Late to Khabarovsk

Late to Khabarovsk
Khabarovsk, Russian Federation

Khabarovsk, Russian Federation

I was right, dammit! We lost more time, in fact, ending up something like 4 hours late, though juggling time zones to work it out sometimes confused me. The trick is to just work in Moscow time, as the timetable does. But then technology distracted me with Seattle, London, Tokyo and Khabarovsk times.

A flooded landscape, with a road and train tracks above it
Flooding by the river.

I saw it as bonus time on the train, or at least did while not fending off small person attentions. The girl from the next door compartment was having more fun with the iPad, so Radmilla decided that jumping on me would be excellent, and took a while to spot that I wasn’t playing along any more. I still polished off a book and a half and window spotted. Plenty more birch forests, a few settlements with wooden houses and then, at last, around 5 in the afternoon, Khabarovsk. It was raining there, heavily once I made it into the station and must have been doing for a while. The fields around the main road and railway are flooded, and when I went for a wander and, later, a run, I found the roads by the river were waterlogged. There were sandbags to protect businesses, though I think they had been put down after the water and then they’d pumped out the water, rather than stopping it before it got there.

Two children playing on the iPad in a train compartment
The little people.

I was hungry, so hit the supermarket, superbly positioned just over the road from the hostel. Directions to the Corona hostel are sparse – look for the biggest buildings in town, with a crown on. Right – ‘head for them’ is implicit, I guess. It is easy enough to find so long as you go with the flow and the spirit of those ‘directions’. “As you emerge”, for instance, means “…from the train station”. Those from the airport can sort themselves out.

Reading: Lee Child, Persuader, Jeffrey Lord, Jade Warrior.

Run: 24.33, 5.12; It was wet, and I got soggy feet.

Cuteness encapsulated

Cuteness encapsulated
Zeyskiy rayon, Russia

Zeyskiy rayon, Russia

…for a time.

You might make this an addendum to any rules of travel you have. Standard things like “don’t forget your toothbrush”, “don’t enter England without an umbrella”, “walk softly and carry a big stick”, that sort of thing. The addendum is, if you are travelling with an iPad, don’t use it in front of the small child who has joined your compartment, or you’ll lose it.

Pastel blue church. Four people sit on benches in the foreground
Pastel blue church.

I played a bit of Quarrel, a word game in English, not much use to a six (guess) year old Russian girl, but it has little characters jumping around and squashing each other after the wordplay, and she was fascinated. I finished and went into the corridor to stare out of the window and then felt a tap on my thigh. It was fairly obvious what she was after, though there was no Russian ‘iPad’. Fair enough, let’s see what we’ve got. Lego Harry Potter kept her going for a while, Bad Piggies was diverting for a bit, Eurosport not much cop without a connection and the trainset less fun than I’d thought. That last had at least changed language along with the iPad-I’d put that into Russian in the hope everything else would change, but most games just have English, it seems. Yoda chronicles has switched to Russian, that’ll fox me. She more or less settled on Bad Piggies, though later needed quite a lot of help. Which was cute right up to the point where it was very distracting; at which it was a blessing when the battery ran out.

Frankly I think the game with duvet over her head where she attacked me to groans every time made her giggle more, but iPad fiddling at first needed less intervention from me. We also found some corridor games, all within the subset of the “interrupt the English bloke looking out of the window” game, which involved some climbing on me, spinning by me and only one head clonk on the wall. In Russia this is greeted by 100% of the kids with whom I’ve played by just a smile. Now I know why Rocky struggled to hurt Dolph. Otherwise, it’s another day on the train, with few stops. I’m not sure we’re on time, there should have been a half hour stop somewhere, but we got just a short wander in the sun. When the train pulls in and has another on the next platform blocking easy access to the station it’s a bit like we’re exercising in a prison yard.

Seen from the train, a low building in Siberia, remote
Somewhere in Siberia.

