On the Golden Eagle across Siberia (Part IX) – Ulan Ude and towards Mongolia

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The old stories have a life of their own. Leaving Baikal, we discover the old Mongol myth that suggests the grave of Genghis Khan is on a lake Baikal island. His mother came from the local Buryat tribes who believed that they should be buried as close to the lake as possible.
Archaeologists speculate that this really could be the case, so the search continues, most recently through satellite imaging from outer space.This “virtual exploration” particularly coordinated by the University of California San Diego may lead to unimaginable treasure being found…

Before turning towards Mongolia however, the Golden Eagle makes a longer stop at Ulan Ude, a city whose name means the “Red(river) Ude”(while Ulan Baatar means “Red Warrior”). It was, like Vladivostok, closed to foreigners during Soviet times until 1991.Today it is “twinned” with Berkeley, California.
On the main square of the city is the world’s largest Lenin monument. It is a head 7.7 meters (yes, 25 ft !) tall, created using 42 tons of bronze, to celebrate the centenary of Lenin’s birth. This Lenin portrayal, unlike that of the handsome hero we saw on our visit to Kazan University, is closer in intention to the preserved figure in the mausoleum on Red Square in Moscow. It seems to confirm the appraisals of Lenin by Pasternak as the worship of narrowness, or Ossendowski in his 1931 Lenin biography describing him as a “God of the Godless (which made Ossendowski a man high on the wanted list of Stalin’s NKVD secret police). Of course for our UK English travelers, the way the head dominates the rather featureless government buildings on this otherwise empty square, recalls a powerful sonnet by Romantic poet Percy Shelley entitled Ozymandias, which several of our group mention :
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings
Look on my works ye Mighty and despair !
Nothing beside remains.Round the decay
of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away…

Soon we leave the city for a trip back inIMG_1065to Russian tradition and a fascinating visit to an Old Believer community, exiled to Siberia centuries ago for refusing to accept reforms aligning the liturgy with that of the Greek Church. During the visit we have lunch, enjoy village songs and jokes, admire the colorful painted houses and their gardens. Soulful Russian poet Yesenin, once lover and husband of Isadora Duncan, came from an Old Believer peasant family. We hear about even more traditional Old Believer communities such as those in Estonia that still follow ancient prohibitions such as the one where men who die without a beard have to be buried in an unmarked grave or another about women who, unable to enter a church bareheaded, must have their scarves pinned under their chin for tying a knot is symbolic of the suicide of Judas by hanging. Otherwise the traditional icons are similar, the “onion domes” of churches still represent the flame of a candle, while the lower bar on the crucifix, at an angle to the cross, represents pointers signifying up to heaven, down to hell, a reminder of the choices made by the two thieves crucified on either side of Christ on Golgotha. Another window on the Russian soul.

Back on the Golden Eagle we have time to prepare our visit to Mongolia by considering its origins. A BBC series historical film on Genghis Khan arouses comparisons with earlier and more recent portrayals. “Mongol”, an award winning film by Russian director Sergei Bodrov, was filmed not long ago in Inner Mongolia and Kazakhstan. It was such an artistic and financial success, though thematically placed on the early life of Genghis Khan, that a sequel is being made. Some still remember Omar Sharif in the 1965 Hollywood production made in Yugoslavia. Maybe the closest in spirit, if not historically accurate and actually filmed in Spain, is the cartoon-like “Conan the Barbarian” series, which brought Arnold Schwarzenegger worldwide recognition. His Conan,
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Crush your enemies
See them driven before you
hear the lamentations of their women.

We find out later that Mongolians ride ponies as soon as they can walk, an ancient tradition. Genghis Khan would lead an army of 100,000 horsemen to found, in 25 years, the largest empire in the history of the world, six times larger than the one it took the Romans 400 years to establish.
An interesting discussion followed, on how they managed to do it wether through superior organisation or the aid of magic plants.Those 13th century Mongol warriors fed Sea Buckthorn (see your local health food store !) to their little horses, to increase their strength and make their coats shine. In no time, their speed made the armoured knights of Europe obsolete. The warriors also ate this plant’s orange berries to give themselves strength for battle, and used them to treat their wounds. This gave them greater endurance and faster recovery than their foes. We were reminded that geneticists today are fascinated that 1 in 200 men carry the Y chromosome (that is some 16 million or 0.5% of the male population of the world) making them in direct line of descent from Genghis Khan, while his grandson Kublai Khan (and protector of Marco Polo) contributed by adding 30 virgins to his harem every year !

