Saturday, 13 November 2010

Beijing-Zhangjiajie train (3rd/4th of September)

The K267 was due to leave Beijing West station at 11.38, but we’d been warned to be there early because of traffic, security checks and luggage weighing. Getting there wasn’t too much hassle, just two buses at ~10p each. There were yet more police standing upright on street corners, and because it was raining people on the streets were trying hard to sell ponchos. Cyclists had rather ingenious ponchos that covered their handlebars too. The station was like an airport. First we had to go through a security barrier and our possessions through a scanner. Like before they didn’t seem to be taking much notice of the screen and the government just seems to be making more jobs for people. Jenny had read somewhere that we weren’t allowed more than 100ml of flammable liquid, so we’d been thinking we should have separated our methylated spirit into two sets of 100ml. This was all unnecessary worry since they didn’t seem to care.

Trains had waiting rooms allocated to them and we went to room nine where hundreds of people piled in and sat on the floor, benches, stood up or pushed their way towards the front. I began to feel slightly claustrophobic with all these people everywhere and was glad that our large backpacks meant that at least there was a little empty space around us.

About 25 minutes before the train was due to depart people began to stand up and start pushing despite nothing happening at the front. They were quite desperate to get to the train- there was no fire but we think they wanted to stake their claim on the best spots for their luggage and bottoms.

For me one of the joys of train travel is to see the world go past the window, watching how the people live and the changing of the landscapes. When you are on the top bunk of three and all you can see are the railway tracks and the luggage space you might as well be flying, apart from the carbon emissions. Thankfully we did get to sit by the window for very short intervals of time and just watching the Chinese sharing our carriage was fascinating.

There were 11 compartments without doors in our carriage, with each compartment with three beds on either side. Across the corridor from the beds are drop-down chairs beside little tables. From the top bunks you get a really good view of what everyone is up to. A couple in the corridor tucked into a takeaway spread of rice, meat and beans. The man sat there happily munching on chicken foot. Once remains of the lunch had been put in the bin they started to play cards. No card game we knew, and watching did not get us any closer to understanding how it was played. Below us men gathered to play cards with others watching on from the seats and standing in the corridor. At one point there were at least eleven people in our compartment. The Chinese appear to enjoy playing cards and get quite into it, whacking the cards down with great conviction.

There was also a never ending stream of pedestrian traffic in the corridor- people back and forth with pot noodles, the lady taking tickets and issuing us with our bed number on a plastic card, a lady checking our bags were correctly positioned on the overhead rack, a lady with a basket of children's toys (including a plastic yak and a talking parrot), people with trollies of fruit and veg, a bed sheet covering a soupy gloop and eggs, a lady folding the curtains (jobs for the masses), a trolley full of plastic trays of rice, meat, egg and vegetables and a mismatched selection trolley of items such as pot noodles and toothbrushes. In the evening some ladies came to write our names down on a piece of paper and look at our passports, but we're not entirely sure if that's what they wanted. There was a lot of confusion that we didn't have Chinese names along with our European ones.

As we neared Zhangjiajie City (and had the opportunity to look out the window) we went along a river valley with peaks and rice paddies. Having the top bunks may have been the cheapest, but it wasn't the comfiest of arrangements either, although we did just about manage to sit upright with our legs on the other bunk. At times it felt like I was a battery hen and it was good to get off the train even if we were faced with the hot humidity of Hunan province.

Beijing (2nd of September)

In the morning we took the subway a few stops to go to the central Post Office to retrieve the many non-DEET mosquito repellents mum had sent us in order to stave off malaria. Saying what we wanted in English got us nowhere. Pointing to the Chinese for 'post restante' and trying to say it also proved nigh on useless. We were directed to the customs part of the building where you could pick parcels up, but only ones that you had a code for. Everyone seemed a bit clueless as to what we wanted from them. Sitting at a table we finished off a few postcards, stuck their stamps on and just as we were resigning ourselves to dying of malaria the lady we had spoken to got up and headed for the stamp counter. Finally someone seemed to have grasped what we were after and she produced a drawer full of European post. It was rather full and perhaps most people had abandoned the mission of trying to claim their items of mail.

We walked back over a congested multi-lane road, past a school in the vicinity of which it is forbidden to sound your horn, in to a supermarket, through the affluent shopping district where you can buy Ferraris and Mercedes, past the police 'barracks' and through the more normal alleys of Beijing. At the Jade International hostel we attempted to borrow two of the fifty or so bicycles lined up outside, which according to their page on are available to rent free of charge. Once again the advertisement proved false. It seemed that the person in charge of the rentals was not there so they made up some ridiculous story about not having any locks so we couldn't rent the bikes. I complained, like a person who has had much tuition (thanks to the customers at River Cottage) in how to complain.

Not able to cycle to the Summer Palace as we had hoped we made ourselves content with a stroll around the Jinshan Park. The views over the smoggy city were nice and there were plenty of trees under which to find shelter from the not really visible sun. A man was stumbling through the Turkish March on a saxophone, two ladies were practicing a martial arts dance in a square, a group of old people were playing cards around a stone table, a group were playing that same hit-the-shuttlecock-with-your-foot game, a clotheless baby was pushed around by its proud parents and a lady was sitting next to her husband on a bench singing most beautifully. There were almost more people working in the park (tending to the beds, planting trees, pushing wheelbarrows around) than visiting it and it made us understand the need for the 20p entrance fee.

After the park we skirted round the Forbidden Palace and past the people selling sweet potatoes and melon on sticks. As seems to be usual in Beijing there were policemen everywhere. We made it in to Tiananmen square and back out again; saw many police descending upon it and missed the daily spectacle of the police marching within it.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

The Great Wall & Beijing (1st of September)

Doing the proper tourist thing we took a trip to the Wall from our hostel via another hostel and a different bus to Jin Shaling. On the way we saw mangoes or papaya growing and lots of paper bags tied to the trees for them to grow into. It was very pretty as we got into the mountains although a bit hazy.

Left at Jing Shaling we had to walk six kilometers, past 22 towers, where our guide would be waiting for us to take us down a track to the bus. For some reason everyone seemed to be treating it as a race and it was a while before I could relax, enjoy myself and not feel the need to play catch-up.

As soon as we started walking we began to be hounded by souvenir sellers, apparently farmers from Inner Mongolia and with wares to sell such as, fans, books, post cards and water. We would be asked where we were from – “Arrr England” and then they would try to sell us things to which we would say “no thank you” and they “later, later” and we “no thank you, no, no!” They would follow us for ages trying to engage in conversation, offering to hoist us up steep sections or giving us tips on the best side to walk. Eventually they would get the message and they’d try to find another victim. No matter how many times the first lady told us we were beautiful we were not going to buy her souvenirs.

It was not the most relaxing of walks, trying to scramble as fast as we could up the wall and attempting to fend off the sellers. But the wall was really quite grand and there weren’t thousands of people on it like you would see at other sites.

Often we wished we had a tape recording we could press to answer “no thank you, no thank you” in reply to calls of “t-shirt, t-shirt”. They did seem to like picking on us in particular and it took a bit of educating from fellow travellers until we got the right we don’t want to buy your stuff look. Everyone was trying their best to shake off the souvenir sellers. Some Australians who were walking the wall for five days and had already had a few days practice were offered beer and declared they could not buy it as it was against their religion. An Aussie lady couldn’t handle her Chinese shadow any longer and said she would buy the water on the condition that she’d be left alone. The German traveller from our group succumbed to the purchase of a t-shirt because he didn’t have any clean ones left. He bargained hard though and got it down to 12RMB, equivalent to about £1.20. Although it probably would have been a good thing to support these people’s livelihoods we just didn’t want any of their mass produced tat and really didn’t appreciate the way they go about getting tourists to buy it.

