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Published: August 7th 2007
Russia was nothing short of amazing. From the long sandy white beaches of Siberia; cards, vodka and stories on the great Trans Siberian railway; to joining our Russian friends in celebrating the omnipresent daylight of “white nights” - we had a blast. The Russia we experienced was lively and progressive, far removed from the bleak repressive Soviet times that dominate history books. It’s hard to put everything into words, and try as we might this blog will hardly do it justice, but here we go - from the beginning ...
Nikolai was our fabulous Russian carriage attendant who giggled and smiled all the way from Ulan Bator to Irkutsk. He spoke a few words of English, was relatively fluent in German, and an expert in the international mode of communication - sign language. He was good natured and extremely efficient - there was always toilet paper in the loo, customs forms were given out well in advance, and he was even compassionate enough to allow Suz an illegal toilet stop during the arduous four hour border crossing. Nikolai apologised for the airconditioning unit wich was ”kaput”, and sweated in the 40 degree heat with the rest of us, and while
we complained, moaned and sweltered in the oppressive heat, Nikolai maintained his cheerful demeanour, proving the old adage wrong: Russians do smile!!
Our carriage was full of other westerners and there was not a sock and sandled, tracksuit wearing, blue haired russian in sight! Jantiene and Marc shared the cabin with us, and Nate had a cabin all to himself. Swedish David was in another carriage but came and joined us because frankly our carriage was where it was all at, attracting westerners from more remote regions of the train including NYC party-girl Arianne, and vodka guzzling Scottish Ali. David disappeared back to his carriage for the border crossing ... never to be seen again! The next day we were all a bit surprised that we hadn’t seen him and sent out a couple of search parties to locate the missing Swede, but to no avail. We remained perplexed ... perhaps he had ditched our company for some seductive hot russian girls, or met a high flyer in first class? Nope. Turns out he got chucked off the train somewhere between Mongolia and Russia, with the Russians citing “visa issues”.
Irkutsk, Lake Baikal & Olkhon Island
the rest of us (minus a now stranded David) all arrived into Siberia to Irkutsk the largest city in the Baikal region. It had some cool old buildings, wooden mansions and Russian engineered ladas dominated the roads. Old Ladas, Big Ladas, Small Ladas, Long Ladas, Police Ladas, Ladas of all colours, shapes and sizes zipped by where ever you looked. After completing the entirely useless and bureaucratic process of visa registration we headed north about five hours (the drive normally takes a lot longer but we were blessed with a crazy speed freak of a driver - a massive bloke who blasted 80’s and 90’s techno the entire trip!) to Olkhon Island nestled on the great Lake Baikal.
Lake Baikal is something of a natural wonder - it’s the world’s deepest lake at 1637m, and contains one fifth of all the world’s fresh unfrozen water (more than all the great lakes of North America combined!) and it is remarkably pure, clean and clear. It’s also situated on two tectonic plates which are gradually drifting apart, so each year the lake grows even deeper, and eventually the plates will split, dividing the asian continent and Baikal will become the world’s
fifth ocean (all facts according to the trusty LP!). Also the local Buryat people claim that it’s one of the five global poles of Shamanic energy, so this place is pretty special!
Access to the island was via a ferry from the mainland, and at first were quite surprised by how deforested the island was compared to all the thick forests we had driven to on our way there. The island has two settlements and we stayed at the main but tiny settlement of Khuzir. All the houses here were constructed in typical Siberian fashion - made entirely of wood (ah, that explains the lack of trees!), A-frame roofs, decorated flower boxes, and brightly painted window frames and doors. Khuzir sits on the edge of the lake and alongside large stretches of white sandy beaches. We spent three days just hanging out here and basking in the glorious weather and enjoying our Siberian beach holiday, hiring some mountain bikes to set out and explore the island.
We took a banya there, which is a Russian sauna - essentially consisting of a room in which water is ladled on to hot rocks resulting in a jet of scorching steam.
It was quite refreshing and was the closest thing we had to a shower for four days since the island has no running water. As Dave remarks, it’s hard to believe that with all that fresh water available no one had thought of running a pipe into it!
The Trans Siberian Railway
The next stage in our Trans-Siberian crossing was the four day non-stop Irkutsk to Moscow leg of the journey. We shared our cabin with Marc and Jantiene who we’d now been travelling with since Beijing, so were quite accustomed to each other’s company, food preferences and quirky personality traits so we made awesome travel companions.
Unfortunately our carriage was home to the head provodnitsa (carriage attendant) and all her minions, so we had not one but two surly Russian ladies lording it over us for the entire trip. We were sorely missing Nikolai and made it our mission to try and get the old girls to crack a smile - the tally at the end of day 4:
Suz = 2
Jantiene = 1
Possibly we were disliked because we used the four days to catch up on our laundry,
taking it in turns to covertly wash our clothes in the bathroom basin, and then strung up a clothesline in our carriage with all our socks and jocks in full public view.
Cards, books, Russians, fun, laughter, and in the famous trans Siberian tradition, vodka ... it turns out that four days on the train just flew by ...
Moscow was so European and modern, although the fashion seemed to have been left behind, causing Dave to remark that ”it was as if that train was a time machine and it’s taken us back to the 80’s”. Fashion wasn’t Moscows strong point, but for our first real European city it certainly had a lot to offer.
