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.