Friday, September 18, 2015

Sochi, Abkhazia and Trans-Siberian Railway Adventure Journal - July 2015


My Sochi, Abkhazia and Trans-Siberian Railway Adventure were arranged by Cathy and Bob Parda at Advantage Travel & Tours, Poway, California.

I was traveling with several of the same people I had traveled with in the past: Cathy and Bob Parda; Laurie Campbell; Edna Erspamer and Ed Herrman; Lynn Bishop and Mary Warren; Linda and Del McCuen; Steve Matthews who I roomed with on my India tour in 2014; Bill Mason from my Baltic Mosaic tour in 2013.  Traveling with me for the first was Bill Mason’s wife Barbara; Maxine MacDonald and Ted Von Schoppe who I roomed with on the trip.

The itinerary designed by Cathy and Bob scheduled us to first visit Sochi, with a tour that included the Olympic venues; and then the next day take a four hour train ride to Abkhazia for a tour of the “want-to-be nation” that has broken away from Georgia.  She then scheduled us to fly from Sochi to Vladivostok via Moscow to take the train from East to West with stops along the way.

I researched too much for the trip.  First I downloaded the Lonely Plant “Trans-Siberian Railway” book and discovered it documented the trip from Moscow to Vladivostok so I printed out the various segments and reversed them to try to get an understanding of the trip we were scheduled to take.  I found it a little confusing and it described a lot of places we were not going to visit.  Next I went on line and found Russian Railway schedules with the time scheduled for each station.  That was the detail I found useful but the station names translated into English did not always agree with the Lonely Plant names and other sources.  Finally I recorded all the details into a spread sheet, converting the train schedule in Moscow time to local time (finding the time zone changes was another investigation) and finally adding the political area which would correspond to The Most Traveled People and Best Travel club destinations.

My research in the Lonely Planet, Wikitravel, Advantage Travel’s tour description and various travelers’ blogs provided a list of items I should take on the trip; expected meals and caution and warnings.  All this information created anxiety that I wasn’t packing the right things and I rummaged through my camping items, visited Walmart and the local sporting goods store to add plastic, plates, cups, bowls; a sharp knife and eating utensils to add to my luggage.

Monday, July 6, 2015      Fly LAX to Moscow

My initial flight was not scheduled to depart LAX until 16:55.  Bob and Cathy had flown to Moscow via LAX the previous week and had sent out an email telling me that Aeroflot did not assign seats until check in which did not start until three and one half hours before departure so I scheduled my car service for 12:05.

To relieve my trip anxiety I woke at my usual Monday morning time and attended the weekly “Wings over Wendy’s” meeting.  It was a special meeting in that Art Sherman the soon to be 93 years old, regular MC let his number two, Mike LaVare, also a 90 year old run the meeting.  I bid farewell to the group that follow my travels after the meeting and was home by 10:30 and changed into my travel clothes.  When the driver arrived at noon he was driving a Testla.  It was my first ride in a Testla.  The owner driver told me that he owns it with another driver and they have found it is more economical to operate than the Chrysler or Lincoln limos the other drivers use.  It was an interesting ride to the airport but the back seat didn’t have the comfortable passenger configuration that the limos have.  No cup holder, reading light or center console.  The instrument panel was fun to watch with a large map display and the speed limit displayed next to the speedometer.

I was dropped at the Tom Bradley International Terminal which had recently been remodeled.  The line at Aeroflot was not very long but soon filled up when the counters opened.  My check-in was smooth and I proceeded to the security line which was very long.  There was no “TSA-Pre” line but I was directed into the First Class line because there was no one in it.  As I was queued up snaking back and forth I came upon Jordy Banner and his father from Sacramento, a close friend of my son-in-law.  I had just been in Sacramento for Father’s Day and Jordy had left for a trip to Rome only to be turned back at the airport because his passport would expire in less than six months.  He had to reschedule his trip while he applied for a new passport, so lo and behold he rescheduled for the same day I was leaving for my trip.  We exited Security at the same time and decided to eat lunch together.  In the lunch area we decided to recharge our cell phones and I could not find my charger.  I have so many I removed many of them from my carry on to lighten my load and went too far.  I had to purchase another charger at the terminal electronics store. 

After lunch Jordy and I proceeded to our different gates.  Aeroflot aircraft was late arriving.  We boarded a few minutes late and I was pleasantly surprised to find no one sitting next to me.  I was seated in an inside aisle on a row of four seats.  On the other end of the row were two Vietnamese girls from Riverside, CA.  We used the empty seat to store our hand carry.  As I pulled out my neck pillow I discovered that I had brought my cell phone charger all along but it was buried in a bag underneath my neck pillow.  The Aeroflot B-777 had seat back video and a USB outlet.  I was able to charge my phone via the USB outlet.

The aircraft took off an hour and thirty minutes late.  While I waited for the meal to be served I watched a couple of comedy movies (Horrible Bosses 2 and Tammy) and read.  Once I finished the meal of fish and rice I put on an eye shade and went to sleep.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015      Fly Moscow to Sochi

I was able to sleep about six hours before breakfast which was more like a lunch with meat cheese and salad than breakfast food.

We arrived an hour late.  I had less than an hour to make my connection to Sochi so I ran through the terminal.  At Passport Control I found no line at the transfer visitor desk and I didn’t have to retrieve my bag and pass through Customs.  I did have to go through Security, but it was quick in the transfer area and when I reached the gate for my flight to Sochi the passengers were just starting to be processed.  I saw Laurie and joined her in line.  I didn’t see Edna or Ed during my dash through the terminal.  I knew Edna had requested a wheel chair so they must have taken a different route through the Transit area.  We were bussed to our plane and I was scheduled to sit in aisle on a row with Ed and Edna.  When I got to the row I young women was settling in the window seat with a baby in her lap.  Across the aisle was a couple in the middle seat and the aisle.  The plane filled and Ed and Edna were loaded by a cargo truck through the back door.  When they got to my row the flight attendant discovered that the mother and baby were in the wrong window seat and was reluctant to change to the correct seat so the flight attendant asked me to move to the other window seat, have the couple move across the aisle so Edna, Ed and I could sit together.  It was all kind of confusing but we made the moves and settled in for the two hour flight to Sochi.

They served a sandwich and gave us a copy of a Russian newspaper in English.  It was interesting to read what they thought about the Greek situation and the impact it would have on Russia.  The flight only took two hours and it didn’t take me long to retrieve my bag.  I had it loaded on a cart and as I walked to the exit I pushed open a door and saw Bob Parda standing to my right in front of another door.  He told me I had not exited the right door but I was out in the lobby anyway.  Behind Bob, up against the wall was a young lady with an Advantage Travel sign.  I was the first out and introduced myself to the guide named Julia.  I visited the toilet and then Julia told me I could exit and proceed to the bus.  Bob was waiting for Del and Linda to arrive on another flight.  Bob and Cathy had spent the week touring the Caucus region of Russia.

As we left the airport the sun was setting and there were colorful lights on a large Olympic symbol and other welcoming signs.  We checked in to the Park Inn by Radisson in the center of Sochi.  I was able to find an electrical outlet for my CPAP machine and set up my laptop.  I skipped going to dinner to set everything up and went to bed.  Ted had gone to dinner and is in the habit of showering before he goes to bed.  I left the light on for him and fell asleep wearing a sleep mask.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015              Tour Sochi

I had set my alarm for 06:30 and woke up a few minutes before the alarm, took my shower and then Ted and I went to the hotel breakfast buffet at 07:00.  It had the usual American style buffet breakfast with an omelet cook, but also had lettuce, tomatoes, fish and Chinese and Russian food.
At 09:00 we boarded an 18 passenger Mercedes Van to start touring the area.   We started riding through the city center and up a hill to stop at the St. Vladimir Cathedral, built in 2000.  It was a beautiful church and typical of Russian Orthodox churches it had no pews.  The icons were all new and beautifully painted.
From the church we rode down the hill to the water front past an area that was once spas for the Soviet leaders but is now expensive hotels.  At the water front we exited the bus at a fancy sea port Sochi Grand Marina building with a high tower and high end stores in a building facing the marina that had a number of large yachts.  We had not exchanged money so Julia led us across the street to a bank.  Before we crossed the street a large procession of people came down the street.  The day was a religious holiday and the procession stopped in the parking lot next to the bank.  By the time we reached the bank a choir was singing in front of the crowd.  I was the first to get my money exchanged and when I left the bank a number of priests in robes and high hats were addressing the congregation.  Away from the crowd was a dignitary in a business suit being interviewed in front of a bank of microphones and TV cameras.

I walked through a park that was in front of the Sochi Grand Marina building.  The park had an interesting metal structure which looked like it was a dragon style ship with two Greek gods.  Across the street from the park was the plaza in front of the Sochi Grand Marina building which had a number of large Greek style statues, most likely sea related.

We then rode to the Sochi Theater and walked through the park across from the theater parking lot to round structure where we were provided a cup to drink the unique Sochi mineral water.   All visitors to the city are allowed one drink of the special water.

Back on the bus we rode along the water front and then up to Sochi National Park and Mt. Akhun.  The bus parked at the top of the mountain in a tourist area where we walked past vendor stalls to Akhun Tower where a number of us climbed to the top to view the area.  Unfortunately fog and clouds were moving around so at one point we couldn’t see the base of the tower and then it would be very clear.  It was the same viewing the surrounding mountains.  It was strange to say the least.  In the plaza below the tower there were two men dressed as the Russian Bear and Russian Tiger.  There were several horses of various sizes that people and children could ride.  The plaza also contained a number carved structures.  The restaurant had tables in tents open at one end but could be closed to provide a romantic meal.

It was noon when we left the National Park plaza to ride down to the Zimia River to have lunch.  The lunch was at the Owl’s Nest which was a group of enclosed screened huts for tables to seat groups.  But, they set our group up on a deck overlooking the river rapids.

Above us was the world’s longest pedestrian suspension bridge.  The bridge is part of the AJ Hackett Sochi Skypark.  The 1,800-foot-long bridge was built over a 650 foot chasm and it attracts bungee jumpers and sightseers alike.  In addition to the suspension bridge there was a zip line between two cliffs on either side of the river.  In the middle of the bridge was an enclosed area about the size of a rail car.  At the south end of the bridge was another similar enclosure.  As we looked up someone bungee jumped from the enclosure and dropped close to 600 ft and bounced up and down.  Eventually they were pulled back up to the enclosure.  Then we saw someone jump from the enclosure at the south end.  Julia told us her mother had taken the shorter jump which was 226 ft.  We then saw that on the zip line people didn’t just zip across but they swung back and forth.  It was quite a spectacle for lunch.

When the food was served it was initially salads with fresh tomatoes and greens and cheese bread.  They also served plates of various cheese and then port-ka-bob and a minced chicken roll.  For a side they served roasted whole small potatoes.  There was more than we could eat and several of the group had the leftovers boxed up to take back to the hotel for dinner.  As we were finishing our lunch two rafts full of teen age kids ran the rapids near our table, a fitting end to a memorable lunch.

It was after 14:30 when we left the Owl’s Nest for our next stop.  Along the way we passed by the Olympic ski jump structures along a road that was built just a few years ago to handle the Olympic traffic, past buildings and settlements that didn’t exist four years ago.  It was mind blowing to see all the effort Russia did for the Olympics.  We passed the old airport and the new International Airport.  Julia told us that when the Departure Terminal was finished and an Olympic inspection team flew in the Sochi officials had all government employees including school teachers come to the terminal with luggage and kids to test how the crowd could be processed.  If asked they were to tell the inspectors they were going to attend a family wedding in Moscow.

We arrived at the Krasnaya Polyana ski venue where a number of large hotels were built by Marriott, Radisson, Hilton, and Novatel.  The area was crowded with tourists and we had a little trouble finding place for the bus to offload us.  The driver stopped semi blocking an exit road and we quickly got off.  It was a picturesque setting with a broad walkway lined with shops along a river and hotels on the other side of the river with a bridge across the river.  The area was crowded with tourists.  I guess Putin’s plan to turn the area into a long running tourist area after the Olympics was paying off, at least for the shops.  I couldn’t tell if the hotels were making money.

