Category Archives: Russia

For Russia

10Sep/15

Trans-Siberian Part 1, Border Crossings, Fermented milk, Russian Ninja Military Women, and finally Irkutsk (the home of the dart)

Ever seen a good looking Russian Miltary Woman clamber unaided up the walls of a train carriage to check for secret stuff in airvents and light fixtures?

Ever had a Mongolian Border Guard tell you that Jeff (the Welsh guy on Couplings) is in fact you when he looks at your ipod, and cant be dissuaded?

Ever seen a crazy Polish guy with a red cap go bezerk and start kicking chairs at the Mongolian Border town of Erlian?

Well the Trans-Siberian railway from Beijing to Irkutsk provided all that and more.

After a fairly dodgy wake up call at 5.45 am (it wasn’t in English, but that’s all I can tell you) allowed me to be ready for my transfer just on 6.30 am, I ventured downstairs only to find that my guide was there but the driver had unfortunately forgotten to show up. Cabs at the Hotel weren’t going to give up the long trip to the airport they were all hoping for, just to ferry me cross town to the railway station (sound familiar?), so off we chugg down the street to hail a cab on the corner. First 2 refuse before one finally relents and agrees to the trip. My guide tells me its not only the shortness of the trip but the fact that the cabs are inspected at the station for “cleanliness” – if we ran such a system back home there would barely be a cab left on the roads!

Get on the train and find that I have my 2 berth sleeper all to myself! Slump up against the window and start to watch the scenery go by. Meet a couple of young Germans Alex and Hannah just next door but otherwise its a pretty quiet trip until we get to the China – Mongolian border at Erlian. Now it may seem from the scarcity of the above that this arrives quickly – in fact, its about a 14 1/2 hour trip with only a few 10 min stops and little to do but read, check out the dining car (where we first encounter the Mad Polish Guy “MPG”), eat, watch some episodes of Couplings on the ipod and doze. I won’t bore you with descriptions of scenery – but some of it is absolutely beautiful. And some of it is just trees and grass.

So we get to our first border crossing – from China to Mongolia.

The last Chinese town is Erlian and after some brief inspections of papers we get off to wait for the 2-3 hrs that they take to change the bogies on the trains (the rail gauge in Monglia and Russia is slightly wider than that used in China!). We head off in search of a beer and after 20 or so mins discover the bar upstairs at the station – where 9 foreigners finally congregate:

  • Beth (Canada) and Gareth (UK) – both have been teaching english in southern China and speak a little Mandarin – which will prove indispensible
  • Daan and Christophe (Belgium) – returning home from holidays
  • Echo (A Mongolian Chelsea fan who speaks English, French, German, Mongolian and Chinese)
  • Houtang (UK) – another Chelsea fan who has been teaching english in South or North Korea
  • Matt (German) – retrning home after holidays
  • Alex and Hannah
  • And Me

Gareth starts to negotiate the price of a round of beers. Originally quoted 5 Yuan, once he orders 9 of them she wants to charge him 10 Yuan (the contadiction inherent in a bulk “increase” isn’t one we can clearly communicate) so he tells the bar lady to put them back. Well this reduces her motivation to be either pleasant, communicative or in anyway helpful to any of us. Finally she and Gareth negotiate and agree on 8 Yuan. (Given 2 yuan is approx 25c, 8 Yuan to the USD, this is hardly necessary but there is the principle I suppose).

Anyway we laugh, introuce ourselves and chat about where we come from, football (Chelsea v Arsenal – can you imagine) etc. Houtang tells a horror story of 2 Canadian guys he knew being sentenced to 5 years in a Sth Korean jail over1/2 pound of Marijuana. 28 other plain “users” were expelled, but the 2 Canadians and one other guy are considered “dealers’ and get jailed!!!

Another round of beers is required so off I go up to the bar (having Yuan left over whilst others have only USD, Mongolian Tarog, Roubles, Euros etc). Some of you will have seen this coming but the price is now back up to 10 – I cant be bothered arguing so pay the extra 18 Yuan – 2.50 USD. Back at the table I’m castigated with eeryone telling me that once I’ve been on the road that 2.50 will become important, and Gareth is about to intervene when MPG (Mad Polish Guy) erupts.

Sitting off at a table on his own, talking to himself in his ubiquitous shorts, white tank top and red cap, he jumps to his feet, starts yelling at a group of 4-5 non-chinese sitting near him and kicks a few chairs over. This goes on for a few mins before he abruptly stoms off and disappears. No military police, no intervention, everyone is just a little shocked.

