Planes, Trains and Automobiles!–OK, Just Trains.

I’m an oddity on this trip!  I’m an American.  For me, the Trans Siberia Railway was the experience I wanted.  Along the way I haven’t shot a lot of what I’d call memorable photographs.  I have, however, enjoyed the experience of doing something that very few Americans have done.  I know of one lady who was on my trip to Franz Josef Land in July who did it with others with a tour group from Beijing to Moscow.  She did it about a year ago and was kind enough to share some of her experiences with me.

Alexander III gave his approval for the building of a railway connecting the east with the west in 1881.  Construction began in 1891. By 1898 the connection from where I am now, in Irkutsk, to Moscow was completed.  Over the next several years the railway was extended to the coast and into China.  Today there are no steam engines.  As of 2002 they’ve all be changed over to electric.

Traveling by train is altogether different than hopping on a plane and getting from point A to point B.  You meet people, you experience a different kind of lifestyle and you see the countryside.

Most railway stations are multiple tracks going to different places.  There isn’t one train call the Trans Siberian Express.  It is a system of trains.  Some faster with less stops and some slower with more.  I’ve been on both on this journey.

At each train station there are people coming and going.

Coming…..

and going.  Every carriage had two attendants (provodnistsa, women:  porvodnik, men). One works days and the other one nights.  When boarding they check your passport with information they have on an app on their phones to make sure you’re supposed to be there and confirming your compartment number and berth number.  Their job on board is to deliver bed linen, two sheets and a pillow case and a hand towel.  There are no showers on board.  They sold snacks and soft drinks and there was an urn of hot water where you could make tea or coffee free of charge.  They also cleaned the compartments and looked after the toilets as each end of each carriage.  In second class where I traveled there are two uppers and two lowers

Sometime they’re all occupied, sometimes it’s just you and sometimes it could be a male of a female companion across or above you.  Lowers cost more than uppers.

Outside of your compartment was a walkway.

Most trains had a dining car but everyone I met brought their own food on board.

My roommates on my second train, Albina and Vlad.  She spoke a little English but her daughter spoke more and she served as our translator via phone.  Very nice people!

As I said there was a dining car and when I went to visit it was nearly empty.

The waiters, waiting.

Traveling became a lot easier when I got my Google Translate working from an app when I was offline.  Before that, it only worked when I was on the Internet and that wasn’t when I needed it most. It’s a learning process!

Enough for today.  I’ll show you a little of Irkutsk in my next blog post.

 

 

 

 

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The Colors are Changing! RTW Blog #7

Today is Thursday and I’m killing time in my hotel room before my train departs at midnight.  They’ve been nice enough, for half the daily rate, to let me stay here rather than sit on a hard chair at the train station for hours.  It’s a two-hour trip to Taiga, then two-hour wait and then a 4am train that arrives in Irkutsk at 8:30 Friday morning.  Not much sleep time tonight.

I haven’t seen much of the countryside except from the trains.  Most of my time since arriving in Russia as been in cities.  The smallest being Tobolsk which was only 100,000 people.  Tomsk, where I am now, is about 600,000.

I have shot some images of the changing colors from my window on the train.  Not great shots but something different to look at.  Lots of birch trees along the way.

One of my blog readers, Roger from somewhere on his boat, ask about grocery store shelves.  Were they as empty today as in the 90’s?  The answer, as best I can determine, is “no”.  I’ve been in several small convenience stores and one larger grocery store.  They seem just like at home.  Although I was a little surprised to see watermelon in mid-September.

I noted two things.  These sweet potatoes look like they came directly from the ground.  There was still dirt on them.  Second, yesterday while sitting in a bakery having a pastry, I man came in with a basket of fresh strawberries and sold them to the bakery.  He poured them out onto a tray sitting on a scale and got paid for them.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the same thing hadn’t happened with the sweet potatoes although they may have come from a nearby commercial farmer since they were in a box.  But washing them off wasn’t part of the delivery process or the display process!

I may have mentioned this previously but everyone I’ve encountered from the store clerks to the hotel receptionists and people on the street, in general, have been extremely friendly.  I had one occasion in a train station where a younger guy (compared to me, most of them are younger guys) came back to me and carried my large duffle up a long flight of stairs.  There’s no question, as an American, I’m an oddity to most people.  I don’t think they see many of us, especially outside of Moscow.

One other note.  I forgot to mention it but the city of Yekaterinburg was off limits to foreigners until 1990.  The city had specialized in armament research and production since WWII.   It was also named Sverdlovsk until 1991.

