Posts Tagged ‘Train’

A Hiking Trip

Saturday, August 22nd, 2009

The sun rose lazily over Lake Baikal, chasing away the demons of uncertainty from the night before. Matthew and I had arrived in the city of Irkutsk, now over 40 kilometers away, late morning the day before (09/08) and spent hours trying desperately to get some information via the internet on the Great Biakal Trail that supposedly stretched for over 500 kilometers of the lake’s shoreline. We checked out some hotels for that night, but, finding everything either full or expensive, we had opted to take a taxi from the dirty, soviet Irkutsk to the confusing tourist villa of Listvyanka.

Listvyanka sits at the mouth of the Angara river which drains Lake Baikal north into the Arctic ocean. It was dark by the time we arrived, and we had no idea where the trail actually began. We walked the roads and paths around the northern end of town, eventually settling on a path that followed the shore for about 100 meters, before climbing into the hills overlooking the lake. An hour or so of wandering in the dark woods and we admitted we’d have to wait ’til morning to clear our minds and show us the way out. We camped late that night on a grassy ledge that sloped precariously toward the 20-foot high lakeside cliff.

Matthew had woken a bit earlier than I and had pumped some water from the crystal clear lake. He had also talked to a few British tourists down the beach a ways who also had no idea where they were going, the only difference was that they had a guide. I woke groggily and helped him prepare breakfast. Over bowls of hot oatmeal we went over what we knew about the lake and the trail. The lake itself is considered the oldest lake in the world (between 25 million and 6 thousand years old, depending on your views) and contains 20% of the world’s freshwater—more than all 5 great lakes combined. Along the banana-shaped lake, a dozen or so little towns nestle between the frigid waters and the majestic peaks of the surrounding mountain ranges. We would be hiking from Listvyanka, near the southern tip of the lake, along the inside curve past two little lake-side towns—Bolshiye Koty and Bolshaya Kadilnaya—ending up at Bolschoye Goloustnoe, a slightly larger town where we could get a bus back to Irkutsk. If we timed it right, the trip would take four days getting us back to Irkutsk on Friday with our train leaving later that day.

As we sat eating and basking in the morning sun, alone until the pack of British tourists we had seen earlier traipsed past us with their guide. The one Matt had talked to earlier told us we were on the right path and we rejoiced. We packed up and were soon on our way, loaded down with food and camping gear, enough, we hoped, to last us those 4 days. It was an easy hike for the most part, but neither of us were in good shape after several weeks of immobilizing train rides. We each had 50 pound packs on our backs, no hiking boots, not enough water, and Matthew was starting to show signs of a cold or flu as we left. Not a good start for a journey of 55 kilometers over rough, mountainous terrain in the heart of Siberia, but we were not faint of heart and we plunged on.

The trail wound its way beside the deep blue lake, but Matthew and I could only enjoy it when we stopped from time to time to catch our breath. An hour or so in, we passed the British group, but other than that we felt we were going extremely slowly. Our lack of water along with Matt’s disease did not make for easy going and the constant up and down of the cliffside trail didn’t help either. We made it to Bolshiye Koty late that evening, found it to be significantly smaller than we had expected and found only a closed shack with “Museum” written on it, a few houses, a ferry terminal, and overpriced soda on the shelves of the only magazin (shop) in town. We moved on, made it out of town just as the sun was setting, and, after a grueling hike up a little hill, eventually found a place flat enough to sleep that night.

Unfortunately, it was also a place apparently frequented by horses, as their droppings surrounding the site attested. We were feeling a bit ambivalent about the day. I had a dull, dehydration-induced headache and Matt was not looking extremely healthy. We lit a fire to encourage ourselves and I tried my hand at my first campfire-cooked meal. The rice was underdone, which I intensely dislike, so that did nothing to lighten my mood. Later that night, when I woke to the frightening sound of horses pawing and neighing right by my head in the pine-darkened forest, I wasn’t so sure about the whole hiking idea.

