My favourite trains (so far)

I rarely remember my dreams. I have to wake up in the middle of them to remember what they were about, and quite often I’m so tired that by the time I can get my mental faculties together to try and remember the dream, I already forgot what it was. Which is probably good, since most of the dreams I remember make very little sense.

This morning’s dream was an exception. I was talking with someone I know (admittedly, can’t remember who it was) about trains. (Believe it or not, this is not an unknown conversation.) They asked me what my favourite train trips were, and I had said something like “whoa, that’s a tough one, let me think”. Then I started rhyming them off.

Oddly enough, that was about when I woke up … and I kept rhyming. So I figured, heck, that just sounds like a blog post!

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Riding the Trans Siberian in luxury

Not quite two years ago, I had the pleasure of riding trains from St. Petersburg, Russia all the way to Hong Kong. Quite the experience, let me tell you.

One part of it was riding the Trans Siberian Railway from Moscow to Ulan Ude, where the Trans Siberian effectively becomes the Trans Mongolian, as we cut through Mongolia to Beijing. The trains (as there are many that ply the line) vary from relatively nice (the one from Krasnoyarsk to Urkutsk was pretty nice) to pretty cruddy (Urkutsk to Ulan Ude), with various points in between.

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More Russian train stuff

Okay, quick update…So Continuously Welded Rail (CWR) doesn’t exist coast-to-coast. After we left Ekaterinburg, we went to jointed rail. CWR exists in patches along the line, but the most of it is the ol’ clickety-clack variety.

Lots more freight trains, too.

Russian engines are huge, but have the wimpiest horns you ever heard! Sounds like those little steam whistles on old-fashioned popcorn makers.

The last Russian stop

We’re in Ulan Ude now, having arrived a bit later last night than scheduled. (Mind you, it took a half hour to walk from the train to the hotel.)

It’s a nice little city of about a half million … and no birch trees!!! Finally.

We’ll be here until early tomorrow morning, when we leave for Mongolia. I’m not particularly looking forward to such an early morning, I’ll tell you.

Slept mostly on the train, which was about the only way to pass through the pain. It’s a six and a half hour trip from Irkutsk to Ulan Ude, a distance of no more than 300 km (straight-line, that is). The train needs to take a few bendy twists going through the mountains, pass through a couple of tunnels, and then plods along at an agonizingly slow 50 km/h (estimated). I think we topped out at a few places around 80.

The eastern shore of Lake Baikal was frozen — ice as far as you could see. The exact opposite of what we’d seen in Listvyanka two days ago. It looks like it’s thawing quickly, though, so it shouldn’t be long before the clear waters show through.

Two of our housemates in Irkutsk (a pair of Aussies) told us two things: 1) that we’d love Mongolia (something we’d both strongly suspected), and 2) China would wear us down fast. It’s chaotic, the toilets are disaster areas (that actually scares us), the “queues” aren’t, and pretty much everything we’d wanted to see is buried under scaffolding. It seems everyone is upgrading this year.

We’re just waiting for our tour to start today — we actually got a guide for here — and will be back later with more. Stay tuned…

A little story about Ekaterinburg

Ekaterinburg (Soviet name, a much harsher “Sverdlovsk”) is a wonderful little place to spend an afternoon. Assuming you can find your hotel, that is.

After doing our little thing at the post office to try and catch up on postings, Amy and I did about the only thing we had time for: a walking tour. Fortunately, our Lonely Planet book on the Trans Siberian Railway has a walking tour laid out pretty well. It was just a matter for us to walk it.

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Finding the Academy of Geology Hotel

When the Lonely Planet books fall a little short…So here’s the description of the Academy of Geology Hotel here in Ekaterinburg, as provided in the Lonely Planet Trans-Siberian Railway book:

Bldg 6, prosp Lenina 54
Singles/doubles with breakfast $26/30. This is the best budget option with smart, spacious rooms in a quite complex tucked away off the main road.

Yeah. So let me tell you how we found the place. First of all, we found Lenina Prospekt — that wasn’t hard. We walked all the way down to #54 (buildings aren’t individually numbered here, they go in groups). When you get into cases where buildings are in groups, they’re numbered something like 54/6 — such as the building holding our hotel.

Admittedly, I don’t know what exactly Amy was looking for, but I guess I expected something a little more … less apartment-y, which is what the 54 block looked like. We found 54/5, but couldn’t find 54/6. So we started walking around. A kind gentleman, about early 40s, asked us a question. We replied, sheepishly:

ya neh gavaroo pa-rooskie

Yeah, you guessed it: “I don’t speak Russian.”

This didn’t stop him, or us, and we proceeded to point, speak slowly (in both languages) until he dug out a map. Turns out that a building in the “courtyard” was the one we wanted. The side we could see was partly boarded up and covered in grafitti. We walked around to the other side and found the “Academy of Geology” sign, which we could barely read thanks to a Russian trend to use words similar to those in English, but with different spelling. The woman inside was totally unintelligable, and suggested (though her thick, steel bar window) that we should walk around the building. To the graffiti side, it seemed.

Luckily, a boy about 15 years old spoke up — speaking just enough English to understand that we couldn’t find the place. Back to the old woman. Conversation, back around to the side (west side, to be specific) of the building to a very unmarked and handle-less door. Pressing a little black buzzer above the door called the attendant, upon which we found out, that yes, this was the place.

For the record, the hotel is fairly nice, but certainly nothing special. So a word of warning to those of you looking for the hotel — it’s not clearly marked in the Lonely Planet books, and may require some assistance.

Russian trains

A few of you are probably wondering about the Russian train system. (Okay, I imagine not really wondering about the system, but about why I haven’t posted anything about it yet.)

I never really got an appreciation for the trains back in 1989, since we were let around by guides. Now that we don’t have the luxury of someone pointing things out, we’ve had to figure it out on our own. It’s not nearly as hard as it might sound, though.

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Kazan kicked butt

Okay, a HUGE thumbs up to Kazan. Wow. Such an amazing little city. I’m sure Kazan itself is quite large, but the “main” area is surprisingly compact yet still very revealing. It is simply too bad that we were only there for the day — two days should be the required minimum for a stay there.

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