That’s it for today.  We’ll talk later!

 

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Heading East! RTW Blog #6

I left Tobolsk Monday morning and 24 hours later I’m in Novosibirsk.  We changed time zones twice on this trip.  We’re now 12 hours ahead of the midwest.  I grab a taxi to the bus station and waited about two hours to head to Tomsk, about 4 1/2 hours driving time.  Arrived at 2:30.  Get another taxi to my hotel.  It’s a very small place and the taxi drivers didn’t know where it was.  Luckily I had written the address in my notebook.

The two ladies who work the reception desk have been extremely helpful.  With the help of Google Translate, they’ve answered all my questions and got me headed in the right direction.

Tomsk is a university town of nearly 600,000.  I came here to photograph old wooden homes with a “lace” like wood trim.  There are a couple of streets about a 10 minute walk from my hotel where most of them are located.  Many are buckling and in need of restoration but a number of them still have people living in them.

The past and the future.

In Russia, babies are not delivered by the stork.  They are found in cabbage patches.  So, in front of the children’s hospital is a sculpture of a baby in a head of cabbage.

I’m in Tomsk one more day.  Had time to get some laundry done.  Thursday night at midnight I catch a train on my way to Irkutsk and Lake Baikal, world’s largest fresh water lake.

 

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I’m not in Kansas anymore!….I’m in Asia!

I left Russian Europe on Friday night.  I boarded the train at 11pm in Perm, Russia and sometime between then and 4 am when I got off in Yekaterinburg we crossed into Asia.

My last stop in Europe was Perm.  A city of about 1.2 million.  It is believed that Perm was the town that Boris Pasternak sent his Dr. Zhivago to and was also the inspiration that Chekhov used for the town his Three Sisters were so desperate to leave.

About an hour and a half east is Perm 36 a former gulag that is now a museum.  Officially known as the Memorial Complex of Political Repressions.  It is run by  the international human rights organization, Memorial, founded by dissident Andrei Sakharov.

The picture above shows the five levels of security between the prisoners and the outside world.  The second fence is electrified.  It wasn’t enough to kill a prisoner but it certainly gave them a jolt.

I had arranged a tour with an agency to pick me up at the train station and take me to the prison and return me to the train station.  My guide, Alexander, spoke excellent English.

Alexander explained that the term, gulag, was often misunderstood to mean torture camp where the real definition of gulag was what the Russians referred to all of their prison labor camps.  Gulags began about 1918 under Lenin.  Perm 36 was in existence from 1946 to 1988.  It has been turned into a museum because it is the only one where many of the building are still standing.

In the years from 1946-1952, it was primarily a prison for common criminals. From 1952-1972, it had those prisoners plus a roundup of generals, judges, and public officials.  Beginning in 1972 until it closed, more “dissidents”.  Writers, artists, political activities, nationalists, etc. were sent here.  Most prisoners worked.  Gulags were labor camps and high daily quotas were set.  If you didn’t make your quota, you would be put into isolation for days or weeks and you food rations would be reduced.   As Alexander explained it, prisoners in the early days worked in the logging industry cutting trees and making lumber.

Beginning in the 40’s, when Russia was becoming involved in World War II and the country was switching from an agriculture country to a more industrial one, prisoners built factories, power plants, etc.  These prisons were not like German concentration camps where people were herded into showers and killed.  One source says that 90% of those who died in Perm 36, an others like it, was from exhaustion and malnutrition or if caught trying to escape.  If you didn’t make your impossible quote every day you’d get put into a punishment cell and your daily food ration would be cut.

Prisoners were allowed to write two letters a month to relatives and receive one.  Some were allowed visitors that could stay for several days in some instances, according to Alexander.  There was a library and movies.  I would suspect that after working long, hard days there wasn’t a lot of time left for reading and movies.

From Perm to Yekaterinburg.

Yekaterinburg is famous for at least three things.  It is were Tsar Nicholas II and his family was murdered by Bolshevik soldiers and some Hungarian prisoners in the basement of a rich local industrialist in 1918 after 78 days of cruelty by their guards.  The family, the Romanovs, consisted of Nicholas, his wife, four daughters and a son.  They were brutally killed and their bodies dismembered, burned and the remains dumped into a nearby mine shaft.

In 1976, Russian president Boris Yeltsin ordered the house where they were murdered demolished and the Church of the Blood was built at that location. Pictures aren’t allowed in the main area but are allowed in the basement museum. 

