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

September 5th – September 6th, 2017

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.

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.

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 Russa. 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 orderer 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 brough 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.

Trans-Mongolian journal: Perm – Omsk, food on the train and some reflections

September 4th – 5th, 2017

First class in Trans-Siberian train 030HA.
First class in Trans-Siberian train 030HA.

The train number 030HA, departing from Perm and going to Omsk, arrived about 25 minutes before departure, and we were welcomed by a smiling attendant. She showed us our first class compartment and every single feature of it. All of them. She also showed us every single item in the catalogue of items for purchase. Every one. This train was a lot older than the one we were on for Moscow – Perm. The beds were covered in red leather, and the compartment had a vague smell of tobacco. The walls were of classic oak-colored wood. Even if the train was older than the first one, I liked it better simply because of its charming features. This compartment didn’t have windows that could be opened, so we prayed that the air-conditioning would be effective. Again, it seemed like we were almost alone in our wagon. My guess is that we are approaching off-season and therefore don’t have as many co-travellers, at least not in first class.

The air-conditioning turned out not to work very well, and the temperature quickly started rising. The radiator on the floor was spewing out heat as fast as we were spewing out sweat. We called for the carriage attendant with the button on the wall, and she came knocking on the door. Using Google Translate to translate “We would like it to be colder” into Russian, she understood, and the air conditioning was cranked up. It was suddenly possible to sleep, and so we did.

The train ride between Perm and Omsk took about 20 hours, meaning that we spent a lot of time sleeping. The sleep surely wasn’t as good as on the first train between Moscow and Perm, as this one was a lot more jumpy and noisy. I guess the newer trains have a sort of stabilization system that make each of the bumps smoother. The earplugs we brought helped silence out a lot of the noise, though.

The terrain outside the train window was now a lot more open compared to what we saw of the terrain between Moscow and Perm. I found it fascinating to just sit and watch the world go by, and time passed very quickly this way. There were quite a few tiny Russian villages along the way, and it was fun just looking at various buildings, cars and people we passed. The Siberian nature we’d seen so far was pretty similar to the nature we’re used to in Norway, with a lot of birch forest.

Macaroni and sausage as third course in Trans-Siberian railway restaurant.
Macaroni and sausage as third course in Trans-Siberian railway restaurant.
Smoked deer meat and bear sausage in train 030HA. The bear was surprisingly good.
Smoked deer meat and bear sausage in train 030HA. The bear was surprisingly good.

One of the things I wanted to do on this trip was to eat something in the restaurant wagon on each of the trains. We tried a “business lunch”, which is a typical Russian three-course lunch, often involving soup, salad and some meat. This time, it was a beetroot salad with a piece of bread, chili soup (which they were out of) and finally some macaroni with a pale sausage. Not exactly a culinary highlight, but filling and inexpensive. The business lunch came with lukewarm black tea as well.

As I understand it, the restaurant wagons in Russian trains are run by private corporations, and not RZD themselves. The quality of the food and service, in addition to whether or not the food is expensive, can therefore vary greatly from train to train. We later ate a platter of deer meat and bear sausage, which was very good and inexpensive. It was supposed to come with moose meat as well, but they were all out of it, unfortunately.

Kiosk at Ishim station. You have ten minutes!
Kiosk at Ishim station. You have ten minutes!
Train tracks at Ishim station.
Train tracks at Ishim station.

We stopped for about 10 minutes at Ishim train station. There was a kiosk there, selling the usual snacks, food and drinks. Since we didn’t have much time and we were already pretty well stocked up, we went back to the train after having a look.

I reflected a bit about what you should do to get the absolute most out of a Trans-Siberian or Trans-Mongolian railway trip, and came to the conclusion that only taking trains doing daylight would be ideal, if possible. It would of course mean that you would have to have more days available, and that you would have to do far more stops, perhaps at very exotic villages along the way. I’m not sure if visiting tiny places would be very worthwhile without speaking any Russian.

