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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA

The Way It Was

Vladivostok on my mind
Luc Jones

So there we were, dumped in Russia in the autumn of 1993 for a year by our respective universities with a basic mandate to ‘learn Russian’, with little or no clue as to what the place was actually like, save a few (largely inaccurate) media reports. And as for the briefing documents given to us by RLUSC (Russian Language University Students Committee) we might as well have read the Sunday Sport. Most of us had thoughts of traveling around this vast country, and plans were made in the evenings after lectures in Rosie O’Grady’s drinking overpriced pints of Guinness, or when we’d run out of money, it was Zhigulyovskoye.

Epic train journeys usually conjure up images of the Orient Express, and whilst we were well aware that this would be no Paris to Istanbul, little did we know what we would be letting ourselves in for. During the first 18-week stint, I ventured from Moscow only to St Petersburg, Yaroslavl and Volgograd but the whole train station experience gave me a fair indication of how complicated it could be to perform basic operations in post-Soviet Russia—such simple things, like buying a train ticket. For a start, even by 1994, foreigners were still expected to purchase tickets via Intourist, where supposedly the ‘service’ was better and some English might be spoken, although their opening hours were at best erratic and you could expect to pay several times more than the standard price that locals paid. “Ah, but this is a better quality train. You won’t want to travel in an ordinary carriage” we would invariably be told.

There was only one place we wanted to go: Vladivostok, and only one form of transport, the trusty train. Not fancying letting the train take the strain on both legs, we opted to fly from Moscow to Vladivostok which was an experience in itself. Domodedovo in those days came straight out of the Sovok operations manual, and most of the flight was a blur after being plied early on with a mixture of vodka and Amaretto by our fellow passengers as the only foreigners on the plane. I slept through the landing and woke up in a completely difference seat from where I’d boarded, and we were exited to find that we needed to catch a bus and then an elektrichka just to get to the city centre! Finding somewhere to stay was a problem, especially as my friend Andrew had long hair, and the local hotels thoughts we were undesirables. The elderly receptionist at the first hotel turned us down, and finding somewhere else was a problem as Vladivostok had only recently opened up to the outside world. We fared better at our second attempt, as a younger girl told us that there were plenty of rooms. As we filled out the forms, the battleaxe who’d sent us packing the first time came into view and didn’t even flinch, despite having blatantly lied about her establishment being full. The next task was to explore the city after adjusting to the time difference, seven hours ahead of Moscow time.

After four days we’d seen what was on offer and headed north for Khabarovsk. On the overnight Okean train we were befriended by a family from Khabarovsk who very kindly offered to let us stay with them. They showed us around their city, perched on the mighty Amur river. Their son helped us to buy train tickets for our onward journey (facilitated by the fact that he was in the army), avoiding the queues in the station ticket office. Back in those days, a proportion (rumoured to be around 10%) of tickets on all forms on transport were reserved for politicians, the military and basically anyone with better-than-average connections, regardless of whether or not they actually needed to travel. The consequence was that a ‘full’ plane or train was never actually booked up and you could usually find a way on if you knew the right people, or were forceful enough.

So, after far too much beer the previous afternoon, we were bound for Ulan Ude, a mere two and a half days away, taking a loop over China through the Taiga forests. If your idea of fun is staring out of a window at endless birch trees, clearings and a small town every few hours then this is where you need to come! However, it was the people on the train who made it all worthwhile, and many had never met a foreigner before so were naturally curious as to why we had come to Russia, and what life was like abroad. The train would usually make a 10-20 minute stop at these towns along the way, whereupon most of the passengers would climb out of the wagon for a smoke or just to stretch their legs - and suddenly be surrounded by hawkers selling drinks or homemade food. Muscovites had warned us that we’d go hungry during our journey but a diet of kolbasa, dryanniki and alcohol kept us going and kupe banter was a great way of improving our Russian.

Our train finally trundled into Ulan Ude as the sun was setting on a lovely afternoon. The capital of the Buriyat region translates as Red River in the local language and the city itself boasts the world’s largest bust of Lenin. Even the smallest town in Russia will have a statue of Vladimir Ilyich but here you get just a head, perched on a ledge in the main square, although a bloody big one it is! With few areas of interest in the largely concrete centre, we headed out very early the next morning for the one hour bus ride to the Datsan, which was the only officially working Buddhist monastery permitted in Soviet times. Lhasa it’s not, but it was worth the trip and gave us a peculiar insight into one of Russia’s minorities which has done it’s best to resist Sovietization.

Back in Ulan Ude, dinner that evening was in the restaurant of a hotel around the corner (the ‘restoran’ in ours was being ‘remonted’) and started uneventfully enough. After a long day all we wanted was a basic meal before going to bed, but we were joined at our table by a young lady whose aim was to ensure that we spent more money than we’d intended to, and suddenly exotic—and presumably expensive—dishes that we hadn’t ordered began arriving. We quickly realised that this was a scam, and the only way out was to do a runner, having eaten virtually nothing. I believe that the Americans call it a dine & dash! Both of us were relieved when we boarded the train the next day out of there.

After a chilly night on the overnighter to Irkutsk which loops around the bottom end of Lake Baikal, we arrived in Irkutsk and felt like we’d travelled several times around the world—yet as the crow flies we’d accomplished under half of the distance back to Moscow. The process of checking into a hotel felt akin to splitting the atom but after some heavy persuading we manage to convince the surly, Homo soveticus guy on the door to let us stay one night—enough time to hop on a bus the hour down to the run-down port of Listvyanka, the closest accessible point at the mighty lake’s edge. Baikal boasts a whole range of superlatives, from being the world’s deepest fresh water lake and also the oldest, although I’d love to know how they worked that one out! Whole books have been written on Baikal, amazing you with stats as to how it contains 20% of the world’s fresh water and hundreds of rivers flow into it, yet only one (the Angara) allows water to exit it. If during your time in Russia you only make one trip out of your comfort zone of European Russia, make sure it’s Irkutsk and Baikal. Dinner consisted of basic, but tasty Chinese food where early on we were befriended by some local mafia guys who were curious as to what the hell we were doing here! Lots of vodka shots later we continued the drinking in one of their flats, caught the trusty beer scooter the short distance back to the hotel and spend the next day wandering around the delights of Irkutsk’s city centre in a blurry daze.

Novosibirsk is a mere 36 hours away by train, but with all schedules working on Moscow time yet leaving at local time, we seriously miscalculated our arrival time and pulled into Russia’s third largest city shortly after 4am. The station was surprisingly busy at this time of the night/morning when any sane person should be asleep. We killed the next few hours spotting what percentage of the waiting room’s occupants were bomzhi (quite a few—it was chilly outside for early May) then met up with students from our Uni on an exchange programme here. As Novosibirsk is little over a century old and really grew during Stalin’s massive, industrial push, the consequence is a lot of concrete buildings and not much worth actually looking at. Luckily most of our lot were staying in nearby, leafy Akademgorod, home to the Soviet scientific elite. Actually there wasn’t a great deal to see here either so in true student style the next few days were spent drinking the remainder of our funds, with just enough for a train ticket back to Yaroslavl.

So we missed out on Ekaterinburg, but it’s not going anywhere and on the whole we did pretty well to see as much as we did, given the limited timeframe (3 weeks) and very limited money (a few hundred bucks). Having since travelled from Vancouver to Montreal on a (dry) Greyhound bus, to cover most of the world’s 2nd largest country, the Trans-Siberian was much more of an experience. Now, who’s up for exploring the BAM?

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