Vladimir to somewhere in the Urals 28.9.16

Short walk to station and the train had just arrived as it waits at Vladimir for 20 mins. The female provodnitsa (carriage attendant) looked at our e-ticket with mistrust and told us to wait while she fetched her list. We weren’t on it. 1-0 Russia. We looked at her and she looked at us. Stand off. I dug out the tickets we had picked up from Moscow and the thaw started 1-1. “Passports” she requested and the numbers on the tickets matched. GOLDEN GOAL! 1-2. We’re on. (We didnt want to ask why we weren’t on the list)

Our carriage already had 2 sleeping occupants in the top two bunks but our bottom two were vacant. Another result. We tried to quietly stow our luggage and lay down. The carriage was really warm and stuffy and with a poor sleep last night I thought I’d drop off quickly but the excitement of finally starting the epic train ride across Russia kept me awake. I stared out of the window watching yellow birches and green pine forests roll past. The Russian lady above me got down from her bunk and the attendant brought her a coffee which filled the cabin with its rich aroma. Eventually the gentle rocking of the coach got the better of my excitement and I dozed off.

I awoke sometime later and after sitting up our Russian cabin mate entered from the outside corridor and tried to wake her slumbering husband. He looked very content but eventually got up and we invited them to sit on Al’s bunk while myself and Al shared mine facing forward.

They spoke good English and explained they were on their way home after a holiday in Turkey and Israel. They were very softly spoken and both had a cheeky glints in their eyes. He was born in the far east of Siberia on the Russian bank of the 2km wide Amur river which has China on its other shore. Minus 45 centigrade in the winter. He wanted the carriage window closed but she wanted some fresh air. We opened it.

Each carriage has a huge hot water urn called a samovar so we drank tea and ate black bread with ham and chatted and read and feeling the motion of the train, felt very relaxed.

Around 6pm they left the train and we said “dosvidaniya” and were left with the compartment to ourselves. No one else boarded. The whole train was fairly empty now and the next large town stop was at 3am so it was unlikely we’d be joined. Fingers crossed.

Vodka and pickles came out and we merrily chatted. Tonight we cross the Urals and tomorrow we roll into Asia.

27.9.2016 Suzdal to Vladimir

Quiet day today we only need to do a 50 min bus journey and it was a return journey so so we knew the route. 

Breakfast was Russian bubble and squeak eg last nights meal fried with the remaining butter in a pack (yes, we had gone all James Martin and used a packet of butter, 200g, in 2 meals).

Packed and walking down the road by 10am it started to drizzle. 15 min walk later we were at the bus stop with all the locals waiting for the bus 159 to Vladimir, although the bus we all got on was going to Vladimir all that happened was everyone filed off the bus at Suzdal bus station, queued for a ticket to Vladimir and had to get on the next bus going there.

The matriarch in control of the tickets was shouting at everyone in the queue so I braced myself for a torrent of abuse.  When she realised I understood none of her words she simply wrote the times of the buses and I pointed at the one we wanted. No seats this time but we could cope with that,  it was crowded but bearable, I was right next to a local with a massive bag of mushrooms, hoping they were not poisonous! 

Our hostel in Vladimir was purposely near the train station as we were due to be up and on the Trans Siberian at 7am next day, the area around train stations in Russia is the same as UK, grim. So we couldn’t believe our hostel location, just 5 min walk from station down this road……..

Hostel was fab though, really clean also a double room which contained bunk bed wasn’t what we were expecting it is what we got. 

As this is Russia we had churches to see so off we went, into Vladimir city centre to look for them. Initially we were quite disappointed with the church, then realised we had the wrong one! Saw another Rublov masterpiece (in the gloom of the church) decided that was enough and went in search of a Russian canteen or restaurant, that was much harder than it sounds, most places seem to specialise in sushi AND pizzas, which wasn’t what we wanted. Eventually we found a shopping centre with a teeny food court and had some tepid mash n chickenballs, Guy had chicken in red sauce and veg, also tepid. 

We had seen a great cake shop so went there was a surprisingly good brownie and choc cake with green tea,  we know the Russian for tea now, chai (!) just need to learn green.

Provisions for the train bought, there is no pot noodle in Russia, only pot mash. We went back to the hostel and spent the rest of the afternoon and evening trying to upload photos onto the blog (wifi too slow so I gave up) and reading Dostoysky and his experiences in Siberian jail.

