Friday, 11 October 2013

Across Asia With A Lowlander: 3j: Tashkent to Moscow

world-map moscow


This week’s offering tells of the longest single journey that I’ve ever made, (in terms of time). 72 hours non-stop on a train! I like long train journeys but that was too much even for me. However, if you’re going to take a long journey it should always be by train and there are no trains better than the old Soviet ones with a samovar always boiling at the end of each carriage, so a cup of tea is never far away. Plus, as this post shows, Soviet journeys always seem to involve meeting some interesting characters.

Anyway, all this talk of train journeys has made me think about some of the others that I’ve made and here’s my list of top ten train journeys (so far) in no particular order. And if I’ve already written about them on UTM, there’s a link attached:

1). Ankara to Istanbul, Turkey (6-8 hours)

2). Gifu to Toyama, Japan (4 hours)

3). Llandudno to Blaenau Ffestiniog, U.K. (1 hour)

4). Salva to Viseu de Jos, Romania (2 hours)

5). Thessaloniki to Athens, Greece (4-6 hours)

6). Blenheim to Christchurch, New Zealand (6 hours)

7). Jakarta to Surabaya, Indonesia (6 hours)

8). Bansko to Septemvri, Bulgaria (6 hours)

9). Shrewsbury to Pwllheli, U.K. (3-4 hours)

And my favourite of them all:

10). Sofia to Varna, Bulgaria (8 hours)

What about you?

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all parts of the travelogue

Book 1: Embarking Upon A New Korea

1a: Toyama to Pusan

1b: Pusan

1c: Seoul

1d: The DMZ

1e: Seoul, Incheon and Across the Yellow Sea

Book 2: Master Potter does Fine China

2a: Qingdao

2b: Beijing (I)

2c: Beijing (II)

2d: Beijing (III)

2e: Yinchuan (I)

2f: Yinchuan(II)

2g: Lanzhou

2h: Bingling-si

2i: Xiahe

2j: Lanzhou and Jiayuguan

2k: Jiayuguan

2l: Dunhuang

2m: Urumqi (I)

2n: Urumqi (II)

2o: Urumqi (III)

Book 3: Steppe to the Left, Steppe to the Right…

3a: Druzhba to Almaty

3b: Shumkent to Tashkent

3c: Tashkent (I) 

3d: Bukhara

3e: Bukhara to Samarkand

3f: Samarkand

3g: Samarkand to Urgench

3h: Khiva

3i: Tashkent (II)

3j: Tashkent to Moscow

3k: Moscow (I)

3l: Moscow (II)

3m: Moscow (III)

3n: Konotop to Varna



european russia 1 

24th August, 2002 – nr. Kyzylorda, Kazakhstan

Arising at a reasonable hour, the fatigues of the previous night had almost entirely abated. The windows revealed a harsh, stony landscape outside, dishearteningly identical to the one's that we'd come from in Uzbekistan, despite rumbling away through the night at a speed that in Central Asian terms could almost certainly be termed 'express'. The map however, told a much more encouraging tale. We stopped at a station named Kyzylorda, a town well inside Kazakhstan. How far it was from the border in kilometres I know not, but it was a distance of at least three centimetres on the map, and three centimetres on a map of Central Asia is a distance not to be trifled with.

journey03 A Kazakh station

I retired to the dining car with my Friend from the Flats, but alas my new-found jollity seemed not to have rubbed off onto him. Losing any game that we played in that increasingly crowded carriage didn't help his countenance either, and it wasn't long before he ventured back to our melon-filled hole for some more shut-eye. I decided to stay on however, enjoy the fayre and concentrate on Mark Twain's excellent The Innocent's Abroad, (which I'd started to read two days previously); a hilarious and insightful account of an 1869 voyage by some American pilgrims to Europe and the Holy Land. The churches of Italy and temples of Greece were just what I needed to take my mind away from the unbelievably boring, monotonous land outside that was not even green enough to be proper steppe.

