After a 70-hour journey from Vladivostok my train arrived in the Siberian city of Irkutsk early on a summer’s morning and I quickly found a taxi to take me to my hotel in the city centre. I arrived several hours before check-in and assumed I’d have to store my bags then walk around until my room was ready. Without me even requesting early access the receptionist spent a lot of time clicking her mouse before triumphantly telling me she had a room available right now. I couldn’t believe it. Even the fancy hotels I used to stay in when I travelled on business wouldn’t let me check in at 6am yet these guys were proud of the fact that they found me a room. I took a shower, napped for a while then forced myself outside to explore because I knew Siberia could get horribly hot. My weather app said the high would reach 29c at 3pm. I went out at 11am and it was already 30c.
Irkutsk has done a lot over the past several years to attract tourists, something it can easily do due to its close proximity to Lake Baikal, the world’s largest fresh water lake. The city has tried to make itself an easy destination to visit and as part of that has painted a blue line on the sidewalks that takes visitors on a walk passing all the main sights and points of interest. My hotel was located on the main central square and after a brief walk through a well-manicured park I found the blue line.
The first stop was a war memorial. Whilst these are found throughout the world, grand ones are perhaps more prevalent in Russia and are very much revered. Due to a souring of relations with the USSR after World War II a lot of their sacrifice during the war was somewhat missed from mainstream western history. The true story of Russia’s sacrifice only started to be discussed again after the fall of communism. So whilst many younger people today know about battles like Normandy and Iwo Jima, very few probably realise that a staggering 20 million Russians died in the war against Germany and many say that is a conservative estimate. It is a number so high that it is difficult to comprehend, especially if you are from a country like New Zealand where the total population is about 4 million.
Nearby was an Orthodox Church and the Angara River where the city has built a beautiful wide promenade. It was nice to see that it was well used by walkers, fisherman and tourists. After that the path took me past the statue of Tsar Alexander III, the only Tsar to ever visit Siberia. The other thing you soon find in Russia is that they like to put up lots of statues and most of them are massive. Alexander III towered above me and it was hard to get all of him into the shot.
I continued along the river then followed the blue line back into the city through an area filled with old wooden houses. These were quite incredible to behold simply because they were so crooked. Some of them had undulating floors that met with the street and others looked like they wouldn’t stand up for another winter. I glanced inside one apartment building that had stairs sloping on what must have been a 45-degree angle yet residents were walking up and down them with quite some skill. I eventually found myself in a more upmarket neighbourhood with trendy cafes, galleries and boutiques that would have looked right at home in Madrid or Paris. It was an interesting contrast to the wooden houses that sometimes backed right up to this grand Soviet and pre-Soviet architecture.
After 2 hours of walking in the ever increasing heat I was back at the hotel with no interest in staying in the sun any longer than I had to. I retreated to my room to work on my blog and that evening went downstairs to the London Pub for dinner. It looked vaguely like a London pub in that there was wood and they sold some UK beers but the menu was distinctly Russian which was what I was looking for. My waitress took an instant dislike to me and the more I tried to make her like me the more she hated me. I don’t know why, sometimes that just happens I guess but karma caught up with her in the end.
Whilst I was tucking into my meal she dropped a huge tray of glasses and plates on the floor that smashed into tiny pieces soaked in leftover bits of soup and beer. About 10-minutes later I became aware of a man shouting in broken English behind me, his voice getting louder as he complained about something to do with 400 Rubles. Basically he just shouted ‘400 Ruble. You cheat. I no pay. You bad people’. I turned to see a Chinese tourist right up in the face of my waitress and just as I went to get a better look he roughly shoved her with both hands on her shoulders whilst his wife passively looked on. The waitress ran out of the room crying with him chasing her and right when I was seriously considering if I could take him on in order to protect her a group of staff jumped in. He was thrown out then the wife started on the remaining staff. The annoying thing was that in the end they relented and gave them a 200 Ruble discount. To put this disgusting behaviour into perspective, he got violent with a waitress over US$3. In the end her and I got quite friendly but I still can’t shake the memory of this truly awful display of human behaviour.
The next morning I contemplated my visit to Irkutsk in my taxi back to the train station and decided that I really liked the place. It was a nice mix of exotic and familiar but I particularly enjoyed the pretty river parade as well as the cute yet crumbling wooden houses. The people were friendly and it was an easy and safe city to walk around.
First Class was sold out as soon as bookings opened on the next leg from Irkutsk to Yekaterinburg so RealRussia (who expertly handled all my train bookings) booked me in a Second Class compartment. These are the same size as First Class with the same two seat-come-beds on the bottom but have an additional two bunk beds. This doubles the capacity in each carriage so naturally things get more crowded and more noisy which was definitely the case on my train that appeared to be sold out for most of the trip.
