15 June 2019
The day started with breakfast on board, then a free morning except for a team competition to complete the two large wooden jigsaws of all the regions and districts of the Russian Federation, with the TSR marked on the relevant pieces. Training for the event had been happening the previous evening, as we were pitted against the Spanish team. In the event it was a bit of a swizz as only two of the Spanish group turned up on time to start, so a couple of our group of seven were moved over to their team, and every time more of their group appeared we had to stop playing and let them shuffle past. In short, we lost, but it didn't matter because the winners' champagne was shared among us all! At one o'clock we got off the train, to start our tour.
Today's guide was Olga, a Russian version of Anita Manning, with really good English and a genuine interest in people. She took us first to a restaurant, where as usual the three group tables were marked out, and our starter of salad awaited. Ekaterinburg is the city where the Czar's family were assassinated, and a large church, built over the last eight years commemorates the event, and houses a museum of their lives, right next to the spot where the killing happened. But we didn't visit that straight off, but last item of the day. First we travelled along the road west out of the city to see the boundary marker between Asian Russia, and European Russia. This came with all kinds of local rituals like being photographed with a foot either side of the line, making a wish hand over heart and tapping the stone either side of the line to make it come true etc etc. Our guide then presented each of with a named certificate of the event, and some small semi precious stones produced locally. Mine is an amethyst, Ju got a piece of agate. A nice gesture.
Faced with the prospect of going to snother site where there are seven wooden churches erected in memory of each of the seven members of the Czar Nicholas 2 family who were killed, we persuaded our guide to alter the tour to include a visit to a military museum instead, where there were relics of the Gary Powers U2 incident on display, and the history of the Kalashnikov AK rifle, and Marshall Zhukov, Stalin's right hand military chief, to be seen.
We arrived at the museum at 4.35, the doors were locked. It said outside it was open until 5. Eventually an elderly jobsworth opened the door, shooed us away and pointed to the time on his watch. Olga was not having that. A short altercation followed in fast Russian, and eventually a woman appeared in place of the jobsworth, and joined in. Someone else was sent for from within, and we were very reluctantly allowed to go inside. There followed an even worse show of how unwelcome we were by one of the two women demanding ticket money, in cash, from Olga, who was a bit on the spot, having assumed the tour director would have sorted all that at the restaurant, by phone. Meantime we nung about feeling awkward, until magically the tone shifted and the younger of the two women took us upstairs and showed us two tiny bits of Gary Powers' spy plane, which was the real life incident behind the recent movie 'Bridge of Spies'. Then a look at the progression of the one shot rifle to the AK, and finally some stuff about Zhukov which I didn't quite follow. Then an illustrated diorama of war, noisy and bright flashing lights, then we were reminded it was 5.15 and they all stopped work at 5. The jobsworth had stopped watching us and disappeared, and the two women both started smiling as the older one unlocked the door and let us out into the sunshine. A bit of a disappointment, but hey ho.
Dinner in a restaurant then return to the train, a couple of drinks in the bar to unwind from the day, and off to bed, our watches set back yet another two hours. That is five hours' difference in two days. Now we are on Moscow time, ready for our trip to Kazan tomorrow. More then.
13 June 2019
The violin concert was great. Fyodor introduced himself as the principal violinist of the Novosibirsk Symphony Orchestra, and apologised for the lack of the orchestra to accompany him, using only his iPad and a loudspeaker to play Music Minus One recordings of Mozart, Bach, Boccherini, Vivaldi and many more, switching on the music then seamlessly joining in, his feet planted wide apart to absorb the unpredictable movements of the train, and the odd passenger arriving late for the concert, held in the restaurant with the tables folded up against the windows.
Half way through the concert we stopped at a station for 40 minutes, so everybody got off to stot around the platform and mingle with the passengers off our host train, or venture into the various kiosks selling sweets, biscuits and souvenirs.
Then back for more music, more types of music, from the Beatles to tango, to Russian traditnal music like Kalinka, and jazz like Stephane Grappelli. This was a superb musician who could make the violin do anything he wanted!
Later we had a sundowner in the bar, then dinner and bed.
Thursday 13 June
Zoya's birthday! We sent her an email. Early breakfast at 7, then off the train at 9 to meet Nathalia, our English speaking guide for the day. The station buiilding in Novosibirsk is imposing, so we tried to get pictures of it. Then we boarded our minibus for all of 300 metres and dismounted at the TSR museum. This was an interesting place, full of all the history of building this incredible railway, starting from both ends as they did. Pride of place was for a large model railway, but sadly its little trains were motionless.
Then back on the bus for a trip to the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, made of red brick but beautifully decorated inside. No music this time, wrong time of day. The orthodox services are held at 9am and 5pm only.
Then a drive down to the riverbank, where we walked down to look at the old bridge and the railway bridge, with a long train crossing it. We would cross it ourselves that evening.
