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Russia

RUSSIAN FEDERATION | Saturday, 10 October 2009 | Views [994]

Overnight train was comfy and quiet – we had four berth coupe for ourselves until last stop just before Mongolian side of border around 7am on Thursday 14 May. While stretching my legs on platform, I change redundant Tugriks into Rubles with a local “businessman”. He looks reputable, after all what options do I really have? Suddenly train gets flooded with local “traders” who will try to smuggle anything from socks, bras and jeans to shoes and handbags to Russia. Firstly we do not understand what is going on but soon we realize this almost childish routine must be taking place every day and for many this may be the only way to make few bucks for living. Mainly women try to conceal contents of large bags anywhere they can – one enters our coupe spreading her “hot items” evenly around … two pairs of brand new pants hang right behind me, many pairs of socks are lazily tossed across our beds and a mysterious gift box is placed on table amongst our breakfast leftovers. Everyone is very agile trying to put on as many pieces of clothing as possible. It is somewhat comedian to see them dressed in layers and layers of clothing in relatively warm morning with a smear of fear on their faces in anticipation of Russian custom officers later. Actually we feel sorry for them in a way, but unwilling to participate despite many ladies asking to hide some of their contraband in our backpacks. In meantime our carriage is disconnected from the train (which will return to Ulanbator) and taken by locomotive across the border only to be reconnected to a Russian train waiting in Naushki. It is 10am. We are in no doubt that Russian border check will be a tough one, firstly our carriage is searched through with police dogs, then few officers turn everything possible upside down checking even ventilation holes and then very strict smile-less woman officer collects all passports. We do not feel any pressure but these poor smugglers are very stressed and put under immense pressure from Russian authorities. Lady from our coupe and other two are taken away with all their possessions, I can see them from the window walking inside the custom building being escorted with officers and dogs. Finally we get our passports back, all smugglers undress, repack their bulky bags to quickly get out of the train and we leave Naushki at 3pm in our journey to Baikal Lake. We should not be surprised to see snow covered landscape from our window early morning with sunrise. We left tropical and hot south east Asia long time ago and this reality is somewhat chili. Well, this is Siberia!

We arrive to Irkutsk at 8am. Following directions to Downtown Hostel we hop on a crowded tram #1 outside of railway station, buy tickets from tram driver and few minutes later I instinctively check my left pocket … I have been doing this for some time completely automatically being almost paranoid since we lost two cameras … damn! My wallet is gone! … with 5000 rubles, two VISA cards and Australian driver’s license.  I can not believe it! Swearing does not help much, I can’t get it back. Very chili morning indeed…. Welcome to Russia!     