If we’re doing a Trans-Siberian railway trip again, we will probably do it all in one take, without breaking the journey along the way. Being 6-7 days on a train may sound insane to some people, but it sounds great to me!

 

Trans-Mongolian journal: Two slow days in slow Perm

September 2nd – September 4th, 2017

Since we had two full days available in Perm until the next train departing for Omsk, we agreed to take it slow for once. We have a habit of hurrying around, wanting to experience as much as possible within a short period of time. Since Perm didn’t really seem to be much of an exciting town, we forced ourselves to just stroll around slowly, in order to stretch the experiences as much as possible out in time. Much of the city center was closed off for car traffic that day, as there was a marathon or some other sort of race going on. That made it a perfect day for walking around and taking a look at the city.

The strange sculpture "Permyak Salty Ears" in Perm.
The strange sculpture “Permyak Salty Ears” in Perm.

Perm is a cute little Russian town of about a million inhabitants, but there doesn’t really seem to be much going on, at least not for a tourist with a few days to kill. The number one attraction on TripAdvisor is “Permyak – the salty ears”, a sculpture in front of a hotel, which you are supposed to put your face in and have someone photograph you, and you’ll appear to have large ears. The sculpure has been awarded a prize of “the strangest attraction” in Russia by a Russian magazine. I agree.

Great sushi at Kemari sushi in Perm. Large and tasty pieces. Great service by English-speaking waitress.
Great sushi at Kemari sushi in Perm. Large and tasty pieces. Great service by English-speaking waitress.
My fiancé, the killjoy, said that I was probably too big to ride this horse.
My fiancé, the killjoy, said that I was probably too big to ride this horse.
Photogenic llama in Gorky amusement park in Perm.
Photogenic llama in Gorky amusement park in Perm.
Dancing seniors in Gorky amusement park, Perm.
Dancing seniors in Gorky amusement park, Perm.

After taking in the strangeness of the number one attraction in Perm and eating some great sushi at Kemari, we walked to Gorky amusement park. It seemed to be mostly for kids, but the arcade game room was great for us too. They had carusells, pony riding, animals to watch and maybe pet, train rides and things like that for kids.

While walking out of the park, we noticed some music coming from a large tent. It turned out to be hundreds of seniors dancing to live music. As I was filming this lovely session with my GoPro, I had a fun encounter with an older guy who was wearing what seemed to be an old military uniform. Of course, he spoke only Russian, and I spoke only English, so we didn’t really understand each other. He spent some time staring at the camera, and then approached me, saying something to me in Russian. I first thought that he didn’t want me to film, but it rather seemed that he was really fascinated with the size of the camera. It sounded like he wanted to know if it just took photos or video as well. He walked away when I said “je nji gavarjo pa ruski” (I don’t speak Russian). Perhaps he went out and bought a GoPro for himself that day, and is filming dancing seniors right at this moment. 

We later ate dinner at a place called Pelmennaya No. 2, which serves Russian cuisine. We were looking to try pelmeni, which are Russian-style dumplings with various fillings. The dish we ordered were of three different kinds, with different meat in each, in addition to a sauce on the side. The dish was served with a glass of vodka, of course. The pelmeni were good, but perhaps lacking a little bit of taste. We ordered it with cheese sauce; a tomato-based sauce would probably have been better. Drinking vodka to pelmeni actually made it taste a lot better. The Russians have figured this out. Trust them.

Pelmenny at Pelmenny No. 2 in Perm.
Pelmenny at Pelmenny No. 2 in Perm.

At Pelmennaya No. 2, we discussed something we’d noticed at every place we had eaten in Russia so far: After they have collected the plates of the last course, the servers tend not to come back to the table. I am currently not sure if that’s just how they do it, wanting to leave you alone so you can stay at the table for as long as you would like, or if they just don’t want any more interaction than necessary. Since it can sometimes be a little tricky to get the attention of the server, we now just ask for the bill when they come get the plates after the last dish.

