Slow train to Moscow

Saturday, 22nd August: All credit to the staff of Mariinsk Central City Hospital; they took excellent care of us. Though, after ten days’ sampling Russian hospital food, John and I were more than glad to exchange the confines of our hospital room for a four-person ‘kupe’ sleeper compartment on the 62-hour train journey to Moscow.

TV stardomOur stay had been a surreal experience in many ways. The small town hospital was unlike any other I’ve experienced and worlds away from the weary and target-driven NHS. I dare say that most British patients would have been appalled by the lack of amenities. Our room was bare, furnished with two beds and bedside lockers, a table and a fridge. There was no medical equipment installed and no picture on the walls: no unnecessary dust traps, just a couple of reading lights and an electric wall socket. The colourful mismatched bedding looked like a job lot of leftover sale stock from Primark. But we were treated like minor celebrities and, in every way that mattered, the treatment of John’s injury was faultless. His dressing was changed personally by the (rather fierce) matron in charge, dressed from top to toe in sterile theatre scrubs and apron. Food was bland, but copious and, above Lunchall, healthy. While we may or may not have relished the idea of various types of porridge (who knew there were so many?) and/or milk puddings twice a day, at least they were freshly prepared. Rice and cereal made up the bulk of our main meal at lunchtime too, but it came with a soup starter – and each meal was accompanied by the freshest of fresh bread, so sandwiches were always an option if yet another bowl of semolina or millet failed to entice.

All the staff had multi-functional roles, so it was not unusual for the nurse who had just set up John’s antibiotic drip, to reappear from the kitchen 5 minutes later with a large enamel kettle to offer us chai or ‘compote’ (hot fruit juice). Catering staff doubled as cleaners and the doctor in charge of the department helpfully ordered taxis whenever I needed one, and liaised with the British Embassy over my registration. None spoke English but, even so, did their best to cheer us up and engage us in conversation – in particular the doctor who, despite admitting via his phone’s Translate app, that he had forgotten all the English he learned at school, still managed “Good morning. How are you?” on his daily rounds. In fact, John and I have reason to believe he may have developed a bit of a crush, but probably the less said about that the better … In any event, my investment in a tablet pc, with the option of switching from UK to Russian keyboard and back, certainly paid off.

We also owe a huge debt of gratitude to Anna Antipina who, having had the misfortune to have happened to be visiting her husband at the time of our arrival at the hospital, was press-ganged into service as our translator for the duration of our stay. A service for which she was obliged to leave her three year old daughter in the care of her mother, and for which she received no compensation other than an official-looking laminated certificate from the hospital management.

As soon as we knew the date of John’s discharge, Anna took me to the station to book our tickets to Moscow. From my experience with Russian ticket offices, I knew this was something I would have no chance of doing on my own. It had been complicated enough, travelling on my own. Now I had to take account of John’s injury and make sure we weren’t assigned top bunks! (Note to self: top bunks on Russian trains are strictly for the young and agile; I am neither.)

Unfortunately, the first train leaving on Friday night had no remaining lower bunks. The whole rail system in Russia works on Moscow time and Anna explained that the next available train left at 2 o’clock – or 6 o’clock, local time. “6am, in the morning?” “Yes”, said Anna. We would have to fill the hours between John’s discharge and the train’s departure somehow but, once on the train, we would have nothing further to worry about until we reached Moscow. I agreed and the tickets were duly booked and printed. It was only when I got back to the hospital and took them out of my wallet that I noticed the departure time was shown as 14:29 … or 6.29pm local time. Worse, I noticed the arrival time in Moscow, 04:11! There was nothing to be done about the booking at this stage, so I explained the situation to the doctor and he agreed that John would be officially discharged on Friday, but we would be able to stay an extra night – thereby avoiding the need to book a hotel room.

Mariinsk VoksalIn the event, we escaped at lunchtime on Saturday and set up camp in the local café, who appeared genuinely pleased to see us again. While I ran a few errands in the high street, the staff made John comfortable at a corner table with Pullman-type seating so that he could elevate his leg. I bought more credit for my phone, cashed money, and bought picnic supplies for the 4,000km, 62-hour, journey. At 5.30pm, a taxi arrived to take us to the station.

