Trees Trees Trees...

Meanwhile, as Boris Yeltsin opens fire on the Moscow Parliament...

 It's a tough life being a tourist. When I and my trusty companion fought our way through the scruffy overcrowded arrival's lounge at St. Petersburg airport we discovered that we did not exist - at least not according to the Intourist Guide who seemed bemused by our presence. However, we persevered in this fact until a floppy piece of paper was discovered bearing our first names and thus proof of our reality. Now that we were real, a Mercedes could ferry us to a hotel. We felt like good party members must have felt as they were whisked through the wide-open streets, around the odd pothole, to some Members-Only accommodation on the Nevsky Prospect. We were probably just as surprised as them to discovery that such privilege got you a large grey building, with a reception area that was bleak and empty with nothing more than a cat laid out in the centre.
When finally our time at what we assumed was the reception desk had come, a blank stare greeted us and again there was disbelief in our existence. "We have a reservation," I said. "Voucher?" enquired the receptionist with a vicious Russian accent. We showed her a fax saying that Intourist would give us a voucher on arrival. "Which group?" "No group." There was that look that greeted us so often from behind a Russian counter.
Unexpectedly a lady from Intourist Counter came and asked whether we were Mr. Lawrence Helen? "Guilty!" I said, which seemed to cause her to shudder. She then pointed out to us another woman who dealt with individual tourists. We had wondered what she was doing sat to our right thumbing through a magazine pretending we were not there. We confronted her and waved our fax, which she took, examined, sucked her teeth, and said: "Train Vouchers?" "No train vouchers. This is all we've got." The woman shrugged and handed us a chit for the key to our room.
The room was as one might expect: grubby, hard single unmade beds, a TV set that barely worked, and an ageing bag boy who hung around like a bad smell snuffling and strangely nodding to suggest that he expected a tip. What was the going rate here? One dollar? Two dollars? I, due to a complete oversight at Heathrow, forgot to get any more dollars in cash, so I reached into my meagre supply and pulled out a five-dollar note. Frightened of appearing cheapskate I thrust it towards him. He grabbed it grumpily, and rushed away.
After a failed attempt to get some roubles and food, due to the premature closure of banks and no discernible stirrings in the hotel restaurant, we walked up Nevsky Prospect in the bright northern sunshine in search of life as we know it.
Every third woman seemed a floozy of some sort bedecked in red lips, blonde hair, short skirts, see-through blouses cum Russian peasant smocks, huge exploding bras and tottering high heels. Often these sexual fantasies were on the arms of spotty little oiks wearing old baggy trousers. The fashionable sported sunglasses with the labels still stuck on the lens either to advertise the brand or stop them seeing the spotty little oik they found themselves lumbered with.
There was a fair old scattering of eccentric beggars. One had a wooden pegleg carved from some Siberian silver birch. He muttered to himself continuously, as one would. Then I noticed that many men were muttering to themselves. These were those too disgusting ever to get on the blind side of a floozy: bruised faced men with an alcoholic glow. The oldest and the dirtiest came up to me asking where I was from. When I said London he muttered something about having a slight problem and apologetically said in broken English how he needed, well, that dirty stuff: Money. I genuinely said that I had none as the bank had been closed. He apologised for taking up my time, shrugged his shoulders and staggered away muttering things like, "Money! Huh! I spit on Money!"
A line of old ladies formed in the middle of a potholed road buzzing with oil belching skodas. Armed guards that shiftily hung about the entrance to some new, and seemingly jolly, bars watched them. Each woman held a grizzled salami sausage out in front of her. A few people inspected the sausages as if they were inspecting the guards at the Palace. "I give you two potatoes for one sausage?" "Is this US Potatoes or Russian Potatoes?"
As the locals shopped for their evening meal, my wife and I ducked into one of the new first class hotels' Swedish restaurants. It served pickled herring and stuffed chicken with a hefty 20% VAT charge and the equivalent of twenty pounds sterling a head. "See," I said to Helen, as we tucked in, "There's no food shortage here. That's just a vicious rumour spread by sociopaths who haven't got any money!"
An iffy start to the proceedings, but I pride myself on open mindedness and tolerance. I may be a tourist, but I am a British tourist! Breakfast the next day was as one expected, dull and faintly disgusting: cold meatballs, greasy rice, greasy couscous, and greasy pancakes. However, there was tea and, with the addition of sugar, the runny Russian drinking yoghurt is, for my softy tourist tastes, palatable. Changing money however offered no consolations. I left this to my wife. She returned with a hundred dollars of roubles. Under no circumstances, I had said, change large quantities into roubles. Get some dollars, I said, since everyone wants dollars. "The bank did not give out dollars," she said. "It's a Russian bank," she added, "And if you're so smart why don't you deal with the money!" "I spit on money," I said, perfecting my Russian snarl.
Intourist assured us that our train tickets would be ready, soon, tomorrow maybe. We headed off on our city tour. Now as a well-seasoned tourist, I take these tours without the slightest interest or knowledge of the object to be experienced. Besides, the shrines and cultural artefacts of a place always look better as photographs. In the grimy flesh, everything is diminished. But, for the true tourist, the point of a tour is the tour itself. A rickety bus full of French and Italian tourists listening to an English speaking Russian, telling them nothing much, and not particularly caring, said more than The Church of The Saviour and The Spilt Blood could ever say.