Clueless American Tourists Leave Omsk

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

The next morning we had a late start and were beginning to feel pressed for time before our train left at 1216. With twenty minutes left, we were a little unsure as to the distance after I proposed we try a more direct route than that which we followed two days before. With only 26 roubles to our name, even a taxi was questionable. The clock at fifteen until our only TSR train left the station, I found an ATM and we tried to hail a cab. A few minutes dragged by until we wedged ourselves into the back of a yellow van and asked for the вагзал or train station. The ride wasn’t long but I doubt we would have been able to walk it in time. The driver accepted my 20 roubles and we hurried inside the station with a minute to spare. We didn’t even check the train but boarded the first one we encountered. Barely settled, we pulled out of the station with the consolation that it was 1216 on the dot; it had to be the right train.

We shared this two-night trip with a congenial older woman and an always-smiling middle-aged man. The woman took it upon herself to explain much about the train to the clueless American tourists. Unfortunately, she did so very quickly in Russian. Between reading and sleeping, I was able to learn that I could not plug Dan’s laptop into the two power outlets when we were stopped or when we were moving, for that matter. They were for cell phones, only. I also learned why the smiling man was smiling; he was traveling to Irkutsk to visit his girlfriend. Before night fell, he presented the train’s blankets to Dan and I, smiling. At least one clueless American tourist was thankful during the chilliest night in a while on this trip.

It didn’t help, however, that I had the bunk against the end of the car, next to the doorway to the bathroom and area between cars where many people smoke. That door happened to be one of those that people feel required to slam as hard as they can. All day and all night, people loudly passed. My bunk also had a footboard which prevented me from a comfortable sleeping position. I have always preferred to sleep in a K-shape but the bunk only allowed something like a ƙ-shape. With my feet planted on the board, I couldn’t even lie flat without tilting my head to the side. My mattress kept sliding nearly off the bunk as I tried to find a comfortable position in my sleep. My smiling friend, sleeping below me, was always ready to assist the clueless American tourist in repositioning my mattress.

During the evening we played a version of Charades with the smiling man. It took a few minutes, but we identified his occupation of air traffic controller based on his sketch. Dan’s web developing and my design occupations were easier to guess. He also bought us a “souvenir” at one stop, a steamed pine cone or шишка. He demonstrated how to peel back the segments to reveal delicious seeds or оген. I wonder if I could do that with the millions of pine cones at home. This morning both he and the woman wished us hearty goodbyes as we arrived in Irkutsk about 1030 local time (5 hours ahead of Moscow time). We thanked them and I wanted to wish him well with his girlfriend, but as a clueless American tourist I didn’t know how. If I had to guess, I would say he’s still smiling.

Two Pretty-Good Days

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

Sunday dawned (02/08), we tried to find a church and, when we did find one, although Russian speaking, we were turned away. I suppose we didn’t meet the customary dress code and also didn’t speak enough of the language to talk our way into the service. We strolled the city, walked through a few marketplaces where Matt looked for a t-shirt with odd sayings on it, and explored the Western part of the new old city which we hadn’t seen there. It was on a road in that section that we found CafeMax, a real Internet Cafe with free wifi for its customers! The chai was a bit more expensive, but we sat down and hunkered down for the long haul, we had a lot to do having not had internet for any length of time since Riga, a week before.

We updated the blog, got closer to caught up passing the computer between Matt and I, and got caught up with correspondences. Then, at 1500 Matt went to meet up with James and I finished up another post. We spent the rest of the day swapping stories with James. From being present at the recent riots in China which made international news, to driving a motor scooter across India, James had plenty to tell. We talked late into the evening over cups of chai and made our way back North to toward the train station. James was staying in the station hotel and so we were headed in the same direction. We stopped for some shish-kabaps served straight from the grill at the side of the road and hit the hay a bit after 2300 that evening, after being informed that we needed to checkout by 11 the next morning. No problem.

