Category Archives: On the Transsiberian – Moscow to Ulan-Bator

The Russian-Mongolian Border

Surprise on the train, same compartment: Tania and Shawn, the young couple from the Krasnoiarsk-Irkutsk train.  I missed them in Olkhon having forgotten my jacket in the canteen where we stopped for lunch, their phone number was in the pocket and I only recuperated it on the way back.  Jaime, the Mexican has left for Vladivostok, then Japan, Korea and China.  We might meet in Beijing or Shangaii if we happen to be there at the same time.

The train stopped for 5 hours at the border.  It’s the third time I’m asked for my passport.  The third time, the woman took it, asked me to take off my glasses, looked at me, looked at the picture, shook her head looking perplexed and disappeared with it.  Not sure what we are waiting for, for the two remaining wagons of the Transsiberian to be attached to the Transmongolian I guess.

Naushki Station

Naushki Station

We went through the station and into the little border town of Naushki, it must be 35 degrees and there is no shade, nor even in the park strewn with garbage. I know, I know, it looks on the picture as if there were shade, but I swear there wasn’t or it was just as hot in the shade.

Naushki Park

Naushki Park

The statue of a naked Russian maiden looks at the same time beautifully ethereal and pathetic.  She is crouching and was once doing something with her arms, but they are both broken with ends of its metal structure sticking out.

The little mermaid of Naoushki

The little mermaid of Naushki

Not far, the statue of a female reindeer fares better, but not her companion who has mostly disappeared and remains unidentifiable.    Shawn fantasizes about getting the schoolchildren to clean up that mess and then reward them with ice cream.  That should be feasible if anybody cared.  We buy ice cream and quickly eat it before it melts.

It’s even hotter in the wagons, I had taken a fan with me as an afterthought, but it’s been very useful.  Our two wagons are still standing alone, even though we were told we’d leave in 20 minutes.  That was a while ago.  My passport is still missing. Then three searches: two by customs agents, one by a dog.  I liked the dog better. I got my passport back.  And we haven’t even passed the Mongolian border yet. I just read that the border between Mongolia and China was no better.

Going through the peaceful Buryat, but still Russian, countryside, one feels disconnected from the rest of the world and it’s not a bad thing at all.

Buryat Countryside

Buryat Countryside

I had a rude awakening last night when, for the first time in three weeks, I turned on the TV.  The station in English was RT, Russia Today, a station sponsored by the Russian government and analysing the news on a sanctimonious and accusatory tone.  The Malaysian plane shot over Ukraine and the worsening situation in Israël were too much to take in one single session. I turned it off.  I’ll never go to sleep if I keep on worrying not only about Lenin’s cross-eyes but about Ukraine and Gaza as well, and I don’t mean to be flippant.

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Counting to 999

Just as I am beginning to speak Russian ( I didn’t say understand) at least as well as a precocious 18-month old, it’s time to move on to another language zone. I say 18-month old because, on good days and at certain times of the day or night, I can count to 999. One thousand is a very difficult word.

Ulan-Ude is at its summery best and makes you forget the dozen disaffected factories (formerly dedicated to the defense industry) marring its suburban scenery. And Ulan-Ude is not alone in that situation: when you travel in the daytime, you see these abandoned monstrosities with their useless chimneys all over the place.

Near Ulan-Ude, remnants of things past

Near Ulan-Ude, remnants of things past

Post-Soviet Russia has basically abandoned Siberia, which it once saw as the way of the future. Financing from Moscow has trickled down to almost nothing: factories and research institutes have closed, collective farms, once productive, have gone fallow.
But you can’t tell in the cities; Siberia has obviously found a way to its own prosperity and Ulan-Ude is as grandiosely built as the others, borrowing heavily to Stalinist baroque. Its center is spanking clean and pretty, with musical fountains playing something that sounded like Mahler, but was certainly not, in a city that still preserves a lot of its Soviet mementos. Among others, a humongous head of Lenin. I’m not good at assessing measurements, but I’d say that one of his ears is probably taller than I am. Miraculously, birds must have been heavily indoctrinated as none dare leave a souvenir upon its head. I suspect a special squad comes to give him a scrubbing at night. Some people pretend he’s crossed-eyed but I forgot to verify, which bothered me greatly for the rest of the night.