We were less lucky with our compartment than I had been on the outward journey to Irkutsk. A young man and his father were already comfortably installed, occupying the top bunks when we boarded. They were friendly enough, but were probably less than thrilled to have to vacate the lower seating. The young man manoeuvred himself into the top bunk with the ease of an athlete on the parallel bars. But dad struggled, as I had done, to the point where we feared for the seat of his trousers as he balanced precariously between the bunks with one foot on each of the tiny ladders, before launching himself onto his bed.

Home Sweet HomeBefore disembarking at Omsk, ‘dad’ persuaded us to try some of his friend’s homemade wine. At least, I think it was homemade wine; it was homemade, anyway. Ignoring our protestations, he pulled a lemonade bottle from his rucksack and poured out two large glasses of something that had the appearance and consistency of concentrated blackcurrant syrup, but carried rather more of a kick. We thanked him politely and remember very little of the morning after that … His son got off in Tyumen.

After the previous week’s Sunday Lunch of bulgar wheat and fish in hospital, we were looking forward to investigating the restaurant car. Getting there was an adventure in itself for John on crutches, negotiating the heavy double doors and moving footplate that separates the carriages, and then fighting our way through two or three crowded third class compartments. Perhaps that’s why no one else bothered. It was a depressing experience. Two stewards and the cook were seated at a dining table, looking at their phones, when we arrived. Faded curtains were drawn over the windows at one end of the carriage, casting a shadow over the deserted bar area; boxes of catering supplies littered the floor at the other end. We sat down and ordered one of the ‘Signature Dishes’ from an extensive menu. The best that could be said was that it was freshly cooked for us and a contrast to the hospital food. Otherwise, it was unexceptional and over-priced.

It was still Komsomolskaya Squaredark when we arrived in Moscow. Strangely, for Russia, none of the stewards was on duty, and it took a while before the passengers realised that they would have to fend for themselves. Confusion reigned. Eventually, the doors were opened, and with John unable to carry anything more than my small backpack, I hurled our luggage, piece by piece, onto the platform. As well as my overly-heavy sailcloth bag, we now had a huge and unweildy nylon zip bag containing our motorcycle clothes, boots and helmets. Once again, we were in the second to last carriage, at the far end of a very long platform so, when a ‘freelance’ porter with a trolley asked if we would like assistance, I accepted with alacrity. After a short distance, seeing John struggling, the porter loaded him onto the trolley along with the bags … There was, inevitably, a premium fee for this service, but we didn’t quibble. He dropped us at the door of the station’s own ‘motel’ – a few bedrooms designated “Long Term Waiting”. At 5,000 roubles for a few hours, it wasn’t cheap, but it gave us a unique view of early morning life in Komsomolskaya Square, and allowed us to rest and reorganise ourselves before disturbing Marina at the Night Train Motel. It also gave John time to have a haircut and shave …

Snap! An unscheduled break …

Friday, 7th August: So, from Kansk we rode to Achinsk, another smallish town to the west of Krasnoyarsk – chosen for no better reason than it gave us an easy day’s ride of 400km or so to Tomsk. The Victoria Hotel had good reviews and was on the outskirts of town, making for a quick getaway in the morning. But there’s ‘the outskirts’ and then there’s ‘the outskirts’. The hotel was clearly signposted from the road (well, it was clear if you can read Russian cursive script; which, although it is used in some newspapers, is confusingly different from the regular Cyrillic alphabet), 700m down a flooded and pot-holed dirt road, past some abandoned industrial units. Pretty normal for Russia, as we are learning. “You’ve got to be kidding”, was all I heard as I manoeuvred round the deepest part of the temporary lake and set off down the road.

But, for once, John needn’t have worried. The Victoria Hotel turned out to be a modern motel that, despite its location, wouldn’t have looked out of place in any Western European city. The car park was gated, hidden from view behind a high sheet metal wall and monitored by CCTV. The pedestrian entrance clicked open as we approached. Encouraging. Meals (of a sort) and beer were available on site, there was an ATM and a billiard table, and the bedrooms didn’t disappoint. I had redeemed myself slightly after the previous two nights’ accommodation and, we told ourselves, from here west, things should start to improve.

In the run-up to the start to the football season, John describes one of the best goals ever scored at Wembley, by Gazza for Spurs against Arsenal in 1991.

Over lunch, in the run-up to the start to the football season, John describes one of the best goals ever scored at Wembley, by Gazza, for Spurs against Arsenal, in 1991.

