50 hours on a train, хабаровск and владивосток
I spent a couple of days in Ulan-Ude doing nothing much except enjoying the atmosphere in the centre and wandering at random around the wooden housed streets. Really i should have made an effort to get on one of the trips to the Ivolginsk Datsan (centre of Russian Budhism), 40 odd km away, but a combination of it being tricky to visit independently, being lazy and refusing to pay for a standard intourist trip (at the same cost as i've lived off for 2 weeks) mean't i didn't. In fact the only thing of relevance i acheived was that i got a long desired and desperately overdue haircut, although her idea of short and mine varied considerably, and it took her 7 attempts of trimming before she got anywhere near what i wanted, all the time with hushed and worried conversations in Russian with some Babooshka's, no doubt fearing that i would drop dead of cold the minute i stepped outside.
After a fun 4.33am departure (Moscow Time can be annoying sometimes when you then translate it to local and realise what time you actually leave or arrive), i was on the train for 2 days through nothingness. Beyond Chita, about 10 hours out of Ulan-Ude, there was essentially nothing for 40 hours except a few small towns and lots of trees and fields. The weather was decent, and the scenery not too bad, so the journey passed by quite quickly.
The last night i finally managed to get the newly arrived people in my open compartment to talk, and a long and lively discussion was had between the 4 of us (2 young girls and a guy) and the 2 Provodniks (both lads of maybe 18-20), plus assorted interested passers by, with only one of the Provodniks speaking broken English. But that, a phrase book and supply of beer mean't all was fine.
And the samovar died. I have never even heard of this happening before, but the 2 guys had real trouble keeping the fire going. It went out 3 times during the day, and watching their attempts to get it restarted were hilarious. If scary. But it mean't a trek through the train to find hot water for food/drinks.
Views from the train, East of Chita
By the way, a number of you have enquired about news regarding Anna-lise and whether there is any further info or chan ce of a reunion. You may recall that we split up after i made a daft comment to her after her Grandmother had died, and we were in Croatia. I can confirm that it is utterly dead. I had a couple of very interesting (and surprising) conversations/emails with people in the weeks after which utterly convinced me that it is over. In addition, a few of you have wished that i was more concise in my writings. Tough! This isn't for you lot you know?! It's as much (maybe more) for me. I've never done a proper journal before, and as such, have only basic dates and places for the last 10-12 years travels, plus memories, which scramble, fade or just disappear. So this time, i figured i'd try and write allot, so that i have a record myself of exactly what happened to look back on in the future. So there you are.
Kharbarovsk (хабаровск)is an interesting place. I wasn't expecting much - partly i was begining to feel the constant soviet architechture and designs monotonous and was anxious for a change, and having to pay an exhorbitant sum i had had to pay to change my ticket to have more than a couple of hours in Kharb (no Platskartny on any of the 3 later trains, so i had to go Kupe) i felt sure, sod would ensure to be a waste. But i actually liked it. It had a very European feel to it, many of the signs were in English (as well as Japanese &/or Chinese, the later just 30km away). Virtually all the cars were Japanese, and a relatively high proportion of the people were oriental.
The main square, buildings on the main street and a church in the square at the far end by the river
The sun was sparkling, lenin looked almost like a friendly uncle (hat, a bit chubby and no pointing), the bangles theme tune was by a large newly rebuilt church and a very impressive memorial (lots of people from here died in assorted battles), the fairground was bustling and the main streets lacked concrete, and where it had it, it was in a more sympathetic way (maybe Hamburgy, sort of) rather than the normal Russian way. The city had a prosperous feel lacking in most - no pot holes, freshly paved pavements, and large chunks of the river side area were restored or under retoration, and not falling into disrepair (although guessing they were before the work started). And the people even seemed to care. I would have liked to spend at least a night here, but time restraints mean't i couldn't.
War Memorial and church
And so on to Vladivostok. Or if you prefer, владивосток.
It was odd, really. Since i was young, the Trans Siberian to Vladivostok has been my single main travel dream (only Timboktu comes close). And whilst i knew i was going to be crossing a fair chunk of Russia on this trip, i wasn't expecting to get to Vladivostok, which would wait for a later trip. It's barely a week ago i realised that i would come here, and as such my brain/emotions are still a bit fuddled.
Vladivostok railway station. The end of the line after 9500km from Moscow
I have that "i can't believe i'm in fr*gging Vladivostok" feeling. Not the same one as the "i can't believe i'm back in fr*gging Aylesbury" felling though. Amazing. And i'm glad i did. It's one of the worst cities in the world, weather wise (the local saying is that in rains twice in July, once for 14 days, the other for 15) but i had glorious sun and warmth. In addition, people i have met who have been here say that it is nopthing special and a it of a dump, so my expectations were low. I wanted to come, because you just have to go to Vladivostok. But whilst it isn't exactly the worlds most wonderful and exciting city, it's not bad at all.
