Original posted on London to New York blog, April 10, 2010
Irkutsk, Siberia, Russia
WHEN we started planning this trip, various points on the trip immediately leapt off the page as potential highlights.
The likes of St Petersburg, Moscow, Beijing and the increasingly tempting prospect of two weeks lounging around on the cruise ship were among the many things to look forward to as the miles rolled on. Even Auschwitz in a peculiar way.
At no point was a shower in the middle of Siberia high up on the expected memorable moments list.
But after four days on the Trans-Siberian Express from Moscow, clambering into a nice, hot shower in snowy Irkutsk and collapsing on a clean bed is about as good as it gets.
There’s still a bit of an odour hanging around the hostel – the two teenage Norwegian girls who turned up over breakfast accepted much of the blame having just climbed off the train – but another good scrub should get rid of any lasting vestiges.
All in time to spend two days on a frozen island before climbing back on the train.
But let’s rewind to when you last left us, on a bumpy road to Moscow.
Having made our way into the Russian capital and with nothing particularly planned for the evening, the boys did what tourists do when they reach Moscow – we went to Red Square.
For someone who grew up watching the military parades from Red Square and Soviet leaders and Politburo watching on from the walls of the Kremlin, to be standing there openly taking pictures was a touch bizarre.
Finding a department store, complete with fairy lights and Cartier in the window, facing the Kremlin wall was not expected.
Having been to the obvious tourist traps, we headed into a Moscow backwater and discovered probably the only bar in Russia that didn’t serve vodka. Or coke. Or wine. What they did serve, they decided to bring to our table in jugs, regardless of whether we ordered it or not.
Rather than give them the opportunity to bring anything else, we headed back to the hostel via a supermarket to buy breakfast and vodka – under the constant glare of two security guys – which we then proceeded to consume before going to bed.
It wasn’t that late a night, but it was enough to ensure the early-morning call for a whistle-stop tour of Moscow with the formidable Galina was pushing it a bit for some of us.
What she showed us was a very interesting city. Shame we couldn’t have seen more of it.
But after a stop overlooking the Luznhiki Stadium – home of the 1980 Olympics or, for those of us who got a bit carried away that night, Manchester United’s Champions League final victory over Chelsea – we headed back to Red Square and possibly the most bizarre stop on the tourist trail for this entire trip, Lenin’s Mausoleum.
Sitting in pride of place in the heart of Red Square – at least until they move him back to St Petersburg sometime in the near future – it is all a bit weird.
Plunged into darkness and silence – no cameras, no phones, no talking, no stopping or one of the soldiers stationed in the corners will leap out from the shadows – you emerge into a central room with the incredibly short, spotlit body of the Revolutionary leader laid out in state.
It barely looks real. In fact, it is hard to believe he is not a waxwork.
But then you walk back into the light and past the busts of other former Soviet leaders and you realise you have just walked past the body of one of the most important figures of the last century.
And certainly someone who didn’t want the likes of me besmirching the inner sanctum of his idealistic nation, let alone his tomb.
He certainly wouldn’t have been that keen on there being a McDonald’s 100 yards down the road, but very nice and very welcome it was too.
Particularly as it was the last thing to eat for four days that wasn’t cooked by adding boiling water or bought off some station vendor.
The Trans-Siberian has always been potentially the most awkward part of the trip, not least cramming ourselves, our luggage and the extra food and equipment we needed into some less than roomy cabins.
Our four-person room consisted of Mike and myself on the bottom bunks with Nick and Freddie in the upper berths.
Only one of us could comfortably stand up in there at any one time and it got oppressively hot at times – hence shorts and sandals for much of the trip, despite the constant snow and freezing temperatures outside – but we soon got everything packed away and opened Nick’s Bar to the general public.
It was a little bit basic with basically only Nick’s supply of vodka – designed to last the entire trip, we drank it on the first night – beer purchased from the trolley girl or at one of the longer platform stops and bottles of coke on offer, but it served us well.
We managed to get eight of us crammed in at one point, so it was all a bit snug.
You soon learned to be careful when swigging from a bottle of coke. It may not just be a soft drink, but could contain high levels of vodka – particularly if you try to dilute vodka using coke from a bottle that was already an extremely strong mixture. Ideal for those who like to taste it.
Throw in a few tunes, courtesy of my laptop, and we were well set, before we got well and truly told off for making too much noise from our carriage’s Niet-Niet Lady.
Each carriage in our section of the train is a row of sleeping compartments with a narrow corridor running the whole length, a toilet at each end, a hot water boiler and our own Niet-Niet Lady in charge – so called because her unsmiling response to virtually every query was a brisk “Niet”.
By day two, we were well settled into our regime – spend as much time as possible lying in bed, preferably asleep, stretch your legs at the longer platform stops (always given in Moscow time, despite travelling through five time zones) and cooking noodles, soup or mash.
That was all getting a bit much by the third day, long after the vodka had run out – bar the dodgy stuff from behind the counter at a station which not even the Russians would touch – Phoebe’s homemade backgammon board had been used to fillet fish by Phil’s rather scary roomie Sergei (the Kiwi bear, all 6ft 4in of him, refused to sleep alone with him and dragged Marlo in for reinforcements) and we had got sick of noodles, soup and mash.
But suddenly, what had threatened to be the longest, darkest night of the trip exploded into life in the dining car – an area few of us had previously dared to tread.
Before we knew it, half our contingent was being taught how to drink vodka the Russian way.
And we kept on practicing – hence the desperate scramble for roubles when it was time to settle the bar bill the next day – with our new friends Igor, the three girls from the restaurant car and even our Niet-Niet Lady broke into a smile.
She even offered Mike a boiled egg, although only after eating it did he realise that it was decorated and she might just have been showing him her Easter decorations.
The chaos spilled onto a Siberian platform which showed the temperature at -6C as bemused locals, passengers and the rest of the group watched us lot running around like loons and a quick skipping session (thankfully fully clothed, which is more than can be said of the even later session witnessed only by a few hardy survivors).
Thankfully, all this coincided with my idea to catalogue a day on the train, so photographic evidence jogged a few memories the next morning (despite me having to break off twice to carry a couple of people to bed), which was much needed to explain a few bruises.
Not surprisingly, the last day on the train was a bit subdued. As well as the effects of the night before, the confusion between Moscow and local time was kicking in and we were, frankly, going a bit stir crazy.
But eventually we were woken by the cleaning woman from a patchy night’s sleep, far earlier than we had planned, and eventually pulled into snowy Irkutsk, which – despite less than favourable first impressions – is actually quite a funky little place.
Apologies if this entry rambles on a bit, but hey, we had to live it. You guys can skip bits or walk away and come back.
Suggest a nice, long, hot shower…