Friday, February 22, 2013

The Third City

One can spend thousands of words discussing Königsberg's transformation into Kaliningrad, but it's easy to forget that this city has undergone another, albeit less dramatic, crisis of identity since the end of the Soviet Union. The 1945-46 schism was at least marked by a change of name, which lends a convenient way of distinguishing between between the city's pre- and post-war existence. Despite continuing debate on the issue, post-Soviet Kaliningrad has not renamed itself, nor has its population or language experienced substantial changes. The stark contrast between the old German architecture and the Soviet style is obvious to even the most casual tourist, but the modern Russian additions to the city are frequently more subtle. And yet this is not the same place that it was twenty-five years ago, and the transition from Soviet to Russian deserves its own chapter in the book of City K.

For most Westerners, the main distinction between the Soviet Union and contemporary Russia has been the transition from a socialist to capitalist economy, and despite whatever vagaries are involved in making such a distinction, the results are clearly visible in Kaliningrad's cityscape. Three large malls (Европа "Europe", Акрополь "Acropolis", and Клевер "Clover", which also includes the four-star hotel Radisson) and a smaller mall (Калининградский пассаж "Kaliningrad Passage") now crowd the main Victory Square, catering to the modern Russian's every need, from shopping to bowling to McDonalds. These shopping centers all popped up between 2004 and 2009, and now so dominate the downtown area that I can barely imagine what the square must have been like just ten years ago.

Victory Square itself underwent a substantial renovation as part of the city's 750th anniversary in 2005. The whole area was repaved with brick and raised above the street level, creating more of a plaza, complete with fountains and manicured trees. Dear old Lenin, who'd presided in statuesque solemnity over parades and amorous meetings since 1958 (when he took over this duty from an equally monumental Stalin), was removed to a less central location in front of the former October Theater and replaced by a triumphal column commemorating victory in World War II.

Площадь победы (Victory Square) in 1982. Source.
Площад победы in 2002, before renovation. Source.
Площадь победы today.
St George slays the dragon of fascism on the pillar's engraving.

The other main presence on the square is the huge Храм Христа Спасителя (Cathedral of Christ the Savior), which was completed in 2006. Its gleaming cupolas in the center of the city are a reminder that Russia today is largely an Orthodox country, in stark contrast to the anti-religious Soviet Union and Protestant Prussia before that. Most Russian cities have at least a few churches that predated and survived the Soviet era, but because of Kaliningrad's unique past, it has gone through a church-building fever in the last twenty years, along with the Orthodox revival in Russia as a whole.

Lenin in his days of glory, ca. 1976.1
Lenin in his days of lesser glory, ca. 1990s. His dignity was partially
spared by his quick removal to a less ironic location. Source.
Lenin in his days of diva glory.

Over the last two decades since it re-opened to foreigners, Kaliningrad has struggled to reconcile its broken pasts. Is it German? Is it Russian? Is it Russian appropriating German? The Königsberg Cathedral on the island was gradually restored over the 1990s with substantial donations from Germany, and is now used as a concert hall, and houses both a Lutheran and Orthodox chapel. The Friedland and King's Gates, two of the six extant city gates, were restored in 1992 and 2005 respectively, and are now museums. The other four gates remain in varying states of disrepair. And of course the pseudo-German "fishing village" was begun in 2006 and now stands in horrifying imitation of the old waterfront, although I do have to say that the simultaneous rebuilding of the Imperial Bridge (Императорский мост / Kaiserbrücke) as it stood before its destruction in the war was a good use of commercial money.

There has also been a substantial monument-building trend, which speaks to both the Kaliningrad-as-German and Kaliningrad-as-Russian identities with varying strengths. Statues of both Immanuel Kant and Albrecht von Brandenburg, the first King in Prussia, which were lost in the war and immediate post-war period, were replaced in 1992 and 2005. Мonuments to Francis Skaryna, a Baltic printer who briefly lived in Königsberg at the invitation of Duke Albrecht, and Ludwig Rhesa, a Lithuanian poet and professor at the Albertina University in Königsberg, were unveiled in 2005. On the other hand, the city has also erected statues of Pushkin (most beloved Russian poet of all time), Peter I (most beloved tsar of all time), Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov (most responsible for driving Napoleon out of Russia), Marshal Alexander Vasilevsky (most responsible for the Red Army's successful capture of Königsberg), and submarine Captain Alexander Marinesko (most responsible for sinking the Wilhelm Gustloff as it evacuated Königsberg, and killing more than 9,000 people, many of them fleeing civilians, in the single deadliest ship sinking in history).

