Into Mongolia

Mongolia flagCrossing the Russian frontier into Mongolia was not without a moment of theatre. We were to stop in the town of Naushki, just on the Russian side of the border. As we approached, there were cattle all along the track, and we could hear frantic whistling from the locomotive. Then we stopped suddenly, short of the Naushki station. You don’t need to guess what had happened — we had hit a cow, and in fact had run over it with the locomotive and first two carriages of the train before we came to a stop.

Robin and I saw the unfolding drama from both sides of our carriage. On the right side, the train crew and the engineer were assessing the damage to the bogie. They didn’t care about the cow, as that poor creature was now past being an object of care. Then a man rode up on a horse with a bridle but no saddle. I think it was his family’s cow. Attempts were made to dislodge the remains, but I was too squeamish to be a first-hand witness to that.

Sad as this scene was, a more comic one began to unfold on the left side of the train. A beat-up old Lada trundled along, driven by a young man with an older man in the passenger seat, and a boy sitting outside on the trunk of the car (until he bounced off of it). The older passenger I would guess to be the patriarch of the family, and he cradled a bottle of vodka in his lap. When he stepped out of the car, I would say that that bottle was not his first of the day. He stood silently, expressionless, looking under the railway carriage, clutching his bottle. Then the matriarch of the family came along, riding a bicyle of all things, and immediately set about doing the most practical thing under the circumstances; she had come prepared with a long wooden switch, and proceeded to shoo the remaining herd of cattle away from the train tracks (thus protecting her family’s remaining assets). This, to me, was an object lesson in why the best-run Russian families are matriarchies, and it was taught to me right outside the windows of a railway carriage.

We were informed at dinner that there was damage to some of the carriages, and the wheels were flat. I didn’t know that the steel wheels of a railway carriage could “get a flat,” but it makes sense. Luckily for us, Naushki has a substantial rail yard, and they were able to take the affected carriages away (including our own) and fit them with new wheels. We lost no time at all, as we were stopped in Naushki for Russian border control in any case. By 2 a.m. on July 10 we had cleared Mongolian customs and were rolling through the night towards Ulaan Baatar.


Old BelieverThis lady is from the village of Tarbagatay, near Ulan-Ude in the Buryat Republic of eastern Siberia. The people here are “Old Believers” who were exiled to Siberia by Peter the Great for their refusal to adopt the new rites of worship that were introduced into the Orthodox church at that time. We were treated to samples of their singing and other traditions, which go back to their time before exile in the less forbidding environs of Ukraine and Poland. The Old Believers are called “people of the family” by other Russians, partly as a reflection of the multiple-child families that used to be common among them.

Ulan-Ude is an unremarkable, smallish city, apart from an enormous statue of the head of Lenin which looms over Soviet Square. The idol of their (former) ruler really is the Big Giant Head, which made me think of the old American sitcom, “Third Rock From the Sun.” An absurd association, but absurd as well is keeping a memorial to a dead and disgraced revolutionary 20 years after the collapse of the state he brought into being.

Now we are aboard the train, making our way laboriously towards the Russia-Mongolia frontier, where excessive bureaucratic formalities await.

Lake Baikal

Lake BaikalLake Baikal is the world’s deepest and oldest lake. A staggering one-fifth of the non-frozen fresh water on the surface of the earth is here. I know it is very fresh from my own experience, as I started the day with a swim. The train stopped along our route, poised between mountain cliffs and the steeply dropping shore of the lake, and a few of us hearty souls braved the frigid waters. I was warned that the water temperature was a mere six degrees Celsius, and it turned out to be painfully cold. I foolishly dove right in, and tried to swim underwater for a bit, as I would back home. But after a few strokes my survival instincts kicked in, and I scrambled out of the water fast. A shot of vodka was waiting for me on dry land, and now I’ve earned bragging rights, so perhaps it wasn’t a completely crazy thing to do.

