24 July 2024

09:44:54Days 25 to 29

(Note: sorry but internet really slow so cannot add photos.Will try to update as soon as I get good connection)

Omsk to Severobaykalsk is my longest train ride to date but not the longest during my whole trip. That will be Vladivostok to Irkutsk, a 70hr journey. This one took 48½ hours from station to station. The train left, right on time naturally, at 6am Moscow time on Monday morning and arrived in Severobaykalsk at 6.30am. Moscow time, the following Wednesday.

I’m not sure how this happened but I had booked an upper berth. I was worried about this as I’m not as supple as I once was and creak a bit now. Most of all, I didn’t want to look undignified or, even worse, make old man grunting noises as I clambered up. As it turned out, it was grand. The berth is about 1. 75 metres high and there are plenty of handholds to help and a clever folding ladder. Most people use the berth below for a leg up. When nobody was in the compartment, I practiced getting up as gracefully as I could and without slipping a disk or twisting an ankle and not looking like an arthritic hippopotamus with haemorrhoids. I succeeded magnificently. Actually, it was dead easy and I was soon hopping up like a bespectacled chimpanzee with minimum hair. Almost as quick as an envelope stuffed with unmarked 100 €uro notes disappear into a politician’s back pocket. So far, so grand.

Time zones are a funny old thing. Usually, in the past, when travelling, I would leave one time zone and arrive in another, change my watch and then forget about it until my return journey. If there was a huge difference, like when I flew from Dublin to Hong Kong or London to Bangkok, there would be a few days to get acclimatised. Here, where I’m travelling long distances by slow train, I can cross a few timezones on one trip. Of course, there no signposts stating that we have crossed from one zone into another so I just don’t notice. I tend to keep my internal clock on Moscow time while travelling by train so I don’t make a cockup and arrive for my train an hour after it’s departed because I got confused about the time. This can be a bit odd when you’re having breakfast at midnight or going to bed at 5pm in the afternoon. But, as they say, you can get used to anything in time!

Also, in this modern world of technology where we all have our mobile phones and tablets etc that are usually automatically updated to local time. But this needs a signal to do so and on most of my travelling, there have been no signal so no update. All train and station clocks are on Moscow time so it’s easy to lose track of time in this timeless land.

Even when there is a signal, there frequently is no charge left on the mobile device because there are no sockets in the compartment, except the pricier ones. To overcome battery famine I bought a 20,000mA/hr portable powerpack in Warsaw. I noticed that my current 6,000 mA/Hr one wasn’t any good for more that 1 day and that I would either need to use my tech less or get a bigger battery. I did a cost benefit analysis, as you do, looking at advantages and disadvantages of extra weight and more tech use; was this a good or a bad thing. In the end, I went ahead and got the battery which weighed in at over a kilo. It was a good decision and has paid off several times. Naturally, my cost benefit analysis matched exactly what I wanted to do in the first place. Funny that!

Anyway, back to the journey. About a half an hour later the train stopped at a small station and two other people got on and came into MY compartment. The cheek of them. It was a husband and wife or father and daughter, difficult to read the body language. I think they were the former. She looked like a chief librarian who suffered from fierce indegestion and permanently had half a lemon stuck in a back tooth. He looked like he’d spend his formative years in a gulag and survived by being hardest guy in the place. They both had those amazing Russian granite faces. Neither made eye contact as they entered the carriage and started unpacking and rearranging the huge amount of luggage they had brought. They had both berths opposite me; she the bottom, he the top.

I was perched in my top berth observing all this and trying to understand the dynamics between them. I hopped down after we had been on the road for an hour or so and stuck out my hand, and smiled as wide as I could and introduced myself. If I’m going to be a crazy foreigner, why not go the whole hog. The told me their names, I cannot remember them now as I’m writing this a few days later. Neither of them spoke English so it was impossible to communicate except by grinning inanely and gesticulating. This only goes so far. Oh well, I said to myself, it’s going to be an interesting journey and hopped back up on my berth to read and watch the scenery go by. Anyway, the hypnotic motion of the train tends to discourage conversation and the carriages on Russian trains tend to be generally pretty quiet.

A few stations later another guy got on. He looked like a harder version of the first guy. Oh Jaysus. He spoke a bit with the other couple but soon silence reigned.

The day rolled on into evening and it started getting dark. I was reading and snoozing and snoozing and reading at this point. Suddenly, there was a flurry of bags being opened and the rustle of plastic bags. Time for food. I hopped down again to stand in the aisle and watch the sunset; they provide seats in corridor for people in top berths to sit.

