Monday 25 May 2015
I got up at around 6:30am having arrived and stationed at Sukhbaatar after leaving Mongolia. As I got off the train, the carriage attendant motioned that I would have 20 minutes on the platform. That’s what I translated as she held 2 finger up. As I jumped down onto the tracks, I duly paid the 200 Tugrik (7p) to use the platform toilet and brush my teeth. As I step out of the toilet block, my heart sank as I thought my train had left without me. It took me a couple of minutes to realise that the 3 train carriage I was looking at directly in front of me, was mine. I hadn’t realise that the train had lost its front engine and uncoupled 20 carriages through the night. Major lesson learned today. Always pay attention to what train you get off to return to it!
An hour later than scheduled, the Mongolian passport control officers board the train to check my documents and take a cursory glance at my rucksack. After getting through the three carriages, the train set off toward the Mongolian Border arriving around 10:30am. Passing through we then reach the Russian border of Naushki at around 11am.
Here, passport control was more thorough, although it seems there were one too many employees doing the same job of checking bags. Good news is that I wasn’t found to have contraband hidden that the sniffer dogs could seek out. I eventually disembark for 2 and a half hours to grab some traditional Siberian lunch of Borsk (meat soup) and pork and mash, washed down with my first Russian beer.
After lunch, I loitered in the platform soaking in the sunshine before getting back on the train at around 2:30pm, where it then attaches itself to another few carriages before setting off toward Irkutsk. The landscape begins to look more bleak as the clouds began to cover the sun. Almost instantly, the landscape changes but still it’s beautiful.
I indulge in a few card games whilst drinking straight vodka to pass the time. It was dark and raining by the time I reached my next major stop. I had run out of vodka so I ran to the little shop on the platform and asked for a bottle. 400 roubles (£4) for half a litre. The lovely shopkeeper then grabs a bottle hidden behind the counter and quickly wraps it in a black plastic bag. She then tells me to hide it before walking out. I later find out that it’s illegal for her to sell it and just as forbidden for me to drink it on the train. Being a Mongolian train at this point, the rules are a little relaxed but I’m told that it’s probably wise to not have it on display on the table. Russian trains are slightly more stricter on the no drinking policy but if I close the door to the cabin it should be fine. It was about 10:30pm when I decide to get some sleep…
Tuesday 26 May 2015
The moody looking Mongolian carriage attendant raps on my cabin door and wakes me and my bunk mates up at 5:50am. Still half asleep, I have a cup of tea using the hot water cylinder at the end of the carriage. Right on schedule, the train draws into Irkutsk railway station at 7:15am where the group are met by the local guide. We all hop onto the minibus and make the 5 minute trip to a nearby hotel to obtain a registration form each. This is an important piece of paper to show we are able to be in the country.
Then it was an hour and a half bus ride to Nikolai’s bed and breakfast just by Lake Baikal. Made to look like a Swiss Lodge cabin, it had a warm homely feeling. I quickly freshen up and meet the group an hour later to the walk to the lake and book a hovercraft ride for 30 minutes from the tourist information hut at a cost of 700 roubles (£7).
The fifth largest lake in the world, the volume of freshwater would feed the entire population for 40 years. It was certainly freshwater as I could see the bottom so clearly.
After a brief walk to the local market to find a place for lunch, I then head back to the jetty where the hovercraft was waiting.
Getting up to speeds of 40kmph, it hovers effortlessly along the lake to give me amazing views. I tried to have a go at driving the hovercraft but the driver wasn’t having any of it. Despite this, I’m very glad I had done the trip.
Back at the market, I try a little bit if oily fish which tasted simply of smokey oil or fat! My actual lunch was a pork shashlik, BBQ chick wings and pork pilau. Unfortunately, the chicken was very pink and undercooked but I had enough food to fuel me until dinner.
After lunch, I take a hike along the lake and climb a fairly gentle hill to get some spectacular views. It was quite windy at the top but that didn’t detract the amazing vista I had. The only real shame is that the town folk seem to have a lack of education when it comes to littering. Beer bottles and put out camp fires were spotted all along the hillside.
Back at Nikolai’s Bed and Breakfast, I take a Banya (Russian Sauna) for 400 roubles (£4). First round in the sauna, I sweat it out for about 10 minutes before leaving and cooling down in the waiting room. Second round, I walked back into the sauna where Nikolay took great pleasure in beating me with birch branches and leaves soaked in hot water. After enduring this for 5 minutes, I ran out and dived into the cold pool outside. I repeat the whole beating and cooling process two more times before Nikolay begins scrubbing ten layers of skin off me with a so called “sponge”.
Feeling absolutely refreshed and relaxed, I treated myself to a litre can of Russian beer before dinner. I was served a bowl of tomatoes and dill for starter at the same time as my roast chicken and rice main. The meal was quite simple yet tasty. For dessert, I had a breaded pudding and black current flavoured jam.
Wednesday 27 May 2015
Breakfast consisted of buckwheat and a frankfurter. Buckwheat is considered as a porridge to Russian apparently. It was actually really tasty and probably nicer than just plain porridge.
After breakfast, I packed my rucksack and a day bag as I had a 9am schedule to keep. The minibus picked up our group as we then drive to Irkutsk centre to meet another local guide called Ann.
I was then lead on a tour of the city visiting a few churches and statues. The first church (epiphany church) was very small but beautiful decorated in gold all over.
After a couple of hours of being herded around, I was then able to spend a couple of more hours free time to wander over to the market street to browse. The colours of the fruit and vegetable were so vibrant that I could have bought the lot. Instead, I chose to select some fish and bread to eat later on the train.
I then met the group back on the bus at 2:45pm to head off to the railway station to catch a 48 hour train to Ekaterinburg.
Thursday 28 May 2015
Bit of a novelty as I woke up at 9:30am today. The landscape was much like the UK as I continued my 3,000+ km train journey to Ekaterinburg.
Familiarising myself with the train timetable which was displayed in Moscow time, I wind my watch back 1 hour as I began crossing time zones. To pass the time, I learnt a few Russian phrases from a book whilst on the Russian train. I now know how to say things like “There’s no greater happiness than being close to you” and “Leave me alone”.
Being on a train for over 24 hours, I had to find other things to occupy my time besides staring out the window constantly or learning random Russian phrases like “My bum hurts”. Luckily, Svetlana my CEO on this trip, gave me and my cabin mates a more appropriate lesson in Russian. Learning the alphabet and counting to ten, she also explained some traditions and superstitions for example, it’s bad luck to whistle indoors. I don’t usually whistle but knowing that, it became very difficult to avoid whilst on the train.
Just to give myself further brain ache, I got reacquainted with Yahtzee. I was certainly lucky as I won two games out of two. Revelling in my glorious beginners luck, I celebrated with the remaining raspberry flavoured vodka from last night. A few more of the travel group joined me in my cabin as we played the evening out with various card games listening to music and drinking Vodka as the train rocked toward my next stop…