Happy Moscow


The train to Moscow was pleasantly uneventful. The highlight of it was meeting our carriage mate, Larissa, a middle-aged lady from high up at the top of Siberia who force-fed us gooseberries and raspberries and marched me out into the corridor first thing the following morning for a glimpse of Vladimir.

Chris was itching for the train trip to be over, as most of his family was due to meet us in Moscow. He hadn’t seen them for nine months. I was really looking forward to seeing them too: our families are really close, so it was like knowing an aunt and uncle and cousin were all waiting on the platform.

The train pulled into Moscow mid-morning. Chris was fizzing with excitement by then. We packed up and got ready and he peered out of the window as we pulled into the platform.

“I see them! I see them!” he squeaked suddenly. We said goodbye to Larissa and belted off the train, weaving our way through the crowd up the platform, and there they were: Cathy and Steve, Chris’s Mum and Dad, and Maddy, his sister. Only Chris’s brother Jonny was missing. It was brilliant to see them all. We had a broadly-grinning and moist-eyed reunion and launched ourselves straight into the splendour of the Moscow metro.


The strange thing was, as Cathy pointed out, mere minutes after we met up everything felt perfectly normal, as though we all went gallivanting round Moscow together every day. We were renting a flat in a brilliant location near the Arbat, so we dropped off our backpacks and had a quick shower before we ventured out again. It was Tuesday. The Edis family, including Chris, were heading off to St Petersburg on Thursday, so we didn’t have much time to spare and there were a lot of sights to see.

Luckily most of the museums we wanted to see were closed, so we were able to tick a whole heap of them off our list in less than an hour. Herzen’s and Lermontov’s houses were both closed; so was Scriabin’s, but the doors were open as it was being renovated so we were able to wander in anyway and see his piano. The Melnikov House was closed so we peered at it through the fence. Congratulating ourselves on our excellent sightseeing progress, we headed off towards Red Square, stopping to pick up some food from a supermarket along the way.

Round Red Square I had that strange feeling you get when seeing a very familiar place for the first time in real life. St Basil’s, for example, is much smaller than I thought it was. The walls of the Kremlin are much less severe than they seem on the television; in fact Moscow is a much more colourful and happier place than I was expecting it to be.


The next day was the first of August. We headed straight back to the Kremlin after breakfast, arriving more or less as it opened. It’s a strange mix of the business end of a government and the ultra-touristy, crammed with cathedrals, tombs and stern ministerial buildings. Onion domes aplenty. The weather was perfect: warm but not so hot it was unpleasant to move around, and the brilliant sunlight made all the golden domes shine.


We met up with some of Chris’s friends, who live in Moscow, and went for a leisurely lunch with them. It grew hotter, but luckily we had decided to visit for the air-conditioned Tretyakov Museum in the afternoon. Inside the museum it was beautifully cool.

The contents of the Tretyakov are just overwhelming. Room after room of incredible works by Russia’s greatest painters and portraits of loads of artists and writers. At one point, exhausted, we collapsed on a bench for a bit then decided to leave – only to discover another floor of landscapes that refused to be ignored. That’s the only trouble with museums: you almost need to set aside a full day just to do each one justice, and more than that if it’s somewhere like the Hermitage or the Louvre.

One of the paintings in these final rooms was Levitan’s Vladimirka Road. Cathy has given me a postcard of this work just before I embarked on my Russian Culture MA, and I pinned it above my desk while I was knee-deep in Gulag literature and Dostoevsky and the Russian philosophers. I’d glance up at the long road in the painting with weary recognition as I slogged away at some essay or other. It was lovely to see it in the flesh, with Cathy there beside me.

The colours are terribly off, but you get the idea.

Afterwards we went off to Gorky Park. Chris’s friend Bella told us about how the park had undergone a bit of a renaissance in the last year or so, and it was the perfect place to be that summer afternoon. We sat on the grass, drinking ice tea and watching the skateboarders, rollerbladers, courting couples, lemonade stands, the lost helium balloons escaping up into the warm evening air: everything a park should be.

We had dinner in the park then wandered down to the embankment of the Moskva. Even by ten in the evening it was still light out, and the riverside was crowded with happy people, filling out the bars and salsa dancing in an open air ballroom. It was a magical night. None of us wanted it to end.

The next morning we got up early as the others needed to catch the train to St Petersburg. Though we left the timing rather tight, they walked me to my next Moscow home, the Petrovka Loft hotel. I took Chris up on his long-standing offer to carry my backpack, which was known as The Beast: he hauled it all the way up several flights of stairs for me, and we said goodbye.

It was sad and strange to part from Chris after all we had been through along the Trans-Siberian. I couldn’t have asked for a more easygoing travelling companion. But I’d been to St Petersburg before, and I wanted to continue my journey by train, having got so far without flying.

The Petrovka Loft is what passed for a budget Moscow hotel in 2012. For an eye-watering sum I got a room with a double bed squeezed against one wall and a narrow gutter of floor around it. God knows how two people would manage to fit into it; the second would just have to throw themselves on to the bed from the door. The bathroom was down the hall. But the loft has a brilliant location, right next to the Bolshoi theatre, and that’s what you pay for. Moscow could do with a lot more budget hotels and hostels. I would have liked to have stayed longer, but I could only afford one night at the Petrovka Loft.

