Category Archives: Siberia

Canned applause from China (Trans-Siberian Leg 3)

Canned applause from China (Trans-Siberian Leg 3)

For the final leg of our Trans-Mongolian train journey, we were to board another Mongolian train. This meant that we would complete our “Trans-Siberian Railway” trip without once getting on a Russian train. At least we’ll have the memory of the shabby Russian restaurant cart from our first leg, with good old Vlad the Impaler and his Borscht.

Another turn up for the books, which we discovered when comparing tickets one night in a Gerr, was that our new friends, Maarten and Paulina, turned out be our cabin mates for the remaining to Beijing. As we’d been living in eachother’s pockets in Gerrs for the past few days, what was another 30 hours between friends eh?

In the cabin next door were couple from the UK, Meg and Steve, who we’d seen before briefly at Lake Baikal. They’d come a similar route to us so far – through Europe, Russia, Mongolia, and now into China. Also like us, they were heading for South-East Asia, but then of to Nepal and India I think. We didn’t know it at the time, but these 2 would turn out to be good friends, who we met up with at a couple of places in China, and as we arrived in Vietnam.

All 6 of us chatted away and enjoyed a few beers, many laughs, and the odd game of cards, and shared stories of our misadventures so far. It was a really pleasant trip, with the only downside being that Maarten and Paulina decided to try out the Mongolian restaurant car, and got stung for a hefty bill for food they didn’t even ask for. The shady looking restaurant Manager gave them menus, asked if they wanted lunch, to which they replied yes. He then promptly took the menus back before they’d had half a chance to look at them, and disappeared into the back. A while later he proceeded to bring out 3 courses of mediocre food, and charge them $50 for the privilege  It’s a bummer, but these things happen, and we all agreed it wasn’t likely to be the last time that any of us fall victim to such scams.

The major difference about this leg of our train journey was that this was a… wait for it… A modern train. The heating wasn’t coal powered, it was clean, there were LCD screens in the cabins (which didn’t appear to do anything, but still), there were digital signs in the corridor showing what station we were arriving at, how fast we were travelling, outside temperature and all that palaver  We even got free tea bags and cups of tea. We were seriously high rolling.

The most annoying/surreal part of the journey was the Chinese border crossing and gauge changing combo stop. The stop in total was over 8 hours, and for at least half of this, it frustratingly felt like absolutely nothing was happening. The gauge changing was a very strange experience to say the least. The purpose is to change the bogies (wheelsets) from Russian 5′ gauge to the standard 4′ 8½” gauge used in China. The train is shunted into a shed, and then the carriages are somehow uncoupled and lifted, until many are side by side, rather than tip to tip. The carriages are then raised up high and a bunch of noisy, busy people, with hammers and machines do something or other, than gradually put the train back together again. If I read correctly, all this gauge changing monkey business is purely because the Russians decided to use a different width of train track, so that if they were ever invaded, at least the invaders couldn’t use their own rolling stock on the Russian rails. After being invaded, knowing the aggressor was unable to use their own trains on my rails would seem like quite a hollow victory to me… Anyhow this lasted for a few hours, and the Chinese passport and cabin inspection lasted the same. What was happening the rest of the time I have no idea.

Once passports were checked, as we were just sat at the border crossing, we were able to get off, go to the station shop and use the bogs etc (Train loos were still out of bounds when stopped, which suggests that even on this swanky modern train, they are still dropping shits onto the tracks). The strangest thing however, was that during this stationary period, during the wee hours past midnight, huge speakers on the platforms were blaring out very load, and very poor quality martial type music, and every song was followed by canned applause – no doubt supposed to be the jovial tidings of the vast and completely unified (of course) Peoples Republic. Unlikely though it sounds, I’m pretty sure they also played an instrumental Michael Jackson number, and a piece of Mozart.

Eventually the train set off we tried to grab a few hours shut eye. When we awoke, the change in scenery was remarkable. As we trundled through the quarries and ravines of the mountains of Northern China, we began to see the first signs of the truly unbelievable scale of construction that is happening in China. As we neared Beijing and the terrain flattened, vast half built cities seemed to appear on the horizon every few miles. Huge clusters of 20 or 30 high rise apartment blocks were everywhere – some built, some half built, many seemingly abandoned half way through construction. It’s as though things are popping up so fast, they forget to finish one project before they start on the next. I’m pretty certain some of what we saw were China’s infamous Ghost Cities. Apparently China builds something like 12-14 new cities a year, and then the wealthy middle class buy up all the real estate (Government laws don’t allow the Chinese to invest overseas), thinking of it as a safe investment, then no tenants can afford the rent, so entire cities stand empty. Madness.

