20 May 2010

Guest Entry: Audrey on Russians

A large element of travelling is about making assumptions, and that is no exceptions when it comes to the Russian people. To be honest, the Metro bombing and assignation of a high court judge have shaped our initial impressions, and they are not entirely positive. But travelling on the trains, talking to random strangers on the street and having the opportunity to meet up with locals have given us a more in-depth appreciation of their mentality and hospitality.

In part, our good luck with Russian can be down to the fact that we are English-speakers who can manage a bit of Russian: on at least three occasions, strangers have approached us in order to practise English with them, and most of the time we are the first “real” English speakers they have chatted in English with. At a Russian Orthodox bookstore in Yekaterinburg, an elderly woman which was helping me find a book proudly announced, “Talk to my daughter in English, she can speak English.” The same pride in foreign language ability can be found in Daud, one of the guys celebrating Ivan’s birthday at the Georgian restaurant in Rostov. The minute he found out that we speak German, Daud gave a call to his son who is studying German in school, and handed the phone over to us. “You can speak to him in German, he will understand.” And of course we need not mention Igor the Irish-Siberian, who was born and raised in Irkutsk but can speak English with a heavy Northern Irish accent, Gaelic, and fluent Japanese (by the way, his Japanese kanji handwriting is ten times more beautiful than mine.)

Generally speaking, I think Russians are enthusiastic communicators. Among themselves, they have absolutely no problem making new friends on train journeys, chatting and sharing a 5L beer as if they are old schoolmates. Towards us and our broken Russian, they are curious and patient, but cautious in expressing their own opinions. When we were at the Romanov’s memorial in Yekaterinburg, we got into a casual conversation with a young local woman about her opinion on the Romanov’s canonisation in 2000. “Well,” her gaze suddenly refocused on a point three metres beyond, as if looking in my direction but talking to someone standing behind me, “some people find it a good idea, and I am...er...I don’t find it good or bad.” If they are so reserved about their opinions on history, it is no surprise that on at least two occasions we are told to choose our words carefully when discussing the current regime. The Secret Police are gone - or are they?

But then of course, their reluctance to express their opinions can also be due to the fact that we barely know them at all. So instead of understanding what they think, we instead focus on observing how they behave.    

In queues - canteens, train stations, museums – they like to nudge up really close to the counter and always to our right, so the queue is not perpendicular to the counter but about 30 degrees diagonally sideways. The pleasant surprise here is that there is a queue at all: I mistakenly thought that their queuing habit will be as bad as the Chinese (we will tell you more about this in a month’s time!)

Now, if you glance down the queue, you will notice that girls love their stilettos. Provodnitsas wear them on trains, visitors wear them to a 5-hour pilgrimage to the Hermitage, and – this puts me to shame - in inches of snow and slush they walk much more quickly (perhaps even more gracefully!) than me in hiking boots!

In public places they are generally quite quiet, particularly on short-haul journeys. We noticed this on our bus trip from Yarosloval to Vladimir, where the only noise came from five English-speaking travellers at the back, who ‘took over’ the bus by talking loudly then bursting out laughters. I wonder what the local passengers thought of them (and of us, probably under the category of “unruly ignorant student tourists”), but they endured in silence. If this happened in Germany I wouldn’t be surprised if an elderly woman got up and ask them to hush.

Perseverance is a theme that pervades in history and in its people’s psyche – so says my “Culture Shock: Russia” book anyway. But when I read of Russian’s sympathy I didn’t believe the book at first: Aren’t we preconditioned, either in association with the harsh winter, historical accounts or even Hollywood movies, to think that Russians are rather cold and unemotional? But time and again locals have proven to be very supportive and (disproportionally) kind to the weak: pigeons, stray dogs, confused tourists. We cannot count the many times when we had to rely on conductors on the bus to signal us off, strangers on the street to point the way, hotel staff to help us book another night at the next hotel...we have learnt that when challenged by the authority, do not confront them. Rather portray yourself as an innocent victim and earn their pity. Whenever a Russian jumps queue and gets caught, what is the best way of defence? “Sorry, my husband is waiting for me inside the museum....”, “My daughter has bought a ticket for me, I just want to join her at the front...”, “Please police officer, I have arthritis and my knees cannot stand such a long wait!” In sticky situations, quoting the law is apparently the quickest way to land you in a police station. Well of course there are other more creative ways to get yourself out of trouble, but dear readers, since we have not seen these alternative methods in use, we have to leave it to your imagination.

