Monday, September 30, 2013

The Soundtrack of the Journey

The Fiddle with its master

In Mongolia, the most respected traditional instrument is the horse-head fiddle, or morin khuur.  With a sound much like the violin-cello family (they come in several sizes), they have 2 strings, tuned a perfect fourth apart, and are played with a bow and an intricate style of fingering along the fretless neck, which has a hand-carved horse’s head at the top.  It’s a beautiful sound and a treat to hear one played by an expert.  Through our associates in Mongolia, we had the honor of listening to a young, yet highly-trained fiddle player.  We were driven to a back
the master in performance
door of the main symphonic hall in Ulan Batoor, and led up about four floors using a back staircase to a small room.  A young man, impeccably-dressed, came into the room carrying a magnificent cello-sized horse-head fiddle.  He sat down and effortlessly demonstrated the range of the instrument and his ability, his fingers flying up and down the neck.  Much of the music intentionally imitated horses running, enhanced by an amazing and unusual fingering technique on the
a Fiddle Orchestra
instrument’s neck.  We were mesmerized by the playing, when suddenly we heard an eerie sound accompanying his playing.  He began singing, using the Mongolian technique of khoomei, or throat singing, where two tones are emitted at the same time.  We were lucky enough to enjoy throat
A fiddler and throat singer
singing accompanied by the horse-head fiddle a couple more times, in a ger on the steppe later that week, and again while wandering around a Buddhist temple the day before we left Mongolia.  A very unique and beautiful tradition.
In Yekaterinaburg, music quite familiar to us unexpectedly enhanced our experience at the Church of the Spilt Blood.  This is a beautiful Russian orthodox church built to honor the family of Czar 
Outside the Cathedral of Spilt Bood
Nicholas II, who were slain by the Bolsheviks in 1917 where the church is located.  Recently, the entire family was canonized, and inside this church they were portrayed as saints, with renaissance-style haloes painted around their heads.  While we wandered in the rooms displaying relics related to the family’s deaths, a haunting rendition of Schubert’s Ave Maria floated into our consciousness.  Next door, there was an informal concert in progress, with vocal solos and readings performed, all out of respect for the royal family.  The Romanovs are still much loved by a sizable portion of the Russian population, and this experience accentuated that for us.
Outside the Grotto
Tsarskoye Selo, the summer palace, was the home of Russia’s royalty since Alexander I in the 1700’s.  The focal point of this large property, about a half-hour drive from St. Petersburg, is the Catherine Palace, with a 365-meter-long façade and miles of gold filigree, mirrors, marble and amber, including the Amber Room, with amber-covered walls.  We visited the Palace and then strolled around the expansive grounds.  We entered “The Grotto”, a round, stucco building facing one of the property’s lakes.  This building is known for its incredible acoustics, due to the interior’s shape and materials used, I suppose.  We entered the building and our associate, Maria, spoke briefly to a few men milling around inside the building.  I thought they were caretakers, or something.  Then they lined up, five abreast, facing us, and started singing an old Russian tune, cappella.  I was stunned – the pure, perfectly-blended sound flowed through me, my eyes welling up. The sound, the surroundings was overwhelming.  It was magic.
Gathering for the concert in Stockholm
announcing the chorale
Once more, yesterday afternoon in Stockholm, we were walking around the old part of the city when we heard a choir coming from a Stockholm Cathedral.  They were rehearsing for a concert two hours hence.  We had no plans, so we attended, and it was wonderful.  We don’t make a habit of going to choral concerts, but in this case, the choirs were exceptional, and the acoustics, once again were astounding, as  the voices, singing a range of music from contemporary to Brahms resonated off the cavernous walls of the cathedral.  It was a full house.

