Me and Pete often joke that there’s an Irish pub in almost every town we visit. But Omsk is currently bereft of such an establishment.
What Omsk does enjoy is a veritable host of expensive hotels. We spent our first night there in the most expensive hotel of our trip so far. It was great to have a good shower after spending two nights on the train, but I can’t work out why the hotels here are so expensive. Maybe lots of business people visit. There didn’t seem to be very many tourists wandering around.
After our first night we moved to the much cheaper, more atmospheric, Hotel Omsk. There was a long orange-carpeted-corridor to our much less glitzy room and there was NO HOT WATER!! It was written this way on a piece of paper by the receptionists (after they found the words in a Russian-English dictionary) so that there was no mistake. It seems that in Russia in the summer it’s quite common for the hot water to be switched off so that maintenance work can be done on the system. The friendly receptionists probably presumed that the note would send us running, but with the even cheaper hotel around the corner closed for renovations, we did our bit to undo the stereotype that westerners are soft, and we took the room. It worked out fine. The water wasn’t too cold and the hotel certainly had a lot of character – but don’t even ask about the breakfast.
Despite the water and breakfast situation I’m really glad we’ve stopped in Omsk. It’s been great to be in what seems to be just a regular town in Siberia. It’s an industrial town but it also has lots of parks and public sculptures. There’s a big river running through it, which people were making the most of in the hot summer sunshine.
We’ve stayed a bit longer in Omsk than we planned to because the trains out don’t run every day. It’s meant we can take things at a relaxed pace rather than rush around seeing the sights. Now we’re back on the train to continue our leisurely journey through to eastern Siberia.
We’ve been spending a lot of time on the train lately so it might be a good idea to try and explain what it’s like.
Susan and I are traveling Platskartny class – this basically means we’re traveling in the third class open plan sleeper carriage. There are 60 beds in the carriage arranged in groups of 6. Two double bunks face each other with a small table in between them, a window to their left and a corridor to their right. The other double bunk is on the other side of the corridor and parallel to it (perpendicular to the pair of double bunks) and against the window on the right. The bottom bed of this right-hand bunk can be converted to a table and two chairs. Each bed is provided with a sleeping mat, sheets, a blanket and a towel. People on the bottom bunks usually roll their beds up when they’re not sleeping so that the people on the top bunks can sit down.
There’s a toilet at both ends of the carriage – they’re almost always very clean. At one end of the carriage there’s also a samovar and the Provodnitsa’s cabin. The samovar provides boiling water on tap – so that you can make your coffee (or Irish coffee as the case may sometimes be), tea, noodles and porridge. The Provodnitsa looks after the carriage, checks the tickets, maintains the samovar, wakes people up if they’re asleep and their stop is soon, vacuums once or twice a day and so on. I think she’s also in charge of the carriage radio which plays a strange mix of music from pretty much every decade – sometimes in the one song.
If you look really carefully out of the right hand window of the carriage you can spot the kilometer posts – they measure the distance from Moscow. We can use these to refer to our guide book which provides us with information about some of the more interesting spots along the journey – as well as some history of the rail line etc. We sometimes look at this – when we’re not too busy eating, sleeping, having conversations with our neighbours (well, to call them conversations might be stretching it a bit – we spend most of this time looking up words in our phrase book), playing cards, reading our novels (I’ve just finished A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving which was a really good read) or staring out the window.
When the train stops we can get off and have a look around for a while. On the platform there are people selling anything from giant teddy bears to instant noodles to woollen clothing to whole dried fish. Sometimes some of these merchants will get on the train for a stop or two and try their luck walking through the carriages.
Time just meanders along with the train. There’s a clock at both ends of the carriage but no-one seems to take too much notice of it – it’s in Moscow time anyway and we’re five time zones away from there now (the train times all work on Moscow time so that the timetables don’t get too complicated). People just sleep when they get tired, eat when they get hungry and chat when they want to chat. Sometimes they move around a little. We’ve been kindly offered a window seat at times – especially when we’ve been eating – and when someone starts talking to us we’ve noticed that the seats nearby often fill up. I don’t know Russian very well (or at all even) but I sometimes get the feeling the people in the background are saying things like “He’s from Australia and she’s from Ireland! How the hell did that happen?” or “They’re here with us on this $%*&! train and they’re calling it a honeymoon! Can someone hurry up and figure out how to tell them they’re bonkers?”.
All in all we’ve been finding life on the train extremely relaxing. We’re having great fun with it – it’s a great way to travel.