The piece on the right represents the Romanov’s, Nicholas, his wife and five children.  The Romanov’s were canonized in sainthood in 2000.  There are numerous tributes to the royal family in the main worship area and in the museum.

In 1991, their remains were discovered and through DNA testing was determined to be those of the royal family.  Blood samples from the remains were tested in the UK from samples provided by Prince Phillip, Queen Elizabeth’s husband.  The Tsarina Alexandra’s sister was Phillip’s maternal grandmother.

The second famous thing about Yekaterinburg is that this is the site were US pilot Francis Gary Powers was captured after being shot down in his U2 spy plane in 1960.  It was an embarrassment for the US as we first claimed it was a weather flight and that he’d inadvertently flown over Russia.  He survived the crash and confessed what he was doing.  He was later traded for a Russian spy by the US in 1962.

I visited the Russian military museum here because the guide book said there was a display here regarding the U2 incident but, if there was, I didn’t see it.  Otherwise I had a private, English speaking guide, that told me about all of their military history and their “liberation” of Czechoslovakia and other military conquests.  I did find it interesting to see the young inventor/soldier who designed the famous Kalashnikov AK47 and AK74 weapon then and later in life.

Lt. General Mikhail Kalashnikov died outside Moscow in 2013 at age 94.  His rifles are now licensed to be built in 30 countries including the United States.

The third thing that Yekaterinburg is famous for is the birthplace of former Russian president, Boris Yeltsin.

From Yekaterinburg it was an overnight train ride to Tobolsk, a town of about 100,000.  The Kremlin here sits on a large hill in town and contains several cathedrals and a prison of all things.

I’m moving on to Tomsk a university city know for its wooden architecture with “lace” trim on the houses.

More to come….

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First Overnight Train to Kazan–RTW #4

I boarded my first overnight train from Moscow to Kazan on Tuesday evening.  I got to the train station very early because I needed to check out of my hotel.  The lack of English speakers is a daily challenge.  One I did not fully expect in Moscow.  Someone told me, I don’t know if it’s true, that only 200,000 American tourists visit Russia each year.

With a little help from a gentleman who was putting his wife on the same train, he showed me how to read the lighted timetable posted on the wall and decipher which train was mine and which track it would depart from.

My cabin in carriage #20 and berth #1.  That’s the lower berth on the left.  As you can see on the right, the seat is up and there’s a storage area underneath for your luggage.  There’s one on the right and left.  The seat back folds down to form the sleeping berth.  There are also two upper berths.  Upper berths are cheaper than lower berths. This is a second class cabin with four berths.  First class is double the fare and has two berths.  There’s also a third class and that is a double row of upper and lower berths on both sides of a main aisle with curtains.  There are two cabin attendants on each car.  One brought me my sheets, pillow case and blanket and I got to make up on own berth.

As luck would have it, I had two cabin mates, Artem and his father.  Artem spoke pretty good English and this turned into a blessing.  You can purchase snacks and drinks on board and there’s an urn of hot water always available for tea or coffee.

The ride was pretty good but every time the train stopped during the night, there were a number of jolts and they always woke me.

We arrived in Kazan a city of 1.2 million about 7:40 in the morning.  Artem and his father got a taxi and took me to my hotel.  The Volga.  After checking in, I got a taxi to the Kazan Kremlin.  The taxi cost a $1.  It’s not far but it still took about 10 minutes.

The Kazan Kremlin was built by Ivan the Terrible after he had destroyed the previous one.  Kazan is a mixture of Islam and Orthodox Christianity.  The Kremlin illustrates that.

The Kul Sharif Mosque is the largest Muslim place of worship in Europe.

This is also the seat of government for the Republic of Tatarstan and Kazan is it’s capital.

The term kremlin refers to the wall that surrounds the area.  Again, kremlin means fortress or citadel.  All of the buildings are within the Kremlin.

Here are some other scenes.

Last night, Wednesday, my cabin mate, Artem and his fifteen-year-old son, Nikita, picked me up and gave me a tour of their city.  Nikita has been studying English as a 9th grader and did a very good job with it.  Here’s a daytime picture I took of the Palace of Farmers.

And a nighttime version Artem took me to.

Our first stop though was the Temple of All Religions.  This was started in 1992.

I don’t know what this looks like during the day but at night I thought it was pretty awesome.

We also got some nighttime images of the Kremlin, the promenade on the Kazanka River and the puppet theater downtown.  Kazan has two rivers running to it.  The Kazanka and the more well known, Volga.

