Wednesday, October 19, 2011

St. Pete's


The Hermitage

After one last cramped but not altogether uncomfortable sleep on a Russian train, I arrived into St. Petersburg, the second largest and most "European" Russian city.  Like most places on this trip I had little understanding as to what to expect; when I was younger, Leningrad as it was then known, was synonymous with the abject failure of communism in its aftermath with breadlines and unemployment the telltale signs of widespread poverty.

This image was pretty much immediately dashed the moment I emerged from the incredibly deep subway (almost as beautiful as the Moscow metro) onto Nevsky Prospekt, the most famous street in Russia, and the heart of St. Petersburg.  I tell you, this place does not look like it's struggling for cash.  There is some serious bling in this city.  Signs of an immensely wealthy past are everywhere, and make it easy to appreciate that Russia was once the wealthiest of all the European monarchies a few hundred years ago.

View from the Hermitage out onto Palace Square, with Alexander Column the focal point, built in celebration of the Russian victory over Napoleon in 1812.

St. Petersburg is actually quite young having been founded only in 1703 by its namesake, Peter the Great.  One might assume with a suffix of "the Great" he did some pretty cool stuff, and young Peter was indeed quite the legendary dude, particularly when you compare to him to many of Russia's less inspiring rulers. Peter was only 3rd or 4th in line for the throne as a boy, and as such he was not subjected to the same cotton wool protection afforded to his elder brothers.  When a teenager he thus faced little resistance when he decided to essentially take a gap year/gap decade where he left the decidedly medieval environment of his homeland to explore the enlightened and progressive crowd over in Western Europe.  Along his travels he acquired some 7-8 languages, spent time building ships in England, studied military history and tactics, and generally rubbed shoulders with influential statesmen from courts across the continent.  By the time he returned to his homeland, he basically pushed aside his brothers and was determined to drag Russia into the 18th century from the dark ages.

One of his first moves was to take over leadership of the army, and in quick time he managed to push the occupying Swedes out of Northern Russia, and he determined that Russia needed to establish a strong Navy and coastal fortress to protect it's interests from those dominant Ikea folk to the west.  And so he gave the order to build St. Petersburg from scratch on the swampy mouth of the Neva River.  Of course thousands of forced labourers perished in the process of converting the swamps into useable land, but Peter wouldn't be Russian without a fair share of civilian suffering now would he?  In any case they did a fine job as over the next century St. Petersburg soon established itself as one of the most beautiful cities in all of Europe, the "Venice of the North" with its intricate series of canals linking the city.

Being a new city within a wealthy empire, it aimed to show off the best of what Europe had to offer, and its cause was helped by the widespread immigration of artists and intellectuals fleeing the uncertainty caused by the French Revolution.  Soon some of the world's foremost composers, painters, and writers called St. Petersburg home and this is clearly evident by the vast number of galleries, opera houses, ballet companies, museums and theatres scattered throughout the city.  If you only have a few days in St. Petersburg these attractions tend to take up most of your time, and topping the list is the world's largest art gallery, the Hermitage.

A wall full of Picassos...

The Hermitage is the former palace of Catherine the Great (no relation technically to the other "The Great"... she was actually German and took the throne when she killed her husband the king...) She is still considered a hero in Russia though... pretty lenient towards their leaders it seems.  It has more wall space taken up by masterpieces than any other gallery in the world, yet it only has one tenth of it's collection, also the largest in the world, on display at any one time.  

Matisse' priceless "The Dance"

It's truly a marvel to walk past a wall full of Picasso, Monet or Matisse, but I swear the true work of art is the building itself.  Catherine clearly believed she was deserving of the finer things in life and thank God for Royal budgets I say.  Every room is a feast of craftsmanship, every corner full of precise and intricate detail, every object carved immaculately from timber, sculpted from marble or leafed with gold with skill that would be impossible to find in today's day and age.  Truly a priceless wonder.  Slightly ironic that the palace was so large when completed, that it become impossible to heat adequately during the frigid northern winters, so Catherine preferred to live in the more modest Winter palace next door.

