Cabbage rolls and a secret bridge

Today I'm not really sure what day it is - but it's probably Friday.  We've departed sleepy Omsk, the stop we had been waiting for, so that we could jump out and stock up on some drinks and snacks.  June and I have appeared to have earned ourselves a minder - perhaps the sort of Russian man we've read about, very traditional and protective towards women.   When I went to the kiosk this morning, he accompanied me, or almost shadowed me really and insisted on carrying my litre of water to back the train.  Last night, he  bought us ice-creams.  I wonder if he thinks we're 12? 
It certainly takes a long time to leave greater Omsk.  This is where Dostoyevsky spent his 4 years in the gulag and drew his inspiration for his partially fictitious 'House of the Dead'.

Our friendly neighbor turned out to be FSB.  A little more than 'cop' as he initially offered.  A couple of militia boarded the train and asked to see what photos we'd taken.  Apparently, we had passed through a no-no zone where a 'secret bridge'  was located.  However, they were friendly chaps just doing their job who were more than happy to let us off with a warning.  After he told us he was secret service, all sorts of things occured to me about all manner of characters I'd run into previously.  While I'm innocently snapping photos, am I being watched? All in a day's fun...

Side-tracked in Perm

Two unremarkable, partially bed-ridden days spent in Perm were 'enjoyed' in the amazing Hotel Ural, a wonderful example of monsterous Soviet architectural planning.  Perm's a somewhat charming if a little polluted cesspit of a city that really endeared itself to me.  

On the train after my gastronomic experience, and three hours from the sprawling city, all I can see for miles is green hills and the tallest of tallest of trees.  Farms, rivers, wooden houses and as I write this, (account transferred from notebook) we pass a gorgeous but tiny wooden Orthodox church with silvery onion domes, misted in a similarily wooden viilage backed by pine forest. 
The landscape around the Urals only seems to get more beautiful as the train trundles through the countryside.  

Supplied with all the neccessary items one needs on a 40 hr train journey (towels, linen, access to a samovar and all the extras we've brough
t ourselves),  it seems to be the epitome of backpacking luxury - somewhere to rest and getting somewhere while doing so.  
 All is perfect but the the giant in the bunk above us, snoring like a boar and snuffling loudly in between snores.  Outside of the little wooden village, straddling the hillside, I spied a pretty cemetary dotted with white and colored crosses.  What a wonderful resting place, overlooking a lake! 
As  it got darker as we moved further south, the endless stream of larch and spruce  became truly hypnotic.  At times I thought I saw a boar, or a bear, standing there in the forest, but it was undoubtedly a tree in the shape of a bear - or perhaps it was a bear in the shape of a tree.  The woods are good like that for playing tricks on you.

Visiting the Golden Ring and still very much the tourist

From Vladimir, Suzdal is an easy venture north, only about 35 kms, and it's indeed as picture-book pretty as it is potrayed in all the guide books.  We spent a couple of hours here, enough time only to stroll around the blue-domed monastary and take in some requisite touristy sights and capture on camera plenty of photo friendly carved wooden window frames. 

Our overnight train to Eketarinburg left at 19.50, and we managed to find the right platform at 19.45, naturally.  30 minutes previous to that, we realised that we had booked platskarny tickets all the way, and although we had wanted to try this on our journey we had not anticipated it so soon, and indeed a baptism of fire it was.  

Third class on a Russian sleeper train can be a bit of a shock to the uninitiated.  Think early nineties budget youth hostel in Poland and you're on the right track.  At least 5o to 60 bunks are lined up along the walls of the train, it's uncomfortably hot, the scent of vodka hangs in the air, men walk around semi-naked and old ladies scold for, well, anything us crazy foreigners do.  I found if I turned my head toward the wall while lying in my unbelievably hot coffin-like space that it became quite a bit more comfortable.  In retrospect of course it does not seem so bad and even reading this I cringe at my over-reaction, but at the time it did worry me when it was difficult to shake off the drunken, grinning bloke following us around in the darkness, grunting in my ear, as the train barrelled through the Urals in the middle of the night.  