Lenin's giant head on Ulan-Ude's main square

Lenin’s giant head on Ulan-Ude’s main square

Beyond the white ministries and the ceremonial space upon which looms Lenin’s monstrous head, rows and rows of buff and pale green apartment blocks, a drift of cottages and prefabricated suburbs with the oriental touch of a occasional Buddhist temple.

I took “marshroutka” no. 37 to the Museum of Ethnography, set in a clearing surrounded by a pine forest. People-watching is fun! At least that’s what the two year-old on the seat across mine seems to think. Papa is very Buryat; mama very Russian and the cute baby has huge button eyes that remain fixed on my face. We exchange universal niceties like bye-bye: baby goes bye-bye. He keeps going bye-bye even after the family has stepped off the bus.

The museum, set in a lovely park, is really a reconstruction or rather re-localisation of Russian and Buryat housing and Hun burial sites, traditional yurts, an Old-Believers village (neo-orthodox sect, not unlike the Amish) and a bourgeois house having belonged to a dentist, judging by the bloodcurdling display of dental and surgical instruments. The Old-Believers homes look incredibly cosy, at least they do in summer. I wonder about winter. Some privileged members of the family, baboushkas and children I presume, can sleep on top of the stove if they don’t mind having their noses touch the ceiling. Hanging on the walls are fancy cushions used for… knocking your head on the floor when you pray. There are still some of those communities in Siberia. Can’t say I’ve met any.

Inside of an Old-believer home

Inside of an Old-Believer home

Tamara is visiting the park with her two pretty grand-daughters. My not speaking Russian doesn’t deter her from making conversation. Where am I from? Where am I going? Alone? Oh well, You’re young, she says. I think she needs a new prescription for her glasses. As it is, we find out that I’m older than she is. She has travelled too: Italy, Paris and another place I forget. She didn’t like Paris, but she likes sports. She seems to be in good shape.
It could have continued for a while hadn’t I met David Applebaum and his family. David is a Philadelphia Jew married to Larissa, a Buryat woman from Ulan-Ude. By the way, I don’t think I mentioned that the Buryat are a Mongol people, Ulan-Ude being the capital of their state: Buratya. They were visiting her family and traveling with a whole retinue of friends and relatives, American and Buryat, and their two beautiful children: proud descendants of Genghis Khan and Abraham, with perhaps a few Cossacks down the line. Interesting inheritance. Larissa was most helpful in having a few houses, usually closed, opened for us. Her translating was also a bonus.
I walked back to the bus stop through the shady pine forest and was surprised to find behind a new fence a bright new development of fancy condos? Townhouses? I could have been in Brossard, not that I’ve been there lately, but that’s the way I imagine it must be.

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Lake Baikal – Olkhon Island – July 21

Since we crossed the Yenisei, the taiga has morphed into tundra, gone are the forests of pine, spruce and larches to make place to dwarf shrubbery, moss, lichen and grass. The Island of Olkhon, except for some boreal forest on hillsides, is mostly beyond the tree line.

The Yenisei River in the Siberian Taiga district outside Krasnoyarsk

The Yenisei River in the Siberian Taiga district outside Krasnoyarsk

Four hundred-mile long Lake Baikal is the deepest and oldest of all inland waters in the world. It also contains one-fifth of all fresh water on the planet and equals in volume our five great lakes put together. However, being shaped as a long, narrow crescent, it never gives that oceanic feeling of other great lakes in the world as it never gets more than 80 km wide. From wherever I stood, I could always see the other side. Even though its waters are dizzyingly transparent, there are rumors of pollution from farm soil and paper plants. Others say that you can drink the water and huge filtration efforts are made to preserve the lake’s rich biological life. Anyway, cattle drink at the shoreline without apparent ill-effects, but then they also eat from the garbage without apparent ill-effects. Who knows? I prefer the last theory and it’s hard to believe that its glassy waters, as evenly blue as if a giant bottle of ink had been poured in, couldn’t be anything but pristine. Olkhon island would apparently be the summit of a mile-high mountain. That is no legend, the Lake in some places is a mile deep. On the first day, I walked to the Shaman rock, perilously climbing the unspectacular, craggy rock frittering away under my inappropriate sandals.

By the Shaman Rock

By the Shaman Rock

Small rodents, with a short fat tail scuttled away. I was told they were called souslik, not sure I can find the translation just now. Ha! A ground squirrel apparently.

