On some kind of scale, this isn’t the worst thing that has happened to either of us, but it’s close * (see below). And we can’t see any end in sight, yet. We have overstayed our Russian visas, by 10 days and counting! It’s a long, involved story that probably doesn’t make for very interesting reading so I won’t try and explain it all here, but we hadn’t realised our visas had expired on August 12th until we were detained by Customs at the ferry terminal yesterday (Wednesday August 21st). We had booked tickets to go to South Korea on the overnight ferry, but we sat in a little office in Customs and watched it sail without us. We have been fingerprinted and had mug shots taken, spent 4 nervous hours wondering what would happen to us, made statements which were translated into Cyrillic for us by an absolutely wonderful young woman who works for the ferry company. We were taken to a bank by a Customs officer and the young woman to pay our fines. And then we were allowed to leave, with some very vague instructions on where to go to lodge the paperwork. So, mug shots and fingerprinting … but we’re allowed to leave? Really? It all seems so ridiculous for 2 tourists who made a mistake and who now just want to leave the country. Not to mention frustrating.
As it always is in situations like this, it’s the kindness of strangers that get us through – the young woman at the ferry terminal, the Customs officers who were just doing their jobs and treated us well, the Russian people on the street that we ask for directions or information.
A complication of not having a valid visa is that we can’t stay at a hotel for longer than one night, so we’re having to move each day, and find somewhere that will accept us without the correct paperwork. We understand that they can get into trouble, but it just adds to the stress of it all.
We have been in touch with the Australian consul in Vladivostok and he is coming to meet us today. I hope he can help us.
UPDATE: The Australian consul in Vladivostok, Vladimir Gorokhov, has been amazingly helpful. However, because of a recent change (on August 9th) to immigration laws, the only way for us to leave the country is to be deported. So we have to go to court, hopefully tomorrow, to get some kind of ruling made and a stamp on a piece of paper to allow us to leave. We won’t be allowed back into Russia for 5 years and right at the moment I’m not feeling all that sad about that. I just want to leave and never come back.
We have been given permission to stay longer at the hotel we stayed at last night – it took the Australian consul, an Immigration department official, a long conversation with the hotel manager and a phone call to someone else higher up the chain, but thankfully we have a place to stay for the next couple of nights.
If you can overcome the thought of having friends/relatives who are regarded a criminals in one particular country we would love to hear from you – comments, emails, emergency chocolate …actually, don’t worry about the chocolate.
We’re both fine and keep reminding each other that one day we’ll laugh about this. Not yet though, we’re just working on getting out of here.
* My ‘worst thing’ was when Greg got sick and ended up in hospital in Spain a couple of years ago. I spent the next week feeling scared all the time and crying in the shower a lot.
Greg’s ‘worst thing’ was getting his Landcruiser stuck in a creek in the Simpson Desert and having to walk to Birdsville to get help. There may or may not have been tears.
There have been other ‘adventures’ that we have shared and now laugh about – the time we took a tandem bike to Viet Nam and got stuck on Highway 5 with no spare tyres and nowhere to spend the night. A Vietnamese family took us in and gave us a bed and a meal.
We lost our hotel room in Manhattan because we arrived after midnight because of flight delays. We had paid for it, but that didn’t matter, apparently. We ended up in an all-night diner talking to the cricket-obsessed Nepalese night manager who let us stay there for hours and then took us to the subway and taught us how to use it. I think he liked us because we share a home-town with the Chappell brothers.
As close as we got to our Ferry to South Korea. We watched it sail away while detained in Russian customs
Queue outside visa office. It only opened for two hours a day. It was the third office we had visited, but still the wrong one.
Discussions between the manager of the hotel and the head of the immigration office on whether we could stay at the hotel for the night, The discussions went on for ten minutes. The alternative was sleeping in a park.
We’re about 4 hours and 250kms north of Vladivostok, having spent the last 3 days on the train. For reasons known only to the Russian Railways ticketing system, for this part of our trip we couldn’t just buy First Class tickets, we had to buy Business Class tickets. These are really just First Class tickets that are more expensive because they apparently include ‘services’. Same carriage as last time, but with a couple of extras thrown in – glossy magazine that we can’t read as it’s in Cyrillic, little guest pack with paper slippers, toothbrush, sewing kit, shoe shiner thing …. and meals. Er, actually it’s ‘meal’, as in one meal a day, but we only realised that after the first 24 hours. Thankfully we had been a bit sceptical about the included ‘meals’ and bought food (& drinks!) before we got on the train in Irkutsk, otherwise it would have been pretty close to a 3-day fast. Which might not have been such a bad thing, but we can work on our holiday weight loss program when we get home.
