Trans-Siberian Railway meets Artillery Lane

Back in December of 2013, photographer Valentina Eleanora Costa of Halo Communication got in touch with me about using some of my Trans-Siberian Railway images as backdrops to her latest project. The result? An amazing scarf campaign for Artillery Lane with projected Siberian images.

I'm thrilled to finally share the final product! See the whole campaign here.


Trans-Mongolian Railway | Irkutsk ---> Ulaanbaatar

The best and the worst part about Russia was leaving it. The best part about it was that I no longer felt like I was in trouble. Russia has a way of making you feel like you are about to be sent to your room (or worse) all the time. There is a definite Big Brother feel with omnipresent voices that reverberate over city speakers. Everything is difficult and friendliness is not their forté. Obtaining a visa is hard (and expensive) enough, but then you are also required to register your visa upon arrival. If you stay at an established hotel, the hotel will do it for you, but if you are a budget backpacker, you will find that not all hostels will do this for you and if they do, they charge you a fee. Also, this process is completely different according to whom you talk. Some say if you stay in one city more than 3 days, then you must register, (in each city you visit!) but if you hop around and don't stay more than 3 days in each city, then you are OK. You will also read that there are heavy fines if you don't register your visa when leaving the country. AHHH! At this point, you are just itching for a straight answer that you soon realize, you will never get.

SO... we registered our visa's in two places (Olkhon Island & Irkutsk) just in case, which entailed passing over your passports, the registration fee (which varies according to who's doing it), and the next day you receive a piece of paper confirming your registration that you are to keep. The whole thing seems so unofficial. Needless to say, we were ready to cross the border (hoping without incident) into Mongolia.

But let's get to the worst part...

First of all, remember our lovely air-conditioned cabins from our Trans-Siberian adventure? They are all but a distant dream. We learn that the higher the train number, the worse the trains get. We took train 2 from Moscow to Irktusk. We are now taking train 362 to Ulaanbaatar. The proof is in the pictures...1Another major difference between the Trans-Siberian train and this one is that while the first leg was primarily all Russians, this car had none! It was all foreigners. We board and there is a group of jovial Portuguese all traveling together. We congregate in the hallway, take a shot of vodka, and toast to the trip. Our other two roommates are a British and Swiss guy. It's an international affair. We boarded at 10pm so we went to sleep shortly thereafter for night 1 of 2.2We knew we would hit the Russia/Mongolia border the next day in the afternoon and we also knew from a couple who crossed days before us that we were to expect about a 6 hour stint at the border. 456789So comes the worst part...

We get to the border and what should take maybe an hour, takes the 6 hours we expected. After we get to the station and play disconnect and connect cars for awhile, we find our car all by itself on the tracks. Officials then board the train, look at our passports and visa's to make sure we haven't overstayed, etc. and then leave. Then we are told we have 3 hours before the next phase. (Why? For what?!?!) We can get off the train and meander around, but there is really nothing to do and nothing happening. 3101112It's a total stand still. After the 3 hours pass, we have to all re-board and they come to collect our passports (why couldn't they have done this when they first looked at them?) at which point they don't even look at the registration papers that we stressed out over. I use them as a fan, which was the most use I could make out of them. Then customs control boards the train and they search our cabins. Then we wait again for our passports to come back with stamps. Meanwhile our lonely car is hooked up to a Mongolian engine and we finally leave the station 6 hours from when we got there.13When we get to the Mongolian side, we go through similar procedures which only take maybe an hour at most.

I am already liking Mongolia better. 14We have another hour to wait while they hook up more cars to the train and by the time we leave it's around 9pm local time. Did I mention that as soon as you cross the border, you no longer are on Moscow train time (even though you are traveling 5 hours ahead of Moscow), but local Mongolian time (which is an hour behind local Irkutsk time so we lost an hour) so by this point, your sense of time is totally useless. It's like math class and I was always bad at math. All I knew was it was dark and we had to get up at 5am the next morning so it was time for bed.

We were woken up the next morning at 5am to prepare for our 6am arrival into Ulaanbaatar. We were tired but the sunrise was beautiful. Now this is what I'm taking about...161718I think we are done with trains for awhile.