As usual, I digress… Around 2pm, after about 170 hours of sitting/lying down on a train, a few days of stop overs in Siberia and Mongolia, and 4,735 miles from Moscow, we finally arrived in Beijing.

Trans-Siberian (Trans-Mongolian) Leg 3
04/04/2013 – 05/03/2013

(PS – the previous post was about our time in Mongolia in case you missed it, feel free to take a goose. Hopefully a fair few more posts to come in the next week or so to bring us back up to date)

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , ,

Mongolian banana smugglers (Trans-Siberian/Mongolian Leg 2)

Mongolian banana smugglers..
(Trans-Siberian/Mongolian Leg 2)

The first leg of our Trans-Siberian journey was about 77 hours. This next leg, as our train veered South from Siberia into Mongolia, was a paltry 30 odd hours. Nothing for battle hardened rail pros like us… we thought.

The train was a Mongolian one. Rather unshockingly, the staff were also Mongolian. Instead of our scruffy jack the lad Chinese carriage guards, we now had carriages staffed by a battle* of smartly dressed, diminutive, and severely efficient Mongolian ladies. *Unsure of collective noun for female Mongolian train guards.

Our carriage was totally packed with rowdy Mongolian blokes, we guessed maybe returning home for the weekend (Work can apparently be scarce in Mongolia these days). When we showed the guards our tickets they began to swear and fret amongst themselves, and seemed pretty unsubtley annoyed with us. After some heated debate they shoved us through the throng into our room, where we immediately gathered the cause of their annoyance. We had the tenacity to have prebooked beds, which happened to be in the cabin the staff seemed to have commandeered as an extra chillout room. The table was full of tea flasks and various train guard paraphernalia  and the under-seat luggage storage was full to the brim with boxes of Bananas (Yes, we were puzzled too). We attempted to shove our luggage where we could and were just about to get settled in, when the guards burst in and began pleading to us in Mongolian, whilst starting to collect our bags and coats. We gathered they wanted to move us, but we were slightly reluctant and tried in vein to explain (reasonably in our view) that we wanted to keep the beds we had paid for, with the numbers printed on our tickets. By using a mixture of bafflement and bribery (we gathered through mayhem that they were trying to assure us we’d have the new cabin to ourselves), the whirling guards somehow managed to get us into another cabin.

So, bruised an bemused, we once again began to settle in, this time without interruption  Our Mongolian matriarchs were also (almost) true to their word, and we did have it (almost) to ourselves for the duration. Bizarrely  half of our luggage space was still full of fruit. It seemed that a couple of the blokes on the train were traders, and had some sort of dodgy deal going with train guards – It did cross our minds that we may get done by customs for trying to smuggle in fruity contraband, but thankfully the border crossing went smoothly.

The border crossings on Trans-Siberian/Mongolian trains are still something we are yet to make head or tail of. The train is checked by both countries on their respective sides of the border, and there is a huge amount of time where absolutely nothing happens, and nothing is being done by anyone. Our total Russia-Mongolia border took around 8 hours, and apart from a bit of crawling and shunting, we were stationary for nearly all that time. Passports, Visas, immigration and custom forms are all checked, and rooms and (sometimes) bags are inspected. This happens on both sides of the border, and usually only takes between one and two hours each side… What’s going on for the remaining 4-6 hours is total mystery (apart from when they change the undercarriages to fit the different gauge of track when trains enter or leave Russia).

Our Russian part of the border crossing was in Ulan-Ude. The station is in the middle of nowhere but we were allowed to get off and stretch our legs and use the toilets – train toilets are out of bounds during stops, and 30 minutes before and after. This makes timing toilet visits one of the foremost concerns of the entire train journey… Anyway, at Ulan-Ude the train was split, most carriages carried on across Russia, but one carriage was left to enter Mongolia. Because of this, anyone who was destined for Mongolia from the other carriages were all quickly bundled into our carriage, and so a couple of Mongolian students promptly sat on our beds and cracked open the instant noodles. We left them to it and went for a potter around the train station. As we ambled around taking pictures and enjoying the leg stretch, we noticed a train engine couple itself to our carriage, and slowly begin chugging away. Our brains were telling us that there was no way the train would just leave without us, without any indication or signals at all, but our eyes told us a different story. In the true British tradition of running-for-a-bus-but-trying-not-to-look-like-you’re-running-for-a-bus we briskly walked after the train politely trying to get the guards attention who was hanging out of the back door. He made an indiscernible hand signal to us, and the train carried on into the distance. After we realised our power-walk-pursuit was futile, we stopped and stood in silence watching our train shrink in size, as is the nature of perspective. Just as the shocking realisation that all out bags, money, and documents were heading off without us, we noticed the train actually stopped shrinking, and then began to look as if it was growing again. Initially I thought this must be an optical allusion, akin to that when a wheel looks to be spinning backwards at a certain speed, but low and behold, it was really coming back towards us. It was of course, just changing tracks. We slowly turned around, only to see groups of locals chuckling to themselves on the platform. The train reversed passed us at an agonizingly slow speed, as more locals peered out of the windows, laughing at the numpty tourists who thought their train was leaving without them. We pretended not be embarrassed  but the colour of our faces may have suggested different.

