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...Another 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.We 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. So 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. It'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.When 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. We 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...I think we are done with trains for awhile.
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.
So 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. We 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. So 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. So after we threw our bags down, we checked out our "backyard." OK. The ride was 100% worth it. The 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. Cows 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... When 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. Quick clip of the performance below...
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...
with plenty of buildings in disrepair like this...and beautiful brick buildings that are Brooklyn brownstone-ish / New Orleans French Quarter like this... and of course mixed in with Soviet block style apartment buildings like this...Now 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.Below 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. So 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!
We 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.)
Each 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.And 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. One 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. So 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. So what did we do for 3 nights besides not shower?
We drank a lot of tea and gazed 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. Who lives in these towns? (Please note these were all shot from a moving train!) The 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.
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!