We also went by the natatorium and hockey arena that has helped enable Kazan to be known as the sports capital of Russia.  Artem, his son and I also drove through the University where his daughter is just beginning and we walked past the president of Tatarstan residence, as well.  We spent nearly three hours touring Kazan.

Every trip I take I luck into meeting someone who stands out as a new friend.  Artem and his son are two of those so far this trip.  I ask Artem if they get a lot of Americans in Russia and Kazan.  He told me I was the first American tourist he had ever met.  Artem is 44.

I’m off to Perm later this afternoon.  I arrive there at 6:30 in the morning.  I’ll visit one of Russia’s most infamous gulags, Perm 36.

More to come!

 

 

 

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Kremlin Part 2 and First Train Ride

On Sunday I returned to the Kremlin.  There were several areas that I had not seen the day before and I wanted to visit them.  As I mentioned previously, entry into the Kremlin is free but to see several areas, you must buy a ticket.  One of those areas was the Diamond Fund.  No photography is permitted here.  The display contains all the jewelry Russia has collected or had made for the past several centuries.  There are chunks of raw gold the size of dinner plates, for example.  The largest cut diamond was 392 carats with hundreds, if not thousands, of uncut stones in the display cases.  Also on display is what is said to be the world’s largest sapphire.  The display also had crowns, necklaces, brooches, etc. worth millions of dollars.  The size of some of the necklaces was amazing.  There were three gold bars and one smaller silver bar, too.  According to the printed guide, about two-thirds of the original display was sold off at Christie’s in London in 1927 to support the Russian economy.  The collection was started by Peter the Great and specified that each successor should contribute some jewels.

I got in a line thinking it was to enter a particular cathedral.  When I ask the two young people in front of me if that was what the line was for, they told me “yes”.  It took about fifteen minutes for the line to make its way to the security gate where we walked through a scanner.  The line wasn’t for the cathedral but for Lenin’s tomb.  Obviously, they didn’t understand my question.

As you walk along the path to the display, there are the graves of prominent Russians like Stalin, Leonid Brezhnev and Yuri Gagarin, Russia’s first man in space.

Once you enter the sepulchral gloom you are not permitted to take pictures.  I was allowed to carry my camera but the guards in the room don’t allow any talking or stopping as you pass the display.  When Lenin died of a stroke at age 53 in 1924, two men were given the task of preserving his body and stopping the decaying process.   It is an amazing sight.  He is displayed in a dark suit and tie.  He looks as if he could have died yesterday.

One of the other areas I had to buy a ticket for is Cathedral Square.  This enclosed area is now a collection of museums.

On Monday I took my first train ride to Sergiev Posade.   A city of about 100,000 located about an hour and half northeast of Moscow.  It is one the holiest pilgrimages to see the Exalted Trinity Monastery of St. Sergius.  There is a white wall around the monastery and inside, tourists aside, they say it’s like stepping back in time to medieval Russia.  The monks have long beards, traditional black robes and klubuki hats.

The monastery was founded in 1340 and had great political influence.  It was closed when the communists came to power.  It was re-opened by Stalin in the 1946 as part of a pact made with the Orthodox Church for support for WWII.  Today it houses an Academy and Seminary with about 800 in attendance.  There are also another 300 monks assigned here.

Believers come to this well to wash and fill their water bottles with what they believe to be holy water.

The train ride was a local with 10 stops.  Vendors come aboard to sell all kinds of things to passengers.  Seating is on hard wooden benches three across.

The trip back to Moscow was a little more comfortable.  I bought an express ticket…no vendors and soft seats.

I’ve been trying to try some Russian food at the cafe in the basement of my hotel.  But I did find one Russian specialty place near the hotel.

Sorry, just couldn’t bring myself to try this one.

I leave Moscow later today for first overnight train ride to Kazan.

More to come…..

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The Subway and The Kremlin-RTW Day #2

My second day in Moscow began early due to jet lag.  I was up at 3:30.  It was raining so I decided to spend the beginning of the day visiting the subway.  Contrary to most subway stations I’ve seen, some of Moscow’s are works of art. Here are five that identified as the most interesting.

Later in the day, I bought my ticket for the Kremlin.  It’s Saturday and the place is jammed with other tourists….families, tour groups, etc.  As is common in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., the Kremlin has a changing of the guard at their Memorial for the Unknown Soldier.

The word kremlin means fortress in Russian.  It houses the seat of Russian government but is not the same as when we refer to our Congress, for example.  Inside the walls (which are about 15 feet thick) are numerous churches, museums, etc.  You purchase tickets to visit some of them and individual tickets to visit a few like the Diamond Fund, a museum that displays all the jewelry that Russian government has collected over the centuries.  Photography is not allowed there.