Tomsk is described by Lonely Planet as a lively University City and cultural hub, with a wealth of spectacular wooden architecture. It sounded the sort of place where we might like to spend an extra night. There are two routes from Achinsk; the direct route is about 400km and turns off the main Trans-Siberia Highway at Mariinsk, then there’s the route recommended by the GPS, which takes you via Kemorovo and adds another 200km. Looking at Google Earth, both roads are paved, so a bit of a no-brainer then.

We had lunch in a nice little bakery in Mariinsk, before cashing some money and topping up with fuel.

For the first 30km or so, the road to Tomsk was fine. Old tarmac, but fine. Then the tarmac ran out, and the road surface varied between hard-packed dirt and broken concrete. We had been making good progress for about 20-25km, slaloming around the worst of the holes, when I stopped to check on John and his bike. “What do you think?” I said. “Fine”, he said. “Actually, I’m quite enjoying this”, I said. “Good”, he said …

Moments later, we were in deep, loose, gravel. I don’t quite know what happened next. It was all very quick.

We had been doing our best to stay in the tracks of previous traffic, on the crest of the road, where the gravel was thinnest. But the vehicle, long gone, that I had been following, had presumably swerved to the nearside to avoid another, and the shallow tyre tracks now veered off into the deep stuff at the edge of the road. It was too late and my reflexes aren’t sufficiently practiced to power out of trouble. The front wheel kicked, and I was off.

The bike was still running and in gear. It spun on its back wheel so that it was pointed back in the direction of Mariinsk. The wheels were above the level of the handlebars, which were angled towards the camber of the road. Close to 250kg of bike was going to be a nightmare to pick up from this angle. I got up, unharmed, and turned off the ignition. For a split second, John was nowhere to be seen. Then I saw his bike, also down, about 100m behind me. I heard him groan as he rolled on his back.

With the help of a couple of passing motorists, we did eventually manage to get both bikes upright again, but word had it that road conditions were not going to improve for 60km or so. We made the decision to turn back to Mariinsk. John was in pain, so I rode behind him. Worryingly, I noticed that he couldn’t stand up and was having difficulty changing gear. I took him back to the café where we had had lunch and asked for help.

An ambulance crew arrived. Our only means of communication was the Translate app on our phones, so the paramedic phoned his English-speaking supervisor. A small crowd gathered around our table. Another phone, with another English-speaking friend, was handed to me. Unfortunately, although their English was undeniably better than our Russian, neither was exactly fluent and the scene rapidly descended into a game of Chinese whispers, with no one knowing how to ask the right questions or interpret the given answers. The only thing to do was to get an x-ray at the hospital.

It was quickly established that John had broken his left fibula and that the bones were displaced and requiring an operation to plate and stabilise it. First, we needed to deal with a growing number of police officers, whose purpose it was to establish the facts surrounding the incident and pinpoint its location. Luckily for us, a lovely lady called Anna arrived to visit her husband, one of their colleagues, and … she spoke English. Properly.

With Anna interpreting, they managed to get their statement and John was wheeled away. But any hopes of that being the end of the matter for me were quickly dispelled when it came to pin-pointing the location. One of the officers noticed I was limping slightly and wanted to know if I had been involved in the accident. Having heard numerous accounts of the pedantry of Russian police officers, we had said nothing about my bike having gone down, and I was keen to keep it that way. No matter that there was no one else involved, and I was unharmed, an accident on a public road in Russia is a police matter and must be reported. In full. I explained to Anna that I had broken my leg in May.

As I was unable to tell the police, with any degree of certainty, exactly where the accident had occurred, there was apparently only one thing for it. I would have to accompany them back to the scene. My heart sank momentarily, until I remembered the BikeTrac security tracker fitted to John’s bike. We had, after all, been using it to pin-point his whereabouts, with great accuracy, throughout China, so why not here? The police agreed and found me an office with a computer. They watched with curiosity as I changed the map view and zoomed into the end of the line marking his westward trajectory. They pointed at the nearest village, ‘большой песчанка’ and, I assume, asked me to confirm that this was, indeed, site of the accident. But I couldn’t give the correct form of words to satisfy the pen-pusher. The senior officer opened Google Translate in another window and his question was duly translated, “So, the accident happened near big gerbil?” There was a lot of giggling. However, once we had all recovered our composure, the officer decided that a screen capture of the map would suffice and all I needed to do was sign the paper in confirmation.

