Friday, 29 August 2014

Aug. 23-27: Abakan-Kyzyl-Sai Khonash-Askiz

At 5.30am, when we were rudely awoken by the conductor, it was still dark outside the train windows, but as the sun rose it revealed an eerie landscape of wild meadows and gentle hills, all covered in a thick layer of mist. Soon we passed a sign welcoming us to the Republic of Khakassia and not long after that we pulled into Abakan, that republic's capital. As soon as we stepped off the train a group of middle-aged Russian men in baseball caps spotted our backpacks and asked if we wanted a taxi to Kyzyl. After we'd agreed on a price one of the men ushered us onto a minivan and once its nine seats were full we set off.

Within a matter of minutes we'd left Khakassia again and were in the southernmost part of Krasnoyarsk Krai, travelling southeast along the Usinskii Trakt, one of only three proper roads connecting the enigmatic 308,000-person Republic of Tuva with the rest of the world. The misty meadows quickly turned to wooded hills, and as we progressed southwards the forest became thicker, the ramshackle wooden villages became less frequent and the modest hills gradually grew into the mighty peaks of the Yergaki National Park. Some four or five hours after leaving Abakan, a sign appeared welcoming us to the Republic of Tuva. Almost immediately after entering Tuva the forest and the mountains came to an end and we descended into sparse golden plains: a somewhat arid, decidedly Asiatic landscape dotted with multicoloured prayer ribbons and stone cairns.

About an hour after entering Tuva we arrived at our destination, the Tuvan capital, Kyzyl. It wasn't just the landscape that was more Asian than anything we'd seen in Russia before: Tuva's population is 82% ethnic Tuvan and only 16% ethnic Russian, and while the Tuvans speak a Turkic language (like the Tatars, Bashkirs and Chuvash, whose republics we'd already visited) they're racially and culturally very close to Mongols and practise a syncretic mix of Tibetan Buddhism and their own indigenous shamanism. Walking through Kyzyl, it really didn't feel like we were in Russia any more. Two weeks after leaving Europe, it finally felt like we were really in Asia.

Our first few hours in Kyzyl were taken up by a search for accommodation, tramping back and forth across town in the merciless afternoon sun. In the end, as we'd slept the previous five nights on trains and hadn't seen a shower since Yekaterinburg, we decided to treat ourselves by splurging on a relatively expensive, chic-seeming hotel. Once we'd checked into our luxuriously comfortable twin room (there was even a TV!) we were more than a little disappointed to discover a total lack of hot water.

Refreshed by cold showers, we spent the rest of the day exploring the fascinating city. We scarcely heard Russian spoken in the streets, which were filled with people idling, strolling and chatting. One thing that we quickly noticed was he number or children to be seen, reflecting Tuva's birthrate, the highest in the Russian Federation. The city itself was in the latter stages of a massive renovation project initiated in celebration of a hundred years of Tuva's unity with Russia, so although a lot of areas were still building sites, the general impression was that Kyzyl is attractive and well-kept. This was surprising as Tuva is Russia's poorest region. However, the shiny new centre may have been a superficial façade of wealth: a lack of disposable income was hinted at by the meagre range of shops lining Kyzyl's newly-paved high street and the fact that the city of 110,000 hasn't attracted a single international or even Russian chain - not even McDonalds!

The next day we spent all afternoon walking in the hills to the north of the city, enormous red-winged crickets bursting out of the grass and into flight as our footsteps disturbed them and buzzards circling overhead. The hilltops, considered holy by shamanist Tuvans, were marked with stone cairns, colourful pieces of fabric and various kinds of offerings. Unfortunately by the time we'd returned to the city the Tuvan National Museum was already shut. We did try a couple of Tuvan dishes at a yurt-restaurant though.

The following morning we were picked up by a Tuvan woman who we'd contacted about a yurt stay out in the wilderness. Her husband's relatives are nomadic herders based in western Tuva, and she organizes for tourists to stay with them at their summer encampment, called Sai Khonash. We drove for three or four hours through beautiful scenery until we passed Tuva's "second city" Ak-Dovurak (in reality barely a town, with a population of 13,500), based next to a huge asbestos mine, and then arrived at a neighbouring village called Kyzyl Mazhalyk, where we waited in the home of one of her husband's relatives (watching an American documentary about ancient aliens, dubbed into Russian) until a new driver arrived to take us the rest of the way to the camp in a UAZ, i.e. the Soviet equivalent of a jeep. The first hour or so of the journey was along a normal road with breathtaking mountain views, and then we descended into a valley and continued at snail's pace for another hour along a dirt track, passing occasional yurts and herds of sheep, cattle and yaks. The Sai Khonash yurt camp is located at a wonderful spot in the valley. We spent two nights there, learning firsthand about nomadic life and Tuvan culture, drinking araka (fermented and distilled cow milk) and water straight from the mountain stream, eating lots of dairy products and hiking.

