I am penning these words sitting in the somewhat dated but cosy Restaurant Car as we speed across the partly forested Siberian plain between Krasnoysk and Irkutsk on the Trans Siberian railway. And perhaps I should address one misnomer at the very beginning – there is not a single Trans Siberian Express that crosses Russia but a plethora of trains taking different variants over all or part of the world’s longest rail network from Moscow to Vladivostok. Technically we will leave the Trans Siberian at Irkutsk and switch to the Trans Mongolian to journey through Mongolia to Beijing.
I am here because some friends of ours, Brian and Judy from Coffs Harbour in Australia, told us they were coming to Europe and enquired if they could visit us in Switzerland before they had to fly to St Petersburg to join a group of mainly Aussies journeying from St Petersburg to Beijing by rail. We had not seen Brian and Judy since 1986 but my experience is that people are what they are (and what they are going to be!) by their early or certainly mid 20s so we had no qualms about not getting on and before long had agreed it would be fun if we joined them and travelled through Russia together, albeit as part of a group of 15. More about the others later!
And perhaps I should also declare an interest. I have long been interested in Russia. In the 1960s my first girlfriend Suzanne was studying Russian and I read her translations of Russian classics and then I did some courses in Russian Geography before a postgraduate degree in Soviet Foreign Policy. I won a Travel Scholarship of £100 in 1968 which I put towards a camping trip to the former USSR and escorted three tour groups here in the 1980s and one on an extensive tour that included Irkutsk, Lake Baikal, Alma Alta, Dushanbe, Samarkand, Bukhara, Tashkent and Tbilisi but the last six cities have long since been part of new nations following the breakup of the former Soviet Union.
Not having been here since 1990, the era of Glasnost, Perestroika, Gorbachev and rapid change, I was expecting to see many changes and have not been disappointed. LG and Samsung signs often dominate streetscapes, I have barely seen more than a handful of Russian made cars (whatever happened to Lada?) and there are many fast food outlets but not methinks as many as in the West (or the Far East) and far more Subways than Macdonalds, Burger King or KFCs. And as anyone knows without having to visit Russia the shops in the main cities are full of western goods and brands. Pleasingly, for me, coffee shops rule so there are is as plentiful a supply of coffee shops offering lattes, cappuccinos and free internet in St Petersburg and Moscow as any European or North American city and I can particularly recommend the Coffee Company – great coffees , great pastries and attractive waitresses.
But more than anything I had forgotten just how attractive and interesting St Petersburg and Moscow are as cities to visit. St Petersburg is a vast repository of spectacular buildings that are visually attractive and because the majority date from one concentrated effort to build a city from scratch under the orders of Peter the Great they all complement each other and make a pleasing whole. St Petersburg must surely rank with Budapest, Prague and Paris as a contender for the title of Europe’s most attractive city and I am keen to return for an extended stay to rediscover its delights and attractions.
Moscow whilst more spread out is easy to navigate by the still clean and impressive underground, and the sheer scale of Red Square and its surrounding buildings – St Basil’s Cathedral, the historic Gum Department Store arcades, the State History Museum and of course the vast Kremlin complex is always impressive however many times one visits it. And there is a lot more to Moscow beyond Red Square and the Kremlin. Our friend Tatiana took us to the historic Novokuznetskaya area, not even two miles from Red Square and quiet , attractive and full of interesting shops, markets, churches and historic buildings including a mansion once owned by Tatiana’s family before being appropriated by the state during the Socialist era. And I am fairly certain I am not alone in thinking the 7 distinctive Stalinist skyscrapers are now very much accepted, even fondly, as part of the Moscow skyline – the 8th was a ‘gift’ to a resentful Poland who did not appreciate the reminder of the symbol of their ‘friendly neighbour’ the Soviet Union dominating their capital city Warsaw. For me these ‘wedding cake’ skyscrapers that form part of the Moscow skyline in every direction are as attractive and as integral a part of Moscow as the Art Deco skyscrapers are to Manhattan.
We travelled between St Petersburg and Moscow on a comfortable overnight train but the real journey began when we boarded Train 44 to take us on the four day trip from Moscow to Irkutsk. Our 4 berth compartment was small but like living in a tent the secret is getting organised. The four of us have two upper and two lower berths and there is plenty of storage space – it all comes down to deciding what is required on the 4 days and keeping that accessible in a day pack and the rest can be stored beneath the lower bunks or up above for the duration. The upper bunks can be used as a shelf to store food and day packs during the day and that leaves the two lower bunks to serve as 4 seats and a small table which stores the snacks and food we seem to accumulate. Everyone is issued with a clean mattress sheet and duvet cover for their journey. It is not so cramped unless we are all up coming and going or looking for something at the same time and our berths are comfortable enough. We have all been sleeping fairly well.
