• Date and Time: Friday 31st August, 2007. 10.22am local time according to my Mac, although being on a train I’m more on Moscow time, thus it’s 5.22am.
  • Location: On a sleeper train, between the shores of Lake Baikal and the city of Irkutsk, Siberia

    I tell you what, these time zones really do mess with your head. I now understand that all trains in Russia do run on Moscow time. It’s kind of understandable when you consider that this country spans 11 time zones. But it does play with your head, and you lose track of how long you’ve been anywhere as you switch in and out. For example, arriving at Ulan Ude last night at 10pm, I stepped into the station to find all clocks saying 5pm. I had hoped to get straight back on the train I’d got off as it was going further West – the Mongolian ticket office had said they could only issue tickets that far into Russia, (something I now know to be not true, like the fact that giraffes only have a 3 month gestation period), and I’d need to buy an onward ticket at Ulan Ude.

    Entering Russia south of Ulan Ude

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    Once inside the time-warped station, I was immediately accosted by a young man in uniform, asking for a cigarette. I told him I didn’t smoke, it’s bad for your health; he was a little taken aback by my English response, and after a few moments of loitering like a begging dog, he seemed to decide he wasn’t going to get anything from me and wandered off to pester someone else.

    With 50 minutes until my train departed, I joined the queue in front of the ticket office, happy to know that by the looks of things I’d be back in my bed on wheels in no time. It was then, whilst looking at my fellow ticket-buyers, that I got a strange feeling of being caught between two worlds… Having not read my lonely planet guide any further than the sections on which trains to catch, I was unaware of the history of the area and thus oblivious to the fact that it was home to the Buryats. Numbering over 400,000, these originally Mongolian people form the largest indigenous group in Russia, and in some Eastern Siberian towns (such as Ulan Ude) they make up a significant proportion of the population. To the untrained (or trained-but-tired eye), they could almost be thought of as Japanese, thus I found it wholly surreal to be surrounded by familiar faces – speaking and acting like Russians! It was like hearing my (future) sister-in-law speaking in her Scottish accent (having been brought up in Scotland), only on a massive scale – foreign languages being spoken with uncanny fluency.

    Still, my attention was soon dragged back to the job in hand – getting a ticket and getting back on the train. Time was ticking by, and suddenly 50 minutes seemed like a very short time. The queue didn’t shrink at the proper rate either, as every now and then some cheeky Russian would have a word with one of the people in front of me: My train’s departing soon, do you mind if I join the queue just behind you? It was that or, in the case of the man who spoke a little English, “I’m in the other queue, but I’m also in this queue in front of you, even though I’m standing over there, OK?” I wondered if the appropriate response was to go over to the front of his queue and tell the person there that although I was in the other queue my invisible alter ego was actually holding a place for me just in front of them, and thus they should let me in when it came to their turn. I wondered whether this form of telekinetic queuing also worked over long distances. For example, when I get to Krasnoyarsk, 23 hours West of here, I tell the person at the front of the queue that actually I’ve been waiting since three days beforehand, and thus I am actually next in line, despite the fact that I appear to have just walked into the station for the first time ever. Crikey, if it does work I can even get in line now to have my organic vegees priced up at the health food shop in Sheffield when I get there at the end of the month. There’s no limits to the possibilities of this magical Russian system.

    Despite my willing it to slow down, the digital clock never let up in its procession towards the critical time of 17:12. It was nail-biting stuff, and only when my turn came was I really sure that I was going to miss the train: it departed, on time, moments before I shoved the piece of paper with my ticket requirements on under the counter window.

    The woman was almost apologetic when telling me that the next train wasn’t until 9.20pm, or, if one was to go by local time and not that a few thousand kilometres away, 2.20am. Hurrah!

    It was a big waiting room, with 4 walls and a tiny TV at the end showing some Russianised episode of 24. There wasn’t much to do but …wait.