All good philosophers have pigeon familiars.
Duke Albrecht stands next to Kant's tomb, where the old Albertina
University (named after him, incidentally) used to be.
Quick! Someone tell Brad Pitt that his face has been
stolen for a monument to a sub captain responsible
for the deaths of more people than the Titanic.

So what did exist in Kaliningrad before this wave of construction hit the city two decades ago? As far as I can tell, not much. One of my weekend hobbies is to browse the regional section of used bookstores, looking for Soviet-era travel literature or city information pamphlets with poorly printed photographs of Kaliningrad from the seventies and eighties. The main difference between thirty years ago and today is the vast open space back then, mostly along the river, where the bombing and subsequent fires completely destoryed the existing buildings, and which is today being slowly filled in by construction projects. Even in places that were not leveled by the war, open parkland is being gradually used up for lucrative projects such as the malls around the main square. I suppose this is a natural process in the development and growth of any urban area, but the explicit capitalist force behind it makes for a strong dichotomy against the city's Soviet past.

To my modern eye, old photos of Kaliningrad also look empty because of the lack of billboards, signs, ads, and graffiti that now cover every available surface. The same roads today appear astoundingly cluttered with kiosks, shavarma stands, construction work, haphazardly parked cars, and all sorts of unregulated additions to existing structures, especially when compared to the almost unbelievably sterile streets in these old pictures. Also, the sparsity of cars and crazy marshrutkas on the roads in the USSR, while understandable, is startling compared to the constant traffic jams Kaliningrad experiences today.

Kaliningrad, ca. 1981.2
Today, this same view past the stock exchange
and across the island is blocked by trees and
many new buildings. Ca. 1981.2
More or less the same view as above, just farther over
the bridge. Malls and hotels now fill much of that empty space.
The south bank of the Pregolya, and the then-grassy
lawns of the island -- now a park with trees, sculpture
garden, and paved pathways. Ca. 1981.2
This view towards the "Sports Palace" has barely
changed at all. Ca. 1981.2
Blame the poor quality of this print on the Soviet Union, but you get an
idea of how much of  Königsberg was completely destroyed. All of this
used to be dense narrow streets.3
Kalinin Square, just outside the main train station -- the first thing to greet
any new visitor to the city. The sign on the building reads "Kaliningrad
welcomes you." Ca. 1981.2
Kalinin Square today. Note the flower kiosks.
Intersection of Leninsky and Moskovsky Prospects, the two largest streets
in the city. Today, it is much more congested, and a mall/theater exists
just to the right of that building in the foreground.3

Moskovsky Prospect, ca. 1981.2
Moskovsky Prospect today.
Leninsky Prospect, ca. 1975. It's so clean! Where are the shaverma stands?1
Leninsky Prospect today, looking up it the other direction. Chaos! 
"Traditional relay for the prize of the oblast newspaper
'Kaliningradskaya Pravda.'" Ca. 1981.2
Teatralnaya Street, ca. 1975.1
Roughly the same view today, with the far new building
standing where there were just trees in the above image.
A student group visits Kant's tomb, near the cathedral's ruins, ca. 1973.4
If you look carefully, you can see the line where the
original cathedral stops and the restoration begins.
Monument to Mother Russia, ca. 1971. The city
government building is still partially visible in
the background.2
Today, Mother Russia's backdrop is decidedly more mall-ish.

Kaliningrad today can also be contrasted to Soviet Kaliningrad just as much in terms of things that haven't happened. The city still bears the name of one of Stalin's closest cronies, and Kalinin's statue still stands outside the main train station in the large square that also bears his name. The continued existence of Leninsky and Sovietsky Prospects is almost too mundane to even mention. The House of Soviets, rather than being torn down, was finally given a paint job and had windows installed, despite the fact that it will never be used for anything. The fifteen-plus forts around the city, the gates, and the myriad surviving buildings of architectural, aesthetic, and historical value have generally not been placed under much meaningful protection, let alone restored or proudly displayed. The foundations of Königsberg Castle, partially excavated about ten years ago by initial funding from the magazine Der Spiegel, were abandoned and left open to the weather instead of expanded and preserved. Hell, when bombed-out ruins still stand on major streets, what's the point of excavating the past?