Today is a new holiday in Russia, St. Fevronia Day, a day for family love and friendship. Many newlywed couples were having their pictures taken in the outdoor architectural museum, a short way downstream on the Angara River from the lakeside village of Listvyanka, where we saw examples of traditional Siberian houses, chapels, schools and other buildings.

OmulThis fish is an omul, a species native to Lake Baikal. He’s very tasty, and I know that from the barbeque we had at the end of the day. The train crew set up grills at the end of the train on the platform at Port Baikal, and we feasted on shaslik and omul while watching the sun set on Lake Baikal at the inlet of the Angara River. It brought to mind the old song, “When You Come to the End of a Perfect Day.”[3]


Irkutsk coat of armsThe armourial bearings of Irkutsk are meant to be a tiger with a sable in its mouth, but because the local, archaic, name for a tiger — бабр — and the word for beaver — бобр — sound similar in Russian the heralds got a little confused in their depiction of the animal on the coat of arms. Although whatever animal this is does not exist in life, the people of Irkutsk liked it, and kept the design. The “350” is for the number of years since the founding of Irkutsk by the Cossacks, which is being celebrated this year.

Our train is at the rail station on the left bank of the Angara river, and we are now touring Irkutsk for the whole day. One curious feature of city life I have noticed here is the preponderance of passenger cars with right-hand drive. Apparently, second-hand Japanese cars are very popular to buy, even though they drive on the right side of the road (as they do throughout Russia).

The highlight of the afternoon was a visit to the museum to the Decembrist revolutionary of 1825, Prince Volkonsky[2], who was exiled to this city. We were treated to what I would describe as a salon society concert with a pianist and soprano and baritone vocalists.

Now I’m in a nightclub, waiting to hear a band play Cuban music, ’cause what says Irkutsk, Siberia more than that, right?

Crossing Siberia

The Yenisey River at KrasnoyarskThis is a view of the Yenisey River at Krasnoyarsk, on a rainy July 6 morning. Like all great Siberian rivers it flows north to the Arctic Ocean, and the Yenisey bisects the territory into western and eastern Siberia.

Today was a day for train travel only, without a major stop and with the opportunity to see Russia from the carriage windows and from the station platforms of a handful of small towns. I found the countryside to be reminiscent of the Canadian prairies, with some fields stretching to the horizon. But those fields were always irregular in shape, and we passed through gently rolling hills that were much more heavily forested, predominantly by poplar and birch. Also, there was little sign of intensive agriculture; the disaster of Stalin’s forced collectivisation of farms is still felt 80 years on, and even 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union sensible laws for land ownership have yet to be passed by the government.

Bar carAboard the train, Robin and I mucked in and took a Russian lesson in the bar car, pictured here. At one point, the whole group was guided — somewhat painfully — through the words of the folk song “Kalinka.” Here, my former life caught up with me, and I was snagged to sing the solo part, standing beside the pianist (this train has a baby upright grand piano aboard, how ’bout that?). I did my best, and filled the car with my voice in imitation of sentimental Russian opera fashion. Robin whispered to me that we should probably not tell our hosts that every Canadian knows the melody to “Kalinka,” as organists at hockey arenas love to play its accelerating chorus just before the puck drops. A crowd yelling “Da-da-da-dum da-dah … CHARGE!” at the end I now realise is almost sacriligeous to a lovely little Russian folk song. “Калинка, калинка, калинка моя!”[1]


Prison carriageA prisoner who was sent to Siberia might have done so in a cell in a railway carriage such as this one. This photo was taken at the outdoor railway museum in Novosibirsk, a city that owes its existence to the Trans-Siberian Railway. Novosibirsk had only the briefest existence as the imperial Russian city “Novonikolayevsk” before its life as the Soviet hub for Siberia, and it left the impression on me that it is only with the greatest of reluctance that the city leaves its Soviet past behind. Lenin statues and Red Army streets and 26th Congress of the Communist Party factories abound, and aren’t being torn down or getting a name change any time soon. This is the third “third city of Russia” we have seen, by the way, and it has been decided by our bemused tour group that every city in Russia that is not lucky enough to be Moscow or Saint Petersburg deserves that honourific.


