Travels With Myself

A Personalized Periodic Update, just for my family and friends, of the Ongoing Adventures of Your Favorite World Traveler

Name:
Location: Budapest, Hungary

After nearly 30 years in the financial industry in the US (mostly California and New Mexico), I decided it was time for my second life. I sold my house, sold my car, sold all my furniture, took a TEFL course and moved to Budapest to teach Business English to the business people of Hungary. Amazing mid-life change! I taught for about eight years, then pretty much retired. Now I travel extensively, and have been to more than 65 countries. I have had six books published, mostly about my travels - see my author's page on amazon.com. I have made friends from all over the world. Becoming an expat is the best move I ever made and I plan to continue my travels indefinitely. Come join me on this blog and enjoy the places I've been and the people I've met, past, present and hopefully in the future.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Adventure Continues: Trans Siberian Part Deux


So there we were on the first leg of our TSR trip across Russia. Dean and Tony got to our compartment within a couple of minutes after I stored my suitcase under the lower bench, and were both equally surprised to find we had a companion for the night. They managed to get squared away as our new bunkmate, Katarina, sat and stared at her shoes. Obviously, this wouldn’t be a conversational gabfest.

Why did we have an extra roomie when we were part of a group? Well, sports fans, the TSR is really just a regular train and anyone can and does ride it. And if a single bunk is needed in a compartment with three people, then in she goes. And everyone just has to get along. For example, Katya wanted the small window in our compartment closed, all the better to trap the heat inside. We wanted it open, to air out the place. It was three guys vs. one middle-aged Russian woman, so we won, at least until the compartment cooled off, then we let her close the window.
The train pulled out of the station precisely at 8:40 PM and we were on our way. Except, well, maybe we weren’t quite on our TSR voyage yet. It seems that the standard, traditional, guide-book Trans-Siberian Railway goes from Moscow down to Perm and then on to Yekaterinburg, and does not go anywhere near Kazan. We were taking a slight detour; I semi-officially dubbed it The Kazan Deviation (sounds like a chess strategy, right?). The travel agency decided we should see this spectacular small city, and so we shall. We’d pick up the regular TSR route upon leaving Yekaterinburg Tuesday morning.

Anyway, when we all seemed to have gotten our stuff in place, Katya asked us to leave the compartment so she could prepare for bed. She was in her top right bunk when we came back in, settled in for the night and not about to attempt any cross-cultural approaches. Ah, well, better than a fat Russian alcoholic suffering from uncontrollable flatulence.
Our carriage was typical for this type of train. There were nine compartments holding four beds each, with a toilet/washroom at each end of the car. The Provodnitsa also had a small bedroom of her own at one end of the car, along with a small kitchen area with sink. And that was it. To use the bottom benches for sitting and talking, etc., you had to roll up the mattresses and stash them on the top bunks, which meant those using the top bunks couldn’t use their bunks until the bottom bunkers got ready for bed. Whew!

The railroad supplied two sheets and a pillowcase, plus a blanket, for each traveler. When ready, we could and did and had to make up our own beds (as well as strip them down in the morning). Mom always told me there’d be days like this, but it was the US Army that taught me how to make up a tight bunk. Tony and Dean made their beds, after which I made mine. I tucked the blanket in and bounced a 5-euro coin on it. Boing! My old Drill Instructor would have been proud of me.

Since this leg of the journey was a fairly short one (only 13 hours!), there was no restaurant car attached to our train, nor was there a Snack Cart Dolly coming around with drinks and crisps and ramen that we could make with the hot water from our samovar. So we were on our own. Which was OK, as I had a few of those sport bars and snack bars of my own, and could stand to lose a few pounds here and there. I snacked and washed it down with some of the bottled water I’d brought on board (that was the one thing everyone needed plenty of – water!).

