MIR clients Helge Pedersen and Karen Ofsthus ride the rails of the fabled Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar on MIR’s Trans-Siberian private rail journey as they check in from each stop with stories, photos and video.
July 1-2, 2008
Our trip to the Russian Far East finally begins! After a long flight from Seattle, my husband, Helge, and I boarded flight 1384 in Frankfurt, Germany, on our way to Moscow and the first step on our journey through Russia, Siberia and Mongolia, aboard the Trans-Siberian Railway. Our excitement was not daunted by the fact that our plane was an hour late leaving the tarmac… something about a part needing to be replaced. The delay gave me my first solid impressions of Russian people: they are immensely patient. An hour delay may have incited Americans to complain. We’re a fast-food, sound-byte society after all. Not a peep of complaint, however, was heard from the majority of Russians filling the plane. I was impressed. Sharing my row of seating was a nuclear inspector and a young Russian man with a square jaw, an easy smile, and a love of whiskey. He spoke little English and I not a lick of Russian, but it didn’t matter. A few simple words here and there and some clever hand signs, and we were ‘chatting’ away like old friends.
Upon our arrival in Moscow, I was reminded again of the Russian’s ability to take it all in stride. You see, exhausted from a lack of sleep during the long flights, I woefully neglected to collect our toiletry bag from under my seat. I realized my faux-paux just as we left the parking lot, having been promptly collected by Rashid, our lovely driver booked for us by MIR. He had already waited for our late arrival, and now I’m asking him to return to the airport to get that bag. Who cares about a stupid toiletry bag you say? I do. It contained my prescription medication. You can leave eyeglasses on the plane or even your book. You may even leave (accidentally of course), your kid on the plane, screaming its head off in seat 13C. But your prescription medication? Never! Ever-patient Rashid. Turn around he did.
Moscow leaves nothing to be desired. Beautiful forests of pine and birch line the highway as we made our way to the gorgeous Peter 1 Hotel, located in the heart of Moscow, and only a 7 minute walk from Red Square. The following morning, MIR staff and trusty guides, Tatiana Voevodina and John Seckel, meet us for a walking tour of the city. I thought the lean and long-legged Massai of Kenya were built for walking! They haven’t met Tatiana! The easy-going mother of three lives in the heart of Moscow and its imprint is imbedded on the soles of her feet. Every back-road and cool, cobblestoned street; she knows it. Every historical building, hidden Orthodox church or corner shop with great ice-cream; she knows it. And nobody, I say nobody, can cross the River Road highway like Tatiana!
Picture this: 8 lanes of gnarly traffic, whizzing by at break neck speed. We need to get across for a beautiful view of the Moscow river and surrounding area. Tatiana takes off across the highway, timing the breaks in traffic with the precision of a Nascar driver. Helge, John and I follow her like ducklings traipsing after their mother (rather blindly I might add) to the center of the highway. Traffic whizzes by just inches behind and in front of us. Can’t go forward. Can’t go back. Can’t go forward… until Tatiana spots a lull in oncoming traffic and we make a break for it. Whew! We lurch safely to the other side of the highway, sweating just a little. I rather liked the excitement of it all. But here’s the kicker. Climbing to the top of the River Road bridge amidst spectacular views of the city, Tatiana cautions against my going overboard as I sit along the wide edge of the cement bridge, ready for a photo op. She’s not particularly worried about whether or not I would survive the 120 foot drop. Instead, she’s worried that IF I were to fall… “the water is dirty… very, very dirty” she says. I had to laugh. Putting the dreaded River Road highway aside, sweet Tatiana IS looking out for our best interest after all.
Red Square is immense and utterly beautiful. Granite cobblestones cover the grounds between the red brick buildings of the Historical Museum and walls of the Kremlin, Lenin’s Tomb, the G.U.M. shopping pavilion and St. Basil’s Church. Built in 1564, St. Basil’s Russian Orthodox Church stands as the iconic image of Russia. Ice cream cone shaped spires painted gaily in swirling red, yellow, green, peach and gold reach toward a cloudless sky, their tippy-tops adorned with massive golden crosses. It looks like something you would see in a fairy tale book or on a gingerbread house display. The church is gorgeous and we can’t help but stare and wonder how in the world they maintain this ancient building so impeccably. It’s apparent there’s a lot of loving care that goes into its upkeep… Muscovites are proud of this magical building.
Touring the sites in Red Square is a must. John and I hit Lenin’s tomb, and I must say, it was just a tad bit funny. John is a Wisconsin transplant. As an AFS student, he came to Russia, and couldn’t work hard enough or fast enough to return after a year with his Russian host family. He’s been here 11 years and has been working with MIR for the last several. His speaks impeccable Russian, has a good heart and thank goodness, a wicked sense of humor!
We wait in line for a viewing of Lenin. A respectful walk to the entrance of the tomb, you notice that there are guards posted everywhere, proud in their forest green uniforms. Negotiating the steps into the tomb was a challenge. Shiny black marble lined the steps and walls and the pathway was gloomily lit. “Oops”…bumped into a guard… “Sorry”, I whisper… “Shush”, says the guard. John and I are giggling quietly because we can’t see a thing as we stumble down the stairs. I couldn’t help but think that in the U.S. this would be a lawsuit waiting to happen. We could barely see six inches in front of our face but had to keep moving. Those guards are serious and you don’t wanna make them mad. I hear another “Shush”, but this one was directed at some other poor people blinded by the darkness.
