Trans-Mongolian journal: One and a half day in Omsk and train ride to Novosibirsk

One of the nicer looking streets of Omsk.

September 5th – September 6th, 2017

Day 1: No, no, five hundred Rubles!

We arrived in Omsk in the evening, and walked down the steps to where there was a line of taxis luring for foreign, innocent passengers who practically reeked of inability to negotiate taxi prices. The distance from the train station to the hostel took about 15 minutes to drive, we had researched on Google Maps beforehand. We walked up to the most friendly-looking taxi driver and presented the printout of the hotel booking, showing the address and my handwritten “100 RUB” right next to it. The friendly-looking taxi driver was having none of our low-ball offer. “Nyet, nyet. Pjat” he said, showing five fingers. Five hundred Rubles seems to be the standard price for short distances for people who are unable to negotiate the fare.

“Well, he’s the most friendly-looking one around”, my fiancé said, indicating that she didn’t want to find another one who could drive us to the hotel for a lower price. I’ll have to admit that I’m a terrible negotiator myself, so I guess I cannot fully blame my fiancé for accepting the high price. We accepted it, and placed ourselves within the tiny car, which had a cracked window and no power steering.

During the ride towards the hostel, the taxi driver poked my leg every time I looked away and there was something he wanted to show us or tell us. In Russian, of course. “Tjiatr!” (theatre) he said while slapping my thigh and pointing to a large building next to the road. After a few moments of silence, I mistakingly looked away for a few seconds, causing him to slap my leg and inform me about the “kjino” (cinema) in the direction of where I wasn’t currently looking. After asking where we were from and I said “narvegija”, he said what I believe was that the cinema had movies in Russian, German and French, but unfortunately not Norwegian. I would be very, very surprised if they screened Norwegian movies in Siberia, or even Russia at all. Hell, even anywhere outside of Norway would be surprising.

While the noisy little car travelled towards the hotel, I had fun trying to diagnose the various things that were wrong with the car. Even with my limited knowledge about car mechanical problems, I was still pretty certain that some parts of the exhaust system were loose or missing, there was not much left of some of the brake pads, and that perhaps at least one ball bearing had seen its better days. By Russian taxi standards, I guess it was a pretty decent car. At least it had seat belts. When we arrived at the hostel, the taxi driver shook my hand and said “good luck”. I guess he was lucky that day, driving two foreigners fifteen minutes for five hundred Rubles.

The hostel was unfortunately located about five kilometers away from the city center. When we booked it, it was the closest one to the city with available rooms. This part of town seemed to be a little bit on the poorer side of the scale, and the lack of street lights anywhere close was a little bit worrying for foreigners arriving at a new place at night. For my fiancé, though, it almost felt like her home town of Narvik, which for years had to turn off their street lights at night to save money after some risky hedge fund speculation went wrong.

The receptionist didn’t speak any English at all, and we still didn’t speak Russian. She wanted us to pay a price that was a little bit higher than when we booked the room on Hotels.com, but my understanding was that she did this because she didn’t check if we had a booking. After showing a print-out of the reservation, she agreed to take only the amount specified on the booking. For some reason which we still don’t know, she demanded a cash payment, which created a situation of us having to dig very deep in our backpacks and pockets, as we had used up most of our cash by this point. She was visibily very greatful that we finally were able to find enough cash to pay for the room. She produced a registration form, pointed at it and asked us a question several times, which we didn’t really understand any of the times she asked it. We finally guessed that she asked us if we wanted to register. With a fifty-fifty chance of “nyet” being the correct answer, she seemed to be relieved to not have to register us. Afterwards, we understood that this was probably to avoid paying taxes, especially since we paid in cash and didn’t receive a receipt of any kind.

Private room in a hostel in Omsk.
Private room in a hostel in Omsk.

Since we are spoiled people from the oil nation Norway, we paid a few hundred Rubles extra to have a private room with our own bathroom. We still had access to a “business area” in the hall (a few tables and some chairs, perfect place to write a silly journal), a kitchen, the tiniest washing machine I have ever seen and a hangout area in the reception, with a large sofa and a TV. I am just guessing that the sofa area was a place where the guests could hang out, but it could have been just for the hotel owners. One man was sitting there for our entire stay, often accompanied by the receptionist and a teenage girl who was using her smartphone all the time. Looking back, these people could have been the owners of the hostel, and the “hangout area” could have been their living room.

