From Phil Kiffer's regular updates from Moscow
Greetings to all,
decided to spend a portion of my enormous five-week break trekking the
entirety of the Trans-Siberian railroad from Moscow to Vladivostok. It
was a great experience and in retrospect I would've gladly forgone my
later adventures in Poland (by far the most backwards country on the
face of the earth) and spent the entire five weeks getting on and off
at every corner of Siberia.
I was never really
interested in traveling around Europe as everyone else in my group
decided. I was always more interested in seeing the entirety of a
nation that has captured my imagination and soul over the past five
months. After some admittedly less than careful planning I decided to
make three stops. My first destination was Irkutsk (the closest stop to
lake Baikal), second Ulan-Ude (the capital of the Buryatian Republic
and the heart of Russian Buddhism), and lastly at the terminus of the
railway at Vladivostok (often called the Russian San Francisco).
I finally boarded my first train at Kazan Station in Moscow on the 26th
of December. I was traveling in 3rd Class (often called "Hard Class")
or Platskart. The car was essentially a dormitory with 54 beds spread
out along the entirety of the car. Some constituted a miniature kupe or
compartment with two upper bunks and two lower bunks and a table in the
center. Other bunks were lined up against the opposite wall - one upper
and one lower - and the lower bunk could be folded into two stools and
a table during the day.
I ended up owning an upper-bunk in one
of the mini kupes which I shared with a family of two pensioners
(former engineers) and their sixteen year old daughter who was largely
silent except to tell her mom: "Mmaaaa, I ask you not to talk about
me!" They were pleasant enough people traveling to Novosibirsk. They
shared their instant coffee with me and were insistent on knowing why I
neglected to include Novosibirsk on my list of destinations. This later
proved to be a theme among my travel companions. To be perfectly honest
I was a little disappointed with my first neighbors. They weren't
overly talkative, and indeed too normal to interest me for the two and
a half days we would be living together.
After only five hours
or so the train made it's first station stop on the outskirts of the
Moscow Oblast and I stepped off to get some fresh air. Now, I had heard
that various people from the local towns often sell various food goods
and useful objects at the stations along the Trans-Siberian but I was
unprepared for what I was about to witness. It was like some sort of
department store on legs on the platform. Although there were a few
Babushkas (Grandmothers) selling potatoes, baked goods, and other food,
the vast majority were selling useless junk - wine glass sets, pottery,
and my favorite Chandeliers! I guess the deep-pocketed might want a
nice chandelier to spruce up their kupe, but I spent much of the next
hour pondering if people by this stuff? And if so why? And if why not
why does the chandelier guy bother to keep coming to the station? Bozhe
I didn't manage to do much the rest of the night
except trudge through Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time in the original
Russian. Interestingly enough the story begins on a train where an
officer begins telling his fellow passengers of the love affair between
in the Caucasus region between a local girl Bela and the novel's
infamous protagonist Pechorin. It filled me with a sense of wonder and
inspiration for the endless miles of tracks that lay ahead, and the
legends of Russia and it's famous railway began to creep into my head.
eluded me that first night. So I decided to step out during a thirty
minute stop at some remote station somewhere past Kazan the Capital of
Tartarstan. I should preface this portion of my brief memoir by saying
that I decided it was unwise to travel as an American. In Russia many
people still think of America as a country where everyone has an absurd
amount of money. Traveling in "Hard Class" with 53 strangers I decided
not to risk the consequences of this stereotype. Thus, I traveled
incognito as a Latvian. In Russia, people generally believe that any
person who speaks semi-fluent Russian with an accent is from pribaltika
(the Baltic States). Thus, I decided to enjoy a personal joke against a
former Latin teacher of mine who originally hailed from Latvia and
hated Russia with a burning passion, by adopting her nationality in
order to ensure myself safe travel - this would backfire. Returning to
the stop, I exited the train and began making small talk with some of
the younger people on the platform. Sampuryat - a young Buryat
returning home to Ulan-Ude after working in Moscow for some time,
Grisha - a Kyrgyz going to Ulan-Ude to meet with some friends, and Oleg
- a gregarious Russian, somewhat of a Hooligan, who was exiting at
Novosibirsk in order to catch a train to his beloved home town (he
never let me forget the name) of Novokuznetsk. These three became my
principle friends and travel companions for the rest of the trip.
People on the train never let me forget, <<Никогда не забудь, наш
русский народ - приятный народ!>> ("Never forget, our Russian
people - are a pleasant people!"). Throughout my journeys this
statement proved true, most of all in the face of exceptions to the
rule. About two minutes into our acquaintance, a drunken conscript
stumbled over to me. I mean drunk. I don't know how he was standing. He
muttered some things about Latvia and why my country is anti-Russian,
etc. But the people I was with, who barely knew me, simply pushed him
out of the way - ne nado! Eto racism! Of course, only one among them
was ethnically Russian - but it goes to show that there remains some
sort of brotherhood and genuine mutual kindness among strangers that is
largely absent in the US despite the obligatory, "How are you doing
today" that is muttered by basically all American corporations. Don't
misinterpret this as America bashing - it's just a difference. Later,
on a drunken machinist (don't worry he wasn't on duty) would explain to
me exactly what it means to be znakom (aquainted), but I'll get to that
Eventually, after sipping tea with my new friends
and chatting about travels and the various places we had all been to
(they were all much better traveled then I - one of the perks of being
a migrant worker I guess), we were abruptly told to disperse by the
overweight and grouchy women in the opposite kupe who would prove to be
a nemesis throughout the journey. "It's 2am! At noon you drink juice!
Later beer! Now tea! Always drinking something! Tea! Tea so late! You
can go to hell with that asshole Putin!" Nice to meet you too, I
thought. And returned to my bed.
A quick note on the "fat
American" stereotype: I continue to think of the average American as of
standard weight. However, traveling in Russia and later in Poland it is
easy to see where the ideology came from. I maybe see two overweight
people a week in Moscow (a city of 12 million people). Thus, I can
imagine Russian and other foreign tourists just being astounded by the
amount of overweight people they see in America. Another cultural
difference I guess.
