Thursday, 30 September 2010

Olkhon Island and Lake Baikal

We were relieved to reach Olkhon Island after a terrifying drive: fast cars, bad roads, vodka and Russian fatalism are an unpleasant and potentially devastating cocktail that make us glad we’ve largely avoided the roads in our month in the country. We’d hoped that the end of the metalled road, a good 50 miles from Olkhon, would at least force our driver to slow down, but it didn’t seem to. Instead the only effect of the rapidly deteriorating surface was that we were thrown around the minibus with increasing frequency and violence. But we somehow made it without disaster and were then able to settle into five restful and hugely enjoyable days on the island.

Although we’d read the usual descriptions of the lake and island: that Baikal, the “pearl of Siberia” is the deepest fresh water lake in the world, containing over a fifth of the planet’s unfrozen drinking water, and that Olkhon is the largest island on the lake, we still had no real idea what to expect in terms of views or weather. All we knew was that the guesthouse where we were headed had established a reputation as Siberia’s prime backpacker hangout and seemingly every tourist we’d met in Russia had been there or was planning to visit.

The landscape we found was hauntingly beautiful: high slopes of yellowing firs giving way to wide open expanses sparsely covered by short, tan coloured grasses that run down to the lake which shimmers with a bright Van Gogh blue. The crumpled white sandstone slopes opposite shone in the light, the colour standing out all the more against the blue of the lake, and further away, steeper, higher, darker cliffs rose out of the lake to reach snow capped peaks.

Other than for a couple of hours on our first afternoon – when we were caught unexpectedly in a brief hail storm - the skies were cloudless and the light so crisp and clear that the views seemed endless and the whole landscape appeared to glow in the warm light.

For the first couple of days a strong cold wind that cut you in two whipped off the lake, and even in our warmest clothes we were chilly. By the third day however the wind had dropped and, although the air itself never seemed to warm up, it was blissfully warm in the sun.

We spent three days walking: through woods, along the shore and across the open landscape. Each day we were amazed by the beauty and emptiness of the landscape and – if it doesn’t sound too clich├ęd – felt refreshed and restored by the views and the solitude. Our other full day we took a tour to the north of the island, driving over bumpy almost non-existent dirt tracks (photo below), for incredible views out over the widest section of the lake where the water stretched uninterrupted to the horizon and it was hard to believe we weren’t looking out at the sea.

Our guesthouse was on the edge of a town that looked like it should have been in the Wild West, with rickety wooden buildings spread out along a wide dusty main road, where a few cows did their best to graze. Our room was warm and cosy though, and the guesthouse served nice, hearty (if rather stodgy food), so we could happily have stayed longer.

Yet in Olkhon, as elsewhere in Russia, the beauty was in places marred by environmental and social problems. Litter was scattered indiscriminately across the landscape, almost all of it recyclable yet here not even buried, so at times we had to pick our way through plastic bags, tin cans and broken vodka bottles. Alcoholism too seemed as rife as on the mainland, with plenty of drunks staggering around or attempting to drive, and others queuing up outside shops in the early morning for more of the “little water.” And the poverty here too was just as harrowing as we’ve seen elsewhere, with many of the houses little more than hovels, and with no running water or paved roads on the island.

So we will leave Russia with very mixed emotions. We’re so glad to have come, and have been fascinated by the country, and genuinely touched by the individual acts of warmth and hospitality we’ve received, as well as being pleasantly surprised by the friendliness of many of the people we’ve spoken to. The natural beauty of Siberia and Baikal and the constructed grandeur of St Petersburg and parts of Moscow have been dazzling and the art collections mesmerising. Yet we leave also profoundly depressed by the extreme poverty that leaves so many without decent housing, roads, electricity or running water, so that even in the big cities we frequently saw people filling buckets at standpipes. And this in a country with such obvious wealth, and an apparently growing gulf between the “haves” with their designed clothes and new 4X4s and the “have-nots.”

It makes us wonder how can Russia be considered one of the world’s most developed countries when so many of its citizens live in dire conditions, when alcoholism is so rife, the basic functions of civic society seem lacking and even some of the most educated Russians we’ve met are openly and abhorrently racist.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

The Trans-Siberian Railway

We’re now four trains, 62 hours and almost 4,500km into our train journey from St Petersburg to Beijing.