The Mongolian border crossing consisted of stopping just outside a remote ramshackled farming village, at a small hut with the words ‘Mongolian Customs’ spraypainted on the side. The train was saluted by a row of smiling soldiers and then the standard border crossing procedure began. Our cabin door slid open, and we were strangely saluted by a tall Mongolian GI Jane. She didn’t seem too friendly and proceeded to almost take out cabin apart, taking of roof panels and all sorts.

Considering all you have to do is fill in a couple of forms, and sit there for hours, eating and drinking tea, border crossings are a remarkably stressful experience. They also do an amazing job of shattering romantic Trans-Siberian notions. Because you can just sit there and chill out while it all happens, it’s still slightly preferable to the cattle market treatment you have to go through when flying, it’s just the length of stationary time that’s the main downer.

Although it has the lowest average temperature (over a year) of any capital city, UlaanBaatar apparently has clear skies most of the year round. We arrived at six in the morning, to a -6 degree blizzard and a good few inches of snow. Of course.

Trans-Siberian/Mongolian Leg 2
30/03/13 – 01/04/13

Tagged , , , ,

Lake Baikal – a bit nippy…

Lake Baikal – a bit nippy…

After a bumpy one hour drive in our ancient Korean minibus, we arrived in Listvyanka, on the shores of the mighty Lake Baikal. We arrived on a particularly clear day and the views were incredible. Across the vast desert of frozen lake we saw the imposing belt of the Zabaikalskie (I think) mountains on the opposite shore. As we were there for 4-5 days I thought we’d plenty of time to snap some pictures, but typically the mountains remained hazy under a distant mist for the rest of the time we were there. A little annoying, but it did give the impression of the lake simply being a vast, endless, frozen ocean.

I can’t accurately describe how breathtaking the lake and the surrounding scenery was, especially with the winds howling and the ice creaking, and the pictures don’t even nearly do the place justice – but hopefully they give a better sense of it than any feeble attempt of a description by me. Listvyanka however, is a little bit of a stain on Baikal’s majesty. Its essentially a 4 mile road along the shore, stretching from the Angara Eastwards, dotted with faux-Old-Siberian houses, hugely tasteless pink Kremlin style second homes, and the odd souvenir shop. In places it was quite charming, with genuine little fish markets and a nice village atmosphere. Further back from the shore there were authentic little pockets of real Siberian village life, with wooden houses and the like, but mainly everything was geared towards the tourist trade. The place seemed sparsely populated, with very few tourists due to the off season, so hopefully we saw a bit of natural local life. I imagine it’s quite a tourist trap in the summer.

Its a small world, as we found out when we bumped into Frank and Lia by the lake. Their Californian bones were suffering in the biting wind and double figure negatives (as were ours) and they were on their way back to Irkutsk to get the train to UlaanBataar. We also met top German bloke called Mo. He’s a serious solo traveler  into hardcore day and week long treks and the like. When we met he invited us on a 4 day trek along the lake. We politely declined due to timing issues. We bumped into Mo a few days later as his trek was cut short by some tracks being impassable in the winter weather. So, he joined us in our hostel in the evening for some pasta and beers. Being an experienced traveler, we got a lot of good advice about China and on-wards,  as he’d just come from that neck of the woods, and was heading in the opposite direction. Next day he set of on a disappointingly meager (to him) two day trek along the Ice.

