Monthly Archives: July 2017

St Peter and Paul City

Surprisingly for a frontier this city has a bit of history to it precisely because of its remote and subarctic location. The names of many Russian cities end in “sk” which means city or town as in English the suffix “ville”. What I didn’t know but should have is that this city is named after St Peter and Paul i.e. Petro and Pavel, hence Petropavlovsk.
The day begins with heavy rain that refuses to let up. The ring of volcanoes has gone, shrouded in mist. A wander through the heart of town commemorates not just the obligatory Lenin, but draws out a bevy of notable explorers including La Perouse the remarkable Frenchman who I like to call the French Captain Cook. There is Vitus Bering and even Captain Cook’s own expedition after he was killed. This also turned out to be an unlikely hot spot in the Crimean war. A subsequent trip to the museum nicely ties this all together.

Lenin, of course

Lenin, of course

La Perouse memorial

La Perouse memorial

Vitus Bering memorial

Vitus Bering memorial

Crimean war memorial

Crimean war memorial

Reconstructed church

Reconstructed church

Mammoth bones

Mammoth bones

At the museum

At the museum

Topiary bear

Topiary bear

In the harbour more warships and a large black “evil” looking submarine are lined up and I discover that today is navy day and this, of course is the home port for the Russian Navy submarine fleet.

Submarine

Submarine

Tomorrow marks the start of 2 weeks in the wild. There is a remote chance of internet in a week or so. I am unlikely to be able to post anything further until my return but I promise you, my faithful readers that I will complete the story on my return. Weather permitting this should be the most impressive part of the journey.

Petropavlovsk

Our plane begins its descent and as it punches through the crowd layer my breath is taken away by the range of black volcanic mountains streaked with snow. As we draw closer to the city of Petropavlovsk cone shaped volcanoes come into view. Then my heart sinks and I suddenly begin to wish I had undertaken some more serious training for this as one of them towers over the rest, Mt Korayakskaya. As it turns out I later breathe a sigh of relief that we are not actually climbing that one but the much more squat looking one beside it. I can manage that one!
The flight is uneventful apart from a couple of minor turbulences after which I catch the faint whiff of vomitus and then see a couple of passengers move out of the row 4 rows up leaving the hostesses to deal with the mess and th punter left continuing to vomit everywhere. Just a routine flight really but I have never before been in a plane that erupts into spontaneous applause as the plane hits the tarmac. Maybe these guys knew something I didn’t know.
Off the plane the row of massive volcanoes dominate the view. Its off to the single baggage conveyor situated in a dark blue perspex igloo like building.

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The city itself is very ugly and has a bit of a wild west feel (or is that redesignated “wild east” for here. All around are ugly old and poorly maintained soviet apartment blocks all framed by a most magnificent backdrop. Such a shame. Our hotel is more of the same but it is not that that I am here for and the prospect of getting among these awesome volcanoes very soon is mouth watering.

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Vladivostok

The carriage attendant woke us all an hour before arrival. The skies were leaden grey and all around was the Pacific Ocean. I always have a sense of “homecoming” when I see our Pacific. The track wound closely to the shoreline for most of the last hour over what would otherwise have been prime seaside real estate. As we neared the city centre a row of Russian warships came into sight, 11 in all perfectly lined up and with flags up to “dress ship” suggesting some sort of inspection was imminent.

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Vladivostok has been the headquarters of the Russian Pacific fleet and this is very much a military town with warships in both harbours and lots of uniformed men in the streets. Strategically it is not at all surprising as there across the sea a veritable stone’s throw away is Japan and to the south about 100 miles away are China and North Korea. It goes without saying that whoever controls Vladivostok controls Eastern Siberia.
The city itself matches the grey skies and is without any major tourist feature. It is also blighted by busloads of gaggling, noisy Chinese tourists who delight in posing in front of everything with their selfie sticks posing garishly and looking utterly retarded in the process.