Across the Baltic Sea

A big ferry

We left Saint Petersburg to board a ferry to Sweden.  Now, this could have gone one of many ways.  I (Chris) had planned for an austere, bare bones, but comfortable trip for two nights across the Baltic on a Russian ferry.  What was emerging was a new approach to a ferry system; the Baltic had been without a ferry service serving Saint Petersburg for 15 years until this new one began in 2010 – the Saint Peter’s Line.  A western, “market based” approach with Vegas-style burlesque shows, casinos, and huge capacity – serving Russians.   Late September meant fewer choices yet smaller crowds so we ended up
a quiet moment staring ahead
with the best of both worlds -   a ship with all the comforts of a big scale ship with crowds at about half capacity - and all in Russian.  Bonus: Travelling on the weekend meant the European Russians were as occupied with televised football (soccer) as Yanks are with the NFL and college games on weekends. We had the ship to ourselves anywhere out of range of an onboard satellite television.  We found no other English-speaking passengers – and while the ship staff did speak English far better than we spoke Russian, it was clear (and only right) that they catered to their Russian clientele.  No Issues.  Except when
Helsinki's farmers market
we began seeing lots of references to Finland and we were convinced that we had gotten on the wrong ship. Glasses of champagne only heightened our confusion and concern.  Sure, Saint Petersburg to Stockholm was less than 400 miles, so two nights and 38 hours of steaming probably didn’t add up – but we really don’t do much math while using public transportation internationally.  We asked the staff in simple English if we were stopping in Helsinki – and we got looks
Knitting and Selling in Helsinki
deserved of the idiotic question we asked – well, yes!  Steaming across the Baltic was beautiful. “Archipelago” hadn’t had much meaning for us growing up on in the Mid-Atlantic states and living for 30 years in Colorado – here we sailed through the definition of the word – the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Finland are studded with thousands of islands.  We found a quiet lounge that looked forward from the bow and, like on the trains, we were pasted to the window – watching the narrow navigation channels between small islands and rock outcroppings, the
Steaming through the Swedish Archipelago
approaching Stockholm at dawn
dim lights on the larger islands, the sailboats making the last trips of the waning summer, and the commercial traffic that keeps the Baltic an active and vibrant sea-faring region.  Six hours in Helsinki was a huge bonus!  A beautiful city by the sea, rich in 14th century architecture, hosting a
Dueling Ferries
wonderful farmers and local crafts market on a clear and crisp Saturday morning. 
Blankets are standard issue at
Stockholm's Gamla Stan
outdoor cafe's
We found restaurants focusing on varieties of fresh pickled fish that were filled with families and friends in their “Sunday best” enjoying multigenerational meals overflowing with warmth and laughter. 
We re-boarded the ferry for twelve hours to Stockholm and found ourselves in another archipelago city – with ten times more islands guarding the city than Helsinki.  Stockholm is larger and for the first time in a while, we felt like we
Gamla Stan - Stockholm's
13th century old town
were in a well-established western democratic city.    We enjoyed a larger historic center and a concert in a cathedral with a history dating to the 13th century.  A well-established and seemingly well-respected arts community thrives in
a cool sunset
Stockholm side by side with a strong tourism sector that sells the Swedish equivalent of the American rubber tomahawks.  
We began this journey together on an equatorial island surrounded by the South China Sea.  We crossed the Eurasian  continent as we transversed Mongolia and Siberia.  And, we returned to sea and the far north archipelago in the Baltic Sea.  Later this week, we return to the top of the American continental shield just below Hoosier Pass.  A good end.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