Anyway, I fell into a deep sleep and was
finally woken up by an old man a couple of coupes shouting for the
militsiya (police) at about one in the afternoon. I remembered that
early on the first day I several times passed by his kupe, and his
neighbors in the opposite against the wall bunks had been playing
cards. Now one of them was on the floor in a pool of blood, the victim
of a knife straight through the heart. His murder locked himself in the
bathroom and jumped out the window in the middle of nowhere without so
much as a jacket in -20 weather. I have no idea what happened to him.
The train didn't stop. I presume that he froze to death. Serves him
right. His victim was in his early twenties. Killed over twenty rubles
(about sixty cents) - and the rules of some Chinese card game. He
managed to stab another one of his companions in the neck. He lived to
my knowledge, but what happened to him afterwards I don't exactly know.
They took him out of our wagon and that was the last I saw of him. It
was a horrible start to the afternoon but I suppose one to rival
Pechorin's adventures in A Hero of Our Time. I was forced to endure the
rest of the day being told by everyone on the train - "Never play cards
with Russians! You may talk with Russians! You may drink with Russians!
You are not allowed to play cards with Russians!" Yes, that was the
start of another theme on my journey - advice (thankfully not murder).
Russians are full of advice for strangers. Some of their advice is
superstitious and useless (but funny), others you'd be unwise not to
listen to - such as don't play cards with Russians!
So I'll stop
here for now. At this point it's about the 27th of December and we're
about 36 hours from Novosibirsk the capital of Siberia. More on
Novosibirsk and the rest of my Siberian adventure in the coming days. I
will say it was a surprising and satisfying trip. And furthermore, I
assure you that it's not all down hill reading post-murder! I saw
pretty much everything on this trip.
following the murder – the friends I met at the station along with an
older gentleman decided to deal with the tragedy the way most people on
a train deal with events good and bad – open a bottle of vodka. The
older gentleman was gregarious and eager to initiate a foreigner into
all the traditions and secrets of Russian vodka drinking. I was able to
provide my company with a laugh when I recounted the tale of how my
Grandfather had seen sailors in Vladivostok make samogon (home made
vodka) from the fuel of decommissioned torpedoes in Vladivostok right
after the end of World War II. We had just finished downing the first
shot when the Militsiya (Police) arrived – very drunk. It’s worth
noting a few differences between the Militsiya (sometimes unfortunately
translated into English as “the militia”) and American police. For
starters, there are no local police in Russia. All police are
essentially exactly the same – federal agents under the command of the
Ministry of Interior. They are essentially local police, state
troopers, and FBI rolled into one entity. Secondly, their salaries are
pathetic and true to stereotype they often solicit bribes. In fact a
true-to-life anecdote about the DPS (these letters might be familiar to
some of my Dickinson friends, in Russian they stand for highway patrol)
is that the Militsiya often profusely apologize to pulled-over
motorists when they cannot accept a bribe due to their quotas of
tickets given not being met. Finally, the best way to deal with the
Militsiya if you speak Russian is to turn to a babushka (grandmother)
for help. All Russians listen to babushkas and the Militsiya is no
exception. Unfortunately, we had no babushkas at our disposal. The
police looked at our documents (standard procedure, also if something
is out of order with documents it gives them tremendous power to
solicit a bribe). Finally, one told us (while leaning against the table
to keep his balance and slurring his words) something… None of us
really understood. Finally, he grew frustrated and just muttered
“nel’zya” (forbidden). Then he grabbed our bottle turned around,
rethought the situation, came back to us and grabbed a glass of the
table, and stumbled away. The train still had not stopped. There still
was blood on the carpet.
The next day the train stopped at
Novosibirsk – the capital of Siberia. It’s an enormous city of four
million people in the middle of nowhere, complete with the second
biggest metro in Russia. My neighbors had earlier bragged to me that
Novosibirsk was Russia’s “third” city after Moscow and St. Petersburg.
They even threatened to start a passionate argument when I answered
that Kazan (the capital of Tartarstan) was Russia’s third city due to
it’s amazing culture, history, and success at sports (Kazan’s teams are
currently the Russian football, hockey, basketball, and volleyball
champions). They answered, “What’s wrong with you? Kazan has barely one
million people!” Although in truth – a large population and the title
of the “capital of Siberia” are really the only things Novosibirsk has
going for it. There’s nothing there. Before he disembarked, Oleg – the
hooligan Russian – told me he was going to give me a Russian test and
invited me into the section between compartments where people smoked. I
refused a cigarette and we stepped inside. It was like the freezer room
from my days working at the A&P supermarket. Snow blanketed the
floor. Ice covered the walls and the ceiling. Then Oleg wrote something
on the frosty wall with his finger – I cringed hoping that he wouldn’t
get frozen to the wall.
“What does it say?” he asked me.
“Excellent! I give you an A in Russian language. Now what’s the greatest city in Russia?”
“Novokuznetsk,” I sighed.
convinced me and Grisha to disembark at Novokuznetsk a walk around for
a bit since the train was stopping there for an hour. We were reluctant
but ultimately convinced by the promise of groceries at prices much
cheaper then on the train. We effortlessly found a store and managed to
get some cheap salad and beer before heading back to the station. Oleg
the whole time was rattling on about Novokuznetsk and starting to
become a little undone at the prospect of the six hour layover waiting
for his train to… Novokuznetsk. First he managed to knock over a plate
in the dining room of the train station after Grisha had bough us some
vodka and sausage rolls. Secondly he decided to be a smartass on
platform. There was a snowplow parked in front of our carriage – so he
decided to write “Novokuznetsk” on the side in urine. However, as he
got halfway done the snow plow moved forward leaving nothing standing
between him and our female conductor who stood infuriated at the
entrance to the carriage. Me and Grisha went back to our bunks. Do
svidaniya Oleg! Enjoy Novokuznetsk!