We boarded gondolas to travel up the mountain.  The cars had two seats holding up to eight people.  There were three segments to reach the top.  Between the first two segments we overlooked the Olympic Village for the skiers.  The second segment passed through a cloud which gave us zero visibility.
At the top at about 7,500 feet, the sky was initially clear and we could see patches of snow on the mountains.  One large patch was near a road leading from the top building and through my 30x camera lens I could see people throwing snow balls.

Once we returned the base we boarded the bus and rode to the Zoo where they had a nice three dimensional map of the area with buttons that could light various landmarks.  On the walls were pictures of the different animals that inhabit the World Heritage Site (WHS) Caucasian State Nature Biosphere Reserve (Adygeya).  Outside the building were the different animals fenced in.  I was surprised to see a Bison listed as native to the area and one had his own fenced area.  All the descriptions were in both Russian and English.

The next stop was the Sochi Olympic Park.  There we saw a grove of palm trees transported from Florida and planted the night before the Park was to open.  We walked through the Entrance Building which then had displays of the venues in the Park and boarded Yamaha Golf Carts to tour the area.  I was surprised to see the emphasis on automobiles and then learned that they are hosting a Grand Prix on the grounds.  One of the buildings housed a Tesla display.

We saw the stadium where the Opening and Closing ceremonies were conducted; the Olympic Torch which was uniquely designed for the event.  It is shaped like the neck of a swan.  We walked around the wall of champions that flanks two sides of a world globe.

The sun was setting and we were getting tired.  The long tour of Sochi had taken over ten hours.  Back at the hotel I washed underwear and went to bed early.

Thursday, July 9, 2015    Tour Abkhazia

We had an early wake up for 04:30 departure from the hotel to walk to the train station across the street from the hotel.  The hotel provided box breakfast for us to eat on the train.  Julia was not licensed to guide us in Abkhazia so a Project Manager from the Tour Agency named Maxim was going to escort us to Abkhazia where a guide would meet us.

The train departed at 05:18.  Ted and I were in a compartment with Maxim.  Our boxed breakfast turned out to be a ham and cheese sandwich and a box juice.  The first stop of the train was only two minutes twenty minutes out and then we stopped for thirty minutes for Russia exit processing.  At 06:42 we stopped for an hour to be processed into Abkhazia.

The route followed the coast so we passed the Sochi Olympic Park; the airport and a number of beaches.  After the entrance into Abkhazia we had another 30 minute stop and then reached our destination of Trapa at 09:10.  We were met by our guide: Syzuna.  She was a Syrian who had just emigrated from Syria with her family to escape the war.  She spoke English well enough for us to understand her but she read from a tour guide book the information she provided us.  For the most part she sat in silence as we rode to our stops.

The first stop was a gas station for a pit stop.  We then proceeded up a mountain to the Church of St. Simon.  It was beautiful gold domed Orthodox Church.  The woman and men wearing shorts had to wear a skirt which was provided.  The woman also had to cover their head while the men had to remove their hats to enter the church.  Inside we saw original frescos and paintings dating back to the 9th or 10th century.  There were a lot patches but for the most part it was amazing that so many of the frescos and paintings were in good condition.  During the Soviet era the church was not destroyed and during the Georgian wars it served as a hospital.  The Georgians dropped a bomb on the church and it didn’t explode.

After touring the church a group of us walked down the mountain past the Swan Lake waterfall to the cave entrance building.  There Bob discovered that it would not be possible for a group our size to obtain tickets and the wait for a smaller group didn’t fit our schedule.  The cave entrance building did provide an excellent point to take pictures of the church high on the hill.

The bus soon arrived with the rest of our group and we rode to the Novy Afon Simona Kanoinita Monastery perched high on a mountain.  The drive to the monastery was through beautiful green forests and meadows.  From the monastery we rode to a small restaurant to have a “typical Abkhazian lunch”.  It consisted of a salad with greens, cucumber, tomatoes and radishes.  The main was Russian borscht soup.  They served a lime colored sweet drink and some of us had the local beer.
After lunch we rode to the capital city of Sukhumi, down the mountain past green fields with cows that wander into the road and don’t move for the autos.  We had to circumnavigate several stubborn cows along the way.

Our first stop in the city was the Botanical Garden.  We had a young English speaking guide named Bekya, lead us through the garden.  She was very thin and would twist her legs in an awkward way giving me the impression she was not comfortable guiding a group.  She appeared to be very knowledgeable and answered our questions.  The center of the garden had a small stone ringed lily pond and paths led through a shaded bamboo grove and to a large ancient tree.  We boarded the bus again and toured the city passing the Ministry of Defense building that was burned during the Sukhumi massacre that took place on September 27, 1993.  We rode by the Evangelical Lutheran Church and stopped to tour the Monastery of St. John Chrysostom.  The Monastery is constructed of brick and its grounds are surrounded by a brick wall.  The building was now used as a performing arts center and we were ushered into the church and were treated to a recital of an orchestra and male singer.  It was a pleasant surprise for those of us that had entered the church.  The church had one of the largest organs in the region.

On our way back to the train station we passed by the ancient Besletskiy Bridge dating from the early Middle-Ages.  We boarded the train to Sochi at Trapa, the same station we had gotten off that morning.  The rain back was similar as the morning run but the sun soon set and we rode in the dark arriving back at 21:11.

Friday, July 10, 2015        Fly Sochi to Vladivostok via Moscow

We were able to get a good night’s sleep and eat a hearty breakfast before leaving for the airport to board a 11:15 flight to Moscow.  The Airbus 321 departed at 11:25 and landed in Moscow at 13:35.  We were served a ham and cheese sandwich in route.  We had two and one half hour layover before our flight to Vladivostok.  Some of the group spent the time in the Sky Mile Lounge, but I sat at the gate charging my phone and checking email.
Our long flight (scheduled for eight hours and ten minutes across seven time zones) was on the big B-777-300.  I was assigned to seat 43C which was an aisle with limited leg room because of the inflight entertainment box that took up half the foot space.  Shortly after takeoff at 16:45 I set my watch to Vladivostok time, took a Melatonin pill and proceeded to sleep for about six hours.

Saturday, July 11, 2015                  Tour Vladivostok

When our plane approached Vladivostok we were informed that the runway was covered with fog and we might have to divert to another airport.  I didn’t know where that would be because if you look at a map you will see that Vladivostok is at the end of peninsula close to China and North Korea.  The nearest large Russian city was Khabarovsk 750km away.  It was kind of neat that the trip map displayed the aircraft flying a large circle.
I think we only circled once and then landed actually twenty minutes ahead of schedule at 07:35.  The fog had lifted and the sun was shining brightly as we departed the airport around 09:00 for the city and our hotel, the Hotel Hyundai.  The road from the airport was a wide six lane divided highway.
Cathy had arranged for early check-in and breakfast, so before going to our rooms we went to the restaurant to eat breakfast before it closed.  It was a typical hotel breakfast buffet found outside the United States: an omelet chef; tables with fresh salads, fruits, and sushi; scrambled eggs, bacon, and potatoes in steam bins; coffee, tea and pastries.  I had salmon, tomatoes, eggs and bacon, yogurt and a pastry.
We finished breakfast by 10:00 and checked into our room and changed clothes for a tour of the city.  The bus left at 11:00.  We started down a hill from the hotel on a wide street facing the ocean with a ferris wheel in the distance.  It was a bright sunny day with very few clouds in the sky but fog on the bay, quite a contrast.  The city streets were wide, many one way, and the cars were late model Japanese, many with right hand drive indicating they were used cars imported from Japan.
We stopped at the train station to tour the museum aspects of it.  Vladivostok is the Eastern end of the Trans-Siberian Railway.  It was built from 1891 to 1916 to connect St. Petersburg and Moscow to open up Siberia and continue to the eastern (Pacific) coast of Russia.  Like the Transcontinental railroad in the United States, the Trans-Siberian was constructed from both ends and initially stopped at both sides of Lake Baikal where ferries were used to shuttle the trains across the lake.  Eventually a route around the southern end of the lake was constructed.  The crossing of the Ob created the city of Novosibirsk which grew to be the third largest city in Russia.
Our guide Natalia led us around the train station and the platforms where we will board the train the next day.  She described the history of the railway and led us to the end kilometer marker monument showing 9288 km from Moscow.  A World War II American Lend Lease locomotive is displayed on the platform near the monument.
Across the street from the Railroad station we visited a Supermarket where we purchased provisions for the train trip.  I bought a hunk of cheese and a piece of ham along with crackers, nuts and fruit.
We boarded the bus and continued our tour of the city.  The unique location of the city with its close proximity to Mongolia, China, North Korea and Japan resulted in large populations from those countries populating the city.  Stalin purged many of the foreign workers but their cultures can be seen throughout the city and in the faces of the citizens.
Along the way we had an excellent view of the Golden Horn Bridge that links the peninsula with an island south of the central city.  We headed north passing the Khram Svyatogo Blagovernogo Knyazya Igorya Chernigovskogo church to the bay side park with the Ferris wheel.  We stopped at the Aquarium and got out of the bus to tour the area.  Up a long set of stairs past the Aquarium we arrived at the Fortress museum for a tour.  Inside the fortress were displays of the history and defense of the area. Outside was a display of various cannons and a great viewpoint of the harbor and the Amursky Gulf.
Our next stop was to tour the local Saturday’s Farmer’s Market.  It was typical of Farmer’s Markets all over the world, but some of the vegetables like tomatoes were larger than in many markets I have visited.
Back on the bus we rode past the harbor across the town to the Golden Horn Bay Embankment where we stopped at the Submarine Monument.  Next door was the World War II Triumphal Arch.  Several of us toured the interior of the submarine before boarding the bus again.  We continued along the bay past the Orthodox Church to a point where we walked up to The Eagle’s Nest lookout plaza overlooking the Golden Horn Bridge and the bay.

The Eagle’s Nest had a memorial statue of St. Cyril and St. Methodius who invented the Cyrillic alphabet in the 9th century.   It was a popular place for wedding pictures and I was fascinated by the couples and their entourage that passed by having pictures taken.  One blond member of a wedding party had a tattoo in English cursive across her shoulders that read “Woman are made to be loved”.  In the parking lot full of the wedding party limos one limo had a pair of white “love birds” in a cage that I guess was used by the professional wedding photographers.
This was the last stop on the tour.  Laurie elected to walk back to the hotel and the rest of us boarded the bus.  We were back in the hotel by 15:00 and free to continue to see the area or nap before dinner.  Bob and Cathy set out on foot to find a restaurant close by for dinner.
At 18:30 we met in the lobby to walk to dinner.  They had chosen a Chinese restaurant up an alley about two blocks from the hotel.  Outside the restaurant was a car parked with a Darth Vader stencil on the door and a plastic replica of an AK-47 on the radio antenna.  I was concerned as to what kind of restaurant they had selected.  The dinner was delicious and they surprised me with an advanced birthday party.  I was given a local hat in the shape of a helmet with flaps to cover my ears, made from sheep’s wool, plus a bottle of vodka which I shared with the group.
We were back in our hotel room by 22:00 ready to take the last sleep in a bed for a couple of days.  It had been a day and one half since we last slept in a bed so we had no trouble falling asleep despite the time being 15:00 in Moscow.

Sunday, July 12, 2015     On the train from Vladivostok to Khabarovsk

I was awakened at 04:51 by a call on my cell phone from a Russian number.  I fumbled around and was not able to answer it and roll over and went back to sleep until my alarm went off at 07:00.   I got up and showered and packed.  Ted and I went down to breakfast at 08:00 and then returned to our room to finish packing and lug our bags down to the lobby a little after 9:30.

When I went to turn in my room key the clerk asked me if I had used any of the mini-bar items and I realized I had left the bag of goodies I had purchased the day before in the small refrigerator.  I returned to the room, retrieved the bag but when I returned to the lobby my luggage had already been picked up to take to the bus so I was unable to pack the items in my luggage.  I had consolidated items to just one big bag and my carry on which I converted to a back pack.

We left the hotel at 10:00 and rode to the station.  While Natalia was checking us in Bob wanted to take a picture of the group wearing the Advantage Travel Trans-Siberian t-shirts.  I had mine on under my regular shirt and strip of the shirt for the picture.  After the picture taking several of us crossed the road for last minute shopping in the Super Market.  I purchased a large bottle of water and one of peach flavored Lipton Tea.  Then I had two bags of goodies to carry in addition to my large bag.

