We’d barely been in Russia (Irkutsk, Siberia more specifically) when I found myself drinking Vodka with Audrey’s father. Not sure if it was the two days we’d already spent on the train, with three more to go, or because Russia is known for its Vodka. The next night we were ‘tasting’ more. I use taste loosely because while some were smooth others went down like jet fuel. At one point we found ourselves on a ferry surrounded by a bunch of Russian travelers coming home for the weekend and by 11:00am, they’d already down’d a few. I’m not talking a few shots, but a few bottles. Then one offered me a drink. The next thing I knew I was singing “Yesterday” with a boatload of drunk Russians accompanied by a five-stringed guitar player. Knowing I was no match for the Russian liver as the average adult drinks one bottle of vodka per week, I politely refused a refill. We all laughed and had a good time.
The trip from Beijing to Moscow took ten days — five days on the train split up with a two-day stop over in Mongolia and a three-day stopover in Siberia at Lake Baikal. The first 24 hours on the train was hardly scenic as much of it was through the Gobi Desert. Lots of sand. The highlight was the occasional camel sitting near the tracks or colorful Mongol horsemen riding to his Gers (a tent-like structure which Mongol families live in during their nomadic life). At times we went through horrific sandstorms which required us to quickly shut all the windows in our air conditionless compartment. The problem occurred when, while sleeping, we went through a sand storm in the middle of the night with our windows open. As I awoke, I looked over at Audrey sleeping in a sandbox and noticed our compartment looked like the inside of a shaken snow globe. After
hours and hours of desert, I was surprised to arrive in Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia and be taken to a majestic Gers camp for our first layover.
We were now much further north and noticed the temperatures dropped while the sun seemed not to move. At 10:00pm I walked outside and it was as light as the afternoon. We dug our fleece jackets out for the first time since New Zealand and found the cooler temperatures a welcome change from the hot and humid Asia. Snuggled in fleece and seeing views of the mountains and prairies was a highlight. At any point I expected Michael Landon to come walking through the prairie. Another day on the train and we arrived in Siberia near Lake Baikal.
Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world, is a pristine mountain lake with more water than all of the Great Lakes. It reminded me of Lake Tahoe in May with its emerald blue water, reflections of snow-capped mountains, and spring flowers dotting the landscape. We left Lake Baikal for the final three days on the
train. While the scenery improved, we were all ready to arrive in Moscow as we needed a rest from reading, sitting, and playing dominoes.
My view of Russia has been defined by Ian Flemming’s character James Bond. Watching years of Sean Connery and Roger Moore escape from the dark-clad, pin-stripe suit wearing Muscovites in their Mercedes and growing up during the Cold War painted a bleak picture. Some of my views were spot on, others not so.
We were not surprised when the IOC chose London over Moscow for the 2012 Olympiad. I am, however, surprised they made it so far in the bidding process as the Russians are not known for moving large crowds.
On our quest to see the third of the three enshrined communist leaders, we stood in line for over an hour to view Lenin. When we went to see Ho in Vietnam and Mao in China, the line with hundreds more people only took a few minutes. I could only imagine people waiting in line to see the Opening Ceremonies only to make it inside the stadium in time for the Closing Ceremonies. Previous travelers told us that Lenin looks the best of the three as the Russians have the secret formula. I thought Ho looked the best but he has been dead the
shortest amount of time. When Lenin died 80 years ago, the government secretly created a process to preserve his body. For years this was a tightly held state secret until more recently when they’ve been selling the formula to other countries for a million dollars. Apparently capitalism isn’t so bad. I only hope my parents don’t stipulate this process in their Will.
It’s not just tourist attractions you stand in lines for. To buy food at the local market you must queue up and wait – one for the meat, another for the vegetables, and so on. On one trip, Audrey waited in seven lines for eight
items. Hardly the model of efficiency. And forget about customer service. At home employees learn “The customer is always right” whereas here I believe they think “The customer is an annoyance who is taking me from my vodka break”. That said, Moscow is a beautiful city. More so than I imagined.
The skyline is dotted with the Hershey Kiss shaped gold encrusted roof tops. The colors of the popular St. Basil’s Cathedral are breathtaking especially with a blue sky and silver-lined clouds in the background. The Kremlin and Red Square were stunning as well. Walking through Red Square I could just imagine the Red
Army marching through with all the pomp and circumstance of a military parade. We were fortunate to see the soldiers march by us in the WWII War Remembrance area for a military funeral. Putting the Rockettes to shame, I was impressed to see how high the soldiers kicked their legs. I am now convinced the Red Army has a choreographer – although I doubt that’s his official title.
Military police are everywhere and like to know where you are. It is not uncommon in communist countries to surrender your passport at the hotel so it can be registered with the local officials. China and Vietnam were more lax compared to Russia where you are fined if the police catch you with an unregistered passport. And they do check. We spent the better part of a morning getting registered to avoid trouble.
After leaving Moscow we flew down to Prague and Budapest for a week. Originally we were going to cross Germany and work our way west but instead we’ll head to the Middle East to Turkey for two weeks. Then quick visits to friends in the Netherlands and finish the trip in Iceland. On August 3rd I will send out my final travelogue just before boarding our flight home.
Bryan and Audrey