Sunday, 31 August 2008

We are WWOOFing

Today we picked sweet corn at dawn. 6am found us carting 32 crates of 25 cobs through rain sodden crops, the mist and sun rising over tree covered slopes. When it did eventually rise it revealed beautiful arborous mountains and neat rows of soya beans, red beans, carrots and onions.

We are on Takano Farm, a four hectare organic farm near Otaru on Hokkaido, Japan’s second largest island. This is our second stint of volunteering on this trip, staying put for a few days to try and get closer to the country we are visiting. WWOOFing (Willing Workers On Organic Farms) is an excellent way to see the more remote parts of a country. Accommodation and food is provided in exchange for six hours work a day, six days of the week.

The work is hard - picking and packing sweetcorn, moving and packing potatoes, clearing rocks from a field at the edge of bear infested woodland - but the food is delicious. Most is home grown or bartered with neighbours. Red beans, rice and miso soup for breakfast; soba noodles and salad for lunch; fish, potatoes and vegetables for dinner. Each meal being served with that day’s harvest of sweetcorn. Raw and milky in the morning, steamed and sweet at midday and in the evening. I have never eaten such fresh and delicious sweetcorn before, and probably never will again. Farmer’s perks. The work is also humbling. Hours of hand sorting spuds into ten kilogram boxes, for instance, makes you realise how much effort goes into getting food to the shops, especially of the organic kind.

Kenji and Miho, the newly weds we were staying with, kindly gave us a generous insight into a Japanese home: Shoes are left at the door; there are separate slippers for the bathroom (the first indoor compost loo I have ever witnessed); and decisions such as who does the washing up are decided by a game of paper, scissor, stone. Our sleeping quarters were separate. Outside. In a bus covered in hops and filled with insects. Tom sleeps on the backseat, I sleep in the aisle.

This is a very real contrast to the bright lights and sterile box buildings of Tokyo. We are now polishing potatoes for the organic food consumers of Japan’s big cities.

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Friday, 29 August 2008

Farmhand or stuntman?

Stooping down to pick up the thousandth stone on the muddy slope, I once more admired the large bear prints embedded in the soft ground all around me.

Again I wondered what was it one does when faced with a fullgrown, aggressive brown bear. I’d read somewhere that you should shout and bang your pots and pans loudly but I somehow seemed to have mislaid my IKEA kitchenware.

As we gingerly made our way across the field we were working in we felt like children acting out an imaginary game: don’t go over there - that’s where the bears are.

Except they WERE there. Only two days earlier, Kenji (Farmer-San and our temporary WWOOF boss) had told us they had been spotted - a mother and two cubs, ambling across his pumpkin field.

An hour earlier he had casually dropped us off, in this remote corner of his farm, with nothing but a few sacks and a few rocks as protection. And now we found ourselves in a field covered in bear tracks and nervously scanning the forest edge for any movements.

I breathed deeply and looked up to admire the beautiful scenery, the rolling and forested slopes building up to an impressive mountain range.

And pondered our possible mauling by wild beasts. I couldn’t help wondering: what was my role here on our WWOOF project at Takano Farm: was I a farmhand or a stuntman?

Yesterday it was daredevil tree-cutting, wielding a ancient and rusty yet lethal-looking saw, balanced precariously in a tractor bucket hosited some 40 foot in the air.

The day before it was extreme grass-cutting, using a strimmer of a questionable temperament, complete with a enormous and deadly-looking circular blade - the type that Ninja’s might seek to embed in some unfortunate shogun.

And now it was bear baiting. Wonderful.

Needless to say our survival skills saw us through this terrifying ordeal and Gentle Ben chose to keep their distance, but it didn't stop me admonishing our host.  

Kenji just grinned at this me, a guillible and game Englishman who would foolishlessly follow his directions, stretching his puny muscles to the limit of their keyboard-oriented existence.

After my tree-lopping antics I had returned to planet earth a quivering wreck, my knees knocking, my back soaked in sweat. He slapped me on the back and cackled, “Welcome to Japan, Super Salaryman”. I only learnt later, soon after our stay at Takano Farm, that Kenji was scared of heights...














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Wednesday, 20 August 2008

First impressions of Japan

Neon rules. A man waters his bonsai trees on the pavement. Friends meet for lunch, a song and a dance in the street. A man collapses from exhaustion on the morning tube. A million lights adorn skyscrapers then dim grey and disappear as the sun rises. Business men in shirt sleeves slurp noodles. You never go thirsty with a green tea vending machine on every corner. No street names. Trains that look like rockets. A communal hot bath after every shower. Tatami mat floors. Sliding paper walls. Sore knees from kneeling. Pears that look like giant apples. Miso soup, salad and red bean rice for breakfast. Baby voices. Scuffing, shuffling feet. Every appliance has its own song. Manga cafes serve unlimited icecream. The toilet has a control pad. Small bowls and chopsticks. It`s not as expensive as you think. Paddy fields for village greens. Forested mountain slopes appear and disappear in swirling mist. Big flying insects. Paedophilic comics. The bows get bigger the more important the person you`re bidding farewell. Packaging, packaging, packaging. Generous gifts galore as we we`re packed on the train with almighty bags of snacks. People love umbrellas. Women only carriages on the tube. Apprentice gangsters. Frozen tuna look like torpedoes. Is this Japan?


video

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Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Into the rising sun

Japan, BONG (picture of strapping bare-chested chap striking a large gong).

