Up at 5am and a brisk walk to the train station. Our carriage attendant didn’t like my ticket and kept pointing to something which in the early morning darkness I couldn’t see. He checked Al’s ticket, smiled and led us onto a spotless empty compartment. On our first overnight train, our Russian travelling companion had declared “this train is not comfortable. It is not a Russian train” and now we understood what she meant. The compartment was bigger with a longer bed and more headroom underneath the top bunk. The table was bigger and we were given sheets, a towel and a comfort pack with a toothbrush, toothpaste and a shoehorn. There was also a menu in English for our included evening meal. Pleased, we rolled out our mattresses and settled down for sleep.
We roused about 9 and at 9.30 a small plump man appeared in our doorway with a ramshackle patched up trolley. He grinned at us revealing gold teeth and said in English “Cold beer” We laughed. “Cold Russian beer?” He asked. We laughed again. “Cold beer?” His face looked confused as he didn’t seem to understand that at 9.30am we didn’t want a beer. He walked off despondently.
We read and watched the birch trees roll past with their yellow leaves thinning and were jolted at 3.30 with a knock on the door. A lady appeared with our free meal. Beef goulash for me and chicken stroganoff for Al. It was warm and free.
At some point in the afternoon we miss the marker that indicates we are closer to Beijing than Moscow.
The light fades. Our golden toothed friend appears at our doorway again. “Cold beer?” He asks. Its the only English he speaks. We indicate positively and he hurriedly shoo’s us back into the compartment and wheels in his merchandise. He closes the door and digs out two cans of Baltika, hidden underneath dried fish and unidentifiable beer snacks from the bottom of his trolley. We pay him and he adds our cash to a huge wad he pulls from his pocket. The whole transaction seems very dodgy and I can’t ever remember buying a beer under such covert circumstances. He leaves and indicates we should close the door. Cold beer, crisps and the compartment to ourselves. Bliss.
The China lonely planet comes out and we chat about where we should go. Later our friend is back. He opens our compartment door and walks in without knocking. The cabin fills with his odour. “Kozel beer?” He asks demonstrating his increased vocabulary. We pay and he disappears to return 5 minutes later with a supermarket basket with a tea towel in. Under the tea towel is a brown paper bag and in that is another brown paper bag and in that are two cold kozels. He indicates we should hide them rather than drink them and leaves.
Beers sunk we wrestle our duvets into their covers and sleep very soundly.
Another cloudless sky in the Siberian capital. After a trip to the post office we head to Travellers Coffee as we like coffee and we’re on our travels. We didn’t realise that alongside our uninspiring latte we’d be buying into a middle class aspirational lifestyle with smooth comfy sofas, framed pictures of laughing coffee bean farmers and indulgent cakes. Like the rest of the world, Russia is in love with coffee and there are many, many coffee shops. We left Travellers coffee realising that to drink there, we had become middle class dropouts with aspirations of a clean toilet and a lack of body parasites.
As it was Tuesday the History museum was closed which pleased one member of team Roberts. On to State Art museum which had some excellent Soviet art and some wonderful pictures by talented local children.
Soup, salad and Pelmeni for lunch in a restaurant attached to the Double tree Hilton. Pelmeni are little pasta parcels containing veg or meat like ravioli or gyoza. One type contained stock which were good.
We walked up to the very impressive opera house and watched the local bmx kids ignore the signs to keep away from Lenin.
The main road has some great examples of Soviet architecture with huge simple unadorned buildings with clean lines.
In the evening we walked down to a brewpub opposite the art gallery. Its located on one side of an old red brick building which had been split into many bars, restaurants and shops which were full of the cool kids, wealthy middle aged and a couple of scruffy looking English midlanders. Craft ale and pizza for tea but the evenings entertainment was the table next to us who were celebrating a girls 17th birthday. They looked really young and drank plum wine and her birthday candles were arranged in a giant hamburger which they could only eat half of. Happy Birthday was sung in English.
Very sunny in Siberia but alongside the further two hours we’ve jumped ahead, we have the expected temperature drop down to 6° C.
Metro and walk to hostel and after checkin we head to a recommended Georgian restaurant just round the corner. This is the 4th one we’ve tried and are loving it. We are seated in front of Spurs v Man City but try and focus on the menu.
Red bean stew with spices, mutton meatball spiced soup, mutton and mushrooms in sour cream sauce, chicken shashlik and kachapuri (bread). Food is delicious. You need to try Georgian food people!
Al heads for a siesta as she has a cold and I explore the capital of Siberia alone. The streets are wide and full of cars some with bumpers some without. Trams look battered and old. Pavements are uneven in places and kerbs are very high so you need to watch your step but people look relaxed and smiley in the October sunshine. Many bars and restaurants are located below ground with just a sign next to a stairwell so my Cyrillic translation skills get tested. I go into a supermarket to buy tissues for the patient and am surprised by the lack of identifiable products but then I was surprised by the opulence of StP and Moscow. Siberia is how I had wrongly envisioned all of Russia to be before I got here.
The Theatre and Opera house is huge and has a dramatic statue of Lenin in front. His coat flapping in the Siberian wind. Opposite is a very Gaudi-esque building.
I pass a hat shop and the prices in the window look reasonable. When Alison threw the last of our Euros off the ferry she also lost my new hat she was borrowing. (Although there is no blame in team Roberts). I decide on a greyish one and very pleased with it I vainly look at my reflection in shop windows on the way home.
Al is better so we walk 200 yards to………a craft ale bar. Dark Russian beers casually supped and an early night.