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     Volume 6 Issue 46 | November 30, 2007 |

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From Red Square to Tiananmen Square
A Trans-Siberian Tale

Hamid Rashid

Part 1

It was a childhood dream, or call it a fantasy. Like any child, I was fascinated by things big -- the tallest building, the longest bridge, the deepest lake. I don't remember how old I was when I first read about the Trans Siberian Railway, the longest railroad in the world. Probably, I was ten or so. I remember reading the story of a young Russian boy -- of my age then -- who travelled the Trans Siberian rail from somewhere in Siberia to St. Petersburg. His was an odyssey to seek pardon for his exiled father. It was a touching tale of a heroic boy, a fascinating adventure. Like he did, I also wanted to take the longest train ride. It had to wait many years, though.

The Trans Siberian rail was the pride of mother Russia and to some extent, it still is. The original route from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok spanned 9,440 kilometers, across two continents and 11 time zones. It was an engineering feat, a marvel of the Russian empire. Czar Alexander III conceived the idea to unite his empire, to exploit the resources of Siberia and to showcase economic progress in the Russian Far East. His son Nikolai at the time, the crown prince laid the foundation stone for the Trans Siberian rail in Vladivostok in 1893. This commenced a race against time. Russia was keen on finishing the railroad before the Paris World Expo in 1901. They managed to finish it on schedule. This was a remarkable achievement, especially if one takes into account the difficulties of laying tracks in the harsh terrains of Siberia.

Moscow - Red Square

My childhood dream to do the Trans Siberian trip finally found an expression this year. We were planning our honeymoon, soon after we got married in March. After discarding Bali, Phukhet, Venice and few other popular destinations for newlyweds, we started looking for something unconventional, out of the ordinary. A honeymoon, we felt, should not just be about hedonism and comfort. It should be about endurance, about testing the resilience of a relationship. On honeymoons, newly weds should chart unknown territory, take risks and face challenges. If they succeed in a “rough and tough” adventure, they could take it as a sign, a validation that they would succeed in their relationship too, which would be harder and tougher by many counts. This is how we reasoned and our minds converged. I blurted out, rather apprehensively, “how about doing the Trans Siberian?” I was not sure whether my wife would like the idea. But she did and said, “absolutely, let's do it.” I was thrilled. We agreed that it would be best to do the trip in July.

It became clear, from our internet searches that doing Moscow-Vladivostok or St-Petersburg-Vladivostok would not make much sense. Vladivostok the so-called Jewel of the Russian Pacific hardly had anything to offer. So, we decided to traverse the more popular track, what is known as the Trans Mongolian. This route takes you from Moscow to Beijing, via the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar.

We also learned, much to our dismay, that it is extremely difficult to get Trans Siberian tickets, especially during the peak months of July and August. There was also not so comforting news about the Russian visa requirements. Strangely, capitalist Russia still has the Soviet style “command and control” tourism industry. In order to visit Russia as a tourist, one is required to obtain a pre-paid voucher from an accredited tourist agency. The agent books the entire trip, including hotels and sightseeing. As thrill-seeking honeymooners, we were not excited at the prospect that a tour operator would dictate what we should and could do in Russia.

The Trans Siberian Rail

In no uncertain terms, we decided to dodge these rent-seeking travel agents. Luckily, I had contact both in the Russian embassy in Dhaka and our embassy in Moscow. Both were ready to extend the newly-weds a helping hand.

Knowing what to ask for, we comminuciated our requirements to our friend in Moscow. Among many others, one problem with the Russian Railway is that you can buy tickets only a maximum of 45 days in advance. Train numbers are critically important in Russia. The slower trains usually have three-digit numbers, the express trains single or two digits. Our first preference was to get two first class tickets on Train no. 10 the Baikal express, which runs between Moscow and Irkutsk and takes 77 hours. Unfortunately, all first class tickets on Baikal were sold out for all the dates we were looking for and we were not yet ready to travel second class and share a compartment with two strangers. So, our search continued and our friend in Moscow remained a true comrade.

We finally managed to get tickets on Train no. 80, which runs an express service between Moscow and Novosibirsk -- the third largest city in the Russian Federation. We bought separate tickets for Novosibirsk-Irkutsk, another 30 hours of train ride. But that did not yet connect the two dots Moscow and Beijing. We decided to leave it to fate and get on with the adventure. Skeptics cautioned us that we might get stuck in Siberia, or far worse in a Siberian Gulag. We said, so be it.

Once we had the visa and the train tickets up to Irkutsk the so-famed “Paris of Siberia,” there was nothing on earth to stop us. By early July, I was already in Europe for work. My wife was in Dhaka. We planned to fly to Moscow on the same day, around the same time to meet up there and begin our Trans Siberian marathon. After my wife had her tickets, I bought mine to fly into Moscow from Brussels. I was so excited to find a flight that would land in Moscow just five minutes after my wife's flight. But my friend in Moscow broke the bad news though we were landing in Moscow five minutes apart, we would actually land in two different airports, 70 kms away from each other. To my utter dismay, I learnt that the mega city of Moscow actually has four international airports.

Moscow - Kremlin

Moscow, here we come!

As my attempt to synchronize our arrival in the Russian capital suffered an unexpected blow, my friend suggested that he would arrange to pick up my wife first and then come to fetch me. This meant, I would be spending the first two hours of my Russian trip at the airport.

Sheremetyavo 2, the Moscow airport where my KLM flight from Brussels landed did not terribly impress me. I imagined it to be larger, cleaner and more upbeat. The Russian immigration officer, however, matched my expectation. She was a serious and athletic looking, a Soviet type who seemed to have been suffering from laugh-deprivation. I tried to feign a smile and say “Previet” - hello in Russian - to elicit some warmth from her. It certainly did not work. Apparently, immigration officials all over the world are cast from the same mould. They must keep a gloomy, serious-looking face at all cost.

It is not easy to travel on a Bangladeshi passport, especially as a tourist. Immigration officers all over the world tend to doubt our intentions, as if every Bangladeshi is hell-bent to become an illegal alien. Our passport especially its layout - only makes things worse for us. To my knowledge, Ours is the only passport in the world that poses a daunting challenge to finding key information such as name, passport number or date of birth of the passenger. Essential information is scattered over in five pages. Re-designing our passport should help us, at least a bit, to avoid the extra harassment or embarrassment in many international airports. Alternatively, we should have an attached instruction note on how to navigate our passport.

Irkutsk Rail Station

As soon as I came out through immigration and customs, I saw the free reign of the free market -- the Russian style. It was rather surprising to encounter so many burly Russian men asking whether I needed a taxi. It seems there was no fixed or fair fare. The system required one to negotiate and I did well, given my Bangladeshi upbringing. Even after much haggling, I paid roughly USD 30 to get to the Moscow city centre. My wife being an American paid USD 70 for her ride from the other airport, about the same distance from the city centre. I call it the bonus for being a brown guy. A brown man is expected to haggle and pay less.

Although, we had perfect miscommunication, we reached our hotel in Moscow's Treveskya street, just few minutes apart. Call it serendipity, call it a sheer coincidence. But I was so relieved to see my wife, checking in at the hotel. Later we compared our notes about the taxi drivers at the airport.

To be continued

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