The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly - Olkhon Island

This is the last post about Olkhon. We stayed 4 nights and we were ready for a proper shower. The trip proved to be a great experience that I highly recommend. This post is all about exploring the beaches, which as you will see, are of great variation. As we spent some time soaking in the sun, I couldn't believe I was getting a tan on the beaches of Siberia. Pretty amazing. Many people come to Olkhon to camp and this beach seemed to be the popular one to do so. There were portable banyas along the beach to rent if you needed some heat before braving the chilly Siberian waters. 1 2 3 4 5As we continued south and crested a hill, we found a cove of decay. Just 10 minutes away from the spiritual Shaman's Rock, there lies a carcass of boats, bordering abandoned buildings full of waste (trash disposal is a real problem on the island). 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13It seems like boats aren't the only victims of expiration around here...14As we strolled the beach, there was a real sense of beauty within the decay... 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 25 26 27Though cool, but probably not very safe, there is a boat that is half swallowed by the lake that you can freely walk around on...28 29 30 31 32Our last night, we hung out around Shaman's Rock trying to soak in the last of the spiritual magic.

But here's what happened...

Below are 3 pictures that show the progression of the evening.

In the first picture, I'm just hanging out by the water, taking in the landscape. It's peaceful, lovely, etc.

Picture #2: We decide to go closer to the rock and I climb a secondary rock nearby. Still lovely as ever.

Rick wants to climb higher on Shaman's Rock and we begin to ascend as I am suddenly ailing with pain as I hit a plant with what feels like a thousand stingers and they go right through my leggings. (Further proof that leggings are NOT pants. I should listen to my own fashion rules.) I feel like I am being poisoned, maybe I've struck a form of Shaman poison ivy? My immediate thought is, WHAT DOES THIS MEAN? BEING POISONED ON A SACRED SHAMAN ROCK?!?! We quickly abort the climb and Rick suggests I soak my legs in the water to reduce the swelling. (Picture 3). 33As I am soaking, I find that I am standing in a sea of the most amazing rocks I've ever seen.

I forget about my poisoned legs and go rock hunting. I find 6 amazing rocks to take with me.

Who knew poison could lead me to beauty? Toxic bliss.

Thank You Olkhon Island.

Khoboy Cape - Olkhon Island

There are plenty of tours to choose from on Olkhon Island and we decided to pick one: Khoboy Cape. Khoboy Cape is the Northern cape of Olkhon Island. In Buryat language Khoboy means ‘fang’ or ‘grinder’. A huge fang-shaped stone dominates over the cape. Approaching it from the sea, you will see a big piece of rock that looks like a figure of a woman. The locals call it ‘a Virgin’. The legend has it that a woman that asked for the same wealthy house as one of her husband was turned by Tengries to a stone. The spirits declared she would be a stone till evil and envy occurs between people.

Since we visited Nordkapp (North Cape) in Norway, we found ourselves in a cape kind of mood and wanted to see if the two northern capes were comparable. (Hopefully this one wouldn't be lost in the fog!)

We braced ourselves for another minivan adventure. Compared to our broken down van from Irkutsk, the tour vans are stylistically much more interesting. However, style doesn't mean comfort. Bumpy roads equate to jumbled brains and bruised body parts.

The driver doesn't speak any English and we make a few stops before we get to Khoboy Cape.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7Once we arrive at Khoboy Cape, we have 1 hour to hike around while the driver prepares us lunch.

The views are quite spectacular and it is evident that Khoboy is a sacred site for Shamans.

We tuck 10 rubles among the ribbons as an offering.8 9 10 11We find our way back to our van where our driver is blasting music while preparing our lunch.

What's on the menu?

fish soup + sandwiches + salad + tea + biscuits

All delicious.

I think I can safely say that I will never have a man cook me fish soup in a bucket with camo PJ pants ever again.12 13 14Our next stop is Lover's Rock or also called Lover's Cape.

According to tradition, this fertile rock will grant you a girl if you walk to the right and a boy if you want to the left. 15 16 17 18Our last stop was the only area on the east side of the island that is boat accessible.

While the west side has long stretches of sandy beaches, the east side is predominately rocky cliffs that don't allow for beaches.19 20 21 22The tour itself lasted from 10am-5pm and the dust from all the roads was lodged into our sinuses.

