Monthly Archives: December 2014

July 17th – Krasnoyarsk to Irkutsk

I remember reading Leslie Blanch years ago, in Bora Bora of all places. It might have been “Journey into the Mind’s Eye”. She had a fascination for Russia and dreamt of getting to Irkutsk. Why? I can’t quite remember, except that she gave the name such magic that Bora Bora almost vanished to make place for snowy Siberian steppes. Odd. The magic is very often in the name and in the name only, like Irkutsk, labeled “the Paris of Siberia”. We’ll see.

Krasnoyarsk was nothing but a short stopover, and the rain last night didn’t make going out an appealing prospect. I just ran out to the supermarket across the street got a bottle of water, a bottle of beer and a tomato. Figuring out how to weigh the tomato was quite an undertaking. I had myself a fine snack of rye crackers, cheese and sliced tomato, all washed down with beer.
The sun was shining in the morning and I had exactly 3 hours to change some money and see the town. A good half-hour of that was taken by the crossing of the bridge over the majestic Yenisei River, the theoretical border between Europe and Asia.

Bridge over the Yenisei in Krasnoïarsk

Bridge over the Yenisei in Krasnoyarsk

As I was walking, I came across a few scruffy dogs on the loose who sniffed me suspiciously, but finally went away. I’ve met some vicious-looking dogs here: pit bull types with steely, glossy coats, cold eyes and a muzzle. That says it all. You better stay clear of them. I also saw the first black person since I’ve been in Russia: a tall, very, very handsome young man walking on the beam supporting the parapet, so as not to get his feet wet. Last night rain had accumulated on the bridge in several shallow puddles drowning the walkway.
It’s not always easy to find one’s way around in Russian town, since street signs can’t be expected to be found on every street corner. The doorman at the hotel clearly didn’t know how to read a map but I can’t say that the poor man didn’t try. I tried to say never mind but couldn’t and he wouldn’t stop trying to be helpful. A man walking his dog had to be a local, but he too sent me in the wrong direction. That ate another chunk of time.

Krasnoyarsk is the most Soviet-looking city so far. Lots of concrete and rusty balconies, but I had been told that there were also a few remaining wooden house and specimens of Art Nouveau architecture.

Art deco in Krasnoiarsk

Art deco in Krasnoyarsk

I even had the addresses, but not much time. I found a couple of weathered, once pretty, wooden cottages. They seemed abandoned, nobody obviously saw the need for preservation.

76 Skulka, Krasnoyarsk

76 Skulka, Krasnoyarsk

Passing by a public park, I noticed, that here as elsewhere in Siberia, their gardens were very much like our short lived Quebec gardens with their shivering, sturdy species and thriving weeds: petunias, begonias, marigolds and day lilies. With the lilac season over, the bushes have nothing to show but the modest remnants of their blooming glory: heart-shaped shrinking foliage; purple and white clusters long gone to brownish seed.
I rushed back on the bus. Yes, I managed to get on a bus, pay the fare and get to destination this time. Traveling in a country where everything is so foreign makes you feel rather slow-witted and every little accomplishment becomes a victory over your own ignorance and cluelessness.

I had to take my train at 12:17. I managed to get out of my confusion today as I realized that the departure board was on Moscow times, which always gave me the impression that I had missed my train. Well, that’s one mystery solved.
My companions today are Galina and Artiom, a mother and her 12-year old son from Krasnoyarsk on their way to their dacha on Lake Baïkal. We shared cucumbers from Galina’s mother’s garden. She is an accountant and the boy, from what I understood, is useless at math, to his mother’s great regret. They are quiet company, as they speak about as much English as I speak Russian, which makes for very laborious conversation. Still, I enjoy listening to her as she is reading her son a story.

Galina and Artiom

Galina and Artiom

Most of the afternoon was passed in slovenly torpor until I met an interesting trio: a French girl, an American guy and a Mexican one, all working and living in Moscow. Jaime, the Mexican, shared his hot sauce with me, which made the restaurant car pelmenyi much more palatable. We promised to touch base on Olkhon Island.
At 11. When I went back to my compartment, the sky was still limpid with the day’s refracted light.