I returned and met my new
neighbors – all Buryats heading to Ulan-Ude. We talked little that
first night. Instead I spent a lot of time talking with an old man who
sat across me who told me of his travels through out the former Soviet
Union. He’d been to almost every former Soviet Republic (except the
Baltic states and thus, was unable to tell that I wasn’t Latvian). He
told me about his car trip from Dubai to Moscow and about his mother
who lived on a pension of $20 a month in Kyrgyzstan. “It’s more than
enough,” he told me. “There everything is paid for by the government –
gas, food, water – you need very little.”
About eight hours
later he disembarked at Krasnoyarsk and I went to bed. Later on in the
journey I’d meet some more interesting characters from both Novosibirsk
and Krasnoyarsk. But unfortunately, I met no one else from
Novokuznetsk. I woke up the next morning at 10am, the usual time for
communal breakfast – coincidentally also the usual hour when drinking
began. My remaining friends and I somehow crammed onto the two seats
across from the fat lady and laid out our food. An Uzbek, who embarked
the night before brought the consensual best bounty. Traditional
Central-Asian flat bread, spare ribs, and Uzbek wine from Andijan (the
site of the infamous 2005 massacre). Everything was delicious,
especially the port wine which was miles ahead of its Russian
counterpart. The whole thing was without incident, except that ou old
gentleman friends from the previous day told me that I was not Russian
and therefore to be careful when drinking… “Russians can drink 20 times
more than Latvians; they can keep drinking… you no.”
I took a
nap and spent the last eight hours of the journey talking with my
neighbors from Buryatiya and a Tadjik named Said, who spent the
previous night showing me various “hilarious” cartoons and videos he
collected on his cell phone. Said mostly spent time reminding me to
charge my cell phone and pack – I already mentioned Russians are full
of advice right? While my neighbors spent time chastising me for not
allocating more time for Ulan-Ude. “Ulan-Ude is much prettier then
Irkutsk!” Ultimately, they were right. My one neighbor also asked to
practice English with me, and since so many Russians had given me
language practice over the past week, I conceded to his request. He
spoke poorly but with a very good vocabulary for one year of self-study
on the internet. If it’s one thing I learned on the trip it’s not to
underestimate “the provincial people” so long ridiculed throughout
Tsarist, Soviet, and contemporary history as far inferior to the people
in Moscow and St. Petersburg. They are clever, kind, and most
importantly live good full lives. They should be the envy of Russia’s
first and second cities.
At last, I disembarked at Irkutsk at
about 3 in the morning local time. Said thoroughly searched my bunk and
kupe making sure I hadn’t forgotten anything and then gave me one last
piece of advice – “Sleep in the train station – it’s warm and cheaper
then a hotel. Get a hotel tomorrow night.” Thus we shook hands and
departed. I was thoroughly satisfied with the first leg of my journey.
The second leg soon slapped me in the face – a -32 degree gust of wind.
So I trudged off towards the light of the train station – feeling like
I was in a scene from Doctor Zhivago, my beard was stiff and beginning
to freeze – and finally through open the door to the train station. I
had arrived at Irkutsk, place of exile of the Decembrists, after four
days on the train. The date was December 30th, 2009.
wandered around the train station in Irkutsk for about ten minutes and
ultimately decided against sleeping there. It was about 3:30 in the
morning and I made up my mind to just try and find a hotel. Ultimately,
it proved to be a good decision. I later found out that the militsiya
usually charge bomzh (a Russian acronym for homeless people – “people
without a regular place of residence”) about 100-200 rubles a night to
sleep in the train station, so I figured I could spend a little more
and get more bang for my buck. I walked outside and asked the nearest
cab-driver to take to me to a cheap hotel, and after some deliberation
with his colleagues he said he knew one not far from the train station.
It was called Vostok-Zapad (East-West, a very typical name for a
Russian hotel). It was really more of a hostel, but because no one
comes to Irkutsk in January I had a four-bed dorm to myself for 500
rubles a night (roughly fifteen dollars). Ordering the room was no
problem, and it was clear that the first four nights on the train had
been an enormous help in improving my Russian skills. I was also able
to save some money by not registering – as registration is only
required if one is spending more than three days in one place.
quick note on registration: All foreigners are required to re-register
their visas in each city they spend more then three days in, so the
Russian government always has a rough idea of where they are.
Similarly, all Russian citizens have an internal passport where their
place of permanent residence is stamped. If they spend more than a
month in a different residence – they too must re-register. The
phenomena of the internal passport has been one of the few constants
between the Tsarist, Soviet, and contemporary periods of Russian
After a very welcome shower (there are no showers on
the train) and a cup of tea, I went to bed feeling very refreshed. The
next morning I woke up in a pool of sweat barely able to breath. The
room was absolutely sweltering. What seemed like a cozy room last night
turned into a sauna the following morning. There was no point in
complaining about the heat. As a rule Russians rarely (if ever) adjust
the heat indoors during winter. It’s not uncommon to see apartment
windows open in -20 degree weather if the inside temperature has risen
to high. I quickly set off for the relief of the outdoors and the -30
degree temperature. I was headed for the avto-vokzal (bus station)
where I could catch a marshrutka to Lake Baikal. Marshrutka are a
staple form of transportation in Eastern Europe. The literal
translation of the full name means – “fixed-route taxi.” They are
essentially very-sketchy (sometimes windowless) vans that run between
different points around a city. However, after waiting for fifteen
minutes, I soon realized that my hotel was located on the outskirts of
the city and no buses or marshrutki to avto-vokzal would be coming
anytime soon. So I hailed a cab there which offered to take me straight
to Baikal for fifteen times the price of the marshrutka, I politely
I got into a van, and after a twenty minute wait set
off for Baikal. After an uneventful forty minute trip we arrived at the
small lakeside town of Listvyanka. I had heard many amazing things
about Baikal – its indescribable beauty, the amazing fact that it holds
30% of the world’s fresh water (more than all the Great lakes
combined). Thus, I was a little disappointed when I walked out to its
shores for the first time. There it was infinite blue. Admittedly a
shade of such perfect blue I’d never seen before in my life. And
complimented by the light blue sky and the grey-blue fog that drifted
across the lake it struck me as some sort of new outer space – a type
of black hole on the planet, fenced in by the jagged blocks of ice
which lined the beaches – the violent position of those jagged ice
blocks (the first parts of Baikal to freeze) contrasted remarkably with
the serenity of the lake. However, turning my back from the shore’s
after ten minutes I admittedly wondered why I had bothered to come here?
search of something to do, I wandered into the nearby lighthouse shaped
hotel appropriately named mayak (lighthouse). I found a café there and
ordered Baikal’s world famous delicacy – Omul’. Omul’ is a fish only
found in Baikal distantly related to salmon. It’s the most delicious
smoked fish in the world, without a doubt. Omul’ quickly became a
staple of my time in Irkutsk. Unsure what to do with the rest of my
time I decided to order an excursion at the hotel. When I handed over
my passport to the desk clerk, she practically screamed – “Oh New York!
