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
La Perouse memorial
Vitus Bering memorial
Crimean war memorial
At the museum
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.
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.
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”.
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!
Vladivostok station – the end of the line.
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
Roll on Irkutsk where I have a few days sightseeing at Lake Baikal and the prospect of a nice shower!
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
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
Chapel of the reverend martyr
Cross marking burial site
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
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.
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.
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.
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
The Winter Palace actually houses much of the collection
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.
An effective reconstruction in the basement brings the whole fascinating episode of history to life.