St. Petersburg is a hellava thing

Tsarskoye Selo - the Summer Palace
Visitors to St. Petersburg follow a well-worn path through the city and it’s environs: the Winter Palace and the Hermitage, arguably the biggest and grandest museum in the world, Petrodvorets, a “Versailles by the Sea” with jaw-dropping fountains and water cascades everywhere, Tsarskoye Selo, the Summer Palace and home to the Amber Room; and the city sights: St. Isaac’s Cathedral, Cathedral of the Spilt Blood, and so on.  Indeed a stunning “well-traveled path” and it was hard to not say to each other often, about everything on this path, “that’s a helluva thing”.
Hidden Corner at
the Hermitage
We avoided the tourist buses.  Even this time of year, the shoulder season, they were filled with people with twenty years even on us!  We went on our own, frequently alone, but often in the company of a St. Petersburg native with passion for their city and a uniquely Russian perspective.
We’ve read the tour guides, researched Trip Advisor, educated ourselves on the Imperial history. We’ve heard the criticism, largely western, on the opulence in St. Petersburg as a way to explain the many revolutions. What we didn’t know was the perspective of a cross-section of Russians about this city, through the October 1917 revolution, the
at the Hermitage
deaths of the last tsar, his family and most faithful servants, through the early revolutionary days and the Stalinist 1930’s, horrible WWII that took a massive toll on St. Petersburg (Leningrad, at the time), the Cold War, Glasnost and Perestroika, the collapse of the Communist Party in the early 1990’s, and the emergence of a market economy. The 20th Century was really the century of challenge and change for St. Petersburg.   This “well-worn path” of spectacular architecture survived through it all. Thrived, some say, during a period of otherwise incredible hardship throughout Russia.
Lyudmila led us through the maze of rooms, collections, and large tourist groups in the Hermitage and the Winter Palace museum. This place has arguably the most impressive art collection in assuredly the most impressive museum building in the world. This was the palace envisioned By Peter the Great and expanded by Catherine the Great in the early 18th century.  It seems like all revolutions begin in the square outside its gates and one was close during our visit.  Chris was scolded in Russian by a tour guide, her umbrella and flag held high so her throng of garlic and Ben Gay smelling 80-somethings could see her diminutive presence.  Apparently, Chris was lingering too long in front of a Monet and “he’s
just any old room at Tsarskoye Selo
too big for standing there so long!”, as she barged in with her gallery.  “I don’t even know how to respond to that” – Lyudmila.  Lyudmila likes the quiet passages of St. Petersburg – the back alleys, the buildings that you can walk through to get a momentary sanctuary from the rains and wind and cold, and even the quiet places within the “well-worn path” in the Hermitage.  Sure, the summer is too short, the winter gets longer just when you think it’s over, but she loves her city and can’t imagine being anywhere else.  
Maria joined us for the Summer Palace, Tsarskoye Selo.  Also a vintage of the early 18th
Just any old Fountain at Peterhof
Century.  Tsarskoye Selo was in Nazi-occupied St. Petersburg (the main city was held by the Russians but blockaded and under siege for 900 days).  Tsarskoye Selo was looted by the Germans.  Gold leaf frescos, the Amber Room, century old paintings by the masters – all left as piles of bricks.  There is a suspicion that the palaces at Tsarskoye Selo were bombarded by the Russians to prevent the Nazis from using this consecrated place as a military HQ.
Following World War II the restoration of these glorious buildings picked up speed from the work that began after the 1917 revolution.  Many Russians believe that the opulence of the Imperial period demonstrated the strength, superiority and
dominance of Russia. Whether it’s the gold and amber-lined walls of a sitting room in Tsarskoye Selo or a bare-chested Prime Minister riding a horse bare-back, most Russians like their leaders strong, their heritage rich and displayed loudly.  Stalin and his advisors saw this as a rallying cry for a badly wounded post-war Russia and took on an impressive restoration that equals (maybe exceeds) the original construction (hey, who doesn’t hate a “re-mo”).    It kept up through the Cold War despite Russian leaders requiring everyone to grow food in collectives – “just in case, you know”. It continued
In the Dome at St. Isaac's
through the waning days of the socialist republic but stalled out during Perestroika – the time of incredible economic hardship for the Russian economy.  Gorbachev – largely admired in the west for his policies of openness and rebuilding - left a poor legacy among some Russians as weakening that strong sense of national pride in a strong and rich heritage and future. 
The restoration continues today giving the illusion of Imperial elegance with cheaper contemporary material that gives the original perhaps even more brilliance. “It’s a good and well-respected profession” fueled by demand from the nouveaux riche in this new market economy who want the Imperial Elegance within their own homes. 

St. Petersburg is a hellava thing

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

St. Petersburg – First Impressions

We arrived in St. Petersburg at about 8:45am, and through minimal language, found a taxi driver, who was very nice, drove us in a roundabout way to our hotel and charged us almost double of what it should have cost.  Oh well.

