August 3, 2008: Irkutsk

We had an unusually long stop-over in rainy Irkutsk because of the train schedule--12 hours. The day ended on a high note, but as one of my fellow travelers put it, otherwise it was "pretty dismal."

We visited more cathedrals. The icons were growing on me by now--at first they just seemed strange and simple, but I became fascinated by them. In one of the churches we happened upon a service in session. There are no pews, everyone stands. A baptism was taking place off to one side, though only the family seemed to be paying attention. The baby was crying, everyone else in the cathedral was singing, bells were ringing--it was something to experience. Gave me the chills, in fact.

Outside this cathedral, David Holloway was quite taken with a new statue of an admiral from the White Army, who fought against the Bolsheviks. He explained to us that the communists did their best to wipe out all traces of Russian history. However, since 1990 there has been a huge effort made to honor all aspects of the past. Thus, many avenues are still named Lenin and Marx. They are rebuilding monuments to the Tsars, even the most rotten ones. And there are major memorials to WWII in every city. They don't seem to want to forget anything, ever again.

Irkutsk is famous for its wooden houses, but we stopped at only one due to the rain. We drove by an "icebreaker" ship and maritime museum, closed on Sundays. We then visited a local market and shopping center--not on the planned itinerary--as a way to kill time. They were actually both quite interesting.

The shopping mall was full of tiny shops. No department stores--they all just sold one item, like shoes, jewelry or cell phones. And there would be 5 or 6 stores of the same type grouped together, all selling exactly the same products. No more than 6-8 people could fit into a store. One shoe store had 8 people jammed in it and the owner had locked the door. Ten people were lined up outside. It must have been a big sale, as the exact same shoes were for sale at stores on either side! Most of the brands in the stores were familiar--adidas, nike, tommy hilfiger, nokia, sony....and the shelves were all overflowing.

It was more or less the same set up in the market, which was busy and bursting with fresh goods--meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, cheese, nuts, tea and coffee, flowers, candy and cookies too. Most things were sold behind counters with samples displayed in front. My favorite area was the butter and cheese, where the women were actually stirring it up and selling it straight out of buckets.

The day ended with a visit to the house of Maria Volkonsky. Maria was the wife of a Decembrist, a group that was sent to Siberia after staging an unsuccessful coup in 1825. She followed her exiled husband to Irkutsk, where they set up their own version of "high society." We toured their impressive home, and then were treated to a concert in the drawing room, which would have been typical of their time. I can't even tell you how well done it was! Our charming host explained the performances by a pianist and two soloists. They played and sang Mozart, Chopin and Schubert. We heard a Pushkin poem. And then a young man in a powdered wig served us all champagne. It sounds corny, but it could not have been a more uplifting way to end our "dismal day."

Photos from rainy Irkutsk:


August 2, 2008: On the way to Irkutsk

Happy Birthday Nan! We spent the day on the train with just a couple of brief stops. At this point of the journey, I was pretty tired. Traveling east as we were, you are going backwards against the time zones. We had been on the train for 5 days and had lost an hour a night--it catches up to you!

David Holloway gave a great lecture in the morning about current Russian politics. He told us that Putin is a star in the eyes of most Russians. The quality of life improved greatly under his rule and he brought stability to what was a chaotic situation. He basically set up an autocractic system where everyone in power is responsible to the state--not to the people. Ironically, while the Russians like Putin, they don't like the government! There is a huge problem with corruption--even in places like hospitals, everyone takes bribes. So the rich benefit, and even though they don't like the corruption either, they are sort of trapped by it--to get good products and services, you pay for them under the table, and the system just perpetuates itself. Medvedev has said that his #1 priority is the "rule of law" and ending corruption. But, he was hand-selected by Putin and has made him his prime minister. Many think that Medvedev will just be Putin's puppet. It is not at all clear how it will all play out. David is clearly not a fan of Putin, but has to admit that he has done some good things for the country. As it seems with most things Russian, it's a pretty mixed bag.

Natalia sang for us again in the afternoon, and I asked her to sing a Ukrainian song. I bought one of her CDs of Russian folk and love songs, and told her a bit about Jack. She was certain that when he heard her songs "he would recognize them in his heart." ( I tried them out on him when I got home and he thought they were "okay.") :-)

At dinner with the Holloways I asked them about the Russian people--they have spent a lot of time in Russia, and host Russians a lot at home. I am so curious about what the people are like privately, because their public face is so serious and unemotional. Every once in a while a little sparkle slips through, which makes me think that they must be masking their true selves. The Holloways validated this notion. As a people, Russians are used to hardship and persevering through difficult times. A common saying when things are hard is "that's life." They are also suspicious about outsiders (if you look at their history you can understand why!). So, they show the world a tough, austere face and show their warmth and humor only to those close to them. I just wish we could see it sometimes! I have managed to get our cabin attendant Yuriy to laugh once or twice, though his counterpart Nikolay is impossible. But I'm not giving up on him yet.