One of the hundreds of stunning rooms throughout the Hermitage.

Not all the galleries I visited were so awe-inspiring.  Now I'm not an art aficionado but seriously some painters have got to be kidding themselves with some of their "art".  I mean fair suck of the sauce bottle...

This title of this painting was "Red Square (Painterly Realism of a Peasant Woman in Two Dimensions)".  Of course it is.  Idiot.

The architecture is truly beautiful throughout the city and it’s a joy to just wander about crossing over the canals and strolling through the extensive gardens throughout the city.  One of the highlights is the St. Basil-esque Church of the Saviour on Spilt Blood cathedral, another tremendous example of the twisted lollipop architecture of the Russian Orthodox Church.  I found the story of this building particularly fascinating as it was built to commemorate the spot where Czar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881.  I have always been amazed at how the course of history can take momentous changes in direction due to the actions of random individuals. 

Church of the Saviour on Spilt Blood

Alexander II was actually quite a visionary and under his rule had already emancipated the millions of Russian serfs and had drafted plans for a Duma, an elected assembly that would have given a voice to his subjects.  Only two days (TWO DAYS!!) before he was due to implement this colossal change to Russian society, he was killed by terrorists (who ironically were actually campaigning for such a Duma) as he rode by in his carriage.  His son Alexander III, fearful of a similar fate, abandoned the Duma and cracked down more harshly than ever on his subjects, sowing the seeds of resentment that eventually led to the popular uprising of the communist revolution.  What would the world be like had Russia implemented such changes?  Imagine if the Russian peasants had been given a voice?  Would they have listened to Lenin when his train came laden with gold from Germany?  The world may have been a very different place...

A wide array of museums are at your disposal in St. Petersburg...  Imperial Bicycles, or playing cards anyone?

Being in St. Petersburg in summer really is a pretty special experience as the weather is wonderful, the days incredibly long, the spectacular gardens are in bloom, cultural events are going on everywhere, and basically everybody's happy.  Some of the highlights for me were the Petroghof garden's, the grounds of Peter's summer palace, and watching films on the canal's bridges (which are raised every night for the extensive river traffic) when the streets closed off for a huge street party of music and dancing.

Again, thank God for Royal budgets back in the day.  The spectacular summer gardens of Petroghof.

Alas, I was only there for a short time, but I couldn't leave Russia without experiencing a banya, which is basically a sauna where you get whipped with those ubiquitous birch tree leaves.  It was a perfect way to spend my last night in Russia, as it provided a neat little summary of my whole Trans-Siberian experience... I had little clue of what was going on, it was mildly uncomfortable yet not entirely unpleasant, with extensive amounts vodka and birch trees, wielded by aggressive-passive, if not openly hostile near naked Russian men, and although I'll probably never do it again, I'm glad I experienced it.  Unfortunately the similarities ended there, as I saw a lot of boobs in that banya... 

On to Europe...

Wednesday, September 28, 2011



5am is a pretty mysterious and foreboding time to arrive in Moscow, the former capital of the communist universe and current residence of more billionaires than any other city in the world.  As I headed towards my hotel through the dim glow of the breaking dawn, driving through the streets of bleak architecture, revolutionary monuments and Stalin's imposing skyscrapers (see above) whose art deco style appear to have been taken from a Batman comic, all that was missing from my opening montage was a clich├ęd Russian soundtrack like the ones in the movies any time the scene switches to Russian generals nattering about launch codes and the like in the Kremlin.

One of the Kremlin's 20 towers along its perimeter.  Moscow university, another one of Stalin's skyscrapers in the background.

Unfortunately, my introductory drive through the streets of Moscow didn't culminate in my disembarking in the heart of Red Square, which would have been awesome.  No my hotel, as per normal, was way the hell out in the burbs, which was is a real shame particularly in Moscow as historically the city grew out radially from the Kremlin, the original fortified settlement on the banks of the Moskva river (from which it derives its name) and home to all political, commercial and religious life.  Therefore anything that is worth seeing is pretty much within walking distance of the great fortress, and at least a 25 min walk and 40 min on the subway from my crappy hotel.  The subway at least, was quite a joy to ride, but more on that later.

