Book Excerpt: Train Thing

My two best Irish friends have gone all in on their first trip to Russia. Not just Dublin to Moscow for a long weekend, not these two. They’re right this minute bound for Irkutsk on a Moscow to Beijing Trans-Siberian train ride. They sent this picture, a frozen river, somewhere in Siberia:

It’s a good opportunity to share a chapter from my first book Common Sense and Whiskey, about our own trip across Russia. Please enjoy it.

THE TRANS-SIBERIAN RAILWAY

If you don’t speak Russian and if you decode Cyrillic gingerly, one letter at a time, it’s not completely effortless to come up with bottled water in Ekaterinburg, but it is possible, and I bought six litres.

The kiosk, alongside a tram stop, was just big enough to be a walk-in affair, not big enough for four, let alone our steamy tensome.  The boys in front  argued over what beer and candy to order one each of. I motioned for six bottles way up high on a shelf  and all kinds of consternation rippled through the mottled impatience behind me.

In a few hours Mirja and I would be climbing aboard the Trans-Siberian railroad to Ulan Bataar, Mongolia.  We’d be a week en route, so we needed all kinds of stuff.

As soon as I had all those bottles, though, I calculated we could get everything else at the train station.  Six litres of water is heavy.

Today was Labor Day in the U.S. On the edge of Siberia, autumn held full sway. E-kat’s denizens plodded by cold and damp in an insistent, heavy shower. A lot of the older folks wore long coats. All day the rain beset.

•••••

Every account of coming upon the Ural mountains speaks of disappointment, and for good reason. The dividing line between Europe and Asia is just hills, really, and Ekaterinburg nestles just beyond their eastern slopes.

The Atrium Palace Hotel Ekaterinburg looked so nice on the internet that we mused back home that it had to be either German or mafia owned. Well, it wasn’t German. It was E-kat’s only “5-star,” with glass elevators and snuggly, fluffy Scandinavian bedding and BBC World on TV.

Still, it had its Russian characteristics: There was the hourly rate, Rule #2: If you stay for less than six hours, you are charged for twelve hour accommodation. And Rule #7: “The guests who troubled a lot before can not be allowed to stay at the hotel.” Hard to know if the guys in track suits grouped around the lobby drinking coffee were part of the problem or there to enforce the solution.

•••••

Mid-rises glowered down on ancient Siberian carved–wood houses. There wasn’t much spring in E-kat’s civic step. Down Ulitsa Malysheva, a second-tier comrade (maybe it was Malysheva himself) stood statuary guard near a canal. The flowers at his feet had long since conceded to summer weeds.

Old and dusty women tended the old and dusty local history museum. They turned the lights on and off as you moved through the rooms. The Communism section was closed.

During the revolution, in July 1918, The entire family of deposed Czar Nicholas was shot while holed up at the home of a merchant named Ipatiev here in Ekaterinburg – then called Sverdlovsk – and some days later the besieged Bolsheviks burned and buried the bodies outside town.

In 1977, local Sverdlovsk party boss Boris Yeltsin ordered the Ipatiev House destroyed. Fourteen years later Yeltsin, then in the Kremlin, financed exhumation of the bodies from the burial pit, and exactly eighty years after their murder, on July 17, 1998 the bones of Russia’s last Czar were laid beside the bones of previous Czars in the crypt of the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg. In the museum, black and white pictures of Nicholas and Alexandra were pinned up alongside diagrams of skeletons. 

In a dainty candle-lit Orthodox church-let, hardly big enough for the two women inside, Mirja and I bought a tiny cross and a few icons. With a glass, the women inspected the back of each, like kids examine trading cards, and they proclaimed one Nikolai and explained of another, “Blogodot Denyaba.”

E-kat’s youth did a kind of country swagger beneath a huge billboard for “Ural Westcom” Cellular – written in Latin, not Cyrillic. Every kid in town walked up and down the sidewalk drinking big brown half litre bottles of beer. Maybe it was because they could.

Muddy Ekaterinburg, east of the Urals

If your baseline was vodka, pivo (beer) was positively a soft drink in comparison. None of these young people – old enough to aspire to fashion and to drink and flirt and smoke – none of them remembered the days of vodka and The State. They were all eight or twelve at the Soviet Union’s demise.

