The bright white colour of the immaculate snow. The delicate patchwork of the birch trees. The light shadows of the winter’s low-angled sun.
That’s the beauty of the Siberian taiga!
Spotted in the streets of Yakutsk in July 2016: posters that remind voters who their member of parliament is, and how much they like him!
In Yakutsk, the largest city built on permafrost, the Abakayade Memorial celebrates the union between the Russians and the natives.
It represents Semyon Deshnev, great Russian traveller of the 17th century, with his Yakut wife Abakayade and their child, the first child born from the union between the settler and the native.
The monument was created by Maxim Pavlov, a Russian sculptor awarded the title “People’s Artist of Yakutia” by a decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of Yakutia in 1990.
It was erected in 2005 and can be found at the intersection of Kirova and Poyarkova streets.
In the little diamond mining town of Mirny, somewhere in the East of Siberia, it is customary to give a name to diamonds above a certain number of carats.
Usually, they’re named “Veronika”, “Pushkin”, or after their discoverer’s name. But this one, a 342.5 carat diamond found in 1980, was named “26th Congress of the Communist Party”, Brejnev’s last congress.
There is no overzealous apparatchik in Soviet Russia!
This week, Ailsa‘s photo challenge theme is Waves.
One of the things I like most in cold-countries winter is the frozen water. Frozen lakes, frozen rivers, frozen seas – it’s fascinating.
Some are still, and their icy surface is smooth. And some are wild – then the waves first forms giant icicles before it gets totally frozen.
Look at me, so happy sitting on the frozen Amur river in Khabarovsk, in the Russian Far East! (February 2013)
Have you enjoyed travelling on the Transsiberian railway?
Why don’t you consider a follow-up adventure: Transsiberian level 2, a journey on the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) railway.
The BAM line was built under Stalin as a strategic alternative to the Transsiberian Railway, that was considered too dangerously close to the Chinese border.
Whilst travelling by train in Russia requires some degree of familiarity with the codes and rules, I found the experience on the BAM – which I moreover did in the middle of winter just to make the task even more challenging – considerably more special, and here is why:
1. It is one of the craziest civil engineering works and was built by gulag prisoners
Nature is beautiful in the Russian Far-East, but it doesn’t make communication and construction easy. The BAM railway is over 4,000 km long with 21 tunnels and 4,200 bridges, a large part of which built over permafrost.
Of course, this was all possible only because of forced labour from the gulag prisoners, who did all the work for free during interminable decades – the Bamlag division of the Gulag administration peaked at 201,000 prisoners in 1938 who were working on the railway.
2. An embarrassingly empty train
Don’t get me wrong: less people on the dorm carriage is good news on a long journey. More quiet, less snoring at night, just you in your bubble. But that much less people can be embarrassing, too. At some point, we were just a couple of passengers, highlighting the relative uselessness of this notwithstanding deadly construction.
3. Even more extreme temperatures contrast
Did you read the joke about the temperature in Russian trains? It is a fact that in my experience, it is always so hot on Russian trains and the BAM was no exception. What was exceptional though, was the incredible contrast with the outside temperature: can you imagine how you feel when you step out of the train and the temperature is more than fifty Celsius degrees lower?!
4. Extreme confusion with the time zones
One day in a small town deep in Siberia, the train stopped and the provodnista told me to go for a walk as the train was going to pause here for a few hours. She stressed I should be back by 1:30 pm.
The problem: what means 1.30 pm when you are completely lost in the time zones? In Russia, train tickets are edited in Moscow times and so 1.30 pm was Moscow time. When I got on the train the previous evening, I was in a Moscow +6 time zone; when we reached that town it was already the next day and I wasn’t sure in which time zone we were!
When I came back to the station, and did not find my train on the platform, my blood boiled. Did I get back at the wrong time? Far from the large railway stations of the Transsiberian route, it wasn’t easy to get the right information with certainty. Luckily, I was too early rather than too late, and the train was yet to return from a technical check!
5. Being a hero to the locals
What betrays I am a foreigner is not so much my appearance but rather my backpack! As a foreigner, on the Transsiberian you are rather a curiosity. On the BAM, as a foreigner you are a hero. Several people called me that word, which I found very amusing.