We finally make our way to where Lenin lies in wait and I’m thinking, “Hmmm… he looks pretty good for a dead guy.” I stop for a micro-nanosecond and Snap-Snap-Snap!–the guard in the corner keeps us moving. There will be no stopping, slowing, or pausing in the tomb. John and I shuffle our feet, trying to keep moving to both placate the guard with the castanet fingertips and get a good look at Lenin. I notice his impeccable beard trim and skin that looks like alabaster. His skin practically glows under the light illuminating his body. Apparently a special organization took responsibility for preparing the body and they did a great job. Lenin has been lying here for about 80 years. I also notice the one hand is lying palm down while the other is closed in a fist. I’m thinking there must be a reason for this, as it looks so deliberate. I discover later that according to Rashid, our trusty driver and Russian historian, a woman attempted to assassinate Lenin. She shot him with bullets laced with poison, (as if the bullets wouldn’t do the job). While she didn’t succeed in killing him, he was hit in the hand by three bullets and their poisoned tips caused paralysis. Thus, Lenin had a paralyzed hand that remains closed even in death. John and I determined that at the most, we experienced a total of six seconds of Lenin viewing. What, with the antsy guards snap-snap-snapping away, expecting any more would have been preposterous. It didn’t matter. We observed a lot, had fun together and it was free. At least I can say I’ve been though Lenin’s tomb. Next time I’m going to bring a mini-mag flashlight to light my way. I’ll bet the guards will just love that!
Moscow is a dream. We look forward to a few more activities in this vibrant city and to meeting our tour group this evening. Soon, we’ll be aboard the train and on our way eastbound toward Mongolia! Stay posted!
Photos from this leg of the tour:
Moscow, Aboard Train
July 3, 2008
Last night Helge and I met our travel companions; over 90 fellow travelers from all over the U.S. traveling across the Russian Far East, all with a penchant for adventure. Friendships develop quickly over shared meals, stories, and flowing wine. After a fabulous welcome meal and a lively introduction of MIR guide staff, we were off for a late night stroll to Red Square. Beautifully lit, the facades of buildings many centuries old twinkle and glow romantically against the night sky. It was the perfect way to end a fabulous day, which included a ride on Moscow’s famous Metro subway, a visit to the Moscow zoo and an exhilarating visit (to say the least) to a Russian public bath or banya.
The banya has a practical origin. It wasn’t until the beginning of the 20th century that baths entered Russian homes and even then, only the wealthiest had them. The masses went to the public banyas to bathe. While it’s evolved from a co-ed, utilitarian necessity to become more spa-like, it’s still very much a lynchpin of Russian culture. You’ve probably heard the stories: A sauna with deliriously high temps and “beatings” with birch branches? True. All true.
Gorgeously designed, the Sunduny banya sports pink Italian marble, long leather lounges, and a massive “wet” room, replete with showers, a wooden dunking tub and solid marble tub. It also has a wooden bucket filled with cold water, suspended from the ceiling. A little pull on the chain and Wooosh! Female battle cry for sure!
The sauna itself, well, it was torturous. Thirteen steps lead to a 12 X 12 brick room with birch slat floors and benches. At stair number one it’s hot, but not terribly unbearable. At stair number 13, however, the temperature is a suffocating 60 degrees Celsius! Do the math. These temps can kill you!
Stair number four was my kind of environment with a temp still compatible with human life. Only thrice did I venture to the top. The first time was out of sheer curiosity. I lasted 3 minutes. The third was to check the thermometer again, after the banya assistant threw water on the furnace. I couldn’t believe my eyes as the temp climbed to 68 degrees Celsius while hardy Elza lay on the floor under a wool blanket, sweating it out! Read that again slowly… “under a wool blanket!” She came out from under that blanket 15 minutes later, smiling like a Cheshire cat and still alive! I was honestly flabbergasted! I gave her a high-five and showered her with a congratulatory bucket of ice-cold water. She screeched, but continued to smile like a Cheshire cat. Russians are a tough lot, I’ll tell you that!
The second time I ventured to the top of the stairs I was flat out consenting to a birch branch beating. Yep. I paid money and allowed the banya attendant to whack my naked, sweaty body with a double fistful of birch branch and leaf, soaked and softened in water. I’m not embarrassed to say I liked it. Every bit. It was so hot I thought my head was going to pop like a melon in the sun when I turned over for the frontal beating, but rotisserie I did. Wow! On rubber legs, I barely made it down the stairs after the ordeal, but I was smiling like a Cheshire cat too!
My trip to the banya facilitated a good night’s rest, giving me tons of energy for the morning’s activities. Helge and I and our fellow travelers climbed into our air-conditioned coaches and headed out on our tour of Moscow highlights, including the striking Novodevechy monastery and cemetery.