Monday morning, we left the hotel and headed South again, hunted for some cheap electronics and, finding none, hung out in the nice park on the other side of the river where we watched both a wedding and construction project try to take place simultaneously right next to each other. We cooked up some food and headed north, spending the rest of the rather drizzly and overcast day in a nice little restaurant with 80KT chai called Samovar. That evening, we stopped by CafeMax again for an hour or two and then headed back to the train station.

It was late by the time we got back, after midnight, and we were expecting to be able to rent the room for 12 hours, as had been the custom, the lady at the desk, however, had apparently not been having a very nice day and had decided to surprise us by imposing a rule of 0900 checkout, regardless of check-in time, on repeat customers who had been planning on giving them a glowing review. We had no idea why and tried to explain our position, asking if she could give us a discount then, asking if we had somehow offended them or accidentally broken something in our room. Nothing, just a stolid insistence that there was nothing she could do. We finally got to our room after 0100 and an unpleasant discussion.

The next day (04/08) we awoke unhappily and were out of our room by 0900 as requested… It was drizzling outside and looked as though it might rain at any moment. We didn’t really want to be out there and had already seen most of what Astana had to offer, so we hung out in the train-station’s waiting room and enjoyed free wifi which we had not noticed before. The only problem came when Matt tried to plug in the computer and found that the station administration ladies were adamantly against anyone using their electricity. It seemed like it would be another situation like the night before where, for no reason at all, paying customers would be denied what they wished, for no good reason. That’s when I decided to stop being pushed around, grabbed my train ticket—dated for later that day—and approached the lady who had just unceremoniously and with no regard for our pleading questions, yanked our power cord out of an otherwise unused plug.

I approached with a bit of trepidation and politely explained my position. She had no idea what I was saying, but was apparently impressed by my politeness and took me to a phone where she got her friend who spoke English to translate for us. I was informed that the plugs in the waiting area were for “technical use only” but that Irena, the lady, would find a place for me to work. She did! A nice couch in a little, out-of-the-way waiting room apparently reserved for polite people with tickets. Matt and I switched off using the internet for a while and, when I wasn’t working online trying to trouble-shoot a website issue that had developed, I had a nice discussion with Alexey, a man who explained his job by informing me that he answered the radio and kicked drunks out of the station.

We talked for a few hours about politics, international relations, work, money, our families, and life in Kazakhstan. He knew no English, but with my phrasebook and my limited Russian we had a good conversation. That evening, Matt and I went and hung out in a little cafe in the train station and watched a volleyball match between Spain and Russia before boarding our train for the longish drive to Omsk.

Finding Astana

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

As we stepped off the train onto the platform at the Astana, Kazakhstan Train station on that chilly Thursday (30/07) we quickly realized two things. First, we had almost no idea how to speak Russian and I had only a very rudimentary ability to read Russian and, second, we had no guide book to help us find anything in Astana. We left the train station, loaded to the hilt like pack-mules, walked in a highly confused circle around the square not recognizing a word on the signs, and returned the the station feeling as though we had failed our first foray into the sleepless city.

We decided the thing to do was turn to the all-powerful Internets. There was a little internet shoppe in the train station near the waiting area and, after grabbing some Kazakh Tenge (€1≈400KT) from the cash exchange shoppe around the corner, Matt and I split an hour of internet time. During that time, I discovered that all of the hotels listed online had prices in the €30 a night category for a twin room. I did discover, however, that there was a resting-room hotel in the train station which had much more reasonable prices: in the €5 per person a night range (2000KT). I also discovered that there was no easy way to get out the National Park which was a hundred or two kilometers away without using a travel agency and, again, the prices listed online were astronomical.

