Friday, April 17, 2015

Babes in the Woods - and Snows: Siberian Railroad 2015

Somehow, the subject of a Trans Siberian Railroad journey came up - so I found myself booking a three week trip with Sundowners  for early spring 2015. - Sundowners is an Australian tour company specializing in overland travel and  I had done an India, China-Pakistan-'Stans trip with them awhile back.  I went with a friend with whom I've traveled half a dozen times - in fact, she initiated the project.  Three weeks:  from St Petersburg to Vladivostok with five stops inbetween, including  a night  at Lake Baikal,  the world's oldest and deepest fresh water lake, an UNESCO site. 

Suzanne had not been in Russia before; I had briefly experienced St Petersburg and Moscow ten-fifteen years before and certainly could use all the help I could get in finding my way around.  We had arranged to be met upon arrival  and to have time with a host/guide in each city to get us started.  That worked well.  In fact, so well that we should have arranged for departure transport,  though  with everyone's help, we managed that.   I had not realize how difficult things could be  with neither of us  Russian speakers.  I had expected a bit more English, particularly as we learned it was part of the school curriculum.  Fortunately, we were bailed out with some frequency.  Including a restaurant manager from Malta. 

Memories of early days in South Dakota had me toting four layers when at best, I only needed three. For it not as cold as I expected. Even so, the old LLBean convoy coat felt good. Throughout, there was sun - and rain and snow - and sun!

In St. Petersburg, we ran into sunbathers along the Neva River.  St. Petersburg is a good city for walkers - you pass contrasting architecture, interesting sites and  refurbished churches wherever you go.  We only had an hour at the Hermitage Museum, for it was closed over the weekend.  Had to rush there before train time on Monday.  However, Suzanne had tickets for the Kirov Ballet at the old Mariinsky for Sunday night:  La Bayadere with a Paris Opera Ballet soloist guesting - a young Korean dancer, she was magnificent.

It was a four hour day train ride to Moscow, a much more energetic city that St. Petersburg.  We stayed in the Arbat area, walking distance to Red Square and the Kremlin - which does not  mean we weren't lost a few times.  The Kremlin with the government buildings and churches, was most impressive.  We caught up with our guide the second day - she had classes earlier - and discovered places missed int he earlier exploration. One was the bridge where Boris Nemtsov had been murdered - overwhelmed with bouquets of all sizes and kind. 

 An evening was spent at the Bolshoi Theatre for a performance by the Rostov Ballet - had no idea what the ballet was about but eventually, it got sorted out. The Theatre was impressive, gilt and gold trimmed.

 It was in St. Petersburg and Moscow, we first saw an interesting tradition,  padlocks on various railings, sporting  the initials of the couple for all to see.   We continued to run into them throughout the trip.

From here, started serious train travel: overnight to Yekaterinburg, leaving European Russia for Eastern Russia.  We traveled two to a compartment - first class?! Each car had a conductress in charge who made up the beds, cleaned the toilets, took out the trash  and made sure we were on the right car.  The trains all ran on Moscow time which was posted along with the oncoming stop - in Cryllic. As were our tickets.  Guides and transporters were most helpful.  We kept my watch on Moscow time and Suzanne's I-phone kept us righteous with "real" time. 

While we did go to the dining carriage, lack of Russian precluded much socialization.  We did well to figure out the menu, which did have some English sub titles  which helped in ordering with servers who didn't make it through any of those English classes.  Food was good - not exceptional, but good.  We had meals included on several segments, which were brought to the compartment.  It was interesting, making known our choice of either "Chicken" and "Fish". Hot water was always available in the carriage for tea or coffee.  Both of us had packed energy bars or one kind or another.  On several of the trains, we were given chips and an apple.

For historical reasons, I really wanted to go to Yekerinburg for that was where the Czar and his family were held by the Soviets and assassinated.  It is also, according to our host, the third-capital- city-in-waiting.  Moscow was first.  If out of commission, St. Petersburg.  Then, Yekerinburg. There was a tourist track marked on the sidewalk which helped in finding places of interest.  We did get to the Church of  the Blood, built over the cellar where the Romanovs were killed.  On our own we spent time in the Fine Arts Museum, after a lack of success in locating the Natural History museum.  Also took a look at the Photography Museum.   And another ballet performance, newly choreographed but dated stylistically.  Nice city, third largest in Russia.

Back on the train and onto Novosibirsk, the capital of Siberia. While we walked about the city - and got home via the metro (last stop, you can't miss it!) -  much of the time was spent with the host in Akaderngorodock, a city built for scientific research with a prestigious university.. Half an hour bus ride from Novosikirsk at most, we walked about the snowy.icey grounds with relatively new bulldings including  an  elegant arts center. and various museums.  The Russians take good care of their scholars. 

