Russia is a land of many faces. While the countenance of a consumer society is on display in Moscow or St. Petersburg, shadows of the Soviet era can often be found a little further afield. In cities across Siberia and Russia’s Far East, for example, statues of Lenin continue to gaze down imperiously over Marx Boulevards, Revolution Squares and other landmarks bearing names from a bygone age.
Less quaint is the infrastructure that remains unchanged from the days of communism, from the pockmarked roads with their huge rush-hour traffic jams to the run-down housing complexes that haven’t seen a lick of paint in years.
Vladivostok sits at the end of the Trans-Siberian Railway route. The city hosts the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit (APEC) in September, which perhaps explains why its hotels were all fully booked when we visited.
We eventually managed to find lodging about an hour’s drive from the city center, in a hotel in the mountains. The word “hotel” is perhaps an overly generous way of describing our destination; a refurbished factory dormitory lying slap-bang in the middle of a semi-derelict Soviet-era industrial complex.
This was a place where the towels came with a complimentary yellow stain and the water oozed back out of blocked shower drainage pipes. Any thoughts of venturing out after dark, meanwhile, were soon put to rest by the chilling howls of the packs of feral dogs roaming nearby.
There is a huge gap between the prosperous image Russia tries to portray to the outside world and the true face of the country’s neglected interior. A glance at the roads of Vladivostok is enough to demonstrate this; while those passing the APEC site are done up like expressways, the roads around our hotel were often rendered impassible by flooding when it rained.
FOOD CHOICES ON TRANS-SIBERIAN RAILWAY AN ILLUSION
Hungry passengers on the Trans-Siberian Railway are spoiled for choice when it comes to mealtimes, or at least that’s what the menus in the dining carriages would have you believe. When it comes to actually ordering something, though, you will probably find most culinary options are “out of stock.” There will invariably be just one salad or soup option, if you are lucky, while the menu usually offers a stark choice between “pork or fish,” for example, or “beef or chicken.” And if you want your meal to be cooked in a certain way, forget about it!
In saying that, the food served on the trains is seasoned well and actually tastes quite nice. And while sullen-faced, begrudging “Soviet-style” service is still common, kind and helpful attendees are also easy to find. One of the latter is the waitress Irina, 45, who hails from Khabarovsk and works on Express train No. 44. Around six years ago, she found herself living alone after her grown-up children finally flew the nest. She then decided she wanted to “get on a train and travel all over the place.” Her favorite destination so far was the picturesque old city of Novosibirsk. “I want to keep doing this job forever,” she says.
Even when a train has food, there is no guarantee you are going to get your hands on it. I boarded Express No. 8 at Irkutsk and tried to grab some lunch, only to be told to “come back after 4 p.m.” Apparently the train was also carrying hundreds of students to a seaside school, so passengers were taking turns to sit down for lunch in the 50-seat dining carriage. I tried to drop by for dinner that evening but was sent packing again, this time because the staff were “too busy preparing the students’ breakfast.”
All this perhaps explains why most passengers tend to avoid the dining cars, preferring instead to bring their own food and eat in their seats. Each carriage has plenty of hot water, so cup noodles are quite popular. They certainly saved our lives!
DRUNKS ABOARD TRAIN REFLECT RUSSIAN SOCIAL PROBLEM
As you may have heard, Russians are very, very fond of their vodka. This potent liquor is responsible for many a drunk staggering around and causing trouble. Drinking is a serious social problem in Russia.
This is apparent on any trip to a dining car on a Trans-Siberian train, where drunken passengers can be found rambling away from the morning onwards. We were frequently accosted by such clientele. “Are you Japanese?” went one common refrain. “Let’s eat together!”
And it’s not just the passengers who drink. One night we returned to our compartment to discover that a drunken crew member had burst his way in. He seemed in good spirits and would keep nudging us for a laugh. He decided to take a commemorative photo with us and also videotaped the occasion.
The train conductor finally got wind of this late at night and came to drag his mischievous co-worker away. The conductor knew we worked for a newspaper, so he was doing his best to avoid any scandals involving “drunken crew members.” This thought didn’t seem to bother his inebriated comrade, though, who showed no intention of going anywhere. He was so drunk!
The next morning, the bleary-eyed crew member came by again with a look of chagrin on his face. It seems the conductor had had some serious words with him. “If last night’s video gets out I’ll be fired. Please don’t put it on YouTube,” he pleaded.
MAJESTIC TRAIN STATIONS LINE TRANS-SIBERIAN ROUTE
Though the trains on the Trans-Siberian look a little worse for wear, the stations lining the route are a different story altogether. Major stops such as Yekaterinburg, Irkutsk and Khabarovsk could easily be confused for castles or temples. Their interiors are also a sight to behold, especially the station at Novosibirsk, which is decked out in shimmering green like some kind of gorgeous palace.
The building was completed in 1939, during the Stalin era. At that time, a rivalry with the United States led to a boom in so-called Stalinist-style architecture, with imperious, high-rise structures shooting up in the capital, Moscow, and across every region.
“So this station was also built in the majestic style of Stalinist architecture,” explains the stationmaster, 29. With its 800-seat waiting room and 17-meter-high, two-floored concourse, the station’s splendid interior is more than a match for its imposing exterior.
“We now focus mainly on improving service. We don’t want any other station to beat us,” the stationmaster told us. To this end, the station gathers all its employees together for training each spring as it attempts to sweep away Soviet-style service once and for all.
In Siberia and the Far East, where the roads are in a state of disrepair, the train stations serve as centers for travel and distribution. The grandeur of these stations seems to symbolize the key roles they play in the region.
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