Monday, August 15, 2016

Until the end of the world (6 of 8)

...Moscou-Irkutsk: "train-train in the land of the Soviets"

WARNING: this blog entry is insanely long - as long as the 5150 km Transsiberian journey it tells. Don't throw yourself into going through it if you have a job or any kind of responsilibities. If you have a family, some friends, or generally if you have a life, you shouldn't even consider reading the following.

km 0: here we are, under the afternoon sun on the first platform of Yaroslavskaia train station, Moscow. We're standing in line in front of car #12 of the train #002, aka "РОССИЯ" (read Rossiya), headed to Vladivostok. Every other day, Rossiya takes on a 9300 km, seven-and-a-half-day journey along the famous Transsiberian railway, the longest railway line on earth. Fortunately, we're not going until the end of the line at once. We decided to make a stop about halfway, to stretch our legs and go see the Baikal Lake!

waiting to get on board car 12, train 002, with Vladivostok at the end of the line.
So after 75 hours, we'll stop in Irkustk, take a four day break, then get back on a #002 again and commit to the Transsiberian up to the very last bit! But let's not anticipate, because this aventure and our decision to embark on it are mostly about not rushing and taking the time to... take our time: right now, we're standing in the sun with another twenty people, our two huge backpacks on our backs, plus the daypacks, plus a little foldable trolley loaded with food, instant noodles, tea, fruits and a few litres of water. The sun is very bright, there's absolutely no shade to be found around and when our turn arrives, we're already sweating (well, already is quite a euphemism if you consider the hour-or-so in the subway and around the station). The couple of ladies who check our tickets and passports, smiling and friendly - two rare qualities in Moscow as far as we've seen -, are the concierges of our car and will be taking care of us during the next few days. We smile in return, eager to start on the good foot. We finally get on the train and nervously walk down the narrow corridor to our seats: 43 and 44, upper and lower lateral bunks on a "hard sleeper", third class, open car. There aren't many people behind us, so the car apparently won't be full at the beginning: we were told third class is mainly for locals who don't take the whole journey but rather use it for "shorter" trips to get from one town to another: for work, for holidays, to visit their families and such. Soon enough, the ladies close the door and start dispatching the bed sheets, pillows and welcome tea for everyone. Right next to their little room is a giant samovar, with free steaming hot water available 24 hours a day for teas, soups and so on, This, the two toilets and the three available sockets per car are the scarce ressources we'll have to struggle for with our fellow travelers: talk about resetting one's luxury expectations and embark on a budget Transsiberian adventure! Ha ha! Hum...
one of many many many Russian Post cars: they must send tons of letters!

Parenthesis: before departing, we'd like to invite those of you who feel at least a bit attracted by a Trans-Siberian experience, to check the amazing, comprehensive, helpful and very interesting website written by the man on seat 61: we used it a lot and it saved us a lot of headaches! You'll find more information, tips, ideas and good reasons to do it than we could possibly give you... If it helps you half what it helped us, you'll end up in Vladivostok before realizing it! End of the parenthesis, and back to our topic.

We're so super-excited, looking everywhere around that we hardly notice everybody else staring at us, more or less directly and apparently with great curiosity... As much as we can say, all are Russian, or Russian-looking: at least, there's nothing like a backpacker around. Right opposite our lateral bunks is a family on the four transversal bunks (like a regular 4-berth compartment but open to the corridor): mother, father and two kids, maybe 8 and 12. The kids look super interested in us, the parents smile a lot as though they both acknowledge it and can't do anything about it. What impresses us right away is the amount of food they carry. There's a whole watermelon! Before we know it, they've offered us two big, juicy slices. Voilà! While we ate them, the train left and... we didn't acknowledge it at all! We're on board the Transsiberian, headed to the end of the world! Been talking about it for so long! We've been moving extremely slowly for about ten minutes now: it looks like we're still within Yaroslavskaia station; there are dozens of trains parked everywhere around, many of them of the Russian post...

