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Irkutsk - Paris of Siberia

Irkutsk – October 2011

If there is one city which will welcome you in their own special way and then send you back a nervous wreck then that City has got to be Irkutsk, the capital of Siberia, or according to the guidebooks, “the Paris of Siberia”. Don’t believe the guidebooks, the place is certainly friendlier than our Frog Eating Surrender Monkey European cousins, but that is hardly a compliment, I was still in Russia. Within Russia, the further east you go, the more chance you have of getting a Ruski to crack a smile. The difficulty in Siberia is that their 50 yard stare is normally frozen into their hardened craniums.

My Arrival

I had arrived on the 1st October at the pleasant time of 02:30. My task at this ungodly hour was to trek 4km to my hostel armed with only my Russian phrasebook and an almost primitive street map. I could have walked but Grandma started fretting and was worried I would be attacked and robbed. Typical grandparents ey? So my adopted grandmother jumped off the carriage onto the platform and started heckling people until she eventually got the attention of a soldier who had been travelling on the same carriage with all of his Russian Soldier comrades. These were the same soldiers that I had been trying to avoid on the journey to Irkutsk. And now Grandma had put all her faith into one of them making sure that I got home ok. Thanks Grandma. Now I had an entourage of about 20 Russian soldiers who had a new toy to play with. Was I going to be safer with the soldiers or out there with the Russian Heavy mob? I stuck with what I had, let me see where this takes me. I got pulled by the bag from one place to the next making sure I was kept in check with them and didn’t wander off anywhere I shouldn’t, I was their property now. Outside the train station they were met by more soldiers who had arrived to pick them up. My new soldier buddy was knocking on doors to legitimate taxis to try and get them to take me to my hostel, gypsy cab drivers were swooning around like vultures to try and get in on some tourist action. I was in a predicament. None of the taxis would take me, they had been booked already, or at least that’s what I interpreted from the ensuing action. The soldiers, now wondering what to do with me grabbed my bag and threw it in their army truck, like the one that you see in the films. Shit, now I was in for it, I jumped in to grab my bag and then the van pulled off. I was surrounded by 20 Russian soldiers who now had me to themselves, and this is when the interrogation started, in broken English.

“Where are you from?”

“Are you a spy?”

“Are you James Bond?”

Yeah, these punks were having a right old laugh at my expense….
There was one particular soldier that I was quite wary of and it was when he said I was going to be taken back to the army barracks with them, it was at this point that I stood up and told them to stop the truck. “Drop me here” I said nervously. I figured I would be better off on the dark Siberian streets than in this mixed up, potentially politically sensitive scene. The truck stopped and I grabbed my bag and bailed out onto this disgusting damp street. I had no idea where I was. The soldiers used this stop as an impromptu fag break, so I was again surrounded by 20 soldiers. This time, they were trying to flag down a Taxi. Now, if you were a taxi driver and saw 20 soldiers, an Army truck, and some strange looking tourist at 3 in the morning, would you stop? The answer is no, of course you wouldn’t stop, and plenty just drove on by. You would want no part of this potential scene from Platoon. It was only when the group blocked the road entirely that one taxi had to stop. I jumped in it straight away. My adrenaline at this point was going through the roof….. I took off in the taxi, my guardian soldier had even negotiated the price for me….. I’d have paid anything to get out of there in one piece.

I didn’t sleep that night, I was pacing up and down the hostel until breakfast time.


My Departure

The train leaving Irkutsk was at 22:15, I had made the journey from Listvyanka early afternoon to buy the ticket for the night, last minute as always but it has worked so far. I had to wait around Irkutsk for the day which wasn’t so bad, I found a café that was modern by Siberian standards and I parked myself there for the day.

When I got to the train station I had bumped into some English guys I had travelled about with briefly so we grouped up and hung around for the train. I have mentioned before that there is a lot of job creation in Russia, and Irkutsk of course was no different. On this night they had 4 policemen who were stood behind a giant desk as you entered the main entrance. By another entrance there was another 3 or 4 security who were keeping check on people for whatever reason. We had sat down in an area where some Russian TV was blasting out some pathetic Russian Soap Opera and we had some time to kill. Looking back now it did seem to me that we were getting a bit more attention from the security than we needed to.

