I read a translated poem about Russia being "the Motherland" and
its vast bosom years ago. Having driven through a significant part
of it, I can agree on the "vast" part...
Also, as I am on a train and without access to the Internet, I
will refrain from linking to a lot of pages; sorry. (Turns out I am
posting this a week later, but I will still not link to stuff now;
Russia in general
- All receipts you receive are torn before you get them; this is
most likely due to the old Soviet voucher system, more on that
- Russia was hot with temperatures ranging from 27 to 32
degrees Celsius between Moscow and Ulan Ude.
- There aren't a lot of pedestrians bridges, but a lot
of pedestrian tunnels. The sides of those tunnels are packed with
tiny shops, often only two meters wide and 50-70 cm deep.
Everything from stockings to candy over glasses to flowers and
watches is being sold through a tiny window by some poor woman who
somehow managed to get in there.
- Toilet brushes stand in water. In Germany, that's a sure sign
of a really dirty toilet; in Russia, it's the thing to do.
If you are lucky, there's blue cleaning stuff added to the water.
If not, it will still have color. You are free to guess which.
- Queuing is war.
Our remaining time in Moscow was spent with touring the usual
suspects; the Kreml is a lot less impressive in real life, the Red
Square is tiny when compared to the stories I heard about it and
the Chapel ofi St. Basil is even more colorful and impressive in
real life. Lenin's body was inaccessible because workers built
seats for the May 9th parade to the left and the right of it and
they apparently thought it would be a good idea to block access to
one of the main tourist attractions while doing so. A river tour of
Moscow was a nice cool-off and we got to see quite a few
We managed to see the weekly military parade within the Kreml
grounds, but it was mostly pomp and little substance. The National
Treasure which you can access with an extra ticket within the Kreml
grounds is nice, but less impressive than the tourist guides would
make you believe. That being said... There's another museum within
the museum and.... Whoah... Tourists pay extra, visitors go through
the only non-security-theater check I encountered in Russia, guards
are armed, people can only enter and leave in batches, and the
stuff which is presented is mind-boggling. Disregarding the
fist-to-calf-sized chunks of gold and platinum which are still in
their original form directly from the mine, there is real, actual
treasure galore. Little heaps of uncut and cut diamonds, an outline
of Russia filled with cut diamonds and other random "we have this
stuff" displays can be found as well. Then, you have various tiaras
and other jewellery made from various gems. Not incorporating, but
largely made of
. All that pales in comparison to the
crown, royal apple, scepter, etc. It's hard to put the amount of
tiny multi-colored light points that shine at you into words. I was
just standing there, swaying back and forth to catch the moving
pattern of pinpoints. It's said that this collection is equalled
only by the ones in the Tower of London and the one Shaw of Iran
had and boy do I believe it.
Getting up there was funny.
The old-style Soviet queuing system was used:
- Go to a counter to tell an attendant what you want; receive
- Go to another counter, hand over stub to another attendant, pay
for what you want; receive voucher
- Go to third counter, hand over voucher; receive ticket for
tower The whole thing was made even more absurd by the fact that
counter one was in the middle, counter two to the right and counter
three to the left. As Russians do not believe in queuing and
everybody just tries to get in first, this made for a nice little
"Security" for approaching the tower was multi-level, the guards
see you approach along a long walkway way in advance and the main
guard shed had several small cabins separated by thick glass. So
good so menacing. But in a twist that would make Bizarro and Garry
Larson proud, I was required, by means of metal detector gate,
metal detector wand and even an x-ray machine to remove every
shred of metal and other hard objects
from myself and the
camera bag and put them onto a table. Once I was without anything
except my clothes and the bag was completely empty, I could pass.
Everything I had had to remove was just laying there, not inspected
in the least, for me to stuff back into pockets and bag and to take
with me. This "everything" included a Spot Messenger 2 with lots of
green and red blinky lights. The guard did not even glance and it.
Security theater? Security theater.
The view from 364 meters down on Moscow was nice, but there was
a lot of Smog so I couldn't see very far. Jumping on the glass
floor while looking down was a lot of fun, though.
Subway to Thiefing
I bet Christopher Nolan rode the subway in Moscow at least once.
