|Posted on April 25, 2012 at 8:40 AM|
Carriage 4, Bed 5, Train 77, Hilok-Ulan Ude, Russia,April 24, 22.33 local, 16.33 Moscow time
If you have never heard of Hilok, do not worry.Neither had the railway employee in Volgograd who issued the rail ticket for me a month ago tomorrow. In fact, if you have heard of this place, then you should start worrying because you are a freak. Because this is not a place where anybody normal would ever find oneself (even though it is on the Moscow-Beijing railway line). So why Hilok? It’s a simple story really, a worthy conclusion to an adventure that has lasted for 12 years,but also an indication that this has to stop now, or else it will really go too far. I needed to do the three federal entities of Russia which are in a row, the Buryat Republic, Zabaikalsk kray and Amur oblast. The plan was all set, with me flying out to Ulan Ude, then taking the train to Chita which would take a reasonable 9 hours, and then flying to Blagoveshchensk in Amur, on an overpriced, if efficient flight that probably overflies a bulge of Chinese territory, thus doing in less than 2 hours what the train would do in an unbearable 28. Sadly, by the time I wanted to book this overpriced and critical flight, on little known Ir-Aero, it was full, an indication, if anything, that in Siberia travel connections are wanted and, probably quite lacking. That essentially meant a death to doing Amur oblast, which is too far from anything else, but I could still efficiently do Zabaikalsk krai by coming to Hilok, only 5 hours from Ulan Ude, and then going back on the next train. That way I would, true,miss the capital Chita,which is probably no great shakes anyway, but I would get my point. This entirely hair-brained plan, though not bad, and allowing for a mere 2 hours in Hilok, a small town of 10.000 people, essentially means that, for the first time in my life, I spent 65 euros (ok, not a fortune) and 12 hours of my precious time on earth, to go a place which is practically not on the map only to immediately turn back.The scenery on the way was pretty enough and, for the first time since I have been around Russia,hilly. Plenty of snow still around, and even snowfall as the train slowly headed east on its endless route to Vladivostok.It was also the first time in my more than 15 train journeys in Russia that there was a delay, of 20 full minutes, which in retrospect was truly merciful,because Hilok’s charms could, at best, be stretched to a snail-paced walk o fhalf an hour, and the sun was setting slowly anyway. In fact, I was treated to snowfall and sun at the same time as the train came to a screeching halt in this railway junction, and the minute I stepped off the train, the snow magically stopped and the sun shone in all its glory. This could only be symbolic, as with Hilok I reached 708 points on MostTraveledPeople, equalling the other Greek on the site, Mr. Bizas, who may be 18 years older than me but now has to contend with sharing that coveted 9th position of best travelled person. Meanwhile, finding picture-worthy items in Hilok posed a considerable challenge, apart from the obvious station name. The place doesn’t even seem to have a Lenin statue for goodness sake, which is a major shocker really. There was all of one street with some typical communist buildings and then a lot of wooden ones. If there is one thing they have around here it is wood, and lots of cargo trains on the way were neatly loaded with stack upon stack ready to betransported somewhere more needy that this sleepy place. I was treated to a lovely sunset and beautiful colours with the hills in the background becoming yellowish, and I also snapped a picture of a traditional-looking sauna building on the way back to the station. My expedition to Hilok was declared completed and a success with little hassle, and luckily I was not stopped by any meandering policemen, but you do have to question my motivations...
Flashing back to the past 8 days, I have sprinted through many a Russian province, often seeing towns at bizarre times like dawn or dusk, or downright dead of night. Obviously my sleeping patterns are entirely ruined but I am blessed with an ability to sleep anywhere, and trust me, I am taking full advantage of that these days, when able to with an eye-mask from Emirates to help. Most provincial Russian towns are worth a maximum of two hours unless you do museums (which I don’t - especially after my experience in Magadan last years, where I couldn’t escape the endless rooms with bizarre exhibits including fossils and mushrooms, under the watchful eye of the surprised caretaker who wanted to make sure the foreigner’s visit was educational and worthy, I couldn’t disappoint her by leaving fast - though Iwould have liked to do the museum of vodka in Smolensk had it not been evening when I was there). One of the battier parts of the plan was a quick turnaround to Orenburg, flying out there (which is two hours from Moscow) for 4 hours there and then flying back, followed immediately by the train to Smolensk (which is a 6 hour ride) with a 2-hour turnaround there in the dark before going back to Moscow to fly to Noyabrsk in the oil-rich autonomous Yamalia province in Siberia, with 8 hours there before the train down to Surgut. With so many images superimposing themselves one on another, you would think I wouldn’t remember one place from another, but I always do and, in general, I feel I can have an opinion of most places. Orenburg was a pleasant surprise, oddly quaint, with a very long pedestrian zone, slightly poor looking, and lacking an open cafe at 7 a.m. for me to get a much needed cafeine dose. It has a bridgeover a river which is supposed to be the border between Europe and Asia, and it even has a cable car above the river but this was not operating, yet another over-ambitious project it appears. Orenair, which I flew back to Moscow on, has really good service, by the way. Smolensk was grander,as it is one of the oldest cities in Russia, and is probably one of the worthier cities of a tourist visit. I kind of gave up on Surgut, where I only had two hours, as it seemed entirely boring, though its magnets are pretty, but as a town perhaps even worse than little Noyabrsk, which at least had a good pizza place (where I did not have pizza,but soup and a meat and vegetable dish served in a little pot) and lots of advertisements of Gazprom being ‘in harmony with nature’ pasted on the drab apartment blocks which were punctuated by one lone church and a greenish mosque.
