Happy New Year!

Day 6 without a shower. Hopefully we don’t smell.

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I thought I might be bored on this long train journey. I bought a Kobo and loaded it with books. I took one paperback and a pack of cards. The morning we were due in Harbin I said to John that I really must finish the paperback. The Kobo was not opened and the cards had not been out of their pack. There was always too much to see and do.

We’re all packed now, ready for the next part of our adventure.

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The approach to Harbin was very industrial. Apparently this area is known as the rust belt. The nodding donkeys show that Dallas has indeed come to Harbin.

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Harbin city centre was a complete contrast. Our hotel was perfectly situated opposite a wide pedestrianized street that we called Carnival Street. It had a real carnival atmosphere which reminded us of The Royal Mile during the Edinburgh Festival.

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Ice and snow sculptures were dotted down the street. They are illuminated at night.

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It was a kiddies paradise.

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and there was a maze. We thought of Mick just looking over the top as we got lost. Great fun though.

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What a brilliant first day in Harbin, and we’re clean!

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There was more stunning scenery before we reached the Chinese border. The river at Ulan Ud was also frozen solid.

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We reached Zabaikalsk, the border, at 11.45am and, instead of remaining on the train as we had hoped we had to go to a large waiting room in the main building. We never did work out where everyone else went as they certainly were not with us.

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We did find a café selling a very limited range of food. We opted for a pie which was kind of like a Cornish pasty. They were then zapped in the microwave which left them slightly warmed in the middle and jawbreakingly rubbery round the edges. Hardly a gourmet delight but it filled our stomachs and passed some time. The café was spotlessly clean and decorated as if it were a private dwelling. Unfortunately this photo doesn’t show the sunflowers above the small serving area.

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They had removed the train to change the bogies so we felt a little vulnerable for a while. We had been told our wait would be 3 hours. 5 hours later we were allowed back on the train. Our passports had been taken away for scrutiny and we were then visited by customs officers. They were followed by Border Control who searched the compartment. They looked under the bunks, had us remove our holdall from the above door storage and felt along the pelmet at the window. Obviously looking for leprechauns trying to escape into China. We were reunited with our passports which were checked again before 9pm when the train finally moved the 800 or so yards to  Manzhouli, the Chinese border.

They were obviously expecting us and had laid on a splendid firework display. The fact that it was the Chinese New Year was of course purely coincidental. As midnight approached the fireworks reached a crescendo and the noise became a cacophony. Our passports were removed again to have our visas checked and various intimidating officials marched up and down the corridor. We were questioned as to what we were taking into China and how much money we had . A sniffer dog was then brought in to check our luggage. It spent a while on one bag and kept coming back to it. That was the bag containing our prescribed medicines. A scary moment but it then seemed happy and moved out. Whew! In the meantime guards were marching up and down the platform. The train finally pulled out just before 1am. 

Ice Festival here we come!

 

 

A Frozen Lake Baikal

We were anxious that we would be skirting Lake Baikal at night so were relieved to see on the timetable that we would be there around dawn. Baikal is the world’s largest freshwater lake and seems to occupy a special place in the Russian psyche. Certainly our fellow passengers emerged from their compartments to see it. It was particularly awesome as the lake was frozen solid.

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Jills Of All Trades.

I mentioned in a previous post that we had a Miss Helpful in our carriage. She actually had a little friend who was equally helpful. One afternoon when they were having a cup of tea we gave them a couple of packs of shortbread from our supply of “gifts”. Big smiles etc. A few minutes later Marina (I don’t know how she would spell it but this is how she pronounced it), who spoke some English, brought us a cup of blackcurrant jam. She told us she had grown the fruit in her garden and made the jam herself. I’m not sure what she thought we had to eat with it but it was very kind of her and John struggled manfully to finish it.

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We were the only ones in our carriage who went all the way to Harbin. For some of the time we had the carriage to ourselves but people tended to travel just a few stops. The exception to this was the mad babouschka and her granddaughter. This lady was 95 and her granddaughter was taking her back to her home town. She really gave her granddaughter a hard time. After one particularly disturbing and noisy episode in the middle of the night the granddaughter decamped to another compartment. At the next stop a medic was brought on and the old lady was sedated for the rest of the journey. Peace reigned.

The provodnitsas worked hard and were definitely Jills of all trades, including shovelling coal to keep the samovar boiling. They were meeters and greeters, housekeepers, administrators, social workers, stokers and ice pickers, Every afternoon Galena would vacuum the corridor and the carpets in the compartments.