In such a fashion we journeyed on towards Moscow, which was fast becoming our eternal city, through the desolate towns of Leninsk, Kazaly and Aralsk. In the book they sounded quite interesting: Leninsk, only a few kilometres distant from the renowned Baykonur Cosmodrome where the Soviets launched their sputniks into space, and Aralsk, once a busy port, though nowadays without its source of life, the Aral Sea having largely dried up due to Khrushchev's not-so-farsighted 'Virgin Lands' irrigation programme. But with the water and the Soviets gone, there is virtually nothing to commend these towns these days, except that they looked marginally better off than their counterparts in Uzbekistan. 'Marginally' I must stress, being the important word.

One feature of interest in that vast world outside however, were the local arrangements for the deceased. Every so often, on the horizon, next to the never ending iron road and telegraph wires, we'd come across what appeared to be some lost city from an ancient Islamic kingdom, a riot of domes and buildings. Upon closer inspection however, those buildings turned out to be too small to hold any standing figures, and in fact were elaborate mini-Samarkand style tombs, with the name of the dearly departed emblazoned above the entrance. Such resting places for the dead were amongst the finest that I've ever come across and all the more surprising considering who had built them. The Kazakhs, who formerly lived in yurts and nowadays largely reside in small one-storey houses or drab apartment blocks obviously believe that the finest residences should be reserved for those who are in no position to appreciate them.

journey05 Kazakh Cemetery

With the Lowlander gone, I naturally acquired several other companions at my table who were wholly unremarkable except for the fact that they were ethnic Kazakhs and thus had a more Asiatic look about them. And that they all subscribed to that most awful of fashions that plagues the former Soviet Union: Gold teeth.

Bad teeth are a fact the globe over, and these parts seemed worse than most. However, even a mouth full of decaying and chipped knashers and grinders is in my humble opinion far preferable to a Glittering Grin of Gold. A lady of uncertain age opposite me, who would have been rather attractive completely spoiled any erotic appeal she might have had every time that she opened her mouth by presenting me with a view of the interior of Fort Knox. And alas, she was not alone! In fact, it was I who stood out, the only one with teeth whiter than my tea on the whole coach. In the end I could stand the Men with the Golden Grins no longer and headed back to Melonland.

journey02 My companions in the buffet

The Lowlander's mood had not improved, and with good reason too. Our friend, the Melon Man was continually entering our tiny and fruit-filled compartment and moving stuff about. Firstly he commanded Sinbad out of his bed and onto his brother's. Then a large swarthy man took his place, only for him to be moved and a Korean lady with her ten-year old son to occupy the birth. Thus our compartment, built to hold four, was occupied by four fully-grown adults, a kid, approximately fifty large oval fruits, baggage and a black and white rat. Things finally came to a head when the Melon Man tried to move me onto an upper berth. It was clear that he was running a ticket racket as well as a melon market on this trip, and lower berths got better prices. Needless to say, he didn't get what he wanted that time and the barrage of English, Dutch and Russian curses that greeted him ensured that he didn't come in again for some time afterwards.

The scenery outside had now changed somewhat. The vast undulating grasslands that spread out on either side of the track were the true steppe that the Kazakhs are famous for. They were strangely beautiful in their loneliness and monotony. It was like the Lord, when creating His world, had got bored towards the end and left these vast tracts undone. There was absolutely nothing there, and yet it wasn't even entirely flat; He hadn't even bothered to iron it all out, and so the railway line had to wind its way constantly through the wilderness. It was more akin to a Highland Moor than anything else, except that Highland Moors, large and desolate though they are, do not occupy an area the size of Western Europe.

journey04 Kazakh Steppe

We played cards for some time and afterwards I read Samuel Clements, transporting me far away from this boundless steppe, to the far more intimate and familiar Holy Land that he was touring along with some hard-core admirers of the Bible. His account was interesting and for one who has been to those parts, I can vouch that little seems to have changed in a hundred and fifty years, that I can be fairly certain of.