Prussian Königsberg and Soviet Kaliningrad are relatively easy to separate into discrete cities because the latter defined itself in opposition to the former. Modern Kaliningrad has a foot in both boats, and is trying to balance between them while the pressures of time push them farther apart. Is Kaliningrad today more commercial than in its Soviet days? Certainly. Is it more in touch with its pre-war past? In some ways, perhaps -- today at least people can talk freely about and do research on Königsberg -- but in the ways that matter, arguably not. The city's mixed record over the past two decades seems at once to extol the uniqueness of its past, but also to celebrate the Russian military triumph over it. Rebuilding the cathedral is something of a hollow gesture when forts and gates and bridges are left to crumble, be renovated as restaurants and night clubs, or are occasionally actively destroyed. What constitutes legitimate use of these buildings, and which are designated as important enough to be preserved in a meaningful way? The Soviet Union at least had a coherent and consistent, if iconoclastic, attitude toward these questions. For Kaliningrad today, the answer is closer to "we don't know," but more disturbingly, it is also "we don't care."

Mikhail Kalinin himself, ca. 1975.1
The man has aged well.

1. "С чем связаны память и жизнь: о памяниках и памятных местах Калининградской области," Kaliningrad: Калининградское книжное издательство, 1975.
2. Котов, Олег Иванович, "Калининград,"Kaliningrad: Калининградское книжное издательство, 1981.
3. А.И. Петрикин and В.Н. Строкин, "Имена в названиях улиц," Kaliningrad: Калининградское книжное издательство, 1988.
4. "Янтарный берег," Moscow: Издательство 'Прогресс', 1973.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

An American Interlude

In case you have, by now, lost track of the story, recall that we left our intrepid adventurers at the airport in Vladivostok after having wended their way by train across nearly the entirety of Russia. At this point, they parted ways: Rachel returning to the United States via warm tropical Honolulu to eat burritos, cheddar cheese, bagels, peanut butter, ranch dressing, and barbecue to her heart's content, while Ann and the hero of this tale remained in the land of endless winter. In fact, their flight to Moscow was delayed for three hours because the airport's computer system was down, and the flight attendants had to write everyone's boarding passes and luggage checks by hand. Of course, this meant they missed their connecting flight to Nizhny Novgorod, and had to wait several more hours in Moscow, where they learned the true lesson of this adventure -- there is no place good to eat in Shermetyevo airport.

I dare your geography to improve. Go on then.

Eventually, however, they (we, in a dashing feat of pronoun substitution) did land in Nizhny (so called "Lower" Novgorod, presumably to distinguish it from Veliky "Great" Novgorod, one of the oldest and historically important cities in Russia), took a marshrtuka more or less at random, transferred to the two-line metro system, where we managed to miss the one transfer, and eventually walked the final kilometer to our hostel down the admittedly beautiful Большая Покровская pedestrian street in light snow at midnight.

Большая Покровская, notable for stores that blast the same jingle on
loudspeakers all day long, also decent coffee.

Nizhny Novgorod is one of the biggest cities in Russia, with a population of over a million. Located at the confluence of the Volga and Oka Rivers, Nizhny has long been a major trading hub, and its thick Kremlin (original fortified city center) walls made it a chief asset in Moscow's fifteenth- and sixteenth-century wars against the Tatars in Kazan. Nizhny's Kremlin, atop a formidable hill overlooking the rivers, still dominates the city and commands a spectacular view. Even in winter, it was always full of people towing kids on sleds, strolling with friends, or having snowball fights in the lawns.

Part of Nizhny's Kremlin wall
View from the Kremlin, with the Volga and Oka Rivers.

From 1932 until 1990, the city was called Gorky, after the Soviet writer Maxim Gorky (a pseudonym), who was born there in 1868. He spent many years traveling around Russia and the world, writing about the bitter injustice and miserable conditions of the working people. He was Lenin's friend and his own politics aligned closely with the Bolsheviks', but he also criticized Lenin for being cold-blooded and iron-fisted, and he left to Italy for health reasons in 1921. Eleven years later, he returned to the Soviet Union permanently, where he was hailed as a propaganda poster-boy for leaving Fascist Italy, decorated with the Order of Lenin, given a mansion to live in, and had his hometown named after him. His death in 1936 may or may not have been a covert NKVD murder connected to Stalin's purges in the later 1930s.

Regardless, the apartment where Gorky lived in Nizhny Novgorod from 1902 to 1904 is now a museum, furnished to look as it did when he lived there with his family. Ann and I were the only two visitors, and quickly drew the attention of the babushka attendants, who were clearly not quite sure what to make of us, but delighted -- two American girls who spoke Russian and were interested in Gorky? We were from so far away, they declared, it was "like the cosmos!" Then they personally made sure we saw every photograph the museum had to offer; a textbook example of kind-hearted Russian authoritarian hospitality.

