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11. May, 2010

Siberia – Irkutsk and Listivyanka

Siberia – Irkutsk and Listivyanka

We planned for a two day one night stop in Siberia, to have a look at life in one of the most remote parts of the world, a harsh land of harsh people. The plan was to see the biggest city in Siberia, Irkutsk, and the deepest and biggest freshwater lake in the world, mysterious Lake Baikal, which is the size of Belgium.

Irkutsk houses

Lace-like features in Decembrist houses

We first had a look at Irkutsk, the capital of Eastern Siberia. 5191 km away from Moscow, but still Russia. We were definitely East, Much of the population in Irkutsk has Oriental features, different from the average Russian person in Moscow who is generally very white and light colored hair. In Siberia you see both kind of Russians and in some you can see the mix in features.



So far in our journey, the English language was only spoken by a few and the only place we’ve been where our alphabet, the Roman is used was Turkey. Here in Siberia, if they know 10 English words you are lucky; but Tony is great at languages, so by know he has learned the Cyrillic alphabet which helps us get by.

Banya experience

Part of the fun in our journeys is figuring out how to use public transport, so we hopped on the Irkutsk tram and headed to the Central Market. As any market it sells anything you need, but we always try to find the local produce and things that we have never seen or tasted. Tony detected a “chocolate” stand, so of course we had to try Siberian chocolate. It is greyish brown in color, shaped like a thin flat stick and comes in a zip lock small bag. If we were in Amsterdam, we would think that hash was being sold now in stands in the market. We had a bite…and it was not chocolate…it was an unchewable hardened paste tasting of bitter herbs. Not tasty at all, I had to spit it out instantly! Then tony spotted a kvas tank. Kvas is a Russian malt drink that Tony had taken a special liking to in a previous trip we had made to Russia. He was very delighted when he saw a big yellow tank in the middle of the park with big black letters “kvas”. A woman sits at the front of the tank and dispenses it to different size containers.

Listivyanka houses

Sunset in frozen Lake Baikal

Afterward we took a walk around the city, having a look mainly at the Siberian architecture in houses. The houses are beautiful: all wooden with a specially carved facade and decorated windows, like lace out of wood. Some of these houses belonged to the Decembrists, a group of aristocratic liberal officers, artists and nobles responsible of an ill-conceived coup against Tsar Nicholas I and the Bolsheviks, in St Petersburg on December 26, 1825. As a result some were executed and the others exiled into Siberia and then followed by their wives, and made the city prosper by creating schools, scientific societies, hospitals, theaters, newspapers, etc.

Listivyanka village

Cute Listivyanka houses

After our taste of Irkutsk we headed in a local minibus to Listivyanka, a small settlement in the shores of Lake Baikal. To our delight, the lake was still frozen. The locals said that in 4 or 5 days, the ice will have melted. We walked on the ice in the lake for a while, until we felt that the portion we were walking off had started to break loose. We carefully walked back to shore and sampled a few local vodkas to calm us down.

Walking on broken ice...

Music and bbq at the frozen lake

There is a small local market, half of it sells smoked fish and the other sells souvenirs. Needless to say our favorite side was the fish side. You can’t go into Lake Baikal and not eat a whole smoked Omul fish. We ventured, and to our surprise it was actually really delicious! For dinner we tried some more local specialties in a nice restaurant in the woods overlooking Lake Baikal and we were equally satisfied with our Omul and Siq (the other, more expensive fish of the lake) fillets baked in a “Russian way” in a foil in the oven with local vegetables. But the real surprise was our starter: Raskokatla (something like that). I had read that it was the local specialty: fish in vodka. Small pieces of fully frozen fish arrived in our table and we thought it was mistake. The waiter said it was “Siberian specialty”…We also enjoyed the taste of frozen Siberian berries with mountain honey.

We opted not to scuba in frozen Lake Baikal...

The fish market

Delicious smoked Omul fish

A major highlight was experiencing the traditional Russian sauna, the banya. We thought that we would actually get to jump in the Baikal lake after the sauna, but apparently it’s not the norm. The Nordics have a similar experience, but it wasn’t like that in Baikal. You pay for the hours you want to stay and actually have the whole banya to yourselves. There is a very hot sauna (so you wear a funny hat to protect your hair), and then a pool with Lake Baikal freshwater which you can dive in. In Russia, they use a branch of birch to hit yourself or others with the purpose of increasing circulation. We didn’t know exactly how or at what point to do it, so we made a big mess of leaves all over the place. We had a very relaxing time during and after the banya, which alleviated us a bit from so much train travel. We had bought a bottle of Russian champagne, but we were so tired that we fell asleep before opening it. We had left it for cooling in the exterior part of our window and by next morning it had been stolen! But the manager at the hotel “found it”.

Our cozy cabin

Lake Baikal and us

Next day before heading back to Irkutsk to embark on leg 2 of our train journey, we purchased some more local delicacies and accompanied by the local brew, ate them in a wooden hut in front of the frozen lake; in the company of Francisco, a very well traveled and friendly fireman from Barcelona, whom we had met on the train. We had a nice time sharing life and travel experiences.

