Sunday 13 May 2018

You’re going to Russia!!?

The title of this blog was invariably the response uttered, along with raised eyebrows and widened eyes, when telling friends back home that Geraint and I would soon be boarding the Trans-Siberian railway in Moscow.

Most people suggested that we were a bit mad to be heading to Russia considering the ‘current state of affairs’ between our two countries. I was told to be extra careful - it could be very dangerous if locals out there realised we were from the UK.

I wasn’t completely immune to these worries myself. Having closely studied the news and seen the increasing inflammatory rhetoric exchanged between No.10 and the Kremlin – economic sanctions levelled, diplomats expelled, more serious actions threatened. It would be naïve not to give a minute’s thought to the negative implications this may have on a trip that traversed pretty much the entire nation against which our country was currently engaged in a verbal war.

Having now completed the Russian leg of our trip I’d like to recount a little about how these preconceptions and worries compared to the reality.
St Basil's Cathedral

The first assumption that was quashed was the idea that Russian people are a bit, you know.... Severe. Dour. Grumpy. Bland. Grey. Basically, a land of Putin clones. Our first day in the country we headed to everyone’s initial port of call: The Kremlin and Red Square. Almost immediately, the lazy stereotypes were challenged. Bright, colourful clothing. Smiling, shiny, happy people – enjoying their famous national landmarks, bathed in beaming sunshine. There were plenty of foreigners, of course, but just as many domestic tourists, and you couldn’t really tell them apart. Sometimes it was obviously the Russians being the more extravagant and extrovert. In particular, a group of schoolchildren we crossed who were arranging themselves into a human pyramid and gurning into the camera for a photo in front of the 16th century St. Basil’s Cathedral – a wonderfully eccentric piece of technicolour architecture, topped with domes like swirled ice-cream.

Out for a pedal
Cliches continued to crumble as we spent the afternoon at the ‘All Russia Exhibition Centre’. Not an indoor attraction as the name suggests but a set of wide pedestrianised avenues and grand pavilions covering a 2km stretch and adorned with monuments, mansions, statues and huge archways illustrating the ambitions of socialist optimism through the ages. With it’s wide open spaces, this is a popular spot for couples and children to while away the afternoon – most of them adopting an unexpectedly wide range of pedal-powered transport to slalom through the crowds. Seemingly, a fun day out for all. Imagine that! Russians... Having fun!

We finished our day with a trip to Gorky Park, which was heaving with families enjoying the last of the long weekend’s sunshine. A DJ played loud dance music to the crowds. Children delighted in the flashing lights and lasers, bopping away at the front of the stage. Young rollerbladers challenged each-other to higher jumps and technical tricks in their self-constructed skate park where piles of rucksacks and lines of paper cups marked the boundaries.

If any niggling concerns about being in Russia still persisted after day one, they were firmly put to bed by the end of our second day in Moscow. We were lucky enough to be connected via a mutual friend to lifelong Muscovite, Natalia, who offered to show us some of her favourite parts of the city.

Natalia is an accomplished painter ( and as you might expect from an artistic tour guide, we were treated to a journey into the creative side of the city. This began with a slow saunter down Arbat Street – a 1km stretch closed to traffic and given over to all things artistic: Pastel-shaded buildings covered with colourful murals, self-portrait painters proffering their services, poets perched on soapboxes, buskers and jugglers performing to clustered crowds. The street really is a delight to wander down, with trinket shops and welcoming cafes lining the edges and a procession of cherry blossom trees in full bloom down the centre.

Geraint & Natalia on Arbat Street, Moscow
As a fine-artist herself, Natalia was duty-bound to take us to one of Moscow’s renowned art galleries. Her choice was the State Tretyakov Gallery – housing the country’s premier collection of ancient icons (religious works) and other pre-revolutionary Russian art. I am ordinarily a bit of a philistine when it comes to art galleries and would sooner look for alternative outdoor activities in any given city. However, having Natalia leading the way, providing detailed background on each of the painters and the subjects depicted in their work, really took the experience to another level and it became an utterly fascinating journey through Russia’s tumultuous history.

