I think we were all well ready to leave Yekaterinburg. Myself because the kitchen incident was still a thing of embarrassment, Rdoc because the keyboard monument was a moment that could never be topped, and Arnika because she is a restless soul who has to keep moving. As this was to be the longest single train leg it was a nice feeling to be embarking with a pack full of freshly laundered clothes. With free breakfast, free wifi, free washing machines, a good selection of movies in Russian the Europe Asia Hostel really was a big improvement on the previous assortment of hotels and monasteries. Except in one key area; snoring. Both nights spent there have had the same occurrence of two big Russian guys coming into the room about 4am promptly collapsing
Without wanting to appear too uncharitable our attitude towards old women is becoming increasingly resentful. They are everywhere, and everywhere they are they are rude, pushy or clogging everything up. Feelings on this topic are running especially high this morning. Boarding carriage thirteen there was the usual expectation of our seats being of a good configuration and a hope that our neighbours would be interesting like the last lot were. We were also eager to quickly settle in and spend a quiet morning of recovery from the early start. Two upper bunks in a central berth and one lower side one was our allocation this time around. Richard had foregone his preference for top bunks volunteering for the side experience. Except that as we moved with the rushed queue of new passengers boarding and came to our numbers there was an obviously aged woman faking sleep where he was supposed to be. Not wishing to create a scene at such an early hour and with so many people also just boarding making it an unwise time to bother the harried providnista he just stowed his luggage and clambered up to the worst of the six possible beds. There is always a moment in getting up onto the top bunks that is impossible to complete in a graceful way. At least now I have figured out that what I initially thought to be woefully undersized cup rests are instead a little step. Hopefully this intruder would be getting off at a stop soon because we would need a place to sit at some stage. Until then a nap up by the ceiling will do. Once that is done though things had better change because it is almost impossible to see out the window from up here. It is this sort of situation that makes you realise the magnitude of operating a service of such distance and with so many stops and continual changing of passengers as they reach their destination or embark on a journey. Also amazing is how, despite this, the trains are always full. It is like a working model of Malthusian theory.
Rdoc’s view of us from his exiled position and working on this on the train.
With time to kill and without the distraction of gazing out the window there is time for some of the history of Siberia. The ever informative handbook sums these first few hundred kilometres as clay quarries and other factories make this town and region very ugly. At kilometre 2102 however, just south of the railway line, is the pillar where the Great Post Road crosses Siberia’s frontier. This is what George Kennan wrote about it; no other spot between St. Petersburg and the Pacific is more full of painful suggestions, and none has for the traveler a more melancholy interest than the little opening in the forest where stands this grief-consecrated pillar. Here hundreds of thousands of exiled human beings – men, women, and children; princes,nobles, and peasants – have bidden good-bye forever to friends, country, and home. Here, standing beside the square white boundary post, they have, for the last time, looked backward with love and grief at their native land, and then, with tear blurred eyes and heavy hearts, they have marched away into Siberia to meet the unknown hardships and privations of a new life. The Russian peasant even when a criminal is deeply attached to his native land … Some gave way to unrestrained grief; some comforted the weeping; some knelt and pressed their faces to the loved soil of their native country and collected a little earth to take with them into exile. (Siberia and the Exile System, p. 52) Beyond normal crimes like assault and vagrancy some of the reasons people were exiled now seem just plain ridiculous included was fortune telling, prize fighting and that most heinous of offenses, driving your carriage with reins.
Late morning and just over 300km gone, the train pulled into Tyumen. Still the occupier of out seats has not moved. Thankfully those below us have packed up and gotten off at this stop. We quickly try to establish ourselves by laying claim to the table. Being a three dot stop, which is the indication of at 25+ minute halt, we went in search of some mystery pastries, some fresh air to enjoy a cigarette in. The seat situation did improve slightly. Getting back on board there was a slightly fussy looking but genial lady of about 60 in the bunk under Arnika. As she was making no moves towards unpacking anything I am hopeful that she is only on for a relatively short time. At least now we could occupy the other side and have use of the table, just what was needed to make a lunch of noodles. No cheese and onion flavour mistakes this time. The set of containers from the St Petersburg department store proved perfect for this just as envisaged. Now it became a pleasant afternoon of cards along with some reading or writing mixed with trips to the samover to make cups of tea. Still the occupier of our true seat was yet to emerge from under her blankets. There was the occasional glance from big eyes that were far outsized for such a drawn face. When she finally did rise to sit, feet dangling from the side of the seat it turned out she was maybe 4ft 10. A height that would make it near impossible to make it up top. Some of the indignation died. Rdoc still wanted his rightful bed and I would too cos those top ones at the side are horrible.
