Tag Archives: Russia

Siberia and Lake Baikal – Sleeping Land

I’m sitting just inside the doorway, feet propped on the windowsill. The glass door is open to cool down the unseasonably hot room. The hotel chair foiled my attempts to shove it onto the balcony, so I’m six feet from the balcony edge, which is 500m from the shore of Lake Baikal, which is the deepest lake in the world. It’s also the largest freshwater lake by volume (topping the combined total of North America’s Great Lakes), the oldest lake (25 million years old) and one of the world’s clearest (I miss Jeopardy). You’d think with all that deepensity it would be round but it is as long and narrow as a red hot chili pepper. The food, I mean.

The buzz of a lawn mower makes me glance up since the ground is a mix of snow and mud in this area. A motorized something is moving quickly from left to right across the frozen lake. The vehicle looks like a snowmobile from this distance but as I track its progress, it continues straight onto and over a fully thawed section of the lake. It’s a hovercraft.

We’re in Listvyanka, a tiny tourist outpost on the shore of this massive lake. Before leaving us briefly unsupervised, our guide cautioned that the test of safe ice thickness on the lake was to check if there were cars on it. We dismissed the idea of any intra-lakal stroll that relies on a thickness test performed by tourists. Just as we passed on trekking through the woods when he said to search our bodies for ticks post-hike. They come mean over here, he told us, causing paralysis and other awfulness containing words like hemorrhagic and encephalitic. And so I’m sitting just inside my room, gazing in silence at what must be the largest outdoor skating rink in the world.

While my trainmate was doing her 8000km trek from Western Ukraine to Vladivostok in one unbroken run, we’ve been getting off every couple of days to sleep in a real bed, shower and take in some towns along the way.

The “tour” is only three of us. The Aussie couple with me are lovely. Warm, friendly, easy-going and have an incredible aptitude for turning the stern-faced train attendants into smiling, laughing marshmallows. It takes me an extra day or two to get the same women to even crack a smile. I asked the Aussies their trick: they bribe the attendants with packets of flavoured hot chocolate or cigarettes, but I suspect it is as much their engaging manner. 

A guide and driver meet us at each stop and shepherd us around the sights for a day or two before returning us to the train for the next leg. We break in a new driver-guide pair each time as no one accompanies us on the trains. It’s stress-free travel, without the cruise-like insulation from the places we are visiting.

In Moscow, we saw the Kremlin and metros and cathedrals and memorials to the Great Patriotic War (WWII) with Galina – who also reminded me Russians believe that foreigners who smile for no reason are insane. She wasn’t making the point to me specifically, I don’t think, just mentioning it in passing.

Ekaterinburg was more death-focused with Evgenys I and II, as we called our guide-driver combo. We walked around an open-air military collection of helicopters and planes and tanks and cannons belonging to the director of the adjoining industrial plant, an oligarch who is forgiven his oligarchiness since he employs a large workforce and donates to every local program and cause.

We stood silent at the memorial to Stalin’s repression – the site of the mass grave of 18,000 local people killed during the purges of the 1930s and uncovered during the construction of the new highway. Stalin implemented an execution quota system that meant when the town fell short of dissidents, they rounded up the intellectuals and people of religion and added them to the lists.

And we looked solemnly at the photos of the obliterated, stained wall against which Tsar Nicholas II and his family were shot then finished off by bayonet when the bullets ricocheted off jewels sewn into the ladies’ dresses for safe-keeping. 

Irkutsk lightened up with Mark and Alexei. They took us along a river walk to listen to a church-bell-ringing virtuoso, into a cathedral that included a fresco of Bolsheviks shooting the Tsar and family (now canonized), and past the beginning of a pro-government demonstration to counter the rash of anti-government protests that swept Russia a few weeks ago. 

And that brings us to Listvyanka and the hovercraft.

Unlike Ekaterinburg, where a van drove us across the train station’s parking lot to our hotel, Mark dispenses with Alexei and walks us up to the ski hill for a panoramic lookout then down into the town – a 9 km trek and 125 fitbit floors of elevation.

Mark leads us through the market with stalls of giant-eyed seal plush toys, Mongolian slippers, Baikal gemstones and pungent smoked omul, a whitefish cousin of the salmon.

“I can help you buy something,” Mark says.

“I’m good,” I say, “Will we have time for the hovercraft?”

We pass a large, submarine-shaped structure built of what looks like unseaworthy aluminum siding. “Do you want to visit the nerpanarium?” he says.