Course, I’d created a monster, and an hour’s charging let her back on the iPad, which meant lots more taps on my leg as I read, and a declining view of her intelligence as she created vehicles for the piggies with no wheels, found they did not work and then did it again. Once it ran out of charge, the game was jumping on me, with a small girl’s lack of worry about where her head landed. Mum was able only to pull her off from time to time, not to stop her, so when I retired to the corridor I then had Rada (by now she had a name) climbing along the side rail, turning pages on the kindle, climbing on me and then relying on me to hold her up and so on. Eventually, beyond the limits of my private patience, mum decided to introduce her to the small girl in the next carriage. A masterstroke, though waiting till 8pm on my final evening was less good. Plus we sat in a siding for a long hour or two so tomorrow’s midday arrival looks hopeful. Some joint small person iPad time while I monopolised the power point in the corridor (there are three) sorted out my sense of equilibrium, and luckily I still had a soup left. Four meals on a three night, two day train-two lunches, two dinners? No, dinner, lunch, lunch and presumably lunch tomorrow. Three meals on a similar train last time – though with a later start and earlier drop off – equated to lunch first day, lunch and dinner the second.

The rule, then-bring food even if you are travelling with services, and prepare to use it. Or find the Russian for “can I have dinner tomorrow instead?”

View down train tracks. A woman walks on, in a floral trouser suit
Station – terrible trouser suits not compulsory.

Reading: Malcolm Gladwell, What the Dog Saw: and Other Adventures.

Quote (of Enron, and McKinsey) “It never occurred to them that, if everyone had to think outside the box, maybe it was the box that needed fixing” (the box here is the organisation, debunking the idea, which McKinsey have trumpeted, that you hire talent and give it its head. Actually, good organisation trumps top ‘talent’.

“When you have an interview with someone and have an hour with them, you don’t conceptualise that as taking a sample of a person’s behaviour, let alone a possibly biased sample, which is what it is. What you think is that you are seeing … the whole person.”

Siberian journeying

Siberian journeying
Chita, Russian Federation

Chita, Russian Federation

The train wound its way through a marshy landscape first thing, with the sun shining to light everything up and get right in our eyes whenever the track pointed the right way. A good view, though any sight of the lake would sadly have slipped by in the dark, as the train left at 9.50. Stations become more familiar in their personnel as time goes by-this time there were two Finns from my hostel in one corner, and the French girl Ciaran and I had met at Yekaterinburg was also waiting for her train. Ciaran I missed – there somewhere, but not wherever I was, and my train was leaving earlier so I scooted off.

Two men on the grass in a small public square
Jack and Ciaran.

We’d mooched about during the day, with another Brit, Jack, who was bracing himself for the cycle ride to Beijing. Both were approached by Russian women, the one wanting a picture with Ciaran after he’d hopped on the golden calf, the other to know where Jack was from and what he thought of Russia. Perhaps I looked like their CSB (?) minder. Jack’s journey is just the second part, after riding from the Netherlands to Romania, one heck of a lot of cycling. Nice to be able to wish someone all the best, be curious as to how it goes without any great desire to follow suit. I really don’t like cycling enough to do that distance, even ‘lejog’ (Lands End to John o’Groats). Apparently it can take an effort of negotiation to get a bike on the train in Russia – Seat 61 recommends a bike bag – so I was fascinated to see how the bloke with his got on to the train on the next platform, but we pulled out while he was still stripping it. He’d had his ticket checked without his bike, so either had enough Russian to seal the deal, or was going to sneak it on piece by piece. Line of the day belonged to Ciaran, after we’d eaten ‘plov’ in an Uzbek cafe and paid, 520rub so 200each, but our waitress forced 50 back upon us; “begone, cultural imperialist”.

Public square in Chita. Three girls stand in front of a pool. A blue church is at the far end
Chita, just outside the station.

This train has separate compartments for different sexes, though I think you can override that if you’re booking the whole compartment, as there’s a family next door. I worried slightly that an all male room would be noisy, or pong, but I’ve a man and his father who are perfectly good company (which for me means they are peaceful and I got a handshake when they left). Plus an empty spot, for now-this became two later, which at least shows the benefit of travelling in hops as you get local trains; this one goes just as far as Khabarovsk (a mere 8534km from the start point, Moscow). Unfortunately at some point on my journey I have ricked my back, and the long train rides have not helped, so I’m mostly lying or standing. A pity, this is my first lower berth, so I can lay claim to the window seat, but I’m lying looking out as much as sitting. The lower berth, stretching the whole length and without chains to attach it to the wall, is a little bigger than the upper. I suspect anyone taller than my 5’10 would find the upper a little uncomfortable.

