Another train ride, a trip to the circus, some wonderful Siberian hosts and applications for Kazakh visas.
Once again, we have let the train cover some kilometres for us and 10+ days worth of pedalling disappeared in a 12 hour overnight train ride from Yekaterinburg to Omsk.
Oh it sounds so simple doesn’t it? We had cleverly (or so we thought) booked our tickets in advance online whilst in Perm, but when we got to Yekaterinburg there was an email waiting for us saying the transaction had not been processed as there wasn’t enough space on the train, so the first thing we did the next morning was to hot-foot it to the train station to see what our options were. We started at the information desk and had a pretty good conversation (in Russian) to establish that there was a train slightly later in the day than the one we’d initially tried to book on. So far so good. The helpful lady wrote the train number and time down on a piece of paper and we headed to the ticket desks. Keith went down the lines looking for the youngest ticket-seller on the assumption that a younger person might speak some English. No such luck. And not only did we get someone who spoke no English, we got someone who had clearly not been employed for her people skills. She refused to make eye contact, ignored our questions (apart from the one about the bike which resulted in a definitely negative response), barked demands at us and basically did nothing to hide her disgust at having had the misfortune to have such pig-stupid foreigners at the front of her queue. As a result, despite having clearly asked for a ticket for ZAVTRA (tomorrow) we ended up with two tickets for CEVODNIA (today). We discovered this just a minute or two after leaving her charming presence and had to go back and queue again and then get the ticket changed – you can imagine how delighted she was about that, especially when it took us quite a lot of gesticulating and dictionary-flicking to satisfy ourselves that the first tickets were being refunded onto our credit card and we were not being charged twice. At last it was all over and we had our tickets in our sticky mitts, although not one for the tandem as we’d had on our Nizhny-Kazan train.
Our couchsurfing hosts in Yekaterinburg had left to visit friends in the country by the time we got back to their home so we spent the day doing some washing and catching up with things on the internet. After five fairly hard days riding it was nice to relax and go nowhere for a day.
The next day we decided to do something touristy….but what? On our travels through Russia, one thing that’s struck us has been that every city has a permanent circus venue. Other artists may use the stage from time to time, but the circus is the predominant show. We couldn’t think of a single similar venue in the UK. To our mind a circus is a travelling affair that is housed in a big top or occasionally in a concert hall like the Albert Hall. But in Russia, it seems a matter of civic pride for a city to have a dedicated circus venue. And so, to the circus we went.
Admittedly, apart from a couple of trips to Cirque du Soleil, neither of us have been to a circus in years, so perhaps we’re not really best placed to compare Russian with UK acts, but there definitely seemed to be more animal acts in the Russian circus. We have mixed feelings about these. The animals looked to be in excellent health, and some of them seemed quite content to be performing, but others….I don’t know….it just felt wrong. There were horseback acts (mostly very good), dancing dogs (so bad it was ridiculous), cats that span fiery poles with their feet whilst strapped onto their backs, and hitched their way along between two poles, rumps dangling and poles under their armpits, (wrong, wrong, wrong), bicycling parrots (pretty cool) and thirteen tigers which were poked and prodded into jumping through a fiery hoop by the same man who’d conducted the appallingly bad dog act. We were willing the tigers to have their revenge on him.
The human acts, on the other hand, were without exception excellent: jugglers, clowns, acrobats, trampolinists and dancers with a variety of acts that inspired, amused, terrified and entertained.
After the show, we treated ourselves to a meal out and then pedalled round Yekaterinburg, which had a relatively clean and tidy feel to it (for Russia that is). Then it was back to our hosts’ apartment to pick up our luggage and head to the train station.
After the rush to get the Pino packaged and onto the train back in Nizhny we made sure we arrived at Yekaterinburg station in good time: two hours ahead of departure. Our train was a through train, travelling from Moscow to Krasnoyarsk – a journey of over 4200kms – and we would be hopping on board for only 1000kms of its journey. It would stop in Yekaterinburg, but we couldn’t tell where as unfortunately the platform number was not being displayed and no-one could tell us which platform it might go from as, unlike at Nizhny, the trains at Yekaterinburg did not have regular platforms. We dismantled as much of the bike as we could (brakes, pedals, handles from the front seat) but needed to keep it mostly intact so that when the call came we’d be able to push it to the appointed platform.