Since some people were yet to arrive at tower no. 22 we dawdled our way down looking at the oak trees with funny acorns, other plants, the furry caterpillars and a lizard. After an hour the guide and further members of the group arrived. Turned out they were going so fast and not counting the towers had got to no. 31, were stopped by the police who were just standing there and had to go all the way back to 22.

On the journey back I had an amazing view of all the amusing Chinese road signs with pictures of giraffes, elephants and cars with funny expressions on them. One sign read “Caution avoid collision with backside” and I was left wondering if I was riding a horse or camel again.

In the evening we moved into a new hostel so that we could use the kitchen it didn't have.

Beijing (31st of August)

Setting off early we tried with moderate success to beat the crowds to the Forbidden Palace. There we found enough roofs to keep me happy, joined the Chinese in peering through windows, looked at the trees with trunks forced to fork, got lost at times, avoided the foul smelling herbicide they were spraying on any grass that was still alive, and saw a lot of pretty pottery.

In the evening we made our way through the dark streets of Beijing to a vegetarian restaurant, because there was no kitchen at the Peking Hostel contrary to what might be written on the website. Despite the dark the Chinese were out in force exercising on the exercise machines in the parks, walking, cycling, playing this game where they have to hit a shuttlecock with their feet, shopping and eating. The restaurant wasn’t exactly crowded though, just us, another European traveller and four Chinese friends tucking into a plethora of different dishes. We were given a huge menu book with glossy pictures of all the dishes and their details in both English and Chinese. It took us a while before we decided on the dumplings, sweet and sour vegetarian pork and some potato balls. The Chinese do not make dumplings anywhere near as well as the Mongolians (or whoever they import them from) and eating them became a bit of an ordeal. Fortunately the sweet and sour ‘pork’ was delicious and so was the potato, and it was all very cheap.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Train from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing (29th/30th of August)

Train no. 4, which we had expected to be rather plush but wasn’t, left Ulaanbaatar station just after 7:15am. We’d got up at 5:30 and had taken the bus from the hostel at 6.00. We thought we might have the compartment to ourselves but shortly before it left some Mongolian men started loading it up with luggage. There were a lot of suitcases. Two big ones went in the overhead storage, another suitcase and three bags under the bed and then another three bags. Later we learnt they weighed 100kg altogether and that their owners were hoping to add another 20kg with cheap Chinese shopping. One bag contained a carpet from the black market and two of them Mongolian clothes purchases. We thought this might be one of the Mongolian students we’d heard would be filling up the train on the way to China and beyond. It turned out however to be a family of four Mongolians on their way home to London after a two month summer holiday. The man’s parents had worked in Mongolian embassies in Russia and he had grown up in various Russian locations before he left and tried to live in Germany and then England. They had two five year old twins, dressed identically and carrying pink rucksacks with Mini Mouse on them and Tinkerbell cups with a snow globe at the bottom. The family slept most of the day, having had a send-off gathering into the small hours of the morning. The two girls were hoisted on to the top bunk and the parents slept head to toe in the bottom bed. Sleeping arrangements were revised in the evening, with each parent sharing a bed with one of the girls. When they weren't sleeping the girls kept themselves entertained while their father told us of his concerns for their education and his plans to send them to Mongolia for secondary school because of the inferior standard of British education.

We were pretty convinced that we’d arrived in China when we were bombarded with street lights on unused roads and arrays of neon lights. At the station there were flowers in pompous stands, lights and an entrance hall with even more lights. The wheels of the train had to be changed so it pulled into a shed and they raised the carriages up and did something underneath. Someone came in to our compartment, rolled the carpet aside, opened a hole in the floor and banged a peg down. And another came in to 'assassinate' us with his temperature gun, firing it at our foreheads. Fortunately none of us had a temperature and we weren't kicked off the train or forced into buying Chinese medicine.

China was so different from the wild and empty expanses of Mongolia that we’d spent the day passing through. The most noticeable change was a rotten egg smell that filled up our compartment as soon as we crossed the border. We thought it issued from the toilet next door, but no, we soon gathered this was the smell of China- the sulphurous smell of pollution.

In the morning there were houses everywhere, and skyscrapers being built in what seemed like small towns. The power stations were everywhere too, belching out their smoke, as well as the mines with piles of coal next to them. A lot of the land was under cultivation, most of it fields and fields of maize with the odd sunflower in between- a stark difference to Mongolia. The landscape was slightly Californian looking, with rolling hills and later some rocky mountains. In one place people had built their houses into the cliffs/ground. As we progressed through the countryside I felt cold number three coming on and discovered my snot was dark black. Maybe the people that live here are unaware that it’s meant to be clear. It'll be a while until we can breathe freely again.

More reassuring was the number of solar panels on the houses and apartment blocks of some of the towns and villages we passed by. The houses were nice with red tiled roofs and brick walls. As we neared Beijing the air got thicker with pollution and we were in the midst of the smog. We went along a river that had been dammed upstream and didn’t contain a lot of water, but the surrounding valleys were very pretty.

In Beijing it was sweltering and the area around the station was swarming with people. We got money out once I managed to get the pin number right, because the numbers were in different places. There were escalators to get over the road to the bus stop, which saved our backs a bit of extra pain, but was really a bit extravagant. After locating our hostel we roamed around the neighbourhood and some seemingly innocent looking individuals tried to con us in to going to a tea ‘festival’ with them (and most likely would have made us foot their bill). Many of the roads were tree lined and the alleys between houses very pretty. Courgettes were growing along and above the alleys and cucumbers were hanging out in strips to dry. We wanted to go to Tiananmen Square, but Jenny had her penknife in her rucksack and we thought we wouldn’t make it through the security check (which in hindsight we probably would have got through no problem). There seemed to be policemen everywhere in Beijing just frozen in pose on street corners, in the underpasses, squares and anywhere else not already occupied by the Chinese public.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Ulaanbaatar again (28th of August)

Having a day to spend in Ulaanbaatar before our train left for China we thought we’d explore the city's ‘Black Market’. It is about 45 minutes walk from the centre, but being among the largest markets in Asia we thought we really had to go and see it. Continuing, as though we were still on our roadtrip, we woke up at six and tried to kill time till we could eat breakfast at 8:00. Our Lonely Planet informed us that the market opens at 9:00. This however is a Mongolian nine and the market was not exactly open for business. We managed to save the 2.5p entry because the person manning the entrance had not yet arrived, along with lots of the stall holders. We weren’t really sure if we were allowed in. All around us people were pushing large wooden crates with their wares into their stalls where they were busily unpacking. People steered their wooden crates in a similar fashion to their cars, going as fast as possible avoiding potholes and expecting pedestrians to jump out the way. As we came in we walked past a row of what would be stalls of jeans. After a wander we came to the rucksacks and since I really needed a rucksack we had a long look. The choice was wide, so it took a while. The fake North Face bag got more expensive when we came back a second time, so I opted for a less fake Jack Wolfskin one. At least there weren’t spelling mistakes on the label.