I took my laptop out of my bag. As luck would have it, where I was sat there was an electric socket. Excellent, I took my power lead and plugged it in. At that I was jumped on by this boy who had clearly wanted some excuse to pounce on us and capitalise somehow. He looked like Albert Steptoe with a big padded black jacket, black baseball cap and a big badge that said something that gave him some kind of authority. He grabbed me and tried to pull me away, shouting something in Russian. I sat on my chair, there was no way that I was going to go with this scruffy jobsworth. My Crime was to plug my laptop into a socket? It was hardly grounds for any real punishment, perhaps a harsh word would do. Albert was intent on taking me some place away from the area, presumably to fleece me from my money or some possessions.

This became a bit of a scene. I was rooted to my chair, he was trying to coerce me into following him. All I could say was “Nyet, Nyet”. He towered above me in my chair, he kept on going on in his Vile Russian. He knew I was not going to go with him without a struggle, he walked off and spoke to a mob of what I can only assume to have been plain clothed security. They were skinheads, had the obligatory fat jacket on and had enough presence to scare the shit out of innocent civilians.

It was not safe to be where we were, we moved to the populated area where there were more passengers and more tourists. Of course they followed me and stood behind me, our group went totally silent. I had agreed that if they had tried to grab me or if they make some kind of move then the guys would take all of my bags onto the train with them, somehow I would make contact with them and relocate my stuff. I didn’t want my stuff in the possession of Albert the sruffy scrap merchant. We waited for what seemed like an eternity for the platform number to be announced on the board. I had heard that a common trick that the pesky Russians use is to detain you until the train is almost ready to depart when you are at your most eager to get on it, at which point you will pay almost anything to be able to board it. As soon as the platform number was displayed I made a dart for the train, leaving my bags for the others to carry. I got caught up in melee for the train. I didn’t look back to see if they followed me, I got on the train and sat in my carriage until the train rolled out of the station.

Goodbye Irkutsk, the Paris of Siberia, I will miss you I thought as I struggled to open a 1 litre can of beer…



The Great Escape

Article By David Beattie of Rounton Coffee

Posted by beatski 22:53 Archived in Russia Tagged russia class irkutsk trans ulaan siberian kupe baator Comments (2)


overcast 27 °C
View Overland debacle on beatski's travel map.


This is a post i should have published about a week ago but have only just finished it......

I'm 4663 kilometres into the Trans-Siberian, 4649km is the half way point between Moscow and Vladivostok the far eastern port town of Russia. In total once I have reached Irkutsk I think I will have ben on a train for about 80 hours or so, it is difficult to tell because the train runs on Moscow time, even though we pass through 5 or 6 different time zones, so you need two clocks to try and keep track. The problem with going east for so long is that the days become shorter and shorter, every 1000km or so I have to fast forward my watch by an hour.

I am travelling in Kupe Class which is second class, there are 4 bunks in the room and generally it is quite comfortable, I have been able to lay on my bed looking through the window at all the scenery that Siberia has to offer.

The Scenery….

Travelling at Russian train speed across the country you have time to take in the scenery at a very leisurely pace, this is not the Japanese Bullet Train by any means. I would say that it is a steady 60mph all the way with the constant banging and clattering that any 50 year old train would have developed over the years.

I have seen endless amounts of Silver Birch, perhaps thousands of kilometers of the trees, but what surprises me is that when there is a clearing in the wood you can see small villages that sit completely isolated from anything and any real apparent civilisation and you wonder how they manage at all. As you pass in the night you can see that these tiny wooden ruins are dimly lit from inside and if you look closer you can see people inside pottering around doing their domestic chores. It is inconceivable to imagine that these places are habited especially during the harsh Siberian winter when the temperature often drops down to -40degC for three months of the year. Surely they leave the village and go on holiday to Salou only to return once the land has thawed.

We make regular pit stops where I assume the driver takes one of those Technical Breaks that the Russians clearly enjoy. When we stop the train is swarmed by local tradesmen and women selling anything from smoked fish, fruit, beer to children’s books and fur hats.

Hang on, I think Grandpa Anatoni has just relaxed his bowels as I write this, I think maybe with his age he has little or no control over his movements, its understandable i guess when im his age ill have earned the right to fart anywhere in public also. Maybe i should fel sorry for Gramps, but the room is 27 degrees and there is no ventilation!!

Sorry, I digressed.....

Being on the train and being the only foreigner is slightly intimidating, if only for the group of guys that are travelling in the same compartment walking around with their tops off, probably going to the same destination as me with the intention to take possession of my worldly goods….. but maybe a bit of paranoia has set in which is understandable under the circumstances. I am alone in Siberia on a train with lots of Russians, what do I expect!! I think though that Grandma and Grandpa would protect me anyhow, she has a big handbag and I'm sure would teach those boys a lesson with it….. have no fear!!!

