Tag Archives: Russia

The Grand Tour Ten Years On—Eastern Shores

In European myth and storytelling, the western ocean is romanticised. Whether it’s Atlantis or Tir na nOg, or Tolkien’s Valinor, there’s a feeling of something of worth to be attained in the uttermost west. A few years before the Grand Tour, I’d visited California for a wedding and watched the sun set over the Pacific from the San Diego waterfront. For me, that moment was my furthest west. It could hardly be a surprise that my exploration reoriented itself afterwards.

When the time came to plan the Grand Tour, I had a choice. Take the Trans-Mongolian into China, like most travellers do, or take the traditional route past China to Russia’s eastern entrepôt, Vladivostok. Deciding that China was best kept for a more focused trip (because there would always be time, wouldn’t there?) and that I could hardly resist the opportunity to travel to Vladivostok when it presented itself, I went for the latter option.

All Siberia, all of the time.

First though, there was the small matter of actually getting to Vladivostok. My journey across Russia from Moscow to Irkutsk had been just the first half of my Trans-Siberian experience, and now I had four days from Ulan-Ude to Vladivostok to look forward to. For company on the train, I was sharing my cabin with two Russian women and one of their sons. Luckily for the sake of my fast-atrophying social glands, they had a smattering of English and a willingness to teach the strange Irishman some Russian card games.

So that was how the next four days went. Getting taught card games, questioned about what I was doing in Russia, and interrogated about why I, a man in my mid-30s, wasn’t yet married with kids. Staring out of the window at landscapes to which dissidents had been exiled in all-too-recent times, and roaming the carriages of the train and feeling like that ghost of the iron rails again. (Approach the restaurant with as much caution as the bathroom facilities on these trains.)

On a four day trip, what else are you going to look at?

Even more so than the first half of the Trans-Siberian journey, this part felt like a venture into unknown spaces. Russian East Asia backs onto the furthest edges of the Russian realm, reaching all the way to the Bering and Arctic Seas. The first signs of oncoming winter were visible in patches, but I was surfing the line of its arrival and passed north of China and on towards Vladivostok before any great change came over the land.

So to the eastern city then. The Trans-Siberian reached its terminus in the early morning of September 19th (I think. The dodgy clocks on my phone and camera and the effects of time zone shifting make timing awkward.) and I said my farewells to my fellow travellers in the darkness of the train platform. I was wildly early to check in at my hotel, so once again I hefted my bags and found a coffee shop to lurk in until dawn.

Vladivostok Rail Station in the early hours.

The exploring itch was hard to ignore, but first I needed to shuck my burden. When I could, I headed for the hotel and once again ran into a wall of Russian bureaucracy and had to explain that, yes, everything had been booked long ago. Eventually alternating between sitting around waiting and standing at the desk pointing at my printouts proved an effective strategy and I was accepted as a guest. While I couldn’t set up in my room, I could at least leave my bags behind and go a-roaming.

I had three days, more or less, in the city. I won’t take you through every step of the way, but it was a dreamlike experience to be so far from home and surrounded by so much that was familiar and so much that was a reminder of that distance. Like San Francisco, Vladivostok is a port city, built on hills by the sea, and like San Diego it’s also a naval base, with a massive Russian navy presence.

A bridge, unfinished, yesterday. Well, ten years ago, actually.

The massive bulk of the half-completed Zolotoy Bridge became my constant companion, looming over the city as it stretched across the Golden Horn Bay. (Another familiar name from a previous trip.) I climbed the hills to watch the sun go down and rise, I ate dinner in a rooftop restaurant for Russia’s rich, and I roamed around the crumbling wharves where fishermen waited patiently at their rods.

Like Ulanbaatar, Vladivostok’s pavements veered between pristine and piecemeal, depending on where in the city you ventured, and I had to watch my step. Still, I spent happy hours crossing the city while listening to the Kermode and Mayo podcast, peering into tiny tanks in a hidden garden and taking a tour through a beached submarine where I somehow managed to avoid banging my head off the low-hanging ironmongery.

Have a submarine, streamlined for your pleasure.

As much as I tried to connect into the city’s social life though, I didn’t manage it in Vladivostok. It’s not something I was good at, either then or now, but the city itself has a weird melting pot quality. The European side of Russia exists in full force here, as an outpost of the empire that was, but it’s layered with Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and even American flavours. Vladivostok is a city well worth the visiting, but it’s not likely to offer you any easy answers.

On my last day in the city, I roamed in the morning and did a bit of shopping, picking up a proper Russian fur hat from a military surplus store (which would mostly serve as a store for my growing collection of fridge magnets over the rest of the trip). I’d located the ship that was to take me onwards the day before, and it was no great problem to get on board and find my berth.