Souslik

Souslik

On the way to the rock, I walked along a sandy beach (there are many on the island). Not many people in the frigid water, but many soaking every bit of the July sunshine. That was truly Sunburn Festival: fishbelly white bodies competing with already beet red champions that make your skin hurt for them. Haven’t they heard of skin cancer? The next day, along with a French couple, their son and a Russian family, we took a ride to Cape Khoboy. The tour was all in Russian but our guide made himself somewhat understood. Vadim was totally sympatichniy, half-Russian, half Buryat. As he said with a big smile: 50/50 strong man! At the end of the hike through the larch forest, we reached impressive Cape Khoboy. Allover, trees were dripping with the local version of prayer flags, votive ribbons offered to the spirits of the Lake, along with coins and ruble notes tucked over and under stones.

Made a friend on Cape Khoboy

Made a friend on Cape Khoboy

Prayer flags on Cape Khoboy

Prayer flags on Cape Khoboy

We had a picnic of fish soup, made with omoul, the famed relative of salmon that can only be found in Lake Baikal. If one believes Herodotus, the omoul screams when it’s pulled out of the water. Enough to cut your appetite, but the soup was good. Herodotus wrote fantastic stories about Siberia. How could he possibly know? From unverifiable travelers stories I suppose. We know his accounts are often whimsical to say the least. I can’t imagine Herodotus traveling to Siberia. Does anybody know? If so, let me know. I took the marshroutka back to Irkutsk. Isn’t that a pretty word. In fact, we’d call it a shuttle or minibus, but marshroutka certainly has more panache. It was a very elegant marshroutka (I like that word) with fake Louis Vuitton pearl grey velveteen upholstery and a quilted charcoal vinyl ceiling. My neighbor, once more, was on the large side or taking more space than she should have but, as I fell asleep, her shoulder suddenly seemed like a comfortable bolster and, for a brief moment, I let my head rest contentedly upon it. Izvenitye, izvenitye, I apologized. She didn’t seem to mind. She offered me a candy. On the marshroutka (again, I love it!), I met Ping and Yen (a.k.a. Candy), a movie-star attractive yuppie couple from Beijing. She, an architect trained in Norway looked like a princess from an ancient Chinese painting and he, well…looked like…a prince. They had lived in Chicago and he was now doing university research  on the self-driven or automatic car project. The car of the future: you sit in, program your destination and the car gets there without your having to make the slightest effort. For now, safety seems to be the main issue. I had all sorts of projects for my return back in Irkutsk, but we got stuck in a traffic jam. Still, the driver went out of his way to drop me off at the train station. Another kindly Russian who took me under his wing, trying hard to say a few words in French. It was nice to see Lisa and Mathieu again at Irkutsk station, another French couple also met on Olkhon. They were on their honeymoon and familiar faces at the station are always reassuring. Even though I’m beginning to know the routine, I can’t deny that once inside the train, a sense of triumph wells up. No pictures of my companions this time. An older Buryat man, Slava, took a lot of place, talked to himself frequently, snored loudly. His cell phone also sang the opera. Another Buryat woman sporting a diamond as big as my thumbnail (couldn’t tell if it was real) mostly kept to herself. The other passenger was a handsome older woman with a kindly face and nice contralto voice. Her feet were somewhat smelly, but I won’t hold it against her. Slava seemed to fill the compartment with his jolly presence. At one point, he was practically sitting on the nice Russian woman’s face, with his knees on my bunk while he was loudly sipping his tea. I feel a bit sad to see Russia and Siberia already behind me. It went so very fast. I would have liked to wander freely, stop where I felt like it, explore the area but my visa won’t allow me to stray from the already established circuit. I expect China (or Kitai as they say here, closer to the old Cathay) to leave me more leash. P.S. In a soviet style supermarket where everything is out of reach and you have to point and search your dictionary, I met my first hairless crested dog. It looked vaguely like a closely-shaved poodle with hirsute head, mitts and slippers and a pink and white spotted pink and grey skin. It was a most bizarre sight. I include a picture. I guess it’s an acquired taste.