To anyone who is reading these posts and thinking of travelling on the Trans-Siberian railway, don’t bother with Business Class if you have a choice (we didn’t), just get First Class tickets and bring your own food.
For a lot of this section of the Trans-Siberian railway, the track goes just north (and then east) of the border with China. We’ve probably seen China out of the train windows at times. This section of the line, east of Lake Baikal, is much busier than to the west. Lots of freight trains, a few passenger trains, and lots of railway workers. Any little boy (or girl!) who wants to be a train driver when he grows up just needs to learn to speak Russian and move here. The Russian railways must be one of the biggest employers in the country.
We’ve had several stops a day, and whenever we can, we get out of the train to walk around a bit and see if there’s anything interesting around the place. Most stops are 15 – 20 minutes, and last night we followed 2 of the catering attendants as they ran to the supermarket to stock up on supplies for the restaurant car on the train. When I looked in their trolley, it seemed to be full of cans of beer, but there might have been some food hidden somewhere. We were more restrained and bought a block of chocolate, a drink and a packet of chips.
There have been people selling food on the platform a couple of times. This morning they were selling some kind of dried fish and containers of ‘caviar’. The night before last, we followed people up a little lane past the station and found 2 ladies doing a very brisk trade selling piroshki, boiled eggs, cooked chicken pieces and other Russian comfort foods.
There has been some flooding in some areas we’ve passed through in the last day or so – some of the rivers in Eastern Siberia are huge, and when they break their banks, the floodwaters stretch out for many kms.
So … tonight we arrive in Vladivostok. By the time we get off the train, we’ll have travelled 9289kms, crossed 7 time zones and spent a total of 6 days on the train. I’ve read 6 or 7 books, Greg has taken loads of photos and videos. Every afternoon that we were on the train, we would lock the door, pull down the blinds and watch an episode of one of our latest favourite TV series – Under the Dome, The Killing and the first ep of the US version of The Bridge.
The Station clock says its 3:10am, but its bright sunshine!. All stations work on Moscow time, the local time was 10:10am
I know, it’s not very nice to laugh at others’ misfortune, but today’s little incident was the most entertainment we’ve had since the season premiere of Breaking Bad … and so much funnier!
We had just walked out of a supermarket in Irkutsk, sat down on a seat in one of the main streets to share a block of Ritter chocolate, and noticed a tow truck on the road right in front of us, about to hook up a car and tow it away. And then we noticed a couple more tow trucks, and a policeman. The cars were parked in a 30 minute zone, but we think they got pinged because they were angle-parked and jutting into the traffic. The cars that were parallel-parked didn’t get towed away. In total, 5 cars were towed while we sat and watched, several more were driven away by their owners and as we walked down the street, we noticed that one tow-truck was back to pick up his second car. Apparently simple parking fines don’t work in this town, so the cops have resorted to towing and impounding cars instead.
The owner of the first car arrived on the scene just after it had been loaded onto the truck, so he did the only thing he could – hopped into the truck with the driver and his offsider to go and pay the hefty fine to get his car back. We didn’t see any other owners, but it would have been most disconcerting to get back to one’s car and discover it wasn’t there. And then to go to the police station to report it missing and find out why … well, we did laugh. I know, it’s mean, and in case you don’t already know, or haven’t yet worked it out, here’s the definition of Schadenfreude
The first car to be towed away. By the time we left, the rest had also been towed.
This place has been on Greg’s ‘Must See’ list for a long time. It possibly wasn’t on his ‘Must Swim In’ list, but he can tick it off that one too. More on that later.
Listvyanka on Lake Baikal is just down the Angara river a bit from Irkutsk. It takes an hour or so to get there by car, bus or ferry (hydrofoil). We took the hydrofoil – it seemed appropriate that we reach the world’s oldest, largest, deepest unfrozen freshwater lake by water transport. We hopped on the No. 16 bus in Irkutsk, drove through the suburbs past the Angara dam (which has raised the water level on Lake Baikal by over 1 metre, there’s now almost no margin between the water and the lake wall, although there are sandy beaches on the eastern shore) to the Raketa ferry terminal to catch the afternoon ferry. We were lucky that it was a clear day on the lake, although we never did manage to see across to the other side. At its widest point, the lake is almost 80kms across.
We walked the 2kms from the ferry terminal to Deveranka, a ‘family hotel’ which offers accommodation in individual cabins with en-suite toilet and handbasin with hot & cold water, and tent camping in the field next door. Breakfast is included. In summer, there’s a shower room, but I guess it’s too freezing in winter for the little electric water heater to even take the chill off. There’s a banya – bathhouse, sort of like a sauna – which they probably use in winter.
