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).