The Matreshka Hotel in Irkutsk was value for money with the staff being extremely helpful. It was also, as I said before, the first time I could converse in English. I was comfortable in the room, yet sleep was not so easy. The marathon drive of 1000 km was ahead and maybe, the anxiety of doing that successfully weighed on the mind. I knew I would be able to do it comfortably if the road conditions were good. Sitting long hours behind the wheel is not a problem. I take only bio breaks and maybe one for a power nap. Food and drink are had on the go, in the car. Yet the mind was preoccupied enough to rob me of a peaceful sleep. I decided I would catch up in Krasnoyarsk!
I was ready for the expected 5 am start – it was raining and a wee bit cold when I came out of the hotel. I normally factor in 30 minutes to get out of city because the GPS has to get used to the directions and I have to find the many turns and exits that Google Maps throws at me so firmly. This day it was no different. As I got out of the hotel the direction was to turn right and when I did, it started to reroute! I quickly turned the car around. That’s another advantage of leaving early. With almost no vehicles on the road a couple of traffic transgressions will go unnoticed. However, thereafter there were no more glitches and I saved some time of the half hour allotted to exit the city.
I was looking forward to M53 or P255, the second of the three highways that constituted the Baikal Highway, which is part of the network that made up the Trans-Siberian Highway. The P255 is also part of AH6. I was sure that the road condition would get better as one approached Moscow. However, the P255 was a lot less enjoyable than the Amur Highway, about which I had read ghastly stories on the Internet. The road was under repair and construction in many places. It was a single carriageway almost through to Krasnoyarsk. With heavy freight traffic that made for poor speed. On top of that there were many Police speed checks as I was nearing Krasnoyarsk. About 120 km short of Krasnoyarsk I was waved down by a squad. The young constable showed me the radar gun that had clocked me at 97 kmph. I was passing through a village where the speed limit is invariably 50 kmph. I had missed the sign board. To tide over the situation I had to summon my acting talents yet again. The opening gambit, of course, was “I am from India and driving alone by car”. I was not prepared for the quick effect. He smiled and asked me to get back on the highway, to the utter consternation of his colleagues!
With the completion of the drive to Krasnoyarsk I have completed half the Trans-Siberian highway schedule two days ahead of the plan. 15000 km have been done in 28 days since setting out from Chennai on 13 May. It has been a marvelous expedition with challenges at unexpected places like the holdup at Mao Gate in Manipur and Hunchun in China. Where it was meant to be the toughest, the Amur Highway, turned out to be my best effort so far. And I was glad that I did the route from Vladivostok rather than from St Petersburg. It is better to get the tough out of the way first.
I did not have any difficulty cruising into the premises of Soft Hotel in Krasnoyarsk. As I was driving into the city I noticed that the hotel is based in the heart of the city. I was happy about that because I would be able to walk around a bit after the formalities in the hotel were done with. Krasnoyarsk is on both sides of the Enisey (or Yenisei) River and that makes for a fabulous setting. And it looked very alive. The city is the third largest in Siberia with a population of over a million – and that’s a lot of people in Russia! The other advantage for me was that I gained an hour. It was +7 GMT in the city against +8 in Irkutsk.
I had chosen the hotel for its location as well as secure car parking. That was all there but what I was not prepared for was the warmth I got at the reception of the Hotel. As usual I was asked for the passport and I signed in. Ulyana, who was at the reception, spoke fluent English and that made me more comfortable. I asked if she had a map of the city with prominent sights marked on it so that I could take a walk later in the evening. She printed one out and showed me where I could go. She also offered to accompany me on the walk if it was to be after 8 pm, when she broke off duty. That was a wonderful gesture and I would have someone who would be able to explain things to me. As it turned out she was a wonderful ‘guide’ who exemplified the Krasnoyarsk spirit of ebullient friendship.
Ulyana showed me into a very large room and told me that I had been ‘upgraded’. It was thrilling, to say the least, because it made me feel special! I had not had a proper meal the whole day and the stomach had got on to the growling mode when I went to the café in the hotel to order a meal. I picked on a chicken dish with mashed potato. Once I was done with it Ulyana announced that she was done with her shift.
The walk was exceptional not only for the sights of the city but more for the excellent company that Ulyana was. I have always regarded my expeditions as a means to meet fellow souls who travel with me through time and space. Meeting Ulyana in Krasnoyarsk reinforced my belief. She works as an English teacher in a private school and does part time assignments to supplement her income – to pay off her large loans, she said. Ulyana and I exchanged news of our families and talked about the city, its people, some philosophy (a lot of mine she would have found difficult to digest, I am sure!) as she walked with me on the lovely left bank of the Enisey River, the Theatre Square, etc.
Anton Chekov had famously described Krasnoyarsk as the most beautiful city in Siberia. During the walk with Ulyana I understood why he had remarked thus. People had a ready smile on their faces and the river bank showed up Krasnoyarsk for what it is – lively and friendly. The city had its beginnings as a Cossack outpost in the first quarter of the 17th century. It developed into a transport hub because of the river and later as an important junction of the Trans-Siberian railway system. It developed into an important cultural center in the 19th century. The city also became famous as a convict outpost in the 20th century. Some of the better known gulags are in the area. Now aluminum production from the region is what hogs the limelight.
It was tough taking leave of Ulyana with who the rapport had been instantaneous. She has been a translator for many Indian cultural troupes that have visited the city and therefore, has many Indian friends. They had helped her flavor Delhi and Punjab last year when she was on a teaching assignment in Shanghai, China. What she finds most interesting is the Indian belief in God. Back in the room I completed my documentation and changed hotel bookings around to accommodate the early arrival by two days. The problem I anticipate is in St Petersburg where an International Economic Conference is slated for the days I am in the city. The availability of hotel rooms is low and the tariff has gone through the roof. Anyway, that is a few days away and I intend to tackle that the best I can by then. I was also assured by Elvis D’cruz, my erstwhile colleague in DP World, that he would take care of the revision to ship the car from St Petersburg to Mundra. All these arrangements done I was ready to catch up on lost sleep in the comfortable bed of Soft Hotel in Krasnoyarsk.