Mother Russia; the land at the top of earth towering the modest continent of Asia. A country which most recognise but limit to Moscow and, sometimes, St Petersburg in an unfair literal cold assumption. My affair began in East Siberia, middle Russia, and lasted an exhausting month. Perhaps I was a little rusty or underestimated the task beneath me. Either way it was too late and I was already too involved. I tread through the country as one to unearth and discover a place I've always been fascinated by.
I'll take you back to the start, on the 28th July. I arrived in Irkutsk on the runway, overlooking the pedestrian street, the bus stop and the road ahead. What made it Russia? The security officers making rounds on the aircraft as we passengers are stationed and ensuring the all clear before we can embark. What made it Asia? The climate, the cost, the age of the cars, the driving, the locals and the 'foreigness'. Spanning over two continents, Eastern Russia is technically classed as Asia and it earns it reputation well. A mixed middle eastern man drove an over-full, 1950's vehicle complete with cracked windscreen and mis-matched paint through two lanes whilst speeding. Arriving 20 minutes later, I hadn't died and so head on my way after paying my taxi fair.
Unlike in Asia, I am camouflaged here with the locals until prompted to dialect in it's natural form. Expecting little and assuming nothing, I found myself conversing in Chinese for the day and with it finding some comfort/normality as I admired the wooden houses. Outsiders were a rarity and so was the English language. The closest I reached my mother tongue was when I confirmed my order at a diner to my newly befriended Mandarin friend who, needingly translated to Russian to the waitress, who was surprisingly able enough to confirm directly with me in English, of course.
Like always my selfishness arrives and a short while later that day I left my friend in the thick of it to face Russia alone.
You have friends in Russia, they said, you must be able to speak Russian, they said, otherwise how are you able to travel around? With difficulty, I said. The way there is sometimes, if not more, the most interesting part hence the word 'travelling' and not its counterpart 'sightseeing'. Getting to Russia's proudest and the world's largest and oldest fresh water lake, Lake Baikal was one of frustration, sweat and tears. The Russian language was new, foreign and complicated to me. There was no English and in fairness why should there be? Russia is their's and it remains in its entity. Possibly something extremely closely linked to communism but that's a different story. I've travelled and at some point you can reach the international language. And it makes me proud of the notorious and polar China because at least a lot of people in China speak a little bit of English. Where as you should expect the contrast in Russia.
If you like excellent views of Baikal, long stretches of stoney beach, bear shows, local food and much more we welcome you to Listvyanka. We are waiting for you!
What's in a name? Half a population also know as the female race each one as adamant as another taking the role of dear mother. Upon consumption of anything, they know best... Apparently! And they'll be no arguing.
It wasn't long before I head centre to the lake - Olkhon Island: a six hour journey also known as driving hell. Believe me when I say it's worst than in China and that's saying something. I had befriended two Koreans which made things more interesting though. Travelling here was easier for the Korean's, south of course, after taking the boat from Seoul to Vladivostok and the standard 72 hour express to Irkutsk.
Olkhon Island's village was small, sightless and this 'spirit' was invisible, untouchable or on holiday. After living in Asia it's strange when you're not haggled every other minute of your existence for absolutely anything. There was one standard price for the excursion and they didn't care if you went or not. Brilliant. I did though, on another bumpy eight hour journey heading to the north point of the island, stopping sporadically along the way which was admittedly stunning. The people occupying the island had a local religion of bayakals and this brought a theme for travellers to lock on to. Only for the Russians though, I remember thinking.
The next day, bed bugs and I went on our way, back to the pit stop that is Irkutsk. Eastern Siberia's equivalent must be China's rural parts: exploding western music as a sound track and the faster the beat the faster they drove. Surprisingly, Russia has recently imposed a smoking ban, even in outdoor public places such as train stations and upkeep was highly monitored.
Buddhist Russia was certainly unexpected and in the quiet city of Ulan Ude, eight hours east of Irkutsk, Lenin still stood. Or at very least his gigantic head. Ulan Ude became a silent gem on my itinerary with the unusual blend of Asian's and Russian's and with the paratroopers anniversary, I felt back in Russia again with the slightly violent feel. The local band played American rock and imitations of 'Back in the USSR' was somewhat ironic and comical. In contrast to travellers in other, slightly more trodden parts of Asia, the ones in this part of the world were more my kind and they were definitely the kind I wanted to give my time to, especially when I was beyond tired. Travellers, mainly Germans, cycle the length of their journey, starting in Europe to Asia, circling on middle Asia and Russia before home.