Soon the market had become alive and people were streaming in. Everything you could need (and a lot more stuff you never would need) was for sale. There were carpets, tablecloths, sweets, bottles and bottles of coca cola, crockery, cutlery, chainsaws, knives, shoes and clothes galore, sofas, materials, other furniture, traditional boots, ger components and a lot more. You could buy photovoltaic panels and satellite dishes for your ger, the nice orange furniture for inside it, the stoves and chimneys, the insulation and the canvas coverings. The furniture was still arriving. The circle for the top of a ger did arrive, but we were very tempted by one of the orange stools we’d been sitting on for the last few weeks. At £3.50 it was quite a bargain, but even though we can take up to 100kg on the freighter the practicalities of taking it through China and South Korea put us off. Alongside rows and rows of Nike and Adidas trainers were the traditional boots, some having very pretty embroidered patterns on them. There were t-shirts with English slogans, some that didn’t make much sense or misspelt – such as “Nestle Chocolete Malk”. Walking back to what we’d seen first of all, the scene had changed, almost everyone was set up and there were a lot more stalls. There were exercise books, pens, the tea flasks that we’d got our hot water from in the gers, rice cookers, and many cheap bowls, mugs, and plates. Most were chipped or faded and probably not fit for the European market, including the stripy mugs from tesco. On our way out we heard the exact same Mongolian music that Gana (the driver) had played on our tour. We pointed to the loudspeakers and hope we got the message across and are now the proud owners of a Mongolian music tape. The masses were descending upon the market as we left. In the street there was a van where there were lots of bodiless sheep's heads with all their teeth glaring out at me.

Next to the university was a large shopping centre with floors named after fruit where the students were flooding in to buy some new clothes or electronic devices. On the orange floor we found ourselves a supermarket where a man with rather a large video camera was taking close up shots of packets of rice and biscuits.

In the afternoon we went on a mad dash around the Natural History Museum where we saw some of the animals and plants we’d seen on the tour and thankfully some we didn’t. The dinosaur skeletons were huge, and there were only the front legs of one of them and these were massive. It’s incredible to think how big it would have been.

Afterwards a search ensued for a felt shop and workshop run by an NGO. The map on the advertisement in the street did not actually resemble anything in reality and we couldn’t find it, even with the help of a Mongolian tv journalist. Jenny narrowly avoided being pushed into the sewer by a homeless child and then we had a mad rush to the post office to send our purchases home. I forgot the postcards in the hostel and we only just managed to get our parcel sent off before they closed.

Day 12 (26th August)

One day there'll be something else written here

27th of August

The end of the Mongolia trip

Day 11 (25th of August)

One day there'll be something else written here

Day 10 (24th August)

Watch this space (don't actually because you'll probably watching for a while!)

Day 9 of the Mongolia Trip (23rd of August)

Coming to a computer near you soon...maybe this year...

Day 8 of the Mongolia Tour (22nd of August)

Day 6 of the Mongolia Tour (20th of August)

Before we left the dunes we gained an extra passenger in our van, a 17 year old boy off to study mining in Ulaanbaatar in the need of a lift to Arvayheer to catch an onward bus. He looked rather small and somewhat nervous. His mother threw milk at the vans out of a green plastic cup as we left, this was to bring us good luck on our journey. Duuya told us that people in the countryside are given the same level of education as those in the city.

The boy seemed quite fascinated by the land bumping past and glanced over his shoulder to see the dunes for the last time. He excitedly pointed to a statue of an ibex as we went through a steep sided valley – the Mongolian version, and less well known, Cheddar Gorge. We stopped in a small town and trooped into a restaurant where we sat and ate cabbage and carrot dumplings that Duuya had prepared the day before. Everyone else had some kind of minced meat in theirs. The Mongolian boy was helping with cleaning the dishes and earning his passage.

After a lot of driving we found ourselves on a paved road which was quite the treat, it being the first one we’d come across since Ulaanbaatar. We knew we must have been nearing the town and soon stopped at a horse worship site. There was a big horse statue and rows of horse skulls. People seemed to enjoy leaving sweets as an offering to the horse gods. Three picturesque old ladies in traditional attire shuffled around carefully looking at everything. In the town showers were had for the first time in six days, misunderstandings arose and the rest us were given supper of three dumplings each.

Day 7 of the Mongolia Tour (21st of August)

Coming to a computer near you soon...maybe this year....

Day 5 of the Mongolia Tour (19th of August)

Was not the vegetarian’s idyll. We got wind of plans the day before but as we awoke the wind confirmed those plans to our noses. As it was the Basque man’s birthday our fellow travellers had decided to buy a goat and barbecue it as a present. Fortunately we were not asked to contribute. An unpleasant aroma of singed fur hung around the camp and we were extremely grateful (although a bit aprehensive) that we could go off camel riding for an hour. Getting off the ground was the trickiest bit. Yet again my knee rubbed rather too close to Jenny’s animal’s backside, which had some diarrhoea issues. Avoiding exposure to dead goat we strolled to the river and along it spotting spotty lizards and trying not to step on toads.

Most of the day was spent inside our ger sheltering from the heat and the feast just outside. We could hear the group inviting the locals to join them and cooing over a baby. The meat, we gathered, was not that great - not a surprise to me, judging from all the meat leftovers on previous days. But they were satisfied that it had been a good gesture. One of the goats we’d befriended the day before came bleating wildly and peered into every ger. His snotty nosed friend was no longer accompanying him and we learnt that he’d been killed by the family too. Our sheep Floeckli must count herself lucky that she has survived eight years with a snotty nose.

Once the sun had cooled we walked along the river and to the dunes accompanied by the dog. Nice company, but not the best for wildlife watching. She did however flush a hare from the grass, which couldn’t catch up with. We were boring though – too much bird watching, and we continued up the dunes alone. Since the sun was on its way down we had to turn round and make our way back. We didn’t really fancy getting lost in the desert without a torch. The dog greeted us with great enthusiasm when we got back.

Day 4 of the Mongolia Tour (18th of August)

Coming to a computer near you soon...maybe this year....

Day 3 of the Mongolia Tour (17th of August)

Coming to a computer near you soon...maybe this year....

Day 2 of the Mongolia Tour (16th of August)

Coming to a computer near you soon...maybe this year....

Day 1 of the Mongolia Tour (15th August)

Coming to a computer near you soon...maybe this year....

Ulaanbaatar and Gokhi Terelj National Park (14th August)

At what we thought was just after 7, but was actually 6 (they don’t do summertime in Mongolia or China) the train came into Ulaanbaatar. Alongside the railway tracks were hundreds of shipping containers. As has become a little obsession of ours we had to search for the Hanjin (the company we’re going across the Pacific with) containers. Not having understood what all these shipping containers were doing in such a landlocked country it dawned on us when we got to the supermarket. Everything was imported, there was juice from Russia and Poland, Quality Streets, tea and Cadburys from England, a row of Chinese food and almost everything else from Germany.

Our dreams came true when we got off the train and a lady from the hostel was standing there with our names on a piece of paper. When I was little I always thought you’d be quite privileged to have someone waiting with your name at the airport. Along with lots of other people we got driven to the UB Guesthouse. There we were welcomed by a very amusing Mongolian (Mr. Kim) who whisper shouted to us with his hands cupped round his mouth that it was early and we’d have to be quiet as lots of people were still sleeping.

Inside we made plans for a trip round Mongolia – to the Gobi, a lake and forests. Mentioning that we wanted to go to Gokhi Terelj we were told there was a trip leaving later. So we spurred into action going to the cash machine, eating breakfast, and leaving again all before nine o’clock in the morning.

The trip took us through the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar and into the country, through potholed streets and dirt tracks, and past loads of goats, cows, four camels and some yak. Entry to the National Park was about £1.50. There were loads of houses/gers and buildings works on the river, but it soon started looking more like what we were expecting.

Dropped off at a ger camp in the hills where all the Mongolians under the age of 20 were sitting watching sky TV, we were told “2 o’clock, eat first ride later”. The rest of the passengers in the minivan went horse riding and we stood there helplessly. More people from the hostel arrived in a car, but disappeared again. Not really knowing what we were meant to be doing we went walking up a hill in search of nature.

