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Moscow to Irkutsk

July 14, 2011
By Asmodeane in Posts, Travel

Riverboat!

Riverboat!

I’ve never particularly like Moscow, or even Russia. We all have predefined opinions, preconceptions and images of places shaped by years of experience and learned notions. I’ve been to Moscow before, and I can’t for the life of me remember the first time I set foot at the Capital. Must have been around 1988 - 89. I have distant relatives there, a cousin I mentioned before, artsy aunt & uncle, and am directly related to some sort of a famous movie director too. But Moscow to me was always a place that was huge and stupid, impersonal and cold, all its sights carefully smoothed over by the years of communist dominion and censure, made slick and somewhat “fake”, and all the authentic experiences hard to find and even dangerous, well-hidden in multi-million “Hrsucheby” and miles upon miles of poorly maintained infrastructure.
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That opinion didn’t change on our third day. It did, however, soften a bit. I have always known, of course, that to cast judgement on a city of 20 million (unofficially) and with 850+ years of history is rash. That it would take a few lifetimes to get to know Moscow with enough authority to actually cast judgement, and even then Moscow would change so much in the intervening years that any judgement set in stone would be obsolete from the first day of its research and conception. Our last day in Moscow was calm and quiet, appart from the by now infamous “Cunt-punt Incident”.
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We had but a few goals for that day, first find my gf a capable yet affordable hairdresser to arrange her hair in tight braids (easier that free flowing locks if you can’t wash them for 4 days), find me a book store that stocked maps of Baikal and a compact general map of Russia, find a place that sold extra batteries for my Nikon D3100 and girly’s Canon SX220, and finally take a cruise along the river Moskva.
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Moar boat

Moar boat

The first stage was an utter failure. We got some recommendations from my cousins wife, found the place online, and then walked there in blistering heat, about 4 kilometers worth of insane traffic, merciless sunshine, molten asphalt and choking pollution. We could have taken a metro but decided that a walk was just what the doctor ordered, we’d get some exercise and a tan. Well… Lets just say that we were glad when it was over. The receptionist at the “Persona” hair saloon told us the bad news. First of all, no masters that could do braids were present today, although there would be one tomorrow morning. Secondly, it would cost us from 2,000 to 2650 roubles. 50 € for a braiding!? No thanks. We decided to keep on walking to the closest metro station, had a few ice creams on the way… And then the day almost ruined. We were going through the metro tourniquets, with me having the RFID pass card, and I guided poor girly through the wrong gate. I swiped the card, but got confused as to which one she should have passed through. So pointed her through an unpaid one. In she went, and got a sneaky, underhanded and terribly powerful blow to her nether parts! The whole hall must have winced, and not a few crooked smiles were to be seen. She was a trooper until the beginning of the escalator, when she started bawling in shock. Her tears washed away her contact lens, not to mention her mascara, so we had to go back to our flat at  Alekseevskaya, luckily only two stops away. Guess who didn’t speak to me for the next hour. Go on, I give you three tries.
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Ginger Wonder managed to pull herself together marvelously though, and already in a couple of hours her sense of humor made a full and triumphant comeback. We left the flat and went to the Kiyvsky Vokzal - train station, this time with me leading the way through the tourniquets, somewhat gingerly I must admit. I don’t recall the last time I took a blow from them automated gates that spring out if you fail to pay your metro entrance fee, but I can still feel the pain. The gates are very unfair. I’d go as far as to say uncivilized, even. They stay hidden in their dark recesses until it is time to maim the unwary, and then they strike with a malevolent force that is probably against all possible conventions, including the Geneva one. They should just keep the gates closed, like they do in civilized countries, and open them once you swipe your pass. But I guess that would rob the guardian grannies of their entertainment.
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The environs of Kiyvsky Vokzal were pleasant enough, new buildings, a nice fountain, huge ice skating rink, interesting escalator bridge across the Moscow river. The fountain was full of people chilling their feet and swimming children, and the cops just looked on. I guess they lacked the will, or the manpower, to enforce the bathing ban. We asked the cops where the riverboat terminal was, got a surprisingly civil reply, and got there after surviving a deadly game of “frogger” on the highway separating us from the terminal, only to be greeted by a confused mass of haphazardly queuing humanity. I placed gf in one queue and went on to explore the shortest one. It turned out that the long one was for people who wanted to have a non-stop two hour cruise along the river, returning to the same spot. The short queue was for a river bus service, the kind that stopped at every pier along the way, with the end stop being at the Kolomensky park we visited the day before. We didn’t want to go back to the park, but bought a 400 rouble ticket (400 a head, not total) to Kitay-Gorod, to take a picturesque walk along the route provided by the Lonely Planet’s Trans-Siberian Guide.
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Ours was identical.

Ours was identical.