I was on Train 1, the most modern in the Russian Railways fleet and slightly faster than the others. I had an early morning departure but had discovered that each carriage has its number printed on a big sign hanging in the window, something I’d missed on my first train, so I found the carriage easily but the compartment door was locked. I knocked and it was soon opened by a mostly naked and bleary eyed man who stumbled out then helped me get my bags stored and showed me how to climb up to the top bunk. His wife and teenage daughter barely stirred and he went back to sleep so I was left in the awkward position on the top bunk of being fully clothed and ready for a day on the train, only to find myself in a dark compartment staring at the ceiling as I waited for them to wake up again.
The instant he opened the door to let me in I was blasted with hot air and the smell of humans who hadn’t showered for a while. I was hardly in a position to judge as I’d probably smelt the same when I arrived in Irkutsk and would no doubt smell like it again in roughly 24 hours. Despite a few rumours about being able to bribe a Provodnik to use their shower, there aren’t any showers for passengers apart from the first class carriages on the newest trains that I never got to experience. You quickly learn how to give yourself a baby wipe bath and should bring plenty of these with you as you’ll also use them for cleaning your cup, wiping up spills on the table and so on. Every morning and evening the scent of baby wipes and toothpaste fills the carriages as people attempt to stay on top of personal hygiene.
I’d read numerous times that the toilets are locked for 10 to 20-minutes either side of a station stop but nobody in the guidebooks had the courage to explain why so I will. On the newest trains they have a self-contained sewerage system but on all the others you simply put your foot on a lever and whatever you ejected from yourself gets ejected straight onto the train tracks. So I guess locking the doors at each stop prevents this mess from fouling up tracks at the stations. There is a kind of gravitational flush system that helps the process along and rinses the toilet bowl so the bathrooms are still as clean as they are on any other form of transport, if not cleaner thanks to the presence of the ever-vigilant Provodniks. The same water source is used for flushing and hand washing so the water in the bathrooms isn’t safe for drinking or brushing your teeth. The presence of toilet paper and hand towels can also be a bit hit and miss depending on how busy the carriage is. Again baby wipes are your best friend along with a bottle of water especially reserved for brushing your teeth and some hand sanitizer.
I’d also read that the trains aren’t air-conditioned yet all three that I travelled on were. The only drawback was it didn’t work whilst at the stations and the compartments would quickly become unbearable in the Siberian summer heat, but within a few minutes of leaving the stations things would cool down again so that most of the journey was spent at a pleasant temperature.
You’d think a good sleep would be impossible after sitting or lying all day on the train, possibly in close proximity to snoring strangers. Instead I’d never slept so well in my life, easily managing a solid 7 hours every night I was on a train despite the short summer nights. There was something about the rhythmic ‘clickety-clack’ and the gentle rocking motion that made it almost impossible to stay awake for long. In fact, all of us would engage in a 3 hour afternoon siesta in addition to the long overnight sleeps.
Life on the train quickly fell into a rhythm that everyone seemed to follow. You wake-up at about 8am, make a tea and perhaps some instant noodles using hot water from the samovar. Then everyone has a baby wipe bath in the toilets before settling in to read, play cards, chat, play video games or perhaps watch TV if there is one in your compartment (these are on the newer trains). After about 4 hours of this that probably included a couple of stops at the stations, noodles and soup are made for lunch then one by one everyone lies down for a siesta. Once the long sunset begins people get up again, many start downing vodka, sometimes food is brought from the dining car but mostly it is more noodles and everyone tries their best to stay awake but most start nodding off by about 10pm only to fall asleep soon after and repeat it all again the next day. Somehow this routine and the regular stops made time pass incredibly quickly. My first 70-hour stretch felt more like 24 hours which was in stark contrast to how time passes for me on planes when a 12-hour flight seems to last for a whole week.
The family I was with on this leg woke up a few hours later so that I could clamber down from the bunk and we attempted to communicate. I established that they were from Vladivostok and travelling with extended family and friends all the way to Moscow then onto Sochi where they’d vacation for a week before traveling all the way back again. It struck me as amazing that they would spend twice as long as their actual vacation getting to and from said vacation. That fact is that for many Russians air travel is simply too expensive, perhaps doable if there is just one or two of you flying but out of reach for many people if you also need to pay for children. And because this was a big group who had almost taken over the whole carriage, the journey itself was very festive and rightly or wrongly, the carriage had become almost like their own private mobile holiday house. Kids were tearing up and down the hallway all day and little gatherings were happening in each other’s compartments where food and vodka were shared.
Apart from the rowdy kids this actually worked out well for me because when they weren’t sleeping I usually had the compartment to myself and could use the seat for a while rather than always having to lie on my bunk. An amusing diversion was the teenage daughter coming in to secretly call her boyfriend back in Vladivostok. I didn’t need to understand Russian to know that they were having the kind of intense romantic conversations that teenagers do and occasionally her Dad would bust her leading to a full-on teenage tantrum. Afterwards Dad or Mum would roll their eyes at me, then the daughter would do the same when they weren’t looking.
