Saturday, March 31, 2012

Platskart - The final leg in third-class

There are between 14 and 19 daily non-stop flights from Yekaterinburg to Moscow.  For about $150 and 2 hours of your time you can travel on such esteemed carriers as Kuban Airlines, Transareo Airlines, Ural Airlines, and of course, Aeroflot.  But why fly, when, for about $120 more you could take a 24 hour train ride?  Our thoughts exactly.
The final leg.  Yekaterinburg to Moscow (24 hours)
Having already logged thousands of miles in the comfortable 2nd class kupe compartments we felt it time to shed our bourgeois attitude and travel with the people.  With only a few hours of emailing and then wandering around the Yekaterinburg train station looking for the single ticket window that could cancel and re-issue tickets we successfully downgraded our 2nd class tickets to 3rd class platskartny (platskart) or an open carriage configuration.

This way, instead of spending our time in a little cabin with new friends like Luba, we could spend our time in a large, undivided cabin with 58 friends like Luba.  That's right, the platskart cabin consists of 60 beds without any walls, arranged in a four bed arrangement running from the windows towards the center of the car, and then two beds running along side the window.

The decision to downgrade was partly financial, but also because we had met friends who had positive experiences riding platskart.  They met friends, were offered lots of food and drink (we love food and drink) and generally had a fine old time.  Plus, traveling third class would be an adventure.

Third-class?  Really?  American tourists?
The journey began with a very thorough inspection of our tickets and passports.
Given that we had exchanged our tickets with someone who did not speak a word of English there was definitely concern that we were about to be turned away.
Once on the train, however, things were looking OK.
Here you can see down the aisle.  Our seats/beds are on the left.
The table flips up and over and turns into the center portion of the lower bunk's bed.
The upper bunk is filled with bedding.

On the right side you can see the ends of the 4-zer beds/seats. 
These are preferable because the two people (the upper bunk and lower bunk passenger) get to share a full bed,
whereas we each had a small chair.
Once the train got moving, the party started.
It seems we got on a "naturalist" platskart train.
Clothing was definitely to be optional for large Russian men.
Besides, why would you want to wear pants or a shirt if you are traveling on a public train?
Here is J in our two-zer.  You can see how the bottom of the table is the bottom of the bed.
It is not clear why she is wearing a shirt or pants in this photo.
Most of the ride she played cards with the other men in just her unders.
Here is the top bunk.  It was fine, but not much room to sit up.
In fact, you couldn't really sit up because above the bunk was a luggage compartment.
In the Kupe class the luggage was stored above the hallway, so the upper bunk had lots more headroom.
Bottom bunk.
You can see the feets of our across-the-aisle neighbors in the reflection.
Here I am in the lower bunk.  I could nearly lay flat, just had to keep my feet slightly elevated.
I also had a privacy curtain, which I jerry-rigged out of my blanket. 
It proved helpful as the train made stops throughout the night, turning on all the lights so passengers could   
1) get on or off the train, and 2) while doing so, bump into me as I tried to sleep. 

We also had a cute pup riding in our car with us. 
He just snuggled up with his owner in her bed.
The Platskart bathroom was totally fine.
Even had some air freshener.

Our across-the-aisle neighbor.
She was the loudest snorer I have ever heard.  Ever.

During the night her snoring would alternate between really loud and too loud for me to sleep.  And I couldn't figure out why (I had the privacy curtain drawn, but could obviously still hear her).  When I finally peeked out, to see what was going on, I realized that she would flip her position so that her head (and the source of the loudest snoring in the eastern hemisphere) was at the foot of her bed, a mere 36 inches of aisle away from my head!  All I could do is wait for her discomfort to cause her to flip back to the other side when the noise would slightly subside and I would doze off...

Breakfast in platskart?  Just like all of our other train rides.
Salami, cheese, crackers.  Delicious.
After a day and a night on the train we arrived in Moscow's central station.  We said goodbye to all the provodnitsas that waited outside each car where a car awaited us to whisk us to the luxurious National Hotel, a far cry from the 3rd class ride that got us there.
Goodbye trans-Siberian.
Hello Moscow.
The train journey took us 7,865 kilometers (4,887 miles) over the course of one month.  It was a great ride, with memories, good and bad, to last a lifetime.