There were edelweiss, gentians, asteraceae that smelt like mint and Jenny spotted two marmots bathing in the sunshine. Walking up the slope teeming with grasshoppers was like walking through a field of popcorn. At the top of the hill were some nice rocks and a good view, and we could see the rock known as turtle rock in the valley. Lunch was pink rice with carrots and pink vegetables and possibly a few specks of meat in our no meat dish. Riding did happen after lunch and none of us had ridden before so it was going to be interesting. The horses’ ropes were hung up along what looked like a washing line. I chose a black horse that seemed to dislike Jenny’s one and kept trying to bite it. We didn’t have much control over their direction first of all and they kept trying to squeeze past each other, resulting in my knees rubbing against too many a horse bum. Mongolians probably find it hard to understand anyone never having ridden a horse, even tiny children race around the countryside on a horse. The boy who was leading our ‘trek’ was enjoying himself, singing and whistling and showing us how he could charge around. We had all thought we needed to control the horses with our legs but Mongolians just yank the horse’s head to the side to indicate where they want to go. My horse didn’t really want to go anywhere, being rather hungry it took every opportunity to lower its head and munch. This would result in the boy coming up behind us and waiving his whip in the air.

We past a few gers where cattle were being let out of pens and Mongolian children were running around. There were also a lot of goats. Even if I hadn’t been planning on liking Mongolia, the sheer number of goats here alone would have made me a fan, although perhaps not what they do with them. Towards the end of our little ride the boy decided we’d go faster and the horses broke into a canter. We all hung on for dear life. One girl’s horse went so fast and headed off into the distance and took some persuading to come back.

In the evening Jenny and I took a walk up a nearby rock where we sat and watched Mongolian life playing itself out in the valley and were approached by an inquisitive calf. Our evening meal was not a satisfactory affair, with the meat free dish covered in meat sauce. Feeling guilty we tried, but to no avail, to get one of the Spanish people to eat our food. We, and the German girl who was also a vegetarian, then proceeded to dine upon our Gut und Gunstig paprika chips and Essig gurken.

Irkutsk & the trans-Mongolian (12th & 13th of August)

Back in Irkutsk the first task of the day was getting our train tickets, which we hadn’t managed to buy the previous day as the office was already shut when we’d got round to it. Lonely Planet said to go to counter 3 upstairs at the station, but that didn’t seem to be the place for it and we were pointed back downstairs. At counter 3 downstairs we were pointed to the other end of the station. There we queued for a while and were then pointed back down the corridor. We found some Italians queuing for tickets and joined the queue behind them where the offices were due to open in 45 minutes. Not convinced that this was the right queue I queued back down the other end and yet again was pointed in the direction of the counters we were standing in front of. At 9.00 a.m. they opened up and the Italians were told that they were indeed queuing at the wrong place and were pointed to the room almost opposite which contained three counters and some red sofas. There we got our tickets for the evening train from a lady who even spoke rather satisfactory English. Since we didn’t have enough cash some rather complicated transaction of a little bit of cash and some credit card took place.

Along the River Angarsk we looked for the Trans-Siberian railway obelisk, but couldn’t find it. We did pass a statue of a young man with a signature underneath him that looked as though it might say A. Bahnhof that we were content enough to let ourselves believe we’d found it. There are many statues in Irkutsk, which we could have posed next to, but it seemed a bit pointless not having a clue who or what they were meant to commemorate. There was one that was just pointing into the distance and looked like he could easily find work at one of the station kaccas. He was dressed for the Siberian weather, at the time 8°C, with his coat billowing behind him. Our next stop was the market where we bought more green bananas, in the hope that they’d be as tasty as the ones we’d got the day before. The market was pretty exciting and clearly where the locals do their shopping. Walking past the vegetable stalls we could smell the dill, which people like to munch upon in these parts of the world. Even nicer was the smell of the strawberries, raspberries, bilberries and black/whitecurrants. We wondered whether the stallholders had to throw a lot of vegetables away, because there were just so many of them. After we’d spent our last roubles we went back to the youth hostel to wait to depart for our train.

Whilst killing time Jenny realised she’d lost her penknife, probably in the locker at the supermarket. So we trudged through the rain soaked streets of Irkutsk with our backpacks. They don’t have any drains along the roads and the water just gathers into huge puddles and stagnates at any sign of precipitation. As the cars drove past we’d get soaked so we scuttled along as close to the buildings as we could whilst trying not to slip. No penknife found in the locker or lost property. Giving up we went to wait for the tram, time ticked on but no tram came. They came tantalisingly close, but each one turned left before it got to us. We had 45 minutes to get to the station, and it still didn’t come. Finally it came and I allowed myself to relax.

Boarding the train at about quarter to ten meant we wouldn’t see Lake Baikal again, but could almost go straight to sleep. The compartments were narrower, but the window much wider and taller. The toilets when they were actually open (closed at the border for hours!) were more spacious and better cared for.

Jenny did see the lake again through the mist and darkness at some ridiculous hour. During the day we rolled rather slowly along the Selenga River and past what looked like a nuclear power station. Drinking Baikal’s pure water might not have been such a good idea after all.

Knowing that the border crossing is going to take ages still doesn’t prepare you for the boredom. Arriving at the Russian border at 1pm and leaving at 7pm wasn’t our idea of a fun day out. For the first few hours we just sat there and filled in our customs forms, which were rather complicated even though they were written in English. We, and the two Italians from the station who we were now sharing our compartment with, had so many crossed out mistakes on our customs forms and under the direction of the border guard had to sign under each one. We could at least walk out and onto the platform during this ordeal, and when we went out for a second time most of the carriages had disappeared.

The landscape in Mongolia was incredibly exciting after the station wait and everyone flocked into the corridor to look out the window. The excitement was short lived as we got to the Mongolian border station. It was more entertaining than the Russian side through with cute Mongolian children and stray dogs to keep us entertained. A mother dog found a dirty sock and charged proudly around the station with it. When one of her teenage pups got hold of it she got very possessive and growled. They then had a sock tug of war on the platform. A stream of Mongolians calling “Change a money, change a money” came through the carriage but there weren’t any takers. 10pm (9pm Mongolian time) and we finally left the border, nine hours after we got there. Outside it was too dark to see Mongolia.


Here are a few observations about Russia and the Russians. I’m not sure I’ve mentioned them before, but if I have my apologies. The Russians like to pose for photos and this isn’t just the normal European style I’ll stand in front of the camera and smile or grin a stupid grin at you. It seems they put a lot of thought into these poses and have to take quite a lot of pictures for the perfect one. They also seem to take them in front of the most boring of statues. On Olkhon Island I had to take a picture of a Russian lady and it took a while before she’d positioned her hair in the right place and was pleased with the picture.

Russians also have got a thing about throwing their coins away. In a country where there is still a lot of poverty you’d think they’d hang on to them. All over the place they were throwing them about, into fountains, on to piles of rocks, into the rivers in St. Petersburg, into Lake Baikal as we crossed back from Olkhon and in Moscow just onto the floor outside the Red Square. Here though an opportunistic family was just standing there and picking them up for themselves as others threw them down. And really why not?

Everywhere we went people were getting married, in St. Petersburg, Moscow and Irkutsk. The divorce rate is apparently also very high in Russia. Couples in Russia have a habit of attaching locks to railings of bridges or next to rivers as a sign of their love. People buy the locks from stalls which are conveniently located next to the railings, etch their names into them, attach them and then I presume throw away the key. We first came across these in St. Petersburg and saw them again in Irkutsk, where wedding parties gathered to carry out the ritual. In Moscow they’d gone a bit more upmarket and put some metal trees along the waterfront, which had been covered in locks and looked rather pretty.