The train was due to arrive 29 minutes ahead of its departure time so although it would be tight we should still just have time to get to the platform, split the bike, dismantle the trailer, and wrap everything in ‘plonka-stretch’. But to tighten timings further, the only way to the platforms was along an underpass and up some steps….not ideal.
Keith went exploring and at the very far end of the very long platforms, discovered some level crossings, separated from the main street by a gate that was chained shut, but the padlock through the chains was not fully closed. He went to the nearby guardhouse, explained about our bike and asked if the gate could be opened. Once the guard realised Keith knew that the padlock was not actually locked he gave in and said it’d be OK to push through, so we did, and I then returned to the station to await information about our train.
With about 40 minutes to go there was an announcement. Our train was delayed and would not arrive until about 12 minutes before it was due to depart. Noooooo!
With 14 minutes to go until departure time, the platform number for our train finally flickered up on the information board and I sprang into life to sprint up the steps and all the way back along the platform to gasp ‘platform two’ at Keith….at which point we realised that platform number two was the only one of the seven platforms that was inaccessible from the level crossings. Things were not going to plan at all.
We had to haul the bike down the tracks and over some points, and had just got it up onto the platform when the train arrived, along the tracks we’d just been walking on. Of course, our carriage was then down at the far end of the platform so we had to hurry along as best we could, with Keith weaving the Pino between the throng of other passengers all trying to find their own carriages, until finally we were in the right place and could start dismantling and wrapping the bike. There was no way we were going to get it all done before the train left, so with seconds to spare we chucked everything through the doorway in a semi-wrapped state and hopped on board. Thankfully our carriage attendant was really friendly and quite happy for us to do this. We finished wrapping everything and then went down to claim our bunks….which turned out to be ones against the long side of the carriage, which are the ones with the least storage space. We couldn’t even fit the trailer on the shelf above the top bunk, let alone the bike.
Our friendly fellow passengers came to our rescue though and those travelling with less luggage quickly offered their shelves for our use so in the end our kit was spread around three other shelves as well as our own, and at last we could relax.
Trust us, travelling by train is not the easy option.
We arrived in Omsk the next morning and, with a 40 minute stop on the platform, unloading our belongings was a much less fraught affair, especially as our couchsurfing host, Marina, met us on the platform and immediately set to work guarding our belongs as we jogged up and down the carriage fetching our many and varied packages. We had unloaded and got the bike unwrapped and reassembled by the time the train continued on its way to Krasnoyarsk, more than a thousand kilometres further east . Russia is so mind-bogglingly vast: even our own modest train ride had taken us into in another time zone from the one we’d left in Yekaterinburg and we had to move our watches on an hour.
Marina had bought us some maps of Omsk, and explained that her apartment was too small for our bike, but that her friend Tanya had kindly said we could stay at her house, a few kilometres north of the city. Marina hopped in a taxi and we pedalled, and met her an hour later in the rural little village of Pushkina. She prepared us a delicious lunch of potatoes and salad (fresh from Tanya’s garden) and we spent the afternoon chatting and filling in our Kazakhstan visa application forms.
Siberia (where Omsk is) has proved to be surprisingly warm and we sat out in the garden until late into the evening waiting for Tanya to get home from work. Unfortunately we had arrived during a busy period so she did not get home until long after 10pm, and would be leaving the house early the following day too, but she still found the energy to sit up with us and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.
The next day, we were all up early (although not as early as Tanya who was long-gone) and Marina caught the bus with us up into Omsk and accompanied us to the Kazakh consulate….for which we will be eternally grateful to her. We had a number of questions we needed to ask before we could complete the forms, as things like a temporary address in Kazakhstan are not easy to provide if you’re an itinerant cyclist. Luckily, the man at the consulate said we should just put down the name and address of any hotel and that we didn’t even need to have a booking confirmation, so that was a relief. However, he wasn’t so happy that we only had a Moscow-registered Russian mobile phone number so Marina gave him her number as our contact number in Omsk.