As much as an arium devoted to nerpas sounds intriguing, “No thanks,” I pass, “Hovercraft?” glancing hopefully to the lake.

People are doing things you don’t associate with lake fun: building ice fortresses, riding ATVs, driving a car, and cutting human-sized holes in the ice so a scuba man can pull the cigarette out of his mouth, put on his mask and drop into the depths to dive under an ice cap one- to three-feet thick. Besides, nerpa is Russian for seal and a seal aquarium in a shanty fake submarine is depressing. 

I think Mark is getting fed up with us but he doesn’t seem to grasp how cool a hovercraft is. We finally convince him we can manage on our own and walk onto the ice. The warning he gave us earlier was unnecessary as he clarified that the ice at this point can hold 10 tonnes of weight.

The hovercraft is a cross between those swamp boats in the Florida Everglades or Louisiana bayous, the ones with the big fans on the back, and a large rubber raft. We climb on the pontoon and bend in half to step into the cabin. The hovercraft starts up, buzzing and vibrating, and fishtails its way onto the ice. And then we are speeding along, slipping a bit to one side, barely brushing the ice.

The hovercraft edges closer and closer to the line where thick lake ice meets the mouth of the unfrozen river. Then it’s ice-water-ice in quick succession to make us gasp. We stop and the driver, who has been texting the whole way, signals us to step out onto the solid surface to our left, away from the river’s edge.

Lake Baikal might be long and thin on a map but looking across its 40km span to the crumpled blue-white mountain range in the distance it seems round enough. And immense. 

Siberia means “sleeping land” and away from the tourist activities and market sellers and tour guides cramming facts into our heads I can feel it – a silence as thick as the ice beneath my feet. Ice covering the oldest, largest, deepest, clearest lake in the world. Ice on which I jump up and down with an insane foreigner’s grin on my face.

Trans-Siberian Railway – Ekaterinburg to Irkutsk – It’s not the culture

Taking the Trans-Siberian is like being in jail. But in a good way. Because you are on a train.

Each train car has a long corridor that runs the length of the carriage with cabins opening up like cells along one side. Glancing in, people sprawl out on narrow bunks, reading or sleeping or playing cards on the little table. They look up at you unsmiling as you pass on to your assigned bunk.

As the new kid, you step into your cabin with clean clothes and shiny hair and hope for an unintimidating roommate. The woman in the top bunk of cabin 9 doesn’t stir when you walk in. You’ve heard tell of models riding trains but this one is older, has short hair and is wearing a t-shirt, shorts and bare feet, with one leg stretched out and propped on the ceiling.

The four bunks of the blue and grey cabin are arranged two up, two down with a shoe-width three-rung ladder that pulls out from the wall for the top bunkers. You dump your day bag on the bottom, number 21, and quickly stow your luggage – a fat duffel or skinny suitcase – in the small open space under the bunk. The other half is taken up by a storage bin for your pillow and pallet, that you get to by raising the bench.

Your roomie has stored her bag in an upper crawl space over the door that is built out into the ceiling of the corridor. But she has also made herself at home with a mini-grocery of food on the central table: six eggs, a loaf of rye, a bottle of water, and some of those wafer cookies that taste like paper that your mom used to hand out at Halloween. 

The sliding cell door is open, but the light is blocked by the female Russian attendant in full warden-style uniform. All the attendants are women on this and most trains. The idea of the male attendant is thought to be a myth. She tosses a set of sheet, pillow case, towel and cover on the bunk and moves on. Underneath those you find another pack with paper slippers, toothbrush and tube of toothpaste thinner than your pinkie. 

An hour later, another attendant comes by and you grab your translation app. But she barks “Chicken? Meat?” at you and waits, tapping her foot. When you say “chicken?,” she responds with “Fore!” You say yes to everything, and keep silent when your bunkie gets her lunch at 2pm and you have to wait till 4pm.

Lunch is a TV dinner: short-grain white rice, 1oz of meat called chicken, a splash of sauce, and a stale bun that you eat anyway as this is your one free meal per trip, whether a 25hr leg as previously, or the 72hr stint you are in for now.

There is one shared toilet stall per 36-bunk carriage, seat- and lidless until you realize they are simply securely fastened in the up position. You wrestle them free with some difficulty, resulting in the need for a band aid and some desperate decontamination hand washing, plus a tube of Polysporin on standby. The toilet paper is industrial-grey one-ply. The water unpotable and cold. Your typical train bathroom.