Maybe the aura of Mongolia is best conveyed in the words of the legendary Ferdynand Ossendowski in his Beasts, Men and Gods. Describing his escape from communist Siberia through Mongolia he feels that “Mongolia with her rude and terrible mountains, her limitless plains, covered with the widely strewn bones of the forefathers gave birth to Mystery. Her people frightened by the stormy passions of Nature, or lulled by her deathlike peace, feel her mystery”.

Wow, get those passports ready !

 

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On the Golden Eagle across Siberia – Part VIII – Baikal “The Pearl of Siberia”

 

 

 

 

 

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Lake Baikal, known in Russian folk song as the “glorious sea”,  is probably the oldest lake (25 million years), it has the clearest water (the Japanese planned to pipe the non distilled living water to Japan in WWII ). On the Golden Eagle we will be drinking it, bottled, all the way to Vladivostok.  It  is certainly the greatest inland sea in volume . Almost 1700 mts. below sea level, it is also the deepest of all the freshwater lakes in the world and an active rift ,a break in the

crust which is still widening by 2 cms per year, with consequent hot springs and earthquakes. Drained only by the Angara river, it is fed by 300 rivers and tributaries and freezes over in the month of January, up to two meters of ice deep.

Apart from the great variety of fish in the lake, the Omon, the Grayling and the Sig in the salmon family, there are  abundant pike and  also the Bull-head which serves as food for the other fish. There are also over 200 species of crustaceans (more than in the sea) and they eat…Everything !..including debris, bodies, skeletonIMG_1243s ! Locals point out Baikal is the ideal crime site, as there is absolutely no evidence left.

Traditionally, the Trans Siberian is considered as the Iron Belt of Russia in which the Baikal railway, that circumnavigates the 630 kms long lake, is seen as (especially cost-wise) its Golden Buckle complete with 33 tunnels and some 200 bridges.

Even now, in late August, the lake is relatively cold but, several determined individuals including our Prof.Dan and Doctor Judy, took a swim anyway.They emerged to be revived by our train life-savers with a stiff shot of Vodka.

We then continue to Port Baikal and the local Lake Museum to better appreciate its geology, wildlife and complicated railroad construction.We see the famous fresh-water seals swimming smoothly from tank to tank in the aquarium, then it is a boat ride across the lake and up, by a steep hike and chairlift, for the spectacular panorama from the Chersky Mount.

Eventually we are back to Port Baikal and the train leaves to make a delightful stop at Serebriansky Kliuch (Silver Springs) for a lakeshore dinner, the culmination of a perfect day in the heart of Siberia.

 

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On the Golden Eagle Across Siberia -PartVII- Music, Revolution and Irkutsk

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With the Golden Eagle leaving for Irkutsk, we have time to consider the landscape, and the fact that Siberian rivers flow from south to north, towards the Arctic Ocean. Russians often say there is “nothing” north of the Trans-Siberian railway tracks, the taiga forests becoming an empty steppe, due mostly to the freezing permafrost (up to 7mts. deep!) where temperatures can fall to minus 70C.

Travelling overnight and all the next day to Eastern Siberia there is time for the various lectures and briefings, even one on a cooking class to be offered later, and a BBC Nature documentary entitled “The realms of the Russian Bear”.

siberiano2a That evening there were cocktails and a special Caviar Dinner. Piano music in the lounge bar brought a discussion on how Moscow composer Boris Tchaikovsky (no relation to Peter Ilyich) was moved to write his symphonic poem on “The Wind of Siberia” (1984), considered a “pictorial masterpiece” by critics. Irkutsk novelist Valentin Rasputin was also mentioned as a controversial environmentalist (maybe stimulated by his own home village, Atalanka, being flooded as part of a major dam project ). He is seen as trying to protect and preserve northeastern Siberia from what Moscow authorities consider as ripe for exploitation or development. We note the stop at Polovina to come. It means “half-way” and is located as a marker station 4644 kms. from Moscow. There are towns with warning names such as Zima (meaning “winter”) before reaching much visited Irkutsk and Baikal, the world’s deepest freshwater lake.