One thing that I can be wholly certain of however, is that North-West Kazakhstan has changed far less, and will doubtless stay much the same for the next hundred and fifty years and more too. And that is a reassuring thought.

As it means that you don't need to see it twice.

journey01 Kazakhstan!

25th August, 2002 – Orenburg, Russia

Russia, the greatest country on Earth, Land of the Tsars, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky and Faberge Eggs. Heart of the Soviet Union and the Promised Land.

russia visa

Wait a min, the Promised Land? Where the hell did that come from? Surely the Promised Land lies somewhere on the banks of the River Jordan? Well, maybe if you're an Israelite or a Creator of Heaven and Earth it does, but if you happen not to be and happen to be me instead, then the Promised Land is Russia and none other. Throughout my whole life she was there, a vague, vast mass to the east that threatened to blow the world up with her countless nuclear weapons and supplied all the baddies for the Bond films. She was large and she was mysterious. At school we learnt that although we fought Hitler with all our might during the war, for every hundred British or American soldiers engaged in battle, there were over three hundred Russians. Ok, so they were actually Soviet, but to us the Soviet Union and Russia, well it was the same thing wasn't it? Even my Stanley Gibbons stamp album had mistakenly headed the USSR page with a word beginning with 'R'.

And after I met my first Russian, the curiosity had only intensified. That was at a party on a kibbutz in the Negev Desert when a young man by the name of Pavel Serebryakov engaged me in a conversation in broken English about the Beatles and introduced me to his favourite band, DDT. At that gathering of over thirty, I was one of only two from the capitalist side of the Iron Curtain present. Strangely enough, the other was the man now sleeping in the same compartment as I on this journey.

Since that date I'd thirsted for knowledge. I'd studied Russian and Soviet Politics at university, had read most of the major works of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn, Goncharov, Pushkin, Chekov and Gorky, befriended Russians in Israel and Japan, gained a basic understanding of the tongue from the latter and a few vodka-induced headaches from the former, sat through Geoffrey Hoskin's long and laborious History of the Soviet Union and countless films from the works of that mastermind of cinema, Eisenstein, to a Mills and Boonsy version of Catherine the Great's life starring Catherine Zeta Jones.

Oh yes, and I'd also acquired most of the CDs of the rather good DDT and even memorised the words to one of the songs.

Not bad, not bad at all, but nonetheless I'd never actually been there. Near yes. To two of her former satellite states in Europe's East, but near is not there. Of all the countries in the world, Mother Russia was the one that I longed to visit and for me all roads led to Moscow.

Well, now I was here. In the early morning, in a half-awake state, we crossed over the border where a friendly customs official helped us complete our declaration forms. That was a good start. Question was, would the rest of the country live up to my high expectation?

The first glimpses through the window revealed a landscape whole different from the harsh steppe of the previous day. A landscape in fact that would be best described by that famous phrase, 'A Green and Pleasant Land', for although it was not England, it looked pretty similar, with green fields, lush trees and undulating hills; an intimate countryside reminiscent of the Shires. The relief for us travellers who had seen no real greenery since Beijing over a month ago, was unbelievable. Not only were we now in Russia, but we were also undoubtedly back in Europe too and for a pair of tired Euro rail riders that meant a lot indeed.

But with all good news comes bad news and this time it was no exception. Mid-morning we pulled into the aged and elegant city of Orenburg. The town beyond the railway station looked inviting and intriguing with its steeples and cross-topped onion domes, but its sight was not a welcome one for us. Orenburg was only just over the border! How were we expected to reach Moscow in a little over six hours when she lay at the other extremity of the guidebook's very large-scale map? The answer was of course an obvious one and very soon confirmed. We had misheard before. Yes, we were to reach the capital at three in the afternoon, but tomorrow, not today. And that meant another day of riding, reading, gaming and melons.