Vladivostok’s famously well-endowed tiger.

The actual experience of being on the ship was the first time I’d been around other traveller since leaving the Australians in Vladivostok. Our sleeping quarters were bunks in shared dorms (segregated by male and female) so most of the time we just wandered the decks. Most travellers were Korean and Chinese, but there was a core of people like me, who were in Vladivostok as part of longer journeys and now set to move on.

We formed a temporary social circle, one I was very glad of, and we chilled out, chatted, and partied as the evening drew on and the sun and land both disappeared in the west. It was a release for me, awkwardness mostly forgotten as I tried to restart those social skills enough to get through the experience.

Party time on the boat.

The next day, we were due to pull in at Donghae on Korea’s eastern coast. The Eastern Princess plied a triangular route between Russia, Korea, and Japan, and this was the intermediate stop between when I got on and when I got off. Eager to add an extra country to my journey, I joined a few of the other travellers in braving Korean customs and catching a bus to the city centre. One quick trawl of the markets later, we returned to the ship laden down with fresh food, just in time to cast off.

We’d lost a few of the travellers to Korean adventures, including a couple of Austrian motor bikers, so it was a smaller group who partied that night. I even tried out the boat’s Japanese-style pool, but the dregs of a typhoon raised some heavy waves, resulting in an excess of sloshing. The bathers were ejected from the pool and returned to a ship that was still rocking and rolling.

Saying farewell to the Austrians in Korea.

I’ll leave it there for now. That was the evening of the 22nd, and it’s the evening of the 22nd now too. Russia had been left behind and Korean become another stop along the way. The Grand Tour felt like it had a momentum of its own now, and I was happy to just enjoy it, but Japan was waiting under the rising sun, and I had yet to understand just how much I was going to enjoy the next week.

The Grand Tour Ten Years On—The Lake in the Middle of the World

Four days on the train. Four days when nothing much changes except the world around you. A constant stream of changes, gently but insistently carrying you into a new world. Punctuated only by the occasional train station, offering you a chance to test your Cyrillic comprehension and sometimes even a chance to stretch your legs further than the length of a railroad car.

If I had my time again, I would probably arrange a few more stops along the way. The cities of Russia slipped by and looking back at the photos I took then, I can’t recognise any of them. Storied Novgorod was on the other Trans Siberian line, and while Omsk was on mine, it was just a brief stop among many, where people more sensible than I disembarked.

Omsk railway station, glimpsed only briefly.

There isn’t another rail line like the Trans Siberian. Or rather there is, but it’s the Trans-Siberian’s sister line, the Trans Mongolian, which runs from Moscow to Beijing instead of Vladivostok. This first stage of my journey was the part of the line shared between the two, a four day run from Moscow to Irkutsk. There’s a northern and a southern branch for part of it, but I can’t imagine there’s much difference between the two.

For those travelling long-distance on the Trans Siberian, most of whom are Russian, not tourists, it can be a hypnotic experience. The rhythm of life on the rails infuses everything, from the moment-to-moment rattle of the rails themselves, to the sunrise and sunset schedule of sleep, to the gradual shifting of the immense landscape of Russia, carrying you imperceptibly from fields to mountains to plains that all seem to stretch on forever.

One of many water (signal?) towers on the Trans-Siberian railway.

For four days I shared a four-person cabin with a rotating cast of Russians. Or rather myself and an elderly Russian couple shared the cabin with multiple guest stars. I did my best to communicate when I wasn’t scribbling in my notebook or staring at the landscape as it passed by, but I wasn’t wholly successful. The one fact I did manage to convince them of was that strange Irish tourists couldn’t feed themselves. I’ve no idea how my diet of snack bars, bottled water, and black tea from the carriage samovar could have given them that idea, but they pressed a share of their own food on me whenever they thought I looked hungry.

It was probably standard Catholic guilt over not being able to repay this kindness, along with a breed of recklessness that comes from being train-bound for four days, that led me to supplement my diet with a strange meat and pastry combination from a vendor’s stall on one of the platforms the train stopped at. For the standard Trans-Siberian traveller with guts of iron, this would be a straightforward choice. For me it was to cause significant gastro-intestinal distress over the next few days.

The Trans Siberian is a living experience, a long way from here-to-there travel.

Eventually though, Irkutsk approached. I said my farewells to my long-time companions when they disembarked a few stops before the city. For myself, I lasted around an hour longer before being deposited on the platform of Irkutsk’s main station. I had no time to look around though, as everything had been booked and arranged months before. Myself and a few other travellers were bundled into a jeep and driven along the short and well-paved road to Listvyanka, on the shores of Lake Baikal.

