We have been in Leipzig for a few days now, but the wifi in our apartment isn’t working. We hope to be back online soon!
A normal day.
Up at work time (7.30ish) to be picked up at 9 am. Catch the train to Moscow. Only 1700 km to go (like Brisbane to Melbourne).
The train ride is uneventful. More small villages, wooden houses, modest living (to our eyes). Lots of mighty rivers that we traverse with very significant bridges. Have I said before, “I think the Russians can do bridges?”
The compartment we are in has a few nicer touches than our earlier trains. The seats are nicer. Table is bigger. There is a power point. But, that’s about it.
As we are driven to the railway station to start the final leg of our trans-Siberian journey, we are surprised to see that it has snowed overnight. We drive through the streets, glad that we are warm and dry.
I mentioned in an earlier post that there are different standards of trains on the route. This one is the nicest by a long way, and I am glad that we are having this on the last leg, rather than the first. I think if we’d had things the other way around, we would have been disappointed, but this way, we are appreciating the luxury rather than bemoaning the lower standards.
This was an uneventful part of the journey. I spent a lot of time reading.
So, I might share some photos of the street art we’ve seen along the way…
Oh, and I thought I’d update you on the shower situation.
Let’s see…Listvyanka – a hand-held shower that had a ‘trigger’ on the handle, so you had to hold it with one hand in order to get the water out. Not ideal
Ekaterinburg – nice, but it was a shower over a very deep bath, so you needed to be really careful getting in and out.
So, the best so far has been the hotel in Ulaanbataar, but I am now managing to actually get a shower when I think I might. Which is an improvement.
Our itinerary for today from our travel agents, Flower Travel, Melbourne, listed a few options from which we could choose. I can’t remember what they all were, I think one of them had to do with the assassination of the Romanovs, and a couple of others weren’t available to us because it was the wrong season. So we chose “Siberian Countryside and Historic Village”, which sounded interesting enough.
The day proved to be inspiring, to say the least. We were taken by Constantin, the owner of a local travel agency out to the village of Aramashevo, about 120 km north-east of Ekaterinburg. Along the way, we were treated to wonderful views of the countryside, and a wide-ranging and fascinating conversation with Constantin, covering topics from current politics to Australian indigenous issues, to his passion for the countryside and way of life, to what it’s like to run a small business in Russia, oh, and 1970s pop group Smokey. Apparently they’re huge in Russia!
We arrived in Aramashevo and were honoured to be introduced to Vera Reymova. This amazing woman is a retired school teacher and former director of the museum in her village. We met Vera at the village church, a beautiful building which is still being renovated after it was damaged during Soviet times and had its bell hurled down a nearby cliff into the river below. Vera and her husband were the initiators and main organisers of this amazing work, which they began in 2005. They and the church have been the subject of a Russian television program, and they have received financial support from the local government and generous donors. Even more importantly, important icons which were hidden, at great risk, by villagers during the times of the persecution of the church in Russia, have slowly come to light and been returned to the church, which has been a source of a great deal of joy. The Orthodox Church celebrates Easter on this coming Sunday, and it was indeed inspiring to hear this story of resurrection during Holy Week.
As if that wasn’t enough, Vera and her husband have also been pivotal in the renovation of two houses, and their development as a place for education about village life in the region in earlier times. We were shown the ‘summer house’ and the ‘winter house’, and told the story of how both of them were partially submerged in mud, and how Vera and her husband, along with volunteers who helped them, undertook the work of restoring them to their former glory. Of particular significance were the paintings of the walls. Vera told us that not all families could afford to have their homes painted by the travelling painters who would call, offering their services. Sometimes, they could only afford to have the door painted. However, Vera remembered that her home had been decorated in this way, including the ceilings, and remembers waking up every morning to see the paintings of flowers on the ceiling, and the joy that would bring her. Vera told us the significance of the design, which reflected the philosophy of the circle of life and the importance of family.
Vera has been recognised for the work that she has done, and the museum created by the two houses has received a federal government award. She told us the story of how her usual religious newsletter was not delivered one week, and instead she received something else. On the back of it, there was a notice about applying for this particular award, and that there was only a week until the applications closed. Her granddaughter helped her with the application, and their project won the award, along with a grant to help complete the restoration of the houses. Without it, they would not have been able to employ the specialist painters who replicate the designs and styles of earlier times.
Vera served us afternoon tea in one of the houses, and showed us how they teach children who come to weave. Vera didn’t join us in the feast she had prepared for us, because she was fasting for Lent. She then dressed JB and I up in traditional costumes – 200 years old, she told us! – and we had our photos taken. I’m sure I look very authentic in my glasses! A special gift as we left was the blessing she gave us on our way. An amazing woman, whose passion for her church, her village, and a disappearing way of life has enriched the lives of many people. What an inspiration.