We then went on a guided tour of Omsk with Marina showing us the sights and sounds and selecting, for our lunch, the most perfect little eatery. We were in the local administrative district, and a door into one of the buildings had the sign ‘cafe’ on it. Upon entering, we found a plain but tidy little room of tables with a screened off area at the far end. Marina led us down to the screen and behind it was a small canteen. We grabbed our trays and ordered soup, meat, vegetables, salads and a drink, and to our astonishment, our three meals (OK, Marina wasn’t as greedy as us and just had salad, but even so…) came to just 300 roubles, about £6, ie the kind of price we’d struggle to find just one person’s meal for at any of the other cafes we’ve been in.
The reason for the excellent price was the location. Ministers and government officials enjoy cheap meals. So now you know, if you’re in a Russian city and want a cheap lunch, keep your eyes peeled for cafe signs in the government areas.
That evening, Tanya was able to escape from work a little earlier and we had a sumptuous feast out in the back garden of pasta, vegetables, salads and shashlik, followed for dessert by Keith’s summer pudding. We’ve enjoyed every minute of our time with Marina and Tanya, and enjoyed some really interesting conversations with them about all manner of things, particularly their first-hand recollections of life in Soviet times which we found fascinating.
Our visas would take a few days to process so we headed off the next day and Marina said she’d call us when the visas were ready. We’d read about a monastery 55km from Omsk in the village of Achair, on the Irtysh river, and so we headed in that direction. On the way we stopped to buy some wine and a few extra provisions, and whilst Keith was shopping I was befriended by local inebriates, Tatiana and Olga, who insisted on generously sharing what remained of their morning vodka with me. Olga then went into the shop and dragged Keith out to ply him with vodka too. To facilitate a friendly exit from the slightly surreal and increasingly nerve-jangling circumstances Keith gave Tatiana a spin on the Pino by way of a thank-you, and we were able to get on our way with smiles all round. It’s always hard to know how situations will pan out when people have a morning’s worth of vodka in them, but thankfully Olga and Tatiana were decent enough behind their raucous demeanours.
We found a lovely spot to camp on the banks of the Irtysh about 10km before Achair, sharing it from time to time with some fishermen, who paid no mind to us, and we liked the site so much we stayed there for the whole of the next day, just relaxing, reading, labelling photos, writing the blog and tweaking a few bits and pieces on the Pino.
Marina texted to say our visas were ready and we arranged to go back to Omsk to collect them the next day (Friday) and to spend one last evening with her at Tanya’s before setting to the Kazakh border.
On the Friday morning (today) we rose early to take a quick spin up to the Achair Monastery that was mentioned in our guide book. To be honest it was only really worth the trip to meet the little old nun who looked after the Pino for us (by hiding it under some rugs and an old coat) and who gave us some bread and cakes as we left. We then put a bit of a spurt on and covered the 53km into Omsk in 2hrs20 to get our visas. The Kazakh consulate is open 9.30-12.30 and 16.00 -17.00 Mon, Tue, Thu and Fri. We arrived at 11.30 and handed our passports over. We were then given two forms and directions to the bank where we were to pay our $40 each for our visas. Off we trotted. In the bank, the first person we saw asked us things we didn’t understand and then moved us over another desk to be dealt with by of her colleagues, who didn’t ask us anything, but spent a lot of time entering our details into her computer and preparing a further 6 forms. We then had to take these to another desk and hand over our money, and then return to the first desk to get yet more forms which took back to the Kazakh consulate. We were back at the consulate by midday, but there was no-one at the counter. At 12.25 the man finally appeared, took our forms, handed part of them back to us and told us to return at 4pm for our visas.
So…we’re not quite there yet, but are feeling quietly confident that we’ll soon be on the road to Astana.
Update: We’ve got our Kazakhstan visas. Happy faces all round!