The Moskva river, with the Kremlin's palaces and cathedrals clearly in view beyond the it's red brick walls.

My first stop was of course the Kremlin and Red Square, home of the Russian president and some of the greatest cock displays of military power up until Kim Jong Il gave up his promising golfing career in North Korea to concentrate on his annual military mardi gras.  So there I was, feeling all James Bond as I was about to enter the heart of the Cold War foe, Red Square where for over 70 years, Lenin, Stalin, Kruschev and their cronies gazed down from the mighty Kremlin walls inspecting thousands high-stepping troops and nuclear warheads ready to wipe out the west at a moment's notice...  For such a mythical reputation in my mind at least, when I finally stepped on to the cobble-stoned pavement, it was all rather... underwhelming.

One bookend of Red Square, the State Historical Museum.

It's actually quite small, maybe only 400m along the face of the Kremlin, bookended by the red-bricked State Historical Museum and of course the twisted lollipop cathedral of St. Basils.  And opposite the Kremlin is a department store...  It's like having the marines march past Macy's or Bloomingdale's.  To further dash my childhood fantasies, there was not an ICBM, a tank, or even a frickin' AK47 to be seen anywhere, and to make matters worse, the whole square was pretty much taken up with temporary grandstand seating ready for a performance of, get this, the Scottish tattoo.  So instead of thousands of marching troops, they were preparing for a baton-twirling marching band.  In skirts.  Totally ruined it for me.

What is this?  A square for pop concerts and cheesy stage shows?  Surely Lenin would be rolling in his grave if he had one...  I tried to instill some respect for history below...

St. Basil's is a pretty impressive sight however, particular considering it recently celebrated it's 450th anniversary.  Incidentally, the name Red Square has nothing to do with the predominantly red bricks surrounding it, nor it's previous communist rulers.  The Russian word "Krasnaya" can actually mean either “red” or "beautiful" and was originally used only to describe St. Basil's; the square adjacent just happened to adopt the same moniker.  

The iconic and "Krasnaya" St. Basil's Cathedral, with the view of Red Square from it's windows below.
St. Basil's was actually built by the original Russian psychopathic sadist ruler from which all the others took their lead, Ivan IV, better known as Ivan the Terrible.  One of history's most tyrannical and cruel figures, his reign actually started out quite promisingly as he finally kicked out the Mongols from Russia after centuries of sub-ordinance, and he built St. Basils in celebration.  He then went a little crazy after his wife died, although when one considers the design of the cathedral, he may well have already lost it much earlier...

I followed the Moskva, down to Gorky Park.  I listened for the wind of change... 

A typically humble and understated tribute to Peter the Great, who did much to Europeanize Russia in the 18th century.  At 94m tall, it's hard to miss, and regularly voted one of the ugliest monuments in the world...

It was he coined the term Czar, which is literally "Caesar" in Russian, and he envisaged an enormous empire rivalling ancient Rome.  He then went about wiping out all signs of resistance within his kingdom through such brutal methods as impaling spikes surrounding the Kremlin walls from where his victims were thrown, and cooking his "enemies" alive in giant frying pans (and yes, he made the oversized culinary equipment specifically for that purpose...)  It was his death, and the subsequent power vacuum and turmoil that it brought about, that led to the eventual election by the nobles of the Romanov family to the throne, who ruled for the next 300 years until Lenin made his mark in 1918.

Church of Christ the Redeemer, which was actually hollowed out and converted to a swimming pool under the anti-religious Stalin...

I decided to move hotels to be closer to the centre of the city, so I found a neat little hostel called Napoleon's to spend the rest of my Moscow sojourn.  The biggest challenge I faced getting there was avoiding being hit by a Bentley or Aston Martin whilst my attention was distracted by countless absolutely stunning and incredibly glamorous women.  They're everywhere, both the women and ludicrously expensive cars.  I tell you; some of these Muscovites took to capitalism pretty quickly... There's supposedly 79 billionaires living here...  I was actually told a story by a French contractor about his experience at trade fairs in the early 90's, where Russian businessman trying to get a foothold in the new commercial environment would attend with a horde of bodyguards in an attempt to ward off the assassinations that were rife amongst the new class of Russian entrepreneurs.  