Ulan Ude's town kept me busy and the wooden houses had my primary interest. Did you know wooden houses are easier to heat than brick ones? You learn something new everyday. To describe my feelings towards visiting another temple to say to the folk reading at home would be like what it is to visit another church, for pleasure. It's not a rarity in Asia and the novelty has certainly worn off. But off I went and pleasantly unexpectedly enjoyed the rare views of Russians in their modest state, with Asia under their arms, selflessly.
The travellers race in it's depth includes getting completely off the beaten track and for me I earned my brownie points at the peak of Ulan Ude over looking this individual city in peace.
And before I knew it, I was already knee deep on the infamous great train journey that is the Trans Siberian: a 66 hour stint that would discard me in Yekaterinburg. Don't believe the hype. "I did the Trans-Siberian" he said. "You took a train?" I said. Third class resembled an open dorm with a set of wheels.
Firstly, I had to make my own bed (oh my God), which I was then too long for and poked out of the end of. On a positive note, it was not too cramped as we travelled east to west, opposite of the norm, and it did, amazingly, get me from A to B on the dot. Transport in Russia was generally simplistic. Buses (minivans in disguise) departed when full and you paid as you pleased as long as you did so at some point eventually. And the trains in all their glory notoriously departed and arrived as stated. Apart from the expected brash personalities of the population, the influx of silver lined teeth, whore-heavy makeup, white kids and the slightly further domestic distance from those say in China or India, my fondness disappeared as I contemplated the favoured and famous journey.
Hallelujah to the moon and back, what felt like a week had finished and I had arrived at my destination, tired, cold, hungry and looking homeless, I could have featured on a charity advert. I felt cheated. Russia is on eleven time zones and to standardize the process when tickling the land the train times run local to Moscow GMT +6. I had arrived on a time which was lying to me. Nether the less, I managed to charade my way to the hostel learning very quickly that asking people if they could speak English in order to point me in the direction of the metro was pointless and to get the actual translation on my phone was the way to communicate instead. After about an hour of delegation, the word 'metro' in Russian is the same in English with an accent. I won't be forgetting that one. They say there's a first time for everything and there certainly is. On the other side of the metro on the way to the hostel I was, again, indeed lost, but unknown to my expectations two locals were in need of practicing their English and used me as a bribe to take me whilst I paralleled them as a get out of jail free card. Everyone's a winner.
Talking in my mother tongue became a novelty and I was using it in a desperate measure to anyone who would listen. This particular day I found a gold card with a group of five Spanish travellers to interact with, even if it was for a few hours. I befriended Yekaterinburg when I learned that the city had conducted a smart way around their town's sights through a red line painted on the pavement. Easy fun!
So as it went, I travelled in the day and took trains overnight to the next city. Not only did it save me time but also money. I did reach a point though, where I had to bite the bullet and check into a hostel for a shower.
Next stop: Kazan - the spark in a diamond that turned out to take it's place along side my other high ranking cities of Budapest and Edinburgh. An unexpected Islamic Russia was sculptured before my eyes in all it's glory. The Russian Kremlin (ancient city walls) normally fed with a church in its heart was replaced with a mosque. Shoulders were covered with flowery materials and hair was masked with scarfs, out of sight. The city was rich and diverse. The soviet remains were still powerfully involved in the making but remained as part of the garden and the architecture posts surrounded this university prone town to high expectations. This rising city has hopes to become a player in the running. Translations and trains were sparkling for outsiders and for the day I was gleaming in my playground with ease of movement. However, it still comes... The dreaded, spoiling conjunctive that is the three lettered 'but'. And connecting it with the first, the politics, like always, would hold it back only for those willing to go out of their way in search of an unspoiled city.
And life continued as I departed the city by dusk, back on the Trans-Siberian, city stopping via Nizhny Novgorod before train hopping to Vladmir; my epiphany of Russia. Small, sporadic wooden houses filled the low mountains before the disembarkment in a one train station town. Cobbled streets lined churches, middle aged men married young girls and you were never really far from anything. I had the luxury of a bed for the night in a church hostel open for foreigners that I unexpectedly ended up sharing with three English girls and for a few hours I became 'normal' again conversing in dialect. Taking a few streets and buses with them, I immediately took a back step while one took charge in Russian. I loved the freedom of walking and looking without the constant role of leader.
A few hours later I was off on my own again in an unfamiliar location and the realisation hit how I had let someone else trace my steps. I always pull through though, even if it takes me longer and doing it on my own was the reason why I was there.