Irkutsk, reached by the railway in 1898, shortly became known as the “Paris of Siberia” for its lively atmosphere and liberal outlook. It is greatly appreciated by the Russians, who do not view train travel as entertaining, find the roads frequently blocked by large, slow moving trucks and prefer to fly in on inexpensive fares. Before the railway, it could take 2-3 years to travel one way from St.Petersburg. Although established as a fort by Cossack fur-trading adventurers, then becoming a raucous gold mining town, it changed greatly after the first Russian Revolt of December 1825. That year, a major Russian generation was sacrificed by deportation,for trying to influence a more liberal Czarist succession. Previouslyirkutsk-city-wooden-houses, inconvenient critics such as Romantic writers Lermontov (“A Hero of our Time”) and Pushkin had been sent to the Caucasus to cool off, but this was a more serious matter. The Decembrists, as they became known, came from the Russian elite. Their main leaders were hanged, but large numbers of exiles from aristocratic families were dispersed over Eastern Siberia. They gradually made Irkutsk their principal centre, at the same time transforming cultural awareness in the whole region. A particularly poignant aspect of their exile was the heroic determination of their wives and fiancées who abandoned great wealth, comfort and even their children, to support their rebellious, liberal spouses and create an island of culture in the wilderness ,an aspect which still influences the city today. It is this which is brought out in our Golden Eagle excursions when we see the paintings, portraits and landscapes at the Irkutsk Art Gallery, before visiting some of the carefully preserved wooden houses, long gone in most other cities.

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A moment of living past is re-created in the late afternoon with a private concert at the former home of prominent exile Prince Sergei Volkonsky. Well presented, it is an echo of that Decembrist isolation and the music can take a subtle hold, making spectators feel briefly a part of that vanished world, so vital for the exiles. Lev Tolstoy, who studied their lives, saw music as the shorthand of emotion (while his contemporary Nietzsche considered that “without music life would be a mistake”). Soon after, Tolstoy began a novel about the liberal movement that eventually grew into “War and Peace”, in which Sergei Volkonsky is the inspiration for Prince Andrey Bolkonsky in one of the greatest novels ever written.

More recently (2009), Siberia music and exile were the theme of a much awarded film “Le Concert”, which approached the story lightly but culminates in a l_1320082_6dc56ca9triumphant rendering of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto (it is absolutely worth seeing, at least the final 5 minutes available on You Tube).

Tolstoy, of course, became the hero of Boris Pasternak, himself long considered a “father of the Russian dissident movement”. In his Nobel Prize-winning novel “Doctor Zhivago”, the heroine Lara dies in the Gulag, while, in real life, Pasternak’s companion Olga was sent to Siberia and only released after Stalin’s death in 1953. Pasternak felt that “for so long we were ruled by a madman and a murderer”. He also, speaking as Zhivago, compared the bolshevik revolutionaries taking the law into their own hands as being “like a runaway train”.

So, Irkutsk, with its bustling atmosphere, tremendous variety of lake fish and caviar at the markets, as well as its liberal historical heritage, is one of the most memorable stops on our journey. We have dinner, at a family run country home or “dacha”, based on delicious fresh local produce, then our Golden Eagle departs to stop overnight near Sludianka, perfectly positioned for our full visit next day to Lake Baikal, Siberia’s most acclaimed destination.

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On the Golden Eagle across Siberia (Part VI) – The Siberian Capital

photoOn board the Golden Eagle, our ubiquitous Train Manager, Tatiana, conducted almost daily Russian classes.They were both useful and highly entertaining. By the time of the Farewell Evening we were able to join in a vigorous rendering of “Kalinka maya” during our music-bar/lounge evening.

Dan, our Oxford Professor, was also tireless, presenting, explaining, enlightening. His series of lectures, complete with a freshly assembled final reading list, included numerous topics. Among those covered were the conquest of Siberia and the valuable fur trade which drove the Russians towards the Pacific. Other topics were Red Siberia that depended totally on the train as Lenin understood that “if the trains stop that will be the end for the Reds” and pre WWII Siberia, initially beaten by backwardness, yet only 10 years later ready to face Nazi Germany, in part due to the world ‘s largest steel plant at Magnetigorsk. Post-war, the enormous oil and gas discoveries are seen as a source of developing wealth. In turn, the exciting story of the backbone of Russia, the Trans-Siberian Railway, its evolution and importance for freight transportation, gave us understanding to what we could observe daily on the tracks, the roads even today not good enough for regular year-round travel.

photoA final lecture on Siberian exile up to Solzhenitsyn and the Soviet Gulag prison system, explained the tragedy of a region which swallowed 20 million people, even if, in the past for the peasants, Siberia stood for freedom from serfdom. Prisoners still exist and more recent high profile deportees included Mikhail Khodorovsky although his forced exile, currently in Switzerland has rendered him less relevant to Russians today.