14 May 2010

Irkutsk part two, my head

The previous evening, Igor had agreed to take Audrey, Herman and I down to Lake Baikal the next day.  I woke up that morning feeling the worse for wear, and it only got rougher throughout the day.  That morning a very forward Malaysian guy invited himself along also.

We had planned to get a bus down, but thankfully we didn’t have to do that, as I wouldn’t have been able to cope with it.  Even in the comfort of Igor’s beamer, I was somewhat dicey.  The road down was interesting and quite scenic, but nothing in comparison with Lake Baikal itself.  People had told us that it was still frozen (when we were in Moscow), so there wasn’t much point going, but for me this was the reason.  I’ve seen countless unfrozen lakes in my life, and this was the largest freshwater reserve in the world, still frozen in May.

The ice extended for an age, until it suddenly hit a backdrop of the snowy Sayan mountains, rising sharply, but with little indication of where the ice ended and they began.  It looked awesome.  We walked a little bit out onto the ice, I would like to have gone further, but there seemed to be a no-man’s-land between the ice near the shore and the ice further out where the ice looked dicey.

Near the shore, it was heaped up, as if the cold weather had hit so hard that the waves had frozen as they crashed (it was the pressure of the frozen ice that pushed them up, unromantically).  At the shore, they were made of little ice crystals, which came from the ice partially freezing and refreezing during the end of April/start of May.

On the way back we visited an ethnographic village, but my head wasn’t in it.  I think Audrey enjoyed it.  Got back to the hostel, and the rest of them went out for Chinese food, while I went to bed and felt sorry for myself.  Mistake.  According to Audrey the food place was a little authentic cheap diner, and the food was brill.  I had some dry bread and ham.

9th of May (the day after) is Victory day in Russia.  My head was finally back in order.  In the morning we walked around town, to the central market and a couple of churches (it’d been a while since we’d seen any).  We also visited a local food place where the food was decent and dirt cheap, similar to the milk bars we found in Poland

The whole town was gearing up for the parade.  80-year old men wandered down the street with tens of medals on their chest.  Children waved Russian flags.  They take it very seriously here.  It’s not called WWII, but the Great Patriotic war, and lasted only from 1941 to 1945.  And they won the war.  Not the allies/the west.  The perspective from the different sides is really interesting.

The crowds were immense, so we didn’t see, much, but went indoors to watch the main one in Moscow.  We asked Igor quite a few questions around it (he joined us for the parade) among other things, then, after a cup of tea at the Hostel, we said goodbye.  With Igor’s help, we couldn’t have beaten our time in Irkutsk with a big stick!

We left Irkutsk at 08:50am the next day.

Irkutsk and Igor the Irishman

Relatively uneventful train journey this time, as we shared our ‘cell’ with a couple of very unfriendly females.  One eventually left, and was replaced by a sweet old lady, Anna, who talked to Audrey for hours, even though Audrey only got about 25% of what she was saying. They got along well by Audrey repeating the only keywords she could pick out from Anna’s sentences (Stalin, hunger, Lenin, encephalitic ticks) and Anna enthusiastically nodding her approval. We soon realised that all Anna wanted to do was talk and be heard.

We’d tried to get our tickets from Ulan Ude (our next stop) to Ulan Bator the previous day while waiting for the night train, but were told it wasn’t possible, as the international ticket offices were already closed.  We heard that these tickets sell out quick, but finally secured them later that day, after a mad dash to a tourist office in a hotel when we found out on the phone that there was only three seats left for our chosen date.