More of Olkhon Island (9th of August, 10th August, 11th August)

Our first full day on Olkhon found us trying to walk up route 7 on our map in the hope of seeing the wildflower meadow even if you did need a permit to walk through it. Aiming for the hillside we left Khuzhir up a small path which joined a larger track. We carefully made arrows in the sand or out of twigs in case we forgot where we’d come from. The first hour or two was pretty boring, there was just a lot of sand and pine trees, with next to nothing else. I kept thinking we should turn back if it was going to be like this the whole way. Every individual flower was a marvel. Another 15 minutes till we’d turn back became half an hour and then an hour. Like magic an understory appeared and then there were other types of tree and berries, but none of the wild cranberries, red currants and black currants I’d been promised by the description on our useless map. The track became steeper and branched into different tracks. We found ourselves at what felt like the top but we couldn’t see anything below us or behind us and finally decided to go back. On the way down we came across a woodpecker, which made the walk worthwhile and seven Homo sapiens (ssp. Russanski) after directions and knowledge, which we didn’t really possess. Back in our room after a walk along the lake we heard what sounded like someone (new) throwing up in the room next door (more Shamanic energy?). Seemed they regained their spirits fast and treated us to Russian karaoke.

The reason why you can’t find a useful map with contours and meaningful footpaths on it is evidently so that you go on an ‘excursion’. We succumbed to this tourist venture and took a tour to Cape Khoboti, which we booked at ‘Nikita’s’ in the hope that we’d have an English-speaking guide. This was not the case however, so some of the information was translated by a lady to her husband in Italian, which he then translated into English. Most of the time the Russian speaking American beat him to it and we heard a differently worded echo. The driver was full of interesting information such as ‘this is a cyclist’ when we passed a cyclist. Another snippet worthy of mention was: ‘this car has been here for more than a week. It is automatic. Terrible idea’.

This road was far worse than what we had experienced on the way to Khuzhir, with a sand track through the wood and then extremely bumpy tracks thereafter. We would go down steep hills really quickly to ensure that we’d get up the other side. This technique wasn’t foolproof and we had to roll back down one of them and start again. I was glad our brakes weren’t squealing like those of another Russian style Volkswagen-Jeep hybrid. If the brakes failed we’d be plunging into the lake. I guess it would have been one way to get submerged in Lake Baikal. Looked like the cape Khoboti route was popular since every time we stopped minibuses surrounded us. This annoyed the French Mancunian lady and rather than wishing for her third child (like the American-Russian couple) she was just wishing to lose the other tourists at the designated wishing spot. From Cape Khoboti, the Northernmost point of the island we could see both sides of the lake and some of the Urshkanny islands.

Plenty of wildflowers were to be found in the steppe grasslands including edelweiss and gentians, as well as some exciting grasses. Unfortunately we rattled and bumped past a great many other pretty flowers such as thistles with bright blue flowerheads, other blue flowers and swathes of red flowers we’d seen a few of during our wood trek. At the last stop we hit the jackpot and spotted some sousliks (ground squirrels) through our binoculars and headed off in their direction. We didn’t walk far before stumbling across two, one of them taking after its fellow Russians with some excellent posing skills.

On the way back the ride seemed to get even bumpier and the breaks squeakier. The French lady provided some in car entertainment by falling off her seat, commenting that it was like a ‘tumbledrier’. The American hit his head on the ceiling and one of the German’s got reprimanded jokingly for looking at the French lady every time we hit a particularly severe bump. All in all we were pretty glad we’d gone on an excursion rather than traipsed up another dead end path.

For our ride back to Irkutsk, after considering all the options, we got tickets for one of the minivans leaving at 8.00 a.m. We weren’t really sure where we were meant to be catching it, but one turned up where we were so we might have got it right. It was slightly bigger than the other ones and our driver seemed to be a good one, sticking to the speed limits and regularly checking his tyres. His loud Russian music fitted well with the wide expanses of land whizzing past, but unfortunately he ran out of these pretty quickly and we were left with some awful Russian-Angliski songs. He used the bus journey as a bit of a shopping trip purchasing a bag full of bilberries from the roadside. Later he did consider buying some roadside mushrooms too, but must have found them too expensive. Not long after we’d left Khuzhir we spotted a van in the roadside with a flat tyre. Inside we spotted the two German’s (the ones who’d been on yesterday’s tour and were also staying in the same accommodation as us). At the ferry crossing off of the island we met the Germans again. We counted ourselves lucky that it wasn’t our driver who had the puncture and was now driving with wheels of differing sizes making the van tilt at a dangerous angle and bump regularly on to the ground.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Olkhon Island (8th of August)

After a ride on the number 1 tram and then a walk we left on the 8.10 a.m. coach to Khuzhir on Olkhon Island, halfway up lake Baikal. It’s a wonder the buses don’t have punctures before they leave the bus station seeing that it’s full of potholes. The bus passed by a box of cucumbers lying in the road, five horses at the roadside and a few cows lumbering across it, shortly before we got to a very nice road sign with a horned cow on it. The fields here do not appear to have fences to keep the cattle in. We also passed a dead horse with its guts hanging out, victim to the lack of fences. By the roadside little memorials can be found with flowers and steering wheels where people have crashed. The variety of landscapes we passed through was quite impressive- farmland with a few birch forests, grasslands rich in flowers, coniferous forest with bilberries aplenty and then the vast barren Northern looking steppe landscape that dominates this area.

Not long after we had started driving in this Mongolianesque area we came across a crash site on a sharp bend. Two minivans were at the side of the road, both with mangled bonnets. Three girls were lying on their backs, evidently in pain, and the rest of the passengers were standing around looking shell-shocked. It would have taken hours for an ambulance to reach them. We (and it seemed most people on the bus, judging by their gasps) were worried by this and decided we were lucky to be in our larger coach, with a relatively careful driver. However, we weren’t so sure anymore when the road became an extensively potholed dirt track. The coach had to go extremely slowly and had a tendency to tilt as it moved to avoid the potholes. Seatbeltless I was left clutching on to my armrest. Earlier we couldn’t imagine why the trip was meant to take eight hours, but all became clear on the track. Bumping up and down we entertained ourselves looking for ground squirrels.

The ferry was just pulling away as we got to the crossing so during the half an hour wait we walked up a small hill and observed the rubbish eating cows. We sat back down in the coach but for some reason everyone got off as soon as the engine started and walked on to the boat instead, so we just followed suit. This was a Russian roll on- roll off ferry where the boat immediately turned around and went across the lake backwards so that the vehicles had to reverse off.

Olkhon island is massive, 75km by 15km and it just doesn’t feel like an island. It’s is pretty in its own barren way. Most of the island is steppe, with woodland in the middle and some dunes on the west coast. The man from Bolshie Koty told us that it is famous for its Shamanic energy, but he doesn’t like it because it makes him feel ill. Khuzhir where we stayed is very much a tourist town, with everyone trying to capitalise on the area’s appeal.

No sooner had we got off the bus than we were accosted by a Russian lady who we figured out wanted us to stay in her accommodation. We weren’t really sure how we could shake her off and walked with her to the tourist information office. The lady there could speak English and we asked her advice. She told us that ‘Nikita’s’, which is the place where western tourist stay, would be far more expensive than what this lady was offering (350 roubles), and that we should follow her and look at it and walk away if we didn’t like it. We were taken behind one of the mysterious Russian fences and shown around. The room looked rather cosy and we would be able to cook rather than have to refuse fish and do our cooking on the trangia. They offered us ‘Chai’ and tried to communicate with us. Having asked where the toyalet was I was pointed to the bottom of the potato patch. We’d cross that hurdle later.

A stoll along the cliff tops with views over to the Primorsky mountains and along the coast was very pleasant, apart from the cars that were parked there. Seems that on Olkhon Island people can drive anywhere they want, if they are foolish enough. As soon as we got back in the garden we were offered ‘Chai’ again. This is a kettle that never stops boiling. We needed some help with knowing what water to use for washing up and where to put it after we’d finished and felt like helpless foreigners. It also turned out that there was a hut with a hole in the ground in it, so we wouldn’t be peeing on the potatoes. In the evening we went to sleep to the sound of the lady in the room next door throwing up (Shamanic energy to blame?).

