Travel Writing Awards Entry
As a child I would have loved to be Russian. I have always been fascinated with the country, reading stories about the Tsar, Napoleon, the Cossacks and epic Wars. In the Spring, I finally had the opportunity to visit with my girlfriend, opting to catch the train from London to St. Petersburg.
The trains through Belgium, France and Germany were a pleasure, travelling in our own compartments which, although about the size of a honeycomb cell, were relaxing and saved the cost of staying overnight in a hotel.
After enjoying Warsaw’s ‘Old Quarter’, which turned out to be quite new, we headed to Warsaw Station in the evening, a filthy place with only absolutely necessary signs visible to the general public. Our train soon arrived, and with compartments (Kupé) smelling of my uncle’s garage we boarded for the 2 night trip through Belarus and into Russia.
Our provodnitsa (Carriage attendant) spoke only Russian while handing us our bedding and checking our visas. With only 1 other person in the entire carriage, we felt rather spoilt . Through Poland and Belaurus the view from our compartment window encapsulated a barren land the same colour of brown throughout. The drab panorama was instantly changed with only a falling of snow, converting our bleak view into a white quilt surrounding wooden communities.
Upon reaching the Belarus Russia border, we were ushered in by sinister block buildings and handed our customs declarations, entirely in Cyrillic. Although we had all our paperwork and no illegal goods, one still feels a little anxious when armed soldiers and dogs board your train in complete silence. Due to Russian railway tracks being a different size to the rest of Europe, we spent the night covering our ears due to the ‘changing of the bogeys’ which took place in the dead of night in the bitter cold.
We arrived in St Petersburg at 5 in the morning. Freezing cold, we walked through the quiet streets in order to find a hotel. The forgotten beer I had purchased for the train was still in my bag when it smashed, drenching my hand and numbing it in only a few seconds.
We found a hotel adjacent to the canals in the famous Nevsky Prospekt, which was comfortable and warm. St Petersburg was expensive to stay in, with 1 night in a 2 star hotel costing £60. With 221 Museums, 80 Theatres and 45 Galleries we were spolit for choice for places to visit. From the Mariinsky Theatre to the Hermitage, St Isaac’s Cathedral to the Peter and Paul Fortress we absorbed the city’s offerings. The pavements were coated in ice shifting the path 6 inches up with mountainous terrain. The Russian girls maneouvered effortlessly, with high heels seemingly the best form of footwear. By the Peter and Paul fortress we joined in shirtless beach volleyball in the –5 C chill, with ludicrous sunbathers taking advantage of the feeble sunshine.
The way to travel in Russia is in 3rd class, or Platzcart, amongst the locals dodging huge laundry bags and clothes tied with twine. An 8 hour trip into Moscow was a welcome reprieve from the surly customer service in the cultural capital, what with the waitress who threw our order across the table to multiple bank tellers needed for each Travellers Cheque to ensure minimum efficiency.
Moscow was the base from where we would aboard the Tran-Siberian Railway. Life in Moscow seemed outwardly luxurious, although expensive clothes and bleached hair seemed to hide a certain disdain for tourists, while soldiers in Red Square rigorously checked tourist’s registrations, a ridiculous requirement every time one stayed 3 days or more in one place.
Boarding the Tran-Siberian railway with plenty of others who seemed to have their entire worldly possessions with them, we shared our room with a young couple from Birobidzhan, a city in far eastern Russia. The days were spent passing time observing the landscape of flat snowy fields and distant hills and mountains. Time is an after-thought on the Tran-Siberian, with such vast distances being covered. Occasional sport was had when avoiding the drunk in the hallway, or chatting in completely different languages about the Russian mafia with a factory worker called Vladimir. The mere mention of vodka prompted him to buy us all a round, for breakfast.
After 4 nights on board, we arrived at Irkutsk at 5am in –10 C. Drained from our trip through European Russia, we waded through the amassment of taxi drivers shouting ‘No bus’ and bought a ticket to Listvyanka, a tiny town on the shores of Lake Baikal. The trip down was breathtaking, encompassing views of Fir Tree forests towering up mountain sides, shanty towns with wooden houses, before the big treat. Lake Baikal, the largest fresh water lake on the planet appeared, her waters flowing into the inlet but completely frozen from then on. The waters edge had frozen stiff, hovering just above the stony shoreline. The crystallized waves had enabled locals to ride bikes to towns with no road link, while a red mini-cooper seemed to have had an horrific accident, being buried nose-first in the ice. It turned out to have been a film set.
Listvyanka was a beautiful place to experience, with Omul (the local fish delicacy) abundant, friendly locals providing home-stays and activities ranging from dog sleighing to hiking. Our host, Andre, allowed us to stay in his log cabin with a stunning view of the lake. After walking on the ice for over an hour, kicking over 3 feet high waves and peering through the ice blue floor, we spent the evening drinking yellow Vodka with Andre, singing local songs of the Buryat people. It was one of the warmest evenings I’ve ever spent travelling, in a country that is cold in more ways than one. A note of caution would have to be pointed out however, as the morning after was one of the worst I’ve ever experienced; yellow Vodka is to be avoided at all costs.