For my first solo adventure in Moscow I went to the Mayakovsky Museum. Russian museums tend not to spare their foreign visitors: all the descriptive labels were written in Russian, so I came out of there knowing little more about Mayakovsky’s life and works than I had when I arrived. However, that’s hardly the point. The museum is amazing. It’s a three-dimensional, building-sized collage of stuff from the man’s life, with things on the walls, floors, and dangling from the ceiling in a disorientating explosion of imagery. I loved it, though I had no idea what  was going on most of the time.



After the Mayakovsky Museum I navigated my way to Patriarch’s Ponds. I can’t describe how nerdily excited I was to go there; I was practically trembling. It’s a small ordinary-looking park with a pond in it that happens to be the location of the opening chapter of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, one of my all-time favourite books. I went and sat on a bright yellow bench and imagined the opening scene unfolding around me, in all its comic horror:  “One hot spring evening, just as the sun was going down, two men appeared at Patriarch’s Ponds…” 


Somehow the sites of literary scenes are more resonant to me than the sites of historic events. I stood in Red Square, remembering all that had occurred round there, and thought “hmm… yes,” whereas in Patriarch’s Ponds I couldn’t stop grinning. Perhaps because imaginary characters feel terribly real when you’re walking in their footsteps, whereas historical figures and places always have that heavy sense of reality; or maybe it’s because a literary work allows you access to these places in a deeper, more immediate way than learning about them in history does. Well, who knows. I was very happy on my yellow bench.

The rest of my time in Moscow was spent in a similarly literary-nerdy way. I went to Pushkin Square, and the next day, my last day in Moscow, I visited Tolstoy’s house and the Andrei Bely museum. I wanted to go to Yasnaya Polyana but it would have involved more nights in Moscow than I could afford, so I made do with the Moscow house.

I found Tolstoy’s house quite moving. There are lots of photos of him and his family on the walls, and you look around to see the same chair he’s sitting in in the photo right next to you, almost haunted by his presence.  It was also good to see the waste paper basket parked under his desk. An accessible bin is a vital tool of writing.

Tolstoy’s house

The Bely museum suffered from the same lack of translated information as the Mayakovsky, though I enjoyed looking at his sketches. I also had fun with the attendant, who refused to believe I didn’t have enough change for my ticket until she snatched my purse, up-ended it on the counter and went through the coins herself.

That evening I caught the train onwards to Ukraine. I was sad to leave Russia. For all its rather terrifying reputation, and despite the brandished knives and fistfights encountered along the way, I loved my time there. I was used to responding to a peremptory yell of ‘Devushka!’ (Girl!), and had grown to appreciate the brusque, unsought assistance so often thrust my way. Moscow had cast a particularly powerful spell over me, and I wished I could stay a little longer. But Kiev beckoned, and I was looking forward to seeing my Mum, who was flying out to join me there. So I heaved The Beast on my back and staggered off under its mounting weight towards another train station.

Things We Didn’t See in Perm


You could, if you wanted to, divide travellers into planners and drifters. Some people rock up airily in a country and drift about wherever the wind takes them, leaving their experiences to chance: not me. I’m definitely a planner. Well, sometimes I drift, especially if I’ve been to the place before, but mostly I plan things months in advance, especially when time is tight, so I don’t miss anything I want to see. Despite this, I’m beginning to learn that however well you plan a trip, certain things will inevitably happen to make you throw your plans out the window. Sometimes you just have to surrender.

Perm isn’t one of the usual stops on the Trans-Siberian, but I especially wanted to go there. Firstly, it is near what was then the only surviving Gulag camp museum in Russia. Back in 2012 I was fresh from my MA in Russian and East European Studies, and I had recently finished a dissertation on ethics in Gulag literature, so I was particularly keen to visit the museum. Secondly, Perm was home to Diaghilev’s family when he was a boy and a lot of dancers, artists and musicians were evacuated to Perm during the war. The city’s ballet company is ranked just behind those of Moscow and St Peterburg, so I wanted to watch a performance while we were there. Chris very kindly didn’t object to this, so we jumped off the train ready for an action-packed stop in Perm.

We left the city 48 hours later without having seen either the Gulag museum or the ballet.

Perm is just west of the Urals, and marks the official start of European Russia. Our arrival marked the first time Chris has set foot in Europe since he went to China, something like nine months previously. It all started well: we arrived early in the morning and checked into our hotel in time to be served breakfast, which was a bit of a luxury. The hotel was of the bland forgettable type more geared towards business travellers, but Perm doesn’t have a lot of choice when it comes to accommodation, so there we were.

After breakfast we went to track down information about the Gulag museum. I had an address for the museum’s office in town, but it proved to be a false lead. Undaunted – though perhaps we should have been – we went to the main hotel in Perm, the Hotel Ural, which was pretty much the only source of tourist information in the city.