Ricky on the Balcony
The hotel that Chris booked is lovely – small European-style (why not, we’re in Europe now!) boutique hotel at a great location on a canal (I had no idea St. Petersburg had so many canals!) and near the main drag, Nevsky Prospekt.  We had to wait a few hours before a room was ready, so we grabbed a quick bite in the downstairs café and headed out, like tourists, with maps in hand, to get a lay of the land.

We're at 60 degrees North latitude - the highest we will get on land for this trip.
 St. Petersburg shares this latitude with just a few other cities; Anchorage, Oslo. But it is the population king at 5 million people living in this inhospitable climate with just 60 days of sunshine each year. Cold temperatures and a cold, wet wind that blows and blows.

Yet, we are blown away by this city.  Because Peter the Great wanted his capital to compete with the cities of Europe, he hired European architects to design and build the city from the ground up.  As

a result, with a string of canals running throughout, St.
Another "Cathedral of the
Spilt Blood"
Petersburg looks like a cross between Paris and Venice, dotted with minareted (is that a
word?) Russian Orthodox churches.  Many road and pedestrian bridges arch gracefully over the canals, reminiscent of the ponts over the Seine.  It seems that beyond every corner we turn, there is some incredible-looking edifice that was someone’s palace or private art museum.

We returned to the hotel and checked into our room… For a relatively small amount, we decided to upgrade, to give ourselves a break after our cramped train compartment.  They didn’t have a room up one level, so they jumped to two levels for the same price.  Frankly, the room we got has probably not been totally updated (although it has a great bathroom).  However, the 3
The Mother Ship
rooms we are staying in are collectively larger than our condo in Breck.  Easily.  The main room has a very elegant dining table that seats 10, an elaborate inlaid parquet floor (Chris likes to slide across it in his slippers), grand piano, gothic Adams-family-esque couch, with chairs, where even Chris could comfortably sleep, a porcelain tea set, and a gargantuan chandelier descending from the ceiling like the mother ship at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  There is gilt molding on the doors, walls and ceiling that are reminiscent (I’m not kidding) of the Grand Staircase in the Hermitage, and we have the only balcony in the hotel - it overlooks a canal and park.  Note:  the Hermitage is the winter palace complex built by Peter the Great in the 1700s. The Grand Staircase is the one section built in the Rococco style – gold on white, very ornate – THAT’s what our room looks like.  The bedroom is much more understated in its décor – thank God.

The main alter in the Cathedral
After checking in, we ventured out again in the pursuit of food.  On the way, we visited an awesome church called Cathedral of the Spilt Blood which was built on the spot where Czar Alexander I was mortally wounded - the friggen EIGHTH attempt on his life!  Incredibly imposing structure with large multi-colored minarets and an interior that was pretty much marble on the floor and columns and mosaic of religious icons that was so detailed, it looked like painting.  Mosaics - because the tiles are heartier at the 60 degrees North climate than canvas. 

We wandered some more and found a wonderful Georgian restaurant.  Chris has a knack
Caucasian Food
for finding great, out of the way places on the fly, and this was no exception.  The folks there were very friendly to the drenched foreigners coming in out of the rain.  White table clothes, cozy atmosphere, and great food.  The Georgians make a walnut paste and stuff things with it or shape it into patties for appetizers, and then they do wonderful things with beans and cabbage and a unique blend of spices – I think one is fenugreek.  Chris had a delicious meat dish with an amazing tomato sauce (I had a taste without the meat.).  With a couple glasses of red wine, it hit the spot.  Great day.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Yekaterinburg - walking through the city

Dawn in Yekatrinburg
the Cathedral of the Blood in the center
We took off for a few-hour city hike of Yekaterinburg - a city known as the place the last Czar and his family were murdered, but one with a far richer past as an early selection for the Great Soviet Industrialization.  It was actually closed to all foreigners until 1991.