And a few photos from the train:


August 1, 2008: Novosibirsk

Every day of the trip brought something special, but I think that this day was probably the most special of all. It started with a tour of Novosibirsk, a big, thriving city. Its main claim to fame is that it has the largest theater house in all of Russia, even bigger than the Bolshoi in Moscow. We drove by the theater on the way to the town's WWII memorial. The memorial was very powerful; I thought it was the most moving of several we visited.

At the memorial, we saw several wedding parties being photographed, and from then on we ran into brides and grooms everywhere we went. One of the women in our group became the official "bride spotter;" as we'd drive through towns she'd suddenly shout "bride on the left!" I guess it is a tradition to visit memorials and historic places on the day of your wedding. And weddings often take place on Fridays so that the celebration can last the whole weekend.

As we drove through the cities, the guides always pointed out the apartments that Stalin built and the ones that Kruschev built. Stalin's are considered better than Kruschev's, though to me they all looked the same: plain and gray cement blocks with small windows!

We had lunch in a very interesting place: Akademgorodok. It is a city of scientists, started by Kruschev. People thought it was a crazy idea, to build a scientific town in the middle of Siberia, but scientists flocked here because they were allowed complete academic freedom. The town is built within a forest, just a lovely setting and sometimes referred to as "Silicon Forest." Before the collapse of the Soviet Union it was a high-security area that few could enter, but now it is completely open. Our lunch was in the "House of Scientists and Scholars," which is like their faculty club.

We made a stop at a railway museum on the way to our eclipse viewing spot on the Ob River. We were on a specially reserved beach for people traveling with MIR. (We heard there were 20,000 people who had come to town to view the eclipse, though thankfully they weren't trying to share our beach!) It was cloudy when we arrived and we were all worried for our friends, the eclipse chasers. What if the clouds obscured the eclipse that they had come all this way to see?

We arrived 2 hours before the eclipse started, and 3 hours before "totality." The time flew by--it was nice to be in the fresh air, which was filled with anticipation. The serious eclipse chasers set up special telescopes and cameras. As the minutes passed, so did the clouds--they cleared just in the nick of time.

We all had special glasses that allowed you to look directly at the sun, so we could see from the moment of "first contact"--the moon overlapping the sun--to "totality," when the sun was completely obscured. "Totality" lasted a little over 2 minutes, and during that time you could look at the sun with your naked eye. At totality, the temperature dropped and it got dark enough to see some stars; Mercury and Venus both shone brightly.

Though it didn't exactly change my life, the experience was certainly hard to find words for: Magical? Mesmerizing? Awe-inspiring? They don't quite do it justice. Put it this way, if I had the chance to see another one, I'd go in a second.

The eclipse chasers were going bananas throughout. Watch the video and you'll hear them! The video was put together by our train director, a tough but generous and kind woman named Tatiana. She was so taken by the whole experience that she pulled an all-nighter to put this together for us. The narrator is David Levy, the astronomer from the train. Be sure to look for the "diamond ring"--it happens for a split second just before and at the end of "totality." It is really something to see:

Here are a few photos from our amazing day in Novosibirsk:


July 31, 2008: Novosibirsk

We spent most of the next day on the train, pulling into Novosibirsk about 5:30 p.m. During the day we watched the Romanov movie and heard a lecture about the upcoming eclipse from David Levy, an astronomer traveling with the other group on our train. There were about 50 of them--we had 35 Stanford travelers--and they called themselves "eclipse chasers." They were all on the trip just to see the eclipse! The astronomer's advice? "Don't worry about getting photos, just take it all in and enjoy the experience!" Good advice for this photographer to remember... One of the other eclipse chasers told me that seeing it would "change my life.” You'll have to wait another day to see if she was right!