Thank God for the golden arches, another example of the highly confusing Russian alphabet.

Moscow is now one of the most expensive cities in the world, and its wealth is very conspicuous, with wages some 2-3 times higher than the rest of the country.  A latte typically set me back around $7-8 and I was basically resigned to eating from the Russian McDonald's, called Tepenok, which was fine by me as it was delicious.  Basically pancakes with everything and anything you could imagine.  Chicken pancakes, apple pancakes, salmon, mince, caramel, mince with caramel... all awesome.  Russians love their pancakes, and I felt a special affinity with them in this regard.

Russian men.  Dedicated followers of fashion.

They're a very glamorous bunch in Moscow also, with a great focus on their appearance.  Moreso than the rest of Russia I found, there were just so many stunning Magazine cover type women just walking down the street.  Kind of torture for someone who is retarded with women even in his own language.  This was particularly evident in the nightclubs where I went to experience the famous Moscow nightlife.  Like I mentioned in a previous post, Russian men are still quite, let's say primitive, in their approach to women, so I met a bunch of expats in the club who were no more than an optimistic 5 out of 10, but were with stunning perfect 10's and regularly bragged of their success in Russia.  Bastards.  I don't know how they did it as I couldn't even start a conversation with these mythical sirens, and after hours of vodka shots and being soaked up to my armpits in foam, I went home, wet and miserable.  I hope they all get dumped as soon as these women get their green card...  (An extremely common occurrence I heard...)

Inside the Kremlin...

The hostel I stayed at was actually called Napoleon’s, as was the very house the little general stayed in when he briefly occupied the city back in 1812 in his disastrous campaign.  Moscow, despite being founded over 800 years ago was largely entirely rebuilt following 1812 as over 80% of the city was burnt to the ground by the retreating Russians who left the city undefended.  St. Petersburg was the capital at this time, and it wasn't until 1918 when Lenin moved the capital back to Moscow for strategic and military reasons.  I didn't find any of Boney's initials carved anywhere however.

Kremlin gardens, complete with quaint little icecream stand.  Moscow was ridiculously hot when I was there...

Lenin is of course one of the most famous attractions in Moscow, his body having laid in state since his death in 1924 (against his will mind you...  It was Stalin's idea...)  A little tip for those of you who may be visiting Moscow in the near future, and wish to see one of the 20th century's most influential figures before they give him the burial he had specifically requested; his mausoleum is only open a few days of the week, and it shuts at 1pm.  I of course discovered this information when I was standing at the mausoleum's entrance on my last day in Moscow at 1:03pm.  That's right.  I was 3 minutes late.  Oh well, next time I'm in Moscow I guess, and hey, I'm not bitter at the my two travel companions I met in the hostel who insisted they stop at a shitty souvenir shop just before we got in line.

Another Kremlin cathedral

Lenin having been missed, I headed inside the Kremlin, of which I had absolutely no idea what to expect.  Surprisingly old-fashioned with most of the buildings harking back to imperial Russia, with many grand old buildings, including 4 palaces, and 4 cathedrals.  Moscow has always been the spiritual capital of Russia, so all monarchs were typically coronated within the Kremlin cathedrals, and they had elaborate palaces built even when the capital was technically in St. Petersburg.

The Kremlin holds a few titles, such as the world's largest cannon, and the world's largest bell.  Neither of which have ever been used.  The bell for obvious reasons...

The Kremlin Palace of Congresses, a great concrete and glass bunker that was essentially a giant hall for communist meetings, was about the only modern building on the site, and was rather understated considering it was the centre of all Communist power at one point.  No doubt they must have an elaborate underground labyrinth, and the whole thing opens up to launch the ICBMs, a la the Thunderbirds.  I hope so anyway, that would be awesome.  

The Kremlin Palace of Congresses, the old Communist meeting hall (above) and the very long escalators (below) heading down into the Russian Metro.