Thankfully though, the melons departed at Orenburg, but at another station soon afterwards our compartment filled up once again, this time with some new travelling companions, a young Korean lady and her two small daughters, and their luggage.

Perhaps now is a good time to mention the Koreans who were one of the more unexpected elements in Uzbekistan, (and I presume all former Soviet), society that we encountered. They moved to the country after the Second World War, presumably from the area that now comprises North Korea, (as that was the area that the Soviets initially administered), and settled into Soviet life with apparent ease. Azis's father couldn't praise them enough, pointing out that despite their radically different culturally and racial heritage, they have never caused problems in Uzbekistan, whilst the Muslim Turks, supposedly brothers, frequently riot.

Whatever the case may be, the Koreans now form approximately five percent of Tashkent's population and seem to be doing very well too. Almost half the staff in the Western Union office where we received our money were Korean and they were also the half who understood English and the importance of good manners, two lessons that both their Russian and Uzbeki brethren would be wise to learn.

What takes some getting used to however, is how completely Russified, (or Sovietised), these people have become. None seemed to understand a word of Korean nor knew anything about what was once their homeland. What's more, all seem to have adopted Slavic names. The pretty girl who served us at Western Union was named Tatiana Tsoi and the two young relatives of our new travelling companions introduced themselves as Dima and Misha when I played cards with them. Of course, there is no reason why a Korean should not be named Vladimir or Tsvetlina, but it seems strange nonetheless. Mind you, should it? After all, we don't find the names of Lucy Liu or Vanessa Mae unexpected. Perhaps we would be wise to remember that it is not only Western Europe and the New World and Australasian colonies that are bastions of multiculturalism. Russia for example, has almost two hundred nationalities living within her borders. The Soviet Union had more.

journey08 With the Koreans

And so on we rumbled for another day, through the small villages and towns of the Volga Region, each looking like the setting for a Chekov play or Tolstoy novel. We gamed, slept and read. I'd finished Mark Twain the previous evening and so I once more attacked The Walled Kingdom, (a history of China), reaching Sun Yat Sen's revolution before I could bear not a single Oriental fact more and swapped it for Dumas's The Man in the Iron Mask, which proved an interesting read, if completely different in plot to any of the many films that it has spurned.

In the afternoon we got chatting with our roommates who it turned out were men of the circus. Their mother lived in Tashkent which explained their trip, but they were now glad to be back firmly in Russia. The older, an acrobat, showed us his photos whilst the younger, a clown, complained about the corruption and police in Uzbekistan, (and assuring us that Russia was completely different), before moving onto tales of circus life in which it seemed that they had travelled all over Russia, even to remote Kamchatka where their sister now lived, having many adventures on the way.

journey06 The Lowlander joins the circus!

Later on we also got acquainted with the mischievous Dima and Misha, the ten-year old Korean boys from down the coach who liked to play cards, thumb wars and hit each other on a regular basis. They proved a welcome addition to the compartment as they were well-behaved and cheery. Later on, they took an interest in my electric shaver and even cleaned it for free.

I went to sleep early that evening, having received little the night before due to the activities of the customs officers of Kazakhstan and Russia, and besides, I wanted to be as fresh as possible for our arrival in the capital!

journey07 Crossing the Volga

26th August, 2002 – nr. Moscow, Russia

Unlike Beijing, Lanzhou, Tashkent or indeed any of the cities that we'd passed through since leaving Korea, Moscow does not spring up on you all of a sudden. It is big. Not just over ten million people big, but also over twenty miles across big, and it creeps up on you gradually; firstly scattered houses, then the outer ring road, the first suburbs, high-rise blocks, commuter trains running alongside our express, and commuter stations crammed with Muscovites, factories, higher high-rise blocks, highways, a glimpse of a star-topped Stalinist skyscraper and then slowly pulling into the vast Kazanskaya terminal. And I saw it all, hanging out of the window with Dima and Misha, the young Koreans as excited as I was shouting 'Moskva! Moskva!' at the tops of their voices to the passing trains. I wanted to join them of course, but the fact that I was twenty-four, not ten stopped me. After all, what would people think?