Bolshie Koty (7th August 2010)

When we woke up it was pouring with rain and the prospect of hanging around till six for our boat was not a pleasant one. The hostel owner said we could probably just use our tickets on the midday boat and we thought it was worth a try. By the time we’d got ourselves rain geared up to walk the hill overlooking the village the Dutch sisters had already come back from walking there with their guide. Accompanied by the stray dog, which had taken up residence beneath one of the hostel huts/chalets we slipped our way up the track. The dog was evidently not starving as it turned its nose up at the rather old peanuts I found in my pocket. It did however seem intent on finding some food fresh out the hole and was digging wildly into the hillside. Having admired the village from above we could dry a bit before going to the boat where we got placed right near the front.

We’d been hoping we could look out at the coast we’d walked along, but the windows were all steamed up and the water was splashing wildly upon them outside. Yesterday the lake had looked so calm, but today it had become an entirely different beast. It was stormy and the boat was plummeting down from the tops of the waves. I was in slight disagreement with the Swiss couple across the corridor from us who could be heard saying things like ‘‘isch mega cool’ and ‘isch so geil’. Didn’t hear them saying that anymore when to our amusement they had to move further inside the ship and were looking rather peaky. I did feel a bit sick, but in preparation for our journey across the Pacific (and the Atlantic eventually) stayed in the front section of the ship and braved it out along with Jenny and two other passengers. Because of the inclement weather the boat couldn’t dock in Listvyanka, although they did try. Passengers with tickets to Listvyanka where given the option of getting off on the other side of the Angara in Port Baikal or continuing on to Irkutsk. In a funny Russian fashion they had to pay extra for journey to Irkutsk even though it wasn’t their fault that they couldn’t get off. At the hostel we met a fraud of a Dutch girl who studied linguistics and spoke English like an English person. It was very hard to believe that she was genuinely from Holland. Late into the evening the Swiss and French people who had been staying in the Bolshie Koty hostel with train tickets for the next morning arrived at the hostel. We’d been thinking they might not have been able to get back because of the weather, but it looked like that hadn’t been their problem. They just hadn’t realised the boat stops miles away from Irkutsk itself and had walked all the way from there in the dark.

Bolshie Koty (6th of August 2010)

After a long lie in on a rock solid bed we discovered there was no electricity in the village. The power cut had happened in the night, which must have been why the light outside our window had switched off around midnight and we’d been able to fall asleep so easily. There was no water to be had but soon some had been collected from the river.

Not having any plans we wandered around finding old buildings and potato patches, a shipping container shack and a sausage dog being walked that crouched and rolled in such submission when it met a lady it knew. Somewhere else a dog got shouted at for eating a toy car. The people of Bolshie Koty seemed to enjoy shouting. In a wreck of a ship on the shoreline a boy wearing a pirate hat and holding a toy gun sat on the rails and stared out to the lake. We sat on a dead tree and tried unsuccessfully to photograph the barn swallows, creeping into the cowshed to photograph the nest. A man rounded up some of his horses and they all followed each other up the track. We decided to walk into the wood and headed up the river. There was a spot with so many butterflies that you might have been mistaken for thinking it was raining. There were fungi galore and huge ants were busy making massive mounds, as well as walking up our trousers!

Back on the beach we looked at the lake and I paddled in the freezing cold water (while Jenny watched as she has a cold), but most significantly we saw a real live Nerpa seal. An endemic species and not commonly sighted from Bolshie Koty. This meant we had had a very successful day. The stray dog must have known howling like a wolf as we walked back to the hostel, where we then saw a chipmunk and Jenny a ground squirrel.

Just in case...

If you ever find yourself walking to Bolshie Koty here are some tips.
1. It’s a long 18km and it’s possibly 20km instead
2. Leave early
3. Don’t get too carried away looking for/at animals
4. Go up the road just after the seal enclosure which turns into a track
5. Take the middle path, not the steep one on the left or the one on the right that goes over the river
6. Near the top of the hill take the right-hand fork
7. Later bear left rather than going straight on past the marker, even though you seem to be going the direction you’ve come from
8. Snake down the hill and walk down the river to the lake
9. Don’t be fooled into thinking you are already there, far from it
10. At the lake go left/north wards through rocky Sardinian looking landscapes
11. The right way sign means you’re going the right way
12. The “Koty 2 часa” sign means that it take two hours, not that it’s 2km
13. Enjoy the beautiful scenery since you know where you’re going

Bolshie Koty (5th of August)

In the morning armed with the coffee we walked for 45 minutes to 1 hour to the bus station where we waited for a marushky (minivan) to Listvyanka. The Americans who had been there the day before said it was pretty easy and you just had to find one, hop in and it would wait to fill up and you’d be off. We however found loads of people waiting at the bus stop, it being Thursday and there only being one boat. We waited and didn’t get space in the first one, but managed to in the second one. It was full of Irkutskians, most on their way to a day out in Listvyanka. Two little girls copied us when we put our seatbelts on. Hopefully we hadn’t offended the driver – Lonely Planet tells you that Mongolian’s get offended by seatbelt wearing. I was glad to have it on though, as I began to think more and more that I was in a theme park. We were facing backwards and couldn’t see the road ahead so it was like one of those in the dark roller coasters. Not a treat. Trying to divert my attention from feeling sick I came to the conclusion that people from Irkutsk must have very valuable heads, what with all the gold fillings they have.

In Listvyanka we bumped into the Russian speaking English lady off the train and her husband. After we had tested the water temperature and admired the lake we headed away from it and up a road. The road soon became a track and we found ourselves a bench surrounded by rubbish, massive grasshoppers and some butterflies, where we could peacefully consume some of our eggs. We came to the part of the path we expected to split in two, but there were three paths and we weren’t sure which one to take. Jenny went to the top one and I went to the bottom one. Mine went over the river, which the path isn’t meant to and Jenny’s was steep and the path was unscuffed. We took the middle path since it looked most used and had litter along it. A lady walked past us and we were almost sure we’d made the right decision.

The path went up and up through the trees and we saw a black woodpecker hammering away on a branch. As the path levelled out there were lots of large plants on the ground and it began to smell like a combination between pleasant pine forest and a zoo enclosure. There were huge ants everywhere making massive anthills and we came to fully understand the expression of ants in your pants. Once more there was a fork in the path and we didn’t know where we were really meant to go, so we took the bigger track, which zig-zagged down the hill. We thought we might have heard a large creature, maybe a moose, but there wasn’t actually anything to see. Down the bottom we thought we were nearing the village and took it easy looking at the bright yellow birds, which we thought at the time we could come back and look at in the morning.

