Saturday 23rd February 2019
In just over a week, Judith and I will embark on a marathon. We intend to walk out of our house in rural Lincolnshire, take a bus to the nearest railway station, and jump on board every train in sight to Vladivostok. If we get there, we will board a ferry and sail, via South Korea, to Japan. If you do not read any updates to this post, then we will have failed in our mission. In such a case, kindly organise a search party…
Thursday 28th February 2019
Unguents and medication packed, along with tickets, vast wads of Korean Won and Rubles, and the exact change for the bus to Spalding. Vladivostok is 7,508 miles distant. Off we go.
Friday 1st March 2019
Survived the local bus to Spalding, although we almost precipitated the demise of a 92 year old waiting at the bus stop. When he asked where we were going we said, in unison, ‘Japan’. The poor chap nearly fell over in surprise. We spent last night in the stately St Pancras Chambers, where the ceilings are almost 6 metres tall and a lady called Katya turned up to run our baths. Here’s the view from our room. All lovely, but they still charge for WiFi.
The early part of today was spent in a scrum at St Pancras as we fought our way through Eurostar security and immigration controls. One bright spot was that I did tickle the keys of Elton John’s piano in the shopping area (but not very well, I’ll admit). After a 300kmph dash through Kent and the plains of Northern France, we arrived in Brussels mid-afternoon. The city is scruffy; too many waffles, chocolate and Tin Tin shops. However, the hotel barman did offer me a dubious brew of gin in an unmarked bottle. So, things were not that bad after all.
Sunday 3rd March 2019
Writing this on the ‘Strizh’ (pronounced Streege), which is the marketing name of the direct train from Berlin to Moscow. It means ‘swift’. This post will not appear until we get to a working WiFi connection as on-train connectivity is letting us down. Despite investing in a GigSky device, plus SIM cards provided by Real Russia, we are as cut off from the rest of the world as we were the last time we made this trip, thirty years ago.
Yesterday, we had a heart-stopping moment as the German InterCity Express (ICE) train turned out to be anything but ‘express’. We spent most of the day dawdling along, hoping to make a planned two-hour connection in Berlin. As it happened, we made the Strizh with 30 minutes to spare.
The Strizh is a fairly modern Spanish-built ‘Talgo’ articulated train with cramped, but functional accommodation. Our two-berth cabin includes a loo and shower. Boarding in Berlin was with military precision. At precisely the same moment, a uniformed immigration officer stepped from each carriage ready to check tickets. None of the train staff speaks much English, so we are getting by on a mixture of French, my rusty Russian dating back 50 years, and pointing.
In the early hours of this morning, we arrived in Terespol and spent two hours or so shunting backwards and forwards on the border between Poland and Belarus. At Brest-Litovsk station, an Ena Sharples lookalike approached our compartment window from the platform and placed a message, written in Russian on a piece of cardboard against the glass. She glared at me and I glared back. After a few moments, she gave up and wandered away. Surreal.
The dining car served up a reasonable choice of food. The borsch soup was satisfying, the mushroom soup nourishing, and the porridge so glutinous that the spoon literally stood up in it.
We finally arrived in a snowy and cold Moscow spot on time at 20:08. Off to the sumptuous National Hotel for two nights. After this, accommodation will be downhill all the way, I fear.
The Strizh at rest
Belorusski station, Moscow, in all its glory
Monday 4th March 2019
After a wonderful night’s sleep, we took breakfast in a palatial room overlooking Red Square. Today’s highlight, however, was lunch in the Pushkin tea rooms. Located in a nondescript building off Tverskaya Street, the tea rooms have a nineteenth-century ambience but are, in reality, a creation of the late 1990s.
We’d looked up the dress code in advance, and I had packed my tie and polished my shoes to reduce risk of embarrassment. The decor includes a collection of antique carriage clocks, endless bookshelves stuffed with faded volumes in Russian, German and French, and the odd harp here and there. A not-to-be-missed experience is a ride in the quirky elevator to the third-floor library, where our table awaited.
The Pushkin tea rooms lived up to expectations. The food was exceptional, along with the bill, naturally.
A selfie in Red Square
Jude in dark glasses, of course…
Tuesday 5th March 2019
Today we visited the extraordinary St Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square. The exterior is stunning enough, with plentiful multi-coloured domes, cupolas and turrets, all squished into a small area. Inside, it is as cramped as one might expect. There are steep stone steps branching off in so many directions it is easy to lose your sense of direction. The walls are crammed with religious artefacts dating back centuries. It is also quite dark, so you have to be careful to avoid taking a tumble. A fine way to spend an afternoon.
We were accosted by a small group of Russians in fancy coats asking us to take their pictures. They quickly invited us to be photographed with them. Then they demanded 5,000 roubles in payment, which is around 60 pounds sterling. Jude told them in no uncertain terms they could have 700 roubles. Sensibly, they didn’t argue. Here’s the picture, before they turned nasty.