The Novodevechy monastery was founded in 1525. A convent, it housed the daughter’s of czars, wives of noblemen, and even the daughter of the brutal tyrant, Ivan the Terrible. Sophia, the stepsister of Peter the Great was there too. Like many woman before her, Sophia was forced into the convent. That’s what you get for maliciously conspiring against your brother and ruler of Russia. There’s a huge advantage for the church for “incarcerating” this class of wealthy women at the nunnery: upon entrance, the women hand over all of their holdings of money, jewels and lands, making the Novodevechy monastery the richest of them all.
Today, 20 nuns work and pray behind the baroque style walls, and amid stunning original Byzantine frescos and gilded framed paintings of saints and nobles. There are two cemeteries, old and new.
Many of the most famous Russian characters are buried here under massive carved hunks of imported marble, fenced by intricate wrought iron fences and shaded by mature oak, maple and birch. Statues depict the life and contribution of the deceased. Here you will find former leaders Boris Yelsin and Khrushchev, the guy John F. Kennedy persuaded to refrain from “pushing the button” during the Cuban missile crisis. You will find Bolshevik party members… lots of them. You will find Nicolin, the most famous Russian circus clown of all time. Cosmonauts, generals, artists, musicians, professors, scientists, authors and poets; they are all here. You will even find Nadezhda, Stalin’s young wife. She was 16 when she married Stalin and at age 31, decided that she’d had enough. While her husband was away, she committed suicide, orphaning two children. It’s said that Stalin insulted her at a dinner, sending her over the edge. We’ll never know, though. All that remains are rumors and a beautiful white marble statue marking her grave.
Our city tour complete, we made our way down the wide streets of Moscow to the Kazansky Vokzal Railway Station to board the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express, our home for the next eight days. Next stop, Kazan!
Photos from this leg of the tour:
July 4, 2008
Starting Location: Moscow, Russia
Ending Location: Kazan, Russia
Total Distance Traveled: 450 miles (724 kilometers)
Ivan the Terrible is a big baby. Like a petulant child throwing a tantrum over a toy, he stomped his way to Kazan, a beautiful city perched on the banks of the Volga River. When Ivan arrived with his troops in 1552, he set to work destroying all the gorgeous mosques that dotted the landscape, conquering the city and forcing the local Tatar population into swampy, disease-infested areas of Kazan.
But the Tatars were a hardy bunch. Sprouted from tough Mongolian and Bulgarian roots, the Tatars resisted the Russian conquest, and continued to pray in their homes. And just to make double sure that cranky Ivan didn’t seize any more than he already had, they tossed all their treasures and jewels into Lake Kaban for good measure. Take their mosques AND their money? No way.
After many years of suffering under the sledgehammer of Russian rule and during the rein of Catherine the Great, religious tolerance once again flourished and mosques were rebuilt. Today we visited one such jewel and newest construction, the Qol Sharif mosque.
The Qol Sharif mosque is stunningly beautiful. Its massive structure is deceptively hidden behind another building; so much so, that when we came around the corner and caught our first view, it quite literally took everyone’s breath away. Gleaming white against a cloudy sky, its eight minarets rise many stories high. Capped with azure blue tiles and exquisite stained glass imported from the Czech Republic, you get the sense that God lives here.
Donning foot coverings and a headscarf, we silently entered this holy place. Unfortunately no photographs were allowed inside. Also unfortunately, the interior is so grand that I struggle to find words to describe its beauty. A massive crystal chandelier glitters from the center of the room. Tile work in a base of sea blue is so intricate that it looks like paint. Golden quotes from the Koran adorn walls and columns and a steel blue carpet extends wall to wall, cushioning the knees of hundreds of Islamic pilgrims five times each day. Men worship on the fourth floor, women on the fifth, shielded from prying male eyes by an intricately carved wooden screen. Next door to the Qol Sharif stands the Soyembika Tower, named after Kazan’s Tatar Empress, Soyembika. Our highly capable tour guide, Yana, reveals her legend.
Apparently Ivan the Terrible became smitten with Soyembika’s striking beauty. He decided to marry her, but she refused him. Nonetheless, he persisted in his efforts to obtain her hand in marriage (he probably also threatened to slaughter every Tatar he could get his hands on) so she made him a deal. She told Ivan that she would agree to marriage if he built the highest and most beautiful tower, and in just seven days. Perhaps she wasn’t aware of Ivan’s penchant for persuading people to do his bidding. It was nothing for him to obtain enough “volunteers” to accomplish the feat. So, seven days later there it stood, the Soyembika Tower, a brick and mortar monolith seven layers high. “Oops,” thought Soyembika. “I wasn’t planning on that.” So, resigned to her fate, she requested to climb to the top of the tower to say goodbye to her people. (I KNEW what was coming next in this story…) Up the tower she climbed, then as legend has it, she threw herself off the top, struck the ground and turned into a swan. Now, Yana had me all the way up until the “turned into a swan” part. I could just imagine Bika choosing to end it all rather than head off to Moscow with Ivan to be his wife. Either way, the tower IS beautiful and the story tragic. Yana was the best tour guide ever. We ended our city tour of Kazan with a relaxing boat ride on the Volga River…the “Mother Volga,” as it’s known by the locals.