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With some effort I managed to avoid them as much as possible and spent a pleasant day walking around this harbour city. The new suspension bridge linking the city to Russky Islnd has some tourist brochures branding this the San Francisco of the east. Sadly it falls well short of that.

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What I did find moving was the park around the submarine museum which has an eternal flame and is dedicated to the Russian war dead in WW2. The walls filled with names of fatalities from this city alone dwarf the corresponding board for all Australian casualties in the Canberra war memorial. Hardly surprising as to defeat Hitler Russia lost 24 million men, If that is too big to really appreciate remember that Australia’s present population is only 24 million. Think about it!

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Trans Siberian

On arrival back to Ulan Ude station to complete the last 60 hours of the epic 9000 km journey, I cannot enter the station. It is cordoned off by troops with Kalashnikovs and police in riot gear. All seems quiet and talking to the others waiting they have been here for up to 2 hours. Nobody has any information as to why. An ambulance with lights on leaves the scene and suddenly we are given the all clear and it is back to normality.
The Trans Siberian was constructed between 1861 and 1916 at a time when road travel and vehicles were inferior to rail. Tsar Alexander 111 started the project and his son, future emperor Nicholas 11 laid the foundation stone in Vladivostok. Nicholas was emperor at the completion of the line at a troubled time during WW1, just before the 1917 revolution that would end the Romanov dynasty. The official length of the journey is 9289 km and it crosses 7 time zones. Branch lines down to Korea and to Beijing via Mongolia occurred later in the 20th century. The latter is often mistakenly referred to as the trans Siberian where its true name is the trans Mongolian.
The train experience is very basic. The sleeping benches are hard and make for a disturbed night sleep and the locals who travel on this tend to self cater their food for the trip. There is almost no English spoken and there seem to be very few tourists. The locals can’t understand why anyone would bother to take the trip.

The scenery outside is pleasant if not monotonous. The Russians call this taiga, large expanses of green grass, rolling hills and the occasional pine or birch forest. Of itself pretty but after 7 days of the same I am pleased to complete this “marathon”.

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I am in a 2nd class cabin, 4 bunks and a toilet at the end with a washbasin. A large samovar at one end of the carriage is a constant source of hot water for tea and the ubiquitous instant noodles. I spend a lot of the day in the perennially empty restaurant car, allowing me to spread out and really stretch my legs. Unfortunately, for this leg the menu is entirely in Russian which means that I am having to struggle with phrase books to get a meal ordered.
Nonetheless the scenery is pleasant even if it is the same for thousands of kilometers. Roll on Vladivostok!

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Vladivostok station – the end of the line.

Ancestors

All around is verdant gently sloping countryside. The Selenge river describes a broad arc through the green hills and plains and then my guide says something that transfixes me, “this is where the tribes that migrated and settled into modern day Hungary came from”. Abroad smile crosses my lips, the Magyars migrated from central Asia and settled in what is now Hungary late in the 9th century AD. I always thought that that was actually from Mongolia. It turns out its from Ulan Ude 200 km on the Russian side of the border. The whole experience gave me pause to reflect on my ethnicity and ancestry.

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Ulan Ude is 7 hours by train from my last stop at Lake Baikal. The journey is scenic as the tratcks follow the southern shore of this massive lake quite closely and the fact that it is there for the whole 7 hours really emphasises the massive size of Baikal. Ulan Ude itself is a pleasant city, home to a massive Lenin head statue and a beautiful little square outside of its opera house theatre. I find myself taking late evening photos here when the fountains suddenly start ramping up and speakers start playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Truly sublime I sat there and just soaked it all in.