That unnerving sound you hear during several key scenes in "The
Dark Knight"? Two thirds of all subways make the same sound while
Also, I had an encounter with a pickpocket down there; very
classical, too. Guy approaches quickly, talks loudly and sounds as
if it's really important (in Russian... duh... that's sure to keep
me interested). His approach made me turn and protect my left leg
pocket automatically, most likely marking the target for the tiny
woman standing behind me. Now, I have to tell you something about
my usual travel layout. As my normal pockets are very deep, it
looks as if their content was in the leg pocket. Plus, there's an
extra, hidden leg pocket where I keep the passports and train
tickets. The outermost leg pocket is protected by a velcro flap,
but it contains nothing of value; usually the appropriate
phrasebook, local map, maybe a tissue or chewing gum. Due to this
layering, the outermost pocket looks as if it's full to the brim
with stuff. Also, I took pains to make it a habit to protect said
leg pocket with my hand, nothing else. This looks as if that's the
target, but what I am actually doing is protect my normal
pocket with my forearm. The right side is different, but the most
easily accessibly pocket always holds some small change. I pay from
that stash but my actual wallet is well out of reach. Anyway, once
the guy ran off, talking to several others, most likely marking all
them for the actual pickpockets, I wanted to enter the subway.
While the Russian-style queuing took place, I felt an unusual tug
at the velcro flap. I looked down and saw a tiny woman to the left
of me with a jacket held over her right side with the left arm; I
look up to check no one is trying to steal from my permanently
assigned female, feel another tug, look the woman into the eyes,
look up again and around me, look down again and she is gone. All
that took maybe three seconds and I had boarded the subway after an
In hindsight, it makes sense to choose the time of entry for
attack. It's crowded, you are being pushed around, and once you are
in the subway, it will start moving more or less immediately while
the thief remains in the station.
In this case, she would only have gotten a grubby map of
Moscow's subway and an English-Russian phrasebook, but she got
nothing at all.
Where to begin...
If you think a few hours on a train are a long time, try over
fifty hours. Things get so bad, you start getting land-sick while
not in a moving train. You even start missing the familiar
tunk-cachunk, tunk-cachunk, tunk-cachunk... of driving over rails
with gaps in them when you are not moving.
The defining element of the Trans-Siberian Railway are birch
trees. And birch trees. And then more
birch trees. You
would not believe how many birch trees there are. This is made
"worse" by the way the Russian Railway protects their rails. Left
and right of the track, there's a cleared area of maybe ten to
twenty meters, sometimes as little as three. Outside of that, they
plant ten to twenty meters of birch trees, presumably to catch snow
during winter. Beyond that protective perimeter, there's the normal
landscape.As a result, on top of the near endless stretches of
birch woods, you see most if not all scenery through a layer of
birch trees. You get sick sick of birch trees after a few hours and
you see them for days on end.
Bullet points to save myself some typing and you some
- More than a thousand kilometers without a single hill. Flat as
- The whole route is powered by electricity. No diesel engines in
- Many stations are little more than a heap of smoothed gravel,
bordered by some wooden planks. Some stations have obviously been
built by locals and are even less well-defined.
- You can see people in the middle of nowhere, walking along the
railway tracks. At first this seemed counter-intuitive, but most if
not all roads out there are dirt tracks. As there seems to be
standing water across a third of Russia, this dirt is turned into
mud. After walking maybe twenty meters across a parking lot, I had
to scrape a heavy, thick cake of black earth from my soles. The
railway is the only functioning footpath those people have. Many
people even build shoddy bridges towards the tracks from their
homes, obviously preferring to walk along the tracks over walking
through the village.
- Railway crossings along the Trans-Siberian route, no matter how
tiny, have a small cabin beside them. While the train passes,
there's one guy or gal standing in said cabin, holding a yellow
stick vertically out towards the train. Sometimes, you have not
seen any living thing, other than birch trees, for twenty minutes
and there, in the middle of nowhere right beside a dirt track,
there's someone holding a stick out towards the train. Weird.
- Railway crossings of paved roads will always have two steel
plates coming out of the ground, angled towards oncoming traffic on
each side. This may not stop a heavy truck at full speed, but a car
will disintegrate on these barriers without touching a passing
- The railways is important for Russia. Two parallel
tracks cut across the whole country, transporting everything back
and forth. Where "everything" means mostly coal and birch wood, I
- All freight trains are usually 70 tanker waggons or 100 box
waggons long, but you see the odd 100 tanker waggons, as well. You
have more than enough time and opportunity to count them and then
- There are supposedly women at every station, selling what they
cook at home. Unfortunately, this was only true for two stations.