"our" window, roughly looking south on this eastbound trip and the first of many birches...
km 70: Moscow's suburbian area was obviously just as huge (and ugly) on the east side as it was on the west a few days ago, so we dedicate this first hour to getting settled. We start by making the upper bed, storing the food under the lower one, which folds as two seats and a table, stacking our backpacks on the upper shelf and keeping the vital goods at hand: books, tooth brushes, soap, phone charger, postcards, scrapbooks, books, nail clipper and all sorts of indispensable useless crap... The laptop is inside one of the big backpacks, as we've agreed not to show it off at all during the journey. Progressively, the density of huge blocks, grey warehouses and rusty plants starts to decrease, replaced by a thick line of trees paralel to the railway at about 10 to 20 meters of distance. To be precise, the trees are mostly birches. The first ones of the millions we'll see across the window during the next seven days and 9300 km! We don't know it yet but we'll end up hating their subtle, fragile and fluffy shape, their elegant dark-spotted, bright white bark.

Unlike many people think, the Trans-Siberian is not a train: it's actually a railway. That means many different trains ride it all year round from freighters and local, "hop-on hop-off" hard-seaters, to "deluxe" and "superior" ones. Our searches on the internet took us to prices over 10 000 euros per person for "an unforgettable upper-class Moscow-Vladivostok experience", so we assume there must be even more expensive options that don't sell online! The 002 is the regular-est train with 1st, 2nd and 3rd classes. It's a very decent option, right above the local, cheapest ones and still really affordable*. We purchased our tickets online six weeks in advance (they sell out relatively fast in high season), directly from the russian railway page (see at the bottom or visit the seat61 page for details) which now exists in English, fortunately! Booking straight from them saves the fee taken by any travel agent, but instead of booking anytime you want, you need to be aware and check regularly so you can get the seats and dates you want as soon as they become available. Not such a big deal, though... Payment is by credit card - safe and smooth - through a user account. You just print an e-ticket and that's it.
Rossiya's 3rd class hard sleeper open car; Wallis in cruise mode; Futuna anticipating the pleasure of his first instant mashed kartochkas.
About choosing the 3rd class: reason number one was the price, obviously, at about half the fare of the 2nd. But the term hard-sleeper refers to a regular bed with a comfortable mattress, whose only defect is to be a bit narrower than you'd expect. They're just the same in 2nd class, tough. Only difference between 3rd and 2nd is that instead of an open car with about 60 people, you have the classic 4-bed compartment with a door, for twice the price. Having to choose between (i) sharing an open car with 58 uknown people or (ii) spending three and a half days locked in a tiny compartment with two strangers, we thought the former would be more fun and hopefully less creepy. One more thing you might like to know before you make a choice is that there are two toilets per car, regardless of the class. It means they're shared between 60 people in 3rd, and between about half this amount in 2nd. Believe us it does make a difference, as the concierge ladies clean the toilets twice daily. You soon enough learn to get there not too long after they did, since it's the toilet, but also the only sink where to brush teeth, wash hand and... "shower". Some friends freaked out when they heard about that: 3 days with no bathroom, no bathtub and without a proper shower! Impossible! Gross!  No way! Disgusting!
better than a picture of a clogged toilet: the romantic novel our neighbour tried to hide!
Well, first of all, we've spent days hiking in the mountain without any possibility to shower or even wash ourselves because of the weather, the cold or the scarcity of water. Conclusion? You don't die from smelly armpits: true thing. Then, while you spend your days sitting and sleeping on a train, your physical activity is low. Even much lower than you'd wish. Sweating and smelling is not a real concern, then. Finally, for those persons who are sensitive and for these body areas which are sensitive too, impregnated towels or a regular cloth, water and soap will work wonders. We call that a "dry shower", how do you call it? Even if it means to stand at the sink in the train's 1sqm toilet - which is why you want it clean-ish and fresh-ish when you go -, most men shaved in the morning and most women spent some time there between 9:30 am and noon. We found the little hours (02:00 to 05:00 am) to be a good choice - just like whenever you NEED it, actually... At some point during the journey, some people apparently got bowel-sick and some of them apparently showed less respect for their fellow travelers than others. You can't expect everybody to behave, but you sometimes hate them for not behaving... Anyway, let's not overdo the poop-talk: this was but a minor issue within an overall extremely enjoyable experience!