So, we were there for a day and a half, and we walked, ate Mongolian barbecue by the lake, had dinner at the same restaurant both nights, and went for a swim. In water that was probably no warmer than 5C. Yes, we probably were crazy, but it was one of those things that we just had to do, or risk regretting not doing it for the rest of our lives. Certain parts of Greg’s body are possibly regretting that he actually did it, but that’s okay, he’d already decided he doesn’t want more children. It was so, so cold. ‘Swim’ is probably not quite the right word to describe what we did – we raced in wearing swimsuits and sandals (to avoid any broken glass), gasped at how cold it was, and ran out again.The Russian guy sunbaking near us gave us a ‘thumbs up’, and the look on his face implied that he wouldn’t have been so stupid, but then he might not have finished having children yet.
Yesterday we went on the Circum-Baikal Railway, which goes along the lake, on the original Trans-Siberian tracks from Port Baikal, on the other side of the Angara River from Listvyanka, to Slyudyanka. It’s a full, long day that starts with a short ferry trip across to Pork Baikal, then the train trip that stops 5 times along the way at places of historical or scenic significance (I think – all the commentary was in Russian, and there was a large Chinese group with their own guide). The train was pulled by a diesel engine, then when we got to Slyudyanka they uncoupled the diesel engine and used an electric engine to take us back to Irkutsk on the regular train line. We’ll go on that same section tomorrow night on the Trans-Siberian train
The Hydrofoil ferry docking at Listvyanka on Lake Baikal
A boat on Lake Baikal – we never could see the other side, its nearly 70km away.
Lake Baikal from near where we stayed looking south west to Port Baikal
Cleaning carpets on the beach at Lake Baikal. You can do lots of things with a fresh water lake
Beach life on Lake Baikal at touristy Listvyanka
Part of Listvyanka from the restaurant
our siberian cabin
Building a Siberian log cabin
the main street in Listvyanka
Baked Omul fish – the local fish caught in Lake Baikal
Lunch on the beach at Lake Baikal Listvyanka
Morning mist on Lake Baikal
the Circum Baikal tourist train, electric train pulled by a diesel-electric loco. The circumbaikal line is cut out of the hills at the edge of the lake.
I bet you thought it was always cold in Siberia. Yep, so did I. And, a tiny confession here, I thought it was always snowy. But we’ve just spent the day wandering around Irkutsk wearing shorts, singlets and sandals, and the forecast for the next few days is Fine, with top temps of 27 – 29C. It’s late summer here, even though it’s only the middle of August. Trees are starting to change colour, flowers are going to seed and the local produce market is full of vegetables I associate with autumn at home – tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini. It’s a short summer, and a very, very long, hard winter. Food preserving is a big thing here. The market had quite a few little stalls that were selling jar lids, setting agent and other bits ‘n’ pieces.
So, we’ve spent 2 nights in Irkutsk, staying in an apartment attached to the Irkutsk Hostel. We’re going to Lake Baikal today and will spend a couple of nights in a cabin at the Derevenka Family Hotel at Listvyanka, then on Thursday we’re going on the Circum-Baikal Railway, which is a day trip that goes around part of the shoreline of the lake, along the old Trans-Siberian route. We’ll be back in Irkutsk on Thursday night, at the Irkutsk Hostel again, and get back on the Trans-Siberian train on Saturday night.
See you in a few days!
Judy coping with the Siberian weather at the market in Irkutsk
We’re on Train 002 Rossiya: Moscow – Vladivostok. We caught the train from Platform 2 at Yaroslavsky Station at 1:50pm yesterday (Thursday) afternoon. Trans-Siberian trains always leave from Yaroslavsky Station, from platform 1 – 5 at the eastern end of the station. The nearest metro station is Komsomolskaya. Train departure times are displayed on a large board at the near end of platform 2, so it’s not really necessary to go into the railway station to get information. Platform number is only displayed 40 minutes prior to departure, so if you get there earlier, you just need to wait until closer to the time of departure.
The day before we caught the train, we did a ‘practice run’ from our apartment, changing metro lines and trying to work out the best places to stand so that we could get on the metro trains with all our luggage and the least amount of fuss. When we caught our first metro train in Moscow, we hadn’t realised how quickly the carriage doors close, and we both got stuck between the closing automatic doors – thankfully a local passenger who was already on the train helped us prise the doors apart! We gave ourselves plenty of time to get to Yaroslavsky Station with our gear, and during our practice run we had found a good local supermarket so that we could buy water and food for the trip. The station was full of people arriving, leaving and generally milling about, which was a bit of a relief because the day before we watched 2 police harass 2 travellers for their ‘papers’, which seems to be a common occurrence at railway stations, but best avoided if at all possible. More people means we’re less likely to stand out as tourists or targets. So we got Greg settled with all our bags and I went across to the Billa supermarket on the other side of the busy road outside the station. Access is via an underpass near Lenin’s statue in the car park to the east of the main station building. There is also a smaller supermarket east of the car park, which mainly sells cooked & pre-packaged food and drinks especially for train travellers.