Our guide made it clear that she was not a party member. She was most emphatic that we understood this fact. She said she chose not to have a career but to stay honest. When she pointed to the cruiser Aurora, she said that it fired the gun that started what she hoped would be their "Last Revolution." The Statue of Lenin, she told us, was still outside the Finland Railway Station, "Because it is part of our history." The Mayor of St. Petersburg was keen to restore all the old symbols of Russia. But only those statues of Lenin that had some historical connection to their location would be kept. The only thing she pointed out that elicited the slightest sign of interest in her voice was the sight of a policeman helping a stranded lady motorist change her flat tyre. "This is a sign of the times," she said. Then, after the statutory craft and souvenir shop, where I bought a set of Yeltsin Dolls, the tour was put down outside the new Grand Hotel. Our guide informed us it had the "Best toilets in Russia."
Not a classic tour, not the sort I have had in India where a guide can quite happily think he is informing you when he points at a statue of a man on a horse and says, "This is a statue of a Man on a Horse. And that over there, is another one too as well." No doubt with a few more years of democracy, Russia too can become just like India.
The information about the toilets was correct. The Grand Hotel also made some damned fine coffee, although the waitresses were sighing, sneering and definitely born for better things than waiting on tables. However, they also served a mean prawn sandwich at an astronomical price. They too wanted to show their contempt for money by spitting on as much of it as possible.
The next day on the metro I caught a man with his hand in my camera bag. I stared at him. He stared back. After all, why should he not have his hand inside my camera bag? He had not got a camera and I had one. It was his duty to redistribute the wealth of the world. However, he decided not to argue the point and quickly pushed his way through the crowded train to the end of the compartment, where he pretended nothing had happened. He was an elderly man with a thin face, greasy hair and a large canvas shopping bag, from which he pulled a newspaper and began to read.
People had warned me about the security problem in Russia. I had heard many horror stories ranging from such things as thieves sneaking into hotel rooms at night and stealing your trousers, to stories of night-train thieves gassing whole compartments and relieving the unconscious of their valuables. Consequently at night I would strap on my passport and wallet so that if the trousers did go, my trusty credit card would soon get me another pair. When it came down to it, apart from the one incident on the metro, I could not see how any of these wicked robberies could take place. Lady wrestlers and hefty locks guard the corridors in hotels and the sleeping compartments of trains. I concluded that Russians like to exaggerate how bad things are even when things are so bad they need not exaggerate.
That night we went for the train to Moscow. At the station the taxi driver handed us over to an unshaven man with broken down shoes and a scruffy dust covered brown suit. He claimed to be with Intourist and told us to be careful that the porter does not steal our luggage. This reassured me immeasurably and I kept a very close eye on the man with a trolley and my suitcase as we waited for another couple to turn up. The two that turned up were a late middle aged couple of Americans who had been touring the world's sights of Jewish culture: Israel, Budapest, and now St. Petersburg. They hated St. Petersburg. They could not get decent food anywhere. All they had been able to get was some overpriced pickled herring at some awful Swedish restaurant. "And to think," said the woman, "We were terrified of these guys!" I knew exactly what she meant when the carriage attendant handed me a piece of two-by-four. I was to jam this into the carriage door to keep it closed and my trousers safe.
At the station in Moscow, a tall man wearing an Intourist T-shirt called out for Xelen Lawrence and we flashed our voucher at him. He had a friend who immediately grabbed our luggage and hastily walked away with it. I hurried to keep up while the Intourist guide spoke French. For some reason, he knew no English. No doubt the state plan had worked out that so many percentage of English spoke French, therefore a percentage of tour guides for the English, should speak French. I did not tip him, though he and his friend hung around the taxi doing the Bag-Boy Shuffle. After all, it was half past seven in the morning. I had no dollars. His friend had frightened me into thinking he was running off with our luggage. Moreover, I just felt plain mean and nasty.
The taxi glided through the wide open streets of what must surely be the model for Gotham City. Stalin's Gothic skyscrapers looked straight out of "Batman: The dark warrior." Da daa da daa da daa da daa, I kept humming to myself as the Batmobile swerved around the potholes.
At the hotel, we had Vouchers! We were real! So immediately the check-in desk told me that our city tour was tomorrow and that they did not have any maps of Moscow but I could buy them somewhere, if I looked. I said I would do just that, and retired to my room where we found, as usual, scruffy single beds facing each other. If ever I am to have children, I can see that I shall always have to travel first class.
At eleven we went downstairs and were informed that the City Tour was today, rather than tomorrow, though it could be tomorrow if we wanted, but it was today. That suited us fine and we asked where we joined it. "It is not so far, but it is difficult to say where," said Intourist Information.
As we wandered about Moscow, ostensibly following the directions given to us, we came across small streets with old fashioned early nineteenth century architecture, market stalls selling art books, and a 9$ map. So it was true, you could buy them, somewhere.
Our official city tour showed the usual things that such tours do: churches, monasteries, the Red Square. The Guide gave us a new line in guided tour, a guided whinge: "Russia has troubles," she told us, "The hard-liners are difficult to convince of the improvement in life. We can travel and speak openly. But we go hungry and the middle classes and intellectuals are all suffering because their wages are so low. We cannot afford to travel. But it is still better. My husband the engineer is out of work. But even he thinks it is better. And I am a scholar who earns more doing tours. And a teacher friend who speaks English and German and was the best teacher in Moscow but only earned fifty thousand roubles a month has quit and taken an office job with no responsibility but earning a hundred and fifty thousand roubles. And prices are rising and rents are higher and the health service now has a dollar only section which makes me sad. And sugar is now short because Cuba used to be the main supplier. In the past when bananas were available, we bought lots. But only once a year. And now bananas are available every day but no-one can afford more than one. But still I think it is better. Though my family never suffered under the communists. And the driver earns only fifty dollars a month but he is content. Now people have the right to work hard. But the driver is content. But for how long? Moscow has sixty nationalities and people want someone to blame. I hope there will be no civil wars. But it is better."
