That the inane theme song of the 1980 Olympic Games was recorded by Dschinghis Khan seems curiously appropriate given that this journey began in Mongolia. Unfortunately, when we visited the Russian Capital, they were digging it up! (removing problematic linden trees, installing 'historic' lamps, and putting unsightly overhead wires underground). Sadly, this meant much of the architectural heritage and streetscapes were hidden behind unsightly green and white striped hoardings, whilst pedestrians had to play dodgem with each other or the heavy traffic. To top it off, areas of the central city would be closed off by police at short notice, for no discernable reason. We never did get to walk through the Alexander Gardens, and Red Square itself was closed on a Friday evening. The atmopshere during our visit was strangely oppressive. But we did enjoy the Nikulin Circus, the Cathedral of Public Transport that is Moscow's Metro and the wonderful art collections of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts.
Here are some observations about train travel, gained from our journey from Ulan-Ude to Moscow in a number of hops and steps and jumps.
Suzdal's Kremlin was founded in 12th Century by Prince Yury Dolguruky,when the current capital of Russia was but a gathering of huts and cowsheds. But after hundreds of years, first as a Royal Capital and subsequently a major religious centre, a decision of bureaucrats sealed Suzdal's fate.
The Trans Siberian railway bypassed the town in favour of Vladimir, 35 km to the south. Thus was Suzdal bypassed not oly by trains, but by the 20th century, all at the stroke of a Railway planner's pen. Now it is but a lazy backwater, where a river runs past the 30 churches, 5 monasteries and countless cute wooden houses.
Suzdal doesn't seem to mind. The 10,000 denizens welcome tourists, who buy cucumbers and mead from the stalls and sphops in the sleepy streets, or set up their easels by the river to paint watercolours of flower stewn meadows overlooked by the onion domes of the many churches.
There is clearly something to be said for buiding an Imperial Capital on a swamp. After all, the Venetians did it with great style. Ram in some piles, dredge out the channels and face them with stone. Peter the Great needed a gateway into Europe and so Saint Petersburg was born. Italian Architects designed grand avenues and built sumptuous gilded palaces for the privileged few. These edifices were built with serf labour, and Peter's successors were none too keen on the great man's beliefs in emancipation of peasants. One needs only to galnce at the wealth accumulated in the rooms of the Hermitage and Peterhof to understand why the revolution had to come. One wonders if they will celebrate it come October, the Centenary of those Ten Days that Shook the World in October 1917
Tatarstan is a nation within a nation, the Tartars, Russia's largest minority group. Though it is west of the Urals, the Asian faces missing from Yekaterinburg are present in numbers on the streets of Kazan. Mosques stud the skyline, and the call to prayer is heard on the evening breezes. But here, Islam and Orthodox Christianity have co-existed for centuries. The Sunni Muslim Volga Bulgars have mixed with the Mongol Golden Horde, who themselves have mixed with the Ivan the Terrible's Russian invaders. A crossroads of history, and a beautiful, wealthy city. You have to love a place whose symbolic animal is a dragon that looks like a chicken.
The Asian faces of Eastern Siberia are absent in the very European city of Yekaterinberg.
The city is most famous for an act of infamy during chaotic aftermath of the Russian Revolution. In 1918, the Ural Soviet took it upon themselves to brutally excecute the former Tsar Nicholas II, and his entire family, women, childern and all. They had been imprisoned here, isolated from the centres of power to the west, so as not to become a rallying piont for opponents of the young Communist regime. But forces of the White armies were advancing on the city and a decision was taken to end the monarchy, once and for all.
Ironically, this act did more to immortalise the incompetent Tsar than any of the disasterous events of his misrule of Russia. A church with golden domes rises high above the designated site of the executions, not far from the banks of Yekaterinberg's City Pond. The Russian Orthodox Church designates the Romanovs as 'saints'.
Today, the faithful come to the crypt of the church to pay homage to this fantasy. A posse of green robed priests presides over the ceremonies, the atmosphere enhanced by the smell of incense in the air, and the voices of a choir, rising over the baritone chants of the priests.
Why come to Tomsk? Well it is namechecked in Tom Lehrer's paean to the purity of mathematical research, the great 'Lobachevsky' (do listen). But the real reason is that is is a small city, and is well placed about a day's travel by train from Irkutsk. It was also so notoriously slandered by the great Anton Chechov, that the town was moved to commission a mocking statue in response to the great writer's calumny. Make sure you don't dub a proud University town
"Tomsk isn’t worth a damn. A boring city…with dull people. A drunken city…with no beautiful women at all"
And it is home to the best collection of Siberian wooden architecture anywhere in Russia. Plus it has trams. What more is not to like.
The 'Paris of Siberia' might just be over gilding this particular lily, but I guess if one had been sent to Siberia, there would be much worse places than Irkutsk. Wide treelined streets, some elegant buildings, and amongst the bricks and mortar, the characteristic wooden houses of Siberia. Think solid log cabins, but with gingerbread lacework on the eaves, often colourfuly painted or carved shutters gracing the windows. The ground floor windows often touch the footpaths, no doubt reflecting the raising of the street level since construction.
The shard of Olkhon Island juts north-eastward from the boomerang curve of Lake Baikal's Western sroreline. It is the omphalos of local Buryat Shamanism. Colourful ribbons and of flutter from the ubiquitous Shaman Poles, and from trees and shrubs near sacred locations in the everpresent cool winds. A scatter of coins litter the rocks nearly, offerings to the oikony noyod, the "thirteen lords of Olkhon". It is a dry and sandy place, with pine forests and rolling grassy steppes, populated by yaks, sheep and cattle. At the lakeside, precipitous cliffs plunge into the impossibly clear and blue waters of the lake.
In the West, the general view is that the Communist/Socialist experiment failed totally, and has been expunged from history. I'm not sure that is the view in modern Russia. In multicultural Ulan-Ude, where Asian and European faces throng the shopping mall, the iconography of the Soviet experiment is commemorated in the heroic statuary, detail on buildings and the ubiquitous Red Star. It reaches it apotheosis with the massive bust of Vladimir Illyich Lenin, whose stony gaze surveys the passersby in Ploschad Sovetov. These icons are recognised as one of those things with made Russia what it is today. After all, the Communists may have closed the churches, but they did not destroy or obliterate them. They were ket as museums, comemorating a part of history that it was supposed the nation had moved beyond. The churches came back. Whese to say that Socialism cannot likewise return some day.