Red Square is outside the Kremlin and, frankly, was a little disappointing to me.  If the bricks are red, I missed that.  It’s a large, bricked open area and on Saturday is crawling with other tourists like me.  Most of whom are taking selfies with a couple of costumed characters thrown in for photographic opportunities.

Along one side of Red Square is the Gum Department Store.  Well, that’s its name in English.

In Russian, it’s…

The “r” is pronounced “g” as in gum, the “y” is oo and the “m” is like we would pronounce an “m”.  So the correct pronunciation is “goom”.  Who says you don’t learn something from my blogs.

Actually, it’s not a department store but a indoor mall for the wealthy.

I was going to get Jean a purse from Prada but (sorry dear) I didn’t know her size!

One of the other little things I noticed while sitting and waiting for sunset was the tourist police.  These folks periodically stop us foreigners to check our papers.  I haven’t been stopped but these young ladies were by these two officers.

Lastly, I end this rather long post with an image of this onion domed cathedral, The Vassily-the-Blessed Cathedral.

It’s back to the Kremlin today to tour some of the cathedrals.

Ron

 

 

 

 

 

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First day of Round-the-World Trip-Moscow

I started my around-the-world, three-month trip on Thursday departing Dallas-Ft. Worth airport at 7:45am with a connection at JFK in New York.  We were late leaving New York and arrived in Moscow at 8am instead of 6:25am which meant the drive to the hotel took twice as long during rush hour.  Clearing Immigration, which went quickly, and getting my luggage, which didn’t go quickly, it was 9am before heading for my hotel.  It’s was 10:30 when we got there and this was with a private car and driver.  I’m staying at a small hotel, PEOPLE Red Square Hotel and this is a 10-image panorama of the Kremlin I shot from across the street.  I had taken some images during the day from this same location but they didn’t measure up to this blue hour group.

I’m here for four nights then I start my trip on the Trans Siberian Railway across Russia.  From Russia it’s Mongolia, Vietnam, New Zealand and Australia.

Don’t forget you can click on the image to enlarge it.

Ron

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Whales and a Wrap Up — Franz Josef Land

Our last day in Franz Josef Land….as we headed back to Alexander Land to clear customs and immigration….three humpback whales cruised along with us.

As is typical, we got mainly tails, fins and some blow holes.

We also spotted a ringed seal in the water from a zodiac.  If you look closely on the back you can see the ringed spots.

On one of our zodiac cruises we landed on a ice floe and used the opportunity to get some pictures of us.  Here’s mine.

The M/V Sea Spirit is luxurious for what’s considered expedition cruising.  I shared a cabin with two others.  It consisted of two twins and a queen sofa bed.  We had three hang-up closets, two dressers and a small but comfortable bathroom.

I went to Franz Josef Land to photograph polar bears as my primary target.  Would I have liked to seen and photographed more, you bet.  Despite that, I got what I went for.

 

Here’s a group shot taken on Deck 5.

I mentioned in the first blog post that I got a three-year Russian visa because I would be returning to Russia.  Actually, I’m starting a three-month, around-the-world solo trip on Sept. 12.

I will fly to Moscow on that date and after a few days there, I’ll board the Trans Siberian Railway for a trip across Russia with multiple stops over about 30 days.  From there I continue into Mongolia where I’m joining a small group of three or four others to fly to western Mongolia for a week long eagle hunters tour.  Then back to the Mongolian capital.

I’ll then fly to Hanoi, Vietnam and spend about 2 1/2 weeks traveling down the coast to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and then on to New Zealand.  There I’ll me up with a former roommate and my traveling companion to Hokkaido, Japan in 2018.  We’ll do a couple of weeks together in New Zealand.

After New Zealand, my plan is to go to Australia for another couple of weeks.  I hope to meet up with another former roommate from my Iceland trip last November.  He currently lives in Melbourne.  Then it’s home early to mid-December.  Firm dates haven’t been determined yet.  All I know is that Jean says if I’m not home by Christmas I may not have a home to come back to!

All in all it’s about three months of largely solo travel.  I’ve been working on learning the Russian alphabet so that I can read railroad signs and others while there.

Thanks for following my blog.  If you know of someone that you think might be interested in reading them, please ask them to contact me either on Facebook or via email, rgates002@gmail.com.

Ron

 

 

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Polar Bears and Walrus

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