Our final stop before lunch was a park, dedicated to a huge memorial to the dead of the Great Patriotic War of 194-45. Huge slabs of black stone like in 2001 A Space Odyssey stood with names listed on them in alphabetical order, thousands upon thousands of them, and these were just the names of those from Siberia who died. Germany's Luftwaffe were not a threat here, as the distances were too great for their operating range. But real tanks, rocket launchers and a fighter plane were in the park, all bizarrely being climbed on by children.
Lunch was in a restaurant called BAR. The main course was musk deer, very tasty, with lots of salad and vegetables, even potatoes, followed by an amazing dessert consisting of blue berries of some description combined with pine nuts and honey, and frozen. Better than ice cream!
After lunch Nathalia, who had been very uninspiring in the morning session, finally turned enthusiastic when taking us to the Opera, the third biggest thestre in Russia, a huge and very lovely building where opera and ballet are performed. All thanks to Stalin, who wanted everyone to have access to all forms of culture. We were allowed even into the main auditorium, where I was in some doubt as to the acoustic, as it was dominated by a high domed ceiling. Anyway, it was impressive.
Then to a cholcolate shop. The city has many chocolate factories, we were told, as the army needed chocolate in its rations for emergencies, as chocolate can keep you alive. Best reason I've ever heard for eating the stuff. So we duly went to the shop and overbought lots of it!
It began to rain as we came out of the shop, carrying our swag, and the bus wasn't where we had left it. It soon appeared, and we clambered in for the journey back to the train, wher we had to be back by 5, I thought.
As we drew up at the station the looming storm broke. Rain fell in bucketloads, bouncing back up from the tarmac to ankle level. We put on our rainjackets, gathered our bags, and ran the 50 metres across the tarmac to the statioon entrance. Nathalia swiftly said goodbye and bolted off, while Irina, the team doctor, led us down towards track 4 where our train awaited. With some surprise I noted that thentrsin was due to leave at 5.02! We had just made it. We sprinted the last five metres to board the nearest carriage, then dripped our way through four carriages to our compartment, where it was a case of taking off sodden trousers and tops, hanging everything up to dry, and putting on dry clothes and shoes!
At dinner later we put back our watches two hours, in one go. We are set to do that again tomorrow, apparently, to get us to Moscow time. Groundhog day again again!
12 June 2019
Monday 10th June
This part of the journey was different to all the rest. Today our train was not heading for Moscow, but for Lake Baikal, pulled by two steam engines. I awoke around four, as we stood in a station beside the lake. The sound of a steam locomotive's whistle sounded, and were off along a track that had been incredibly difficult to build, along the steep side of the lake. There were many tunnels, and the dense black smoke from the engines kept sneaking into the cabin. The view was terrific, across the mirror-calm lake in a clear dawn as the sun came up on the mountains in the distance, with their residual snow at the summits. The lake's ice only thawed a couple of weeks ago, we later learned.
After breakfast the train reached its destination for the day at Port Baikal, and we all piled out to get on a boat. First we took photos of the two engines, coupled back to back, at the head of the train. So old they had CCCP on the cab.
The boat came with its own gangplank attached at the bow, so we climbed aboard and sailed across the mouth of the Angara river to Listvianka, where our minibuses were waiting. We were assured that our bags were in the Spanish bus, and we would get them at the museum. We could hardly contain ourselves, at least I couldn't. So off we went to the museum, which revealed the extent of research and academic thoroughness that has gone into the study of this amazing lake, which holds 20% of the world's unfrozen drinking water. It is extremely deep, clear, and all the creatures that live at the bottom of it have eyes. There is one fish called the oil fish which migrates vertically from the surface to the bottom without showing any signs of the bends. There is a huge fish that hunts wildlife on the surface and can walk on land using its lateral fins. One was caught with a squirrel in its mouth, and when they opened it up they found six more in its stomach. That is what we were told, in all seriousness. This fish must be part of our transition from gills to lungs. Anyway, the only freshwater seal in the world lives here, and looks like a little fat jet-propelled egg in the water, head withdrawn into the body, and tail flippers propelling it very fast, often upside down, as it cavorts in the tank for the tourists.
One curiosity in the museum was the display of two models of icebreakers, which had been built in Newcastle, England, broken into small pieces and transported to Lake Baikal, reassembled, and were used briefly on the lake. One of them could hold 22 carriages of the railway, when there was no other way to connect the two halves of the TSR before the present route was created. We later saw one of them moored as a museum in Irkutsk. We asked why England, and were told that England had a good reputation for shipbuilding so it was the obvious choice. Those were the days!
I couldn't wait any longer and went to see our bags, just to be sure they were ours. It was after all a whole week since we last saw them at Glasgow Airport. And there they were, transferred to our bus, sitting happily in the boot. Relief!
Then a trip to the fish market via a souvenir shop, where we bought the usual t-shirts. The fish market had a lot of smoked fish for sale, held open by cocktail sticks.
