Saturday, September 11, 2004

Economies Of Scale

Novosibirsk

Everything about this city is huge. I'm staying on the 14th floor of a massive hotel opposite a very busy station (Omsk-Novosibirsk is the busiest stretch of railway for freight in the world) and a big, wide square. It's a city of the 20th century, the Soviets clearly had plans to make it a place with 10 million people, and the whole centre is laid out as if it is that big. As it is, the 1.5 million who actually live here scuttle around like ants, never even nearly filling the space around them. I've never been to Milton Keynes but I imagine it's like this, only about 50 times smaller.

Went to a bar last night and a band did a reasonable set of covers. A few Russian songs but mostly British. Sting got 3 tracks played (including a decent stab at "Shape Of My Heart") which was one more than U2 and Robbie Williams, proving that there's life in the old tantric dog yet at least as far as Siberia is concerned.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Sex And The City

Omsk

Both here and in Yekaterinburg there are very few conventional pubs, instead locals drink in little marquee things that are set up in various parks and open spaces around the city. It would be just like those great beer gardens in Munich, if it wasn't so bloody cold and wet. I went into one last night to read a bit more of my pretentious book and found everyone in there was playing backgammon. There was some great Russian indie on the stereo though so it was a pleasant enough hour or so.

Got back to the hotel to find Sex And The City, dubbed very badly into Russian, on the local TV channel. All the way through the bottom part of the screen was full of adverts for credit agencies and Lada dealerships in the Omsk area, which proves that with only a little local variation everyone's culture is becoming more or less the same, even in Siberia.

The sun's out and Omsk looks almost appealing. There are quite a few parks and trees around in what's called "Siberia's greenest city" although the phrase 'polishing a turd' springs to mind. Anyway, it's enough to overcome my slight disappointment at Scotland's draw last night and put me in a decent mood to head further east.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Siberian Rain

Omsk

Woke up on the train this morning in Siberia and shortly afterwards rolled into this city, the second biggest in the region. Well, I say 'region', but Siberia covers one-twelfth of the world's land space, so maybe 'monstrous carbuncle' would be a better phrase.

If there's one word you'd use to describe Omsk it might be 'unlovely' although it could just as easily be 'shithole'. It's probably not at its best in the relentless driving rain but I've not got anything else to measure it by so I'm afraid my judgement's going to be a bit harsh. Dostoevsky was exiled here for four years' hard labour and it's not too difficult to see why. There's a bit of a military background to the city, during the civil war Admiral Kolchak made this the capital of the White Army until the Communists seized it in November 1919. I took a look round the military museum just now where I was heavily outnumbered (2 to 1) by staff. My enjoyment of it was hampered slightly by the old woman who insisted on following me round, turning on the lights as I went into a room and turning them off in the room I'd just left.

Before I left Yekaterinburg I had the pleasure of my first brush with the law. A policeman pulled me over in a metro station, said something to me in Russian, waved a big stick about, then told me to follow him. He opened a hidden door into a dark corridor that led into a small dimly-lit room. Taking a look at the grotty cell in the corner I decided I didn't much fancy it, but the inevitable fat bloke with a moustache behind the desk wasn't too bad. After the bombing in Moscow last week I think they really just wanted to look through my bag, although they did spend ages scanning my passport. In the end the fact I had a rail ticket to Omsk probably saved me (not a sentence I ever thought I'd write) and they didn't even try to scam me out of any money, which was a shame because while all this was going on I was going through my phrasebook trying to work out what "I demand to be taken to the British Consul" is in Russian. I'm sure it'll come in handy one day.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

No Place Like Home

Yekaterinburg

The plague of the theme pub has spread into most corners of the world and Yekaterinburg is no exception. I've managed to resist the temptation of various British bars across Europe, but after seeing the first Scottish pub of my trip here of all places I decided to stop by last night. Attached to a posh hotel Gordon's was too pricey to stay for more than one drink, but the surreal experience of sitting at a table in deepest Russia with a picture of Burns in front of me, one of Edinburgh to my left and the Declaration of Arbroath behind was worth doing. The barmen all had kilts on too, I wonder if they had any idea what it was all about.

