26 October 2008

Moscow: a worm-hole and a Red Rectangle

Don’t try looking for a shower in Moscow. Our mission to get clean cost us four of our eight hours in the city, via a non-responsive hostel (thanks, Lonely Planet) and an over-priced taxi ride to an extortionately priced hotel… where a room booking for a shower would have required taking out a (non-sub-prime) mortgage. Sometimes when you get to a new city the whole experience is so confusing that it can take several hours of wandering endlessly to adjust. This was the Moscow worm-hole: a parallel reality where metros only ran in the wrong direction, and maps consistently failed to match up to places on first attempt. The fact that the taxi played Hotel California and Moon River added to the sense of things being curiously out of time.

Eventually we gave up on the washing plan, checked in our left luggage at Yaroslavl station (where the Trans-Manchurian and other Trans-Siberian trains leave), and headed to Red Square – or ‘Red Rectangle’, as one of my friends more accurately dubbed it. We arrived at night to find the building opposite the Kremlin lit up like a Christmas tree, which somewhat spoils the post-Soviet ambiance of the whole scene. That building is now a shopping centre, with a ‘Cartier’ store standing directly opposite Lenin’s tomb. The old man must be turning in his mummified grave.

3 October

Amsterdam to Moscow: borders and bogies

The journey started from Amsterdam (where I live) on 1 October with the relatively short 6 1/2 hour train journey to Berlin. From there we travelled onwards to Kiev. One thing you quickly learn to appreciate is how small Western Europe is – with Berlin its outermost border. We left the Amsterdam train at the city’s impressive new Hauptbahnhof (central station), but the Kiev train starts at the distinctly less fashionable Gesundbrunnnen. The surly, square-hatted, blue-uniformed train assistants lining the platform welcomed us to the former Communist bloc.

As the train crossed the Polish border, we passed a fleet of Volkwagen vans being imported into Germany. The train passed through Poznan and Warsaw on that first night, and when I awoke it was a beautiful autumn day in the countryside of south-east Poland.

Not long after we passed another border – into Ukraine. The border police there scan your passport with expensive-looking EU-funded equipment (by contrast, the Russian and Chinese officials later in the trip just stand you up and stare at you long and hard). The train then crossed no man’s land and back again, reversing and entering a train shed where the bogies are changed. I have no idea why they are called this, but it refers to the whole undercarriage of the train. As we remained in our carriages, the train was taken apart, with each carriage lifted up to have one set of wheels rolled out and another set rolled back in.

Aside from the curiosity of the train-lifting show, I marvelled at the administrative logic that presumably underpins this whole exercise. If the point is passenger convenience, then surely changing trains rather than a long border stop would be preferable. If the point is practicality, then I would have thought that adjustable wheels or twin sets of wheels that could be raised and lowered should be more convenient. So I’m tempted to think the whole scheme – which is repeated on the Russia-China border – has been designed by committee, then entrenched by years of repeated practice until that is just the way these things are done.

The Ukrainian countryside was also bathed in autumn sunlight and, aside from discovering courtesy of two British travellers that Chernobyl is now a tourist destination, the remainder of the trip to Kiev passed uneventfully.

We arrived late at night, but to a busy station whose grandeur showed no signs of fading. English got us nowhere with the station staff here, or in Moscow, but we managed to book an onward sleeper train leaving shortly after midnight. The attractive wooden carriages ushered us comfortably to Moscow, where we arrived the next afternoon.

1 to 3 October.

Russia before Russia, and the perils of ‘ethical travel’

My first experience of Russia was in The Hague. We were there to get visas as the Russian consulate, an anonymous doorway in the city’s embassy district. A man in a shiny suit opened the door and said nothing, but his eyes were saying – in an accusatory tone – what do you want? We waited for some words… and waited, the silence being a game of who would flinch first. ‘Is this the consulate?’ we flinched. Our reaction produced no words from our Russian companion, but he reached behind him and thrust two visa application forms into our hands. He requested a photo, monosyllabically (quite an achievement for a two syllable word). We didn’t have them. His stare was eloquently unimpressed. Eventually we managed to communicate that we simply want to ask some questions about visa applications, and were ushered in. The woman at the counter was exceedingly helpful and friendly.

One other vignette to set the tone for my trip: it almost didn’t happen. The ‘ethical’ travel agent I was advised to use for bookings to the conference, who then claimed to have booked my trip, called me back after I was told I had a confirmation and unilaterally cancelled it: ‘the itinerary was too complicated, and how about I take a plane instead?’ The delay killed off any plans to travel via Mongolia, and confirmed that I would bypass Belarus, since getting the visas for those two countries plus Russia and China would prove too time consuming. So in the end I bought up the tickets separately, with the aid of seat61, Amsterdam station, a Trans-Siberian specialist (Trans-Sputnik in The Hague), the China International Travel Service (for the return leg - rather delightfully for this age of streamlined bureaucracy, you collect the tickets from a filing cabinet on the 8th floor of a Beijing skyscraper), a much improved Rail Europe website (for my final leg from Italy), and the rest en route. In the meantime, I gained two wonderful travel companions for the outward leg.

ps. at some point I will get around to augmenting this blog with pictures – and maybe even some videos.

To Beijing and back by train: why bother?

Why did I just travel to Beijing and back? By train? Via Athens? I have, by now, several well-rehearsed short answers to this question. Climate change. Curiosity. A need to escape the internet. A book project to work on. None of these quite captures the whoLinkle picture, but each carries a grain of truth. First things first, though, I simply needed to go to both places for work – the Asia Europe People’s Forum (www.aepf.info) in Beijing, and an anti-corruption conference in Athens. So why not travel over land? ‘It seems a waste of time’ is the most obvious comeback – but it isn’t as if you enter a state of suspended animation as soon as the train door slams shut, as this blog will hopefully explain. Nor is , it just a ‘tourist outing’. There are many pleasurable ways, I’m sure, to do this trip touristically, but non-stop is unlikely to be the best of them. In fact, the Trans-Manchurian trains themselves are distinctly tourist-free, at this time of year at least: on the 13 carriages (give or take the odd attachment and detachment) that travelled from Beijing to Moscow, a grand total of three people – including myself – were not Russian or Chinese.

To start with the obvious: if you work on climate change, you should try not to fly. This is true, but trite. In spending any time tracking global processes, you are likely to end up with a hypocritically large carbon footprint (this is probably not the occasion for me to discuss how many ineffectual air miles are chalked up in maintaining a ‘global civil society’) and the best way to mitigate this is simply to think carefully what trips you really need to take, and which can easily be skipped. Having a sense of your own replaceability can definitely help too. But in the end, that still leaves an unhealthily large share of travelling – which, if you consider that a collective effort is necessary to achieve structural changes, hopefully outweighs the negatives of individual practice. Beyond that, I feel strongly that flying shouldn’t be the default instinct – as it is still is for many ‘activists’, even on short European trips. There are several ways to travel over land or sea, and www.seat61.com is an indispensable starting point for these (although I am still looking for advice on how to cross the Atlantic cheaply without breaking the bank).

The other reasons – writing, escape, meetings – I’ll come to as this story progresses. The one I keep coming back to, though, is to gain a sense of perspective. Travelling across Europe, then through the world’s largest country and on to the capital of the world’s most populous one, gives a sense of scale that no A to B tin-can hop from airport to airport can match.