The Chkalov Staircase under snow and construction. Named for famous
aviator and Hero of the Soviet Union Valery Chkalov, who flew non-stop
from Moscow to Vancouver, WA across the North Pole. I hear it's more
beautiful in summer.
Рождественская церковь (Stroganov Church) and
ubiquitous smokestacks.

One very short (nine hour) train ride later, we arrived in Kazan, another large city of over a million located on the Volga, and Nizhny's historical nemesis. Kazan is the capital of Tatarstan, one of twenty-one ethnic republics within Russia, which differ from the standard край or область (territory/province) by retaining the right to have their own official language and constitution, although their actual levels autonomy are debatable. Tatarstan today is officially home to the Tatar ethnic group, which speaks the Turkic Tatar language (as well as Russian) and is mostly Sunni Muslim, although only about half the total population of the republic is classified as belonging to the Tatar ethnic nationality.

Kazan became part of the Russian fold in 1552, after almost a century of wars between Moscow and the Khanate of Kazan, when Ivan the Terrible finally conquered the city and massacred most of the population, destroying mosques and forcibly Christianizing the survivors. Given its history, I was expecting a little more of a Tatar influence on the look and feel of the city, but either my conception of what that might entail is flawed, or the city was destroyed and rebuilt enough times under Russian control that Kazan looked to me, admittedly a tourist, almost indistinguishable from the typical Russian European style. Still, the city is beautiful and has very open feeling, with wide boulevards (perfect for Imperial parades?) and of course the Volga running through the center. But the city's architectural highlight is unarguably the Qol Sharif Mosque, completed in 2005 in the center of the Kremlin, a gorgeous blue and white structure that restores my faith in Russia's ability to still build beautiful things.

Qol Sharif Mosque, even more stunning when illuminated at night.
Kazan Kremlin, built by Ivan the Terrible on the ruins
of the castle that used to stand here.
The mysterious Soyembika Tower, date of construction
unknown. It was leaning so badly that they've been
trying to stabilize it since the 1930s.
Annunciation Cathedral, within the Kremlin, also
built at the behest of Ivan the Terrible.
Kremlin wall -- even in January, days are short and nights are long. 
The giant Рубин-арена stadium is just visible over the river. Kazan is
notably hosting the 2013 Summer Universiade and the 2018 FIFA
World Cup (along with Kaliningrad and eleven other Russian cities).
Striking statue outside the Kremlin to Tatar poet Musa Jalil, who
wrote The Moabit Notebooks while in a German POW camp.
Kazan refers to itself as Russia's third capital.
This is the glory shot you've been waiting for. 

But for me, the highlight of the end of my trip was meeting ten or so other Fulbright ETAs in Kazan before training back to Moscow (a mere thirteen hours) and reuniting with the entire contingent of American Fulbrighters in Russia, including all of the researchers, whom I had never met before. Although I wouldn't have said I was starved for native English conversation, after a full week of being surrounded by gratuitous and constant punnery, word play, slang, regional accents, idioms, cultural references, and the exuberant invention of new words and grammatical constructs (frequently Russklish), I have to say that nothing matches the implicit level of underlying understanding between people who share a cultural background.

It was also fascinating to hear about where everyone is living, what research they're doing, and what questions have emerged as the most regionally interesting to them. I am beginning to understand that Russia is simply an enormous country, geographically and culturally. There are so many different nationalities, each with its own unique culture and language, all sharing one huge country, and all interacting with others for hundreds of years -- the sheer complexity of identities and histories is staggering. I live in one unique corner, but all of Russia is unique in its own way.

After over a month of travel, landing in the marshes of Kaliningrad to a deliciously warm 35 degrees F and rain felt fantastic (and also like summer). St Petersburg is billed as Russia's European city -- and, granted, Piter far outshines Kaliningrad in architectural beauty -- but this little Baltic oddity is Russia's real window to the west, even if it's sometimes left off maps. Even during the Soviet Union, when this was a closed and secret city, it was also a port, connecting it with the world. Today that is still true. Ordinary people here travel to Poland, to Lithuania, to Spain, to Croatia, to Turkey; and if they don't, then they also aren't unaccustomed to foreigners, only some of whom are tourists.

