A Travellerspoint blog

A Siberian wonderland

sunny 4 °C
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There's something addictive, almost meditative, about moving from city to city by train, new town, new place to sleep, followed by a days worth of train travel, before looping back to the beginning again. But i'd other plans for the next stop. Time to stick around in one spot for a while.

It was after my longest single leg so far on the Trans Siberian - 30 hours from the Siberian 'capital' of Novosibirsk - that I turned up in Irkutsk.

At a few minutes past 6am, on a frosty Friday morning, I strolled out of the station to begin the search for my hostel. I've got this stubborn thing about not getting taxis unless forced to, and so I marched on past the handful of touts probably not expecting any foreigners at that early hour. Up the road, over the bridge, and into Irkutsk proper.

Combining a bit of luck, and remembering that almost every hostel in this town had it's entrance 'round the back', it didn't take much more than 40 minutes to locate the Baikaler, my base for the next five days. Whereas I had not met a single non-Russian since leaving Moscow over a week before, Irktusk was tagged as a 'travellers town', the most popular stop on the Trans Siberian.

And what do travellers make, Brucie? Randomness, that's what. Total and utter random, blind luck, fateful meetings with people from who knows where.

One minute I'm chatting to a Chilean guy in the kitchen of the hostel, when the next minute in walks a German, two Spaniards and two Koreans. A few hours later, the 7 of us are enjoying good food, beer and a vodka (or eight, maybe more... who can remember) at a local watering hole. We must have built up quite a momentum, because on leaving the pub (leaving behind my hat and gloves, doh!) we managed to collect a number of Russians along the way. So it was that we found ourselves enjoying more vodka, and more Russian food, a few metres down the street.

It all goes a bit blurry after that, but I can be sure that there are now not many in Irkutsk who do not know that Fernando Torres is Liverpool's No.9. And they can thank one rather merry LFC nut, and one more than tipsy Atletico Madrid fan, for telling them.

Sunni__Alb..aikaler.jpg

Irkutsk's popularity has tons to do with the fact it sits near the absolute monster mass of water that is Lake Baikal. As every guide book will tell you, there's a lot of the wet stuff held in Baikal. So much so, that should the planet's current supply of drinking water run out tomorrow, Lake Baikal alone would be able to provide everyone on Earth with enough life liquid to last for the next 40 years.

The lake also has a grand future ahead of it. Baikal will one day form the world's next (sixth?) ocean. It's all true.

And fish. This huge, super deep basin of water has a bloody lot of them. Some that are only found here. And don't the market traders in Listvyanka know it. Omul, smoked, fresh or, er, on a stick, is just about the only thing you can buy in the market by the lake, that's if you discount the usual tourist tat.

Omul_-_Listvyanka.jpg

But Baikal is much better when seen from the lake itself, and if you can't actually get out and onto the water the next best thing is to set up shop on Olkhon, an island half way up the west coast. So the route was plotted, a plan was forged, and I was to bus it up to Olkhon on Sunday morning.

That just left me with enough time Saturday evening to tram it to Irkustk station with a cracking couple i'd met in Listvyanka - a Slovenian girl and an Essex lad. And i'll get something of my chest here (as I'm safely typing this from outside the Russian Federation)... we may or may not have paid for all of our tram tickets. Honest mistake, we're just innocent foreigner types, guv. Swear it.

Irkutsk_St..y_Night.jpg

Much more on Olkhon next post.

Posted by Serge78 18:53 Archived in Russia Tagged train_travel Comments (1)

The music post


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One of the weirdest things about travelling is that you get to hear familiar sounds in totally unexpected places.

Here's just a few of the bits I've heard since leaving home three and a bit weeks ago:

Sade - Hang On To Your Love
In the food hall of the League of Gentlemen inspired hotel/motel (Holiday Inn...) in Suzdal. Truly out of place, but just about the only thing that could have brought me back round at that point.

George Michael - Father Figure
I'm gonna whisper it, but I've always liked this. Hearing it on first waking up in Yekaterinburg, on chilled Sunday, all made sense. Just glad Katya didn't have it on the karaoke as I'd probably have murdered it for good.

East 17 - Let It Rain
A bit of an embarrasment to my part of London, the not-so awesome foursome sound even more hilarious when played on a Korean bus, full of Buryatians and me, on a border run from Ulan Ude in Russia to Ulan Bator in Mongolia. "Rain! LET IT RAIN! Rain! LET IT RAIN! Rain! LET IT RAIN! RAIN!... LET IT RAIN!". Ridiculous.

Red Hot Chili Peppers - Walkabout
Always a good standby topic for when bored of standard traveller talk, is just how intelligent a thing Apple's ipod shuffle function is. I, for one, believe it is supernaturally gifted. And so it was this song, from the Chili's erratic "One Hot Minute" album, that my ipod chose to soundtrack my 6am walk from Irkutsk train station to the Baikaler Hostel (more on the fantastic Irkutsk later).

Max Romeo - I Chase The Devil
Perhaps even better known as the sampled base sitting beneath the Prodigy's stratospheric hit "Out of Space", it's still the line "I'm gonna put on an iron short / and the chase the devil outta earth" that best prepares me for the fun and games of ticket buying at Russian railway stations.

Posted by Serge78 12:21 Archived in Russia Tagged train_travel Comments (4)

True Russian spirit

rain 8 °C
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Up till now my run through Russia had been a tad surreal.

Getting the cold shoulder in Moscow, and managing to discover the freaky underbelly of Suzdal, had left me wondering exactly whether this had been a wise route to take at all.