km 460: between a few micro-naps, several cups of tea, many smiles to the neighbour kids and tons of blurry pictures throughout the window, seven hours had passed. It got dark quite fast and we had the first "big" stop (the overall second): about fifteen minutes in Ни́жний Но́вгород (Nizhny Novgorod). Our car was all of a sudden a crowded and busy Asian market, as a group of twenty (excuse our ignorance) "Chinese" got onboard: shouting at each other, climbing up and down the bunk beds, carrying huge nylon bags wrapped with plastic, loading tons of food and goods. They looked like workers and were obviously going either back home or to another working site. Their moving around was both very organized and pretty chaotic at the same time, they spoke very loud and kept jumping on and off the train in a fashion that seemed to turn everybody crazy. Fortunately, the train left quite soon and they settled. Kind of. From the "music" of their language, hardly tonal, we thought it was not Chinese and Wallis found it to sound "like Japonese but not quite the same". It took us a whole day to realize they were Korean, yet something didn't match...

dusk over Nizhny Novgorod: what a beautiful title for a cheesy romantic novel! 
After engaging a conversation with one of them - who spoke three words of Russian and two of English -, we ended up drawing on a paper and understood they weren't from South Korea. They were North Korean construction workers who had just completed several months of building a bridge in Nizhny Novgorod and headed to Vladivostok, where they'd take a plane back home to PyongYang. We thought North Korea was closed and its citizens unable to get out of the country but apparently, while many men go to Russia and China as cheap construction labour, their wives spend months working in big Korean restaurants all around Russia: a way to bring money and goods inside their home country. Looks like nobody talks about that in Europe, as so many other things you eventually discover when traveling and talking to people!

km 1100: anyway, this first night on the train was quite short, because at around 04:40am, it was dawn-ish,  already. And throughout the window, the landscape was difficult to describe. Probably something like that**, even tough there are some moments in life when your camera fails you (even if you're the lucky owner of a Lumix!). No way you keep sleeping while this is happening outside; sleeping is an activity you can indulge yourself into anytime of the day: why on earth would you miss a moment of pure beauty just to respect some old social convention? Moreover, if the concept of time in general gets quickly vague on a train, that of hour gets simply awkward - or meaningless - on the Transsiberian because every single timetable and station along the 9300 km shows Moscow time instead of local time. While it isn't a big deal before the Ural, imagine what it means in Irkutsk or Vladivostok, respectively five and seven time zones ahead of the capital! You get to the station at night, to catch your train, and it's the 16:22 one... We were lucky we read that on the seat61 website because else, we would have arrived in Irkutsk at 21:22, firmly convinced we'd be there around twenty past 3 (pm) and would have the whole evening to visit around: we'll talk about the arrival at Irkutsk soon!
** misty dawn in the middle of nowhere, around km 1100 between Kirov and Perm: you wouldn't be too surprised to spot a zombie...
Well, this Moscow time thing is obviously done on purpose, as a way to keep control and a strong influence over such a huge country. Moscow centralized power over the whole Empire, embodied as a deranged, schyzophrenic clock trick. Even at the other end of endless Siberia, you're supposed to think of - and think like - the capital, the mothership, the Death Star. But there is even more to it: the clock on the train, at the back of each car, gives some kind of "instant" time: instead of jumping one whole hour every now and then, it moves faster than regular (!!!), starting on Moscow time as we leave the station and somehow compensating the Eastbound ride progressively. So instead of giving either 5:26 (Moscow) or 7:26 (local), it gives something like 6:13, then 30 minutes later 6:51 or 6:54. This is highly confusing, not to say a pain in the a--, because it is of no help at all if you want to know when you'll get to the next station. As the old turtle master teaches the Shi-Fu rat in KungFu panda: "you have to give up the illusion of control".

living a mammal's dream life, where the only time is the present: sleep, eat, play!
Once you surrender to the unreal time on board and forget about the logic of day, night and such concepts as lunchtime or teatime, you enter a whole new way of living, absolutely intuitive and organic: you sleep, eat, drink and such, whenever you need to, while the rest of your time is just for reading, writing, drawing, chatting or for silent contemplation. A mammal's dream life where time is slow and seemingly endless.

