I woke up in a strange place

By Marc Heiden, since 1997.
See also: a novel about a monkey.

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June 2, 2010

Here's another entry I started writing months ago, using bits of letters home from travels even longer ago (September 2004, to be precise). Just scraps, not a complete chronicle or anything, but I enjoyed digging these out of emails and setting them to pictures. Most of what I wrote during that trip was lost — I only have what was quoted in people's replies back to me, which is sort of apropos.


The provodnitsa.

The Rossiya, Trans-Siberian Railway train.

Tomorrow evening I board the train for three days (!!!), the longest continuous portion of the trip, and then I'll be in Irkutsk. I'm not sure if I'll be able to check email during the next stretch. I'll be in Siberia, after all. Is Siberia still Siberia if you can check your email there?

Siberia in autumn.

On the train (in retrospect)

My train cabin.

I shared a train carriage with a huge military guy named Nikolai. I was alone for the first couple of hours after we left Vladivostok, and had fallen asleep by the time he came aboard. I think I gave him a sleepy hello in Russian and went back to sleep, because my first thought after I woke up was whether he was going to expect me to speak in Russian the whole time, which I obviously could not do. But he knew right away that I was a foreigner. I've noticed tourism professionals can spot that right away, and so can anybody else if they pay close attention, but random people on the street who need directions think I know my way around and know it in Russian.


Anyway, Nikolai had a big knife that could gut a man quite easily, but was shy about not knowing much English. I believe he had completed some military maneuvers and was now on his way home to see his family, although I am not positive. He showed me photos of a hunting expedition, and was keen to critique the photos I took with my digital camera (very positive and encouraging, though occasionally puzzled by my choice of subjects, particularly signs at train stations).

Warning at the train station.

Nikolai was eager to share his food, and he had more food than I did, so that was quite generous. I hate tomatoes, but fucked if I didn't eat a whole tomato for breakfast every morning and it tasted right every time. Also a hard-boiled egg, and salt. That is the Russian breakfast, as far as I can tell. I couldn't get Nikolai to try the Kasugai Peas that I have been toting around since Kyoto, but you know what those look like, you can hardly blame him. At some of these remote Siberian towns (and they're all remote), old babushkas crowd on the station platforms to sell food they've cooked to train passengers. This was even more awesome than it sounds. I bought loads. Nikolai was grateful for the bread, but seemed to be discouraging me to eat any of this sack of potato stew that I bought. I didn't press the issue, so most of it got thrown out. I had no idea what was in the stew, just that there didn't appear to be any meat.

Yesterday, Nikolai admitted that the day before had been his birthday and that he hadn't had a birthday party for 12 years (I think I had that correctly — I am solid on Russian numbers), so I made something of a ruckus, singing and all, and reluctantly shared a beer with him (he really wanted to share a beer, as I'd already declined vodka). I found the beer gross, but it was probably fine. Just before the sun was down, we stopped for a couple minutes in a mid-sized town (by Siberian standards), so I sprinted into the station house and bought a huge bottle of fizzy orange booze (to forestall any further offers of beer) and ice cream to share. Nikolai was immensely touched and left the carriage for a moment. When he came back, he had what looked like pound cake, and was very proud to offer me a slice. (If I understood correctly, he got it from the provodnitsa.) I thought, excellent, I will enjoy pound cake with this ice cream. Actually, it was some kind of raw flesh. I can imagine how it was meant to be a delicacy, definitely, but it was the most horrible thing I have ever eaten. After the first bite, I did the old rest-into-the-napkin trick and excused myself to the bathroom. (The toilet opens directly over the tracks. Now it's food for the tigers.)

Once we were drunk — or, let's face it, this was a huge Russian guy, so once I was drunk and he was still fine — he was ready to talk about politics.

(There's more to that story, but the email didn't have the rest of it. Basically, we took turns rating presidents and premiers. Later, we had another passenger take our photo, but that memory card got lost later on the trip.)

When I left the train today he shook my hand enthusiastically and made me promise to email him sometime. Good man.


I am just disembarked from three consecutive days on the train and am feeling a touch of motion sickness but am otherwise fine. I walked past a 300+ year old wooden building today (in Irkutsk) with 'BECHAM FOREVER' graffiti'd on the side. Which was, you know, not exactly what I expected to see.

Beckham fans in Irkutsk.

Decembrist wood-carved house.

Have not been let down by the Lenin statues, though, let me tell you.

Lenin again.