    Finally, 4 hours later, my train pulled into the station. I somehow managed to decrypt the all-in-Russian train ticket, and noted that I was in carriage 16, couchette 7. I had my ticket to the big blonde Frau. She is nice to me, and whilst unable to speak English keeps the Russian she does use to a minimum, making me feel marginally less ignorant. Having established that our arrival time is none other than 25:00 (which I take to mean 1am), I wander down the quiet carriage and locate bed 16. There’s only one other occupant in my apartment, but he makes up for that by being only too present, lying in a drunken stupor, head at an awkward angle against the glass of the filthy window, body and legs half-on-half-off his lower bunk. The table is strewn with empty beer cans, the air in the compartment confirms that he had had quite a evening. Not wanting to wake the sleeping giant, I quietly make my bed with the pack of sheets handed me by the Frau, set my iPod to wake me at 1am Moscow time, and lay my head to rest.

    The next thing I know the Frau is back, at least I think it’s her. My bleary eyes can’t make out the details on her face, but I assume it’s her she’s telling me we’ve arrived. I heave myself up, check the time on my iPod – it’s 1am – and ask her, “Irkutsk? Irkutsk?”. Her reply however mystifies me; “kopchenyj, kopchenyj”. I guess one of us has misheard, and so I repeat my question. This time, her response takes on a very physical form, as she draws a huge great stinking fish out from her wicker basket and shoves it in my face. Naturally, I’m pretty stunned by this – it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting – I let out an “Oh!” …and finally a “no”; she closes the door and moves on.

    But we were going to reach Irkutsk at 25:00 right? I get out of bed and stumble down the carriage, past the old fish woman who is now waking the neighbours, to the Frau’s cabin. Aren’t we supposed to be in Irkutsk by now? No, no, 25:00 is when we arrive – you know, 5am.

    I guess this kind of telling the time is just part of the Moscow method…

    Wooden houses are the way to go in Siberia

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    …often with cute painted shutters

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    Three hours later and I’m shaken awake, this time it is the Frau. “You wash now” she tells me, rubbing her hands over her face in mock-cleansing action. I thank her and stumble down the carriage to the toilet compartment. Whilst waiting for it to become free, a well-built blonde guy starts to talk to me in Russian. I apologise for not being able to understand, but it’s OK, he speaks English, “Hi, I’m Igor, Do you like beer?”

    “Beer? Erm, yes, I do …but it’s a bit early for me…” He gives me a puzzled look, as if I’ve just proposed that we swap clothes for the day. The toilet door opens and I am saved from beer for breakfast.

    Little girls wave at the passing train

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    A few hours later, now at the Baikaler Hostel, Irkutsk, Siberia

    I guess this must be Russia…

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    It turned out to be quite an eventful journey. As the Moscow clock finally hit our scheduled arrival time, so I began to wonder how late the train was running. Looking out of the window I saw that we’d stopped in a freight yard full of wagons loaded with Siberian logs. Fifteen minutes later I began to think that perhaps we were waiting for a platform to clear at the station ahead. …or were we? I got up, and opened the door to the corridor. Looking out of the opposite window I saw the station master waving his flag, accompanied by a shrill whistle. Behind him was a station, a large station, and attached the rook was a sign in big Russian characters, it read “Irkutsk” as decoded by my guidebook.

    Oh crikey – It was my stop! I grabbed my bags and dashed to the end of the carriage, but it was too late. The steps had been pulled up, the door closed. The Frau looked up at me with surprise – what are you still doing on this train? she asked. I gestured stupidity. She sympathised, but there was nothing she could do. I looked on with dismay as Irkutsk station faded from view.

    My dismay deepened when we arrived at the next station – and didn’t stop. So it was with the following station; finally, at the third stop, the Frau was able to lower the steps to the platform and let me off. With this being a fairly major-looking rail junction I assumed that I’d simply be able to hop back on a local train to the city centre, but no, the next train wasn’t for another 2 hours! Upon seeing my look of desperation, the lady behind the glass took a scrap of paper, and started to scribble some bus numbers and directions in Russian. She handed this to me and pointed down the road. It seemed I was destined to take the plunge into Russian commuter life.