We walked north over a wide transit and vehicular bridge leaving the new government and industrial center and over to the older cultural and religious center.  Ekaterinburg is a young city with young couples, young singles and young families everywhere, dotted with the occasional lumbering old large woman in a babushka and older men leaning on railings at bus stops smoking.

Cathedral of the (Spilt) Blood
We navigated down first to Voznesenski Cathedral – one dismissed by the guide book but rich in history and active in use by the locals.  The murals inside had been painted over during the soviet religious purges in the 1930’s but some have been recreated and restored.  These Russian Orthodox churches are different than European Catholic churches; no altar really, and more the feeling of a Buddhist temple with icons all around and prayers said at different stations.

Over to Cathedral on the Blood (many called it “Cathedral of the Spilt Blood”) and first to the Romanov memorial; allegedly on the site where the Romanov family was killed.  The memorial is inside a building that contains the Chapel of St. Nicholas and displays icons of the Romanovs everywhere as sacred martyrs.  We bought some local items… looked at photographs and even a film of the Romanovs.

It’s Saturday, and the main Cathedral on the Blood chapel is on the wedding tour. The bride and groom
On the Wedding Photo Tour
travel with a small entourage of family and friends and have their picture taken at key city locations.   Inside the cathedral there are  icons and Romanov photographs. We walked into an impromptu staged production with dramatic readings and singing.  Ave Maria…  the singers were getting up in years and their voices were beginning to show the signs.  Today, though, they sounded beautiful.

The Mill Owners Mansion
We wandered out to a dammed portion of the Iset River.  All Russian river towns have dammed rivers just upstream of a 19th century water powered mill; timber, steel, ore processing, etc. The mill owner usually had an elegant house on the dammed lake and gave generously to the local cathedral which was also nearby.  There are thousands of river mill towns across 18th and 19th century Russia; a single spectacular mansion, a single mill complex, a single spectacular cathedral, and the workers settlements.  Today on the dammed Islet, a sailing regatta was underway.  Times change.
Regatta on the Islet River

We walked down the street to some impressive city administrative buildings in search of the money changers!  Something we've been doing on these stops between train segments.  We were lucky to find an open bank changer on a Saturday.  She spent lots of time looking at my passport, remarking on the places I had been “India!  India!” and scolded me a little for not knowing any Russian.

OK...just a nice picture
We then met up with Konstantin Brylyakov, local and  English speaker and owner of Yekaterinburg Guides.
Tall, lean, late forties, fast-talking, green orientation, had his script of how things should be, fast walker, born and raised in Yekaterinburg… knew his stuff and loved his city.

We were driving in some sort of Japanese wagon that he had equipped with two tanks; one petrol and one CNG.  He is proud of it and this city is proud of favorite son Boris Yeltsin, proud of the past accomplishments of being a city designated for the great Soviet industrialization of the 1930s (and closed to all foreigners until 1991), proud of the Russian tanks manufactured here that were instrumental in the German defeat in World War II, proud of having the best universities, the best airport, the best growth plan, the best mix of people, the best, the best, the best of all of Russia! Konstantin described the earliest colonial architectures when Russian Cossacks came over the Urals to colonize the Tartars (Mongols), mixing agriculture with herding.  Next, the beginning of the 18th century small houses with their ornate window jambs and shutters, the industrialization phase of the 19th century – he sees the old abandoned brick mills now as historically charming and nostalgic, this included these ornate mansions of the rich industrialists and the cathedrals they sponsored. The revolutionary style (Soviet) that lead quickly led to the neo-Stalinist and “constructivist” architectures that were purpose-built to most effectively progress needs of the state as given from top down direction.  Ricky’s recollection:  Soviet style called “constructivism”; Stalinist architecture called Neo-classic.

A great time in a very attractive city -- but we were ready to get outta Dodge and walk in the Ural Mountains!

Yekaterinburg - into the Ural Mountains

the Dacha Community
The ride out of town gave us a good look at the dachas, in dense communities of old small cottages where city apartment dwellers flocked on weekends to connect with their agrarian past.  “Everyone is growing something and what they can’t use themselves, they sell” - Konstantin.  We saw selling on the highway too – glass jars for canning, twigs for medicinal tea, canned stuff, extra potatoes, mushrooms and berries and larger farmers goods too with fall harvests – beets, pumpkins, vegetables and fruits in bigger quantities. 