Opera House

Opera House

Massive Lenin Head

Massive Lenin Head

Cathedral

Cathedral

Ulan Ude is a tale of two religions. My first excursion is to the township of Tarbagatay 50 km south a village of “Old believers”. There is a touch of Amish about this settlement of Russian Orthdox families who adhere to the faith as it was before the reform of the Russian orthodox church 300 years ago. We are shown the church which of course is a new version of that which was razed by Stalin in the 1930s when all religions were prohibited by the Soviets and father Sergey explains the differences between the new church and the old church. To me the differences seem cosmetic and minor. The old faith uses the old, superseeded Russian Cyrillic language their fingure position when making the sign of the cross is different and their crucifixes show Jesus with his feet splayed out rather than crossed as we are used to seeing. Hardly stuff worth splitting a faith over but I keep my opinion to myself. Certainly the people are friendly enough and put on a show in native costume and a meal for us. The houses are old style log cabins, brightly painted.

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Kublai Khan became influenced by the Dalai Lama in the 13th century and as aa consequence Mongolia is Buddhist. Unsurprisingly so close to the Mongol border my second excursion is to the Involginsky Datsan (monastery). All of the datsans were destroyed by Stalin in the 1930s. Amazingly, a request by locals in 1946 was granted by the Kremlin and apparently as gratitude for local sacrifices during WW2 a monastery was established. This complex has expanded over the years to multiple temples and as we walk around twirling prayer wheels we visit them all. There are monks praying, chanting, the clash of cymbals, bells and trumpeting conch horn blasts. It is all very atmospheric and takes me back to my travels in Tibet. The piece de resistance is temple displaying the 12th Kambo Lama. His body was exhumed in 2002 70 years after his death. It shows no signs of decomposition. It is an eerie experience standing before the wax model like corpse arranged in a seated pose. It is reminiscent of the viewing of Lenin back in Moscow.

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Russian Riviera

The sun is shining brightly on the yellow sand beach. Gentle waves lap at the shore. The deck chairs are not out yet as its early morning but the pedal boats and stand up paddle boards are lined up in readiness and a few early birds stroll the shore in swim suits or even brave the frigid waters. It is less than 20 degrees celsius but here at Lake Baikal where winter temperatures plunge to -30 degrees celsius and the lake freezes over, today its time to have fun in the sun!

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Baikal cuts a great gash through the middle of Russian Siberia. It is the largest and deepest freshwater lake in the world. When Japan invaded Russia in 1905 it provided a major obstacle for the Russians. At a time when road travel was rudimentary and rail was king the trans Siberian railway had been completed to either side of Lake Baikal. In an attempt to connect Moscow with the theater of war at Vladivostok 9000 km at one stage they even laid rail tracks over the frozen winter ice of Baikal. Eventually they dedicated the manpower and resources to running a track around the mountainous southern shore. Too late as the war was lost by the Russians but the legacy of the Circumbaikal railway now provides a largely tourist train experience. Once a week it is with a beautiful sleek black 1948 steam engine and as luck would have it I was there!

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The real highlight of Baikal is Olkohon Island, a 70 km long island off the north west shore reached by ferry. It encapsulates the multifaceted ecosystem of lake Baikal and is enriched with the cultural legend of the local indigenous Buryat people. Their shamanist religion and legends are superbly brought to life by my knowledgeable pretty guide Dasha who has a real passion for this place. Enjoy the beautiful Lake Baikal.

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Siberia

The monotonous rattle of the old train on the trans Siberian tracks reflects the monotony of the flat but verdant landscape as far as the eye can see. The vista is punctuated by the poles supporting the power cables parallel to the track. In the distance there are scattered copses of birch trees. In the winter this must be a white monochrome. Everybody has heard of Siberia. For us it represents the middle of nowhere, a frozen wilderness. Those of us who grew up in the cold war are likely to have read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel Prize Winning book “A day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch” and the cruel and grim stories of political prisoners and intellectual dissidents imprisoned in concentration camps called “gulags” throughout Siberia.
I have 2 1/2 days non stop in another old train trundling through the steppes through cities such as Omsk and Novosibirsk before getting off at Irkutsk. There is almost no English spoken on board but mercifully there is a restaurant car so food is not an issue and the washrooms while not exactly the cleanest are nowhere near the worst I have seen on my travels. I am getting used to the routines. I can read the timetable on the wall now even though it is written in Cyrillic Russian and know the stops where I can get off and wander the platform and buy from the kiosk. I have deliberately chosen second class 4 berth cabins to try to meet more people. Of course no one speaks any English and, strangely, this leg I am in a cabin with three women.