Serving as a major trade and travel route, the Volga brought vibrant life to this part of Russia. Its banks host massive 15th – 19th century architecture and support thriving industries. Gigantic piles of sand, gravel and scrap metal can be seen, waiting for incoming ships to load and haul them away. Most river travel occurs from spring to fall, as winter temperatures can drop to minus 30, freezing the river solid. Yana tells us that last winter it was quite warm, only minus 10 or 15. Yes, now that’s what I would call “warm.”
Beautiful Kazan along the Volga River has so much more to offer and I would have loved to stay and visit longer. But Ekaterinburg, our next stop, awaits us. “Clackity Clack…” goes the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express. I can’t wait!
Photos from this leg of the tour:
July 5, 2008
Starting Location: Kazan, Russia
Ending Location: Ekaterinburg, Russia
Total Distance Traveled: 1,105 miles (1,778 kilometers)
Ekaterinburg has earned its fame as the place where in 1918, Nicholas II, the last Czar of Russia was executed, along with his entire family and a few servants. The Bolsheviks wanted power, plain and simple. So they knocked off the family, took them to the forest, then mutilated and burnt the bodies. There’s been plenty of controversy and secrecy about it… especially about whether or not Alexei and his sister, two of Nicholas’ children, actually survived the attack. Many, many people had come forward claiming to be the czar’s offspring, but it’s all finally been laid to rest: they were all imposters. Prince Phillip, who is known to be a blood relative, offered his DNA, which has proved that the bodies found were in fact, that of the royal czar’s family.
With his thick Russian accent, our guide Alexander came to life as we toured at the Cathedral on the Blood and Czar murder site. A merchant’s house used to stand there… the cellar was the place where the family took their last breaths. The house has long been torn down, and now a gorgeous church stands in its place, marking the historical legacy of Ekaterinburg.
Upon arrival, the church bells were ringing and lovely young women were singing high in a tower. Exquisite frescoes adorned the walls near the altar to Nicholas’s family; three men were busily painting a glorious image on the ceiling, perched high on old wooden ladders. A steady hand, artistic talent and a love of the site won them a place among the few in the world who can say they have created a beautiful work of art that millions upon millions of people will see and love and worship. Alexander was equally enthusiastic about Russian history when we visited the Monument for the Victims of the Repression.
Over 50,000 people, some who marched over 2,700 km from Moscow, were shot here. Why? Opposing Stalin. Unfortunately, opposition was defined as anything – including political disagreement, owning a rabbit you weren’t given permission to own, refusing to give your apples to the collective, hiding food or other goods, or being where you shouldn’t, though that was arbitrarily defined second by second. All the names on the monument were written in Russian and thus relatively meaningless to me. However, they all had one glaring feature in common: most of the dates of their deaths occurred within a two-year period- ’38 and ’39. It must have been a rough two years.
My favorite site was a location at the border that separates European Russia from Asian Russia. The largest country in the world, Russia covers over 6.6 million square miles. Approximately 1/3 of Russia lies officially in Europe, while 2/3, a grand 5 million square miles, lies in Asia. We sipped champagne and snacked on chocolate, and marveled at the thousands of colorful ribbons tied to the trunks of a birch forest growing straight and tall. The ribbons, placed there by followers of shamanism, bring the giver a wish. Offerings of money, vodka, cigarettes and food, along with a blessing, insure their good luck and well-being. It was beautiful, colorful and peaceful there.
Far too soon, it was time for us to return to the train and to the “Nature Channel,” as our humorous guide Alexander calls the large windows of our train. He’s right about that. We are watching the Nature Channel as we gaze out the windows on the Trans-Siberian Express, delighted by the beauty of the passing Siberian landscape. We’re on our way to the next destination, Novosibirsk.
Photos from this leg of the tour:
Novosibirsk, Aboard train
July 6-7, 2008
Starting Location: Ekaterinburg, Russia
Ending Location: Novosibirsk, Russia
Total Distance Traveled: 2,052 miles (3,303 kilometers)
Aboard the Trans-Siberian Express, we are pampered, pampered, pampered! Quite frankly, I could get used to this. Helge and I are trying to figure out how, after we return home, we can train our cats Beemer and Spyder to serve us in such a way!
The Golden Eagle is spectacular! 21 cars are pulled by a powerful locomotive, and carry 145 passengers and 70 hard-working staff. Our two restaurant cars are decorated in a soft gold and white décor; crystal, silver and flowers adorn linen-covered tables. We sit upon beautifully embroidered chairs. And the food… oh the food! Three gourmet meals are served each day, carefully and lovingly prepared by the chef and his staff. Delicious Russian soups have been our favorite: borscht, solyanka and rassolneka are served with hilarious historical commentary on their origins.
Our waitstaff, Natalya, Alexander and Artur, greet us at each meal. I have to admit, I’ve been working on Alexander. So characteristically Russian, he seems to have a tough exterior. But I know it’s just a ruse. It’s taken me four days, but today I managed to get him to smile. And Artur? After the first night on the train, I awoke very early… 4am to be exact. I headed to the bar car to read, and ran into Artur who speaks not a lick of English. My Russian, of course, is non-existent, but that didn’t matter. After some hand signs and a delirious round of Pictionary on my notepad, we were laughing like crazy, slapping each other’s arms and shaking our heads. I like Artur. He now serves us extra wine.