Our hostel (Baikler eco hostel) was pretty amazing. A purpose built log cabin set up that was extremely cosy, with a friendly and laid back manager named Natalia. It wasn’t as cheap as we’d of liked, but still cheaper than much of mainland Europe. (We later found many locals have bed and breakfast signs outside their houses, you can’t book in advance online, but by far the cheapest way to stay is just to turn up and find one of these. Plus, if you’re lucky you get more of a taste of the local culture). Worth a comment is our hostel’s dubious use of the word ‘eco’ in it’s moniker. Apart from a couple of solar panels, and water pressure equivalent to being dribbled on by a parched tortoise, there seemed to be very little ECO about. No recycling bins, and electric panel heaters everywhere, all seem like things conducive to a decidedly un-eco hostel.

In the hostel we met a spiffing British couple called Richard and Susie, who have quit their jobs to travel the noodleier parts of the world in the East. Like us they’re trying to avoid flying. Their blog is very funny and worth a gander: noodletour.wordpress.com.

From the hostel we could arrange various activities like dog sledding and snow mobiling, but these were a little out of our price range. One attractive option was to take out the ‘Ice bikes’ with studded tyres, and ride along the lake for the day. We were really looking forward to this, the lake is only 40km in width at Listvyanka so we maybe could of ridden to the other side and back in a day, or at least up to the next village, only accessible by Ice (or water in the summer). As is our luck, one bike had a puncture and they couldn’t fix it in time. Oh well.
You may think cycling on the Ice sounds like a crazy idea, but the majority of the lake is frozen a metre thick until summer. The locals use the frozen shoreline as a temporary road for driving to nearby villages. Vans, 4x4s, and old rusty soviet saloons are a regular sight on the Ice. We even saw cars driving right along the edge of the ice (where the frozen lake releases the flowing Angara) from Listvyanka to port Baikal.

During one of our many foot based excursions onto the ice, I heard a muffled thud behind me, only to discover Amy spreadeagled on her back looking rather dazed. She had incurred yet another head injury (she is prone to these, and blames a long history of head injuries on her terrible memory). After a reasonable amount of sympathy, I then discovered the shocking truth that during her fall she had been holding our digital camera. Inconsiderately  the camera wasn’t her primary concern as her legs disappeared from under her. Luckily the camera still works perfectly, apart from the the LCD screen. There is no viewfinder. This means we can only blindly take photos by pointing at things, then checking what they look like on the computer later. Based on this, we’ll just be using our camera phones from now on. (I don’t think the LCD is broken, maybe just disconnected inside, if anyone has any suggestions please throw them this way).

A famous local inhabitant of the lake is the Omul. Omul have the unfortunate characteristic (for them) of being amazingly delicious, and the local humans whip them out of the lake by the bucket load. Smoked Omul is the local specialty  and it is easily the best smoked fish I’ve ever tasted. Colourfully dressed old Siberian women sell the fish at the market, whilst the blokes our out on the lake boring new holes into the ice for the next days catch. When we bought our fish, we wanted to keep them warm till we got back to the hostel, so being the enterprising sorts that we are, we stuffed them inside my insulated skiing gloves, and put them in my bag. On the way home, we stopped at the shop, and as we were sorting out the shopping, a pair of gloves dropped onto the counter, and out flopped the heads of two fish. The girl in the shop paused, looked at us, looked at the two dead fish poking out of a mans glove, and strained a smile. Amy tried to explain by doing a mime of shivering, that we were trying to keep the fish warm, but unsurprisingly this just wierded the girl out even more. We laughed awkwardly and headed for the door.

Our last full day at the lake we decided to head to the apparently beautiful local viewing point, situated high up on a hill at the source of the Angara. Possibly the Listvyankans want to keep this spot tourist free as, although it was on the map at the hostel, finding it involved meandering down some nondescript tracks, with absolutely no signage, and we were just about to give up until we turned the corner and found… a ski lift up the hill. Never ones to pass up a go on a ski lift, we hopped on. The views of the lake and surrounding area were brilliant, I’ll avoid the corny description, but have a scan of the photos for some idea.

When we reached the bottom we decided to nip into a cafe for some borscht  only to discover my wallet was gone. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt such a sinking feeling. All my cards, driving licence and cash were in it. In a hurried game of charades and telephone translating, we managed to explain our predicament to the lady in the ticket booth, and she let us get on the lift for free, with the aim of us looking on the floor on the way up, then hopefully locating it. There was no sign of it on the way up, and we spent a long time searching for it at the top. We were absolutely gutted, I hadn’t planned on an eventuality like this.

Suddenly, like the voice of an angel, one of the lift operators shouted me over, holding something proudly aloft. I felt like giving everyone in sight all the cash in my wallet, I was that glad just to have the rest of it back (I didn’t though, I’m not mental). Apparently it had been hanging of one of the seats precariously and had done around 3 or 4 laps of the ski lift. This type of luck doesn’t usually befall us two, but the relief was almost indescribable. Needless to say, I now only carry certain things in my wallet, and have emergency cards and cash elsewhere. Most people are probably clued up enough to do this from the start, but if not, it’s one of the few pieces of advice I could give.