It turned out we only had one set of stairs to take to the train and that was down so with my back pack the big bag (50lbs) in one hand and the two grocery bags of goodies in the other hand it worked out well because the grocery bags sort of counter weighed the 50lbs luggage.

We had first-class tickets.  There were two first class passenger cars with nine two-person compartments in each and a dining/club car.  There was a shower facility in one of the passenger cars and two toilets in each.  Our group of 15 occupied the car without the shower.  Each car had two Provodnitsas who looked after the car – checked tickets, flagged when we were all back on at stops, cleaned, controlled the heat, air and windows, etc.  Our Provodnitsas were Olga and Ella.

The group was assigned to car 7 with Ted and I in compartment 15/16.  There were only 9 compartments in the coach so we were only one compartment away from the toilets.  Laurie was by herself in the 17/18 compartment and Steve and Maxine in the 13/14 compartment.  We settled in with room to store our luggage under the bed/seat.  There was an electrical outlet under the table between the bed/seats and I was able to plug in my power strip and set up my laptop (with a cable locked to the table); CPAP; cell phone charger; and camera battery charger.  We flipped the bed up to form a somewhat comfortable seat/couch to sit in during the day.

Above the seat backrest were shallow storage areas with spring loaded hinged openings.  The springs were very strong and at one point Laurie had one spring open with such force it hit her in the face and gave her a fat lip which took several days to heal.  I used the storage area to store my food.
In preparing for the trip I had copied the train schedules from the Russian Train website and printed them out for each pair in our group.  Somewhere before we boarded the train I lost the copy I had made for Bob and Cathy.

In addition I entered the data in an Excel spreadsheet with more details as follows: (The yellow is where I planned to get off the train to walk around.) (MT=Moscow Time)
Local Ar.
MT Ar.
Local Lv.
MT  Lv
Km from Dep
 Political Area

Train 001
Primorsky Krai
Primorsky Krai
Primorsky Krai
Primorsky Krai
Primorsky Krai
Primorsky Krai
Rujino (Lesozavodsk)
Primorsky Krai
Primorsky Krai
Primorsky Krai
Khabarovsk Krai
Khabarovsk Krai
Khabarovsk Krai
Jewish Autonomous Oblast
Jewish Autonomous Oblast
Amur Oblast
Amur Oblast
Amur Oblast
Amur Oblast
Amur Oblast
Amur Oblast
Amur Oblast
Amur Oblast
Amur Oblast
Yerofey Pavlovich
Amur Oblast
Zabaykalsky Krai
Zabaykalsky Krai
Zabaykalsky Krai
Zabaykalsky Krai
Zabaykalsky Krai
Zabaykalsky Krai
Zabaykalsky Krai
Ulan Ude arr.

Republic of Buryatia

We left the station at 11:02 local (04:02MT - Moscow Time) and the first stop was 42 minutes out and then for only two minutes.  During that time our Provodnitsas (female train car attendant) delivered our one meal provide in our ticket.  It was in a sandwich size plastic container with some tea bags, tic-tacs, candy bar and a croissant.  I kept the container and Ted’s container to store my ham and cheese.

The area close to Vladivostok is known as the lake area and we saw many streams, rivers and lakes as we passed through the area.

I then decided to eat lunch.  It was two hours out before there was a stop where we could exit the train.  We arrived in Ussuriysk at 13:03.  I exited the train and walked around the station to take a picture of Lenin in a park in front of the train station and pictures of both the front and back of the station before re-boarding the train.

It was three hours and forty five minutes before we were able to exit the train again.  Along the way we stopped for one or two minutes in several stations but for the most part we were traveling by flat green fields.  Very few were planted and we saw cows once or twice.  We mostly visited each other’s compartments.  I showed a group the video presentation on “How many countries are there in the world?”

After the Lake District the landscape was covered with enormous deciduous forests (oak, elm, alder and maple).  Soon we were very close to the Chinese border and the still enormous forests changed to birch, pine and cedar.  About 30km either side of Spassk-Dalny, we were able to make out Lake Khanka, a 4000-sq-km, lotus-covered lake that straddles the China–Russia border.

I started to write my journal for the first time on the trip, so I had a lot of catching up to do.  At 16:45 we stopped at Rujino for 15 minutes but we were not near the train station platform so there wasn’t much to see unless we walked around the train.  I chose not to and just spent a few minutes walking back and forth without taking any pictures.

As we left Rujino we shadowed the Ussuri River until we crossed the Khor River.

The scenery continued to be flat sometimes swampy green fields.  We saw very few crops and most trees were small.  We did pass through an area where the fields appeared to be sectioned off with rows of trees equally spaced to form large plots but there were no crops planted.  We speculated that at one time they were planted.

We proceeded to the dining car at 18:30 to have dinner.  I had beef medallion schnitzel with soft fried potatoes and sliced tomatoes.  Steve, Ted and Laurie were at my table.  Steve had the soup, Ted and Laurie the pork schnitzel.  The dining car lady understood a little English and was a strong bossy female who won’t let us bring any food in from our compartments, take any pictures or remove any glasses from the dining car.  She added 15% tip on everyone’s bill.  The dinner with two beers cost me around $18.

The train made a brief stop in Bikin.  The line crosses the Bikin River here and follows it south to the border between Khabarovsky and Primorsky Territories.  The southern forests of the 165,900-sq-km Primorsky Territory are the world’s most northerly monsoon forests and home to black and brown bears, the rare Amur (Siberian) tiger and the virtually extinct Amur leopard.

The next long stop was Vyazemskaya at 20:50.  The train station was under remodeling and I was taking some pictures when a lady in a bright orange worker’s vest motioned for me to follow her into the station where she should me a wall with a large statue of revolutionary fighters.  After I took a picture she led me to another spot and motioned for me to take a picture of a white statue in the park in front of the station.  When I exited the station I saw Bob and informed him of the scene and he followed the lady into the station to take a picture.  We had read that taking pictures of the stations was forbidden and the dining car Provodnitsas had forbidden us to take pictures so I was surprised and relieved when the local worker encouraged me to take pictures of her station and the beauty inside which she appeared to be very proud.  I speculate that the scene was from the famous 1922 civil-war battle. The man who orchestrated this victory, Marshal Vasily Blyukher, was elevated to hero status before falling victim to Stalin’s purges in the late 1930s.

We then made up our beds but didn’t remove our shoes for there was a long (38 minute) stop scheduled for 23:00 at Khabarovsk, the largest city on the route since Vladivostok and the point where the route swings west along the northern border of China and Mongolia.

Khabarovsk was founded in 1858 as a military post by Eastern Siberia’s governor-general, Count Nikolay Muravyov (later Muravyov-Amursky), during his campaign to take the Amur back from the Manchus. It was named after the man who got the Russians into trouble with the Manchus in the first place, 17th-century Russian explorer Yerofey Khabarov.

The Trans-Siberian Railway arrived from Vladivostok in 1897. During the Russian Civil War (1920), the town was occupied by Japanese troops. The final Bolshevik victory in the Far East was at Volochaevka, 45km west.

In 1969, Soviet and Chinese soldiers fought a bloody hand-to-hand battle over little Damansky Island in the Ussuri River. Since 1984, tensions have eased. Damansky and several other islands have been handed back to the Chinese.

The train crossed the 2.6km Khabarovsk Bridge over the Amur River – the longest rail bridge in Russia. The double-decker bridge, built in the early 1990s to replace one built by the tsar, is on the back of the R5000 note.

I had slept a little and woke when we arrived in Khabarovsk but was disappointed to find we were not near the platform in front of the station so I was not able to take pictures of the Khabarov statue in front of the train station, which resembles the old duma (parliament) building on central ul Muravyova-Amurskogo.  I briefly walked up and down the platform and returned to our coach.
I removed my shoes and changed into sweat pants, took my evening pills and went to sleep.  The next long stop was not scheduled until 04:35 at Obluche. 

Monday, July 13, 2015   On the train from Khabarovsk to Yerofey Pavlovich

My cell phone woke me ten minutes before the Obluche station but when we arrived I discovered that again the train was not stopped near the station platform so I didn’t get up and leave the train to admire the art-deco train station.  I was able to take a picture of its top from the window but I figured if I got off I wouldn’t have been able even get that view.
Bob, Cathy and Laurie did get out and found they had to walk around the end of the train to reach the station platform.  Our coach was in the middle of the chain of cars so it was a toss-up which direction to take to walk around the train.  In retrospect I wish I had joined them.

Obluche was the longest stop in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast.  The Soviet authorities conceived the idea of a homeland for Jews in the Amur region in the late 1920s and founded the Jewish Autonomous Region in 1934 with its capital at Birobidzhan (named for the meeting place of the Bira and Bidzhan Rivers). Most of the Jews came from Belarus and Ukraine, but also from the US, Argentina and even Palestine. The Jewish population never rose above 32,000, and dropped to 17,500 by the end of the 1930s, when growing anti-Semitism led to the ban of Yiddish and synagogues. The Jewish population rose gradually to about 22,000 by 1991, when Russia’s Jews began immigrating en mass to Israel. The Jewish population is reported to have levelled off at 3,000 to 4,000.

Following that stop I was fast asleep when we passed into Amur Oblast and changed time zones.  My cell phone automatically adjusted.  I was asleep when the train spent about two minutes in the 2km Trans-Siberian main line’s longest tunnel.

Three hours after Obluche when the train made a short stop at 06:30 (which was 07:30 Vladivostok time) at Bureya, I got up.  The arthritis in my right shoulder and neck was painful from the stiff bed.  I found I still had some pain pills the doctor had given me when the shoulder pain flared up on the Antarctica Expedition so I took a couple and it appeared to help.

When I went to the toilet to shave I forgot to bring the sink stopper I had in my bag but I was able to complete the shave without nicking myself.

I reconfigured my bed/couch to be a coach, and then started to drink and eat breakfast.  I made a large cup of coffee with French Vanilla flavoring in lieu of milk and ate a breakfast bar.

Our first stop of the day was 08:49 at Belogorsk.  I walked around the station and took a picture of a silver painted wooden wagon on the road behind the station.  A plaque on the base of the wagon indicated that it dated back to 1860.  On the other side of the wagon was a tree lined paved walkway through a nice park.  I returned to the platform to take pictures of the Lenin statue in front of the station and then bought an Ice Tea in a small stall next to the station.

After departing Belogorsk the train crossed the Zeya River over the Trans-Siberian Railway’s second-longest bridge and then stopped briefly at Svobodny where I took a picture of its piano shaped station.

Around noon I ate a lunch of sardines, cheese and crackers.  At 13:25 the train stopped for two minutes at Tygda which had a monument in front of the station.  The monument was in the shape of an oblast and had a red star near the top and the relief of a fighter with a flag behind him.
I was surprised at the number of railway depot yards we passed with long lines of tank cars and very old style coaches, yet we didn’t stop at a station.

The temperature in the coach continued to vary.  When the air conditioning was on it was pleasant to chilly and when it was off it was very stuffy.  There didn’t seem to be a happy median.

Our next 15 minute stop was Magdagachi.  The Lonely Planet Guide had described a tree-lined street south of the tracks with a Lenin Statue.  We found the stop to be a busy place with lots of trains, several maintenance buildings and many locomotives.  We had to walk across a number of tracks to get south and all we found was a couple of stalls selling flip flops, vegetables and a small clothing store but no tree lined street and no statue of Lenin.  When I tried to take pictures of the area I discovered my camera SD card was full.  I realized I hadn’t transferred pictures since May.

Back on the coach I spent time transferring the pictures.  I then sat down with Laurie and correlated my pictures of Sochi and Abkhazia with her notes.  Our next long stop was not scheduled until 21:06 but the train stopped several times for long periods with no station in sight.  The provodnitsa told us we were stopped for “highway” repair.  I think it should have been “track” repair but anyway we were behind schedule.

The railroad tracks on that stretch of the line run only about 30 miles north of the Amur River, which is the border with China.  According to the Lonely Planet: “At one time, strategic sensitivity meant that carriages containing foreigners had their window blinds fastened down during this stretch.”.  I wondered what was strategically sensitive about the area since we saw a lot trees and sweeping grass pastures out the window.  It might have been movement of military equipment on the adjutant tracks.  That we did see occasionally on the trip.