We met up with Audrey’s Russian teacher’s daughter that afternoon for a drink.  Her attitude to Russian history/current life was somewhat different to Katia from Yekaterinburg.  She couldn’t wait to get out, and was moving to Prague by the end of the year.  Also, she had a polar opposite view on Stalin, that he was much worse than Hitler (“At least Hitler didn’t kill his own people”).

She brought us to a market where we picked up a load of pelmini (link, Russian dumplings that we were fond of) to cook at the hostel.  1.5 kg of pelmini was too much for us, so we invited a Korean (called Herman), and Scotsman and two English fellas to join us for dinner.

As we were cleaning up, another person who joined us in the kitchen.  He picked up on the fact I was wearing a Derry jersey (I knew it would be handy), and to our amazement start to speak Irish to me.  Now, as many of you will know, my Irish hasn’t been much use since I finished it at GCSE, and even then that would have been debateable.  I had to do the usual embarrassing “Sorry, I don’t speak it”.

Seemed he was from Donegal and he had a fiercely strong accent and spoke so quickly that even I wasn’t getting everything (didn’t help that I was doing the washing up).  Anyway, we all headed out to The London Pub, and when he was away from the table, I asked one of the other lads, “What’s his name?”
“Igor, I think”, said one of the English lads.
“Igor?  It couldn’t be.  He was trying to speak Irish to me in the hostel.  Are you sure?” I asked sceptically.

I got some of the story out of Igor when he got back to the table and over the following few pints at an Irish bar.  Turned out he had an Irish grandmother who came to Siberia decades ago from Donegal.  It seems like a lot of the Irish-ness has passed through.

His knowledge of Irish words and slang was perfect.  Never have I spoken with a non-native-Irish person who used ‘bog’ to describe the toilet, spoke affectionately of scallions and colcannon and knew his Irish breads inside out. As he gave us a lift from the hostel to the bar, he even stuck “I Wish I was Back Home In Derry” on in his car!

The beers flowed freely, and then back in the hostel, the Vodka was out, which we’d got at a supermarket on the way home.  It was the Scot fella’s birthday, and he had a train to catch at 5:30 in the morning. I didn’t stay up till the end, but according to Igor, they nearly had to carry him down there.

I went to bed at 4:00am.

11 May 2010

Krasnoyarsk Time Warp

We had problems finding our hotel in Krasnoyarsk.  Unfortunately we had simply decided to rely on the travel guide for the location, and didn’t check it up on the internet. It was 7am, we had barely any sleep on the train, and were desperate to unload our luggage,  so after wandering for half an hour to no avail we decided to try our luck at a place that seemed to be advertising accommodation.

We went in, and after some confusion in trying to communicate our situation, we ended up renting an apartment for two days (see picture).  I don’t know if it is common practice in Russia, but it was pretty easy to do.  1000 rouble deposit for the key, pay for two nights, sign a form and that was it.

The apartment proved difficult to find; it was a nine-story concrete block with about 6 different entrances.  The stairwell smelt awful (For days I tried to think of a word to describe it, but haven’t managed it yet), and we had a pink fluorescent tube lighting the hallway on our floor. Whenever we used the stairwell, Audrey held her breath and raced me up and down the stairs so as to avoid the stench.

It turned out to be another communist style apartment (we’d purposely kept our budget low so we didn’t get screwed over).  It was functional (platform toilet again), and another interesting experience.  No dodgy electrics this time, but I was being careful while plugging anything in.

Krasnoryark itself wasn’t a particularly interesting place, but its setting was better than most Russian places we’d been to so far (situated on the River Yenisei, and surrounded by mountains and cliffs).  The streets were filled with fake trees, and from about 10 in the morning until 8 in the evening, music was piped around the main streets (similar to what we seen in Bruges around Christmas).

