Onwards and forwards to the next destination on the Transiberian-Express is Perm. This part of the journey is longer than the previous train ride so I had some more real train experiences:
The train makes a few short stops en route to Perm and you get to get off and walk around on the platforms at these stops. As soon as you walk out of the train you are greeted by people selling fruit in buckets, especially apples. The fruit is locally grown and freshly picked. If you are looking to buy fruit on the platforms you will have to buy a whole bucket since they do not sell per piece of fruit.
All the trains on the Trans-Siberian rail route have hot water tanks which you can use for free. Needless to say I ate a lot of instant noodles and soups from packets as snacks. The meals in the restaurant wagons are not expensive and quite good. Do not go in with high expectations for the meals though, it is not fine dining but good enough to eat. My favourite meal was what I had for breakfast which was rice porridge with butter, simple and delicious. You could also change it up and eat the rice porridge with blueberry jam, but I preferred the butter.
The bars in the trains are well stacked with half-litre beers and in particular Siberian beer. The light version has 6.5 % alcohol and the stronger ones had 8.3 % alcohol. Definitely recommend them!
When you are travelling in these long distance trains you end up meeting a lot of fellow travellers. I spent the majority of this train ride with Annemijn and Marnix, a newly wed couple from The Netherlands I met while boarding the train. That evening while sitting with Annemijn and Marnix in the restaurant wagon we also met two English women and ended up playing Rummy with them. An Indian/Canadian couple joined us who were relieved to finally meet English speakers on their trip.
Note: The more East you go in Russia there is almost no English spoken. So be prepared to use all kinds of creative techniques to make yourself understood.
We also ended up making friends with a group of three Russia women in the restaurant wagon They were having a good time laughing and playing music and so naturally we wanted to be part of the fun. They spoke maybe one or two words of English but we were still able to communicate using drawings and a Dutch-Russian dictionary that Annemijn and Marnix brought with them.
We were all having a good time together but then things took a bit of a turn. There was also another Russian man in the restaurant wagon with us and he had definitely had one too many beers. At one point he started hassling those Russian women and when they did not respond he started to hassle me and tried to steal my beer. Obviously I was not amused so I started yelling at him to stop since he still kept bothering me after the first two times I politely told him to stop. Annemijn and Marnix also tried to get rid of him as well. At one point he walked off back to the one of the Russian ladies and he tried to grab her butt while walking past her. The lady who he tried to grab turned out to be a police officer, so when he grabbed her she put him in a headlock and slammed him up against the wall and then physically restrained him and made him go back to his own cabin. It happened so fast! It was like watching an action movie. And people say that train rides are boring…well they certainly have not been on this train ride!
To try and still keep the fun times going despite the small mishap Marnix took out his guitar and started playing for us. At one point we were all singing along to songs and dancing in the wagon. It was a really fun and memorable night.
Our next short stop was the next morning. On this platform there were carts filled with food and toys as well. It is quite chaotic on those platforms so you end up doing a quick stroll and looking for some peace and quiet back in the train cabins.
During the train ride buns filled with cabbage are sold by female train conductors called Provodnitsy. The Provodnitsy are your guardian angels on the train, so make sure you be respectful and nice to them because they make sure everything is cleaned, prepare your meals & drinks, and help remind you when to get back on the train at the short stops. If you are nicer to them then they leave the restaurant cabins open longer in the night as well 😉
After a two day journey I finally arrived in Perm and parted ways with Annemijn and Marnix. I gave them stroopwaffels (Dutch sweet caramel cookies) that I brought with me so that when they miss The Netherlands they could have a Dutch cookie to bring them some comfort.
At the platform in Perm I was met by Mikhail (Mike) who was one of my guides in Perm. He brought me to my hotel. As soon as I got to my room I had a shower and collapsed in bed. I had already gotten a bit of a sore throat on the train ride but it got worse and I felt very faint. My first day in Perm I ended up lying in bed ordering Borscht soup (Red soup made with beetroot, potatoes, onions and cabbage) from room service in an attempt to regain strength. A travellers nightmare is getting sick along the way, and especially travelling alone you usually do not have some else to help you, so make sure you carry some basic medicines/first aid kit with you at all times. I had taken some things with me like : ORS tablets for rehydration, antiseptic crème, mini-first aid kit, ibuprofen, anti-inflammatory crème for muscle pain, pills against worms…etc. When you fall ill and you are on your own you will be super thankful you have basics like this with you.
Lucky for me my tour started the following morning so I could rest properly that day. The next morning I woke up at 6:30 am and stuffed myself with eggs and pancakes and afterwards walked down to the lobby. I met Mike and another lady named Natalie who was my translator for the day for the tour. We were going to visit the Ice caves in Kungur which was a long drive but on the way we made a short stop. We stopped at a park which had a monument of Alexey Gubkin who was a famous tea trader in Russia and was responsible for popularizing tea trade during the 1800s in Russia by shipping tea already weighed out and in colourful packaging. He prompted tea trade through the promotion of the modern day teabags. When Alexey Gubkin died his nephew Alexander Grigorievich Kuznetsov took over and had set up tea plantations in other countries of which one of them was Sri Lanka (this is was nice piece of history to know that where I come from also has some links to Russia!).