Examples of the great woodwork
in the log architecture.  this from
the city
A stop at an old traditional wooden church – this for St. Alexis – the youngest and the heir to the Romanov chain. The religious purge that destroyed thousands of temples in Mongolia in the 1930s occurred in Russia too – religion seen as a useless and silly artifact of the past and a threat to putting all beliefs behind state goals.  Few of the old churches remained.  Beginning with Glasnost under Mikael Gorbachev religious tolerance returned but Russia is now only 15%-18% religious beliefs.  Most are agnostics.  We were impressed by the Russian Orthodox minarets and filigree combined with the log architecture. The dacha house is a pretty simple affair - except for the elaborate carving on the wooden window frames.  Stunning!

Picking Berries
The Trailhead
Up to a little village that was the birthplace of Russia’s beloved children’s’ storyteller and novelist: (we’ll get his name later) More lovely dachas and great to see Russians enjoying a Saturday. We hit the trailhead for a five-mile hike into the Urals – they are low in elevation at this point but still very rewarding with lots of Siberian pines (tall, straight as an arrow lodge pole pine-like with needled branches only at the top of the canopy. We looked at massive beaver dams and picked up trash along the way “from the children”.

The Old Quarry
We did some wild berry harvesting, a Russian-only berry that grows on a bush but tastes like a cranberry; indeed later on the next train segment we saw plenty of people selling buckets of these berries on the platforms.  We investigated the old soapstone and talc quarry now filled with groundwater, lunched late at a great spot filled with locals
Reflecting the Aspens, Birch and Siberian Pine
simply enjoying themselves, the last warmth (54F) of summer with their families and their dogs.  Lots of women line dancing, men and boys with soccer balls, picnics, laughing, a few dogs playing and camaraderie under the tall pines and the aspens with family and friends.  The park ranger came up as he does with some guests and groups, was smiling and gracious in Russian, bid us “Dosvydania” and went to the next group (who shared their napkins with us).  We needed this – although packed with people – it was a great hike, got the heart pumping with some modest climbs, but most importantly filled me with warmth about the Russians that I thought was not there.  Nowhere to be seen were the “Icy Ivans” that are so generalized everywhere.  Just warm, happy, engaging people who love their families.  No pictures of this - these families were not a tourist attraction.

A beeline back after extending a hand to a very nervous mother who lost two young teenage boys by giving her a ride to local authorities (the boys were found while we were enroute. The mother was left on the roadside crying happily as her party came to pick her up.  We’ve seem mothers like this behave everywhere).

Back in the city we asked Konstantin to drop us at a local market so we could buy some train fare beyond just the noodles and dehydrated potatoes that were a staple on our last train leg.  He took us to a massive new retail center with a huge supermarket.  We bought pickled salads, vegetable dishes, cheese, crackers, Swiss chocolate and …. Russian Standard Vodka.  Quite a haul.

We paid for a full night at the Hyatt even though we were not staying there just to have access to a shower, the internet, packing area, laundry, the Hyatt Regency club…  pricey, but worth it.  We enjoyed a light snack and dessert for a temporary anniversary dinner with a few glasses of Prosecca, checked out, Jaguared back to the train station, lumbered to our platform, role-reversed, and settled into our best berth yet for the 36-hour train journey to St. Petersburg.   