The trip continues into the evening. Quiet, apart from the incoming-bomb sound just before a train rushes by in the opposite direction. Lights go out early and everyone settles in. The thick metal door clangs shut. The rocking is stronger than normal but sleep comes quickly if not deeply. Another person has joined your cabin during the afternoon and she gets woken up by the attendant in the middle of the night, then vanishes. 

But in the morning, everything changes. 


For one thing, I’ve joined a gang. My stoic roommate thaws with two new arrivals that show up mid-morning and we all introduce ourselves. Lyra and Natasha are smiley, with an impressive determination to chat even though we can’t understand each other. Natasha is missing an eye (literally) which you don’t notice at first since her hair covers that side of her face.

Maria comes down from the top bunk and the three of them pull out container after Ziploc bag after carton of food that they urge me to eat. We have a picnic, huddled hip to hip around our little table where they feed me tea, cheese, meat and cucumber sandwiches on dense black bread, and show me the technique of the hand salad – dry sprigs of arugula and cilantro that we munch like goats. They adamantly refuse my contribution of the box of chocolates my guide bought me on my birthday before I got on the train. I am the guest and not allowed to contribute. Besides, they have lots of chocolate that they press on me whenever I stop eating. We have a great confusing chat but I gather Natasha and Lyra are mother and daughter-in-law from Kazakhstan. Maria is from the Ukraine. They have various kids of indeterminate age and sex.

Now there is English-speaking in the corridors as other travelers from London, Australia, Minnesota and Denmark appear to get some air. A little Russian kid runs up and down squeaking and beeping like a reversing truck. He trips and falls flat on his face in front of our cabin repeatedly so we stop looking up. 

I make my way to the dining car with my sole tour mates, an amiable Australian retired couple in their 60s. We trade funny travel stories seated on space-age vinyl seats while we study the 25-page menu with all the usual comic translation errors. Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You plays on a loop.

Back in my room, Natasha asks me a question about why I travel. I say, though translation, that I like to experience the different cultures. She smiles and says, “No, Mary, not the culture, it’s the people.” Lyra and Maria nod. I smile back at her. Maybe it’s not like jail after all. 

Moscow – More than ballet and rockets

I can’t afford to have this become a thing but I had dinner at another of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, this one coming in at #18 – White Rabbit in Moscow. I blame Netflix.

White Rabbit is highlighted on an episode of Chef’s Table, a popular series that covers a different restaurant each show. The premise of this restaurant is that Chef Vladimir – inspired by a 17th century cookbook – modernizes traditional Russian food to reconnect people with their culinary roots. 

In one scene the chef’s staff, or maybe family, milks a mystery animal that the camera pans out to reveal a moose. In another, Chef Vladimir himself bottle feeds a mooselet that jumps around him playfully. So when he gets to a recipe in his ancient cookbook that calls for moose lips, his voiceover expressed shock. Cut to the next scene where Vlad cheerfully impales a plate of mouse snouts from his sous chef and breaks them down in gruesome detail while I watch, cringing on my couch. What would you do if someone served you moose lips? My answer apparently is eat them stuffed in a baked black dumpling with a morel mushroom sauce.

The staff at White Rabbit was confused that I was eating alone. The hostess tried to make sense of the situation: Was I waiting for someone? Maybe your friends are here? They are coming later, perhaps? Forcing me to simplify my explanation each time from, I’m visiting Moscow alone to, no, just me alone, to, no, no friends, alone alone alone. 

Seated at a four-top, it took a similar round to convince the server to take to my order instead of waiting for the rest of the party, and another for me to order the tasting menu as, waiter pointing regretfully to the empty chairs, everyone at the table must order it. I explained that technically everyone at the table was ordering it since I WAS EATING ALONE. He conceded graciously.

The room itself is on the 16th floor and looks out through a Wonderland-esque semi-circle window like half a clock, three stories high. It was raining snow which gave the feeling of dining in a cloud. The looming Stalinist skyscraper, one of the Seven Sisters housing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, made it feel a tiny bit sinister.

The tasting menu started with a large bottle of firewater. I was nervous I’d be asked to down it but instead the waiter produced an eye dropper and dripped it onto my palms. He told me to rub my hands together until they ignited, then to take in the odor… of baking bread. It was a test of what the liquor could be used for. Or was used for. I wasn’t completely clear on the concept.

Each course, and there were 15, came with specific details like that on the key ingredient’s historical significance or the traditional cooking method – although at such a rate that I couldn’t always catch the gist. My poached pear and caviar came with a honey mead liqueur that had to do with babies being buried in the backyard till they were 17. I don’t think I fully understood.