We’ve been travelling in kupe (2nd) class, meaning we have a small lockable compartment that we share with up to two other passengers in a carriage of 8 or 9 compartments. The compartments come fitted with four bunks, a small table (with table cloth), and just enough room to turn around in. Each carriage is presided over by a provadnitsa who checks tickets, sells tea, coffee and snacks, keeps the urn at the end of the carriage topped up with boiling water, and generally looks after us and the carriage.

Our first couple of (shorter) journeys were on new, smart “firmenny trains” with comfortable bunks, smart carpets in the corridor, clean toilets and even a tv in each compartment, while our longest journey (38 hours) was on an older, slower and more careworn train. Despite its harder bunks and rockier motion I rather liked its old-fashioned decor though with its faux red leather seats and mock wood panelling.

Outside the views have been largely of yellowing birch trees, intermingled with firs and red-leaved maples. Every so often we pass small settlements with potato and cabbage fields, and falling down wooden buildings with corrugated iron roofs and we’re stuck by how poor much of rural Russia appears, while the many freight trains carrying oil and gas provide a reminder of where much of the wealth of Siberia comes from.

We’ve also enjoyed the conversations we’ve had along the way too: with the English professor who invited us to talk to her students in Kazan, the Turkish immigrant heading to Siberia for work, the young oil worker on a 36 hour journey back to Omsk to see his wife and young daughter after a month at work and others. They’ve all been friendly and welcoming, and it’s been fascinating gaining an insight into their lives and their thoughts on Russia. Interestingly, despite their obvious patriotism they’ve all been surprised that we would want to come to see Russia.

The trains stop fairly frequently for between a few minutes and an hour at a time, giving you the chance to stretch your legs, stock up on food or do some quick sight-seeing. We haven’t been very adventurous though, as on one of our first stops Rachael got off to go for a wander, misunderstood how long the train was stopped for and noticed just in time that our train was pulling away – leaving her to sprint for and scramble aboard the moving train with the help of a strong tug from a disapproving provadnitsa. Quite what we’d have done if she’d been left on the platform, in the middle of nowhere, in just her pyjamas without money or passport we’re not sure...

Suzdal and Kazan

After four fascinating but exhausting days in Moscow we were ready to see a quieter side of Russia so took a local train and then small decrepit mini-bus about 200 miles north-east of the capital to Suzdal.

Although it was a wealthy monastic centre in the 17th and 18th centuries, Suzdal is now a small, quiet provincial town, with a beautiful dome-spotted skyline, wide open meadows and gently flowing river. The town’s main draw are its churches, monasteries and Kremlin, but for us it was wonderful and deeply restorative just to wander down quiet lanes and around the peaceful monastic buildings, and to enjoy the dark skies and quiet night and our best night’s sleep so far in Russia.

After Suzdal we travelled east to Kazan, the prosperous capital of the Autonomous Republic of Tartarstan, and home to many of Russia’s Tartar population, as well as being a busy river port on the Volga. The city prides itself on its relaxed multi-cultural atmosphere, symbolised by the enormous new mosque built next to the old cathedral within the city’s beautiful old kremlin, and certainly felt a peaceful and friendly place to stroll around.

On the train to Kazan we were lucky to meet Liliya Bayanova, a fluent English speaker and one of the professors at a Kazan university who invited us in to meet her students. We thought she was suggesting a casual chat with a handful of students so were slightly taken aback to be ushered into a packed classroom, and even more so when Liliya announced we’d be giving a talk on the history and culture of the UK!

But although a bit nerve-wracking at first we really enjoyed it and ended up speaking for about 20 minutes and then answering questions for another 40 minutes or so. It was interesting to hear their thoughts on England (it’s clear from a number of comments people have made that Russians don’t think much of English cuisine, which is strange given that Russian food, with its similar reliance on soups, meat and potatoes, isn’t that different), and we realised how out of touch we are with the music scene when we couldn’t name a single band or song in the top 20.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010


Our 4 days in Moscow passed in a blur of constant movement, unrelenting traffic, numerous metro journeys, a sense of chaos but also amazing sights in Red Square and beyond, great Russian and European art at the Tretyakov and Puskin galleries, wonderful Russian hospitality.... and exhaustion. Moscow is a city with a population of at least 11m (possibly as high as 14m), which is a third more than London but packed into a much smaller space so that it felt like a constant mass of people on the move: on foot, on public transport and by car. We were enthralled by it and overwhelmed by it.

