In August 2010 we went to Russia (with a short side trip to Mongolia). This page is a very brief summary of the fifth part of the trip, from Irkutsk to Kazan. We intend to return and fill in more details when we find time.
Sunday, 15 August 2010: A dull rainswept day. Just as well we were riding the train the entire day except for brief stops at two stations. Eric got off to take photos through the dizzle at Ilanskaya Иланская where we were actually a few minutes ahead of schedule. Our long-suffering attendants faithfully stood on the platform outside our carriage at the doors, farewelling us when we leave, greeting us when we return, and worrying if we don’t come back to our own car first before wandering off to the bar car.
At the stations other passenger trains were usually alongside us for a while. They did not look very comfortable. Our guides told us that Russians traditionally paid very little for train transport, and now will not pay to do so.
What appeared to be a military train passed us, heading west. It had about thirty large drab-coloured eight-wheeled vehicles on carriages. While they looked to have a possible rotating cupola, there did not seem any sort of gun mount. They looked a bit like something engineers might use in rough county.
To keep us occupied, two talks and a concert were held. In the morning, Marina (one of the guides and a director of the company that owns the train, GW Travel) presented a very interesting talk about life in Russia today and during Soviet days. She told us about her education, her early jobs, and how she got her first job with GW Travel.
Later, Bob Wurth, a journalist, spoke about his new book Capturing Asia, which is about Willie Phua, an ABC news cameraman; and he interviewed Willie, who was on the train with his wife. What a fascinating—and sometimes harrowing—life Willie has led! See http://www.bobwurth.com/capturing-asia.html. (When we got home, we bought and read the book. We recommend it.)
Our wonderful train pianist, Anatoly Deriev, presented a Russian Music Potpourri in the bar car at 4 p.m. He wanted an early night in the bar because we had an early morning stop the next day in his home town. Anatoly often played until after midnight, especially if someone was there singing along.
We crossed the Yenisey River, which divides Siberian into Eastern and Western parts, just before arriving at Krasnoyarsk Красноярск for a short stop at which we could get off to take photographs, but not go very far from the train. The further west we went, the more little food shops we noticed on the train platforms. Each of these shops appears to have at least beer, if not vodka.
Next up was an 80-minute documentary by Marcel Theroux in the restaurant car around 5:30: Oligart—the Great Russian Art Boom. Being tired, we skipped that.
Dinner with red caviar on pancakes, with a shot of vodka on the side. Actually not too bad, though neither Eric nor I like caviar that much. We failed to record what the rest of the meal contained.
Monday, 16 August 2010: We arrived in Novosibirsk, literally new city, around 5 a.m. Luckily we had plenty of time for breakfast before setting out on our buses. We had a long walk to the buses, as the train was parked at a siding, rather than at the main station.
Although it was formed in 1893, Novosibirsk Новосиби́рск is the third largest Russian city, after Moscow and St Petersburg, with one and a half million people. The city has six theatres, two of them drama theatres.
We visited the opera theatre, which faced a pleasant park featuring flower beds, heroic statues, and a historical display. Inside the opera building, we had a thorough tour of several halls of varying opulence, and even got a brief visit backstage at the main theatre. Despite far more steps than Jean liked, we much enjoyed this visit, not least because it was not another bloody cathedral! The toilets were, however, the squat-over-a-hole variety and had no handrails.
Continuing on our way, we stopped to view the river, and the rail bridge across it. A massive single span of the old bridge had been moved to the park as a monument. There was also a long road bridge a fair distance from the rail bridge.
We drove past several individual institutes of the Russian Academy of Science on our way to the science city of Akademgorodok Академгородо́к, population a quarter million. There are many such institutes in the area, many with attached museums.
We went to the Mineralogical Museum, which reminded us of old style museums from when we were young. The glass and wood display cases had wonderful examples of minerals, carefully explained in terms we did not understand. Our guide Olga explained several of the exhibits in detail. As a member of the Museum staff, she is not actually an interpreter, but English is a hobby of hers. She managed several jokes along the way. We could try to pick up a chunk of NiFe meteor that must have weighed 50 kg. They had various exhibits of diamond, as Siberia produces diamond. They had wonderful displays of quartz, mica (both black and transparent) and jade, including the rare blue jade. There were several minerals so far found only in Siberia.