If the Trans Siberian can feel like it crosses half the world, then Baikal feels like the lake at the centre of the world. In the very heart of Asia, there’s much about it that could be dropped into a fantasy novel and not feel out of place. Unfathomably deep, its waters are cold and clear and freeze thick with ice when winter comes. It has its own species of seal and sturgeon, and while I saw neither, I saw sunset over the lake from Listvyanka and didn’t feel robbed.

Sunset over Lake Baikal, as seen from Listvyanka.

Listvyanka as a resort is very popular with Russia’s well-to-do set, but I’d arrived in the off season, so myself and a small group of Australians heading in the other direction on the Trans-Siberian felt like we had the place more or less to ourselves. Despite the ongoing trauma of my culinary adventures the previous day, I felt a deep peace while we were there, whether lazing in our chalet or roaming the shores of the lake itself.

No pause lasts forever, and no moment of ease can be luxuriated in too much, especially when the call of travel continues. But I did have one thing that I wanted to do before I left. On my last afternoon in Listvyanka, I donned my swimming trunks (mostly unused on the trip other than this) and baptised myself in the waters at the centre of the world. It was as cold and refreshing as I’d hoped and worth the trip thus far, even if the Russians on the shore were undoubtedly wondering who the crazy pale person was.

The author post-Baikal dip. Cold but very pleased with himself.

That was it as far as the blue skies and deep waters of Baikal went though. The next morning, the jeep returned to bring me back to Irkutsk, so I said my farewells to the Australians and boarded. My train wasn’t setting off until late in the evening, and the Irkutsk station was pretty unfriendly when it came to people hanging around in the lobby, so I had a day to myself to explore the city.

If St. Petersburg is an imperial city, and Moscow is the seat of power, then Irkutsk is an outpost. From this city, the vast Siberian wilderness had been explored and, if not tamed, at least brought within the compass of the Russian state. Here, the European soul of Russia reached its limits and came to a compromise with its greater Asian self. The museum of Siberian exploration is a must visit for anyone roaming Irkutsk, but there’s just as much to be seen across the city itself.

A photo of Russian explorers, as seen in the museum.

I wandered the shores of the massive Angara River and watched a judo exhibition in the sunlight (Putin was a fan, apparently). I saw another of those fairytale Russian weddings take place under blue skies, with a gilded crystal carriage straight out of Cinderella. I saw Russian Imperial architecture clash and meld with frontier Siberian wooden shacks. I saw statues and fountains of modern Russia sit incongruously amid it all. But at length I saw the sun go down and returned to the train station to wait.

For I was continuing not onwards but southwards. For the next few days at least, I was abandoning the Trans Siberian for the Trans Mongolian. A border crossing or two awaited me, and a nation of people feted across history as conquerors. It was Genghis I was going in search of, and as I settled into a new cabin, with two Icelandic travellers and a Russian tour guide for company, I had an inkling that the best was yet to come.

The Grand Tour Ten Years On—Heart of Empire

Not for the last time on this or other trips, my fondness for overnight train journeys dropped me off in an unfamiliar city somewhere around dawn, when only fools and insomniacs are up and walking around. I’ve rarely had much problem sleeping since I was a teenager, so I must have fallen into the former category.

My fuzzy-headed recollection of that first morning in Moscow has a few clear spots. A somewhat unfriendly cafe where I found some breakfast, the westernised precincts of the GUM shopping centre, and Red Square right next to it, with its unapologetically Russian architecture, the tomb of Lenin, and St. Basil’s Cathedral. I was way too early to even think about checking into my hotel, so I found a nearby museum to wander around for a few hours, and more importantly to drop my rucksack into the left luggage room.

Moscow’s State Historical Museum, good for red bricks and the occasional pointy tower.

That first day was a jumble of impressions. High points included that initial period of roaming around Red Square and seeing the local sights, as well as finding a full-size prototype of the Soviet “Buran” space shuttle in Gorky Park. The main low point was making my way to the outskirts of the city to the Ismailovo Beta hotel and spending an hour or two persuading staff of my existence and subsequently the existence of my room reservation. (Not the last time I’d face this problem in Russia.)

The hotel itself was an anonymous block, and I didn’t even notice the casino on the ground floor until I checked my photos. But I had a great view of the local forested park, and I was only a short walk from the Partizanskaya metro station (the main reason I’d ended up in this location). So on my ventures to and from the city in the next couple of days, I would at least have the pleasure of inspecting Soviet subway architecture.