After that, who could fail to give her a handsome tip? Not to do so would set the driver off killing every non-Russian within a sixty-mile radius and civil war would follow.
We discovered that Moscow did not take travellers' cheques nor visa cards, unless you were a hotel resident and had handed over your passport to them. This made it extremely difficult to actually buy anything, least of all food. This did not do my braincells too much good, and my wife's own musically accompanied coma began to look dangerously terminal as we found ourselves wandering, aimlessly, with our tongues hanging out.
By accident we staggered down a potholed backstreet and found a little church packed with choristers belting out stirring Orthodox anthems. I do not think any other religion can match the Orthodox Church for religious music. If one were looking for a mystical experience, especially after fasting for a few days, this music would trigger it. Behind the church was a little monastery with a big black limo parked in front of the door. A bunch of black smocked priests hung around in black sunglasses, dragging on tar belching cigarettes designed to send anyone to heaven pronto.
We staggered on and came across the pedestrianised Arbat that has become a favourite haunt of stunned tourists. It has the look of Watford, a London commuter town not known for its civic splendour. "Food," I said to Helen, "Is there food?" We pressed our noses up against the occasional unboarded up window. Mostly there were shops selling the same old tourist souvenirs. Do tourists really buy any of this stuff? I mean, I've got my Yeltsin Doll, but do I really want another?
A crowd loomed up ahead of us. That must be food, we thought. It must be food! However, it was a stand up comedian doing a riotous routine imitating politicians and most likely dubious ethnics. I noted that he did not have anyone collecting money for him. He was doing this free! Then it dawned on me. He was not a stand up comedian. He was a Russian politician. What sounded like the most outrageous comic routine to me was in fact his plan to save mother Russia. No wonder everyone was laughing. We were laughing and we did not understand a word.
This was getting desperate. We pushed past the portrait drawers who kept assuring us that we made a handsome glamorous couple. We snubbed all attempts at draping snakes around our shoulders or posing us with scraggy shivering monkeys that would certainly not survive winter. We also avoided joining in with the drinkers swigging from plastic bottles of vodka. Food, we thought. It filled out minds.
Then we saw it: the Cyrillic sign of the third MacDonalds in Moscow. This one was, by all accounts, la creme de la creme of Moscow's marble floored Macs. I pointed to it, my hand quivering with emotion. Food!
We detected a distinct touch of localisation taking place in the standard of the burger: no plastic container, but a cardboard one, and a rougher sort of burger with a picklier taste. And the lettuce fell out. But right that moment it felt good. We knew instinctively that this was the right place to be at this time of our lives.
Afterwards my luck was in, I found a bank that not only changed travellers’ cheques, but would give US dollars for them. I immediately changed all my cheques and got an extra days' roubles since we were going on a tour of the Kremlin tomorrow. There would be no money shortage now.
Back at the hotel, we were told of a schedule change. Tomorrow's train was to be caught early in the morning and not in the evening - so much for our tour of the Kremlin. The Intourist lady explained that we had been given the spring schedule and not the summer schedule. We were now to arrive in Irkutsk on the 10th August. She could not tell us whether this was Irkutsk time or Moscow time. Either way it was all a terrible time, so what difference would it make? Helen put the Walkman back in.
For breakfast, we had a slither of runny salted fish, some cheese, hard bread and Russian tea. We took our bags to a car provided by Intourist. Took a detour to another Intourist office to cancel our Kremlin tour and get our money back. Then went off to the station. Which was an attractive looking building with the train platforms round the back of it. During the winter it must be freezing waiting there. Meanwhile we sat and awaited our train in a glorious northern summer sun. We watched dirty faced up country workers with battered brown suitcases on trolleys, fat little women in headscarves carrying gladioli from the incoming trains, and lots of Chinese walking the dogs they intended to smuggle into China.
In the train compartment beside us was a French Forester who was on his way to some conference in Japan. He thought he would come and check out some unusual trees. At least unusual for him since he was an expert in tropical trees. He had worked in Indo China in the forties and fifties and had worked everywhere else as well. He spoke Russian, Spanish, Portuguese and English. He said he only balked at learning Vietnamese because the only Vietnamese he was in contact with were peasants and they had nothing interesting to say.
When the train started I grabbed my wife, and went to the dining car. Inside it were a motley bunch of fat Russians. They seemed to be huddled amongst piles of boxed provisions plotting something. When they saw us they jumped to attention. A couple of them disappeared out the back. The others rushed forward to stop us going any further than the first two tables. We tentatively sat and watched as they began to pretend to do something. I asked if the dining car was open and one of them looked at me and said, "Salad, Soup, Sausage?"
We opted for just the sausage but guessed it would have cost the same if we had the whole three courses. "Sausage" was a flaccid dead penis sort of frankfurter with some greasy rice covered in celery bits. Beside it was a slither of salted fish. Obviously, it was salted fish season.
Through our window, we saw trees and more trees passing by interspersed with scruffy wooden housed villages. Some houses, which I took to be the Dachas of fame, were quite tiny and no more than a garden shed in an allotment. Other larger ones looked like Dutch barns with a touch of Russian woodcarving about the eaves. White, green and a sandy yellow were the commonest colour schemes. As we passed the railways stations, we began to see more of the traditional Russian peasant and a little less of the standard Muscovite. The peasant often carried a bucket of something. Of what was often a mystery since they always had a lid over the top. People in the know could spot when they contained apples or some other fruit or vegetable for sale.