Friday, September 20, 2013

Camping out on a long train

The Food Routine

Today (9/19) is the first uninterrupted day of travel on the Trans-Siberian Railway (actually, it will be about 3 days on this leg), in terms of sleeping on the train the night before, experiencing a day without border delays, and looking forward to a second night on board.  The train departed Irkutsk the evening of September 18 at about 6:30pm.  After lugging our bags and a large sack of groceries through the station, up and down stairs (these stations don’t have escalators, unfortunately), we joyfully found our compartment and settled in, after receiving fresh sheets, pillow cases and towels from the porter (the provodnista).  In our second-class
Bubba Blending on the
Platform during a stop
compartment, there are 4 berths, so our routine has been to sleep in the upper bunks and lounge on the lower bunks, sitting mostly at the small table by the window for eating, reading, writing, lounging, etc.  
This train has no dining car, so we had to scour the markets around the Irkutsk train station for 3 dinners and 2 lunches-worth of food that could be prepared by adding hot water from the train carriage’s samovar.  We learned that the best bet for a hot meal on board is an Asian version of Cup O’ Noodles - same kind of packaging, but with Chinese, Mongolian or Russian text on the outside.  Most of the time,
Restocking after unknowingly buying
 too many dehydrated potato 'meals"
we’ve had to trust the pictures on the Styrofoam bowl, and once or twice, we ended up with mashed potatoes instead of noodles, or meat instead of veggies.  (I’ve had to relax my dietary guidelines as a result.)  So breakfast has been essentially a Cliff Bar (I brought a bag from the US), dried fruit and
after a food run
tea; lunch today was a bowl of ramen noodles each, and half a candy bar.  We’ll have salted peanuts for cocktail hour with some good Russian vodka, and dinner will be another noodle bowl or a meat thing for Chris and mashed potatoes for me.  I shudder to think of the chemicals and preservatives we’re consuming, but there isn’t a better solution for a hot meal.  The last leg from Yekaterinburg to St. Petersburg, we think, we’ll have a dining car and tomorrow night we’re in a Hyatt in Yekaterinburg, so we’ll have a good meal (and a shower!).  In the meantime, we are enjoying the time camping out in our compartment, watching Siberia go by.

Transversing Siberia

Irkutsk Railway Station

The section of the Trans-Siberian Railway across Siberia from Irkutsk, in central Siberia, to Yekaterinburg, just west of the Siberian border took 55 hours and covered about 3400 kilometers (2200 miles) and dozens of stops in towns and cities big and small. Our carriage originated an additional 2200 miles to the east in Blagoveshchenk, a remote Chinese
Hanging in the cabin
border town and our window shows the length of the journey with the dirt on it. We’ve been in or just outside our cozy Cabin VI on Carriage 3 that entire time and have had lots of time with our faces staring out the window.  Rather than seeing wasted plains that we expected, we’ve observed a rich landscape dominated by rolling hills in the east and extended steppes in the west with the brilliant fall colors of aspens and birch for the entire duration.  We’ve seen small towns with small houses and gardens growing some of the biggest vegetables in the richest of blackest soil. We’ve seen rivers running from the
Crossing the Tomsk River
north still carrying a lot of water. We’ve seen railway towns, many apparently in existence when the railway was first being built in 1895 and during the century before it as a waystation on the Siberian Post Road that have gone from boom to bust as the increasing speed of the engines have left them behind for the larger communities. We’ve seen buildings that may have begun with the Tsars, continued into the early days of the Revolution, and then into the Stalinist and Soviet days through today’s Russian republic. They might have been in favor for one of two of those eras, but not for all.  We’ve seen plenty of train
Surface Coal Mining
lasting a few Russian Eras
stations that exhibit structures with fresh coats of bright turquoise or salmon pastels and at the same time, include an ominous-looking windowless brick turret tower, probably abandoned when radio and electronic communication replaced the sentries positioned there.  We’ve observed train travelers being sent off by their teary-eyed relatives, hawkers selling homemade food and packaged concoctions from the platforms, and train workers with long metal mallets mysteriously banging at things on our train’s undercarriage while in the station.  We’ve seen our carriage mates in the other eight cabins on Carriage 3 change frequently; from workers moving around the Siberian coal fields, to businessmen on mobile phones to young families.  And unlike the previous two segments on the Trans- Mongolian railway, we have seen no Americans and only one other English speaker.       

We experienced thick low grey clouds and spotty sprinkles of autumn as we started in Irkutsk. And, oddly, just as we passed the area where we were “officially” out of Siberia, the clouds broke and we were treated to a gorgeous sunset over the plains. Just in time for our anniversary!