Next on the day’s tour was the railway rolling stock museum of trains, locomotives, and railway snow plows. This museum has 200 exhibits and was opened in the year 2000. The weather turned against us here, with light rain making the outdoor museum a bit cold and damp. They had a wonderful range of locomotives and some old carriages, such as a medical carriage from WWII. They also had partially restored carriages such as were used by the family of the Tsar. These included a toilet and shower, heating stoves at each end of the carriage, and so on. We did not have time to visit the ethnical section, which included at least six different styles of snow plough.
Our lunch was at an old Soviet style building, site of the former Restaurant of the Scientists. This is said to be the best in town, and is where Vladimir Putin ate when here. The interior of the building is simply amazing, and even includes an indoor basketball court.
We returned to the train just before it departed at 4PM. There was a movie in the restaurant car about Chaliapin: The Enchanter, Memoirs of a Great Russian Bass. We had a short stop in Barabinsk just before dinner time. It was a long, tiring, but thoroughly interesting day.
Tuesday, 17 August 2010: We were on the train until the afternoon. A movie documentary about Nicholas II and his family, Russia’s Last Tsar, was shown in the restaurant car, followed by the Russian class in the bar car. The test was to order a drink from the bar and make conversation with the bartender.
Lunch onboard was gigantic, with a Russian meat broth as a starter, and salmon with a chilli sauce for main. We should have skipped dessert.
Founded in 1723 by Peter the Great, Yekaterinburg Екатеринбу́рг is the fifth largest Russian city and the capital of the Urals. The cultural and architectural influences of European and Asian civilisations come together here. Our city tour took us to the site where the Romanov, Nicholas II of Russia, was executed with his family by the Bolsheviks in 1918, now a church dedicated to their memory.
The weather was wet, with grey skies and increasing rain. We were still suffering from a cold, and decided not to go. Our cabin attendant brought Eric some grapes when she brought tea for Jean. The attendees at the tour say the church was impressive, but no more so than several others during the trip. They had the chance to stand astride the boundary between Europe and Asia. A group photo was taken of this site. There was also a tour of yet another railway museum.
The train departed just before seven, and we have dinner a half hour later. We then set our clocks back two hours, as we would be on Moscow time for the rest of the trip. This made it easier for Eric to stay up in the bar talking with our pianist Anatoly and others until around 1 a.m. Our train doctor recommended gin and tonic to prevent the cramps Eric had been getting in his calf some mornings. We gather the tonic is the active ingredient.
Wednesday, 18 August 2010: Our last full day on the train, though we spent much of it touring Kazan Казан. A beautiful and fascinating city (“picturesque and historical”) on the River Volga, Kazan is the capital of Tatarstan. We would have liked to spend an extra day or two there.
One of the highlights of the day’s tour was the Kremlin Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Upon arrival, we were met by an official “greeter” who offered us samples of a local pastry. The Kremlin featured a stunning mosque and an onion-domed cathedral, as well as many other buildings we did not have time to visit. We did get a brief look at the Söyembikä Tower and a portion of the Kremlin walls, from which one can see part of the modern city of Kazan.
We had a cruise on the River Volga, at a wide spot or lake where haze hid much of the distant shoreline. We did manage to get some photos of the Kremlin and other areas from the water, which needed some subsequent enhancement with photo software. [Jean uses GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program), a free and open-source product that has much the same functions as Adobe Photoshop.] We spent rather too much time cruising along the working docks where sand, gravel, and other such supplies were being loaded on to barges. That was quite interesting but not exactly picturesque.
After lunch in a local restaurant in downtown Kazan, we had some free time to wander around the shopping precinct before gathering at another restaurant for a short concert of music from the repertory of Chaliapin, famous Russian bass singer, with piano accompaniment.
After returning to the train, we had a “farewell dinner”—the last gathering of the two groups of travellers (our Australian contingent, and the group from the UK). The next day we would be in Moscow and the groups would go separate ways.