We were lucky to be shielded from some of the chaos of the streets by being lent a flat, which was a haven to return to each night. And we got to see another side of Moscow and more than just the usual tourist sights by being shown round by Peter, a friend of our Russian teacher’s, who whizzed us around and showed us streets of old low level nineteenth century town houses, now overlooked by Soviet tower blocks but still a world away from them; the majestic Moscow University sitting high and proud overlooking the city; the small churches and big monasteries and their peaceful gardens; and the bridges over the river with views that equal those from Waterloo Bridge over the Thames.

The one thing that struck us as more confusing and dominating than the number of people and cars constantly moving around the city (and the driving!) was the country’s relationship to its history. Everyone we spoke to was keen to stress how much the country had changed since the fall of Communism and yet there seems to have been no official or public consideration of the past so unlike for example in East Germany we found no museums or references to the Soviet period or to life under Communism. And all around the city the physical reminders of the Soviet era still dominate, often jarring strangely with symbols of contemporary capitalist Russia.

On one side of Red Square we visited Lenin, still laying in State (itself a slightly bizarre experience, the former revolutionary looking more waxwork than man), and then popped across to the other side of Square to check out GUM, the State department store, which hosts boutiques which more than rival Knightsbridge’s for price and posh shoppers. Dominating the skyline around the city are the seven identical “Stalin Skyscrapers,” massive gothic apartment blocks built for loyal and powerful Party members that symbolise the Stalinist era and still house the State University, Government Ministries and now even a Hilton hotel (the photo above shows one of them). And while many (though by no means all) of the statues of old Soviet leaders have been taken down from the squares and streets they’re housed and preserved at the Art Muzeon Sculpture Park, which when we visited was filled by families out for a stroll on a Sunday afternoon. We also took a trip out to the All Russia Exhibition Centre, originally set up to display the economic achievements of the USSR, with an enormous sculpture of a space shuttle (top photo), and which now houses tacky gift shops inside the once grand neo-classical temples dedicated to achievements in health, education, agriculture or industry. And so, with the numerous hammer and sickles on display in metro stations and across the city, and the Red Star shining brightly on top of the Kremlin each night it still feels, perhaps unsurprisingly, like Moscow has a mixed attitude to its recent and how to reconcile past and present.

Some familiar faces at the Park of Fallen Heroes

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

St Petersburg

St Petersburg, where do we start?

Our introduction to the city and to Russia couldn’t have been better as we were met at the station by Lera and Vladimir, friends of our friend and Russian teacher Natalia who kindly drove us to our hostel, and later that evening took us out with their friends Vadim and Varvara for a great first evening swapping stories of life in Russia and the UK over Russian beer and snacks in a Soviet-style beer hall.

The city itself is certainly the most beautiful, intriguing, absorbing, chaotic and exhausting we’ve seen so far. Incredibly, although it looks much older, nothing in the city is over 300 years old. Electing to build a new capital from nothing on swamp land – and ordering the landowners and aristocracy to build their palaces here and move to the city – must have been a controversial decision (Jonathan Dimbleby describes it as a grand folly!). But the city – like its many museums and churches – is staggering. Seemingly almost every building, in the centre at least, is of grand neo-classical or Baroque-style, and with its wide boulevards, grand edifices, many waterfronts and canals it looks like a slightly dishevelled hybrid of Paris, Venice and Amsterdam.

Even the metro stations are grand marble affairs with chandeliers and never ending escalators lit with art deco lamps (see photo below). The stations’ great depth is due to their dual purpose as bomb shelters – apparently their independent water and food supplies are still maintained, though we weren’t sure whether hearing this made us more or less nervous about using the underground.

One of the striking things we noticed about the city is how similar in height almost all the buildings are: looking out across the city from the colonnade of St Isaac’s cathedral it seemed the only buildings over 5 storeys high were the other churches, whose gold domes shone even with the cloud.

We spent many hours enjoying the grand vistas, palaces and parks, and views of golden onion-domed churches which dominate the city, and also went on a fascinating guided walking tour of one of the islands west of the main tourist sights (if anyone else is visiting the city we’d definitely recommend: which gave us much more of an insight into the city’s recent and less recent history than we would otherwise have gained.

It’s also been fun to practice our (very limited) Russian and exciting to discover how much we can understand, and that with a bit of work we can even make ourselves understood quite a bit of the time (thanks Natalia!).