Pretty much everyone in our compartment decided to call it an early night. We opened the small window to the outside, but Katya, tough Russian woman that she is, was more used to the heat than we were and asked if she could close the window. We weren’t thrilled, and decided to leave the window open until the car cooled down. Katarina had her face turned to the wall, so we all stripped down to our shorts and climbed into our narrow bunks, lying on our sides, and listened to the clackety-clack rhythm of the train wheels as we drifted off to our first Trans-Siberian sleep.

Up and at ’em at 6:30 in the morning! Of course, first light was around 4:30 AM, so I felt like I had slept in. No one else seemed to be roaming around, so I abluted without interruption, always a welcome experience on a train. A healthy breakfast of sport bar and water and I was ready to face the day. My compartment mates finally slithered out of their bunks around 8 AM, which gave them just enough time to wash up and brush teeth and dress and unmake their beds before we arrived at Kazan Station at 9:25 AM. On these older trains, with the dump-it-all-on-the-tracks toilets, the washrooms are always locked 20 minutes before arriving at the station and 20 minutes after leaving the station, so one must time one’s washroom rituals accordingly. The Provodnitsa is not happy if a straggler insists on using the toilet within their locked-up times.
This was our first venture from train to city, and it set the tone of things to come. From the train we dragged our suitcases and backpacks out of the majestic Kazan Railway Station (so many of Russia’s official buildings are imposing and grandiloquent), right to the bus for our tour of the city. Hotel check-in would come later in the day. This was also my first time outside of Moscow or St. Petersburg, so I was eager to see how people lived elsewhere.

Kazan, founded in 1005 by the Bulgarian Turks, is Tatarstan's capital and Russia's seventh most populous city, one of the oldest settlements in the country. One half of the population of Kazan is Russian, the other half Tatar. On our way to the Kazan Kremlin, we stopped for a photo op at a statue of Young Lenin, erected in honor of his activist student days in the city. Someone commented that he looked like Leonardo DiCaprio, but personally I didn’t see the resemblance; I thought he looked more like James Cagney.

Next it was on to the Kazan Kremlin, which originally served as a fortress and which was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2000. The Kremlin sits majestically on the hill towering over the Kazanka River, guarded by the Worker of the World statue of a worker bound in barbed wire. The Russian flair for the dramatic. We checked out the churches (there are always churches!) and the QOL Sharif mosque, co-existing side-by-side, and wandered the old Tatar pathways and bazaars and wooden buildings still standing.
Finally, a chance to check in to our hotel, the Ibis Kazan Centre, mere steps from Sharif Kamal's Apartment Museum and the Kazan State Theater of Young Spectators, neither of which I saw. First things first: Shower Time! Dean and I arm-wrestled for first go, but I was tired from the trip and he beat me to the ground, even though I used both arms and even tried to bite one of his knuckles. Just to get even, I tore all the pages about Kazan out of his guide book while he was showering; that’ll teach him! I had my turn under the warm and then cool spray, luxuriating in the feel of the water. Apparently, my self-imposed preparation for the trip of a shower every other day still did not prepare me for the reality of train travel. Life is tough.

Anyway, we picked up Tony and off we went to Baumana ulitsa, the main pedestrian shopping street, just two blocks from our hotel. A quick stroll and reccy convinced us our best lunch bet was at Twin Peaks, the restaurant side of the Russian chain of Coyote Ugly bars. We commandeered a terrace table, the better to watch the pedestrians stroll by, and settled in for lunch. Our cute waitress managed to take our orders, and our minds off of what we had ordered, long enough for her to bring our food in a very strange way.

Dean got his burger first, then five minutes later, after he’d finished it, his fries arrived. Tony’s grilled veggies made it after Dean’s burger, but his salad didn’t show up for another ten minutes. At least my veal shashlik barbecue was on time. The important things did arrive first, however: beer and grenkiye! I was first introduced to this most fantastic of all Russian beer snacks in St. Petersburg some years ago. It’s Russian black bread, cut into finger-length square logs and fried in oil along with rough-chopped garlic, which adheres to the bread. OMG! I could exist on grenkiye and beer all night – and often have.
But the afternoon was pleasant and sunny, with a nice breeze off the river, and we were able to relax and enjoy the atmosphere. It was Saturday, so the street was busy with shoppers and families wandering up and down, having ice cream cones, watching the buskers and posing with the giant cat statue.

