So we board our final train for this trip. It’s an overnight sleeper, taking just over eight hours to transport us from Goulburn in New South Wales to Melbourne in Victoria. It’s a fitting way to end what we started, which was largely a rail journey half way around the world. Whereas before this trip I was a relative novice, now I’m a seasoned traveller aboard long-distance, sleeper trains, and so I’m looking forward to see how the Aussies do it. The train arrives, about five minutes late, and we find our car and cabin. Our Aussie provotnik is a chirpy chap with none of the surly-yet-efficient feel of his Russian counterparts. He barely checks our ticket (I guess if a person can be bothered to hang around in mid-Winter in Goulburn to board a train at 23.15, then they’ve probably bought a ticket) and then opens up our cabin for us. It’s clean inside, pretty plush, our beds are already made up, and we have free care packs (one with basic toiletries, including earplugs and a collapsible cup; the other has some popcorn, a cup of spring water, two crackers, two biscuits, and, oddly, a small punnet of burger relish).
It’s winter in Australia, which means it’s cold and damp. I admit that I found that idea pretty hard to swallow before I got here. My image of Oz contained hot, arid landscapes stretching into the horizons, kangaroos bounding through gum tree forests, and beaches full of surfers looking out into the ocean, checking for sharks. But hot. Well it is like the above, but its cold and damp. The roos still bound around, but they do so in their woolly coats. Despite the season, the landscape is verdant with eucalyptus and palms; I doubt the Aussies ever look out through bare, skeletal branches of denuded woods and hedgerows that reveal what you can’t see during the summer months. And though it’s the depth of winter, there are still days where you can lie on the beach and make sandcastles in the warm sunshine, which is what we did yesterday.
Japan. The larger the town, the less we like it. Sakaiminato was a gem, Matsue a delight, and Hiroshima was lovely. It’s so humid though; we have to carefully choose our itinerary because its overwhelmingly difficult to get about. As soon as we leave the hotel in Matsue it feels as if a damp blanket has been thrown over us. After taking just a few steps, we’re dripping with sweat. This is probably the reason why all Japanese hotels provide free laundry facilities and a free set of pyjamas/lounge-suit to change into whilst hanging out inside. It’s such a horrible feeling to wander around in sticky clothes, beads of perspiration cascading down our backs, knowing that there are umpteen places we would like to/should visit but just can’t face in these uncomfortable weather conditions.
We’re on the bus from Matsue to Hiroshima rolling past green valleys between jagged hills that are utterly tree covered. It’s very green here in Shimane Prefecture; a multitude of different deciduous and evergreens carpet almost every hill. This verdant landscape is so much greener and more varied than anything we’ve yet encountered on our travels. It’s comparable in its own way to the green and pleasant hills of England and Wales, except that the forests are all in tact; there’s far, far less cultivation of the hills here. I look to my left, and through the window see a valley of evergreen trees; they’re well-spaced, perfectly manicured examples that almost look like they’ve been cultivated that way; except they haven’t been, they just grow that way. Alex points out the bamboo out to me; I hadn’t noticed them before because they are trees; I had always thought of bamboo as a bush, but these bamboo are trees, often taller than the surrounding firs and pines, oaks and cedar, their heads bowed over in welcoming deference to us as we pass.
Our last experience on a Russian train was probably the best! It felt good to complete the last leg of the Russian part of our trip on the Trans-Siberian train number 6 from Khabarovsk to Vladivostok, and this time it was a train that was clean and airy and we had a 4 berth cabin to ourselves. There is something so civilised about the way the Russians do train travel: freshly laundered & starched cotton sheets, tea and coffee in those beautiful glasses with the ornate metal holders, and the view from the window: gentle birch forests by the mile, lush green countryside dotted with rural settlements, and abundant looking kitchen gardens. In the cabin there’s a place for everything: under seat spaces to stow your luggage, hangers for your clothes (Russians tend to change into athletic wear and flip-flops as soon as they board a train), cubby-holes for specs, book and bottle of water, and a little reading light. The train left at 9pm and arrived at 8.15am, and was as good as a hotel room.
At just 450km south of the Arctic Circle, Yakutsk (Яакутск - Дьокуускай in Yakut) is pretty far north, it’s buildings are on stilts to keep them out of the permafrost, and it’s the coldest, most populated city in the World. It’s also where lots of relatively fresh remains of mammoths and other large mammals have been found over the years; some part of them, a tusk perhaps, poking up out of the snow. We decided to go there and, in quite a minor degree, follow in the footsteps of the Mammoth Hunters.
I awoke this morning to two messages via Airbnb: the first was Anna, asking us what time we’d be arriving at her apartment in Irkutsk, assuming we’d be arriving into the airport and offering to pick us up for 400 roubles (about £5). The second was from Olga in Vladivostok, letting us know that her apartment was unavailable. When this happens Airbnb automatically offer you a whole host of other, available places to stay. I scrolled through to find another apartment: a slick looking studio flat with a double bed on a mezzanine, washing machine, wifi, decorated in a contemporary style; its 5km from the city centre but close to the port where we pick up the ferry to Japan.
Listvyanka (Листвянка), or to be precise a place called Tyekh uchastok (Тех участок). We’ve arrived here on Friday by mini-bus from the provincial capital of Irkutsk (Иркутск) which is one of the largest cities in Siberia. We’re back to AirBnbing it and are staying in a flat overlooking the Angara River’s glorious exit into Lake Baikal; although it’s actually the other way around: Lake Baikal empties into the Angara River. Our host had advertised the place as being in Listvyanka, but it’s not really: It’s about half an hour’s walk from the outskirts of it. I’m quite glad about that, as this is a quiet non-place: no tourists; nobody trying to sell you stuff.