Soon enough we reach Novosibirsk created around the Trans-Siberian Railway bridge over the river Ob. The city developed so fast that for a time it was spoken of as the Chicago of Siberia. Now with 1.5 million people, and the Siberian capital, it has one of the youngest populations in the world. These Siberians see themselves as the “purer essence of Russia” and remain warm and hospitable, quite open to outside influences, visitors and fashions (including some of the highest heels on ladies shoes that I have seen anywhere). This is now a wealthy region since the post-soviet privatisation of Sibneft and the largest oil refinery complex in Russia, run by Gazprom Neft. Oil and gas produce 70% of Siberia’s budget, replacing the former local military industries.

photoInevitably the focus of this city is Lenin Square. A solid statue represents Lenin as the Revolutionary Leader facing towards a distant horizon. He was characterised by Pasternak as one so focused as to be “narrow minded to the point of genius”. In the various provincial stations such as Belogorsk where we stop along our journey, Lenin is usually portrayed in full speech, arm upraised in emphasis as at the famous Finland Station arrival, to inspire the Bolshevik revolt. However at the mausoleum in Red Square, Moscow, the embalmed figure is closer to Pasternak’s observation that “…for decades after…the spirit of narrowness is worshipped as holy”.

On the square, we visit the Opera House. Larger than the Bolshoi in Moscow, it has a huge stage of 1,300 sq.mts. Sometimes referred to as the “Siberian Colosseum”, it was prepared to accommodate the rousing parades of the Stalin period when at times outside temperatures dropped below minus 40 centigrade. The company also produces a steady stream of excellent ballet dancers. Ballet school studies are free of charge.photo

Our final visit of the day is to the open air Railway Museum outside the city. The exhibits range from ultra streamlined snow ploughs to the barred compartments and cells of the former prisoner transport carriages. Returning to the city and the Golden Eagle, we pass the Akademgorodok, a former concentration of Soviet scientific brain power. Now financed privately by venture capital from Intel and Schlumberger it is nick-named the “Silicon Forest”.

Back on the train our maps show that Semipalatinsk is only a few hours south of Novosibirsk. There, the Soviet Atom Bomb program was developed involving over 450 nuclear tests and accompanying radioactive fallout. It was also the town where, after Omsk, Dostoyevsky was forced to complete his last years of exile, this time as a soldier. His years of hardship and reflection were followed by the great novels, most notably The Brothers Karamazov a book which contains the complex parable of Christ returning to earth but being confronted by The Great Inquisitor, seen as yet another window onto the Russian soul. The parable was a challenge for actors to present on stage but was rendered brilliantly by Sir John Gielgud (and worth looking at on You Tube) making Dostoyevsky relevant for all times.

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On the Golden Eagle across Siberia (Part V) – Twenty minutes at Omsk!

photo211So it is an early morning run! Off the train and round the station, up the stairs and along the platforms, in and out of security. The Omsk stop is a brief interlude on a journey through the dense swampy forests of the “taiga” and the many scattered settlements of wooden houses. We have travelled 1400 kms from Moscow. It took Dostoyevsky 25 days to cover the same distance by winter sleigh when transported from St.Petersburg.

Having been spared  execution for his utopian socialism, Dostoyevsky was sentenced to four years hard labour in one of the Omsk mining prison camps. These provided coal, silver, iron and gold for Imperial Russia. He later remembered “…in summer intolerable closeness; in winter unbelievable cold”. Although the production of minerals and the fur trade dominated, yet it is the image of the salt mines that became notorious. From these times a painting such as Ilya Repin’s famous Realist depiction of “The Volga Boatmen”(1870) gave a fearful picture of penal slavery. Upon return to St.Petersburg, Dostoyevsky went on to write The House of the Dead about life in the camps. Now, in Omsk, there is a commemorative Library/Museum of Literature named after him.

Another exile whose death sentence was commuted to hard labour, was the scientist, journalist, explorer Ferdynand Ossendowski. He described his stay in Russian prisons in a novel entitled “In Human Dust” which Lev Tolstoy claimed to be one of his favourite books. At Omsk, although considered a “left socialist,” he joined Kolchak’s “Whites” after 1917,then escaped to Mongolia. His epic survival adventures are recounted in his memoir “Beasts, Men and Gods” that some have described as being “…like Tolkien, but for real !” (it is available online as a free eBook, due to the efforts of the Gutenberg Project ). It also gives a great inside view of revolutionary period Siberia and inspired what Publishers Weekly called one of the world’s great adventure strips. Created by the Venetian Ugo Pratt,  “…possibly the greatest artist working in the comic world”, the hero Corto Maltese is modeled on Ossendowski, particularly in what is considered asIMG_1482Pratt’s masterpiece “Corto Maltese in Siberia“, a full length graphic film (see You Tube) that adds a different dimension to our Golden Eagle journey, while teasing that “an adult who enters the world of fables, cannot leave it”.