Steam engine from 1948

Steam engine from 1948

Roll on Irkutsk where I have a few days sightseeing at Lake Baikal and the prospect of a nice shower!

The last of the Romanovs

I wake bright and early with the sun very high in the sky already. All around are verdant gentle hills covered in pine forest. This is the Urals, the end of Europe and the gateway to Asian Russia. Officially it is 6 am as the whole of Russia is on Moscow time. Locally it is 3 hours later already.

Unfortunately the first shiny train seems to be a one off as I spend the night in an ancient rattler. Unprepared I have brought no food on board and there is no restaurant car on this one. I chow down on two minute noodles and coffee brought from the carriage attendant. More of a worry is that no water comes out of the washroom tap when I turn the handle. After a couple of hot and sweaty days without a shower I can barely endure my own smell so I improvise and use a cup of water cooled down from the samovar at the end of the coach and have a bird bath. I laugh the next morning to find that there is water residue in the wash basin and after some exploration find that while the knobs are useless pressing up on a bit of metal sticking out of the spout releases copious water.

I hit the streets of Yekatarinburg late morning again with bright sunshine. This city, surprisingly, is the fourth largest in Russia and the hub of the extensive mining industries that abound in the mineral rich Urals. In the late 1980s President Gorbachov promoted a certain Boris Yeltsin to the politburo and he took over as first president of the “new” Russia. This is not what I am here for. Students of history will know of the last Russian Tsar, Nicholas 11. As absolute ruler of Russia he conducted the military campaign of WW1 from the front lines. In the wake of the February revolution of 1917 where a coalition of socialist and communist parties assumed control he abdicated the throne and was placed under house arrest. Following the subsequent October 1917 Bolshevik revolution he and his family were eventually moved to Yekaterinburg in detention and ultimately they and their remaining loyal staff were herded into the cellar of the house where they were staying and mowed down in a hail of gunfire by the Bolsheviks. Their bodies were dumped and burned in a forest 16 km out of the city.

Tsar Nicholas 11

Tsar Nicholas 11

Graphic snippets of history such as these fascinate me and stay with me. Decades ago I determined that when I went to Russia I would seek out this place, not for any misplaced loyalty to the Tsars or any political reasons as the Romanov dynasty was an autocratic greedy repressive regime that cared less for the people and more for building the opulent palaces that I have already seen in St Petersburg. Its more to feel history, stand there, close my eyes and imagine. To augment the experience I am in the midst of reading a historical book of this time in Russian history and the book and being here perfectly complement each other.
I trudge up the hill to the spot, it nicely overlooks the whole city. Post Soviet Russia has built a massive new, beautiful Byzantine style church named the Church of the Holy Blood where the now destroyed house was. Marking the spot of the execution in the church’s ground is a metal orthodox cross and there is a tiny wooden church adjacent. As I wander in to there it is full with all of 5 people praying and the entrance has a tiny kiosk selling icons and framed pictures of Tsar Nicholas and Alexandra. Now this is no tourist town, in fact for my whole day there I see only 1 other tourist. This is for local consumption. Even more intriguing is that there is a police and army presence that I only saw at the Moscow Kremlin in Russia. It is still there when I walk back to catch the next train out in the evening.