During one of our stilted exchanges I managed to communicate that I was from New Zealand at which point the father got very excited and started furiously digging around in a bag before triumphantly presenting me with a New Zealand apple that he insisted I keep. Later whilst trying to help each other work out time differences he spotted my Russian-made watch. It was a remake of the same model Yuri Gagarin wore on his spaceflight that I bought during the 60th anniversary celebrations. As I showed him the Yuri engraving on the back he once again became very animated, snatched my notebook and began drawing pictures of space vehicles whilst pointing at himself and saying ‘sputnik’ frequently. I eventually deduced that he had (or was) somehow involved in Russian satellites or rocket propulsion however neither of us were able to elaborate and I didn’t even try to tell him that I also used to work in the space industry. I had no idea where to start but I did find it funny that two space people from opposite ends of the planet had wound up sharing the same tiny compartment on the Trans-Siberian Railway.
In this compartment the window was nice and clear so I was able to enjoy the pretty yet relatively unchanging landscape. A few thousand kilometres out of Vladivostok the lusher forest had given way to typical Taiga made up primarily of pines and larches. Along the railway tracks I’d generally see wild meadows covered in thick tall grass with lots of wildflowers in pink, yellow and white leading up to the treeline. In some places the forest crowded around the train. Almost always a dirt road with a few visible vehicle tracks followed the train tracks. Parts of this represented the old trans-Siberian trail that predated the railway, others were clearly still used as a primary vehicle route through some parts of the region but generally it appeared to be used by railway workers that were frequently spotted on even the most remote parts of the track carrying out maintenance and keeping the trees at bay.
Whilst settlements remained infrequent I still spotted them more than I expected. Most of Siberia is uninhabited and after all the region is huge. Apparently the continental United States could fit inside Siberia one and a half times. I can’t even begin to calculate how many times New Zealand would fit in. As I tracked our progress on my first leg out of Vladivostok I realised that in 24 hours we’d already travelled the equivalent length of New Zealand yet we had only covered 17% of the journey. So it made sense that many of these settlements were along the railway line that also roughly followed the original trans-continental path used by various traders and invaders over the centuries.
These settlements varied in size from just 8 or 10 houses to small cities. Always the first signs of civilisation would begin with small wooden houses with brightly painted window frames and doors, usually in blue. Eventually these would give way to a few concrete buildings, most Soviet-era but some dating from Tsarist times. Occasionally there would be a factory or two, normally derelict but sometimes still in use. Generally the settlements were placed close to a lake or river and I found most of them to be very pretty. I tried to imagine what they would be like in winter, particularly before the railway was finished when they would be cut off for months.
Many fascinating stories about how these settlements began can be found throughout Russian history and I won’t rehash them here. However, if you are interested then I would encourage you to at least read about the Decembrists, a group of failed 19th century aristocratic revolutionaries who were exiled to Siberia almost a century before the 1917 Marxist Revolution. Many of them survived to either start or help improve communities throughout the region and as a result are much celebrated throughout Russia but especially in Siberia where you will often find statues, museums and murals in their honor.
My 50-hour journey from Irkutsk passed more quickly than I expected and soon I was saying goodbye to my Russian family and the Provodniks before disembarking to explore the surprisingly nice city of Yekaterinburg, the subject of my next post and for now here are a few more of my Russian travel tips…
Money: Credit cards are widely accepted but I found I still needed cash often for things like taxis and leaving tips at restaurants. You are never far from an ATM in the cities, at airports and train stations but if you are venturing somewhere remote you’ll want to have a supply of cash before you get there. If you have an American Express card it would be wise to take a Visa or MasterCard as a backup. Not all foreign airports will have Rubles available so if you are too nervous to rely on using an ATM when you get there you can go online to a company like Travelex then pre-order the currency for collection at the location of your choice before you leave for Russia.
Tipping: Whilst not as ingrained in Russian culture as it is in places like America, you should still be tipping at restaurants that provide table service. At a proper restaurant this would be about 10% of your total bill and in a more informal setting like a café you can just round up the bill or leave some loose change. I also did the latter for taxi rides when I knew I wasn’t getting ripped off and for bar staff. In fact, I follow these same rules in every country unless I know for sure tipping is abnormal or a higher amount is expected.
Dress: If you go out clubbing or to a fancy restaurant you will find the locals are very dressed up, especially the women. Whilst people might look at you funny if you aren’t, as a foreigner you are unlikely to get refused service if you are dressed more casually, although this will depend on what city you are in and how in demand the establishment is. Otherwise you will notice a huge variety of dress standards in the cities as well as the small towns. I saw local women selling dried fish in tiny Siberian villages whilst tottering down crumbling railway platforms in stilettos. Others had barely bothered to get changed out of their pyjamas. As far as I could tell anything goes but if you are invited for a meal or to a party you should make an effort with your appearance out of respect, as you should in most countries.