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Travel blog I don't mean to brag, I don't mean to boast, but I'm intercontinental and I eat French toast (Beastie Boys) | | | Photos available at www.istockphoto.com/georgeclerk

Through Siberia

RUSSIAN FEDERATION | Friday, 5 October 2007 | Views [3540] | Comments [1]

Four of us in a kupe cabin (two German guys, Holger and Thomas; one Swedish girl, Eva plus me) we left Moscow not long before midnight, with the temperature outside chilly, but swelteringly hot inside the train - especially for Holger and me on the top bunks.

In our train carriage there were 36 berths, two toilets (one of which was almost always locked), one samovar (a coal or wood fired boiler giving us hot water for tea or soup etc), and two 'provodniks' - in this case two iron ladies who took absolutely no messing around!

Over the 4 night journey, we passed across from Europe into Asia (as soon as we were over the Ural mountains and in Siberia), and also passed a gazillion silver birch trees, countless small villages of wooden houses, through five time zones, and about 5,200 kilometres. Each day we stopped maybe 3-5 times at stations, for 15 minutes or so where, day or night, people were on the station ready to sell food and drink to the passengers.

On the second day on board, the restaurant car (next to our carriage and where we spent quite a few of our waking hours - drinking beer or vodka and playing cards) suddenly became very busy, as the self named 'crazy football hooligans' on their way back to Perm from watching their team play in Moscow arrived, claiming that they only liked two things - Drinking and Fighting. Fortunately they only demonstrated their skills in drinking, but decked out in Burberry, Fred Perry and Lacoste, they wanted to check with us that UK hooligans wear the same labels.

Although they weren't impressed when the restaurant car lady sternly told them "don't steal anything", we had a good laugh together until around midnight when they had to get off for Perm. And they gave Eva a hat!

Anyway, having wondered what being on a train for so long would be like, I was surprised at how quickly the time went, and - having stocked up on books while I could easily buy them in English - how little time I had for reading.

Confusingly in a way, all trains and stations on Russian railways operate on Moscow time, so that our 04.30 arrival in Irkutsk actually meant that we got in at 9.30 local time.

So getting off the train it turned out that three other people from different carriages who had booked with the same company as me, so Keiran, Geraldine, Phyllis and I were taken to the small village of Listvyanka on the south west of Lake Baikal.

Here's a few facts about Lake Baikal to get them out of the way:

- It's the biggest freshwater lake in the world

- Holds 20% of the world's fresh water

- Contains more water than all the North American 'great lakes' combined

- About 80% of the almost 3,000 species found there (including a freshwater seal and a fish which melts if you leave it in the sun) don't exist anywhere else in the world

- It's over a mile deep

- 337 rivers and burns run into it, but only one river (the Angara which runs through Irkutsk) run out of the lake.

- I could go on but that'll probably do!

We stayed in a traditional homestay, complete with a banya (Siberian dry sauna), a drop loo in a shed outside, and had very nice local food including Omul from the lake. Other than being amazed (and a bit amused) at how unbelievably unfriendly the woman behind one of the local bars was - ripping money out of our hands, slamming drinks down hard on the bar and scowling with venom, before bizarrely closing the bar at a random time, turning the music up loud and dancing around with her friends - we went to the local museum and had a pleasant trek in the hills around the lake and had a picnic on a remote pebble beach.

The Angara river in Irkutsk - dread to think what the graffiti means!

After 2 nights on the shores of Baikal we had one night in a hotel in Irkutsk which was fine, but my room clearly hadn't been redecorated since the early '70s, and seemed like it hadn't been cleaned for at least a decade. The funny thing was the leaflet in the room - 'Many places claim to make you feel at home in their hotel, but at the Angara we are confident that this hotel and its facilities are better than your own home...'

So then a 5am hop to the train the next morning, a less plush Mongolian train where the provodnik was much more friendly, and you could open the windows. The carriage I was in had 6 westerners, and about 30 Mongolian traders who seemed to see us as an inconvenience, getting in the way of them constantly moving around their boxes of goods (hair products, food and all sorts of other everyday products).

Having carefully tied up bags of our rubbish on the train, and put them in the bin areas between the carriages, we were shocked to see the provodniks get rid of them along the way by just opening the windows and hurling them out as we sped through the countryside.

That evening we had a surprise stop when the train quickly ground to a halt, and it turned out that we'd run over a cow! You can barely make it out in the picture above, but it's in the light, just beyond the stripy guy's shirt). Much excitement followed, and the train had to keep shunting backwards and forwards for ages while a guy hacked free what was left of the cow, using a small hammer which is normally used to tap the hydralics etc at the bottom of the train at stations, to listen to the pitch of the 'bong'.

After prolonged hacking and noisy train shunting, the parts that were left of the cow were finally freed, and dragged away from the track.



But that 40 minute delay was nothing compared to the six hours taken for the Russia-Mongolia border crossing, which took us well beyond midnight. It was clear that the inspectors and officials had very little interest in us tourists, it was the traders that they were looking to catch, and the officials opened up hatches, floors, beds, ceilings and even unlocked the empty soap dispensers in the loo. People in other carriages saw the train officials bribed to hide things in their compartments, and the customs officials given some products in exchange for a blind eye to duty payments.

So after many hours at the last Russian station, we had a repeat thorough (but much more friendly) inspection of the train at the first Mongolian station, and then - at 1am we could get some kip before arriving early morning in Ulaanbaatar.

By the way, lots of other pics in the 'gallery' thing...

Tags: On the Rails



Lake Baikal is a fitting place to contemplate God's superlative wisdom and the majesty of his creation. Who but God could have created all the unique natural processes that sustain life in such abundance in this marvelous lake? Standing on the shores of Lake Baikal, one might echo the words of the Bible writer who exclaimed: "O the depth of God's riches and wisdom and knowledge!" Romans 11:33

  Janet Bell Dec 30, 2007 12:22 PM

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