In the morning and the clear light of day, things seemed a whole lot better and I even ventured to the bathroom leaving my bag unattended.  The sink in the WC is a good place to hold onto while squatting over the less than perfect, albeit western style toilet.  To be true, these toilet bowls are gorgeous compared to some I had the oppurtunity to experience in cities - Moscow's main train stations boast probably the absolute worst toilets I've even visited in my life.  
We filled up our instant coffees at the samovar and started chatting with our cell-mates, through German.  
As the trees got progressively taller, and the sky greyer, we exchanged brief backrounds of ourselves with Olga, a doctor from Novosibrsk, and Yuri, a train conductor with Russian Railways.  Sitting opposite us was an older man travelling with his grandson who not hear of us skipping the geographical wonders outside of Perm.  The grandson was delighted to practice his English greetings on the first native English speakers he had ever met.  Unfortuately we never did make the attractions outside of Perm, a definate shame to not take up a local's advice.

Leaving Moscow

June 12th, and glad to leaving Moscow, we caught a mid-eighties Lada taxi to Kurkskaya Railway station.   Caught in traffic pretty much the whole way, I noticed an increasing waft of petrol coming from somewhere in the car, but when it comes down to it I've owned superbly more dangerous cars than that one.  

At the station, after queueing for hardly 30 minutes (not the kind of wait guide books love to rant about) and triumphantly being able to spot our train on the departure board, we managed to
 score our tickets to Vladimir.  Unfortunately we encountered our first mistake here as well as our first success - we unwittingly bought thru-tickets to Gorky, paying full sleeper berth fare.  Throughout our trip we were sure to not do this again! 

During our first experience on a Trans-Siberian train, we learned that our friendly provodnistas provide wonderful little snack boxes for this journey - including a drink, chocolate, cookies, instant mash and a myriad of other wonderful things.  The lower berths fold up so that you can store your luggage.  There's further room above the upper berths, a space large enough to store two bodies perhaps or maybe more appropriately, two rucksacks!  This was explained to us by our friendly carriage mate after she witnessed my difficulty in my inital disembarkment from the top bunk. (I started off with some half-assed acrobatic maenoever, but fell and smacked my head on something. ) I was more worried about waking her young twins, comfortably wrapped on the bottom bunk.  

As June and I got ready to get off the train, of course vexing the provodnista considerably because we were supposed to be staying on until Gorky, we accidently pulled down a curtain on the carriage and hurriedly tried to fix it, in vain.  Stepping onto Vladimir's platform, we were excited to be officially starting our Trans-Siberian trip.

The sleeper to Vladimir

Vladimir - our first stop on the Trans-Siberian, Russia's former capital.  Vladimir is a picturesque (in parts) hilltop town with an historic Kremlin surrounded by pine forest.  Snaking up the narrow roads to the top of the town we noticed charming wooden houses dotted through the trees from our old but hard-working volga taxi.  
We arrived in Vladimir in the middle of one of Russia's greatest celebrated weekends - Independance Day.   For a moment I wondered who would Russia need to be independant from exactly? 'From herself, of course!' laughed the receptionist in our guest house.

On this warm Sunday evening, the 12th of June, interspersed with windy and rainy outbursts, we discovered a raucous party on Vladimir's streets - musical performances, DJs, open markets and drunken teenagers and pensioners alike, crawling over monuments, perched on bridges, belly dancing on the main boulevard and enjoying beer while strolling down the street (although we noticed this in Moscow too, it seems to be quite a social thing to do, especially hanging out in groups outside Metro stations doing so).

Reaching the very top of the hill, behind the Assumption Cathedral, we got lucky with an amazing view of the seemingly endless surrounding countryside of forests and rivers, and the massive bridge crossing over the Volga into the city - an absolutely eye-catching structure in the midst of the pine forest!