On Lenin Prospekt I found a Beatles bar called Yellow Submarine. It was tiny inside but nicely done out, the sort of place that would be incredibly trendy in a tacky sort of way back home. As it was there was only me and a few Russians in there to enjoy a couple of locals running through various Beatles hits and other requests. One of the locals closed his eyes and sang along to every word, but then he was completely drunk.

Decided to stop at an off licence on the way home to get some cheap beer for the train tonight. On the way out who's picture should I see on the wall? None other than this city's favourite son Boris Yeltsin, snapped along with some staff members and grinning like the constantly half-cut man he is. Funny that the only sign of Yeltsin in all of Yekaterinburg has nothing to do with his busting of the hardline Communist coup in 1991 or any of his dramatic economic reforms, just him visiting a booze shop. I suppose it's not surprising.

Monday, September 06, 2004

Tracking Down The Tsar

Yekaterinburg

Managed to find the spot where the Bolsheviks murdered the imperial family without too much bother. During his time as mayor here in the 1970s Boris Yeltsin had the house where it happened demolished so now there's just a plaque and a cross with a few flowers. The tiny wooden chapel nearby used to get burnt down routinely by anti-monarchists but it seems there are more mixed feelings about the Romanovs here these days. There's a big and very grand new cathedral in their honour beside the massacre site. However, it's directly across the road from a statue in honour of the 'Young Communists of the Urals'. This city is still more widely known as Sverdlovsk, a name that comes from the Communist Sverdlov who organised the killings. And the main road is still called Lenin Prospekt complete with an imposing statue of the man himself. It may be 13 years since the USSR broke up, the Tsar and his family may have been long since rehabilitated, but even now you can't escape the Soviets here.

More importantly than all this I've bought a coat, which is at least warm enough to see me through the Siberian September if not exactly the Russian Winter.

Back In The USSR

Yekaterinburg

It's 29 hours here by train from Moscow, the first big chunk of the Trans-Siberian railway. The train was almost empty and I was the only foreigner on board but the journey went fine thanks to a regular supply of 5 rouble (that's 10p) cups of tea and a few conversations with Russians that didn't even get going enough to be considered 'halting'. Everyone that spoke to me found it hilarious I'd even consider travelling in Russia by train for fun. Maybe they have a point. What the hell am I doing here?

Anyway, crossed over into Asia late last night just before arriving here. Nearly one and a half million people live here, which makes it bigger than Leeds and Bradford put together, so it's hardly a backwater.

Went to the first hotel I found (the Sverdlovsk, the old Soviet name for this city that's still widely used) and managed to get a room. It's a huge old Communist concrete block that again looked mostly empty. Most of the stereotypes that exist of Soviet accommodation were confirmed as true within five minutes. In true Communist job-creation style you don't get your key from the receptionist, you get a bit of paper which you then have to give to another person who sits in another office on your floor. The corridors seem to be never ending, full of identical doors on either side. Eventually I found my room, and I imagine I'm the first person to find it in quite some time. The glass and plate that were in there were firmly stuck together, one of the windows doesn't shut properly (not a great thing when it's suddenly got very cold outside - 5C when I got in last night and not much warmer now), the wallpaper is pure 1960s and the black and white TV only manages to get one channel. Last night it was showing 'Arachnophobia' with a very disinterested Russian guy dubbing over all the parts (including women) in a monotone drawl.

All great fun this though, I went to bed smiling and not just because my mouth had frozen into that shape. Off to get a big coat this morning, then to see if I can find where the Romanovs were killed in 1918.

Sunday, September 05, 2004

On a brighter note...

I've finally got round to putting some of Richard's photos up on the web.

Apologies if they are quite slow to download, or not the best quality - haven't had time to beautify them!

If and when he gets his arse in gear to send me more pictures I'll add them...

http://www.rayneholt.com/richardontour.htm

Rayne xx