You’re from New York! I dream of going there!” I had endured this
conversation countless times before: “Why?” “I’ve always wanted to see
a Broadway show!” “But you have great theater here! For example, the
Bolshoi, Chekhov, etc. Russia has one of the greatest theatrical
traditions in the world.” “But our theater is so antiquated. Broadway
is a contemporary heater. Chekhov is practically unwatchable.”
“Broadway often produces plays by Chekhov and other Russian
playwrights!” I countered. “Maybe so, but they’re presented
differently. It’s different,” she seemed to be convincing herself as
she went along. “The difference is what I want to see.” There’s this
New York dream in Russia that’s hard to dispel. Most Russians don’t
really have a solid or concrete reason for wanting to go to NY. But
maybe the desk clerk hit the nail on the head – they just want to see
I set off on my excursion with my guide Andrei
– a local in his mid-20s. I repeatedly annoyed him by failing to adjust
to one of the facts of life in Russia east of Moscow – all cars are
Japanese models. Thus, out of force of habit I continued to try to step
into the driver’s side after each stop. This excursion proved to be the
most touristy (for the record Microsoft word just suggested I use the
word “touristiest”) part of my adventure, but I wouldn’t be doing
Baikal like a Russian if I did it any other way. Our first stop was the
overpriced Baikal Museum – one of the few left in Russia that still
uses special prices for foreigners. The second floor was relatively
uninteresting – a collection of grossly discolored local fish and
wildlife stuffed in jars stacked alongside the walls. This
unfortunately, remains typical of Russian museums. I remember last
February during a trip to NYC, I met my parents and we stopped in the
Museum of Natural History, and my mother remarked on how archaic those
types of displays seemed in the present day. Russia still has some
catching up to do in some areas, and this is very apparent in museums.
This is unfortunate because they are a magnet for tourists and thus,
harmful to the nation’s image. The first floor was more fun – it was an
aquarium with live exhibits. Admittedly, it’s impossible not to become
smitten with the Nerpa seals there. Nerpa are one of only two species
of fresh water seals in the world and only found in Lake Baikal. They
are relatively hard to spot in the wild but make frequent appearances
on the tourist apparel hawked around the Baikal region.
next stop was interestingly enough a ski-lift. I had never been on a
ski-lift before but it was kind of cool and not at all difficult to
swing on and off of, as I previously imagined. We then hiked to the top
of one of the mountains that surround Baikal (not visible to me earlier
because of the massive fog). Despite, the fog I gazed down at an
amazing view of Baikal. It really was an amazing panorama of nature –
rivers, an enormous lake, mountains (where only a few miles from us
wolves and bears still roam wild). “On a clear day,” Andrei told me,
“You can see clear to Irkutsk.” Nonetheless, it was quite a view.
last stop was a café for a traditional local lunch – of course I ate
Omul’. Then, at my request a market where I bough several smoked Omul’
for the train ride to Ulan-Ude. I thanked Andrei and jumped on a
marshrutka back to Irkutsk. In Irkutsk, I once again had no idea how to
figure out the bizarre system of public transportation in the city so I
hailed another cab. My driver, Vasilii, noticing I spoke with an
accent, asked where I was from. I told him New York. It turns out
Vasilii possessed some confused ideas about America: “I don’t want to
be controversial,” he spoke passionately at about 100mph, “but tell me
what you think. I think the American government and George Bush blew up
the twin towers so they could get oil from Iraq. Just tell me what you
think.” I simply replied that it was a complicated question and that
Russia has problems with government corruption too. “Absolutely true!”
he replied. “Take me. I used to be a militsiya captain, but they paid
me shit. A detective! How am I supposed to do my job when they don’t
pay me anything! No wonder this country has so many problems.”
many higher ups in the Ministry of the Interior (MVD – they run the
militsiya) frequently complain that because of lack of funds, they
cannot offer competitive salaries, and therefore can only recruit the
dumbest and most incompetent sections of Russia’s workforce (and
apparently promote them to Captain). He then changed the subject to
Barrack Obama: “I am not a racist. But how! Just how! In a country with
so many white people, can a black man become president? I don’t
understand. Is your country in Africa? After getting lost several
times, he eventually managed to find my hotel. He gave me his number
and told me to call if I needed to go anywhere tomorrow, and I was
tempted to just to see if I could manage to draft a quote book before
my train to Ulan-Ude.
So at the end of the day, I retired to my
room. My train for Ulan-Ude didn’t leave until 9:30 the next night so I
still had roughly a full day to spend in Irkutsk before I moved forward
to the capital of the Autonomous Republic of Buryatiya. I was beginning
to notice some of the backwards elements of Russia that I had heard so
My last day in Irkutsk was relatively uneventful. I decided to try to explore the city of Irkutsk, but by this point it was New Years Eve and everything was closed. New Years or Novyi God in Russian is the nation’s main holiday and one of the few holidays that are truly heartfelt and widely celebrated (the others being Victory Day and Orthodox Easter). The reason for this is that the Soviet Union was a secular nation and celebrations of religious holidays were frowned
upon. And besides Easter as opposed to Christmas has always been the principle holiday in all versions of Orthodox Christianity.