On the way we stopped off at the ballet theatre to book tickets, only to discover that the theatre was closed. For the whole of August. That was the end of our plan to see the ballet.

The Hotel Ural is a vast, confusing, monolithic building, with shops, tourist agencies, offices and a conference centre all heaped together. Somehow Chris and I managed to wander deep inside it and we found ourselves trailing up and down dark, deserted, menacing corridors looking for the tourist information office, and then, with increasing trepidation, just looking for the way out again. Eventually we found the tourist office by going out of the building and coming back in again via a distant shopfront.

No one spoke English in the tourist office, but they gave us a leaflet with information about how to get to the Gulag museum on public transport, including a map and careful instructions in English. Satisfied, we spent the rest of the day wandering around Perm, visiting its museum of art and generally exploring the place. It’s a lovely city, although it isn’t immediately apparent; its artsy, offbeat charm grows on you.

The next day we got up quite early and set off for the Gulag museum. We found and caught the right bus easily enough; sadly that was the only thing that went well.

The details are best forgotten, really. Suffice to say I drastically misunderstood the instructions from the tourist office and we spent much of the day wandering around the Ural countryside, miles away from the museum. Eventually we were forced to give up the hunt and head back to Perm, defeated. The nearest I got to experiencing a taste of the Gulag was a long march down the side of a road.

Despite Perm having been, even in the most generous assessment, an absolute cock-up from top to bottom, I enjoyed our time there. Chris and I keep saying that we must go back and try again. The city hosts a Diaghilev festival every year: I’d love to see that. Sadly, though, even if we do make it back to Perm, a trip to the Gulag museum wouldn’t be the same. Since 2012 the local authorities have taken over the museum and are busy re-writing its history in a much more pro-Stalinist light. Russia’s only surviving Gulag camp is now an Orwellian celebration of the oppressors, rather than a monument to the oppressed. Given that, I only hope many more people have as much trouble getting there as we did.


Tips for Travelling on the Trans-Siberian


Or any other long-distance train, for that matter.

  1. Bring a plastic/ metal mug and plenty of tea bags, instant coffee, or whatever floats your beverage boat. Hot water is free, and making tea will become an important activity. Cutlery is also useful.
  2. Bring lots of food and water. You can eat in the dining car but bringing your own stuff is considerably cheaper.  Aim for self-contained food that doesn’t require a lot of cleaning up, because you won’t have the equipment to do so. Instant noodles in their own pots are better than those in a packet. Apples, tangerines, packets of crisps, nuts and chocolate bars all have their place.
  3. Bring a pack of cards, or backgammon, or some other small, portable game to play.
  4. You will stow most of your luggage either in the space above the corridor, accessed by the top bunks, or under the bottom bunks. Neither is particularly accessible, so pack a separate bag of things you’ll need on the train: your washbag, a change of clothes, food, mug and cutlery, books, etc.
  5. Hide most of your money, passport and so on out of sight, but keep it with you. If you’re travelling alone, take your valuables with you to the bathroom/ dining car or wherever else you go. Otherwise make sure you leave them in the care of your travelling companion. Always bring your money and passport with you if you get off the train to stretch your legs, in case it leaves without you.
  6. Keep a small amount of cash separately in case you want to buy something either on the train or from one of the hawkers on the platforms.
  7. Most of the time you won’t be able to use the bathroom while the train is in a station, so make sure you go before it stops. You can see the timetable in the corridor. Be especially aware of this around border controls, because it might be hours before you can go. If you have an early morning border crossing you might want to set an alarm so you can wake up and use the loo before you stop. We learned this the hard way.
  8. A Russian phrase book is really useful.
  9. The Man in Seat 61 is good for planning your trip.
  10. Make friends with your provodnitsa (carriage attendant). She – mostly it’s a she – is a cross between an overbearing mother and a terrifying prison warden for the people under her care. You want to experience the mothering end of the spectrum.
  11. Make friends with your compartment mates, whoever they may be. They will become the best part of the trip.

My final point is for everyone who has mentioned that they are vaguely thinking of a Trans-Siberian trip: Do it. Book it right now. Seriously, book it book it book it. You won’t be bored, and you won’t regret it.

Life on a Trans-Siberian Train


I’m often asked about what life is like on board a Trans-Siberian train. Well, actually, I’m rarely asked but I’m going to tell you anyway.

A lot of people love the idea of attempting a Trans-Siberian trip, but are put off by the thought of spending so much time on a train. Trust me: you will not be bored on board. Time flies by, or at least it has a different quality on a train.

Firstly, the gentle rocking motion of a long distance train is a powerful sedative. I slept really well on all our train journeys, and had plenty of naps during the day. In fact, a day on a Trans-Siberian train is broken up into short fragments of consciousness interspersed with long naps of deep sleep.

A Trans-Siberian day runs something like this: you wake up early and have a wash and breakfast. Then you stare out of the window for a while in a hypnotised, dreamlike sort of way, seeing wide rivers, fields, empty expanses of the steppe flow unhurriedly past the window; or acres of Siberian forest, dark pines and young white birch trees as slender as brooms. You pass round the back of small towns with mud roads and painted wooden houses.