    Check out MY Lada…

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    As I made my way down the quiet backstreet, I was struck by how different it was to all the streets I have walked down over the past year. There was something about it that gave it a special feel, something that excited me – what was it? The trees for one thing. This street had autumnal trees on it, and they weren’t the well-behaved regularly pruned types of Tokyo, they were sleepy trees, flopping their branches low overhead, cracking the muddy pavements with their roots. To the sides of the pavements were six foot wooden fences, rarely straight and with panels missing; through the holes one could make out gardens overgrown with weeds, and at the end of them dilapadated wooden houses, the faded paintwork of the shutters hinting at former golden times.

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    Then there was the cars. Being a run down neighbourhood there was no sign of any foreign models, just the old square-edged Russian types littering the roadsides. And finally, there was the people. For the first time in a year there were white faces wherever I looked, for the first time in a year I wasn’t being singled out as being different – they were all just like me! I started to feel like I was back in Europe, a feeling that grew stronger and stronger the more I saw of the place. Having found my bus and figured out through observation that the payment system involved throwing a 10 rouble (20p) note son the carpeted table under which the engine sits next to the driver, I made it back into town. First stop was the information office (rare for Russia), where I was told that I’d just missed the bus to lake Baikal, I’d have to spend the night in Irkutsk. No matter, the place had already made a significant impression upon me with the Western-style buildings of the city centre now adding to the European effect. Walking down the road to the hostel I almost started to cry with joy, so overcome was I by the feeling that I was now in Europe. Memories of Switzerland came flooding back. Here I was in a foreign city where they drove on the wrong side of the road, but where everything was kind of familiar, where everyone looked like me. I was never expecting to feel such happiness at being back on ‘familiar territory’ (never mind the fact that thousands of kilometres still divided me from any Europe I’d been to), but after a year of alienation the indifferent welcome of the city smothered my senses. I felt ecstatic.

    No doubt this tram originates in some far-away land, and was brought here for post-retirement exercise, like all the other commercial vehicles on the road

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    There followed a few hours of intense activity. I checked into the incredibly well hidden Baikaler hostel (it has a no drop-ins policy, but I was lucky), I changed my remaining dollars into roubles. I bought an onward ticket to Krasnoyarsk for the 4th. At the local internet cafe they let me plug my Mac straight into the network – down came 50 emails, up went 300 photos. I visited a nearby hotel to get my visa registered (a bureaucratic hangover from the Soviet era). “Ask for the blonde-haired lady called Olga, she’ll sort you out (It provides an additional income for her, so she’s always happy to help), and finally I paid a visit to the supermarket to stock up on bananas and bread, the staple diet of all budget travellers.

    Fruit and veg at the local market

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    Flowers are big business round here. What a romantic bunch they are!

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    And so here I am. The hostel is basically a converted apartment in the city centre, grim on the outside but tastefully IKEAised on the inside. It’s run by Yulia, a very friendly linguistics student from Ulan Ude writing her PhD. Best of all, it has a washing machine and a hot shower, so I can finally rid myself of the attractive odour of cow poo.

    A few minutes ago the door opened and a familiar face appeared – it was Adrian who I’d shared a compartment with for about 30 hours from Ulaanbaatar to Ulan Ude. An Ozzie by birth, Adrian is a well-seasoned traveller, currently on a trip from Hong Kong to Moscow, from where he’ll fly to London and pick up a job in finance. Mere ‘coincidence’ sees us at the same hostel, and mere ‘coincidence sees us both staying at the place on the shores of lake Baikal this weekend – anyone would think we’d planned to travel together! I’m very grateful that he’s a really nice chap, and never a bore to be around. I do feel a bit sorry for him having to put up with my chatter though – I’m making up for two weeks of relative silence! Thank you Adrian!

    Anyway, I’d best stop here for now. There’s a whole Siberian city out there just waiting for me to explore it.