Each carriage is equipped with two basic but perfectly functional toilets with hand basins at each end of the carriage but these are locked 30 minutes before arriving at each station – cant be making deposits on the tracks in a station can we? And each carriage has an attendant with a multitude of duties that include keeping the corridor clean, sweeping individual apartments and washing the floor daily, keeping the samivdor replenished with coal (each carriage has its own individual coal fired boiler to provide piping hot water for coffee, instant soup and noodles that we carried on board and replenish at stations as we go along), selling snacks for anyone who cannot be bothered to walk to the restaurant car or wait for the trolley to come around and to lock out compartment if we all get off at a station to stretch our legs. And whenever we approach a station they change into their official uniform and rain or sun, cold or hot stand at the foot of the carriage steps to check the tickets and ID for all new arrivals. I hesitate to use the words Greet and Welcome – this is Siberia!
So what does one do on the Trans Siberian?
Not a lot is the immediate answer – but the time gets easily filled for sure and I have neither read nor written as much as I anticipated. Keeping track of the time is a challenge in itself as bizarrely whilst the train timetable runs on Moscow time (this is understandable to avoid confusion) the restaurant car runs on local time – which changes as we cross 4 time zones between Moscow and Irkutsk – one two hour change and three subsequent one hour change. So some of us are sleeping and eating on Moscow time and others on local time – which is always changing! Dinner is being served at 6pm tonight in the restaurant car which is 1pm Moscow time.
And there is plenty to see out of the window, primarily trees, rivers and ramshackle huts and occasional towns. Now that towns such as Minsk, Kiev, Odessa, Tbilisi and Tashkent are no longer part of Russia (or should I say the Russian/Soviet empire) some of these cities along the railway are amongst the largest in present day Russia – Novosibirsk with 1.5 million is ranked 3rd and Yekaterinburg where the last Czar was slaughtered (and Yeltsin’s birthplace) with 1.35 million population is 5th and this reinforces the importance of modern day Siberia and its wealth to Russia. The scale of Siberia becomes apparent when our Guide Dianna tells us her family live in a big city 600 miles up a branch line north of the booming oil city of Tyumen. So as this is the main artery across Siberia it is not surprising that we see buildings old (usually) and new and small towns and villages frequently along the line. It is not a vast unpopulated wilderness like crossing the Nullabor Plain in Australia.
We passed from Europe into Asia as we breached the Urals though no sign of hills let alone mountains as we passed through Yekaterinburg situated in a pass through the Urals. Initially we journeyed through a lot of forest, interspersed with wooden cottages and houses often in a poor state of disrepair but many with vegetable plots which is a remnant of Soviet days when private plots were essential to subsidise the collective farm output and feed the population. It is not surprising many of the houses are in such a poor state – wood is the primary building material and winters are severe and must be challenging. It is one thing to be part of a prospering (?) middle or professional class but subsistence living in Siberia is probably no fun when only a few share the benefits of the mineral wealth. Some of the settlements remind me of Patagonia where we were earlier in the year – unstructured and erected without a plan and similarly challenged by a severe climate for part of the year.
Today the sun is out, there is more grassland and the landscape looks very attractive with gold and yellow foliage that would not be out of place in New England or the Appalachian Blue Ridge Mountains.
The highlight of each day is planning and preparing for the stops. There are a multitude of two or three minute stops each day but also a few of between 20 and 40 minutes where it is possible to explore the large and usually spotless stations and restock on supplies. Today I was interested to note at our last stop that a coal truck was driving up the platform delivering fresh coal to each carriage (and collecting the ashes and rubbish?) and also that the train’s resident Handyman (he who managed to open our jammed compartment door with e shrug and explanation ‘Huh – its German made’ as if that explains everything) was under a carriage checking something with what looked like a laser or pressure measuring device. So I guess Health and Safety checks are important in Russia today. I have to admit I was wondering if the driver had fallen asleep with his foot on the accelerator the other night as I bounced around on the top bunk! Smoking is forbidden on board except in the well ventilated space between carriages where ash can be tapped straight to the rushing ground directly below between the two attached carriages.
Interestingly when we do stop and visit the myriad of kiosks at each station selling snacks and souvenirs every item on display is clearly marked with its price however cheap – this means you can hardly see the attendant in each kiosk because the windows are full of items and price tags and no chance of being ripped off in Russia when prices are always clearly marked. This is something we would benefit from in the west.
Most of the stations have water towers in varying states of disrepair which is a remnant of days when the trains were powered by steam engines. And sometimes we will find old ladies (Babushkas) selling food on the platforms for passengers to buy.
Now my favourite place on the train happens to be the splendidly dated and curtained restaurant car which is normally deserted. This means more room in our compartment for the other three and I can get a full table to set up my laptop and edit images. The only downside is the heat from the extra strong boilers (for the kitchen?) and the incessant 1980s Russian pop pap played at high volume over the intercom from mid afternoon onwards.