After a while the train arrives at a station, and you see women in bright headscarves marching up and down the platform, displaying their wares to the train: smoked fish, fresh fruit, crocheted scarves and blankets. You consider getting out to stretch your legs and buy a plastic pint cup full of raspberries, but it seems like a tremendous effort. Then the train rolls on.

Perhaps you have a new compartment mate to talk to, or perhaps you have just said goodbye to someone who has in the space of a few hours or half a day become a firm friend, almost family. You never forget the people you’ve met on the train.

It’s only mid-morning, but the anaesthetic of the rocking train drifts you into a nap, so you stretch back out on your bunk and drop into a deep restful sleep. When you wake up, it’s time for a cup of tea. This isn’t the casual, almost unconscious act it is in the rest of the world; it’s an important event.

First, you ask each other whether you want a cup of tea. The answer is almost certainly yes, but still you take time to think about it, mulling it over while you stare out of the window at the rolling scenery. Then someone gathers themselves, drops teabags into your camping mugs and makes their way down the rocking corridor to the samovar. Perhaps they encounter someone on the way and stop to exchange smiles or fragmented jokes in multiple languages. They fill up the mugs and return carefully to the compartment, where you sit and sip at the steaming tea, staring out the window. This has taken up at least half an hour, effortlessly.

Chris and I played a lot of backgammon on the train, and a few card games. I made notes about wherever we had just been in my notebook and Chris read War and Peace on his Kindle. Lunch takes a long time, because it too requires a period of reflection before and after the necessary actions. Is it lunchtime? You ponder this, staring out the window. What should you eat? Should you have another cup of tea with it?

After lunch comes another nap, more backgammon, more reading and writing and window-staring, more napping, more cups of tea, and then supper. It becomes hard to fit everything in. Profound and beautiful thoughts will occur to you, but you largely lack the wherewithal to write them down. Everyone goes to bed early. You grab your washbag and head down to the bathroom at the end of carriage, where you become so used to flushing the loo by stepping on a floor pedal you wonder why this isn’t a universal system. Then it’s time for bed, and you gratefully snuggle back down on your cosy bunk, worn out by such a busy day.

Tourist Relay in Tomsk

Ah, Tomsk. If for some vanishingly unlikely reason I was forced into exile in Siberia, I would live in Tomsk*. It’s the Bath of Siberia I think – well, not really, not in any meaningful way. But it’s a small, comfy, laid-back university town with lovely distinctive architecture. 



(Forgive the crap photos. At some point on the train I started fiddling around with the settings on my camera, and it took me ages to get them right again afterwards.)

However, unlike Bath, Tomsk is quietly falling apart. A lot of the buildings we saw back in 2012 are probably gone now. Its traditional Siberian architecture, featuring elaborate, decorative wooden ‘lace’,  is gradually being destroyed.  These old wooden buildings are particularly vulnerable to fire, and sometimes these fires are deliberately set by owners who would prefer something more modern to live in, or more profitable to rent. Those buildings that haven’t been wilfully destroyed are often in a state of neglect. Large parts of the city have an abandoned, forgotten feel.



At the same time, Tomsk is a cheerful, friendly city, and home to some of the best oat biscuits in the world. Our new home, the 8th floor hostel, was right round the corner from a lovely bustling street market selling all manner of fresh produce, smoked fish, and a staggering variety of the aforementioned biscuits.


Everyone we met in Tomsk was almost absurdly welcoming. At one point we were venturing off to visit a church on top of a hill, as instructed by the Trans-Siberian Railway guidebook. We flagged down a tram round the corner from our hostel and I laboriously asked whether it went to the church. Several people fired back quite a lot of Russian and then, when it became clear I had no idea what they were saying, they beckoned us on board.

One of the passengers took charge of the situation. She went round the bus until she found someone who spoke English, and got them to translate the fact that none of the trams went to the top of the hill, but that this one would get quite close, and then we could walk. When we got to our stop a couple of other people got off at the same time. The lady who had taken charge of us gave them some instructions then packed us off the tram in their care. We followed them along a street until they flagged down some other passers-by who were heading the right way, explained where we wanted to go, and transferred us over to them instead. As Chris pointed out, it was like being the baton in a relay race. This new set of people led us up the hill, deposited us in front of the church we wanted to visit, then went on their way. It was all done in a fabulously matter-of-fact way, as if the local people of Tomsk played Tourist Relay with each other all the time while walking around the city.

For our first night we were the only people at the 8th Floor Hostel, so we had the run of the place. It’s a really homely, friendly place to stay. On our second night we were joined by one other person, another English man called Tom. Yes: we met a Tom in Tomsk. He was from East London, near where my aunt lived at the time, but by some extraordinary coincidence he was now living round the corner from where Chris and I live: Finsbury Park. Even more strangely, he worked for Haringey Council, the local authority for whom my boyfriend David was then a councillor. He was the only other tourist we met in Tomsk, and we could easily have bumped into him at home instead.