Neti Pot, where are you when I need you?

Khuzir - Olkhon Island

So the landscape of Olkhon Island is breathtaking, amazing, with endless postcard pictures. The main town of Khuzir however is the Yin to the Yang of the Island. The town is indicative of what we've seen outside of the main cities in Russia. The houses, mostly wooden structures seem only somewhat sturdy and as we saw, could go up in flames at a spark. There are no paved roads on the island and you see abandoned cars that have succumb to the elements. For such a tourist draw, Khuzir is not the modern resort town on the cliffs that you may imagine. However, as a photographer, this is a gold mine.

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Olkhon, Island - Lake Baikal

The reason we stopped in Irkutsk in the first place was because we were eager to visit Olkhon Island located in Lake Baikal. OLKHON ISLAND: (Russian: Ольхо́н, also transliterated as Olchon) is the third-largest lake-bound island in the world. It is by far the largest island in Lake Baikal in eastern Siberia, with an area of 730 square kilometres (280 sq mi). The island measures 71.5 km (44.4 mi) in length and 20.8 km (12.9 mi) in width. The population of the island is less than 1,500 and consists mostly of Buryats, the island's aboriginal people. The indigenous Buryats, adherents of shamanism, believe the island to be a spiritual place. On the western coast, close to Khuzhir, is Baikal's most famous landmark, the Shamanka, or Shaman's Rock. Natives believe that Burkhan, a modern religious cult figure of the Altai peoples, lives in the cave in this rock. The rock is one of nine Asian Most Sacred Places.

LAKE BAIKAL: (Russian: о́зеро Байка́л, tr. Ozero Baykal, IPA: [ˈozʲɪrə bɐjˈkal]; Buryat: Байгал нуур, Mongolian: Байгал нуур, Baygal nuur, meaning "nature lake"); is a rift lake in the south of the Russian region of Siberia. Lake Baikal is the most voluminous freshwater lake in the world, containing roughly 20% of the world's unfrozen surface fresh water, and at 1,642 m (5,387 ft), the deepest. It is also among the clearest of all lakes, and thought to be the world's oldest lake at 25 million years.

Many backpackers come to Irkutsk to make this journey to Olkhon, so many hostels will arrange transportation to the island which is exactly what we did. We were to be picked up at 8:30am for the 4-6 hour journey by minivan and they promptly arrived just before 9:30am. There were already 5 backpackers in the van when we got in and we stopped at one more hostel which brought the grand total to 13 squished backpackers at which point the driver put all our bags on the roof, tied down under a tarp. I'm thinking our stuff is going to go flying, or we are going to go flying. Below is a photo of our luxury van as we are stopped because oh yeah, our engine doesn't start. The driver kept stopping at every auto shop and while he spoke no English, we guess he needs a spark plug. So every time we stop, we either need to get jumped, or the boys need to push the van. This is looking good.

1 2 3 4 5So in order to get to the island, you have to take a ferry. We get to the ferry landing to find 2 long lines of cars, one line of minivans much like ours, and another line for passenger cars. Our driver says we'll be waiting for 1 hour. As we realize there are only 2 ferries and each only carries a few cars, our 1 hour turns into 3. We have time to explore.6 7 8 9 10 1113 14 15 16We also realize that this waiting period is sort of like really good reality TV. You quickly see that the men in charge of letting cars on have all the pull and have buddies looking to cut the line. Fights ensue. Russian men in fishnet tops (they are all the rage here) are suddenly shouting. But since our lovely van can't start without a push, we are victims to the cutting and vans creep in front of us. Noooo! We eventually get tied to another van and get towed onto the ferry. It just gets better. 1217So we finally make it to Olkhon. It's all dirt roads and bumpy, which explains the plush padding on the roof of the van. It's maybe another hour to our accommodations, but we finally arrive... at 7pm. We stayed at Nikita's Homestead which was quite lovely. Situated right at the edge of the lake with Shaman's Rock in view, it made for the perfect location in the town of Khuzir. All meals were included in the price and the meals were fresh, delicious, not to mention the best meals we've had in Russia. The only gripe was our room did not have a private shower because when we booked, there was only the 1 room left so we couldn't be greedy. There were communal, cold showers, but we opted to just "bathe" in the the magical waters of Lake Baikal every day. 18 19So after we threw our bags down, we checked out our "backyard." OK. The ride was 100% worth it.20 21 22 24 25The water is so clear and it feels more like a sea than a lake because you see water to the end of the horizon. However, let's not forget we are in Siberia- the water is cold! Above is Shaman's Rock and below are Shamanic poles that are nearby. 26 2723Cows are always just wandering town and enjoying the view. I am amazed at their ability to keep their footing with such steep cliffs. As the sun was setting, we headed back towards Nikita's...28 29 30When we returned to Nikita's, we found that we couldn't even get to our room because there was a performance which had gathered a crowd. 31 32Quick clip of the performance below...