As we reached the lakeshore and no houses we could only conclude that we weren’t in Bolshie Koty. There were no signposts nor any sign of a village and we weren’t really sure if we were meant to be going left along the shore or to the right. We concluded that the Latvian and German team wouldn’t have got lost on the dangerous cliffs if Bolshie Koty was to the right so we headed up the steep path on our left, which skirted round a headland. After a few more climbs we really weren’t sure if we were going the right way, but continued nonetheless. With time ticking on we really couldn’t afford to be going the wrong way. The landscape was rather beautiful with plenty of wildflowers and then craggy sections with Sardinian looking plants. Unfortunately, becoming increasingly sure we were lost, our ability to appreciate it was somewhat diminished. On seeing a boat that looked like it was heading inland we got pretty excited. It was heading into a bay and we became convinced that Bolshie Koty was just around the corner. Sadly when we got there we saw that they were just picking up a lobster pot or similar. We had no option but to continue on the path, with nightfall due in about two hours. We walked quickly with thoughts in our heads of where the best place would be to sleep out on the path. At one point we came across a wrapper lying on the ground, if it was an ice cream wrapper we had to be near the town. Unfortunately it was a muesli bar and didn’t raise our hopes particularly. On and on we walked and as we got into a wooded area we finally found a signpost for ‘Kotie 2 часa’. We had been walking the right way. But it wasn’t the 2km minutes walk we had got excited about, but took a further 2 hours. We dug our torch out and then we came across the man from the hostel who had come out to find us since it was getting dark. It was a bit embarrassing to have him come to look for us, but on the other hand it was very kind of him. He seemed very excited to have two more sisters join the two Dutch sisters who were already at the hostel, naming it ‘Sister Day’. We chose accommodation in the old looking wooden hut, which was actually rather new inside, but still freezing cold. Wrapped up in hats, scarves, gloves, tights and multiple layers of other clothing we nodded off to sleep.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Irkutsk (4th of August)

It wasn’t raining when we got to Irkutsk, but it was rather chilly. Walking out of the station we got bombarded by ‘taxi, taxi’ and decided to walk across the bridge to the hostel rather than wait for the tram, just in case anyone thought we did want a taxi. Being in Irtutsk Downtown Hostel almost makes you forget you are in Russia. There were people from America, England, Germany, Latvia, Switzerland, France, Holland and probably some other countries too. We got helpful advice on where it might be possible to buy a train ticket in English (although they might have overcharged), where to visit and where to go food shopping.

A place was advertised on the fridge called Bolshie Koty. The Latvian and the German had a terrifying tale to tell about their walk back from the remote village to Listvyanka. They’d gone the wrong way and been walking around trying desperately to find the path, thought they’d found it, but realised they hadn’t when scrambling across the cliff face and very nearly falling into the water. Walking the 18km route was not recommended. We decided we’d go there, so the next day we had a planning day. The port for the boat to Bolshie Koty was south of Irkutsk so we had to go there on a minibus to buy a ticket.

Minivans seem to be the way to get around and there is a constant stream of them pulling up to the bus stop. It’s mayhem and the kind of thing I’ve always imagined happens in developing countries. We had time to fully observe this as the number 16 was taking its time coming. Irkutskians pay when they get off the bus, it’s usually about 10 Roubles and is written on the door, but sometimes you just have to guess or try to figure out what everyone else is doing. We sat in the back of the van, the doors felt like they might fly open and we’d find ourselves sitting on the road. Russian driving appears to be very fuel inefficient with a lot of sudden braking and accelerating, maybe it’s because the petrol is so cheap. We’d been told to get off at Paketa (said Raketa), the bus did go past some boats and realising we’d gone too far had to walk back.

Using our almost non-existent Russian we found out the boat to Bolshie Koty was booked out but managed to buy ourselves a ticket back with the aid of an English speaking Russian. It looked like we’d have to tackle that walk after all. While in the queue a Russian man had given us 10 rubles as a “present”, we didn’t really understand why and found it a bit odd. It wasn’t a fake though and paid for our bus back to the city.

Next stop was the bus station to buy tickets to Olkhon Island where we’ve planned to go for a few days. Our technique improved since visiting ‘Paketa’. We’d written everything we needed on a bit of paper, and what we couldn’t write we drew. The lady spoke a little English and grasped what we wanted, resulting in ticket purchase with little hassle.

Irkutsk has many stray dogs wandering its streets and I wish I could take some of them home. They run right along the sides of the pavement on their own or in groups of two. As we walked back from the bus station we saw a run over dog and a forlorn dog looking on from the side of the road. This really upset me and reminded me I should really toughen up a bit if I’m going to make it through Asia. Dodging the cars across the zebra crossings we made our way up to the square, which was most unlike the pretty pedestrian ones of Tallinn, Riga and Warsaw. In true Russian style there were cars everywhere. After tiredly admiring more onion domes and the river Angarsk and buying 15 eggs (because they don’t seem to sell them in smaller packets) we set about deciding what luggage we’d be leaving at the hostel and what we’d be taking to Bolshie Koty. We were told that there would probably have been boat tickets from Listvyanka to Bolshie Koty because everyone gets out in Listvyanka, and we kicked ourselves for not having thought of this ourselves.

Irina at the hostel asked us if we’d take coffee with us to Bolshie Koty as the man who runs that hostel had run out. She also told us we would have to walk up street in Listvyanka, take a left hand fork, go up, up, up and up and then flat and down and keep to the lake. She didn’t understand how anyone could get lost and couldn’t stop singing Bolshie Koty’s praises.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Trans-Siberian Moscow-Irkutsk (31st of July to the 3rd of August)

Having overcome our confusion as to where to board the train (first you have to wait in the station and then cross over the pedestrian street behind it to the platforms) we were finally aboard the Trans-Siberian. There were some German girls who were waiting for the Trans-Siberian but they didn’t turn up in our carriage. We moved all our stuff into the small compartment, where there’s not much room to do this when other people are there. The train was rather old looking and rustic, with quite a bit of rattling when it got going. In its hey day it may well have been the crème de la crème. Our compartment was extremely hot and as yet unoccupied.

As we left Moscow it wasn’t raining, well it only rains for 20 minutes at a time and we’d missed our opportunity. Not long before we left our fellow traveller arrived. She was an IT consultant from Moscow with a good grasp of technical English but very apologetic about the way she was speaking. She was very entertaining and reminded us of our mum’s friend Hester. No sooner had she sat down than she said “wait a minute” and went dashing to find the lad who had checked our tickets to open the window. The window wouldn’t open and she said “this is Russia” but fortunately the window in the corridor did open and it was much cooler. She was off to a 10-year wedding anniversary, 200km away from Moscow on the apparently extremely beautiful Volga River. Well that’s how we understood it. She thought we were mad going to Irkutsk, but visiting Mongolia she approved of and gave a gesture of pure bliss.

She went outside to smoke and told us we were “good girls” for not smoking or drinking. Reconfirming what we have read she said “Russian’s love to drink anytime of the day. Drinking and talking in the company of friends as the sun is rising is the most pleasurable of experiences.” It was a shame she would be gone by six in the morning as it would have been amusing to spend more time conversing with her. She told us to be careful and to not give the Russian police any money or our passports. “The Russian police are not all good”. We knew this, we’d read it all in our ‘Lonely Planet’, and thought we’d let her read it. She thought it was hilarious and couldn’t stop laughing, saying “Russia is not that dangerous”.

The Trans-Siberian has all the perks of air travel without the air travel. Food served up on small plastic plates in plastic bags, eaten with plastic forks out of a plastic box, alongside water out of a plastic bottle. You even get a new set of plastic every day. That’s an awful lot of plastic and a few plastic bags of plastic waste lying in the corridor to prove it. Better part is you’ve got more space, good views and no airport queues. More importantly fewer carbon emissions (we hope).

The lady had gone in the morning and been replaced at some point by two tired Russian girls. Everyone was asleep when I got up at 9am and stood in the corridor watching the procession of silver birches and conifers roll past the window. At 10am we stopped and I walked up and down the platform. Baboushkas with baskets full of drinks and plastic bags containing eggs, cucumbers, tomatoes and apples walked up and down the platform trying to sell their wares to the passengers. Life stirred in our compartment and Jenny had to open the blind because the Russians couldn’t figure it out. They couldn’t speak much English but one of them told us where she was from and that she’d been to a place on the Volga for five days. Later she sat next to us with her camera and proceeded to show us her holiday snaps.

Tree after tree rolled past and in some areas there were wisps of smoke and lots of burnt out trees. It felt like autumn in places, with leaves having turned yellow and red probably due to having their roots burnt. We didn’t however see any of the flames or blazes that had been hitting the news headlines.