After an overnight on the train, we came to Irkutsk for a couple of nights, before heading off the Listvyanka, a village  at Lake Baikal.  We had two young man as hosts, showing us around their City.  Memorials. statutes and churches were near where we stayed.  From Irkutsk, we were driven to Lake Bailkal, Mostly still well frozen though we were able to take a glass bottomed boat in a thawed postion of the lake, to see the undersea flower and fauna. On the frozen portion, we did a Hovercraft ride, scooting and  pirouetting atop the ice.  Others were fishing and walking.  Didn't see any skaters.  We hiked down to the area's Museum.

Back to the Railroad and onto Kharbarovsk where they claim 300 days of sunshine yearly.  We spent time walking about the city, down to the Amur River and its banks.  Information for the City suggested we ride a hydrofoil and enjoy the city's sights:  not possible with ice over river.  But one could see how the river's bank would be a lively recreational area. I purchased  souvenirs at the Arts Museum from a delightful gentleman speaking fluent English.  Our host was put to work, translating information at the  History Museum for the labeling was not bilingual.  A rather interesting and active city. 

Now for the three night, two day train ride into Vladivostok, the one time closed city.  And on the most basic of the several trains we'd experienced.  Scenery was   birches and snow covered ground - not particularly exciting.  Fortunately, Suzanne was not  only equipped with an Iphone but an I-pad and tablet.  I was/am considering purchasing a tablet so this gve me  a change to check it out.  I read half a dozen of the books she had stored on it, including David Greene's Midnight in Siberia, quite appropriate for he wrote of his travels on Russian trains, only third class - but he spoke some Russian.  Regardless,  a night or so third class might have been worth it- next time!

Arrival in Vladivostok!  The San Francisco of Russian Siberia!  Again, we wandered about for a day before meeting with the host.  I had wanted to see the submarine cum museum; we managed with the help of the hotel staff who worked out a map for us.  It turned out to be on one of the main streets.  Also wandered through the open air food market and generally, got a feel for the City.  The host introduced us to a walking street down to the beach, which, given it was a weekend, had a lot of activity.  We also explored a collection of artillery near what may have been an old fort. 
The day ended with a round trip bus ride to Russky Island, home to a new University and an old Fort.  Couldn't get to the Fort but did see the University, riding across a magnificent suspension bridge. 

Then, off to the airport where we parted company:  Suzanne to Moscow, Heathrow and DC.  I to Seoul and San Francisco.

Accommodations:  Four hotels, two Home Stays, an apartment and  the Guesthouse.  The hotels were all excellent and  well located.  In my opinion, the ones in Moscow and Vladivostok approached 4* quality.  All provided  good breakfasts.  The apartment in Yekaterinburg was unique:  in an old Soviet building above a grocery story, I really felt like I belonged.  It helped that our host owned the apartment and was so knowledgeable. 

The Home Stays were totally different. In Novosibirsh it as with a young couple;  she was a very outgoing English speaker.  We all ate together.  It was delightful.  The second Home Stay in inIrkusk was with an older couple and an even older woman who was not introduced and stayed abed in her room the entire time. The couple spoke no English.  Breakfast was served in our room; I took the tray back to the kitchen.  The husband did show me photos of a family holiday in Italy.  But it was clear they didn't know what their role was - and the same was true for us.  We smiled a lot!

The Guesthouse was like a Ski Lodge.  Very informal and very cheerful and very comfortable.  Good breakfast and great manager? Owner? English spoken.

Food:  Considering that neither of us are meat eaters, we did well. We  often found pictures of the entrees subtitles in English on menus.  Ate at several pick up places - quiche on several occas ions -  to an elegant Mona's in Khabarovsk. Several of the hotels had good restaurants - both in St. Petersburg and Vladivostok.  Hosts pointed us to reasonably priced places with good hot food.  On occasion, we picked up bits and pieces at grocery stores,  which were well stocked.

Impression:  Both of us commented on the affluence, much different than my past impression.
Stores were full of goods, people dressed well, and a surprisingly number of them had traveled out of the country. It wasn't that different from the US.  I tried to ask about the Ukraine situation but got little response other than, we know only what we read in the papers!  There seems to be acceptance of  Putin for p eople just want to be left alone and make their way without conflict.  But remember, we were meeting with urbanites, talking with English speakers. 

Cost:  Sundowners Overland Tour;;$14077.  Airfare: $1336.  Ballet tickets: $463.  Visa:  $519.

Glitch:  Someone always doesn't get the word:  No pick up at St. Petersburg airport.  Fortunately an English speaker at the Information desk helped out.  Not unusual for me:  I'm always pleasantly surprised when the pickup comes through.

Jo Rawlins Gilbert
Palo Alto CA  94303

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