Chinese Crested Dog

Chinese Crested Dog

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On the bus to Lake Baikal and Olkhon Island

It will be a long six hours and a tight fit to Lake Baikal. Not much leg space and a large babushka, faintly smelling of…borscht sat by me, rather too close for comfort and spilling all over me with her doughy bare arms. I said “Dobre utre”, but she gave me a funny look. What does that foreign woman with her clown glasses want from me? This is not Guatemala: saying hello to strangers immediately puts you in the category of the suspicious weirdos who might want to take something away from you. Later, when I met Juan from Argentina, we started a nice chat from my front seat to his back seat but the same fat lady complained that I was screaming in her ear. I tried to find the word for “unpleasant” or “disagreeable” in my little phrase book but I guess they haven’t thought that the average traveler might eventually need anything but niceties to say. When she asked me to close the window, I just said NYET!  Nyet, nyet, nyet she muttered. After lunch, she decided to make peace, flashing a big smile full of gold teeth and saying that she didn’t understand a single word of what we were saying. Well, you don’t say! Is that so? She’s spreading out my way more and more and producing more and more heat. Fat chance I’ll close that window. She eventually got off, carrying away at least half a dozen bags, tucked away under and in between seats, and seemingly hidden all over the bus.Not smile!

Everybody seems to be traveling that way, with multiple bags. I wonder how they manage to keep count.

There is something cartoonish and unreal about the scenery: an endless expanse of shallow rolling hills , blue sky and puffs of clouds that could have been drawn as a background to a Disney version of a Russian fairy tale. A few scattered trees, a rare fence, rarer log cabins and happy cows with their calves, stocking up on fresh grass for the long Siberian winter. Horses sometimes and more hills covered this time with evergreen.contrasts-of-lake-baikal-part-2-life-in-villages-of-transbaikalia-31

Waiting for the ferry to Olkhon Island, I look at souvenir stands: masks, dolls, leather embossed with cryptograms, dream-catchers. It all looks exactly like Inuit arts and crafts. We’re not so far after all. Once off the ferry, it’s thirty-some more kilometers to get to the village of Khouzhir where I am to stay. Between the little harbour and Khouzhir, the sacred island of the Buryat, considered one of the world’s five poles of shamanic energy, is starkly austere. It doesn’t resemble anything familiar. I’m thinking Ireland with all its green subdued; Patagonia; Iceland without the volcanoes, but I haven’t been to any of these places. The road follows the lake across which rocky cliffs rise, like a monochromatic cubist painting, in alternate geometric patterns of grey and limestone white. Everywhere else it’s discolored grassland, no trees until pine-covered hills become visible on the horizon.Olkhon

Khouzhir is your typical Siberian villages with wooden houses scattered about, as far away from each other as possible and just close enough to still be called a village. No paved streets or sidewalks, wide dusty lanes, a small supermarket and an overflowing garbage container with a cow busy rooting around, keeping the seagulls at bay.

Khouzhir's Main Street

Khouzhir’s Main Street

But, within Anna Osipova’s Zhemchuzhina (that word must mean oasis, I’ll have to check), it’s another story. First, she might look like a rough kind, but it’s just the voice and the frown. She really is the benevolent mother superior of her little domain. The wooden isbas that she rents are homey, built of logs with something that looks like reindeer moss between them, and buried in bushes and flowers.

Anna Osipova's  Zhemchuzhina Olkhona

Anna Osipova’s Zhemchuzhina Olkhona

She is quite the gardener with boxes everywhere, full of tangled dahlias, pansies, poppies, geraniums and fragrant lilies. In the back, a greenhouse with at least five varieties of tomatoes ripening on the vines and a vegetable garden that puts mine to shame. Imagine a Siberian garden putting a Guatemalan one to shame!

Chrysanthemum

Chrysanthemum

Siberian Dahlia

Siberian Dahlia

Anna's Vegetable Garden

Anna’s Vegetable Garden

There is also an unfortunate plaster menagerie of garden dwarves, hedhehogs, frogs, ladybugs, etc. You see the picture.

Anna's Garden Dwarves

Anna’s Garden Dwarves

 

A real dog compensates for the kitsch animals: she is Gina, a placid mop of a Pekingese who likes to have her belly scratched and yelps to get scraps from the dinner table. Anna serves sturdy Siberian food: cabbage soup and beef stew with noodles, sauerkraut (!) or rice porridge for breakfast (not a favorite of mine) or a single chicken wing with mounds of mashed potato. After dinner, the lake is barely visible, except for the lingering light of the late sunset as it is melting into it in pallid watercolors. The lake itself is on the program for the next two days.

