Trans-Siberian discoveries: graffiti, waltzing, toilets, and subways

We took the train from Beijing, China all the way west to Odessa, Ukraine, making several stops along the way. We found surprises at every stop. Here's what we discovered.

BEIJING, CHINA: When we arrived at Beijing's Temple of Heaven Sunday morning, we had a choice of tickets: full entrance to the temple, or only to the surrounding park. Why would anybody come all the way here, and not see the temple, we wondered aloud, as we bought the full tickets. Our ears were filled with music as we entered, but then we spotted a crowd of older adults working out in a field full of brightly-colored outdoor gym machines. We had to check it out. We'd seen these machines elsewhere in China, but this was the first time we saw them in use. And what use! About 75 elderly men and women were busy working out on colorful exercise equipment, often alongside their grandchildren. Their enthusiasm was contagious, and all thoughts of the temple disappeared as we scaled parallel bars, balanced on beams, and hopped, jumped and kicked up a frenzy on the walking machines. The exercise park was built to bring fitness to the masses as part of the 2008 Olympic games; it was clearly seeing more use than the massive empty Olympic stadiums we saw later that week.

On a cold Shanghai night, we'd dragged Charlie out to a neighbourhood park, lured by rumors that we'd see locals waltzing. We eventually found twenty older women who'd braved the cold to get their daily dose of exercise to pop music; we were impressed by their resilience, but it wasn't the waltzing we'd hoped to see. For that, we had to wait for the Temple of Heaven Park. As we left the exercise park, we walked toward the music, and finally saw what we'd missed in Shanghai. Over a hundred people were waltzing outdoors, some with partners and others in solitary motion. The music came out of a boom box on wheels. It was an atmosphere that made one's mind soar and filled one's heart with happiness. In the midst of this megacity, we'd found an oasis of joy and movement and community. But there was more to come. As we weaved between buildings, we encountered even more locals pursuing their favorite artistic hobbies on a Sunday morning. There were multiple choruses (complete with conductor and band), several people on mikes practicing Chinese opera, and a few brave souls belting out more modern karaoke numbers. And next to them, an uncountable number of seniors sitting along the edges of the corridors, playing cards in silence. Amidst all of the aural delight, visual delight came in the form of a few older men and women creating temporary calligraphy with water and big brushes on the very paths that we were walking. It was surreal. This imperial compound had been open to the masses, and they had made it their own.

ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA: We emerged out of the downtown subway at dawn, to find ourselves in front of a massive collonade, and streets littered with broken glass bottles and other evidence of nighttime revelry. We passed groups of young men and women hanging out in their cars at the 24-hour cafe. One of the guys, to whom the coffee had done no good, grabbed Anirvan's hand. It unnerved us, but he was friendly. Were we from India, he asked. He smiled, told us how Goa was his happy place, and let us on our way. We crossed the canal, the water shimmering below us in the morning light. The griffins guarding the four corners of the bridge stood lonely and proud. Over the next two days, we would see them being groped by hundreds of tourists, each in search of the perfect unique griffin shot to send home. Beyond the bridge was our apartment. We were led from the street into the courtyard and then our door. The courtyard's inside walls were full of graffiti--colorful, and similar to what we had seen from the train. We talked about our reactions to this; in a different context, we might have wondered if this was the wisest choice of accommodations, but here, it had struck both of us as being simply beautiful. We were eager to go explore the city. We stepped out that afternoon to a sunny, but cool, day. The streets had been cleared of broken glass. We were headed to the Hermitage, one of the finest museums in the world, but a wrong turn threw us into crowds of people just walking on the street, enjoying the sun, a surprising number of them with single red roses in their hands and an equal number eating ice cream. We walked past stately well-kept old buildings, beautiful despite housing the likes of Pizza Hut and McDonald's.

We saw a hint of graffiti down a small side path. Intrigued, we walked through the tunnel-like entrance, into an apartment courtyard. Nothing could have prepared us for the burst of color and imagery that adorned the walls. We discovered first one, then dozens, and finally hundreds of colorful pieces of graffiti inside the courtyard. It felt like we'd stumbled into a street art wonderland, populated with large tags, cartoon figures, English and Russian slogans, and stencil art, in a variety of styles and shapes. This had clearly become a de facto neighborhood art space. We explored, gasping at every bend, as we discovered that there was yet more visual goodness ahead.