The train station was white, granite and huge, a city block long and probably more, but it was hard to see why – they only used a tiny slice of it. There was just time to lug our stuff into the steamy waiting hall, and before you knew it, up rolled train number two, the Rossiya.

Here was a moment of some import. They told us our first class compartment was “very expensive,” but we didn’t care about that (it wasn’t that expensive), we just wanted to find it very empty. And so it was.

The woman under whose iron will Trans-Siberian lore demanded we cower – the provodnitsa – while no nonsense, appeared kindly enough as she studied our tickets, nodded, and handed over the key to cabin nine, between cabin eight, with a baby, and the toilet.

Inside – impeccably clean. Mirrors on each wall made a not very big space bigger. All six lights worked – the overhead fluorescent, lights on the walls, and tiny reading lights over each bunk.

The window was structurally shut and it was warmer than it needed to be. Satiny print curtains covered the window but Mirja moved them above the door. That way we could have it open and see out, but people in the corridor couldn’t see in. Brilliant.

A small writing/eating table. Bunks with bedding, the rough blankets in a Scottish tartan pattern.

A samovar sat at the provodnitsa’s end of each car (ours with bits of drying, fresh-picked wild mushrooms arrayed across the top) to provide water for chai or coffee. I’d remembered every possible gadget, but I’d forgotten plates and towels. I stole a towel and paid good money for plates from the hotel, but there was a plate with sweets and sugar and packets of chai, and a towel for each of us.

All the hubbub and noise of the station mixed with a sustained period of fiddling and adjusting as we fell over and bumped into one another, settling into home for the next several days.

Ours was the last unoccupied cabin in the carriage, so it made sense it was down at the end by the toilet, and Mirja rather liked the idea because it was convenient. And the toilet flushed with water, there was ready cold water in the wash basin, and there was even a roll of toilet paper, at least to start. They scrubbed it down sometimes. It didn’t even smell.

The baby next door kept waddling down to peer into our compartment. His parents, bless them, kept the kid quiet.

Everything eventually settled out and darkness came up to close around the Rossiya as we moved east of E-kat, in the rain.

•••••

Movement and noise, action and business at every stop. Traders crowded under the lights with food, furs and shawls. The Europeans and Americans popped onto the platform to stretch and take videos of the locals, and the wheels were checked and the kiosks thrived (and they were well-provisioned) and then the Rossiya groaned back to life and pulled away, and everything aboard settled back into the torpor induced by the rhythm of the rails. Continue reading

Weekend Reading

Join me in exploring these articles over the weekend, which for a lucky few is three days long. I’ve bumped them over to Instapaper but haven’t finished them all myself. Let’s see where they lead.

Thanks for your participation in yesterday’s photo quiz, and if you haven’t ventured a guess yet, you have until next Thursday to do so. I’ll draw from the correct answers then and send the winner a copy of the audiobook version of Common Sense and Whiskey. We’ll do this Fridays for the rest of the summer.

Meanwhile, this is a momentous weekend for the Turks, who go to the polls on Sunday to decide on granting more power to President Reçep Tayyip Erdogan. Opinion leaders can’t decide among themselves which way to lead; either the Turkish President is a badass anti-democratic juggernaut, or a defeat could put him in peril:

Win or Lose on Referendum, Turkey’s Erdoğan Spells Trouble
How Erdogan’s Referendum Gamble Might Backfire

But enough of that for now. On to some articles for your weekend perusal:

Icebergs by George Philip LeBourdais at thepointmag.com
Operation London Bridge: the secret plan for the days after the Queen’s death by Sam Knight in The Guardian
A Town Under Trial by Nick Tabor in the Oxford American
Why some infinities are bigger than others by A W Moore in Aron Magazine
The Case For Butterfish by Neal Ascherson at Granta.com

 

Fan Photos of Istanbul in Huge Week for Turkey

This is a fateful week for the beleaguered Turks. Next weekend Turkey will vote in a referendum on whether to extend significant new powers to President Erdogan. With war on its borders, terror in its biggest cities, a tourism industry in collapse, a tenuous agreement with the rest of Europe over refugees, spats with individual EU governments ginned up for electoral advantage, an astounding 40,000 jailed after the attempted coup last year, well, Turkey has no shortage of challenges.