The cat is Kazan’s totemic animal. They were recognized officially when, in 1745, Empress Elisabeth put out a call for the “finest cats of Kazan,” to help catch mice in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg which was, at that time, a palace. Later, under the rule of Catherine the Great, the cats were nicknamed the “Winter Palace cats.” And I did the tourist bit and also posed with the cat statue, which I had named Felix. Catherine would have knighted me for my attempts to foster American-Russian harmony.
After shopping and eating and drinking, we all agreed a brief nap was in order, so repaired to the hotel for same. The evening’s entertainment was supposed to be a jazz club mentioned on the internet, but when we got there around 9 PM we found out the show didn’t start until 11 PM, so we hurried back to Coyote Ugly so Tony could see what a really crass, tacky, American-style Russian bar looked like. And it was all of that and more.

The entry exam was interesting. A large Russian man frisked us all thoroughly, finding and checking my camera and lip protector, Dean’s hair gel and Tony’s tube of Preparation H. Things can get embarrassing when going to the Coyote Ugly experience.
The large, second-floor bar was dark and moodily-lit, with girls dancing on the bar and overpriced drinks and music so loud the bass made my shorts vibrate. Tony lasted for one drink, then went outside to smoke. Dean and I stayed for one more beer, but even we’d had enough by that time. When the staff started gathering customers for races up and down the open, where guys grabbed their crotches and girls their breasts while running, then had to down a shot of vodka at the other end, we knew we were in Mordor and we headed out the door.

We stopped at a local Irish pub for some sanity and late-night snacks/dinner, so managed to calm down and slide through the remainder of the night. I think we got back to the hotel around 1 AM, just in time for some sack time before heading out again in the morning.

Our bus tour this day took us around the city before ending up on Sviyazhsk Island - and no, I can’t pronounce it either. We popped over to the other side of the river, where we stopped at the Dragon Wedding Bowl (see photo). Apparently, this is a very popular spot for nuptials, although somewhat strange; the main building is shaped like a large bowl, and there are big statues of dragons around the outside. Ah, well, to each his/her own, I guess.
We continued on to the Church of All Religions, another madman’s fantasy out in the suburbs. Apparently, the builder wanted to found a place where all religions could come worship and were welcome. It’s a colorful place, with doors and windows and turrets representative of most of the world’s major religions. Unfortunately, before he could finish it, there was a fire in which he was killed. The building still stands, unfinished, but still waiting for all those religions to come together in peace and harmony. The rest of the world is still waiting for that also.
And finally, our tour of Sviyazhsk Island. The island, at the confluence of the Volga and Sviyaga Rivers, was originally the stronghold of Orthodox Christianity. The fort was built by Czar Ivan the Terrible over a period of four weeks using hundreds of miles of local hardwood. The original fortified city was built elsewhere, then marked, disassembled, loaded on ships and sailed down the Volga to Sviyazhsk Island, where it was re-assembled within the record time of 24 days. (Got that out of the guidebook)

In past times, the island also served as a penal colony (gulag), retaliatory establishment (prison), a collective farm and later an asylum. Attempts to revive it as an artist colony are ongoing.

We headed back to our hotel around 5:30 PM, where we had stored our bags before leaving in the morning. We had time for dinner which, for me, was a Cinnabon (really!) and a Blue Lagoon tropical cocktail, desperately needed. Temps were in the high 70s (around 25 C) and that sun was hot. We relaxed at a terrace eatery on Baumana u. and watched the Sunday strollers, including lots of police, both men and women. Really pretty female cops, if I do say so myself – as did Tony and Dean. And they wore those non-threatening baseball caps, now so popular in Budapest.