We have culture shock. Two days sailing in a rusty tub over the Sea of Japan and we could be on another planet.

And this after all our fine words about how travelling slowly would cleverly allow us to bypass the sense of bewilderment brought on by sudden exposure to a new and very different place. You know, approaching a place slowly, witnessing the gradual changes as one travels through as one country or region gives way to another.

Sure, we experienced it in this manner all the way up to and into Russia. But not this time.

Rather, as we stepped onto the deck of the MV Rus and caught our first glimpse of the modest port of Fushiki we realised we had moored up in a place very different from that we had left.

The hot, humid air hit us in the face, torrential rain lashed down on the well-kept dockside. The streets were small, dark and empty except for the odd tiny van scuttling past.


And up above us, fluttering in the breeze, the flag of the rising sun, framed by a backdrop of blue, misty peaks.

Stepping off the boat, the people were immediately different. Gone is the pale and lardy Russian look; the 80-a-day, beer-swilling hubby and dyed-haired, micro-skirted wife. This skinny little Englishman is a giant in this land, squeezing my 10 ½s between train seats, cramming my enormous pack onto the luggage racks as immaculate businessmen and well-behaved school kids duck out the way.

And the service is different. In Vladivostok we spent a bewildering few hours trawling through customs and immigration, sucked into a scrum of liquored Russian tourists before being finally spewed out on the darkended dockside, apparently left to pick the guess the right ship to embark on.

A far cry from the hyper-efficient, ultra-polite world of Japanese officialdom we now find ourselves in, all laptops and bows. Blimey, even the newsreader on the television bows!

Perhaps this will be the only time we experience this culture shock, Japan is after all renowned as a rather insular and culturally isolated nation, happy to be adrift off the coast of Asia and its more boisterous neighbours.

Or perhaps we should steel ourselves for this every time we take a long boat trip, after all America should prove somewhat different from Hong Kong.



Either way, this is culture shock of a highly serendipitous nature. Lara couldn’t stop beeming, “at last - a civilised country!” Her Finnish genes were firing away and she danced for joy: goodbye Russia, hello nice neat, clean Japan.


But despite all these pleasant surprises I got the feeling that it wasn’t all going to be plain sailing. Lurking beneath the surface of this rigidly ordered and law-abiding society lies a complex web of manners and etiquette, a whole new protocol we have to fathom and follow.


Add to this of course a notoriously difficult language, particularly in its written form, which makes cyrillic seem a breeze.


As the monsoonal rains lashed across the harbous and we headed out into the streets we scanned the roadsigns for our next mode of transport.

The squiggles and squirls seemed all robots and rabbits to us. Anyone know the kanji for train station?

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Vladivistok (brawn over brains?)

“Watch out”, we were warned shortly after we alighted at the station, “Vladivostok is quite dangerous - there are a lot of gangsters here. It would be best to move on as soon as you can.”

Keenly aware of Lara’s long-held reservations about ending the Russian leg of our trip at the Trans-Siberian railway’s Pacific terminus , I quickly scotched his claims. “What rot”, I scoffed once he was out of earshot, “He’s just trying to scare a couple of gullible foreigners”.

This was ‘Russia’s San Francisco’, complete with hilly streets, trams and beautiful bays shimmering in the hot sun. Besides, perhaps this was the usual welcome for foreigners. After all Vladivostok has not been accustomed to them - or at least Westerners - or that long.

Only itself 150 years old, the city has spent a large part of its time shrouded in secrecy and ringed with steel. A deepwater port which, vitally, was ice-free significantly more days of the year than those farther north, the Russians have jealously guarded its secrets. And as home to the Pacific fleet, Vladivostok was closed to foreigners, and indeed most Russians, until as recently as 1990.

Even now, as you wander among the docks or gaze down from the ‘Eagle’s nest’ on top of the hills above the ‘Golden Horn’, admiring the rows of battle-grey warships lining the bays, you feel a slight Cold War frisson.

However, the young man’s claims were not without some basis. As a raffish naval port Vladivostok does certainly have an certain ‘edge‘, particularly if you seem to be the only Westerners around, struggling up the city’s steep hills with several brightly-coloured backpacks strapped to your person.

And a few hours later, having encountered a few over-assertive drunks, I couldn’t fault where he was coming from.

