Trans-Siberia trip, August 2010 – Part 2

Photo albums from this trip are here.

In August we went to Russia (with a short side trip to Mongolia). This page is a very brief summary of the second part of the trip. We intend to return and fill in more details when we find time.

Part 1 (Townsville through Vladivostok) is here.

KhabarovskKhabarovskSunday, 8 August: We passed directly north of Seoul, Darwin and Osaka as the most easterly point of the journey is reached. We were scheduled to arrive in Khabarovsk Хабаровск (8521 km) at 4:40 AM, but were actually there only a little after 7 a.m.

We gathered on the platform at 8:45 a.m. to meet our town guide, Natalia, from the travel company Intour Khabarovsk, who operate from the Hotel Intourist. We were taken on a bus tour of Khabarovsk, an attractive and prosperous-looking city of almost 600,000 people. Being close to the Chinese border, around 30km away, the city was a fortress town. Now, locals join bus “tours” to go across the border to do much of their shopping.

We passed the Railway University, involved with the maintenance of the Trans Siberian Railway, and residential and medical areas mostly built around WWII. Like many Russian cities, there was an impressive war memorial, but we gather the city itself was never attacked. We note it also had a vodka водка factory.

We saw lot of most elaborate and impressive Russian Orthodox Churches, once again used for religious purposes after “repurposing” during communist days. We visited Our Saviour Transfiguration Cathedral, which had a seminary next door. Here women must wear a head scarf, while men take off their hats as a gesture of respect. The requirement for women to wear skirts or dresses seems not to be enforced any longer. No photos allowed from inside the cathedral.

Red Square has become Lenin Square again, and is the second largest square in Russia, after Red Square in Moscow. The square has a statue of Lenin that is unusual in that he is not hailing a taxi. We visited the Intourist Hotel to use their good quality toilet and the inevitable tourist shop. We had never been in an Intourist Hotel before; for a long time, these were the only officially allowed hotels for foreign tourists.

A hundred metres distant was the small but good museum which had a great range of historical material on the indigenous inhabitants. There was also a wealth on local wildlife. Our guide was able to talk at length on any (perhaps all) of the exhibits. She covered beliefs such as shamanism, and what this meant to the natives. She gave examples of their sacrifice of a bear, raised from a cub for this purpose. I had not appreciated how close to the surface shamanism was in these regions. Natalia was a great guide.

The train departed before midday. After leaving Khabarovsk, we crossed the Amur River on a 2.6 km combined rail and road bridge built in 1998. Previously cars had to use a ferry. This bridge is the longest on the Trans Siberian Railway and goes through a long stretch of streams and swamps after the main river crossing. Nearby is the small town of Priamurskaya or Приамурская (8512 km) on the border of the Jewish Autonomous Region.

Lunch this day started with a seafood salad. The next dish was considerably more adventurous with sliced lard garnished with what appeared to be capsicum but was actually chilli. The idea was have a hunk of lard, follow up with chilli vodka, then a bite of a tiny bread loaf, and some borsch soup. It was tastier than we expected, but Jean did not like the chilli vodka.

We passed through smaller towns, many of which we were not even able to spot. Birobidzan (8351 km) is Capitol of the Jewish region, and was founded in 1928. We did not spot the station sign, which is in Hebrew as well as Russian.

Emboldened by the lunchtime chilli vodka, Eric tried some more regular Rusian vodka during the afternoon, after advice from Andre the bartender. It was very smooth, best served cold, and had a real but subtle flavour. While he doubted it would become a favourite, it was interesting. The vodka on the train was far superior to anything we recall tasting in Australia.

We had an Irkutsk guitarist, Alexander Saga, during the afternoon in the bar car prior to dinner. He was very good. The concert was at six, with a good attendance. He started with The Gypsies, and then did a range of original and old works. Alexander played well, despite the movement of the train and interference from the noise from the tracks.

We passed by Arkhara (Архара) while awaiting dinner, which was at 7:30 PM. We had been running the local train time at Moscow +7 hours. Just past Obluche or Облучье (8198 km) (actually at 8184 km) we changed to Moscow +6 hours, so we put our clocks back an hour before we retired for the night rather than doing it before dinner.

We were expecting a stop at Belogorsk after 10 PM. It was too late to get any photographs, but the train was examined and water and waste tanks pumped while we were pulled up.

Monday, 9 August: Continuing westward along the Amur and Shilka rivers, close to the Chinese border, we made some short (20 min) stops in various towns: Amazar, Magocha and Chemyshevsk. Each station (and many others where we didn’t stop) has a steam locomotive on a plinth. At some stops, trucks arrived to pump out the train’s sewage tanks. Water from the shower goes straight onto the tracks.