Many, many Russians have a ‘summer house’ that they escape to when the weather is warm. It is usually a short drive from the city, and they may move there for the whole summer, or just head there for weekends. It enables them to fully enjoy the brief period of time when the outdoors is actually hospitable, and many ‘dachnik’ have a garden which supplies them with fruit and vegetables, and the chance to connect with their ‘inner peasant’. In the village where we visited Vera, one third of the population is now dachniks.
And, finally, a half-way decent coffee! Actually, a very decent coffee, if a little on the cool side for me. We didn’t need much to eat after the feast in Aramashov, but stopped off at Traveler’s Coffee (thanks, Ellen, for sussing it out for me!) was much appreciated, even though I accidentally ordered an espresso first. Gotta watch exactly where you’re pointing on the menu!
Constantine, our driver who picked us up at the train, picks us up at9.30 am for a ‘countryside Siberian experience.’ This could be anything!It turns out that after a 1 hour drive north into the Urals, we meet a Russian woman who is the ‘lightning rod’ for initiating the rebuilding/resurrection of an old Russian Orthodox stone church from the 18th century that was partly destroyed by the Bolsheviks after 1917.
This is a story of commitment, faith, perseverance, and cannot be heard without being affected by it. I am.She has also been responsible for initiating a small museum in her village. This example has provided the impetus for many other similar museums in ohter villages in the region.
We experience the food, the living quarters, and particularly revealing, some of the social milieu of the time.
Home at around 5 pm. Annette wants a coffee, I want tea. We go and do both.
After this, we venture into a multi-storey shopping centre that is like several in Melbourne. Half of the shops have names in English. A supermarket is attached. It is huge, open 24 hours a day, with, to our eyes, lots of quirks. For example, liquor is on the same site. Beer of varying types is available on tap, and will be supplied into your own bottle.
Home to bed.
PS. Ekaterinburg is attempting to b e host city for World Expo 2020. Good luck!
We have 2 whole days in this city. It is May 1. Maria (a student in linguistics) takes us on a walking tour of the CBD.
There is a May Day parade, with many United Russia apparatchiks giving out balloons and the like. Its nice to be present to see this parade.
We travel past several notable and famous locations:
– the (ex) local KGB headquarters
– the Russian Orthodox Church built on the site of where the Romanovs were killed (which we didn’t get a good photograph of!)
– the statue of General Zhukov
– The Afghanistan War memorial (called Black Tulip)
– the examples of Russian military hardware
Many less obvious observations can be made. There are a great number of statues celebrating men of great (or is it?) intellect in Russian history. Who are these men? We are yet to find out, but it is evident that this is ‘sort of ‘ what is being celebrated.
The street art, here and elsewhere, has been impressive. Annette has taken many photos of examples we have seen.
In the afternoon, we go out walking and get caught in cold, rainy weather. We, amongst other things, go to the highest building, pay the obligatory charge, and view the city. At the time it seems it was also being used for wind tunnel testing. But I might be wrong.
In the evening we go to a restaurant suggested. It is a Uzbek style restaurant and cuisine. Similar to Turkish. I am probably being a bit of a philistine saying that, but I hope it gives the reader an idea.
That’s all for now.
We arrived in Ekaterinburg/Yekaterinburg late last night, and we were taken to the Chekov Hotel. Not that Chekov has anything to do with Ekaterinburg, according to our hosts. The hotel is in a great location. The main attractions of the city are all within reasonable striking distance, and we are across the road from a park. The hotel itself is very nice. It is obviously aiming for ‘genteel’ (even though they let us in!), and there are lots of nice little things about it – lovely decor, a booking service for theatre/ballet/opera in town, very comfortable beds…a wonderful place to stop after 2 days on the train.
We were met by our guide, Maria, an about-to-graduate linguistics student, and we set off on a reasonably chilly day. One thing we hadn’t been aware of when we booked our holiday is that May 1st and 2nd are significant holidays, and many of the museums were, unfortunately, closed for the 2 days we were here. Never mind, there were other compensations....like the Labour Day parade! Groups of people marching down the street in honour of Workers of all kinds, all to the stirring strains of music playing from the loudspeakers along the route. I almost felt proud to be a Russian myself! Later we were told that these parades have become a bit of a propaganda exercise for Mr. Putin’s party, but what the heck. I still appreciated the bunch of blue and white balloons I was handed by a representative of the Untied Russia Party. They’ve got my vote!