On the second day, we got up quite early and headed for the hills.  The 30 minute bus journey cost us a paltry 10 roubles, about 23p, each.  The Stolbys were the local attraction, nestled at the top of the mountains (which weren’t too high).  They are basically large, rounded rocks sticking out of the mountains.

We started our ascent at 9:30, and it took us a couple of hours to get near the top, but by 10:30, we had already encountered people wandering back down.  We thought we got away in good time, but these guys must have set out at 7 to have got up, walked around the Stolbys, and come back down, and none of them looked like serious hikers. The Stolbys was still covered in knee-deep snow so the encephalitic-tick fear did not come into reality (phew!).

Our train out the next day was at 2:40pm, so on the third morning we got up at 10:30, left the apartment at about 11:30, and headed straight to a restaurant called Matrioschka, which had impressed us the previous day.  For 11:45, the placed was quite crowded, but we got a table, and ordered our food.  It cleared out quite soon afterwards; seems like the Russians like to lunch early.

We got to the train station about an hour early, and I went to look at the 'scoreboard', while Audrey took a couple of pictures outside.  Out train wasn’t on it, and the time read 11:43 Moscow Time (MT, remember all trains in Russia run on MT, our current city was MT+4).  I was somewhat puzzled, but it seemed like we were an hour late for the train.  I checked my phone, which confirmed I was an hour early by my time, but on checking the time zone, it was still on Perm (MT+2), the previous city we had been in.

It was then that we realised that the ‘mountaineers’ were not early risers, and that the Russians did not lunch stupidly early.  In fact, for the last three days we have been consistently living our life two hours behind the rest of Krasnoyarsk. Feck!

Luckily the next train – 9 hours later departing at 01:00am – still had spare seats. With a partial refund on our current tickets, it didn’t sting us too much, but what should we do in the meanwhile?  After a walk around and a drink, we headed back to Matrioschka for a third time (the waitress, who served us all three times, must have thought us weird).

We finally left Krasnoyarsk at 00:15am.

07 May 2010

Long train to Krasnoyarsk

We began our trip to Krasnoyarsk at 8:01pm on Saturday evening on the 1st of May.  We would arrive at 7:50am on the 3rd of May.  Nearly 36 hours (well, really 34, as we would be picking up another couple of time zones on the way).  This would be the longest train trip either of us has ever made, and longer than any other stretch we have planned in the future.

A few things worried us about the trip, using the toilet for a number 2s, the heat of the trans-sib trains so far, who our passengers would be and having enough food to get us through.  The first one proved not to be a problem, as I didn’t have any particularly strong urge to go (I think my body realises what is coming up, and prepares itself accordingly).  Squat toilets I think I’ll be able to cope with when the day comes, but I don’t like the idea of a dingy toilet on a bouncy train.

The people we shared with ended up being quite nice, although there was little or no talking on the first night.  The next day though, one of the ladies introduced herself as the train was pulling into one of the stations where the train waits around for 30 minutes (more on this place later).

After we got back on the train the chat continued with her plus the other passengers in our area, and then a few from the next one (it was an open wagon).  One of them was a Buryat (link) (who the ethnic Russians had nicknamed Jackie Chan in a casually racist manner), a member of the indigenous people of Siberia, who tried to communicate with us and the other passengers.  I think they could understand him, but with his dialect, Audrey couldn’t get what he was saying. 

A five litre bottle of beer was produced by one of our (Russian) neighbours, and we all proceeded to fill our cup with that over the next few hours, plus a smattering of Vodka from time to time, which I’d taken onboard. (I wish I'd got myself into this photo).  Despite being warm-ish, and from a plastic bottle, the beer itself proved to be a passable drink, not quite an Augustiner Helles.  If it had been cold, it would have been considered a passable beer, I'd imagine.

The rules of drinking on the train were not very clear, as the provodnitsa (something like a carriage attendant) did chastise us a little for drinking beer from the 5-litre bottle at one point, and the other guy indicated to me to keep the Vodka hidden.  At time, I assumed it may be because they wanted you to buy it on the train, but she did not seem to have any problems with me buying a half litre bottle of Tuborg on the platform and bringing it on.

