I did intend to write about the Trans-Siberian Express here, but I’ve decided to hold off on that until I get to Ulaanbaator. That way, I’ll have more to say about it, and more importantly, pretty pictures of the Mongolian steppes. Instead, I’ll tell you about the three stops I made between Moscow and Irkutsk.
Distance travelled: 3025 miles
Date: 4th July
Honestly, Ekaterinburg wasn’t that exciting. It’s the fourth largest city in Russia, with the third being Novosibirsk, to come later. I arrived at twenty to four, so naturally went and slept in the station for a while. ‘Slept’ here being a euphemism for ‘sat in a metal chair and stared at the ceiling’.
Once dawn had broken, and I had ventured out into the city, I found that it was actually quite pleasant, with a picturesque river running through it. When walking down by the side of it, I found one of Russia’s most esoteric and frankly odd landmarks. The QWERTY monument. This is nothing more or less than a giant concrete keyboard protruding from the river bank. I really have no idea what the point of it is supposed to be, but my inner geek decided it was cool, so here, have a picture.
The other interesting landmark of Ekaterinburg is the Church-on-the-Blood. This was built over the house where the last Tzar, Nicholas II, and his family were murdered. The story goes that they were rounded up trying to leave Russia for Belgium (after having abdicated a few months previously in the oft-forgotten revolution in February), and were brought to Ekaterinburg. Unfortunately for them, the white army under Admiral Kolchak was doing too well against the communist reds, and threatened to take the city. To prevent the last of the Romanov line falling into enemy hands, they were all slaughtered in the basement of the Ipatiev house, along with the most loyal servants, the court physician, a cook, a chambermaid and a valet.
Their bodies were dumped in an abandoned mine, and later, fearing discovery, under a road. It wasn’t until 1998 that DNA evidence was used to conclusively prove that remains found in 1979 were those of the Tzar and his family. They were buried in a chapel adjoining the Peter and Paul cathedral in Saint Petersburg later in 1998, eighty years after their murder.
In the meantime, the house they had lived and died in was razed, to prevent any use as a rallying point. In 2000-2003, the Church-on-the-Blood was built to commemorate their “sacrifice”. It is filled with imperial iconography, and honors the dead as saints.
After looking around the sights of the city, I retired to a bar, where I had my first, and last in a long time, cup of real tea. With milk (moloko). And then a couple of beers and got chatting to apparently the only Russian girl in the entire city who could speak English.
Distance travelled: 3583 miles
Date: 5th July
To date, the furthest I’ve ever been from the sea, and where do I end up? A beach, of course.
But not for a while. First, I walked around the crappy parts of the city for a few hours. You see, google has no map for Omsk, so I didn’t either. And, of course, the train station is in a particularly grimy section of the city. Not knowing which way to go, I wandered for roughly 45 minutes in each cardinal direction, and eventually found the river. I was told that the are some beautiful old buildings along by the river, but I never got that far.
Around the middle of Omsk is a meander in the river, and a large beach. Considering it was pushing thirty, I jumped at the chance of a swim. There was a hell of a current, but it was cool and refreshing, and an excellent way to spend an afternoon. The beers at the riverside bar were only about a pound a pint too.
Sitting in said bar, doing a bit of writing, I was joined by a couple of Russians, who, it turned out, were policemen on holiday from Smolensk. I was shown badges, and it all suddenly got rather official. The horror stories shared about Russian police make them out to be little more than state sponsored bandits, with the power to do pretty much whatever they want with you. So I was understandably nervous when the first of the two, Boris, asked me the same half Russian, half English question about a dozen times, getting sterner each time. It was something along the lines of “Why [Russian] Omsk [Russian] Russia?”. None of my attempts at answers seemed to satisfy him, and his friend, Evgeny, didn’t help, although I would later find out he spoke better English than Boris.
I fortunately didn’t end up in a Russian jail cell; these were after all, just some guys on holiday, but it did take a turn for the bizarre later. At this point we were joined by Dennis and Maximillian, a pair of Kazakstanis, who could speak English, and decided to take pity on me and help translate.