For being the largest city in Siberia and the third largest in Russia, there was not a whole lot to do or see in Novosibirsk. When we arrived we went to a "folk performance," which turned out to be a band with an accordion and several balalaikas. Balalaikas are triangular-shaped guitar-like instruments. The place we were in was a bit dreary--up three stories of uneven stairs (have I mentioned there are no elevators in Russia?) to a stuffy, un-air-conditioned balcony with a drippy ceiling. Thankfully the music was lively and fun, and the accordion player, who doubled as the emcee, had a great sense of humor. It was especially appreciated as we were all having a hard time cracking the sullen exteriors of our Russian train crew. Serious, serious, serious--you just knew there was a smile in there somewhere, but it was hard to find!

Dinner was in an authentic country restaurant called "Gillibilli," which is the phrase that all Russian fairy-tales start with, "Once Upon a Time." A slew of waiters stood and watched while two poor girls tried to serve us--well, sort of tried. Martin had to coach their every step--"ask what they want to drink," "clear the salad plates," "see if they need drink refills..." They had no clue how to provide good service and did so begrudgingly. I guess that Russian customers don't expect it, so no one bothers! The main course of sausage and fried cauliflower didn't go over very well, though I did feel like we were getting a taste of "real" Russia and not just the high-end touristy part. That evening we were all happy to return to the comforts of the Golden Eagle, docked at a siding for the night. Ah, finally a good sleep!

Double-click the arrow for a few photos of Novosibirsk:


July 30, 2008: Yekaterinburg

Just east of the Ural mountains, we made our next stop in Yekaterinburg, Russian's fourth largest city. It is best known as the site of the exile and execution of Tsar Nicholas II and his family by the Bolsheviks in 1918. Of all the stories we heard on the trip, to me the story of the Romanovs was the most fascinating.

While we had too much time in Kazan, we didn’t have enough in Yekaterinburg. We were there for just 4 hours in all. Our first stop was the Cathedral of the Blood, which is built on the site where the Tsar and his family were executed. They have somewhat recently been sainted by the Russian Orthodox church as martyrs, and the whole church had just been celebrating the 90th anniversary of their execution. There were large posters of the family surrounding the church, like the photo above. Many of the icons in the church were also images of Nicholas II and his family.

This was the newest cathedral that we visited and in contrast to the others was clean and bright inside. It was painted blue and white throughout, more like the Kazan mosque than the typical deep reds and golds of other cathedrals. Women had to wear not only scarves but also skirts to enter. So, those of us in pants were given a wrap to put around our waists. And like all of the cathedrals we visited, there was a small souvenir shop at the exit.

After the Cathedral, we struggled through traffic to get to the border of Europe and Asia, which is just outside of Yekaterinburg. When we got there, a Russian military guard boarded the bus and demanded to see our passports (which we had been told to leave on the train at all times). He then told us that we would be punished, and had to exit the bus and walk to the border where we would have to endure a celebration of champagne and chocolates! It was pretty cool to stand with one foot in Europe and one in Asia.

Yekaterinburg seemed a more modern city than Kazan, and also a bit of a "boom town," with tons of traffic and construction everywhere. It seemed maybe 5-10 years ahead of Kazan in terms of its modernization. Like the other cities, the tour took us past a lot of universities and statues, though here there was a much greater emphasis on war heroes. We heard a lot about the "Black Tulip" memorial to the soldiers who died in Afghanistan. It reminded me of a similar memorial that Luda and Anton took us to in Zaporozhye, which seemed to hold great importance to them as well.

Then it was back on the train, where we soon also crossed the border into Siberia. That night, we were entertained by Natalia Orlova, a lovely singer and guitarist from St. Petersburg who traveled with us for about half of the trip and gave several concerts along the way.

A few photos from our too quick stop in Yekaterinburg:

And if you're interested, here's a 4 minute National Geographic video about the Romanovs. In addition to a lecture from David Holloway on the topic, we also saw the full movie on the train:


July 29, 2008: Kazan

Our first night on the train was quite an experience. I had a romanticized notion that riding on a train would be sort of meditative--that the soothing rhythm of the rails would lull you into a peaceful calm. That may be true of some trains, but NOT the bumpy Trans-Siberian Express! We were tossed up, down and sideways. At night things flew off of my table and shelves. Even worse was the noise; think sledgehammer pounding the metal walls. It would be relatively quiet and then BANG, BANG, BANG, BANG...on and off throughout the night. I did get used to it and eventually was able to get a good night's sleep. But the first few nights were hard for everybody.

Our first stop was the city of Kazan in Tatarstan, an autonomous region of Russia like South Ossetia. Earlier this week there were reports of rumblings of independence there
. Thus the image at the top of this post from a news story on September 10--soldiers in front of the mosque that we visited.