By the time we crossed the Volga, my wife declared that she had had enough of trains. She declared that she always got train sick. This was news to me. Then I have only known her for fifteen years. Apparently, she used to as a child and now it was all coming back to her with a vengeance. She lay down, closed her eyes and remained like that for the rest of the journey.
Since the Dining Car was obviously for the dining car staff and not the passengers, next day we breakfasted on a packet of penguin biscuits, black bread and cheese, all brought from England. When the train stopped at Perm I got out and bought us an ice-cream. I would have bought some fresh bread but I was much too slow and the more expert got to it first.
I informed my wife what was going on in the outside world. She lay, eyes closed, mouth open, listening, I think, to my commentary: "There's lots of trees out there. And villages of garden sheds. Some though look a bit like Swiss Chalets. We just passed a locomotive scrapyard. And now there's a river coming into view. People are paddling canoes on it. Now there's more trees. Beech trees."
That was enough for her and she plugged in the Sony walkman. I could hear Simple Minds tinnily blotting out all communications. I went out into the corridor in an attempt to spot the pole that was supposed to say when Europe became Asia. I must have missed it. But we arrived at Sverdlovsk, at least I think it was Sverdlovsk, either way it looked a dreary place. So dreary that no one was even selling ice cream. A place where you cannot get ice cream in Russia must be dreary even by Russian standards.
I went off to the dining car again. The dining car attendants were still sat looking fat and fearsome, a black abacus sitting between them. When I sat one of them finished reading her newspaper, got up, removed the paper covers from the Vodka and beer, and said, "Salad, Soup, Chicken?" I ate the Chicken.
The Forester joined me and asked how the food was. I explained that the Chicken was as close to a vegetarian dish you could get without actually not killing something. "You are a vegetarian but you eat meat?" he said, puzzled by my mode of expression. I explained further: "The chicken was the poor victim of a famine. I ate it only to give its death meaning. It was accompanied by a slice of cucumber and a thankfully tiny spoonful of sloppy spaghetti." "And this is good?" he said, becoming terribly confused. "An act of dietetic genius," I said, "It takes years of training to be able to prepare food this way."
The Forester looked at me with a bewildered expression. He shrugged his shoulders, French style rather than Russian, then happily burbled on in broken English about his time in Vietnam and Cambodia and India and Indonesia and South America. He asked me if I thought Ginseng was good for anything. "Some say it is," I said. He seemed to have difficulty understanding that. Then he went into a long description of what its root was shaped like, where it came from, and how it was supposed to be healthy for you. Outside the window passed more trees. Then some more. Then the Forester began to name them, individually.
I was up early the next day, at least it seemed early for me, and found no one was using the toilets. I knew that could not last so quickly rushed to get in whilst the going was good. I discovered that if I took things slowly and braved the cold water, I could wash my hair without soaking everything. I returned to the cabin where Helen lay, eyes closed, but now dressed. She had decided not to wash since it made her feel sick. "Less trees now," I said. "Huh," she said. I continued: "Acid rain probably. But there are a few more huts and some cows now. A marshy little lake here and there. And there's a block of concrete flats over there. And some floozies on the station we're passing. Place looks like Norfolk."
Helen reached for an empty plastic bag, sat up and put her face into it. She belched a couple of times but was not sick. Then she lay down again. I decided it was time to break out the chocolate Hob Nobs. I figured that I might as well eat our provisions with little thought of rationing them especially since I would probably be able to eat them all myself.
I visited the corridor again and met a couple of American girls who had very noisily joined the train in the middle of the night. I mentioned how they woke me and they informed me that I was three hours behind them. They were on Omsk time whilst I was still on Moscow time. Then the mystery of the uncrowded toilets unfolded before be. I informed my wife of the good news. Today would be three hours shorter than yesterday and the day after that another hour shorter and so on until Irkutsk. I think she was cheered though it was hard to tell.
The Forester came and joined me in further conversation with the Americans. The American girls let slip that they were missionaries. For the Forester this was a deeply fascinating discovery. "It is so comforting," he said, "to know you need only read one book in your life, is it not?" Indeed, it was comforting for them. They were "charismatics", they explained. And were "modern". The Forester pressed them for more information.
"What is a charismatic?"
"It is modern. We use drums and guitars at our services. We appeal to the young."
"But that eez not charismatic!" he said and added a donkey bray of a laugh.
In unison the girls pointed to their hearts and said, "If you take Jesus into your heart is does not matter what you do. You just need to take him into your heart and you will know him."
I could not help but say, with mounting incredulity, "You think that it does not matter what you do, so long as you go to one of your meetings and bang a few drums?"
"Jesus is giving us a free gift."
"Weeeeth each packet of soap powder!" said the Forester, adding another one of his braying laughs.
I managed to kill all conversation on the subject of theology by mentioning Buddha, who, the girls assured me, was dead, and got on to safer ground for tourists: the sort of 'where you come from, going to, doing what' sort of conversation.
They were in Russia for three months and had been visiting a Russian Worship Leader who was, with his guitars and drums, giving the young a new lease on life. The "young" apparently hated communism and were now receptive to religious ideas. But Orthodox Christianity was "old fashioned." And the old people were lost causes who still thought communism OK. It apparently had "looked after them." And now the "young" wanted western things, like drums and guitars. "And tambourines?" I asked but they gave me a withering look. Tambourines were old fashioned.