Hookah Bo$$ in Perm.
Hookah Bo$$ in Perm.

Walking towards the hotel in the late evening, we spontanously walked into a hookah bar called Hookah Boss. Their logo looked suspiciously like the face of Walther White in Breaking Bad, which of course made it more appealing, although perhaps a little bit suspicious as it was located down some stairs and into a basement. On the outside, they advertised with being a craft beer bar. On their bar menu, they had a selection of about 10-15 different types of beer. We drank a few refreshing beers and enjoyed a hookah for a few hours. Various people came to the booth and maintained the hookah for us. We weren’t really sure if they actually worked there, or if they were just regulars, but they did a good job anyway. The style of the place was just how I like it, with a bunch of booths, which you could make more private by pulling a curtain if you wanted to. The hookah was 600 Rubles, while the beer were about 250 Rubles each.

The next day was slow as well. We ate lunch at a place called Partizan, which seemed to specialize in various kinds of meat. We ordered stir fried Teryaki beef, spicy chicken wings and jerked duck. The duck and the beef were particularily good, and the service was excellent.

Otherwise, we spent the day walking around, exploring the town like the common tourists we are. We visited two tiny malls, where there was nothing particularily interesting, except an electronics store with a great selection of dashcams. Perhaps not really very surprising, as every dashcam video online is from Russia. Before going home to the hotel, we stopped by at the supermarket and bought various items for the train ride. Water, cookies, candy and noodles is great to have during the trip, and they are of course more expensive in the restaurant wagon.

Unimpressive room service.
Unimpressive room service.
We stayed at Amaks hotel in Perm, and it was alright except for the room service.
We stayed at Amaks hotel in Perm, and it was alright except for the room service.

Later at the hotel, we ordered some dinner via room service as we wanted something to eat just before leaving. Because I don’t speak Russian and the receptionist barely spoke English, the ordering was in person by visiting the reception rather than calling them. I can only imagine the nightmare of trying to explain what we wanted over the phone. It would probably have been a story similar to when my father tried to order a beer in South Korea and ended up getting a glass of hot milk. With some pointing on the menu and saying “dva” (two), the receptionist understood what we wanted. One hour later, the food arrived, but without any cutlery. We ate the piece of meat and the comically small salad like barbarians.

To get to the train station, we used Uber this time, since we now had WiFi access at the hotel. There were surprisingly many Uber drivers in Perm, and some of those were also traditional taxis (we saw ordinary taxis with Uber logos). We were picked up in a Lada that actually looked half decent, and arrived at the train station soon thereafter. Luckily, as the gas tank was almost empty. The price was 75 Rubles, quite a bit cheaper than the 500 Rubles taxi ride two days before. And the driver was nice too, and didn’t try to kill us like the maniac taxi driver whom drove us from the train station to the hotel. I bet the Uber driver couldn’t have killed us with speed even if he tried, though, because the engine couldn’t have been any more than 75 HP. I have used lawnmovers with more power than this car. But hey, it got us to the train station without any issues, so who am I to complain.

Trans-Mongolian journal: Moscow – Perm train ride and a crazy taxi driver in Perm

September 1st – 2nd, 2017

Our 23 hour train ride between Moscow and Perm was almost half finished when we woke up. Since the train departed the night before, we spent almost half of the ride asleep. We probably did not miss too much while we were sleeping anyway, as the views between Moscow and Perm didn’t seem to be too spectacular. Time flew by quickly even when we were awake.

At 15:00, the train stopped at Balyezino station for about half an hour in order to change locomotives. The station was filled with traders selling snacks, soda, water, home made food and hand crafted items. We looked at the time table on the wall, and saw that the train would depart at 15:25, meaning that we would have 25 minutes to shop. Even though we knew when it would depart, we were still constantly worried that the train would suddenly leave, so we bought a few items quickly and boarded the train as fast as we could, just to be sure. They do not use a whistle and they might depart earlier than planned, so you better keep an eye on the attendants. It turned out to depart three minutes after schedule.