Considering the fights, knife threats and forest fires we had to get through to make it to Tomsk, it would have been a tremendous disappointment if the city hadn’t been worth the journey. But it more than repaid the heroic effort we needed to get there. I would like to visit again, sometime when the countryside around it isn’t burning, shrouding the city in smoke. The photo below gives you a taste of the city’s strange sense of humour: Chekhov visited once and made a disparaging remark about Tomsk in a letter, so the city has repaid him with this statue of the writer from the point of view of a drunk peasant lying in a ditch. I mean, where else in the world would you find a literary monument like this?


*Or maybe Irkutsk.

Knives and Forest Fires: The Rest of the Journey to Tomsk


When we woke up the next morning Victor was gone. After a while we were joined by a young mother and her two children, a ten year old girl and an extremely lively five year old boy who ended up entertaining himself by playing Slap The Englishman with Chris. They were good fun, though quite demanding.

Everything was going quite smoothly until the train ground to a halt in the middle of a field for an hour and a half. This was the only journey we had that involved a remotely tight connection, so of course it was the only train that was significantly late. After a while it became apparent that we were going to miss our train.

Once we had sat there long enough to ensure that we were beyond all hope of catching the Tomsk train, we started moving again. Outside the train, the usual landscape of birch trees and wooden houses was gradually obscured by a thick yellowish pall of smoke. A massive forest fire was burning somewhere in the region. When we arrived in Taiga the air smelt of burning wood; you couldn’t see from one end of the platform to the other. We got off the train and began to investigate our options.

By now it was getting on for ten at night. Was there another train to Tomsk? Not until the next day. Was there a bus? Nope. Anywhere to stay? Not visibly, but then we couldn’t see much within the smoke, and we didn’t want to venture too far from the station in case we got lost. A taxi driver began to follow us around, asking where we were going, and we negotiated a price with him. As I can only count up to the early teens in Russian these negotiations were done with fingers, scribbles on paper and speaking individual digits, but we settled on “two-nul-nul-nul” or 2000 rubles for the ride.

We got into the taxi and drove to a nearby petrol station. Suddenly our driver said the price was three-nul-nul-nul, around £60. I objected to this, which was hard, because I could only speak in the present tense.

“You say two-nul-nul-nul in station. Why now THREE-nul-nul-nul?”

He said stuff about the price of petrol. We had a bit of a row about it until Chris pointed out we had very little option but to pay him the extra grand, and that it was still well worth it. He was right, but even so, I was angry at the man for being so underhanded about it. Chris said he needed to go to the cashpoint to get the extra money, and began to grope at his passenger door. It wouldn’t open. I was still half-heartedly arguing with the driver. He argued back, and suddenly pulled out an enormous knife.

“Jesus, that’s a great big knife!” I hissed. We had both become very quiet and compliant all of a sudden. Still muttering about the cost of the fare, the driver leaned over and used the knife to jimmy open Chris’s door. I stopped arguing, and Chris and the driver disappeared into the petrol station.

Chris came back with a bundle of money, and gave some of it to the driver – he wanted the whole fare up front, but we said we would give him the rest in Tomsk. This rather meaningless concession made us feel marginally better. Our driver used his advance to buy petrol and some toxic-looking cans of the Russian equivalent of Red Bull, because the best thing to introduce into a tense situation involving a knife is a load of caffeine. He tuned the radio into Russian pop songs, cranked up the volume and we sped off into the dark, smoke-covered Siberian forests.

“He could kill us both and bury us in the forest and no one would ever know what happened,” Chris said. Somehow we both found this thought quite funny. Still, I was gripping hold of the handle of the door so hard I found that after a while I couldn’t unclench my fist. Chris started worrying that we were driving in the wrong direction, but I didn’t have enough space left in my brain’s anxiety tank to think about that – it was all taken up by the knife. We drove really fast, often over 100 kph, the car rattling with the effort and sometimes nearly taking off over some of the road’s more severe bumps.

Eventually, in the middle of the night, we arrived in Tomsk. We found the right road quite easily, but finding our hostel itself proved far harder. Our knife-wielding taxi driver grew increasingly impatient, flagging down drunk passers-by to ask them where it was. After a while, to our intense relief, he found it. We paid him the rest of his well-earned three-nul-nul-nul and said goodbye. To be fair to the driver, it was a long way. He could have kicked us out in Tomsk on the right road, leaving us to find the hostel by ourselves. But he saw us right to the door, carrying my backpack, and stayed long enough to give our host a bollocking about how difficult the hostel was to find.

We were the only people staying in the hostel that night, so we had a room to ourselves. We made up our beds and turned in, thankful to be in Tomsk after all we had encountered on the way.

Terror on the Trans-Siberian


We returned to Irkutsk as happy travellers. Relaxed from our time on the beach at Lake Baikal, and beginning to feel that we were getting the hang of this Trans-Siberian thing.

Naturally we were wrong. The world had lulled us into a false sense of security, and we were about to be flung into the most terrifying two days of the entire trip.

It all started well enough. We took the bus back to Irkutsk, had a Siberian pizza then went back to the station to get our train. We were venturing off the main Trans-Siberian route, heading north towards Tomsk, and you could tell the difference straight away – absolutely no one spoke a word of English.