The greatest pleasure of this trip by far has been Tomsk,which exuded culture and sophistication and would be worthy of a long weekend break if it were nearer anywhere else, which it isn’t. Apart from well-maintained wooden buildings in Siberian style from the end of the 19th century, there were exhibitions on Africa, a Latin American film festival and as the weather was beautiful everyone was out and strolling by the river Tom or by the small, still frozen White Lake around which you could get ice-cream (I had my first of the season, aptly named USSR, which tastes orgasmic) or enjoy a joyride on somewhat defunct looking equipment. Tomsk reminded me slightly of Kaliningrad, which is also Russian by default really, in that both appear lighter, more open and welcoming that the country they are in. My subsequent experience going to Yurga, a nondescript town in Kemerovo province, and from there connecting on a local bus to a small town called Bolotnoe in Novosibirsk province and from there taking the local train to Novosibirsk itself provided wonderful insightin rural Siberia and small places that have stayed entirely stuck in time (much like Hilok). In fact, it appears that, while effort has been made to upgrade the capitals of the provinces to have an air of, well, something or other, the lesser places are still where they must have been fifty years ago. Same Lenin statues, same billboards exhaulting the place to ‘excel’ and be all it can be when it is obvious that these places are just going nowhere, never and that anybody lucky will get the hell out as fast as possible. I took more pictures in Yurga than anywhere else as I couldn’t get enough of these partially faded billboards with pictures of the concrete blocks subtitled ‘blossom Yurga’. Does anyone really believe this crap, I have to wonder...
Omsk was also pretty and I loved finding Broz Tito streetright in the centre, another homage to an era that has, for good or bad, longgone (I have always been nostalgic of the past, even when I was 10 years old, it kind of defines me). Omsk seemed richer than the rest but maybe it’s because, at 5.30 am, I strolled past a beautifully lit shopping centre with Armani and what have you. I did less justice to Tyumen, as I was in a hurry to get the bus to Kurgan and get to my hotel there before it would be too late, but it also seemed a decent place. All of these larger Siberian towns sport quite a percentage of Asian populations (predictably, being right next to Kazakhstan) who all seem very well integrated to me. In Kurgan I must have been the only foreigner in town. An odd choice to spend not one,but two nights, but strategically chosen to be an undemanding break before the remainder of this nutty adventure into Siberia. Reaching Ulan-Ude this morning provided a much welcome Mongolian twist to the proceedings, but the snow and terrible wind put a damper on my enthusiasm, not to mention a landing from hell, I thought our swerving wing would land before the rest of the plane. Don’t these places ever get warm, sunny and cosy? At any rate, the capital of the Buryat republic is surprisingly developed, and even has an Irish pub. It is known for the biggest head of Lenin in the world (which is a dubious achievement, to be honest) and the main square, unimaginatively called Sovyetskaya, is surprisingly beautifully maintained. Welcoming as the mixture of Russian and Buryat peoples may be, however, the place is worth all of a few hours (again, I repeat, unless you want to do the ethnography museum, the national history museum and more), just like most of its counterparts around the country, except Moscow and St. Petersburg and, I would add, up and coming Kazan,which I would gladly visit again.
Somewhere in the middle of all this, in Yurga in fact, I reached my goal of getting into the Top 10 of world travellersaccording to MTP (at least based on the standings the way they were on that date, April 20). To be honest, I never really imagined I would make it this very far, and be the youngest person in this Top 10. Yes, I am determined as hell when I want something and I suppose crazy enough to go for it, and my strong ethics mean I have really visited every single point, not just transited them or put a foot on a rail platform, even if the Hiloks or the Yurgas of the world may not be the pinnacle of civilisation. I need to thank my parents for making all this possible, even though my mother’s hysteria has of late taken alarmingly pathological dimensions. Following them, the list of all the other people I would have to thank is endless and includes many whose names I don’t even know perhaps, who were at the right place and time to give a helping hand when needed. My greatest lesson is still that the world is benevolent and most people are kind when given the chance. I will refuse to think otherwise and be terrorised into thinking negatively. And so, on this note, on train number 77 back to Ulan Ude, my last foreseeable train ride in Russia, and with a final ‘frisson’ to the Khakasia and Tuva republics in store in the next few days, I hereby announce my retirement from travel, effective June 28 when I get back on a flight from Aberdeen of all places. It has been a great ride, admittedly, and once or twice a year I will surely be exploring somewhere offbeat for a few days, but it will be in an entirely different way, and for sure not to get a point, even when I get bumped out of the Top 10 by the next contender. I have now achieved all my travel goals and feel ever so proud and fulfilled for that.Thank you for your support, simply by reading this blog you have indirectly helped me go that extra mile.