So Omsk, once the “wild, wild, East” with its pickpockets and prostitutes, is today transformed into a city of over a million people where Gazprom oil refineries are the largest employer. The Prof. and I try to get a glimpse of the city from around the train station, but the stop is only 20 minutes and we barely make it back before the scheduled departure. Our relieved train attendants grin upon seeing us, wag their fingers and refer to us as “hooligani!”.photo-3

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On the Golden Eagle across Siberia (Part IV) – From the Czars to Stalin

4-Vysotsky-2Reaching Yekaterinburg, another surprise. Not only another modern city, but one with the tallest building outside Moscow, a 54 floor business tower surprisingly named after Vladimir Vysotsky – singer, poet and satirist (“Vodka is our enemy, let’s finish it off”). He was a rebellious and charismatic figure, often seen to discomfort the powerful, who died in mysterious circumstances, aged 42. There is a Vysotsky Museum on the third floor (and he was even quoted by Baryshnikov in his thriller film “White Nights”).

Certainly the “feel” of this city is quite different. The locals in conversation are happy to consider themselves “Eurasians” having the best of both sides of the continent. Rebellious “Ural Rock” music is highly fashionable. Some young people openly say there is no need to discuss a return to authoritarian Imperial rule as “we already have a Czar”. They mention the Pussy Riot incident at the Cathedral in Moscow but refer to it as Russian Performance Art. In contrast,the white cross marker for the murdered Czar Nicholas and his family has been replaced by the Church of the (Spilled) Blood. It makes an important and interesting focus for our city visit.

photo-8 - Version 2The original execution site, the Ignatiev house, was demolished under Soviet rule but the cellar has been faithfully reconstructed within the church. The patriarch of Moscow has a huge house nearby and many people speculate about the close links between the official church and the Kremlin. In any case, a cult is growing around the Romanoffs, who have been canonised. Czar Nicholas is presented as an ideal father and husband and many young people with children are joining the church in growing numbers. The Bible has become a mandatory subject in grade schools. All this is explained to us by locals as being part of the increased search for basic values as, according to them “Russian values today have become money and sex”.

Not far from the Church of the Blood, we noticed a poster advertising performances in one of the twenty city theatres, much patronised particularly during the long winter months.It was a production of “The Master and Margarita”, based on one of the great novels of the twentieth century by Mikhail Bulgakov, which was highly critical of a stifling bureaucratic society. Tickets were sold out.

Returning to the Golden Eagle, we exchange notes with fellow travellers who had gone to stand with a foot in each “continent”, the marker for the Europe/Asia border. They had been subjected to a good-humoured mock “passport check” followed by celebratory champagne.

2442497027_ccd0043b10_zThere is further animated discussion on the train after another documentary film “Joseph Stalin; Red Terror” is shown. We recollect how our Moscow guides had illustrated Stalin’s despotic power with a story, maybe apocryphal, but credible to most, explaining the map of the Moscow metro lines. They mostly run north to south but in the middle is an absolute circle. Stalin insisted on approving all plans personally. When by chance he placed his coffee cup in the middle of the proposed map, it left a perfect circle. No one dared to even point this out, so there it remained and the circular metro line was built. During our debate, someone remembered that a recent Moscow television poll to determine public perception of Great Russians placed Stalin at number three, Tolstoy at number forty!

We go to the dining cars for the evening meal, but not before some enthusiasts ask for a 6.30am wake-up call, anxious not to miss anything as, already well into Siberia by then, the train was scheduled to make one of the short “in-between” maintenance stops at Omsk, Siberia’s second city and once a major place of exile.

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On the Golden Eagle across Siberia (Part III) – From Tatars to Lenin.

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From the train windows we note the silver birch trees everywhere, a constant presence in the Russian landscape (and in our imagination,from “War and Peace”to “Doctor Zhivago”). In Soviet times, this national tree of Russia gave its name “Beriozhka” (little birch) to all state souvenir stores. We are told that it stands as a symbol of the Russian Girl. The trees, quite fire resistant, are still used in housebuilding and in many other ways, from acoustic guitar material to twigs in the sauna. The bark has antiseptic properties, it helps make diuretic tea and is even used for making shoes. By the time we reach Vladivostok one fellow traveller, John, remarked that he had seen quite enough birch trees for a lifetime!