The bar car, with its comfy red velvet lounge chairs, piano and mini library is my favorite hang out. This is where I write, read and gaze out the window at the passing Siberian taiga: a never-ending expanse of forest comprised of birch, pine, larch, and hemlock. Huge meadows of purple lupine and dainty Queen Anne’s lace, the size of a dinner plate, dot the landscape and quaint wooden homes with prettily painted shutters, called “dachas,” can be seen here and there. Most possess large gardens of potatoes and other vegetables.
After a scrumptious and filling breakfast we leave the train and head out for the afternoon’s excursion. Yesterday, It was Novosibirsk, the largest Siberian city. Novosibirsk was founded in 1893 during construction of the railway, the main artery and lifeblood of the region. Over 1.6 million people live here, enduring bitterly cold winters at minus 45 degrees Celsius and a short, but hot summer month. Yes I said “month.” Summer in Novosibirsk is in July. Come August, icy winds begin to blow, and Siberians bundle up for the coming long winter. Prior to WWII, Novosibirsk had no industry other than agricultural production. Flour and dairy production aided in the survival of her citizens.
During the war however, large industry was moved here from the European third of Russia. Huge factories produced uniforms, some four million pieces and lots of war materials like tanks and airplanes, bullets and mines. They also produced locomotives… massive locomotives to carry goods, people, and an enormous Russian army.
Margarita, our exceptional local guide in Novosibirsk, took us to the Railway Museum to see for ourselves the many types of locomotives and carriage cars produced in Russia. There were 1st Class carriage cars, wallpapered and embroidered for the elite. There were 4th Class cars, lined with beautiful pine and hosting a wood burning stove to ward off the chill for the sixty men, women and children traveling many weeks across the Siberian plain. There were gigantic steel locomotives, probably 50 of them, representing different eras in Russian railway history.
Most interesting was the medical car. This car served the soldiers returning from the front, many with severe injuries. A primitive surgery and hospital ward were enclosed inside. One could just imagine doctors and nurses frantically trying to save lives and hearing the groans of the wounded as the train clacked its way down the track, away from danger and toward home. I wondered what they did with those who did not survive.
After a visit to Akademgorodok, a preeminent scientists’ enclave, and the Museum of Minerals, we were back on board the Golden Eagle.
A few hours later, after another carefully prepared dinner, we turn in for the night in our spacious cabin. Our cabin attendant has already turned down the beds, folded back the comforter, fluffed the pillows and provided us with clean towels, ready for the morning and a fresh start to another day on the train.
Tomorrow we’ll enjoy a BBQ along the shores of the “pearl of Russia”: mystical Lake Baikal. In the meantime, I’m going to work on that training program for our cats.
Photos from this leg of the tour:
Lake Baikal, Irkutsk
July 8-9, 2008
Starting Location: Novosibirsk, Russia
Ending Location: Irkutsk, Russia
Total Distance Traveled: 3,202 miles (5,153 kilometers)
The Russians call them nerpa. I call them little piggies because they look like overly inflated, furry grey beach balls with no neck, a pair of flippers and a round face with huge, liquid eyes and a snout full of stiff, white whiskers. The Lake Baikal seal wins the contest for the cutest creature on the planet and it is found nowhere else on earth. Unlike their torpedo-shaped, saltwater dwelling relatives, these chubby pinnepeds gobble up small omul and greyling fish and dine upon healthy portions of crustaceans in order to store enough fat to ensure their survival in icy Lake Baikal. Helge and I were very, very lucky. Not only did we see them in the Listvyanka aquarium with our traveling comrades, but we also spotted two in the wild as we bumped along the lake in a boat, photographing the Trans-Siberian Express from the water. Lucky indeed. They are very shy and steer clear of settled areas, fearful of the people who nearly hunted them to extinction. Happily, their population is holding on: there are nearly 60,000 little piggies swimming around.
Lake Baikal, the “pearl of Siberia,” is one of the most beautiful and unique places in the world. At 395 miles in length, this crescent-shaped lake is the deepest in the world – over a mile deep – and holds one-fifth of the world’s fresh water. Enough, our guidebook assures us, that it could supply the world’s fresh water needs for the next forty years. With a surface area of 12,000 sq. miles, its own weather system, and thousands of endemic plants and animals, surely this 20-30 million-year-old jewel deserves the strongest protections. Siberians adore the lake, so they’re working on that.
Seals aside, this really was a great day. After our small-group ride on the front of the locomotive (which was radically fun!), the staff hosted a delicious lakeside BBQ, complete with beautiful sunny weather. Grilled chicken, salads and plenty of alcohol precipitated a rather cool dip in the lake for some. They say you become 25 years younger with each dunking. If that was true, then Helge would be a baby in diapers, as he’s bravely taken the plunge on several occasions. Without question, it was a great time had by all and, after a restful night’s sleep, we followed the lake’s only outlet, the Angara River, to Irkutsk and another fabulous day.