We were sad to leave the peace and quiet of the lake behind, especially knowing we had to deal with the mayhem of Irkutsk one last time. Eventually arriving at the train station, we had a couple of hours to idle away, and as per usual, we instantly attracted the local nutter. A Buryat guy and his girlfriend. Buryatia is an autonomous state in Russia (On the Russia-Mongol border, its capital is Ulan-Ude) and its inhabitants are the real ethnic Siberians (they look Mongolian in appearance). Although they speak Russian, and would hold Russian federation passports, I think they see themselves (reasonably so) as purely Buryat. I believe there are quite a few autonomous states similar to this in the Russian federation, with ethnicities different to the standard slavic white Russians (these all arrived in Siberia as the railway was built). It stands to reason with the vast size of Russia, but never really crossed my mind before… Anyway, this guy was a laugh at first, but he could barley speak a word of English (or Russian to be honest, he was that pissed). I gather he instantly fell in love with Amy, and may well of offered her his hand in marriage, his girlfriend certainly didn’t seem impressed. After about an hour of the same 30 second conversation repeated again and again “What names? English or Deutch? Me Buryat. I English very bad. hahaha” we found an alternative way of conversing – through the medium of English premiership football team and player names. The system involved taking it in turns to mention a player or team, whilst the other then nodded and smiled, mentioning another team or player somehow related to the previous. Surprisingly  this became tiresome very quickly. As luck would have it, they eventually got kicked out by security (We guessed that they weren’t waiting for a train, and used the heated station waiting room as a hang out spot, to drink and baffle tourists).

After a brief moment of calm before the train arrived, we moved onto Trans-Siberian (technically now the trans-Mongolian) Leg 2…

Other things we have learned about Listvyanka, Baikal and East Siberia:

Rural hospitality. As is probably the case in most places in the world – the more rural – the more hospitable people tend to get. In Irkutsk we were stared at and whispered about, and people wen’t all that friendly, even for Russian standards. By the lake, everyone was much friendlier. We even saw quite a few smiles! I guess they see more tourists there, but it was nice to buy fish from smiling old ladies and to get the occasional (only occasional) smile on the street.

Its Cold. Yes, you heard it here first. Its absolutely brass monkeys in East Siberia. To the locals, the measly -5 to -15 temperatures we experienced were but a joke compared to their -30 to -40 winters. These are the kind of temperatures where one might see the apocryphal frozen wee stream. (I’m still doubtful about whether that really happens).

Techno Techno. Siberians, and Russians in general it would appear, are rather partial to a bit of hardcore techno. We thought our bizarre dining experience on the Trans-Siberian may have been a one off, but we were sadly mistaken. Sit down in any type of establishment to eat, and the default ambient music is techno, regardless of whether its fast food joint, or a quaint local cafe. Even our little local shop on the shores of the lake curiously had speakers on the outside, and blurted hardcore techno music across the frozen wastes. It was very unnerving to stand out on the frozen lake, looking at a seemingly uninhabited village, and be serenaded by a wall of techno.

Listvyanka and Lake Baikal, Siberia, Russian Federation
26/03/2013 – 30/03/2013

Tagged , ,

Domestic Bliss in East Siberia

Domestic Bliss in East Siberia

We arrived at Irkutsk train station at 4.30 in the morning. Not only were we slightly alarmed to find out that there is more than one 4 o’clock in a day, it was also rather bracing -15 outside. Although it didn’t feel amazingly cold initially due to the lack of wind, in terms of numbers, this is the coldest temperature either of us have experienced. We were soon to find out that to the Siberians, this is practically shorts and t-shirt weather.

After around a ten minute walk we found our hostel – only to be stood there for 20 minutes ringing the bell with no reply. 24 hour reception my arse. Just as hypothermia was about to set in, we made the executive decision to go back to the train station waiting room and wait there for a few hours. Frank and Lia were still their due to their hostel not allowing them to to check in, or even dump their bags or wait in the common room, till midday. All four of us had had our first taste of the famous Siberian hospitality.