Ted, Maxine, Laurie and I went to the dining car at 19:30.  Ed and Edna were already there and had ordered the roasted chicken which the waitress recommended.  Lynn and Mary joined Ed and Edna. Laurie, Ted and I ordered the roasted chicken along with Lynn and Mary.  Bob, Cathy, Barbara and Steve arrived and ordered.  Soon after they ordered their food arrived with really ticked off Edna and the rest of us that had ordered the roasted chicken.  It turned out they had ordered the pork schnitzel.  Eventually our chicken arrived and it was well prepared with sliced tomatoes and soft fried potatoes.
After dinner we returned to our compartment and Cathy joined us for the last of the birthday vodka.  We then made up our beds and napped before the next long stop.  When we made up the beds we took the comforter down from a storage shelf over the compartment door to provide more cushion to sleep on.

The train arrived an hour late at Yerofey Pavlovich.  The town is named after the Siberian explorer Yerofey Pavlovich Khabarov (the remainder of his name went to the big city we stopped at the night before).  The station building was unique with curving steps up from the platform flanked by what look like two Lego dragons.  Although the schedule listed the stop as 21 minutes our provodnitsa told us it would be just ten minutes so we didn’t walk around very long.  It turned out it did stop for twenty minutes.

I was asleep when we reached the last scheduled stop of the day at Amazar so I missed seeing the nearby graveyard of steam locomotives. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015   Arrive in Udan-Ude, Buryatia

It was a strange night.  I felt bumps, jerks, and clangs more than I remember the night before.  During the night I woke at one time cold so I wrapped myself in the comforter to get warm.  At 04:11 my cell phone rang once with a call from area code 714.  I didn’t answer it.  It was already light outside.  I continued to try to sleep but we were due to arrive in Chernyshevsk-Zabaikalsky for a thirty minute stop at 06:40 local but we were running late so I got up to prepare to get off the train.  I was in the toilet when we arrived in the station.  I exited the train after picking up my camera from my compartment.  It was forty minutes late arriving and the Provodnitsas told us it would only be a ten minute stop.
We all hustled out to take a picture of Nikolai Chernyshevsky, whose silver-painted statue was in front of the station and then through the station to take pictures of some ancient buildings across the street from the terminal.  The town was named after the 19th-century exile who was exiled by the Czar and toiled at hard-labor camps in the region for many years.  We hustled back to the train to find that it did stay thirty minutes and left 32 minutes after the scheduled departure time.
My cell phone time changed during the night which was a little confusing because the map showed our location staying in RTZ8 (Russian Time Zone 8) which was UTC+9, but the cell phone auto changed to “GMT+08:00 Krasnoyarsk Standard Time” whereas the guide book listed Krasnoyarsk Standard Time as GMT+7.  To compound the problem the train was no longer running on schedule so I started to use Km markers and Moscow time more frequently.  The terrain varied with green rolling pasture land void of trees until we cut through some hills and stated to follow the Shilka River.

When we reached Karymskaya which was scheduled for an 18 minute stop at 05:59MT it arrived at 06:20MT and we had to rush to take pictures of the new church.

Our Provodnitsas told us it was going to be just a 10 minute stop.  This time she was right on the money as it left right at 06:30MT, 13 minutes behind schedule.  Our next stop was not scheduled for over an hour at 08:11MT.  It was time for lunch so I whipped out the fish gutting knife I had purchased for the trip and cut off a piece of cheese and a piece of ham and along with some crackers and ice tea ate my lunch.

Technically we were leaving the Russian Far East and entering Siberia.  Geographically, most of the Far East is considered part of Siberia so there was no noticeable difference in the terrain.  Administratively there is a distinction between the Russian Far East and Siberia but most people in the world are not aware of the distinction. 

A 12:19 we stopped at Karymskaya and got off to take pictures of the beautiful Orthodox Church a short walk on the North side of the station.  The railway was following alongside the Ingoda and Shilka Rivers which provided spectacular scenery.

We arrived at Chita two hours later right on schedule at 08:11MT.  Almost the entire group rushed off the train to take pictures of the large cathedral across the street from the train station.  I took several pictures and then took pictures of the station and walked back around the station and bought a cold large peach flavored ice tea.

Chita is where a branch line to Manchuria begins and is a rather large city with a population of 331,000.  It was founded in 1653, and is the capital of the Chitinskaya Oblast.
After Chita we climbed to the highest point of the railway (3,412 ft.) at Yablonovaya, where trains pass through a slender gap in the rock.  There is no stop so we had to rely on the 6130km marker to confirm that we had passed the point.  The next stop was Khilok where we got off to take some pictures of the station’s art-deco features.

It was after 19:25 local when we left the station and we went to the Dining Car for dinner.  I had the pork schnitzel and a beer.  There was only one remaining short stop at Petrovsky-Zavod before leaving the train at Ulan Ude.

Petrovsky-Zavod is the station for the mildly historic town of Petrovsk-Zabaikalsky. The station name (and the old name of the town) means ‘Peter’s Factory’, so called for the huge ironworks you may spot from the train. Decembrists jailed here from 1830 to 1839 are commemorated in a large mural on the station building.  Unfortunately we didn’t have time to get off the train but I was able to get some good pictures from the train window.

A few minutes out of Petrovsk-Zabaikalsky we passed a cemetery to north of the tracks where some Decembrists are buried, and then passed some quaint log cabin settlements.  The time zone changed as we arrived in Ulan Ude at 23:00 to spend the night in a hotel.  We were met at the station by a local guide and transferred to the Hotel Baikal Plaza.  A four star rated hotel that Putin was reported to stay at but it had no elevator which made it difficult for several of our group.
Once we got to our room and unpacked it didn’t take long to fall asleep.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015            Tour Ivolginskaya Valley and Udan-Ude

I woke before Ted and showered and shaved before we went to breakfast at 07:30.  The dining room was nicely decorated with round tables with white table cloths and white jackets covering the chairs.  The stairwell next to the stairs had a huge glass chandelier.  The steps were marble so I guess if you ignore the lack of an elevator it could be considered a fancy hotel fit for the countries’ president to spend a night.

At 09:00 we boarded a small bus for a trip to Ivolginskiy Datsun, the Buddhist Monastery in the Ivolginskaya Valley.  Our guide, Darmia, initially pointed out a huge statue of Lenin’s head in a square near the hotel.  It is reported to be the largest statue of his head in the world.  It was at least four stories high.  She told us that Buryata is a small Russian republic where a majority of the population is Buddhist.  Until the 17th century the area was a part of the Mongolian Empire.  The people here have their own language, culture and food.  Darmia had Mongolian features and told us she was proud of her heritage.

On the thirty minute ride to the Monastery we passed Soviet style government buildings, old colorful wooden buildings, tall apartment buildings, some with colorful paints of dragons on their end, a river, the airport and outside the city a village of wooden structures.  Cows were roaming freely with total disregard of the traffic on the highway.

Eventually we reached the Ivolginskaya Valley.  Is was 23 miles from the city in a once swampy area.  After World War II, Stalin approved the establishment of a Buddhist spiritual center and Datsan (Buddhist University and Monastery) for the USSR to be located in Buryata.  The local Udan-Ude officials would not approve of the Datsan being built in the city and allocated the swampy farm land in the Ivolginskaya Valley as its location.  The Datsan was opened in 1945 as the only Buddhist spiritual center in the USSR.  Eventually the Datsan became the residence of Pandido Khambo lama, the leader of all Russian Lamas.

It was the residence of the Central Spiritual Buddhist Board of the Soviet Union and later of the Buddhist Traditional Sangha of Russia, as well as that of Pandido Khambo lama, the head of the Russian Buddhists. The spiritual activity of the Datsan is manifested in temple rites, medical practice, and a traditional system of Buddhist education. The Buddhist university «Dashi Choinkhorling» was opened in 1991 attached to the Datsan.

We crossed over a bridge, past athletic stadium bleachers to the bus park for the Datsan.  The bus park was ringed with tourist stalls.  Darmia led us on a tour of the Monastery buildings.  There were a number of tourist groups on the grounds.  The buildings were elaborately decorated both inside and outside.

Darmia showed us a picture and told us the story of the 12th Pandito Hambo Lama of the Ivolginsky Datsan:
“In 1927, the, 12th Pandito Hambo Lama of the Ivolginsky Datsan Dashi-Dorzho Itigelov, told his students and fellow monks to bury his body after his death and to check on it again in 30 years.  According to the story, Itigelov then sat in the lotus position, began chanting the prayer of death, and died, mid-meditation.  The monks followed Itigilov's directions, but when they exhumed his body 30 years later, they were amazed to find none of the usual signs of decay and decomposition.  On the contrary, Itigilov looked as if he had been dead only a few hours, rather than three decades.  Fearful of the Soviet response to their "miracle", the monks reburied Itigilov's body in an unmarked grave.

Itigelov's story was not forgotten over the years and on September 11, 2002 the body was finally exhumed and transferred to Ivolginsky Datsan where it was closely examined by monks and by scientists and pathologists.  The official statement was issued about the body – very well preserved, without any signs of decay, whole muscles and inner tissue, soft joints and skin.  The interesting thing is that the body was never embalmed or mummified.”

After telling us the story Darmia had a surprise for us.  She disappeared for a few minutes and returned with a caretaker and key to open the Datsan Museum.  It was not generally shown to the public and she had to turn several of the tour groups away.  It was an interesting tour of historical books, pictures and memorabilia of the Datsan.

That finished our tour and we started back to the city.  Along the way we hit a speed bump and Lynn, who was sitting the rear seat, hit his head on a hand railing causing a gash that bled profusely.  The bus driver stopped and Darmia rushed across the road to a small store and returned with a bag of frozen vegetables (they didn’t sell ice cubes) to place on his head to stop the bleeding.

When we returned to the hotel a representative from the tour agency met us to take Lynn to the hospital.  Darmia had another toured scheduled for the afternoon and when I asked her for a recommendation for place to grab a quick lunch she took Ted and I to a Subway.  My tuna subway was different than the US.  There was no mayonnaise in the tuna and the lettuce looked more like cabbage.  The tomato was large and overall it was a tasty sandwich.

After lunch Ted and I went in different directions to sight see.  He went to the pedestrian mall where there was a row of tourist stalls and I walked around taking pictures of the Soviet style buildings.  At one point I came upon a large plaza with a water fountain in the center.  It was by the the theater and a statue of two ballet dancers graced the area.

I returned to my room to call Judy and to check email.  Four hours later I took another walk around the area.  Close to the hotel was a World War II US Army Jeep with Soviet markings and two men dressed in World War II uniforms.  It was an advertisement for a stage show and they were allowing people to have their pictures taken sitting in the jeep.

I took some close up pictures of Lenin’s head and crossed the street to have a beer in the Churchill Pub & Grill.  It is one of the unique tourist attractions in Ulan-Ude: Churchill’s Pub across the street from a large bust of Lenin.  The menu in the pub had Churchill’s picture and below stated:

Winston Churchill
was born at the party
being a child was stammered and lisped
he hated school
imitated gorilla perfectly
has become prime minister at 35 years old
been drinking a bottle of Armenian brandy every day
always worked
was ambitious, brave and selfish
smoked 15 cigars a day
died at the age of 90
won Nobel prize for literature
painted 600 pictures

I drank a beer and returned to the hotel to meet the group for dinner.  Bob and Cathy had arranged a typical Buryat diner in a private room in the hotel.

After diner we checked out of the hotel and proceeded to the train station to board train Number 07 at 23:23 local time (18:23MT) for a seven hour trip to Irkutsk.  The coach was considerably older that we had on the previous train.  The toilet dumped on the track and there was not outlet under the table in the compartment, but there was one on the wall I could use for my power strip.  As soon as we settled in we went to sleep.