The Billa supermarket has a good range of food and drinks & I bought bottled water, bread, apple pies, long life milk, breakfast cereal, instant mashed potato and noodles. The 2 men in front of me in the checkout line bought several bottles of vodka (?!?), and the woman behind me had lots of styrofoam trays of cooked pancakes, dumplings and salads. When I got back to the station, Greg wasn’t where I had left him, and of course I immediately thought the police had taken him away, but he had moved because he’d been waiting near a garbage bin and all the smokers congregated there. We got lunch from the cafe/takeaway place just near platform 3 – wraps filled with chicken and lettuce/tomato or cabbage/carrot. The service is fast, the food tastes good and the woman who served me spoke English.
The train was at Platform 2 around 40 minutes prior to departure, so we gathered our bags and walked down to our first class carriage, No 7. We have a 2-berth cabin with 2 bench seats that become beds, with a table in between. There is storage space under the seats, and there’s also a storage compartment above the door. The padded headrests of the seats lift up and have small shelves for a bit more storage. There are reading lights at either end of each seat, and a power point under the table. Greg bought a triple adaptor so we can plug in our small fridge, USB charger, computer and other electrical paraphernalia. At one end of the carriage there are 2 toilets with handbasins, at the other end near the carriage attendant’s office is a samovar, so hot water is always available. As far as we can tell, there is no shower. Good thing we’re only on the train for 3 days to Irkutsk, not going the whole way to Vladivostok (6 days) in one go. We do have a good supply of baby wipes.
So, we’ve been on the train for almost 24 hours. We have crossed 2 time zones and travelled 1500 kms so far. Our guide books (The Lonely Planet Trans-Siberian book and Bryn Thomas’ Trans-Siberian Handbook) both mentioned that it was possible to buy food on station platforms when the train stopped, but so far we haven’t seen any. The carriage attendant sells a range of drinks and snacks, and there is a dining car on the train and we’ll probably end up having a meal or 2 there. We went and had a beer there last night. On the second part of our trip, from Irkutsk to Vladivostok, our meals are included; for some reason we couldn’t just buy first class tickets, we had to pay for ‘services’ – meals – as well. The first class compartment isn’t full at the moment – there is an American couple who are also travelling to Irkutsk, then going on the Trans-Mongolian route to Ulaan Baatar, and several other people have hopped on and off the train at various stops.
The second class cabins are the same as ours, with 2 extra bunks over the bench seats. And then there are the 3rd class carriages, which have 54 bunks in an open carriage, arranged into open compartments of sets of double bunks at right angles to the windows on one side of the carriage, then a walkway, then double bunks arranged alongside the windows. Apparently the bunks at either ends of the carriage are best avoided (toilets at one end near the higher-numbered berths, smokers near the carriage door at the other), and the lateral bunks are short, so no good for anyone taller than 5’5″ and people keep bumping into them as they walk past.
Our Trans-Siberian train trip, Day 3
The Russian railways all work on ‘Moscow time’, so train departure & arrival times, and on-train & railway station clocks are all set to whatever the time is in Moscow. The timetable in our carriage has all the arrival and departure times for the whole Moscow-Vladivostok journey. Yesterday we were running a bit late, so our time at each station was shorter than stated in the timetable. We’ve read a few cautionary tales of people getting left behind, and there’s no warning when the train takes off, so we’re very careful about getting back on the train as fast as we can. Each time we stop, we make a quick dash for the nearest station kiosk to see what they were selling. Late yesterday afternoon we got lucky and found a shrinkwrapped (!) loaf of bread at one kiosk and some drinking yoghurt and filled bread rolls at another. The woman at the second kiosk did her very best to try and pretend I didn’t exist, by restocking and moving items around on her shelves, looking out the window, peering in the fridge and carefully avoiding any eye contact whatsoever, but when more customers lobbed in, she had to finally give in and sell me some stuff.
This morning when we stopped at Barabinsk, we hit the jackpot – babushkas (grannies) selling their baked goodies and berries up and down the train. They were also offering furry Russian hats, scarves and a range of other non-essential items. Greg spotted a supermarket nearby and dashed off to get us some beer and chocolate, and I bought some bread rolls on the platform. Next time I’ll try to be quicker and get some pancakes as well. We rushed back onto the train, leaping onto the nearest carriage ‘cos we couldn’t see anyone else on the platform and we thought it was about to depart, and then sat there for another 10 minutes. A little old lady with a box full of berries sold Greg a cupful at the carriage door. There were a few strawberries on top, but most of them are plump, ripe raspberries. Yum.