To my absolute delight, one of our compartment-mates was a small cat called Lyusha. She was very self-composed and spent most of the time asleep on her bunk, although she did allow me to pat her in between naps. Her human companion was on her way to visit her Mum for an extended stay, so she had packed the cat.

Sadly they left a few hours after we boarded. Things began to deteriorate rapidly after that. The man in the bunk above them moved down into the lower bunk and started chatting in a friendly enough way, but then he drank quite a few cans of Baltika beer. Baltika beers are numbered, seemingly in order of strength, and his was a relatively high number. He got very glassy-eyed and drunk very quickly, and kept trying to make conversation, though his slurring drunk Russian was well beyond my understanding.

The trouble started when Victor arrived, very late, just as we getting ready for bed. Victor, a young man around the same age as me, had booked himself the lower bunk, the one recently vacated by the lady and her cat. However, the drunk man decided he wanted to sleep there. At first the drunk man yielded, but then he changed his mind and sat back down on Victor’s bunk.

It was around midnight. We all just wanted to get to sleep. The drunk man, slurring and staggering about, began to shove at Victor to shift him off the bunk. Victor defended himself. A fight broke out, and they ended up rolling around on the floor between the bunks, kicking and battering at each other.

Victor definitely had the upper hand in all sorts of ways. Firstly, he had a ticket which entitled him to the disputed bunk. Secondly, he was strong and well built, and clearly not afraid of a fight. Thirdly, he wasn’t blind drunk. Unfortunately the other man was so far gone he wouldn’t have either noticed or cared about these points. Even though Victor kept subduing him, pressing him to the floor with his arm twisted behind his back, the drunk man would just start up again as soon as Victor let him go. I was shouting at them both, but they completely ignored me. The drunk man went for Victor again and they both burst out of the compartment together, tripping over, and the drunk’s head fell with a horrible crunch against the wall of the corridor outside.

Up until then I had effectively been trapped in the compartment with two wrestling men between me and the door. Chris was likewise trapped in the bunk above me. Now I jumped over the men and into the corridor.

Never in my life have I more wanted to be able to speak Russian. I didn’t even know what the word for help was, let alone “Help, my compartment mates are beating the living daylights out of each other”; instead the only Russian I could bellow was “Provodnitsa! (carriage attendant) There’s a problem!”

Still, this had an amazing effect. People began to pour out of every compartment in our carriage. A heavily-tattooed, wiry little man from the next door compartment waded in and separated Victor and the drunk. They both went back into the compartment and sat down, and the tattooed man grinned at me. “Eta Russiya,” he told me – this is Russia. He wasn’t the only one to say that to me over the next hour or so.

As soon as we had returned to our compartment an enormous, blonde, terrifying force of nature swept in. This was the provodnitsa. She started laying into both men with such verbal violence it put their scrap on the floor to shame. Everyone was cowed. Then she turned to me.

“And you!” she said, and something else I didn’t understand. I held up my hands in abject surrender.

“I’m English!”

She wheeled back to Victor and the drunk. “And you do this in front of the foreigners! Shame on you!” She launched another few minutes of verbal water cannon at them, then swept out. We were all stunned.

The drunk man packed up his things. I thought he was going to be moved to a different compartment, but then we pulled into a tiny little station in the middle of nowhere and two policemen got on to talk to us. They spoke to the provodnitsa, then I gave the world’s worst witness statement: “This man- (pointing to Victor) – good man. No problem. This man – (pointing to the drunk) – lots of beer.” Even the terrifying provodnitsa snorted with laughter at this and relayed it to audience of fellow travellers in the corridor.

They ripped Victor and the drunk’s side of the compartment apart, searching it thoroughly, but didn’t touch anything of ours – they didn’t even ask to see our passports. Then they escorted the drunk off the train, and we set off again.

I lay down on my bunk, trembling. Victor got into his bunk opposite, and we started talking – both of us were far too wired to sleep. Somehow the adrenaline unlocked a load of Russian vocabulary I’d forgotten I had, and we managed to have quite a long conversation about all sorts of things, politics, Putin, the lack of jobs in Siberia. Victor spoke very slowly and clearly, finishing sentences for me when I got lost in them and correcting my grammar and pronunciation in a very kind, encouraging way. Eventually I nodded off, feeling safe and rather proud of my linguistic efforts.

It was now at least two in the morning. I thought our troubles were over. Yet, around twenty hours later, Chris and I would find ourselves speeding through the forests of Siberia in a taxi driven by an angry man with a very large knife. But I’ll save that story for my next post.

A Concert on Olkhon Island


The next morning we woke on the train to find we were already at the border with Russia. This border crossing took ten long and dull hours, during which time we barely moved. We spent the day reading, sleeping, drinking lemon tea, playing backgammon and cards, and trying to chat to our travelling companions, one of whom bravely tried to teach me a bit of Russian.

Early the next morning we arrived in Irkutsk, the so-called Paris of Siberia, a grand old town with a surprising number of pizza joints. After a long search for somewhere to have breakfast we went to the Decembrist Museum, and were bossed about by a number of babushkas, one of whom followed us around, muttering, from room to room.