Thursday, July 16, 2015                  Arrive Irkutsk and tour Lake Baikal

There was only one stop on the route and that was for two minutes in Slyudyanka at 03:46.  I don’t think I even woke up.  We arrived in Irkutsk at 06:24 local and boarded a bus for the village of Listvyanka on the shore of Lake Baikal.  There was not a cloud in the sky when we left Irkutsk which has been called the “Paris of Siberia”.  We saw a little the city as we headed southeast to the lake passing over a river and past a large shopping mall, through the woods until we saw the lake.  As we descended into the village and along the shore we encountered fog which destroyed our view of the eastern shore.  Listvyanka is called the “Baikal Riviera” but with the heavy fog we didn’t get that impression.
We checked into the Mayak Hotel and ate breakfast.  The hotel had several buildings and we were assigned rooms in a building behind the main building.  It had no elevator and the stairs were on the outside of the first two floors of the five story building which made it difficult for many members of our group to get to their rooms much less get their luggage to their rooms.
After everyone finished breakfast, found their room, had their luggage delivered and freshened up we boarded the bus to ride to the Baikal Museum.  Our guide, Ekaterina, led us on a tour of the museum which was a little crowded with other tour groups.
Lake Baikal, is the largest body of fresh water in the world and is a World Heritage Site.  It is the oldest (25 million years) and deepest (1,700 m) lake in the world.  It contains 20% of the world's total unfrozen freshwater reserve.  Known as the 'Galapagos of Russia', its age and isolation have produced one of the world's richest and most unusual freshwater faunas, which is of exceptional value to evolutionary science.
The museum is one of only three museums in the world dedicated solely to a lake.  The Lonely Planet calls it a “sometimes overly scientific institution which examines the science of Baikal from all angles”.
Ekaterina did a good job of explaining the attributes of the lake and details of the displays.  The main attraction for me was the two fresh water nerpa seals which darted back and forth in a large tank.  Since they have to survive in extreme cold they are fatter than salt water seals.  Other tanks contained the fish unique to the lake.

From the museum we rode to the Fish Market where we could see how the lake’s fish were prepared and sold.  Outside the fish market we saw a horse and reindeer with saddles that tourists could ride.  The fog was lifting and we could see many overweight men, women and children in scanty bathing suits on the rocky beach and posing for pictures on the docks.  Like the seals I guess they have extra protection for the cold winters.

A twenty minute ride from the fish market took us along the shore to St Nicholas Church, a small mid-19th-century timber church.

The Church of St. Nicholas was built by Russian merchant, Ksenofont Serebryakov. A legend says that he had nearly drowned during a heavy storm on Lake Baikal and decided to build a church in honor of St. Nicholas, the patron and defender of sailors and fishermen.
The construction of the church started in 1846 in Nikola village on the bank of the Angara and was finished after Serebryakov’s death by his wife Natalya.

The church was taken from one place to another twice: at first to the lakeside of the Baikal – to the village of Listvyanka, and then, in 1957, to Krestovaya Valley, 500 m (1600 ft) from the shore. It was moved away from the shore because of the construction of the dam in Irkutsk that resulted in a 1m raise in the water level of the lake.

The church was small but impressive.  From the church we rode to the Last Century Restaurant for lunch.  It was a wooden tourist restaurant.  We ate on the second floor.  They served us fish (omul, a distant relative of salmon that’s delicious when freshly hot-smoked) and salads.  It was delicious.  On the outside patio was a goofy board with two cartoon people rowing a boat with holes cut through the board so people could take pictures of their friends poking their heads through the holes.  I convinced Lynn and Mary and Bob and Cathy to pose for us.
Our next stop was a drive up the mountain to the ski lift at Cherskiy Peak the highest point of Komarinskiy range.

The peak was named in memory of genius scientist Ivan Dementievich Cherskiy (1845-1892) which made a valuable contribution to the exploration of Siberia, as well as Baikal Lake.  The height of the peak is 2090 meters above sea level.  It has almost no vegetation and even in summer there is some snow in some places.  On the west side one may see peaks of Tunkinskiy goltsy (woodless mountains).

The ascension to Cherskiy rock starts from the weather station along the winding road of Starokomarinskiy (old Komar) road.  The road was built at the end of the 18th century, it crosses all Khamar-Daban from north to the south.  More than 100 years ago it was used as one of the caravan roads from Russia to Mongolia and China.  At the bottom there are deep canyons.  In one of them there is a lake of emerald color called "Heart Lake".  The little Mangutaika River starts from this lake.  On the top one may observe marvelous and unforgettable panoramic views to the grand mountains.

We boarded a chair lift to the top and then walked through the woods to a lookout point overlooking the lake.  On the lift descending I could see the Baikal astrophysical observatory’s big solar telescope located at the top of the hill behind Listvyanka.  It is the only telescope of chromospheric type which is intended for sun flash registration and observing the large-scale structure of solar activity at Baikal Lake.

Laurie and Ed Herrman elected to walk back to the hotel which we could off in the distance along the shore front. 

The lake is famous for the trail that circles the lake called the Great Baikal Trail Inspired largely by the Tahoe Rim Trail (a hiking path encircling Lake Tahoe in California and Nevada), in summer 2003 a small band of enthusiasts began work on the first section of what was grandly named the Great Baikal Trail (GBT; in Russian, Bolshaya Baikalskaya Tropa, BBT). Every summer since has seen hundreds of volunteers flock to Lake Baikal’s pebbly shores to bring the GBT organisation’s stated aim – the creation of a 2000km-long network of trails encircling the whole of Lake Baikal – closer to fruition. This lofty ambition may still be a far-off dream, but the GBT is nonetheless the first such trail system in all Russia.

At dinner that night in the hotel Laurie and Ed told us of the characters they passed on their walk back to the hotel.

Friday, July 17, 2015        Tour Irkutsk area

We had a leisurely breakfast and hotel check out.  Getting the bags down the stairs posed a little bit of a problem for several of us but with the help of the hotel staff we were able get them all down in time to load the bus for the trip back to Irkutsk.

On the way out of town we had the bus driver stop briefly at a war memorial.  A large dome in back of the memorial was built to house a submarine but it was not yet open to the public.  A short distance away we stopped again at the USSR Pub that had a picture of Barack Obama in the window with a hookah pipe and waving a Russian flag.  I don’t think the Ukrainian sanctions made President Obama very popular in Russia.

Our next stop was near the mouth of the river that flows out of the lake.  There Ekaterina pointed to a rock out in the lake and told us it was called the Shaman Stone.  She explained its base is covered with coins.  In ancient times, local people believed the Shaman Stone possessed miraculous powers.  It was here that they performed rituals and sacrifices.  It was where they gave oaths to reveal false accusations or defend their honor:  A person suspected of committing a crime was left overnight on the rock.  If he had not died from the cold or drowned by morning, all accusations were dropped.
We then left the lake and rode through the woods to stop at the Taltsy Museum of Architecture & Ethnography.  Settled through trees off the highway was a collection of old Siberian buildings.

  “The exposition was located in the country estate of Moskovsky at the end of the 18th century.  The country estate was taken out from the village Antonovka of Braksk district of Irkutsk region into the museum.”

Amid the renovated farmsteads are two chapels, a church, a watermill, some Evenki graves and the 17th-century Iliminsk Ostrog watchtower.  As we were touring the buildings I received a cell phone call from my daughter, Wendy informing me that Judy had had a diabetic reaction to low blood sugar and was so disoriented that she fell out of bed when the phone rang and couldn’t find the kitchen to drink a glass of juice.  Wendy was able to contact our neighbor who came over and got her to drink some orange juice and get her blood sugar back to normal.  It was very disturbing and put a damper on the day.

After the tour we continued on to Irkutsk and Ekaterina showed us a video on the bus TV of the fresh water seals and other creatures native to the lake.  When we reached the city it had rained and the sky was overcast and the streets wet.

Irkutsk was founded in 1661 as a Cossack garrison to extract the fur tax from the indigenous Buryats, It was the springboard for 18th-century expeditions to the far north and east, including Alaska – then known as ‘Irkutsk’s American district’.
As Eastern Siberia’s trading and administrative center, Irkutsk dispatched Siberian furs and ivory to Mongolia, Tibet and China in exchange for silk and tea.  Constructed mostly of local timber, three quarters of the city burnt down in the disastrous blaze of 1879.  However, profits from the 1880s Lena Basin gold rush swiftly rebuilt the city’s most important edifices in brick and stone.

Known as the ‘Paris of Siberia’, Irkutsk did not welcome news of the October Revolution.  The city’s well-to-do merchants only succumbed to the Red tide in 1920, with the capture and execution of White Army commander Admiral Kolchak, whose controversial statue was re-erected in 2004.  Soviet-era planning saw Irkutsk develop as the sprawling industrial and scientific center that it remains today.

We stopped at the London Pub for lunch.  I had a salad.  After lunch we toured the city.  There was a number of churches that survived the Soviet destruction that we did a walking tour around.  The weather had improved and we saw wedding parties posing for pictures near the monuments and statues along the river front.

One of the impressive churches was the Church of Our Savior built in the early 1700’s and believed to be the oldest stone building in Eastern Siberia.  It was restored in 2006 and returned to its congregation.  Another church we visited was The Epiphany Cathedral which was initially a wooden structure built in 1693 but was burned down in 1716.  In 1718 it was rebuilt as a stone cathedral.  The Soviets closed it in 1934 and it wasn’t returned to the diocese until 1994.  We were allowed to take pictures of its beautiful interior.

From the church area we boarded the bus again and toured other areas of the city, stopping at the University and then at the Monument to Emperor Alexander III in honor of his contribution and support for the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway.  In 1920 the monument was dismantled by the Soviet leaders and was not replaced until 2003 in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the completion of the railway.
Continuing on our tour we stopped at the 130th Quarter (or 130 Kvartal), a street of historical buildings refurbished to hold restaurants, pubs and shops.  They were very colorfully decorated and painted.  At the west entrance to the area was the striking bronze monument 'Babr with sable in its mouth' erected in 2013.  It is a bronze black Siberian tiger with scarlet eyes, holding in its mouth a scarlet sable represented as the current coat of arms of Irkutsk.  The originators of the monument were sculptor Natalia Bakut and architect Olga Smirnova.  It was very large and impressive with many people having their pictures taken around it.

That completed our tour of the city and we boarded the bus again to finally reach the Courtyard by Marriott Hotel where we had diner and spent the night

Saturday, July 18, 2015                  Train Irkutsk to Novosibirsk

It was a short night with an early morning wake up to board the bus for the train station and the 06:47 local departure on Train 07 to Novosibirsk.
The schedule for that leg of the trip was as follows:
Local Ar.
MT Ar.
Local Lv.
MT  Lv
 Administrative Area
Irkutsk dep.

Train 007
Irkutsk Oblast
Irkutsk Oblast
Irkutsk Oblast
Irkutsk Oblast
Irkutsk Oblast
Irkutsk Oblast
Irkutsk Oblast
Krasnoyarsk Krai
Ilanskaya (for Ilansky)
Krasnoyarsk Krai
Krasnoyarsk Krai
Krasnoyarsk Krai
Krasnoyarsk Krai
Krasnoyarsk Krai
Kemerovo Oblast
Kemerovo Oblast
Novosibirsk arr.

Novosibirsk Oblast

It was the same old style coach as we had on the last leg.  This time there was no electrical outlet in the compartment but fortunately there was one directly across the hall.  I plugged in an extension cord and ran it under the hall rug to my compartment.

Ted and Laurie were cross checking their copies of the Lonely Planet with the km markers along the tracks to be alert for scenes to take pictures of or at least to note.  It was slightly confusing since the Lonely Plant listed them in order from Moscow and occasionally we got confused of the order and passed the point before we had out cameras ready to take a picture.  The Lonely Planet and Bob and Cathy’s description said we were traveling along the most beautiful part of the route.

Our first long (30 minutes) stop was at Zima at 10:59 local.  There were a number of stalls selling food and tourist items set up next to the station.  Many of the passengers from the 2nd Class coach were smokers and they were browsing the stalls smoking and purchasing food for their lunch.

I was fascinated by a large round building which I later learned was an old water tower.  There was also an electric locomotive on display.  Here to fore stations had World War II American Lend Lease steam locomotives on display so this was the first electric one I had seen.

Inside the station there were also a number of concession stands which was a contrast from most of the stations I have toured during the trip.  On the city side of the station was a park and I ran into Cathy and Bob who had strolled down the path in the middle of the park to see more of the city.  It was a nice 24°C (75°F) outside which was a lot cooler than the 37°C (100°F) temperatures we had been experiencing on the other legs.  Siberia is known for its harsh cold winters but not very well known for its short very hot summers.

Leaving Zima we went to the dining car to eat our assigned 1st Class meal.  We were given soup and bread with a cardboard container of juice.  The scenery was beautiful with vast fields of purple flowers as we rode on to our next stop at Nizhneudinsk. Cossacks first built a small fortress there in 1649 and for more than two centuries the town served as an important center for gold and fur traders.