Our trip was moving right along, and it was time to catch our train again. We got to the station around 6:45 PM and went through our carriage check-in procedure with a new Provodnitsa. I was first in the car and it was like entering a sauna. The carriage had been sitting out in the hot sun all day, closed up, windows and doors shut and I felt like tearing off my clothes and dousing myself with our bottled water, just to bring my body temperature down. Holy Perspiration, Batman! Jeez! I stored my suitcase under the bench and dropped my backpack on the small table and ran down the hallway to the exit door, knocking down several of our group members entering the car. Air, give me air!

I remained outside until the conductor waved his lantern, then hopped aboard as we were pulling out of the station. Still gasping for air, I entered our compartment, to find that this time there were no windows in the compartments and only two in the hallway to open for fresh, cooling air. It seems these cars, as old as they are, also had air circulation systems, sort of like a precursor to air conditioning, to keep the carriage cool. Of course, in cars as old as ours, this system doesn’t work so well and the cars stay hot until around, oh, 3 o’clock in the morning, when you’ve already soaked your sheets with sweat. And with, once again, no restaurant/bar car in which to sit and have a cold beer or four, our choices of cool places were nonexistent. And guess what? We had another roommate!

This time it was a young-ish Russian engineer named Pavel (nickname: Pasha). He was in his 30s, well over six feet tall and interested in meeting foreigners – as are many Russians we encountered along the way. We traded information in our stumbling ways, he with his 27 words of English and we with our 19 Russian words – but somehow we got along just fine. A tumbler of vodka does tend to break the ice – so to speak.

We spent the next couple of hours trying to cool down and not succeeding to any great extent. But slowly, slowly, staying very still and toughing it out, we began to feel better. Dean broke out one of his pre-fixed spaghetti meals and added hot water from the samovar and we feasted in our tin cups. We made up our beds around 9 PM or so and decided we’d catch some Zs, when four young Hungarian men in our group decided a vodka party was in order. And it was, keeping us talking and laughing for several hours. By then I couldn’t feel the heat any longer, much less my toes, so we all stumbled off to bed.

It was at this stage that my Muse came to visit, urging me to compose a short poem to honor our Provodnitsa Olga. She was very nice to us all, bringing us our sheets and making sure we had washroom access even if it was a touch under the 20-minute marks before entering and after leaving the stations. I even gave her one of the Budapest shot glasses as a souvenir. She was thrilled. So, here’s to you, Olga:

O Little Provodnitsa

O Little Provodnitsa,
What is it that heats ya?
Is there a man who beats ya,
Or one who always cheats ya?

O Little Provodnitsa
Be sure he ne’er unseats ya.
It’s better if he meets ya,
Than if he always Tweets ya,


Hey! I never said I was TS Eliot! You get what you pay for, which in this case is NADA! Besides, YOU try to find something to rhyme with Provodnitsa. So there!

Once again, dawn came early. Remember, it was the season of the White Nights, when there are something like nearly 20 hours of daylight each day. So it was up and off to the washroom before the chickens came out of their coops and we pulled into a station.

We rolled into our next stop around 8:30 in the morning of Monday, June 12, although I’d been up and about since 6:30 – and awake since 5 AM. That sun was bright. I had hoped some breakfast pierogi would be available from the platform food sellers, but the promised mass of eager babushkas with their homemade rolls were nowhere to be seen. Where were the vaunted Cossack hordes with their wonderful fragrant breads and meat pies? Where were the sharp-eyed drink pushers? Where the early-rising fish-head merchants? Nowhere, that’s where. Nothing. No one. Sigh. Another power sport bar and water for breakfast. Yum.

We finally hit Yekaterinburg around 10:30 AM and immediately transferred to our tour bus. We said goodbye to Pasha as he went off on his engineering business. We were off for the site of the churches that were raised on the “sacred” ground where the last of the Romanovs, Nicholas II and Alexandra and their five children, were murdered after the 1918 revolution.