Apparently, the question Boris had been trying so diligently to ask was along the lines of “why on earth would you want to come to Russia? And why Omsk- it’s not that interesting!”. He didn’t understand my answer, but at least with Dennis, we could communicate. It was at this point that Boris and Evgeny waved over their friends, who Dennis informed me were members of the Russian Mafia!
Obviously I was very friendly, and we shook hands, and cheers’d, and generally drank and made friends. I didn’t want to get in their bad side. One of them, Aleksandr, demanded to see my phone, and the video I’d been making on it. Through Dennis I was able to convince him that I hadn’t been recording a video, or taking pictures, merely writing on it, but it was quite a tense moment. You know that bit in Goodfellas where Joe Pesci’s character suddenly gets angry in the middle of a friendly get together (“Funny how? Am I a clown? Do I amuse you?”) ? Well, that’s what this felt like. But then we were all friends again, and he bought me a beer. Apparently they were anxious not to be recorded.
I discussed with Dennis and Maximillian (the others not being able to understand), how the Mafia and police in Russia are very closely linked, especially this far from Moscow, at least at the ‘ground level’ of the foot soldiers. Everyone seems to be friends, belonging to the same circles, with many familial ties across the ostensibly opposing sides. However, I was told that the situation is far worse where Dennis comes from in Kazakhstan. In the town he grew up in, the mayor erected a wall completely enclosing it, and charged a high toll to pass. This was all enforced by the local mafia, and was only stopped when an appeal was made to higher ranking mafia members from outside.
After a couple more beers, we moved onto the vodka. I learnt the value of the phrase “Choot-choot”, which means ‘just a little’. I hadn’t eaten, and thought getting black out drunk in present company may not be the best idea ever. It didn’t help that they kept telling me to be careful, as there were lots of “robbers” around. In hindsight, I think they were saying it to be friendly, but it was exceedingly ominous at the time.
They left after a few hours to get dressed up to go out, and we were joined by Dennis’s girlfriend, who’s name I’ve forgotten. We fell to discussing the country some more (over beers now, having had quite enough vodka for one night). I get the impression that Russia doesn’t care to much for ‘the little man’, which is strange from the homeland of communism. When soldiers are discharged from the army, they are given a train ticket, but not always all the way home. Prisoners, on release, get nothing, and have to make their own way back to wherever they came from. With Russia being such a vast country, this is a serious problem, and creates many beggars at the stations. It’s possible that the huge amount of bureaucracy and seeming uncaring nature of the state are why the mafia has become so strong here.
We staggered to the train station, and I had my first food of the day, some sort of fried thing.
Distance travelled: 3973 miles
Date: 6th July
As mentioned, this is the third largest city in Russia, but again, not that interesting. Honestly, I was quite disappointed in my three day trips in Siberia, but they did serve to break up the long train ride, and provide opportunities to meet some interesting people.
By the third day trip, I’d fallen into a routine of seeing the interesting sights of the city in the morning, then ensconcing myself in a bar and meeting the locals. Novosibirsk was a bit different, in that there were very few interesting things to see, and I got my first rain in the middle of the day. This meant that I didn’t see too much. The events of the previous night didn’t help my energy levels much either.
Wandering out from the train station, I found quite an attractive park. Didn’t think to take photos though, so you’ll have to take my word for it.
The center of town is the opera house- the largest in Russia. It’s the building behind Lenin, below.
Novosibirsk also contains the St Nicolai chapel, the exact geographical center of the former USSR. Not that impressive in itself, but quite interesting nonetheless. Like so many other things, this was torn down by the Soviets, then rebuilt.
When the rain came, I went and hid in a cafe in a sphere, almost entirely because I thought it looked cool. They did a really nice salad, which was made almost entirely from meat, with some mushrooms and an egg. It was delicious.
After the rain had abated, went to a couple of bars, but didn’t find anyone particularly interesting, so I think I’ll leave my rambling here.
Next up: Irkutsk