Living in Kaliningrad means being Russian, but walking on streets and living in buildings that were not built by Russians. Having a trade-based economy means wearing Polish boots and eating Lithuanian cheese. Being an exclave, completely surrounded by the European Union and cut off from Big Russia, means being aware of the region's place and role in a larger context. The Soviet Union may have been the Great Standardizer, and it certainly destroyed enough of Königsberg and built enough generic monuments to fool a casual glance, but Kaliningrad is still different. It feels like Europe compared to Russia, and like Russia compared to Europe. I don't know what it is, and most of the time, I don't think City K knows either. But if there's one thing that I learned from traveling over 18,000 kilometers of Russia, it's that I am incredibly lucky to be living in this strange little chunk of it.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Taking the Trans-Siberian Railway: Tips, Advice, and Stories from the Train

I didn't realize until several thousand kilometers from Moscow that this was the farthest East I'd ever been, and every passing second was carrying me still farther. Siberia is a long way from home, however you dissect the map. And yet by the end, standing over the harbor in Vladivostok, 9,289 kilometers and over six days by train from Moscow, it didn't feel like I'd come nearly so far. Journeys so big should come with a warning: this will make the world feel small.

I suspect that the American romance with trains comes partly from the fact that we don't use them anymore. They recall both a nostalgic sepia image of our own nineteenth century, complete with steam engines and the heady rush of industrialization, and also the quiet efficiency of modern Europe, a mature and civilized journey through vineyards and cobbled towns. Then there's our obsession with the sweeping spaces of the frontier and the freedom of being able to hop in a dirty mustang and drive for thousands of miles in any direction. Well, Russia has enough wide expanses for several Americas, and the unknown mystery of the Far East conveys a enigmatic exoticism that appeals to the Victorian adventurer imperialist in all of us.

For Russians, however, the Moscow-Vladivostok connection is simply the cheapest way to get from points A to B, usually only a short length of the total line. People board and leave the train at every stop, making their trip of anywhere from a few hours to several days. It seems like tourists are mostly the only ones who ride the whole way. And of course, for the tourists, taking the actual train is as much about getting over one's romantic notions as it is about indulging them; the practicalities and mundane indignities of travel go a long way toward keeping reality grounded.

Our adventure really began with buying the tickets. The plan was for me to fly from Germany to Moscow and meet Rachel, my friend from the US, and Ann, a fellow Fulbrighter in Russia. Together, we'd take the train to Irkutsk, almost exactly halfway, stop for two days to see Lake Baikal, and then continue on to Vladivostok. We'd done our scouting and learned that, instead of purchasing tickets through a third-party, it was best (and cheapest) to buy directly through, the Russian Railways' website. We worked our way through the entire shopping cart procedure and summoned the gumption to press that little "complete transaction" button, only to have our hopes dashed on the rocks of Russia. Apparently does not accept American payment cards, whether credit, debit, or matte-finish frequent-flier enabled executive platinum. As so often happens in Russia, I was left holding a wad of cash, unable to find anyone to take my money.

(For fellow travelers, I later learned that if you live in Russia, a solution to this problem is to get a reloadable Кукуруза or Qiwi card, which you can put money on at those little kiosks everywhere and use to buy train tickets or for other online transactions where American cards won't work. If you're not in Russia, I assume you'd just have to suck up the extra price and use a third-party website like

Fortunately, tickets are also available at any train station, and the only requirement is a conversation in Russian. Well, that and you have to actually show the passports of the traveling parties -- which was a problem, since none of us were in the same city, and one of us wasn't in Russia at all. Whether or not a passport copy will suffice is more or less a function of the mood of the cashier, how long it's been since her last break, and if there was hot tea. Ann was the one making this transaction for all of us, so I thankfully avoided the worst of it, but apparently while the lack of actual passports was not a problem, the lack of patronymics (functionally, Russian middle names, made from the name of your father plus a suffix denoting your gender) was a different story. The lady first wanted to know where our patronymics were, so she could put them on the ticket, and then, when informed that Americans don't have such things, asked why not. Silly lady. "Why" is a question that should not be asked in Russia.

In the end though, we did get our tickets, and we did successfully meet in Moscow, and we did leave with our train promptly at 23:45 to the rousing musical sendoff of a canned symphony playing over the station loudspeakers. Trains are one of the very few things in Russia that are always precisely on time.

