A Travellerspoint blog

Are we there yet?

Day 18 Wednesday

overcast 20 °C

Morning town = Barbarinsk, 2000 km travelled and 3100 km to go.

Generally early in the morning we stop off for about 30 minutes at a station. Most of the times the station stops are only between 2 and 5 minutes. This is way too little time to jump off and get some food or drinks. These small stops are just enough time to let off or on one or two passengers. The bigger stops allow a stack of the passengers to get off and have a smoke which seems like half the train. During stops at the smaller towns are older ladies walking the platform with a shopping trolley full of general foods and drinks. The bigger towns have small kiosks selling more food as well.
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The day again was.....see previous day! Nothing much changes in the train.

Russia has something like 11 time zones which creates a problem for train timetables across the country. So all time tables and station clocks are set at Moscow time so we are will have to move our clocks back 3 hours at some time before we get to our final destination. To further confuse the travel, the sun goes down about 11 pm and rises at 3 am.

Lots of reading, snooze, cups of tea, snacks, blogs and the bananagrams and yahtzee championship has started.

Our rations are fairing well, although they don't always live up to the hype.
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Fortunately I made a death defying foray to the platform and brought back Soviet Treats --- CCCP in Cyrillic is SSSR, for the Soviet Union (in the West we would call it USSR).
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Posted by tszeitli 23:15 Archived in Russia Tagged food rain carriage Comments (0)

Forests, Farming and Crumbling Factories

Day 17

sunny 20 °C

Having departed Irkutsk yesterday afternoon, we travelled through the night.
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In the morning we arrived in Ilyanska. 800 km's down, 4300 to go!

We had the cabin to ourselves as our tour package includes that we have 4 seats. The next cabin had two quite elderly traditional Russian ladies and at one point they had a guy in his mid 20's sleeping on the top bunk. He did not look very happy! This was our first full day on the train and basically it consisted of:
Wake up, breakfast, morning ablutions, travel paperwork, bananagrams, yahtzee, snooze, read a book, lunch, cleaning lady comes in, blog writing, snooze, read a book, bananagrams, yahtzee, chips, wine, dinner, book and finally bed.
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All this is interrupted with train stops, people watching and checking out the tracksuit fashion of Russian men. The constant view out side the window was forests, farming and numerous run down and/or crumbling factories and buildings. The houses and farms rustic and simple and the norm for each house was to have the back yard farmed and a small glass house / poly tunnel. The cities we pass through centre around factories and buildings. Our assumption is they are left over from the socialist days and once Russia was formed these factories were just left to fall apart. It just looks like Russian infrastructure is falling behind and there is just not enough money to redevelop Russia. Sustaining capital investment needed!

I worked out the chart in the corridor of the carriage detailing time tables and the distances. Also I can map the whole trip using maps.me on my iPad. The whole trip will be 5093 km, 85 hours of train travel and living in a 2 1/2 m 1 1/2 m cabin. The sun does not go down until about 1am and dawn is about 3 am. The rest of the carriage passengers have changed over as they stop and get off and new passengers get on.

Day 1 finished: all good except iPad and surface batteries are flat. I have resorted to good old hand writing of my blog. Jen is happy and already finished one book and onto her second.

Posted by tszeitli 02:03 Archived in Russia Tagged train books sleep farming incarcaration Comments (0)

Crossing the Tran-Siberian frontier

Day 16 Sightseeing Day in Irkutsk

sunny 20 °C

Last night was our last sleep before we embark on the final frontier of four nights on the trans-Mongolian train from Irkutsk to Russia, one of the great train rides that covers 5093 km. The other well known train is the trans-Siberian from Vladivostok to Moscow but they both connect through Irkutsk.
We have packing down to an art-form and it now only takes around 30 to 40 minutes to compress everything we'll have for 4 months into our bags. Although, we do have some days when packing just seems to not go back in the same way. Jen always seems to have the sit on top - her zip close technique is refined but our bags do get a punishment. It's refreshing that all we have to worry about is what's in our bags and nothing else.

