Monthly Archives: August 2007

Contains scenes of a somewhat disturbing nature*

In two hours I board another train – this one to Mongolia.

I should give you the story of the first train now. Here goes:

Do you ever wonder how Chewbacca feels when Han Solo isn’t around to communicate for him. He’s just reduced to howls and sign lanuage (did you ever feel sorry for Chewbacca because he is actually incapable of pronouncing his own name?). That was (almost) me.

The story goes:

Moscow. I board the train and find myself in the company of a Buryat woman on her way to Lake Baikal to seek sponsorship for Tibetan massage training and an eighteen year old Tartar on his way from San Deigo to his home in Siberia (there are many distinct ethnic groups in Russia). He speaks English and she doesn’t. I am somewhat left out of there conversation after introductions have been made because I don’t speak Russian. After we set off, they go to sleep for a while. At one of our first stops a new passenger enters our cabin. He promptly forces us to rearrange every piece of baggage in the compartment to fit him and his huge bag in. He sits opposite me and (although he also doesn’t speak English) offers me a drink. Beer and then whisky. Siberian whisky.

I’m no connesieur but I don’t think whisky should be translucent white. I express my concerns regarding the curious whiteness of said whisky but because he doesn’t understand and because I’m slightly scared by him I decide it would be rude to decline. After all I can handle my whisky right?

Seven or so shots later, I feel something in my stomach twang like a taut bowstring. Something is wrong. I casually ask the one person in the cabin what’s in the Siberian Whisky (also known as samiegon I think). Milk. Milk that has gone rotten and then some how been distilled. I think the lactose somehow becomes alcohol. That is why it is off white in colour. The man made it himself, but he doesn’t remember how. The fear sets in. Maybe it’s rotten milk mixed with ethanol? It does taste a lot like actimel and bleach.

I have to be sick. The toilet is locked. The only place I can go is to stand between the two moving carriage and vomit down the gap whilst trying not to decapitate myself on the moving parts of the train (* I told you so). It was whilst I stood there I had a strangely lucid moment and realised that I had made many regretable decisions this year.

Later it transpired that the guy with the whisky was actually a Russian police officer who turned out to be okay. However slightly later on when the train stopped I got out to sober up and as we were standing there, the one English speaking guy in my carriage translated something another groups of Russians were saying about me “They say you are extremely hardcore to be on your own in Siberia…but they also say if they can make you any drunker they will still everything you own”.
I swiftly learned the Russian for “Please don’t be offended but I don’t want alcohol”.

When I woke up the following morning it felt like a mule kicking me in the stomach. A mule with solid gold hooves.

I’ll do a proper blog entry about the train when I have time…

..but until then I’ll tell you that it will involve some of the following elements: alcohol, a Siberian police officer, lots of sign language and a football team. Are you feeling tantilised yet?

As I say I have to rush through the last bit of the trip. I’m making paper notes which will in due course be blogged so you can enjoy the adventure all in one go, kind of like watching several episodes of 24 back to back. Except with me as the hero

I’m alive…

Just thought you’d like to know. I have some fairly severe financial diffculties at the moment becuase my ATM card doesn’t seem to work with Ruskie cash machines outside St Petersburg. I’m living on travellers cheques which are running out fast and it is incredibly difficult to get them changed in Siberia. I’m in Irkutsk by the way (2/3 of the way there). I might have to rush through the final leg of my journey so as not to get stranded somewhere in the Gobi desert.

On the plus side – Last night I slept in a tent with some french hikers I met on the train and I woke up in time to watch the sunrise over Lake Baikal – the largest freshwater lake in all the world.

The Russian way…

After Lenin I trekked around for hours looking for a place to stay and realized that there is no cheap accomodation for miles. I’ve ended up staying in an average hotel which is stupidly expensive. It is listed in the Lonely Planet guide as Mid Range and although it has a nice facade it is really nothing more than an upscale B&b (albeit with a sauna available in the winter). It is however The Most Expensive Place I Have Ever Stayed. The only reason I am there is because I thought I was about to start suffering from sun stroke.

However on the off chance you ever find yourself in a hotel in Moscow here are some fun things to do:

Pretend you are a spy. I spent the last few hours in a bathrobe/dressing gown practising my Sean Connery accent and sipping cheap whisky.

In your head append the end of every conversation you have with a Russian, with the phrase “..because you are about to die”. My conversation with the receptionist earlier ran something like this (in truth that is – apart from the obvious addition):

Me: Is there a laundry facility here?

Receptionist: Yes there is

Me: May I use it?

Receptionist: No you may not

Me: Can I ask why not?

Receptionist: Because you are leaving us too soon sir… BECAUSE YOU ARE ABOUT TO DIE!

(okay I embellish slightly but the rest of the conversation could have come from a spy film).

On another note I’m going on a train tomorrow which won’t arrive at it’s destination for about 72 hours. I’ll catch you then

Ladies and Gentlemen, it is my pleasure to give you the wilfully non-decomposed corpse of….Lenin!