There are essentially two classes of Russian train car, and which you choose depends on both your wallet and what kind of journey you want to have. We elected for "kupe," the nicer of the two, in which you get a four-bed compartment with a door and a tiny table. This is better if there are three or four of you and you'd like to be able to have some privacy and a little more relative comfort. However, unless you also buy the remaining berths in your kupe, you could be joined by a fourth person at any point during the trip. (This happened to us at a tiny stop in the middle of the night, and I think our new neighbor was more surprised by us than we were by him. Luckily he was a nice guy and we had a successful conversation.) The other option is "platzkart," essentially an open-dormitory style car in which fifty-odd people are all living, drinking, and snoring in one big room. I would prefer platzkart for traveling alone (so you're not stuck in a small room with who knows who) or if you're really into meeting as many people as possible. Definitely bring earplugs if you want to sleep, though.

So there we were, three of us, snugly ensconced in our tiny compartment with a three and a half day journey to Irkutsk ahead of us. If three point five days sounds like a long time to spend in a moving room the size of a large closet, that's because it is (even if it isn't really, by Russian standards). I did a lot of reading. I did a lot of watching the scenery go by. I did a lot of squishing my head against the window in order to catch the number on the kilometer markers that count how far you are from Moscow. There's a certain knack to just throwing up your feet and enjoying the forced relaxation of doing absolutely nothing.

It's not snow-covered trees for the entire journey, but it is for a good
part of European Russia, at least
Somewhere before entering the Ural Mountains

At the head of every car is a boiler, which provides free hot water for tea or instant coffee whenever you want it. When you get sick of the view out your window, you can trundle down the narrow hallway (train legs are acquired after the first twenty-four hours), check the schedule of stops posted on the wall, enjoy the view out the other side of the train, and refill your mug with more tea. Whether or not you leave the compartment door open is a matter of constant re-evaluation, depending on the relative humidity and stench levels in- and outside your compartment. Four days without a shower is a long time, especially when the train temperature is around 80 degrees F. It can become a Sophie's Choice situation if the cabin is unbearably hot and smells of people, while the hallway is relatively cooler but smells unbearably of whatever antifreeze chemical they pump into the toilets.

Such invaluable traveling companions as priyaniki (tea cookies),
top ramen, and crab chips. Also Rachel.
Train sweet train
This beastly samovar provided much tea

Surprisingly, our train came equipped with a mounted television in every compartment (not standard for Russian trains, but I guess the Trans-Siberian is special), so you can choose between fuzzy Russian cartoons, fuzzy Russian war movies, or fuzzy Soviet comedy classics. We enjoyed a fair bit of Шурик (everyone's favorite Mr. Bean of Soviet comedy) as a distraction from the smell of our own armpits. Our compartment also had a power socket (also not standard), so we were able to plug in a laptop and watch movies off the hard drive when things got really desperate.

The train stops a few times each day, usually for just a couple of minutes, but there is a more substantial twenty to thirty minute stop every six hours or so. This is long enough to get a few minutes of fresh air, stretch your legs on the platform, and do some hurried purchasing of greasy pirozhki or vareniki (dumplings, essentially) from the babushki who are usually wandering up and down the platform with little carts of homemade food. It goes without saying that the train waits for no one, and there's no whistle when it's about to leave, so you have to keep your eye on the clock and make sure that you're back aboard before the conductors haul the stairs in.

Far from being scary, the conductors are actually your best allies, and
are always there to help if you have questions or problems
The Grand Schedule of Stops, listing time of arrival,
number of minutes stopped, and time of departure

My overwhelming impression from the train, though, is the sensation of being in your own little traveling universe. Eventually, the hours stop having meaning, and the landscape just rumbles by outside, winter sun rising in one corner of the southern-facing window, making a low arc across the sky, and setting a few hours later in the other corner. Everything is contained within the train, and even within your own compartment. Even weather patterns become local compartment-size phenomena, as water vapor condenses on the windows, drips down on your faces until the irritation builds up enough to wipe the glass with a towel, from which it evaporates back into the too-humid air, only to condense again.

Time disconnects from everything, existing in two separate streams and also not at all. The train runs on Moscow time, in which all of the stops are notated, but local time keeps progressing as you pass through a new time zone every day. You can't ignore Moscow time, but it bears less and less resemblance to what's happening out the window, and after a few days it's easier to give up and just exist in the wormhole. Neither time has much actual meaning, as you sleep or nap or are awake at will.

