It hasn’t taken me long to adjust to life aboard the Trans-Siberian train. I mistakenly thought my journey between Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk lasted a night and most of the next day, but when I realised I’d got this confused with the Krasnoyarsk to Irkutsk journey, and the train actually left Novosibirsk in the evening and reached Krasnoyarsk the next morning I was disappointed. Only a night on the train and no day to spend lounging in the top bunk, working on the novel and reading Tolstoy?
I’d opened my can of ‘real Manchester Gin and Tonic’ procured from a
Novosibirskian supermarket, I’d already got talking to an alright-looking Russian guy (alright-looking Russian guy = very good-looking English guy in my Man Value, by the way) from the next carriage and then I discovered this train came with meals included. On the RZD website it had mysteriously said ‘services included’ but hadn’t explained what this meant. So it was a nice surprise when the prodovistra brought in a polystyrene tray with two fried eggs in (and some meat and cheese, but let’s ignore the meat). Unusually for a travelling vegetarian I hadn’t had eggs for weeks and had been right fancying some, so dipping the accompanying sour-dough bread into the yolk was quite a treat.
Just over forty eight hours before I’d been nearing the end of my first Trans-Siberian journey: Vladimir to Novosibirsk, about forty five hours all in all and none of it spent in boredom. I guess you have to be the kind of person who knows how to occupy themselves to enjoy this kind of thing but I loved it. The Russian landscape, so far, hasn’t been that much to look at – mile after mile after mile of Taiga forest (not that you can ever have too many trees), though we did pass over the mighty Volga river after going through rain-swept Nizhny Novograd and passed through the curiously non-mountainous Ural mountains, but it’s still nice to take a break from lounging in the bunk and go and stand in the corridor and look at the biggest country in the world passing you by. I would love to do this journey – the whole thing from Moscow to Vladivostok in winter.
The strangest thing is the time zones. All the trains run on Moscow time, but Russia has seven time zones all in all. In Bryn Thomas’ indispensable ‘Trans-Siberian Handbook‘, he quotes Michael Myers Shoemaker who said in 1902:
“There is an odd state of affairs as regards to time over here. Though Irkutsk is 24000 miles from St. Petersburg the trains all run on the time of the latter city, therefore arriving in Irkutsk at 5pm when sun would make it 9pm. Today I should make it now about 8:30 – these clocks say 10:30 and some of these people are eating their luncheon”
Well, I was one of those people tucking into my luncheon (of crackers and cream cheese). I’d decided to change from Moscow time to local time when we reached Yekterinburg, as I figured that the people who had just got on and installed themselves in my Kupe carriage would be getting up at what I would be thinking was five in the morning. So I went to bed early and got my lunch out when my watch was still saying it was about ten a.m. Otherwise I’d arrive in Novosibirsk having just had lunch and it would be dinner time there. All very strange. I’m going to be on the train to Irkutsk when the Eurovision is on tomorrow, but I am already seven hours ahead of UK time, Irkutsk is one hour ahead of Krasnoyarsk and God knows how far ahead of Central European Time, which is behind Moscow time, so I can’t even figure out what time it’s on here.
I spent the whole twenty four hours here trying to prepare and post an application to an artist residency in Europe. Two things about this place: one, there is nothing whatsoever to see here anyway and you can’t leisurely walk around because car pollution is so bad that if you did you’d need a lung transplant after half an hour, and two, fuck me, the Russian Post Office leaves something to be desired. Someone needs to come here and introduce the congestion charge and the concept of queuing. Oh, and install metro station doors that don’t swing back with such force it’s nigh-on impossible to not get smacked in the face by them. I do have to say a huge, huge thank you to Anya at the Dostoevsky Hostel though for her help with my postal nightmare. I also had some delicious mashed potato and green beans cooked with garlic at the Fork and Spoon cafeteria as well. It was the only veggie option, but it was nice.
Krasnoyarsk, on the other hand, is a great place. They pipe music onto the streets and some of trees are made of plastic. Like, there is a line of real trees and then the one at the end is obviously fake, complete with plastic lemons. I was inspecting one earlier when a local walked past and noticed him knowingly grin, like it’s some communal in-joke. Was this the place that inspired the Radiohead song? It has very cold winters and even now a chilly Siberian wind takes the heat out of the sun, but doesn’t seem that depressing with an instrumental of ‘La Bamba’ putting a spring in everyone’s step as they walk down the street.
Yesterday I went to the fabulous Stolby Nature Reserve. It’s named after some weird rock formations there called ‘stolbs’. Along the 7km road to the main
part of a park I came across a sign, which told of the good news that the number of bears, wolves lynx and sables (like a pine martin) have increased, although I was a little alarmed, as I was there alone, to know that there are now about thirty bears, and pack of wolves and eight lynx on the loose in the place. The rocks were cool, the smaller ones were moss and lichen covered and the larger ones were huge – great for rock climbing. I was scrambling up a smaller rock to get a picture of the gorgeous pine covered mountains in the distance when I saw a tail disappear between two boulders. After a while, a cute little furry head appeared and I realised it was a sable. It played hide and seek with me for a while and I thought it was so sweet until it began growling menacingly. Not quite a bear or a wolf, admittedly. In fact, the only other mammal I saw was a chipmunk, but there were also lots of interesting birds and beautiful wild flowers.
I was exhausted after trekking through the forest and over the rocks so was relieved when a bus pulled up just as I reached the stop. The 19, which I figured went back to my part of town as that was where it had come from. But no, as I sat there and the city scape we passed through changed from tower blocks to retail parks to industrial warehouses and then open country I began to think maybe this wasn’t heading back to the Opera and Ballet Theatre where I had boarded the bus in the morning. It terminated in some strange, desolate bus park and I had to explain in my rudimentary Russian that I was totally lost. The helpful conductress put me on another 19 bus which was going back into town, and the conductress on that bus virtually held my hand until I could change onto a bus going to the right place. Fear not though, Englanders, as I was waiting to get off, I heard her telling two other passengers about the stupid tourist mistake this ‘German girl’ had made, so your country has not been shamed in the city of Krasnoyarsk!
I was absolutely starving when I finally arrived back but found a great USSR-themed restaurant. They seem to have a few here, along with a record count of three Lenin statues and a little section of the art museum devoted to him (but the region gave Putin 50% of the vote, apparently). The restaurant not only did a vegetarian salad (a lot of mushrooms and soy sauce, but nice) but also some delicious potato fritters with sour cream. Someone had also scrawled ‘Go vegan’ in the English on the menu board outside.
It was back on board the train he next day to head to Irkutsk and then onto Lake Baikal. Only a few more days in Russia and I’ve not even been properly drunk on vodka yet!