After more than two and a half weeks in the country, let me sketch a short summary of our experience. I also try to provide some advice for others planning to go on a similar trip.
Archive for the ‘Transsiberian Railway’ Category
It’s five am and our neighbour has decided that it’s time to wake up. For himself and everyone else around. This is how our third and last day on the train started.
The platzkart (third class) wagon by itself is not as terrifying as one could fear. I expected all of us to be stacked like cattle, while in fact the the wagon is arranged in a string of six berth coupes, two on one side, four on the other, separated by small walls and the corridor running in the middle.
On the one hand this means that there is a bit of privacy, but on the other it also means that your comfort (survival?) totally depends on your neighbours. And this time we’ve not been exactly lucky. (more…)
We arrived in Ulan-Ude at 6:15 in the morning. Even though we first re-arranged our suitcases, had bread and cheese for breakfast and brought the suitcases to the luggage room, it was only seven when we headed out to town. We were not properly awake, but what else could we do? The sun was about to come up and the few drifting, strangely puffy looking clouds had a pink glow about them. (more…)
We arrived in Omsk on Monday, September 1st. Learning day. As we were explained on the train, this is a very important occasion because it marks the first day of school after summer. Our hotel was right on the shore, there where the Irtysh river flows into the Om river. And this was a perfect place for us because the touristic port is just a hundred meters down the river. And from the port there are hourly pleasure boats that go along the Om. After a night on the train this looked like a wonderful opportunity for a relaxing early afternoon (we had arrived at the hotel at eleven but all we managed to do was to fall asleep on the bed, in a nice room sporting pictures of the Navigli and the Duomo of Milano).
Children of all ages were cueing with us to enter the boat. All dressed up, the boys in suits and the girls in a more traditional black and white dress, with wonderful ribbons on their heads. Fashion is not exactly one of the strong points in Russia these days (more on this later), but this more traditional – and sober – outfit is definitely lovely.
Everyone was just as you would expect on a school trip. The mothers accompanying the younger children all looked properly proud. Younger boys and girls were admired by everyone for their suits and dresses. Alas, the teenagers were already showing some of the corrupting effects of the surrounding fashion. Much less serious in their outfit, they were trying to spice it up with tottering high heels and chamber-maid-like lace aprons. Still, they were wearing their most serious faces while taking each other pictures with their small cameras and mobile phones.
If you think, an English breakfast is heavy, you have probably not experienced a Russian one yet. You start off nicely with a Kasha, a porridge which can be made of different things, oats, semolina, even rice. Then, you’ll probably go on with more serious stuff, such as an omelet with mushrooms and ham, bliny (the local pancakes), or something fried, such as fried dough balls for example. In hotels with buffets, you’ll also find salads, soups, and other hot dishes such as meat balls. We’ve even encountered fried liver once.
And this is about taxis. We arrived in Irkutsk in the morning of Monday, 8th. Left the big suitcases at the station, since it would have been unpractical to lug them to lake Baikal, we tried to find the best way to get to the bus station. As usual a flock of taxi drivers approached us offering their service. Nothing strange till here. And also nothing strange when the one we chose asked us an impossible price (350 Rub). Now, maybe because of my Italian origin, I was expecting that we could have negotiated and settled for some less indecent form of rip off (we are tourists after all and no surprise if we have to pay the tourist tax). So Susanne goes “200″. And the guy? Well, you would have expected him to go like “impossible” or “300″. After all it’s money, isn’t it? and no, there were twenty more taxis and no people around. And what does he say? “Take the tram”. Seriously. “Take the tram”. And he goes back to chat with the other drivers spitting on the ground. In case you wonder, yes we took the tram that brought there for 20 Rub (we got fined on that very tram for 200 Rub, but that’s another story).
Close to Krasnoyarsk, there is a big nature reserve in the hills called the “Stolby”. The Stolby are oddly shaped, spire-like rock formations. To get there, one can either go on a 5 hours hike, or go up the hill with a chair lift and then walk on top. Unfortunately they had not mentioned the Russian word for chair lift in the guide book and when enquiring how to get there and if it was open at all, they did not understand me at the hotel. So we decided to just take a cab there and see for ourselves. The downhill stop is located in some sort of fun park 9 km out of town on the other side of the Yenisey river, and luckily, the lift was running. I’d never taken such a lift without snow around before.
Once we arrived up we had a panorama of wooded rolling hills, dappled with yellow by the birches whose leaves were already turning. Here and there one could see some vertical rocks sticking out of the woods.
We set out walking on the small path that should lead us to a place with more of these rocks. The walk was very beautiful, it lead through the forest with a lot of birches. The fern on the ground formed a golden carpet. After we had walked for an hour, we met two young men in camouflage uniforms, carrying big rifles, who were coming from the opposite direction. They greeted us very politely and then made a speech in Russian I did not understand. They looked at each other a bit helplessly, then one of them managed to say the words “bear” and “danger” in English. They made clear to us that we had to turn back. We felt a bit sorry for having missed the stolby. We were also very curious about the bear. But many other walkers met the same fate and were sent back after us. We had no other choice but to walk back and enjoy the panoramic viewpoint a little more.
This at least is the opinion of Fabrice, the hitchhiking Frenchman we met on the minibus to Tomsk. And he has a point here. Customer service is equal to zero. Their way of doing business mainly consists in trying to cheat tourists out of their money and with so much inflexibility that they even risk to lose their customers completely, see the example of the minibus in Novosibirsk trying to collect more passengers and in the process risking to lose the existing ones.
In restaurants it is not better. In Tomsk, we were trying to have dinner at Foodmaster, a hip place. When we arrived, there were no free tables, and instead of telling us to sit a moment and look for a table that was likely to be available soon, they looked at us as if saying “Why are you still standing around here? Can’t you see we’re full, leave already.” The very same happened to us at the Sushi place next door. And at “Mixer”, a fast food restaurant displaying a menu of hamburgers and cheeseburgers, they explained me that they didn’t have any hamburgers at all. No excuse me or obliging smiles either.
Another oddity of Russian transactions is the “pay now”. For many things, they expect payment before the service is performed (which might also reflect on the local payment morale). Hotels, room service, baggage room, etc.
The idea that accommodating the customer’s wishes would lead to better business opportunities somehow has not arrived here yet. Even if the service itself is performed impeccably, their way of dealing with the customers often strikes me as unfriendly. We were wondering whether the local business mentality is a remnant of the communist regime, but we’ve not yet found a good answer.