We are now in Siberia, and it’s a mixture of flat grassy plains (steppes) and forest, electricity sub-stations and with an occasional village or larger town. We just stopped at Novosibersk, the capital of Western Siberia, population 1.4 million, and the 3rd largest city in Russia.
3 days (73 hours to be precise) on a long-distance train trip is long enough. We are stopping for almost 6 days in Irkutsk, and Thank Heavens for that! Doing the whole 6-day train trip in one go would be very trying – no showers, limited food choices and only occasional stops of 25 minutes or less. I’d strongly recommend anyone doing this trip to at least stop for a couple of days somewhere along the way, for a chance to walk longer than a few hundred metres at a time, to wash clothes (and yourself!), to get a better night’s sleep and for probably a whole lot more reasons that I can’t think of at the moment. The beds on the train are only 55cm wide, so if you’re used to the luxury of a wider bed, even turning over in such a narrow space requires some thought and planning.
Even on the train, we have people coming and trying to sell us stuff. A guy came into our cabin and tried hard to sell us a battery-operated massager thing, then a while later a woman did the rounds with scarves. Closed doors are no deterrent and they are very persistent, so after that for a while after we left each station we would lock our cabin door
A video of our train trip. You can view it on Youtube in HD if you follow this link
No 2 train pulling into the station in Moscow
crowds waiting at the Moscow station
1o minute stop at Perm
loading more water at Perm
triple adaptor to power all the electronics – the train cabin has only one power outlet
The samovar in the corridor proving all the hot water
there are kilometre posts all the way, this marked 1650km from Moscow
the marker for the border between Europe and Asia
babushka selling hats on the train
Marlinsk Station at night
We passed and got passed by lots of freight trains transporting oil
We’ve just arrived in Irkusk, Siberia, after 3 days on the Trans-Siberian train. I’ve written a bit about the trip so far, and Greg has taken heaps of photos and videos, and we’ll post some soon. But while we find our legs again and get used to the floor staying still and not rocking from side to side, here’s a post from Greg’s mum & dad, Fay and Ron, about a trip they did to Russia in 1980.
Memories of Russia 1980
Judy emailed us, wondering if we would like to reminisce on our trip to Russia in 1980, comparing it to their trip 2013.
So here goes.
We were in the UK to visit the relations, and had arranged a trip through Europe, called Russia, Poland and the Northern Capitals, cost $1,220 each, included dinner and breakfast along the way.
In July 1980 we left London for Harwich and embarked on the D.F.D.S. SEAWAYS for Esbjerg in Denmark, day two and three Copenhagen, and day four embarked on a ferry to Sweden, reaching the capital Stockholm in time for dinner. Day five spent sightseeing in Stockholm. Later that day we were driven to Norrtalje for the overnight crossing to Finland. Sightseeing in Helsinki our sixth day where we toured the bustling capital.
Then eastward to Russia:
First have to explain the times, we were arriving in Russia just before the 1980 Russian Olympics, several nations had banned athletes from attending the Olympics due to Russia invading Afghanistan. Australia did not send a full team to the games. Americans did not send a team.
We arrived at the border of Russia to overbearing custom people, there was only 18 of us in the coach (which could hold 44) many had cancelled because of the Russian situation.
They kept us in customs for four hours, went through everyone’s personal luggage, I had heated curlers, they took them apart, all books were searched through methodically. Small dogs were let loose in the coach; rods were put through the bodywork. Later they let us go.
Next Leningrad, now called St Petersburg, where we were taken by coach sightseeing and then to the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery, a cemetery for 500,000 people. These people died during the siege of Leningrad, by the German army during World War 11. We walked down past this vast cemetery, to the monument where we found many Russians stood crying. A heart stopping moment to see such sorrow thirty six years after the siege ended.
In the evening we were taken to a performance of ballet at the spectacular Kirov Theatre.
Day nine we were driven to Novgorod where we first learnt you could only shop in Berioska shops, special shops for tourists. Shops in Russia at that time were not good; we see many queues outside premises, which to us did not have much displayed.
Hotels were unique as well. On every floor there were security, a lift in the Novgorod hotel could not be installed because the area left for it was not correct shape. Also food, we were served chicken which was so tough you couldn’t eat it. And we were served with caviar one time, which was a memorable moment.
In Novgorod we see young children led along holding on to a long rope, we see older children guarding the tomb of the unknown warrior, which apparently they performed this duty every day.