Residents came and went. Teenagers hung out with their friends, drivers parked and left, grandmothers opened their street-level doors and chatted. This wasn't downwardly-mobile bombed-out public housing -- it was just another set of older apartments near the city center, where residents lived their lives in the midst of a frenzy of living color. We later asked the Swiss woman from whom we were renting our apartment what she thought of courtyard graffiti. In her weak, but charming, English, she explained that she disliked it when her building's street-facing front wall was defaced, but liked the way graffiti artists transformed the otherwise bland spaces inside the open courtyard. That made sense to us -- preserving historical exteriors, while enjoying the living art within St. Petersburg's informal urban art spaces.

SIBERIA, RUSSIA: When we landed in Siberia, we headed straight to Listvyanka, a Siberian town of a few thousand people on the shore of Lake Baikal. We'd be doing a homestay with a Russian woman who spoke no English, and lived in a traditional local home -- including an outdoors toilet. An outdoors toilet in Siberia: we couldn't possibly be any less excited. And we couldn't have been more wrong. The toilet was a sparkling clean and odor-free compost toilet, inside a lovely insulated wooden structure. There was toilet paper, a lighter (presumably for smoking on the pot), a fuzzy toilet seat cover, and zero water wastage. What more could we want? We stayed in that house for three days, and were surprised at how simple and drama-free the toilet was. (Our biggest irritation was having to put on our shoes and jacket to step out to the toilet in the snow, but even that faded away quickly.) Siberia was beautiful, but if there's something practical we'll take home, it's a newfound appreciation for compost toilets; if the opportunity were to arise, we'd absolutely consider using a modern compost toilet in our home.

MOSCOW, RUSSIA: We're both fans of public transit, something we discovered the first time we met; we talked about our favorite AC Transit bus line (the 51) the first time we had dinner, and celebrated a subway-accessible wedding a year and a half later. On Anirvan's birthday, we took a joy ride on the BART's yellow line, getting off at every station to look around and take pictures. There's much to see in Moscow, but for us, discovering the art and architecture of Moscow's underground subway stations was a high point of our visit. Our Trans-Siberian booking agency had recommended a tour of the Moscow underground. The metro had been bombed by terrorists two weeks before we arrived in Russia, but things seemed to be back to normal by the time we arrived. We were able to walk around freely and take pictures to our heart's content. We were thankful in our our own small way, because what we saw blew our minds. The spaces were massive, clad with marble and granite, and filled with bronze sculptures, intricate mosaics and glowing stained glass. Such grandeur is rarely seen in public construction these days and definitely not with the scale and numbers that existed within this underground system.

The stations had been constructed through the Soviet period, from the 1930s onward. They were very well-maintained, including the complicated statues, murals, and wall panels that cost-conscious planners would never allow for today. Many stations celebrated Soviet-era themes. It felt like being in a museum, but with thousands of people rushing through on their way to and from work. Even in that rush they managed to rub the noses and paws of the bronze dogs, apparently for good luck; in some places, the station art was still relevant to the modern Muscovite. Apart from the artwork, our favorite subway moment was the deep descent into the system. The escalators zoomed down a warm wood clad tunnel in an atmosphere that can only be described as "futuristic." We read somewhere that the older stations were built deeper so they could double as bomb shelters. Once it was understood that this wouldn't work very well, station depths were reduced. Looking at the subway stations was a peek into a different age, and we were delighted that Muscovites had preserved it, Soviet themes intact.

1 Comment

lovely summary! I love the observations of park use and public appropriation of space. And graffitti - it's meaning is so different in that context! As usual your photos are gorgeous, and the writing is lovely (but did you hear that AC transit has changed the 51 line? they did a *big* reorganization of the lines this spring).

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About us...

We're a landscape architect (Barnali) and tech geek (Anirvan) from San Francisco spending a year trying to travel across continents aviation-free while talking to people exploring solutions to transportation and the climate crisis.

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