We had plenty of time before our train leaves at 6.22 pm so we went for a walk around the streets of Irkutsk. Setting off after breakfast, we walked to the main square along the river, the main government building on Lenin Street, around the main Russian Orthodox Church and got to the War Memorial and eternal flame. There are many reminders of the Soviet era everywhere, often in stark contrast to shiny and modern developments.
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Our quiet morning dawdle was interrupted the sounds of boots marching and about 30 cadets emerged goosestepping towards the Memorial and Eternal Flame.
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After some apparent preparations, four peeled off and positioned themselves around the Flame with the rest of the formation marching back to the building, and at ease. Upon entering the inner square they still goosestepped but silently and respectfully.
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What followed was a strangely endearing process. What appeared to be a head cadet stayed off to the side and then approached each of the cadets on guard and proceeded to straighten and adjust their attire (shoelaces, trouser cuffs, jackets etc) to ensure they were perfectly presented - even a gentle moment where he careful tucked a female cadet's hair out of her eyes, adjusted her pigtails, and seemed to brush an eyelash from her eye - all while the cadets stood stoically for their allocated time guarding the Eternal Flame.
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Near to the Flame were a series of photoboards with faces of citizens of Irkutsk, honouring them for service in the Second World War - some historical and likely perished, some modern who appeared to have lived to grand old ages. Hearing Russians describe the Second World War, they don't identify any country as a foe but call it the Patriotic War in which they were victorious. Their history is absent comments about the Allied Forces. The avenue of patriots was sombre and respectful.
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Continuing on past the Community Garden project, we headed down to the remarkably fast flowing Irkutsk River, the only outflow from Lake Baikal. There are many tributes to the past around Irkutsk including an impressive commemorative statue to the Cossacks.
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Love locks are now a common feature of most waterside boulevards around the world.
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We stopped at the obligatory Vladimir Lenin statue, standard in most towns, with his one arm out front pose.
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Onto Karl Marx Road, to the statue of Irkutsk's Coat of Arms character and protector of the region, Babr, a Siberian Tiger with a sable dangling from its mouth. Rubbing its claws is said to bring success - of course we wouldn't miss an opportunity - just in case.
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In Russia, bronze statutes seem to be the focus of superstition and its easy to tell what might be considered good luck by a shiny spot as Russians rub the spot as they pass.

Time for coffee as we walked though a renovated part of town, Quarter 130, with cafes and restaurants in the traditional Irkutsk old style. Irkutsk is known for its classic old wooden buildings with decorative shutters. Unfortunately, as is the case of every city wanting to preserve heritage structures, the owners are faced with more expensive renovation costs than a new build. As a result, many classic buildings are vacant and sadly becoming derelict.
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It was lovely wandering the streets, enjoying this beautiful town.
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We finished at the local mall and local market full of sights, sounds and smells of the culture.
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Time for lunch and we found a Belgian beer cafe and devoured some traditional sausages and local beers. Beers are 500 ml and 8% alcoholic content so they they go down very well.
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As this leg of the train trip was going to be for 4 nights and 3 full days, we needed a good selection of food supplies from the local supermarket (which could survive without refrigeration) - local pastries with mince meat, salami, bread, spreadable cheese, noodles and meat & potato "just add water" meals, snacks, cereal, juice and tea. It's always a fun challenge in exploring the supermarket and we sometimes get a few funny looks from the locals as Jen and I go through this saga of reading, deciphering and selecting our foods - often marvelling at the variety and diversity. We have enjoyed deciphering Cyrillic and Jen has been able to figure out many Russian words just by knowing the sounds of characters.

Time for these two travellers to hit the tracks!
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No issues with getting to the station with plenty of time to spare. Once the platform was announced we made our way which involved going up and down about 20 steps with all our bags. We got caught out by a guy wearing a fluoro vest who made out to be an official, asking for our tickets but quickly grabbing our bags, despite our protestations that we could do it, trying to help, and proceeded to take them to the platform. It was one of those situations that we should have just stopped and told him firmly "NET!". At the carriage, he then demanded for 200 Rubles (about $4). Oh well that's part of travelling!

The train carriage was a further step down in quality with vinyl seats, the standard communal toilet that drops straight onto the tracks and even less padding for sleeping mats, pillows and doonas. Overall the train was tired and a little run down - but classic. Our fellow travellers are mostly Russian. We are reassured by the sight of the classic coal fired hot water boiler - a beautiful piece of engineering! - and, once the bunks are made up with crisp clean white linen, the antibacterial wipe process completed, our bags and travellers' kit arranged, our cabin is cosy and perfectly comfortable.

The Train left with the precision we have come to respect of the Russian Train Network with the entire timetable of all Russian trains on Moscow time, regardless of the local timezone.

