And then things went off the rails.
Not the train, thankfully. That thing just kept on rolling. Coming into Krasnoyarsk, the scenery got prettier. Green rolling hills were dotted with picaresque wooden villages – those villages will truly be emblematic of Siberia for me now. I hadn’t slept more than a couple of hours when we pulled into Krasnoyarsk. The timezone thing was starting to really get to me. Our arrival was at 2:30am Moscow time, and that’s where I was stuck, even though locally it was 6:30 am. I had fallen asleep at the early hour of 11pm Moscow time…so you can see I got almost no sleep.
We’d expected to be met at the train station, by our homestay host/guide. We had visions of a hot shower – important after a 34 hour train ride – and a big bowl of porridge, followed by a big hike in beautiful Stolby Park just outside of town. Instead, we enjoyed panic, despair, and a few hours inside of a Subway being blasted by the soundtrack to a phenomenally crappy nightclub.
Our guide was a no-show. It is such an empty feeling, to get off the train expecting somebody to meet you and seeing nothing. Nobody. This was really, really, really not cool.
Krasnoyarsk is not Moscow – there isn’t much to do and not many places to stay. I’ve been down this road before. A $25 hotel room that costs $200, and an afternoon sucking back beer down by the river was starting to look as good as our day was going to get. The whole homestay thing was sight unseen, without even much information online. We were already out on a limb, but we wanted a really good experience in a short amount of time. Now we were stranded. What to do?
Well the first step was to call the homestay, right. Need Skype for that. The train station, of course, was in the grottiest part of town. It was grim times, but there was a Subway not too far away, and it was open. That became our home base. For many frustrating hours. This being Russia, they played very bad music at very high volumes for the duration of our stay. Can’t complain too much, though, because the laissez-faire attitude of the staff allowed us to set up camp for several hours without actually buying anything. At one point we actually tried to buy something, but couldn’t find anybody to actually process the transaction.
Eventually we were able to get hold of our host. She realized the mistake she made was pretty bad, and wanted a second chance. We rolled with it.
Stolby, the park we’d come to see with its green-cloaked mountains punctuated by sharp rocky outcroppings, was closed. As it turned out, they’d had some problems with the local bears (language lesson – ‘bear’ in Russian is ‘medved’) including some people being chased onto a roof and that sort of thing. Bears, huh. I guess we didn’t want to deal with bears anyway. What am I going to do with a bear? Stab it with my cheese-slicing knife? Call it names? No thank you.
They have a local equivalent of Grouse Mountain in Krasnoyarsk, so we did that, a packaged nature where you mostly just look at the wilderness from the top of a peak that you access by chairlift while drinking Japanese beer. It is a very pretty area, and we didn’t get the exercise we’d wanted, but it was a good substitute. There were no bears.
The homestay was actually quite nice. The hosts were friendly and we were well-fed. Krasnoyarsk – more than any other Siberian city we saw – has neighbourhoods that are essentially villages, with the wooden houses and lots of green space. We stayed out there, in one of those little village-hoods, on the edge of town.
They had a kitten named Tomas, a savage killer in the making. We did battle. Kittens love play-fighting, and I’m more than happy to accommodate. For dinner they served us some smoked salmon. It was the best we’d ever tasted. We asked where they got it – some old lady or fifteenth-generation smokehouse no doubt. The grocery store, they said. We were floored – they just randomly bought smoked salmon from the grocery store and it was the best we’d ever had. The Siberians seriously know about smoking fish.
The next leg, our third in total, was our first leg in 1st class. First class is definitely a step up. The clean bathrooms actually have toilet paper – most other trains seem to have budgeted a single roll for trips that average four or five days. Great if you’re first to the dump as you’re leaving Moscow but otherwise, well, there’s a reason they sell toilet paper at the kiosks in the train stations. And the toilet paper is, um, well technically it is paper and it is positioned in the toilet, on a roll. But that’s about the only way you’d know it was toilet paper…might as well use yesterday’s newspaper. Hemorrhoid sufferers look out!
But most of all in first class you have two beds in the cabin, so no roommates. It is a little antisocial, yes, but privacy is the biggest luxury of all. It’s not a five-star experience or anything, with a big giant bathroom, a palm-lined beach or a pillow menu, but it’s nice to have space to yourself and it makes the trip just so much easier. The ride to Irkutsk takes 18 hours. Feels like nothing. You’re literally sitting there, two hours into the journey, wondering if you’re going to have time to do anything at all. A couple of beers, a couple of chapters, a quick nap and we’ll be there. And there is one of the most amazing places we’ve ever seen.