Ekaterinburg is in a significant spot at the border of Europe and Asia and in the Ural Mountains, an area with an enormous mining economy, mining precious and semi-precious stones and any number of minerals. It is a city of about 2.2 million people, and it is aiming to host the World Expo in 2020. Apparently it has historically been a ‘liberal’ city in Russia, and it has a significant cultural life. Not that we saw any performances of anything, because of the holidays! Its other claim to ‘fame’ is as the place where the last Russian Tsar and his family were assassinated during the Russian Revolution in 1918. There is now an enormous cathedral, the Church of the Blood on the site of the murder, and the whole family are now recognised as saints in the Russian Orthodox Church.Ekaterinburg also houses a military training academy, and used to have a closed community where KGB members lived, with a communal dining area and facilities for their families such as schools and a medical centre. These are now regular apartments and shops. Gold was discovered here in the early 19th century, and the gold rush (the first in history) provided the area with significant wealth. As a result, there are a number of fine buildings from that period, and newer buildings that copy the style of those times. One of the period homes is available for Mr. Putin when he’s in town, but he has only stayed there once.
After our walk with Maria, we headed for the skyscraper she had told us had a viewing platform, in the increasingly cold, wet, windy weather. Perhaps the un-roofed 52nd floor viewing area wasn’t the best place to be, but boy, did we know we were alive! Funnily enough, we found that the most fascinating things to see were all on the side of the building protected by the wind. Who would’ve thought?
We also returned to a couple of the places we’d been with Maria because our camera battery had died 5 minutes into our walk with her. The most moving and memorable was the Black Tulip monument, a memorial to the Russian soldiers who died in Afghanistan in the 10 years that they were involved there. In my opinion, this is how you do a war memorial.
At the end of a cold, bleak day, dinner in the Uzbecki restaurant recommended to us by Constantin (more about him tomorrow) was perfect – warm and just spicy enough to send us out feeling toasty inside and out.
As an added bonus, the hotel has excellent wifi, so here, finally, is an opportunity to catch up with some blog entries. Hope you’re enjoying them!
Today is probably the least interesting day trainwise, so I thought I’d just offer up some odds and ends, especially as there are some things we might not have explained for anyone who doesn’t know. So here they are, in no particular order:
No matter where in Russia the train is, times of arrival and departure are always Moscow time. In our travels, we first needed to go back by two hours for Beijing and Mongolia, then forward an hour for Listvyanka, then back three hours for Yekatarinburg. We’ll then go back two hours for Moscow and St. Petersburg time, and back again (two hours? I’ve lost track!) for Leipzig.
Travelling on the train:
Life on the train has been much quieter for us than we imagined. We have only had someone else in the compartment, so far, for the trip between Ulaanbataar and Irkutsk, and Igor was not feeling very well so we didn’t talk very much at all. There are three options for travel; a double berth, a berth for 4 (which we’ve had) or platkartsky, a big carriage where everyone is pretty much in together. In our cabin there is plenty of room for storing our bags under the seat and above the door. A mattress, pillow, sheets and a handtowel are provided. The cabin has a little table attached to the window: some of them drop down, others are fixed. The carriages are kept very warm!
The trains are operated by private companies, and vary in the quality of their service, the speed at which they travel, and the number and lengths of stops they make. Each carriage in the train has its own provodnitsa, an attendant who keeps everything clean and tidy, makes sure no one is being disruptive, and sells a few odds and ends like chocolate, and keeps the samovar boiling. That’s right, in every Russian train there is an honest to goodness samovar with a real fire boiling underneath it to supply boiling water at all times. This means that many people bring dehydrated food that only needs the addition of boiling water for their meals.
One thing that I noticed at our first stop in Ulaanbataar was that I felt like I was swaying when I get off the train and stopped moving. A bit like when you go to the beach for the day and come home feeling a like you’re still in the waves.
Stuff we’ve found out:
The guidebooks and internet pages will tell you that the stations where the trains stop are full of babushkas selling their delicious home-make wares to satisfy the pangs of all hungry travellers. Now, maybe its because we’re not here in the busy season, but we have not seen this once. Neither have we found the dining car to be the ‘life and soul’ of the train. When we’ve been there, there have only been one or two others in there.
Egge was keen to tell us that often guidebooks will tell you that Ulaanbataar is full of drunks in the street. She said that there was a problem a few years ago, but the government has done a lot to fix things, and it is relatively unusual to see people drunk in the street.
This might seem obvious, but here goes. I guess I expected monocultures wherever we’ve gone. I mean, it’s ok for Melbourne to have varieties of cuisines available in restaurants, right? We’re a multi-cultural city. What is surprising are the Irish pubs in Ulaanbataar, and the Uzbecki restaurants in Ekaterinburg, and the Italian restaurants in Beijing. No reason why they shouldn’t be there, but a wake-up for me nonetheless.