I saw them approaching, sweating their way up the steps besides the funicular, loud and boisterous. Before I knew it a rather rough-hewn chap, all muscles and testosterone, his piggy eyes stained red with booze, strode up to me and snatched my water bottle.

‘American?’ he drunkenly snarled at me, more an accusation than a question.
‘No’ I stammered, not for the first time glad that I hailed from the other side of the pond, ‘Angliski’.

Muscles drained my bottle, defiantly tipping the remainder over his sweaty head.

He glowered at me, and it was immediately apparent he wasn’t interested in discussing the weather or perhaps debating the relative merits of Gower and Gooch. It looked like it was going to get ugly. I gulped and was about to enquire as to what finishing school he attended when his wiry, though equally drunk, companion stepped in and pulled him back.

A third drunk, a little weasel of a man took advantage of my distracted terror to try locate any potential plunder. I removed his enquiring hand from my right pocket and resisted the urge to clip the bounder round the ear.

Muscles pulled my sunglasses from my shirt pocket and perched them astride his wonky nose. I glanced anxiously over my shoulder at Lara, taking a photo across the road, willing her to keep her distance. Just not too far away.

Thankfully my natural charm worked, their interest in me waned and I didn’t have to employ my ninja skills. The wiry drunk hauled his mates off in search of other high jinks.

However it got me thinking. Had I just encountered today’s Russia, personified?

Raw and ugly, bullying and belligerent? Or was our little encounter just one of those things, which could occur in any country?

Certainly we have seen more than a country’s fair share of drunks. In fact I am typing this entry in my cabin aboard a ferry plying the Sea of Japan, taking refuge from the latest irritating, incomprehensible wreck of a native who tried to make my acquaintance.

Going by what we saw during our month-long visit Russians love getting hopelessly, paralytically drunk. Perhaps it is cathartic, like it can be for many in the West, a loosening of the tight inhibitions, here drilled into them by centuries of despotic rule of one form or another.

Whatever the reasons, how public drunkenness manifests itself strikes me as rather disturbing, and how it seems to be universally accepted is beyond my comprehension. Often, with this comes an exaggerated aggression; time and time again we have encountered men pumped up on machismo and drowning in alcohol.

Perhaps this was because so many of the people we met were members of the armed forces on leave. It seemed that every other person we met was a soldier and we lost count of the number of tanks and bombers, warships and uniforms we saw.

It all left us wondering: is this still the same land that gave the world Puskin and Doestevsky, Tchaichovsky and Chekhov? Have Russians really abandoned this heritage, favouring brawn over brains?

We found some answers back in Vladivostok, at the intriguing Fortress museum. Within the concrete casements, surrounded by guns and bombs, mines and missiles, we learnt of Russia’s recent historic struggles to maintain a foothold in the far east: two wars with the Japanese, a near-miss with the Chinese.

Mother Russia seems to have endured conflict like no other country, from Napoleon’s assault on Moscow to the Nazis' blitzkreig of 1941. Millions killed, untold misery endured. Indeed her history seems to be one of endless struggles, fighting to hold off the enemy, both without and within.

And though the cold war has ended Russia still seems to view itself as under assault: loss of its Soviet satellites; trouble in rebellious and independent-minded provinces; NATO seeking to expand into her former sphere of influence on her western borders.

Does this help to explain the mentality of people here? Her people, some of the friendliest, most fun people we have ever met on the road, still seem to accept this - to suffer, to endure.
They want a strong nation, a strong leader, and a country that commands respect worldwide. Civil liberties come a distant second. The natural environment? Well it just doesn’t figure at all.
Broke in the nineties, new-found wealth in oil and gas have allowed Russia to rattle its cage, bullying neighbours such as the Ukraine and Estonia to bend to its will. Like a spoilt child Russia is not used to them refusing its demands.
Only this week two more longstanding, smoldering disagreements with Russia’s neighbours sparked into conflict: Georgia has seen blood split over its position on South Ossetia, whilst Poland has been threatened with a similar fate for choosing to allow US missiles onto its territory.
Back at the ferry terminal, the waiting room hushed when pictures of more bloodshed on Russia’s borders filled the screen. A fellow passenger sadly shook her head. Just what was the West playing at, she asked me? Why were the Americans backing Georgia?
Once again, the call to arms. The conflict endures.


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Monday, 18 August 2008

How to…get from Russia to Japan by boat

Business Intour Service has the monopoly on ferry services from Vladivostok, Russia, to Fushiki, Japan.

Tickets for the 36-hour crossing start from $440 one-way ($600 return) in a 4-berth cabin in a lower deck.. All meals are included, although you’ll need to take some bottled water. For a fourth class cabin it was pretty good, with ensuite bathroom (including shower) and a television. Towels and sheets are provided.