 An absolute must-see-and-do in Moscow is riding the subway.  Not to go anywhere in particular, just to ride it for the sake of it.  It must be one of the only cities in the world where it's public transportation is one of the most beautiful of all it's attractions (have you been to New York?  Uggh.  Gross).  One of the few positive reminders of Stalin's rule, he decreed the stations be majestic statements of Communist superiority and craftsmanship, and they are truly works of art.  

With vision, determination, and an unlimited supply of forced labour, anything is possible... the glorious Moscow metro stations.

Sparkling clean, with cavernous halls of marble with dazzling mosaics depicting Russian, Communist in particular, history.  I literally spent 2 hours going in circles on the main Circle line checking out each station, and it was one of the highlights of my time in Moscow.  Sounds lame, but you've got to see these things for yourselves.  And it all costs you less than 50c a ride, anywhere you want to go.

Murals celebrating the Communist history are amazing works of art worth the ride alone.

Alas my hatred for all things related to trains come flooding back as I had one more leg of my Trans-Siberian adventure to go, an overnight journey to St. Petersburg.  Unfortunately the aboveground stations are much less hospitable than the subway, a fact that became particularly noticeable due to the mistaken itinerary given to me by my travel agent.  4hrs later and I was on my way to the world's northernmost large city, and one of the most beautiful, St. Petersburg.

Waiting for trains... As always.

Sunday, September 25, 2011



Ok, so this was it, the longest stretch of the real Trans-Siberian, 4 days straight of life in motion. I loaded up with snacks and supplies (basically noodles and vodka) but any hopes of a repeat of the touristy "woo I'm on a train" atmosphere of the previous legs were quickly dashed as I moved in to my cabin with Anotolli, Leba, and Illia. Hmm, this is a very Russian train...

Don't be fooled. There were no other tourists on my train, this is just the only shot I have of the 4-berth cabin that was my home for some 8 nights in total...

Unlike the Mongolian and Chinese legs of the journey, the locals actually use this train as a legitimate means of transport across their country, and in typical Russian style, my cab-inmates quickly dispersed with stiff formalities such as pants, and I was soon surrounded by half-naked Russkis sprawled over my lower bunk, nattering away like henchmen in a Bond film. Of course I didn't understand a word, and beyond a daily conversation at some point in the morning along the lines of

"Privyet. Kak di la?" (Hello. How are you?)
"Khorosho, spaciba". (Fine, thank you.)
"Kak di LA?" (How are YOU?")
"Khorosho. Spaciba." (Nod, smile then return to gazing out window)

we didn't interact much. I've rarely if ever been little more than 3 feet away from somebody for 4 days and yet known absolutely nothing about them by the end of it (apart from the fact Illia prefers Y-fronts to boxers, and Anotolli has a chronic lung condition and some serious gas...)

Siberia from the window...

As the sun faded on my first evening on the train, I soaked in my first glimpses of the real Siberia, the birch trees whizzing and whirring past in kaleidoscope of brown and green as I digested the first of many beef noodle meals. I drifted off to a soundtrack of clackety-clack and Russian chit-chat (no doubt they were plotting to take over a nuclear sub or whatever it is Russians talk about), not to wake for another 10 hours. I'm not exactly sure if we kept moving during that time however as when I peered out the window everything appeared to be exactly the same. Ah yes. Siberia is a big place...

More Siberia. More little wooden houses. More trees.

Everybody knows that Siberia get's bone-chillingly cold, but I can vouch for the fact that it also has some blazing summers, which I was experiencing the last remnants of. Russians are a hard lot, and of course there's no A/C on board so your skin sticks to that God-awful brown plastic leather, which gets baking hot in the sun (it is particularly noticeable when nobody ever wears shirts...). In winter you may well get frostbite of the torso sitting on the train but at least the human funk element of the journey would probably not be so prevalent. Geez, it's the morning of day 2, and already this place is getting noxious with no shower in site for another 72 hours... Anotolli's constant farting which could wake the dead but which he never acknowledges apart from a flippant wave of the hand over his buttocks, is not helping the situation.