Irkutsk is one of the oldest cities in Siberia and is known for its splendid old wooden houses. Charmingly, they line the streets, at first glance looking dilapidated. But look again. Intricately carved fretwork frames roofline, eaves and broad windows with wooden shutters, painted in lovely pastels. Hundreds of them can be found in the city and stimulate the imagining of times past when fur traders, tea merchants, gold prospectors, exiles and ex-convicts walked these streets. Tons of money flowed in and out of Irkutsk, helping some to gather grand personal fortunes. Textiles and other goods were purchased from Paris, children were educated by the best French tutors, and mansions were erected. We toured one such place, Maria Volkonsky’s House. Maria was the wife of a Decembrist, who along with other army officers, comprised a group of Russia’s first revolutionaries. On December 26, 1825 the Decembrists tried to overthrow the government but failed. Some were hanged, while others were permanently exiled to Siberia. Some wives, wishing to stay with their husbands, decided to follow them into exile. As a result, these women, stemming from nobility, lost all rights, property, and possessions and traveled east into Siberia. Reduced in status to that of an exiled prisoner’s wife, they even had to forfeit their children, leaving them with family who remained in eastern Russia. While they waited X number of years for their husbands to complete their sentence of hard labor, they built homes and got on with life. Maria Volkonsky’s house was gorgeous.
Flowered or striped wallpaper adorned every wall. Fine furniture and even finer trinkets could be found in each room. Wide doorways with high thresholds kept out cold Siberian drafts. On the ceilings, wide larch-wood planks ran in a single piece across the entire length of each room. Treatment with egg yolk helped to seal the wood and eliminate the possibility of rot. And even during the coldest Siberian winter, the finest music could be heard drifting on the wind. Maria loved music and invited the most talented to perform in her home, providing the type of culture she needed and had grown accustomed to.
In Maria’s sitting room, we were treated to a private piano concert complete with the splendid voices of two artists: soprano and baritone blended together in duet. An hour later, we made a champagne toast, one and all. Skoal! We raise our glasses to Maria Volkonsky and her enduring spirit!
A private concert is great, but two in one day? Now that’s special! Our second musical was held in the belfry in the Church of the Exaltation of the Cross. I know the church has a catchy name; they all do here. But what happened in the belfry was truly unbelievable. Helge and I climbed rickety wooden stairs that went straight to heaven, via a long, claustrophobic passageway. Arthur Psaryov, a bell ringer, was the musician. A folk musician at heart, he began studying bell ringing about 15 years ago. Two times each day, every day, he climbs the stairs to the belfry and makes music worth listening to: sweet music that can be heard in the farthest corners of Irkutsk. Standing next to him and a crèche of Russian and German made bells was deafening indeed, but I got over it fast. Arthur started out slowly… ringing one deep bell, “Bong… Bong… Bong…” an announcement of what was to come.
Picking up speed, it was obvious that he was composing as he rang one, then another, pausing here and there, allowing the tone to be carried away. Then he just took off. Yanking each bell’s rope faster and faster, he created dramatic sounds of steel clanging on steel, long tones and short, making the extraordinary music of angels. It was, quite simply, one of the most amazing things I’ve ever heard.
My memories of beautiful Lake Baikal and glorious Irkutsk won’t soon fade.
Photos from this leg of the tour:
July 10, 2008
Starting Location: Irkutsk, Russia
Ending Location: Ulan Ude, Russia
Total Distance Traveled: 3,485 miles (5,609 kilometers)
You can always tell when someone is genuinely happy to see you arrive and sad to see you go. That was the experience we had during our visit to an Old Believers’ village, sitting quietly among lovely, green rolling hills on the outskirts of Ulan Ude, Siberia.
There are some 200,000 Old Believers living in Siberia; their forefathers settled here around 1765. According to our guidebook, the Old Believers are an Orthodox Christian sect who fled persecution from the doctrinal reforms of their church in the 17th century. In doing so, they avoided imprisonment, forced labor, execution and being burned alive. Some settled in the U.S., Canada, Brazil and even Australia while others, thanks to Catherine the Great and her religious tolerance reforms, settled in Siberia. Safe in their isolated communities, they’ve managed to preserve their culture. In 2001, they were recognized by UNESCO as one of 19 original “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.”
Galena was the hostess of the house and welcomed us warmly as we unloaded our bus. Her tiny wooden home with blue wooden shutters included a small storage shed, a roomy chicken coop, and a woodshed, stacked high with birch. There was also a gaily-painted outhouse and a tiny garden sprouting garlic, onion, tomato, cucumber and lettuce. It all occupied perhaps an acre. Stretching forever behind the house was a huge field of potato plants: its harvest coming soon to complete the foodstuffs needed to endure the coming winter.
Accompanying Galena’s warm welcome were the beaming smiles of her two beautiful teenage daughters, one of whom had attended an exchange program in West Virginia. Her English was perfect. Living with Galena and her daughters were her parents. Their faces were wrinkled and browned by long hours working the potato field in the sun; their toothless grins and bright blue eyes shone no less bright than that of their granddaughters. Galena’s neighbors were there too. Everyone had come to invite us into their culture, serve us a delectable meal of their favorite dishes made from completely organic ingredients and to entertain us with traditional song and dance.