That of course is no reason not to enjoy the train experience, I am in a privileged position and am enjoying the lot of it!!

temperature of cabin
Platform Salesmen
Silver Birch
Journey to Irkutsk
Small Siberian Village

Article By David Beattie of Rounton Coffee

Posted by beatski 03:10 Archived in Russia Tagged russia class irkutsk trans yekaterinburg siberian kupe Comments (0)

Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk

all seasons in one day
View Overland debacle on beatski's travel map.

Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk – 29th September to 1st October

I don’t eat Pork, and I haven’t eaten Pork for about 10 years. That is up until this train journey when pork managed to find its way into my stomach. My 50 hour trip from Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk started with a solo occupant in my carriage, when I woke another two had appeared. I had introduced myself to the solo traveller the previous night, he was travelling to Novosibirsk for work, though that was where the broken conversation ended.

The two new arrivals, an older couple, Grandma and Grandpa, I learned were heading Ulan-Ude, they had just been to Tyumen to visit his 90 year old mother. I was invited down from my upper bunk to share tea with them all on the first morning. It was amazing how much we could talk by just using my basic phrase book and good old fashioned sign language. We managed to get by like that for nearly 10 hours.

Grandma was called Galina and she was traditionally Russian, she was probably in her mid to late 60’s, with dyed red hair, she could talk forever and I never knew what she was going on about, but she was unbelievably kind, it was almost like I was a guest in her home she was so generous. Anatoni was married to Grandma and struggled to get a word in, he was a slight guy around the same age, baldy head sat in the cabin with his tracky bottoms and his white Bruce Willis Vest. All of his bottom teeth were made from gold, I wanted a picture of his teeth but he wasn’t playing ball.

I had heard of Russian hospitality but that has been limited to the vodka swigging soldiers who drink you into an alcoholic coma. I hadn’t expected this kind generosity I was received from these two great wrinkly old Russian Fogies who would have been 12 foot tall each if i had gave them a good iron.

They had laid out all of their food on the table and insisted that I eat. Everything that I offered them in return they declined, which is a shame, I had healthy portions of fresh and dried fruit, nuts (including Cashews!!), and some cup-o-soups, I had also bought some chocolate Russian Dolls which I thought would be a rationed delicacy, not any more apparently. I suppose they didn’t like my culinary choice, and preferred to eat and share their own. I did manage to get them to drink one of my Camomile teas I had bought, though they pulled out some Mongolian concoction of Tea and Herbs and managed to top trump me.

They found it really difficult to digest that I was travelling solo and that I was in Russia of all places, they hadn’t heard of anything like it. They couldn’t get to grips with it and were genuinely baffled by it all. Often the conversation would come back to the same subject. They kept pointing to “Pachimo?” in the phrase book, “Why??” I actually couldn’t answer them, thinking about it, I couldn’t genuinely answer an English speaking person if they asked me the same thing, so I found the word Crazy in Russian and used that, yeah they liked that one..!!

I was their entertainment in the cabin, and I didn’t mind, I felt as if I was being hosted by my Grandparents without the obligatory Sherry. I got my phone out and scrolled through all of the photo’s to show her England and all of my friends, Grandma got excited looking through them, she used her own finger to see how it she could navigate through the gallery, she was like Mick Dundee going up an escalator, didnt have a clue what to do.

When they spoke together I could pick up words such as “internet”, they were experiencing the modern world first hand, they hadn’t been expecting it, they shrugged their shoulders and shook their heads, they just couldn’t get to grips with the modern world.

And that is when I ate Pig, I was all excited and caught up in the hospitable nature of my new Old Fogie Friends, eating all of their food. They had pulled out a fully cooked chicken, some kind of salmon caviar and some white stuff I had assumed to be fish. It was only when I looked up in the phrasebook that I realised that I was eating Pig. I won’t be doing that again, but next time I think I need to bring a menu that is not limited to fruit and nut.

I couldn’t thank them enough, I wrote them a note in Russian to thank them, they had been so hospitable and I could not repay them at all. I left the train at 02:30 but they both got up out of bed to make me my last cup of tea with them and to also wave me off the train. On the platform she spoke to a Russian Soldier and asked him to show me into a ‘safe’ taxi, she was worried about me getting to my hotel safe, bless…. (which will lead me to another story). In the note I left my email address but I don’t expect to get an email back, but you never know, the modern world is catching up with them very quickly, so I will check my inbox none the less.

Note to my new Granny

Article By David Beattie of Rounton Coffee

Posted by beatski 05:27 Archived in Russia Tagged train russia irkutsk yekaterinburg baboshka Comments (3)

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