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Friday 26 May 2017

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Transsiberian Railway: Moscow to Ekaterinburg

Our Trans-Siberian adventure, predictably, started in Moscow. We were no strangers to Russia, and the Russian ways, having spent time in St Petersburg and Moscow previously; we’d also travelled fairly extensively throughout some of the former USSR territories, namely Ukraine and Lithuania.
My memories of the Russian capital were not all that good. Having braved the overnight train from St Petersburg to Moscow without the benefit of hindsight, we’d had an adventurous journey cooped up with two Russian strangers which could have been avoided by simply booking ‘es veh’ – or first class – which means you get a twin berth to yourselves. Things didn’t improve as our train rolled into the station at Moscow at 8am the following day: it took until half past ten to find a Muscovite who was polite or erudite enough to sell us return tickets to Leningrad, as some still insist on calling it.
Add some freezing rain and plummeting temperatures into the mix, a little more Soviet severity, and your experience takes on a character all its own. The day did improve a little, with a sunny interlude as magnanimous as it was brief, allowing us to appreciate Red Square, the Kremlin and St Basil’s, without a drenching.
But that was one cold March day in 2007 – this time around, the city basked in mid-twenties heat and June sunshine, giving it a western European air which, at first glance, didn’t entirely suit it.
Our hotel was the Vega, which you could be mistaken for thinking was pitched in a shanty town. Flanked by market stalls and twenty-four hour shops on all sides, you had to take your morals and your wine into your own hands to eschew the wily ways of the area’s working girls, who seemed to congregate around their pimp in the hotel’s internet bar washed and ready to besport themselves with willing if unwary guests. With hands firmly clasped upon our credentials, wallets and bottle of cabernet merlot, we beat a quick retreat to the seating by the Vega’s entrance, where we had the peace and space to enjoy the remainder of our bottle whilst listening to Midnight in Moscow on the iPod. What?
The earlier part of the afternoon had been spent wandering around Red Square, pausing for a delicious meal of lyulya and garlic and cheese rye bread at Shesh-Besh before partaking of a welcome if overpriced glass of Peroni (they didn’t have anything local) in Bar Bosco, which seems to manage an evening pitch at the entrance of Gum once the shoppers have fled. It’s a bit like having your ‘As time goes by’ cocktail at Rick’s Bar in Casablanca; it just has to be done.
The next day was Monday, and it was ushered in with a veritable feast of a breakfast in the Vega’s second floor breakfast room. There were meats (hot and cold), cheeses, salads and fruits various, sustenance indeed for a final forage into the city sunshine courtesy of five stops on the metro. Squeezing in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and the 95 metre statue of Peter the Great (well, almost – if our road hadn’t ended abruptly with no safe passage across the Moskva to the actual site of the monument) rendered us ten minutes late for our driver, who was perched a little irritable in the hotel’s foyer on our return, ready to whisk us to Kazan station for train 16 to Yekaterinburg, which would take us across the Urals via Vekovka, Arzamas-II, Kazan, Argiz-1, Krasnoufimsk and finally to the old Siberian city destination, where we would eventually pick up the Trans-Siberian train itself. Once at the station, we waited in the bar for well over an hour for our Ural train to pull into platform 2, so I’m not quite sure what all the fuss was about. We settled into our comfortable, twin berth cabin with twenty minutes to spare. Time for a gin.
Life on the ‘Trans-Ural’ train was not quite as expected. For starters, the standard of the coach and its appointments was impressively high; none of your austere Soviet issue fitments and furnishings here. I wouldn’t exactly say opulence abounds, but the front of the menu in the restaurant car suggested it was ‘luxury dining for first class’ and the overall feel of our part of the train bore this out with admirable effort. A brief sojourn ‘below deck’ certainly made us thank our lucky stars. Not so bad the four-berth, slightly less shiny cabins we’d experienced ourselves a couple of years earlier on our inexperienced jaunt from St Petersburg to Moscow, but the crowded dormitories lined up lamentably behind the engine car resembling the makeshift hospital carriages returning from the Somme, or worse, those bound for some forlorn work camp in a rural part of eastern Europe from which there would almost certainly be no return.
We quietly but quickly closed the door on this world, partly from Imperial snobbery, and partly from the discomforting feeling that, had we been forced to undertake it in similar conditions, we probably wouldn’t be doing this trip at all. It’s one of those glimpses which turns the eye inwards, and makes you doubt the authenticity of your endeavour completely; gosh how soft we have become – even our meagre upbringings had conditioned us to be the ‘privileged’ class.
A delicious meal of meat ‘village style’, which was a type of stew made up of beef, potatoes, ‘fresh’ mushrooms, tomatoes, garlic and ‘greens’, was washed down with a disappointing bottle of Staropramen; not that there was anything wrong with the beer itself, I’d have just preferred something more local.
Once sated, we realised there was a bar area at the end of the pectopah, so settled ourselves for a shot or two of vodka whilst dreamily gazing out of the window at the vast landscape drifting by. Our peace was shattered by a little molestation with menaces from the waitresses who, when we refused to buy them a bottle of ‘Russian Champagne’, did their level best to try and earn one by offering a selection of their special services, the buxom blond leader of the pack not shy of giving a little taster with her expansive, wandering hands. We politely declined, supping up and wrenching ourselves free to go to bed. Maybe it was just a way of getting us to down our vodkas in one, like real boys.
After a reasonable night, albeit interrupted at five am by a couple of rowdy rioters who moved as noisily as was humanly possible into the house next door, we awoke at eight, and were treated to tea from the samovar, courtesy of one of the better behaved night creatures from the previous evening. And then there was absolutely nothing that needed doing, save a bit of writing, reading, sleeping or eating, other than watching hour after glorious hour of this wonderful continent rolling by as we flowed inexorably east.