About 9.30 pm about  Russian women came back, from work we assume, and all changed into PJ’s and went to bed. Why anyone needs PJ’s is beyond me as heating is left on full blast all night and it is stuffy and hot in bed.

Moscow to Vladimir to Suzdal 25.9.16

Up early to shower and pack but a short walk past a briefing of many Moscow policemen and two metro stops meant we were at the train station with an hour to spare before we headed to Vladimir. Into the station through the omnipresent scanners and bag x-ray machines unloading and loading up again and we walked to where the signs indicated our train would go from to find ourselves in no mans land with no further info. Back into the station through the omnipresent scanners and bag x-ray machines unloading and loading up again and we walked to the food area and sat down.

Oh how we enjoyed the next 40 mins. 

Travelling gives you time. A warped sense of time where differing surroundings and unusual routine stretches time much further than the normal daily routine of work life. The next 40 minutes seemed to take hours. Time allows for people watching which in foreign lands is curiously fascinating.

Drunk middle aged men ate lasagne and drank pints of lager. Drunk youths ate KFC and drank tins of lager. We sat down and realised two men were asleep at tables near us.  Drunk men with pizzas shouted at them. They didn’t stir. Table cleaners prodded them. They didn’t stir. Many people ate ice cream. Some people with robust teeth ate ice cream and drank coffee. It was 8.30am on a Sunday. Better than TV.

We dragged ourselves away from the entertainment and a kind guard pointed us to our train. We joined the queue to show our passports to board (tickets are only checked onboard) and dived into the bunfight to put our bags somewhere. We were sat opposite an engaging American couple who were really well travelled. They described it as adventure travel and had been to a lot of countries. An old Russian lady with gold teeth won the “wrong seat despite a numbered ticket” competition and was replaced by a laconic looking Russian man who promptly fell asleep. Our conversation with the American couple had attracted the attention of another American lady sat a few seats down (were we in the foreigners coach?) and she came over to chat. She stood behind the sleeping Russian man and began shouting in American. After a while he awoke looking flustered, opened his bag and pulled a huge, nearly empty bottle of beer from it, drained it, replaced it in his bag, looked at me and rolled his eyes like a 70’s comedian before going back to sleep. 

At Vladimir 80% of the train got off and I thought it must be very popular until I realised most people were just using the 5 min stop to smoke. Smoking is big here. A few vapers but mostly old school smokes.

Our loud American lady friend was also off to Suzdal so I carried her bag to the bus station for her as she seemed to be struggling. Our increasing knowledge of Cyrillic helped us buy a ticket to Suzdal and before you can say “huge menacing flock of pigeons in bus station” we were on our way.

Suzdal is old, quiet, sleepy and quaint and after a 19 day city break through Europe a welcome contrast. We were dropped off in the centre and used GPS on my smartphone to get to our guesthouse. AMAZING! When we travelled in 98 we had to rely on lonely planet maps which we came not to rely on.

No one was in at the guesthouse so we sat outside and wrote up the blog/ diaries. Another guest arrived and kindly phoned the owner to tell him we were here. Russians are still, so far, disproving the grumpy image. Owner arrived and showed us into our huge clean room with TV and sofa and coffee table, we were delighted after backpackers and a ferry cabin. No WiFi though.

We wandered into town over the meandering river, nosing into spaced out single storey intricately carved wooden houses but thwarted by ever present net curtains. Sunday is day-tripper day and the market square was full of stalls selling fridge magnets, slippers, pots and wooden maces! There were horses and carts to ride on and a lot of mead sellers and unusually we were ignored by the touts.

We viewed the many onion domed churches and paid to go into the Cathedral of the Birth of the Mother of God which wasn’t as golden as the Cathedrals in the Moscow Kremlin but the quieter atmosphere made it more enjoyable. 

Besides the multitude of churches, (Daily Fact – at one point Suzdal had a church for every 12 inhabitants) Suzdal is famous for mead, the honey based booze drink. Church done, mead next. We headed to a tasting room and tried eight different varieties, all fizzy and sweet and all slightly different, based on whatever the lady said in Russian that neither of us understood. We liked it though so bought a few bottles.

Tea was in a small restaurant that did simple Russian food really well. Pork with cheese and prunes for me and salmon for Al, both with fried spuds and sauerkraut. No fancy nonsense, just simple classic rustic food done very well. (Rick Stein rant over)

Home for mead and we realised we’d been done. Classic tourist scam. All was out of date and had no fizz and didn’t taste great. We persevered but eventually folded. Oh well, better to have mead that’s flat than never to have mead at all.