There is a team of 4 in the restaurant car. The ever present Boss who sells snacks and drinks (Beer and Vodka of course) usually sporting just shorts and a T shirt, Yellow the first three days and Red today. Occasionally the cook emerges to sit at a table. She is always sporting a head scarf, a characteristic shared by so many middle aged and elderly Russian women.
The restaurant waitress is Lucy, a real charmer in her early 30s, blonde, dumpy and somewhat overweight. Most times that she walks past my table she practices her English which appears to consist of ‘Michael, How are you’ although today our relationship has risen to a new level. Not only has she patted my head as she walks past but our conversation has graduated to a more meaningful interaction because as I prepared to take a picture out of the window I heard this sensual husky Slavic voice ‘Michael. Is beautiful. Yes?’
Lucy sounds like Greta Garbo and looks like Hattie Jacques. Last night after her restaurant duties were completed she changed out of her uniform and returned to the restaurant car in a skin tight Leopard skin patterned halter – not a pretty sight!
‘I think she fancies you Michael’ commented Sharron today to which I replied ‘But she’s married with a husband in Kharbarovsk’. However Judy explained that apparently her husband is a no good drunk, her daughter lives with her mother so Lucy is working on the train to provide a family income.
And looking for love maybe?
Which neatly brings us onto the fourth and final member of the restaurant car crew and the star of this tale – Elvira, the Dolly with the Trolley! She most definitely is looking for a husband and will use all the weapons in her armoury to procure the same. And of course what else would a woman use to snare a man than………………….songs and poetry! After all if we are not quite in the east we are heading that way fairly rapidly!
We first noticed Elvira on Day 1 as she pushed her trolley up and down the train selling Drinks, Biscuits, Crisps, Bread, Nuts, Chocolate, Noodles et al. She stood out because she occasionally smiled and clearly had an extrovert personality. We would ask our guide Diana to ask her how much items cost and each answer was usually accompanied with a detailed explanation and many dramatic gestures and we soon realised this performance was also repeated with most Russian speakers who engaged with her. And we soon began to wonder how much she actually managed to sell when she spent so much time talking. This concern was also shared by her boss as we will discover.
Elvira had an obviously attractive figure but a tired face that still lit up with a mischievous and engaging smile and we learnt that she had formerly been a Drama Teacher but now wanted to develop a career in catering. She explained she was learning the trade from the bottom up by starting a s a Trolley Girl but clearly the actress in her was never far below the surface. She clearly loved engaging with people and had already decided a catering career was not for her and wanted to learn English with her mother so she could work as a tour guide……………………..and meet a potential foreign husband because she stated this was a clear priority for her. But meanwhile she had her trolley so in the restaurant car she sang us a delightful ditty which when translated meant – ‘Please will you purchase goods from my trolley?’!
Yesterday was our wedding anniversary and when Elvira learnt that she insisted on reciting the poem she had written as a love struck teenager to her future husband and a very dramatic recitation it was too! “And what happened to him Elvira?’ I asked when she finished ‘Oh we got divorced and now I am looking for a new husband.’ No wonder www.russianbrides.com is flourishing as there are it appears no shortage of young attractive girls looking for an exciting life outside Russia or middle aged women looking for a new beginning
We soon came to the conclusion that husband snaring was probably a greater priority than snack selling for Elvira as whenever we walked up the train we would often find her deep in animated conversation with a (usually male) passenger and on our second evening she was sitting hand in hand sharing a beer with a fellow passenger in the restaurant car. The following evening she tried her luck with a couple of younger guys before being sent back to trolley duties by her boss.
However today we fear Elvira is about to be dropped off at the Salt Mines as we fear her boss has said ‘Enough’. This morning her boss came down the train looking for her to find her sitting in a carriage chatting with her trolley parked in the corridor! He pushed the trolley back to the restaurant car with her protesting behind but to avail – the last we saw a dejected Elvira was on washing up duty and her trolley parked up with a cover over its contents.
Poor Elvira – we wish her well and she provided us with great entertainment. I hope she finds her husband but suspect she will prove a handful for whoever she ends up with!
I like Russians and wish it was possible for me to interact more with them but of course I am restricted to talking with those who can speak English. In Moscow we wet our friends Tatiana and Erika who stayed with us in 1988 for a week as part of an exchange program. Tatiana is a university professor who has lived and taught in the USA and Erika has worked for the BBC Russian Service in Moscow since 1990 and I swear her English accent is better than mine! It was interesting to talk to them about the changes in Russia because although they are worldly, educated and liberal by Russian standards their personalities and thought processes were inevitably shaped by growing up in the Socialist era.