Soviet subway stations are heavy on the revolutionary sculpture and statuary.

Day One continued as it had started, with a lot of walking. There was sunshine aplenty, so that worked out well enough, and I did my best to get a feel for a city that seemed more reluctant to open up than most I’ve come across before or since. The Moskva River was my main point of navigation, with its frankly surreal statue of Peter the Great aboard a ship much too small for him and the nearby Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, far larger but much less attractive than St. Basils.

If Day One was wandering, Day Two began in a more structured way. Structured around museums, admittedly, but the Kremlin has its fair share of those. Amid intermittent showers, I visited the Tsar Bomba cannon and Tsar Kolokol III bell, both the largest of their kind. I wandered past stacks of cannons, perhaps retrieved from Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow in 1812, and watched stern-faced Kremlin guards remain impassive in the face of local cats taking shelter between their feet.

A mammoth exhibit. Some ice-age tusks retrieved from the permafrost.

Mostly though, I appreciated the chance to get to know Russia better. St. Petersburg had been a decent introduction, but Moscow was a tougher nut to crack, and I had weeks left before I left Russia behind for good. Roaming through Russia’s history, military and otherwise, under the watchful eyes of Russian grandmothers serving as security, helped. But simply roaming the city helped even more, and the latter half of the day saw me make my way through Moscow until sunset and beyond.

By the time the day was over, I had a decent feeling for the physical layout of the city, but the spirit of it was something that I never quite figured out. I never did get to feel comfortable in Moscow, probably not helped by the fact that I can’t recall a single conversation I had while I was there. Even at a distance of ten years, that lack of recall speaks of a failure on my part. Fortunately, I had a lot of Russia left to experience.

Dancing fountains in the Moscow sunset.

The last vestiges of my time in Moscow faded into a kind of strangeness. I walked uneasy through the darkness, coming across a statue of Frederick Engels and a museum exhibit of colourful Lego. I woke the next morning and said my farewells to the Ismailovo Beta hotel, only to come across a woman on the subway who was using an Irish Dunnes Stores carrier bag. I made my way to the train station to catch my Trans-Siberian connection, only to find myself fascinated by the number of cigarette stubs tossed between the platform and the train.

Perhaps I just felt odd because I was doing something I’d thought of doing for years. Something that was the centre and the entire point of this trip. My Trans-Siberian voyage would have some breaks but the first section would be a full four days. Far more than the overnight train journeys that had been my previous limit. Even with my chunky guidebook, I had little notion of what to expect and Moscow had not been helpful in guiding me.

Cigarette butts discarded on the Trans-Siberian train platform.

So now I’m more or less caught up with my ten-years-ago journey. Still a couple of days behind (I left Moscow on September 4th), but that’s covered by that first four-day stretch. I’ll resume in a few days with some reminiscences about my time in Irkutsk and Lake Baykal and just how that first few days on the Trans Siberian felt.

The Grand Tour Ten Years On—A Tsar is Born

I like walking. Despite my increasingly decrepit feet and knees, that hasn’t changed and isn’t likely to. I still believe that the best way of getting to know a city is to get out and walk down its streets, be they grand central thoroughfares or narrow alleys in the old quarter.

That said, I’m still not sure whether my decision to walk from the St. Petersburg ferry port to my hotel by the Neva River was driven by a desire to get to know Russia’s former imperial capital as soon as possible or a desire to avoid having to expose my utter lack of Russian to the unforgiving eye of bus or taxi drivers.

(Who am I kidding? It was the latter.)

My first sight of Russia: a fine piece of Soviet concrete brutalism.

This is something of a habit on my travels, I’ve found. I won’t avoid human interaction, but I generally won’t seek it out either, and my favourite activity in any city is just to roam on my own until my feet start complaining. I do my research and generally have an idea of where I’m going, but it’s the moments in between and the serendipitous discoveries that tend to provide the most memorable moments.

Ten years ago, lacking any form of mobile internet access as I roamed, all I took with me was a shoulder bag containing some ID, a camera, and a heavily annotated guide to the Trans-Siberian Railway (still several days in my future). My travels up to this point had been entirely Western European (Tallinn was too brief to count), but St. Petersburg was my first encounter with the world’s largest country. It proved to be an oddly familiar experience.

Not familiar: a hydrofoil on the Neva River (with bonus Cyrillic signage).