I guess Mariinsk Municiple Hospital doesn't get many international visitors ...

I guess Mariinsk Municiple Hospital doesn’t get many international visitors …

John had an operation to put a plate in his leg on Wednesday. While this may sound dramatic, in fact, it has cleared up the dilemma as to what to do from here regarding repatriation. With his fracture internally stabilised, John’s recovery time will be significantly shorter than mine was.

We did, initially, assume that that was it. Game over. And we duly started looking at sensible stuff like insurance claims, flights and shipping for the bikes. But John will be discharged from hospital next weekend, and the surgeon said that he should be fit to ride his bike again by the end of the month. So, instead of worrying about the £3000 each we were being quoted to airfreight the bikes out of Moscow, I’ve bought us a couple of train tickets and arranged to put the bikes on a truck.

We get to Moscow on 18th and will hole up in our favourite biker motel for a couple of weeks until we can ride home. Sure, our return will be delayed by a week or two over our original itinerary, but we aim to complete the “Inagh to China Motorcycle Ride”. It hasn’t been quite the trip we planned, but the adventure continues …

Homeward bound

Saturday, 1st August: So, after a brief hiatus in Gusinoozyorsk, John’s bike was fixed and, frankly, behaving a lot better than it had in a long time. We had to shave a day off our planned stay in Ulan Ude, which was a shame, but we stayed just long enough to enjoy a couple of pints in the Cherchill [sic] Pub on Lenin Street, and sort out our Russian motor insurance.

Since arriving in Moscow, I had been all too aware that I had no third party insurance. However, since I almost immediately decided to put the bike on the train as far as Irkutsk, I actually only rode it to and from Andre’s warehouse … and, a week later, when I arrived in Irkutsk, I confess I had forgotten all about it. Luckily, although Ken, Sam and I were stopped by the Police on the way to the Mongolian border, they were more interested in where we came from and how two Australians, a Canadian and a Brit came to be traveling together. Anyway, it was a situation that couldn’t continue, so John and I set about finding an insurer in Ulan Ude.

We tried Angara first but, having spent 200 roubles having our documents translated, followed by two hours sitting around in their stuffy fourth floor office, they told us that they couldn’t help because our bikes weren’t registered in Russia. No shit, Sherlock! It wasn’t all bad though. They did give us the address of Rosgosstrakh who, probably in part thanks to our translated documents, dealt with the whole thing in 5 minutes flat. After lunch, we packed the bikes and headed for Irkutsk.

I warned John of the long stretch of roadworks where I had dropped the bike on the way out, but Russian roadworks stop for no man and, two weeks later, the treacherous gravel had been replaced with a fresh layer of smooth tarmac. Hoorah! Alas, my relief was short-lived. It seemed that the whole of the rest of the road was now under construction and my heart sank slightly as, every 30km or so, we saw another yellow panel, indicating a new stretch of improvements taking place.

We stopped at a truck stop on the shores of Lake Baikal for a tea and a bar of chocolate. The Lake is a renowned beauty spot and I had hoped to get a couple of photos from the viewpoint on the road above, but it was shrouded in mist and, anyway, our delayed departure from Ulan Ude meant that we were running out of daylight. John asked me to step up the pace a bit, so I had a bit of fun on the twisties for the last 80km or so into Irkutsk and we arrived at the Hotel Matreshka in time for dinner.

Funny how different a city can seem depending on who is guiding your visit. We asked the receptionist to order us a taxi to the centre of town so that we could get a meal. We didn’t specify any particular type of restaurant, but I assumed that the ‘centre’ would be somewhere around Karl Marx Street, where I had been staying last time. But, no. The taxi took us instead to the ‘tourist area’. Normally, I’d baulk at being directed to an area specifically dedicated to tourists but I’m glad I didn’t. The area between Ul. 3 Lyulya and Ul. Sedova is packed with restaurants that are as popular with the bright young people of Irkutsk as they are with tourists like us. We had a very good meal and walked back there for lunch and dinner the following day.

Eventually, it was time to move on and continue our homeward journey. I had booked hotels ahead for Tomsk and Novosibirsk but, for the next three nights in Tulun, Kansk and Achinsk, we would be relying on pot luck.