‘Sit’, barked the woman, pointing at the seat next to her. She channeled Miss Cannon, the Principal of Belgrove Girls School, where I attended Low and High Babies. She was One Who Must Be Obeyed. Both were, so I obeyed. They had the table overflowing with food of all types mainly pies and sausages. I was unsure of etiquette here, should I make an attempt to refuse and then nibble something or just refuse politely and eat nothing. Or should I feign reluctance and then tuck in or feign delight and then tuck in or just accept this as normal, be nonchalant and eat as I would normally or…. You get the idea. I choose to feign a grateful reluctance and then tucked in. It seemed the right choice at the time but I was also intrigued by the food and wanted an opportunity to mingle the a bit more with Russian people.

We even had a conversation of sorts using hand signals and Google Translate app and eye contact. Even the guy who got on last joined in. He spoke more English than the others. He used to be an airline captain with Aeroflot and based in Africa. He was now retired. He turned out to be a real sweetie, as did the other two. This has been my experience quite a lot in Russia. Initially, to my Irish eye, people seem very forbidding and standoffish, even a little scary, but get to know them a bit, and and it really takes little effort, and they’re sweethearts; incredibly generous and passionate. The first guy, the husband/father guy, seemed a bit shy and didn’t talk much. Alexander, the pilot, started telling jokes and it was a delight watching his eyes light up with devilment as he got nearer the punchline. I didn’t understand a word he was saying but still laughed, so infectious was his storytelling style. So did the others.

Near the end of the meal, another guy, Gorgio, from a nearby compartment joined us, he was a friend of Alexander. He started telling jokes too but I guess they were a bit smutty judging from the reactions of the others. I didn’t warm to him as much as the others and he seemed to avoid making any contact with me. He was old enough to have been a young man during the bad times in the Soviet Union. Who knows? I read that Russians can be a bit suspicious of foreigners and I was way off the beaten track.

And then the session started. Gorgio pulled a bottle of cognac out of his bag and five glasses. Nyet, I said five times with increasing determination. They got it. My recovery mode became primary as soon as I saw the bottle and all other considerations became secondary. At the same time, I wanted ro acknowledge their generosity, which was genuine. And, of course, I didn’t want to be a dick. I try to have an attitude of being an ambassador for my country, foreigners in general and older people when travelling. When I meet people who haven’t had much contact with people outside their own culture, I try to leave them with a positive experience. I wouldn’t like the next foreigner they meet after me to have a bad experience because I was a dick. Of course, this is about me practicing generosity and learning how be mindful; I’m not hung up on the consequences of this to others. It’s all about ME.

Any way, the lads soon polished off the bottle of cognac and the level of talkitiveness was inversely proportional to the level of cognac left in the bottle. The woman didn’t touch a drop. Like me, she drank black tea and later Russian coffee, which tastes very like Turkish coffee. They also became more ‘emotional’ or sentimental. They kept on asking me ‘just a little one’ waving the bottle at me. Nyet spasibo, no thanks, I would smile back determinedly. Alexander’s would look hurt when I said this but, hey, needs must. This look was fleeting and seemed part of what I’m beginning to understand as the depth of Russian emotionality. They seem to feel things deeply, once the hard face cracks.

Then a bottle of whiskey appeared, and well, it wasn’t really whisky, it was Scotch. A bit like comparing a battered    Ford Escorts to a Rolls Royce. Apparently, or so I’ve been told. My memory doesn’t stretch back that far. The volume increased as did the, by now, bad jokes. More food appeared and they chased every shot with a piece of black bread and a pungent sausage. And lots more of ‘just a little one’ quickly followed by ‘nyet spasibo’ followed by a hurt look and then another round soon followed by ‘just a one’…. And so on. I thought it was gas, being with a group of very obviously non-problem drinkers who were just having the craicski.

I reflected on how strong my recovery is now and my determination not to use any mind altering substance is stronger that the strongest Russian granite. Even stronger than Wolverine’s best adamintine claws. One day at a time naturally. I also reflect on the women and men who have helped me get to this point. Gratitude is my response to these thoughts.

Talking about food, my diet is nowhere as healthy as when I’m back home in Dublin. Several of the locations I have visited in Russia don’t have much to offer with regards to fine dining. Siberia especially. When I’m travelling on trains, I generally eat noodles. These are a grander version of the ubiquitous Pot Noodles we get back home and are a full meal in themselves. You just add hot water! They’re quite tasty actually and I feel full afterwards for a few hours. Because the ingredients list is in Russian I can’t tell what’s in the packages of spices you add to the hot water but I guess they’re not the healthiest in the world. But, as a short-term solution, they’re grand.