Now on to Mongolia.

10. May, 2010

Video Update – TransMongolian

We haven’t been doing a lot of video recording so far, but with so much time, and often little to do, the Trans-Mongolian changed that. So to add to our previous post, check out my travel video diary below.

All video channels are stored on our Videos page, where you can currently check out some of our latest adventures in Beijing!

09. May, 2010

Transsiberian-mongolian Journey

Transsiberian-mongolian Journey

Yaroslavsky train station in Moscow -minutes before departure

Ever since I can remember I have dreamed about taking a long train journey into foreign exotic remote lands. Tony loves taking trains as a mode of transport. We took the Transsiberian Express from Moscow to Irkutsk and from there, the Transmongolian Express unto China via Mongolia.

Items for sale in Yaroslavsky train station

We divided the journey in three parts:
Moscow to Irkutsk in Siberia: a journey of 5153 km, 4 nights and 3 days on train number 10.
Irkutsk to Ulan Bator in Mongolia – a journey of 1112 km, 2 nights and 1 day on train 362.
Ulan Bator to Beijing, China – a journey of 1357 km, 2 days and 1 night on train 24.

A stop in Siberia

We both were very excited before boarding and curious about the journey and our companions. Tony has been looking forward to reading a full book on board. Just after departure he realized that he had lost his only book left, he left it in the plane in Moscow. Bad news for him.

Another pit stop: beer and Russian buddies

Our roommates: Wilhemina and Fabian from Holland

There are three classes of accommodation in the trains: first, second and third class. We opted for second. The compartment was much smaller than expected so I was hoping we would be lucky and have the compartment to ourselves, but no such luck. From Moscow we shared the compartment with Alexander, a Russian young guy who despite Tony’s friendly efforts spoke maybe 10 words in total to us during the 24 hours we shared the cabin with him. When he got off a young Dutch couple joined us. We had a good time with them chatting and playing Monopoly and Scrabble. We also met travelers from Scotland, England, Spain, Australia and Ireland whom we shared good times and with some of them, the three legs of the journey.

Browsing the merchandise

Tony charmed Cristina, the provodnitsa

At the beginning time seems to go by really slowly, but before you know it you get into the routine that most everybody seems to share: sleep, read, sleep, watch movies, sleep, listen to music, sleep. There was a restaurant car in the Russian train and just for the experience we sampled overpriced drinks and a a skimpy and not very pleasant meal. It was so bad that the instant noodles we had bought tasted delicious afterward. Very few people eat in the restaurant so the choice of meal is instant soup, as every wagon provides boiling water. There is no refrigerator or microwave so snacks as pickled vegetables, chocolates, chips, nuts, fruits, and even baby food were our main options besides the soup.

For the first hours it seemed that the scenery would not change from bare skinny trees. But suddenly it started to snow, to the point where in one town there was a snowstorm and many inches of snow started accumulating.

Window seat, deeper in Siberia

Getting deeper into Siberia it was nice to see the little villages composed of mainly small wooden houses painted in pastel colors and with beautiful windows. This was more like the journey of my dreams.

Siberian scenery

Scenery at the start of trip

Most wagons have 9 compartments with 4 sleeping berths in it, and 2 toilets and sinks. If you get lucky (or maybe pay more) you might get the odd compartment that has only 2 berths or even 1. If you don’t speak the language it is very hard to communicate in the station or to the train attendant (provodnitsa) what you want. There was one first class cabin, and I am glad we did not pay the extra money for it because it is almost the same as 2nd class, 4 people to a compartment as well. The only difference was that it has a sort of shower. We still got to use it by paying the provodnista a fee of about 2.20 Euros per shower. There are two provodnitstas (almost all women) per wagon, one for day and one for night. Her job description requires her to direct us to our seats, keep our tickets until the end of the journey, clean the toilets to a very minimum standard, hoover the carpet, and most importantly make sure everybody is not making noise after 8 pm, or else she will call the on-board police on you. They speak no English and are very old school Russian military style so it is not very easy communicating with them, but Tony charmed her so they became friends.

Normal meal

On our last night of the first leg we decided to walk the train from top to end and it turned out to be a bad idea. We went to third class and realized we had been right about paying for second class. Third class does not have compartments, just many beds to a wagon and after three nights it felt very stuffy to say the least. There were many Russian military men on third class and as we crossed from one wagon to another (the smoking space) three of them started communicating (minimum English) with Tony. Then a big Russian man in civilian clothes joined in. He obviously had much to drink and started causing trouble for us, intimidating us in different forms. We were trapped in between two wagons so it was hard to escape, until one of the military guys intervened.

Russian train meal

We had so many expectations of the “Vodka Train” as they call these long train journeys in Russia, but we were first disappointed that in second class and first class there was no vodka going around. It is obviously in third class where it goes around and after our encounter, we were glad that we were not part of it.

In our second leg of the journey from Siberia to Mongolia we got a more modern train. It even had a tv in each compartment, yet we still don’t know for what use. The berths were much more comfortable. When we boarded there were several empty compartments so with more experience and after much begging and negotiation (big tip) we got the provodnitsa (more relaxed than the previous ones) to give us a compartment of our own.

