Trans-Siberian Railway - Leaving Siberia

By: leelefever on September 26, 2006 - 12:40pm

From the moment we arrived in Yekaterinburg, Russia, I had the song "The Cold Part" by Modest Mouse playing in my head, which is a dark and desolate song that sings "so long to this cold, cold part of the world". I don't think the city is as cold and dark as I chose to display in the video, but I do think the video fits with the soundtrack that was playing in my head at the time.

The scenes at the end are from our homestay in Yaketerinburg. We stayed with a local named Eleana for two nights in former Communist housing blocks. She was nice, but was caring for a friend who was sick at the time and we have both become ill after staying with her. The housing was warm on the inside, scary on the outside.

Yakaterinburg is famous for the deaths of the last czarist family in Russia, the Romanovs, who were killed in a cellar in the city by the Communist Revolutionaries as a symbol of the end of their imperial rule. A sad and controversial story.

Yekaterineburg is at the imaginary border between Asia (and Siberia) and Europe, so the song even fit as we left...

so long to this cold, cold part of the world

Video: Trans-Siberian Railway - The Vodka Train

By: leelefever on September 25, 2006 - 9:50am

It is a Trans-Siberian right of passage - drinking vodka with Russians on a train in the middle of Siberia. This video shares a few of the moments I'll never forget and a few that I can't really remember.

Read the story from this night

Too Much Vodka with the Russian Locals

By: leelefever on September 25, 2006 - 6:04am

 Given the opportunity, we will choose to hang out with the locals and in nearly every instance.  The vast majority of the time, it has been a rewarding and interesting experience.  However, on the Trans-Siberian Railway we’ve learned that there are Russian locals that you don’t necessarily want to “experience” for 2 days on a train.

Peer pressure is an issue on the Trans-Siberian train with consistent reminders from other travelers that this is the “vodka train” and you must drink Russian vodka.  This pressure is lost on the Russian locals though as they need no pressure whatsoever to drink on a train.  It is a requirement for them and when mixing with foreign travelers the requirement is shared by all.

So we found ourselves in the dining car on the second night of a 48 hour journey from Irkustk to Ekaterineburg.  

Between Slava, the gigantic ex-Russian Army captain with bullet wounds and Victor, the pudgy Belushi-esque ex-Mafia family man, we had our hands full.  While our English friend Paul was busy being pressured by Slava into drinking more vodka than he wanted, I got a dose of vodka with Victor and his fellow Russian friends, who seemed to be complete blockheads.  We drank more, became friends, toasted to health, arm wrestled and looking back I can say that I have never witnessed so many scars on so many people.  I think these guys have had a hard life.

For some reason I accepted Victor’s invitation for me and Sachi to come to his room and drink more vodka. Not only did this end up with me losing a few hours of memory, but it caused Sachi to end up babysitting Victor’s Coke-spewing 4 year old child “Sergei” for over an hour.  She was not happy and I had no idea why.  What I did remember was Victor telling me at some point in the night that the wolf tattoo on his arm was from his 3 year prison term.  Apparently had “only killed one person” while in the Russian mafia.  Had I had my wits about me, I may have escaped at that point, but I didn’t.

The next day I awoke to a hangover, an upset wife and a half-drunk Russian ex-con banging on the door at 9AM with a 2 liter beer in his hand.  We were still friends and he was clearly doing me a favor by bring over the beer.  He started with the old Russian saying “A good friend drinks vodka with you yesterday, a great friend drinks vodka with you today!” as if I might appreciate the classical nature of the moment.   I would have none of it, despite him barging in, pouring a glass, spilling it on the floor and insisting I drink no less than 15 times. Of course Sachi was now noticing that she would now clean up after both father and son in our compartment. I was at a loss for more ways to say “nyet” – nothing seemed to work. Sachi would later say that when he came in she wanted to kick him in the face.  Of course, I was implicit in this frustration.  

Later Victor hooked back up with the Blockheads and they formed a roaming band of drunk-in-the-morning Russian annoyances.  They went from one end of the train to the other, peer-pressuring everyone from the night before to drink with them.  One of them even forced his way into the compartment of understandably shaken American and Canadian girls.  He would later be quite accurately called a stalker.

This band of drunks eventually caused the revelers from the night before to close their doors and hide out for the majority of the morning.  Many, including Sachi and I ignored knocks at our doors.  The foreigners on the train tried to memorize compartment numbers so we could visit one another without keeping a door open.  There was talk of passwords being used.  We were held hostage by the locals.

By about 1pm the drunk Russians had passed out – we could hear Victor snoring through the compartment walls and from that point the foreigners on the train began to appear like refugees after a bombing campaign.  Shaken, annoyed and hungover, we stuck together and decided that drinking with the locals is fun, but sharing 2 days on a train with the same people is another story all together.

 Watch the Video Here.

The Siberian Village of Bolshoe Goloustnoe

By: leelefever on September 24, 2006 - 12:06am

We were greeted in the "Siberian Capital" of Irkutsk by a nice surprise.  Our guide for 3 days was a Siberian named Eleana who looked like she stepped out of an REI catalog, both in slick outdoors clothes and fine model-like looks.  She spoke near-perfect English and had a laid back attitude - a stark contrast to the flag nazis in China.  So far, I love Russia.