Red Square in Moscow, Russia - the start of our Transsiberian adventure

Moscow to Ekaterinburg, across the Ural Mountains: an adventure begins

Our Trans-Siberian adventure, predictably, started in Moscow. We were no strangers to Russia, and the Russian ways, having spent time in St Petersburg and Moscow previously; we’d also travelled fairly extensively throughout some of the former USSR territories, namely Ukraine and Lithuania.

My memories of the Russian capital were not all that good. Having braved the overnight train from St Petersburg to Moscow without the benefit of hindsight, we’d had an adventurous journey cooped up with two Russian strangers which could have been avoided by simply booking ‘es veh’ – or first class – which means you get a twin berth to yourselves. Things didn’t improve as our train rolled into the station at Moscow at 8am the following day: it took until half past ten to find a Muscovite who was polite or erudite enough to sell us return tickets to Leningrad, as some still insist on calling it.

Add some freezing rain and plummeting temperatures into the mix, a little more Soviet severity, and your experience takes on a character all its own. The day did improve a little, with a sunny interlude as magnanimous as it was brief, allowing us to appreciate Red Square, the Kremlin and St Basil’s, without a drenching.

But that was one cold March day in 2007 – this time around, the city basked in mid-twenties heat and June sunshine, giving it a western European air which, at first glance, didn’t entirely suit it.

Our hotel was the Vega, which you could be mistaken for thinking was pitched in a shanty town. Flanked by market stalls and twenty-four hour shops on all sides, you had to take your morals and your wine into your own hands to eschew the wily ways of the area’s working girls, who seemed to congregate around their pimp in the hotel’s internet bar washed and ready to besport themselves with willing if unwary guests. With hands firmly clasped upon our credentials, wallets and bottle of cabernet merlot, we beat a quick retreat to the seating by the Vega’s entrance, where we had the peace and space to enjoy the remainder of our bottle whilst listening to Midnight in Moscow on the iPod. What?