We learnt about another custom, brides on their wedding day they came to the memorial to honour the dead.
In the streets woman swept the roads with birch twig brooms, they were older woman and wore aprons and scarves.
In Russia there was not much traffic, mostly looked like government cars, few private. People did not speak to you; one place a man spoke in English but quickly moved away when security came into view. Not a happy country.
We continued on to Moscow where we did the usual sightseeing Red Square, huge queue for Lenin Mausoleum, we did not go in. The Kremlin and St Basil Cathedral, Tretyakov and Pushkin art galleries and the amazing Pavilion of Scientific Achievement.
The special thing we did in Moscow was to visit the Moscow State Circus in their permanent home, I would say circuses do not come at the top of my list to go and see, but, the Moscow State Circus, what can you say, it was amazing, never seen anything like since.
The journey through Russia continues past huge housing estates, high rise, ugly places, no landscaping.
We see paddocks were people lined up in a long row were cutting corn with scythes.
Saw woman washing clothes in creeks.
We stopped to get diesel on our way to Minsk, 150 litres the cost two cartons of cigarettes, the driver had them under his seat.
During our long travels through Russia we came across many block houses with armed guards.
So you can see how 1980 behind the iron curtain was different compared to 2013.
When we were leaving Russia we had to give roubles we had back.
Into Warsaw Poland, we learnt quickly how they all hated the Russian people.
Still behind that Wall, taken to a hotel in East Germany, built by the Swiss and run by them, the best hotel we had been in.
Taken around to see the wall, Brandenburg Gate and the gigantic Soviet memorial.
Next day out of Russian hands through Check Point Charlie, with more security checks underneath the coach they used mirrors. Into West Berlin, like another world entirely, shops packed with goods, and happy people.
Welcome to our Soviet-era apartment in Aeroport, a northern suburb of Moscow. As you walked the 2 blocks from the Aeroport metro stop, you probably noticed that the whole street is lined with 5 – 8 storey apartment blocks, most of which have tiny shops along the ground floor. Our apartment block is 8 storeys high, and has 4 entrances. Each entrance has 32 apartments, 4 on each floor. We are at the very end of the block, on the corner of the street, and there is another similar apartment block next door, at right angles to ours. The 2 blocks are joined by a concrete slab on each of the 8 floors, half of which has been enclosed to become another ‘room’ in our apartment.
Housing in this area was built when Khrushchev was in power, in the late 1950s and early 1960s. They were built in a hurry and were only meant to last for a couple of decades, but here they still are, 50+ years later. They are known as ‘khrushchoby‘, after ‘trushchoby‘ (slums). The outside of our building is pretty depressing – shady, weed-infested gardens, graffiti on walls, rubbish on paths and when it rains the road and paths are awash, until the puddles evaporate.
To get into the building, you need a security key. The entry way is a small, dark, dank place. Walk up a short flight of crumbling terrazzo steps to catch the lift to the 5th floor, or continue walking up the steps (all 86 of them!) to our apartment. The lift is very slow and holds either 4 people, or 3 people, 2 backpacks and a large duffle bag. The only time we have used the lift was the day we arrived, and I guess we’ll use it again tomorrow when we leave. As you walk up the steps, you’ll notice the smell of stale cigarettes mixed with general decay. There are nearly always cigarette butts on the steps, and I suspect the smokers live on the 2nd and 3rd storeys as there usually aren’t any butts higher than that. You’ll also notice a couple of rubbish chutes on landings between floors. The one nearest to us has a long-handled shoe-horn for pushing rubbish bags further down the chute.
Each floor has 4 apartments, 2 on either side of the lift. As ours is at the corner of the building, we have windows looking out over the street and also over the ‘courtyard’ …. shady overgrown area where people park their cars on the paths. There are 2 hefty doors into the apartment – an outer, padded door that is key-locked from inside and outside, and another padded door that we lock from the inside plus there’s a chain on that one as well. Lots of security here, but we have only seen other people in the stairwell a couple of times, and hardly hear any noise from neighbours.
The actual apartment consists of a small lobby which houses the washing machine, a bathroom off the lobby, a small kitchen, one large room and an enclosed verandah. The kitchen and bathroom have been updated within the last 10 years, most (if not all) of the furniture is from Ikea, because how else does one get furniture up 86 steps if it doesn’t fit in the tiny lift? The kitchen and main room have old radiators under the window sills, and there is a more modern radiator in the enclosed verandah.The windows in the kitchen and main room have been replaced with aluminum-framed windows, but the original, rotting timber-framed windows remain in the verandah. Just going back to the washing machine for a sec, it’s only half the size of a normal front-loading machine – same width, but only 30cm deep. We can wash a couple of changes of clothes in it at a time.