Then, about an hour later it became somewhat clearer what the problem might be.  She approached our group, and got one of the ladies, Irene, a middle aged Russian, to read a letter.  According to them, it was a complaint letter against the two Buryat men in the next compartment (they were now sleeping).  She was going to present it to the police at the next station.

The rest of the party had an argument with her about it.  None of us had been offended by them, and while they had gotten drunk quite quickly, they had simply went to sleep.  She said they were also dirty; again we hadn’t noticed, and after 3 days on a train (they’d all come from Moscow), who wouldn’t whiff a little?  She eventually torn up the letter and left us, and the rest of the group put her concerns down to racism.

The train’s heat was a problem on the first night, and we slept with no blankets.  We had asked previously if it was possible to open the windows, and had been told no.  On the second day, I mentioned the heat to one of the guys, and he proceeded to open the window!  Damn it, I wish I’d actually tried the other times.  It did seem a bit of an ordeal to get it open though, so maybe I would have given up thinking they were locked.  Russian engineering. (Other trains we were on were welded shut, so it depends on your luck)

Meanwhile, back on the platform we were greeted with an interesting surprise.  We read from books and travel guides that the platforms were enormously interesting places to stock up on supplies.  So far though, we hadn’t encountered much of this, and thought it may be something that has fallen by the way side over the last decade or so.  Mostly it seemed to be people flogging pot noodles, beer and snacks.  At Barabinsk, it was as we had heard.

Pensioners, male and female, flooded the platform with different wares.  Dried and poached fish, caviar patties, pancakes, potatoes eggs, cloaks and earthenware.  The list goes on.  Mostly home made by the looks of them, people doing what they can to earn a little extra.  I picked up a couple of pancakes and a strange looking thing that I think was some sort of deep fried dough/bread, with potatoes inside, and Audrey grabbed two of the dried fish (he claimed he couldn’t sell her only one...).

It was a great experience, and we got one of our neighbours to help us ensure we didn’t get ripped off.  I think the reason we hadn’t seen this type of thing yet is that all of the other towns we had stopped in had been relatively big places, all circa one million, whereas Barabynsk was only 62,000.  This is probably one of the few ways for the people of the town to make a bit of money, whereas in big cities there are other opportunities.

Back on the train, the woman opposite helped Audrey wrap her fish up in newspaper, harking back to the old days back home where fish and chips used to come in wrapped in stories of days gone past.

Out the window, we passed mostly swampland.  We could go for hours without seeing anything but clumps of trees between large puddle of water and dead grass.  The towns were pretty insignificant, wooden houses grouped together, as if to protect each other from the savagery of the elements.  The only thing of real interest that we saw was a tank graveyard, but we couldn’t get the camera out in time to get a shot.

We arrived in Krasnoyarsk at 07:50

04 May 2010

Yekaterinburg: Modern interpretations of history

We arrived in Yekaterinburg 5 hours after we left Perm, on Thursday evening.  It proved to be a pain in the arse getting to the youth hostel.  We asked a number of people the direction of a certain bus that the hostel said would take us there, and everyone gave us conflicting information, so we ended up walking in the general direction, then talking a tram from a place we knew would take us most of the way there.

The hostel was very interesting, it was basically a soviet era flat with two bunks in the living room, and one bunk in the bedroom.  The kitchen and bathroom definitely reminded us of what this period may have looked like (bathroom picture).  A cupboard built into the kitchen wall.  Sideboards filled with crockery (somewhat similar to Maria’s in Vilnius).  Different bits of furniture that didn’t fit together properly.

We were there alone, as there were no other guests, and Katia (the receptionist?) stayed somewhere else.  That night, I tried plugging a light into a socket.  Crack!  With a large flash of light, I pulled my hand away.  My forefinger and thumb were completely charred, but luckily I hadn’t been electrocuted.  Soviet-era electrics!

