The Trans-Siberian: Marcus Lush
Day One - St Petersburg
First impressions: the Ruskies are lookers - well-dressed and immaculately groomed. St Petersburg is a magnificent city; beautifully restored. Buildings were, and still are, being pieced back together with meticulous care, not being replaced by drab utilitarian Russian boxes. It doesn't match my mental image of "Leningrad". The city is unique in another way: there are no sky scrapers - the skyline is not muddied by ugly capitalist towers.
Day Two and Three - St Petersburg
I see Osama Bin Laden "Babushka" dolls for sale beside well-used astronaut helmets. Nothing should surprise here. I tour town in a battle-scared Lada, which shits itself on a dicey back street. I wonder if thieves will rappel down the buildings and relieve me of my world possessions. Just tourist paranoia - the ever-resourceful driver calmly pops a spare distributor cap from the boot, tied down with string, cranks it up and off. The driver is stoically calm, as if this is a daily occurrence - it probably is.
Day Four - train to Moscow
This short trip is preparation for the epic: the Trans-Siberian. The station is manic. A passenger, well marinated in vodka, is wheeled off the train on a luggage trolley as I board - at least he is off and not sharing my carriage. It's tiny - not much shut-eye.
Day Five - Moscow
It takes six frustrating hours to check into the hotel. Picking "customer service" doesn't translate well into Russian. One queue to find room isn't ready, another to stash bag until room is ready. An hour later, I queue to be told to come back in the afternoon. Moscow is a little grim at this point. While waiting, I walk the square and see Russians playing chess... dressed as Lenin, Putin and Marx. Putin is the spitting image. Maybe it's really him, out sampling the mood of the people
Day Six and Seven - the woods
I'm ditching Moscow. I have found a guy named Pascha running home-stays in a village a few hours up the road. Pascha is investigating potential for misery tours - subsistent holidays. He thinks there is a market serving Russia's "harsh realities" to pampered tourists - sleeping in damp basements, eating gruel and working the field dawn till dusk. I have three hours in the car to stress I just want to see ordinary village life. His ailing Lada requires frequent rest stops. I take the wheel and only just escape the attention of local constabulary with my fascination for the wrong side of the road. I stay in a nice log cabin - beautiful timber - swamp oak I think Pascha said. Village life is very basic. The women seem like they are out of a time warp - headscarves tied against the biting wind, reeling wooden water buckets from the village well.
Day Eight, Nine, Ten and Eleven - The Trans-Siberian
I have a hunch my high regard for trains may be tested. I stay in a cramped carriage shared with three others, bunks just shoulder-width apart and air conditioning cranked to 35 degrees. The dining carriage boasts unbelievable culinary wizardry. I try peas in oil for breakfast and my waiter is a Ruskie ringer for Jason Gunn - not your ordinary breakfast. The trains stop infrequently for a brief escape, but only as far as the platform. It is hard to interact with villagers except the odd aspiring capitalist - one sold me a pair of slippers, another sold me some fresh salami.
Day Twelve - Habarosk
I've crossed something like nine time zones and done 1/3 of the globe on the Trans-Siberian. I'd do it again but not for a year, no, not for three. It's functional, gets Russians from A to B since there's no road, but the journey isn't quite the picture in your mind's eye. I must say, there are a lot of trains - they pass day and night. If you're a train nut, this is your ride, just be careful you don't blow a head gasket. Habarosk must be off the beaten track. Forget Club Med, this place is Club Dead. The main highlight is a strange Chinese market that reeks of drug running.
Day Thirteen and Fourteen - Lake Bakcal
This place is billed like the Queenstown of Russia. There is a huge lake, which locals drive across in winter in their Lada's - I wouldn't want to be the first to test the ice. I would imagine that Ladas sink much better than they swim. I bunk in a home stay. Lena, a resourceful woman, takes in tourists in to help pay the bills. Lessons in Russian that I took before leaving home have paid off - I manage a really coherent conversation.
Day Fifteen, Sixteen and Seventeen - Train to Vladivostok
A bit soon to be boarding another train. It is interesting seeing into backyards through various Russian towns and villages. The great thing about trains is looking into backyards and getting another angle on people's lives. This angle speaks volumes about where Communism is at - strange ugly pipes everywhere. They pipe water, already heated, from a central hot water station - imagine the energy wasted. When they do repairs, everyone's hot water is cut off. A cold shower is one way to control the people.
Day Eighteen and Nineteen - Vladivostok
Vladivostok is an impressive port town which is home to Russia's Pacific fleet. The city was closed to all but military personnel for years. I am challenged to their version of pool - involving much larger balls and therefore considerable skill - by my guide Dimitiri. Over the table he shares perspectives on Russia's economic quandary - "we've come too far to go back," is his take on the brutal progression to capitalism. I imagine the older generation finds the evolution painfully bewildering. The government probably eyes tourism as their golden goose but, for that to pay off, much needs doing in a country where much else needs doing first. Still, I'd rather be a Ruskie in Vladivostok than trailer park trash in Detroit.