Jen and I started to settle down with a little apprehension for what lay ahead of us. Jen was just thinking about how I am going to survive with the sun up at 3 am, not much to do, definitely no wi fi, and sit in once spot for 4 nights and 3 days. We always knew this was going to be one of the rare opportunities in life to "switch off the world". It is also a good test early in our marriage - 4 days confined to a 10'x6' cabin...TBC

Mockba here we come!

Posted by tszeitli 12:34 Archived in Russia Tagged beer train_station russia cabin toilets irkutsk antique_boiler food_supplies Comments (2)

The Pearl of Siberia

Day 15 Irkutsk and Lake Baikal

sunny 15 °C

From my teenage years of watching Hogan's Heroes and war movies, Siberia was always the place to send convicts, political dissidents, and any other trouble makers, so I had an impression that Siberia was going to be a harsh desolate place. Knowing it was summer, and unlikely to be quite as hostile as a full Russian Winter, I was looking forward to my first excursion into Russia. Jen had already been to Russia back in 2010 and had very strong memories. Irkustk is known as the Pearl of Siberia.

Having trundled through the night, our train arrived at Irkutsk . During the drive to our hotel, Irkutsk quickly revealed itself as a beautiful city bounded by the beautiful Irkutsk river, full of classic old buildings, restaurants, modern facilities as well as traditional and rustic architecture. Irkutsk is Russia's favoured summer break location, with many Russian's enjoying holiday homes here. Originally Irkutsk was a place of banishment for aristocrats who'd fallen from grace, political agitators and others banished from Moscow and St Petersburg. As a result, a antipodean culture developed, with French being the language of the time, giving the region a refinement and romance.

We quickly dumped our stuff, cleaned up and met our ambassador, Ksenia and our driver she arranged for the day to take us to Lake Baikal. Again RHS driving but with cars having a variety LHS and RHS steering wheels and as normal no seat belts. The absence of suspension in the car embellished the experience.

The lake is 1637m deep, making it one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world. It holds 20% of the world’s fresh water and if the world ran out of water then the lake could supply the world's fresh water needs for 60 days. The seals inhabiting the lake, which are elusive and not easily seen, are also the only fresh water seals in the world.

The lake is also famous for caviar as the local fish supply a large majority of the world’s caviar market. Caviar still sells for up to $600 for a small 350g can. We spent the first 1 ½ hours at the information centre and museum and got a great appreciation of the lake and its beauty. In winter the whole lake freezes over and you can drive your car on it although this gets a little scary when the ice melts and cracks appear. There are also snow mobile tours that go across the lake and ski resorts scattered in the surrounding mountains.
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Next stop a ride up the chair lift to a lookout and the beauty of Lake Baikal was revealed - snow covered mountains which looked like a giant painted backdrop to vastness of the lake.
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Ksenia did tell us of “crazy Aussies” she showed around whose sole purpose of their day tour was to go the main beach area, strip down and swim in 8 deg C lake water - which they proceeded to do - against her advice. We assured her we would not be doing anything so foolish!

Next a local lunch of pelmeni (Russian Dumplings) in broth and local cherry pastry delicacies.
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We were then able to walk through the local village of traditional houses decorated with fancy shutters.
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It was lovely walking through the beautiful lakeside town.
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We visited a local blacksmith workshop and an antique car yard. The blacksmiths have been making armour in the traditional way based on artefacts discovered locally from archaeological digs. We also think one of the blacksmiths was sweet on our lovely tour guide - hence a reason for our visit! Jen spied a small horse shoe iron pendant that is worn with the ends pointing down, opposite to our custom of it being in a “U” shape. The Russian legend tells of a mythical hero's horse losing its horseshoe, which fell from heaven, landing as a rainbow on earth, bringing good luck and surrounding the bearer with fortune and good health.
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The blacksmith workshop was part of a rural setting which included local produce and dog sledding. Our arrival was heralded by a cacophony of excited dogs. During summer months they train with skids.
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The vintage car yard featured old cars, motorbikes, cameras, and other antiquites.
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We then walked into the main town, and saw a seal show with the seals doing tricks in this 10m by 4 m tank including dancing, wearing Russian hats, shooting at targets, counting tricks, playing musical instruments and splashing the audience. The kids loved it but it’s just something we don’t see any more in Australia.
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Whilst our day was drawing to a close, we had time to visit the local market and, on Ksenia's recommendation, buy the choice Lake Baikal delicacy of hot smoked Omul fish. Her favourite thing to do is to eat it by the Lake. We can see why. The fish was delicious! Salty (although a freshwater fish) and subtle fishy flavour - a real treat.
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It is also supposed to be good luck and bring eternal life (or at least long life) for visitors to take a dip in the pure waters of the Lake. At below 10 degrees, we only managed to dunk our feet!
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The majestic lake and the friendly sunny atmosphere was the perfect way to end our day to Lake Baikal.
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We then headed back home and we can now claim the most hair raising drive of our holidays to date. The Russians over take at any time, pull in and out at will, overtake 20 cars at a time, on the wrong side of the road, while heading towards a bend or crest, cross double lines and probably talking on the mobile phone. There are even police cars watching this all happen who do nothing about it. Ksenia and the lady driver were quite oblivious to all this and throughout the drive they just laughed at Jen and I in the back as we kept on gasping and shaking our heads in amazement as we saw near miss after near miss. We got back to our hotel with an all-round thumb up sign and secretly for us a sign of relief.
Big day and thoroughly exhausted but overwhelmed in what we did today. We decided hotel room picnic of bread, cheese and salami with local beer was in order. Tomorrow it’s a walk around the town of Irkutsk and then off to Mockba.