The station had a more modern look, more like an airport terminal with a curved roof that most of the other Baroque style of so many of the other stations.  On the city side was a very large asphalt plaza and then modern red brick buildings that looked like it could be a school.  The locomotive on display in the park was back to the World War II Lend Lease steam engine.  It struck me that in every case of a monument or display along the route they were well maintained and appeared to be freshly painted.

Moving on to the next stop at Ilanskaya, we pass km marker 4644km which was the halfway point between Vladivostok and Moscow.  We made a one minute stop at Tayshet which was the infamous transit point for Gulag camp prisoners and is mentioned in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago.  An hour later the train made another one minute stop at Reshoty where I was able to take a picture of a gold bust of Lenin.

The railroad side of the Ilanskaya train station could have used a coat of paint, inside there was a large map of the Russian railroad system on a marble wall.  Near the station were five story barracks like apartments and some one story very old wooden buildings but the stuning sight was a monument to an uprising in December of 1928.  Behind the monument was a double brick water tower and a wall of bas relief set of six panels with scenes I speculated were of the uprising.  I used my cell phone ‘Word Lens’ app to translate the description plaques.  There was also a well maintained steam locomotive on display.

When we started up again I broke out my knife and cut up some of my cheese and ham and along with some crackers ate my dinner in the compartment.  The sun had set so we slept until Krasnoyarsk where we stopped for 22 minutes.  Our train’s platform was a middle platform with freight trains stopped on either side.  I took some pictures from the window but didn’t think it was worth the effort to climb the stairs to walk to the station.  So I went back to sleep.

Sunday, July 19, 2015     Arrive in Novosibirsk

When I woke up we were on a brief three minute stop at Taiga.  I took some pictures of its usually styled train station, long and low with many windows facing the tracks.  I had more of my ham and cheese for breakfast.
We stopped in Novosibirsk which was the third largest city in Russia and of course had a very large train station which required that we descend stairs from the platform and walk through a tunnel under the tracks and then exit into a large parking area below street level.  It took a little time for everyone to get to the bus with our luggage.

Our guide Ogla, commentated on the city sites as we rode to our hotel, the Double Tree by Hilton.  The dining room was still open for breakfast so I had a yogurt and a piece of salmon.  After the short meal I checked into my room, unpacked and refreshed.

There was no tour scheduled for the day so I struck out on my own to tour the city.  The hotel was a short walk to a park that was adorned with modern paintings, sculptures and statues.  A short distance away was a sphere building with an Origami sign on one side.  I thought it might be a museum so I walked back to the hotel to inform Steve who is a master of making Origami figures.

I then returned and walked up to a major intersection where a small chapel stands that Ogla told us used to be the geographical center of the USSR.  There was an underground tunnel under the intersection that allowed pedestrians to cross the streets and to also get to the chapel.  In the tunnel was a maze of small shops selling everything under the sun: clothes, snacks, electronics, etc.

I wound my way through the passages and came up in Pervomayskiy square.  There I watched little kids wading in a large fountain.  In the plaza by the fountain was a horse drawn carriage like you see in New York’s Central Park.  It was decorated for a wedding party that must have been among the trees in the square having pictures taken by monuments.  To the right of the main path into the trees someone had set up a beautiful display of colorful silk flowers about three feet in diameter.  A beautiful blond was having her picture taken in the display.

I walked along past a building for New York Pizza and took pictures of more sculptures.  I crossed the street again through the tunnel and walked up to the famous Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet House, an impressive building.  In the plaza in front of the building is Lenin’s Square with three massive monuments: Lenin, a trio of armed peasants on his right side and a young couple on his left side.  Behind the statues was a long flower bed leading to the steps of the Opera House.

In back of the Opera House was a monument and wall plaques honoring the battles of 1920 and a small park with individual busts of historical heroes.  From the park I walked back toward the hotel and passed a beautiful red brick church.

I spent the afternoon catching up on email.  Bob and Cathy had scouted the area for a good place to have dinner near the hotel.  Again they made an excellent choice and we had a meal of soup, salads, cold and hot meats with sauces and garnishments to flavor the meat.

It was after 20:30 when we returned to the hotel to get a good night’s sleep in a bed.

Monday, July 20, 2015   Tour Akademgorodok

We woke at 06:30 and ate at the hotel breakfast buffet.  The only different from the day before was the addition of scrambled eggs so we didn’t have the long queue to get an egg custom made.
We met Ogla in the lobby at 10:00 and boarded a bus for the day’s tour.  We rode past the Art Museum and stopped at the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, an imposing, gilded Orthodox cathedral built in Byzantine style in 1899 by Alexander the Great.  A cathedral since 1915, it was closed by Stalin in 1937, re-opening in the glasnost era in 1989.  There were several attempts to blow up the building by the Soviets, all of which failed - though the beautiful bell tower and some of the inside walls were destroyed.

Our next stop was the Bridge Monument with a large statue of Alexander III and a span of the original bridge across the Ob.  Novosibirsk grew up in the 1890s around the Ob River Bridge built for the Trans-Siberian Railway.  The original plan was to have the railroad cross the Ob at Tomsk but the river was to wide and the ground unstable so a better spot was selected at Novo-Nikolaevsk and as a result the city who’s named changed in 1925 to Novosibirsk, grew into the third largest city in Russia.  The monuments and adjacent museum celebrate that fact.

We then took a twenty five minute ride out of the city to Akademgorodok, the educational and scientific center of Siberia, sometimes called the "Scientific Vatican."  Akademgorodok is a city built entirely for scientists and their families and is well known throughout the international scientific community.

The town was founded in the end of 1950s under the auspices of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR.  Academician Mikhail Alexeyevich Lavrentyev, a mechanician and mathematician, the first Chairman of the Siberian Division of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, played a prominent role in establishing Akademgorodok.  At its peak, Akademgorodok was home to 65,000 scientists and their families, and was a privileged area to live in.

During the Soviet period (1961–1991), due to the peculiarity of the Soviet economic system, monetary rewards did not always translate into a higher standard of living.  To offset this, a special compensation system was devised in Akademgorodok for its residents and leading scientists.  For example, residents of Akademgorodok had access to special food ration distribution outlets that provided most of the time, an access to some basic subsidized foodstuffs, which were not always easily obtainable elsewhere.  Some of the scientists, despite being eligible, refused it on moral grounds.  Full and corresponding members of the Academy of Sciences had access to still higher level of service and were eligible to live in single family residences, considered luxurious by Soviet standards, as most of the population lived in apartments situated in nine- and four-story multi-apartment buildings.

We stopped and were given a guided tour of one of the research labs and then rode by some of the fancy residences.  We stopped a short distance from Mikhail Alexeyevich Lavrentyev’s house and were shown the yard where he used to hold scientific discussions and meetings on the grass under the trees.

The next stop was the main reception building where worldwide scientific conferences are held.  There we were treated to a special lunch in the dining room used by dignitaries that attend conferences in the center.  It was very fancy with white linin napkins and fine silverware.

After lunch we returned to the city driving past the university a square red church and stopped at the Train Museum.  It was small but it had interesting displays on the history of the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway.  The next stop was a Farmer’s Market that had interesting honey for sale.

Back in the bus we rode to the Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theater.  Unfortunately the theater was closed and we could not tour the inside.  The building was completed in February 1944, and the first performance was held on 12 May 1945.  It is the largest theatre in Russia, larger than the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow.  After its renovation in 2005 with computerized stage equipment, it became the most technically advanced in Russia.  The theatre is often called the "Siberian Coliseum" because of its size and beauty.  The auditorium seats more than 1,790 spectators.  Its upper gallery is decorated with copies of antique Greek statues.

Ogla told us about the construction and the decision to build such a large theater in Siberia.  Across the street was a strange mechanical seat that we all had our pictures taken sitting in.  It looked like it was designed and built by Rube Goldberg.

Our next stop was a colorful funky restaurant not far from the pretty little Chapel of St Nicholas which was said to mark the geographical center of Russia when it was built in 1915.  Demolished in the 1930s, it was rebuilt in 1993 for Novosibirsk’s centenary.

Next to the restaurant was one of the old wooden buildings that Ogla wanted to show us.  She especially pointed out the detailed wood lattice that was attached to the eves.  She also drove us by brick buildings that had similar detailed wood lattice attached to their eves and around their windows.
It was after 18:00 when the tour finished.  It had been an eventful day and it was good to get another night’s sleep in a comfortable bed.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015   Train Novosibirsk to Yetaterinburg

We woke at 06:00 and had breakfast in the hotel dining room, returned to our room, packed and checked out of the hotel at 08:50 for a fifteen minute ride to the train station.  We had to pass under the tracks and upstairs to get to our train’s platform.
This time we were taking Train number 55 to Yekaterinburg that departed 09:50 local time.
The following is the schedule for the leg to Yekaterinberg.
Local Ar.
MT Ar.
Local Lv.
MT  Lv
Km from Dep
Administrative Area
Novosibirsk dep.

Train 55
Novosibirsk Oblast
Novosibirsk Oblast
Novosibirsk Oblast
Novosibirsk Oblast
Omsk Oblast
Omsk Oblast
Tyumen Oblast,
Tyumen Oblast,
Sverdlovsk Oblast
Yekaterinburg arr.

Sverdlovsk Oblast

We left Novosibirsk on time and rode the seven span half mile long bridge over the Ob River, one of the world’s longest rivers.  An hour and one half out we made a two minute stop at Chulymskaia where the station had several life size statues in white posing outside the building.  One was a man that looked like he was running to catch a train.

Our first long stop was at Barabinsk which was once a place of exile for Polish Jews.  As we rolled into the station we saw the usual World War II Lend Lease Steam Engine on display.  At the station was the typical stalls setup alongside.  The building its self was a very plain contemporary style structure.  As a matter of fact it reminded me of the Litton Aerospace Headquarters building in my home town of Woodland Hills.

I bought a cold ice tea at a stall and after we departed I had a lunch of my ham and cheese.  We rode along with an increase of freight traffic with oil, coal and timber.  I could sense we were getting closer to populated areas.

At 17:06 we arrived in Omsk for a thirty eight minute stop.  Omsk is the city Fyodor Dostoevsky was exiled to in 1849.  With a population of over 1.1 million Omsk it is the seventh size city in Russia and second to Novosibirsk in size in Siberia.  For a brief period during the Russian Civil War in 1918–1920, it served as the capital of the anti-Bolshevik Russian State and held the imperial gold reserves.  When the Bolsheviks took power they transferred the Siberian administrative offices to Novosibirsk diminishing its importance.  But, during World War II it gained importance since it was closer to Moscow but away from the German advance.

We left the platform by stairs over the tracks to the station.  It had a beautiful interior, almost like a museum, with a set of large chandeliers hanging from a two story high room.  The lunch room was right out of “Johnny Rocket’s” style d├ęcor, with even a cheese burger painted on a door.
When we left the station we crossed another six span bridge over the Irtysh River.  At 18:00 are group was scheduled to get our one prepaid meal in the dining car.  It consisted of potato salad, a mix of peas and corn and a form of brown rice.  We were each given a box with a roll and tea bags.  I downed most of it with a beer.

At 19:27 we stopped for two minutes in Nazyvaevskaya where we saw a Farris wheel behind the station.  Ishim was the next stop for thirteen minutes.  We had to walk across tracks to get to the station.  There wasn’t much there with only one small chicken shack and a couple of stalls to purchase food for the 2nd Class passengers.  Ishim was the birthplace of the Russian fairy-tale writer Pyotr Yershov (1815–69), who’s most famous work, The Humpbacked-Horse, was banned for many years by the tsar’s censors.

