<<< More 'Opinionated Traveller' stories
It's not quite third world but it reminds me more of Ecuador than of France, Greece or even Croatia. There are new cars on the streets and signs of individual wealth, but the cityscape is crumbling, the streets are filthy and the infrastructure looks neglected. Even the Czech Republic, a former communist state, looks hugely prosperous by comparison.
When we crossed the border by train the difference was evident. The rural landscape was largely the same - farm houses all look alike - but the urban landscape in Russian cities is grim.
We arrived in St Petersburg on an overnight train from Helsinki. The city, perched on the shores of the Baltic at the mouth of the Neva, is not pretty. It has its highlights - churches and palaces and cathedrals - but the city streets are nasty and grey and clogged with cars and people. The concrete columns of 'panelaky' or tower blocks are everywhere.
We saw the 'Church of Spilled Blood' where Alexander II met his end, communist era department stores with stained glass and mirrored ceilings, sumptuous pre-revolutionary gardens and the Aurora, the battleship that signalled the revolution that would spark the birth of communism.
We went to see the Hermitage, the Field of Mars and the Eternal Flame, the Peter and Paul Fortress and we took a boat tour through the canals. But perhaps the biggest 'experience' in Piter, is just riding the metro. The stations are ornate and elaborate and the escalators descend further into the earth than any I've ridden before. The lighting is dim, the noise infernal and the place swarms with people. It's a little like, I imagine, a descent into hell.
We stayed in the "7 Bridges", a flea pit hostel run by an affable Englishman and his Russian girlfriend. Tim teaches English and rents out the spare rooms of his four bedroom flat as a 'hostel'. It was cheap and the beds worked but there isn't much else I can say to recommend the place.
Our hostel in Moscow also caused us heartburn when, with two days notice, they cancelled a booking I'd made two months in advance. Knowing how difficult it is to find accommodation in the capital and how cash strapped our Czech pals were, we decided to skip through Moscow in a single day.
But we had to get there first.
We went to the train station to buy our tickets. At the first counter we waited patiently until we reached the front of the queue whereupon the woman behind the glass gestured to a little sign that indicated her lunch hour, snarled something and snapped her blind shut. We rocked back on our heels, a bit bewildered, and scratched our heads. A friendly Russian girl, who had just bought her tickets, pointed us to the next counter where the blind was due to go up and laughed and said, 'It's a big joke, no?'
The blind went up and Dan and Veronika and Jarda went into their 3-way pidgin Russian which eventually produced some fine looking tickets, on which I could read not a word except Mockba - Moscow.
We rode the sleeper to Moscow and arrived early in the morning. We spent one long day in Moscow, which was more than enough in my opinion. Our first priority was to familiarise our two semi-blind pals with the metro system since they would be returning to Prague, via Moscow, without us. This done, we headed for Red Square and the Kremlin for a little sightseeing.
Red Square filled with tanks and rockets is an abiding and impressive image. Red Square filled with damp tourists and scrawny pigeons is depressing. It has the fabulous onion domes of St Basil's Cathedral, the massive red walls of the Kremlin, the ziggurat of Lenin's mausoleum and the devastatingly ugly facade of the GUM department store (or is that GLUM?) - but it all looks a little forlorn. A little like a crumbling monument to a decadent and deceitful empire - which, I guess, is what it is.
My abiding image of Moscow is one I snapped outside the train station - in the background is a copy of the Empire State building, built on Stalin's orders so that Moscow would have some skyscrapers to compete with New York's - and in the foreground a woman with needle tracks up both arms pukes fluorescent green bile into the gutter while a guy with a Mercedes and a suit looks on.
Sums the place up nicely, I think.
To get out of Moscow we bought tickets in St Petersburg for the 3-day train ride across Siberia. But it was the summer holiday and everyone else had already had the same idea. We had planned to go 'platskartny' (3rd class) for about 3000R a head but in the end, the only seats we could get were 'kupe' on the aptly named 'Baikal', a prestige train. The seats costs us 10000R a head, a bit over budget.
The 'Baikal' was nice and clean and our 'provodnista' was not too unfriendly but the trip was dull. I like train travel, but after three days of monotonous food, unchanging scenery and paltry conversation (I don't speak Russian and only a little Czech) I was ready to get off.
For those of you looking for the romance of train travel, this isn't it. I truly believe it might have been once. But now it is as soulless and as sanitised as a trip through Disneyland. The romance might still be there, somewhere on a train in Russia - the BAM for example - but the Trans-Siberian has definitely lost its charm.
Like many Trans-Sib travellers we decided to break the journey up and so we stopped in the middle - at Irkutsk. After three days on the train we were looking forward to a shower but muddled through getting accommodation and food in a long and drawn out process that left everyone tired and grumpy.