A few houses and a blue shed seen from the train

Time to settle in to the journey (another three night, two day one). I may get my unlistened-to podcast number below 100, otherwise the excitement comes from checking the timetable (stuck to the wall of the carriage) and spotting where we stop for 20 minutes or so. Any larger station will have shops and usually free wifi in the building, though maybe not time to do both. Having stopped in the night and again this morning, we now don’t stop for an unusually long 5 hours, though the track seems twisting which makes this not the quickest section, so the gap may be as much down to us not travelling so far as to there not being many towns en route.

A river, grass and trees make a very green landscape

Finally, 17:00 my time (I may be an hour behind now) we stopped at Chita. A big station, so the choice is; wifi or chocolate. I’ll confess to having thought about chocolate for a while, so once I realised that trying the shop on the platform wasn’t going to work without Russian-three counters, different staff at each, standing next to what I want and hoping for attention was not going to cut it-I hit the wifi instead. Plus it’s a better idea to get off the platform for a shop in any case, so I found email and chocolate in the end. As we moved off from Chita two things hit me (I was unharmed). First, the single sex cabins must have been an option, and one not taken by the agency, because I’d been joined by a young mother and cute daughter. Secondly, the big stations only have their names in Russian from the train side of things, whilst the smaller suburban ones, at which we’re not stopping, reliably carry Russian and English versions. Odd, but nifty. I don’t know if that’s a Siberian or country thing, I only noticed it out here.

Signs in cyrillic at the station
Worth knowing some cyrillic.

Reading: K Dick, The Simulacra – 6/10, not his best, could almost be twisted to a Scientology style view of where the powerful come from. Packed with ideas as always, though. Lord, J, The Bronze Axe.

Last run: yesterday, 51mins, 10k. App recommendation: 2GIS, maps you can download and use offline. Needs a Cyrillic keyboard.

Lake Baikal

Lake Baikal
Listvyanka, Russian Federation

Listvyanka, Russian Federation

“There isn’t anything with enough confidence for even an optimist to cling to.”

Pigeons gather on a tiled square
The birds.

Incongruous; that was from the weather centre, 4th day of the ashes test that was rained off, but too lovely not to make a note of, from my podcast listening on the shore of the lake. I’d got there on the bus, deciding I wouldn’t leave it till tomorrow, when I’m on the train near 10pm, and getting there around 2 despite a lie in. The mother of all good sleeps, too – finally I managed not to nap in the day and properly sleep through, and I felt ready to take on anything, which made me realise how illness and poor sleep had knocked me over the last week or so.

Lake Baikal. The shore is pebbled. A couple of large boats wait a few hundred metres away
The Lake.

The lake is, as any map will show you, massive. If you’re not engaged on some activity on it then it is just a body of water, but a very restive one, and i would have regretted being this close – 60odd km – and not going even if water is water. I’d been warned in the hostel that Listvyanka was a “pisshole little town” and, seen through that perspective, it wasn’t too bad. One extended shop front for souvenir and fish sellers, with locals hanging out in their boats waiting for custom, and more tourists than the city. The journey was quick, and might have felt too quick from the front seat of the minibus. I caught the 524 bus, but you can just wander to the minibuses (mashrutkyas, private) over the road from the bus station, say “Listvyanka” and hop on. Everyone else had tickets, but he let me on when I waved cash at him and only took the standard 100 rub at the end. We had one stop for a young lad to be sick, which at least stopped the Star Wars sound effects from his iPad, and then flew along the roads past more relentless birch forest.

Military vehicles parked outside a building
Turn a corner and there’s something interesting.

As I sat in the square off Sverdlova street, killing time till due to meet Ciaran at 8 (‘Liverpool pub’, as you do), the lady on the bench next to me berated two beggars as they went through the bin next to me. It seemed an equal back and forth to start with, but the lady beggar wasn’t having a bar of it. She stayed and berated right back, roundly ignored. They moved 5m to the next bin, she turned and went off. They moved 10m, then I heard her again. Even at the far end of the square I could just hear her voice-not shouting, just ‘raised’. Someone should have had the sign ‘you wouldn’t let it lie’ ready to hold over her head.

I ended up glad I went to the lake, having a good chilled-out day, ending with a German, a Norwegian, two Brits and two Australians entering a restaurant. They eat. Not every day has a punchline.