It was followed by a chestnut honey meringue with pieces of duck liver terrine over top. Delicate, umami finger food. Each dish followed the pattern of careful placement, story and instructions on how to eat it.

The parade of dishes over the next two hours came rapid fire, one landing soon after I’d taken the last preceding bite:

  • Gouda cheese mousse: airy
  • Swan livers with toasted marshmallow: melt in your mouth
  • Birch bread and herring milt with carved birch knife: result of olden time bad quality flour mixed with tree (?) to improve it
  • Sour shchi (cabbage, cucumber and gel) with king crab on a cracker: my first sighting of the single Russian letter “shch” pronounced like “freSH CHeese”
  • Sea urchin and white chocolate mousse in a baked onion skin: I’m losing track of the different tastes now
  • Crab, carrots and egg yolk in Wednesday salt (“Do you know this?” he says. “I’ve heard of Tuesday salt,” I say, thinking back to the Chef’s Table episode. “Oh yes, that’s right,” he says, inwardly cursing Netflix for showing him up)
  • Moose lips and tongue dumplings in a morel mushroom sauce: yes, I did it. Gamey.
  • Cod, sour malt and sour spelt: I can’t eat any more
  • Medlar fruit sorbet: now mushing my food around to make it look like I’m eating
  • Beef ribs cooked in kvass: cutting it up into small pieces to hide it under the green vegetable hair and onion spaghetti so it looks like I’m still eating it, while fake-sipping a full glass of kvass as I admitted I didn’t know what it was
  • Black bread, boiled milk and garlic sea water: dessert, this is almost done, still with me? 
  • Willow herb and honey, with tea: delicious

And finally, five ceramic noses presented on a wooden box. Yes, that’s right. Ceramic holds scent like human skin, I’m told. The waiter held up each ceramic nose to my nose, Groucho Marx-style, and I took a whiff: gingerbread, black bread, marijuana, something and something. Then he doused my wrist with a little spray bottle of perfume I got to keep as a gift.

I don’t believe the White Rabbit name is inspired by Alice in Wonderland, but it isn’t a bad comparison. It was surreal but still enjoyable: the waiter friendly, the food inventive, and the overall experience a little quirky. On Chef’s Table, the chef’s business partner says they want people to know Russia isn’t just ballet and rockets. It isn’t. But more importantly, it isn’t just dumplings and cabbage.

Moscow – Hi Vaggash, it’s me, Mary

As I walk out into the Arrivals area, I spot my driver holding up my name, and bound up to him with a hearty Hola. Spanish seems to be my foreign language reflex, even when arriving in Moscow.

The driver holds out his hand and says, Vaggash. I’m surprised by the handshake but I obediently seize his hand, pump it, and respond, Mary

He blinks, spreads both hands to mimic how big my luggage might be if I had any and tries again. Vaggash

Oh. I turn to show him my backpack. His eyebrows lift in what I take as grudging approval but I’m still down points with the whole Spanish greeting, unsolicited physical contact and puppy-like enthusiastism, plus thinking his name is Baggage. I do win an involuntary laugh out of him on the long walk to the car when he asks OK? for the third time and I finally remember to say Da, instead of Si.

I’m in Moscow for the start of a Trans-Siberian Railway journey because what else do you do after a cold, snowy winter than vacation in Siberia? 

I joined a tour this time, remembering how challenging it was in Russia 7 years ago trying to buy a train ticket to Catherine the Great’s Palace. Choo-choo got us directions to the train station but once there we were defeated by our inability to act out Catherine the Great and slunk away ticketless.

There are some changes since 2010. The pedestrian underpasses are still the only way to cross busy roads but the subterranean kiosks no longer predominantly sell bras. The metro signs are still all Cyrillic on the platforms but on the train a British recorded voice now helpfully tells you are going the wrong way.

What hasn’t changed is the fun of asking for directions on the street. I learned that “Kremlin” even in my best Russian accent gets me about as far as asking for a glass of wadder (instead of warter) in England. The Kremlin equivalent is apparently Kreemel. I tried to learn Russian for I’m sorry but Google Translate wants me to say what sounds like prostitute and that seems like a bad idea. I’ll stick to Eezveeneetyeh (apology).

So tour it is. It starts tomorrow and after another day in Moscow, we hop the first of many trains to make our way east across six of Russia’s 11 time zones through Mongolia to Beijing. And I already know the Chinese word for baggage — Sing-lee.