Our elegant stewardess, who was with us the entire trip across Siberia!
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Ever since the PBS special titled “Realm of the Russian Bear” with David Attenborough and Nikolai Drozdov, I have wanted to travel to the wilds of Russia. This elusive dream was finally (partially – still a lot of places I want to get to!) realized in 2007 when my family and I finally went for broke (literally and figuratively) and headed to Siberia. And while we were in the neighborhood, we decided to stop by and check out Scandinavia and the high Arctic….why not, right!?
After a week in Paris to get my wife her “culture” fix (hell I enjoyed it tons too – and we saw some sewer rats to make it a “mammal-watching” trip…), we braved the passport lines in Moscow. (For a more detailed look at our Moscow experience, click here) Our first day spent in Moscow, we drove about three hours south the metropolis to Prioksko-Terrasny to see one of the remnant populations of European Bison (Bison bonasus). While there are some truly wild bison, albeit re-introduced in the Caspian-Ural areas, Prioksko-Terrasny offers some of the best views of this rare beast. Here they manage a breeding population and a semi-wild herd that numbers in the hundreds of individuals. We saw several small herds in “wild-like” conditions. They were a spectacular sight in the taiga – birch-pine-larch community. Morphologically they are very distinct compared to their plains-adapted, North American cousins. After a few days getting used to Russia and exploring the great Red capital, we boarded the Transsiiberian Express toward the Siberian expanse. This is when our Russian experience really started. Read and view the below images for a more indepth look at our experiences.
The Transsiberian route leading from Moscow to Valdivostok. While we took the train only to Irkutsk, it was an amazing four-day journey across the vast Siberian taiga!
Che Burashka! While on the train, we had many opportunities to chat with local Russians from all over Russia. We learned a tremendous amount about Russian culture and daily life. We also learned about the children's character, Che Burasha. Someone gave Cokie a gift of one of these dolls later in the trip.
Finally we were getting out of Moscow! After a stressful (albeit highly educational and even enjoyable) week in the "city from hell", we were finally on our way to the "real" Russia (our expression, not the Russians'). After a short wait on the tracks at the Moscow Station, we secured our cabin on the famous Rossiya Transsiberian Train. After we got settled and started to mingle and explore the train a bit, we immediately noticed a much different type of Russian.
Our first Transsiberian sunset. While I was aware of many of the sites we were passing, things like city names and mountain ranges (ie, the Urals), I enjoyed letting go a bit and simply watching the Russian steppe and countryside pass us by. We flowed through countless hamlets and saw so many peoples' lives through our slowly moving windows. I loved watching the local Russians go about their daily activities as an anonymous vouyer, soaking in the more mondane aspects of what we were seeing.
Som and I took a semester of Russian at Peninsula College so we could be more functional in Russia. This was tremendously helpful, especially our ability to read the Russian alphabet. I enjoyed reading the signs as we passed by. This little shop along the tracks was beautiful. While I am not sure at all what "retar" (the sign on this shop) means, I loved seeing the activity in front of the shop. Note the three-wheeled scooter on front of the door.
The Novosibirsk Station (at least I think it is...)
More beautiful villages along the route. Too many to name, even if I did have map up to the task.
The simple wooden homes were spectacular. After we arrived in Irkutsk, we had the privilege of spending many nights in a couple of these rustic homes. The only complaint I had was that most if not all of the windows were permanently shut and could not be opened even in the dead of summer. Wow!
We would spend hours just watching the lovely Russian steppe and taiga pass us by. Here a field of native Siberian Lupines fly by as we pass too fast for a decent image. But somehow I feel this image does a good job of showing the moment.
Cokie enjoying Russia pass by. I have always been incredibly impressed with what an outstanding little traveler my son is. He has not experienced a very convential upbringing. He has never felt the traditional approach to parenting. His youth has been spent in trains, ships, airplanes, in lodges and huts in the middle of the jungle; being chased by bears, lions and snakes....I sometimes wonder if he is lucky or not. But when I see his young mind contemplating scenes like the one in this image, I know he is growing through his experiences and that fact alone makes me realize that he is lucky indeed. But I am even luckier to be able to share the world with him.