photo3Having travelled overnight we reach Kazan, or the Quazan of the Mongol-tribe Tatars, our first major stop since leaving Moscow. Here we also cross the mighty Volga river, the “Mother Volga” of Russian lore, the longest and largest river of Europe, on its long journey to the Caspian Sea. The Tatar language is official. Never write or say the word “TaRtar” warns our guide as it means “from Hell”. In Tatar, the word Siberia means “sleeping land”. Our first visit is to the imposing new (2005) mosque, but the first impression is BOOM TOWN! New buildings are everywhere. “They are spending like there is no tomorrow” observes Dan our Oxford Prof “and the reason is oil “the black gold”, mostly extracted by the Tatarnaft company. There are new apartments all over the city, the first 30,000 given away FREE! Oil has made Kazan one of the largest industrial and financial centres in Russia. Oil money has produced that spectacular new mosque. There are also old mosques from the days when Catherine the Great, still remembered fondly because of it, permitted religious tolerance. There is also a new Orthodox cathedral.

In the afternoon we are able to visit the ancient and renowned Kazan University.Former scholars include the brilliant mathematicians who could calculate that two parallel lines would eventually meet (yes,in outer space!). A famous wind tunnel of the physics department made use of the former cathedral building closed down during Soviet times. Equally interesting are the academic “failures”, among them Lev Tolstoy considered “both unable and unwilling to learn” and the young, revolutionary Lenin expelled in 1877 for “student disturbances”. Lenin.Background - Version 2He remains a significant and polarising figure throughout the former Soviet regions (in February, on one day alone, some 90 Lenin statues were toppled in the Ukraine). We anticipate seeing the largest Lenin memorial, a huge head almost 8 mts (25 ft) tall, at Ulan Ude, an important stop towards the end of our journey. Here at Kazan University we see a unique flowing-hair Lenin presenting an inspiring image. We all instantly rename it the Leonardo di Caprio Lenin as it bears an uncanny resemblance to the Hollywood actor.

But our train awaits, so on towards the Ural mountains, the division between Europe and Asia, another overnight journey. There is still time for a film on the last Czar of Russia, some briefings on the next day’s Yekaterinburg visits, vodka and caviar in the restaurant, piano music in the comfortable lounge bar.

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On the Golden Eagle across Siberia (Part II) – From Moscow out!

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We began with an assembly at the Royal Aurora Hotel in Moscow. The travelers had gathered from various parts of the world. Some had taken a comfortable river cruise from St.Petersburg, most had been met after arrival at Domododevo Airport. En route to the city we were greeted by numerous hoardings featuring a large Gerard Depardieu, a new Russian passport holder (and 13% taxpayer), advertising something forgettable. Others announced the release of some torrid film called “Sin City 2”. There are many new Orthodox churches with beautifully gilded domes, countered by 7 storey Munich-style glass walled motor car showrooms. Traffic lights on major roads have a 60 second numbered countdown for drivers. We pass branches of  “Makdonalds” (several recently closed down in retaliation for sanctions, though officially on “health and hygiene” grounds). The Dostoyevsky monument stands out  in front of the Russian State Library. Nearby, a flower-selling cabin is offering a 24 hour service.

Unlike the old Soviet days, when even luxury hotels, like the huge Rossyia, were controlled by the floor ladies and it was advisable to bring your own toilet paper and rubber washbasin stoppers, our hotel was fully equipped (while the old Rossyia has been demolished  to be replaced by some complex inevitably designed by the ubiquitous Norman Foster). Like all Marriott managed hotels, the Aurora included a drawer containing a Bible, a Book of Mormon and a company mission book, in which Bill Marriott assures us that “if you treat your employees well, they’ll take care of the customer”. There were magazines offering very complicated watches, and cocktails, also a large catalogue of jewelry by ultra refined Boucheron from Paris (who have a branch in the hotel building). The nearby GUM department store even contains an unofficial but very Apple Store-like retailer.

The Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express has prepared drinks, dinner and briefing in the elegant Petrovsky Room. Our fellow participants have come from Montparnasse and Monceau, Ballerat and Peppermint Grove, Hawick and Clapham, Totness and Cardiff. Some others from Anchorage and Manhattan, New Forest, Toronto and even Taiwan. All inspired by the romance of this journey, a rich mix of stories and experience.

We are introduced to our traveling on-board physician, Dr Judy, from the Cotswolds, and even our own Oxford Don, Professor Healey from St.Antony’s (so all aspects seem covered, taking note of Paul Theroux’s warning that travelers may not know where they are going, but tourists don’t know where they have been).

Next morning Golden Eagle have arranged a privileged early entry to the Kremlin Armoury buildings. We walk past President Putin’s office on our way to the building that contains the most important exhibits, including the Imperial Faberge Egg - Trans Siberian Railwayrenowned Fabergé display. This includes a tiny Trans-Siberian train of five carriages, which used to be rolled up inside an egg. It can stand freely, while the little mechanical engine can pull the carriages two whole inches.