The train stopped at Novosibirsk. This gave the missionaries and me an excuse to ditch the Forester and get out for a bit of a walk at the station. Novosibirsk looked a big place. At least its mainstreet looked big. One long endless street flanked by rows of monumentally dull grey flats. I should think the suicide rate there was quite high. A combination of vodka, depression and high rise buildings built with little regard for safety must have the locals jumping off like lemmings.
I asked the missionaries about the Great Russian gloom and they told me that the Russians still operate in a state of fear. One had only to look at their bleak eyed expressions and experience the fights that took place in bus queues to know there is something lacking in their souls. Shopping in Siberia gives more examples. The shopkeepers still doze and sigh when customers enter. They really do not want to serve. Worse now, people are carrying guns, claiming they need them in case of "bandits".
Apparently no one in Krasnoyarsk knows anything about anywhere and the Mafia run everything and people live eccentric self obsessed little lives. A friend of theirs works in a refrigerator factory that pays its workers in fridges instead of money. So he has a house full of new fridges. He keeps his video collection in the fridges, no food of course, and every so often sells a fridge and buys a few more videos. The thought of a house full of fridges in Siberia was for me a very strange idea.
By the next day, I had declared it Irkutsk time. Although in my bones I knew it was five o'clock in the morning, I pretended it was ten and washed my hair.
From the train, I could see crofters scattered throughout the forests. They lived in compounds with their little huts, pigpens, and other animal hutches. The people were shorter than those in the West. They looked a lot like Hebridean Islanders, or even Icelanders. I suspected the early Norse variant of the Russians must have landed there long before it even became officially part of Russia.
For the rest of the day, we passed through The Taiga. Helen lay on her bunk immobile, eyes closed, and pretended to sleep while I gave her a running commentary. "Guess what we're passing today?" The day turned to night and we both fell sound asleep.
At four o'clock in the morning, there was a knock on our carriage door. It was the attendant demanding our sheets. This alarmed us. We assumed the train would stop at five thirty and there would be ample time to get off. Now we wondered whether the train was going to stop before five thirty and . . . and what time was it really anyway? The dining car was on one time. Our neighbours along the carriage were all on different times. The missionaries had been on God's time and the train was perhaps on Moscow time. So what time did the train really stop and how long was it going to stop for?
We got up and sat in our carriage all ready for a quick departure. Two hours later we arrived at Irkutsk. Helen, with days of stored up energy, rushed for the door and leaped down onto the platform. "Solid ground!" she said with glee. "Just don't kiss it," I said. There was an eerie silence in the cold frosty air of Irkutsk. We shivered. "Anybody would think this was Siberia," I said, and then sniffed the air. It stank of alcohol.
Eventually a little Russian in a black leather jacket and fur hat met us. He looked like a midget Mel Gibson and stank of alcohol. "Is that his aftershave or his breakfast?" I asked my wife. She nodded towards the plastic bottle stuffed into his leather jacket pocket. It was aftershave, and it was his breakfast. On the station a red faced drunk staggered up to a wall, slumped against it and stood with his tongue lolling out and his eyes rolling. He had probably been like that since Stalin died.
Mel took us off to get the bus to the hotel. The people in the car park before the station looked dark, small, and Asiatic. I wondered if they were Buryats, the native population who had apparently declared independence on the other side of Lake Baikal. I do not think it matters much whether anyone declares independence in this neck of the woods. Moscow is so far away that it probably would never notice.
We climbed aboard a rickety bus, its windscreen, like most windscreens in Irkutsk, was cracked and through it we looked out upon a strange quaint Russian town. The sky began to clear and turn a bright northern blue. In the winter it becomes forty degrees below freezing . During the summer, although the mornings start very cold because of the perma frost, the evenings can increase to the mid-twenties. This was the town where the Decembrists were sent after the failed 1905 revolution. Which probably makes it the town with the longest revolutionary credentials in Russia. Hence the street names: Karl Marx Street, Martyrs of the Revolution Square, Dialectical Materialism Boulevard, Collective Cul De Sac and so on. With such impeccable revolutionary credentials one still detects the hand of the party and suspects that 1991's revolution has not really got this far.
Yermat, a Cossack trader of the seventeenth century took a few thugs, beat up a local Khan and founded Irkutsk. This began the sort of control over the area that the British were exercising in India. Various merchants settled in the region trading in furs, timber, gold, minerals and they and their ladies built small bourgeois establishments that the locals call palaces. Thus, they created a provincial Russian settlement too remote to be threatened by anyone and too remote for it to grow to any great size. In the nineteenth century, revolutionaries and convicts were sent, much in the way Australia was built up, and the settlement became a small city. And definitely a place of character. Unusual for Russia.
We arrived at the standard Russian hotel where the air was even thicker with alcohol. The foyer however looked busy and clean and even had maps available. The "Boy" who grabbed our bags was the spitting image of Kosygin: the same age, stinking of vodka and more than likely just as dead. He staggered into the lift ahead of us and had to be stopped from pressing the lift button before we got in.
He took us to our room which had two single beds arranged in an L-shape. Strange, I thought, very deeply strange. Kosygin dropped our bags. With a flourish he pulled the thin ragged curtain aside to reveal a window so dirty that you could not tell whether the curtain had been pulled or not. He announced with a wave of his hand: "The Angara." Then with a wave of the other, he announced, "The Irkutsk and The Lake." Then grinned at us until we gave him a dollar. He thanked us and staggered away leaving a vapour trail behind him.