The bathroom has hot and cold pipes in the corner, and an interesting tap arrangement where the same tap is used for the shower and the handbasin. The water pressure is good, and there’s plenty of hot water. The kitchen has a small table and 2 stools, a fridge, a gas stove and oven, plus a microwave. We have cooked a roast chicken & vegetables in the oven, and several meals on the stove. And now, it’s time for dinner …. pelmenyi filled meat dumplings and Russian beer that we buy in 1.5L plastic bottles!
This will be our last post for a few days. We’re catching the train tomorrow and will be offline until we get to Irkusk, on Lake Baikal, late on Sunday night.
Our apartment building is on the far right
Stairwell, with lift at bottom of the stairs
Our Verandah is 3rd from the bottom on the LHS, with the window open. Then at right angles to it, along the brick wall, is our kitchen window,also open
Poorly laid bricks (5 stories up) opposite the street side of the apartment
5 workers – 1 working 4 watching – a common sight in Moscow
Both of us grew up during the cold war, and the Soviet Union was the enemy with 10,000+ nuclear weapons and thousands of tanks stationed in East Germany. The Soviet Union was a strong powerful country.
Russia, which is 75% of the former Soviet Union, seems a much poorer country. Russia’s GDP per capita is about a third of Australia’s. Russia’s total GDP is about 15% to 33% bigger than Australia’s but for 143 million people versus Australia’s 21 million. I suspect it will not be more than 5 to 10 years before Australia’s GDP exceeds Russia.
We see so much inefficiency here. Unemployment is meant to be similar to Australia’s, around 6%, but there are so many people employed in meaningless jobs. We went to a supermarket today (not a very big one) with not one, but TWO security guards. Every supermarket has a security guard, and sometimes someone watching video surveillance full-time as well. We pass a shop selling kitchen goods in the mall up the road which has two shop assistants and the shop is the size of a large walk-in robe. Next door there is a jewellery shop with four shop assistants, and no customers most of the time. There are shopping areas about 750 metres away from us that are full of tiny little stores (3 metres by 2 metres) that sell hardware, fruit and veg and similar. There must be 50 stalls, and again almost never any customers. There is a market next door with a couple of dozen little stalls selling fruit and veg, all similar, and most of the time with no customers. There are supermarkets everywhere, there must be ten supermarkets of various sizes within 1 km of our apartment.
There are tiny little shops in many subway underpasses. Really tiny, 2 metres long by a metre deep, selling everything from shoes to taps. Shopkeepers eking out a living.
There are police on every metro station (usually at least 3) plus people monitoring video surveillance. At the train stations and other places there are many examples of security theatre. At Saint Petersburg station there were body metal detectors that people had to walk through. Of course the metal detector went off all the time, because ordinarily people are carrying metal all the time (coins and phones etc). The guards did nothing when the alarms went off, and to make it more ridiculous Saint Petersburg station had several entrances that you could go through without going through any detectors. We went through a metal detector at an entrance to a shopping centre yesterday, and as usual the metal detector beeped, but the guard did nothing.
At the main shopping area near us some workman have been replacing some paving with new paving. This has been going on since before we got here on Saturday. It is so pathetically slow. I am sure an Australian paving crew would have had it all done in 3 days, but this drags on so slowly, with lots of workers standing around and hardly anyone working.
It rained heavily yesterday (and the day before), a tropical-like downpour that lasted maybe 15 minutes. The roads flooded, but because there is almost no drainage, the water just sits in deep pools on the road, until it evaporates. Thefootpaths are bitumen, but so uneven and not built with a slope so the water drains, and the footpaths are covered with deep pools of water as well.
Russia just seems so third world in some respects. It seems to have more in common in our experience with Vietnam – a third world country – than a poor European country like Portugal. This is our experience in Moscow, the rich capital where people are so much wealthier. It’s going to be interesting in the poor parts of Russia.
We arrived in Moscow on Saturday morning, having caught a 4-hour fast train from St Petersburg at 6.45am. Navigating our way on the Moscow metro has been a bit challenging as there is almost NO English script anywhere, it’s all Cyrillic. Greg has the Moscow metro map on his phone, plus a neat little app that lets us know where the nearest metro station is, and we’ve used it a few times already. We got to the station nearest the apartment we’re staying at, then spent a frustrating 90 minutes trying to meet up with the person who was handing over the apartment keys and showing us where it is. Somehow the guy who was organising it all managed to forget that the subway station has 4 exits, and it apparently didn’t occur to him to mention that we should wait by the exit that was just outside the big shopping centre. It also didn’t occur to the guy we were meeting that he should check the other exits for 2 bedraggled tourists with backpacks and a huge duffle bag. We finally met our man and by that time he was furious and so were we, the difference being that we had forked out $550 to be stuffed around.