We got our luggage together and alighted from the train, the last to do so in our coach, and walked slowly down the platform to the great terminal building. There we changed money and phoned our travel agent, making arrangements to meet by the Novokuznetskaya metro station in the centre of town.

journey09 Journey’s end: Moscow Kazanskaya

The Moscow Metro is famous, world famous, and rightly so. One of the largest and busiest in the world, carrying nine million passengers per day, (apparently more than the Tube and the New York system combined), it is however, far more than just a transport system. The older parts were built deep underground so as to double as air raid shelters during the war, and many of the stations are ornate 'Palaces of the Proletariat', as prescribed by Mr. V. I. Lenin himself. Now admittedly we'd been given a taste of what to expect with the magnificent Tashkent system, but nonetheless, we were still awed by the bronze statues of working people and intricate mosaics of tractor plants, BOAC era airliners and the mighty machines of the Red Army. I've said it before, and I'll say it again. No one beats the Communists for style and where better to display your nation's artistic talent than on the oft gazed at walls and ceilings of a metro system?

Our travel agent turned out to be a very amiable young man called Yevgeny. He took us to his office, organised all the payments for the hotel and visa support letters in a manner so professional that all our Uzbekistan-induced bureaucracy fears simply melted away. They may have been one country a mere eleven years ago, but Moscow and Tashkent are worlds apart now.

“I can't believe that you just came from Tashkent,” said Yevgeny. “What made you want to go there?”

The Lowlander and I looked at each other. After the event we were far from sure.

“You're the first that we've ever had I think, that have come here by train from Uzbekistan,” continued our new friend.

I spied some foreign banknotes kept as souvenirs on a shelf behind him. “Here, have some sum,” I said, extracting a five hundred note from our still-thick bundle.

Driving to our hotel, Yevgeny told us the basics of getting around the Russian capital, what to avoid, what not to, and how corrupt the authorities could be. We however, were unphased. The offences that he mentioned seemed nothing compared to those of their comrades in Turkestan. And besides, how could we listen when there was so much to feast our eyes upon? Stunning architecture representing every period of the city's long history from the star-topped Seven Sisters, to Tsarist apartments to mediaeval churches and brand-new riverside office blocks.

Our hotel turned out to be the largest in Europe, the Ismailovo. It consisted of three great slabs of concrete by the famous Ismailovskii Park constructed for the Moscow Olympics of 1980. We were allocated a room on the fifteenth floor which commanded a fine view of the park, a place so huge that London's Hyde Park looks like a mere lawn in comparison. Yet looking at the map, one can clearly see that the Ismailovskii is by far not the biggest in the city. Both the Botanical Gardens and Sokolniki are of a similar size and the gargantuan Losiny Ostrov Park is at least fifteen times bigger! I have no figures at hand, but I doubt not that Moscow is one of the world's greenest capitals, if not the greenest.

We hungrily showered the grime of four days of rail travel off our bodies before heading into the centre for something to eat, alighting at the only metro station that we knew, (Novokuznetskaya). We dined at an exceptionally tacky yet tasty country cottage themed restaurant named Yolka Polka where the staff wore peasant smocks, (what more could one ask for?), and once our borsch and beer were safely in our bellies, we strolled over the Moskva River to that sight of sights, the more-than-famous Red Square with the onion domed St. Basil's, red granite Lenin Mausoleum and countless cobbles. In the early evening it was a sight to behold and by the time that we crawled into our fifteenth floor beds all the stress, annoyance and anxiety that had built up over the last three weeks was just a memory, and my only thoughts were of exploring the fine city before us and meeting the only sibling that I'd ever been gifted with.

Next part: 3k: Moscow (I)

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