On the way to the Kazansky station, we pass near Lubianka square. The ex-KGB building is being renovated. The organisation is now known as the Federal Security Bureau. There is talk of the Feliks Dzerzhinsky statue, removed in 1991, being returned. This founder of the Cheka, set up to counter so-called internal threats, ordered the execution of thousands of political opponents without trial. Now his bust is already back at the Moscow police headquarters. In a 2013 poll, some 45% of Russians would approve the return of the 15 ton monument. At present the memorial to the Victims of the Gulag stands near the empty original plinth. Dzerzhinsky himself was twice sent to Siberia during Czarist days, a reminder of a more recent deportee, the oligarch who developed the Siberian oilfields, Mikhail Khodorovsky, whose ordeal evolved from an economic and political opposition to a simple defense of his human rights. Sent to Siberia near Chita (where our train is scheduled to stop briefly  on the way to Khabrovsk and Vladivostok) in 2005, Khodorovsky was finally pardoned by President Putin and released last December. He is now based in Switzerland.
On the train, regular briefings/talks/debates are scheduled, as well as the 2-part BBC documentary  “Putin, Russia and the West” also providing a background to the Khodorovsky confrontation. Other topics will include a discussion on Stalin and a film on Genghis Khan. We will be fully invophotolved with the different regions every day and will hardly have time to access the comprehensive  and relevant DVD library on board.

For now, champagne awaits us in the Imperial Waiting Room of the station, our enthusiastic young train attendants are introduced, a band plays and we board the elegant blue coaches of the Trans-Siberian Express. There are fifteen carriages: accommodation for our 50 passengers, two restaurant cars, a bar lounge with live music, a kitchen car, a staff car and a generator. Each guest compartment includes private toilet and shower facilities. Secure safe-deposit boxes are a standard feature. The attendants take turns to be on duty 24 hours. Ready to begin our classic journey of over 10,600 kms, the train moves out, towards Tatarstan and its capital Kazan tomorrow.

 

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On the Golden Eagle across Siberia (Part I) – Romantics of the world Unite ! –

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Ernest Hemmingway could not have encouraged us more directly when he observed that “It is good to have an end to journey toward,but it is the journey that matters, in the end”.

So here we are, in Vladivostok, having crossed 8 time zones in 12 days since leaving Moscow, travelled over 10,651 kms, passed through 10 different railway administrations and marveled at world’s deepest freshwater lake – Baikal – which is also known as the “Golden Buckle” of the “Iron Belt of Russia”. This iron belt is the Trans -Siberian Railway, the backbone of the country and considered a window onto the Russian soul.

Vladivostok or “Ruler of the East” is our final destination on this classic journey. Approaching on the blue Trans-Siberian Express we saw the lights of the 4-kilometer bridge over Amur Bay to welcome us (which for some, would stoke up memories of Europe’s own super-long bridge, the Vasco da Gama in Lisbon). Since Khabrovsk,where it joins the Amur, we followed the Ussuri River. It forms part of the border with China and was a major scene of the 1969 conflict over Damanskii/Zhenbao Island. A disabled Soviet tank is still on a trophy-like display at the Chinese Military Museum in Beijing. Our cellphones keep announcing “welcome to CHINA…”. We are not far from North Korea.

photoThis is the last stop on the world’s longest railway line. Our bags were transported to the luxurious modern Hyundai Hotel from where the views of hills and streets are an echo of San Francisco. A last evening event is at a panoramic restaurant, to exchange opinions and ideas with our travel companions. We are warned about the traffic, as a mass import of right-hand-steering Japanese cars adds to the already normal chaos of right side road driving.

On the morning sight-seeing tours we see the spectacular 2 new suspension bridges (similar to Istanbul’s two new additions); the Golden Horn Bay Bridge in the city centre ,and the elegant new link to Russky Island. This last one has pylons which rise 321 mts above the water using cables designed by French company Freyssinet to withstand a wind-force of 250 kilometers per hour. They are higher than the Eiffel Tower.

Surely,we must come back to explore this once closed and secret corner of Russia, now open to the world. But first a break to absorb and digest impressions from what is an unforgettable journey. Truly memories for a lifetime!

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Southwestern Iberia – A Caravan of Dreams

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Standing near the narrowest point between Africa and the Iberian peninsula is Djebel-al-Tarik, a mountain named after a Berber general. He led a mixed Arab and Berber army that helped establish a spectacular civilization whose remains still fascinate today. Tarik’s Rock is better known as Gibraltar.