Also, now I know where all the ‘holes’ from our toilet rolls go:

Katia, the person who was looking after the hostel was very friendly.  She gave us an intro into the town, showed us the sights on a map, and answered all our questions.  Audrey spent quite a while as ever trying to get the meaning of new Russian words, and Katia was very impressed by her enthusiasm for the language (luckily her English was very good, so that she could explain the meanings).

The town itself didn’t have too much going on.  The central part was nice, with some nice architecture and a river running through it.  It proved to be Moscow and St. Petersburg’s equal in terms of dust/pollution.  At time is was difficult to walk on the street when a wind was whipping up.

We visited the Romanov memorial, commemorating the place where the royal family had been killed in 1918.  We pondered why they would have be canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church, as plenty of people have been killed wrongly and not had anything bestowed on them.  I’ve heard they were a ‘nice’ family, but Nicolas II himself is mainly known for being a weak ruler who couldn’t command his men properly in war (thereby instigating the revolution against the status quo and sealing his own fate).

The other thing of note was the Afgan memorial (see picture).  It shows a statue of an exhausted soldier, sitting on the ground.  I found it very poignant, and probably showed the fatigue that the general Russian populace felt with the country continuously going to war.  Around the monument it had the name of all the wars that Russia entered in the 20th century, written in Cyrillic, but I managed to decipher most of them.  The sheer amount of them amazed me.  Angola, Mozambique, Japan, Moldova, Czechoslovakia, Abkazia, the list went on, as well as the well known ones (Vietnam, Korea etc.).  It didn't include the longest running of them all, the Cold war, but between the lines you could read that a lot of those mentioned were proxies of that war.

On Saturday morning, it was labour day.  There was a march through the centre of town by trade unions, followed by a march by what is left of the communist party.  It seemed to be made up mainly of old people, with a smattering of youth, probably due to hereditary beliefs.  One old lady carried a picture of Stalin.

That afternoon, we quizzed Katia on some of her views on history.  She didn’t have very strong views about politics or history, but did relay some of the stuff that she had learned at school.  Stalin in not seen in the same realms as Hitler, but simply as a flawed leader of the country ("Well... he has made mistakes, but we respect him as a strong leader who had the hard job of ruling such a large country!"), whereas in Western thinking they are portrayed (along with Pol Pot and Chairman Mao) as being the monsters of the 20th century.

Also, Trotsky is still viewed as a ‘bad person’ (although Katia has forgotten the reason why) , whereas we see him somewhat more sympathetically.  He is the only key figure in Soviet history not to have been rehabilitated.  Katia said we could e-mail her any questions we had, and either her or her dad (who was very interested in these things) would send us reply, so we plan to take her up on that offer.

Also, we’d both begun reading Colin Thurbron’s In Siberia.  It was proving to be a very good read, giving details of the history of the vast place along with interesting encounters with people who lived there,  I would recommend it to anyone who wants to get a better understanding of the place.

We left Yekaterinburg at 20:01 that evening.

03 May 2010

Perm (no, not a new haircut)

From Suzdal we were to go back to Vladimir on the bus to catch our train to Perm that afternoon.  On the bus we noticed another “western” traveller, and she approached us while we were in the train station in Vladimir.  Her name was Amy, from Kent in England.  She would be taking the same train as us, but would be going further, to the next major city on the line, Yekaterinburg.

We discussed a few things while waiting for the train.  Firstly, she was travelling alone, and didn’t speak any Russian.  We were quite impressed that she had managed to get this far.  She had booked all of her train tickets before she got here though, so she hasn’t have to deal with the ladies (still haven’t seen a single man selling train tickets) at the ticket offices, who do not speak any English.

Her train tickets had been very cheap, in comparison to what we were paying for the next leg of our journey, which was 18 hours.  It had cost us about £75 each, which at the time of purchase we thought was a bit high.  Her equivalent had been less than half the price, for a longer distance.  When we got on the train we realised why.