The Old Believers have perfected polyphonic singing. They sang us lively a capella songs that spoke of finding the perfect love, of girl-loves-boy and of love gone unrecognized. That’s a lot of love! Their folksy lyrics were also accompanied by the get-up-and-go melody of a battered accordion; its player, an old man toothless and smiling from ear to ear.
They wear beautiful clothing for special celebrations. Aprons sewn in brightly-colored layers of red, green, yellow and magenta silk covered equally colorful ankle-length dresses with a ribboned edge. Married women wear scarves bedecked with beadwork, coiled turban-like on their heads, while unmarried women wrap their braided hair in light blue silk. Chunky amber beads, lots of them, top off the outfit. It’s hard to imagine that such costumes were once the daily wear of these people. Working in the fields must have been a challenge.
Galena’s daughters displayed much enthusiasm mixed with a bit of spunk as they played wooden spoons, teasing each other and us with their spoon-clapping duel. Laughter comes easily and is part of the performance. The “click-clickity-click” sound of many camera shutters could barely be heard over the laughter. Participation was encouraged during some rousing do-si-do dancing. With a yank of an arm, our traveling comrades were kicking up the dust and whirling left and right, arms outstretched a bit awkwardly. They were laughing too. It was wonderful seeing them have so much fun.
It was time to go far too soon. They bid us all goodbye with handshakes, clasping our one hand in their two and giving a little pat, pat, pat. They offered huge smiles and invitations to return and help them in the field behind the house. There are a lot of potatoes out there and someone has to do the harvesting.
Tomorrow, Helge and I leave Siberia and the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express behind. We’ve cleared Russian and Mongolian customs and the famous Mongolian Naadam Festival is just hours away.
Photos from this leg of the tour:
July 11-12, 2008
Starting Location: Ulan Ude, Russia
Ending Location: Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Total Distance Traveled: 3,891 miles (6,263 kilometers)
It’s funny how the living of life teaches about life. At least that’s what I was thinking when just moments away from the finish line, I saw the three-year-old “Soloyon” horse pitch forward on its face and go down, slamming his eight-year-old rider to the ground. Hard. The three-day long Naadam Festival in Ulaan Baatar Mongolia, an amazing spectacle of culture, skill, honor and pride, was in full swing, and we were privileged to see and enjoy the annual celebration of centuries-old traditions.
The festival’s full title is Eriin Gurvan Naadam, which translates as the “three manly games,” highlighting the strongest wrestlers, fastest horses and expert archers from all over the Mongolian countryside. These skills, critical to the nomadic warriors of Genghis Khan’s army, still produce heroes to this day.
Genghis’s warriors must have been good at their jobs, because in the early 1200s, they helped him conquer two times more land than any other person in history. And he only had an army about 200,000 strong. Building a growing Mongol Empire, Genghis and his warriors swept across the open Eurasian plains, conquering riches and land extending from Moscow to Kiev, Baghdad, the Persian Gulf, the Pacific and south to China. It’s said that his “Golden Horde” had a strong ethical code. They did not take slaves or torture people. They did not attack anyone from behind. Their message was simple: submit and you will survive. And for those who did not submit? Well, they razed villages and cities to the ground, leaving no one alive. Period.
Seven or eight men rushed out onto the racecourse, set upon the rolling green hills of the breathtaking Mongolian steppe: the same land that Genghis had so hard won. Pushing and pulling, they tried desperately to get the chocolate-brown horse on its feet, as more horses and their diminutive, silk-clad riders thundered by, just seconds from the finish line. Its legs flailed in slow motion in the air. An ambulance arrived to check on the jockey who had been pulled out, dusty and beaten, from under the animal.
On the day before, we had watched the opening ceremony from the field just steps away from the action. The opening ceremony resembled a mini-Olympics affair. Warriors dressed in bright red and blue military uniforms rode in on steppe horses, sitting proud and tall on beautifully carved Mongolian leather saddles, while the Mongolian national anthem blared in the background. Dancers in brightly colored silk tunics danced center field while 60 teeny-weeny contortionists, raised ten feet high on multi-colored lotus flower floats, bent and twisted in unison. These little girls, clad head to toe in bright stretchy leotards looked as if they had no bones. Well, I’m pretty sure they had no bones. Archers rimmed the field, giving us a good look at their beautiful clothing: a rainbow of silk brocade robes, leather belts with intricately carved silver buckles, and engraved leather boots, elf-like with their pointy tips. They were marvelous to look at. The best part, however, was the fashion show.
There was an army of women enrobed in the most beautiful outfits I have ever seen. Representing historical national dress from different provinces, they took center field walking slowly and proudly in their glorious garb. Fox and sable fur trim and hats adorned many outfits. Long robes in earthen colors of finely embroidered silk with capes and beads, headdresses and towering hats slithered by no more than ten feet away from us. There was so much detail and variety in the wardrobe feast, it’s quite impossible to describe. Mongolian nobility, they were absolutely breathtaking and they ushered in the beginning of the games.