A view over the main beach area, the war memorial and submarine museum and a final statue of Lenin
It would be a perfect city to cycle in. Compact, but lots of short-ish steep hills (i know that doesn't tally with most people's idea of a great cycle city, but on a bike, i love hills), means that you get lots of decent view points. The harbour, whilst big and central, feels right instead of overpowering or being offlimits, and the warships and navy boats just lying about and numerous sailors a wandering the city seem normal. There are some decent musueums, and a relaxed beach area with a strange naked stone women standing in the harbour. And being a hilly city, there is of course a hill to climb. Thos of you who followed the earlier part of this quest, will remember that i gained an irrational urge to climb hills near citites. With most of the places i have been in in the last couple of months being on the flat side, i haven't had much chance to keep this up, and so in catch up, I was to climb up to the Eagle's Nest 6 times, and no, didn't ever use the funicular.
The main problem is the lack of anything vagely resembling cheap accomodation. I weas forced to pay 1600 a night (400 more than my previous highest, and in comparison, in Irkutsk i paid 300 a night. Admittedly 32gbp isn't the most expensive in the world, but it's a chunk, especially when i'm bugetting on 30ish a day all inc.), in the only hotel in the city which had space, accepted foreigners and wasn't going to cost 250usd or more. I know because i visited every sodding last one.
The most obvious sight about Vladivostok - if you ignore the navy presence - is that it is stuffed full of oriental tourists, mainly in groups, but not entirely. Many are Chinese, some Japanese and Korean, but they are everywhere. And in a city with many Chinese?Japanese signs, and also almost entirely Asian traffic (i may have seen a dozen European cars whilst here, and not a SINGLE lada or Bonsa), so far away from it's own seat of power, i suppose it is more of an oriental city than a Soviet one.
Unloading newly imported Japanese cars
I had a final cup of kvass (a drink that looks like beer, but is made from bread, and sold from huge tankers on the streets of virtually every Russian city) - a quite reasonable one, and in fairness only the Chelyabinsk restaurant stuff was foul, and one in Irkutsk a bit iffy tasting, had a last Shishlik and saw my last wedding parade*, and did a few bits of shopping and admin before my departure.
Littering is a bit of a problem in most of Russia
Yes, tomorrow, with luck, i leave Russia. I've loved it here, and my time has been nowhere near enough. Yet again, i have been overwhelmed by the people and their friendliness, and by the variety (and concrete) in this vast and unknown country. I will be back yet again, that much is certain. If for no other reason than i have so many new friends here, and i more or less have to recross it if i ever go back to Europe again.
I say with luck, for a number of reasons. The first couple of reasons are unlikely to stop me leaving the country, but concern me a bit anyway and could cost me a chunk of money. Firstly i'm abit worried of customs using their 'strict interpretation' of the rules to releave me of a chunk of cash i had hidden away and forgot to declare on entry. The second mobile phone could be fun to explain as well. More relevantly is the hole in my visa registration stamps caused by the Chelyabinsk farce. I'm hoping that either they will not notice the date gap due to the number of otehr stamps i have, and will just let me go, or that i can explain a fake travel scenario to them, and they will speak enough English to understand it, and buy the explanation without ticket proof. But i'm expecting a telling off, and a large fine/bribe.
But mainly, i say luck because i have no ticket and don't yet know where i'm going. Yes, of course, I have an ideal scenario, but over the last few days have been getting ever increasing feelings of impending doom. Added to my vast luck with boats in Russia (i even tried to take a harbour tour of Vladivostok, but that failed as well) and the short time frame, i'm not in any way optimistic. I'm not even optimistic of getting 'lucky' and being able to escape by paying supremely expensive first class rates. If my ideal fails, a number of factors come in to play, and things start getting potentially very tricky, and almost certainly anyway, expensive. I have a couple of other potential options, but both has its own problems and issues, and failing that, i may even be forced to fly out (at great expense, even if possible at all).
The only thing for certain is that i have to have left Russia by Saturday, or i'm in big trouble visa wise. And Russia is not a country you want to be overstaying your visa or having problems with it. Next update and news of how i managed and where will come when i'm in my next country.
And (unless i'm forced to fly back towards Europe) the exciting - for me, anyway - news is that it will be the first new country i have visited since Morocco a couple of years ago, and the first new one on this adventure.
Have fun all.
- In Russia, it is customary after the ceremony for the bride/groom and a few close friends to tour all of the main city sights and have pics taken, before they head to teh reception, and i must have seen hundreds of "happy couples" in my time here. In some places (near the Kremlin in Moscow as an obvious example), its sometimes possible to see a dozen different wedding parties, almost in a queue system for the specific photo sight.