Nerd warning: this is a short post and it’s a little bit nerdy; read on if you’re interested in train timetables, or gain mildly autistic pleasure from such things; maybe skip this one if you don’t.
Back aboard a train. This time a Russian and not a Chinese train; thankfully. Nothing personal here, but after our experience of the Chinese-run Trans-Mongolian Express service, I’m very glad to be in the hands of the Ruskies once again. For one thing the wagon is clean; our cabin is spotless; the toilet is clean, and there’s plenty of toilet paper; the provodniks (cabin attendants) are stern yet efficient; the beds are more comfortable; and the set of bed linen and a hand towel we received was laundered to the point of being the paragon of what every housewife or husband in a washing powder advert dreams of achieving. I’m sure the Shanghai to Beijing bullet train and other services are exemplary, but the Moscow-Ulaanbaatar-Beijing service is pants.
Well what an experience this has been. A succession of quite randomly different places to stay, in some stunning locations, interspersed by gruelling amounts of long drives over rough dirt tracks through breath-taking landscapes. This is a big country, made all the bigger by the lack of paved roads, at least between any of the locations that we've been to. We've spent ten days, mainly in a Lexus 4x4 with two people we'd never met before, and who hadn't met each other before, performing a massive loop across the Southern and Central areas of Mongolia, spending the night in gers, and taking flying visits to some of the country's tourist attractions.
I'm involved in a slight altercation. I decided to have a crafty cigarette in the section at the end of the waggon we're in; it's the place where the проводник (provodniks - the cabin attendants) stoke the coal fire that warms the carriage and keeps the samovar at a steady 80degC. Smoking here isn't as naughty as it sounds because there's a little sign saying 'smoking compartment’ fixed to the wall above an ashtray. The problem is that the Russian train guard, Pavlov, is telling me I'm not allowed to smoke.
We're slightly intimidated. We've arrived in Moscow at the main Beloruskaya train station and managed to catch the Metro. We're now at Кизвская (Kievskaya) metro station trying to work out where the light blue line is and there's lots of people bustling about, knowing where they're going, whilst two dunderheaded n00bs stand in the middle of the concourse looking a tad disorientated. We're hot and we've got luggage with us, and this doesn't make it any easier; and we can't work out which line's which and where the line we want is to.
Eventually we succeed and we make it to Смоленская (Smolenskaya); the metro station near to where we're staying. We come out and as I often find with coming out of metro statios, we're totally disorientated. Luckily a lady helps us and tells us a lot of information about distances and various trolley buses we can take, and Alex gets about half of this, and me absolutely none of it. I nod and smile and say thank you in Russain, we continue on our way, but eventually find where we're staying after about another 15-20 minutes of faffing an walking.
It's 2.29am and I'm standing barefoot in a t-shirt on Brest station platform taking a breath of fresh air before the gigantic Russian Warsaw-Belarus-Moscow express train makes its departure for Moscow at 2.52. It's got pretty hot in the four berth carriage we're sharing with two others. The air-con is off because most of the systems are off on the train whilst they change the wheels to fit the wider gauge Belorusian-Russian railway system. You might ask if it makes a bit of noise? I can tell you that it makes a lot of noise.
The Polish train trundles through the suburbs of old East Berlin past the ten-story Soviet-era apartment blocks on it's way home to its native country. The cityscape in these parts has a kind of utopian feel about it; residential blocks set in parkland with plenty of trees and green space, wide avenues, and localities selling this and that; people relaxing under the shade of a tree; kids playing in a play park. At least that's how it looks through the window of the train as we go by; I have no idea what it's like to live here, but from our experience staying in an Airbnb in one of these areas, I feel that life here might be alright.
We left Brussels and got the train from Midi station to Cologne and then all the way on to Berlin yesterday. The train was swish and amazing - putting Blighty trains to shame - even the food in the buffet car was pretty good. It was a shock to find that all the staff were suddenly German and we had to brush off a bit of the lingo. Just before we reach Cologne we were informed in a lengthy diatribe (in four languages: French, Dutch, German and English) that the train was going to terminate before our destination due to some problem and we'd have to swap trains. When we got to the station we discovered that the waiting train was full of people who promptly disembarked to get on our train whilst we got on theirs; so we swapped trains with them and ended up in the same seats. Oh and a tip about getting on a train without a reservation but with a large wheelie case: don't get on first; wait for everyone else to get on and get their seats and get on last and find a free seat. I expect you already knew that!
Arrived at Oxford station yesterday morning and bought tickets into Paddington. Boy was that train packed to the gunnels. There were a Swedish couple travelling with their three kids, a toddler and two twin babies. It seems like having a pair of twin babes is a little like trying to play two games of tennis at once. One's okay then the other goes off, then you switch to calm that one, and then the other is triggered off, and then they both go off and then you try frantically not to drop all the balls.
Anyway, we got to St Pancras, which is now a wonderful station (in fact the whole King's Cross-St Pancras area is much transformed) and entered into the sleek Eurostar terminal. The train was superfast now on the British side, unlike in the old days when it ran from Waterloo, and we were in Brussels in two hours. A quick hop on the metro and we got to our flat. A bit of a struggle with the keys and working out which door was ours and we were in.
I've just got the third and final visa that we needed to get before we left on our adventures; the Mongolian one.
We needed three to start with: the Russian Fedaration, the Rublic of Belarus and Mongila. The first two we'd arranged through Real Russia, spending a little bit more money, but saving us the legwork and hassle, but the Mongolian one I decided to do myself.....
One of the hardest things about hosting guests is listening, helplessly to them struggling with the sticky door knob...