We tried our hostel again at about 8.30. After about 10 minutes of ringing the bell, we were about to give up, when we eventually got buzzed in by our bleary eyed host. Turn’s out they were in all the time – just heavy sleepers apparently. The hostel was basically a nice 3 bedroom flat (1 dorm and 2 privates) that belonged to our hosts Dasha and Anton. We later found that during peak season, they just employed a couple of girls to run the hostel and lived elsewhere, but off season, they closed down the dorm and moved in themselves, just renting out one private room. Dasha was the one who sleepily and apologetically greeted us, sitting us down and feeding us a nutritious breakfast of various home made birthday cakes. It was their little girls birthday the day before, and the whole hose was strewn with balloons and cake. I would hazard a guess that the reason for our difficult entry was that Anton and Dasha had overdone the “birthday cake” at the party.

Our hosts were really affable, and made us feel instantly comfortable in what was essentially, their home. They gave the impression that you could totally keep yourself to yourself, or sit with them bending their ear all day, and they wouldn’t mind either way. Although they were very nice to us, we did detect some very fraught underlying tensions in the relationship  It turns out Anton runs his own adventure tour company Baikal adventures (http://baikal-adventure.com/). He was born and bread in the region and you could tell that he was bound inseparably to his work and the great outdoors in which he thrived. Anytime we ate or passed through the living area, he would show us some of his promotional videos, laughing to himself as he watched and always pre-empting what was about to happen, by telling us, what was about to happen. In these situations, the couple would constantly bicker in Russian, smiling falsely  hoping in vain that we may think they were just convivially discussing the weather or something. We’re pretty sure the bickering was around the fact that Anton spends half the year away taking tourists on adventures, only to spend the rest of his time at home, watching videos of said adventures. Anton we guessed was responding with something about being the breadwinner, or putting food on the table… They may of just been arguing about who’s turn it was to put the bins out, but is was a good game to play nonetheless, and I’d put a few quid on our assumptions being correct anyway. Anton and Dasha also had a lovely  but rather weird dog that like to slowly and submissively crawl up to you for a stroke and a tickle. (Note – Anton’s videos on the web and youtube are worth a look, he does everything from Ice climbing to kayaking – pretty amazing work if you can get it. Tours are expensive but would be great to do one day)

Irkutsk itself was an experience. And at times, not a particularly pleasant one. As we walked into the city centre from our hostel – we were initially greeted by what looks like a thriving, modern, 21st century city – situated on the big, healthy looking Angara river. What we soon found as we got under the surface was quite a large rich – poor divide, and what appeared to be a serious general alcohol problem. There’s a University in Irkutsk, and at times the place had a fairly buzzing student vibe, but then just round the corner there would be groups of haggered drunk looking guys, and dodgy looking folk trying to sell various dodgy items on street corners. At one time we were sat down checking the map when a drunk guy came up to us, shouted something grumpily in Russian, and then proceeded to have a massive wee all over the floor right next to us.

You’d think they would see a fair few tourists in Irkutsk, especially as tourism at lake Baikal grows every year, however you’d of thought we were walking around naked with the amount of stares and whispers we got mooching around town, even without all our rucksacks. It was strange, as we couldn’t think what looked so strange about us, as we are white and western looking like most of the population (apart from the Buryats and Mongolians) and our clothes didn’t seem particularly outlandish or different. We obviously stuck out like sore thumbs though.

The modern developments in the city were all pretty ugly, whilst there were some impressive Soviet era government buildings (The two main streets in the city are Karl Marx street and Lenin street). The stars of the show were the traditional Siberian wooden buildings. It’s a shame the most of them seemed to be falling apart, but the wide dusty streets and wooden buildings gave the place a bizarre wild west feel. The mix of streets lined with disheveled  once masterly crafted, wooden buildings, bookended with concrete hotels and restaurants was a very strange sight to behold. We wanted to visit the Taltsy outdoor museum of Traditional Siberian wooden architecture, but couldn’t find it and ran out of time. The rest of Irkutsk’s tourist trade seems to be solely based the cities claim to the title of ‘tea capital of Russia’. Up until the mid 20th century, nearly all tea imported into Russia from China along the tea roads, came through Irkusk, where it was distributed around the country. Surprisingly (to me at least) we have found during our time there, that the Russians are as big, if not bigger, on tea than the English. They love a brew, although they are prone to doing weird things like plopping jam in it.

Irkutsk was an interesting place to visit, but I can’t say we were too sad get on our minibus to Listvyanka and lake Baikal. Little 20-30 year old Korean minivans seem to be on of the primary methods of public transport around (and out of) the city. There are certain points n the city where they hang out, with a little sign in the window denoting destination. They wait till all 8-10 seats are filled then shoot off recklessly onto the apparently lawless roads and highways.