I later walked into the restaurant wagon alone in order to buy us a beer. The wagon was empty, except for the attendants and a police officer. What seemed to be the main restaurant attendant recognized me. I said “pivo, pazjalosta” (beer, please) and she said “dva?” (two?). I said “da” (yes), and she brought the same brand of beer as yesterday. While paying, another attendant asked me something in Russian that I did not understand. The main attendant told her something, and she walked away. I am still not sure what she asked me, but I suspect she wondered if I had a first class ticket. I wasn’t quite dressed for that, I guess, wearing an old t-shirt and a pair of bad looking sweatpants.

Ice cold Erdinger weissbier on the train between Moscow and Perm.
Ice cold Erdinger weissbier on the train between Moscow and Perm.
A typical Trans-Siberian meal.
A typical Trans-Siberian meal.

We later ate dinner in the restaurant wagon. We were alone again, except for three attendants who were watching “Life of Pi” on a laptop, in addition to one attendant sleeping. The movie was comically loud, and of course dubbed in Russian as every movie is in this country. They didn’t mind us, so we at least got to listen to half an hour of the movie. Lucky us! I ordered a main course of chicken wings and a salad for about 450 Rubles, and my fiancé ordered the most expensive item she could find, a slice of beef and a salad for 1000 Rubles. It took about half an hour before we got the food, and I suspect it was so slow because they simply forgot about us while watching the movie. The food was surprisingly good to be a train meal. My fiancé didn’t dare to eat the salad because she feared they had washed it in unclean water. I ate all of mine and hers without any adverse effects.

This big beast of a samovar provides hot water at any time.
This big beast of a samovar provides hot water at any time.

During the train ride, we greatly appreciated the samovar which provided hot water at all times. Trans-Siberian trains all have this big boiler in each of the carriages, and you can use it at any time. We used it to make coffee which we had brought with us, and also to prepare noodles. This particular compartment didn’t have any coffee cups or other containers to make coffee, but we brought with us a thermos each, both with cups. I learned the hard way that the samovar may dispense a few millilitres of boiling hot water right after closing the tap, so keep your fingers away.

We arrived at Perm 2 station at about 19:30 and walked outside. There were two taxis standing in front of the building, and we showed one of the drivers the address of our hotel. He nodded and loaded our backpacks in the trunk of the car, we found our seats and he removed the taxi sign from his roof of his car. He immediately accelerated like a drunken fugitive on drugs while I tried my best to keep my cool and not pull the keys from the ignition to stop this maniac driver. While I thought about the number of traffic deaths in Russia every year (about 30 000) and my fiancé casually said “well, we’re gonna die”, the clearly insane taxi driver changed lanes rapidly with extremely narrow space between us and the cars he passed. The speedometer read 110 km/h. Within the city center, through intersections.

The hotel was literally suddenly in front of us. One part of me regretted not negotiating the price before setting foot inside the car, but I would in fact probably have paid 10 000 R and my first born had he asked me to. Maybe that was his plan all the time, or maybe he just wanted to impress us with how fast he could move people through the city, as morbid as when a cat proudly brings its prey into the house. I was just glad we survived. We paid 500 Rubles for the ten minute ride, probably triple the amount we should have paid.

We checked in to the hotel, and the room was a typical European standard room. Again we faced problems with using our phones for receiving an identification SMS for using the WiFi network, so we had to ask the receptionist to help us. He used either his own or the hotel’s mobile phone to receive the SMS code for us, making us able to connect. I guess that’s a useful tip for anyone travelling to Russia and having problems with the hotel WiFi; ask if the receptionist can use their phone to receive the code for you. After watching “Dom 2” (apparently a famous reality show) on TV, we went to bed.