Matt and I were a bit dejected. We had wanted to come to Kazakhstan so that we could see the beautiful scenery! Look at Astana from Google Maps and you’ll see just to the South-West of the city, a series of spectacular blue lakes… but… they seemed completely inaccessible. We were carrying hiking equipment and it didn’t look like we’d be able to use it. Man, things were not turning out as we had hoped. We bought an Astana map from a little kiosk in the train station, dug out our Russian phrasebook and sat down in the train station waiting area to decide on our course of action. Before we decided, however, I went to the Train Station information office, asked the location of the tourist office in phrasebook-Russian, was assisted to a booth outside by a kind lady who spoke no English, and was rather rudely informed at that place, that they could not offer me any information on hotels, guesthouses, or other accommodations.

We decided to spend the night in the cheapest place we knew, the Train-Station Hotel—despite the fact that the price didn’t include showers—, drop our bags there and wander around the city looking for a better place to stay. We also had another mission. Upon finally being allowed to enter Kazakhstan, we had read on the back of our entry/departure form we filled out that we had to register within 5 days of our arrival in Kazakhstan. We were convinced that it was too late to register that night, and we had no idea where to go to register. We were in a pickle.

That evening we spent a few hours wandering the city, familiarising ourselves with it. The city lies in the middle of a flat plain and consists of three informal divisions on a north-south axis. The first is the old, crummy city on the North side of the train-tracks. This area has existed for decades, since Astana had a different name and was the capital of nothing. It is filled with low-rent, three-to-four story apartment buildings, shacks, sheds, and markets. According to everyone we talked to, it was filled with seedy individuals, the “Russian Mafia,” and unsavory people of various sorts.

The second division of the city is between the train station and the river to the South. This consists of a lot of older, Soviet-era cement-block buildings. Several universities, a museum, a few dingy parks, and a number of palote apartment buildings. In this area, older restaurants, cafes, and a few “Beesnes Tsentrs” or shopping centers mingled with police headquarters, a military university, and a place called “Congress” which is apparently where the circus performs when it’s in town. I liked this area, because it was rather what I was expecting from Astana, and because there were several odd statues, like a naked boy standing on the back of a lion-sized wolf.

The third part of the city is South of the river and past a large park/amusement park area. It consists of gleaming new buildings, a “diplomatic quarter” slated to be completed by 2030 and house all the diplomats in the capital city, and dozens of buildings of stunning un-Soviet architecture. This entire region had been built up since 1991 when Astana became the capital of a free Kazakhstan after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Architecture was the main feature of this picturesque part of town. The famous tower of Astana, now a national icon sits at the middle and is surrounded by buildings which spiral, curve, and angle skyward proclaiming the worth of this oil and land-rich nation and perhaps reflecting a bit of its space-faring past (the spaceport from which most of Russia’s cosmonauts and Soyuz vessels launched is inside of Kazakhstan and the nation makes some money renting the spaceport out to both commercial groups and nations).

We realised that the main adventure of this part of our trip would simply be learning how to survive and do the things we needed to do like register our visas, find a cheap place to stay, and see the city.

Moscow and Trans Siberia, Our Style

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

Dan and I arrived in Moscow before noon on the 27th, with only the afternoon and early evening to collect our next train tickets and explore. I would be unable to experience the city’s infamous nightlife. Given the nature of this journey, however, we weren’t completely disappointed in our tight schedule. Moscow is the priciest and (according to a study) rudest city in the world. Alas, we wouldn’t have time for the world’s most expensive cup of coffee among the world’s largest number of billionaires. Not our style.

We disembarked from the train and starting walking north, searching for a Wi-Fi connection. We knew we needed to collect our Trans Siberian Railway tickets but we were clueless as to where we could find the Real Russia office. We would ned to find the tourist agency and collect before our train departed at 10:45 that night. No pressure. Along our route, we exchanged some money at something like 44 Rubles per Euro. It’s always surreal to handle bills with so many zeros, but we took consolation that there was much more money in the pockets of most people we passed. The Cyrillic alphabet was new to both of us so we started deciphering business signs as we walked. Dan related his knowledge from our guidebook but we found no sign of an ИНТЕРНЕТ КАФЕ (Internet Café).