We also visited the famous ‘GUM’ store, which occupies one side of Red Square. The first time we set foot in this collection of shops was 40 years ago. In those days the alleys had the feeling of a bazaar, filled with market stalls and empty window displays. Now, ‘GUM’ is brimming with the hottest brands in fashion. Some of the old features remain. For example, you could pay a visit to the ‘historic toilet’, as well as brush shoulders with Moscow’s wealthiest shoppers.
We are currently camping in the lobby bar of the National Hotel, awaiting our taxi to Yaroslavl station, and our departure to Vladivostok.
Here’s our final image of Moscow; the Kremlin by night.
Thursday 7th March 2019
Almost two days without internet, but it suddenly returns.
We are slowly adjusting to life on the Trans Siberian Express. In brief, I can touch both walls of our compartment with outstretched arms, I managed to spill a full cup of tea over our small table when it was piled high with our essentials, and the temperature in the corridor is around 32 degrees Celsius. However, the compartment is so cold that we have taken to wearing thermals.
Above all, the food is mediocre. Yesterday, we were entitled to a ‘free’ meal in the dining car. I wanted the fish and chips dish being served to other passengers, but the mildly malevolent waiter refused and served us side plates with horrible concoctions of beef Stroganoff and chemically-based mashed potatoes (for Judith) and vegetable stew (for me). At one station stop, I bought two bars of Twix from a platform vendor. This turned out to be the highlight of the day.
At the end of our carriage is a samovar water heater, presided over by our attendant, or ‘provodnitsa’. Like most Russian railway staff, she is unsmiling and not cut out to be in a customer-facing role.
Friday 8th March 2019
I’ll call him Grumpy Alek. Our waiter at breakfast is stocky, stony-faced and has a crew cut. Another Russian not cut out for a customer-facing role. This morning he attempted to remove my bowl of porridge before I had finished. Instinctively I grabbed it and he withdrew. Was that a smirk I saw on his face? If he is trying to unsettle me, he is succeeding.
We are now midway between Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk, and well and truly in Siberia. What is remarkable is that, after nearly three days on the train we are still not yet at the halfway mark to Vladivostok. The scenery is unchanging. Snow-trees-sky, snow-trees-sky, snow-trees-sky. Occasionally we pass a small township with tiny wooden cabins, probably dachas, certainly uninhabited during the winter. Sometimes their roofs have collapsed under the weight of snow.
We are in a tiny bubble, travelling across a vast ocean. If we are lucky, we will stop at maybe two large cities in daylight hours. Cities with populations of perhaps one million are no more than the smallest of islands in our ocean. The train seems to be making an effort to move quickly but, according to, to the map, we hardly move at all. It’s like running as fast as you can without actually appearing to move. Everything is in slow motion. I am aching for the next six hours to pass before Krasnoyarsk. The worst thing to do is check the time. Much better to float with the clock and breathe slowly. We will get there in the end, although often it doesn’t feel like it.
Friday 9th March 2019
Finally, the scenery got interesting. After an early morning stop in Irkutsk, when all known English speakers disembarked except us, we circumvented Lake Baikal in glorious sunshine. The landscape has undergone a pleasant change. We still have snow on the ground, but there are now mountains, which pleases Jude no end.
A posse of Chinese has joined our carriage. Unfortunately, they are quite noisy and have certainly been smoking. Hopefully, they will not bother us too much.
Ulan Ude station
Sunday 10th March 2019
We are now well past Lake Baikal and have just stopped at Chernyshevsk. The landscape has evolved into a wilderness of grasslands, frozen river beds and distant mountains. Occasionally we pass settlements of several hundred wooden shacks. There is never any movement; no people, no vehicles, no smoke rising from the chimneys. The Chinese are either smoking illegally or snoring in the adjacent compartment. They are increasingly noisy and objectionable. And so are the toilets.
Yesterday I was again in trouble with the train staff. I broke two saucers, emblazoned with the railway company logo. The provodnitsa was suitably flustered and told me to pay a fine of 1,000 roubles (about 12 pounds sterling). What really irked me was that this sum also included a fee for two new cups, on the basis that it would not be possible to match the shade of white of new saucers with the existing cups. You have to give her credit for thinking on her feet and with coming up for that idea.
Temperature -13 deg Celsius
Monday 11 March 2019
Just arrived in Khabarovsk, the last stop before Vladivostok. The rather rude Chinese contingent left the train last night, taking their pungent smells with them.
We are now in our tenth time zone since leaving the UK but suffer no jet lag. We are feeling weary and looking forward to nourishing food and a hot bath.
The landscape, however, is fairly similar to the last week; snow-trees-sky, snow-trees-sky.
Tuesday 12th March 2019
Floated gently into Vladivostok station at dawn. We have travelled 7,508 miles since leaving home, and 5,750 miles since Moscow. We have passed through 10 time zones, stopped at 66 stations, and gazed upon over a million trees. What’s incredible is that the train never deviated more than two minutes from the timetable.
After collecting our steamship tickets for Japan we ventured into the town where we are now eating breakfast and bathing in the happy news that we are now grandparents. Lots of love from both of us to Chris, Sam and Dorothy.