The further towards Moscow I reached, the less of a novelty I was. The locals had encounted thousands before me in the same blank white face they frustratingly have to deal with. Luckily in the hostel, I had befriended Denis, an old schooler who never quite made it as a musician and ended up scattering from one end of the street to the other doing odd jobs in a car fit for a dump site, chatting enough to travellers to earn a decent level of fluent English whilst keeping a baseball bat at the side of him "just in case". Also a member of the church, Denis got me to the train station (drove would be an incorrect word to use) and very kindly helped me get train tickets for Moscow just in time for the weekend rush. But before I went, I had another church and city to check out, which like always, were located at opposite ends. The Church of the Holy Virgin in Bogolyubovo was 10km out of Vladmir and one of the most stunning pieces of architecture I have ever seen.
Back to Vladmir, the bus station and ongoing, Sudzal was stop number 2 which was a lazy man's stop over for a chance to see "traditional Russia". You could imagine my cultural spoilt little face once I had arrived. Aside the beautiful churches, I was also a sight for the travellers and it become apparent to me that even Russians have a little Chinese in them. When the heavens opened and it poured with rain that day, the horses were shooed under a porch before their owners. Meeting a local that day, it still proved to me that 1. not all Russians are cold blooded heartless venom and 2. you are still able to communicate in-depth despite a language barrier, just if you choose to.
My day out had run it's course and it was time to move on; my Moscow train was waiting. It was around £8 for a three hour journey to the capital and the demanded train earned it's reputation well. Something about this crowded, gutted and old train made the three hour journey the longest and most tedious of them all. How was Moscow at this point? I didn't know. I wasn't going to retire my trip that early. Besides, that would have been the normal thing to do. Instead, i arrived and transferred to a different railway station via the metro to take my next overnight train at half past mignight, arriving in Petrozavodsk (yes, I also don't know how to pronounce it) at half four the following afternoon. And it didn't stop there. Once I had embarked, I had to get myself to the Hydrofoil ticket office by the pier to ensure that the following day I would have a ticket on a Russian version of a 'boat' enroute to Kizhi. Rucksack on my back, backpack on my front, I decided that it was an easy walk and put full faith in myself that, yes, I could do it and, no, I wouldn't get lost. How optimistic of myself. Despite all the travelling I do, I must admit that reading a map isn't my strongest point or any point in that matter and I fuelled myself with this over the should be 20 minutes ended up 2 hour period I walked. Media-made misdemeanours made me on edge as I found myself on what looked like a council estate whilst my image screamed lost traveller equipped with the Lonely Planet (don't judge me) in open palms. I wasn't so special in those people's eyes though and I was glad to have had been left alone.
Along the way there was tiredness and then there was exhaustion but by this point I had already sunk 50 feet below this and was dipping. Nobody said it would be easy! And travelling thousands of miles overland in three weeks felt like running 15 marathons consecutively.
Kizhi Island dates back to the 15th century to small villages and churches before the government got to it and forced it into ore mining and iron plants. Now an open field for visitors like me, the museum island is individual, quirky and a little bit weird. Only in small parts of the world can you see a real Disney World castle like this. Before you get to Kizhi island, you are also warned to stay on the path as it's also known for it's poisonous snakes. Don't always believe what you read though, right? Or do you? Follow the road around the island to the overgrown grass where the path disappears and you may get your answer.
I luckily made my train that night and began my ascend to the modern world, St. Petersburg where east meets west and everyone speaks English (how very British of me). It was another 11 hour journey and I was now well and truly train'd.
St. Petersburg was fun in a different way. Alcohol. A place we go to party. Where the busiest place in the city is a gay bar with a he/she letting it all out and I only thought of the irony whilst s/he whirled it round like a windmill on stage at a packed bar in Russia, singing Katy Perry.
There were daytime things too. I went to see the Hermitage which was incredibly intricate and would have been even more so if I understood the faintest bit about art. Then there was the midnight boat tour watching the bridges open at midnight (real touristy but loads of fun!) and my favourites; the torture museum and the Great's Antropology and Ethnography museum (Google it). Just to confirm, St. Peter was a well educated guy.
Small details excited me in The Big P. Its architecture was defiant in places we know as alleys, lanes and off roads. Its history was undeniably visible and the palace gardens were stunning (aside helping a hangover) but it wasn't Russia to what I had grown to know. I became distant and looked forward to the communist capital.
The final leg. The last train. The finale. Moscow. Dark, bleak and dangerous. Just what I'd hoped for. Wipe any trace of a smile across your face and colour off the buildings, Lenin is resting in the square and there are secret underground musings open by invitation only. Moscow, like Beijing, keeps its capital standard and there's a novelty in it somewhere once you arrive years after the revolution.
Then one month later through 9 cities and 5669 miles. Through Siberia, the Urals, Volga, Northwestern and Central Russia and through Orthodox Christian, Buddhist and Islamic Russia, motherland you exhausted me, but it was worth the trip. I'll be back in the winter. Until then, from Russia with love.
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