Instead, we found more familiar letters spelling “McDonald’s.” Say what you will about the fast food chain, but it still offers free bathrooms and often, outside the States, free wireless Internet. We found a power outlet on the second floor and Dan began trying to coax life from the macbook’s damaged power cord. Apparently, Apple had recalled its cords for their faulty wiring. PC fans out there: judge not lest ye be judged. Apple will replace damaged cords for free. We just didn’t have time to find an authorized reseller in Moscow, collect a new cord, find Real Russia’s address, find their office, and pick up our tickets.

I set out to find the ИНТЕРНЕТ. It was a challenge because no one understood my intentions. After half an hour of making a fool of myself, a young man pointed me in the right direction. I soon returned to the Mickey D’s with an address and Google’s directions to the RR office, a thirty minute walk. We lugged our luggage across town until pausing for a break. A friendly hostel owner stopped to ask if we needed directions, helpfully identified a nearby Metro station, and pointed us in the wrong direction. We followed our map to the office, presented our passports, and left with eight train tickets. Dan and I stopped at a park on the way back to the subway and I popped the rest of the popcorn. A laughably cheap snack in such an expensive city. Our style. We braved the Metro system to find the Red Square.

Our packed subway unloaded just across the road from the Red Square wall. We entered through the Resurrection Gate, a copy of the original Stalin destroyed in 1931 because he felt it impeded his parades and demonstrations. The lovely Kremlin’s occupants liked to strut their stuff around the Square. After several days on the train, we were less than strutting about the Square. Not our style. We saw Lenin’s Mausoleum but not the father of Soviet communism’s embalmed body, the world’s most famous mummy. A secret until the fall of communism, Ol’ Lenin was preserved by being wiped down every few days and then submerged in a tub of chemicals, including wax. For a million dollars, you can have the same done.

Alternately, you can pass the tomb and view the incredible St Basil’s Cathedral. What ridiculously wonderful swirls of colors! The building is the culmination of the Russian style, developed in wooden churches, and contains nine chapels. I was struck that it looked like candy, like technicolored peppermint-striped candy. The eccentric colors made me want a taste. It was constructed over the grave of the an equally eccentric character, Saint Vasily (Basil) the Blessed. Great guy. Great style. He was an early nudist and liked wearing chains, perhaps the equivalent to “bling.” He told Ivan the Terrible off for not paying attention in church and for his violence towards the innocent. So we appreciated the nutty saint through the Cathedral, and circled the Square, past the State History Museum and the State Department Store, both closed.

Back at the main train station, Dan and I took turns exploring a local grocery store while the other “watched” our luggage (I took a nap). I pulled another close-call, returning to quickly walk our bags to line 3, struggle down the narrow isle, and sit down, just as the train pulled away from the station. We were on the Trans Siberian Railway, one of the 20th century’s engineering wonders. We shared the “row” with four others, one young man and one elderly, and young and older women. The older man spoke a little English and grilled us as to why we were traveling Russia without a translator. After a while, he began repeating the phrases, “Don’t be afraid. Everything will be fine.” It was a little unnerving. Dan and I had our own beds on this train so we were content.

We had plenty of time to enjoy our beds; our first TSR leg lasted three nights. Days were spent in sleep and reading. I love books but I began to regret my iPod’s deceased condition. The morning of the 28th, the train stopped for an hour and almost everyone awake in the car, got out to smoke and buy snacks from numerous vendors. Dan and I, stocked with provisions, remained on the train, reading our books. That night, around 11:00 Moscow time, we shared my “birthday meal” of Ramen noodles, cooked with the hot water available on the trains. Totally our style. Dan surprised me by producing a delicious jelly roll cake-substitute and, to my delight, a 1,5 liter Mountain Dew. I was appreciative and we enjoyed a pleasant dinner in the low light and calm car. I drank half the bottle and my body, unused to the caffeine so late at night, remained awake until around 4:30 a.m. Completely worth it. I am 21 years young.

