4 – Ulan-Ude to Vladivostok

South of Ulan-Ude, North of Goose Lake (15/9/11)

It turns out that customs delays are easier to deal with if you know what to expect—and you can sleep through the first few hours. We didn’t get off the train at all in Suhkbaatar, but I had the chance in Naushki, picking up some fruit and snacks. The generally overgrown nature of places like that does make me feel that we can be really fastidious in the west.

I snoozed after Naushki, when the whole carriage seemed to descend into torpor. Not for long though. I’ve also chatted, and shared nuts, with my Mongolian cabinmates, and spent some time chatting to Peter, a cheerful Czech who’s been exploring the wilds hereabouts with three friends. He’s a bit ripe at this stage, but given the state of my clothes, I wouldn’t make any claims for myself in that area.

An hour and a half to Ulan-Ude and the sun has just gone down. I’ve just seen my first sight of snow too. I’m not tired of rail travel yet, but I’m glad that the last, and possibly most interesting, leg is about to begin. Real wilderness, perhaps, then the “San Francisco of the East.”

Out of Ulan-Ude (16/9/11)

Train 8 is gloomier and more utilitarian than most of the trains I’ve been on, but there’s a lot of familiarity too.I’m in the same berth (17) as I was on the last train. I’m in the bottom bunk, as I have been for the whole of this trip. And I’m bunking with non-English speakers once more—a mother and her son.

We got into Ulan-Ude over an hour late (just as this train is running over an hour late) last night. Thankfully, Rada, my hostess, had waited up, so at the station I was passed from the hands of Mirek (a Czech who seemed much impressed by my solo travels) into hers. After a quick spin around the centre of the city, we were in my homestay—a cosy apartment in a centrally located apartment building that had the look of Soviet-era architecture. After tea and connection to the Internet, I retired to my room, which seemed to have been the former office of Rada’s father, a Buryat poet and composer of the Buryat national anthem.

In the morning, I was treated to porridge, tea, juice, jam, and bread, as well as fried potatoes and egg. That was enough to face me up to my free hours before the lunchtime train, which I employed in roaming the cold and wet city. All the way down the Ul Lenina from the giant head of Lenin to the cathedral and the old town. It’s a surprisingly pretty place, and where it lingers, the Siberian wood architecture is beautiful, but the museums are overly expensive and not well endowed with English signage.

When the time came to move on, I hefted my bags (newly laden down with groceries), said my farewells to Rada and her granddaughter, and trekked out to the station. I was a little early, and with the cafe not being open, I sat down and watched some fine Russian soap opera acting. When the train didn’t show at the appointed time, I worried and dithered for a little while, walked around, asked a few questions and was coralled with a group of other foreigners. Eventually a signal was given and we hoofed it to platform two, in time for the arrival of the 8 train, where one newish thing did happen—rather than being at the back of the train, I’m in the foremost carriage!

Some Hours West of Mogocha (17/9/11)

At Petrovsky-Zavad, a mostly empty carriage became a mostly full one. Our berth was completed by Tanya, a doctor, who proved pretty talkative and soon revealed that my existing companions were Marta, a policewoman, and her son, Mirtya.

I quickly became an object of curiosity (once I’d stopped looking at Siberian lumberyards anyway) in another example of the “strange foreigner” trend. Despite a general lack of English among my interrogators, we muddled through, sharing food and showing photos. An app on Mirtya’s phone also helped. Probably less helpful was the rapidly expanding amount of Russian vodka that it was traditional to drink with dinner. We capped it at five shots in the end.

We ate as much as we could of the food in front of us, kept on chatting, and eventually tidied up and slept. It was a decently long sleep, if somewhat fragmented, and the only dream I remember is one about trying to hire a car, only to leave it in the airport during a holiday.

I woke to sunshine a low, scrubby hills. We’re nearly as far north as we get on this leg of the journey, having missed the long stop at Chernyshevsk-Zaibalsalsky overnight. Not much to see yet, but maybe once my bunkmates are up, that will change.

P.S. I may have been overoptimistic. We’re currently stopped at a place that I think is C-Z, a few hours late. It’s sunny but very cold. No one selling anything on the platform.

(A P.S. – very unusual! Back to the one-page diary entries for this leg of the journey. Unsurprising given that I’m back on board the Trans-Siberian.)