State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
It’s simply not possible to talk about the artistic merits of Moscow without mentioning the metro stations. Developed in the 1920s, this vast spider-web of tunnels criss-crosses the centre and out into the far reaches of the city. Vastly wide escalators trundle deep down to the cavernous platforms with 10x the space of the equivalent transport system in London – we never once encountered a crowded platform or a crammed carriage, even during rush hour, and never had to wait longer than a couple of minutes for a train to come along. Most impressive of all is the extraordinary décor – marble pillars, intricate frescoes, chandeliers, gilded edges – each station is an elegant and unique work of art.

Now, to rein ourselves in a little bit and acknowledge something that might just challenge my waxing lyrical about Russia: I’m fully aware that by no stretch of the imagination is Moscow representative of Russia as a whole. Much like London doesn’t give you a clear view of the entire UK. But even more so in a country that covers one eighth of the world’s landmass. Still, Moscow is a lot of people’s primary experience of Russia, and nobody who warned us off visiting the country added a caveat for the capital, so I believe there is still some merit in our experiences here.

The Trans-Siberian train leg of our journey – departing from Russia and trundling 6000km across the vastness of Siberia before dropping down into Mongolia – allowed us to interact with plenty of non-Muscovites too.

We initially shared our 4-bed compartment with an old couple from Yekaterinburg, Sergi & Olga, who were gracious, friendly and chatty (as chatty as you can be when you don’t share a common language). Later on, we bunked with two young-ish Russian lads, Sergi & Igor – proper Siberians with little to say and not bothered with much during the journey except eating the staple meal of cold KFC and boiled eggs, staring out the window and sleeping. However, it would be unfair to align their reserved character with surliness and unfriendliness. They were perfectly accommodating to sharing their space with us, happy to attempt to communicate when required, but otherwise not driven by unnecessary exchanges.

The highlight, though, would probably be our encounter Shuri – a gas-worker who asked to sit with us in the restaurant car. Already a bit half-cut and with another full can of beer in each hand, I was initially wary – especially when he dived straight in to ask where we were from. Our plan before the trip was to tell anyone who seemed a bit sketchy that we were from Wales and Spain, to avoid speaking the cursed name of England. Given the positive experiences so far, though, the truth was hesitatingly told…. Which caused, of course, absolutely no issues at all.

Shuri was interested to hear about our journey but more eager to tell us about the other parts of Siberia his work had taken him to over the years. It was fascinating to hear about his trips to far-flung outposts across Siberia in the line of his unforgiving work. He had journeyed as far east as Blagoveshchensk and even onto the outer reaches of Sakhalin Island, as well as up North to the remote, inhospitable realms near Nordvik, far above the Arctic Circle. Some unimaginably tough environments in which he plied his trade – have a quick look at a Russian map to really comprehend the remoteness. As he recounted these tales in pigeon English, smelling strongly of stale booze, looking tired and dishevelled, I began to feel sorry for him and his thankless, lonely, difficult life. Then he pulled out his phone and showed us a stream of family photos – smiling with his wife and two boys, his son winning national mountain-biking championships, himself at the peak of Mt Elbrus near the Georgian border, hunting and fishing trips with friends. I realised I hadn’t quite shifted the predilection to preconception that we are all unfortunately guilty of sometimes.

This blog has waffled on for quite a while now without really mentioning the logistics of the 8000km railway journey that has taken us from Moscow on the borders of Europe all the way to the Far East and Beijing. However, this is partly intentional as I have been more interested in the people than the places, but it would be remiss not to recount a little about the ins and outs of the journey.

The original Trans-Siberian Railway was a complete revolution when it first launched at the turn of the 20th Century – finally linking Moscow with the Eastern port town of Vladivostok more than 9000km away across the barren, often-frozen, rebellious and ungovernable wilds of Siberia. To give an idea of the distance involved; before the line was built it was quicker and safer for travellers to journey west from St. Peterburg across both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and mainland USA to reach Vladivostok, rather than attempt the overland Siberian journey. The railway line, when functioning properly, cut this journey time to 10 days only!