We’d been sold “tourist” class.  It was nothing like the other two nights trains we’d taken.  Here we had 4-berth closed carriages, plus lots of extras to make our journey that much easier (toothbrush, toothpaste, slippers, shoe-horn(!), soap, wet-wipes etc.).  On top of that we got a lunch pack (bread, jam butter, chocolate...), hot evening meal and a hot breakfast (which was essentially the same as the evening meal).  It was all rather splendid.

We went down the train to visit Amy, and were greeted with the familiar sight of the open carriage.  She also had a look at ours as well, to see where the price difference went.  It wasn’t too easy to look out the sides of our part of the train, as we both had upper bunks, and the people sharing with us insisted on laying down all day on theirs.

We spent a while gazing out the window in the hallway together.  Again, very little farming.  The land that wasn’t farmed did seem pretty desolate, but I put some of that down to the fact that we are still pulling out of winter here, it lasting much longer here than in west Europe.  But even at that, using my imagination, I found it hard to picture it looking beautiful.  Birches and pines often hemmed the railways in on either side, and they seemed to go on forever in both directions.

When encountering towns, the evidence of decaying infrastructure was everywhere; buildings still functional but in tatters.  Pipes scarring the landscape everywhere you looked, Russia hadn’t seemed to have invented the concept of putting them underground (the picture is only an example of some small pipes, still haven't snapped the bigger ones).  It felt like the hinterlands had been ignored for the bright city lights of the two main cities.

On waking up the next morning, we were greeted by what looked like a blizzard from the train (it wasn’t, just the speed of the train giving that impression), and a snow covered landscape.  This continued for the remaining few hours of our trip into Perm.  Stepping out of the train, the cold hit us (the trains are kept too warm).  We spent some time in confusion as to how to get to the hotel, as the map in our guide didn’t show where the train station lay, and we’d had no internet access over the previous few days to check it out.

Eventually we got on a bus which took us in the general direction of the centre of town, and the conductress told us where to get off.  After asking people intermittently to affirm we were going to Lenin Street (the bus had actually dropped us off quite a distance from it), a lady, Elena, kindly walked us to the front door, as well as showing us tourist attractions along the way.

It continued to snow for the rest of the day, and we ventured out only to grab a quick drink and a few supplies from a corner shop.  We witnessed the amazing spectacle of females walking confidently through snow, slush and ice on stilettos, without faltering once.  Audrey was in awe, as women inches taller than they should be passing her on the sidewalk even though she was in hiking boots.  We (well Audrey really) knew from St. Petersburg and Moscow that Russian ladies loved high-heels, but in these conditions also!

The following day the snow was still falling, but let up on occasion.  We wandered around town for a while.  There wasn’t actually much to do here, taking in the few sights that existed, as well as making a trip back to the train station to get our (non-tourist cheapie) ticket to Yekaterinburg for the next morning (and to practice the bus journey).  That evening in the hotel restaurant, Audrey and I tried bear, as it was on the menu.  Was a little strange, chewy and gamey.  Not too recommendable.

We got up on Thursday morning, got breakfast at the hotel, and made our way to the train station, as our train was to depart at 11.01.  Arriving in good time, at 10.15, I looked up at the top of the train station, where the electronic clock beamed out a time of 08:15.  Very quickly a quirk of the Russian railway system dredged itself from my memory; at train stations, everything is in Moscow time (MT).

Due to the country spanning so many time-zones, and to avoid confusion in places that lie on these imaginary boundaries and simplify the timetable, someone had decided to make all train station clocks and schedules run on MT.  This means that even in Vladivostok, you’ve got to add 7 hours to the departure time of your train to ensure you are at the station at the right time, and when you cross from China into Russia, even though you could be eating your breakfast just after you woke in the morning, the clock may well read 01:00 at the first station.

Eventually we got on the train, and departed Perm at 13:01 (11:01 MT).