Yet while St Petersburg and its sights are impressive, we found ourselves at times longing for something less grand and ostentatious, and a bit less hectic. The Hermitage, the fabulous art museum located in Peter the Great’s Winter Palace, is awe-inspiring but so packed full of treasures ranging from the ancient Far East to 19th and 20th Century European masterpieces (there are whole rooms of Cezanne, Picasso and Matisse works we’ve never even seen reproduced elsewhere), not to mention vast numbers of tourists that it was at times just overwhelming. Similarly, the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood is dazzling both inside and out with multi-coloured domes outside and 7000 square metres of (mainly gold) mosaic on the inside, that it made our heads spin. Even outside on the street it seemed at times like every building was a grand palace, and all the roads permanently busy –not just the 8-lane main shopping street.

So, on our last day in St Petersburg we travelled a few kilometres outside the city for a more restful trip to Peterhof, one of several palaces built by the Tsars as country retreats. The palace itself was reminiscent of a grand French chateaux, and we skipped the museum indoors to spend a couple of hours walking blissfully in the immense classical gardens, with exquisite tree lined avenues, ornamental flower beds and some rather large and very impressive gold-encrusted (what else?!) fountains and water features.

While Nicholas II may have described St Petersburg as “Russia but not Russian” it’s been a fantastic introduction to the country for us and while not officially part of the Trans-Siberian route we’re very glad to have come here and would definitely recommend St Petersburg to anyone interested in coming to Russia.

Enjoying a drink with Lera and Vladimir

Saturday, 4 September 2010


We’ve spent the last week making the transition from countryside back to the city with 3 days in Kuopio, a city in the Finnish Lakeland area, and 3 days in Helsinki. And the abundance of museums, art galleries, buzzing bars and all you can eat lunch buffets , which the Finns seem to love, has been great!

The highlight in Kuopio was our session in the world’s largest (apparently) smoke sauna, which was prettily situated on the side of a lake. Inside the sauna, which was dark and smelt slightly of wood smoke, we joined groups of young tourists and older locals on raised benches around the edges of the room. Every so often one of the locals tossed a ladle (or bucket) full of water over the coals and a few seconds later we were hit by a wall of hot air. And then - following the example of the locals – we took quick dips in the lake to cool down in... truly freezing yet very exhilarating.

Helsinki is great – its attractive and situated on a peninsula so there is plenty of water about, but with only half a million people living there its compact enough to pootle around on foot and easy to find your way around. It’s also definitely the trendiest place we’ve been so far, with dyed black hair, leather and piercings the “in” look, so we’ve been feeling a bit out of place in all our goretex...

It’s been Helsinki Design Week whilst we’ve been here so we’ve made the most of the Art Fair, the Design Museum and the Modern Art Museum (photo top left), all of which were fabulous – as well as browsing in the various design shops and antiques markets: nice to do some cultural things after our previous few weeks’ ‘outdoorsiness’.

And so, just over a month after we set off from London we’re leaving Finland and Scandinavia tomorrow, excited and apprehensive about what Russia has in store for us. The last month has been a great, gentle introduction to our travels. Will that change I wonder when we leave familiarity of northern Europe behind for what I imagine will be the difference of Russia and the east?
In some ways Finland has been a good transition though – with its long (and open) border with Russia there’s a definite Russian feel here, particularly to the Eastern towns, with Russian voices frequently heard, a fair bit of Cyrillic about and even the odd Orthodox church. Finnish itself has been strangely disorientating too – somehow I expected to be able to at least guess the meanings of some words here, as we could in Norway and elsewhere in Europe, yet Finnish is totally unintelligible with seemingly no links to any language either of us have ever seen. Even supermarket shopping has become a bit of a mystery what with Finn’s apparent preference for local brands and the lack of pictures on many of the packets!

We’ve also done our last bus journey for a while (till Mongolia at least), as we’ll be travelling entirely by train in Russia. And although I generally don’t particularly enjoy buses Finland is a good place to take them: what with clean, new vehicles, good roads and only 5 million inhabitants the roads have been consistently empty so we’ve sailed through, on time, with never a hint of a traffic jam to be seen. I imagine our next bus journey will be pretty different...

And hopefully - after a month of tee-total frugality and eating self-cooked pasta almost everyday - in Russia we'll be able to try out some restaurants and more varied cuisine..!