Our entire journey.
We stopped in Ulaanbatar, Irkutsk, Yekaterinburg (not pictured on this map), and Moscow

Thursday, March 15, 2012


Hello friends.  I am Vladminir Lenin.
My people killed the Romanovs.
Welcome to Yekaterinburg.
Yekaterinburg.  You probably know it best as Russia's fourth-largest city, the main industrial and cultural center of the Urals Federal District.  And although we love ourselves a fabulous industrial city (especially one that is known for its metallurgy (ferrous and non-ferrous), machinery and metal processing), there are a number of reasons that we decided to make a short visit to Yekaterinburg.
Yekaterinburg waterfront
1.  Historical Significance.  Soon after the Russian Revolution, Tsar Nicholas II and his entire family were famously imprisoned and then brutally murdered by the Bolsheviks in their home in Yekaterinburg.  (Branson was pretty sad, but believed it to be a necessary sacrifice for the glorious future of communism).  Some of the Romanov remains were discovered in 1979 and conclusively identified in the late 1990s; the bodies of two more of the children (long the subject of conspiracy theories and rumors that they had escaped execution and had continued the royal bloodline) were discovered in 2007 and identified through DNA testing.  The Romanovs were canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, and their remains interred at the St. Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg.
The Romanovs
From left to right: Olga, Maria, Nicholas II, Alexandra, Anastasia, Alexei, and Tatiana. Livadia, 1913
Fun fact!  Alexei was a hemophiliac, and Rasputin used this to gain influence with Alexandra.
The Church on Blood in Honor of All Saints Resplendent in the Russian Land (if you think that's a mouthful, check it out in Russian: Храм-на-Крови́ во и́мя Всех святы́х, в земле́ Росси́йской просия́вших) was built on the site of the Romanov execution, to commemorate their canonization.
The Church of the Blood (nickname) was consecrated in 2003.
A dramatic rendering of the Romanov's final moments
A true-life example of what happens when you forget to bring a scarf to a Russian Orthodox Church.
You either shell out for an overpriced head covering, or you get creative with your plaid.
2.  Swanky accommodations.  Russia is expensive, and our most budget-friendly option was this "hostel" - actually just a collection of bunkbeds shoved into a tiny one bedroom apartment on a random communist-style apartment house.  On the plus side, we got to see an authentic Russian dwelling, I guess.  The girl in charge was very nice but she never showed up after the first day, so we had to hide the money we owed her in the apartment and then just leave the door unlocked when we left.
This is the living room.
This was the bathroom.  It was pretty bad.
It made me long for the bathroom that Boris kept so sparkling clean on the train.
3.  Delicious, affordable, healthy food.  Ha!  Haha!
This meal, served cafeteria-style, cost more than your average mid-mountain feast in Vail.
4.  Russian fashion/Russian women.  There's a lot more on this to come, but below is your typical Wednesday afternoon church attire, and below that your typical Russian woman making me feel short.
[DSM - Thankfully she covered her head, but not her butt, when she visited the Church]

[DSM - what a country]
 5.  Traveler's Coffee.  Oh, I how love thee, free wifi and $6 lattes.
6.  Funny signs, funky street art, and old men playing chess.  These are classic indicators of a good-time city.
Corny Big
Name says it all
A diamond ring sitting in a pile of poop?
Hall of the raised comfort

Street art under the overpass
7.  Location, location, location.  And finally, the most boring (but perhaps most honest) reason:  Yekaterinburg is in between Irkutsk and Moscow, and conveniently breaks up an 80-hour train ride into much more manageable 60-hour and 20-hour jaunts.

More Yekaterinburg photos here.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Long Haul: Irkutsk to Yekaterinburg

We had gotten our feet wet with the 28 hour Beijing to Ulanbataar train and the 36 hour Ulanbataar to Irkutsk train.  Now it was time to put everything we had learned to good use on a marathon train ride from Irkutsk, in Siberia, to Yekaterinbug, in the Ural Mountains.
Damn that's far!
How long was this train ride?
-- Long enough for for me to read War and Peace, watch the second season of Vampire Diaries and screen two movies.
-- Long enough for Dave to edit approximately 13,000 photos.
-- Long enough for us to consume enough ramen noodles to satisfy our sodium needs for the next five years.