After a few more hours, though, the landscape changed. The plain became a valley, which got progressively narrower and deeper, with beautiful (and tout à fait climbable) limestone rock faces and cliffs carved by the curves of the river we were now following. Nothing like big summits to be seen around, only the round bumps of some gentle hills covered in trees bright birches and dark firs, but we soon understood we were crossing the Ural: both geologic, historic and psychological barrier between "Europe" and "Asia". On the other side of this long chain of mountains, at the treshold of the infinite plains of Siberia, Екатеринбу́рг was waiting for us for another half-an-hour-long stop, enough to stretch legs, by some yummy goods and enjoy a warm afternoon sun.

km 1780: so Ekaterinburg it is: no way to miss it, it's written in big capital letters - and the R and G seem to be ready to fall! On the platform, some ladies were selling cheap dried fish and fresh fruits, so we bought some berries. They were SO f---ing sour we desperately tried to give them to the kids, but they knew them already, kind of laughed and refused to help us: not even one each! After that, the day fell rapidly and the second night on the train soon began with some new flavours of instant noodle soups. Yeah! Sweet dreams, early sunrise on la pampa siberiana and lazy morning reading (and enjoying) Tiziano Terzani's A fortune-teller told me (that's Wallis) and feeling miserable desperately trying to read Amartya Sen's The idea of justice (that's Futuna) and understand it...
welcome to Екатеринбу́рг...; if you don't go to fishmarket, fish market may come to you; simple pleasures: noodle soup at night!
km 3000: wow! Already three thousand little tin boards on the side of the railway! Unbelievable! And this one would have been easy to catch on film ("catch on memory card" sounds lame, right?), since it was just where the platform of Барабинск began and the train was really slow then. Except for a town or village every hour and a half or so, except for tiny hamlets or lonely houses scattered along the railway, there seemed to be nothing around: move a kilometer away from the tracks and the dirt road that runs paralel to them, either to the south or to the north, and you'll probably find nothing but the plain and trees. And water! Lakes, ponds, rivers, creeks, marshes, streams, swamps and many words we ignore to describe all the fifty shapes of liquid water to be seen around. Not a single patch of snow, no ice, no permafrost: even tough it was cold at night, it was around 25º C during the afternoon (continental climate at its best!) and water was abundant and definitely liquid!
rivers, wetlands, lakes, streams, marshes, ponds... and birches!
It must be really tricky to walk through this country, I said to myself at some point, with so many "pastures" that are actually wetlands: one could only tell by the kind of weeds and their intense green colour, but would you step on them, you'd probably sink to your knees or hips...

km 3600: a young fellow, of the "dark and mysterious guy" kind - brown-eyed, brown-haired, jeans and a beige t-shirt, Rayban sunglasses high on his head - had been zoolander-staring at us from his seat, the closest to the toilet, since we left Moscow. Somewhere between тайгá and Mарии́нск, he suddenly gathered all the courage he needed to stop on his way back from the samovar and start a conversation: "Hello my deaw fwiends! Can I be allowed to ask you whewe you guys awe you fwom?". Okay, I won't laugh at his English, for I am just plain incapable to say anything more in Russian than спаси́бо! (Merci!). "Fwance and Spain! So intewesting, my fwench and spanish fwiends! Gweat! I love to have my fwiends fwom Fwance and Spain allow me to be allowed to invite you to join me and my fwiends to dwink some vodka and shawe the nice convewsation about youw cultuwe and my cultuwe of my countwy the gweat Wussia with you my fwiends if you don't mind to allow me to invite you to dwink vodka and become fwiends togethew fow the sake of intewcultuwal exchange with Wussia of my new fwiends visiting my countwy maybe?". Of course! It'll be ouw pleasuwe! - we replied politely. "Maybe you guys my fwiends woud like to come latew in about 25 minutes to my bed and we can shawe a fwiendly convewsation about my countwy with my fwiends, so!". Okay, gweat! - we replied politely.