Ah, people, ah and oh. When the weather is fine, the wind balmy and the sun smiling, there is no better way to spend a couple of hours than gliding along the river past famous parks and historical monuments in the very heart of Moscow, all the while sipping Russian champagne  and showing yourself off to the others. Cos that’s what the not-so-well-off Russians apparently do. They don their best summer outfits, buy a bottle of champagne from the cafe one deck below, and preen for all to see, sunbathing in various “natural” poses, cunningly crafted to show off their best parts to others. Funny thing, I didn’t hear a single foreigner on our trip. Maybe they all took the non-stop trip, or maybe they were scared off, like we almost were, by the huge queues at the dockside ticket counters. But yeah, do take a nice boat ride, get a great view of the Kreml, see the sunbathers along the river, the hideous Peter the Great statue by Zurab Ceretelli, one of the Russian space shuttles now relegated to theme park duty, Burans, shores of Gorky Park… It’s awesome, and affordable!
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Sunset on our last day

Sunset on our last day

We were disappointed with the Kitay-Gorod tour (btw, Kitay-Gorod, although meaning “Chinatown” when literally translated, has nothing to do with China, but with a now extinct river Kita that used to run through that part of town), but did find a good book store on the Tverskoy Bulevard that stocked an abundance of maps, so got myself a map of Baikal and that general map of Russia I wanted, to better be able to track our progress. We then visited my aunt & uncle to say our good-byes. Unfortunately aunty was away at the dacha, so we were once again overfed by uncle Valera, or attempted to, since we were already full from a visit to a buffet, Mu-Mu, a cheap & popular self service chain. After that we went off to see our cousin’s place where he lives with his wife, an artist’s apartment at Taganka. You see, children, back in the good old Soviet times it was possible for an artist to secure a studio. Back then, some panel housing was made with the last floor taken up by small, but very high, apartments, with windows spanning entire walls. They were either called “studios” or “Artists apartments”. And my uncle, Valery Stoiko, got one at some point, maybe even as far back as the Soviet times. I’ve never had the honor of visiting it when it was used as intended, before he handed it over to his somewhat wayward younger son and his Brazilian wife, but I must say that they’ve done a good job. My cousin painted the whole thing, not as trivial a task as it might sound, since the ceilings are over 4 meters high at their tallest, and made it very cozy in a wonderfully esoteric way. The views are spectacular as well, sigh. All in all, an absolutely perfect place to live in, although a trifle impractical, since the elevator stops at the 14th floor, after which they have to take a crooked staircase up to the roof, and then a causeway precariously attached to the side of the building, and then a long corridor studded with doors to similar studio apartments, making furniture delivery, for instance, quite painful, especially taking into consideration the fact that the causeway snaking along the side of the building is treacherously slippery and snow-bound in the winters. Still, that only adds to the romance of it all. Damn, I’d trade my conventional, council-rate double room flat with them any time…
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We were hella tired by the time we got home, after watching some photographs taken on cousins Brazil trip, I honestly thought I’d fall asleep on the couch, or just plain fall unconscious. I don’t recall ever being that tired in my early twenties, honest. It must be the age, it’s not like we did any rock-climbing or marathon running, and it was only about 23:00 when I started to pass out from sheer exhaustion. Although by the time we got home and took a hypothermia shower (still no hot water) I perked up and even read a book for at least an hour before falling asleep.
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A riverside view.

A riverside view.

Morning found us packing, and cleaning. Gf was disgusted by the amount of dust floating about the flat, and decided to tackle it head on, grabbing a vacuum cleaner she found in the closet. I tried to tell her that she shouldn’t waste her effort, after all the flat was already resembling a  pig-sty when we arrived, but she’d have none of it, the fastidious dear. Eventually we were all cleaned up, packed up, and ready to go. I was barely able to lift my damn backpack, as it got a little heavier after our visit to the supermarket, where we bought some stuff for our extended train trip, things like marinated green peas, corn, bananas, cucumbers, apples, dry pretzels, tea biscuits, and a lot of instant soup & noodles, as well as 2 x 5l barrels of water. The bathroom scales showed 108kg once I stepped on them laden with all my gear (not including the water), not bad considering I weight 80kg without.
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Our home for the next four nights.

Our home for the next four nights.

We arrived at Yaroslavsky Vokzal with little adventure, if you discount a painful knee and a scary delay at the Prospekt Mira metro station, where we had to wait 8 minutes (it only takes about two usually) for the metro, and were already nervous that someone jumped on the rails or something. There we were met by cuz and his wife, to whom we handed over our flat key, and they showed us the platform our train would depart from. We wanted to have a cup of coffee or a beer at some cafe at the station but were unable to, due to the station not having even a simple cafeteria. Dismal place, compared to the Leningradsky station or even Kazan station. We went to Sbarro nearby, and said our goodbyes. Sbarro was all out of whiskey, pepsi and cappuccino, dirty and crowded, with air conditioning unable to cope with the +30c weather outside, and with very annoyed and snappy waitresses. I got myself a shot of vodka and a shitty instant coffee for me and girly. Our Buddies arrived at the station earlier, even despite the somewhat puzzling helplessness they have unwittingly confessed to in some of their earlier sms’es. They did, after all, have experience in traversing such inhospitable places like India, and have traveled to Russia before. I guess our somewhat sharp replies to their idiotic queries helped, since, although acting as an impromptu “guide” and even “leader” of our expedition, I didn’t want to turn it into an all inclusive package tour for disabled children with me bearing all of the responsibility.
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A rare train surfer!