Yekaterinburg is the capital of the Ural region, straddling the border between Europe and Asia, which is commemorated by an obelisk that we would visit later in the day. Yekaterinburg is the fourth most populous city in Russia after Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and Novosibirsk. The city was founded in 1723 by the order of Peter the Great and was named after Peter the Great’s wife.

There was a light rain coming down as we arrived at the church, but not enough to stop our intrepid group. We toured the church and viewed the display dedicated to every aspect of the Romanovs’ life and death – all in Russian, of course. As in all Russian churches, women must cover their heads and legs, and men must uncover their head but cover their legs. I was in shorts, so I was given the choice of missing the church tour or of wearing a wraparound skirt while going through the church. I chose the skirt, just to be sure I wouldn’t miss anything important. Only for you, Nicholas.
Afterwards, we drove to the site of the obelisk that marks the dividing line between Europe and Asia and, of course, had our photos taken with a foot in each continent. Gotta do the tourist thing. Zita informed us we were now in the Ural Mountains. At the site were also lots of trees decorated with ribbons, each one indicating a wish. We also stopped at a site of one of Stalin’s gulags, a prison camp that is now the site of mass graves of the prisoners murdered there, some 20,000 or so. Walls in the area contain the names of as many of the murdered prisoners as could be found. A sobering experience.
Our bus parked near the main square in Yekaterinburg and we were given one entire hour to shop for food for the next leg of our train journey, which would be the longest yet. I chose to visit a nearby pub and have some great local beer and snacks. Also had a nice chat with Ilya the bartender. Due to time constraints, however, I never did get to see the QWERTY monument or Ganina Yama, the site where the bodies of the Romanovs were dumped after they were slaughtered. Maybe next time.

We finally got to the hotel across from the train station, the Marins Park, a Russian chain. We cleaned up and met in the hotel bar/restaurant. I’d found a jazz club or two to choose from, but it was still raining and Dean and Tony didn’t want to risk getting wet, so we stayed in the hotel bar and drank beer and ate dinner and chatted with the wait staff. A quiet night but a nice one, although I still think we should have tried the jazz club. Maybe next time. We called it a night before midnight.

Once again I was up with the sun. I checked out the 24-hour McDonald’s next to the hotel, but the menu was all in Russian, which I couldn’t decipher at that time of the morning, so I slumped back to the hotel room to wait for our departure. Around 6:30 or so, we hiked over to the train station from our hotel, a walk of at least five minutes, for our early-morning departure and our 24-hour train ride, the longest leg yet. But at least this time we’d be on the real Trans-Siberian Railway train.

We found our car and compartment, and also found another compartment-mate, a Russian woman whose ticket indicated she had the same bed as Tony. Hmmm. Zita was informed and checked with our new Provodnitsa who conferred with another of her comrades and they discovered a startling thing: the tickets of the three of us – myself, Dean and Tony – indicated we would be in a compartment in Carriage Number 4 instead of Number 5, where we were at that time, with our group. This was the first time we’d been separated from the rest of the group. We had no idea why this happened but, as it turned out, it was a blessing in disguise.

We moved our stuff and found out that Carriage 4 was an upgrade! O frabjous day! It was a better, newer carriage. Newer benches and bunks; in this carriage, the bench backrests contained the mattresses and folded down to become our beds. The washrooms had chemical toilets, which meant they didn’t have to be locked during our time in the stations. And best of all – the air conditioner worked really well, so it was cool and pleasant. And we didn’t even have a fourth roomie. Things were looking up.

Thank you, O god of the Provodnitsas. On the longest leg of our trip, we would get to spend the 24 hours in much better comfort and without a fourth person in our compartment. Plus – wonder of wonders – we were now back on the regular TSR line and our train had a bar/restaurant car! Jeez, does it get any better than that?!

(Yes, it did! The hotel had thoughtfully packed each of us a box breakfast. How about that?)

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