Next stop was Nizhny Novgorod. A whopping great city of 1.5 million or so, I racked up four whole hours there. Enough time to discover a food hall in a shopping centre that had taken it's cue from the eating facilities in Ikea (alas, no meatballs), and also to stroll down to the river front from the station via the world's most unsafe underpass - it had one light bulb, yep just the one, to light the entire crossing underneath the main road and all four of it's exits.

Nizhny Novgorod felt seedy with a wacking great underlined, emboldened, capital S. I instantly loved the place, and wish I could have stayed longer. Seriously.

But it was back on the train for me, and a 22 hour rumble on towards the edge of European Russia, and the historic and infamous city of Yekaterinburg.

Before arriving, I'd remembered only three things about my new temporary home. It was the birth place of Boris Yeltsin (you know, the other Boris), it was the death place of the Romanovs, and it was also a major transport hub for narcotics on their way from central Asia to Europe.

But none of this research had prepared me for greeting I'd receive from the warmest, friendliest, and down right loveliest family in all of Russia. The minute I stepped off the train, Katya and Marina were there to say hello. Waiting outside the station in his Toyota Land Cruiser (heaven after a day on the train), Kolya wisked us all through the city (complete with a whistle stop night time tour) to their apartment, and my resting place for the next two nights.

In we stepped, down we sat, and I was plied with delicious soup, great tasting palmeni, the all important zakuski and - for the first time since entering Russia - vodka. Chilled, frequent, and joyously toasted, I felt as if I was being welcomed back into a family i'd left years before. Just lovely people.

The next day was a Sunday, so time for a couple of trips out of the city and to local landmarks - first the Ural mountains (the geographic feature which divides Europe and Asia in Russia), and then to the continental line itself.

Kolya_and_..-_Urals.jpg

Me__Kolya_.._Border.jpg

Katya_-_Yekaterinburg.jpg

Yekaterinburg was a huge highlight. You can keep your churches and your temples, your landmarks and your scenic wonders, it is impossible to really get a true insight into a place unless you connect with the people there. And with Kolya, Marina and Katya, I had finally discovered authentic Russian spirit. And Sonya, thank you so much for the behind-the-scenes work. Super appreciated.

Posted by Serge78 11:38 Archived in Russia Tagged train_travel Comments (0)

We interupt this break in transmission...

sunny -16 °C
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Just to apologise for the total lack of updates.

In fact, it's been so long I'm now not even in Russia anymore. And Mongolia really is the coldest place I've ever been... minus 16 and counting. The people are just fantastic though.

Big update to follow soon

Posted by Serge78 00:25 Archived in Mongolia Comments (0)

Suzdal by the book

overcast 12 °C
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Suzdal.

Guidebook says: "Of all the Golden Ring towns, Suzdal is the true gem... (It) delights visitors by presenting an idyllic picture of Russian village life without even trying".

My Suzdal experience...

Have to buy bus ticket to Suzdal twice. So excited at somehow cobbling together enough Russian at the train station to walk out with a prized train booking to the next city, I ended up throwing away my first bus ticket to Suzdal. Cue much amusement for the ticket clerk as I gesture with my hand my ticket flying off.

Last bus to Suzdal is made up of me and a few local characters. After about an hour, the driver pulls over and stops in what turns out to be a lay-by a couple of kms outside of Suzdal. Local characters mumble and huff a bit, then one by one give the driver a bit more cash. Driver now has enough of an 'incentive' to complete the journey. Only problem is he continues straight through Suzdal and out the other side... and drops me off somewhere random, 1km from town, in a very dark street...

Streetlights are optional here, so guided by moonlight and a head torch I stumble upon the main drag - ul. Lenina - and, outside a half-completed hotel complex, a huddled group of security guards. One has a very useful looking map, but none can agree exactly where we are on it. Or where my hotel might be. So they call a cab, and after a super short trip I'm standing outside the entrance to my hotel, 50 rubles worse off. Always agree a taxi fare in advance folks!

Hotel reception is huge, with a vibe like a cross between a council swimming pool and a bingo hall. Totally empty apart from four or five ageing security guards (yes, more guards, Russia has a lot of them. Everywhere), three very young looking prostitutes, two bored receptionists who certainly aren't expecting me - or seemingly anyone else for the rest of the year - and one tired foreigner still wearing his head torch.

But I get the cheapest room they've got, and toddle off. Find my room, in the cut-price motel end of the building, open door and peer into utter darkness. Grasp light switch, give it a couple of flicks, still completely black. Toddle back to reception, ask for a room with electricity, then get escorted back to the same motel room flanked by biggest and least-aged security guard.

He flicks same switch, gets no joy, then reaches for the secret "hidden" light switch... 40 watts of yellowing light bulb power up. Light is strong enough to give me an outline of the room. It looks like it hasn't been touched since 1972.

Breakfast the next morning is equally fun. I arrive in a huge dining hall, completely alone save for no less than 7 greeters (and the mandatory security guard). Buffet affair, so I tuck in.

Just when I think this couldn't be any less like Russian village idyl, I realise that the hall's sound system is pumping out the Best of Sade cd at top whack. And I love Sade. All is right with the world again!

Check out of Weirdsville Towers, walk the 4km out of town to the bus station, glancing at a few nice looking churches in passing.

Not quite as the guidebook made it all sound, eh?

Posted by Serge78 21:27 Archived in Russia Tagged train_travel Comments (1)

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