Olkhon Island from Nomadic-Habit on Vimeo.

So we survived the journey to Olkhon and called it a night. More beauty to come! 33 34

Irkutsk, Russia

So we got to Irktutsk, which has been called the "Paris of Siberia," which is not only a gross exaggeration, but downright wrong. The only thing Parisian about it is a small Eiffel Tower structure on the main shopping strip.

The city is such an architectural mix with beautiful wooden buildings like this...

2 3 4 5with plenty of buildings in disrepair like this...18and beautiful brick buildings that are Brooklyn brownstone-ish / New Orleans French Quarter like this...6 7and of course mixed in with Soviet block style apartment buildings like this...9Now we all know Parisians like to shop, but this is no Avenue des Champs-Élysées.

This is the main shopping drag that houses the Eiffel Tower and megaphone announcements. The other thing I've learned here in Russia, is they love their megaphones. In Saint Petersburg and Moscow, it was all about announcing tours via megaphones, and in Irkutsk, we found that shopkeepers like to stand storefront with their megaphone announcements. Suddenly, the very quiet country of Finland is sounding nice about now.10Below are some other iphone shots taken around town. The local buses here look as if they are about to break down and are usually packed with people. Irkutsk is on the Angara River and one night as we strolled down the river, we came across an "amusement" park or should we say, a vaguely amusing park. Nothing like a dirty jump house under some telephone wires.11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20So let's just say that Irkutsk leaves something to be desired, but serves as a great gateway to Lake Baikal.

There was however one thing that really caught my eye in Irkutsk. Find out what in the next post!

Trans-Siberian Railway | Moscow ---> Irkutsk

1The Trans-Siberian Railway has long been on both of our bucket lists for a long time. We traveled 5,189 km over the course of 3 nights and crossed 5 time zones which gave us serious train lag.

2We decided to split our course to Mongolia into 2 parts. Moscow to Irkutsk (see map above), then Irkutsk to Ulaanbaator. This route would have us taking 2 different trains. The train to Irkutsk actually continues east to Vladivostok. For more information about the Trans-Siberian Railway system, this is a good resource.

We booked tickets for 2nd class with a 4 person cabin, so we were eager to see who our roommates might be. We both already knew we were assigned top bunk beds and we had no idea what to expect. Here goes nothing!

We board the train and find our roommates are already getting situated. A Russian mother and son who are very quiet, polite, and don't speak any English. They are with us the entire ride. We meet a German couple on our car and we both indulge in the difficulties we've both encountered in Russia. Their roommates are drunk a few hours in, stumbling around and we feel lucky to be sharing our space with the mother and son. So let's talk facilities...

Rick was worried early on that he would fall out of the bunk. When we arrive, we see that his railing is broken. Luckily, I brought rope and tape and he rigs a system to keep that railing intact! See our bunks and his lovely rope work below... (PS- the beds were actually quite comfortable. Probably better than our last 2 hostels. You get suited with clean sheets, a blanket, a pillow, and a face towel.)

4 5 637Each train has two bathrooms and on the other end is a samovar for all your boiling water needs. Most people are constantly drinking tea and we brought instant oatmeal and noodles for the ride. As you can see, there is a digital display with the temperature and time. Let's talk about the time. As we were passing through time zones, we were wondering when the time would adjust. The next morning, it still had not adjusted. We found a schedule on the train that listed all the stops along the way and we also found out that all train times in Russia are in Moscow time. So here we thought we'd get into Irkutsk at 4pm as our tickets said, but apparently, that was in Moscow time, which meant we were actually getting into Irkutsk at the local time of 9pm.