Pretentious Melbourne coffee drinkers (do you know any?) might be frustrated between Melbourne and Ekaterinburg. There is a very fancy coffee place in Ekaterinburg, which almost made me weep. They have pourovers! It’s called Travelers Coffee, in case you’re ever in town.
Pollution from garbage is everywhere – Mongolian plains, Lake Baikal, distant Siberian villages…we saw the flotsam and jetsam of 20th century human life everywhere, and not in small quantities.
So, any questions? We’re happy to answer anything you might be wondering about….
And here are some photos that I like, but haven’t found a place to put them:
Probably the most dreary of train travel days.
Good news. We work out how to open the window in our cabin. We then appreciate smoke is coming in through the vents.
Annette’s trusty ‘all purpose solution’ – duct tape – to the rescue. We use this to block the vents. These 2 thiings make the rest of this very long stage of the journey manageable.
The weather is now changing. Some bands of rain (wind).
We’ve seen enough silver birch trees to last a lifetime.
Knock-knock loses its fun after a while – say 2 minutes – in this environment.
Still, monotony can be thereapeutic. It allows one to think about non-immediate matters readily.
By the end of today, we have been on a train for about 52 hours. A few breaks. We have travelled about 3300 km to Ekaterinburg.
This is a regional city, probably comparable to Brisbane in size.
We arrive at 11 pm local time and are taken by Constantine to our hotel. It is probably the nicest hotel I have ever stayed in. The Hotel Chekov.
Bed awaits. It’s funny, after over 2 days on the train, who needs sleep? We haven’t’ done anything. Yet I sleep very well.
We’re still on the train, ploughing towards our next stopover arriving there tomorrow night. The scenery is constant. Silver birch trees. Some burnt sections of grass. Some water logged ground. The occasional overtly industrial town.
Gaining an appreciation for the size of Russia. There are km posts indicating the distance to Moscow. Just passed 4180 (km to go to Moscow). Not quite half way.
We had a pretty awful night last night. The air felt thick with smoke, and JB was up and down all night. There is a small dormer window in the cabin, but JB says he asked the provodnitsa if we could open it and he said no. JB’s strategy is to go and stand in the corridor near a window he has surreptitiously opened. It’s ok. I don’t mind being a trans-Siberian widow.
This is, indeed, a relatively uninteresting part of the journey. Dee and Martin described it as being like a National Geographic movie – a very nice one- played on high rotation. Small villages, lots of freight trains, some bigger towns that are relatively unremarkable as far as we can tell from here, endless taiga forests, and silver birch trees. Lots and lots of silver birch trees. Did anyone see that Monty Python sketch about Venice? Kind of like the gondolas.
The mighty phrase book swung into action today when we asked about opening the window once more, and the provodnistsa came and unlocked it for us. We are now breathing relatively fresh air. One of the things I tossed in at the last minute was a roll of duct tape, and we have used it to tape up the vents in our door that are letting in the smoke. Just call us McGyver. I’m thinking I might use this time to reflect on the journey thus far. We passed the half-way point between Beijiing and Moscow today, marked by the tiniest ‘obelisk’, well, more of a painted white rock really. I might also mention some of the things we’ve come to take for granted, but which might fill you in a bit on what the journey is like for us.
The only other thing that happened today of any note was that we missed an opportunity to get out at Novisibirsk and have a walk around. The train stopped there at about midnight, although times are a bit all over the place as we travel. Suffice it to say, we decided we’d ‘nap’ only about 45 minutes before we were about to arrive there, thinking that the train pulling into the station, along with our wide open blind on the window would wake us up. Unfortunately, I snapped awake about 10 minutes before we were about to depart the station, so we missed out on seeing what is apparently a beautiful station, with a statue of a family waving goodbye, commemorating all the people who left from this station to fight in The Great Patriotic War (1941-1945). Oh well, maybe next time…
I was quite sad to say goodbye to this special place – Listvyanka and the beautiful Lake Baikal. I had harboured thoughts of going to church here, but as their service was at 8.30, and I would have had to walk for 20 minutes to get there, I wimped out.
We were picked up at 11 with Cindy and Kingsley, and driven to Irkutsk, where we left our bags at the hotel in which they were going to stay the night. They were going on a guided tour of the city with Lianna, but that wasn’t included in our package, so Lianna provided us with a map and some suggestions, and we wandered through the town.
It was Sunday, and another beautiful sunny day. Apparently the temperature was 19 degrees, and we both got a little bit sunburnt. I swear that all that propaganda about Siberia being cold and uninviting is just to keep the tourists away!
