Privyet comrades! I have arrived safely and eventually in the land of the Russkies. I am on my way to Moscow tomorrow from Kazan the capital of Tartarstan, an autonomous region of Russia full of fierce Tartars. I have passed a very pleasant few days in Yekaterinberg (it’s near the exact geological border between Asia and Europe) in the custody of Couchsurfer Ilona and feel ready to blaze ever westward towards Europe and the splendiferous cities of Moscow and St Petersburg.

Trans Manchurian. Due to my debauched lifestyle alluded to previously I caught the Trans Manchurian instead of the Trans Mongolian (though the extension did allow me to watch the ABs trounce the Wallabies in the company of two Aussies- Sean and Julian, ah life is sweet). The train wends its way north from Beijing through Manchurian cities such as Shenyang and Harbin and crosses the border into Russia east of Mongolia. This was an epic journey of 66 hours which passed in the delightful company of Paul, a Wellingtonian who had been teaching English in China. He was in the next compartment so he swapped over and we reminisced over politics, art and the all important question of who will become Auckland’s next super Mayor.

Train neighbours Rosa, Anya and Larissa kindly invited us to a traditional Russian lunch as we waited (total 10 hours at both border towns) for the bogies to be changed on the carriages (the Chinese rails are narrower than the Russian ones so they lift the entire train and put new wheels on them). Lunch consisted of borscht, salad, blinis, fish cakes and mashed potatos and of course a bottle of vodka.

The landscape was incredible – first some desolate tundra with dejected looking grasslands aware of the impending winter, closer to Russia the taiga starts up with neverending stands of forests, autumnal golden leaves scattering from silver barked birches, flashes of burgundy, rusty yellows, patches of the first snows sheltering in shadowed nooks, a bright blue sky and then the southern end of Lake Baikal. The wooden planks of the little cottages which flash by are weathered and warped from the cold they endure but also gaily decorated with fretwork adorning the eaves and brightly painted window shutters and doorframes alongside well-tilled vegetable patches filling in for insuffucient pensions and also, perhaps, providing a continuing connection with the land.

Irkutsk. This is the gateway to the Lake Baikal region and also has an interesting history (early revolutionaries against the Tsar in 1825 were exiled here) with it being core to the Russian expansion westward. I stayed at the Baikaler Hostel hosted by the excellent Masha and Anastasia, and oddly met someone who had worked with my old company in Auckland!

Lake Baikal and Olkhon Island. The lake is the world’s largest fresh water lake by volume and the deepest (1642m) and also incredibly holds 20% of the world’s unfrozen surface fresh water! What a place. I stayed on Olkhon for three nights and had an amazing time. Truly spectacular scenery. The island has about 2,000 residents and being there in autumn was great – forests and fields, horses and susliks running free and how about that serenity?

Stayed at Nikita’s Homestead and suffered the banya, met some wicked travellers (FINally met a Finn!) and made a trip to the north end of the island with English speaking Denis and Nadya (who incidentially invited me back to their place in Irkutsk to feed me Kamchatka caviar) and had a wonderful bonfire on the beach at freezing midnight with the crew – Seema, Masha, Sandy, Annti and others. Unlimited buffet including omul, the everpresent ‘fish of the day’. Sad to go as it has been one of the most beautiful places I have seen yet. Shame about the disrespect many Russian tourists have for the place though, empty vodka and beer bottles litter the beach and the roads.Will canvass this later.

And for those of you interested, yes it is Siberia and yes it is cold. Not quite freezing weather yet but for almost half the year, from mid-October until the beginning of April, the average temperature is below 0 °C in Irkutsk and Lake Baikal freezes over.

Yekaterinberg. Having decide a nonstop train ride to Moscow was a bit too far, I arranged to crash in Yekat. after a fun 50 hour ride. I was stuffed with food by adventurous Marina, Anni and Irina. They did their best with smoked omul, homemade strawberry jam, chocolate nuts, sausage, chicken, cakes, biscuits, tomatoes, pickled cucumbers and sunflower seeds. I also braved the dining car with Marie and Jean-Francois from the island. Contrary to common perception, I was not invited to drink flagons of vodka by every second Russian. Maybe next time.

I ended up in Yekat. with Ilona, who is studying linguistics (translation and interpretation). She was incredibly hospitable – I decided to offer my services as a guest speaker in their class lecturing on the difference bettwen kiwi and kiwifruit, the meaning of ‘rattle your dags‘, and why Maori don’t eat people anymore. A roaring success even though the interpreter had trouble translating ‘poo’, confused ‘bro’ with ‘bra’ and decided ‘sweet as’ was better as ‘sweet ass’. Ah the life of an interpreter 😉 I was also shown around by a mad hatter array of Ilona’s friends of whom I will say are incredible people and I wish them all to come travelling as soon as possible!

Yekaterinberg itself used to be the centre of mining administration in the Urals so has a long and glorious history. Interestingly  the constructivist architectural style had a beginning here, though I struggled to see the ‘tractor’ allegedly depicted by one monolithic block. Yekat. is also notoriously the site where the Romanov Tsar and his family were murdered. Given the renaissance of religion in Russia (er, I mean the Orthodox church…) the site where the Tsar was knocked off is now honoured by the Church on the Blood. A knack for names those bearded monks have…

Kazan. One more overnighter to just one more UNESCO site – the kremlin (meaning fortified city) in this muslim state. Nicely tarted up for the 1,000 year celebration of the history of the city in 2005. The area has a very interesting history which I have not the time to share. Suffice it to say that the place is oldy worldy, has more mosques than churches and the rat beauty show I attended in the main musuem was more wierd than gross. The giant snail called Princess being a personal highlight. Also saw a collection from the St Petersberg Hermitage on Greek heroes which was cool.

Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

it gets down to about -40deg in winter