Warm in Siberia

Warm in Siberia
Irkutsk, Russian Federation

Irkutsk, Russian Federation

Another warm day in Irkutsk saw a slow start for me. I didn’t sleep, distracted by the cricket 8 hours behind and thoughts of what I’d do the next day. Still made it out for a run, exploring the park a little more and checking the other side of the road where more green was marked on the map, though it didn’t lead to anything. I did see the big bridge leading out into mainland Russia, at least. Big traffic jams here in rush hour, perhaps because the city has just two bridges over the river which become a pinch point.

Colourful floral display in the centre of a boulevard. Information boards on both side and the grand admin building is at the end
Admin building central square.

Post run I shifted hostel, to Nerpa backpackers which actually seems nicer than the Trans-Sib, much as that was perfectly acceptable, even allowing for the precipitous descent into the basement rooms. Cosy down there. Around 1 I finally got into town, heading north rather than east when I got there and finding the city square which is pretty dramatic. The population is notably more diverse, what I assume are Mongolian faces all around, though the number of tiny waisted women in short skirts and heels is the same as elsewhere, just ethnically different. My legs didn’t want to play today, on run or walk, but I covered some ground, seeing the big mall, Fortuna, at the top of the city-just a mall, ultimately, if with slightly strangely claustrophobic corridors. And a Lonsdale shop, for that touch of luxury. Lunch was again from the supermarket in town though I found a little square to eat it in, watching children piloting cars, or parents with a remote control piloting then round the fountains.

Small public square, with statues
Curios everywhere.

I’d planned to see if I could walk to the hydrofoil station but it was outside my range in the end. Bus tomorrow, if I’m to make it to Listvyanka. Irkutsk has grown on me, with curiosities all around; this time when I ran past the monument to Alexander III I noticed it, and continued spotting things, the statues of players in one square, thinker and cupids in another and city pride monuments and eminent people in the main square. It’s a bit run down in places, metal guide rods showing through decayed concrete staircases and the like, but that means that where in Yekaterinburg you have to go in search of original wooden houses, here they are all over, especially around the city park.

Nerpa is good and sociable, too. I’d thought I was socialled out for now, but it only takes an American to mistake me for an Australian and piss-taking is back on. There is a Mongolian embassy here, I noticed, so perhaps I went too soon with an alternate plan. Booking all the train tickets in one go was definitely over planning, though I do have to make sure I get out of the country in time. But perhaps if I was making smaller jumps I’d have been more inclined to try the 3rd class wooden benches that if you believe the man in seat 61 ( are for the adventurous traveller but if you are here, seem to be what all the hostelling travellers are doing. They are open, no compartments with closed doors, so one long carriage with 54 people in, though obviously some walls to attach the beds to, so not as open plan as all that. In 2nd class you roll a mat onto a padded bench, in 3rd the same mat goes into wood, so not dramatically less comfortable. More noisy, certainly, but you also get lots more of the Russian experience; Ciaran was told all about the man who owned a bear, the old lady over the way was trying to teach him numbers while Will had a police chief offer him vodka and an army colonel worry about his safety because of the police chief. I think I made a good compromise between cheap 3rd class and expensive tour with organised stops, but 3rd class has positives as well as the obvious negatives.

Ornately decorated cinema building, in bright sunshine, while all the cars outside are entirely in shade
First cinema

As for sights, I also came across the museum of city life. It gives a price, I realised on the way out, but I think it relies on you dropping it in the donation box. Or all the staff assumed I had paid someone else. Small and perfectly formed, but I was more interested in the ‘mini park’ out the back, which has a plaque and emblem/sculpture from all the cities with which Irkutsk is twinned. 13, at time of writing, including Eugene or ‘track town’ in the States. Yeah baby!

Summary: 1:02:15, 11.5km reading: 1636: The Saxon Uprising, Eric Flint.

A mother walks behind her child, with the control to the small car in which the child sits
Remote controlled child.

Street dancing wedding fest

Street dancing wedding fest
Irkutsk, Russia

Irkutsk, Russia

Again too excited to sleep properly, I was woken by the carriage attendant with an hour before we pulled in and we all duly hopped off in Irkutsk. The second stop in Irkutsk, that is. The hostel was easy to find so I dumped my bags and went for a run. Irkutsk has plenty of waterfront, and the hostel looks over a park, all of which was promising. The park is about 500m by 300m, with some nice woodland paths to start with and what looked like a football team’s training ground at the other end. I ran down to the bridge to town and followed the path which took me down to the waterfront, but having followed that for half a mile or so I realised I was just running along the platform and this side was all station. I got back on the bridge, smogged just a little, and finally hit the promenade. Several other runners were out, including one older gent who was, despite an unusual gait, was making good speed. Game on, and I overtook in the sun, deciding on finally getting in several tempo miles. They were hard work for not enough reward, but at least they’re done. The promenade is a bit run down but a good spot, and there’s a separate island off to one side that I avoided at the first bridge opting then found myself on. It has its own little train-bigger than a model railway, smaller than a full size train-and various rides and attractions. Better, several paths by the water, so long as you can hop over the rails. Were the two inner rails love? I decided not to find out.

