Things We Didn’t See in Perm

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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.

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Tips for Travelling on the Trans-Siberian

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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

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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. 

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(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.

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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.

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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?

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*Or maybe Irkutsk.

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

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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 fuel 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.