Using the hotel WiFi, we were able to order an Uber to go to the city, for the neat price of 110 Rubles. The hundred and ten Rubles was even a 1.5x price surge due to high demand at the moment. We used TripAdvisor to see where most of the restaurants were located, just to get a feel of what was the approximate location of the city center. This was then used to determine where we should go that evening to do a little bit of late-night city exploring. While the seatbeltless Uber drove us towards our specified destination, we could observe something we had read somewhere beforehand; there’s an obvious gap between the rich and the poor in Omsk. Some of the city neighbourhoods we drove through had old and run-down apartment buildings without many streetlights, while our destination was fancy, with beatiful and expensive-looking (by Russian standards) buildings, and a bunch of restaurants and cafés.

After the Uber dropped us off in a fancy neighbourhood, we located an ATM inside a bank that was otherwise closed for the day. This ATM only had Russian instructions, so it took a bit of brave guesswork to operate. I entered my PIN, selected what I guessed was withdrawal, then the amount, then “da” to a message that popped up, guessing that “yes” would mean confirming the amount. The ATM spat out my card and no cash. “I probably just donated 5000 Rubles to the Red Cross”, I said, and we left the bank without any cash. I speculated about there being a cash trap on the ATM, but it did not try to dispense cash, and nothing was charged from my account. We still didn’t want to try again at the same ATM, so we searched for another one.

Most Russian restaurants, cafés and shops take credit cards today, it seems, but having cash is still very handy. I am always slightly paranoid about having one of my cards skimmed, so I usually try to pay with cash when abroad. While doing an interrail trip a few years ago, my fiancé’s card was skimmed, probably at a hostel in Prague, where they swiped it twice. They weren’t able to use it for much other than a few small purchases (a one month travel card in Oslo and a $5 something in USA), before the bank with the their wizard-like methods discovered the fraud, cancelled the card and called her. Once home in Norway, she reported it to the police as required by the bank, and they did of course closed the case without investigating it almost before she stepped out of the police station.

Searching for another ATM in Omsk turned out to take more time than expected. We ended up finding one close to the place where we wanted to eat dinner, a place called Grisha Gastro Bar. The burger was okay, but probably not made by the restaurant themselves. Our waiter was curious of why we were visiting Omsk, and he told us that he spoke English because he had lived in the US for a while as part of a work and travel program. I got to practise a few sentences in Russian, in exchange for teaching him a few Norwegian words.

We went back to the hostel by taking an 80 Ruble Uber, without seatbelts yet again. It’s not that the cars lack seatbelts, but the drivers have intentionally disabled them by using a sort of cover over the seatbelt buckle. I still have no idea why they do this. Maybe there’s a lower insurance deductible if the passengers are killed instead of injured. I haven’t yet been able to find anything about it online, and I couldn’t ask the drivers, as none of them spoke much English.

Another curious fact about cars in Omsk, Siberia and Mongolia, we later observed, is that there are many cars with the steering wheel on the right side of the car. I guess the reason for this is that since it’s so close to Japan, it’s cheap and easy to buy imported cars. Several of the Ubers we took and many of the cars we saw in Omsk had the steering wheel on the right. It was a bit amusing to see so many of both types mixed together in one city.

Back at the hostel, I went to the “business area” to write a journal entry about Perm, while my fiancé went back to the room. The reception had Efes pilsner for the quite alright price of 60 Rubles each. While buying one for me and one for my fiancé, the receptionist eagerly asked if she could take a picture of me. I worked out that she wanted this for their Instagram page, as I was probably an exotic kind of traveller in Omsk. She got my picture, and I got my Efes as a refresher while writing stuff in the business area.

Day 2: Looking at monuments, eating and breaking the law

While my fiancé showered the next day, a loud “BANG” was heard from the bathroom. Being a spoiled girl from Norway, she had allowed herself to turn the hot water knob just a little bit too much, making parts of the probably very cheap shower head pop from the high water pressure. The shower head was now dispensing water mostly as one stream just like a regular faucet, but also with a few side streams, most of them aiming for the shower curtain and thereby the floor.

