It is July 14, 2016 11:00pm, I am taking sips of my Pilsner pint with a friend in my hometown, Warsaw, before potentially, the craziest experience in my life.
My plane is scheduled to leave at 9:00am the next morning; I know what you’re thinking – not the most responsible behaviour.
I swipe my phone with hope that my other friends can join me to share that moment. As I intend to text them, suddenly my dad appears on my smartphone screen. Surprised, I answer: “Yes dad?”
“Have you seen the news recently?” he asked worriedly. “Naa…why?” I replied with my already tipsy accent, although instantly, my brain started to work at a higher momentum.
“There is a coup d’état in Turkey, you’re not going anywhere! Forget about the trip, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life organising your rescue mission in the middle of a Russo-Turkish war. Run west!”
On the night of July 14 and 15, a faction within the Turkish Armed Forces attempted to hijack Erdogan’s Government. There was a strong chance of a military conflict within the area.
Russo-Turkish relations were not at their best during this period of time, especially after the Turkish attack on a Russian aircraft in November 2015.
The Syrian conflict was not helping either with the situation, as political imbalance could mean unpredictable consequences for my travel towards the wild East.It is 2:00pm on July 15, 2016, and despite my father’s concerns, I am landing in St Petersburg airport.
With zero expectations and being extremely excited on the plane — finally the dream came true. I will soon be legitimately in a country which, for many years was at the centre of my interests.Not only because I had some personal relations with it but mostly because I wanted to verify if what they say in the west and in their own country was true. So I have reduced any expectations from my trip. I have arrived there tabula rasa.
After a stressful visa check executed by a pretty border agent I rushed out of the airport as I was curious to see this new city.
A 10,000km (6,213 mile) journey through the biggest country in the world lay ahead.
Visiting six cities, commuting by train and passing miles of Russian birch-tree forests, the Ural mountains, with a quick swim in the lake Baykal and traversing the Pacific coast of Russia to within a few miles of the North Korean border.
I packed light, having only hand luggage, as I always do for longer trips. I have a rucksack with all the essentials and an eastern style market zipped bag, so as to look as un-western as is possible, containing all my “long trip” accessories.
These include a thick Dostoyevsky novel, an aluminium camping bowl and spoon, a Russian pocket dictionary and all sorts of basic medications. I also downloaded a long “Russian Songs” playlist on Spotify to make sure I can cling to the atmosphere.Saint Petersburg, built by the emperor Peter the Great at the start of the 18th Century, is known to be one of the prettiest and most cultured cities in the eastern part of Europe, some even allow themselves to name it the “Venice of the North”.
No wonder, as its architectural and historical legacy influenced the world, we all live in today. Walking around the city on my own, the day before meeting the rest of my unknown team, was very emotional.
Experiencing the culture, that you have been studying and investigating so thoroughly in the past suddenly became real. People, language, photos, films, stories, books, food and funny drunken YouTube videos create a single body, processed by your brain to catch the mood of reality.I experienced one of these emotional shocks, when making myself lost in the city, in my opinion the best way to visit somewhere undiscovered, I ended up in a gigantic square. I told myself “Wait a minute. I know it from somewhere!”
It was the famous Winter Palace Square with Alexander’s column stuck in the middle. I recognised it from old photos.
The shot from a Soviet movie, showing the beginning of the red revolution; the Bloody Sunday when, according to some historians, more than one thousand protesters were shot while pleading for basic human needs from the last Tzar of Russia.
A second shot, showing the outcome of the revolution, indicated a strike on the palace, which later led to an overthrow of the monarchy and gave power to the proletariat.
First thing I understood in Russia, was that history is active. History is not about yesterday. It is about now and it is embedded in everything – you literally feel soaked with it being there. And it is not only in the visuals, it is in the air.
History is in Russia’s DNA.
It is not a coincidence that today many of the Russian streets, public squares and festivities have a connotation with the past.
Red Square or the annual World War Two victory celebrations on May 9, so why is Soviet heritage being forced to be forgotten in some countries and not in others?
The next day, I finally meet the “Derailed Lab” team.
A group of international students who want to record and interact with the unpopular closed world of Russian reality in order to produce an exhibition in March 2017 in London.