To book a place on the boat you need to go to the Business Intour Service office (third floor of Vladivostok’s marine terminal) in person. Internet booking doesn’t seem to guarantee passage. It is worth arriving and booking a few days in advance as on-the-day sales are unpopular - the agency staff are unfriendly and declared the ferry full even though there was plenty of room and each four berth cabin only had two people in it.

Upon booking you are given a booking slip, but no ticket. You have to pay for the journey on board and you can only pay in U.S. dollars cash. In addition, the agency take 400 roubles for port tax, which you pay when making the booking.

Ferries ‘depart’ Vladivostok at about 10pm every Sunday and arrive in Fushiki, near Toyama, in Japan on the Tuesday at 10am (local time). However, the actual departure was closer to 1am as they only opened customs and immigration control at 9.30pm. This takes place in the basement of Vladivostok’s marine terminal. There is a bewildering lack of information in the ferry terminal. There are no signs or announcements telling you where boats are going or when and no one to ask. So just sit tight in the waiting room in the basement. Eventually we went through customs and then immigration control. Be prepared to have ready your migration card, visa registration forms and details of your route through Russia. Finding the actual ferry is amusing - after wandering passed darkened offices in the ferry terminal you find yourself on the dockside amongst Korean-imported vehicles. We just kept pointing and asking ’Nipponya?’

On board we were greeted by a line of smiling hostesses, who quickly whipped our passports off us, and showed us to our room. You then have 36 glorious hours to sit back and enjoy the ’80s ambience: Russian ladies in dressing gowns and stilettos adorn leather sofas, entertainers warm up their Casio keyboards and the fug of cigarette smoke is omnipresent.

Upon docking in Japan, customs officers come to your cabin to rifle through your luggage. Then you go to immigration control set up in the music saloon on the ferry where passports are returned. British citizens are given a 90-day tourist visa upon arrival in Japan in exchange for fingerprints.

Fushiki is a small port village, that has a post office with an ATM that accepts foreign bank cards and a train station that connects to the rest of Japan. There aren’t many people around to help so it is worth befriending a local on the boat.

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Saturday, 16 August 2008

How to...travel the Trans-Siberian Railway


“The Russian Railways welcome you worshipful passengers! You are serviced by the personnel of the Carriage Sector of the Eastern Direction. We bid you godspeed!”

So read the moving LED display as we boarded the Rossiya (train #002) from Moscow to Vladivostok, our home for the next four nights and days. We were in ‘kupe’, or second, class sharing a four-person cabin. We bought tickets in advance on line in the UK from G&R International and collected them from their office in Moscow. Our command of Russian and the Cyrillic alphabet was too poor to allow us to buy tickets at the station, but it can be done. Indeed, for any amateur code breakers it is quite fun.

Our days on the train typically consisted of sleeping late, eating, reading, eating, chess, reading, eating, reading, sleep. The train has a few stops each day where you can disembark to stretch and buy provisions. At most stations there are kiosks or vendors selling water, beer, noodles and sometimes local delicacies such as dumplings, smoked fish and potato donuts. However, it’s worth buying grog and vitals before boarding (e.g. pot noodles, pot mashed potato, bread, cheese spread, dried fruit, biscuits, tinned fruit, tomatoes, cucumbers, tea and water) as it’s often cheaper and then you can dine when you want rather than be governed by the train timetable. We didn’t make it to the restaurant car, but understand the food to be rather hit-or-miss and relatively spendy. Most pot noodles come with a fork, but you would be advised to take a knife, fork, spoon, bowl and cup. Then with the constant supply of boiling water from the samovar you are pretty self-sufficient.

A note on toilets: Since the toilets are not self-contained but merely empty their contents straight onto the track there is a ‘sanitary zone’ for about ten minutes either side of, and at, a major station, when the doors are locked. The tap in the sink works by pressing up the short metal widget at the back of the tap. If you ask (gesture) nicely, the carriage attendant will lend you a shower nozzle to enable you to wash all over.

To engage locals in dialogue a Point It book, map and photographs from home are recommended. With these tools we managed to hold a ’conversation’ with our cabin mates for about 10 of the 7,200 minutes we were cooped up together.

Otherwise, just lie back and enjoy the scenery (trees until Irkutsk, much more variety from there to Vladivostok) in the intermittent air conditioning (works when the train has gathered speed) and piped music (usually of the repetitive beats variety - the 9am house remix of jingle bells was a particular highlight).

After the first night’s sleep it is amazing how you get into the groove and time whiles away, helped by crossing seven time zones. Over eight nights we travelled 10,039km - the entire length of the Russian Federation from west to east. It is an amazing, and utterly unforgettable, way to travel.

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Friday, 15 August 2008

All aboard the Trans-Siberian...


The Trans-Siberian Railway attracts many clich├ęs yet, in the case of the ‘Trans Sib’, well-worn phrases such as ‘epic journey’ are entirely appropriate. In fact, given the scale of the line (or lines, to be precise - the Trans-Siberian is only one of three crossing Russia, the others being the Trans-Mongolian and the Trans-Manchurian) perhaps it doesn’t do it enough justice.