The Arabs brought with them a developed way of life that included the use of coffee, chess, Algebra, silks, carpets , perfumes and maybe most importantly, advanced irrigation methods, vital for a dry sun-burnt land. There was much more , including those strong pointed arches that feature in their landmark structures still seen in major Andalusian cities.

At Cordoba, the Mezquita or Great Mosque, into which a catholic altar was inserted after the Reconquest, has one of the most remarkable architectural interiors in Europe, a “forest”of stone arches that is a treasure in itself.

A 320 ft (98m) former minaret is today the tower of Seville cathedral. The Giralda, as it is known, towers like a marker by the tomb of Columbus inside the church.

Overlooking Granada, the mysterious Alhambra (Calat Al-Hamra or Red Castle ) has inspired all who visit. An early American ambassador, Washington Irving, expressed the (surrounding?) nostalgia in his stories recorded as “Tales of the Alhambra”. Garcia Lorca, one of Spain’s greatest poets and dramatists, writing in Granada on memory, a mood of forgotten times, claims that “at the heart of all great art is an essential melancholy”. While guitar great Andres Segovia captured that feeling in his famous, lingering rendition of Francisco Tórregas “Recuerdos…”

South of the mountains , the coast gradually curves until it reaches what was considered the end of the occidental world, Al-Gharb or “The West”, now the Algarve. The furthest point is at Cape St Vincent and the dramatic setting of the Sagres peninsula, 200ft/60m above the Atlantic Ocean, whose enormous panoramic seascape truly deserves the description of “a balcony open to infinity”.

CapeSagresIt was here that the enigmatic fifteenth century Prince Henry (known as “the Navigator”), Grand Master of a knightly religious order, an ascetic usually portrayed in black, established a naval research center which introduced navigation by the stars. For 40 years, Henry gathered astronomers, cartographers, seamen, traders and adventurers keen to discover new trade routes to India and the riches in the spice trade. Still surviving today is the great wind-rose (32 segments, 135ft/43 m in diameter), a huge compass-chart laid out on the ground to record th strength and directions of prevailing winds.From this research centre ships were to sail to West Africa, Angola, Guinea, then round the Cape of Good Hope to Mozambique and towards Goa,Macao and on to Jakarta and Japan. Historian William Manchester noted eloquently that in just one generation, a few hundred small ships “discovered more of the world than had all mankind in all the millennia since the beginning of time”.

Still today, that magnificent coastline is a magnet and a challenge. Surfers come, some regularly from the coastline – even from as far away as Cadiz, and even others from California, Hawaii and everywhere around the world, because Sagres is the most consistent point, a westernmost point, where currents meet and the waves are good.

Also inspired were the 1960’s truly iconic California band, the Doors. They made a major classical-jazz-rock crossover impact with a piece of music which was released as “Spanish Caravan”(see The Doors – Spanish Caravan, at the Roundhouse). In it a lightning guitar riff, echoing the “Asturias”of composer Albeniz, is taken up by the legendary Jim Morrison who expresses the yearning romanticism towards that era when he sings:

The Doors ..Roundhouse First Night FRONT“Carry me, Caravan take me away

Take me to Portugal, take me to Spain

Andalusia with fields full of grain

I have to see you again and again…”

and adds

 “Trade winds find galleons lost in the sea

I know where treasure is waiting for me…”

 

Sentiments that world surfers have expressed many times in their search for the highest wave, often in the fiercest storms. Among those is self-proclaimed “psycho”(“I got to be a little crazy”) Hawaiian veteran from Oahu, Garrett McNamara, a daredevil surfer who has been on the highest waves ever surfed, claims some of his favorite beaches are on the western side of the Vila do Bispo area near Sagres but sees the Ericeira/Nazaré region, north of Lisbon, as a Mecca of European surfing.

article-2059755-0EBF0C3100000578-598_634x381His 78ft/23.77 m wave, recorded at Nazaréin November 2011 is still the official accepted world record although his training companion Andrew Cotton as well as Brazilian Carlos Burle have also been seen on the 100ft “killer”waves of the Praia do Norte at Nazaré Canyon, geologically deeper and longer than the Grand Canyon, USA (see the fantastic Carlos ride of of Oct 28th 2013).

Mc Namara appreciates that “the world has no idea of the marvel that is this country”. He considers Portugal and its coast to be the best kept secret in Europe and southwestern Iberia to be always a land of dreams to be rediscovered, as Jim Morrison sang “again and again”

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