Here are some statistics to put the journey in perspective:
-- We covered 2,176 miles in 58 hours.  That's like taking the train from NY to LA.
-- According to google, it would have taken us between 29 days, 5 hours and 33 days, 16 hours to walk (you know, depending on the route and on whether I set the pace or we walked like snails Dave set the pace).
--This journey was twice as long as the trip from Beijing to Mongolia, but cost $4 less.  Go figure.
-- We crossed from Asia to Europe!  

Train #9, the "Baikal" was really nice.  Over the course of the two and a half days, we shared our four-person compartment first with two little old ladies who spoke no English, and then with Pavel, a college student with limited English and Luba, a boisterous, 300 pound babushka who talked to us nonstop in Russian.  Occasionally Pavel would translate.  More often than not, Luba would gesture to Pavel to translate [DSM - her gesture is more accurately described as pounding her ham-sized fist onto the table and yelling "...Pavel" and from her reclined position on the bed gesture from Pavel to us].  Pavel would desultorily thumb through a battered Russian-English dictionary and then shrug his shoulders and explain, "I do not know words."  Our own Russian phrasebook consisted of three stapled pages that we had printed from the Lonely Planet online, and was focused solely on train travel ("Where is platform 2?" "I would like to exchange my ticket." "Please, can't anybody help me?").  Despite these language barriers, Luba taught Dave a number of Russian folk songs (or perhaps it was pop music, who knows?) and instructed him on the proper pronunciation of "Yekaterinburg."
Our four person cabin. Dave and I had the top and bottom bunks on the right.
Luba had the bottom bunk on the left, which she immediately turned into a bed,
and spent all her time lounging in a nightgown/housedress.
Poor Pavel had to lay in his bed up top (not enough room to sit up) or perch on the edge of Luba's bed.
Luba at a rare moment when she was not laying on her bed. Pavel, to her right, enjoys a rare moment on the lower bunk.
I am sitting on our bed, and a man in a handsome crocs, sweats, and beater ensemble stands near our window.
Lounging (Luba's position for 52 of the 58 hours)
The hallway of our train car, and the samovar where we collected hot water for instant coffee, tea and ramen noodles.
The ramen noodle selection in Irkutsk was far, far inferior to the selections in Beijing and Ulanbataar.
Beef and broccoli (?) ramen
Most provodnitsa (Russian train attendants) are sour-faced women, but we lucked out with Boris, a young, friendly and slightly doofy male attendant.
Boris checks our tickets.  He was late to work that morning and incredibly flustered.
We all had a good laugh (crossing language barriers) over his missing name tag.
Just look at Boris' unorthodox pose, compared to his surly coworkers...
Cold as ice.
All business.
When cleaning, however, Boris was notoriously camera-shy
You may recall the uniquely-decorated dining cars of the Chinese and Mongolian trains.  While the Chinese car was bare and utilitarian, and the Mongolian car resembled some Hollywood version of Genghis Khan, the Russian dining car was decked out like a retro diner, with green pleather seats, damask tablecloths and gold doilies.

Here, we took a break from the ramen and the cheese and crackers for an $11 plate of vegetables.  I don't think you'd even pay that much in NYC.

After two days of non-perishables, these were delicious.
When we weren't hanging with Luba or getting our veggies in the dining car, we watched the world go by.  The scenery was kind of boring.

Could've taken this photo on the NJ Turnpike
Way more interesting was Russian train fashion.  Or, "fashion."
Double camo makes this man especially hard to spot.
I love the tucks... the shirt into the pants, the pants in the socks.
I get it, I don't really want any part of the train touching my skin either.
This man was happy to have as much train touch as much skin as possible.
Did I mention that it was about 50 degrees?
Occasionally we played with these kids who ran and crawled up and down the corridor incessantly, and then came into our compartment to check us out, over and over and over again.

I think this sign says, "Don't throw yourself in front of a train."
All in all, the 58 hours went by pretty quickly.  Boris kept the hallways vacuumed, the samovar filled, and the bathrooms clean.  And it was way more comfortable than our accommodations in Yekaterinburg....