Thursday, September 6, 2012

Stopover in Krasnoyarsk

Krasnoyarsk was our next goal after Novosibirsk, and being Siberia there are 800 km of nothingness along the road between these two cities.

Somewhere in the middle of this nothingness, we stopped for lunch at a tiny road-side fast-food place that appeared out of nowhere. Here, over a plate of shashlyk with mayonnaise sauce, one of the regulars (anyone regularly driving between Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk must be a regular at this place, for there are not a lot of places to eat to choose from), an ex-paratrooper of the Red Army, engaged us and one of the women running the place in conversation and it turned out that this woman somehow was related to a German couple who were driving around the world in a way that made our journey seem like a nice-weather Sunday drive around the neighbourhood: Two people, a Mercedes G-Wagen, and their 23-year, 500,000 mile journey around the world.

That seems to be a general rule of the human condition: If someone thinks that you’re doing something crazy, then you can always find someone else to point at who does the same thing but a hundred times crazier.

We didn’t reach Krasnoyarsk until after midnight, when the previously nice late summer weather had turned into an early autumn drizzle. Here we had been invited by Lyubov Savchenko (who, as we had become accustomed to by now, had found our itinerary on CouchSurfing) to stay the night at her place. Mobile communications on the road had, however, been far from optimal and we arrived in the city without knowing how to find our way to Luba’s apartment.

Here another guy from CouchSurfing, Sergey Horol, jumped to our help. He met us at an easy-to-find address, full of energy in the middle of the night, and eventually managed to call Luba and direct us to the correct address. Luba, who probably had given up hope of us arriving in Krasnoyarsk at all that night, got out of bed when we arrived and showed us the sleeping arrangements she had prepared for us in her kitchen.

The next day we decided to take a day’s break from driving and instead do some sightseeing in Krasnoyarsk. Luba agreed to have us staying one more night in her kitchen but would have to go to work in the evening, so she called a friend of hers, Marina Volovik (also on CouchSurfing) and asked her to take care of the apartment key and us that night.

Then we took a taxicab down to the city center where we met with Sergey again, who was very sorry that we hadn’t arrived earlier and that we couldn’t stay longer, for there were so many things that he would have liked us to have done and to do. He then went back to work with a promise to call us later, while we had an excellent high-end lunch in one of the new posh restaurants overlooking the Yenisei river.

After lunch, Sergey had managed to get away from work and joined us again to take us with him on a bus to get out of the city to see some of the true beauty of the Siberian countryside. The goal of this excursion was the King Fish Panorama, a popular place upstreams along the river for making wedding photos and toasting in champagne, and we encountered several different groups who were there to do just that. The panorama of the river, floating majestically deep down between the forest-clad hilltops, was breathtakingly beautiful and now in late summer the trees of the endless forests were just about to begin changing colours. The weather was sunny and quite warm, with a slight hint of winter quickly approaching in the wind.

We lingered at the vantage point, enjoying the view and the weather, chatted with some wedding party guests (one of them a Russian Jew visiting from Lebanon—quite globalized this hilltop in Siberia), and listened to a single accordionist playing Russian folk songs in brave competition with the heavy electronic bass rhythm from a restaurant nearby.

Before leaving Novosibirsk, Elia had asked us whether we knew people along the road ahead of us and upon learning that we didn’t he had volunteered to find friends for us, and that’s why we that evening were picked up by Alexandra Paklina who together with her friend took us out for dinner (where we were later joined by Marina) at Harat’s.

Harat’s Irish Pub has today become something of a Siberian institution and is on track to conquer the rest of Russia as well. Alexandra told the story about the friends from Irkutsk who created an empire of Russian Irish pubs and we were delighted to savour such pub classics as Фиш & Ципс (Fish & Chips), with both imported and locally produced beers. Before leaving Siberia, we would become Harat’s connoisseurs, visiting several of their pubs in several different cities, and becoming quite fond of their locally produced stout.

It was late at night when we eventually returned to the apartment again, and after just a few hours of sleep, Thomas took a taxicab to the airport in the wee hours of the morning.

Thomas had hoped that it would be possible to drive all the way to Mongolia without any significant delays, and had promised to be back at work the week after. We had not had any seriously long delays, but a few days here and a few days there had added up as the weeks passed by. Deciding that work was more important than reaching Mongolia, he bought a flight ticket out of Krasnoyarsk to get back to Norway in time as promised, and left Rico and me to take the ambulance the remaining 2,000 km to Ulan Bator on our own.

Rico and I then slept for a few more hours, before we said goodbye to Marina and started the journey towards Irkutsk.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Summer in Siberia

The night-wind drives across the leaden skies,
And fans the brooding earth with icy wings;
Against the coast loud-booming billows flings,
And soughs through forest-deeps with moaning sighs.
Above the gorge, where snow, deep fallen lies,
A softness lending e’en to savage things—
Above the gelid source of mountain springs,
A solitary eagle, circling, flies.

O pathless woods, O isolating sea,
O steppes interminable, hopeless, cold,
O grievous distances, imagine ye,
Imprisoned here, the human soul to hold?
Free, in a dungeon,—as yon falcon free,—
It soars beyond your ken its loved ones to enfold!