meanwhile, outside the window: a Transsiberian original from the blue period...
At that point, he was blushing so hard that his nose was almost bleeding, his sunglasses had fallen back on his nose and he had to back out, which was kind of cute, we thought. He was probably 23 or 24. So after 25 minutes sharp we headed there with bread, a cucumber and some cheese. The mysterious guy introduced himself - M. -, his fwiend, S. - an iconic James Bond's bad guy who spent the next hour playing with his giant Rambo knife while showing weirdly a mouhful of silver teeth and their neighbour, M., smiling too, although with a nicer kind of smile. Only our new friend the mysterious M. spoke some English, so the other two focused on drinking and sometimes randomly asked for a translation of what we'd just said. During about two hours (and over the rest of our journey to Irkutsk), M. gave us the great propaganda show: "Why awe you Euwopeans afwaid of us?", "Why did you Euwopeans (especially the Fwench) tuwn youw backs on us aftew WW2?", "Why did you fowget WE saved you fwom the nazis and why did you betway us fow the Amewicans?", "Why do you feaw us, if we just want to pwotect you and set you fwee?", "Euwope is ouw little sistew, we can pwotect you!", "Look at Latvia and Estonia, they wewe faw bettew when they wewe with us! Ukwaine is ouw little brothew!", "Why do you complain about Cwimea? Cwimea and Ukwaine awe Russia, of couwse they awe! They awe ouw Wussian Bwothews!", "Poland is Wussia, too, you know!" and so on. Seeing we were skeptical about Poland being Wussia, he changed the topic: "The weal pwoblem is that youw media is totally lying to you: they say ouw awmy invaded Cwimea but it's not twue: no soldiews! Ouw own citizens, Wussian people! They took a day ow two off wowk and they took theiw caws and they dwove to Cwimea to set theiw Wussian bwothews fwee! No soldiews, just bwothews!", "Stop weading euwopean media because they awe not independent: they awe owned by the Amewicans and they bwainwash you with theiw pwopaganda!", "Instead of weading euwopean media, you should wead the ony independent online media: Sputnik!***"... he seemingly could go on like that for hours! Youth, oh divine treasure...

breathing fresh air on the platform of an anonymous station, somewhere, Siberia; stalking an anoymous sleeping beauty, somewhere else, Siberia.
km 3950: by the way, I almost forgot to mention: between vodka and vodka, he kept hitting on Wallis, too - which was kind of cute, too. Preparing and offering her small tapas of cucumber and cheese to take with her vodkas, the rest of us were able to help ourselves... At some point he even tried THE big move on her, sharing his earphones with her so they could enjoy a cheesy ballad from Мумий Тролль (Mumiy Troll), an iconic Vladivostok-based rock band. It was so cute I had to try hard not to laugh... When he later realized "Oh, but you awe a couple! You should have told me!" Of course, we should have told him! Now he felt embarrassed and mumbled someting like "How could I possibly imagine? It was not obvious at all"... Ha ha! Not obvious? Of course, if Sputnik didn't publish it, how could he know? Looks like vodka and independent pwess can seriously damage one's common sense and deductive faculties. Maybe we should have foreplayed chasing each other naked all around the train, then screamed all night in the toilets, to... give him some clues? Anyway, he was cute...
Wallising through the window: a Siberian cementery and more birches...

