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The Paroissien Diaries

Mother Russia!

RUSSIAN FEDERATION | Tuesday, 7 August 2012 | Views [720] | Comments [2]

Much has happened since we were in Russia. In fact I am writing this in Cornwall, where the only thing similar 
to Russia is the weather. This aside, so many great things happened in Russia that it would be a shame not to write them down. And thus... here 
I go. 
We finished last time in Mongolia, in Ulaan Bataar, where we spent the final day hiding from the sub-zero wind and searching for a novelty t-shirt
with Ghengis Kahn on it. Around 5 pm we made the 5km stroll to the train station to board the next leg of the Trans-Mongolian journey, a casual two day affair. 
Upon boarding we were surprised to find a lush double bed cabin where two non-english speaking Mongols where nattering away. We went through the usual greetings , nods, charades and food sharing before passing out. 
Further highlights of journey were: 

-Morning sunrise over lush green hills and beautiful rivers
- Whities versus locals over the battle royal to keep the windows open for fresh air and the curtains open to see the views
- Stopping at Mongolian border for two hours and flatly refusing to pay $1 to use the toilet. It wasn't comfortable. 
- Stopping at the Russian border for 5 hours! Not amazingly efficient yet it was sunny and the Russian border guards were a nice bunch. Although
saying anything with that accent sounds freakin scary. " Halloooooo, pazzport please." "Um sure, what else would you like? Some money? My wife?"
- Having the customs official spend 20 minutes searching through our Mongolian friend's bags and then waving us away when we showed them our packs. Yesss! 
- Not paying to use the toilet at the Russian border too. It's about the principal, people, not the money.
- All trains in Russia run on 'Moscow' time. Fantastic considering that Russia runs across 8 time zones. 
"You are arriving in Irkutsk at 19.00 Moscow time." 
"Aghh lovely, what time is that in Irkutsk?" 
"I do not know."  
"What time is it Russia now?"
"I also do not know that." 
Irkutsk
Our first stop along the trans-sib was Irkutsk. A lovely little city situated about an hour away from Lake Baikal. It's known as the Paris of Siberia and, like 
most things that get compared to Paris, it fell short, but not by much. The architecture is fascinating. Walking around you get a sense of the competition between
the Bolshevik movement/ Stalin Era blocks and the old gold rush/ upper class mansions and public buildings of the 1800s. Along side this were incredible churches with domes everywhere in the most classic colours. Beth described it saying that it looked like a 10 yr old girl had designed her own birthday cake... fairy-tale churches with pink, baby blue and white swirling icing. Truly though, I reckon if churches were designed like that in Australia, more people would go in them. 
The walking tour of the city and meeting some of the locals (supermarket, net cafe, youth hostel) meant that my preconceptions of Russia were put to rest. Like China, I was a little apprehensive about the Russian people and their willingness to be friendly. Like China this was based purely on media prejudices and stereotypical judgements. However, that first day in Irkutsk was wicked. Everyone we meant was really friendly and, although their English wasn't amazing, they made an effort to communicate how nice it was to have tourists in their city. Sweet. 
Along with this we were introduced to Russia's obsession with techno music. Commonly referred to in the music industry and 'euro trash', hilariously loud Russian beats were heard blasting out of buses, corner stores, cars, chemists, and the post office. Cool stuff. Our other early observations of Russia included how nice it was to see public displays of affection. After so long in Asia it was great to perve on some young hot Russians making-out in the park. 
Other highlights of Irkutsk included: 
- Drinkable tap water. However this was counterbalanced with expensive public loos. Gutted! 
- Beautiful sunshine in the park eating potato, beetroot, cabbage, bread and vegimite.
- Having a photo with the statue of Lenin. Gotta love Lenski!
- Taking a photo of Karl Marx street situated right next to a massive billboard for a Russian bank. 
Top 5 hair styles of Irkutsk 
1) The bowl cut
2) The fringe cut
3) The overgrown female fringe, also known as the female front mullet
4) Shaved head
5) Short, back and sides 
The adventures of Lake Baikal
With time and money running out we wasted no time hitting up lake Baikal which from the description in the book sounded simply off the hook. After some minor battles we ended up on a minibus which was predictably pumping loud dooff dooff and hitting an average speed of 400 km. Despite being petrified, the trip through acres of pine forest and winding views of the lake was slamming.  
Interesting facts about lake Baikal (lonely planet, trans Siberian, 3ed, 2009) 