— Florence Earle Coates, “Siberia”, 1898

Crossing the border at Kurgamys, we arrived in Siberia in the last weeks of summer. Driving through the vastness of Siberia hadn’t been part of our original plan but, as explained previously, we had been forced to re-route, resulting in this several thousand kilometres long detour. Entering the Russian Federation by car at the border crossing here was as easy as walking through immigrations at the airport in Moscow, the uniformed officials a bit harsh and grumpy but efficient and without any unnecessary or ridiculous questions or procedures. Very nice.

Then the vastness of Siberia hit us. There are hundreds of kilometres between anything here, and our goal for the evening, Barnaul, the first (!) city after the border, was over 400 km away. But we had had an early morning and a good power breakfast, so we arrived in the beautiful sunlight of early evening in the late Siberian summer.

In Barnaul, we were awaited by Igor and Nastia, who had seen our itinerary on CouchSurfing and invited us to stay the night with them. We were now definitely in CouchSurfing-land. Igor met us at the main train station and from there directed us how to drive to their apartment, not far from there. Neither Igor nor Nastia spoke much English and none of us speaks any useful amount of Russian, but Igor was an accomplished user of Google Translate and didn’t let any language barriers stop our communication. Both of them being strict and passionate vegans, Nastia proceeded to cook us a most excellent vegan borscht with dark bread and salad for dinner. This was the first home-cooked meal we ate during the entire journey, and we savoured it with great delight. (Even Thomas, the militant anti-vegan, finished all of his borscht with good appetite.)

After dinner, we went sight-seeing through the city evening and Igor, Nastia and Rico bonded over their shared interest in photography. Barnaul was one of the earliest cities established in Siberia, and while most of the old architecture from imperial times is long gone it still offers a cityscape that made us truly feel that we now had arrived in Siberia. Igor pointed out buildings and monuments worth taking notice of, while explaining his plan to find a job in Saint Petersburg, coming closer to Europe and learning English. After reaching the Ob River, we took a bus back to the apartment, buying some beers, soft drinks and snacks on the way, spending the rest of the night in relaxed company, showing photos and talking about past and future travels. Thomas received accolades for his rendering of our journey so far using only internationally understood words, photos, pantomimes and sound effects.

The next morning, Nastia took hospitality to yet another level. Having understood that we normally liked to eat meat, she had bought beef liver the night before (while the rest of us were busy buying beer) and in the morning she prepared a real meat-eaters power breakfast for us. (We did not need to eat anything before late afternoon after that.) With the hope to meet again if that Saint Petersburg plan would work out, we then left Barnaul to drive northwards to Novosibirsk.

Visiting Novosibirsk had not originally been part of our plan, but on the way to Barnaul we had received a mail with the following message:
“My name is Elia Kabanov, I'm blogger ( and journalist based in Novosibirsk. A friend of mine from Kyrgyzstan told me about your trip and I'm really excited about it. Is there any chance you'll be visiting Novosibirsk on the way to Mongolia?”
This friend, linking Kyrgyzstan to Siberia, turned out to be Twitter Girl Nuraika, whom we had met in Bishkek, and with such an invitation we obviously had to visit Novosibirsk. There we arrived in the afternoon and met with this Elia who had invited us, and he introduced us to his friends Ilya Taratukhin and Denis Baluev. We ate a very late lunch (I got to eat Beef Stroganoff in Russia for the first time in my life; it was excellent), learned to know each other and quickly figured out that we got along absolutely splendidly. Everybody spoke good English, so we had a common language, and everybody was interested in the internet, so we had a common starting point for conversations. Couldn’t be better.

After eating, Denis had to leave us but we were soon instead joined by Ilia Staheev. So now we were in the company of Elia, Ilya and Ilia which in Russian is Илья, Илья and Илья. Yes, despite spelling their name differently in the Latin script, they all shared the same name. To make naming even more fun, two of the Ilyas also shared the same patronymic. We therefore promptly resorted to instead numbering them as “Ilya 1”, “Ilya 2” and “Ilya 3”, and spending the rest of the evening constantly mixing up who was supposed to have which number.

The three Ilyas took us to the Hostel Dostoevsky, allegedly the only hostel in all of Novosibirsk, which was a nice place that offered enormous value-for-money, just down at the Ob River, and we parked the ambulance there before heading out to experience the city. With 1½ million inhabitants, Novosibirsk is the largest city in Siberia and the third-largest city in all of Russia, but it’s a young city and mostly a modern industrial big city, so we kept most of our sightseeing along the river and in the city center. One remarkable building in the city center is the opera house (Novosibirsk State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre), which is the largest opera house in Russia and was built during the Second World War.

We soon proceeded to sight-see the Ilyas’ favourite watering holes, with the Водкинъ домъ (“House of Vodka”) worth a special mention. Here we were treated with all sorts of Russian dishes that go well together with vodka, from pickled herring over pickled everything to pancakes with caviar. Delicious! Conversations grew louder, toasts more splendid, venues were changed, “Ilya 1” revealed himself to have a good singing voice and to know a repertoire of melancholic and romantic nationalistic songs, we were joined by Nastya Lagunova, who, it has to be admitted, was less impressed with us, at this late hour, than we were with her, and eventually we found ourselves at “Ilya 2”’s apartment, late at night, where we could admire his photo portraits of the two Royal Princesses of Sweden (unexpected). Eventually the simultaneous falling asleep of our host “Ilya 2” in a club chair and of Rico on a bed signalled that it was time to go back to the hostel and get to bed, after a most enjoyable night out.

The following day, we headed for Krasnoyarsk.