One of the countless Babushka seen during our many stops along the way. She sold me some rotten (Very rotten..putrid actually) eggs that I had to throw away immediately. But I didn't mind as I was able to help her out a bit and she had a friendly exchange with a foreignor that day.
Som and our new friend, Larisa, a young 13-year-old girl from Dagastan who spent many hours with us practicing her English in our cabin. She was fantastic company and her English was good enough for her to serve as the translator for the entire car, which was filled with many curious and extremely friendly Russian people from all over Russia (such a change from the creepy people we came across often in Moscow!). Thanks to her, we were able to have a four -day cultural exchange with so many people in Russia. I was so happy that she was bold enough to drop by our cabin and ask if she could come in and practice her English. If we had any desire for serious alone time, that plan was dashed within the first hour of our journey thanks to Larisa!
We enjoyed all of the stops along the way. Not only was this a good time to get off the train and stretch our legs a bit, we were able to pick up some local Russian grub like rotten eggs, sausages and beer or Kvass.
Another lovely Babusha selling goods along the way.
Larisa's family out on the tracks purchasing lunch in Omsk.
While we were in the stations along the way, I would once again play the voyeur, watching the farewells and happy reunions of the people. I was touched with the emotions that were shared in these places, one station after another.
Cokie and his friend, our next door neighbor. This kid, as did many Russian boys, played very rough and Cokie took awhile getting used to it.
Our friend, Larisa, and another young lady from down the hallway, dropping by for a visit with Som and Cokie. There were sometimes during the trip that I felt like we were the "happening" dorm room!
Som relaxing with a short read. Notice the Lonely Planet guide on the counter! Never leave home without it!
While we did eat a lot of our meals out on the tracks or with the instant ramen sold to us by our stewardess, we generally did dinner at the dining car. The food was suprisingly excellent and we could get ice-cold beer there! That was worth the 20+-car trek to get there!
Som working her way up to the top bunks. We paid for four births to guarantee our privace and tons of storage space during our trip n the express. It was well worth the extra expense.
Coke enjoying some brew he picked up on one of our stops along the way. So what it was warm!
This contraption guaranteed hot water (too hot!) at all times during our journey.
One plus of having your own cabin all to yourself is that you can let it get as messy as you want! I was a bit embarrassed with we passed the imaculate cabins of our neighbors. We moved right in! Altogether we had well over our maximum luggage weight allowance as we were traveling for three full months to so many regions - high arctic to subtropical!
The beaver-dam flooded Prioksko-Terrasny Zapovyednik forest. While we did not actually see this forest from the train, we passed thousands of miles of similar forests during our journey across Siberia.
Our Transsiberian Journey ended in Irkutsk. By this point in the trip we made many new friends and had so many wonderful experiences exchanging culture, drinks, food and laughs with our new Russian friends. While I know we will most likely never see any of them again, we were touched by the warmth and friendliness of these folks and truly enjoyed our short time with them. This was one of those rare experiences that happen in life when you may be sharing just a few short hours or days with people, you feel that you have shared so much more than that. We were richer people for our time on this train.
On our final morning on the train, we were going to try to sneak off quietly as we were to arrive Irkutsk at around 4:30 AM. We said our goodbyes the night before and we were basically going to get off the train ourselves in the early morning hours. But to our surprise, when our stewardess came to our cabin to make sure we were ready to go, I opened the door to see basically everyone in the car up and ready to see us off. Men whom we had never said one word to came over and grabbed our heavy bags and whisked them safely off the train before I even had a chance to protest. Everyone followed us off the train on to the empty tracks at Irkutsk station and so warmly sent us on our way. We hugged and bid our farewells to so many kind Russians that morning, that I became choked up with emotion. So many kind and friendly people wanted to wish my family well. We were so fortunate to have such a positive experience. I almost think it was charmic in that it brought some of the negativity of Moscow in to perpective. We were now aware of the "real" Russia and it was standing on the tracks of Irkutsk station waving goodbye to us.
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