The Trans-Siberian is one of the longest railway journeys in the world, built on some fearsome terrain at great cost, both in human life and roubleys. Since opening it has thrilled generations of travellers, drawing the more adventurous from across the world and challenging them to undertake the 9289 kilometre crossing, from the metropolis of Moscow to the shores of the Pacific. How many plane flights have attracted this kind of romance and mystique?

Your correspondents certainly didn’t approach this journey lightly. With four nights ahead of us before our only break (Irkutsk) on our journey to Vladivostok we stocked up with enough provisions to supply a whole troop of Cossacks.

This turned out to be a prudent decision. This country is simply massive and the railway matches that scale. In total we slept seven nights on the train, crossing seven time zones and eating goodness knows how many packets of noodles. Looking back now and tracing our route from Moscow I’ve drawn a line on my map which must be pushing two feet. On a pocket-sized map.

‘You’re crossing the Trans-Siberian?’, people asked beforehand, ‘I hope you like trees.’ And yes, there were a lot of trees, enough to sate even the most devoted tree-hugger. Huge forests of slender birches, great medieval fleets of pine and larch. This was the taiga - the deep forest that counts for 30% of the world’s trees - which acts as the world’s ‘other lung’, sucking up CO2 and releasing Oxygen (though sadly, unlike its more famous counterpart, the Amazon, its systematic and catastrophic depletion receiving little world attention).

And in between lay great swamps such as the Barbara Steppe: a haven for wildlife; a
graveyard for convicts, exiles and railway workers.

We crossed enormous rivers, from the famous Volga to great torrents I’d never heard of - the Ob, the Yenisy and the Tom (a fine name), many of them flowing thousands of miles to Russia’s far northern shores, well within the Arctic Circle.

We crossed the Urals and entered Asia, chugging through great cities with strange names such as Perm, Yekaterinburg and Omsk.

Out on the West Siberian plain the wild alternated with heavy industry, where Soviet planners prudently moved much heavy industry during ‘the Great Patriotic War’, as the Nazis advanced into Russia. Each town seemed to specialise in a particular product - in one town it was tractors, in the next space rockets.

Outside the towns, the villages clung on stubbornly, composed of stout wooden dwellings, each surrounded by delightfully overgrown gardens of food staples - beetroot, beans and prodigious quantities of potatoes - to help their occupiers see out the long, cruel winter.

Manufacturing your own products, growing your own food: echoes of a distant past back home.

We passed through lands once closed to Western eyes. Oil refineries and nuclear reprocessing centres, military airbases and secret cosmodromes.

Around Novosibirsk we were told this stretch of line is the busiest in the world. And who are we to argue - it certainly looked lively, with massive and regular freight trains passing us carrying everything from gas containers bound for Western markets (or not, as the case may be) to tanks. Didcot Parkway this is not.

Way beyond beautiful Lake Baikal , the train finally left Siberia and entered Russia’s Far Eastern Territories, a land itself two-thirds the size of the continental United States. Still with two more days to go, we passed through wide, heavily-forested river valleys, winding their way down to the mighty Amur on the Chinese border.

Towns seemed even more spaced apart, the streets empty, the houses worn and warped by the extremes of summer heat and winters where temperatures can plunge to at least 30 below.

Finally, beyond the massive kink in the map that is Manchuria we started to head south and left the permafrost zone. Trees started to grow higher.

The people looked different too, a breed apart from their compatriots we encountered leaving Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod for the weekend, escaping to their datchas to tend their cucumbers and sunflowers . More eastern faces, with Buryats alighting at Ulan Ude and, later on, Mongolians and Chinese migrant workers.

As the landscape grew kinder, the light seemed to alter. Our fellow passengers arose from their slumbers. Perhaps they smelt the salt in the air, or heard the distant cry of seagulls. Vladivostok!

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Thursday, 14 August 2008

Siberian exiles

The Trans-Siberian plays host across the range of Russian society and we shared our carriage with a wide variety of people.

This was no city hopper; many of them were making a journey of several nights, some the whole way to Vladivostok, 7 nights away.

Whilst coming from various backgrounds they seemed to share some things in common, in particular their clothing and their diet.

As soon as they were on board our fellow passengers were stripping down to suit the warm weather, sporting only the bare essentials of Trans-Siberian clothing and turning their carriage in effect into a moving version of their front room.. Polyester was a firm favourite, and no self-respecting passenger travelled without flip flops. In addition, for many time passed very pleasantly in the company of a large quantity of beer and cigarettes.

Everyone, it seemed, also existed on a very similar diet. Passengers arrived at Moscow with bags stuffed to the brim with provisions. Meat and cheese, bread and pungent fish, cucumbers and great jars of pickles.