The earlier part of the afternoon had been spent wandering around Red Square, pausing for a delicious meal of lyulya and garlic and cheese rye bread at Shesh-Besh before partaking of a welcome if overpriced glass of Peroni (they didn’t have anything local) in Bar Bosco, which seems to manage an evening pitch at the entrance of Gum once the shoppers have fled. It’s a bit like having your ‘As time goes by’ cocktail at Rick’s Bar in Casablanca; it just has to be done.

The next day was Monday, and it was ushered in with a veritable feast of a breakfast in the Vega’s second floor breakfast room. There were meats (hot and cold), cheeses, salads and fruits various, sustenance indeed for a final forage into the city sunshine courtesy of five stops on the metro. Squeezing in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and the 95 metre statue of Peter the Great (well, almost – if our road hadn’t ended abruptly with no safe passage across the Moskva to the actual site of the monument) rendered us ten minutes late for our driver, who was perched a little irritable in the hotel’s foyer on our return, ready to whisk us to Kazan station for train 16 to Yekaterinburg, which would take us across the Urals via Vekovka, Arzamas-II, Kazan, Argiz-1, Krasnoufimsk and finally to the old Siberian city destination, where we would eventually pick up the Trans-Siberian train itself. Once at the station, we waited in the bar for well over an hour for our Ural train to pull into platform 2, so I’m not quite sure what all the fuss was about. We settled into our comfortable, twin berth cabin with twenty minutes to spare. Time for a gin.

Train 1: The Ural Train

Life on the ‘Trans-Ural’ train was not quite as expected. For starters, the standard of the coach and its appointments was impressively high; none of your austere Soviet issue fitments and furnishings here. I wouldn’t exactly say opulence abounds, but the front of the menu in the restaurant car suggested it was ‘luxury dining for first class’ and the overall feel of our part of the train bore this out with admirable effort. A brief sojourn ‘below deck’ certainly made us thank our lucky stars. Not so bad the four-berth, slightly less shiny cabins we’d experienced ourselves a couple of years earlier on our inexperienced jaunt from St Petersburg to Moscow, but the crowded dormitories lined up lamentably behind the engine car resembling the makeshift hospital carriages returning from the Somme, or worse, those bound for some forlorn work camp in a rural part of eastern Europe from which there would almost certainly be no return.

We quietly but quickly closed the door on this world, partly from Imperial snobbery, and partly from the discomforting feeling that, had we been forced to undertake it in similar conditions, we probably wouldn’t be doing this trip at all. It’s one of those glimpses which turns the eye inwards, and makes you doubt the authenticity of your endeavour completely; gosh how soft we have become – even our meagre upbringings had conditioned us to be the ‘privileged’ class.

A delicious meal of meat ‘village style’, which was a type of stew made up of beef, potatoes, ‘fresh’ mushrooms, tomatoes, garlic and ‘greens’, was washed down with a disappointing bottle of Staropramen; not that there was anything wrong with the beer itself, I’d have just preferred something more local.

Once sated, we realised there was a bar area at the end of the pectopah, so settled ourselves for a shot or two of vodka whilst dreamily gazing out of the window at the vast landscape drifting by. Our peace was shattered by a little molestation with menaces from the waitresses who, when we refused to buy them a bottle of ‘Russian Champagne’, did their level best to try and earn one by offering a selection of their special services, the buxom blond leader of the pack not shy of giving a little taster with her expansive, wandering hands. We politely declined, supping up and wrenching ourselves free to go to bed. Maybe it was just a way of getting us to down our vodkas in one, like real boys.

After a reasonable night, albeit interrupted at five am by a couple of rowdy rioters who moved as noisily as was humanly possible into the house next door, we awoke at eight, and were treated to tea from the samovar, courtesy of one of the better behaved night creatures from the previous evening. And then there was absolutely nothing that needed doing, save a bit of writing, reading, sleeping or eating, other than watching hour after glorious hour of this wonderful continent rolling by as we flowed inexorably east.

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