- Shaped like a banana, the pearl of Siberia is 636km from north to south but only 60km wide. 
- Formed by rifting tectonic plates, the lake is gradually getting deeper and deeper.
- It will eventually become the earth's sixth ocean, splitting the Asian continent. 
- Now, however, it is the worlds deepest lake at 1637m 
- It contains nearly 1/5th of the world's fresh, unfrozen water- more than North America's five great lakes combined.
- It is possible to see down as far as 40 metres (if you have the guts to go in the water! Fricken freezing!) 
- In Feb and March you can drive straight across the metre thick ice.
- It contains a living museum of fauna and flora, 80% of which is found nowhere else in the world, including the only fresh water seals. Nice. 
After being in Asia and to an extent Mongolia for long periods, it is easy to underestimate the joy of sitting outside and breathing fresh air. Upon arrival 
we simply sat and enjoyed the peacefulness of the sparkling lake, the hot sun and the crisp air. When this got boring we hunted down tourist information and,
with some help from google translator, were sent to a cheap home-stay for a couple of nights. 
Highlights of Lake Baikal. 

- Homestay. His name was Boris (i'm not making this up) and he had a lovely little house with a room with three single beds. He was massive! He also had no problems barking Russian at me for long periods of time. I interjected only in moments of conversational lapse with 'da, da, hmm, ohhh, da'. Occasionally I threw a 'niet' at him but he didn't really like these so i stuck to 'da' and 'spasiba' for the most part. Amazingly after 20 minutes and numerous times trying to hand him money, I concluded that in fact he did want money but that he wanted me to pay the money to the tourist office person and bring back the receipt. 
Beth: "you were gone for a while darling, how did that go?"
Andrew: " Da" 
- Picnicking on the rock beach in the sun. After talking myself up in the van on the way up about my toughness in cold water and how there was no doubt I would swim, I simply had to eat my words for lunch as 10 seconds on the feet caused too much pain. It actually really hurt having my feet in the water. 

- Moving to the local beach and perching ourselves in front of the mini beach huts. Admiring the way the Russian families punished bottle after bottle of vodka, washed down with dark strong beer. It was clear that a few of them must have had to drive home too because out of nowhere a group of three men stripped down to their little undies and dived in the water. Bloody brilliant display of dutch courage! They whooped and hollered and splashed each other and carried on like pork chops and made my day, really. 
- Highlight no.4- google translator. 
We had planned on doing a 30km hike on our second day and so when we were paying for our accommodation Beth made the wise decision of asking whether it was safe at this time of the year to do the hike. After some stern looks from tourist lady and some hilarious charades, google translator came into effect. She typed some Russian and pressed enter and this is what we read: 
"Do not enter a walk. consequences terribly. Man eat bugs. hospital." 
Well that was enough for me, although hilariously she said it would be okay if we took some strong bug spray. 