Back to the bus, and up to a hotel with a great vantage point for photographs, then off to lunch in a nautically themed hotel restaurant beside the lake. A replica of Captain Nemo's submarine sat outside the window, while a replica tall ship concealed the hotel's banya or sauna equivalent. Lunch was really good, even the soup.
After lunch we were off to the ski lift up the mountain to capture really good views of the lake and the mouth of the river Angara, the only one to flow out of the lake. The three hundred others all flow into the lake. The Angara flows through Irkutsk and out into the Arctic.
Back to the boat, this time carrying our bags. We were given lots of help in getting them aboard, and off again at the other end of the short journey.
The train we had photographed from the ski lift viewpoint had magically swapped the two steam locomotives to the head of the train, thus explaining why they were back to back. Amazingly they seemed to be burning logs as well as coal. We spent some time opening our bags and finding stowage space for everything.
Our evening treat was a picnic dinner in a holiday resort on the lake. The train just stopped, let the restaurant crew dismount with bags pots and bottles, and we wandered about the resort for half an hour before going into a large building with tables and chairs and could help ourselves to barbecued chicken with vegetables etc.
The train sat there, chuffing quietly, no other traffic on the single track, until we got the word to rejoin the train, and headed quietly for bed. Tomorrow would be an early start.
Tuesday 11th June
Happy Birthday grandson Edmund!
Anyway, back in Siberia, we got up very early and got off the train in Irkutsk for a very long day, starting with breakfast in a huge former Intourist hotel. Our guide for the day, and for yesterday, was Oxana, who was born in the Crimea, is doing a PhD, and does tour guiding in the vacation summer months. Her English was fast and fluent, with some slightly quirky pronunciations, explained perhaps by her never having visited any English-speaking countries. Churches, for example, became chorches. Badges became bedges, and bad luck became bed lock. It was entertaining, accidentally.
Her first anecdote was hilarious. The emblem of the city when it was founded was to be a Siberian tiger with a sable in its mouth. Because of an error in reading and understanding the description of this by officialdom in the capital, the new logo came back with a beaver instead of a tiger, but still with a sable in its mouth. Unwilling to hang about to get the error corrected the locals tweaked the logo a bit so the decidedly beaver-looking tiger with a fluffy tail graces all the flags and statues and carvings around. A monumental screwup, immortalised forever!
Irkutsk dates from 1661 or so, a really old well-established city on the confluence of two very fast flowing rivers, which do not ever freeze in winter.
Then we were off to the chorches. Lots of chorches. Ladies wear scarves over their heads, but hats were OK. Ju tried wearing her hat only to have the woman in the chorch shop going mental because she thought she was a man and should therefore take her hat off! That was enough for me, I headed for the exit.
We learned about the Decembrists, a bunch of aristocratic rebels close to the Czar who thought the system should be changed, and were condemned by him as criminals to exile in Siberia as a result. We hadn't heard of them, and it was interesting that not only the communists were against the Czar. One of the Decembrists was Tolstoy's uncle, but even Tolstoy did not dare to write about this issue, so it was kind of hidden in history. Interesting.
When we ran out of chorches and had visited the Decembrist's house museum, it was time for lunch. This was to be in an Italian restaurant. I had hopes, but they were dashed when the usual second course of soup arrived. Looking the same colour as mushroom soup, that's what I thought it was at first. But there was a grainy almost gritty texture to it that you don't get with mushrooms. So we made the fatal mistake of asking what it was. Turkey soup, they replied, with an air of triumph. I could barely eat any more. I waited with amusement to see what the French group made of it, as they arrived later than us for the meal.
In the afternoon the plan was to drive around 47 km out of the city to visit a museum of wooden architecture. I immediately thought of Blair Dunc, he would love it. It turned out to be more than just architecture, but a history lesson on who the Cossacks were, and how they lived in a community like the one recreated here. There were a number of different sized log buildings, all with different functions. A school, a defensive fort, all built using larch and pine. An ice house, with a roof of logs laid together like tiles, cut to a C shape in cross section, one facing down on top of one facing up, if that conveys it. Watertight certainly. Cool also.
A trio of men dressed as cossacks in the entry tower of the fort treated us to beautifully harmonised singing, and offered cds, so we bought one.
A drive back to the city in sunshine, then some free time to go shopping or just relax. So we to photos of a sculpture of the city beaver/tiger statue, then went into the obligatory Irish pub for a glass of guinness before dinner.
Back to the train for our only remaining on board day tomorrow.
Wednesday 12 June
A great sleep. Today we have a lecture about the building of this amazing railway line, mostly electrified in 1961! Completed in 2002 all the way to Vladivostok, 9288 kms of it. Glasgow to Edinburgh was only electrified last year!
In the programme for this afternoon is a violin concert! Otherwise nothing much to do apart from getting the blog up to date.