Promenade with lots of people, a wedding ready to walk through a raised heart arch.
Busy new bit plus wedding.

That done I had a shower. I, unlike my Dutch and Russian companions, had changed my t shirt and a wet wipe wash left me reasonably clean, but it was still glorious to shower properly. Finally, into town. Irkutsk is notably more run down than Yekaterinburg, though it h gives that impression, too, by virtue of the station being one side of a slightly grim long smoggy bridge, which takes you onto unprepossessing streets. Parts by the stadium and water are more modern, I was to find later, while there is a pedestrianised area leading up to the massive market-more a market district than just a market as we might know it.

Drinks in a shop, including Happy Alcoenergy
Happy Alcoenergy.

It was all very festive, with various displays and lots of leaflet givers, plus music and advertising blared into the street. For the first time since Monday, I realised, I actually knew what day it was, and it being a weekend may make this atypical. The largest crowd was not for the street dancers, not for the animal-themed ‘whatever the hell was going on but it involved flags and green livery’. No, the biggest crowd was for, as friend Guy would put it, the fucking pan pipes (if you haven’t heard the story, it’s worth asking him). They even got a round of applause.

Two people, one in bright green, almost fluorescent, trousers, look over the city.
Looking back from the local park.

I made it through the market area to the city park and read then slept. Wandering back past Lenin’s monument I was on the ‘green trail’ I had picked up earlier, which gives short explanations of the city’s main buildings. Picking up wifi I thought I’d treat myself to tripadvisor’s number one ranked restaurant, Figaro’s. It is ostensibly an Italian, but I guess it is more of a ‘fusion’ place, with its lasagna involving “two types of salmon flesh and smoked flambé in vodka”. I had Caesar salad, which was large, then pork, which wasn’t (and just as well) with banana chips. They brought a scallop appetiser and afterwards three chocolate sweets. Almost like they knew me. English from the off, too, which feels like cheating but is a nice guilty pleasure when away.

Summary: 1:11:49, 15.46km.

Statue of Lenin on a plinth, with one arm raised to the sky. A few flowers tidily decorate the bottom.
Yer man.

The train

The train
Krasnoyarsk, Russia

Krasnoyarsk, Russia

Again last night I couldn’t sleep, excited by the possibilities of the next day, I think because I have limited opportunities so can only read, listen to music/podcasts or explore gameboy and iPod games; having reduced the options to a minimum, there’s room to be excited.

An old train turned into an exhibit outside a station

The Dutch couple sorted themselves out for bed at what felt like an early hour, but it was dark and we’d lost a couple more hours so local time was about 11. As the light went off I switched to listening rather than reading and eventually dozed off. We were all awake and up early, and lunch was a repeat of yesterday. I missed the first stop, and at only 18 minutes it wasn’t a long one in any case. The next (next with a stop longer than a couple of minutes, that is) was five hours later, at 13:55 (9:55 Moscow time) and this time I bounced off the train to find wifi, the cricket score and, as it turned out, Krasnoyarsk square – there were a couple of wifi options once I hit the stairs out, I went with the ‘cafe’. For a moment as I stood in the sun I had the nagging feeling something was missing, but then a girl in a short skirt and heels walked by and I knew I was still in Russia. Getting back on, email duly checked, we had the excitement of more English voices-a posse of Americans, 10 of them, whose version of travelling second class is to book a four person compartment for two. “We wondered why we had two tickets!” They are older, well travelled and from Seattle or surrounding areas. Apart from the two Australians, anyway. I met one half of several of the couples at various stops, they all had a way to talk about England, one opened up with the Olympics, another with their 24 day tour of England. Including Brentford. Obviously.