Trans-Mongolian journal: Two days in Moscow

August 30th – September 1st, 2017

Aeroflot SU 2535 OSL- SVO.
Aeroflot SU 2535 OSL- SVO.

We started our Trans-Mongolian railway trip by flying to Moscow from Oslo with an old Aeroflot airplane. Tickets were cheaper than what we usually pay to get home to Northern Norway for Christmas, about 1200 NOK for a one way ticket. Before going, I read a little bit about what to expect when arriving at Sheremetyevo International Airport (SVO). Some people wrote that they had been stuck for hours in border control as the airport supposedly was filled with people, almost like when landing at Newark in USA with an international flight. Our flight was landing at 00:30, so I was sort of expecting to be in bed very late, since border control reportedly could be so slow. The terminal turned out to be almost empty, so everything went pretty smoothly. There was almost no line at the passport control booths, so within a few minutes it was our turn. I guess this is one of the pros of travelling at night and late in season.

I walked up to the border police officer in the booth, smiled and presented my passport. The officer smiled back and asked me where I was flying from. Oslo, I told him, and he started inspecting my visa. He was apparently undergoing training, as there was a guy behind him instructing him. Even though I could clearly see that he was being trained – and the fact that my papers definitely were authentic – I couldn’t help but be just the right amount of nervous when they started talking while inspecting the visa very, very closely. They apparently felt the paper quality of the visa sticker, looked at it with UV lighting, and just generally studied it closely for a minute or two. No problem, though. They stamped it and sent me off with a slight smile. I guess you can’t always trust the rumours. Our experience at the border was actually quite good! The border police at Oslo airport asked me more questions when flying out than the officers at SVO asked me when flying in.

Previously that day, we had pre-booked transportation from the airport to the hotel in Moscow. We hadn’t done anything like this before, but did it this time to make the late night arrival be a little bit more predictable and smooth. We had to check two other companies, but ended up with Easy2Airport, since the other ones didn’t have any drivers available due to us booking it the same day as arriving. After making a booking request on their website, they emailed me within 15 minutes with a confirmation. The price was about 3000 Rubles. For that price, we got a driver in a newer looking Mercedes E Class, waiting for us at arrivals. The suited man was very friendly. He was also usable as a scarecrow to get rid of the few taxi hagglers who surprisingly were still active at 01:00. As part of the service, the transportation company wait for you for 1 hour for free. He drove us safely to the hotel in Moscow, although without many words exchanged between us.

The suite at Eden Hotel in Moscow.
The suite at Eden Hotel in Moscow.

We arrived at Eden Hotel which was pretty close to Red Square, and the receptionist greeted us. She didn’t speak much English, but that wasn’t really needed for the brief exchange of some information and a key. The hotel advertised themselves as a mini hotel, with only ten rooms. One of them was a suite, and that was the one we were staying in. It didn’t cost much more than the other rooms, so why not. It wasn’t a suite as per Western standards, but it was spacious and comfortable enough. Our only complaint was that there was only cold water in the shower, but the hot water returned the next day. Oh, and that the walls were very thin, as we figured out when we heard someone having a good time in our neighbouring room. We paid about 3000 Rubles per night, which was not bad considering the great location of the hotel. A fun fact about the suite is that they also rented it out on an hourly basis – I believe it was 1800 Rubles per hour. I don’t really want to know what has happened in that room.

At this hotel, we were introduced to how public WiFi networks work in Russia. It seems that the providers are legally required to make you identify yourself when using public hotspots, and this happens by calling a phone number or receiving an SMS to your phone number. At this particular hotspot and some others we later encountered, they only accepted Russian phone numbers, so we couldn’t get connected. I asked the receptionist about it, and she answered unambiguously: “Not work. Tomorrow”.

St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow.
St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow.

The next day, we walked to Red Square and had breakfast. I still regret that choice to this day, as we paid about 3500 Rubles for a couple of Caesar salads and two cups of coffee. Perhaps not very expensive for most travellers, but is very expensive to be Russia. There are probably places that are a lot cheaper on Red Square, but the square is more expensive than other areas closeby.