When it was time for us to leave, the driver returned in the UAZ and took us back to Ak-Dovurak, where we found a shared taxi heading to Khakassia.  Our new taxi driver - a jolly, fat Tuvan with broken Russian - took us back and forth between Ak-Dovurak and Kyzyl Mazhalyk for over an hour, picking up passengers, tying baggage to the roof of the car, refuelling and pumping up the tyres, before finally setting off on the northbound road that connects western Tuva with the Republic of Khakassia. The route took us through he beautiful, dramatically mountainous, arid landscapes that we'd grown used to until shortly after the Khakasssian border, when we descended into the heavily forested valley of the wide, shallow river Ona. We followed this road between the towering peaks for a couple of hours before reaching the first settlement, a village called Abaza, where we had lunch of plov at a café. Thereafter the topography became gentler and the forests were replaced by the tall, rolling hills of the Khakassian moorland, scattered with countless ancient circles of jagged standing stones. Some five or six hours after leaving Ak-Dovurak, we arrived in Askiz.

Askiz is a town of 7,000 with nothing to attract tourists aside from a handful of standing stones dotted around its outskirts. It had a bleak, end-of-the-world kind of feel to it that we never got from Tuva's tiny villages, despite the latter being both poorer and more isolated. One interesting thing about Askiz is its relatively high proportion of ethnic Khakass residents; although Khakassia is named after the Khakass nation (who are ethnically and linguistically close to Tuvans, but syncretize their shamanism with Orthodox Christianity rather than Buddhism), they number only 73,000 and account for just 12% of the republic's population. In Askiz, however, well over half of the people appeared to be either Khakass or of mixed Khakass-European descent. A very friendly if slightly drunk local Khakass man who struck up a conversation with us (having sought us out after hearing reports of a pair of foreigners in town) told us that the villages around Askiz are the real Khakass strongholds, but that even here the younger generation are losing the Khakass language: although he and his wife only speak Khakass at home, his children just speak Russian. It's true that despite the many Asian faces in the streets of Askiz, we only heard Khakass spoken a couple of times. After an afternoon and evening in Askiz, sampling many of the town's invariably awful eateries more out of desire to shelter from the brutal wind than from hunger, we got on a night train westwards to Novokuznetsk.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Aug. 16-22: Yekaterinburg-Tobolsk-Omsk-Tomsk-Krasnoyarsk

Internationally Yekaterinburg is generally only known for being the place where Tsar Nicholas II and his family were killed by the Bolsheviks in 1918, but today it's Russia's fourth largest city, with a population of 1.4 million. Like Ufa, it feels like a real metropolis, but unlike Ufa its centre has an appealing kind of imperial grandeur to it, with a pleasant, broad pedestrianized boulevard dotted with sculptures, a large plaza alongside the river, and a wealth of imposing buildings. After two nights in Yekaterinburg we spent some two hours queuing up at the railway station's ticket office before finally getting our hands on tickets for the ten-hour night train to Tobolsk.

Tobolsk, our first stop in Siberia, is a much smaller place, with a population of under 100,000, though in the sixteenth century it served as the capital of Russian Siberia. It has a very provincial, small-town feel, and we felt a little conspicuous marching about with our rucksacks on speaking English, but it has a large, pristine white kremlin as a testament to its former importance. The kremlin is perched on top of a hill overlooking the old town, which consists of a scattering of beautiful churches and manors and a lot of crumbling old buildings. As we were exploring the old town we happened upon some kind of service happening in a small chapel. There were a lot of people there - far more than could fit inside the chapel - and most of the attendees were old babushki in headscarves, but most intriguing was a handful of people in military uniform. A couple of them were in some kind of ceremonial, formal uniform that looked as if it were straight out of the eighteenth century, and the others were in camouflage combat gear. There's an excessive array of different uniformed organisations within the Russian police and military structures, but these uniforms were unfamiliar to us; in fact, there was something not quite right about their uniforms, something a bit fake, which at first made us think they might be some kind of historical re-enactment society. But then we noticed that they were armed: the ones in the atavistic ceremonial dress had batons and the others had whips - that's right, whips! And a couple of these whip-carrying pseudo-soldiers began patrolling the perimeter, telling undesirable-looking alcoholics to vacate the area. Intrigued, we casually walked past a couple of them and inconspicuously peered at their badges, looking for a hint to their identity, and there it was written: Казаки - they were Cossacks, apparently working as unofficial police at a religious event. Before moving on we asked an old man what the service actually was, and he explained that it was in remembrance of those killed fighting in eastern Ukraine. That certainly explained the Cossacks' presence: a lot of Cossacks from Russia are fighting there in support of the Donetsk separatists.