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One job not done by provodnitzas was waitressing. Instead we got periodic visits from, who we thought was the daughter of  the solitaire player. She would wander up and down the train taking orders for drinks and delivering them. She quickly cottoned on to the fact that she had frequent custom from our compartment – so frequent in fact that the restaurant bar ran out of Baltika beer and, on her advice, we changed to something called Siberian Corona.

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Ice, not nice.

The train made several stops every day. We had thought there would be the opportunity to buy supplies from platform vendors in addition to kiosks. There were no platform vendors. It was way too cold.

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Occasionally there was a kiosk open.

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An essential part of the stop was to de-ice the bogies. Even the provodnitzas were equipped with a pointed iron bar to do their bit.

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Also at each stop they had to chip off the ice which had formed at the end of the waste pipe from the toilet compartments.

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The Pantomime

Day 2 of no shower. I needed action. I came prepared. Dry shower, dry shampoo, wipes for face, wipes for hands and body and wipes for “bits”.

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Step 1 – banish John, I need space. Step 2 – smother body in dry shower. Leave to dry. Step 3 – use wipes as appropriate. Step 4 – spray on dry shampoo, massage into hair and brush into desired style. Not even the most tonsorially challenged could possibly desire that style! Step 5 – dress and readmit John. All that took me 40 minutes! I did get it down to a fine 20 minute art.

On our last trans Siberian train we christened the provodnitsa (coach attendant) Mrs Grumpy, because she was. This one we christened Miss Helpful, because she was. At the end of each carriage there is a samovar with a constant supply of boiling water.

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We had brought oxo cubes and cereal bars for breakfast, cupasoup and ghastly “Mugshots” for lunch. Dinners were to be in the restaurant car. We had melamine mugs with us. The first time John went for boiling water he realised one of the mugs had cracked and the boiling water was running out. Little Miss Helpful immediately produced a mug for him. I quickly increased my Russian vocabulary by learning the word “do” meaning “until”. John toook the mug back to her and said “Do Harbin?” in a questioning voice. Nods of the head and “Da”. So we had the mug until Harbin. Definitely worth a large Toblerone. We had brought a few bribes, oops I mean gifts, and this was one. More big smiles and spassebos.

The restaurant car was at the other end of the train and getting there was an expedition in itself. We had brought locks to secure our bags so that we could relax when out of our compartment.

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The carriages were lovely and cosy but the connections were something else. Snow usually accumulated between  the carriages and you had to be careful not to slip on the ice. You couldn’t keep your hand on the frozen metal handles or it would stick.

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The food was really good considering the limited facilities.

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It was never exactly stowed out. The one and only head waitress/barmaid/manageress seemed to spend most of her time playing solitaire on her laptop. When not cooking the cook did likewise. We knew our meal was about to be served when we heard a blast of “Clementine” coming from what seemed like a cheap doorbell.

 

 

 

Getting Settled

Our train didn’t leave Moscow until 11.45pm so there was just time for a nightcap before bed.

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In the morning we had plenty time to set up home in our bijoux compartment. We even managed to create a larder

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and a cocktail cabinet.

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We were already into spectacular scenery, snow laden trees

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and Christmas card villages.

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What a lovely first day.

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Lara is found!

Our first stop today was to the Saturday market where we found “Lara”.
My new hat looks and feels just the same as the megabucks ones. Conclusion : its provenance – off the back of a troika.com. Guilty conscience? No, when I think of the £400 we saved. Happy days.

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Just had to pose by the Bentley. Not in the market! Below is a market shot.

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We headed into the city centre for lunch. This was in a coffee shop next to Cartier and opposite the Bolshoi restaurant. After all Lara does have her standards to maintain. Our afternoon was spent traipsing the streets with periodic forays into shopping malls to warm up. It has struck us as odd that the malls seem to contain only Valentino, Jean Paul Gautier, Ralph Lauren etc. We have yet to find the Russian equivalent of Next or Wallis let alone Lidl or Aldi.

We headed for the Gulag museum. Having been to the museum at Hiroshima, and the S21 Interrogation Centre at Phnom Penh we thought we should complete the set.
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We were wandering somewhat aimlessly when we came across this open air exhibition of modern sculpture.
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This was a fascinating find, particularly the Russian attempt to emulate the famous statue of Christ the Redeemer.

It had been a long day of walking and our throats needed lubrication so we decided to head back to the hotel.
We’re now sitting in the warmth enjoying a beer while I do this post. We plan to have dinner here before heading back into the city centre for our 23.45 train to Harbin. At least we will be going down the 66 steps to our local metro but there will be loads of others to go up with our luggage – no steamer trunks though! Just a reminder that the next post is likely to be in 6 days time.