Noodles featured heavily on everyone‘s menu, convenient as they were in their just-add-water packages. The samovar provided hot water for this purpose, along with slaking the thirst of those who like a nice brew.

Few of our fellow passengers held a strong command of the English language, whilst our Russian could only be described as ‘beginners‘, however, with the winning combination of grunts, wild gestures and the invaluable ‘point it’ book we managed to meet some interesting types along the route and learn a little about their lives.

A few of the more memorable included:

The provodnitsas
As attendants in your carriage, the provodnitsa (female) or provodnaya (male) is the beating heart of the train. On such a long train journey each carriage carries two providnitsas working in shifts, busying themselves with locking and unlocking the toilets (which they did infuriatingly often), acting as DJ (or was, given the selection of tunes, Dave Pearce hiding in her little cabin?), vacuuming the corridor and each carriage (every day!), dispensing tea and noodles and supervising passengers at every stop, chivvying the stragglers back on board before they became stranded in Siberia.

On the Rossiya service to Irkutsk our attendants were particularly good fun, both of them large buxom bottle-blonds who found themselves the butt of many of the numerous drunken soldiers’ pranks, suffering them like patient schoolmarms would an unruly school trip to Alton Towers.


Alexei the drunken soldier
A friendly but all the same rather scary off-duty soldier. When his copious offers to us of a good swig from his collection of vodka of rather dubious provenance were politely (but wisely) refused this John Terry lookalike resolved to show use his army home videos via his mobile phone. Our firm favourite had to be one of him and comrades cleaning out the toilet block, aggressively brandishing mops to 50 Cent’s ‘In da club’.

A scorpion on his right pectoral, Alexei had an unnerving habit of making throat slitting gestures, but perhaps it was better to stick with him rather than his mate. If Alexei was scary his mate was terrifying. Introducing himself by drunkenly trying to set fire to Lara with his cigarette lighter, he proceeded to spend the rest of the journey swigging vodka or sleeping off its effects

The bear
Never changing once of his checked shirt and voluminous trousers, Vladimir started as he meant to go on for the journey with a good solid 20 hour snooze (we later heard unconfirmed reports that earth tremors as far away as Murmansk had been attributed to his impressive snores). With his immense frame (towering a good half foot over me, with shoulders which would put Atlas in the shade), his love of large meat-based dishes and his obvious penchant for hibernation he soon earned the sobriquet ‘the bear’.

Although lacking a word of English the bear’s good nature allowed him to convey to us details of his hometown (somewhere near the Altai Mountains) and his profession (a lorry driver?). Stetched out on his bunk, his feet poking into the corridor, the bear loved to bury himself away in a good car magazine and try and ignore the pre-coital activities of the couple in the bunk below.

The eastern chavs
High on the hormone-inducing scent of polyester soaked in BO and cigarette smoke, Mr and Mrs Chav couldn’t keep their hands off each other. Perhaps pock-marked hubby had just been released from prison, or his svelte missus had decided to return to his loving arms having stormed off across the country following a lover's tiff, but whatever it was their love was such that, when in each other's arms, others simply disappeared into the worn upholstery.

Mrs Chav made up the final member of our four bed cabin, leaving hubby and frumpy, eleven-year old, be-mulleted Master Chav to sleep in the cheap seats further down the train. Such was the ardour of her paramour though that he was always to be found nuzzling his dearest as dawn broke in our carriage, his sweet cooings waking us up in a manner no alarm clock could come near. Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘a quick bunk up…’


Alexei the fighter pilot
Appearances can be deceptive but no careers adviser could guess that soft, doe-eyed Alexei was a fighter pilot. Somewhat sceptical of his claims, we were treated to pictures of his plane (a fearsome-looking SU-24 bomber) and colleagues, along with assurances that his participation in bombing the heck out of Chechnya was in the best interests of all.

After showing us his squadron’s tattoo - an eagle (well it made a change from scorpions) - and some rather racy pictures of his wife Alexei made room for his companions, his brother, Sergei, an equally dappy-looking chap, who worked for Cadbury’s, and some tubby bloke with an endearing laugh who fed us nuts.

Sergei and Ira
Like surly teenagers the world over, Ira made full use of the plentiful opportunities the Trans-Sib offered for long lie-ins.

Her father, an amiable army instructor had a clear fondness for his dayglo orange sleeveless top and fragrant fish. He kindly took the trouble to introduce us to the delights of storing smoked fish in a confined space for a number of days.

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Wednesday, 13 August 2008

GBT

Great Baikal Trail (GBT), or Great Bloody Trial, has put our survivalist skills to the test this past couple of weeks. From the lethargy and lounging of four days and nights on the Trans-Siberian Railway, we were walking 11km a day and digging a trail on a precipitous coastal cliff. Now back in the relative comfort of the train to Vladivostok, GBT seems like another world.