km 4400: the landscape throughout the window kept being beautifully monotonous: birches, birches, birches. Ho! A cemetery in the forest! A big plant in the background! Four chimneys! Something different! Our hours of silent contemplation only disturbed by the moment of the day when our new fwiend M. would come and invite himself (and his bad hangover!) for a tea and a lecture on independent thinking and unbiased truths. He allegedly had studied History at the Extreme-Oriental University of Vladivostok and all his knowledge was clearly from independent sources! He kept talking about the great Russia and the third Rome (Wait a minute, this again? So they actually call themselves like that in their independent media?) for hours, even though from that moment, he progressively lost interest in us... By the time he was repeating that Kazakhstan, Georgia and Poland (Poland again? Leave them alone, for Youri's sake!) had been decaying since they "tried to do it on their own" and how urgent it was to take them back again under mother's wing (for the fifth time) we were reaching Irkutsk and could selfie ourselves goodbye, become FB friends and buzz off! On the whole, it was fun and he was cute!

I reckon there's a whole world hidden behind the line of birches, ye know?
km 5150: ten minutes later, we were inside Irkutsk station, soaked from running one hundred meters under a pouring rain, and freaking out because the ATM we used had apparently been hacked and our cash withdrawal, even though validated, had given us no cash at all... When she saw us inspecting the ATM in a suspicious way, the station officer didn't doubt a second and called the police, so after about three minutes, a police officer was asking for our passports, then for our smartpone, which he used to call the ATM's bank to notify the dysfunction. We were lucky he didn't tase us in the first place... After 16 minutes  spent calling a Russian hotline, while simultaneously holding our call to our VISA's international emergency number, he finally hung the phone (both calls, spasivo assh--e!) and gave it back to us saying: "you call bank you". And he left. - As we would learn later, his providential intervention only accounted for one line on our cellphone bill for August, but it was a 43,50 euros freakin' line on the freakin' bill!!! - We called the VISA international call-center back, only to hear no transaction had happened, so we could a) have saved us all the stress and police action, and b) withdraw cash from the next ATM and get on a bus headed to nowhere-close-to-here, end of the line. When we got down the bus it was almost 23:00, it was pitch dark around and we still had to walk a good 20 minutes in a post-apocalyptic movie neighbourhood, all the way down to a river, whose bank we followed until we saw the light of Maverick Backpackers' Hostel, our home for the night. I don't even have time to mention the young lad who tried to rob/scam/murder us and intended to follow us when we got down at the bus stop! Russia is definitely a gorgeous, fascinating and magnificent country whose inhabitants are our long lost fwiends and it's a pity we Fwench awe pawanoid about them.

Well, that's all for today, folks! See you in the next episode, to Olkhon Island, the pearl of Baikal Lake.

an old redstar classic!


* as for the affordability, check the 20 francs le kilo section below

*** of course and you imagine, we did it: we read Sputnik news, and more than once! "The only independent news website", how could we miss this opportunity? They happen to have versions in at least 15 languages, including most European ones (Fwench here) and Arabic, so you have no excuse!


20 cents per kilo

Our special section (hashtag 20 francs le kilo) for the accounting fans, the (tight) budget-stressed and those who would feel curious about - or attracted by - a plane-less journey. They'll find here and in this order: the truth, all the truth and nothing but the truth (rounded to the euro and with some minor memory lapses, possibly). But on the whole, this is what it costed us :

 - Moscou-Irkutsk: in third class on the 002 "Rossiya" train, tickets bought online directly from the Russian Railways website. It's a 76 hour (3 days, 3 nights) and 5150 km trip: 300 euros (for 2 people).
 - We took our own food onboard (instant noodles and mashed potatoes, biscuits, cheese, tea bags, in other words: grande cuisine!) and bought some fresh products on the stations' platforms at the stops arrêts: a bit less than 30 euros for 2 people and 3 days.

So, it sums up to about 55 euros per person per day, train+meals. Divided by the distance, it's approximately 0,03 euros (3 cents) per km per person! For those who think riding the Transsibérien is a luxury for rich backpackers... ;)

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