The next day we were back to reading and sleeping. I was working on Desiring God, a wonderfully challenging John Piper creation expounding what he calls “Christian hedonism.” Strongly recommended to anyone! Dan finished Eco’s The Name of the Rose and began Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Around 6:00 p.m. the train stopped and ominous, uniformed Russian officials inspected our faces and validated our visas. We always feel a little nervous at these borders; we have nothing to hide but are doing our best to stay out of prison. The government officials in these districts seem to do their best to intimidate. The train continued a little further and stopped at the Kazakhstani border. The gruff border guards collected our passports and the packed car waited in the hushed silence that reverberated fear and apprehension. For an hour and a half. During that time, one guard searched our bags and one took Daniel aside for questioning. Note: questioning works very poorly when neither parties speak the other’s language. The guard wouldn’t even try to understand Daniel and seemed disappointed for some unknown reason. More on that later. The locals sharing our row laughed as we finally left the border, blaming us for the delay. We could only shrug. I was merely happy to have made it into my 39th new country. The next morning (July 30th) we pulled into Astana’s train station, our first TSR leg complete. The two of us had made it out of Russia and into Kazakhstan, not without some excitement. It’s our style.

The Train to Moscow

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

Waiting in the station was an intense game to play. While Matt went hunting for postcard stamps and some form of money, I watched the piles of luggage. We had stocked up on some supplies earlier in the day, not knowing what would be available on the train, so we had 6 bags with us. My backpack was ¼ full of clothes, ½ full of food, and ¼ full of medical supplies and toiletries and hanging from it was our pot, my shoes, two Nalgenes, and my sleeping bag. My bookbag was full of bowls, books, my laptop, camera, phone, and all the associated cordage. We had a hearty plastic bag with several loaves of bread, some jam, peanut butter, a bit of cheese, some meat, silverware and cups and random odds and ends. Matt’s big bag had his clothes, his tripod, some food, the tent, his sleeping bag, and sundry other items, hanging from it were two water bottles. Matt also had his small camera bag which had his camera and its associated items.

It was this motley group of items that I carefully guarded as Matt hunted. The time came, however, to load up like pack mules and make our way to the train. Matt, however, was nowhere to be seen… I began to become nervous at the end of an already slightly stressful day to have the stress of being unable to board our train was a bit much. Matt showed up about 10 minutes before our scheduled departure and we rushed down almost the entire length of the train, got into our car and began to make our very disjointed way down the packed aisle.

The car we boarded bears some description. It was a dingy yellow on the outside with the roof a dingy grey. Inside, wooden sides betrayed the age of the wagon and the thin foam pads on the seats were covered with some sort of vinly, cracking under the abuse of years and passengers. The train car itself was separated into 6 or 7 unenclosed compartments. Along the left-hand side were facing bench seats with a table between them and a “bed” or sleeping-board above each. Above the beds were another flat surface intended for luggage. On the right-hand side as we jostled our way up the crowded car to our seats, were single benches flat against the outside wall made of three sections: two seats and a fold up seat/table between them. Again, above this a bed and above that luggage storage.

We had plenty of luggage and were at a loss as to where to put it. Every seat was filled with three people to a bench in the left-hand compartment and a lady sitting on the bench on the right-hand side, where our tickets indicated our seats were to be. With many apologies in unintelligible English, we eventually got our luggage situated and settled down for what would almost certainly be an uncomfortable night. What did we expect, though, when we bought the cheapest seats on the train?

A few hours later we cleared the luggage we had put on the bed area and the old lady climbed up to sleep there. Matt and I were left trying to find ways we could fit at least 75% of our bodies onto the bench without sticking either our elbows or unclean feet in each others faces/necks/backs/stomachs. I drifted off after a while to an uncomfortable and frequently interrupted sleep. We woke once to be briefly interrogated by first the Latvian/EU and then the Russian border guards. The event went smoothly and in the morning I woke, after a few fitful hours, to find ourselves not much over two hours from Moscow.