The next day we got on a minibus for a hair-raising ride out to Olkhon island on Lake Baikal. The lake is the largest freshwater lake in the world by volume (over 1600m deep) and the island sits about a third of the way up the western shore. The nearest ocean is over 100km away.
Olkhon was beautiful and the lake is serene. From the capital Khuzir you can gaze west over the lake to the white slopes of the Sayan mountains which loom like distant icebergs on the shore. The weather on Olkhon is preternaturally perfect as well with more than 200 days a year of sunshine. For five days we camped by the lake, swam in it (15C!) and walked all over the island. One day we had hoped to try a pony ride but instead walked out to a mountain lake in the middle of the island where I nearly sat on a snake and we dabbled our feet in the placid waters.
We loved the island after the filthy cities but the local recycling habits left a lot to be desired - the locals and visitors simply pitch rubbish by the truckload straight into the forest. It took the edge off what would otherwise be a beautiful place.
On Olkhon, our travel plan became a little ambitious. We wanted to head to Japan after Russia and our original route would take us to Vladivostok and onto Japan by ferry. But there was another option, to go north via the BAM train line to a port called Vanino, the island of Sakhalin and then a ferry to Wakanai in the northern tip of Hokkaido, Japan.
This is the way we went.
For more details on doing this trip see my BAM guide.
From Olkhon island we caught a hydrofoil ferry to the northern tip of Baikal, to a town called Severobaikalsk. The town itself is unlovely but located on the strategic BAM railway which was to take us east to the coast.
We'd arrived late and all the hotels were booked out. We were facing a night sleeping in the waiting room of the train station when one of the ticket agents, the lovely Oksana, came through for us. She found us some space in the stations 'waiting rooms' - rooms with beds but no bathroom. It was enough for us and we collapsed into them gratefully.
The next morning she also had tickets for us and we shipped out for Tynda on the BAM about 600km kilometres away.
The scenery here was much better than on the Trans-Siberian, with tree clad mountains and switchbacks along the lake shore. The people were friendlier too and the staff. We met three women from Yakutsk in the north who recommended the delights of frozen horse meat and said we should come visit them some time. We also met another three from Tynda who shared champagne and smoked fish with us and also invited us into their homes. Sadly we were on a schedule and by now, or one thought was to get out of Russia as soon as possible.
We stopped in Tynda for a quick swim in the river and some food and then we were back on the train again. This time going south, back to the main Trans-Siberian route at Never. From there we went east to Khabarovsk and then back up to the port town of Vanino.
I saw a sign in Vanino by the railway track, it said we were 9900km from Moscow. We'd come a long way... but it wasn't quite far enough.
From Vanino on the extreme eastern edge of Russia we caught a rust bucket ferry for a 12 hour trip across the Sea of Japan to Sakhalin Island. Two of our friends, Masha and Zena, helped us through this and really made the difference between a complete melt down and an exhausting but triumphant victory. You have no idea how hard travelling in Russia can be until you try buying tickets for the Sakhalin ferry!
We arrived in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk on Sakhalin late that night. All the cheap accommodation was booked so we plumped for the very fancy 'Japanese style' Sapporo Hotel which was a welcome relief with a hot bath and nice food.
We spent another day in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk buying tickets for our onward ferry connection to Japan and trying to find somewhere decent to eat. We failed. The food here, and in all of Russia was abysmal. Never have I been so underwhelmed by a national cuisine than I was by piroshky and borscht. No wonder the population is decreasing by 1% per year.
You might have got the impression that I didn't like Russia very much, and you'd be right. I won't be going back. There are many reasons for this, some to do with how we organised the trip, some to do with how things panned out, but most of it is to do with Russia herself.
I feel like I should tell you not to go to Russia, to stay away, but I can't. I can't for one simple reason - the people. Some of the people we met along the way in Russia were amongst the nicest, most generous I have ever met. Zena, who shepherded us all the way from Vanino to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk was a case in point. She was helpful and friendly and cheerful and revealed to us at one point that she lives off a pension of 60R a day, or about A$4. She retired at the age of 53, early because in Siberia they have a hard, short life. When we asked how she lived, she shrugged and said, "It's Russia. Food is okay, living is okay, travel is difficult."
Ordinary people like Zena need to meet other people from around the world to understand how it is possible to live and what Russia could be like. And people from around the world need to visit Russia to see what is being done there and the inequities that people endure and reflect upon their own lucky circumstances.
So go if you must, but go with a hardened stomach and a bagful of patience and, as always, get off the beaten track and try and meet the locals.
NEXT : Land of the Rising Sun