#15 Home stretch : journey through Russia and Europe

Stress is going up as the train draws closer to the border. I’ve realised that my Russian visa is valid only from June 19, however we will enter the country during the night of 18th. Russian border patrols are not famous for being lenient and I am afraid I might be forced to get off the train if we arrive before midnight… 10:13PM, we just made it to the Mongolian border. I’ve rarely felt time passing by so slowly. Luckily, a school group from Ulan-Bator seems to be missing some important papers and the passport control drags on. 11:27PM, the train starts again. Pressure keeps mounting and we arrive at the Russian border around 11:50PM. Another 15 minutes go by before the door of our cabin swings open followed by a strict Zdrastvouïtié, politseyskiy kontrol”. It’s now passed midnight and everyone gets a stamp of June 19, that was a close shave!

When I wake up on the following morning, the train is zooming along the splendid Baikal Lake. First stop in the country: Irkutsk, one of the largest cities of eastern Siberia. The change of scenery profound: I’ve made a huge leap towards Europe. There is a significant ethnic minority with Asian features in the region (Buryats, of Mongolian origin) but most inhabitants are Caucasian. I don’t linger much in Irkutsk, I can’t wait to go to Olkhon island to enjoy the quiet Baikal lake for a few days before moving west with the Transsiberian railway.

 

 

The lake is so immense that I feel like I am in the middle of the sea. I meet a friendly Ukrainian guy who invites me to stay at a camp where young people from here and elsewhere spend the summer. For a few days, we enjoy exploring the island and playing music around the bonfire. The atmosphere is incredibly peaceful, I would be glad to spend more time here but my visa is limited to 25 days and I still have several thousands of kilometres to cover until St Petersburg.

I hop on the train again, this time on the famous Transsiberian railway. I am off for a 56-hour journey to Ekaterinburg! Unlike the Transmongolian railway that was used mainly by tourists, I am happy to notice I am the only foreigner in my carriage. Despite a tiny difference in price, I chose to travel 3rd class (in a carriage shared by 54 people without separation). When you undertake a journey on the Transsiberian railway, it is not just about going from A to B. On the contrary, it is a great occasion to watch the scenery go by, enter a state of contemplation and above all, exchange with other people on board. In this respect, I am happy to swap some comfort for a maximum of interaction with other passengers!

 

 

My carriage is full of young men with a shaved head. I soon understand that they have just finished their military service and are on the way home. Artiom sleeps in the bed opposite to mine and we soon get on well. He doesn’t speak English and my Russian is almost non-existent at this stage, but we can communicate thanks to the small Russian-French dictionary I bought in Ulan-Bator. Fortunately, Artiom also has a translation app on his phone for more in-depth conversations. He tells me about the psychological pressure he had to cope with during his military service and how excited he is to be reunited with his girlfriend and family soon. We are both very different in many ways, but we have the fact in common of being on the way home after one year far away from our loved-ones. However, he spent the year receiving orders and using instruments of war while I was enjoying absolute freedom, discovering the world and taking photos… Which makes you once again remember your luck.

The kilometres pass, the hours go by and the train settles into a new routine. There is plenty of time, I devour Lolita by Nabokov and start Dostoyevsky’s The idiot. Whenever the opportunity arises, I get off the train to stretch my legs and watch the movements of passengers, the crossed destinies… Difficult goodbyes, long-awaited homecomings. New recruits for the military service board the train. Those who are done wait impatiently for their station, fixing their deep, cold gaze on the horizon and the challenges ahead.

It is now time to say goodbye to Artiom who leaves the train before I do. He asks me to immortalise his arrival, I will send him the photographs a few days later. When I finally make it to Ekaterinburg, I must say I am happy to have a break. It is quite something to stay on a train for three days and two nights in a row.

 

 

Boris welcomes me in his flat in the suburbs of the city. I met him through Couchsurfing and he is delighted to have me over for my three nights here. He is a painter and he shares a studio of contemporary art with some of his friends that we also use for our evening get-togethers. During the day, I explore Ekaterinburg and I am glad to discover a pleasant and dynamic city.

A particular atmosphere prevails in Ekaterinburg at the moment: we’re in the middle of the football World Cup. Tonight Mexico will play against Sweden and fans of both teams have taken to the streets. Russia has made rules for tourist visa applications more flexible for the duration of the championship. It looks like the country has never had so many foreigners on its soil. There was tourism before in Russia, but only few people usually venture beyond Saint Petersburg or Moscow. Cities like Ekaterinburg or Kazan, my next stop, are suddenly reshaped. It is fascinating for instance to watch the cultural shock between warm-blooded Mexicans who sing and dance constantly and Russians, who are just as friendly yet more reserved at first sight.

Just as crossing the Bosphorus in Istanbul marked my entry in Asia, Ekaterinburg and the Ural region symbolise now an inevitable return towards Europe. I still struggle to realise it, but my journey is coming to an end, in one month I’ll be home!

 

 

The night train takes me to Kazan, the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan. I am couchsurfing again, Damiro is kind enough to host for a couple of nights. He shows me around the city, which turns out to be absolutely stunning, and introduces me to his friends from the English conversation club.

Russian language and culture are more of less uniform throughout the territory despite its staggering immensity. However, the country is rich of numerous ethnic, linguistic and cultural minorities. For instance, indigenous inhabitants of the region of Kazan called Tatars are of Muslim faith, speak a language of their own in addition to Russian, and constitute the second largest ethnic group in the country. The Republic of Tatarstan enjoys considerable autonomy, as exemplified by its own constitution and the election of a president.

 

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I hit the road again towards Moscow. I can’t wait to discover this vibrant capital city that has always drawn indefatigable travellers including myself. The change of scale is striking as soon as you exit the train station. The city is enormous, there is no choice but to use the underground. In fact, Moscow is the most populated city in Europe with its 12 million inhabitants. As much as I love villages because you can easily connect with local people, I am paradoxically fond of big cities too for the anonymity you enjoy when strolling around them. Like Istanbul, Teheran, Mumbai or Beijing, Moscow gives me this glorious feeling, which might be deceptive but so what?, that possibilities are limitless.

My last stop in Russia is in St-Petersburg, an architectural gem at Europe’s doorstep. Nastia and Slawa, two friends I met on Olkhon Island a few weeks earlier, host me for the last days of my Russian adventure. Flying in the face of stereotypes that often reduce this country to mafia and vodka, I’ve felt safe and warmly welcomed throughout my time in this fascinating part of the world.

 

 

Time is now in short supply. I have 8 days left until my sister’s wedding to cross all of Europe, and I’m not taking the plane. Needless to say I will have to move fast. First by coach from St Petersburg to Tartu, Estonia where Elie, a friend I met in Latvia three years earlier, can put me up in his lovely house in the countryside. A few easy rides then take me to Riga, Latvia, followed by a beautiful boat journey across the Baltic sea to Germany. My old friend Perrine hosts me in Hamburg for the very last stop of my trip, and I’m off with the coach to Nantes. I would have rather hitchhiked the whole way through Europe but I couldn’t risk to miss my sister’s wedding! My journey has now turned full circle, and the perspective of being reunited with my family and friends fills me with unprecedented joy.

Epilogue to follow soon!

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