Sunset on Lake Baikal

Sunset on Lake Baikal

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Irkutsk: the “Paris” of Siberia

Early morning in Irkutsk is delightfully quiet and almost Mediterranean in feeling, with its leafy streets and sleepy wooden cottages.Irkutsk1 I’m on my way to the bus station, dragging my suitcase on bumpy streets. At least, yesterday’s muddy puddles have dried during the night.
Since we crossed the Yenisei, we are in Oriental Siberia, what used to be known as the Wild East and, for good reason, as it somehow once paralleled the Wild West with new gold fortunes, crime, gambling, prostitution, lawlessness and the Cossacks as cowboys. For a long time, the region was strictly forbidden to foreigners. There is always a slightly exhilarating feeling in reaching what was once the unreachable. There are still a few closed “cities” in Siberia, mostly dedicated I’m told to armament manufacturing.

But Irkutsk, more than 5 000 km from Moscow seems entirely open to the West, with Subways and McDonalds, and whatever American junk food likely to fatten up the still relatively slim Russians.
But that’s only a tiny part of bucolic Irkutsk with its parks, greenery, street markets and the icing-sugar facades of the Decembrists’s mansions side by side with more modest but lovely gingerbready merchant house.

The Troubetzkoy House

The Troubetzkoy House

irkutsk 2 The Decembrist aristocracy was exiled here after trying to overthrow the czar in 1825.

Decembrists' Uprising- St.-Petersburg, December 14, 1825

Decembrists’ Uprising- St.-Petersburg, December 14, 1825

When the wives joined their exiled husbands in 1827, they brought with them the customs of St.-Petersburg, to recreate here the gentility and culture of the capital. And they succeeded well enough, for Irkutsk to be considered the “Paris” of Siberia. The Revolution and its ensuing regime didn’t catch up here until the1920’s.
Here splendor and rusticity live side by side. And if there is definitely a charm to the aristocracy’s candy-colored palaces, it’s a charm that pales in comparison to the mostly decrepit masterpieces of wooden lace and scalloped friezes of the peasant princes’ homes. As Irkutsk was once a rich merchant town on the road of the silk and tea caravans, a city of parvenus who thought nothing of having their clothes laundered in London, even though they’d lose track of them for one year. One peasant, made rich with gold, was said to have slept under his bed, finding the bed he’d bought too beautiful to sleep in.

Most of the wooden house burned down in a 1879 in a fire that destroyed three-quarters of the city. Some of the old houses are abandoned with filthy or broken windows, their exquisite wooden lacework gone to seed or rot. Some appear to have sunk in the ground, their lower windowsill level with the sidewalk, or what passes for sidewalks: wooden boards in some places, broken up pavement with scattered muddy puddles from yesterday’s rain.

Sunken House

Sunken House

A few houses have been refurbished. No broken, dirty windows here; little lace curtains, rows of potted plants and the occasional cat licking its paw.
The so-called historical center has been renovated, but they did a terrible job and ended up turning it into some tacky village, half-Disney, half-Mont-Tremblant village. Fake, fake, fake, with American music blaring from every café-bar.
I strolled through an open-air market where, among the usual vegetables and flowers, endless stalls of strawberries, wild and cultivated, were offered. They were bigger and redder than anything I’ve ever seen. Could they possibly be from China? Next to them, basketfuls of kitten and puppies were also for sale.

Market- Irkutsk

Market- Irkutsk

Unlike other Siberian towns, this one has an atmosphere of genteel chaos. After all, we are theoretically in Asia.

From my hotel room window, I have a plunging view into one of the old, rundown wooden houses. For a moment, I feel like a voyeur. The backyard is bare of any greenery but full of old furniture, appliances, broken toys, a potty, a cage with budgies and something that looks like a brick barbecue, but could be anything else. A man was pouring water from a jerry can into various basins. I assumed the house had no running water. The family, or families, seem to be Asian (Buryat probably). I haven’t been able to count the children. They appear and disappear and infant, a toddler, a little girl, a younger man, an older man, a young woman, a teenage girl. Very confusing. I pulled the curtain shut.

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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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