.

Heli balancing on a fence.

George showing an indecent amount of thigh.

Isabell enjoying the ride.

Animal exploitation in action. Chained-up bears on the shore.

We weren't sure what to do after that. Ksenia suggested the Baikal museum, which we were skeptical about, but she won us over with a claim that it was only half an hour away. We learned the lesson over the journey that honchos are uncannily poor judges of time. It was, in fact, closer to an hour away, and when we got there it was all in Russian, but it was still interesting. We saw some of the marine life of the lake, including some of its microfauna through microscopes, some bizarre crab things (see the video at the end of the post) and some adorable, blimp-like seals (that were, it seemed, sadly, exhibiting obsessive behaviour, probably due to the pretty small tank they were occupying).

Bonfire night

In Mongolia we'd been craving a bonfire to sit around, but we weren't allowed because it was a national park. So we were happy to learn the chalet had a dedicated bonfire area up the hill, where we could make noise without disturbing the whole valley, as we did in Mongolia. The guy who made the fire, Sacha, became a bit of a running joke for the rest of the trip, evolving in our minds into a stooped, cage-dwelling, Renfield-like manservant in chains lumbering around and begrudgingly obliging the orders of guests. We headed up there after dinner and had an awesome night drinking, talking, singing and dancing (see the video).

The culmination of Emma and George's dance-off.

Daniel doing some kind of baboon dance?

George getting into a debate about sexism with Isabell.

Quad-biking adventures

The next morning it looked like the rest of Listvyanka had had a big night as well, with some downed streetlights lying casually across the road. The first activity for the day was quad-biking, but we could only use four bikes at a time, so the rest of us waited by the lake while George, AJ-47, Nathan and Daniel did the track first.

Trying to finish of the remnants of my water supply from the train.

Whenever we'd sit by the lakeside, most of the group would pass the time skipping rocks. While we were waiting for our turn at the quadbikes, we saw a little orange buoy slowly drifting towards shore, and wondered what it could be. As a means of investigation, some of us decided to throw rocks at it, which was a bad idea because all of a sudden two scuba divers emerged from the water, and had obviously been attached to it or were using it as a marker of some sort. The worst thing is that the next group did the exact same thing while they were waiting for us.

Quad-biking was awesome. I probably haven't done it since I was about sixteen and it was fun to get back on one. Back then we were just speeding around on flat fields, though, and maybe once or twice venturing into more steep and challenging bush tracks, so this was a little tougher. I shared the bike with Heli, who'd never been on one before, so she took the easier portion of the track (the first half) and did an admirable job. Then I took over for the way back. The return trip started with an immediate one metre vertical plunge into a massive puddle, so no easing in. I had one or two shaky moments fighting the bike where I went a bit off-road, but other than that it was all good.

At one point just before a really long puddle they stopped us all and collected our cameras and phones to take some footage of us on the bikes. Unfortunately they picked a poor spot, because three out of four of the pairs got well and truly bogged, and had to get towed out. Chris and Isabell went first, and I just assumed they hadn't gone through with enough momentum, so I tried to go a bit faster when we went next, but that failed too, embarrassingly. Next came Max and Matt, who had no chance being two guys (as opposed to guy+girl) and having had the mud churned up by the other group and us before them, but the lighter combination of Anika and Emma, who learned from all our mistakes and took a different path through the mire, eventually made it through. You can see all the footage in the video at the end of this post.

Da boys
After we were all done, we met back on the beach and worked out what do to next. The boys (plus Heli) decided to go on a hike and chairlift ride up a mountain to go to a lookout over the lake, while the rest of the girls went shopping at some markets.

Da boyz.


Coming back from the hike was about the fourth time we'd done this same massive walk back to the hostel in two days, and some of us were getting a bit over it. This building came to represent our misgivings, as it's so big and brightly coloured that you can see it in the distance for ages, taunting you. At one point it goes out of view and then when you see it again you think you're nearly there, but it barely seems any closer! Here's AJ-47 flipping it the bird.

That was our last night in Listvyanka, but Til and I just had a quiet few beers in the common room and hit the hay.

Leaving Listvyanka

The next day we just had time to do some souvenir hunting (and hurriedly discuss plans for George's birthday on the train the next day) before getting back on our bus to Irkutsk for supply shopping and lunch.

A Listvyanka cottage.

A cool old babushka wearing sunnies.

A gift for someone.

After stocking up on food for the impending four-day train trip to Moscow, the group split up into two for lunch. The vegetarians plus Anika and Emma went for pizza, while the other boys went to get meat dumplings. I was starving at this point, so I massively overate with a huge pizza to myself and like a litre of Pepsi. Bad choice.

After lunch we stopped off at one last souvenir shop, and while George was in the bathroom, someone stole Marshal Sanchez yet again.

Graffiti on the way to the train station.

Back on the train

We went and had a drink in a 'London pub-themed' bar where Ksenia gave us our tickets before heading to the station. She hugged us all goodbye on the train and left us to settle in, when somebody told George he should probably check her backpack for Marshal. Like the last scene of a terrible romcom, George went bounding to the train door to call out to Ksenia and check her bag. But they'd only been cruelly/hilariously toying with him.

Watching the melodrama.

And as promised, here's my Lake Baikal compilation featuring the train trip from Ulaanbaatar, singalongs, boating, quadbiking and campfire nationalism. Sorry about the shaky shooting; I'm usually focused more on watching the action with my eyes than making sure I keep the camera steady ...