Guess who I went to see this morning? If you can tell from the title of today’s entry you should be shot as a counter revolutionary. Yup I queued for half an hour, passed through more security than it took for me to actually get into Russia (and I’m not joking either, two independent sets of metal detectors and a bag search) all to spend exactly one minute in the shadowy tomb of a lifeless former dictator. I have no photographs to show for this because cameras were all confiscated before we went in. In fact I saw the military police physically eject someone who smuggled a camera through. I think Lenin is a definite contender for strangest and creepiest tourist attraction in the world. I’d say it was a bit of a dissapointment but I wasn’t expecting him to do anything (I was tempted to shout “his eyes are moving, he’s back from the dead” but then I remembered the police and their tasers and CS gas canisters and thought better of it). If David Blaine ever needs a stunt double though, he could do worse than look in Red Square.

Samizdat

One of the strangest things about Russia is the lack of copyright laws (or at least western style copyright laws). This means that most things tend to get pirated, even literary characters. There is a word for this – samizdat.

I had a look in a Russian book shop earlier to discover a whole slew of Harry Potter knock offs – completely unauthorised further adventures and outright clones including “Tanya Potter” – I couldn’t tell from the blurb on the back cover but I suspect Tanya Potter is either Harry’s Russian internet bride or his oddly slavic (and previously unmentioned) sister. If you are mourning the end of the series you could do worse than learn Russian and come to St Petersburg. Of course “worse’ is a strictly qualtative term. You could for instance type “Harry Potter Slash Fiction” into google. You could do that, but it would take you to a website far more horrible than St Petersburg at it’s worst – so I wouldn’t advise it.

Wanderings and wonderings

I have a place booked on the night train to Moscow tomorrow. Hopefully it should be a much more pleasant experience than the train journey from Latvia (I am in a second class carriage this time so it’s a big step up for me). I also got to look at the Cathedral of the spilled blood (or at least the outside of it) I might have a look inside it tomorrow before I go).

You know those small boothes you get in trains stations selling crisps and newspapers? One of the strangest things I found today was the fact that the trains station I visited also had a small booth selling firearms. Maybe it is a throwback to Russia’s revolutionary past but I can’t conceive of a situation where I’d need to buy a newpaper AND a pistol before boarding a train. I know Russian train journeys can be long, perhaps I’ll have to hunt my own food enroute. Either way this Yorkshireman is going to start packing heat from now on.

St Petersburg update

I located all the cool stuff (the Hermitage, Palace and river) to the north of the city, which has upgraded the city in my mind from “Blade Runner” to something a bit more neo-classical.

I forgot to mention earlier that whilst I was on the train crossing the border, I was a man eat a whole raw potatoe like it was an apple. Hopefully I’ll recharge my batteries here see some more of the city tomorrow and get to Moscow before the end of the week.

And yes I was wrong, Lenin is stored/held/kept in Red Square, Moscow. His mum on the other hand is buried somewhere in St Petersburg.

I’ve never slept better than on a sleeping train….*

[*again a mysterious reference to another work]

Actually I have slept better. Especially because the sleeper train in question was passing between Riga and St Petersburg which meant – a stop whilst we changed to Russia railway gauge wheels, a stop by Latvian authorities and a final stop by the Russian authorites. I was expecting the border guards to look like Arnold Schwartenegger’s socially unreconstructed kid brother. Instead about half of them were women. However the woman who checked my passport did look a lot like Sean Connery’s opponent in “From Russia With Love” (remember her, the KGB spy with the knife in her shoe?), all short blonde hair, olive coloured uniform and sharp features. I was expecting something to go wrong, I was expecting her to at least ask where I was staying (there was a suspicous blank on my visa application when it came to asking for an address in Russia).

Other than that the border crossing was exactly as I expected it. Harsh floodlights in a railway siding and people shining torches in your face at 1:30am. I had actually gone as far as preparing a bribe should something go wrong (whiskey rather than money, mind you, but a bribe nontheless).

So here I am in Russia. I have to say that so far I’m a bit disappointed with St Petersburg, it’s a lot more “Blade Runner” and a lot less historic than I expected. Still I’ve only been here a few hours so I think I might get a shower then go and explore. Only Moscow, Irkutsk, Ulaan Batar and Beijing to go (unless I decide to go further)

More travel rules

[Following on from below]

5) a corrolary of 1) below. British stag parties get anywhere. There are undiscovered tribes deep in the Amazon Basin that wake up one morning and find that people with names like Fred, Malc, Kevin and Mikey have rolled up in the night, got completely hammered on extra strong larger and trashed their village. Sad but true

6) Staff won’t care. Nor will border guards

7) It is almost impossible to get a decent cup of tea with milk. I have tried plenty of tea on this trip but all the stuff with milk has been UHT. Which tastes like baby sick