I peered through the grime of the window to see the grand view. There was nothing there but concrete. I dare say you had to be drunk to appreciate it.
Intourist supplied us with a guide. She had learnt her English by learning a guidebook off by heart. The driver of the car must not have been impressed. When we climbed in the back he put his foot down and sped off without her. We tapped on his shoulder and he turned round and offered us a drink. We declined and pointed out the space beside him. Reluctantly he turned the car around and went back for her.
"This is an Orthodox Church, Built By The Decembrists." We asked if we could get out of the car and look at it. Our Guide thought for a moment and decided it would be OK. So we got out and had a look. "Can we go in?" "Maybe later," she said. Then she took us to, "The Eternal Flame To The Martyrs of The Great Patriotic War." "This isn't the Eternal Flame to the Martyrs of The Great Patriotic War is it?" "Yes, it is." "Is that so?" "It is so." She pointed to the sign. And she was right.
She then informed us that Chekhov once stayed in Irkutsk, "for a week." The house was still there and we could go and see it. "Now?" "Maybe later." "Are those potholes in the road?" "Yes." "I see."
After the "historic sights" she took us to see "Wooden Houses." And she was right. They were wooden. Most of the town was wooden. There being much wood about, it seemed a sensible thing to be. "We like to live in wooden houses. They are healthier." "Are they warm in winter?" "It is cold in winter. Forty degrees below." "But are the houses warm?" "It is extremely unpleasant. We stay indoors." "In front of the fire?" "It is cold."
She then rushed us back to the hotel to take a visit to Lake Baikal. We were told that there was a village there with a famous fish restaurant, also a famous wooden Orthodox Church. The prospect of a quality restaurant was the main draw. We had heard about Baikal sturgeon and had an image of eating caviar and fresh Siberian fish with a view of the mountains and the great lake.
The hotel informed us there was no trip to the Lake because there was a bridge down. Then we were informed that we could go by Jet-Foil though there was standing room only. "That'll do," I said handing over my dollars. Helen's heart sank. "There is only one thing worse than trains," she said. "China Airlines?" I suggested. "No. Boats." "It's not a boat. It's a jet foil." Helen gave up the argument. Her spirit was broken. That's more like it, I thought, damn it we are tourists after all and what is the point of being a tourist if you do not tour! Regardless of the discomfort.
"Blue houses are for youth," said our new guide, a floozy in a long leather skirt. He fingernails a bright red. "And green is for prosperity and wealth." I asked her if anyone swam in the lake. "No," she said, "But to do so is to lose years and become youthful." We immediately passed people paddling and swimming in the glassy lake but I did not point this out to her. Nor did I point out that there were plenty of seats on the jet-foil. I had a sneaking suspicion that the bridge was still in place.
I suddenly jolted awake. I had fallen asleep and been muttering to myself about life and the symbolic significance of the Grand Tour. Always a sign of mental fatigue. I nudged Helen who had also been asleep and asked her if I had been talking in my sleep. "What?" she said. Then added as she began to realise she was physically present on the planet, "When do we eat?"
The jet-foil docked at a small wooden jetty where blonde little girls with blue ribbons in their hair and pantaloons on their legs stood staring at us. A couple of swarthy looking boys scooted up on an old bicycle. They offered us some postcards and badges in exchange for ten or twenty dollars. They were pushing their luck.
We milled about on the jetty and looked out over the glacial lake with the mountains faint and misty on the otherside. The guide impatiently looked at her watch and then shrugged and walked away. "What's happening?" I asked a couple beside me. They shrugged their shoulders. So I shrugged mine. I was picking up the lingo fast.
Eventually a bus appeared and our guide waved us aboard it. This drove us up the hill to Lake Baikal Hotel where we would have our "Fish Dinner." The Hotel had been built of crumbling concrete. Although it was most likely merely a few years old, it looked dilapidated with grass growing through the paving stones at the front. We got out of the bus and were told to wait, which we did. Small birds with wagging tails strutted about. Wild flowers hummed with excitement. The sky turned a Hollywood blue.
The guide returned to us and with a sigh announced that lunch would not be ready until three o'clock and that we will take in the Limnological Museum first. She herded us back onto the bus and dutifully we sat jolting in numbed silence as the bus juddered back down the hill.
The Museum was a small wooden shed that she charged us a few extra roubles to enter. Inside we watched a silent video showing the darkest depths of the lake where mud and blind fish float about. I wondered if this would be anything like the soup, we were about to be offered. Then it was time to go back up to the Hotel again and the restaurant.
The restaurant boasted a view of the lake but since there was food, there they kept the curtains shut. It served us salted fish that looked suspiciously like the fish on board the train. Then fish in a thick soggy batter accompanied with stale bread followed it. And that was it. End of lunch at Lake Baikal's famous fish restaurant. "They shouldn't have gone to so much trouble," said Helen.
We emerged from the restaurant into the bright sunshine blinking and wondering what next. We milled about waiting for our guide who had disappeared. Some of us went off into the woods and disappeared. "I bet they get eaten by bears," I said. "Well it's nice to know someone will get a decent meal today," Helen said. Others sat on the concrete steps and stared into a shell-shocked middle distance. Eventually the guide appeared, her eyes lined with black makeup, and we asked what was happening next.