The sun was setting so I made up my bed and went to sleep.  I didn’t even get up when we stopped at Tyumen for twenty minutes at mid-night.  It was the region’s oldest Russian settlement, and now a dynamic oil-rich city but I slept through the stop.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015            Tour Yekaterinburg

I was sleeping through the night when the train stopped at 04:19 in Istok.  The end of this leg was less than an hour away so I rose and packed up to be ready to exit the train at 05:12 in Yetaterinburg.  We were met on the platform by Vadim, our first male guide.  It was another down stairs, under the tracks tunnel to the parking lot outside the station.  It took us ten minutes to get everyone and their luggage to the bus and an hour to get to our room in the Park Inn by Radisson.
I showered and shaved and proceeded to breakfast at 07:00.  Our tour started at 10:00.  We rode around the city with Vadim describing the sights and the city.  “Yekaterinburg (also know as Ekaterinburg), is the fourth-largest city in Russia and the administrative center of Sverdlovsk Oblast, located in the middle of the Eurasian continent, on the border of Europe and Asia with a population of 1,349,772.  It was the hometown of Boris Yeltsin and was the main industrial and cultural center of the Ural Federal District.  Between 1924 and 1991, the city was named Sverdlovsk after the Communist party leader Yakov Sverdlov.”  The later name change had confused me since I didn’t remember assigning a Strategic Missile on Yekaterinburg during my tour as the Chief of the US Joint Strategic Missile Targeting Team in 1970.  I do remember we assigned weapons on Sverdlovsk.
We stopped at the Square of 1905 Revolution named after the first Russian revolution that took place in 1905-1907, the Lenin Monument, and Stalin empire style City Hall.  The large statue of Lenin was across the street from the five story high City Hall.  The Lenin statute was set on top of a viewing platform so that parades could be held on the wide street between the statue and the City Hall.  We climbed the stairs to the viewing plaza at the base of Lenin’s statue and I took pictures of the square and of the marvelous Roman style figures of workers with hammers, sickles, musical instruments and books in their hands, on top of the City Hall.  The center of the building had a large steeple with a functioning clock tower topped by a gold sphere with the star and crescent symbol.
Our next attraction was crossing over the dam of the Iset River on Lenin Street.  We stopped and walked down the embankment stairs to the south side of the dam where water flows through a small drain gate into a beautiful canal like area with water fountains and lights in the center.
The “Plotinka” (The Dam) was the first industrial facility that started the construction of Ekaterinburg in 1723.  Peter the Great’s reforms at the beginning of the 18th century led to rapid development of the Urals and formation of a new industrial area.  Uktus Ironworks was built at the confluence of the Uktus and Iset rivers. 
In the early 1720s a new head of the Ural Mining Administration Vasily Tatishchev (who later became a famous statesman, historian, and geographer) arrived in the Urals.  A decision was made to build a new large ironworks on the Iset, about 7 km up the river “in between all works”.  The new plant was meant to tie together mining and metallurgical industry of the entire region.  Timber harvesting for the future dam began in March 1721, but soon the project was suspended and resumed only two years later, when General Georg Wilhelm de Gennin was appointed the new head of the Ural Mining Administration.
The construction of a fort to protect the future ironworks from the Bashkirs, who occupied this territory at the time, began in 1723.  Over 1 000 peasants from 20 villages worked on the construction of the dam led by foreman Leonty Zlobin.  They dug a deep ditch then used rows of wooden piles and decks to form the body of the dam, all the gaps were filled with clay.
The dam was originally earthen with larch wood base which does not rot, but hardens under water without oxygen.  The granite cover was added much later during a reconstruction of the 1830-1850s.  The researchers argue that having served without a single repair for almost three hundred years, the dam could easily stand for as much longer.
In the 18th century just like a human heart transporting blood the Dam transferred the energy from the Iset to the first industrial objects of the city: ironworks, mint, and stone-cutting factory.  Today it’s the historic center of Ekaterinburg, a place very popular among citizens and affectionately called “Plotinka”.
Contrary to popular belief, the current central drain of the dam has never had industrial use.  It was necessary to get down vernal waters and regulate the flow rate, to prevent the risk of flooding the plant.  The actual industrial drains were located on both sides of the central.  One of them nowadays serves as an underground passage, and the other one is used to store cleaning equipment.
Bsa-relief panels on the side of the dam displayed a scene of who I believe was Vasily Tatishchev, sitting with a drawing compass in his hand flanked by workers and politicians.  A roller skater was practicing routines on the plaza along the dam.  At the end of the drain gate was a very large stone of ore representing the mineral wealth of the area that was processed in Yekaterinburg.  We walked across the plaza and up steps on the East side where there was a Statue of the city's founders: Tatishchev & de Gennin and a stone and log two story high rectangular building that looked as though it served as a guard house over the dam.
Across the street was a beautiful large building that was built by a wealthy merchant in the 1800’s.  A half a block away was the Square of Labor and Chapel of Saint Ekaterina, a small ornate chapel.  The bus picked us up and we rode past the military headquarters with the statue of General Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov, on top of a horse.  He was a Soviet career officer in the Red Army who, in the course of World War II, played the most pivotal role in leading the Red Army drive through much of Eastern Europe to liberate the Soviet Union from the occupation of the Axis Powers and, ultimately, was the first to enter Berlin.  He was the most decorated general officer in the history of the Soviet Union and Russia.  After the death of Stalin he was assigned (exiled) to the Ural Command in Yekaterinburg to remove him from the Moscow power struggles.  After Khrushchev was deposed in October 1964, Brezhnev restored Zhukov to favor (though not to power) in a move to use Zhukov's popularity to strengthen his political position.

We stopped outside the military museum and walked around the outside display of tanks and guns and then visited the Square of Soviet Army, honoring soldiers of the first War in Afghanistan and then the War in Chechnya.  The "Black Tulip", was installed in 1996 and displays a gigantic figure of a soldier, sitting on the ground with his face down and almost lifeless.  His soul appears to be exhausted, hands drooped down powerless.  Behind him were high slightly curved square columns for each year with the names of the deceased from 1979 to 1989.

Leaving the square we rode to the high-lite of Yekaterinburg, the Romanov Monastery (Church-on-the-Blood in the name of All Saints Shone Forth in the Land of Russia) recently built in 2003 on the site of the Ipatyev House where the Russian Czar Nicholas II and his family were executed.  We spent some time touring the Cathedral with its statues and pictures of the Czar’s family and in the basement a museum of the Ipatyev House.

The house itself was built in the second half of 1870 by a famous ural mining and metallurgical owner I. Redikortsev and in 1908 acquired by well-known engineer and public figure of Ekaterinburg N. Ipatyev.  It was the location where the first Czar of the Romanov dynasty was crowned and where the last Czar and his family were hidden from the public and eventually executed.

Across the street from the Cathedral was a park and down a slope a row of wooden buildings housing historical sites: the Chamber Theater; “The Wonderland” Museum of Dolls and Children’s Books; House-Museum of Fedor Reshetnikov; an early Post Office; and “Literary Life of the Urals in the 20th Century” Museum.  After touring the site we returned to the Cathedral and boarded the bus to ride out of the city to Ganina Yama in the Four Brothers mine near the village of Koptyaki, 10 miles north of Yekaterinburg.

“On the night of 17 July 1918, after the shooting of the Romanov family, the bodies of Czar Nicholas II of Russia and his family (who had been executed at the Ipatiev House) were secretly transported to Ganina Yama and thrown into the pit.

A week later, the White Army drove the Bolsheviks from the area and launched an investigation into the fate of the royal family.  An extensive report concluded that the royal family's remains had been cremated at the mine, since evidence of fire was found and charred bones, but no bodies.  But the Bolsheviks, realizing that the burial site was no longer a secret, had returned to the site the night after the first burial to relocate the bodies to another area.  The secret Bolshevik report on the execution and burial did not give the location of the second burial site, but the description provided clues.

The Russian Orthodox Church, relying on the White Army's reports in preference to Bolshevik reports, declared the Ganina Yama site holy ground.  The royal family and their retinue had been canonized in 1981 by the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad.  The grounds were therefore dedicated to honor the family's humility during capture and their status as political martyrs.  With financial assistance from the Ural Mining and Metallurgical Company, the Church constructed the Monastery of the Holy Imperial Passion-Bearers at the site in 2001.  A tall cross marks the edge of the mine shaft, visible as a depression in the ground.

Seven chapels were later constructed at the site, one for each member of the royal family.  Each chapel is dedicated to a particular saint or relic.  The katholikon is dedicated to the Theotokos Derzhavnaya, an icon particularly revered by the monarchists; it burnt to the ground on 14 September 2010 but is slated to be restored.  On the anniversary of the murder, a night-long service is held at the Church of All Saints (Church on the Blood) on the site of the Ipatiev House.  At daybreak, a procession walks four hours to Ganina Yama for another ceremony.  The former mine pit is covered with lily plants for the ceremony.

We toured the grounds for an hour entering most of the churches, viewing the many statues and mine shaft entrance.  It was impressive and very well maintained.  The statutes were exquisite.
We boarded the bus again and drove further out of the city and stopped to have lunch at a hotel complex.  I had very nice dish of green olives, chopped tomato, cucumber and cheese soaked in a Balsamic sauce followed by raw salmon and sliced meats.

After lunch we rode to the Military Museum in the town of Verkhnyaya Pyshma where we spent an hour touring the museum which displayed a collection of over 70 military machines exhibited in the open air grouped by service: Army tanks, guns and vehicles, aircraft and missiles, naval vessels and even trains.  

The history of the museum started in 2005 when the veterans of the Great Patriotic War asked Andrey Kozitsin, the president of UGMK Holding (Ural Mining and Metallurgical Company) to restore a few machines for the Victory Parade.  He did an excellent job and turned the effort in to an outstanding very well maintained museum.  Many of the vehicles are kept in running condition and take part in the Victory Parades on a regular basis.

In 2013 museum opened a three story pavilion with retro cars and motorbikes.  I headed directly to the aircraft and missiles and finished touring the complex first.  Vadim asked me what interested me and told him antique cars he quickly purchased a ticket for me to enter the pavilion which was not on our tour schedule.

I was very surprised with the display inside.  The first row of cars were a Ford Model A and a Russian clone, followed by a Packard Town Car next to Russian clones and on down the line would be a US auto next to a similar looking Russian auto.  Overhead they had small aircraft hanging.  Next to the Ford Model A Roaster was a Star Model F Roadster that had a California 2007 Historical Vehicle plate and California 1925 plate.  Star was a marque that was assembled by the Durant Motors Company between 1922 and 1928. a short lived competitor of the Ford Model A and was also sold in the UK under the name Rugby.  I was very impressed by the museum and would have liked to spend more time but we still had sites to see.

We rode forty five minutes to stop at the monument that marks the divide between Asia and Europe.  It was on the old road to Moscow and then we rode on the highway to a larger more impressive monument on the new highway to Moscow.

We started to ride back to the city when Vadim told the bus driver to stopped at typical family home next to the road.  He jumped out knocked on the door and then turned to motion us to leave the bus and tour the house.  The lady of the house had a small girl in her arms.  Vadim should us that the houses are constructed so you first enter a room that looks like a garage or workshop.  There you remove your shoes and enter another door to the main house.  Out back we were shown that the house stood on almost a half-acre of land covered with vegetable plants.  There were several enclosed “hot house” structures were tomatoes and other vegetables were being grown.  Out the back door was a sink and counter and a sack of mushrooms were being cleaned.

Inside we were invited to have tea and crepes with homemade strawberry jam.  I can’t believe she didn’t know we were coming because Vadim appeared to know his way around the house.  At one point he showed us items displayed on a book shelf.  We thanked her for the tea and crepes and bid her farewell.

We were back on the road by 18:00.  It was a nice experience to see how the locals lived and grew there vegetables.  We had seen so many villages with similar homes during our journey it was a treat to actually see the interior and yards and the way the people lived.

We still had over a forty minute ride back to our hotel.  Along the way we passed a large Ikea Store and a large shopping mall.  I guess large cities throughout the world have some common denominator.

When reached the hotel I was ready ready to get a good night’s sleep before our last train ride.

Thursday, July 23, 2015                  Train Yekaterinburg to Moscow

We had a hearty hotel breakfast at 07:00 and checked out of the hotel at 08:50 for the ride to the train station.  The train station contained a museum of shorts with displays of the railroad uniforms and other memorabilia from various eras.  As an example the 1951-1985 display contained a brief case, digital calculator, cradle telephone and a computer key board.  The 1986-2014 displayed a suitcase with four wheels and a digital phone.
Overhead Vadim showed us paintings of historical scenes depicting the history of the Ural Mountain area and the development of the city.  It was impressive.
We boarded the train and were assigned the same compartments.  It was train number 15 and the car looked almost brand new with two chemical toilets.
The following is the schedule for the 25 hour trip.
Local Ar.
MT Ar.
Local Lv.
MT  Lv
 Adminstrative Area
Yekaterinburg dep.