The countryside is picturesque. The towns feature small wooden houses, each with its vegetable garden, various industries related to railway maintenance, and the occasional large gray apartment block (usually looking rundown) looming in the background. The roads we could see were mostly dirt, with puddles. The occasional paved road was in poor repair.

We had a scheduled stop in Yerofey Pavlovich (7119 km) or in Russian Ерофей Павлович. The city was named for explorer Yerofei Pavlovich Khabarov. The area is inhospitable, with frost from October to nearly April. In January the average temperature is -37C.

We were running late, so the stop was shorter than expected. Here we saw our first armed uniformed person during the trip, although the weapon was a holstered pistol.

You can see out both sides of the bar car, so checking for passing trains is easier. As well as two line rail works, and separated bridges, there were some wonderful wide shunting areas, with eight or so tracks. There is a lot of freight moving along the line. It also appeared that there was an all weather road along much the same track. This was in addition to what seemed to be service tracks, some deeply rutted. We also often followed the edge of a river, which at times provided beautiful views. The rounded hills and different trees showed how the area was changing as the kilometres unwound.

Lunch started at 1:30 p.m. with some very nice creamy bean soup, fish with cheese sauce, potatoes and snow peas, or a cabbage schnitzel for the vegetarians, and ended with a fruit salad. We sat with one of the US railway enthusiasts, who seemed to have ridden a substantial number of the more interesting railway systems of the world.

The weather had changed from fine and sunny to wet and miserable. We passed some gangs of fettlers, looking absolutely miserable around smoking fires by the track. We stopped for a while around 3 p.m. at the ugly 1910 railway settlement of Mogocha (6909 km) or Могоча in the Bolshoy Amazar River Valley. The permafrost freezes the top ten centimetres of ground in winter, when temperatures drop to -60C below zero.

In the bar, Alexander Saga presented his evening guitar concert. Once again he did a splendid concert. We dined with our train doctor and her wonderful mother at eight. Even the grilled aubergine and tomato topped with cream cheese entrée was large. Eric had the pan fried beef fillet and vegetables main dish and could not manage to eat it all. Then a very solid fruit cake was served for dessert. There was a birthday in our group, and the train chefs served a birthday cake with candles.

Eric sat talking with our doctor and her mother after Jean left, then we moved to the bar car to continue partying. As we needed to set our time back an hour, we had extra time to continue with the party. Once again a fine pianist was at the party, playing mostly classical works. This include some pieces of considerable complexity. Towards midnight one of our group, who has a classic trained voice, sang some pieces.

Tuesday, 10 August: We spent some time at breakfast parked at a railway facility while water supplies and waste were attended to. Outside the area, there was a large cemetery near the railway line. We put on our warmer clothes when we returned to the cabin. There seems to be continuous mist outside, and it is much cooler than the start of our visit to Russia.

We passed through a large township with an enormous timber yard, and low wooden buildings that looked in better repair than many we had sighted along the track previously. Another settlement an hour later, just after ten. The roads here were dirt, and muddy, with puddles, so they must be having rain. Some house had small garden plots that seemed full of cabbages.

The last of Alexander Saga’s guitar concerts took place at 11AM in the bar. This time he started with some flamenco style. This was followed by a medley of music from popular Russian movies from the 1960s to 1980s. Last were some of his own compositions, and a special farewell song to wish us well. During the concert we passed though one of the towns to which the Octoberists had been banished.

The concert may have placated the weather gods. The mist lifted, and we were in fine weather again. Lunch offered a cheese and chicken salad with chicken pate or a green salad with marinated mushrooms. This was followed by a Russian bouillon with pirozhki pastry. Eric does not like mushrooms. Tatyana had found that during a casual conversation, and Anna gave me a piece of paper that said я не ем грибы.

The train was running two hours late at this point, as we continued westward to Ulan Ude, where we changed locomotives and dropped off two cars (including the staff car; staff were billeted in empty cabins in other carriages) before turning south to Mongolia. (The train was only allowed to have 8 cars for this part of the trip; we forget why.) The Trans Siberian is fully electri­fied, but the route to Mongolia is not.

In the afternoon we had a second Russian lesson, this time in the bar car. This was followed by a presentation of a BBC historical movie on Genghis Khan in the restaurant car, since that can be turned into a cinema.

Dinner was a vegetable salad with grilled shrimp, followed by chicken Kiev or a traditional potato cake babushka with wild mushroom soup.

Before the border, Russian authorities came on board and collected our passports and exit forms. Some time later they returned our passports, after which we were able to take a walk on the platform. Although photography of the border crossing procedures is not allowed, we could take photos of the train and the very clean station buildings.

The train then continued to the Mongolia border, where our passports were again collected and, eventually, returned. The train then continued through the night to Ulaanbaatar.

Continued…