The journey itself was pretty good. Once we hit Siberia the scenery started to get more rugged and when we left the Transsibrian to join the BAM or Baikal Amur Mainline, it got more drama and rugged. I watched the temperature drop degree by degree. Every station has a clock showing Moscow time, temperature in °C and air pressure, which is generally low. Frost soon began to show and then light flurries of snow and then deeper snow. At one point, we were going pretty high and the snow seemed heavy. This exited me.

I wished the heating on the train matched the external temperature but it didn’t. Like many things in Russia, it’s a bit ideosyncatic. Every carriage, and there might be 15 carriages in a train, has its own coal-fired boiler. This heats the water and provides central heating. We’re entirely dependent on the provodnitsa or carriage attendant to regulate this. Some do and some don’t. The one on this train seemed particularly incompetent or the system was knackered. It was an old train, after all. It was either freezing or roasting. I’m ok with the freezing bit because I had my goosedown sleeping bag but I really don’t like heat. However, all things are impermanent and so was the coal in the boiler so the temperature eventually dropped to freezing level again. Between these extremes was a sweet zone of about 24°C and just like a broken clock tells the right time twice a day so did the temperature hit this sweet zone every now and again. The secret is not to get too attached to what I want the temperature to be and just go with the flow; the flow of sweat, that is.

During the second day, I really enjoyed just sitting and looking out the window at the frosty taiga and snow covered mountains in the distance. Sometimes it would dawn on me what I had undertaken and I would really feel in the moment, until I noticed I was in the moment and then I wasn’t in the moment any more, I was in the past and the present moment lost. I was happy enough knowing that I had been in the moment and this awareness gave rise to a sort of serenity in the present. If I became aware of this, it didn’t go away or dissolve. Cool.

Way back in the day, when I was exploring Buddhism, I lived at a meditation centre in Corwen, in Wales called Vajraloka. There was an order member or monk there called Ratnapani, I think his name was, who befriended me and showed me great kindness. He lived in a wooden chalet in the grounds of the building and had the most amazing of views. He said that his most important tools on the road to enlightenment were a good armchair, a big clean window and a great view, or words to that effect. I often thought of his words in the following years and thought of them again while looking out of the window in a train in Siberia. I got a felt presence of Ratnapani and his kindness.

That morning, Alexander left and another passenger took his place. He was even more fearsome. Are you getting to notice the pattern of my projections here? His height and width were almost the same and he had a tee-shirt about judo. Putin likes judo, I thought. Putin doesn’t like woofters, I thought. Better ignore this guy as he didn’t make any contact with me. During one of my hopping up and down from my upper perch moments I caught his eye and to my horror I winked at him and smiled. He gave the most amazingly friendly smiles back and each time we passed in the corridor he grasped my shoulder. Wrong again! He stayed on for about 15hrs and then left so we were down to the original couple and myself. They left at Bratsk, where there is an amazing dam but unfortunately we passed it during darkness. I was on my own in the compartment until Severobaykalsk.

We arrived on time, natch, and I made my way to my hostel. This was my first real foray into real cold and I underestimated how cold it might be. I had dressed for chilly weather, not cold weather. There’s a difference. But it was just a short walk and the day was bright and sunny. Given that I’d been cooped up in a train for 2 days, it was exhilarating to be out in nature.

Because supply is a bit less than demand in accommodation, the prices were a bit high so I originally booked a bed in a 3 bed room. Not that different to being in a sleeper on a train, I though. When I eventually found the place, a perennial problem of mine in Russia, finding addresses, they upgraded me to a double room, with a desk and baby cot, for free because numbers were down. Grand. The gods look out for madmen and drunks.

Severobaykalsk wasn’t that much to write home about. For some info on the town, see HERE, a Wikipedia article. I walked around the whole town my despite my sore foot, it didn’t take too long. There was really nothing attractive about it but I wondered how the people who lived there experienced the place. They seemed as normal as people you’d find anywhere, men on their way to or from work, women shopping, kids going to school, friends talking with each other, teenagers flirting or canoodling, kids on bikes pulling wheelies or on skateboards pulling stunts and showing off to their peers. Some looked happy, others didn’t, most looked like their minds were elsewhere. You would see the occasional face where terrible suffering was present. I noticed this more in Moscow than Severobaykalsk but I saw a few examples here too. Knowing almost nothing about Russian society and culture, everyday lived culture that is, not culture with a Capital C, I’m reluctant to draw conclusions, just wonder and research more if I feel the need to. I did wonder about the devastated faces I saw and wondered if they were due to untreated PTSD. Russian soldiers had a terrible time in Afghanistan and were not well supported by their government, both Soviet and ‘democratic’. From what I read, Russian military life is very brutal and traumatic. As I said above, I don’t know anything, I just wonder but I notice enough to register and wonder why.