We find out later that the perople on the table near him were Polish and were discussing their home politics in their native tongue. MPG overheard, and not approving of their political views decided that a small demonstration of his discontent was appropriate!!

Anyway that derailed our beer-pricing forum, so we get back to a few more ales until finally the train arrives with its widened bogies to take us into Mongolia. A sight to be seen was the Chinese station personnel in full uniform standing at the edge of the platform at full salute as we left with the National anthem playing in the background!!! Priceless.

Another stop inside the Mongolian border at Zamyn-Uud where we can’t get off the train!. Paperwork was easy – they focus more on the Chinese and Mongolians, and since its now late its off to bed.

Wake up and we’re only a few hours from Ulaan Baatar having slept 8-10 of the 13 hr journey there from the border. Mongolian townships pop up out of nowhere complete with gers and satellite dishes (they are everywhere!!!!!!) only to disappear just as quickly leaving a very isolated landscape. UB comes and go – its more sprawlier than I thought and more modern – the prominent Nissan delearship a personal fave, with only a quick stop for the required photos and purchases from stalls on the platforms.

About 3 hours later we stop in the middle of nowhere and wait – not sure why or what for (?) but during the 20 misn or so we open the windows and take a few happy snaps of a group of local Mongolians sitting out of the sun. They wave, smile,and finally trot over with a big cup of what we think was Aigar – fermented mare’s milk. We all take a taste – I wouldn’t have it as my first choice of beverage but its not anywhere near as bad as it sounds.

its back to the never ending traintrip – beers and vodka in various carriages/berths until we get within a couple of hours of Russia – at which point we decide being trashed at a Russian border crossing prob isnt a great idea and put the bottles away.

Russia approaches in darkness and the out of Mongolia section of the border crossing is straightforward – despite the Couplings/Jeff lookalike diversion.

The Russian side however….. well let me take you through the highlights:

A Russian Colonel in full miltary garb including cap, rod and briefcase arrives at your door. Crisply asks for papers and instantly is dismayed that I haven’t filled in both the LH and RH sides of the entry form – aparently both the IN and Out sections are required now! I grab my pen but he simply puts the papers and my passport in his briefcase and barks for me to get out of the carriage.

He summons his ninja – a petite, athletic (and good looking) Russian woman in her 20s in military fatigues who promply searches the cabin. And I mean searches. She climbs walls unaided like that Chinese acrobat in Ocean’s 11 and 12, unscrews light fittings, opens air vents, pushes up the ceiling panels and shines her torch around before smartly dropping down and gives the all clear to her boss.

Without mention to me he takes 4 steps to the next carriage and starts the same process leaving me in the passageway. Taking pity on me, the ninjette glances over at me and nods that I can go back in my cabin. I hear but don’t see a heated exchange in German with the two 50ish male occupants of the next carriage. My limited German gets the idea that there is soemthing wrong with dates or visas and there is some consternation. Alex and Hannah later tell me that one of the guys has 2 passports and somehow screwed up the dates on them. So when he presented his passport to the Russians he “accidentally left” some Euros in in!!!! The Colonel immediately put the money back on the table and then a stronger discussion followed which included barking of Russian and German. They did the same search before moving on – no-one was sure what the position was on the passports but the Colonel had them all in his possession.

Now 2-3 hour pass – all we see is the Russian militay periodically walking up and down our carriage on the way to search the rest of the train. They distribute Customs declaration forms for us to fill in. And here’s where I make a mistake (Sis forgive me!).

Given the atmosphere etc I decare some sleeping pills and valium that I have prescriptions for as they are in my daypack (and the form ask for any medicines being taken in!). I line them up on my table with scripts etc and wait for the customs guy. An hour later he appears and as soon as he sees the check mark against medecine promptly taps my carriage door loudly with his rod and summons another guy. He comes in looks at the pills & scripts, I haltingly explain one set are for sleeping (mime sleeping) and the other is because I”m nervous when I fly (mime plane ad nervous – the latter not the hardest thing to do at this point). He makes a joke to his comrade outside,clearly at my expense about the nervous thing (after all he is a good strong Russian soldier) before taking just the valium prescription with him and departing without a word. He leaves all the pills and the sleeping tab script behind?!

