Tuesday, October 30, 2007

We were all a little bit jaded the next morning in part from the excesses of beer during the sauna and in part to the vodka that followed afterwards.

But, like brave troopers, we hopped on board our small bus and headed back, away from Lake Baikal towards Irkutsk where we would be staying for one more night before the longest train journey on the Trans Siberian Express.

Irkutsk has a fascinating history. It is the capital of Eastern Siberia and began to develop from a small farming community to a major city (around 1 million people) when it became home to those exiled after the failed Decemberist Revolutions of the 19th Century.

It would almost be fair to say it is a town built by women. The wives of those who were exciled had the option to remain in Moscow or St Petersburg in luxury but chose to follow their husbands across the country (mainly by carriage and sledge) to this bleak outpost. There they helped build this town into a centre for the arts and culture and supported their husbands even though, for the first few years they were barely able to see them let alone live together. The term “Decemberist Wife” is still used in Russia to show the loyalty of a person to their husband.

When we arrived in to Irkutsk, we had chance to visit one of the houses of the most famous of the exiled women, Maria Volkonskaya. While it can’t be said that the house was in anyway as grand as those we were to see later in St Petersburg, it did show the lengths to which they had gone to recreate a life for themselves so far away from the capital.

The Volkonskya’s also provided inspiration for regular visitor, Tolstoy for his meisterwork and instrument of torture on every schoolboy in British history, War & Peace.

Our young guide for this portion of the trip was Julia, a student at the local university. Her English was excellent and her presentation style distinctly Russian.

Where as Nemo in Mongolia had been funny, irreverent and wild, as was the way with most Mongolians, Julia was formal and driven by a fact laden script that she was going to get out even if we all lay down on the floor and started snoring. She pointed to every nook, cranny and artefact and gave us the background in minute detail. Given that we were all a little under the weather and one of us even had to disappear to throw up, I think we did a pretty good job of looking interested.

After the tour, we were deposited at our hotel and had our first encounter with Russian accommodation and with Russia proper.

For centuries, the people of Russia have had little or no individual freedom, during feudal serfdom and then under harsh Sovietism. They have compensated for this lack of influence by clinging to any little bit of power life might give them and making life miserable for anyone who might need them to perform the service to which they have been appointed.

They have also developed an ability to appear exasperated at anything and everything no matter how good or bad that thing may be. Purchasing anything in any store involves eye rolling, shrugging of shoulders and the distinct impression that YOU handing THEM money for the things THEY sell is an incredible inconvenience and about as welcome as a dose of the clap.

So it was with checking into our hotel. We had been warned that it could be a long process and so it was. There was much of the afore mentioned rolling of eyes, much shrugging of shoulders, a few looks of contempt before we finally got the keys to the rooms we had booked. If it wasn’t so constant, it could almost be funny

The rooms themselves were not particularly funny either. Our hotel was a typically Soviet one with each floor housing a bar and an attendant to make sure that no one brought guests to their room. Quite why you would have brought them to these tiny rooms with small shower cubicles, I am not sure and, quite what you would have got up to in the small single bed with its saggy mattress I am also at a loss to fathom.

Still, we were not in there for long before we headed out for a walk to discover Irkutsk.

Despite the “joys” of our Russian welcome, I have to admit that I enjoyed the city a great deal. It is growing apace at nearly one million people and with its galleries and university has a lot to offer the cultural visitor.

But, as ever, I was more interested in the food. All over Russia, but particularly in Siberia they are inordinately fond of a drink called Kvass. Basically, a beer made out of bread, it is sold by elderly women sitting by big tanks of the stuff on just about every street corner.

Of course, that involves the usual drawn out process of buying anything

ME: Kvas

HER: Kvas? As if she had never heard of it before in her entire life despite the fact she was sitting next to a large urn with the word written on it in large letters

ME: Kvas

HER: Ah, Kvas (rolls eyes and begrudgingly fills a small plastic beaker with Kvas)

ME: Thank you (handing over exact change)

HER: grumph, mumble, grumph (looks at exact change as if it was a £1million note) turns away with last look of withering contempt

Unfortunately, it is not worth the effort being horribly sweet and, well actually quite foul (rolls eyes and shrugs shoulders)

Irkutsk is also home to a rather splendid market with the indoor section housing permanent stalls selling bread, pastries (they just love their pastries) smoked fish, meats and vegetables and the outside section where local farmers come to sell whatever it is they have to sell from tubs of juicy looking berries to sweet, small potatoes and even unwanted puppies and kittens.

