The train pulled out of Irkutsk at 5.00pm on its 30 hour journey to Novosibirsk 1,800 km west. We had a 4 berth second class hard sleeper that we shared with Arthur a 30 year old tattoo artist from St Petersburg who had been in Irkutsk for a tattoo convention. He was well spoken with exceptionally good English, so KC immediately put him to task teaching her Russian. Karen, who is just a little competitive had been learning Russian since she landed in Vladivostok. She was using an online program that ranked her progress against others and had recently slipped out of the top ten and was, in fact, in danger of relegation so Arthur’s assistance was greatly appreciated.
As this would be our longest journey, we decided to do it with a little style so at 6.30pm we adjourned to the dining car for cocktails and dinner. Unfortunately this is not the Orient Express so the cocktail choice was limited to beer, and dinner, well, my medallions of steak had been cooked several times, most recently the week before, and reheated in the microwave! Bea faired a little better with the salmon in a white sauce.
After a patchy nights sleep we spent the day rolling through the Siberian country side, large swaths of forest occasionally broken by small villages or farms. We spent the day idly staring at the scenery slipping past the window, reading or sleeping, occasionally KC would wonder off and brew a fresh round of coffees. Every few hours we would stop at a larger town where you could get off the train and stretch your legs along the platform.
We again adjourned to the dining car for dinner that night where, learning from yesterday I ordered the Borsch soup.
When we returned for dinner that evening we were surprised to see a talent show being held on the river side which we discovered was part of the ‘Chekhov day’ celebrations. Dinner was delicious, we shared dishes of lamb cutlets, herring and beetroot salad, a rolled and stuffed eggplant dish and cheese stuffed bread.
On the table next to us were a group of Architects, urban planners and landscape architects from Holland who were in Tomsk working on a new residential precinct, As part of their commission they were also guest lecturing at the university which I felt was a really cool concept. It was great to chat to them, over a couple of glasses of Georgian style Grappa, about design in Russia, they were all very optimistic for its future.
We woke to a grey, overcast Novosibirsk day. We met KC, who had headed out earlier, for brunch at a very stylish cafe in Pervomayskiy Skver park, quite close to the Opera. As it was Sunday they were offering a free glass of sparkling wine with every brunch, a nice bonus. As we sat eating brunch and again later at a cafe over coffee Bea and I first reflected on the changes and similarities we have seen since our last visit.
We had come to Russia (Moscow) on our way to England in early 1993, Yeltsin was in power and the old USSR had only dissolved a year before. Back then we saw the first signs of the new market economy, young students were selling T-shirts to tourist and making more money than their lecturers, ladies were selling their shoes at tube stations to get money to live. While we were there the older generation were protesting, desperately wanting a return to the old ways. The shops and cafes were austere, un-embellished and utilitarian. You bought your bread, you ate your meal, you didn’t seem to hang and chat.
Russia is still poor, poorer than we had expected, but there seems to be an air of confidence in the post soviet generation, people like Katia in Khuzhir or Arthur on the train, that bodes well for Russias future.
After a final designer cocktail served by a bearded hipster at ‘Friends’ we boarded the train for the overnight trip to Tyumen then onto Tobolsk.
Tobolsk was also the town that the Romanov family was sent to after the Bolshevik’s took power. The house, in the old town, where they spent there last few months together has thankfully been restored into a fascinating and well presented museum dedicated to the short time they lived there.
The original reason for stopping over in Perm, our next stop, was to visit an ex-gulag, limited research prior to booking rail tickets meant we did not realise until too late that the gulag was in fact 100km from Perm and would cost $150each to visit! Niet! So we now had a day to explore Perm.
The overnight train to Moscow was the final leg of our Trans-Siberian odyssey and one Bea wanted to celebrate in style. On the way back to the hotel we picked up champagne, Gin and tonics, Caviar, smoked salmon, fresh rye bread, cream cheese and salads our final dinner on the train was going to be an epic picnic. We were in a second class sleeper which we shared with a Russian guy about our age. He had a friend in the next cabin so often greetings he spent the time next door, I feel he may have been glad!!.
Next stop Moscow.