We headed away from the hotel towards the church. Being the Sunday before Easter, and the beginning of Holy Week,. it was a special day for the churches. The services were over, but many people were going in to the churches to pray, taking a bunch of what looked like pussywillow with them. Lianna had told us it was something to do with the particulars of the last Sunday before Easter, and we could only guess that it was a local version of ‘Palm’ Sunday. I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to know what the Sunday before Easter is in Orthodox faith, but I’ve forgotten. My apologies to my liturgy lecturer! I did remember that Saturday is Lazarus Saturday!
Irkutsk sits on the Angara river, and there is a kind of promenade along the riverbank which was filled with families and ways to relieve families of their money. There was a donkey ride, but also what looked like some kind of reindeer, and a couple of carriages pulled by ponies, one of which looked like it had come straight out of Cinderella. There were balloons on a stick for sale, and little cars big enough for one small child whose parents were handed a remote control and allowed to go for it. I wasn’t entirely sure whether it was pleasure or punishment.
Lianna had given us a suggestion for a place to go for lunch, and we headed there. All around us the city was bustling with people, especially the market that we walked past. Mamochka was a delight, a really cute little place that was built with small tables in little nooks and crannies, with interesting art on the walls and things like teapots displayed on shelves around the place. It would have been at home in Clifton Hill or Daylesford, if it wasn’t for the coffee. Oh my goodness, 12 days in and I am hankering for a Melbourne coffee. The food was delicious though.
We hard started following a tourist trail, with explanatory boards at each point, but we had left it to go to Mamotchka. We headed back in the vague direction of the hotel, where we would be picked up to be taken to the station. On the way, we went in to the obligatory Optometrist (open on a Sunday, they know how to work, unlike some slackers) and JB was finally able to make himself understood in an international optometry practice, courtesy of the trusty phrase book. The optometrist kindly showed us around, although her English was as non-existent as our Russian, but they basked in the warmth of their collegiality. Or something.
We were lucky to catch up with Kingsley when we returned for our bags, although Cindy was resting in their room. They heading to Moscow tomorrow on the Rossiya, the best of the ‘standard’ trains. We were taken to the station and arrived just a minute or two before the train, and we were aboard once more. Once again, we seem to have a cabin to ourselves, but the pleasure of that is a bit diminished by the fact that we are close to the area where people go to smoke, and we seem to be surrounded by chain smokers! I’m finding it a bit unpleasant, but JB is not coping very well at all. Oh well, it’s all part of the deal. This is the longest stretch we’ll spend on the train – just over 2 days, and we gain 3 hours. Apparently, this is also the least interesting part of the journey, so I’m looking forward to the opportunity to catch up with the blog and get some reading done.
Time to pack up.
We have breakfast and are picked up at 11 am, saying farewell to this very impressive part of the world. We are surprised how few people seem to be aware of its existence.
Off to Irkutsk, the administrative centre for this region, and where we rejoin the train. We spend the day being tourists, taking photos. A few nice churches and interesting old wooden buildings. That’s about all!
Back on the train at about 6.10 pm. A long stretch on the train now. We have the cabin to ourselves BUT smoke becomes a real hassle for me. I am agitated.
Another day of great sunny weather/ We are picked up late morning to go to the Taltsi Wood Museum. We have an hour there. It is enough. It is worth a look. Log cabins. Like the ‘wild west’. Shutters on windows.
Ice is noticeably melting on the ground. Even the lake is changing. Apparently the ice is usually gone by the 28th. Predictions are 1 week, it will be absent.
With some cajoling I go with AB, Kingsley and Cindy on a hovercraft ride. The ride was easy to deal with. The tricky part was on and off; particularly on.
In the evening we climbed a local walking track, which took 1 hour. It is in the location of a ski run. Great view and it gave us our exercise for the day/week.
That’s not true. We’ve been walking lots. Sleeping well as a consequence.
Today I decided I’d had enough of feeling too hot. I know that sounds bizarre, b but I came prepared to rug up against the cold, and everywhere we’ve gone, we have come across overenthusiastic heating. Not only that, the thermals and fancy merino socks I’d been wearing had kept me too warm against the cold, and so I just wanted to feel cool for a change.
And the weather was changing. Today I realised how differently Spring is heralded in a place like Siberia. You can hear the melting snow and ice filling streams that rush and gurgle along. You could hear the ice cracking as you walked along the shore of the lake, and see the difference between particular formations yesterday and today. The ice, where it met the shoreline, was noticeably slushier. The vast lake, which had seemed to be covered by a single sheet of ice, now appeared to have pockets where the ice had melted, or was significantly thinner. No quad biking for anyone today!