Am sorry to hear that the appetite for revolutionary fervor back at the office is going unmet without me. I have purchased a train ticket for one of the Lenin statues and am sending him over on the next train. He is not a Native Speaker but he looks kinda European, hopefully you can pass him off.


So, yesterday was pretty fun. I walked for absolutely ages and my legs are a bit sore but ready to do the same today. I! didn't! get! lost! despite covering vast swathes of ground on foot. (I did take one subway ride and it was undescribably cool.)

Komsomolskaya Metro

I think the pictures — of which there are gobs — will probably only be of interest to me, but I'm excited as hell to see them. I love sculptures, and I have what I guess is an odd interest in cemeteries: just walking around in the stillness, the quiet and the melancholy (but not weepy) mood. I found this Soviet cemetery (a few famous people: writer Chekhov, director Eisenstein, premier Khruschev, others)...

Grave of Anton Chekhov.

Khruschev's grave.

Eisenstein's grave.

...that was huge, slightly overgrown with trees and just had the most unbelievable statues and designs, such incredible character and range of expression. I was dizzy with discovery. So I think anyone who sees those pictures will be interested in the first few but will begin to think it odd somewhere in the 20s and by the time the collection passes the hundred mark they'll be asking to skip...but there were just so many interesting ones.

Song and dance and dog.


Loving it.

Anyway, I also wandered into a Russian Orthodox religious convent, saw some churches and domes, tried to go to the Tolstoy Estate Museum ("closed on the last Friday of every month", I learned) and spent ages in a museum with an immense collection of Russian art from 1900 to the present. (Fantastic, but it just kept going! I had to skim everything from 1970 onwards because I couldn't handle any more.) Then I hit Gorky Park and came across a Sculptures Garden, a nice aimless park with statues of people the Russians don't like any more (i.e. Stalin) and sort of whimsical modern work as a counterpoint, also some playgrounds for kids.

Stalin, with broken nose.

Stalin's victims.

Bent statue.

Still in Moscow

I'm back and weary from another long day on the streets of Moscow. The day started out on a failure: I left the hotel way too late and meandered about trying to get my bearings around the Kremlin, so it didn't seem likely that I'd make it in to Lenin before he closed shop for the day (1pm).

Stalinist architecture.

I hastily constructed a completely new itinerary for the day. It took a while to stop feeling like a screw-up for messing up the Lenin visit, but I did some cool stuff: a river cruise, a cosmonaut museum and this gigantic (2km by 1km) old Soviet expo center. Lots of random, atmospheric discoveries. And I bought a new watch! It has a submarine on it. Hot diggity.


The author, reflected in a space helmet

Proletarian statues at VDNKH

So, tomorrow has a lot of pressure on it: I need to get in to see Lenin. I don't want to say the trip will be a failure if I don't, but it will. Just before midnight my train leaves for St Petersburg, arriving around 8am. Nifty timing. I'll probably check in by email before departure, though.

Still in Moscow

I saw two very exciting things in Moscow today.

1. A man named Lenin, who founded Soviet communism;

Lenin's Tomb.

2. A monkey named Anastasia, who has been in many magazine advertisements. She had her press clippings with her, and she would pose in a photo with you for $3. (No photos for free. This point was not left ambiguous by her manager.) I felt like I was meeting royalty. There's just a level of class in these Moscow showbiz monkeys that, say, Vladivostok showbiz monkeys simply cannot match.

Children with monkey.

Rubbish, right? Hope all is well. Obviously I am a profoundly changed man for those meetings, though only time will tell exactly how.

St. Petersburg

I'm about to charge out for the last day of this long odyssey. Actually, I'm not feeling very well. It was cold and rainy (sunny in the afternoon) yesterday, and I was out for a very long time. I probably have a head cold, but not a bad one, hopefully it'll clear up soon enough.

View from the ramparts of the Peter and Paul Fortress.

I'll spend most of the day at the Hermitage and most of the night in disbelief that I'll spend the next morning on an airplane.

Entrance of the Hermitage (on my way out).

Paintings of old generals.

A giant jade dish.

Anything's OK for Friday. I think I am going to have to buy some new socks at some point, though.

I woke up in a strange place is the work of Marc Heiden, born in 1978, author of two books (Chicago, Hiroshima) and some plays, and an occasional photographer.

Often discussed:

Antarctica, Beelzetron, Books, Chicago, College, Communism, Food, Internet, Japan, Manute Bol, Monkeys and Apes, North Korea, Oregon Trail, Outer Space, Panda Porn, Politics, RabbiTech, Shakespeare, Sports, Texas.


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Written by Marc Heiden, 1997-2011.