Old mate pretty much sums up Russian men's fashion. In fact he's overdressed.

So. What to do. I've already stared out the window for several hours, and yep, Siberia is remarkably similar along it's length so far as I can tell. Trees. Birch trees to be specific. Lots of them. Thank God I brought a fat book with me; the Count of Monte Christo proved to be my only escape from what quickly become utter boredom, the tedium only broken by regular 5min stops at some, perhaps most, of the more than 800 stops along the length of the Trans-Siberian. This fact alone gives some indication as to why it takes so bloody long to get to Moscow. It is definitely not called the Trans-Siberian EXPRESS...

Another forgettable middle of nowhere train station that we stopped at.

These regular 5 minute stops present a problem in and of themselves as belying their lack of consideration for appropriate clothing and bodily functions, the Russians are most polite when it comes to their toilet etiquette. The provodnitsa, or wagon hostess, locks the toilets half an hour before and after any stop lest any sewerage is dumped within the vicinity of the town. An honorable notion indeed but considering we were pretty much stopping every hour, it meant very tight windows of toilet availability. Consider the fact that your diet basically consists of a constant intake of instant noodles and countless cups of instant coffee and tea (think diuretics) courtesy of the samovar (hot water dispenser). I hence spent much time pleading with my provodnitsa to open the toilets via the international sign language of crossed legs and a desperate, pained expression. It was probably the most meaningful communication I enjoyed...
The samovar (hot water dispenser) found in each carriage. Guess what it's powered by? Burning wood of course. Probably birch...

It seemed appropriate in any case to experience such suffering, as Siberia is almost synonymous with pain and human tragedy (ok, its a long bow to draw, but I needed a segue-way...). Our old friend Ghenghis Khan had swept across these lands in the 13th century displacing entire civilizations and pushing them westwards, the Magyars for example were pushed from central Asia all the way to Hungary which is why Hungarian is unlike any of the other European languages. Similarly the Turks were from modern Kazakstan before claiming Turkey for themselves. The Mongols controlled all of European Russia at their height, before their empire imploded and fractured into a disparate group of individual warlords scattered across Asia. (Some of these lasted several centuries however, for example the Moghuls who brought Islam, built the Taj Mahal and controlled most of India until the Brits arrived several hundred years later.)

More Siberia. More little wooden houses. More trees. Getting the picture?

After a fledgling Russia pushed the Mongols past the Urals, things got a little messy. A Khan descendent rose an army to claim back part of the Russian Siberian lands, and despite the Tsar ("Caesar" in Russian) doing nothing, the noble families of the conquered territories raised a private army, a ruthless band of mercenaries who proceeded to literally wipe entire civilizations off the map, committing genocide on a huge scale as they successfully forged eastward. The Tsar had joined in by this stage thinking it was a grand idea, and his successors continued Russian expansion over the ensuing centuries, usually via forced extradition for the most petty of crimes. Fyodor Dostoyevsky being one of the more famous extradites. These labour camps formed to open up Siberia for development were the first of the infamous Gulags which were to reach their zenith (or nadir you might argue) under Stalin in the 1930's. (Stalin himself had taken refuge in Siberia as a young man when suspected of his revolutionary tendencies...)

Trick photo. This is back in Mongolia. But it's such a nicer landscape...

Millions have died out here under brutal working conditions, a good chunk of them involved with building the railway I'm travelling on, and countless more from the harsh environment. Stalin famously shipped entire populations from Western Russia who he feared may be sympathetic to the Nazis following their brutal treatment at his hand, to Siberia in the height of winter and kicked them off the train to die in the -40 degree conditions. All in all, with a history like that, it's no wonder the Russians are so fricking hard. Just try drinking with them...

As alluded to earlier, I'd brought a large bottle of Baikal Vodka anticipating a continuation of the party "woo, we're on a train" atmosphere I'd shared with the other tourists on the preceding legs. Alas on my first foray to the dining car I encountered only shirtless, adidas-trackpanting, skin-headed Russian men.