A rare live train surfer!

Our train was there on time, so we dragged our belonging into our cabin, surprising our conductor (one of the few male ones on the train) with our outlandish tickets printed in Finland, the kind of which he’d never seen before, but which he none the less accepted. Our wagon was little dirtier than I was used to, but otherwise ok, apart from the absence of air conditioning, something that was very painfully obvious during the first day of our trip. We sweated buckets. Girly and me got the upper bunks with their illusion of privacy, and the benefit of the open window. I callously took the bunk opposite to the direction of our travel, since it was the windiest. I was, after all, the fattest and sweatiest in our group and therefore required most cooling, or so my logic ran. We tried sleeping with the window open that night, an amateur mistake. Back in the days of steam, or even nowadays, with a wagon that is close to some old diesel engine, soot made such open window travel disagreeable, and one could catch an ember in the eye were one daring enough to stick a head out of the window. Now, though, the problem was noise and wind. Wind made sleep impossible for me, chilling my ear and numbing my scull, and the noise, well, the noise was deafening, and made sleep impossible for everyone else as well. Luckily

Food was never far away.

Food was never far away.

the temperature dropped sufficiently during the night, and out wagon’s metal skin cooled, so we were able to close the window eventually. We never suffered from any problems due to the lack of air conditioning during the rest of the trip, keeping windows open during the day time, and closing them at night. Our only problem, oh so common during these long train trips in confined quarters, was our male companion and his hideously malodorous gas, as he was suffering from some stomach ailment or other. I honestly wanted to strangle him during that first night, restrained only by the thought that death might further loosen his bowels. Other than that the first few days at least proved to be nice and easy-going, spent reading, taking trips to the restaurant wagon (overrun by foreign assholes, drunk Krauts, Polacks, Frogs and some Americunts, with their braying laughter and utter disregard for anyone else occupying) nibbling on snacks taken along, drinking beer and taking an awful lot of cat naps. We are now somewhere a little past Omsk, or about 4 / 6 of the way to Irkutsk, so I’ll leave it at that for now.

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Somewhere near Ekaterinburg

Somewhere near Ekaterinburg

The rest of the train trip went by nice and fast, enlivened by a little celebratory booze-fest we had around Novosibirsk. Our travel mates bought a bottle of three star Kazakh “cognac” for 1000 roubles at the restaurant wagon, a place that officially was out of stock when it came to spirits. The waiter explained it to us that they got the bottles direct from the factory, and re-sold them with a fantastic mark up in the far-east, claiming that a bottle would go for as much as 3000 roubles there. So we sat in the foreigner-infested restaurant wagon and merrily downed our bottle of the stuff, finding it to be easy enough to drink, soft, sweet, and kind to the stomach. We were just finishing up as we pulled into Novosibirsk, where the train was scheduled to stay for almost an hour. We went out and explored the station, finding it huge and modern, and surprisingly clean. Got some more beer there, too. We later retired into our cabin, mainly because the restaurant wagon closed, but I was too wound up to sleep. I waited for the next stop out in the corridor, rocking to my mp3 player and occasionally chatting to the wagon hostess. We stopped at Taiga for about half an hour, I went out and bumped into the restaurant wagon chief, who invited me over for a couple of drinks with his mates. I was drunk as a skunk and only got drunker. We talked about everything, including Russian politics, corruption, life in general, work, poverty, travel… Although I don’t remember much about what was being said, and perhaps it’s for the best. My girlfriends frantic call snapped me out of it, the poor dear thought I got Duffiled (left behind) at some station, passed out drunk in a ditch at some fly-speck Siberian town with nothing but a passport and a few thousand roubles to my name. So I had to go, and that, too, was for the best, since my hangover was only mildly devastating this morning. Girly was refreshingly restrained and understanding about the incident as well.
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Provodnitsa.

Provodnitsa.

I am kind of sad, really, to be ending this leg of the train journey. It was great, not boring at all, I had no trouble finding things to do and treats to eat. I didn’t understand people that were aghast at the thought of spending four nights on the train, and I still don’t. What’s not to like? It’s like a hotel room on wheels, changing views and comfy beds! Absolutely brilliant. Were it my choice I’d just go to Beijing direct, non-stop, just for the joy of languorous train travel, one lazy day slowly melting into another. But maybe that kind of thing could be the next project, say a plane hop to Shanghai, then a ferry to Japan, after that a train ride to the north, and a ferry to Vladivostok, and then a non-stop ride all the way to St.Petersburg! That’s what it’ll do if I’m ever a gentleman of leisure.

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