There have recently been a lot of public and government protests in the west regarding the imprisonment of the three Pussy Riot protestors who performed a sacrilegious protest performance in St Basil’s cathedral. In the west democratic governments are used to public criticism and have to live with it and the Pussy Riot sentences were perceived as an overreaction by an increasingly repressive Russian government under Putin who many believe would like to turn the clock back as far as greater state control is concerned..
However whenever I asked Tatiana and our Moscow guide for their thoughts about the Pussy Riot girls they were either ambivalent or thought it was perhaps a just sentence for offending so many because the Orthodox Church is now an important power in this religious and conservative nation and many of its followers were deeply offended.
And one has to remember that Russia is a nation who has always welcomed and responded to strong leaders whether Czars like Peter and Catherine or Socialist dictators like Stalin. In this regard an authoritarian and decisive figure like Putin has a receptive electorate even if he makes a few short cuts here and there regarding the due constitutional process. He is seen as a strong leader defending Russia’s interests, is a master of detail and intellectually bright so whilst his resuming the Presidency after a period as Prime Minister may be questioned in the west most Russians appear fairly phlegmatic about this as they have a tradition of centuries of strong dictatorial leaders who make decisions on their behalf! It is a similar situation to Taksin Shinawatra in Thailand who is vilified by many in the west the west and intellectuals in Bangkok alike but despite being a polarising figure he was nevertheless genuinely popular, well received in the poorer areas of Thailand and twice democratically voted into office as Prime Minister, corrupt or otherwise.
So not only are Russians a nation who appear to respond to strong and authoritarian leaders but they are also a nation who have only been ‘free’ for just over 20 years after almost 75 years of oppressive Socialist rule which let us not forget did bring many benefits and positive legacies which still last today.
Alcohol always has been, is and probably always be a major problem in Russia and even afflicted its leaders with Yeltsin once famously being unable to exit his plane at Shannon Airport until he had sobered up! I am not sure if this as a result of despair with ones lot, the climate with long hard winters or the national psyche or most likely a combination of all three! Yet one does not see much evidence of public loutishness or offensive or threatening behaviour in Russia. It is a society that appears polite and respectful and I have lost count of the times I have seen men offer to carry cases for women up steps at stations and subways and on a crowded subway people are forever giving up seats for their elders. You just do not see that in the underground sand metros of London, Paris and New York.
I was talking to Katya a young guide with another group on our train – fluent in English, Italian, and Portuguese she has lived in Italy, France and Brazil and sailed across the Atlantic as one half of a two person crew. She was clearly bright, articulate, adventurous and is planning to return to South America for 5 months hitchhiking and couch surfing but had decided not to get married and stay in Brazil because her fiancée ‘smoked too much dope and the Brazilians party too much’ which is not a comment I would have expected to hear from too many 20 year olds in the west.
Our guide Diana is barely 26 and a slight doll of a girl, attractive and with excellent English and she divides her time between working as a guide and Tour Manager in Russia for Australian and Finnish Tour Operators. Her English is excellent but far more impressive is her sense of responsibility and organisational skills with her group. I have trained and employed hundreds of tour guides in the past from as young as 19 to as old as 74 (the 19 year old was great and went on to be a pilot, the 74 year old not but I have been impressed with Diana. She is patient and congenial, amusing but also patient, mature and organised. I am impressed with her sense of responsibility and common sense when she talks about her job and her family. Whilst she and Katya are too young to have experienced life under the all controlling Soviet system that ruled from 1917 to the late 80s, their values and sense of responsibility were clearly shaped by their parents who most definitely did. Diana is not so interested in politics and is ambivalent about Yeltsin, Medvedev and current affairs.
I am impressed with the Russians I have met and I find Russia is an interesting mix of new and old but I think far more has been achieved than most people believed possible when the Socialist system was discarded and mayhem threatened to rule in the early 90s. To me the benefits are beginning to trickle down – I see Russians all over Europe and in Thailand and just as the benefits are trickling down from the oligarchs to the middle classes in the prosperous cities the next challenge will be to spread the wealth to the provinces and backwaters.
As we disembarked at Irkutsk this evening after four days on the train we discovered Elvira back on the trolley at the far end of the train and like all Russian women (who must spend hours practicing!) she was quick to strike a provocative model’s pose for a farewell photo.
I think Russia is going to make it and prosper but Rome was not built in a day and meanwhile whilst their beleaguered and despairing men console themselves with drink in the provinces the Lucys and Elviras will still be on the prowl on the Trans Siberian looking for their dream husbands.
I have always found English spoken with a Slavic accent to be both attractive and alluring (shades of John Cleese and Jamie Lee Curtis in a Fish called Wanda in reverse?) so I particularly wish them both well but wherever Elvira ends up and with whom I suspect that she will not be pushing a trolley for much longer!
© Michael Bromfield 2012