After a day in Tobolsk we took a night train (13 hours) southeast to Omsk, a city of 1.2 million located at the confluence of the Irtysh and Om rivers. We only has three and a half hours there between trains and didn't even bother going to the centre, having heard that there's nothing much to see anyway. Instead we just killed a couple of hours wandering through shopping streets and along the river front before getting another long-distance train (14 hours) east to Tomsk.

Although Tomsk is much smaller than the similarly-named Omsk, with a population of 0.5 million, it's generally considered to be of much more interest to tourists, chiefly due its wealth of ornate wooden architecture. After a day in Tomsk, wandering around and enjoying the sights, we took yet another night train (13 hours) east to Krasnoyarsk.

Krasnoyarsk made an immediate impression on us when we arrived due to its appealing setting: hills topped with towering rock formations face the city from the opposite bank of the Yenisey river. This was especially appreciated after the endlessly flat Siberian plains and forests that we'd been seeing from the trains since Yekaterinburg. And Krasnoyarsk managed to live up to its initial promise: though the city of 1.0 million residents lacks specific touristic sights like those found in Tomsk and Tobolsk, it was generally attractive and had a great atmosphere, with chilled jazz inobtrusively playing out of speakers along the central avenue. After a day of walking around town - and despite getting hopelessly lost on the way to the station - we once again got on a night train, this time 11 hours southwards to Abakan.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Aug. 11-16: Kazan-Ufa-Berdyaush-Zyuratkul-Satka-Chelyabinsk-Yekaterinburg

During the 11-hour bus journey eastwards across Tatarstan the landscape - which had been uniformly flat since Nizhny Novgorod - started to become more hilly, and we started spotting signs of Russia's natural wealth dotted throughout the meadows: pumpjacks extracting petroleum from the earth. Eventually we reached Ufa, a city of 1.06 million and the capital of the Republic of Bashkortostan. Despite being the capital of the homeland of the Bashkir ethnic group, the city's population is 49% Russian, 28% Tatar and just 17% Bashkir, as the Bashkirs - a predominantly Muslim group who speak a Turkic language closely related to Tatar and who dominated most of the southern Urals until the arrival of the Russian colonizers - are a largely rural people. Although Ufa's history goes back to the sixteenth century, and on paper it sounds like an enticingly exotic place, it is perhaps the ugliest Russian city we've been to yet, with no signs of historic architecture, due to the fact that it's an oil boom town that doubled in size in the latter half of the twentieth century. Our only really "exotic" experience was sampling kumys, a popular Bashkir drink made of fermented horse milk, which was frankly disgusting. The one interesting thing about Ufa is its layout, sprawled in some kind of star shape with two large rivers and, inexplicably, a sizeable expanse of forest, within the city limits.

After two nights in Ufa we took a morning train six hours eastwards to Berdyaush, a tiny railway town of 5,000 inhabitants nestled in the Urals, in Chelyabinsk Oblast. This place really felt like the end of the world, frozen in time. After buying some food from the town's two tiny shops, we got a taxi for about an hour to Zyuratkul, a large lake located in a national park of the same name. It was raining when we arrived, so we set up our tent as soon as possible and went almost straight to sleep. The next morning we opened our tent to see blue skies and a fantastic view across the lake to the peaks on the opposite bank. We spent three nights here, hiking through fields, forests and marshes and camping along the lakeside. Considering the Urals form the border between Europe and Asia, they're hardly an impressive mountain range, but our surroundings were beautiful nonetheless.

Yesterday morning we got up early, packed, hiked back to the national park's entrance and called a taxi to take us to Satka, still in Chelyabinsk Oblast. Satka is a reasonably large town of almost 50,000 and it seemed very attractive, sprawling through a valley along the banks of a couple of lakes, with lots of nice wooden houses and picturesque churches contrasting pleasingly with the mines and factories around its edges. It would've been nice to spend a day enjoying Satka but we had to push on: the taxi took us to the bus station, where we got on the first coach east to Chelyabinsk, the oblast's capital. During this journey we left the Urals and thus entered Asia. After four hours on the bus we were surprised to see ourselves entering a large city: we'd expected Chelyabinsk to be relatively small, but it turns out to have a population of 1.13 million. From the coach window it seemed like an interesting and attractive place - more so than Ufa, at least - but we spent all of fifteen minutes in the central bus station before getting on the next northbound coach to Yekaterinburg, as we don't have much time to spare!