We didn’t head out early in the day today because John wasn’t feeling all that well. I took the opportunity to catch up with some of this blog, which has been a bit of a difficulty at times. I also needed to get a little bit of washing done, and I went down to Reception to see how I could organise that. On the way, I met a very smiley woman about our age who spoke not a word of English, but using my phrase book I’d managed to say something about laundry. It turned out that she was the person who did it, so we headed off together to our room, with her trying to explain to me the whole time who this would work, and when it would be back. I just stared back at her, shrugging my shoulders, and probably looking more and more like a fish out of water. We both started to giggle, and passed the phrase book back and forth without getting anywhere much. She was having trouble reading the small print, and bent down to get some better light, when I had an inspiration. There is a page in the phrase book called ‘How to sound like a local’ with phrases like ‘Sure’, or ‘Wait a minute’. The last one is ‘It’s a nightmare’, and when I bent over to point that out to her, we both almost fell on the floor laughing. We finally worked out when she’d get the laundry back to me, and she gave me a hug, and headed off, still talking nine to the dozen, both of us wiping tears from our eyes.
We visited the Taltsy Wooden Museum, which has a collection of original wooden buildings from all over Siberia. There was a significant amount of work being done on some replica buildings as well. It was a fascinating little place, set up like a village. The wooden houses were largely made of huge logs, and some of them were surrounded by a fence and included a barn and a kind of courtyard. They were all decorated with beautifully worked wood, and had the traditional brightly painted wooden shutters. As well as the houses and farmsteads, there was a couple of different churches, a police station, a school and a restaurant. There were people in some of the buildings in costume, no doubt ready to speak to anyone who understood Russian. We only had an hour their, but I would have liked to stay longer. There was a section that had dwellings of the Buryat people, the indigenous people of the area, who were nomadic and lived in yurts, much like the Mongolian gers, and we didn’t even get to see those. There was a number of what looked like school groups there, which surprised us on a Saturday.
We knew that Kingsley and Cindy were being taken for a hike and a picnic lunch, and we arranged to meet them afterwards. The village was noticeably busier, because today was Saturday. Listvyanka is a place that people from Irkutsk might go to for a weekend, or a day trip. We thought it might make an attractive destination, even for people from Moscow, but Lianna had said that, generally speaking, Russians want to go somewhere warm for the holidays, so Irkutsk really holds no appeal because they could be somewhere sunny like Spain in the same time it takes to get to Listvyanka from Moscow.
The streets were busy though, and a couple of wedding parties were there having their photos taken. There were families playing on the pebbly beaches, buying ice creams and enjoying the sun. There was a lovely atmosphere about the place. The noise of a hovercraft taking people for rides buzzed through the air. We’d seen it the day before, and even wondered about a ride, but there was no obvious place to buy tickets. Today, Cindy had sussed out the ticket seller, who was sitting in her car with a megaphone, touting for business, so on we hopped. Cindy and I wrangled a discount for the four of us, which was probably more than the price for locals, but fair enough.
It was a lot of fun. The hovercraft sped across the ice, and did a couple of twirls in the middle of its run. There wasn’t room to stand up inside (even for me!) but there was a hatch which the driver opened and allowed us to stick our heads through as we sped along. What a buzz! The driver took us out to the legendary rock in the Angara river, and Kingsley, Cindy and I took it in turns to lean over and give it a pat.
JB and I had decided to walk to the top of the hill Lianna had pointed out to us as a worthwhile walk. Because of the strange time zone (we were an hour ahead of Mongolia, even though we were further west), and perhaps because of the latitude, the sun didn’t set until after 9 pm. Lianna had assured us that it was an easy walk, but she’s a bit younger and has longer legs than us! When we did make it to the top, and the lookout there, it was well worth the effort. The view of the lake and the river was breathtaking in the late evening light.
Luckily, our hotel was at the same end of the town as the finishing point of our walk, so we didn’t have too far to go to get back. We went to the hotel restaurant and had some lovely soup – a traditional ‘sharp tasting’ mutton and vegetable soup for me, and beef dumpling (like won tons) soup for JB. Yum.
We arrived in Irkutsk at about 8.00 in the morning, and we and Cindy and Kingsley were met by our guide, Lianna. We were driven the 70 or so kilometres to the beautiful Lake Baikal. If we had done the part of the train trip we had just completed in the daytime instead of the night, we would have had views of the lake already.