The next day we were on the move again. We went to the central market place to pick up a bus to Olkhon Island, in the middle of Lake Baikal. The trip took all day, squashed into a minibus with our bags strapped to the roof. We met a Belgian lady called Tine, who was on her way east towards China. The distances in Russia are humbling, especially for someone from the UK, our tiny speck of an island. After several hours we arrived on the shore of the lake and transferred to a ferry which took us out to Olkhon Island. Lake Baikal is the world’s oldest, largest and deepest freshwater lake, and contains 20% of the world’s unfrozen fresh water – a mind-boggling statistic. We were staying in Nikita’s Homestead, a backpacking hub in the island’s biggest village, Khuzhir. Tine stayed with us in the yurt we had booked, up the road from Nikita’s, which is a little village-within-a-village, full of wooden huts and a canteen where everyone eats together three times a day. As you can imagine, it’s a real international meeting place, and everyone soon gets chatting to everyone else.


Chris was happy because he spotted a piano in the canteen. He had been practicing a lot in China and had previously mentioned that he would miss playing while we were on the road, so now he went off to find out whether anyone minded him playing while we were there. He came back shortly afterwards with a stunned look on his face and announced that he would be giving a concert that very evening. Nikolai, the man in charge of musical entertainment at Nikita’s, had somehow talked him into it.

We went to the canteen straight away so Chris could practice. As, somehow, he hadn’t anticipated that he would be giving any concerts while we were travelling, he didn’t have any sheet music with him, so we both racked our brains for things he might be able to play from memory. We came up with some Joplin which he ran through a few times, then Nikolai appeared, playing the accordion, and dragged us off to a little wooden concert hall for the show.

Nikolai warmed things up on the accordion, accompanying two ladies singing Russian folk songs. Then Chris banged out a few Scott Joplin rags, very fast, to rapturous applause. He gave another performance a couple of days later, and played an impressive amount of Beethoven’s Pathetique from memory. His practice sessions in the canteen also reaped some unexpected rewards. The ladies serving food in the canteen were really quite strict about portion control and rarely handed out second helpings, but whenever Chris went up to ask for more he came back with a loaded plate.

We spent a couple of days on Olkhon Island lying on the beach, exploring the island, and generally enjoying the Siberian summer. Chris went off to play football a couple of times – Nikita’s has a regular fixture of travellers versus local schoolboys. A good, quiet, friendly few days. Every time I’ve heard that terribly famous bit of the Beethoven since then I’ve been transported back to that little sawdusty concert room at Nikita’s, in a muddy village in the middle of the lake, under a huge, starlit sky.


In Which I Almost Fall Off a Horse and Lose Chris


Our last couple of days in Mongolia were by far our most eventful. After passing a fairly noisy night by the river, trying to the sleep to a chorus of sheep, goats, rain, barking dogs and whining mosquitoes, we saddled up the horses again and set off. Our first challenge was to get across the river, and then across another one after that. The first crossing easy enough, and the horses made it through with very little protest, although they made sure we all knew they would have preferred to stay away. But the second crossing was a far more complicated affair. The river was deeper, with a faster current, and it was hard to tell where the deep bits were going to be.

We had been camping within sight of a group of gers, and one man from that family came along to help us cross the river. Our new friend borrowed Chris’s horse Wolfgang and crossed the river easily enough, as Wolfgang didn’t seem to mind getting wet. Together they found a path for us to take.

Then it was our turn. Sinatra was none too pleased with the idea of crossing the river and made sure I was aware of his opinion. I could hardly blame him – at one point he was up to his chest in the water. Once we got to the opposite side I had to stop and pour the water out of my boots. My trousers and chaps were soaked through, although they dried quickly enough as the day progressed.

From that point on, however, Sinatra was in a filthy temper. The flies and bees were tormenting the horses and it was hard work getting them to go anywhere, even though we were trying to get away from the river, where there would be fewer insects. Sinatra was constantly kicking and shaking himself, all the while aiming snorty horse-curses in my direction. We got to another river, too wide and deep to cross, and rode down it for a while looking for a bridge. The horses hated the idea of a bridge even more than they’d hated wading through the water – in the end we all had to dismount and lead them over a few at a time.

On the other side all the horses were quite twitchy, biting at flies and skipping about a bit. Suddenly, without any warning, Sinatra lost his cool completely. He skittered around then sank to his knees, preparing to roll over. His wild thrashing threw me out of the saddle, and I slid straight down his neck until he froze, as if suddenly remembering I was on his back. There was a moment of terrible confusion when I thought he was going to roll over completely, crushing me underneath, and then Bayanmunhbat hopped over and helped me down to the ground.

After that I decided to walk for a bit. Ruby, who was suffering with a cold and a bad back, walked along with me: I was very grateful as I’d gone a bit trembly, and it was good to have her company. We met the others in a beautiful glade with trees and had lunch in the shade. A man called Eagle came to meet us in a car, and brought beer and chocolate, but took Ruby back to UB with him. We were sad to say goodbye. Margaret decided not to ride in the afternoon, so I took her horse, Blondie, as Sinatra and I were still not on speaking terms.