Public square in Krasnoyarsk. A fountain in the middle, rust and grey coloured tiles on the floor

At Ilanskaya I didn’t find wifi but next to the station building was a group of shops, and Piwo Baltika got me not just service, but shiny-toothed service with a smile-£0.79, this time. Evening sunshine, a beer and now spontaneously smiling people.

Moscow-Krasnoyarsk, 4105km.

Reading: Don Quixote, to a finish, Flinn, Cloaked. Haddon, A Spot of Bother.

“You got the impression, sometimes, that parts of his brain were actually missing, that he could quite easily wander into the bathroom looking for a towel while you were on the toilet and have no clue as to why this might be inappropriate.”

Travelling with services

Travelling with services
Novosibirsk, Russian Federation

Novosibirsk, Russian Federation

I woke and, eventually, got, up. Ciaran and I had both found that when you have such an expanse of time on board, activities can be slowed right down. I think I passed a good half hour wondering if the hatch up top would lead to the roof, secret agent style, on my first trip. So here, I debated going to the loo for a lot longer than it took to actually go. I am patting myself on the back for my train choice, the late departure means we got a chunk done in the nighttime, by the time the train stopped at Ishim at 7:59 Moscow time, we’d covered 600km, 749km by Nazyvaevskaya at 10:05. Admittedly, the train left at 20:17 Moscow time-as soon as you are near the station you are taken back to Moscow time, with the clock covering the square showing that, two hours before local time. Having hit Omsk as I type this, we’ve lost another hour, UTC+7 till some time in the early hours, 2-3 am Moscow time, when we hit the next time zone.

Old steam train mounted as an exhibit in a park

A day on the train. The scenery beyond Yekaterinburg is a bit more varied than that up to it, which was “relentlessly Birch forest”. Here the view opens out from time to time. The forecast is for c.18 degrees in Irkutsk where Yekaterinburg was 24 (and in reality 27, it turned out) and it already looks cooler outside. My part of the train is air conditioned in any case, but there’s no sun and a slightly grey sky outside. Finally I might need a jumper or even my gilet, till Japan’s 30 degrees.

View from train compartment, showing curtains, pillow, table with possessions

Lunch. A with services ticket has signed me up to three meals-not sure how that works with two full days, but I have so much food it won’t matter. The Dutch (I think) couple opposite turned down all offers, but I heard the word goulash and was in. I will now worry about them-they have food, I think, but I’m sure we’re in the same coach because we have the same sort of ticket. One benefit of going through an agency, at least-the ticket you get is fully explained. The next time they come for my order, if I can’t spot a word for food I understand I think I’ll just gesture at our compartment’s sole Russian, aiming for the international sign for “same please”. The compartment chief knows he’s the only one who understands, I’ll aim to get the same. Certainly worked for lunch, first a paper bag with water, cutlery etc, then borscht and, just as I was debating whether that was it, the goulash with cabbage and pasta. Excellent. I even managed to save the chocolate in the bag, spotted post soup, till the end.

On reflection, I have too much food, 5 lots of instant noodles, apples, oranges, grapes, biscuits. I’ll cope.

Chart showing times train is due to arrive and leave different stations on the route

We stopped. 18:00 by the pod, 16:00 Moscow time, something like 19:00 local-I can see why the station clock shows Moscow time, saved you doing multiple calculations when wandering about on a half hour break. Barabinsk, should you stop there, has several kiosks on the platform but wander across the tracks (yes!) and out and there is a supermarket right in the car park. Beer is about 70p a can, so I grabbed one for Ciaran and one for me, went in search of chocolate, found ear buds and wet wipes the remembered Will, the American in Ciaran’s xarriage. Probably I should also have grabbed some for my compartment mates, amazing how well a cold beer goes down, but never mind. Info buzz: coke (кока-кола) bottle on board, £1, super £0.69; beer (пиво Балтика) on board, £3, super £0.65; snickers (шоколад сникерс) on board, £0.89, giant in super £0.59. We shot the breeze under 17 degree grey skies, while Mosquitos buzzed us. As people returned to the train I wandered along a few carriages then hopped on. I think the chat with the attendant went;

“I’m on (signal with hands) 10”

“I can get on here?”

The last transmitted by a simple ‘da’.

Car park with lada, supermarket behind, a gaudy yellow in colour.
This one good.