A quite surprising feature of this part of the world are the amazing sunsets. Such huge expanses of sky where the sun just hangs as a giant orange disc, the string holding it up very slowing being unwound to drop it finally behind the hills way in the distance. There has been a gradual change in the landscape since we have moved past the Urals. Using the Old Post Road to cross Siberia, Anton Chekhov wrote “you’ll be bored from the Urals to the Yenisey.” Well it is definitely not that, more oddly captivating. Without exactly knowing what I thought this region would be like I definitely never thought it would be so open or beautiful. Lots of lush rolling grasslands in many different shades of green with occasional mud tracks working their way outwards from the artery that is the railway lines. Thickets of silver birch that are probably extensive forests oscillating from the horizon to touching distance from the window. In keeping watch we pass many villages of wooden houses arranged around a small river or lake. Each house has a decent sized vegetable garden surrounded by a high plank fence, often a pile of hay covered with a tarpaulin. Most also look well prepared for the oncoming winter with whole lengths of these fences braced by neatly stacked cut firewood. A consistently odd feature in these towns are the raised blue pipes that run throughout them. Sitting at least a metre above ground and rising still higher in a goal like frame every time a road or driveway is crossed.
After the great time we had had in meeting people on the leg into Yekaterinburg this time was a bit lonely. So much so that we were among the first to be getting ready for bed. Among our pre-purchased supplies were sachets of what promised to be real hot chocolate. Just to see whether Arnika’s search for the best one of these could come in packaged form. It was making these at the samover that Arnika and I got talking to two Kazakh guys. I remembered seeing them down the other end of the carriage earlier in the day. Now we were invited down for some Kazakh vodka which they assured us was far superior to Russian stuff. Finishing off the quite good hot chocolates and rinsing our mugs we squashed into their side booth. It was good vodka. Alexandr was preparing the zakuski telling us to put away our jar of pickles for now. He was cutting cubes from a strip of salted mutton fat. These were to be placed on the pieces of dark Russian bread Sergei II had pulled out and chewed post shot. Vegetarian Arnika was horrified. The actual skin side was really tasty as salty snacks usually are when drinking. But then the rest was just fat which coated your mouth. The best cure was another shot. Various others came and joined in a round and we quickly moved onto the second bottle.
Our news friends were two medical students from Astana who were on their way to Novosibirsk for a heavy metal concert. The trip was about three days there, one day in town for the concert and to save money spend the night in the train station before heading straight back on another three day journey. As this took a long time to explain Richard had fetched the bottle that we had brought with us and also the pickles. By the time we were having to drink the juice from the jar we were the last ones up in the carriage. Sergei II had a guitar and so the party was moved into the little entrance compartment through the door after the toilet. What followed were some truly appalling versions of Behind Blue Eyes, Karma Police, Come As You Are, and some other Kazakh faves. Most of what happened after this is a blur. Arnika disappeared with Alexandr only to be found lying on the floor outside the toilet door at the providnista end. Doc was also nowhere to be found when I got her back to the berth. A few minutes after the train had pulled away from the last stop before Novosibirsk he reappeared clutching two three litre bottles of beer that the Kazakh’s had convinced him to buy when they had all been out on the platform. In no way requiring any more to drink and especially not very bad beer we instead marveled at how amazing it was that someone even had it for sale on a platform at three in the morning. Crossing the Ob river there was only a short time before Novosibirsk and so we packed up the unused bedding and had a wee snooze amongst our readied packs.
Things get desparate.
Novosibirsk was our destination on the train but not our actual target having been reluctantly cut from the itinerary because of the limited time our visa’s allowed us to be in Russia. Now Siberia’s largest city, Novosibirsk really got established during WWII when much of Russia’s industry was moved east away from the front. I always love it when you read about whole factories being packed up as though they were picnic sets. It had been tempting to try and make it out to nearby Akademgorodok, the lakeside town purpose built for scientific research. But with no real chance to see this glimmer of the Soviet dream in depth it seemed a lot of effort to basically walk around a large campus. However, it was not possible to reach my namesake city Tomsk by train and so we still had a five hour bus ride ahead of us. Not really in any shape to make this happen we made our way into the luxurious upstairs waiting room in Siberia’s largest station to have a nap until it was at least light outside.
Two hours later we awoke, momentarily confused as to where and when we were. In the excellent In Siberia, that we are all reading, Colin Thubron describes Novosibirsk as ‘space.’ Even without this prompting this was the immediate impression that the distinctly wide avenues and large squares we walked down and past to find the bus station. For the first time there was frost sparkling in the morning sun. Every breath cut deep into the lungs. There was Lenin, coat figuratively blowing in the Siberian wind. He looked too purposeful the mood I was in half way through a two mile walk, still drunk and carrying a pack that felt increasingly filled with lead. The waving partisans surrounding him directed us on down Krasny pr. The bus terminal seemed very small compared to the giant train station. Gratefully dumping my pack on the vinyl floor I rushed to the window to try and get on the bus that was advertised as leaving in two minutes. This wasn’t to be and with only twelve seats for about fifty people it is lucky that packs double as seats. To amuse us over this wait there was a prettyish girl who had been installed beside the new automated ticket machine to encourage people to use it. The same spiel was used for every person who came through the doors and our game was trying to guess her success rate. Very low, people prefer to queue. Mid-morning and the bus was on its way to Tomsk. We were on board but only just after the driver decided to make himself some beer money by charging us 90 roubles each luggage fee. Too tired to be messed with, Arny argued vociferously. Too tired to not be allowed on this bus Doc and I calmed her down and climbed on board, promptly falling asleep for the duration.
I think this is where my toe fracture began.
Tags: bus trip, drinking, evil old people, hostel life, mighty river, Novosibirsk, Russia, Tomsk, train, Trans-Siberia, Travel, Yekaterinburg