Other things we have learned about Irkutsk:

Sardines. Sardines in a can to be precise  No matter what time of day, the various minibuses, buses, and trams that hurtle around the city always seem to be packed to bursting with all ages, grumpily bashing into one another. The trams are particularly bone shaking.

Goodbye cruel world. I don’t think the locals are that fond of Irkutsk, as one of them indicated quite strongly by hurling himself off the bridge into the Icy Angara. We saw the emergency services zooming towards some kids playing under the bridge. We thought this seemed like an extreme response to kids having fun, until we saw them putting a very damp and cold guy in an ambulance. We then saw witnesses showing the police where he flung himself off the bridge.

Rush hour 5. The level of danger and carnage on the streets at rush hour make the perils encounters by Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker, in the ludicrous 90’s blockbusters of the same name, seem comparatively pedestrian.

Irkutsk, Siberia, Russian Federation
23/03/2013 – 25/03/2015

See previous post for the first leg of our Trans-Siberian journey

Tagged , ,

Vlad and Bong’s starlight express (Trans-Siberian leg 1)

Just like the Great Wall of China never succeeded in keeping out the Mongol Hordes (or any foe in history for that matter) – China’s 21st century (fire)wall has failed to keep us from broadcasting our cutting edge travel news – Thanks for the VPN Joan… Still to come: Shocking exposes of what we ate for breakfast and how many times we fell over.

Vlad and Bong’s Starlight Express (Trans-Siberian leg 1)

So, before we started our long awaited first leg on the Trans-Siberian railway, we had to reach Moscow’s Yaroslavsky train station. The Metro (underground) system had previously seemed like a pretty straight-forward experience, follow the coloured lines to the desired station name – easy – however this quickly changes when you’re under immense pressure and carrying your entire life on your back. Indications of what colour line we were on seemed few and far between, and station name signs seemed suddenly became non-existent. Luckily for us we’d met a nice Californian couple (Frank and Lia) at our hostel, who happened to be getting the same train as us. Unluckily for them, they decided to let us take the lead in getting us to the train station. They followed us on a 15 minute trudge to the Metro through Moscow’s harsh conditions, and were all the while simply too polite to tell us how they found our route choice a little confusing, due to there being a Metro station only a couple of minutes away from the hostel in the other direction, and getting on at that station would have taken us straight there with no changes – Oops.

We eventually arrived somewhere near where we had to be. Somewhere near, but not actually there. The strange looks that had accompanied us the whole journey intensified as we frantically bumbled around, resembling four giant beetles, trying to find our station platform. After being mistakenly sent on a circular goose chase by some stern looking but well meaning guards, one of them by way of recompense, actually guided us to our platform. We promptly celebrated by cracking open a few beers, and waited for our train to arrive.

It turns out that the weekly 004 train from Moscow to Beijing is a Chinese one. As a result the staff are all, as you would expect, Chinese. (Apart from the Russian restaurant car, but we’ll get to that later). As far as we could tell, each carriage has two guards who are responsible for, among other things, keeping the place in order, tidying up, stoking the coal fired heating, and occasionally donning a hat and opening a door at a station. Unfortunately our two guys (one of whom we determined to be called Bong), felt that only the latter in that list was necessary. To be fair, they didn’t really have time to clean or keep us warm, as they had a busy schedule of staying up all night drinking, chain smoking and watching loud sci-fi movies. During the day we would often see Bong or his friend trundling about the carriage shirt unbuttoned, hair sticking up, and fag hanging from gob. Bongs diminutive, bespectacled partner in crime also had a charming habit of loudly hocking up and spitting everywhere (usually with impeccable comic timing during a dramatic pause in someones story). They sometimes broke up their hectic day by fighting and chasing each other up and down the carriage, and also spent a lot of time preparing and cooking fresh vegetable noodley type dishes, which made us salivate after days of our instant noodle, tea and beer diet. Despite the small issue of an apparent total lack of regard for their passengers  our two guards were, in truth, great fun. Although we didn’t have much to do with them directly, they constantly made us laugh with their daft antics, and provided many an hour of talking points as we discussed what it would be like, living life on the rails, and how we could turn their story into a sit-com.

Based on our trip so far, and other Trans-Siberian travelers we have spoken to before and since, we would guess that everyone’s Trans-Siberian rail experience is going to be totally unique, as there are so many factors involved: Which route? Is it a Russian, Chinese, or Mongolian train? What time of year is it? etc. The factor that will undoubtedly have the most bearing over the experience however, is the human one. What are your fellow passengers and staff like?

