Further East to Western Lands

Trip Start Apr 01, 2008
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Trip End Aug 2008


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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

At 22:45 the train pulled smoothly and quietly out of Harbin to head east, away from the chaos of the last Chinese train station and the chaos of my last Asian city for a while. Border crossings rarely cease to amaze in how defining they are. This one in particular may be the most pronounced, clearly saying "This is Russia and that is China." and vice-versa. The smog of eastern China ceased and I leant my head out to breathe the cleanest air since Singapore, a month previous. All but one in my carriage were white European, this ratio similar to Vladivostok's, my destination. I had expected a large ethnic population but there simply wasn't. I had travelled 1000km further east than Beijing (further east than Seoul) but the people were ethnically eastern European, some 9000km in the opposite direction. It just went to show how old these borders were, drawn up by Cossacks 400-500 years previous, and how powerful Russia was to have such influence in the extremities of a country 17,075,400 square kilometres.

The border into Russia was no simple crossing. The following morning every item of my clothing was unrolled and my photo CDs were taken away for scrutiny. I said goodbye to the other cabin passengers - two barely clothed Russian private dancers and their Chinese boss who worked it in Harbin - and mingled with the hundred or so Russians on the platform. None of these Russians were tourists, they all had chequered plastic carry-alls bigger than themselves full of cheap Chinese clothing to sell in Vladivostok. For this reason the crossing took three hours on top of four hours already lost crossing the border due to China's stupid mono time. Boarding our border straddling carriage I realised that it was just myself and four other British tourists onboard - all the hundreds of Russians had got buses to Vladivostok and would arrive there within the next three hours. After some shunting our carriage had been completely detached and sat alone in the darkening train yard for the next eight hours! Beer was therefore a given but not that the train attendant would lock the toilet and exit. A long night. We reached Vladivostok the next day at 07:30. The 750km journey had taken 36 hours!

Vladivostok I liked a lot. Other than being just 100km from North Korea it was an immediate return to east Europe. Dilapidated concrete block buildings, old trams, powerful charcoal black statues and a rough edge rarely found in Asia. Cheese, milk and bread returned for the first time since Australia three months previous. Sensible driving prevailed after the bewildering Chinese ways (in Xi' an I had seen a mother with baby in one hand, pram in the other left stranded in the middle of a busy road after my taxi driver decided simply not to let her pass). The sun shone the three days I spent there, and indeed my whole three weeks in Russia. There was plenty of European style beach culture on the go - strange to think that this place is minus 35 during the winter and the harbour freezes over. I was also being mistaken for Russian, odd after being an outright foreigner for three months.

Down at the busy waterfront I enjoyed a beverage at a beer tent with the four other Brits I had met. A policeman sporting an oversized cap came over for a chat, finishing on the note that 'bad boys' come here around this time of the night. It was late but light, as the Russian summer goes. We moved on after a while but nothing actually happened. A curious stranger came over to us and another who spoke English helped translate. Asking him the expected questions, his answer to 'What job?' was a tug on his jacket to expose a large, black 8mm. "Personal bodyguard." These two happenings, the thugs and the Mafia, were unrelated but both were exciting. At this point I decided I liked Russia.

From a travellers point of view it was not all good though. Prices had rocketed from those in China. Hotels were 25 - 35, eating out was 3-5. The street had retreated into buildings as it invariably does in developed countries, becoming largely a circulation space and not one of life and noise as it beautifully is in Asia. With this all those Asian sounds evaporated, replaced by the very familiar sounds of quiet conversation, heels on tarmac, and car motors passing without an accompanying horn. No time for reminiscing, I had a whole new country to cross and a whole new culture to absorb.

On the evening of July 9th I boarded my train to Irkutsk, some 4104km (3 days and 4 nights) westwards. Staying in third class meant I shared an open cabin with five other berths; one above, same opposite and another bunk along the wall facing our bunks side on. Hot water was found in an urn at the end of the carriage where the train attendant was based. Provisions were topped up cheaply from track side babushkas at stations. I caught up with sleep, reading and writing. The thing I took most from this train journey was the sheer generosity of the Russian people. I had sat for most of the first day getting on with my own thing, none of the three surrounding Russians had said a thing to me. I took the initiative therefore and from that point onwards, when I asked Georgiy where he was headed, I had some of the best travelling companions of my trip. For hours we talked in toddler Russian with frantic page turning and pointing galore. I was offered so many provisions, offending if I said "Its okay, really it's okay". They were just so kind. I had a whole fish bought for me at a lake Baikal train station, the best fish I have ever tasted. They also helped seek out accommodation for me in Irkutsk even when the train was stopped for just thirty minutes. Georgiy even offered me money so I needn't sleep in a twin room with a stranger. I of course declined (see photo). They had catered for me so much that once they left I was asking myself "Who will look after me now?"

The geography this side of Irkutsk hadn't much on the west side. The first 2000km showed Siberia's sheer size with repetitive, slightly rolling landscape hosting deciduous woods. On day two I looked out to similar surroundings to that of the first. Day three, however, saw the hills beef up, displaying defined ridges as lake Baikal approached. The pale evening light bounced from this giant mass of water, broken only slightly by a gentle breeze across its flat surface. The tracks rose to follow a contour around the steep slopes that slide into the water at 45 degrees, leaving us looking out over the lake as the sun finally retreated.

Lake Baikal

I left the historic streets of Irkutsk immediately the next morning as I was dying to see Baikal. Baikal is the biggest body of fresh water in the world, 1.6km at its deepest point. It is bigger than all five of north America's great lakes combined and contains 20% of the fresh water in the whole world! Phwoar! Another interesting fact is that in desperation to get troops to Vladivostok during the Russo - Jap war (1903 ish) they placed tracks across its frozen winter waters (the Trans-Siberian had yet to be completed) only to see the first train plummet to icy depths, killing all.

I, however, had a great time! Wood fuelled scorching sauna followed by a jump into the freezing 14 degree waters, beer and vodka on the side. The angry Lithuanian hostel manager perplexed and amused me with his nonsensical behaviour. I had great fun on a six hour trek full of nerve racking paths perched above the water, where leaping from one crumbling ledge to another was often called upon. The destination of the walk, Bolshe Koty village, was very Siberian, with wooden houses beneath steep roofs and a rickety jetty tugged gently by a moored fishing boat. Smoke rose from chimneys, drifting through pines and out the valley. Hitch hiking back to Irkutsk we were picked up by an ex-joyrider! He let us stay at his home with mother and babushka (this was before his history came to light). Such kindness, a kindness probably brought about by the isolation of middle Siberia.

The following evening I was to begin the second leg of the Trans-Siberian. 5108km of train tracks to Moscow, a thousand more than the first trip. More time to read, write and to muse over the past 16 months. You would think this but train journeys have many guises.
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