We visited the seat of Russian power at the Kremlin where tsars, dictators and various governments have ruled Russia for centuries. Nowadays the powerful are whisked in and out of the complex in black cars with tinted windows, and stern bodyguards vigilantly stand watch to ensure that stray tourists don't uncover any state secrets. The most interesting sights are all the churches there, remnants from the days when this was also the centre of the Orthodox Chruch. We frolicked
At the end of the tracks!
Four days and slightly more smelly
in Red Square, marvelling at the crazy architecture of St Basils but missed the opportunity to visit Lenins Tomb as it was closed and Lenin was presumably being rewaxed. You have to keep up appearances, particularly for the dead father of soviet communism!
We filled some time wandering along the Arbat looking at all the artists, buskers, street entertainers and souvenir shops, and busied ourselves trying to find the perfect matrioshka doll (the ones that stack inside themselves that you probably saw as a kid) - tacky, but it had to be done. Checked out modern and propaganda art in the New Tretyakov art gallery, and meandered through the adjacent (and terribly maintained) Sculpture park looking at all the weird and bizarre statues sitting there.
The Moscow Metro has to be seen to be believed. Over 150 stations dot the city making it the easiest and most efficient way to dart between destinations with a maximum wait between trains of two minutes! The cryllic language however left us in a state of confusion during our attempts to catch the right trains! The stations themselves are nothing short of works of art; frescoes, mosaics, statues, and chandeliers adorn the
marbled interiors. Just goes to show that public transport can be beautiful!
We had a great time in Moscow staying with two awesome Russian girls, Katya and Natasha who despite working way too hard, devoted their every spare moment to us - dishing out local advice and keeping us entertained. They surprised Dave on his birthday with a lovely handmade card and a SIM card (so that we no longer had to beg kindly Russians to let us use their phones when we needed to make contact!). We were out to dinner at a Ukranian restaurant with them and another couple of CSers and were very tempted to forfeit our train tickets on to St Petersburg and stay on and party, but alas we took the train ...
By contrast the fashion was happening and chic on the streets of St Petersburg. Gorgeous girls dressed to the nines, tottering along on 6-inch heels, designer labels adorning their slender frames, and hair immaculately coiffed. It was the first time we’ve really felt like backpacker scum, in our manky old clothes that we’ve been wearing for months. Boots, zip off pants and fleeces that had made us
Neva river looking towards St Pauls
look quite stylish in outer Siberia just didn’t seem to make the grade here!
And of course it was Dave's birthday, so cause for celebration! Half of it was spent in Moscow, (some on the overnight train) and the other half in St Petes, partying through the night and endless daylight. The "White Nights" is an amazing phenomenon: for about six weeks a year the northern part of Russia is bathed in almost continual light, the darkest it gets is when the sky remains lit with a cool blue glow. Russians (especially those from St Petersburg which gets the most light) embrace it fully. It was not unusual for the streets to be as packed at 3am as they were at 3pm! Families out recreating, children riding bikes, Youths hanging out, and naturally "celebration" in the form of partying and vodka!! (Are you picking up the ever present connection here between Russians and their love affair with vodka?). We were so glad to have been there for this amazing time. Again we had the opportunity to meet and stay with another great Russian local, Olga, whose hospitality was simply amazing, and we made the most of white nights exploring
From the cheap seats at the back
the city together.
St Petersburg has been referred to as the “Venice of the North” because of the seemingly endless network of canals and waterways that wind their way between grandiose and stately buildings. For the first couple of days we stayed close to the Hermitage, just off the Nevsky Prospect, Russia’s most famous street dotted with architecturally inspiring churches and buildings, and now home to loads of fashion houses and stylish shops. From here it was an excellent place to explore the city ...
We climbed up the steps to the colonnade of St Issacs for a view of over the city, watched devout catholics as they took mass in the Kazan Cathedral, ogled at the beautiful Church on Spilled Blood, headed out to the island to Peter and Paul Fortress, took a boat cruise through the city, and spent many many hours just wandering the city soaking up the atmosphere and marvelling at all the architectural gems. The Hermitage (or Winter Palace) was an amazing building, and the interior is gilded with gold and adorned with frescoes. Inside houses an amazing art collection with art works from Classic and Byzantine to the 20th Century. In the
Dvortsovaya Pl (forecourt of the Palace) we watched as hundreds of people gathered all decked out in rollerblades for Friday night skate night to perform laps around the plaza.
In the penultimate of our cultural experiences so far, we headed to the famous Mariinsky Ballet. Luckily for us (remember our old manky clothes), the other ballet goers didn't take the opportunity to dress up, so sipping champers and wearing our best clothes we fitted right in! And after the ballet we met up with some local couchsurfers and then joined Arianne and Nate for a night of fun and revelry in the heart of St Petersburg, being removed from one club only to find oursleves in the far cooler club, mixing it up with the St Petersburg youth. We danced and danced and danced until we could dance no more!!
Next stop Estonia, which for those of you who're not sure where it is (not naming any names here...) it is another country nestled to the west of Russia!
MONGOLIA: Ulan Bator > RUSSIA: Irkutsk > Lake Baikail > Olkhon Island (Khuzir) > Irkutsk > Moscow > St Petersburg
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