That morning when I arrived in Severobaikalsk, the lady running a tiny guesthouse got so excited about my presence that she called all her friends to tell them she had a “touristka“: I was the first since the past 6 weeks. That sort of hero!
Russian trains are the best place to enjoy time as it goes by. From Vladivostok in the Far East to St Petersburg in the West, Astrakhan at the Caspian in the South, Arkhangelsk by the White Sea in the North, many are the places I have reached by train in Russia. What is so special to me about travelling by train in Russia?
A. You’ve got so much time, as you never do in life.
I call myself a Life Maximiser: I am always on the look for efficient ways to get the most out of my life despite the little time I have. But Russian trains are slow, very slow. And intercity distances are huge, really huge.
So when I board a train knowing very well that I will not arrive before at least 15 if not 26 hours, I change my mindset: so much time is luxury.
What can I do during these 26 hours? I can sleep. I can read. I can study Russian. I can stare. I can catch up with myself. I can think of nothing. I can reach my destination having done a lot yet having recharged batteries at the same time.
B. Non-digital life, do you remember that?
Enjoying so much time would not be the same if you had your smartphone and Facebook. Luckily journeys are long, electrical plugs are scarce, and mobile network is sporadic.
I call this analogous travel. Read a book instead, with a cup of tea. And sleep. Smile to your neighbour. There’s nothing else to do, and guess what? It’s great.
Sometimes people play domino and invite me to join. How long have I not been playing domino in my digital West; why did we abandon these things? It’s great fun after all. I wish I could keep this mindset when I’m travelling in Europe, but in the reality this works only when you really have time (see point A).
C. How comfortable can comfortable be?
I used to abhor night train travel, I think since a school trip to Austria when I was thirteen. It was horrible, couches were tiny, I was lying in my clothes, we were suffocating in that mini compartment. And: the train journey was not long enough anyway to get a decent amount of sleep.
Got the same childhood trauma? Forget about it. There is nowhere on earth where I have a better comfy sleep than in Russian trains.
As soon as the train departs, everyone swaps their outfit for comfy pyjamas. Then the provodnitsa (the leader of the coach, who usually has a hard to describe Stalinist bureaucratic yet motherly patronising personality) brings you bed sheets and you can roll out your mattress and make your bed.
And what a bed! Just the humming of the train and that comfy couch is enough for me.
When I left Moscow to Arkhangelsk on a late evening of January 2013, I was looking forward to the 18 hours I would spend on the train. I did not expect it would be already the middle of the afternoon when I’d wake up!
D. Is it Russia at its best?
At least it feels like it.
The motherly culture, where everyone is so kind and so caring (once I was so drunk that an old lady prepared my bed and kissed me good night).
The incredible hospitality, where someone will always offer you a cup of tea (or a few shots of vodka, see above).
This typical way Russians believe I am crazy to spend my holiday here (as if the only reason to come to Siberia was deportation) but, once reminded by me how great things are here, pour their heart out about how great things are here (and give me more tips on how to make the full out of it).
These old babushkas that come in the train with a bag full of smelly dry fish that they sell to cover the price of their ticket (and how fast word-of-mouth spreads in the whole train, so the fishes are all sold in just a few minutes).
These chatterboxes that Russian women are, with their language that is so wordy and so melodious (and how they don’t leave me alone, patient enough to repeat the same question ten times until I finally get it).
E. You need to know the rules to fully appreciate it.
I mean “rules” as standards, guiding principles about “normal” behaviour on a train. The first time you board a Russian train, you may not know this.
Experience makes you learn the rules until they become like a second skin to you. Until you also get on the train, lift the couch, hide your bag underneath, sit and do strictly nothing until the train departs (yes that’s a rule), then nod at the ladies around who watch none comes while you’re getting your pyjamas on, slowly pull out your food from a plastic bag and spread it on the table, and wait until the provodnista brings your bed sheets so you can make your bed…
Oh! I miss that. I have heard that Putin has plans to modernise the Russian train network. To be honest, I don’t blame him, but I am afraid that this is a whole culture that will disappear.
I once took the Samsan – the superfast train that takes you from St Petersburg to Moscow in just a few hours instead of a night – and my mindset that day was the same as when I am on the Eurostar or the Thalys fast trains hopping from European capital to European capital – that’s commuting, not travelling, and as such much less fun.