"aghh yes okay, consequences terribly denied by a good bug spray."     
Beth then went on to ask about bears. Well bugger me, I'm glad she did because the lady said there was always a chance of being attacked by a bear.
And when I typed in Google translator 'what are the odds?'  she wrote '50/50'! 
"You're meaning to tell me that every time two people walked into those woods only 1 person comes out?" 
Needless to say, plans were changed for day two. I'm still not sure about those odds but all the same it made for hilarious conversation that night at Boris's house where we cooked a mean dinner in his kitchen and drank tasty Russian beer. 
- Day 2- Weather change from 25 degrees to minus 2! No biggy, just snowing in Siberia. Small walks from pub to pub drinking beer and eating delicious smoked Omul, a Baikal delicacy. We did Omul burps all day and watched a Russian family have a Sunday lunch where the main attraction was vodka. Amusingly, on his way to the car grandpa walked into a glass window. He was okay which meant it was unbelievably funny.
- 40, 000 Russian people ( mostly men I assume) die from alcohol poisoning every year!
The Trans Siberian Express. Irkutsk to Russia. Slow train. 4 days.
We said our goodbyes to Boris and his family and made our way back to Irkutsk to catch the 11am Moscow-time train from Irkutsk which left at 6pm local-time. My paranoia of missing our most crucial train mixed with total confusion of time tables and ticket reading meant we were a tad early for our train. 3 hours. 
Supplies for a 4 day train ride 
8 packets of noodles, 7 litres of water, loaf of bread, a huge piece of smoked cheese, tube of vegimite, 6 cucumbers, a huge bag of potatoes, carrots, and garlic which had been boiled the night before at Boris's house, 15 satches of coffee, 1.5 litres of beer, 300mls of vodka, a giants size bag of emergency sunflower seeds, a bag of oats, 4 yoghurts, 1 king size snickers, a tube of chilli sauce, a square of cream cheese, 1 cabbage. 

Food bought on the journey: 1 bread, 6 beers, 1 pot noodle
Food given to us: Vodka, vodka and lemonade mixer, beer, army rations meat jelly, army rations pate and crackers, Russian dumplings. 
Characters on board train: 
Vanya: Age 20, status- single. Story- had been in the army for a year and was on his way home to see his family
Ilya: Age 19, staus- married. Story- Same as Vanya, in the army for the year and now on his way home to see his wife and family.
Leonid: Everything unknown. Story- Crazy, scary, huge, arm wrestling, army boxer guy. 
Oksana: age 35, single mother. Story- heading to Moscow to find a job

Tonya: Story- a lovely mum full of giggles and Russian advice. 
Train inspector: Known as the 'provinista' Scary looking Russian. Overwieght with 2 day stubble and would have totally suited the role of Miss Trunchiball in Matilda. Unbreakable, even for all my wooing over 4 days. Occasionally smiled when I offered her smoked cheese and bought beers from her. 
Day 1
Board train at 6pm (local time) and meet Vanya, from whom we would be no further away than a metre for close to 96 hours. He has a shaved head and is wearing army combats replete with boots and dog-tag. We admire the state of his teeth and then feel bad as he helps us put our bags away and organise our sheets. We crack our litre and 1/2 of beer and in a promising sign of friendship Vanya takes a few swigs from the bottle. The prov comes down the aisle and barks at us for drinking our beer and i'm shit scared while Vanya and Tonya piss themselves laughing. All in all a good start. We crank the cheese and the potatoes and save the noodles for emergency times and sit back and enjoy the view. Already i'm thinking how awesome a journey it is. 4 days on a train! Nothing to worry about at all. 
Things then take a surprising turn. I was reading my book and enjoying the last of the sun coming through the window when Vanya came back with his new found friend Ilya. He had a look in his eye that I'd seen before and which made me a tad anxious. And although both he and Ilya couldn't speak any English I kinda knew what was going to happen next. Vanya took out the 750mls of vodka, brought out the army rations box, gave me a plastic cup and said 'drink'. I'm not going to pretend like I wasn't a bit excited. Vanya poured out the biggest shot of straight vodka and then proceeded to 'explain' the procedure. I must eat before the shot and i definately must eat after the shot of vodka. "The food will stop me getting a hang over." 
Bang. one shot down. Beers are bought and Beth comes down for the festivities and we all share in army ration food. Bang. second shot. more food and beer. Bang. Third shot. After about my 5th triple shot in under 20 minutes it all started to go a bit blurry. Though the Russian army rap remains crystal clear. The mood was good though and for the life of me I'm not sure what exactly we talked about. We'd exhausted the language section in the back of the lonely planet in minutes and all Vanya and Ilya could really manage was "me...army. me army...drink" 