It took about six hours to clear paperwork in the Russia border. You are allowed to get off the train for the three out of the six hours it takes, but of all the stops we have made, the town in the border is the least interesting, with no vendors on the ramps and with nothing to do for so long. On the first leg we had many stops of over 15 minutes and some very interesting because of the produce they sell on the ramps. Not only do you get to stretch your legs but if you are adventurous, savor the local delicacies. At one stop they were selling big smoked whole fishes. Tony attempted many times to eat the local pastries, but every time he realized it was meat and just to be on the safe side, it would go straight to the bin. At one stop, the vendors stretches a carpet on the rock in front of the “tourist wagons” and displayed their homemade dishes: cabbage, pelmeni (Russian raviolis), blinis (Russian crepes) and roasted chicken. We did try almost everything, nothing of spectacular taste, but enough to nurture us, as the snacks were not enough, and a bonus is that we did not get sick. And of course, the kinds of beer on sale are numerous and of all sizes and sorts, ranging from a normal small bottle to a plastic bottle of 5 liters. We did try many brands, but were not brave enough to try the cheap 5 liter bottle.

Russian authorities get in the train to check documents and inspect very thoroughly the compartments to make sure nothing illegal is being smuggled out. After six hours we finally started moving. 30 minutes later Mongolian authorities were on board and we had definitely left Russia. What a change, the officers spoke English and even smiled and made jokes. I did get asked for money by an officer, but it was only a Honduran coin for his collection. First time he met anyone from Honduras so he could not pass up the opportunity. Paperwork took a shorter period of time so quickly we were let free to roam the town for over an hour. Tired of snack food, we found a small local restaurant-bar-pub-cafe-karaoke (as they all are in Mongolia) and started savoring the local food. No English menu was available so we guessed some words. We made a good choice and a bad choice. The bad choice was the local soup: mutton and noodle soup. Just a smell and small taste made me go off mutton and become a vegetarian in Mongolia. It would take Tony longer to go off it, but he also did. Lamb is a delicious dish, especially in Ireland, but mutton is the total opposite. By the time we arrived at the border our wagon was the only one left on the train, and then the only Russian wagon, as Mongolian wagons were attached for the new passengers for the rest of the journey.

Scenery just in Mongolian side

That night in our deluxe private cabin we had our own private vodka party. We arrived at 6AM in Ulan Bator (UB) and the guesthouse had arranged free pickup for us, just to make sure the other touts wouldn’t make us change our minds about lodging. It was either the much bumpier journey, the vodka feast or the mutton, but I arrived not feeling the best. We both suffered from vertigo for a few days and for many days after I would dream all night about being in the train and would wake up in the middle of the night looking out the window and thinking we were at another train stop. Only until the next morning would I realize we were in a real bed in a real room.

Mongolian Restaurant car

3 days later we hopped in the train for the last leg: UB to Beijing. The Chinese train was a bit older than the two Russians we had been on, was not as comfortable and the hygiene standards were far inferior and our carriage attendant (all Chinese young men) was quite rude. Even the meanest of the Russian provodnistas would seem friendly next to him. We had an Irish and a Japanese roommate. The only improvement in this train is the restaurant car. It is a Mongolian car with Mongolian food and Mongolian decor, most of it of finely carved wood. The scenery is the Gobi desert with few life to be seen. The only movement is the occasional sandstorm or 4×4′s roaming the desert. If I thought Siberia was harsh, this is worse. I don’t know how the nomads do it. They say that this winter has been so harsh that about 45,000 million animals have died.

Sand storm in Gobi desert during stop

Changing of wheels at border

We spent this last leg playing cards and chatting with the travelers. All travelers who are on this train are very well traveled people, normal tourists don’t do this kind of trip. Some people are only traveling for the journey and then going back home, but most of us are long term travelers, some are traveling for a few months, some for a year, some indefinitely and some until money runs out. It took about six hours to clear border of formalities between Mongolia and China, but most of the time was changing the wheels of the train, as the tracks are different size in China. Each carriage is lifted up separately to change the wheels. This is done with the passengers inside so we got quite a good banging and rocking.

Scenery in China

The restaurant car was changed once again, this time to Chinese cuisine and decoration. After the Russian experience we did not venture into trying any more train cuisine, so we stuck to our bottled food, instant soups and snacks. Once in China the change of scenery was dramatic. The region is very mountainous, we were surrounded by high peaks so a lot of the journey was through short tunnels.

Friends since leg 1

We booked and paid in advance for our train tickets through an agency. We were afraid that it would be too late to buy them once we arrived in Russia, and having no days to spare we wanted to assure our tickets. Maybe during high season you need to do this, but April and early May are still low season and we could have saved at least 150 Euros each by waiting until Moscow. Peace of mind came at a high price.

We made it! Where's our diploma?

With a bit of delay, 7622 km further East and 11 days later we finally arrived in Beijing! After such a journey we felt like we deserved a diploma. We did it! In some ways it was all we expected and in some ways far from it. Would we do it again? No doubt about it!

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