On 1st August 2008, twelve strangers were dropped off on a remote shore of Lake Baikal in Siberia. As the boat sailed away we looked at each other and the bags in front of us and realised that this was literally it for the next two weeks. We cooked in a bucket over a fire, drank water from the stream and washed ourselves and our clothes in the lake.

Lake Baikal is the world’s deepest lake. At 1,637m it holds 20 per cent of the world’s fresh water, enough to quench the thirst of homo sapiens for 40 years. Consequently a dip in the pure, turquoise waters chills you to the core. The nature is stunning. Colourful flowers, interesting grasses and unique animals such as the rotund nerpa seal. Eighty per cent of the lake’s flora and fauna can be found nowhere else in the world. At night the stars reflect in the water and the moon sets in shades of orange. It’s captivating, and now that we are gone I miss the lake.

The aims of the Great Baikal Trail organisation are commendable - to open up the lake to hikers and campers and encourage responsible tourism in the region - and their methods are light on the environment. However, in sharing the secrets of the lake come problems that are beyond the scope of GBT. Russian tourists seem to think that it is acceptable to leave all their rubbish along the lake shore. Lake Baikal’s sponges may be capable of filtering the water to drinking standard, but cannot purify the piles of vodka bottles, tinned meat cans and plastic left behind by happy campers. So whilst the need for a safe path was apparent, and I was happy to contribute to its construction, I felt a twinge of dread as to what else it may bring. There is zero recycling in Russia and appreciation of nature appears to be mainly utilitarian. I hope that environmental education and behaviour improves at the same time as the path lengthens. Either way, in building 200m more of the Great Baikal Trail we have truly left our mark on Siberia.

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Monday, 11 August 2008

Survivor - Siberia

Coming to a channel near you soon...



Location: Lake Baikal, Siberia

Date: August 2008
Accommodation: intimate double room (canvas) in al fresco surroundings, fully air-conditioned with built-in shower (cold)
Kitchen: portable, with accompanying self-assembly dining area. Open-top stove with easy access to free and plentiful fuel (allow one week to dry out). Unique opportunity for communal catering with fellow guests. Food cooked and served in a convenient bucket, tasty hint of woodsmoke and scrumptious garnish of ash and grit. Staff provide regular, free screening service for animal droppings; local wildlife provide convenient pouring holes; beer and Baikalskaya vodka provided by German caterers
Facilities: washing facilities located conveniently nearby, free chilled running water with add-on fridge / beer cooler; shower area in fantastic lakeside setting (ideal for naturists); airy toilet produced from local, rustic materials and set in nearby sylvan location

Work: path construction with wonderful close views of 80 foot cliffs, excellent cardiovascular workout complemented by essential four mile warm-up / warm-down mile walk to worksite


Local environment: beautiful lakeside setting in birch, larch and pine taiga forest. Very friendly insect life, inquisitive small mammals with rapacious appetities, spectacular wildflowers and and vocally impressive birdlife

Required skills: Must be able to simultaneously light fire, fight off insects and cook for 12 others in a torrential thunderstorm. Also require: ability to balance on cliff edges whilst wielding heavy tools; impermeable to water and mud; self-cleaning; can withstand extremes of temperature and excessive woodsmoke inhalation.
Apart from that nothing else is essential (although wood whittling and banya construction skills a would be a bonus).



CAST:

Lara and Tom (UK): glamorous English-educated Finnish princess and her dapper English gent, an amateur ornithologist.

Witold and Robert (Germany): The finest comedy duo since the Two Ronnies these two, sponsored by Jack Wolfskin, provided many a moment of light relief.

A tall, angular student from Leipzig, Witi never went anywhere without his trusty mug, dangling from his belt for easy access (even when flying). With his amusing English pronunciations and his meticulous manner Witi couldn’t be more German if he tried.

Robbie, on the other hand, couldn’t look more German, with an impressive socks and sandals combo, an ever-present multicoloured bandana and his trusty moon-and-wolves t-shirt. Marvels of modern sartorial design, the latter two items never left his body unless he took one of his frequent skinny dips in the icy waters of the lake. A fan of DIY banyas and nocturnal wood chopping, back home Robbie is usually found helming his beloved tanker, transporting nitric acid along central European waterways.

Karen and Emily (UK): Hailing from the depths of Essex, these two highly-educated sisters couldn’t have had a more testing time getting to the project, something they were keen to share with us all. With a discerning taste in food both could usually be found sporting natty mosquito headresses and smearing themselves in various salves and ointments from Doctor Karen’s medicine bag. When rain set in and mud of Glastonbury proportions threatened these two wisely decided to head for the hills.

Matan (Israel): With an ego too small to fit in the Middle East this egregious chap decided to see the world. A former army officer he lost no time in utilising his backwoodsman skills and imparting his survival-training knowledge. Gifted with a talent for languages Matan also included the near-mythical local Mrs Fix-It, Olga, amongst his friends.