I wait nervously. One hour passes. Another. Its now somewhere around 3 in the moning, I’m stuffed but don’t really want to go to sleep in case they come back and have to wake me up to explain whatever he was checking with the Valium script. Finally Colonel #1 appears (it’s about 8 hrs into the crossing process) and simply hands back my passport and papers (now with the RHS filled out by some Russian flunky!) . The carriage attendants tell me we are now done and can go to sleep which I do – wondering where my Valium prescription went but not wanting to really ask. Wake up the next day – no prescription, I didnt get my customs declaration form back, but I’m still on the train and in Russia!!

Over brunch we all tell our tales – some declared absolutely nothing & had their declarations stamped and handed back in 2 mins, some declared nothing and didn’t get their form back, some declared stuff and had no problems – it was all completely random and arbitrary. Still I’m assured it’s not an issue – I’ll just fill out another form when I leave (this time I think I’ll not declare the Valium!)

Finally around 3 pm we arrive in the home of the dart aka Irkutsk. It’s been nearly 3 days on the train so I’m glad I’m getting off – all the others are on a direct non-stop trip to Moscow!!Goodbyes are said with lots of toasts and hugs and I leave the train to find my transfer to thehomestay. The others have another 3 1/2 days to go to get to Moscow!!!

More on the Home of the dart and Moscow tribulations later – but I’m now only about a week behind real time! Just checked ad the Cats got up by a record margin so I only need the Storm to get up tomorrow for the double! Shouldn’t be a problem beating those soft Manly silvertails!

21Jul/15

Rolling Through the Years: Love and Peace on the Russian Railways

Anyone who has ever travelled through Russia by train will have found themselves as regular, if reluctant, users of the rolling restaurant cars.

There really is nowhere else to go, and nothing else to do, so no matter how bad the food, or awful the service, one is somehow compelled to return night after night.

Perhaps it’s this absolute reliance on the places that leads to a strange flowering of respect, even love, for the people who run them. Or maybe it’s more like a form of Stockholm syndrome, or something to do with the cheapness of the vodka on offer.

It’s hard to know how the people behind the counters find themselves rattling back and forth through Siberia for a living — but they certainly never come via catering college or any charm school.

But somehow, when you finally step off the train, there’s a twinge of sadness. Somehow the filthy thumb that always smeared the soup over the lip of your bowl will take on a glow of nostalgia. You’ll smile fondly at the memory of their irrational outbursts of anger. Shake your head wistfully as you recall their constant attempts to overcharge you.

When I travelled between Moscow and Harbin, China, in 2013, I wrote about my dining car hosts just at the very moment I was beginning to fall under their strange spell:

The filthiest couple in the world have somehow found themselves in charge of the restaurant car in train number 20 of the Trans Manchurian express.

I don’t know their names, I wouldn’t dare ask, but I’ve come to think of them Mr and Mrs Grimski.

Most sleeping carriage attendants have little to occupy their time on these long journeys — apart from terrorising the passengers — so turn their hand to the most meticulous cleaning and polishing. Before each stop they lay cotton runners along the corridors to prevent dirty feet soiling the passageway carpet. The samovars are always gleaming and any daytime nap is interrupted by the sudden arrival of a vacuum cleaner, the head thrusting back and forth through the compartment door.

But Mr and Mrs Grimski have been in this game for too long to worry about such details. The toilet on their carriage, for reasons best not discussed, has been out of order for several months, so it can safely be locked and forgotten. The carpet has long since achieved a durable shine; now lacquered down with layers of dirt and grease it repels all further contamination. Everything else takes care of itself. The curtains hang stiffly in the windows, just as though they’d been recently starched, customers tend to wipe clean their own little corner of the plastic table covers, and the leather-effect seats are just the right shade of reddish brown to hide any stain.

With the housekeeping taken care of in such a way, it’s a rare day that anybody troubles the kitchen. I’d imagine that, being so unused, it remains perfectly clean under a smooth layer of protective dust.

The couple themselves were probably a handsome pair on their wedding day. A shadow of beauty can still be detected on her round face and a faint light still glows behind her tired eyes. He hasn’t lost his lazy swagger, nor the bootleg aviator sunglasses that so impressed her when they first met all those years ago.

But they’re still in love, so who needs To wash? They don’t notice that their hands are permanently blackened with coal dust, or the mysterious greyness that migrates from their hair, down their necks and onto their collars.

Their clothes — well, what of them? They’re government property — and while their bosses may change with predictable regularity, new uniforms turn up in their own good time.

But I like Mr and Mrs Grimski. For a married couple of so many years their conversation together is easy, fluent and good-natured.

What’s more, because of their management policies, the restaurant car is a haven of absolute peace and quiet, and they usually let me smoke with my evening beer.