Meanwhile, the train slips silently through the pitch black night outside, except for the occasional pool of amber at a crossing that briefly hints at the shape of ghostly trees stretching back into the darkness, or the aural impression of an enormous bridge and river that you might be rumbling over or not, depending on whether any of it is real. Siberia is enormous and empty in the day; at night it is a vacuum of reality, of time, of sanity, of everything -- whatever you glimpse through the window is not of your world, it is like a fairy tale of a journey through an in-between place. You may look, but step not from the train, take no advice from strangers, open not the doors, and invite none inside. Heed these rules and you will pass safely through the darkness and once more into the day. Ask no questions of time, and the spell will hold true.

After three days on a train, I can't be held 
responsible for any melted spoon/Dali-inspired 
surrealist photographs that may have transpired

We did, of course, eventually make it to Irkutsk at 7:32 (local) on the morning of the fourth day. Two fantastic friends of a friend met us at the station, led us to our hostel, and then so generously showed us around the city all day. Irkutsk is much more beautiful than I was expecting, with a plethora of eighteenth and nineteenth century buildings. Plus there was a beautiful ice sculpture park in the main square, with ice taken from Baikal and illuminated at night with colored lights from the inside.

If you ever get the chance to go down a giant ice slide, do it 
The river was eerily steaming, presumably because it was so much
warmer than the air?

The next day, we took a hour long marshrutka (minibus) ride to the tiny town of Listvyanka, on the shore of Lake Baikal. It's the most touristy access point to the lake, but since it was the middle of January, things weren't too bad. Everyone says Baikal is nicer in summer, but it was absolutely stunning in winter, as long as you can handle the cold and wind. Baikal has some of the clearest water in the world, and when it's frozen you can see straight down to the rocks on the bottom twenty feet below. It's clear enough that the feeling is quite unsettling. The wind, however, was brutal, and we had to keep going into cafes to warm up before going out on the lake again. Still, finally seeing Baikal after having it on my bucket list for so long was surreal and fantastic and absolutely lived up to my expectations. My biggest regret was that we didn't have more time to travel up to the north of the lake as well. Just reasons to come back!

Lake Baikal -- sadly devoid of penguins, although the native nerpa
seals will give enough of a cute fix to last the rest of the journey
It was probably -30 degrees C plus a heavy wind chill, which is nothing
to laugh at unless you live in Siberia

Then it was back on the train again at 7:32 am the next morning. The fast Trans-Siberian train (number 002 from Moscow, or 001 in the opposite direction) only makes its eastward journey from Moscow every two days on the odd numbered dates, and its westward journey from Vladivostok on the even. This means that if you want to make a stop along the way, you must be there for a multiple of two days before catching the next train. Also, unlike the European system, your ticket is valid only for a specific train leaving on a specific day -- no mixing and matching as you like -- so having a stopover means actually buying two tickets, one Moscow-Irkutsk and one Irkutsk-Vladivostok, for example.

This time we had a better idea of what to expect, and were freshly showered and had re-provisioned the chocolate supplies accordingly. Bizarrely, on this train our car was attached to the engine the other direction, meaning our window now looked to the north instead of south, which was at first disorienting, but actually for the best, since it afforded us spectacular views of Baikal from the comfort of our beds as the train traveled through the mountains along the southern half of the lake for the next several hours. This was probably the most visually stunning day of the whole train journey.

Taking a curve while the sun rises over Baikal

Somewhat surprisingly, the entire length of the railway is electric, and so we were accompanied by power lines all the way to the Pacific. No romantic steam engines today! Half my photographs are of blurry fields of snow, or blurry sunsets over snowy trees, or tiny blurry frozen villages -- and the other half are exactly the same, but with a blurry power pole in the middle. I was irritated for a while, but then I realized that there also weren't any fences like you'd see every hundred yards in the American West, and so the landscape really was as wide and unbroken as you can imagine. That's not to say it was pristine for the whole duration -- we passed our share of oily smokestacks and coal mines -- but eventually I accepted the power lines as part of the experience.

After Baikal, the landscape stays mountainous for quite a while
Ulan-Ude looks pretty industrial from the tracks, but sounds like
a fascinating hub of Buryat culture
The farther reaches of Siberia are gorgeously empty for mile after mile

All too soon, we were gliding to a halt in Vladivostok, the very end of the line. Again, I had no idea what to expect from the city, and was pleasantly surprised. Vladivostok is built on the mountains above the harbor, and everything is very hilly, strangely à la San Francisco. The skyline is dominated by the massive Golden Horn and Russky Island bridges, the latter being the longest cable-stayed bridge in the world. If you do nothing else while there, take the funicular railway up the hill to the lookout at the very top for the most spectacular view over Vladivostok and the bay.