In spite of it all, Istanbul remains one of the world’s five greatest cities (In no particular order, mine are Istanbul, Hong Kong, Paris, Sydney, San Fransisco. Yours?) So I’d like to reprise a few fan photos of Istanbul in the good old days. Click them to make them bigger. And there are hundreds more photos from Turkey here, in the Turkey Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.

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Outside the Grand Bazaar. Through that gate and down in the bazaar, march in and get yourself thoroughly lost. Wander for half a day. I once asked around for the Afghan section and came away with three fine pakols, tailored to my head size, from a milliner from Kandahar.

 

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Again, the Galata Tower in the center back. Ferries like these ply the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus over to Asia, carrying commuters to work at dawn.

 

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The fabled Haydarpasha Train Station in Kadaköy, on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. On arrival from London via the Orient Express, from here well heeled tourists could travel on to Ankara, then Kars, then Baghdad and Teheran.

 

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Day labor at the break of dawn. Happening every day in the Grand Bazaar.

 

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The Blue Mosque.

 

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This is seven photos stitched into a 180 degree panorama. Each photo consists in turn of seven exposures combined into an HDR image. We are looking west into the Golden Horn at dawn, the Bosphorus Strait at our backs. See each end of the Galata Bridge on the far left and right.

 

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Here is the Ortakoy Mosque in a trendy part of town some way up the Bosphorus on the European shore, the bridge behind leading to Asia, on the far side.

 

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And Taksim Square, foreground. Gezi Park, a green space and the focus of the protests a couple of years ago, is just below and behind this vantage point. From here you can see past the Golden Horn and out into the Sea of Marmara. From this vantage point the Bosphorus, to the east, is just off to the left.

 

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Here is the fabled Golden Horn, with the Galata Tower across the way. The Bosphorus is out of the frame on the right, the Sea of Marmara behind the photo and the Black Sea at the end of the Bosphorus at two o’clock from here.

And while we’re in the region, here’s a link to one of the chapters in my first book, Common Sense and Whiskey, about a trip through Turkey’s eastern neighbors, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

Audiobooks Now Available

CS&WAudioBookCoverArt ChernobylAudiobookCover

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m happy to say that as of yesterday both my print books, Common Sense and Whiskey and Visiting Chernobyl, are also available on Audible.com as audiobooks, narrated by me:

Common Sense and Whiskey: print versionaudio version
Visiting Chernobyl: print versionaudio version

Look for a brand new book in late summer, about travel in the far north, Svalbard, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, maritime Canada, Finland. See previous post.

Friday Photos – Greenland

It’s been a good week as we’ve finalized some travel plans for June. As I wrote just down there, we’ll be in London for the British exit referendum and, as it’s just around the summer solstice, while we’re there we’ll take a trip out to Stonehenge. We’re also planning stops in the French territory of St. Pierre and Miquelon, just off Newfoundland in Maritime Canada, and in St. John’s, Newfoundland’s capital. Then we’re up to Reykjavik for Iceland’s National Day on 17 June, and while we’re so close, we’re planning our second visit to Greenland, this time to the east coast, to the town of Tasiilaq, noted on this Google map:

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The last time we visited Greenland I wrote about it as a chapter in my book Common Sense and Whiskey, and you can read the chapter here.

To mark our new visit, here are a few Friday photos from our previous trip, which was to the area around Disko Bay in the west.
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Calving glacier at Disko Bay.

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Midnight cruise in Disko Bay, Greenland.

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Ilullisat town, Greenland.

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Dog sled and husky near Ilullisat, Greenland.

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Ilullisat, Greenland.

Click the photos to enlarge them, and there are more photos in the Greenland Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.

Happy New Year, and Thank You So Much!

cswcoverAfter a strong Christmas season I’m thrilled that Common Sense and Whiskey, the book, is now in the top 200 in Amazon’s travel writing category. Thank you all so much.

CS&W is my first book, published in 2011, with fifteen stories from way off the beaten path, from Bhutan, Borneo, Burma, Greenland, Guangxi, Lake Baikal, Madagascar, Malawi, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Chilean Patagonia, the Southern Caucasus, the Trans-Siberian Railroad, Sri Lanka and Tibet.

Visiting Chernobyl, A Guide came next, and I’m working hard to produce a new book by the end of 2015 covering travel in the far north, with sections on Finland, Norway, Svalbard, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and maritime Canada.

Seeing the December results for Common Sense and Whiskey, the book, is really exciting for me, and I thank you all very much. Happy New Year!

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