At some point the dining car lady came to take orders for lunch and see whether we wanted chicken. Telling her we were vegetarians was tricky. We couldn’t find it in the guidebook so we rummaged around for paper and a pen. I drew a plate with a cross through it to indicate we didn’t want anything but that didn’t work. Then I drew a cat and a chicken with crosses through them. Jenny found vegetarian in the book and we got offered fish, so I drew a fish with a cross through it too. This joint effort worked and we opted for rice over potatoes.

In the evening the girl who showed us her photos got off the train. Her and her boyfriend had a seemingly endless supply of luggage, it just didn’t stop being produced from the space above the corridor, her bed and under the other bed.

On board several traders made their way past us selling the following useless tat:

- Rings and other jewellery
- Round wooden things with paintings on them
- Bags with things in
- Knitted items such as scarves and cardigans
- Colouring crayons, magazines, newspapers and playing cards
- Hoops that may have been alice bands, decorated green and silver metal boxes and blue and purple purses
- Books that looked liked fairy tales

Looking out the window at the Russian houses is like going to the Latvian Ethnographical museum without the entrance fee. Jenny says you can’t go into these ones though but you couldn’t do that in Riga either.

On the second full day in the train Christmas came early. Eight English travellers from Bristol and the Midlands boarded our carriage. Suddenly the air was full of words we could understand and we were no longer such a minority, two of them could even speak Russian being Russian teachers.

The first lunch we had was good – rice on its own with a tasty cabbage, onion and tomato salad. Unfortunately this did not look appetising enough and the kitchen staff added a sauce, which had obviously come out of the meat sauce with little bits of meat in it. It felt slightly criminal throwing food away in a country where there are so many impoverished people. Day three and we managed to get exactly what we wanted, just salad, aided by the Russian speaking English next door.

On the last night in the train the Russian girl (who we’d been sharing the compartment with for four days and was going home to Angarsk, near Irkutsk) managed to communicate to us in a combination of signals, Russian and a spot of English that she was cold and wanted the air conditioning turned off. She came back from asking with a roll of scellotape and a wad of newspaper. This was turning off the air conditioning Russian style and involved her and Jenny clambering up to the top bunks and sticking it all over the air vent. It was an amusing spectacle and I had a good vantage point.

Hoping to see some Baboushkas with baskets at most stations, it was a disappointment to have only seen them at the one. We’d made plans to buy eggs and fruit but thankfully the other English people gave us some fruit to help us avoid scurvy.

The houses got more Asian looking and the people too as we made our way through Siberia. Hundreds of small wooden buildings, most with a patch of potatoes and geese, tethered cows or goats within their wooden fences pased us by.

At a station it was 16 degrees centigrade and at another 15 degrees and going down. Some goats wandered onto the tracks at the station and people joked that goat curry would be on the lunch menu. Excitement filled the air as we came into the rain. The English travellers next door thought it looked like snow, but then they’d also seen a “meerkat” out the window! At the next station it was 10 degrees outside and like a wet weekend at the British seaside, I got cold and soaked and Jenny very excited.

Some European observations

For the first part of our journey there were some clear trends going on. Every city had its own chocolate factory, Berlin – Ritter Sport, Warsaw – Wedel, Riga - Laima and Tallinn – Kalev. One of them had a pretty good blueberry, marshmallow and chocolate bar. Mika was also doing a concert in every city and he was hot on our heels. There were posters everywhere and looking back we should have started taking photos of them in every city, but we didn’t know he’d be following us. We thought we’d shake him off in Russia, but he was going to sing in St. Petersburg. Thinking we’d definitely have shaken him off by Moscow we found posters there too. But he didn’t make it as far as Irkutsk!

As we got into the Baltics and Russia we found that people like to walk around with music surrounding them. They carry their music with them but don’t bother with headphones, even in the National Parks they’d walk around with their music blaring out. Travelling on the bus and train through Europe (and then Russia) you realise that there are still a lot of trees left in the world. Seeing all these trees is very satisfying, although you try not to think about how many have already been chopped down.

South Korea

We've made it to Seoul so far, although if you'd been relying on the blog alone you might be led to believe we were still in Russia. Thankfully they don't censor your internet access here and we can actually access our own blog. We've got some entries written up and we'll be adding these as soon as possible. Our freighter to the USA leaves on Thursday (30th September) and we'll be heading out for about 10 days on the Pacific in the middle of hurricane season.

Monday, 6 September 2010


Moscow and the surrounding area has been experiencing a very hot summer. Locals tell us that it’s usually about 25 degrees centigrade but this year it’s been in the high 30’s all summer. A lady in the train told us “they even have to go to work in their shorts”, which she seemed to find rather funny. Some areas haven’t had rain since April, this is climate change in action. Moscow was predicted heavy rainfall for the day we were there, it didn’t materialise unfortunately and just rained for about 15 minutes. The previous time it rained in Moscow was 5 days before but only for 20 minutes. There have been raging forest fires surrounding Moscow and the news was reporting a horrid looking smog in Moscow before we got there. One hour of standing outside would be equivalent to smoking two packets of cigarettes. Luckily the smog disappeared and we didn’t need to stay in the station all day or don face masks. A few days after we left the smog engulfed Moscow again and we consider ourselves very lucky to have missed it.

We got woken up an hour before the train got to Moscow and a man from sub-Moscow offered me advice on which park to visit as I was queuing for the toilet. Moscow was confusing to start with, as most cities seem to be when you first get there. We managed to locate the station for trains to Eastern Russia and Asia and put our bags in the left luggage room. Figuring out what places are called is Russian is tricky, with our guidebook in English and everything in Cyrillic. Buying tickets for the Metro wasn’t too tricky but we did get off one stop too early.

Not having many plans for Moscow we started the day as we meant to go on and sat down in a park in front of the Bolshoi Ballet. A lady was cleaning the park with foul smelling water and her sidekick was meant to be mopping it up but needed a lot of reminding. We kept moving benches to avoid her. Some little old ladies with sun hats sat next to us and swung their legs into the air in the hope that they could stay seated while the area around them was hosed down. It was very funny but it didn’t help their cause and they had to move anyway.

We were then ready to tackle Moscow’s tourist sights head on. Saw the red square, St.Basil’s Cathedral (which was really rather nice), didn’t see the embalmed Lenin (because it’s closed on Fridays), saw the outside of the Kremlin (that was good enough for us), wandered across the river, saw some onion domed churches, bucketloads of Russian opulence and a lot of traffic. Crossing the road in Moscow is pretty much asking for trouble. One road had loads of lanes and the pedestrian crossing light did not have the inclination to turn green. People waited and waited, but the policeman standing nearby was not interested in our plight and just stood nearby waiving posh cars into the Kremlin. In the end we just had to make a mad dash for it. In most of the parks the grass was being watered to stop it turning yellow like the grass on the roadsides. The starlings were loving it and drinking from the puddles that were forming on the paths. Children were also enjoying the water by wading through and doing backflips into the fountains.

We were then faced with a mission of finding a shop to buy something to eat. This was almost impossible, we walked around for ages and there just weren’t any food shops. We did however find the chief hangout of the Oligarchs, streets full of shops with stuff too expensive for anyone in their right mind to buy. In the rich people’s shopping centre with palm trees and fountains we did buy a croissant each, which managed to keep us going until we did eventually find a small shop.

As evening drew in we entertained ourselves by staring in amazement at the sheer amount of traffic pouring past the road at the bottom of the Red Square. Boredom upon us we decided to count cars, black versus silver, yellow versus red, until a Russian decided to come and talk to us. Alex, an aspiring Russian actor had just finished an audition for what we are led to believe was a TV advert modelling clothes. His English wasn’t great, but it was better than most. Although when we wanted to know if Cyrillic was always written in capital letters he kept saying Moscow.