The supermarket seemed to be more popular with westerners, proportionally, than Russians. About 20 people made it in, at least 4 were western, yet there aren’t 20% westerners on the train (get me, making a point using a fancy word like ‘proportionally’ and then explaining it. George Lucas do get in touch for some dialogue). I can only suggest that the locals were more interested in smoking, checking out the smoked fish (and enhancing its flavour) and getting hold of a fur gilet. It’s quite the thing.

Novosibirsk to Moscow: 3343km

“…all those who enjoy histories…ought to show their gratitude to Cide Hamete…for his care in telling us its smallest details and clearly bringing everything, no matter how trivial, to light.” DQ

Back to the train

Back to the train
Yekaterinburg, Russian Federation

Yekaterinburg, Russian Federation

Both Ciaran and I were booked on the 22:17 train, he to Novosibirsk (a day or so) and me to Irkutsk (three nights). Katya having postponed on us yesterday in favour of sorting stuff out at university, was determined to give us a tour today and so met us at Paul’s bakery. The technique for coffee shops here seems to be to serve people very slowly, making coffee with care and attention. The queue moving slowly allowed us to decide which food we would point to; Ciaran’s extra Russian allowed him to order porridge, though not to interpret which options were available nor which he would get. I pointed at a sandwich and struggled with a drink; none of the cold ones were on show. Still, hot water did the trick.

People stand in front of a wall mural, showing gates and houses. A meta Beatles silhouette is off to the side
Ciaran and Katya at the Beatles bit.

After midday we wandered. After the Beatles’ and Qwerty monuments-incongruities both-we headed for the 53 floor skyscraper from where you get a panoramic view of the city. There’s even a free audio guide, part informational, part puff piece for the city. A road, 6km long! A place newly weds come to leave indulgences and fasten locks to the railings. Great views in the sun, it’s a city with a green belt, and Katya could point out the museums and other major buildings we could see. It’s an industrial city with universities specialising in chemistry and mining. From there we were undecided, but found a park and Ciaran could show, under challenge, his Russian cursive script. We mooched by the waterfront and ducked into a cafe that had ‘the best pies in all Yekaterinburg’ and they were mighty fine. They need a tradition like the pie shop in Reading, though, where the lady narrates a list of available pies at the start, saving you from asking for rabbit-niet-and salmon-niet. We also saw Katya’s favourite theatre, another old wooden building, a theatre of the avant-garde, named for the director, the inside a kaleidoscope of curiosities. We stopped at the globe, but its age, patchy covering and angle defeated our efforts to find much more than Beijing. Their programme, at least for August, provided a different show every night, that night Tutankhamen, £8. I’d be all over it on my own town.

We were running out of time, but hit the supermarket. It was huge, but I’m not sure I would have found it on my own. It was in a centre, open a door, follow a narrow corridor left and right and then you’re in. We were at least now stocked up for the journey, and had another “English! Here!” moment in the queue. So nice to smile at people and have them smile back-it happened rarely if ever in Moscow, and if they say ‘people get friendlier as you head east’ then they have been proven right so far. We said a farewell and went to get out bags. At the station I swapped my coupon for a real ticket, which was easy, and Ciaran showed that if you can ask for a ticket from here to there (Novosibirsk to Irkutsk, in this case) and then have when etc written out on your phone, then you really can just buy a ticket at the station.

At the cafe we found a French girl who was heading east to Japan but by the ferry-no cock ups on the time left on her visa-and some earplugs in a chemist’s. My second class compartment is comfortable, more so than the first train. The first was train no. 110, this no.70, and they apparently are more modern with lower numbers. I thought that mostly applied to very low numbers, with 001-4, or something, being the best. This one may just be a luckily more modern one, or it is going further than my first-beyond Irkutsk, certainly, so three days or so-and so is better quality. I was let down by my body again, tired through the day then too excited to sleep once on the train. With two full days to pass, though, it hardly matters if I snooze in the day, and I slept pretty well once I’d accustomed myself to the rocking and rolling. I was drifting into sleep and remembering our lift home in Alex’s shiny Opel, brain combining that with Ciaran’s ‘another example of Russians burning rubber through the city’ when the train lurched into movement from a stop, which brain turned into dream car coming to a sudden stop which came as a huge shock.

Large size QWERTY keyboard on a grassy bank by a river. Each key is about a foot square.
Curve-roofed pagoda by the city pond, with a crowd of students watching other individual students marry themselves
Students marrying themselves.

But if that’s the worst of it, this will do just fine.