The things we did manage to get were very nice; I do wonder why
anyone would offer (or buy) cooked and peeled potatoes,
- Every waggon has its own hot-water stove. They are powered by
coal. Yep, you have a coal fire burning in every single waggon on
The non-existent hostel
We arrived at ~0200 local and made our way to the hostel we had
booked a room with. Walking to the correct address, we saw several
signs but they all turned out to be for a police station and some
other state agency. We walked back, forth, double-checked,
triple-checked: no hostel. We then walked around the building
through some not-quite-nice back alleys, but other than a few
entries to private flats, there was nothing. Thankfully, the
booking slip included a number which we called and after at least
twenty rings (no kidding), when I had given up and wanted to hang
up, it stopped ringing. Dead silence. After maybe ten seconds,
someone started talking in Russian. I asked him if he spoke English
and told him that we could not find the hostel. He mumbled
something about being sorry and that we should wait, he would come
down. Fast forward a minute or two and someone walked towards
Again, he mumbled about being sorry, that the hostel "did not
work" at the moment and that we would need to sleep in his private
apartment. He ushered us into some back alley entrance, into his
flat, and proceeded to remove the sheets from the couch on which he
had slept; after putting on new sheets, we had our "hostel" bed,
ready to sleep on. We briefly considered if he would murder us in
our sleep, but him and me even got to talking a bit. Over cheese,
sausage and rum (at 0300), he admitted that the hostel did not
exist and he merely planned
to turn his flat into a hostel
for the summer while he and his family moved into their summer
house (the Russian term of which escapes me, at the moment) in the
countryside. He had accepted our reservation as he thought he would
be finished by that time. He did not even get started, though.
While he sent us an overbooking notice through booking.com two days
before, we were on the train at that time, so... booking.com even
called him to check what happenend to us as we did not book another
place through them. Good customer service/protection, that.
Next morning, he didn't even want to take our money (we paid
anyway) and, as a means of compensation, drove us into the city in
the morning and to a train museum well outside the city limits, one
of the fabled scientist cities, and a large lake which everyone in
Novosibirsk claims is an ocean, in the afternoon.
All in all, Novosibirsk was relatively uneventful, safe for one
bizarre episode. We took our lunch in a local fast food joint (why
do all the good stories happen there, and not at the various truly
local places?) and threw the cashier our well-rehearsed "Niet
Russkie; anglisky?" with phrasebook in hand and he actually
understood a few words of English (beef, chicken, fries). We told
him, in our worst Russian, that we are from Germany wished him a
nice day and went to sit down. A few minutes later, a girl
approached us, literally hopping from one foot to the other and
wringing her hands. She told us that the cashier had told her that
we spoke English and if it would be OK if she talked to us. We
suspected some sort of elaborate ruse, but went with it. Turns out,
she had English at school and really
wanted someone to
practice English on. Two young men passed our table and exchanged a
few words with her, sitting down out of sight. When she told us
that she had to leave now but if it would be OK if the two boys
joined us we suspected a ruse yet again. But those two were law
students, one with a minor in English and one with a minor in
German; both of them also extremely nervous, asking us if we would
talk to them. When they had to leave, they told us that the three
of them worked at the burger joint and that their shift was just
about to start when the news that foreigners were here spread
amongst staff like wildfire. The girl stopped by several times in
between cleaning tables, getting in a sentence or two before being
cussed at by her supervisor. All in all, this took about twenty
minutes and seeing three people so nervous and grateful to talk
with us felt beyond absurd.
On the other hand, not a single traveller we met even considered
stopping in Novosibirsk during their transit so there really does
seem to be a shortage of non-Russians there.
Weird, and memorable.
- Birch trees.
- Lots of burnt underwood, presumably to prevent larger
- Birch trees.
- Sticky, stuffy, 30+ degree waggon with windows that could be
opened but which were locked (this is why I always carry a
Swisstool with me).
- Birch trees.
Irkutsk / Listvianka / Lake Baikal
Aah, lake Baikal... the oldest and deepest lake on Earth which
holds a fifth of the global non-salt water reserves; a must-see in
Quad tours at break-neck speeds, dry-suit diving with Russian
regulators, walking barefoot in between and across drift ice that
made its way onto the shorei, and extended hiking around the lake's
All of which I could not do because I was ill and had to spend
two solid days in bed.
The draft from the open window in between Novosibirsk and
Irkutsk was enough to give me a rather bad cold which peaked at
Still, the area was lovely and we were glad to be out of a train
and able to unpack our stuff without having to repack immediately
I am not sure where my current losing streak with regards to
diving is coming from (Grimsey, diving north of the Arctic circle
with birds that plummet into the water and hunt fish: Only guy who
does this is on the Icelandic mainland that day; Svalbard, diving
north of the Arctic circle in permanent darkness: The few people
who do this privately did not reply while I was there; Baikal,
oldest, deepest, largest lake on Earth: ill), but I will most
likely return to Russia for a week of ice diving in Lake Baikal
next winter or the one after that.