Then a long stroll around on what rapidly became a searingly hot day. There is plenty to see, the traditional wooden houses of the region, the statues to famous Russian heroes such as Yuri Gagarin and just the locals enjoying themselves in the afternoon Sun

I headed back to the hotel, fought my way passed the scary looking floor attendant and took a long shower in water that became increasingly brown as it trickled from the shower head in a flow that confirmed it was Russian

“what do you mean you want a shower? Yes, I know I am a shower head and this is a bathroom, but I am just standing here minding my own business and you come and expect a shower. I mean for God’s sake”

For all the fresh and interesting local produce, our supper that evening was hugely forgettable and I retired for an early night ready for the onslaught ahead.

We were about to head off on our longest journey of The Trans Siberian Railway adventure, the four days and nights from Irkutsk to Suzdal, about three hours away from Moscow.

We were not leaving the hotel until 3pm the next day, so, after breakfast, I checked my luggage (“what do you mean you want to check your luggage?.....etc…….etc) and went for a long walk around the river before returning to the hotel in time to collect my bags (“what bags, where?....etc etc”) and changing into my “train” gear.

Given my experiences on the last few train journeys where we, as a group, became progressively more ripe as the journey progressed, I was pretty determined that I was going to find some way to keep up even a token level of cleanliness even if I could not get near a shower.

So, I changed from my stylish, yet casually alluring street clothes to a pair of sweat pants and a baggy white t-shirt. I stocked up my hand luggage with enough clean shirts to last a few days and water and toiletries to give me a basic wash & brush up every morning. The rest went into “Big Red” ready to be stowed once we boarded.

The cabins on the train were small, but comfortable four birth affairs and, for better or for worse (better for me, worse for them) it turned out that I would be sharing the compartment with Amber, Karen and Annie, three of the women in my group.

I like to think it was the fumes as we pulled out of the station that made them turn green, but I think it was my reminder that I like to sleep “unburdened”

It may also have been the fact that I turned to them and said, in my best Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast mode “ don’t you worry your pretty little ‘eads, y’er Unccie Simes will look after you when you are asleep” Strangely, this did not seem to reassure them at all.

Each carriage had two bathrooms and two attendants who controlled them. Once the train begins to move, the carriage and all in it come under the sovereignty of these women.

To say they are scary would be the understatements of understatements. Ours were named Luda and OIga and I immediately, and rather unkindly as it turned out, christened them “Kong” and “ Mighty Joe Young” They were fearsome looking, with peroxide hair, bright red lipstick and gold teeth and they held total sway over our time on the train.

If they said we could leave the train at a stop, we could do so. If they said “niet” as they did when there was the tiniest drop of rain, then we scuttled back to our compartments like good little boys and girls.

For those who have done the journey more than once, like our guide Andrew who was an old hand, the game is to try and crack them. A smile can be bought with chocolate but it is a hard fought battle.

Another hard fought battle is eating well. There are the inevitable packets of mashed potatoes, snacks brought on to the train and snacks bought from the elderly ladies who rush up to greet the train the moment it pulls into any station, but it is, in truth a nutritionists worst nightmare and, by the end of the journey, you begin to feel a little high from all the additives and chemicals in all the rubbish you have been eating.

Perhaps the only saving grace were the small dumplings filled with cabbage and potatoes on sale at each stop. Hardly haute cuisine but often hot and certainly filling.

Life on a train journey for that long begins to settle into a regular rhythm pretty quickly. For me, each morning began with a rudimentary “shower” which involved precariously divesting myself of my sweatpants and shirt while not stepping on the filthy floor, sloshing myself over with tepid water from the tap and washing my extremities as best I could, brushing my teeth with bottled water (nearly always fizzy in Russia) and then dressing again with a clean shirt.

All a bit of a palava, but it did make me feel more human and set for a day of, well, doing nothing in particular.

And that is the great thing about this trip. You have no choice but to do nothing in particular for over eighty hours. The guide’s suggestion for this part of the trip is “stare out of the window and then stare out of the window some more” That’s a bit unfair as, although I found myself doing a lot of staring, I also finished a couple of books, learned a few new card games, played Scrabble appallingly badly for someone who used to be involved in publishing and generally chatted to my travelling companions as we tottered in and out of each others compartments.

There was the occasional trip to the dining car to drink beer in a different change of scenery and that was about it.

It is not the easiest few days I have spent, but I have to admit that it was one of the more enjoyable and, as we prepared to leave the train at Vladimir station, I was beginning to understand Andrew’s claim that people become institutionalised and just never want to get off.

A magical but unreal experience.

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