Shirtless Russian #1: "Where from you?"
Me (flicking through guidebook): "Ya iz Australia."
SR#1: "Avstraliy! Good." (slams mug of vodka on table). "Drink."
Me: "Ah. Spaciba"
SR#2: "What your name?"
Me: " Um, ya Matthew."
SR#2: "Mitt-tew. Good." (slams another almost full mug in front of me). SR#3 (pointing menacingly at mug): "Drink."
Me (getting slightly scared at this point): "Ah, spaciba."
SR#1: "Mitt-tew, Russia you like?"
Me: "The birch trees are lovely..."
SR#2 (new mug already poured): "Good. Drink."
Me (trying to show a little resistance): "Hey that's a fair bit of vodka in that glass..."
SR#3 (ignoring me completely): "Good. Drink."
Me (taking my orders): "Phew. Spaciba again, but hey I think I've had enough for now..."
SR#2 (all over his refilling duties): "Good. Drink."
Me: "Wow, I might head back to my..."
SR#3: "No. Drink."
Me (resistance crushed, resigned to my fate): "Ok..."
SR (pleased): "Good Mitt-tew. Good. Drink."

And so it went. Contrary to what I had believed, Russians don't say "Nostrovia" when they toast, but "Zdarovye", which is basically "to health". Kind of counter-intuitive given the rate and volume of the hard liquour that they consume. When I did finally escape their clutches (i.e. we'd drunk all the vodka), I stumbled back along the 8 carriages that preceded my own, which is hard enough when completely sober and the train isn't moving on a circular track. Huge steel doors seperate the carriages which take a concerted effort to push open, and by God you better take a deep breath before you proceed into the smoking areas in between carriages; it's like a Jamaican limo in there, only more bitter and acrid. I swear you could smoke a fish in there and by the smell of it, I think they probably do. In fact the whole train has a distinct waft of musty, stale fish, not surprising as most Russians on the train, aside from smoking, all seem to bring of dried fish as a staple, or buy it from the platform markets that spring up at every stop. I stuck to my noodles...

Another trick photo. This is the Mongolian dining car, MUCH nicer than the Russian. I was too drunk to take any photos of the Russian dining car, and too scared to go back...

A total drunken slumber sees me wake the next morning with a pounding headache; check the view - yep, more birch trees, still in Siberia... My God, it's day 3 and we're only half way. I'm sweating vodka at 8 in the morning, and our room is getting unbearably funky. I don't know how much longer I can take this... More escapism with the Count of Monte Christo and another long day passes uneventfully, with several stops in non-descript Siberian towns full of quaint little wooden houses (of course they're made of wood) which look like they'd have the insulating properties of a mosquito net. This place must be brutal in winter...

More Siberia. But less trees.
There are a few signs of the wealth this place experienced under communism. Wages were often 2-3 times that of the major European cities during that time to encourage industry and promote migration to these remote outposts. This all collapsed of course with the end of the USSR, and now most Siberians enjoy pitiful wages compared to their big city cousins and are forced to pay a fortune for limited services. Oil on a huge scale was discovered here in the 90's making billionaires of countless Muscovites who were hard enough and ruthless enough to grab a slice of it under Boris Yeltzin's free-for-all in the early post-communism years. It seems however that most of the money gets spent on mega-yachts and English football clubs rather than invested back in the local economy.

Ok. One more of Mongolia for good measure. Ah... Mongolia.

We crossed the Urals sometime during the 3rd full day on the train and gradually the birch trees started to recede as we entered European Russia. I'd lost interest by this time, focused instead on merely surviving (it was all about the destination at this point, screw the journey...) and seeing the Count take his revenge. I smelt just as bad as anything else by this stage and your nose seems to give up protesting by this stage.

Day four - MOSCOW!! Wow, are we there already? I had my daily replica conversation with Anotolli and Leba (they were still khorosho, spaciba), and then I was off into the bowels of this mysterious world city; a wild, modern frontier territory that for me, still holds all of it enigmatic and secretive allure of years past. But first things first. I really need a shower...

Railroads. I've had my fill...