At some point in time Beth went upstairs to escape the turmoil. I continued to drink shots of vodka and talk about war and peace in my best Russian. Unfortunately Leonid, the crazy army boxer guy, showed up for the fun. He began showing us videos of him shooting bears which was totally awkward. At some point I ended up in between carriages talking about Kostyazu the Australian boxer and having arm wrestles whilst smoking a cigarette. Not my greatest achievement.  Luckily, Beth came and saved me and at some point in the night I said my thank yous and went to bed. Although not before Beth asked me to check whether we still had our passports and camera. Never ever ask a drunk man to look for anything. I made an incredible amount of noise pulling everything out of my bag and ranting that I couldn't find the camera and that all the photos were gone. Of course the camera was in my pocket which I found 30 minutes later but the damage of pissing off my fellow passengers had been done. 
Definition of bad hang over angst: Being on a train with a group of people for 4 days when on the first day you've got drunk, rowdy, kept them awake and then re-awoken them on a number of occasions.  
Day two
My first emotion was of confusion and then regret and then the rest of the day was taken up with feeling totally rubbish. Beth was great with explaining exactly what had been said at what time and how loud I was and how much fun we had all had. To be fair there weren't many bad looks from anyone but my own shame was enough to make day 2 not much fun. 

other highlights of day 2 included. 
- Having a ridiculous argument in English and Russian with Vanya about the reason that he wasn't hungover was because he was 20 years old and not because he ate before and after the vodka shots.
- Leonid the crazy Russian boxer doesn't reappear which means he has left the train
- Being dehydrated I smash through our water supply...problematic
- Ipod runs out of battery... very problematic 
- Too hung over to read, can't listen to ipod and so sleep is the only option.
- Laugh as Ilya and Vanya continue their drinking sessions into the afternoon and avoid all booze
- Have a wonderful and peaceful nights sleep. 

Day three

The last thing I saw last night was Vanya and Ilya having a drink and the first thing I woke to on morning three was the boys having
a beer. It seems that hang overs are non existent and that drinking is the only way forward in terms of getting through the time. Vanya 
finished his small book yesterday and thus has to reread his book in a drunk stupor. He tries to explain the book to me but 
we give up pretty quickly. 
I, on the other hand, am having a joyous non-hangover day reading Jarrod Diamond's 'collapse' and worrying when it's all going to end 
for us all. 
Beth and I are laughing at the hilarity of young men and their obsession with sugar. A classic example of this was Vanya and Ilya's tea session which 
interludes their morning and evening drinking sessions. Vanya gets out his small plastic cup and puts a tea bag in there and then cracks open a big tin of 
condensed milk. He then proceeds to poor half a tin of condensed milk into his tea and waits for it to cool. While he waits he gets a spoon and just eats the milk straight, no worries. Ilya comes to fix his tea and then gets angry at Vanya that there is no longer enough condensed milk to make his tea drinkable. Hilarious. 
Highlights of day three
- A new passenger Oksana boards who can speak English! All of a sudden all of our interests about Vanya and Ilya and their interests about us can be answered. Together with pictionary skills we find out about the Russian army, their families, interests, Russian politics, and everything else in between. 
- We have a great shared dinner of noodles, bread, dumplings, beer. 
- Ilya gets drunk and rowdy but in a nice way,  never threatening and being passionate about his new wife. He lets us know that he'll be seeing her the next day and we all get emotional for him.
- One of the best things about the train that night was the vibe that had been created based on small proximities. 
Day 4
I have the obseervation that Russians don't really read. They simply try and sleep the entire journey. No wonder they don't like the journey. The train has provided a routine that goes something like wake, eat, coffee, eat, coffee, read, read, chat, Russian chat, eat, window gaze, read, coffee, Russian time, beer, beer, read, bed. 
By this stage the longer stops on the platform have become life saving. A chance to get out and run around is magical. The babushka's selling food on the platform have been great and enjoying the fresh air is a bonus. The train has started to stink now. There is a heavy air of B.O which is made up of sweat, alchol, food smells. 
I finally notice that their is both a dog and a cat on board. Beth reckons that the cat is drugged cause she reckons it hasn't moved in 4 days. By late afternoon with arrival time at about 1.30 AM I have started to get really figity. The only highlight was Ilya who that morning was a dribbling mess from too much vodka has slept off his drunkeness and gotten dressed in his full officers dress uniform. He did his hair and many in our compartment clapped him as he got off the train and ran to his wife and family and gave them a hug. It was like a movie. 