I eventually ended up in the one place sure never to close in Russia – a bar. I sipped on a local beer as bums shuffled into the bar, downed a shot of vodka without bothering to sit down, and left just as quickly returning when they had begged enough loose change to purchase another shot of the precious spirit.
It did give a chance to reflect on the year passed and I decided 2009 was a pretty good year despite general consensus in the opposite direction. After all, I had been living in Moscow for the past few months, was grateful for the bonds with friends and family I forged over that time, and now I was burning 9,289 kilometers (577 miles) of railway through Europe all the way to the coast of Asia.
I got a cab back to the hostel which proved an experience. First, I was shocked to have a women driver (which is basically unheard of in Russia), second she asked me to buckle my seatbelt (ditto), and third she ripped me off to the tune of 1000 rubles (not that surprising). I napped away the last five hours in Irkutsk in my uncomfortably hot room and grabbed another cab to the train station. Fortunately, the drive was uneventful.
Seeing as it was New Years Eve my wagon on the train was practically empty. I think about five out of the fifty-two beds were occupied. My one neighbor was a lawyer in her early twenties who went on at length about wanting to move into journalism in St. Petersburg. We shared my omul’ and her champagne and had an enjoyable night talking about music, travel, and journalism. To be honest, she mostly complained but they were interesting complaints – about the law, about not being able to publish the book she had already written, etc. I trusted her enough to shed my Latvian alias and was simply traveling as an American at
this point. She said the main reason she was going to Ulan-Ude was just because she wanted to spend New Years on a train for the experience. I hope I met her expectations.
We arrived at Ulan-Ude at about 6:30 in the morning. I waited in the train station for a couple of hours because it was as of yet too early to do anything. I was only in Ulan-Ude until 2:00pm. The only incident of note in those two hours was a little prank I pulled. The vast majority of people in the train station were ethnic Buryats (a Mongolian people) with a sprinkling of dark haired ethnic Russians. At one point an old Buryat sat down next to me. I waited until he was looking in my direction then I took of my hat. The poor man almost fell out of his chair. I decided not to pull that again, in fear of
giving someone a heart-attack. Also, probably only my Dad will appreciate this but they played (in English) “For 24 years I’ve been living next door to Alice,” in the train station lobby which struck me as nothing short of bizarre.
I hailed a cab outside and asked to be taken to Polshad’ Sovetov (square of the Soviets) which is the center of Ulan-Ude. The name does not disappoint. uarding the residence of the Republic’s government (as previously mentioned Ulan-Ude is the capital of the autonomous government of Buryatia) was a monument to Lenin. Now, this by itself isn’t exactly a revelation in the remnants of the former Soviet Union. However, this monument was unique. It was juts a head – an enormous head. “The biggest in the world,” my driver said proudly, “It’s in the
book of Guinness World Records.”
I decided I still had time before the next train to see more of the town. I asked my driver what else he could take me to see. “You must see our Buddhist Datsan! It’s the central Datsan in all of Russia.”
“Poekhali (let’s go)!” I replied.
We passed a few of the cities architectural monuments such as the reconstructed triumphal arch (not uncommon in Russia, built in many main cities to celebrated Napoleon’s downfall in 1812, and again after Hitler’s defeat in 1945) and the beautiful Burytian National Theater. We crossed the Selenga River (the main river in Buryatia it supplies Lake Baikal with nearly half of its water, Selenga Ulan-Ude is also the name of the cities 4th division amateur football club) and entered the road towards Mongolia. The nature was truly amazing. The road was flanked by fields of snow, pimpled with remains of Mongol fortresses
so old that their foundations are invisible under the high grass of summer and the snow of winter, and mountains stood tall in the distance in all four compass directions. After about twenty minutes my driver slammed on the breaks. Hastily rolled down the window and tossed a coin on the side of the road. He pointed up towards a mountain separated from the others with a particularly interesting shape, like a wave getting ready to crash down on the shore. “That
mountain is sacred. All Buddhists must pay tribute to it every time we pass.”
Orthodoxy never really caught in Buryatia. No doubt this is a problem of its location. In fact, Patriarch Krill recently revived the idea of a “Prayer Train” taking the faith to communities without churches. The original “Prayer Train” was commissioned by Tsar Nicholas II in the early twentieth century. Instead the main religions here are Tibetan Buddhism and Shamanism. My driver told he father was Buddhist and his mother Shaman. He described himself as Buddhist, then after thing for a second added, “also a little Shaman.” Such a mix is not uncommon. We eventually arrived at the Datsan which never closes even on New Years. He explained to me that the proper way to see the Datsan is to walk around in a circle. I was fine with this but it was very cold out that day (about -35). He was very adamant that I participate in the rituals around the Datsan – explaining that I would need the good luck for my trip and that it would help make everything right with the world. I found this a refreshing contrast to other institutions I visited which have been very guarded about people of a different faith. Throughout the monastery were wheels on polls. Usually these sets of polls were in sets of three through ten. He instructed me to put a coin down at the first set (I would only be asked to add a coin once), and spin the wheels in order, walking around them in a circle. We did this throughout our circular walk stopping at several temples on the ground. The first temple contained monks that were chanting nonstop in Tibetan while beating drums. He explained to me that they did this everyday for eight hours in order to keep all right with the world. At the front of every temple we stopped in there usually was a pitcher of sacred water which he instructed me to poor into my hands, wash my hands and face, and then drink. There were also increasingly elaborated statues of Gods (some beautiful, others monster like),
Buddha, and various llamas of Tibetan Buddhism. My driver (his name was Nikolai) prayed in front of these by pressing his palms together and then touching the top of his forehead, his nose, and his chin, before bowing. Outside on the grounds was a tree encased in glass, supposedly descended from the Bodhi under which Buddha obtained enlightenment. The last temple was amazingly beautiful, its beauty scathed only by the cash registers on the right side of the temple. At the front ride corner of the temple, Nikolai encouraged me to make a ten ruble donation and light a candle, once again so all would be
right with the world. He also decided to light one, but struggled. He had a weathered face and as the flame burned down the shaft of the match it seemed he was haunted by some misdeeds of his past or a time when all had not been right with the world. However, he eventually succeeded which struck me as a good omen. I lit my candle without struggle and we departed.