Posted by tszeitli 11:33 Archived in Russia Tagged traffic views lake local_culture baikal irkutsk omul Comments (1)

Somewhere South of the Russian Border

Day 14 Ten Hour Border Crossing - UB to Irkutsk on the Train and we've hit a slight technical difficulty

sunny 18 °C

Our cabin proves remarkably cosy, the rhythmic motions and gentle clunking of the train means we sleep soundly, occasionally stirring as we passed through towns. I woke up during the night to some shunting and banging of carriages but snuggled back into my bunk and back to sleep. Gradually as morning dawned and our neighbours began to stir, we noticed the train wasn't moving. Usually that means the toilets are locked so not ideal first thing in the morning. When the train is stopped at a station, it is possible to hop off and use the toilets at the station, but one must be sure to know exactly when the train departs as it will leave without you, no whistle or warning.

Jen and I decided to get up and see what was going on. To our utter amazement, the scene that presented itself was unreal. We'd hit a slight snag...no train.
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During the night, at the border town of Sukbaatar, our train had departed and all that was on the track at the deserted platform was our one and only carriage at an empty station. Nervous laughter and realisation that there was not much we could do about the situation took a little while to sink in. Definitely no dining carriage and no chance of the train leaving without us!

Our "friendly" steward of course did not offer to share any explanations or timeframes for when we might be again in motion.

A very helpful man with a satchel full of foreign exchange swapped our remaining Chinese Yuan and Mongolian Tughrik to Rubles - at surprisingly competitive rates (all without the aid of a calculator or wifi). Even at 5am there was a lady sitting at a desk in front of the toilets collecting 200 TGT from each person. We and our fellow marooned westerners now had to wait here for about 4 hours until the Mongolian border control came on to check our passports, and then customs, and a procession of uniformed officials inspecting us, our papers and our lonesome carriage. Once that was done, we got connected with a new engine and we were back in motion toward the Russian Border.

I did have a run in with the lovely (not) Russian train attendant who told me very sternly not to take any photos of the rolls of barbed wire fencing that was laid out at the point we crossed the border into Russia. "It is forbidden!" she barked, after I'd taken a photo (even though there was no prior explanation).
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During the crossing, we were confined to our cabins. This didn't bother us too much as we had surprisingly good cappuccinos courtesy of our trusty boiler and a packet mix.
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After about 30 minutes, crossing the border we pulled into a station at the Russian border town of Naushki. We figured we'd spend a short time here, passports, papers and the usual procession and we'd be on our way. But, again, with some banging and shunting, our engine departed, and we were once again, abandoned.
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We waited at Naushki for another 5 hours of Russian border control and eventually, rejoined to a full train, we were back on our way heading towards Irkutsk.
All in all, the border control was not as tight a security as I thought it would be, just painful having to sit around to go through the process but still all part of the travel experience. The rest of the day was enjoyed in our carriage, chatting with other travellers, eating snacks, reading and catching up with diaries...until our devices' batteries died.
The Russian scenery is totally different to Mongolia and now we are seeing rivers, forests and greenery along the journey. Fortunately, we could rest and get over our colds and begin our challenge of Bananagrams and Yatzee - not that we're competitive!

Posted by tszeitli 10:25 Archived in Mongolia Tagged train siberia technical_difficulties Comments (2)

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