We had been given some advice about what awaited us by Dee and Martin back in the ger lodge. We drove through a forest, passing a number of houses along the way, and driving along the Angara river. We rounded a bend, and there was a sudden line in the river where the water turned to ice and broadened out to a vast lake. The line is the border between the lake and the river. We continued on into the nearby town, Listvyanka
We mentioned to a few people that we were going to stop at Lake Baikal, and very few have heard of it, which is perhaps unsurprising given it’s location in Siberia. However, it is an extremely significant place. After we had been dropped at our hotel (and had a shower!!), and Kingsley and Cindy had been taken to their home-stay for the same sort of chance to freshen up, we all rejoined and walked to the Limnological museum. There Lianna gave us a walk around tour of the exhibitions, and described Lake Baikal as the deepest, biggest (in terms of volume), oldest and most biologically unique body of fresh water in the world. It holds 20% of the world’s fresh water (more water than Sydney harbour), and 70% of its species are found only here. It is a long, thin shape, a bit like a banana, and is about 650 km long. It is World Heritage Listed, but despite that there has been relatively little research done on its wonders. At its deepest, it is 1.6 km deep, and it is difficult to get research vessels down that far. At the Limnological Museum there is a submarine that was used for a journey to the bottom of the lake about 20 years ago, but that is the only time that has happened.
It has thousands of rivers and streams that run into it, but only one river that runs out of it – the Angara, which we had driven along. There is a large rock that juts about 2 metres above the water in the middle of the river where it meets the lake. The legend is that Baikal, the spirit of the lake had many sons, the rivers that run into the lake, but only one daughter, Angara. When she fell in love and ran off with Yenisei (the river that the Angara flows into), Baikal tried to stop her by throwing a rock at her. He missed, and the rock stuck in the river. Local legend is that if you touch the rock, you get good luck. The biggest island on Lake Baikal is Olhorn Island, and that is a centre of ancient Shamanic spirituality.
And, at this point in time, it is covered in ice.
Dee and Martin had been out quad biking on the ice, but they said it had reached the point where it was a day-by-day proposition whether or not they’d be allowed to do that. In the deep of winter people drive to the other side on the ice, but we didn’t see any vehicles using it while we were there, except a hovercraft or two.
This is another one of those words-can’t-describe-how-beautiful-it-is scenarios. One of the amazing things about the ice is that in some places it looks as if waves have been frozen in mid-air. Oh, and the lake is ringed by mountains, with the peaks of the Kamar Daban mountains across the lake from Listvyanka still having quite a bit of snow on them. I’ll let the pictures tell the story, although they can’t do justice to the beauty and grandeur of it.’
Lianna took us to the terrace of a hotel up on a hill to see the breathtaking views. Believe it or not, while we were there we had to put on sunscreen. We have been blessed with beautiful whether for most of the trip so far, and today was oone out of the box. We then went down to the beautiful little (Orthodox) church, but we couldn’t go inside properly because they had just repainted the floor in readiness for Holy Week. Easter is next weekend in the Orthodox Church, so they are getting ready for the big day. The church is dedicated to St. Nicholas, patron saint of navigators and sailors, because a sailor who survived a storm after praying to St. Nicholas decided to build a church in his honour in Listvyanka. Walking through the streets, which were all dirt tracks, we passed a stereotypical wishing well – little roof, handle for winding, that sort of thing. I asked Lianna about it and she said that very few of the houses in the town were on piped water, and most of the people had to get their water from a well like this one.
Lianna bid us farewell, and JB and I continued our walk around the town and along the lake. JB had been disappointed to learn that Retro Park, described in the guidebook as “a garden full of wacky sculpture pieces fashioned from old Soviet-era cars and motorbikes” had been closed only a few months ago. Cindy and Kingsley went to the renowned fish restaurant for lunch to sample the local speciality, omul, one of the species that only lives in the lake here. They would have joined us there for dinner, but they were having dinner provided by the host of their homestay.
The fish restaurant, Proshli Vek, was only a short walk from where we were staying. We managed to confound the waitress with our drink order. I ordered a vodka (what else? when in Russia….) and JB ordered a chocolate milkshake. Yup. When the waitress came back with our drinks she picked up the milkshake, looked at me as I shook my head and then gave it to JB, looking confused. Then she gave him the vodka as well! The omul I ordered was delicious, and JB’s beef stroganoff, which was listed in the ‘Venison’ section of the menu, so we weren’t entirely sure what it was, was amazing. After we’d finished our meal, we were very happy to go downstairs and see Kingsley and Cindy, but also Hugo and Marbella, who had bumped into each other and gone to the restaurant for a drink with a French couple, Alain and his wife, who were staying at the homestay with Cindy and Kingsley. Hugo and Marbella were leaving Listvyanka the next day for Moscow, so we said our goodbyes again. Then a short stroll back to our hotel. It has its own banya, a kind of Russian sauna, but maybe we’ll leave that for tomorrow.
In he overnight section of the ride, we have traversed a very expensive part of the railway line to make, with lots of tunnels and bridges, as traverse the southern boundary of Lake Baikal.