Taking part in the project as a journalist was an amazing opportunity to test my social and observatory skills. Prior to the trip I was persuaded that some people in the group spoke some Russian.
I was wrong. As a soon as I meet the team I had to roll up my sleeves and start simultaneous translation with my broken Russian, representing thirteen people who had to communicate their basic needs more or less everywhere they went to.
Later, my language skills allowed me to acquire relations with many people on the train as well as in the cities we visited.
Our first mission was to organise a tour guide in the Winter Palace —which, trust me, was not the easiest task to perform in an environment where the probability of finding a fluent English speaker (according to rbth.com) is below four per cent.
Travelling with a big group of people, when each want to do different things at the same time is always challenging. But somehow our group was incredibly patient and happy to work together.
Usually I am an individualist and prefer to travel on my own but this time I enjoyed sharing and seeing the trip through the eyes of others. As an eastern European it was extremely interesting to see reactions of the group to situations, to which I am normally familiar to in my country.One Russian feature, which was shocking for my new friends and which we discussed a lot during the trip, was the general sense that we are given orders to which we have to be obedient.
The obedience was tailing us far, far east. And it did not matter if we were in an Irkutsk station restroom, where there was a precise amount of toilet paper that we were allowed to take into the cabin.
Or in Lenin’s Mausoleum being asked by the guards to take our hands out of the pockets to show respect to the father of the revolution.
“Why are you, Europeans trying to poke us with a stick? You want to wake up the bear? Is that really what you want?”
Or finally being told off in the Kremlin Museum by Russian tourists and whistled off by guards at the same time, asked to stick to designated pathways.
All that for 500 Rubles (£7) in front of state-owned buildings. I did not see this as a problem at the time, personally it was more of a cultural feature, which we had to accept. You have to stick to rules full stop.
July 19, 7:45am. Somebody wakes me up shouting in Russian: “Moscow! Wake up”. It was our first car conductor, making sure we are all ready to jump off the train on time before the train continued its way east.
Leaving your cabin was a procedure. You had to make sure you give your dirty sheets and precious tea mugs (nothing can be lost) to the leading man, to whom we had to be obviously obedient.
Make sure everything is clean and ready for people who hop on after you.This was our daily procedure throughout the trip.
Moscow today is the main spot of Russian culture, economics and politics. It is the home of the richest and the poorest. The powerful and the weak of the country. Home to the Russian parliament and museums. It is one of few Russian cities, with Vladivostok, where investment is still going on.
The first consequence of this, I observed while transferring from the train station to our B&B, was the amount of roadworks; literally, every street I looked at, groups of Asian and Middle Eastern workers were renovating streets.
It looked awkward to me, as in Europe we tend to change one street at a time, not the whole city. Instantly, it felt like a big event is approaching and I was right – it was preparations for the 2018 World Cup.On top of that, I was also positively surprised by modernised parks and social places. Such as the Moscow’s Hyde Park; The Gorky Park, which in the summer time is an extremely pleasant place to visit.
A new contemporary art museum was constructed on its grounds, The Garage, worth giving a visit to see how the East is catching up with the West.
July 22 at 1:13 pm Moscow time, after more than 24 hours on the train, we arrive in Perm, on the border between continental Europe and Asia.
A military industry centre during the Cold War, closed to foreigners until 1986. You could feel that in the way locals looked at you differently. I felt that western incomers are rare.
Our two main points of interest in that city were: a futuristic robotics factory, launched by local Polytechnic students and a prison.We went to visit the factory being attracted by a story described by the Daily Mail, about robots escaping from their workshop onto the streets creating a traffic jam.The second place that we had a chance to visit, was the emotionally striking Soviet political labour camp museum called “Perm 36”.
The labour camp museum is the only remaining example of a Stalinist gulag. All of them were demolished after 1993.
The museum is still controversial, according to our guide Natalia, who says many local people do not want tourists to come and discover the ugly truth behind the communist regime.
Natalia told us that the museum is not sponsored in any way by the state and is opposed by the local authorities.
As a result it is never clear for tourists if the museum is closed or open – even guide books lack an explanation about the situation.
She explained how difficult it is for her and her few colleagues to take care of this historical site and their families at the same time.