Train 015
Sverdlovsk Oblast
Sverdlovsk Oblast
Sverdlovsk Oblast
Republic of Bashkortostan
Udmurt Republic
Kirov Oblast
Kazan Pass
Chuvashia Republic
Nizhny Novgorod Oblast
Mourom 1
Vladimir Oblast
Vladimir Oblast


Leaving the city we passed by a large body of water which I guess was the Iset River.  There were nice little cabins on the shore between the railway and the water.  Our first stop was at Druzhinino which was a shabby little station in need of paint on the railway side.  The town side was nicely painted and there was a nice shaded picnic area next to the station.  From there we rode through small farms and villages, green pastures and small trees.  It was a big contrast from the forests we passed through in the Far East.

It was generally like that all afternoon and we stopped at Argyz five minutes ahead of schedule at a middle platform with a freight train blocking our access to the station.  Our next long stop was at Kazan Pass where again we were stopped by a middle platform but this time there was a convenient stairway overhead.  I counted four very long trains of oil tankers and three trains of coal and ore on adjacent tracks.  It was a busy train yard!  The station was in good condition and I was able to get in a good walk before we started out again.

After that stop we had our paid for meal which was a plate of the same brown rice like dish with a slice on pork on top and a roll.

Just before we were going to turn in there was a short stop at Kanash where a group of the young ladies that were summer interns as Provodnitsas (female train car attendant) were gathered to have a quick visit with their boyfriends on the platform.  It was a touching scene.
After that we retired for our last night on the train

Friday, July 24, 2015        Tour Moscow

We got up at 05:30 for a 23 minute stop in Vekovka.  We were block from the station by a freight train of coal cars.  As we stretched our legs we discovered that they were changing the engine on the train.  The new engine was an electric one and I watched them hook it up to our train.
Three hours later we arrived in Moscow, our train journey was over.  It was unbelievable that we had not experienced any bad weather the whole trip and the Moscow sky was bright with a thin layer of clouds.

The Moscow station was very large as you would expect with a high dome ceiling skylight.  Outside as we were loading our luggage in the bus I noticed that both a Subway and a KFC had outlets alongside the train station.  Our route to the Park Inn by Radisson Sadu where would spend the night took us by may sights that I remembered from my last trip to Moscow in 2010.
Our first stop was at the Ensemble of the Novodevichy Convent World Heritage Site.

The Novodevichy Convent, in south-western Moscow, built in the 16th and 17th centuries in the so-called Moscow Baroque style, was part of a chain of monastic ensembles that were integrated into the defense system of the city.  The convent was directly associated with the political, cultural and religious history of Russia, and closely linked to the Moscow Kremlin. 

 It was used by women of the Tsar’s family and the aristocracy.  Members of the Tsar’s family and entourage were also buried in its cemetery.  The convent provides an example of the highest accomplishments of Russian architecture with rich interiors and an important collection of paintings and artifacts.

There we toured the grounds and buildings.  I liked that they allowed us to take pictures inside the Smolensky Cathedral (1525) and descriptions of the artwork were provided in English.  Next to the grounds was a small lake.  In 2010 I had observed the Convent from the other side of the lake so this visit was a first for me.

A short walk from the convent we entered the Novodevichy Cemetery.

Under Soviet rule, burial in the Novodevichy Cemetery was second in prestige only to burial in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis.  Among the Soviet leaders, only Nikita Khrushchev was buried at the Novodevichy rather than at the Red Square.  Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin Wall is no longer used for burials and the Novodevichy Cemetery is used for only the most symbolically significant burials.  For example, in April 2007, within one week both the first President of the Russian Federation Boris Yeltsin and world-renowned cellist Mstislav Rostropovich were buried there.

Today, the cemetery holds the tombs of Russian authors, musicians, playwrights, and poets, as well as famous actors, political leaders, and scientists.  More than 27,000 are buried at Novodevichy.  There is scant space for more burials.  A new national cemetery is under construction in Mytishchi north of Moscow.

The cemetery has a park-like ambiance, dotted with small chapels and large sculpted monuments.  It is divided into the old (Divisions 1-4), new (Divisions 5-8) and newest (Divisions 9-11) sections.

Unlike most US cemeteries the graves were marked by: busts; bas-relief likeness; full statues; and monuments.  We had an interesting time trying to guest whose grave we were observing.  After the cemetery tour we boarded the bus again for a ride to our next stop at the impressive Moscow State University building, the tallest education building in the world at 787 feet.  It was completed in 1953 and has two u shaped wings connected to a cross structure, 36 stories high with over 5,000 rooms.

The next stop was at Poklonnaya Hill.  It is the highest spot in Moscow and in 1812, it was the spot where Napoleon in vain expected the keys to the Kremlin to be brought to him by Russians.  In the 1960s, the Soviet authorities decided to put the area to use as an open-air museum dedicated to the Russian victory over Napoleon.  The New Triumphal Arch, erected in wood in 1814 and in marble in 1827 was relocated and reconstructed there in 1968.  A loghouse, where Kutuzov presided over the Fili conference which decided to abandon Moscow to the enemy, was designated a national monument.  The huge panorama "Battle of Borodino" by Franz Roubaud (1910–12) was installed there in 1962.  A monument to Kutuzov was opened in 1973.

The Victory Park and the Square of Victors were important parts of the outdoor museum.  In the 1990s an obelisk was added with a statue of Nike and a monument of St George slaying the dragon.  The obelisk's height is exactly 141.8 meters, which is 10 cm for every day of the War.  A golden-domed Orthodox church was erected on the hilltop in 1993-95, followed by a memorial mosque and the Holocaust Memorial Synagogue.

The bus left a number of us to walk down the hill past a number of monuments, statues and bas-relief plaques to the Triumphal Arch.  It rained briefly but was dry by the time we reached the bus at the bottom of the slope.

We continued to tour the city passing many famous buildings before stopped to tour Saint Basil's Cathedral at the end of Red Square.  Our group had a reserved appointment to tour the Cathedral which has become a museum.  During our thirty minute tour we were allowed to take pictures and we found many descriptions in English and in one hall we were serenaded by a male quartet.
I was fascinated to tour the Cathedral, the background of which Judy and I used for our 2010 Christmas Card.

When we finished we walked over to the GUM department store to have lunch at its cafeteria on the third floor.  There was a long line for the buffet but our guide arranged for us to use the shorter “businessman’s” line which had a fixed menu of borscht soup, shell pasta, bread, cucumber salad and a lemon tea drink.  Afterwards, several of us had a soft serve yogurt at a concession stand a short distance away.

We finally checked in to our hotel and I set out to walk to see my favorite funky monument in Moscow “The Peter the Great Statue”.  It is a 98-metre-high monument to Peter the Great, located at the western confluence of the Moskva River and the Vodootvodny Canal in central Moscow.  It was designed by the Georgian designer Zurab Tsereteli to commemorate 300 years of the Russian Navy, which Peter the Great established.  It was erected in 1997 and is the eighth tallest statue in the world and weighs around 1,000 tons and contains 600 tons of stainless steel, bronze and copper.

Since its inception, the statue has courted controversy.  In November 2008, it was voted the tenth ugliest building in the world by Virtual Tourist.  In 2010, it was included in a list of the world's ugliest statues by Foreign Policy magazine.  Lonely Planet commented: "Questions of taste aside, Muscovites were skeptical about the whole idea: why pay tribute to Peter the Great, who loathed Moscow and moved the capital to St Petersburg?"

The designer Zurab Tsereteli is known as a friend and favorite of Moscow's former Mayor Yury Luzhkov, and the artist received a number of municipal art commissions under his patronage, such as the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the Manege Square ensemble and the War Memorial Complex on Poklonnaya Gora.  In October 2010, following Luzhkov's departure from office, Moscow authorities, reportedly keen to get rid of the Peter the Great statue, offered to relocate it to Saint Petersburg, but this offer was refused by the city.  Authorities in Arkhangelsk and Petrozavodsk have offered to accept the monument.

The statue is allegedly based on a design originally intended to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the first voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1992.  When an American customer for the project could not be found, it was repurposed with a Russian theme.  Tsereteli denies the story.  A separate, equally colossal statue of Columbus by the same designer eventually wound up in Puerto Rico after being rejected by various US cities, but, as of 2011, remains disassembled.

It is so funky that I have just loved it since I first saw it 2010.  I took a selfie with it on my cell phone and posted it on my Facebook page.  I walked back to my hotel and rendezvoused with Ted, Steve and Bill to go to dinner with a lawyer friend of Steve’s that lives in Moscow.  We left to eat at a place recommended by the hotel but before we got there I received a call from Wendy reporting on Judy’s condition.  I turned back and called Judy and although she had had low blood sugar episode she had drank a glass of orange juice and tested back in the normal range.

I set up my laptop and connected to the internet and caught up on my email.

Saturday, July 25, 2015                  Fly Moscow to LAX

Ted had a 5am hotel departure for a 09:20 flight to IAD.  My hotel departure was not until 08:45 for my flight to LAX.  I ate a nice breakfast at 07:30, and then returned to my room to finish packing and checked out.  Bob, Cathy, Edna and Ed were scheduled on the same flight.
At the airport, Edna, Ed and I checked in at the same time.  I asked for a middle aisle seat and was told that I had been preassigned to a window aisle seat which I had suffered in on the flight over because those seats have no leg room due to the entertainment equipment box.  The agent told me that the aircraft was full and all the inter aisle seats were assigned.  I then asked for a window seat and she assigned me 50A the last row on the aircraft but due to the coverture of the tail it was just a two seat row.

I then passed through security and proceeded to the gate.  I had an over two hour wait before boarding.  When I got to the gate I found it to be awkwardly laid out with an elevator dividing the economy class and premier class lines.  There were a number of people already in the gate area.  Several were sleeping on camping bed rolls and one young man with a University of Nebraska – Lincoln (UNL) shirt had strung up a hammock and his wife was resting in it.  Since UNL was my Graduate School I went over and introduced myself.  He told me he was also a UNL graduate and still lived in Lincoln and was on his honeymoon.  We chatted a little and then I looked for an outlet to charge my phone for the long flight.

People started to line up for the flight so I stood on the Economy side of the elevator shaft.  There was a ribbon stretched between the check in stand and the elevator wall.  A group of security agents were sitting along the elevator wall chatting.  As check-in time approached a long line had formed behind me and when they finally announced the flight I the security agents took a position near the gate agent to check passports prior to the scanning of our boarding pass.  The first started to process the premier passengers on the other side of the elevator and then they announce the economy boarding and I removed the ribbon and proceeded to have my passport checked.  The Security Agent refused to check my passport and told me I had to turn around and go around the elevator column to the premier line entrance.  I asked him way when the line was right there that he couldn’t process us.  He nastily said “It is the American security fault”.  I then asked why when he saw the line had formed on the left side of the elevator that he didn’t tell us that there would be only one enterance on the right side.  He retorted “It is the American’s fault”.  I gave up and proceed to join the line in the other direction.

When I got to my seat I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was a space between the seat and the wall so there was more leg room than the regular seats plus I could store my small carryon between my seat and the wall. M I think next time I fly on a B-777 I will ask for the last row window seat.

It was an uneventful flight most of the way.  I watched a Russian film titled “The Lives of Others” which was an academy award nominee for foreign film.  Then I watched “Her” and then dozed off.  As we got close to LAX I woke to a commotion in the aisle and Edna informed me that Ed had suffered a speeding heart and he was laid out on the floor in the back.  I got out of my seat to see if I could help.  There were two doctors and a nurse giving him first aid and checking his pulse and blood pressure.  I then informed Cathy and she came back to see if what needed to be done.  We were closer to landing at LAX than SFO so they didn’t divert the flight but they did move Ed and Edna to seats by the exit and when we landed an EMT team wheeled him off before the rest of the passengers.

When I finally exited the plane from the last row I discovered that Ed, Edna and Cathy were still at the end of the jet way filling out paperwork for Customs.  The EMT tech told me they were going to take him to the Marina Del Ray Hospital.  Ed appeared to be normal and in good spirits but they wanted to keep him in observation overnight and run some tests to make sure he was OK.  Ed is a few years older than I am but appeared to be in great shape.  Just the night before he had told me he walked around the Kremlin and back to the hotel.  But his heart irregularity had caused him to cancel out of the Antarctica Expedition in April.  He was released in two days.

My ride picked me up at the curb and I was home for supper.

1 comment:

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