The Tatars were invaders: part Bulgarian, part Mongolian. They were Muslim, and so Kazan is best known for the fact that Muslims and Christians have long lived together side-by-side. The region is also oil-rich and prospering. There were major construction efforts everywhere we went. Clearly lots and lots of money is pouring in, though it is still at the very early stages of renovation (there's a lot that needs fixing up!).

Our bus pulled up to the Kazan Kremlin and we were greeted by a woman in traditional Tatar dress with a traditional Tatar treat for us. Someone dubbed it a "giant rice krispie treat" and that is a perfect description.

In the Kremlin we visited a Russian Orthodox cathedral and a mosque, a stone's throw from each other. The cathedral was very old, very dark and very ornate with painted icons covering the gold-plated walls. The mosque was completely the opposite--open and airy and bright, lots of light streaming in. It was painted light blue, yellow and white with beautiful carpets throughout.
An interesting contrast.

On our drive to lunch we passed a university where Lenin studied and staged his first civil protest, leading to his expulsion. A statue of young Lenin marks the spot. Like Moscow, Kazan is filled with statues, mostly of artists and writers. I was constantly struck by the pride in the voices of our guides when they talked about their cultural heroes. We heard about the poet Aleksandr Pushkin (1799-1837) everywhere we went; his poems are still memorized by Russian schoolchildren. However, the poems are very difficult to translate, and so those who can't read Russian can't really appreciate them. I asked one of our guides to tell me more about Pushkin and why he is so important to Russians. She started to cry as she talked about him.

After lunch we took a short cruise on the Volga, which cuts through Kazan. It was a lovely day and nice to spend some time on the river. As one of my companions said, you can't come to Russia and NOT go on the Volga!

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering through the main pedestrian area of the city. Overall, my impression was that there is a lot of positive energy in Kazan (thanks to the oil money!) and things seem to be on an upswing. Then it was back to the train for an even wilder nighttime ride, this time through the Ural Mountains.

I'll end with a link to a funny story I heard on NPR earlier this week--it's best to listen to the broadcast, which includes a song:
Baldness Pattern: A New Cold War Analysis : NPR

And some photos from Kazan:


Monday, July 28, 2008: Leaving Moscow

We left our bags outside our hotel rooms before breakfast, to be delivered to the train. After a quick daytime stop in Red Square (better for photos), we headed for a tour of an underground Cold War bunker. It turned out to be so much more interesting than I expected! I especially enjoyed seeing a video about the Cold War done from the Russian perspective. It was a good reminder that there are two sides to every story....

And that was it for Moscow! Our next stop was Kazansky Station and The Golden Eagle, our home for the next 12 days. The station was busy and we were all very excited to board the train. It was shiny blue and gold, and laid out like this:
  1. Engine
  2. Staff Car
  3. Passenger Cars #6-10
  4. Dining Car
  5. Kitchen Car
  6. Dining Car
  7. Bar Car
  8. Passenger Cars #1-5
My car, #10, was at the far end. There were 4 doors between each car. To get to the first dining car I had to go through 20 doors. To get to the bar car was another 12 doors. If I needed to see someone in the first passenger car, I had to open and close 52 doors! And that's just one way.

We had lunch immediately after boarding the train. All our lunches and dinners were 4 courses--an appetizer (often salad) followed by soup, then the main course and dessert. I felt like I gained 5 pounds before I even got on the train! Our first meal on the train included a very thin-sliced, cold, smooth textured something-or-other. Some thought it was butter, some thought maybe chicken or turkey. It was hard to tell, though later we learned that it was a Ukrainian specialty--LARD.

We spent most of the afternoon settling into our compartments. Martin and I made the rounds and showed everyone how to operate their sinks and showers, toilets, lights, air conditioners and cd/dvd players. It was tricky at first, but easy once explained.
The compartments were 100% efficient and functional. I loved mine.

Each car had two attendants, one of whom was always on duty. They were there to help troubleshoot, turn over the cabins from night/bed to day/couch, and always had tea and treats available. The car #10 attendants were Nikolay and Yuriy, whom of course I had an immediate affinity with because of my own Jack Yuriy!

We had our second lecture from David that afternoon, on Stalin in WWII. Actually, the Russians call it "The Great Patriotic War." David's assessment of Stalin: a monster who was also a great wartime leader.

And then it was time to eat again! Dessert was Russian ice cream, which Martin thinks is the best in the world. He might be right.

Check-out the slideshow, which includes several shots of my favorite part of the train, my bathroom(!):