Michael in Europe and AsiaI bestride the earth like a colossus! Two continents lie beneath my feet! That’s Europe to the left and Asia to the right, and I am at the watershed in the Ural Mountains to the west of Ekaterinburg that marks the boundary of the two continents.

The most affecting part of the day was to see the site where Tsar Nicholas II, Tsarina Alexandra, along with their five children were murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918. An impressive church has been built over the basement that was the site of their execution.


Robin in coupéRobin writing in his journal in the cabin of the “Golden Eagle” train. For July 3, our stop was in Kazan, capital of the Autonomous Republic of Tatarstan in the Russian Federation. The population is a mix of Tatars and Russians, ethnically speaking, and Kazan’s development in the post-Soviet era towards a more multicultural civil society has been eased somewhat by an influx of oil money, as Tatarstan is an oil-producing region. We saw new construction, such as what is now the largest mosque in Russia, on the grounds of the Kremlin in the oldest section of the city at the confluence of the Kazan and Volga Rivers. At the same time, we couldn’t help but notice the ruins of what once were grand, Russian imperial buildings. Kazan is a sports-mad city, and it has more stadiums and sports halls than a city of its size by rights ought to have. They seem particularly proud that the Universiad (world university games) will be held here in a couple years’ time.

Start of Trans-Siberian Express tour

Revolution Square sculptureThe metro station at Revolution Square is lined with socialist-realism sculpture like this example. Along with seeing three of the best metro stations we had a private tour of the Armoury collection at the Kremlin, and a bus tour of the prominent sites of Moscow. Lunch was at a restaurant that was playing a silent film starring Adolphe Menjou, which set a certain mood.

We went to Moscow Kazanskii station around six, and had a champagne reception in the ornate hall before boarding the train. The long journey commenced punctually at 18:48, and our first dinner aboard the train started with caviar. Now that is a proper welcome to Russia!

Dominion Day in Moscow

Faberge eggsFaberge eggs. In the foreground is the “Standart” Yacht Egg of 1909, and behind it is the Alexander III Monument Egg of 1910. These are samples of Easter gifts that the Russian royal family gave to one another, and are on display in the Belfry on Cathedral Square in the Kremlin.

The struggle to be reunited with our bags continued. Aeroflot never phoned or emailed, and their contact numbers at the airport were either busy or they just didn’t bother to pick up. When a breach was made in the wall of silence, at last, they said they couldn’t find “a guy with a car” to bring the bags into central Moscow. For indeed, the bags were sitting at Sheremtyevo airport, gathering dust.

Only going to the airport was going to make anything happen. I left Robin to represent the MacKay brothers at the welcome banquet for our rail tour at the Marriott Royal Aurora hotel, and went to the airport with my good friend Galya — a native Russian speaker, but more usefully an expert in how business really is done in this country. At the airport, Aeroflot found another baffling but effective way to keep me from my bags: lock the door of the luggage office, and threaten to call the militia if I kept bothering them! After four hours at the airport talking to everyone (none of of whom had a supervisor and for whom everything was “impossible”) the magical door to the luggage office was at last opened, and I was reunited with our bags. The dragon lady in that office even apologized — in Russian to Galya — when she found out I was Canadian. I have no clue what difference that makes about anything, but it added a last comedy touch to the whole grisly proceedings.

Of course I completely missed the welcome banquet, but to celebrate our meagre victory we went to a Georgian restaurant, and I savoured that wonderful national cuisine on a patio on a warm Moscow night at two in the morning. Welcome to Russia, right? And a huge thanks to Galya, without whom everything really would have been “impossible.”