The funicular railway is well worth all eight rubles for a ticket to the top
Golden Horn Bridge, with a couple spires of Russky Island Bridge
visible in the far back left
There's also a cool submarine museum, if you're into such things

Aside from so many left-side-driving Japanese cars on the streets, I wouldn't have guessed we were as far east as we were. Vladivostok feels very much like every other classical Russian city, from the European architecture to the ubiquitous Orthodox church domes. Even the people are overwhelmingly white and ethnic Russian looking, a function, I assume, of the relative affluence of the city. The overall feeling is one of bustling maritime modernity, even with hints of nineteenth century imperialism still lingering in the air. It is also an unusually convenient city for Russia, as evidenced by the presence of a brand new aeroexpress train that goes straight from downtown to the airport!

Sunset over Golden Horn bay in Vladivostok -- it's almost the Pacific

If anyone is reading this in preparation for their own Trans-Siberian journey, I recommend you bring the following with you on the train:

-- Your own mug, which can ideally also double as a ramen/instant mashed potato bowl, for when you really just need some MSG immediately. If you pay ten rubles you can buy a cup of tea and retain the use of the awesome looking glass for the remainder of the trip, but you're going to want something a bit bigger for anything more than tea. (If you want a cool souvenir, you can buy one of these glasses of your very own for the extravagant price of around 1000 rubles, which is just over $30.)
-- Foods that won't go bad or that are preparable with hot water, ie chocolate, halvah, fruits, instant oatmeal, crackers, hard salami, trail mix, easy-open cans of beans/fruits, etc. I am also a fan of this zucchini puree called икра из кабачков (no relation to caviar), which is really good on bread and lasts about three days unrefrigerated, which is about how long it took to eat the whole jar.
-- Tea or instant coffee, as well as sugar or small creamers if such things are necessary to you.
-- Utensils, be they plastic or real.
-- Wet wipes, preferably not grape-scented ones. We learned from experience that compartments are just insulated smell-boxes.
-- Small ruble bills (fifties and hundreds work well) to buy food from the babushki along the way. Break those thousands in Moscow, because I guarantee you the babushki will not have change.
-- A book. A really long book. Perhaps two books. I read about 700 pages of Infinite Jest, and could've read more if I was really determined. A week is a long time.
-- Specifically, this book: Bryn Thomas' Trans-Siberian Handbook. It gives you a kilometer-by-kilometer summary of exactly what's going past your window, which otherwise looks like a lot of snow and identical towns. Plus there's a short history of the railway itself, tons of maps, and short guides to many of the cities you might stop in along the way. Absolutely invaluable.
-- Toilet paper, because this is Russia and you never know. Also, it doubles as napkins.
-- Plenty of flashcard space on your camera, because there's nothing much to do but take blurry pictures. If you're not taking the nice fast Trans-Siberian train (numbers 001 or 002), keep in mind there won't be power sockets easily available for recharging batteries.

Choose your snacks wisely and with a mind to their relative messiness

While I'm impressed that everything went as smoothly for us as it did, if I had the journey to do over again, I'd do a few things differently:

-- Try harder to get a fourth friend to travel with us, or alternatively split the cost of the last berth between the three of us, because it was awkward not being able to just lay around in your underwear when a fourth person could arrive at any time.
-- Stop more than just in Irkutsk. Yes, this is more of a hassle when getting the tickets because you have to plan it all out. Also yes, you miss out on spending three or four day stretches on the train at a time, which I admit is part of the experience. But part of the point of the journey for me was to see more of Russia, which you really can't do in twenty minute stops in all the cities where you'd love to go explore. If you have the time, draw the adventure out and see more along the way.
-- Consider taking the train in summer. I took it mid-January both because that's when I had time to do it, and because what better time to see Siberia than winter! Also January is not peak tourist season, which is a major benefit. The main drawback (aside from the cold, which is manageable with the right precautions) was that more of the trip happened at night than in day, and you really can't see anything out the window when it's dark. I missed a lot that I could've seen in summer, which is something to think about.
-- Also consider taking the Trans-Mongolian or Trans-Manchurian routes, which split off from the Trans-Siberian and go to different destinations. Mongolia doesn't require a visa for U.S. citizens, but China of course does. Going to Vladivostok was amazing, and exactly what I was looking for from this trip, but the other options sound equally interesting if you don't have to stay in Russia!
-- Make it a longer eastern journey. If I had the time, I'd take the ferry to Japan or a train onward to Beijing. It's all so close, considering the distance you've just traveled.

Happy journeys!