I was once again struck by the beauty of Ulan-Ude and decided if I was ever to return to Baikal I’d much rather stay at Ulan-Ude then Irkutsk. It’s an incredible place. We made our way north away from Mongolia, eventually crossed the Selenga, and reached the train station. I thanked Nikolai and we set off our separate ways. Although before he left, he recommended that my next journey should be to Tibet.
It really was enlightening (no pun intended) to see the multi-religious status of modern Russia. In Moscow, I was taught about it. However, Moscow is ominated by the domes and spires of Orthodox Churches – and the strong presence of other religions in Russia really hadn’t been demonstrated to me until this point. Officially – Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism are Russia’s only recognized religions.
After a fifteen minute wait at the train station, I was on the train to Vladivostok. The last leg of my journey had begun but I was glad that I took the time to stop at Ulan-Ude. Now I could be sure that all was right with the world.
Hope everything is well
with all of you,
I'm sorry it took so long to get this last part out. There will be one final
part after this describing my tour of Vladivostok and perhaps some reflections
on the journey as a whole. Maybe some FAQs that I've received from some of you
will be answered as well. Anyway, keep in touch it's been a great while since
I've heard from many of you.
I walked out of the station on to the platform in Ulan-Ude. It was freezing
outside as previously stated – about -35 degrees. I entered onto the train
after the conductor scrutinized my ticket and passport, “Hmmm not Russian,
interesting,” she muttered. I passed an old man on the way to my bunk. “You are
Nemets (German), yes?” He asked in English.
“No,” I replied
switched to Russian, “You are freezing like a dog. That means you are German.
Freezing just like the Germans did in the war.”
It would not
be the last I heard from him.
day was a little slow. I was on one of the side bunks. The set up is one bunk
is situated over the other one and the lower bunk folds into a table during the
day. My neighbor didn’t speak any Russian. Like many of the people in our wagon
he was a migrant worker from China headed to Chita, I eventually figured out.
His friend spoke horrible Russian saying only, “У вас есть ваш, и у нас есть наш” (You have yours, and we have ours). He spoke in
such a heavy accent, that I felt a sense of pride having deciphered his words.
I had a few
conversations that day with an ethnic Avar (one of many people native to the
Russian republic of Dagestan) from Azerbaijan. He told me that he spoke four
languages (Azeri, Russian, Avar, and Kumyk (another Dagestani language).
Americans seem to think that in the Soviet Union and Russia, people only spoke
Russian. However, local languages have survived remarkably well within both the
borders of the Soviet Union and modern day Russia. This was due in large part
to Lenin’s somewhat detrimental national policy where he encouraged local
schools to teach in indigenous languages. Case in point is that while Russian
is still very widely spoken throughout the former Soviet Union nearly all the
newly independent republics have reverted to their national language (Georgian,
Ukrainian, Azeri, Latvian, Kazakh, etc.).
I also managed
to meet to other people that day – neither of particular interest. One was a
Tadjik also traveling to Chita for work who was trying to practice his Russian.
To extend on the previous note on languages, many people in Central Asian
nations today do not speak Russian at all. In fact, it is not common to run
into migrant workers from those nations in Moscow who possess a very elementary
command of the Russian language. The other man I met was a Russian headed to
Birobidzhan – the capital of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast (more on that later).
He was an aggressive character who liked to laugh loudly at his own jokes and I
wasn’t overly interested in pursuing a conversation with him.
retired to my sleep. I conveyed my desire to fold down the top bunk to my
Chinese neighbor through a series of ultimately successful sign gestures. I
managed to get to sleep and woke up relatively early as we were pulling into
the city of Chita. I stepped out of the station and after a minute of aimless
wandering quickly re-boarded the train. The weather was unbelievable! -42
degrees Celsius (about -43 degrees Fahrenheit)! Such cold I had never before in
my life encountered, and hope that I will never experience it again. Simply
The next day
was relatively uneventful. I mostly slept – I was exhausted at this point –
talked a little with my neighbor who had replaced my Chinese companion. The
only thing I really remember about him was that his last name was Chekhov. I
did bump into an engineer (in Russian machinist) – and we ended up talking
about this and that – alternating buying each other beers until we were both
more or less completely drunk. Thanks, I muttered after he purchased the last
round from the women who pushed a cart full of beer, vodka, and candy up and
down the aisles of the train.
friend,” he shook off my thanks, “You don’t need to say thanks – we are already
acquainted. You know my name and I know yours. He then taught me some sort of
Siberian handshake known between acquaintances and friends.” I collapsed in my
bunk and didn’t wake up until the next morning – my last on the train.
getting up, I soon bumped into the old man from the first day on the train.
“Good morning,” I tiredly muttered.
good about it German? You need to be careful. You could’ve been robbed blind
replied. “Things got a little out of hand.”
happen in Russia. Come to our kupe. Sit down, talk a little.”
I agreed and
he introduced me to his neighbors. Two translators (husband and wife) who asked
me to proofread their article on Buddhism and science. They were headed to
Vladivostok for some kind of conference on Buddhism. They were both Russians,
but the old men dubbed the husband – Englishman.
The old man
himself was taking his daughter to university in Vladivostok. He told me a
little about his life. He moved with his mother and other members of his family
to Minnesota after receiving some sort of political protection from the US
government during the turbulent Yeltsin era. However, after a year he decided
he couldn’t stand Minnesota and went back to Russia for good.
granddaughter spent most of her time quarrelling with him about something or
other but always in a half-serious manner.
to his earlier warning, the old man insisted I drink vodka. I was hesitant but
he explained that when eating pig fat (which he promptly produced a huge lump
of), it was impossible to get drunk. Amazingly enough this proved correct.