As an aside, I saw several people walking to Lake Baikal with
buckets to get their water. Other people got it from a well which
was still half frozen. If you have running water consider yourself
Nice city, largely uneventful. The farther east you get within
Russia, the more normal women look. In Moscow, just as in Paris,
they are way
over-dressed and even service personnel will
walk with high heels. Thankfully, I don't have to wear heels, but
for the other males out there: Walking and standing in these things
hurts and thus most if not all people who stand and walk for a
living have flat shoes.
We happened upon preparations for a military parade, complete
with cordon, viewing podests, at least half a dozen TV cameras etc,
but were not sure if it would start soon enough for us to catch our
train.We asked someone who told us it would start at 2100 local, at
1945 local it seemed about to start, and sure enough at 1955 sharp,
the whole thing went under way. About a dozen groups of 50-100
people each, all in their own, respective uniforms stood against
one side of a cordoned-off street and several higher-ups on the
other side. Two highest-ups shouted into microphones and the throng
of people on the other side shouted back answers. Then, the two
highest-ups stood in the back of a jeep each and drove past said
throng, stopping in front of each group, shouting into microphones
mounted in the back of the jeeps and the groups shouted back once
again. After that, all groups marched around the make-shift plaza
once, saluting the higher ups. Once they were done, and they took
ages, two trucks drove by with soldiers jumping out of the moving
trucks and moving into crouching positions. They ran around in a
circle a few times and engaged in pretend hand-to-hand combat. I am
sure they are skilled at whatever style they wanted to show, but
they were overdoing things so badly, they were funny, not imposing.
When they jumped over some barriers, the barriers fell to pieces
and everyone scrambled to make it look as if that was part of the
show. While carrying off the gear, it fell into further pieces
which was even more funny. An armoured personnel carrier ended the
show; several tougher looking guys jumped off of that one and
mock combat involved fully automatic fire (of
blanks), several flashbangs, smoke grenades and, to top things off,
the machine gun mounted on the APC moving down the opposing team
I never witnessed a "real" military parade in person but this
one was somewhat disappointing. On the one hand, there was a
distinct lack of ballistic missile carriers and tanks like you see
in movies, documentaries and games, on the other hand, the whole
thing had a make-do feeling to it. The cordoning police had
designated spots to stand on, yet walked around. They were standing
to attention, yet checking their cell phones. Several people in one
uniformed group were wearing track suits and jeans. Another
uniformed guy had a grocery bag with him; yet another one was
carrying a huge water bottle. Bikers zig-zagged through the cordon
and when the whole show was just about to wrap up the police
finally started putting up barriers around the unmoving
pedestrians, not blocking the bikers. One little girl was standing
well within the cordoned area, watching with big eyes and after she
did not react to the police talking to her, they just built the
barriers in a curve around her.
And to top it all off, some guy with a cane walked all through
the parade with his personal camcorder, trying to direct the whole
show while being ignored by everyone. Still, I am sure he managed
to mess up some otherwise perfectly good TV scenes.
- Diesel-powered trains.
- Single track most of the time with frequent stops to let other
- Distinctively less developed cities, stations, streets, and
other infrastructure along the road.
- 32+ degrees in our waggon.
- The train attendant was extremely unfriendly and just generally
miserable even by Russian standards.
- No toilet paper or towels at all on toilets.
- While the other attendants made a point of presenting
themselves well, he shuffled around in slacks all the time (not bad
per se, but Russia is big on uniforms, so...)
- He took all our tickets and stubs (including the ones not from
this part of the journey) and kept them without comment. After we
asked for them several times, he barked at us that we would get
them back before Ulan Bator. Why? No idea...
- He refused to let us exit the train during the very few stops.
We were unable to exit through other waggons as the connecting door
was locked. Being stuck in a train sucks.
- Border and customs took NINE HOURS!!!
Stuck in blistering heat without a breeze, without access to a
toilet, just waiting for bureaucracy to go its way. I checked all
doors, we were locked into said waggon and there were no 'break
glass to leave in emergency' windows. Especially nice as there's a
coal fire burning in the hot-water stove and the whole train is
plastered with warning signs about fire and what to do. In our
case, presumably, burn to death; preferably without disturbing the
- The Russian stamp for entering Russia (by plane) has a plane on
it, the departure one a train.
- The Russian side of the border is built like a fortress. There
are several towers and bridges over the rails so trains can be
checked from above, and reinforced holes dug into the ground in
which soldiers stand and check the train from below.
3000 kilometers of birch trees