Russia – part 1

hi all,

for those of you who are not aware, i am travelling the world just now. this is the third of the updates on my travels. it focuses on russia (unsurprisingly, since i have spent the last five weeks here).

the key points are:

* i have come a third of the way around the world (from sakhalin island to st petersburg). mostly on trains. and yes, my bum is sore. i have seen ancient relics and brand new wastelands (religious, cultural and other), i have marvelled at the best that nature has to offer, and cringed at the worst of industry. i have eaten too many pelmeni (like ravioli), drunk too much beer, spent too much time without a book in english, and not washed enough.

* i have travelled like a russian. this mostly involves spending considerable periods of time in queues, sharing whatever food you have with those sitting next to you on long train rides, paying very little for tickets, and shrugging your shoulders stoically when things go wrong.

* i have met a lot of interesting people (but bugger all westerners). from the tour group of young russians just back from a month on the kuril islands, to the friendly azerbaijani who told everyone who got into our carriage on our 24 hour trip my travel story so i would not have to, the mongolian bureaucrat who knew of graham scott, and the crazy bunch of teenagers from tynda, just about everyone i have met has been friendly, interested, and helpful, more often than not.

* i have found out a bit more about how being russian is different to being other sorts of people. russians are passionate, romantic, chivalrous, stoic, superstitious, literate, interested, concerned about their country, and almost completely trapped by overwhelming economic failure. sometimes they seem preconditioned to have difficult lives. i am always surprised when things work out well (it always makes me think something is going on that i do not understand).

in the last ten weeks or so (since my last update) i have done a whole mess of cool things, including (in no particular order):

* i saw the jewel of siberia, amazing lake baikal. it was even warm enough for a swim. a brief swim. ‘dip’ might be a better description.

* i travelled from one end to the other on the baikal amur mainline – the “hero project of the century” railway that runs from Siberia to the Pacific Coast about 700 kilometres north of the Trans-Siberian.

* i revelled in the naval nostaliga of vladivostok, and got a tour of khabarovksk courtesy of two 14 year olds who were bored at the end of their summer holiday.

* i glimpsed the wonders of buryatia around ulan ude, including the truly amazing kyakhkta cathedral, right on the border with mongolia. and i got annoyed in irkutsk (about which more below).

* i paused briefly at tobolsk to see the astounding kremlin and the contrast between the old town (wooden buildings, no running water, few residents) and the new (ugly soviet apartment block buildings, running water, hustle and bustle).

* i wandered among strange rock formations in Krasnoyarsk, spotted where the last tsar met his end, and ate out at a fancy restaurant (very poorly dressed) in Ekaterinburg to celebrate my last day in Siberia.

* i watched the countryside change colour as autumn took hold.

* and i popped home for three weeks in july to say goodbye to my grandmother who died on july 3 (may she rest in peace). this also provided some time to get used to waiting (for my russian visa), to experience New Zealand’s coldest winter for 35 years, and to spend a few more days in wonderful china.

when people think of russia, they often think of endless queues for non-existent or worthless products (just as when they think about siberia they think of freezing cold temperatures – even in the middle of summer when it is hotter than in New Zealand).

in one respect they are right. that is to say, there are still endless queues. but the product is highly valuable (hence the queue) – a train ticket. yes, while travel agents exist, and it possible (so they say) to book your train ticket over the phone, the original (and still common) way to get anywhere is to spend a few hours in the queue at the station to secure your ticket.

and in my five weeks travelling across russia i have stood in some really doozy queues. the star performers were the queues for tickets on the ferry to go to and from sakhalin island (from/to the mainland), which is way out east, quite near japan. in each case it took a full day to get a ticket.

as always, this was caused by hopeless inefficiency at the station. on the way out, there was only one clerk, she simply refused to sell tickets to the ferry until 11 o’clock (an arbitrary time that forced everyone to wait), and, once tickets were being sold, she took a two hour lunch break (probably on the basis that too many people were going to get tickets if she actually did her job). i thought that this would be stupidity confined to only the mainland ticket office. but no, all the worst aspects were repeated on sakhalin when i was trying to get a ticket back. in fact, things were even worse over there (it took 12 hours to get a ticket rather than 8). but by that time i was past caring.

fortunately russians are astonishing good at standing in queues. you can save places for people (and have yours saved for you) for hours, or even days if it comes to that. once your place is reserved (either by asking the person in front of you or by putting your name on the list), you can sit down to wait. or go do something else entirely (like go out shopping) and come back just before your turn is up. if your train is leaving soon, no one minds at all if you push in to the front, even if they have been waiting 4 or 5 hours themselves.

but there are some stupid rules to the queues as well. one of the stupidest is having special queues for foreigners. these used to be common, but are now very uncommon. imagine my dismay when, after queueing for half an hour to get a train ticket in irkutsk, the clerk tells me that i have to go to the special queue for foreigners. i explain to her that my train is leaving in five minutes and the foreigners desk is not open for another 45 minutes, so that her refusal to serve me means that i will miss my train. she shrugs her shoulders.

in the event, the train i finally got a ticket for was over six hours late, so her refusal to serve me (and there is no reason for it) cost me ten hours of my life. and it would have only taken two minutes of hers. for which she is paid.

this is all rather ironic since the special queues were set up to spare foreigners the unpleasantness associated with queueing with the locals. a system designed to speed up service became a way to slow it down.

i am now in st petersburg, russia’s most western-ish city, and a place i feel very at home in (having spent several months living here in a previous life). the next six weeks in russia will be spent tripping around the so-called central region (which is actually the western bit, including moscow, st petersburg and all the really really old places), before i head off to ukraine around the 24th of october.

there is so much to say about russia that even in this very long email i can’t even begin to scratch the surface. my online diary ( has a bunch more info if you wanted more.

given recent events, i hope you are all staying safe, whereever in the world you might be. probably seeing you not very soon at all, i have the honour to remain your humble and obedient servant,