A boy disassembling and assembling a Kalashnikov on Red Square, Moscow.
A boy disassembling and assembling a Kalashnikov on Red Square, Moscow.
Chilean horse show on Red Square, Moscow.
Chilean horse show on Red Square, Moscow.

After eating, we walked on Red Square and just looked around. There was some kind of festival going on, and the theme seemed to be around making children interested in the military. We visited one booth where a boy, maybe ten years old, was taking apart then putting together a Kalashnikov impressively fast. Right next to him, there was a girl, perhaps fifteen years old, showing some pistols to another kid who was very intrigued. Not far from this place, there was another sort of festival where we could sit and watch a show with what apparently were people from Chile, dancing and riding synchronously on horses, carrying both Russian and Chilean flags.

Goose stepping: Change of guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider outside the Kremlin, Moscow.
Goose stepping: Change of guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider outside the Kremlin, Moscow.

Before going, someone told us that we should go watch when they change guards in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, as this was fun ceremony to watch. We didn’t know their schedule, but guessed it was every hour, and therefore waited there until 14:00. We soon heard boots stomping on the ground, and saw the three guards goose stepping towards the guards. They marched slowly towards the two active guards, did a little ceremony when exchanging the guards, and then marched back. Fun to watch.

Sun behind Church of Christ the Saviour in Moscow.
Sun behind Church of Christ the Saviour in Moscow.

Just like we usually do when travelling, we did a lot of walking in Moscow. We walked to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, took some pictures and ate some ice cream, then walked to Arbat. This street is one of the classic tourist traps in Moscow, with lots of street performers and dressed-up women whom you can pay to be photographed with. There were several obviously very talented artists who painted or drew people on the spot, and a few of them produced drawings that almost looked like photographs. There were quite a few booksellers selling used books, which I might have been interested in had they not all been in Russian. While sitting outside at a slightly overpriced café on Arbat, we saw a guy walking past with a Kalashnikov over one of his shoulders. Nobody even batted an eye. Probably a fake or disabled gun, but still a little bit strange to see in a crowded place like Arbat.

After eating relatively expensive platter of fried stuff, we took the metro towards our hotel. It was just two stops, but we had to do it to take a look at a few stations and just observe how well the metro worked. The metro stations we saw were indeed beautiful, but there are probably many other more impressive stations in Moscow. The metro system wasn’t immediately easy to understand. I’m not really sure I understand it completely to this day, but we understood where to go and where to switch metros by using a map and looking around until we found what looked like the name of the right direction. Just as expected, every sign was in Russian, but that wasn’t really a problem as we had a map in Russian and I can read most Cyrillic letters. The time was about 19:00, which was considered during rush hours (18:00 – 20:00) according to a guide we read. It was a bit crowded, yes, but not as crowded as when we took the metro at 17:00 the next day.

Armenian restaurant Noah's Ark in Moscow.
Armenian restaurant Noah’s Ark in Moscow.

Later that night, we ate at a nice Armenian restaurant called Noah’s Ark, close to our hotel. For the price of 2800 Rubles, we got two platters of lamb shoulder with Armenian bread, a glass of wine and a glass of beer. Excellent food and service. I still regret paying 3500 Rubles for the breakfast on Red Square earlier that day.

The next day, we started by eating breakfast at a Georgian café close to our hotel. While we sat outside, an older woman came to us, talking in Russian and probably asking for money. She soon lost interest as we spoke English to her. The next beggar didn’t. He was a 30-ish guy with a beer in his hand, talking in Russian and getting closer and closer for every word he spoke. Since he didn’t accept us talking English, I finally got to say a phrase I’d been practising: “ja nji gavarjo pa roski” (“I don’t speak Russian”). I of course didn’t understand his answer, but I think it was either “How can you say that when you don’t speak Russian?” or “What the fuck are you doing in Russia without speaking Russian?”. Either way, I did understand his swear words after he said “money” and we said “no, sorry”. Otherwise, the breakfast was good.