Monday, 11 August 2014

Aug. 7-11: Vladimir-Nizhny Novgorod-Cheboksary-Kazan

From Vladimir we took a 4-hour marshrutka, through an intense thunder storm, to Nizhny Novgorod. Nizhny Novgorod's one of the several cities that claims to be Russia's "third capital", and while it's much smaller than Moscow or Petersburg, it's still a real metropolis with a population of 1.25 million.  The most alluring thing about the city is it's dramatic setting on a hillside with views over the Oka river (a tributary of the Volga).

After spending a night in Nizhny we got a marshrutka another 4 hours eastwards to Cheboksary. We had a warm welcome from our hosts, who immediately invited us to use their banya (Russian sauna). Cheboksary is the capital of the Republic of Chuvashia, the official homeland of the Chuvash ethnic group. The Chuvash have a slightly Middle Eastern or Mediterranean appearance, with black hair, dark eyes and tanned skin, and their language is Turkic, but unlike Turks or Tatars the Chuvash are predominantly Orthodox Christians. Although Cheboksary's population is about 60% Chuvash, 30% Russian, very few of the city's population actually know the Chuvash language. Our host - himself a Chuvash who can understand but not speak the language - explained that there's a negative stereotype that only uneducated people from rural areas speak Chuvash, so the educated, urban population prefer Russian. We didn't once hear anyone speak Chuvash in the streets - though our hosts' parents did sometimes speak it at home - and only some signs around the city were bilingual. Aside from being the Chuvash capital, the city's other claim to fame is beer production: Cheboksary is perhaps the only town in Russia famous for its beer. We went to the beer museum - housed in a building shaped like a giant beer barrel - and afterwards tasted some of the produce and it was indeed the best Russian beer I've tasted yet.

After an enjoyable two days in Cheboksary we took a 3-hour marshrutka to Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan and another candidate for the title of Russia's third city. As we'd already spent a month studying in Kazan two years ago, we'd intended to only spend a couple of hours there before hopping on a night bus to Ufa. However, by the time we arrived that day's buses to Ufa had all sold out, so we had to wait until the bus leaving at 07.40 the next morning. We decided not to bother finding accommodation in Kazan, and instead just had lunch at our old favourite restaurant Dom Chaia, then wandered around town until 22.40, when we killed a couple of hours by watching Cherepashki-nindzya, i.e. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles dubbed into Russian. When the film ended we found a 24-hour kebab house, where we sat, watching crowds of teenagers drinking in the streets outside, until it started to get light outside. We then returned to the bus station and could finally get the sweet relief of sleep when we sat on the air-conditioned coach to Ufa.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Aug. 6-7: Moscow-Vladimir-Suzdal

On Wednesday we went to great lengths to make our way to Moscow's eastern city limit and to find what seemed like a decent hitchhiking spot by the motorway. But after a couple of hours during which only a handful of drivers stopped for us - none of whom were going anywhere near as far as we needed - we decided the spot was no good after all: the motorway had four eastward lanes but only vehicles from the outermost lane could really stop, and the long-distance traffic was all speeding past in the inner lanes without even seeing us. Cutting our losses, we made our way to the appropriate  station and got the next train to Vladimir, where we immediately got on a marshrutka to Suzdal.

Suzdal is an ancient little town of under 11,000 inhabitants, founded almost a millennium ago. Unlike most places in the former USSR, this town is almost completely free of twentieth-century buildings, the centre consisting of ornate wooden houses and countless mediaeval churches and convents punctuated by beautiful meadows and streams, giving Suzdal a village feel (though our local host was very keen to assure us that Suzdal is not a village).

After a good night night's sleep we spent the morning wandering around the town amongst the hordes of elderly Chinese, German and Russian coach tourists before getting a marshrutka back to Vladimir and another one on to Nizhny Novgorod. 

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Aug. 4-5: Moscow

Yesterday we arrived in Moscow and spent a couple of hours strolling around the centre, surrounded by the uniformly black luxury cars of the Muscovite nouveau riche. Today a big part of our day was taken up buying a tent and other camping/hiking equipment, then in the evening we trekked a couple of hours across the city to get to the cluster of skyscrapers that is Moscow's financial district.

Tomorrow we start our journey eastwards and the adventure really begins!