However, the “Englishman” translator didn’t care much for the vodka and
explained to me: “Philip, I will say this in English because it is very
important. The secret to buying good vodka is to read the fine print on the
back of the label. Here, on this bottle it says extra (экстра, for those of you interested in implementing this
advice). Always buy luks (люкс). It’s cleaner. More tasty, and there is very little difference in
enjoyed the pig fat – which had a chewy and salty taste. We continued to talk
until we reached Khabarovsk on the Amur river. We all dived out for something
more to bring to the table. We came back with tea, bread, red caviar, sugar,
and the Englishman brought back a bottle of “luks” vodka to prove his point (it
is indeed tastier). The girls all commented on how pretty the table was and
everyone was content with the trip. We all felt like the envy of the rest of
the train. We talked the night away until the next morning when we arrived in
Vladivostok – the end of the Trans-Siberian railway. I had managed to travel
9289 kilometers in one piece to arrive in the San Francisco of Russia.
Hope everyone is well,
week got off on a bad note as Russia lost to Slovenia 1-0 last
Wednesday and got knocked out of the World Cup. I watched the game with
my friend Sasha at the Russian dormitories. We had bought a bunch of
beverages to celebrate Russia’s victory so rather than let them go to
waste we had a party for Slovenia. By the way, for those of you at
Dickinson complaining about DPS all the time, I’m betting you have
never seen an angry security dedushka (Grandpa) wake up from a nap and
run up ten flights of stairs at four in the morning.
thing, Sasha’s girlfriend gave me a CD of songs celebrating Moscow’s
best football club, FK Lokomotiv. It’s interesting that sports culture
is so much bigger here than in the US, most of the big name bands write
songs for their favorite teams. The genres were certainly a mix from
folksy blues (Ty hashyol cvou komandu – “You found your team”), to
national anthem style ballads (yes, sports teams here have official
hymns), original rocks songs (My Chempiony – “We are champions”), and
finally a remix of “Who let the Dogs Out?”
day, the majority of the group went to a debate on Stalin’s Legacy
hosted by The Moscow News, an expat newspaper here. It was interesting
to attend and listen to because it’s a debate we could never have in
the United States because opinion is completely one-sided. However,
it’s important to remember that Stalin was the head of government when
the Soviet Union underwent industrialization, won WWII, and became a
global superpower. Thus, a significant number of Russians will always
view him a symbol of national pride. On the other hand, he undoubtedly
purged a significant numbers from the Russian population and for that
reason he will always be detested by a great number of Russians. Those
two points are the basic foundation for a conflict that has been
tormenting Russian society since the Khrushchev era and continues to be
an agent of difference even in the highest echelons of government.
Medvedev and Putin seem to have polar opposite views on the matter of
Stalin and potential rehabilitation. There were a diverse number of
participants including an Arch Priest of the Russian Orthodox Church, a
conservative political commentator, the historian of Memorial (a human
rights organization in Moscow), and oddly the head of the Socialist
party of England and Wales. I agreed and disagreed with all speakers on
certain levels. Although, the socialist party representative was the
most bizarre as he struggled to condemn Stalin through a Marxist
perspective of history (all history is the history of class conflict).
This basically led to a claim that Stalin was an agent working against
communism and revolution in Russia and he strived to destroy any gains
of the revolution during his rule. Now, Stalin was not a good guy, but
the last thing our already skewed perspective of the history of the
Stalin era needs is baseless politically biased conspiracy theories.
Saturday we took a day trip outside of Moscow to Boris Pasternak’s
Dacha. Pasternak was a dissident writer, best known in the U.S. for his
novel Doctor Zhivago which was later made into a blockbuster film in
Hollywood. The work won the Nobel Prize for Literature (probably for
anti-Soviet political reasons to be honest) but Pasternak was forced by
the government to decline the award. Ironically, the novel was first
published in Italian and actually not released to the Russian public
until during Perestroika in 1988, more than thirty years after it was
written, and long after Pasternak was dead. The dacha itself is fairly
amazing. The guide was very friendly, helpful, and certainly passionate
about Pasternak. The entire building is perfectly preserved with all
the original furniture and wall ornaments from Pasternak’s time.
Pasternak’s father did most of the drawings on the wall. I think
everyone enjoyed the trip, and Kara even got to play Pasternak’s piano!
I don’t think you could manage that in your typical museum. Pasternak
was pretty fond of the dacha too. He died on the bottom floor after a
battle with lung cancer with a smile on his face – as evidenced by his
After returning, we stopped at a bookstore near
Kievskii Vokzal (the train station) and I bought a couple volumes by
two of my favorite Russian poets – Lermontov and Okudzhava.
Monday we saw a very unique presentation of poetry by Lev Rubenstein
who was recently at Dickinson. I wasn’t very fond of the first part
which was basically an unorthodox combinational of various musical and
pseudo-musical instruments which bore a large resemblance to a couple
of little kids beating various kitchenware with a wooden spoon.
However, the second half was sublime despite the surprisingly few lines
of spoken poetry. The instruments that increased in number and sound as
the poem progressed really complimented the lyrics and even added a
second level of meaning. It’s hard to explain, it’s something you have
to experience. I might be able to find a video somewhere is anybody’s
interested. Afterwards Mr. Rubenstein was kind enough to talk with us
for a couple of minutes and pose for a few photos. Hopefully they’ll
find their way to the Dickinson website.
interestingly enough, we went to see a musical version of Beauty and
the Beast in Russian. Not exactly the most uniquely Russian thing in
the world, but I enjoyed it. The translations from the original English
versions of the songs were actually very clever.
classes, unfortunately I’ve been battling gripp (flu) recently with a
temperature of about 99.3. But don’t worry I’m fine and recovering. The
problem is I’ve missed three days of classes now. However, I’ve got my
first major presentation tomorrow, a ten-minute speech in Russian on
the history of Russian film. Wish me luck! So apart from illness, I’m
still enjoying my time here. Better sick in Moscow then healthy in
Carlisle, I keep telling myself.