Church of Holy Blood

Church of Holy Blood

Romanov museum

Romanov museum

Chapel of the reverend martyr

Chapel of the reverend martyr

Cross marking burial site

Cross marking burial site

Downtown Yekatarinburg

Downtown Yekatarinburg

The Adventure Begins

Perhaps Chairman Mao’s most famous saying was “a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step”. So it is with me, the trans Siberian train journey of 10,000 km begins with the first station, Kazanskaya in Moscow. It is after 11 pm and there is a mixed set of emotions anticipation, anxiety all tinged with sadness as I farewelled my life partner who is flying home now.

The journey begins in Moscow

The journey begins in Moscow

Having traveled on trains in places such as Africa, India and China I am well prepared for anything and expecting the worst. In fact I am waved onto a new, clean train. My bunk has nice clean bedding and there is even a snack. I struggle with my overladen pack which is a miscalculation on my part that I will have to live with for the next four weeks and finally change into clean clothes and settle down for a restless night.

Kazan station

Kazan station

The next morning I find the restaurant car for breakfast. We cross the Volga river before arriving in Kazan in the late morning. The monster pack gets checked into left luggage at the station lugged away by a Russian lady muttering to her self about the weight of the thing and then I hit the road walking out to bright, hot sunshine for the first time. The thermometer eventually tips 30degrees and it is a sweaty day.
Kazan is the capitol of Tartaristan, the Muslim part of Russia. Once enemies of the Russian people they laid waste to most of Russia in the 11th and 12th centuries.They were eventually incorporated into Russia and have prospered. The attraction here is the 400 year old fortress (kremlin) perched high above a hill overlooking the Kazan River and the whole city.The sun reflects off the bright golden UNESCO heritage plate above the main gate and I wander through. There is no fee here and the tour groups are light on so I have a pleasant few hours exploring and photographing. The mosque is particularly beautiful and the coexistence with the Russian orthodox church here is particularly edifying.

Kazan Kremlin

Kazan Kremlin

Tower

Tower

Mosque

Mosque

Orthodox cathedral

Orthodox cathedral

Leaning tower

Leaning tower

Tartaristan legislative assembly

Tartaristan legislative assembly

Back onto the train tonight, sweatier and smellier despite my attempts at washing. No shower for days on end in civilisation will be a struggle.

Rasputin

Our final day in St Petersburg begins with 4 hours at the much hyped Hermitage museum. I love art but am by no means an afficionado.  Having said that I have been to the Louvre, Musee d’Orsay and the British Gallery as well as regularly seeing the special exhibits we get at the NGV at home. They say that the Hermitage has 3 million works of art and to see all of them and just spending 1 second to look would take one 11 years! I must admit I thought that the highlight of the tour will be the actual Winter Palace that it is housed in rather than the artworks themselves. How wrong could I be? This palace delivers in spades. It is an amazing collection of work from the old Italian masters to the present day and pretty much every famous artist you can think of is represented here. Like the rest of St Petersburg, mind boggling!!

New Hermitage Houses a magnificent collection devoted wholly to Impressionists

New Hermitage Houses a magnificent collection devoted wholly to Impressionists

The Winter Palace actually houses much of the collection

The Winter Palace actually houses much of the collection

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Our afternoon tour was to a lesser attraction the Yusupov palace. This is an uninspiring yellow building set on one of the main canals from the outside. It is the family home of one of the prominent noble families in the Romanov empire. On the inside the opulence is once again dazzling but the real attraction here is in the basement, the very spot where the notorious Rasputin, monk, healer,probable lover of the Russian queen was invited to dinner on a fateful night in 1916. The nobility was growing increasingly anxious about Rasputin’s influence at court and a number of them decided to put an end to this. Felix Yusupov invited him for dinner. Rasputin survived the cyanide laced cakes so Yusupov shot him, Rasputin escaped and was shot again before finally being thrown into the icy canal. When is frozen body was recovered the autopsy revealed that his lungs were full of water, he survived the poisoning and shooting and was drowned.

Yusupov palace

Yusupov palace

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An effective reconstruction in the basement brings the whole fascinating episode of history to life.

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