Although Bong and his sidekick could certainly be considered slightly less than professional, they were mad characters who simply added to the experience. The only genuine downside was how cold it got when they forgot to stoke the fire. In addition to these two reprobates another notable character on the train was our resident restaurant manager and chef – Vladmir.

Vladmir was a big, burly Russian, and was a man of few words. One word that seemed to pop from his mouth more than any other however, was “Borscht”… For example: Amy asked “Can I have the mushroom soup please?” To which Vladmir would promptly replied – “Borscht”… I enquired about another item on the menu, and received the sagely response – “Borscht”… It turns out, despite what we may have wanted to select on the menu, Borscht is what we were having. Frank and Lia went twice to the restaurant car, ordering the same dish each time, yet were presented with something different both times, and both times it wasn’t exactly what they had ordered. When Vladmir found out that Amy and I were from the UK, he quickly scurried into the back only to return with a tea spoon, engraved with the words “Akbar’s London Tea Room”. Said spoon was presented to us to admire for an awkwardly long amount of time, and eventually was returned to its, no doubt special, resting place. Also worth a mention is Vlad’s (we were on abbreviated name terms by the end) impeccable knack of creating a perfect dining ambiance. Once all the food had been served, he would proceed to direct his laptop at us, and play super loud techno music with accompanying footage from inside the club. – Truly. Bizarre.

As well as the lovely Californian couple, we also made another good friend on the train, a lone travelling Scotsman – Paul. Paul was (is) currently making his way from Glasgow to Japan without flying, and plans to immerse himself in Japanese life, living and working there for a year – A brave feat, especially for a solo traveler I think. We were Paul’s next-door neighbours and we all instantly got on like a house (train?) on fire. Paul the jammy bastard had an entire cabin to himself for the duration of the trip from Moscow to Irkutsk (he was continuing to Ulaanbataar). I say he had it to himself, but Me and Amy quickly became regular fixtures round there – whiling away the hours playing cards, drinking beer, and sharing stories. We had a nice young Mongolian girl in our Cabin, Normin, but she liked to keep herself to herself, so we commandeered Paul’s cabin as the party cabin. You might think 4 days on a train would drive you crazy with boredom  but we never once felt an ounce of it. You quickly fall into a routine of sleeping, eating, drinking, laughing, and watching the world slide by, and before you know it its time to say goodbyes. We were sad to leave Paul, and our home on rails, but the show must go on. We genuinely wish him all the best in Japan, and really hope our paths cross again in the future, We’ll definitely be staying in touch. He’s also blogging about his travels, so why not have a goose? – paulsadventure.com

Both Paul and (particularly) Frank and Lia are experienced travelers who have been all over the place, so it was really good for us to hear their stories and suggestions, and who knows, maybe one day we’ll be the ones with tons of good advice and cautionary tales to share.

Russia has 9 time zones I think, and from Moscow to Irkutsk, we crossed 5 of them. The changing of time zones over the days is seriously strange as your body clock just can’t adjust that quickly. We continued to live by Moscow time for the entire journey, and it became particularly disconcerting once the level of light outside didn’t correlate with the time in our heads. Incidentally all train times in Russia are given in Moscow time on the tickets and at train stations. This seems weird at first, but does make sense when you consider all the different time zones.

The peculiar sensation of time shifting is just one more unusual factor that adds to this completely bizarre, curious, comical, and unexpectedly amazing experience that is: The Trans-Siberian railway.

Other things we learned about the Trans-Siberian so far:

Classy. There are 3 classes of travel on the Trans-Sib, 1st, 2nd and 3rd (platz class). On some trains there is also Upper 2nd class. We were in ordinary second class, but Frank and Lia found themselves unexpectedly in upper 2nd class. The cabins were still 4 berth but were actually clean, and the whole cabin had a more refined wood paneled aesthetic. Upper second class also had a provenista who kept the place tidy and ludicrously hot, many people in this carriage sported shorts and vests. She also sold a few snacks, and would make you a brew for 30 Roubles (60p). In our carriage their were only 3 occupied carriages out of about 10 for the entire journey, and no new passengers got on, whereas in upper 2nd all the cabins seemed full, and people were doing much shorter journeys, Frank and Lia had new cabin mates almost every day.

Trans-Siberian Leg 1
19/03/2013 – 23/03/2013

As you can see from the dates, the blogs a bit behind (pesky trains and Chinese firewalls). We’ve written the posts nearly up to date though, its just a case of uploading them – so expect a few posts within the next couple of days. Hope everyone is well – keep in touch.