Anyway, we’re all settled in now and I’ll write more about our 1960s Soviet style apartment in another post. We spent the rest of the day checking out the local area and doing a few chores – washing, shopping, catching up on sleep. There are at least 4 little supermarkets in the 3 blocks between our apartment and the shopping centre near the metro, plus a slightly larger one in the shopping centre. And Greg went for a walk in the other direction this morning and found several more. The ground floor of a lot of the apartment blocks around here are devoted to lots of little shops, there are 2 floors of upmarket shops in the shopping centre, plus more tiny shops outside the metro station. Yesterday as we went past an Apple reseller in the shopping centre, we counted 6 staff … and one customer! Lots of shop assistants, not many customers.
So yesterday, Sunday, we got out and about. In typical J&G travel style, our first destination was a produce market. Beautiful fruit, vegetables, spices, dried fruit, smallgoods, meat and a baker selling a naan-type breads that they were baking in a tandoor-style oven. We bought a fresh chicken and vegetables that we’ll roast for dinner tonight, plus some dried fruit, fresh raspberries and a couple of varieties of the naan-type bread. It seemed very quiet at the market, some stalls were closed and the rest of the stall-holders were very keen for us to buy their wares. In the afternoon, we did a walking tour along the Moscow River, starting at the magnificent Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. It was originally built in the middle of the 19th century to celebrate Russia’s victory over Napoleon, then destroyed by Stalin, then rebuilt to celebrate Moscow’s 850th birthday in 1997. We wandered over a pedestrian bridge across the river, with great views of the Kremlin wall and St Basil’s Cathedral (which must have at least 5 or 6 bouncy castles if Greg’s theory about colourful cupolas is correct), across to the former Red October chocolate factory – now an arts precinct – and a very impressive statue of Peter the Great, which is apparently twice as high as the Statue of Liberty. We walked along the other side of the river for a couple of kms to Gorky Park, which used to be an amusement park but is now a place to have a picnic, roller-blade, ride bikes and just hang out. In winter people go ice-skating and cross-country skiing there.
At one point while we were walking beside the river, we found a whole lot of metal sculpture trees that were all completely covered in padlocks. We have seen variations of this in other places we have visited. Couples put their names on the lock and then lock it to something (a fence, a bridge, a railing beside a motorway) and then that means they will stay together forever. There were 25 of these metal ‘trees’ along the river, each with hundreds or more likely thousands of locks, and then on the footbridge nearby there were more, newer trees that people had just started putting locks on.
And something else that stuck me while we were walking through a small park with colourful flower beds planted in interesting patterns. Remember the spectators using coloured boards to make pictures at the 1980 Moscow Olympics? The floral garden designs reminded me of that, for some reason.
Today we went to Real Russia, the travel agents, to collect our train tickets and to get them to register our Russian visas. We travelled on 3 metro lines to get there, and our tickets were all ready for us to pick up. The travel agent told us that as we aren’t spending 7 or more days in any one place in Russia, we don’t need to register our visas … I hope she’s right and we don’t have any trouble leaving the country! We had lunch at an Italian-style restaurant nearby – the business lunch was around $8: soup, pizza/pasta and a drink, then headed into ‘town’ to have a look at the Art Deco Metropole Hotel, the Bolshoi Theatre and Red Square. There is a huge temporary fence around Lenin’s mausoleum and Red Sq, and a stage is being built but I can’t find out what it’s for. We’re hoping that access to Lenin’s mausoleum is from inside the Kremlin, which we’re planning on visiting tomorrow – we have already seen his comrades Uncle Ho and Chairman Mao, so Vladimir Ilyich will make the trifecta for us! I know, it’s a bit weird, visiting embalmed dead guys in (formerly) communist countries, but everyone needs a hobby.
We spent a while walking in the direction of the White House, where Prime Minister Putin has his office, but we seemed to walk for ages and not really get any closer, so we gave up and came back to the apartment in time to miss the afternoon peak hour metro rush, and so we could roast our chicken for dinner! It is now raining hard – hope it’s all finished by tomorrow morning!
On the fast train from Saint Petersburg to Moscow (sort of fast only 170kph)
Russian beer and dumplings – Russian beer in a 1.5 l plastic (PET) bottle for A$3.50
blogging in the Soviet-era apartment kitchen
Moscow traffic on a Sunday evening, there is lots of traffic in Moscow even though lots of its 11 million inhabitants do not have a car