There was silence in the crowd, then crazy cheering as a live, big-screen view showed the first two-year-old horse, or “Azarga,” crossing the finish line. Horse races are determined by the age of the horse and the age determines the distance to be run: anywhere from 10 km for a one year old, all the way to 33 km for six-year-olds. Horses of the same age run together, all ridden by children, some as young as five or six.
Over 40% of the 2.4 million descendants of the infamous Genghis Khan still live on the vast Mongolian expanse in gers: round tents about 20 square feet in diameter and made from a birch lattice frame and covered with several layers of thick sheep wool felt and white cloth. The ger and the steppe horse are national symbols and mainstays of Mongolian culture. They’re seen together on millions of postcards and brochures. Children learn at a very early age how to ride, some of them before they can even walk. Each race can have several hundred participants and most have come from the far reaches of Mongolia to enter their best steed and cross the finish line first. Even more come to cheer them on.
Through my binoculars I could see the men struggle with the horse. The boy, number 120 pinned to an azure blue silk shirt, was unhurt. Lucky for him. His horse, however, was immobile now and dying. I couldn’t help but wonder what the horse had been thinking and experiencing just before he collapsed.
The race had been a long 27 km, and he had been running full out the entire time. Perhaps he wanted to slow or stop when he realized he was tiring, but the herd was running, and staying with the herd is critical. And his jockey really wanted to win. The horse probably didn’t know that, had he won, he would be showered with mare’s milk and adorned with blue and gold silk. He couldn’t know that national pride was on the line and that the boy and his family would be known over the entire country. Certainly he wouldn’t know that as a winner, he would ride with his boy into center field amidst much respectful song and chant, to stand before Nambaryn Enkhbayar, the President himself, and receive much praise and a medal to be hung from a silken sash on his forehead. The boy and his family would have loved and honored him that much more.
This honor I saw bestowed by the President upon the winning wrestlers at closing ceremonies, their eagle dance and display of strength and prowess complete, the crowd wild with applause. Tsetseg Dondognyam, a 59-year-old National Champion in archery and 11-time winner, described to me the importance of earning honors at Naadam. Bea, our guide for the day, knows Tsetseg, and arranged an interview with her while she trained her eight-year old grandson on the archery field. After my many questions and her fascinating history lesson on Mongolian archery, she let me try out her bow.
Made from the long, curved horns of the Altai mountain goat and laminated to a core of soft birch wood, the bow is wrapped in animal skin, then bound and glued with what looked like a type of thick fishing line. The bow is quite fragile, so Tsetseg takes extra care not to leave it in the sun or cold too long.
I tried to pull back on the string, needing some Popeye muscles to do it. I don’t have Popeye muscles (though her eight-year-old grandson apparently does). She was patient though, and showed me how to properly use my thumb, with the aid of a bone thumb guard. “Without that,” she said, “your thumb will look like this.” I grimaced as I glanced at her purple and yellow thumb tip, dented with permanent scars and pits.
Like the few other National Archery Champions, Tsetseg wears a beautiful Mongolian cap with a sharp silver tip and two red flags dangling from the back. The tip and forehead medallion, along with the golden bars on the flag tips, indicate her status and number of wins. Everywhere she walks, people know who she is and what she has accomplished. She has earned a lot of respect from her countrymen. She patiently spent over an hour with us, generously giving her time and sharing her story. I have to say we felt honored and lucky to meet her. All of this – the beautiful costumes, strong wrestlers, amazing archers and general festive atmosphere, helped to take my mind off the horse I had seen dying on the ground.
There was nothing to be done. It only took about three minutes for the horse to die from complete and utter exhaustion: he had run too hard for too long. It affected me profoundly. Sadly, there wasn’t even the slightest possibility that he could have won, as several other horses had already crossed the finish line before him. The boy’s father, (I assume it was his father), arrived on horseback to pick up his son. The horse’s saddle was removed and the animal was left where he lay. The tiny crowd surrounding him walked away without turning back.
I was heartened by the sight of another man on horseback approach and dismount. He knelt and removed a few strands of hair from the dead horse’s tail and mane, then remounted and slowly rode away. I can only hope that this was some type of deeply respectful gesture. With heads hung low, Dad and son rode towards the crowd and crossed the line of Mongolian soldiers tasked with keeping the crowds at bay. I could see that Dad had been crying and number 120 was composed but distraught – there was a furrow of worry etched on his brow. That was when my new friend, Munhzaya, a gregarious girl who had befriended me earlier in the day said, “the living of life teaches about life.” She was only 15, but so sweet and kind and wise: she made me feel a little better about the sad death of the beautiful horse. I hope that one day I can return to Mongolia to spend more time with these friendly, wonderful people.
A ride on the Trans-Siberian Express is a ride of a lifetime. Over the course of 4,198 miles, we clacked along in luxury, seeing vast expanses of Russian and Siberian forest and Mongolian steppe, having wonderful adventures and meeting some extraordinary people, both among the locals and among our traveling companions. Helge and I have always wanted to take a long train ride and we’ve been very fortunate in our experience. The living of life does indeed teach about life…we learned so much during this adventure. We would do it again…in a heartbeat.
Photos from this leg of the tour: