Trans Mongolia - Moscow

Trip Start Jan 01, 2006
Trip End Jun 30, 2006

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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Train Ride
Leaving Irkutsk was more difficult and stressful than I had imagined. We arrived by taxi to the train station with lots of time to spare. As we waited for the sign on the wall to tell us which platform our train was arriving - we spotted several people we met on the Trans-Mongolian earlier.

David said he was going to the little store to buy us some water. When he returned - all our fellow travelers were picking up their luggage and heading for platform 5. That was when David could not find our precious tickets. The look on this face was unforgettable. He said "I'm so sorry Babe - I think someone stole our tickets". He went back to the store to look for them but they were not there. He thought maybe they fell on the floor when he paid for the water. Then he ran across the station to seek help.

The woman there told him to go to another office. He ran passed me the second time saying "We can always fly to Moscow". I patiently waited by our luggage - silently freaking. I said a little prayer to my guardian angel to help us. I could not imagined spending one more evening in this town - let alone trying to replace our tickets and extending our visas. I looked at the time - 30 minutes until the train left. I thought this was going to be the longest 30 minutes of our lives!

David suddenly appeared waving the tickets. "Oh My God! Where were they?" I exclaimed. He said that while he was talking to someone about replacing the tickets ( which would have cost 6000 Rubbles each) he dug deeper into his zipper pocket and found the tickets. He must have shoved them deeper into his pocket when he paid for his water. We ran to platform 5 - when we arrived we had to look for car 10.

There were only ladies standing on the platform - most of the passengers had already boarded the train. I thought - these nice ladies would help us. I could not have been more wrong. We handed our ticket to the woman standing outside car 10 - she looked at our two tickets (stapled together) like she had never seen a train ticket before! She kept motioning to David that there was only one ticket not 2 - when there was clearly two tickets (separate serial numbers - one with Toth written on it and the other with Smith written on it -- the rest was in Russian).

David motioned me to get on the train with all our stuff - he figured if the train started to move then he would just jump on. After 5 more stressful minutes she finally handed over our tickets, jumped on the train and pushed by me. I said to David "Now what!?" He said " She is checking to see if anyone else is in our birth - I guess".

Well, we found our birth -- Seats number 21 and 23. We soon discovered that we are in the middle of 15 people traveling together on the "Vodka train" tour. Our new birth-mate- Quin asked me if we would mind switching cabins with someone who was with locals so that she could be with her friends. I told her that I just had the most stressful 30 minutes of my life and I was just happy to be on the train!

David and I are sharing a cabin with a New Zealander (Rob) who has kind-of quit his job as a computer programmer of medical software to travel. Our other birth mate is Australian (Quin) who has also quit her job as a Marketer to travel and work in the UK. She does not know how long she will live in England but she has to return to Australia late next year since she is the Maid of Honor at her best friend's wedding. They both have been excellent birth-mates. David and I have the lower bunks and they have the upper bunks.

This is the first train that I (V) have been on the lower bunk. Normally I'm above David. I think I prefer the top bunk mostly because you have easier access to your pack (it's stored in an area above the door instead of below the beds on the lower bunk) and you have the freedom to go to bed when you wish. When you have the bottom bunk, occasionally you have to boot someone off your bed to sleep since everyone uses the bottom bunks as benches to sit on during the day.

We are traveling with the "Vodka Train" tour. There are 15 people on the tour heading to St. Peterbourgh. Rob and Quin are part of this tour. The people in this group are fun, young, and mostly 20 years old. There is only a few in their early 30's. Several of the guys have spent the last three days drinking beer and vodka.

One annoyance has been the very drunk Russians on board. We met Victor who speaks English poorly but excels at speaking Vodka. We thought we could get rid of him by refilling his cup with Vodka. We soon discovered that was a mistake since he downed three quarters of a litre in less than 30 minutes and he could still drink more. As he got more drunk, he started to act more like a pig. Someone in the group had a Russian/English phrase book - where Victor found the Sex page. Things quickly fell apart after that. He started making rude comments to me and David.

The breaking point was when he was trying to arm wrestle David. I knew then I had to get rid of him. So I left our birth to find someone to take Victor out for a smoke. Someone in the next birth gave me a cigarette but told me not to tell Victor where I got it. I guessed that Victor had warn out his welcome the previous night. Once Victor had the cigarette, I hoped he would leave but I was wrong. I went back in the hallway to get help when Quin told me - to get rid of him just say you have to change and he will leave. It worked like magic.

The following day when Victor return with his two military friends, I quickly said hello and then shut and locked the door. I found out later that everyone else in our car did the same and now (day 4) we have not seen Victor. Someone said he was upset that no one wanted to talk with him - no wonder!

The condition of the Trans-Mongolian is (thankfully) one grade above all previous trains we have been on to date. This is our 15th night-train on this journey. The women on the train, called proveniži, constantly clean the floors, rads, bathrooms, and windows. We all complain that they are slightly in the way but we can't imagined the state of this train now (Day 4) if they have not been cleaning after us all this time. The bathrooms on this train surpasses all other train bathrooms we have seen so far. They have thrown toilets, stocked constantly with hand towels and toilet paper, and most importantly, don't smell.

The women on the train clean the bathrooms after each stop - keeping them in excellent condition. Today we noticed the woman on our car was whistling and is in a much happier mood. I bet she is happy that we are leaving her train today. What a terrible job she has- traveling by train between Irkutsk and Moscow - twice a week - looking after drunk Russians and travelers. David said this morning we should cut her some slack. :)

Ghost of little girl at KNPOB (3:27 am) on the Trans-Mongolian train
This morning - when I returned from my nightly washroom break - I tried to fall back to sleep. I was hoping that the gentle rocking of the train would knock me out but then I heard a litttle child running down our hallway. Suddenly I felt the presence of a little girl, who sadly had no face. It was completely gone. I sensed that she was very sad. She had died very long ago (late 1800 or early 1900's). On the day she died, she was running home from school, very excited to tell her mom something that happened at school. She was so excited that she forgot to look both ways while crossing the train tracks and she didn't see the train until it was too late. She was afraid to go home now because she was afraid that her mother would be very angry with her. I told her that her mom was not angry with her and that she misses her very much. I suggested to the little girl that she should go to the cemetery where her parents were waiting for her. Then she was gone.