What triggered these thoughts was witnessing three men brutally beating two boys in a block of flats I was walking around. The boys were about ten and the three men around forty. Two of them wee shouting loudly at the boys and slapping them violently the about the head, and not a slap, a real violent act. It really made a terrible noise and I could see that the kids were highly distressed. As was I and this triggered my own childhood trauma memories. But what could I do? I couldn’t be the hero and rush in and rescue the boys. I didn’t speak the language and would invite violence to happen to myself. If I witnessed this happen in Ireland I would phone the Gardaí immediately and they would come as a matter of priority. But I wasn’t in Ireland, I was in Russia. I thought about my own childhood when I was the same age as those boys and such brutally was commonplace in schools throughout Ireland. I saw children beaten so brutally by teachers that the voided their bowels. I also know the consequence of childhood brutality on the developing nervous systems of children. I know all this and felt my own history, really felt it in my body, not just thought  about it, and I walked right on. This was quite harrowing.

When I had checked into the hostel, the manager was showing me around. Another resident could notice that I couldn’t speak Russian and offered to translate. His name was Andrew and he came from the Czech Republic. He was here on holidays but was also writing a book about Lake Baikal. He worked as a tour guide in Moscow and London, at different times, so he spoke perfect English and Russian. It was nice to speak English again and to engage with another person. Andrew was immensely sweet and a tonic to engage with. I

The only reason I stopped here in Severobaykalsk was because it was an interchange station from the Transsiberian to the BAM rail networks, sorry Severobaykalsk, it’s nothing personal. It was also on the shore of Lake Baikal, number one on my list of things to see in Russia. I went to see the lake on the afternoon of my first day and it was more or less what I’d expected, a lot of water. I dipped my hands into it and drank a mouthful. It tasted, well, watery. OK, that’s that, what next. H²O is H²O, innit? I walked along the shore a bit more and the beauty of the place started to captivate me. I followed a path up a lot of stairs to an observation point and there was a school party there accompanied by their teachers. Kids of 14 to15ish. Naturally, they were paying little attention to the lake and instead were looking at their phones or messing around. Just, like kids everywhere. Sweet.

On the morning of my second day, I went to Nizhneangarsh, a small old fashioned Siberian village/town about 25km from Severobaykalsk. I caught a bus there and enjoyed the 30min or so trip along the coast of Baikal. I got off a few stops fedora the town centre and walked in. My stop was a war memorial; there seem to be a lot alot of these in Russia. This one had an old plane and a naval ship, a small one. There was also some tourist infrastructure for families and photo opportunities.

The town itself was more authentically Siberian than Severobaykalsk which is all concrete and recently built. Nizhneangarsh is built almost completely of wood and during my walks about I could see many building in the process of being renovated. Some of the structural timberwork was very impressive, no mechanical joints I could see, just old joinery techniques. Some were well maintained and had carved lintels and door frames with painted window frames but most were pretty ragged and looked unloved. I also didn’t see to many young people around although there was a school and I saw schoolkids. Maybe my timing was bad or maybe the young ‘uns had decamped for fields more glittering. Who knows.

As I was waiting at the bus stop to return to my hostel, my foot was very sore and needed a rest, I heard horns in the distance and saw an old flatbed truck appear, followed by a long procession of cars and travelling slowly. It was a funeral procession. The coffin lay open in the back of the truck. It was painted black with some symbols on it and visible was the body of an old woman wrapped in white. The chief mourner, I’m guessing, was an old man who sat alone in the back of the truck beside the coffin and was half straddling it, whether out of grief or for support, as the roads were in very bad condition, I’m not sure.

They passed by, turned left and disappeared around a hill. My bus arrived shortly afterwards and I made my way back to the hostel to rest my foot and have forty winks.

I’m getting a bit pushed for time on this article but I’ll write a bit more about Baikal when I’m in Irkutsk in a week’s time before I wobble off on a tiny plane to Mongolia

More later from eastern Siberia. Please feel free to comment below or either on Facebook or on WhatsApp or Viber on (+353 89 454 2652)

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