"We visit the village when the bus comes." So we sat and waited for the bus and the guide disappeared again. Then after a while she reappeared and looked at her gold bracelet watch. A Russian Torpor settled upon her and she stood motionless looking neither one way nor another, shutters up. "The bus has disappeared has it?" I asked. Without looking at me, she muttered through her bright red lips, "Three buses. Four groups of tourists." Then went back into the hotel in case anybody asked her any more stupid questions. We sat back down on the steps again.
Again she emerged and explained that she was worried we would miss the boat back to Irkutsk and there was not another. "Do you like The Beatles?" asked a farmer from Wiltshire. She looked at him and blinked in the sunlight. He was a tall gangly young man with a new train grown beard. "Lots of Russians like The Beatles," he added. She stared at him with glacial blue eyes. "Do you live here?" he said. She nodded. "And have you been anywhere else?" "I was born in Krasnoyarsk." "And why did you move here?" "It is better." "In what way is it better?" "It is prettier." "But why don't you smile?" She smiled in reply and pushed out her breasts. "I've noticed," he said, "That Russians do not smile." She smiled again. "Why are they all so gloomy?"
She was melting and setting women's liberation back ten generations. Much to my relief, before the shameless Wiltshire Farmer started asking her about boyfriends she spotted the bus coming up the hill and flagged it down.
"The Village" was a wooden hut community with a wooden church. "Typical wooden Russian Village," announced our guide woodenly. "This church was built by a fisherman after surviving a storm on the lake." "Are there often storms on the lake?" She shrugged her shoulders. That's more like it, I thought.
The bus stopped outside the church. The guide told us we had five minutes only otherwise we would miss the jet-foil. Outside the church sat a painter and a souvenir stall. The painter told me he came to Baikal for the summer. In winter, it was too cold for him. Because he seemed friendly, I bought one of his drawings for six dollars. It featured a wizened old peasant looking mournful. "I bet he's thinking what he would give for some decent gin and tonic," said my wife, pointing out that he was sat beside a large slice of lemon. "I think it's meant to be a cartwheel," I said. "No," she said, "With the amount they drink round here, it's a slice of lemon. And judging by most people's expressions, there are many lemons being sucked raw."
The inside of the church contained its obligatory old woman in black and a selection of icons that put to shame the painter's efforts. The place smelt of wood and wax. Candle lights flickered and the gold and silver ornaments pulsed with life. No sign of a set of drums or a guitar here. Then I guess they were just around the corner waiting to save "The Youth" and turn all the incompetent depressives that become Russian tour guides into happy smiling charismatics. Now I realised why the Russian state was going to legalise the carrying of firearms.
The Guide tapped her watch. I dutifully left the church to return to the bus. However, a French couple was haggling with the painter. No doubt bringing him down to three dollars a picture. The Guide hammered on the bus horn and slowly the French couple returned to the bus. The Guide tooted the horn again and the French couple seemed to slow down. They were expressing their individuality.
They finally took their seats and the bus slammed into gear and raced towards the jetty where the Jet-Foil was waiting. Thus ended the trip to the greatest body of fresh water in the world.
Back at the hotel, we set off on our constant quest for food. We entered the Hotel Restaurant and asked for a table for two. The receptionist greeted this with silence and then bewilderment. We looked towards the restaurant where groups of people sat eating. "We'd like to eat," I said, "At a table." The Receptionist called over a senior official who picked up the telephone and called Moscow for advice. He discussed our case then put the phone down. It was settled then. We followed him into the restaurant and then through to the otherside and out the back. This was getting interesting, I thought. We followed him down some stairs and into a night-club where we could see some other tables set for meals. However, we were taken to the one table piled high with cigarette stubs and empty vodka bottles. With a sweep of his arm he cleared a couple of spaces amongst the debris and gestured us to sit. We did so and kept a close eye on the number of dirty barefooted children dodging in and out of the door behind us.
A waitress appeared and brought us a menu. "No English Menu," she said. And she was right. There was no English Menu. It probably made no difference because, as she explained, what was on the menu was not available. "What is available?" "Meat. Fish." "We'll have meat then. Is it with anything?" She shrugged her shoulders and told us to wait for ten minutes.
Meanwhile the place had livened up. Russians were sat at the tables swigging back half litre glasses of vodka, in one gulp at a time. A Siberian Cajun band was bashing out "Katta-Kattarina!" which was a big hit in as much as it always seemed to be playing on the train. The locals were up and dancing, flamenco style. The women here were built for warmth and squeezed into bright red tubes of sequins. With the amount of alcohol vapour in the air it was a wonder their lighted cigarettes did not cause an explosion.
Ten minutes later, precisely, Meat and Potatoes turned up. Some potatoes were fried but others were raw.
After five rousing numbers that had the room rocking and drinking and rocking and smoking and rocking and smooching, the band repeated their set another five or six times. The law of decreasing returns began to come into effect and the women disappeared leaving behind the men with their vodka.
Next morning breakfast consisted of a roughly cut tomato. After last night’s events, apparently sharp knives had been removed from the kitchens. For some reason, I was served Black Current Juice but not Helen or anyone else. "I think they like me," I said. Then I picked up a big bar of chocolate inexplicably left beside my plate. "Or they're trying to poison you," said Helen. I ignored that.
Back on the train, we met up with the Wiltshire Farmer. There were five people in his compartment. Two were army officers and another was a woman and her child, which was presently sat on the potty at the end of his bunk. The Russians were Nuclear Missile men who complained that, "It had all been for nothing." "Do you think they mean they wanted to fire one?" I asked. We both shrugged our shoulders and sighed, "Why not?"