The park was located near a church and this church had a very old school bell ringing method. A person has to climb all the way to the top and stand on pedals in order to get the bells to ring.
After this stop we continued on towards the Ice Caves and along the way we saw a lot of settlements/villages. The houses in the settlements are a stark contrast to the houses in the cities since the walls were made of wood and the roofs were made with sheets of metal that did not look sturdy or provide any kind of proper insulation. Between each settlement there is alot of open wide space and also a lot of forests with the majority of the trees being Birch.
Natalie explained to me the importance of Birch trees in the Russian culture:
It brings good luck if you bury the top half of the tree in the ground under your house.
If you make a circle around your house with logs of the tree it will help ward off evil spirits.
It has medicinal properties to help with coughs and knee problems.
It is a wood that burns for a long time which makes it is great source of heating.
The Kungur Ice Caves were very beautiful and colourful to see and it is very cold so you need to be dress warmly when entering. Our cave guide whose name was Larissa could only speak Russian so Natalie was translating all the information given. Larissa told us about:
Love stories of couples secretly marrying in the caves during periods it was not permitted.
On the 17th of January people come to the caves to get baptized in the water which is only about 5°C.
After the cave tour we went to have lunch in the restaurant situated at the site of the Ice caves. This was my first encounter with eating buckwheat, which is amazing! It does not look very appetizing but when you eat it it’s delicious.
After the meal we headed on to the next stop of the tour which was a Gulag Camp…For those of you not familiar with Gulag Camps, these were forced labour camps/prisons people were sent to during the Stalin era. The tour was horrifying and hearing the stories of how people were tortured and mistreated was depressing. Prisoners had to survive Siberian winters wearing thin prison uniforms with very little food which usually resulted in death. The average length of time any person survived in the camp was a maximum of 6 months. Hearing the stories of women being raped and giving birth to children in those camps was heart-breaking.
The experience definitely leaves a mark and it is important not to forget the past but after doing the tour I needed a bit of a distraction. Walking out of the camp I found Mike fishing at the river located next to the camp. He had already caught quite a few fish and collected them in a bottle. There were nearby stray cats and Mike gave the fish to them. There were also kittens as well! This was a nice way to round off the day on a bit of a more positive note.
The next day I did the green-line tour through the city – Many cities have this type of green line route which is literally a painted green line on the roads that lead you to all the main landmarks in that city. At the main landmarks there were boards providing information but the English translations were quite funny to read since it looked to be badly translated in Google translate, so some of the sentences made no sense.
This particular monument, also located on the green line, is very iconic in Perm and is known as the “Salty Ears Monument”. The reason for this monument is because this area is renouned for its salt production. It is said that the nickname “Permyak Salty Ears” given to the people living here derives from the workers who used to carry bags of salt on their shoulders and whose ears became saturated with salt, causing them to increase in size and turn red.
I also visited the Perm State Art Gallery which is located in an old church and holds a large collection of wooden Ural art. It was interesting to see how the Jesus statues each had a different face because all the statues were modelled after real people. You can see that there is a mixture of Christianity and Paganism in the statues since many were created just when Christianity was introduced and pagans were being converted in Russia.
After this last visit I headed back to the train station to continue on to my next destination which is Ekaterinaburg! Mike picked me up from my hotel and brought me to station but we were too early so while waiting for the train Mike was listening to my life story and even making notes because he was genuinely interested in all the places I have lived in and places I have seen! He was a lovely guide and would definitely using their travel agency when visiting Perm: www.uraltourism.com
I boarded the train at Perm which was heading towards Ekaterinaburg and walked to my cabin. I was sharing the cabin with an elderly couple. The husband spoke very little English but was still trying his very best to make himself understandable which was very kind of him. He kept saying “I have like read!” and was pointing to a book he had in his hands. The wife kept gesturing to food in an effort to ask whether I was hungry and I shook my head to say no but she could not handle the fact that I was not eating so she basically shoved two madarins into my hands!
The husband had taken to drawing symbols to further carry on our conversation. He had drawn a euro sign on a piece of paper and showed this to me repetitively saying “How maney you job?”. I had no clue what he was asking, at first I thought he was asking what type of work I did so I proceeded to draw a computer in an effort to explain that I work in IT. This did not answer the husbands question so he instead picked up his phone and dialled a friend (I think?) and from what I could decipher he had asked his friend to translate what he was asking to English and to send it through a SMS to him. Yes, an SMS….those things still exist here in Eastern Russia.
While we were waiting on his friend to send through the translation through SMS, the husband was reciting random English sentences he had picked up somewhere in his past from a class or tv (I am not really sure..) but these were the sentences he kept reciting:
“My pencil is green”
“I have a black pen”
“We are learning English today aren’t we!” – He said this one quite dramatically.
It was very entertaining and also heart-warming to see him try to speak English with so much enthusiasm.
Finally the SMS came through and he read aloud “Selery!” which I am guessing was “Salary”. He wanted to know how much I earned. I did not feel comfortable telling them what my salary was considering I had just met them so I just kept pretending to not understand what he was saying. May have not been the most tactful option but I had no clue how to say “I would rather not say” in Russian so it was easier to play dumb.
The conversation slowly died down a bit since I was getting a bit tired and decided to relax in my bunk bed. After an hour I arrived in Ekaterinaburg but more on my adventures there in my next article!