Riding Blondie was a completely different experience. He was the most placid and laid back creature you could imagine, who only complained when we went uphill. We even managed a short trot together before he decided it wasn’t worth the effort, and we slipped back into an easy walk. That evening we had our first campfire, and sat around chatting and melting the soles of our shoes.


The next day was our last day of wild camping. We woke up early and Chris went off for a run  again, warning me that he might be a while. He took my watch and compass with him. I went back to sleep for a bit, then woke again and got up to chat to Margaret and Richard. Chris had been gone for at least an hour, but he said he wanted to go for a decent run so I wasn’t worried. After a while Chris still hadn’t reappeared so we decided to go ahead with breakfast. I began to feel a little nervous as the hours passed. Most of the horses were missing too, as they had been loosely hobbled overnight and had wandered off, so Bayanmunhbat went off to find them. Amaraa decided to round up Chris at the same time. I was a little worried that he’d injured himself, but oddly not too worried – I knew that if he had been hurt we would find him, or else someone else would, and he would be okay in the end. Someone would take care of him. Things seem to get lost in the steppe quite often, and looking for them is a part of life. On our second morning in Mongolia we met two men in a 4×4 who were looking for some horses, and Amaraa told us about a cousin who went off in search of some camels, spending days travelling across the steppe and into the desert, staying with whoever he came across along the way until he tracked the camels down again.

Amaraa saddled up Ruby’s horse, Rowdy, and went off in the direction we thought Chris had taken. The rest of us decided to have another coffee. I was vaguely wondering what I’d say to Chris’s parents and his sister, who we were due to meet in Moscow, if I had actually mislaid him on the steppe. I thought it might make for an awkward conversation.

After half and hour or so, to my relief, Amaraa rode back into sight with Chris jogging alongside him. Amaraa had assumed that Chris was running along a ridge that stretched away from where we had been camping, and set out riding fast down the ridge to catch up. After a while Rowdy’s ear started to fix on something to the right of them. Shortly after, the whole horse started to pull in that direction. Amaraa looked over and sure enough, there was Chris in the distance: the horse was the one to find him.

So, reunited, we all set off for our last day on horseback. Chris rode on his new friend Rowdy and I had Blondie – Margaret had decided to go in the van. It was a blissful ride, mounting higher and higher up the hills until we had a spectacular view over the steppe below. We came across a family in a ger and they invited us in for a bowl of airag, the fermented mare’s milk which is the traditional drink of Mongolia. It is very mildly alcoholic, and tastes like thin, fizzy yoghurt. I’s a bit of an acquired taste. Luckily Richard loved the stuff, and he ended up knocking back several bowls of the stuff as we all tasted it then passed the remainder of our cups to him. We went outside to see the family’s herd of horses, and watched as they milked one of the mares, and tried to put a one-year-old horse in hobbles for the first time.


Then we set off for a challenging ride up through mountainous hills, up and down rocky inclines, through silver-green grasses and shimmering lilac hills. Hearing the thump and clink of the horses, their hooves kicking up the scent of crushed wild herbs. And then, too soon, it was time to stop for lunch.

To be honest, I had mixed feelings. Part of me wanted to go on for days, riding on into this seemingly endless stretch of open space, enjoying the simplicity of a life containing nothing other than sleep, food and horses. But another part of me wanted a shower, a clean set of clothes, and a mode of transport that didn’t come with a such a strong personality. We had lunch on a high hillside, then said goodbye to Bayanmunhbat and the horses, and watched as they rode off towards UB.  Then we packed ourselves into the van and set off in his wake. Often the road was so bad we drove parallel to it, or cut a path zigzagging towards the city, on and off the official road and approaching the city in eccentric circles to avoid the muddiest and most flooded routes in. At one point we reached a bit of road so submerged underwater we couldn’t tell whether we could drive through it until Richard volunteered to test it out on foot. 

Eventually we made it to the ger camp where we spent our last night. Chris and I stuffed nearly all our clothes in the laundry. We went around our ger exclaiming at the luxuries it contained: Real beds! Pillows! A dustbin! A door! Then went for a shower and there, in an extremely basic cubicle in a campsite shower block, I had something approaching a religious experience. Considering it’s such an ordinary, everyday thing to do, it’s difficult to describe how blissfully brilliant a warm shower is when the closest you’ve come for a week is an antibacterial wipe and a dip in a river with a herd of sheep in it.

When I reappeared, a changed woman, I found Richard and Margaret stationed on the terrace with some beer and a bottle of Mongolian vodka. Chris and I joined them and we drank a toast to the horses.

The next day was largely a case of killing time before we caught our train. We said goodbye to Richard and Margaret and drove back to UB, visited an internet cafe, a supermarket and the National Museum with Amaraa and Eagle, then went back to the station to catch our train on to Russia.

Mongolia is like no other country in the world, and I hope it retains its unique charms. There’s no other place where you can skirt so close to the capital city without seeing a single house, road or even a car for hours or days on end. Its openness extends to its people, who have a calm, generous friendliness I think can only come from having access to such wide, free, abundant and beautiful space.