Siberian Sky

Siberian Sky

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A sleep-cure between Yekaterinburg and Krasnoiarsk

The train looked promising: just another passenger in the compartment. An older man with a kindly face, a railway worker cap and a missing nail on his thumb. One imagines things. Do I have to mention that his name was also Sasha?
Tea glasses and dry ramen-type noodles had already been set on the table: a bonus.

Tea's ready!

Tea’s ready!

I quickly made my bed and went to sleep for nearly twelve hours. I didn’t wake up until 11:30 the next morning. I barely stirred when the train stopped at a few stations along the way. It just startled me a bit, like a baby whose cradle has stopped rocking, then I would go back to sleep. Two more passengers embarked sometime after midnight and climbed onto the upper berths. At least that’s what I discovered in the morning, since I don’t remember hearing them. I found out later that the scar-faced one was Vladimir and the other sleepy-head Dmitri. By their uniforms, I gathered they were some sort of security agents. Another one of their buddy, whose name I never asked and whose pungent smell was more than sufficient as a mean of identification, joined them to play cards. Some mysterious game that went late into the night. I was just hoping that one thing leading to another, they were not planning to start on the vodka, but they did not.

We were headed for Perm, self-proclaimed historic city, Self-proclaimed because Dostoïevsky stopped there one night on his way to exile; the Diaghilev family escaped as soon as they could to seek refuge and fame in Paris, and Tchekov’s “Three sisters” lived in Perm and constantly moaned about their longing to go to Moscow and start living at last. Perm was also the site of one of the most cruel labor camps. And one can’t forget that everything that makes that austere scenery lovely, also meant death for millions of dissidents, innocents and petty rule-breakers who were sent there as slave laborers.
Because the scenery is lovely in its flat monotony: rows and rows of birches and alders with sudden splashes of wildflowers and at dusk, sometime around ten o’clock, a smouldering sunset stretching out on the horizon and peeking through the clearings.

Around 10 pm

Around 10 pm

We passed a small town called Nazyvaevskaya, the name is vaguely related to the russian verb “to be named” and apparently evokes for a Russian ear, a nameless banality. For me, however, nothing here seems banal. Neither the gray-greenness of the scenery, nor the pale sky or the occasional villages with their log cabins and little houses painted in bright colors, with sloping tin roofs and “gingerbready” widows.fl20130623x1c-870x489
If they weren’t scattered higgledy-piggledy, they would be remarkably similar to the old houses of many Quebec villages.
In Omsk, I got off the train to buy some water and met Elena. A young woman from Irkutsk who had traveled with her small daughter through Mongolia, China and India. She had even passed eight months in Ontario as a “jeune fille au pair” (domestic helper cum nanny). We became fast friends and she practically moved into my compartment. Those things happen on the train and we had an animated conversation well into the night, since there was no point in trying to go to sleep with the card players and the smelly one sitting on my bunk. By 2 a.m. Krasnoiarsk time, there were seven of us in the compartment, playing cards, babbling away, drinking tea and eating chocolate. I discovered that she very much wanted to find a man, preferably an Indian one. Russian men were not her thing. I didn’t have the feeling that she was one of those predatory Russian women looking for a man to pay the bills. She appeared reasonably happy in Irkutsk with her family and her job as an English teacher, but she fancied herself as an Indian housewife. And why not? As much as I love India, it didn’t seem like such a good idea but who am I to give advice. I just suggested that it would perhaps be better if she met those men on her territory first.

Elena from Irkutsk

Elena from Irkutsk

Finally, the 36 hours trainbound trip to Krasnoiarsk might have revealed itself the most restful part of the trip so far. Comfortable bed, fairly quiet companions, plenty of tea and enough food for my mousey appetite. I don’t need much, the garlic smell of my companions’ sausages alone could have fed me.
In a way, it’s a bit like being in the sanitarium: lots of sleep, bland food (at least mine was; I didn’t do a very good job reading labels in the supermarket) and nothing much to do. And it’s very homey too: people sleep, read, eat, wash their dishes, charge their phones, although for some strange reason I couldn’t charge mine. Therefore very few pictures, except for these.
I didn’t feel like getting off in Krasnoïarsk, I would have liked to stay on the train. Off again tomorrow. From what I could see, Krasnoïarsk is entirely forgettable and it rains!

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Filed under On the Transsiberian - Moscow to Ulan-Bator