South-East of Belogorsk (18/9/11)

We’re still running a few hours behind schedule, despite the train powering through the night in an effort to catch up. We just passed through Belogorsk, with its jaunty Lenin, and then a smaller station with what looked like a bust of Stalin. My bunkmates get off at Khabarovsk, I think, in about ten hours time.However, my phone is a bit confused. It still thinks we’re on Irkutsk time.

I slept poorly, a fact that I’ve put down to my mistake of sleeping with my head by the radiator in a too-warm cabin. Dried-out throat and sinuses are not fun. My dreams were odd remixes of Doctor Who and Lord of the Rings. Still, I’m up now, shaved, and two plants closer to getting the last I need for my zen garden.

It’s beautifully sunny outside, but I suspect that we’re no longer in Siberian by rather Russian East Asia. The landscape is certainly different. We’ve left behind yesterday’s forested valleys, clad in autumnal colours, for flat farmland and wilderness again. There may be more changes before Vladivostok, now less than 24 hours away.

Mr. Grumpy made a couple of appearances yesterday, in response to the sometimes overbearing friendliness of my cabinmates. I know that I have no cause to complain—they’ve shared their food and taught me two Russian card games—but I might have become a little too accustomed to being on my own. I got little writing done yesterday anyhow, though when I did do some, it came pretty easily.

I also spent a little time a few cabins up, socialising with a train engineer, Slava, and his friends. He just got off at Belogorsk, but he was generous with his beer, fish, and spic/pork yesterday.

Still bloody cold outside anyway. I’ll hunt for the Japan guidebook in a little while. Time to start planning that week. Only five days away now. This unhinged-in-time thing does have some merit—I’ve had news both good and bad about sports in the last while. Sadly O2 sucks—I can’t send SMS replies at all.

(The Zen garden thing? A reference to Plants vs. Zombies, an iPhone game that was one of my main forms of entertainment on the trip. Mr. Grumpy is my tendency to become, well, grumpy when I feel put-upon. Not an appealing trait and one I’ve worked on, but better to be aware of it than not.)

Just South of Khabarovsk (18/9/11)

We’ve turned the corner at Khabarovsk, crossed the mighty Amur River, and are headed south now on the final straight. Our cabin is down to three occupants again—myself, Marta, and Mirtya, Tany having left us at the last stop.

It’s been an uneventful day, once again passing through Russian scenery brought to life by beautiful sunshine, illuminating red and gold hues. For the past while, it’s mostly been through marshy land, notably the Jewish Autonomous Region, centred on Borobidzhan. White-feathered reeds grew in tufts here and there, their red stems making them seem particularly exotic.

There was only one annoying moment: a seller of relgious trinkets came by, hawking her wares. They were nothing special—a little kitchsy—but she caught me in the act of taking a photo of them, apparently a big no-no. Her method of getting me to delete said photo was to jab me in the arm and repeat the word “Prada!” in the most hectoring tone she could manage. Unfortunately, this got my back up, and I argued the point for longer than I should have before deleting it to make her go away. Neither of us was too impressed with the other.

I was wound up for a little while, but staring out the window was a good way to calm down. Plus I may have got an idea for a story out of the whole thing. Not sure if it’s a short—it’s got the potential to fill a novel, if I structure it right. Best provisional title I’ve come up with so far is “Loaded Words.” But I’ll change that once I come up with something better.

Hotel Azimut – Vladivostok (19/9/11)

With Natalia off the train, it was up to Marta and Mirtya to fly the hospitality banner, and they did so in style, offering up beer, fish, and what seems to have been condensed milk in a wafer cone. All very tasty, though there was some confusion later, when they wanted me to ask them questions, in the belief that I was a travel writer. Maybe I should be.

I got a little more writing done by the end, wrapping up the first chapter of the exile story and getting a better handle on the characters. By the time I was done though, the blazing sunset had faded to black and it was time for bed. Sleep came easy enough, but we were woken in the night by someone hopping on for a short run of a few hours to the end of the line.

We were woken again in the dark—after all the delays, we were less than half an hour late into Vladivostok. After goodbyes and stowing my rucksack, I hunted in the pre-dawn darkness for a place to rest and check in and found the 24-hr Studio Cafe. After an overpriced espresso, I was out and roaming again, this time in search of my hotel. Some unnecessarily convoluted wandering later, I found it looming over the bay to the south. Not pretty but accessible.