Guests of honour

Guests of honour
Yekaterinburg, Russian Federation

Yekaterinburg, Russian Federation

Ciaran and I slept in. Boy oh boy, how we slept in. Dull, you might say, but for the record-awake at 5 with the light, back to sleep and, good grief, it’s 11.30. I still slotted in a run, too many road crossings for it to be vintage, and a stomach ache which made it a little bit of a slog, but in it went. Katya had offered to show us around but as we were about to set out she postponed until the evening so we were free to wander undirected.

The Church of Blood, white with golden decoration
Church of Blood.

From where we stayed, near Geologiskaya metro stop, Vainera street stretched the length of the high street and it seemed natural to follow it. The first street we had to cross to stay on track had had no obvious subway when we crossed it the day before, nor when I ran, though we spotted now. Right in front of us, what on earth we’d done till then I don’t know. The city centre is very manageable, and Russians were out and about in number, enjoying the cafes, the sun and the parks. There are skyscrapers dotted about-Yekaterinburg is in the top 100 cities for number of skyscrapers, apparently.

Raised mural of city founders, grey and shiny in colour
City Founders.

We found the church of blood, on the site of the house where the Romanovs were killed. Ornate, icons all over, and portraits of the sainted Romanovs at one end. No pews, and the altar is hidden behind doors, so the whole thing seems smaller than you’d expect. There’s an exhibition of the Romanovs and, um, some other things-without Russian we couldn’t work out the significance of the few pictures of other dead people. I suspected a ‘victims of terror’ tableau, but that may just be my cynicism. From there we mooched, failing to find the park but finding a spot to sit and read. Both fans of the city by now, after dossing down in the hostel for an hour, we met Katy and Katya back at the same restaurant as the night before. Katya has excellent English (and Italian), with five language diplomas and is a sponge for knowledge, just starting a PhD in linguistics. She guided us to old Yekaterinburg, which still has wooden houses in the centre, surrounded by more modern buildings including the grass fronted Hyatt hotel. I’d seen towns/villages filled with wooden houses from the train, bigger cities move on from there to more modern structures, but that gives the wooden ones great charm to go with their incongruity.

Carved floor covering, each square a different country. France, India, Germany all legible
Distances as far from London as Beijing.

Ciaran is also urbane – he and Katya made quite the couple, I was left to hold only age over them, not wisdom. Ciaran reminds me of Eugene, another who could describe the things he’s done and leaving you scratching your head over how he has fitted it into his years-Azerbaijan, Georgia, speaking French, roots Irish, working in Bosnia, primary school teacher bound for the FCO. I drift quite well, I might insert at this point.

Wooden house fronts in Yekaterinburg
Katy, Anton, Katya.

After our tour we found dinner. Uzbek, I think, since that’s what we’d aimed to find the evening before when, thankfully, we’d actually ended up in some Georgian/Russian fusion type place and met out new friends. Great, much chat about language and culture (covers a multitude of conversation, that one-high to low). We were interrupted by a man who couldn’t look us in the eye and from whom we waited in vain for a point. “I just wanted to say-you are from England?” and he dashed off back upstairs. Laughter followed, and some faces watching us from the mezzanine. He returned in a while, with a friend, who also “wanted to meet the English” and they all said goodbye in a friendly way, before he dashed back in to spill out “England! … Scotland! My favourite whisky-Ballantynes! Ballantynes!”

Statue of Lenin on a raised platform, in a public square

It was to become a theme, not repeated overmuch, but repeated – English!? Here!? Fabulous! We can’t be the first, though perhaps we went to slightly unusual places by virtue of having a guide.

Old wooden house in front of modern apartment blocks
Old and new.

That night we were joined in the dorm by a Russian couple and their daughter. They had been there, and asleep, when we popped back at 7. I’d assumed, seeing the bloke on the top bunk, that these were the two Australians we’d been told were arriving, and they were asleep after a hard day. When we got in and went to sleep, then, I was surprised when I heard cat noises in the middle of the night, and a bit freaked out when I looked over to see the little girl standing up and looking around. Not quite as freaked out as Ciaran, who had the bunk next to them, with a nightlight shining in his face which woke him up, at least once to find small girl staring. Still, we had no snorers and it was a comfortable place to stay in a lovely city.

View over the city. Trees foreground, apartments, a tall tower and modern skyscraper in the distance
View from Omnomnom hostel.

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