9 August, 2005

The remnants of an old bridge that used to carry this very same train line.

The bigness of it all can really be staggering at times. For almost the entire trip, this is what the landscape was like.

One of the larger towns we passed. Dirt roads are the norm, people seemed absent, and many of the buildings were in various states of deterioration.

Another section of the same town.

We stopped at a platform where we were again greeted with frenetic activity as merchants of all sorts tried to get us to buy their goods.

Two potential customers look warily into the box.

Our provodnitsa keeps an eye on the people lingering on the platform. The train gives little warning when it's leaving and it's up to each provodnitsa to make sure their car is accounted for.

Not sure what he was selling but he was just as good at targeting passengers.

To get from one car to another, you would have to pass between the little junctions between cars. Each one would rise up about a foot just to make it even more memorable. Doing this while the train is moving can be rather scary, due to the darkness and the loud noise of the train. But it's the only way to get anywhere beyond your car.

This old tanker train seemed to go on for miles.

Our home for the past 24 hours.

People in Yekaterinburg await the arrival of our train.

For those who care, this is what a typical Russian toilet looks like. This one was in Yekaterinburg.

Note the profound lack of water. American toilets must look extremely strange to them as well.

9 August, 2005

Day 24. Not only did I sleep in the train but I slept well into the afternoon. This bodes well. Apparently it's true what they say about the gentle rocking of the train lulling one to sleep and keeping one there.

I tried to get breakfast in the dining car since Hanneke and Sasja weren't awake yet but apparently a single person can't get service at a table there. At least that's how I interpreted the scolding I got when I tried to get seated. So I walked all the way back to our car and watched the view for a while from the window outside the cabin. It was still mostly forest and field, occasionally broken up by the emergence of a small village which looked as if it hadn't been changed in centuries. We'd also pass crumbling factories and warehouses from the Soviet era, in many cases having the year of construction emblazoned proudly upon their structures: 1946, 1968, 1986, etc. It was a long time before I saw anything that looked even remotely new.

When we were all awake we dove into our own provisions rather than journey all the way back to the dining car. I still had some leftovers from the Minsk-Moscow train so that tided me over nicely. The train people supplied every cabin with a very nice looking teapot so we made frequent trips down to the boiling water machine at the end of the car and lived off tea for a while.

It was hard to believe but we were only a few hours away from our destination. There were a couple more stops in small towns where anyone venturing onto the platform would be immediately surrounded by hawkers of all types. It seemed like such a hard life: pinning all of your hopes on these complete strangers who obviously had enough money to be riding on the train in the first place and devoting however much time it took to prepare whatever it was you were selling. But it wasn't like there was much choice in places like this. If you wanted to survive, this is what you had to do. I'm sure there are many more who have it even worse.

And so we continued on our way. And at around 8 in the evening we arrived in the city of Yekaterinburg. And yes, it was a city by all definitions. Tall buildings, trams, a metro, lots of people and traffic, the works. And yet this was a city I had never even heard of before planning this trip. I still can't even say its name properly.

Yekaterinburg is such a welcome relief to all of the forest, fields, small villages, and peasants that have been our landscape for almost the entire time since leaving Moscow. Not that I disliked any of that but I do appreciate a little variety. In my mind it had seemed as if that was all there was to Russia east of Moscow. Now I know there's more and it's a bit of a relief.

One thing I immediately liked about this city was the climate. It wasn't baking hot like the rest of Russia had been. Maybe that's what made it feel a bit friendlier than Moscow but it did seem as if people were smiling more here. While there was much that was old in the city, I saw new construction and lots of modern dress. It felt like a city that wanted to catch up.

An interesting fact about time in places like this. When we were leaving the train station and heading towards our hotel, I noticed a big clock on the side of the station which said it was 6:30. Odd, since the time of our arrival was closer to 8:30. It turns out that train stations only keep Moscow time. So as soon as you walk through those doors, it's like you're back in Moscow. As soon as you leave, clocks everywhere show the local time. It seems like an excellent recipe for missing trains since all of the timetables also reflect Moscow time. I guess when you have eleven time zones, you need to do things like this, although I'm not really sure who it benefits.

We got to our hotel, the Bolshoy Ural. It was one of those Soviet style places with tiny rooms and extremely wide hallways that led to them. And in order to get to them you needed to follow a special procedure, one which isn't uncommon in places like this. The downstairs receptionist would give you a card with your room number on it. She would also take your passport to have it registered with the authorities. (This takes about an hour.) You then proceed to the very tiny lift or the stairs where the security guy may or may not look at your card before you head up. When you arrive at your floor, you hand your card to another receptionist who then gives you a key. Yes, every floor has a receptionist. In fact, some of the bigger hotels have one for every side of the building on every floor. It's an incredible amount of staff and once again I don't see a whole lot in the way of customers.

One of the possible reasons for the lack of guests soon became clear. The place has no hot water! Apparently, for a period of ten days in August this is how it's going to be. The travel agency really scored on this one. So after not being able to take a shower on the train and having four more nights before arriving in the next city, let's just say we're all going to be pretty ripe upon arrival. I only hope the Soviet style is less fashionable out in Irkutsk.

I also just discovered that I'm actually in Asia! These are my first moments on a brand new continent. I have to say though that I think there really should be more fanfare when crossing into a different continent. That's why ocean borders are better than something like the Ural Mountains which we didn't even see on the train. Maybe tomorrow we'll take a trip to the actual border so we can better appreciate this moment.

Much as I would like to see what this place can conjure up for breakfast, I'm probably going to miss it so I can get on a decent schedule for the "Off The Hook" broadcast which will wind up taking place at around dawn my time on Thursday. Nothing but Russian channels on the television but from those I was able to figure out that the shuttle landed and that somebody important in Russia died. I guess for now I don't really need to know anything else.