Running out of food in a big way and trying not to spend too much money on water and other drinks. We make up the time by teaching Vanya and Oksana how to make cocktails and teach them a few card games. Vanya is going another 20 or so hours! bummer. 

We make it to Moscow at 1.30 AM and luckily Oksana is getting the metro with us which opens at 5.am and so directs us to the safe waiting area. 
Trans Siberian conquered! 
 
Highlights of Moscow

Putting 4 tea spoons of salt in my coffee and then trying to compensate and putting 8 teaspoons of sugar. Filth.

- Riding the metro. Designed as protective bunkers by Stalin during the cold war, these metros aren't your average train station. They are a blatant symbol of Stalinist grandiosity. Every station is designed with different styles of art depicting classic Russian communist propaganda. There is a whole station dedicated to Lenin pictures while one has tile murals with peasants, workers and soldiers fighting the good fight. With surrounding marble pillars and extensive chandeliers, these metros are a tourist attraction in their own right. 

- Having a shower after being on a train for 4 days. Amazing. 

- The Kremlin

- The basal 

- Cobbled streets and beautiful old buildings juxtaposed with 'big brother is watching' style monstrosities. 

- Moving away from the beautiful old centre and crossing the river to get an idea of the bleak, soviet style, industrial centres

- Eating an ice cream on a sunny day in Moscow. 
After a couple of days in Moscow we planned an express timetable through eastern Europe. With a need to see our families and a need for meal which was not potatoes we smashed our way home. 

Overnight train to Riga in Latvia

Bus from Riga to Vilniues 

Bus from Vilnius to Warsaw 
28 hour bus from Warsaw to Paris. 

5 amazing days in Paris with mum and dad. 

Eurostar from Paris to London

Train from London to Cornwall. 
Overland complete 
Trip Statistics 
120 days
flights: 1
trains: 57
buses: 65
boats: 18
bicycles:18
Horses: 2
walking distance: 663km
free lifts: 18
Taxis: 42
Hikes: 18 

Distanced traveled: 
Photos taken of us: 82
Rice/Noodle dishes: 222
Books read: 26
Countries crossed: 15
Visa fees: $932
Items lost/ stolen/ left: 12 
daily budget: $70
Money spent: $8442
Thanks to everyone who read the blog and thanks to my beautiful wife for editing and putting up with my nonsense when I was writing it. I love you. 

Comments

1

Fantastic stuff...the train part in Russia reminds me of my previous train travels in the Ukraine. Like one time when I took the overnight train from Kiev to Odessa, a very friendly ukrainian chap pulled out a liter bottle of vodka and offered a shot (well more like a full glass; with the food part after of course) just after we had gotten onto the train. I told him I was only in for it for 1 shot, cuz I knew how the night might turn out. Of course I couldn't resist his generosity and such a fine way to kill the hours of boredom, so we managed to chat it up using a total vocabulary comprised of 20 words (his 10 words of english, and my 10 words of russian) while finishing the bottle (and almost a second one before bedtime). I have no recollection of making my bed or finding my way up till the top bunk. The next thing I do remember however, was that I was standing on the train platform in some godforsaken town at 2am with about 6 inches of snow on the ground in my bare feet and just a pair of underwear on, pissing under the train (I couldn't find the toilet on the train, so as I saw the door was open and was stopped at some random town's train station, I managed to venture outside). The train guard saw me and told me the train was about to leave, so I gave hime some hyrvina to keep the train stopped so I could finish my piss. I didn't feel a bit of cold, got back on the train, fell asleep instantly, woke up without a hangover, continued on the jouney in Odessa in the bright winter sunshine.

  Evan Aug 7, 2012 11:29 PM

2

Classic! Well done :D

  Steven Srzich Aug 20, 2012 5:44 AM

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