Finally, we went to Pskov. I
didn’t really know much about the city to be honest aside from its
geographical location in the north-west of the country... It really is
an amazing place. It’s trying to attract tourists but really hasn’t
succeeded yet for reasons unbeknownst to me. Like Moscow it’s a
medieval city. However, unlike Moscow one can easily reach such a
conclusion at first glance. The city is surrounded by rings of walls
that marked its expansion dating between the 12th and 17th centuries
broken only by the roads leading to the center of the city. It used to
be an important fortress for the protection of Russia against the enemy
Lithuanians and Swedes, as well as an important trading center, before
the construction of St. Petersburg made Pskov obsolete as both an
economic and military center.
The first day we travelled
around the city. Like Moscow Pskov also has a Kremlin. It’s well
preserved foundations of ancient churches litter the courtyard while
the main Church in the center of the Kremlin is remarkably well
preserved and boasts a treasure of amazing icons, many of which have
their own important history (or legend, depending on who you ask), and
several are considered by the Russian Orthodox Church to be miracle
working. It was an incredibly scenic place flanked by a forking river
delta. Additionally, there is active archaeological work taking place,
so it’s certainly worth another visit to see if they find anything
The second day turned out to be one of the most
amazing days of my life, I will never forget it. I hope anyone who has
the chance to follow in my footsteps will not turn down the
opportunity. It began with a trip about an hour outside of Pskov to
Pskovskovo-Pecherskii Monastery very close to the border with Estonia.
It was the only monastery never to close during the Soviet era, and was
voted one of the 7 wonders of Russia in a national poll. Its beauty is
indescribable, not only the churches but also the landscape. The main
road through the center of the Monastery is called the “Road of Blood.”
Legend has it that Ivan the Terrible visited the monastery and after an
argument with the Father Superior, decapitated the unfortunate priest
with his sword. The body then extended its hands towards the Tsar and
took several steps forward. Ivan, terrified, immediately repented and
carried the body down the road to the main cathedral. In spring and
summer only red flowers grow on the side of the road.
we set off for the small town of Isborsk. With only a population of
700, the town is actually smaller then it was in the 14th century. We
first enjoyed a 5-course traditional peasant meal at a little hole in
the wall. It was an amazing combination of traditional salads, soups,
pelemeny (dumplings), blinny (thin pancakes filled with honey, apples,
local berries, or other sweet things, and of course tea. Following, an
extremely satisfying lunch we went to Isborsk fortress. It’s an
incredible 14th century fortress surrounded by steep walls and guard
towers that you can climb for the meager fee of ten rubles (thirty
cents) for an amazing view of the surrounding area which includes the
foundation of a scenic river (once an important trading post) as well
as the surrounding country and forests (the sights of many ancient
battles, most notably in the Livonian War. We then exited the fortress
down a narrow and winding path along between the outside walls and the
edge of a steep hillside and went down to see the river. The foundation
of the river is a series of streams gushing out of a natural stone
wall. There are seven main streams (known as the Slavonic keys). Each
one is said to bestow a specific fortune (love, health, money, etc.) on
whoever drinks for it. However, one (no one is sure exactly which) is
said to be the stream of death – so don’t drink from all of them!
last stop of the day was at a rural beekeeper. He was an outrageous,
somewhat risqué, but ultimately attractive character. He
enthusiastically told us about the history of agriculture and hunting
in Russia before letting us sample some incredible home grown honey as
well as a sampling of delicious homemade fruit wines, honey spirits,
and even samogon (homemade vodka). I have no regrets about dropping a
thousand rubles on his products.
This quick summary doesn’t do
justice to Pskov and the Pskov Oblast, but needless to say it’s a
fantastic place. It’s been relaxing and peaceful and really was a nice
stress free break just at the time when work was begging to pile up due
to a nasty battle with flu.
The train ride back to Moscow was
a long twelve hours. I got home at about 7am and left from the
university two hours later. However, I still feel great. I’m really
excited to see what other amazing places this country has to offer. Of
course, Moscow’s still the best. I don’t think I could live in Pskov,
but it’s a great place to spend 2 or 3 days.
Anyway, I hope
all of you are fine and hope to hear back from you. I sometimes wonder
how the campus is handling all the changes that have been on the agenda
I hope to right more in the near future. Keep me
updated on your comings and goings, life back at Dickinson, and any
other news of interest.
sorry I've been so bad with correspondance. I've decided to send out
regular "mass e-mails" to friends and family in order to try to
simplify my correspondance and be in touch with all of you on a regular
I've been very busy the past three months but things
are going great. Russia really is a wonderful country. The only problem
is its been eternally overcast recently. I haven't seen the sun in
almost a month. and we only get about 6 hours of daylight a day. It's
already dark by 4:00.
Classes are going well. 4 are in Russian
and are based on improving and perfecting language skills. I have one
class in English which is an analysis of all aspects of contemporary
Russia. My professor is quite an interesting character. He's a Marxist
but is very critical of the Soviet Union and spent about a year in
prison in the Brezhnev era for dissidence and later did a second spell
under Yeltsin when he was a member of the Russian parliament for
protesting his coup.
I've done too much over the last three
months to recount but I'll provide you with a rundown of my weekend. On
Friday after class we went to a piano concert featuring too of the most
famous pianists in contemporary Russia. The next Saturday I went to an
open air market in Ismailovskaya whioch featured pretty much anything
Russian you could possibly imagine (samovars, chess sets, relics of the
Red Army) at low prices.Then we set off for the Puskin Museum of Fine
Art. The museum is an interesting place but much more European then
other museums in Moscow. They had a fantastic collection of Greek and
Roman sculptures (but most were replicas).
Finally, we went to the
Luzhniki Stadium and bought some tickets to the World Cup Qualifier
with Slovenia from scalpers. The game was great. Russia won 2-1. The
atmosphere was incredible. Maybe even better than at Beaver Stadium?
after work (I teach two Russian grade school students English) I went
to Gorkii's house with one of my professors and a couple other students
from Dickinson. I'm not a big fan of Gorkii but the house is worth a
visit just to admire the art-noveau architecture. Many people call it
the most beautiful building in Moscow.
Well, once again I
apologise for the brevity of this letter and my poor correspondance. I
hope this finds all of you well and in good spirits.