The only support they gain for living is their ticket income, meaning ten to twenty people a day in high season.
The museum is a good example of how countries struggle with their difficult past.In our airplane society, 65 hours on a train may seem like a nightmare but actually it’s not so bad, you can learn a lot.
What happens in the carriage, is that the train inspector becomes your mother and passengers become a part of an instant traveling community.
I have never commuted so long in any kind of transport. In one cabin with three strangers for three-and-a-half days.
Suddenly you realise that time is not really an issue anymore and the train car is home.
You start to talk with passengers: soldiers, architects, engineers, train operators. This is where you learn the most about the Russian society and its problems.
I spoke to Anna from a village 60km (40 miles) of Perm. She is 85 and lives alone in a small hut in the rural part of the Ural mountains with no access to a grocery store. Her husband died last winter.
Natalia, took us to see how people lived in the countryside. When we came and distracted her peaceful life, she was making some strawberry jam for the winter to come.“C’mon kids! It’s time to go,” said the lady conductor in Krasnoyarsk platform.
Stops are the only moments during the trip, when you can actually stretch and take some fresh air on the the platform. Most of the time it is about 25 minutes.
You have to organise your timing to run quickly and buy your necessities, especially those you have used up, or the ones you forgot to buy prior to your trip.
Throughout the whole journey your main diet is instant noodle soup and black tea, topped up from the boiling water tank in the carriage hall.
Stops are a good chance to experience the local communities and tradition.
“Russia is as normal as you are in the west, regardless what we see on TV. Vice versa for Russians“
For instance, the closer you got to rivers and lakes, local babushkas are ready to sell smoked fish on the platforms.
These moments were an important part of the trip, making you discover the massive diversity of the Russian land.
The train passes through vast and wild natural environments. You wake up in a forest, you go to bed in the mountains. Sleeping on the train was surprisingly a very pleasant activity. Listening to the carriage’s vibrations was reminiscent of being a baby in a buggy.
Maybe that was a reason why the conductors felt like your parents.
The journey between Saint Petersburg, Moscow and Perm was just a practice before the 68-hour marathon passage to the city of the largest lake in the world.
On July 27 at 3:45 a.m, Moscow time, we arrived in Irkutsk.
Irkutsk is a city of mixed architecture and traditional collapsing wooden huts, but as soon as we got out of the train all we can think about is getting out of the city and diving in the pristine water of lake Baykal. We took a local bus to the tourist village of Listvyanka.Lake Baykal is the biggest freshwater lake on the globe. It is the size of the Netherlands, and in places it is up to 1,000 metres (3,280 feet) deep.
The rural village of Listvyanka is an hour’s drive away from the holiday destination of Irkutsk. It is a coastal village with a tiny harbour and markets, selling local souvenirs and smoked fish, Omul.
My feeling so far was that each person I have spoken to experienced or is experiencing some difficulties in their life.Every third person on the train, had his or her life distorted by the Chernobyl disaster.
Politics was always something I avoided talking about.
Anna from Kursk, a 57-year-old railway operator, whom I had the pleasure to share my cabin with on the train to Perm, told me that her husband had taken early retirement as they live in the “Chernobyl Affected” zone of Russia.
My team spend a long evening with a group of youngsters from the military academy. At first they appear quite arrogant but later after I translated a couple of questions we were able to understand why they acted that way.
One of them, Andrei, was an orphan who went to the academy at 16 and has since never had a real home.
He got me back asking: “Why are you, Europeans trying to poke us with a stick? You want to wake up the bear? Is that really what you want?”
He said he is travelling to Syria next month.
Two men, a son and father, who I meet in Listvyanka in a local bar next to the harbour, told me about their situation in the small village. He is a captain of the excursion boats on the lake, his son helps him out from time to time.
What I understood from talking to them later is that he was my age and had already spent six years in jail for killing a person, although he is now happy with a kid.
On the train to Irkutsk, I meet a group of military men travelling home from a month of training in the Urals. They call themselves the ‘Alpine brigade’. They had a Mongolian appearance.