Russian-Orthodox church in Omsk.
Russian-Orthodox church in Omsk.
Russian-Orthodox church in Omsk closed for renovations, but possible to see from a less picturesque angle.
Russian-Orthodox church in Omsk closed for renovations, but possible to see from a less picturesque angle.
Monument to Stepan, the Plumber in Omsk.
Monument to Stepan, the Plumber in Omsk.

After the shower destruction, we headed for the city using yet another Uber without seat belts. We ate some pelmenny for breakfast at a place called Mesto Pro-Testo, and it was great. Afterwards, we strolled around the city, inspecting some of the statues, monuments and buildings the city could offer. We visited a small (by Russian standards) orthodox church, which like all Russian-orthodox churches was quite nice to look at. Much of the interior was covered in gold, and there were paintings on every one of the walls, depicting various scenes from the Bible. Watching people doing their tributes to various people pictured in the paintings (saints, I guess) is always interesting, and for us, quite unusual.

It was a rainy day. After eating okay dinner at an Italian restaurant called Il Patio, we Ubered back to the hostel. In the driver’s seat was a bear of a man, filling every inch of driver’s seat of the Lada station wagon. He didn’t know much English, but said that he wanted to go to Norway to fish. I hope he has another income than what Uber pays him or that he catches a lot of fish, because Norway is unfortunately a bit more expensive to vacation in than Russia.

The Photographer And The Lady At The Samovar Monument in Omsk.
The Photographer And The Lady At The Samovar Monument in Omsk.
Clockmaker Monument in Omsk, which actually looks a bit like my grandfather.
Clockmaker Monument in Omsk, which actually looks a bit like my grandfather.

We had a few more hours until our train departed, so we asked if we could wait in the hangout area/what might have been the living room of the owners, until it was time to go to the train station. My fiancé wanted the time to pass quickly, as she was slightly paranoid about the owners not wanting us to sit there and wait. I didn’t feel any negativity from their side, or maybe I just didn’t give a damn after being a model for their Instagram account and paying them tax-free rent which they probably pocketed the second we turned our backs to the receptionist.

We took another seatbeltless Uber to the train station, the second Uber in this city where the fuel indicator light was on. It was of course just a little bit nerve wrecking, as we didn’t have too much time before the train departed in case the car would run out of gas. Probably dumb from my side, as the driver likely knew exactly how much further he could drive before running out. I’ve been there, driving around with the fuel indicator light on, with a few liters of backup gasoline in a can in the trunk. We made it to the train station without issue.

Slightly illegal picture of our train on Omsk train station.
Slightly illegal picture of our train on Omsk train station.

This time, we only had to show our passports, not our printed-out tickets. The attendant entered our details into an app or a website on a smartphone, and all was good. This time, the compartment was a bit smaller than the previous ones. Otherwise, it was pretty similar to the Perm – Omsk train. While waiting for departure, I fetched my tripod and my camera and went outside to snap a few long-exposure photos of the train in low-light conditions. While waiting for the 25 second exposure to finish, two ladies in reflective clothing came towards me. They talked Russian to me, and I didn’t understand what exactly they wanted, until they said something about “permit”, “photography” and did a hand gesture like when using a stamp, pointing towards the camera. Apparently, you need a permit to photograph public infrastructure such as train stations in Russia. When I understood this, I packed up my camera and tripod and went inside the train. I got one picture, though.

As part of my goal of eating something in the restaurant wagon of every train we took, I ordered an appetizer of beef tongue, brisket and mutton for the standard short-ride taxi price of 500 Rubles. I had wanted to try beef tongue for a while, and I thought it was good. Afterwards, however, it turned out not be the dish I ordered, as the waitress got it all wrong. She might have done it intentionally, as the dish she brought was the most expensive one on the menu. It was also served with some bread I didn’t order but she wanted to charge me for, but I got that one removed from the bill after complaining. There were another couple eating in the restaurant wagon, but it was otherwise empty. Except for the four attendants, who were mostly listening to music and talking with each other.

Since the train arrived in Novosibirsk early the next morning, we soon went to bed, right after asking the carriage attendant to lower the temperature of the compartment. This was now routine.

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