Trans-Siberian train on the left, Trans-Mongolian train on the right
Nowadays, there are actually a number of different lines and routes you can take and we were technically on the Trans-Mongolian Railway – which runs about halfway to Vladivostok until it reaches Irkutsk (home to Lake Baikal – the biggest lake in the world, holding 1/5 of the world’s freshwater, and also one of the deepest and coldest!) where the train then veers South through Mongolia and into China.

Brief platform stop
In total, we covered about 8000km over seven days on the train. We broke up the journey slightly in Irkutsk and Ulan Bator (capital of Mongolia) but began with 4 straight nights on the go. The compartments are comfortable and you have a little bit of room to move around but it does still become a slightly surreal, disorientating experience, especially as the time zone changes 5 times between Moscow and Irkutsk. Some of the scenery is incredible as it varies between lush grasslands, vast desert, forests of pine trees, undulating hillsides and hulking mountainsides. However, these changes come very slowly and for much of the journey the window simply reveals endless flat stretches of taiga - swampy coniferous forest - breathtaking and slightly anxiety-inducing in it's sheer scale and remoteness. Rivers and minor roads occasionally appear and meander lazily alongside the train tracks for a while, before inevitably getting bored and disappearing into the wilderness as the locomotive trundles relentlessly on.

Standard train food
To prevent going completely stir-crazy, passengers adapt to a strange routine as they find a way to cope with life on the rails. The days are structured around mealtimes – breakfast bars and fruit in the morning, making rolls for lunch, then the standard instant noodles in hot water for dinner. People quickly develop a knack of confidently staggering up and down the corridors to use the facilities (toilets only, mind, no showers) and everyone becomes strangely proficient at the subtle hip-swinging movements that allow two people to dance past each other in the narrow gangway. Mini station stops every few hours also create milestones in the journey as the entire trainload disembarks, creaking gingerly off the train, stretching and blinking in the light, grateful for the opportunity for fresh air and a little exercise. Sleeping, reading, writing, music, cards and conversation consume the rest of the available time. There is a great feeling of euphoria on reaching your destination, yet tinged with disappointment as there is plenty of satisfaction to be found in the routine and camaraderie developed alongside your fellow train inmates.

There's one final concluding caveat I would like to address in this fairly glowing account of our time in Russia. We most definitely only had very limited experience of the country – through visits to Moscow, Irkutsk and the long train journeys in between. It would be very blinkered not to acknowledge the actions of Putin and his government with the recent assassination attempt in Salisbury, plus previous ‘misdemeanours’ including the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, strong evidence of international election tampering, the war in Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimea. However, I am approaching this purely from a personal perspective; my own experience in the country as a tourist and the people we directly interacted with. As mentioned at the beginning, people assumed we would be unsafe due to what they’d been hearing on the news about Russia. It is useful to remember that there may be some bias and agenda in the reporting we are exposed to at home and you can’t tar the public with the same brush as the politicians. I think it is most effective to flip this around and ask questions of yourself. Given the current volatile diplomatic relations between Russia and the UK, would you randomly attack a Russian in the street? I would guess not. Would you assume they are unsafe in our country? Nope. It is really just the same situation vice versa out here and I can’t recommend enough jumping on a train to traverse this incredibly vast, complicated and enthralling part of the world.

Lenin Statue

Space Monument

Stalinist Architecture

The imposing Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow

Typical Russian dishes 

State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
Soviet Sculpture Park, Moscow
Soviet Sculpture Park, Moscow

Arbat Street, Moscow

Red Square
Natalia and the lads...

Ready to depart...

Nighttime platform stop...

Restocking coal
Platform shop

Selling smoked fish on the platform

Restaurant car socialising

Passing time on the train

Passing time at the border

The lads at Lake Baikal
Made it! :)

Moscow Metro

Typical Trans-Sib scenery

Siberian snow

Trans-Mongolian train leaving the station in Omsk, Russia

Ice flows on Lake Baikal

1 comment:

  1. I would deffo,put fish on the noodles... fabulous piece thank you James, just wow xx