Feasting on some sweet dumplings I asked where they were from. They answered they were from the Republic of Tuva. A small Russo-Mongolian minority living in the central-south Russia.The nicest and at the same time saddest thing on such journeys is that it is easy to create friendships but it is even harder to say goodbye. Knowing that you probably will never see each other again.
Jumping to the other side of Baykal we arrived in Ulan Ude on July 30 at 12:20am Moscow time.
We only spend 24 hours in Ulan Ude. The city with the largest statue of Lenin’s head in the world and the place where the railway splits, with a branch going south to Mongolia then continuing to Beijing, and another going east to Vladivostok.
The buddhist tour guide explained that Ulan Ude was made part of Mongolia up until 1923, when the Soviet Army took control over these Siberian lands.
She explained how difficult to acquire were the lands for the Soviet regime. Not only because Mongols were great fighters but mostly because of the different culture, which the Mongols represented.
I was able to understand this issue reading Ferdynand Ossendowski’s books. He was a Polish explorer, an Indiana Jones-like character, who witnessed the Russian civil war of 1921.Ossendowski described one important contributor to this war. A person who is well known in this part of Russia. Baron Von Urgen, who according to some was the re-incarnation of the Mongol warlord Ghengis Khan.
An Austrian citizen was able to unify a nation of nomads who struggled to form a coherent country to fight the Red Army and China at the same time.
He told Ossendowski: “We aren’t fighting a political party, but a ‘sect’ of conspirators who oppose the spiritual culture of Mongolia and their ideology of deity.”
We were lucky to go and see the Buddhist monastery Ivolga Datsan. One of the biggest buddhist centres of the north, it is impressive to see how buddhist culture travelled from Tibet up through Russia, to become a normality here today.
Most faces I have seen on the streets of Ulan Ude were Mongols, there were definitely less European faces.
It made me realise how difficult it was for the Soviets to control this rich and vast culture of Mongolia. I was asking myself, why would somebody put a massive head on a square?
I understood that Lenin’s head was one of the propaganda tools reminding people of their ruler’s identity.
As a result I spend the next three days on the train asking myself: What is Russian identity today then?On August 2 at 1:30 pm, Moscow time, I arrived at my final stop and at the same time a city that I called the bond between the west and east of Russia—Vladivostok.
Vladivostok, meaning the ruler of the east, is a very important city for Russian military and economics. It is the only harbour in the state that is not frozen during the harsh Russian winters.
The railway connection and sea access to China and the Pacific makes Vladivostok an international crucible of businessmen and tourists.
The first thing I felt in this city was that it reminded me of Hong Kong. In recent years Vladivostok received a large injection of investment.
New gambling areas were designated for modern casinos; planned to be the new Macao of Russia even though Putin banned gambling five years ago.
The city’s new bridge reminds me of the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco; there is an immense new university built recently, so big that they are lacking students. All this mixed up with the old architecture, which did not have time to regenerate.
My trip will soon be over and Vladivostok did not shake my conviction that Russia has become a problem of substance over form. The modernisation of the country is shading the old heritage creating disproportions.The notion of substance over form is also present in Russian history and national identity. Russia after the collapse of the great Soviet Union will always live in its shadow. This makes Russians feel lost in creating a coherent and liberal state.
“How can you control such country, without a firm hand? We need El Capitano! Putin is the right way to go.” said one of my cabin mates, Boris. His views are supported by others on the train.
Three weeks of intensive travelling opened my eyes to a country much different than I knew and could ever imagine before.
Travelling gives you much more than any kind of educational institution. Most importantly it allows you to see a country from a first hand perspective, a genuine one.
Westerners tend to learn about Russia only from their media, funny YouTube movies and their ironic books about Russian drinking culture.
But, there is much more to it. Our media, often has the same level of influence as the “зомби яащик” (zombie box) – a description of brainwashing TV used by one of the taxi drivers I was chatting with in Vladivostok.
“Russia is as normal as you are in the west, regardless what we see on TV and vice versa for Russians,” said Philip, the taxi driver. I could not object to that.
I was happy that I came to Russia without expectations. From what I have seen I know that in Russia, life is difficult, but today, I will think twice before laughing at a Russian drinking YouTube movie, simply because we are all humans who deal differently with our own problems.
Featured image by Jozef Wardynski.