When I woke up an hour later, I checked our very accurate train schedule and discovered we were passing a town called Knpob at 3:27 am. I told David about my experience and he suggested that I Google Ghosts of the Trans-Mongolian.

The Ride
The train ride is hard to explain - maybe it is just something that needs to be experienced. The scenery is so much like western Canada in early Spring. Sure there is a bit of green grass - but mostly it is flat and brown.

I expected mountians to appear at sometime as we traveled towards Moscow - but we only got hills. Maybe it is all planned that the mountians come by at night - who knows!!!!

As V mentioned we shared a bunk with 2 other people (see photo). You can see it is a bit tight for space. I think it was better then if you paid the extra $1,000 per person to have your own. The extra activity of having more people in your cabin and area really help pass the time. When it came time to eat and drink (that's pretty much the only activity) you have more people to share with. There are more people to do stupid things with like look for 1/2 way markers that can't be found!

Moscow remindes us of Ottawa, same weather, government buildings and tulips (see pictures). It has really been fun just to explore town, enjoying cafes, beer and - of course seeing Lenon.

Lenon is our 3rd, and final Dead-Red. Many things in this trip turned out differently then we thought that they would. For example we never thought that we would travel from Singapore to Paris via Bejing and Moscow mostly by train; and yet we did. Then we never even imagined that we would see three former communist leaders Mummified - but we did.

They're all a bit different - but from what we understand they go to the same "shop" for annual servicing. At some point they'll all be wax and there won't be much left to worship except for a small hair or two. It is hard to tell - but I'm pretty sure that time has come and gone.

Moscow - what a wonderful city. There is so much to see and do. David and I got up early on Monday morning - despite feeling exhausted from 3 days of train travel. We were very excited to see the Kremlin - Lenon - and all the churches.

We walked to the subway from our hotel ( the Gamma Hotel - not the Delta which I mistakenly told our friends and family in a previous email). Moscow has a very complex subway system with 10 lines - easily identified by colour. We are in the North Eastern corner of the city and we travel on the blue line to the Kremlin.

Not knowing a word of Russian - we were able to buy a subway token that would allow us 5 rides on the subway for only 70 R or less than $3 CDN. The subways were constructed by volunteers and many of them are works of art.

We began our journey from the Izmailovsky Park subway station and mistakenly got off at the Kurskaya station - two stations too early. The subway stations are not only a work of art but also a maze. No wonder they used some of the stations for bomb shelters. After wondering around for 10 minutes, we managed to find a cafe in a very large room the resembled a station. The coffee was horrible but we were happy to find something wet and warm since we had not had anything for breakfast yet. We finally found an exit to discover that we were no where near the Kremlin. So we ventured back into the maze and hoped back onto the train that we left. Two stops later we resurfaced at the Arbatskaya station - 5 minutes walk from the Kremlin walls.

The Kremlin is the historical, cultural, and political centre of Russia. It was built on the left bank of the Moscow River in the shape of a scalene triangle. When you walk into Red Square you see on the oposite side Ste. Basil's Cathedral with the colourful onion shaped domes. To the right is the Kremlin complex and Lenon's tomb, which was closed on Monday. On the Left is the GUM - which used to be a state department store which has since turned into the largest commercialized mall with every brand name store you can think of. The oposite side of Ste. Basil Cathedral - between the GUM and the Kremlin's wall is the State History Museum.

Luckily we were visiting on Monday when Lenon's Mosoleum was closed - everyone else must have thought the Kremlin was closed because it felt like we had the Red Square to ourselves. We both thought it was weird being only one of a handful of people wondering around Red Square.

We spent some time in the GUM ( They had a DeVinci exhibit - similar to the one we saw in New Zealand. Unlike the one we saw in Auckland - we could not touch these models of the machines he invented. While wondering past a store front - David suddenly exclaimed "Those are photos of Toronto!" In a store front, they had giant photos taken from the CN tower of Toronto. Since David had lived there - he could identify all the buildings. We finally found one photo of the shadow of the CN town within the store. We walked up to the cashier and asked her "Toronto?" She shrugged her shoulders and we said "Yes! Toronto! See the CN Tower!"

We eventually found the ticket office to purchase tickets to enter the Kremlin. The process is not easy. They have made it as confusing as possible. You can purchase complete tickets for the Armoury Chamber, Cathedral Square, and the Annunciation Cathedral. These complete tickets are purchased separately. We decided to purchase the Cathedral Square ticket which allowed us into all the churches in the Cathedral Square except for the Armoury Chamber. Walking into Cathedral Square is specatular. All the churches have wonderful golden domes. We had time to visit the following cathedrals:
The Archangel's Cathedral: the burial plance of the Great Princes and local princes and

The Patriarch's Palace
Exhibition Hall in the Assumption Cathedral
We also walked through the Secret Garden, saw the Tsar Cannon, and giant bell.

In the afternoon we went back to our hotel for a nap and dinner. We returned to the Red Square after a refreshing rain shower to take photos of the buildings lit up at night. The rain had left puddles of wanter on the cobble stone - allowing David to take lots of interesting photos of reflections of the buildings. A rainbow also appeared in the sky as we entered the Red Square - which I thought was a good luck sign! :)


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