Russia By Rail: One Last Look

Jan 14, 2012
Originally published on May 23, 2012 11:07 am

Six thousand miles. Seven time zones. And endless cups of hot tea.

NPR reporter David Greene along with producer Laura Krantz and photographer David Gilkey boarded the Trans-Siberian Railway in Moscow and took two weeks to make their way to the Pacific Ocean port city of Vladivostok.

Along the way, they got plenty of useful advice. Krantz remembers hearing from a geography professor in Moscow who told the NPR team to "use your intuition" when buying food on this trip. "You don't want to have troubles."

And Greene said he would always remember Yuri Bronnikov, a retired engineer, who they met while looking for a driver in the snow-covered city of Ulan-Ude, in eastern Siberia.

There, Bronnikov taught Greene how to dissect omul, the famous fish of Lake Baikal, the world's largest freshwater lake. In those frigid moments Greene recalls, "[Yuri's] warmth could somehow melt away the Siberian cold."

Gilkey said he felt intimidated by the challenge of illustrating the world's largest country.

"The things to do were amazing and the places to see were epic; but the people, the people are what made it all worth the effort," he said. While going through his outtakes, a photo gallery emerged with stark images capturing the strength and self-assuredness of the Russians.

"It was in their eyes. You could see that life is tough — nothing comes easy — but it has made them stronger," he said. "The adversity is always present — in life, in government, in the environment, but they march through it while holding on to a strong sense of the past."

You can relive the journey by visiting Russia by Rail: A View From Russia's Trans-Siberian Railroad.

And you can also see what The New York Times had to say about the project.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Six thousand miles, seven time zones and endless cups of hot tea. That's a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway.

NPR's David Greene just took that journey across Russia, from Moscow to the Sea of Japan, and he has this reporter's notebook.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANCE MUSIC)

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: I want to bring you into the dining car of our Trans-Siberian train. That's the dance music that blares from a radio on the bar. There are comfortable booths; it's a nice atmosphere. It seemed a perfect spot to sit down and write some of my stories from the trip.

But I was told no laptops in the dining car. And before you ask why, let me stop you. When traveling in Russia, you never ask why. This country thrives on chaos, uncertainty - inexplicable rules. Russians have learned to live that way. It's actually why, I think, many Russians find the U.S. pretty boring when they visit. Suffice to say, Russia is not the place to travel if you prefer printed-out itineraries, tour buses and Hiltons. You must expect the unexpected.

OK, so back to the dining car.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANCE MUSIC)

GREENE: Another of their rules: no food. Like in so many Russian restaurants, the menu here is merely suggestions for things that might sound tasty, in theory, if they were actually in stock. Once you read over the menu, a server will typically break the news that the kitchen tonight is only serving one thing - borscht. You come to understand why so many veteran passengers avoid the dining car. And that's not a bad thing because relationships are actually built by sharing food in the passenger compartments.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATION AND LAUGHTER)

GREENE: In the friendlier atmosphere outside the dining car, the menu included cabbage rolls, smoked cheese, Belarusian sausage and horseradish mixed with sour cream. And so, the train speeds along, 24 hours a day, making whistle-stops at towns large and small.

(SOUNDBITE OF A TRAIN AND SCRAPPING)

GREENE: We just pulled over in the city of Omsk. And the train attendants are cleaning snow off the bottoms of train cars. People are selling cigarettes and beer along the train platforms. It is freezing. But it's a nice breath of fresh air for 15 minutes or so. Sad, we can't go in and see the city of Omsk, but it's time to get back on the train and head to our next stop, which is Ulan Ude, near Lake Baikal.

Lake Baikal, it's the world's largest freshwater lake - this massive and majestic landmark in eastern Siberia. And it's one of the places I decided to get off the train for more than a few hours and get some reporting done. This is where I met Yuri Bronnikov, a retired engineer.

YURI BRONNIKOV: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: We were looking for a driver. And Bronnikov, he was looking for a few extra rubles and so we got to know one another. He ended up teaching me how to dissect Omul. That's the famous fish of Lake Baikal.

Where shall we go? On the snow?

BRONNIKOV: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: His classroom was a patch of snow along the shore.

BRONNIKOV: (Through Translator) You cut out whatever it has inside.

GREENE: Like the bad stuff?

BRONNIKOV: (Through Translator) Yes, you cut out something which is not tasty.

GREENE: This journey marked the end of my two-year assignment in Russia. And I'm always going to remember people like Yuri, whose warmth could somehow melt away the Siberian cold. I've left a country that's going through a difficult transition.

There've been anti-government protests recently, and a sense that Russia under Vladimir Putin is still struggling to find its identity, two decades after the Soviet collapse. Maybe the fact that I was leaving Russia is the reason I kept playing this song on the long train rides. It's called "Eta V'sor," and in Russian means "That's All."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ETA V'SOR")

YURI SHEVCHUK: (Singing in foreign language)

GREENE: The singer is a Russian rocker named Yuri Shevchuk. And the interview I did with him last year really sticks in my mind. Shevchuk performs at anti-government rallies and he's pleaded with Russia's government to do more for its citizens. But he points out that Russia's citizens aren't sold yet on the idea of democracy.

A lot of Shevchuk's fans interpret this song you're hearing as the musician saying: That's all, I've done everything I can for my country, big changes may come well after my time.

David Greene, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ETA V'SOR")

SHEVCHUK: (Singing in foreign language) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.