I checked my various booking websites and found that Tulun and Kansk didn’t feature. Other sources suggested that both towns did offer accommodation and, as we had discovered in Gusinoozyorsk, smaller ‘mini-hotels’ are often hidden away in apartment blocks and not advertised to tourists. In any event, Tulun boasted a promising-sounding ‘Central Hotel’, so it should be easy enough to find …

In fact the Central Hotel turned out to be exactly the sort of mini-hotel we have encountered before, occupying the second floor of an apartment block. The rooms were decent enough, with a fridge, kettle and television, and separate toilet and shower rooms being shared with the room next door, off a private hallway. A notice on the back of the bedroom door suggested that the café next door offered the best food in town, so we had a quick shower and went to investigate.

We arrived downstairs just as two German bikers arrived: a couple, Alexandra and Wolfgang. They parked their bikes next to ours and we got talking … as you do. In the meantime, a wedding party had spilled out of the café onto the pavement and, since I don’t suppose that Tulun gets to welcome too many foreign tourists, we became objects of much curiosity. Unfortunately, it goes without saying that the wedding guests were in varying stages of inebriation and things began to get out of hand as one of the more enthusiastic men made a grab for me and shoved his driving licence under John’s nose, making it quite clear he wanted to take my bike for a ride. I don’t think so, mate! It was all innocent enough, but still I found myself fending him off with the handle of my walking stick. Again! This is getting embarrassing. Eventually, the groom stepped in and your man was bundled away back into the café, loudly protesting his innocence.

The wedding couple were at pains to excuse their guest’s behaviour but, unfortunately, with the party occupying the café, we would obviously have to find somewhere else to eat. John and I had done a quick reccie of the ‘High Street’ earlier, and the signs weren’t promising. But we still don’t understand Russia very well and hadn’t thought to investigate the back roads. The groom’s brother kindly escorted us across the road and up what looked like a farm track. Low and behold, there were two restaurants within staggering distance of the hotel: a pizzeria and a Chinese! John has had his fill of Chinese, so we opted for pizza … and very good it was too.

Kansk is rather bigger than Tulun, so we had high hopes for the Zaprosto Hotel, which had two good reviews on TripAdvisor. Alas, when we arrived in Proletarskaya Street, there was no sign of a hotel and, despite the efforts of several helpful passers-by, we never found it. In all likelihood it was, like so many others, hidden in an apartment block, but no one had heard of it. Instead, a helpful motorist led us to the Onix Hotel, itself hidden away behind iron gates, with no hint from the road that it existed at all. In fact, it had a spa and advertised rooms by the hour … so we were in little doubt as to its primary function. Nevertheless, the rooms were clean and comfortable, if a little airless, and the manageress was kind enough to find garage space for our bikes and call us a taxi to take us to dinner.

After much discussion with the manageress, the taxi took us to a swanky-looking restaurant on the outskirts of town, but it wasn’t what we had asked for. We asked instead to be taken to the ‘centre’. The driver seemed surprised but, hey, isn’t the customer always right? No. Apparently not. He dropped us off at the main square and gestured towards a café. Surely this wasn’t the centre of Kansk? Although the square was impressive, it was surrounded by dilapidated buildings and very few operational businesses.

John checked his phone for local eateries. There were two on the other side of the square. Both closed and boarded up. We walked a little further and saw another. Again, closed. I was beginning to think we had actually found the arse end of the universe. Then, just as we were about to give up and wander back to the café in the square, I noticed a sign advertising shashlik (Russian kebabs). They were good, but not quite enough for a meal, so we treated them as a starter, before going back to the square for our main course and beer, at the café we had been directed to in the first place!

We had, of course, no clue what we were ordering, but with one other diner being keen to practice her English and a good-humoured waitress, we were soon tucking into a tasty meal of … I’m still none the wiser. At the end of the evening, we went to the bar to pay, only to be approached by the sort of amorous drunk whom, wherever in the world I am, I seem attract with tedious regularity. Deep joy. Where’s my walking stick? Having failed to get any response from me, he wrapped his arm around John’s shoulders and took him into the foyer to have a quiet word. John didn’t understand any more than I did … except that he appeared to be being offered money for me. I don’t know what was the worse insult; the offer of money or the amount? 150 roubles (that’s about £1.50 at today’s exchange rate)! Luckily, my honour was preserved by some other diners who persuaded my admirer that this was not his lucky night.

Predictably, there was no breakfast on offer at the hotel, so we were quick to leave Kansk in the morning.