The tiny village of Bolshoe Goloustnoe (pop. 700) is two hours from Irkutsk on the shores of the world's oldest and deepest lake, Lake Baikal.  I knew we were going to the right place when, about 45 minutes into the drive, the road turned to dirt and didn't stop until we arrived 1.5 hours later.  We were as remote as we could manage in one of the world's remotest places and assured that we were the only Westerners for miles and miles.

For the first time since visiting small villages in Japan, I felt that we had arrived at a tiny part of the world that exists according to tradition and not the tourist dollar. Bolshoe Goloustnoe is undeniably real and an authentic article of Siberian culture. 


The town on the South Eastern shores of Lake Baikal sits on two main streets surrounded by single story dark-wooden homes with gardens and livestock sharing a slice of property. In fact, the livestock are not bound by fences except the fences to keep them out of personal gardens.  As Eleana explained, the cows roam free and return home occasionally for feeding time.

The homes themselves are remarkably similar, with dark wood and ubiquitous, but unique window dressings called Siberian Lace.  The Siberians believe in spirits who are able to enter homes through windows and the windows are designed to prevent the spirits from entering. The windows are colorful works of art that beg for photos and appear too good to be true.  If they were plucked from this Siberian location and appeared in a city, you could imagine flag-bearing tour groups ooohing and aaahing at the traditional designs. Yet, here they are surrounded by gardens, livestock and splashed mud. These windows are an example of the reality of travel that I long to experience. 


Another Siberian experience is the use of a “banya” or sauna.  The tradition works like this… The banya is prepared by building a fire in a furnace-like compartment of a small wooden structure. The fire heats water that is used for bathing and the “sweat room” where you sit naked and relax.  I have decidedly mix reactions to the sweat room. I don’t like heat and I already sweated enough for 5 years in Asia, so I didn’t feel the need to sweat, or suffocate for that matter.  The thermometer in the sweat room read 85 degrees Celsius, which is 185 degrees Fahrenheit.  Is that possible?  Could it really be that hot?  It seemed that way as the air I inhaled would burn my lips as it entered my mouth.  My mind raced a couple of times as I had the fleeting feeling that I wasn’t getting enough air, nearly causing me to rush out of the room.  The most enjoyable part of my first banya experience was the exit when the air was luxuriously cool and full in my lungs.  To really enjoy a banya, I think you need to have been really cold, as Siberian fisherman surely are.

Bolshoe Goloustnoe, more than any other village we’ve visited on the whole trip, seemed to take us back in time. Here are a few examples.

  • The toilets are located outdoors and over a deep pit in the earth near the garden. When it fills up, they cover it and dig another hole.  Yes, despite pulling fresh, clean water from an aquifer that is associated with the lake, the homes in the village do not have running water.
  • Only a few weeks ago mobile phone service arrived in the village.  Prior to that, the only phone in the village existed in the Post Office and even it was often in disrepair.
  • The village does not have Internet access.
  • The villagers are very curious about foreigners, described as a look at someone from another world.
  • Few vehicles exist in the village and some of the old-timers have never left the village in their lives.
  • Many of the farmers in Bolshoe Goloustnoe are subsistence farmers, growing food to eat rather than sell.
  • The village lacks tourist infrastructure – no restaurants or souvenir shops.


I didn’t realize it until we arrived, but Siberia has a history similar to that of the Western US.  Just as the Europeans migrated westward across the US and through Native American land, the Russians moved eastward across Russia and through Buryat land. The Buryats are the indigenous people of Siberia, descended from the Mongols (more info here).  Eleana described the Buryats as being nearly completely integrated into the Russian culture or "russified", with their being very little discrimination. We saw evidence of this in the village as nearly every group of people was made up of white and Buryat individuals (see photo below).  I asked about the Russian migration and told her about the sad history of the American frontier when Native Americans were exploited and killed for their land.  She described the Russian experience much differently with the explorers making friends and working closely with the Buryats. She described the expansion in terms of it being a win-win. Curious, I asked about many of the modern problems of Native Americans such as alcoholism, lack of job opportunities and poverty and it sounded like the Buryats were experiencing the same problems.   While I’m sure the eastward expansion in Russia could have been much more friendly that that of the American West, I can’t help but wonder if this story of mutual beneficence is more convenient than it is factual. Perhaps my time in China has taught me that a Communist government has the power to mold historical perspectives into a form that is more easily digested by the people and the international community.  Could it be that Eleana’s perspective has been subject to the creativity of government historians of yesteryear?  Judging from myriad examples of European expansions into native lands, I somehow doubt the win-win perspective of the story.  Maybe I’m just cynical.

We didn’t expect it, but Bolshoe Goloustnoe and Lake Baikal was one of our favorite places on the trip so far.  Like Japan, the village seemed too real, too authentic to be true.  It didn’t get any more real than our homestay host, Tamara, mother of 6 and lifelong resident.  Could you imagine a more Siberan looking host?

Video: Incredible Lake Baikal, Russia

By: leelefever on September 23, 2006 - 5:10am

To look at Lake Baikal doesn't do it justice - it is just a big lake in a beautiful and peaceful setting. Only by learning a little about it can you appreciate what a special place on the Earth it really is. You can learn more via Wikipedia too.

Music: Yo La Tengo - You Can Have It All

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