And here are our roommates who basically never left this position.

We aren't even sure if they ever ate a meal because they remained at window side with only a bag of candy.8And now for the dining car! We always romanticized the dining car... sitting endlessly, sipping coffee, overlooking the landscape. Well... besides getting ripped off on two cups of coffee and inhaling the smoke of the old women who work the car, it was a nice experience. 9 1012One night for dessert we had blini's with caviar and butter. Rick topped it off with the worst beer he said he's ever had, meanwhile one of the dining car ladies rocked a card game on her computer.11 13So let's talk train stops and stations. While we discovered the timetable for all the stops the train makes (in Moscow time) it also lists how many minutes you stop at each station. Some stops were only 2 minutes, while others were over twenty. This was important to know so if you got off the train, you made sure you boarded with good time.

I had read all these accounts on the internet of people selling local food on the platforms to which we found bogus! There were kiosks to buy small things like water, ice cream, snacks, etc. but these local vendors were all but a dream. The other interesting thing, or non interesting thing depending on how you look at it, was all the stations pretty much looked alike. All the images below were from various stations. Also, each station had an ominous voice (usually a harsh sounding Russian woman) over loud speaker which had the ability to make you feel as if you were doing something wrong without understanding a word they were saying. 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29So what did we do for 3 nights besides not shower?

We drank a lot of tea and gazed out the window.

30 31 32 33 And what did we see out the window?

We passed by many villages, all of similar decay. We were amazed that these structures and the people living in them could survive the brutal winters. There were also derelict buildings a dime a dozen along with other buildings of Soviet times.34 35 36 37 38 39 4041 42Who lives in these towns? (Please note these were all shot from a moving train!)43 44 45 46 47 4849The landscape did not change all that much until maybe the end when the land really opened up from the dense forest to give way to some really beautiful flowers.50 51 52 53 5455 56 57 58 59 60 61

So we survived the first leg of our Trans-Siberian journey!

Monday we leave Irkutsk for a 2 night train trip to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Gobi here we come!


Moscow, Russia

Remember how I said we were too old for hostels? Well...

We had already booked a hostel in Moscow that had reviews stating the location was hard to find so we decided to cancel the booking and book a "hotel" that we thought would be easier to find. WRONG. We took the high speed train from St. Petersburg and bargained with a cab driver that let us out in an alley where all signs were in Russian. We first went into the wrong hotel, only to be led to another wrong hotel to discover we needed a code to enter the actual building that housed the "hotel." We buzzed random numbers until someone buzzed us in to find an open door of the "hotel" that just looked like someone's living room with no one to be found. Great. Welcome to traveling.

So we walked around the maze of alleyways to find...

a hostel. So we had no choice- paid double of what we originally booked to find ourselves in another hostel without a window and shared bathroom.

On the up side?

Red Square and the Kremlin are amazing...

Also, I've never seen so many brides in one place at one time as we stumbled upon the Bridge of Kisses that is full of tradition. Read about it here and see the photos below...

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Saint Petersburg, Russia

We've had the worst luck with weather this entire trip. Russia was no exception.

After staring at a father and son who we shared opposing train seats with for 6 hours from Tallinn to Saint Petersburg, we promptly got ripped off by our cab driver who drove us to our overpriced hostel that had "pet" mice (why does a hostel have pet mice?! After living in NYC, the last thing I want in my living space is mice) and because the walls were so paper thin, come night, the nocturnal spinning ensued and Rick systematically dismantled the wheel of one mouse, while jamming a pencil into the  wheel of the second mouse (though I think he wishes it was into the mouse itself). We maybe had a chance at sleeping except for the teenage looking couple next door who's bed was squeaking all night (I don't even want to know).

Lesson learned? We are too old for hostels. (Especially Rick. haha)

So because of the lovely hostel experience plus the depressing weather, I barely took my camera out and because I didn't want to pay extra to bring it into the Hermitage, I used Rick's iphone for all the Hermitage photos.

Russia has been quite the challenge thus far.

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