At the station of Ulan Ude we got out and bought some noodles from the women standing on the platform. They offered everything from toy trucks to meat mincers. Just the sort of thing the weary traveller required. The number of small dogs that were on the train made me wonder to what use those meat mincers could be put by the Chinese.
The train rattled on and on and outside the window now passed a treeless plain with rolling hills and the occasional pools of water. "No trees," I announced. "What?" said Helen, her Walkman plugged into her ears. "No trees." "I think Hancock's Half Hour was the best." "You're shouting!" "What?"
Then came the last stop inside Russia, Zabaikalsk. A man came round and took our passports and our currency exchange forms. Our carriage attendant told us we could get off so we did, only to notice that no one else had got off. The train disappeared down the line in a very worrying manner.
The station was covered in dust and looked very dead. We had hoped that this long four-hour stop would provide us with a chance to finish off our roubles with a good meal. The restaurant was without food and there were no shops.
With a sigh of relief, we noticed the rest of the passengers picking their way across the railway lines from the rail sheds in the distance. There the train was to be fitted with Chinese wheels. Also we saw across the tracks an old second world war tank surrounded by several hundred drunken Russians hurling empty vodka bottles at it. Around them sat leathery faced Chinese on vast bundles of clothes wrapped in green canvas. They were transporting them into Russia to sell. Some had opened up the bundles and were making a quick few Roubles before they went on their way. The wind blew, dust swirled, and the bottles crashed against the side of the tank, the barrel of its gun pointing at me.
Helen and I ventured across the tracks and found ourselves amid this shouting drunken scrum. Several Russians were selling Snickers bars and one had a Bar B Q going. Long strings of fatty mutton hung on a wall covered in flies as he chopped up another lump and hurled it onto the smoking charcoal burner.
The town was a collection of crumbling concrete blocks set among dirt tracks that blew with dust and diesel fumes. A few army lorries rattled up and down the main street and everything else happened around the rail tracks swathed in dust, fumes and charcoal smoke. We noted people wearing Chinese police-jackets. We went off in search of whoever might be selling them. The idea being that it was as good a way as any of getting rid of our roubles. But they had sold out. I had a day’s worth of roubles left over from Moscow so I decided to brave the bad exchange rate and change them.
We went back across the tracks to the grim station building where inside we found it stinking of urine and worse. We asked one of our fellow tourists where we could change some money and he looked a little miserable, pointed upstairs and wished us luck. We went upstairs and found a room in which four women sat behind a glass grill talking among themselves. We stood before them and they did not look our way. "Excuse me," I said. This got no reaction. "Can I change money here?" Still no reaction. "Are you open?" I said. Then I waved my money at them. "Money. Roubles. Dollars," I said. "This is the bank. You change." I smiled and one finally turned and looked at me. She sucked on her teeth, winked at one of her cronies and waved a piece of paper at me. "I have some roubles I want to change to dollars." She waved the piece of paper under my nose. "Do I need to have one of those?" "Da." "Where do I get one?" She shrugged her shoulders and turned her back on us. "Is there anywhere I can change this money?" She turned again and waved us away, rolling her eyes for her friends' benefit.
I left there still with my money in hand. Somehow, I knew it had been a mistake handing over the exchange certificates to the passport officer. But he had made a point of asking for it. No doubt, he was now changing his roubles into dollars. A neat racket.
We returned to the market hoping that we could spend our money on something. We stocked up on fifty Snickers bars and a crate of Russian beer. We did not want any meat cleavers or cigarette lighters or dogs. I therefore resigned myself to the fact that I would find a needy case and just give them the money.
I handed out some spare roubles to some girls who had been backpacking all across Eastern Europe. They were about to set off on a three-month train tour of China. We sat with them in a muddy park full of hawking and spitting Chinese who smiled murderously at their new bought cleavers. A Russian drunk staggered about red faced and ragged clothed groaning, lurching, and falling into the mud with a dull thud. I thought I might hand over all my money to him except when he approached he staggered and sunk to the floor and rolled over and then groaned again. I thought that maybe with my money he would kill himself.
So we sat swigging away at our Russian beer. I noted how we, covered in dust, unbathed, greasy haired, and in old tracksuits and T-shirts, looked just like everybody else. The girls were about twenty-five years old and looked considerably younger. I gave them my Hong Kong address and warned them that after a few months travelling about China they would find themselves in an even stranger state of mind than that created by Russia. I pointed to the drunk rolling about in the filth by their feet, "He started back packing when he was twenty-five, reached this far and lost his passport. Be warned."
There we were exchanging horror stories about India, China and Russia. Surrounding us were snorting, spitting card playing Chinese who every so often polished gleaming meat cleavers and took a swig of vodka or beer. Another couple of backpackers and the Wiltshire Farmer joined us. The man offered us a handful of Snickers Bars. I showed him my horde and we shrugged our shoulders. "Money, huh, I spit on money," I said hurling my roubles in the air. No-one rushed to pick them up.
Back on the train, Russian soldiers dragged a screaming young Chinese girl off and her Mother tried desperately to drag her back. All the compartment doors were slammed shut by the soldiers determined to stop anyone else joining in the argument. Eventually the soldiers threw the Chinese woman's luggage out of her compartment onto the platform and the train went off leaving the two behind.
Across the border a more open China, so the slogan went, greeted us. "The Chinese have such a great sense of humour," said Helen, looking out of the carriage at the fairy lights draped over the snackbar at the station. Men in Olive Green uniforms stared back at us and waved. So friendly, we thought, so friendly. Next stop Tiananmen Square.