Partizanska metro station in Moscow.
Partizanska metro station in Moscow.
Wedding guests outside Izmailovsky Kremlin.
Wedding guests outside Izmailovsky Kremlin.

We took the metro to Partizanska in order to go to Izmailovsky market. It is located next to a Kremlin (fortress). Within this Kremlin they have a few museums – vodka museum with vodka tasting, chocolate museum (unfortunately closed that day), gun museum (very small but perhaps fun to visit). The market itself is just outside the fortress. The market was surprisingly quiet on this particular Friday afternoon, but I guess we were there early. The sellers sold items like Matrioska dolls, Soviet-era film cameras, watches, items from the Second World War, etc. Some items were probably authentic, but many of the items were definitely low-quality China-made copies. Fun place to walk around and just look at stuff. Most of the sellers lost interest when they realized we didn’t speak Russian.

We spent the rest of our last day in Moscow by pretty much just strolling around, eating and drinking a beer. When the time approached travelling time, we went back to our hotel where we had left our luggage, and the receptionist ordered a taxi for us. Taxis in Russia aren’t always marked with logos or have a sign on the roof, I had read earlier, and our taxi indeed looked like any ordinary private car. It probably was, too, because he had a child seat occupying one of the rear seats. We got our receptionist to ask him approximately how much it would cost, and he said “don’t know, taxameter” in English. It turned out to be one of the ride sharing apps, and I guess it was a Russian one since it didn’t look like Uber or Lyft. The price was 280 Rubles from the hotel in Moscow centrum to Yaroslavskaya, maybe a ten minute drive. Not bad. I have never seen a meter tick as slowly as this one. When leaving the car, the driver said what I believe was “have a nice trip” in Russian, and then he said in English: “Moscow beautiful, eh?”. He was right. Moscow beautiful.

For a slight moment we were not entirely sure it was the right station, as they wrote it in a different way on the tickets than on the sign. After our bags were x-rayed – which I’m glad they do – we asked an older security guard if it was the right station, pointing at the name on the ticket. He said something in Russian, then said “wrong”. My heart jumped, but it was quickly obvious that he didn’t mean that it was the wrong station, just the “wrong” time. We had arrived 1.5 hours early just to be sure.

Waiting area in Yaroslavskaya railway station in Moscow.
Waiting area in Yaroslavskaya railway station in Moscow.

The station was spacious and had many seats to sit down and wait, along with a few shops and vending machines. When our train number 110 3 finally showed up on the screen, we walked to the platform. It was platform number 2, one of the two platforms used for long-distance trains departing from Yaroslavskaya. The train arrived and was ready for boarding about half an hour before departure. The attendant checked our tickets and passports (identification is required for travelling by train in Russia), and checked that the passport numbers on the tickets were correct. We set foot inside the train and walked to our compartment.

RZD Trans-Siberian train #110 3 at Yaroslavskaya station in Moscow.
RZD Trans-Siberian train #110 3 at Yaroslavskaya station in Moscow.
First class ("Spalny Vagon") compartment from Moscow to Perm 2 on train #110 3.
First class (“Spalny Vagon”) compartment from Moscow to Perm 2 on train #110 3.
One of the two toilets in the first class wagon.
One of the two toilets in the first class wagon.

The compartment wasn’t luxurious, but pretty good and spacious for two people. There was plenty of space underneath our beds to put our backpacks, in addition to more space behind the TV. Yes, there was a TV, but it didn’t work and we weren’t really interested in watching TV. With the window and the door closed, the compartment was just a little bit too hot. We slept with the window open the entire night, and it worked out great since we brought earplugs. I really recommend bringing earplugs!

Before going to bed, we visited the restaurant wagon to buy a beer to bring to the compartment. Since it was a night train, time flew by quickly.