Still early, so I went roaming some more, the time eastwards towards the looming shadows of the Golden Horn Bridge. All very epic, especially when I got turned around and walked to the top of the funicular rather than the bottom. It’s still a great view and a cheap ride though. Back into town for a lovely and cheap tea and sausage roll at the 5 O’Clock Cafe—I’ll be going back there—before another scouting of the shops, notably the GUM Store and the post office by the train station.

Time at last to collect the rucksack and get to the hotel, a sweaty, dishevelled mess. Slightly less dishevelled on having a shower, I sorted my clothes for laundry, shaved, and wrote some postcards. Which is where I’m at now—time to get back out into the sun.

(Completely forgot to mention my trip to the fortress museum—lots of fun hardware to play with, though once again, I did it back to front…)

(The above is actually in the journal, not a modern addition. Anything else? Well, I did discover that Marta’s son Mitrya was a player of World of Tanks, a game I was quite into at the time. We swapped details but for some reason I never connected with him afterwards. Nor with the two Icelanders I met on the way into Mongolia—despite writing down their details somewhere.)

Hotel Azimut – Vladivostok (Again) (20/9/11)

Yesterday afternoon was a time for strolling, taking in the sights, and trying to just blend in. I ended up walking out to the funicular line once more and climbing instead of paying for a lift again—this time deliberately. I went all the way to the outlook this time and enjoyed the best view of the city—reminiscent of Bergen and its funicular, though the train there was better.

More roaming thereafter, down to the shops and side-streets, getting a feel for the city. Dinner was in Republic, near the train station, and I picked up some food items in the supermarket too. Trying to find a pub was less of a success, despite some serious wandering around. I eventually settled for the Sky Bar in the Hyundai Hotel, seriously overpriced though it was. I’d managed to Skype home to mum and dad earlier in the day though, and with everything finally charged up, I was ready to … sleep. Well, after checking out and dismissing the hotel’s bar anyway—the beer in my fridge was a better bet.

Up early enough in the morning then, and down to the restaurant for a decent buffet breakfast. I had my plans for the day, but they changed as I first failed to find the door of the museum (it was around the corner). I headed across the square instead and onto the waterfront, where I soon located a nice submarine, into which I climbed and spent a pleasant time exploring and dodging a gaggle of snap-happy Japanese tourists.

The next bit of the plan involved hopping on a ferry to Rossky Island, but the heavily under construction and signless waterfront made locating a ferry awkward. Instead, I just ambled northeast, first along the waterfront and then, when I ran out of pavement and road, on Ul Svetlanskaya. When I’d gone as far as seemed worthwhile, I turned on Runkeeper and turned back, listening to the Kermode podcast and eventually finding myself on the Amursky Gulf. Or beside it anyhow.

At this stage, it was lunchtime, and the sun had warmed up the chilly morning, so I dropped into the 5 O’Clock Cafe for tea and crumpets, then scooted around some shops. Picked up a few trinkets, found the door to the museum, and spent some time failing to decipher Vladivostok’s history. I did see the tiger and bear dancing though. After a final whiz around the shops, I headed back to the hotel, though not before checking out the Morskaya Voskal ferry terminal, with its own fascinating shops.

I didn’t linger too long in the hotel. I had plans for the evening, and they revolved around sunset. First off was an attempt to find the Moloko + Med restaurant I’d spotted the day before. It took a bit of wandering, but I got there in the end, and it was very worth it, with meatballs in tomato sauce that put any other attempts to shame. Together with dessert and a couple of drinks it came to just over €20. Bargain.

I pegged it up the hill to the outlook, arriving a few minutes late for sunset but in plenty of time to see the western sky catch fire and enjoy some epic views of the city. As the fire died and the lights came on, I also saw the massive Legend of the Seas pull out from the terminal and the much dinkier Eastern Dream pull in. Reassuring.

Which is when I left, taking the long, and occasionally dark, walk home to the hotel, passing by the terminal and checking in on my ferry as I went. I do like this city, even though I don’t know it well—it’s a great match for the much grander St. Petersburg. I checked in at the supermarket on the way to the hotel once more and spent an hour or two grabbing photos from my camera. I suspect I may buy a hard drive in Japan. Backup is needed soon. In the meantime, sleep and Japan to look forward to. Such a lovely unravelling in my brain!

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