We arrive at Irkutsk around 8 am local time. 1 hour drive to Listvyanka. We see Lake Baikal. Spectacular ice, Anagara River, mountain backdrop.
We have breakfast, arrive in our upstairs room with a great view of the ‘Lake’ – it looks like a sea. We go on a guided tour of the town. It is a very linear town, spread out along the shoreline of the lake. Walking is a reasonable way to get around the town, but only just. Bicycles are available to hire.
A few days earlier, people were riding quad bikes on the lake. Not now. Adventurous souls were walking on the lake, but not many.
Went for tea at the recommended restaurant.
Tried fish (omul) and beef (venison?) stroganoff. Both meals were very good, about 1200 Rubles (about $36 AUD) for the meal. Worth coming back for!
As I am writing this, I am at the first of 2 border checks. Coming from Mongolia, I am at the last post in Mongolia, which is used by Mongolian Customs. So far, we have been here from 5.30 am and it is 9.47 am now. The timetable suggests we’ll be here until about 10 am. I don’t think I will complain about going through Customs at an airport again.
After this, the train will continue on to the Russian side of the border, where we will go through something similar once more
4 pm Moved on to Russian border town. Been here for over 4 hours. Apparently we’ll be here for 5-6 hours. Still trying to work out the timetable, which happens to be in Moscow time.
A few reflections on Mongolia – or, more particularly Ulaan Baatar:
You get the feeling that it is currently growing rapidly, with lots of construction going on.
In the city is is possible to manage in English. Street signs – no.
The huge temperature variations (-40 to +35) must play havoc with building materials. Street paving is very rough, and the grade wavy.
They still have traffic issues in their 6 streets. Cars must pay a smal levy to enter the city (say central 6 kkm, I guess), adn this is payable at the time of passing, to an attendant.
The people in our dealings were very pleasant and helpful
A Hilton hotel is under construction, to be completed in 2014.
There is no Maccas!!!
Those border checks were a real downer. Total time across about 10 hours.
The rest of the train journey is uneventful.
I almost forgot,
This was ANZAC Day.
We mentioned this to our travelling colleagues. We were very keen to commemorate this. We did at the border, both ANZAC Day Gallipoli and ANZAC Day football.
Gallipoli aspect first.
Being Australian in a foreign land.
P.S. AB found some ANZAC biscuits in a Mongolian supermarket. It rounded off the occasion nicely.
The saving grace of today for us, it has to be said, was modern telecommunications
In this 24 hour period, we spent about 10 hours in the middle of the day crossing the border between Russia and Mongolia. There was a slight difference between the two countries’ approaches. One was all razor wire and warning, the other was welcoming and friendly looking. Despite that, both had forms to fill in, and officials coming in and making sure we weren’t smuggling anything in or out. As the guidebook said, they paid more attention to locals, but we hoped that ANZAC biscuits weren’t contraband.
Friends from the ger camp, Kingsley and Cindy were in the next cabin, and we had filled them and Igor in on the double significance of ANZAC Day; the historical one and the sporting one involving JB’s team,Essendon, taking on Collingwood at the MCG. In honour of the latter, JB wore his Essendon scarf for the day. I happened to have the Last Post, a minute’s silence and the Rouse on my iPod (as you do) and we thought we’d try and have our own dawn service, which turned out to be a bit difficult. We passed around the ANZAC biscuits, though, a bit later on. We couldn’t do it at the Russian border post just before game time either, but when we finally contacted Ellen, she was able to give us a half time score, and it was looking good. We even managed to get an expert report on Toovey’s injury (ACL, clearly). We messaged back and forth during the last half, and celebrated their victory at the end.As JB said, “What’s better than beating Collingwood by 46 points? Nothing!”
We then went out onto the platform for two ceremonies. Watching a group of young Russian soldiers who were relaxing waiting for a train, we recited the poem “They shall grow not old….”, quietly played the Last Post, had a minute’s silence, then the Rouse. It was kind of spine tingling, as we stood together with tears in our eyes so far from home. Then it was time for the second ceremony, the singing of the Essendon theme song and waving of the scarf. I’m sure people though JB was crazy, but, hey, he gets that all the time.
We were now officially in Siberia! The landscape had been changing gradually, and there were now many more trees. There were still patches of snow and ice, but it was getting darker and there was little to see. Until we hit Ulan Ude, a huge, spread out city of about 380,000 people. It was here that I realised the need for planning ahead on the trip. The toilets on the train are locked for 20-30 minutes before and after significant stops (about 30 minutes) so if you’re planning on getting ready for bed, you need to be aware that if you leave it until just before you arrive in a big city, you might have to wait another hour and a half. We were going to hit Irkutsk first thing in the morning, so we caught as much sleep as we could before getting up and ready for the next stop on our adventure.