Hana (Czech Republic): A child of the Cold War, warm-hearted Hana recounted some incredible stories of her experiences of life behind the Iron Curtain. Sharing our exasperated sense of fascination for the Russian way of doing things Hana somehow managed to rise above the squalor of camp GBT.

Nadya, Julya, Jul and Lena (Russia): At first keeping largely to themselves our native friends gradually opened up to their Western colleagues.

Clearly enthused by a passion for Baikal, lively Nadya regularly lifted our spirits and never failed to check our porridge for mouse droppings.

Not to be outdone by her senior GBT colleague, Jul is surely set to become the face of Russian tourism. Severobakailsk’s answer to … she was also eager to enlighten the Westerners about the more bewildering aspects of Russian culture and learn new English phrases.

Interpreter Julya provided extra support to her two GBT colleagues, and learnt a little Danish in the process (courtesy of a friendly Viking with an enormous Thor tattoo).

Volunteer Lena, hailing from the fringes of the Altai, proved a fountain of knowledge about her home country, including the local Buryat culture and their continued Shamanistic practices.


Suporting cast

Walk-on cameos were given to a host of passing walkers, including two bedraggled but enthusiastic Austrians; two testosterone-charged Danes; three bickering Germans; a score of wayward Brits and 56 immaculately turned-out Koreans.

Solid support was provided by the inhabitants of GBT camp two, most notably the thirsty Maxim, some friendly chap in a vest and floppy hat and Alexei, who decided to drain Lystvyanka of its vodka and then make the perilous four hour hike home.







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Sunday, 10 August 2008

Russian Brides Dot Com


There are two noticeable features of the Russian population: (1) There are hardly any old men (2) the women dress very brightly using as little fabric as possible.

The reason for the first is that male life expectancy is just 61, largely due to poverty, poor diet and alcohol. Women live, on average, thirteen years longer. The second may be related to the first. Apparently there are over 10 million more women than men in Russia. Of the men that are available, my Russian girl friends tell me that it is hard to find a man who is educated, doesn’t swear or drink to excess. From my experience most of the Russian men I have met have been drinking or drunk and the majority belonged to the armed forces, but then most of these encounters happened on the train and I have no idea how clean their language was. So perhaps this is why the women decorate and preen themselves in the hope of attracting one of the few good men?

These factors could be contributing to Russia’s declining population, of approximately 750,000 people each year. To counter this, the government is apparently encouraging couples to have children by giving women 250 thousand rubles (approximately £5,500) for every child they have after the first. Despite this, I was astounded to read that the average Russian woman will have ten abortions in her lifetime. I wasn’t able to get into the reasons for this other than the historic lack of sex education. I am told that in the Soviet Union propaganda proclaimed ‘Don’t have sex, just work!’

Russia is a man’s world, but the emphasis on masculinity seems dated and immature. Men are supposed to look and behave tough and women are supposed to look sexy and behave submissively. But perhaps things are changing. In the thirty minutes that we walked along the seafront today we witnessed eight meringue brides and their new husbands posing seductively against defunct naval guns. It would appear that Russian brides are becoming a popular export too, with the repeated invitations from spam websites to wed a Russian lovely. However, not all women here are so inclined. For example, the Great Baikal Trail staff are predominantly female and those leading our project definitely had the seeds of ambition and dreams beyond stilettos and low cut tops.

More than fifteen years since the fall of communism the general picture seems to be that many Russian women are caught between a communist hangover of sexual ignorance and manufactured Western ideas of desirability. Perhaps it is this confusion or the lack of good men that is leading women to advertise their availability on-line.


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Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Siberian spa

Yesterday was banya day. The Russian equivalent of a sauna with all its own perks and charms.

The banya was a dark, wooden hut affair in the forest, the gaps between the logs being plugged with wool and straw. Inside were two benches and a metal stove. Ilena, our Russian banya expert, opened the stove and threw in a ladle of herb water that had been infused with herbs gathered on the 6km walk to the banya. As the steam circulated our English companions squealed and ran out screaming “It’s too hot, let us out!” Thus leaving more room for the remaining four of us to perspire.

After 10 minutes we made a dash outside and down to the icy cold stream that spends most of its Siberian year as ice. It felt like it. Then a quick shot of vodka and back in to the banya.

This time I was asked to lie on my front on the bench as Ilena grabbed a bunch of birch leaves and twigs out of a bowl of boiling water. She preceded to sprinkle boiling water over my naked body and then to slap it vigorously with the twigs. It was pleasantly painful when coupled with the herbal steam and surprisingly soothing on my many mosquito bites. After this, submersion in the stream actually felt good and vodka has never tasted better.

After another sweat and dip it was time to wash, mixing hot and cold water in a wooden bowl to spoon over myself with a wooden ladle. The whole process was topped off by dipping my hair in the yellow herb water. A true Russian banya experience in the taiga of the shores of Lake Baikal.

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