St. Petersburg is, as noted, a former imperial city. It was built expressly as such, in fact, by Russia’s Tsar Peter the Great and his successors, and it has a scale and opulence to match. However, it’s also of a specific era. Dublin, where I’d been living for close to half my life when I visited St. Petersburg, is of a similar age, but whereas Dublin was an outpost of empire, St. Petersburg was an imperial capital with a scale to match. Buildings were taller, streets wider, and decorations more ornate. I lost track of the number of times I was fooled by the similarities between the cities into thinking I had a shorter distance to walk than I actually did.

Roaming St. Petersburg was a pleasure, due mostly to its combination of the familiar and unfamiliar. Much of the architecture took its design cues from Western Europe, reflecting the need of the Tsars to not only be a part of, but also outdo that world. At the same time, the presence of Russia bled through in everything. From the scale of the streets and buildings, to the genuinely Russian architecture of the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, built on the site of Alexander II’s assassination.

Old school (old church?) Russian architecture.

There’s almost too much to recount about St. Petersburg, and any attempt to do so would turn this post into a list of “I went there, I did that.” The Winter Palace museum has an Indiana Jones feel, with locked-off cellars full of artefacts, and the streets around are crammed with streetside stalls selling babushka nesting dolls of every celebrity you’ve ever heard of. I came across rows of stretch limousines and fairytale Russian weddings, and I watched an untranslated movie in a cinema converted from a baroque opera house.

For the three days I was there, there was far too much to take in. Roaming and venturing into one of the many museums or churches, and taking a canal boat tour around the city (the Venice of the north, if Copenhagen can be ignored) was the best I could do. The one big planned venture I had was on one of the aforementioned hydrofoils, out along the waterfront to the Peterhof. There, gilded statues and carefully tended gardens were signifiers of a lost era, of lavish excess and imperial disdain. For the many tourists and locals enjoying the sights, it was just a nice day out.

Grottoes, fountains, gold, and porphyry. The display is the point.

I admit I was probably overwhelmed. There was never a point during my period in St. Petersburg when I was lost for something to do. Even venturing out from my “B&B” in a massive old apartment building (where I had early encounters with Russian bureaucracy) for dinner of pelmeni Russian dumplings was an appreciated delight. But my itinerary was carefully laid out and especially in Russia didn’t admit of any deviation.

So I enjoyed my final day with all of its attendant distractions, and made my way at last to Moscow Railway Station at the end of Nevsky Prospekt. Not as grand as many stations I’d come to know, and not yet the Trans-Siberian (that left from Moscow itself) but a start to my Russian odyssey. With St. Petersburg I began the process of leaving Europe behind. There would be a long way to go before I saw the last of it.

The Mammy Principle

Even Lenin listened to his mammy.

This modest proposal has been brewing in my brain for a while. Pretty much since St. Petersburg, and that was several months ago now. It might not seem that way, but it was.

If you spend any length of time in a museum or art gallery in Russia, you’ll note a common feature to almost every room: the presence of a middle-aged to elderly lady sitting in the corner. Her purpose? To watch over the unwashed hordes who troop through her fief every day and threaten to do unspeakable things to the wonderful things that have been collected for their perusal. Her only defence against this dark threat: a stare that could reduce a hardened Red Army veteran to a sobbing wreck in only a few seconds.

I have to admit my admiration for the genius of this use of an underutilised resource. Who in Ireland does not know the power of a mammy’s disapproval? Even worse when she has risen to the exalted heights of grandmotherhood and can express her disdain over several generations at once. I shall not even speak of greatgrandmothers, lest I inadvertently draw the attention of one.

Such is the threat that these women wield that they rarely have to employ their glare: being in the same room as one, no matter how large or imposing the room, is enough to remind you of all the times when, as a child, you contemplated raiding the biscuit tin, only to turn and find yourself face to face with someone who knew what you were thinking before you did. I suspect that they only leave their seats to have a natter with one another just to reinforce the connections in their victims’ minds between those childhood guardians and the wardens of Russia’s treasures.

Perhaps, in this time of economic distress, we should seek to make similar use of the deeply-felt power of the mammy. I don’t speak of situating them in our museums, or even our banks or shops, where they would surely make any would-be thief pause in his criminality and slink away, shamefaced. No, the places where we need to situate our mammies are boardrooms and parliamentary chambers. No sooner would a captain of industry contemplate an ethically questionable shortcut to profit or an elected official dream up a scheme to enrich those who aided their rise to power than their inner guilt would kick in, they would look over to the corner to find a pair of steady eyes staring back at them over a copy of Ireland’s Own, and they would then return to find some more difficult yet more virtuous means of attaining their goals.

The price for all of this would be small: an increase in general stress levels among the powerful of the land, a few extra chairs and cushions here and there and a constant stream of tea and biscuits on demand. The rewards, I’m certain, would be many.