Luckily Iva has the second set of VISA cards so we can withdraw cash from nearby ATM, I do not want to imagine what we would do in Irkutsk without access to money. Finding Downtown Hostel was bit of a challenge and unattractive rear heavy security door to block of units was rather unexpected entrance to a hostel. Apparently owners converted their old three bedroom flat into two six-bed dormitories and shared bathroom plus kitchen. With very limited backpacker accommodation availability in Irkutsk we should not complain too much and this deal for 1000 rubles per night ($40) is the cheapest deal we can find around … far cry from private room in luxury Pink Hotel at Dalat (Vietnam) where we paid $10 with breakfast and internet included. Hey, stop dreaming and get back to Russian reality … we need to call our bank in Ausie to stop VISA cards before some Russian bastard runs for free shopping. And any cream on the cake? We need to register our visas in Irkutsk with local “authority”, of course for a fee ($25). This place sucks! Less then 24 hours in Russia and we start to regret we ever came … but we are already here so let’s enjoy whatever we can. Using our footwork and trams we explore Irkutsk for the whole day and though very cold we enjoy subtle beauty and serenity of the town, contributed to by its architecture and parks. Sashlik, beer and vodka elevates our spirit to higher level so by late afternoon we are more relaxed not discussing earlier events any more. We also stop at railway station to buy train tickets for Moscow ($650 both). One of main attractions in Russia is the Lake Baikal of course, so tonight we book a marshutka (minivan) from Irkutsk to Chuzir, which we are told is the well known touristy town on The Olchon Island. On Sunday morning we meet few other travelers at Vogzal (bus station) and soon we leave for a six hour drive. After short ferry crossing and one more hour on dirt road we finally arrive to glorified Chuzir and we are truly stunned. It is difficult to describe our feelings as we walk through village looking for Hostel Nikita. Looking around this ghost town and at each other we shake our heads … vast majority of timber houses are on the verge of collapse, fences have fallen down already, no people on streets, no animals in paddocks. In fact no signs of life at all except one or two lost dogs wandering around muddy pond, filled with rubbish in the middle of village. Scattered empty vodka bottles are the only evidence of grim night life here. After check in we are taken by English speaking staff through maze of various wooden dwellings to our room. Not bad at first sight, soon we figure out there is something unusual, almost spooky about this hostel, this village and this island. Nikita (owner) expands his little empire with new guesthouses, each one being built in different shape and colors probably more due to availability of building materials then to architectonic design. We are quite excited about our private bathroom with shower and chemical toilet just outside of our room until we discover nothing works – water is not connected, neither sewer and the toilet needs to be emptied manually every day, luckily by staff and not by us. Hmm, how do we wash ourselves then? Well, there is a bucket of freezing water inside our room … even more private bathroom! Ok, settle in and let’s go to explore village before dinner, hopefully on the way we can buy few beers. We found only one small grocery shop with very limited choice of goods; surprisingly we have seen no sign of restaurants, bars or any other public social place as we are used to. Now we understand why Nikita Hostel offers a package of three basic meals per day together with accommodation – there is nowhere else to eat! Tonight, after dinner served in common dining room, two local housewives dressed in traditional costumes will sing Russian folk melodies, accompanied with local guy plying accordion. Interesting flashback to our early childhoods while singing Kathusha and Kalinka with them…after all 5 years of Russian language at school back in old Czechoslovakian communist regime left few things in our memories. Other backpackers are somewhat surprised with our skills. What else can we do on this island? One day we explore on foot the coastline of beautiful Lake Baikal, the other day we join a full day 4WD rough trip to the most northern tip ‘Mys Choboy’, and one day we desperately want to find some form of social life in Chuzir… except five more mixed-goods shops we failed our mission. Majestic and breathtakingly beautiful Lake Baikal is undisputedly number one landmark in our Russian experience. Crystal clear turquoise waters reflect steep white rocks rising from the lake, distant light-gray mountains add mystic feel, and blossoming flowers present everywhere make this place very peaceful. It is early spring and we still can touch ice in few shady areas, water must be just above freezing point and dead quiet nature is just about to wake up from long and cold winter. On Thursday morning we leave Lake Baikal arriving to Irkutsk late afternoon… this time we stay at Hostel Baikal (we found only two hostels in Irkutsk – Downtown and Baikal). On Friday we need to buy life support supplies for our 96 hours train to Moscow (leaving Irkutsk 10pm) …. salami, cheese, bread, beer and vodka should do.

Two young Russian ladies share coupe with us for first 20 hours, the rest of the trip we have the four berth coupe just for ourselves. Eating, drinking beer and vodka, playing cards, reading books, joking with kids on train or just looking out of window fill our four days so at the end our trip has not felt that long after all. One evening we get invited by a local sport team to their coupe for stakan, or two.  “Davaj po centimetriku i nebudem targovat sa!” one says with big grin on his face and we quickly learn how Russian drink vodka.

Moscow on Tue 26th May at 4:30am is sunny but very cold and windy, the Metro does not start until 5:30am and we kill an hour by wandering inside train station… at 6:30 we arrive to Godzila Hostel run by an American guy. We are going to stay in private room with shared bathroom for four nights ($90 per night! This is easily the most expensive backpacker’s hostel in whole year), no breakfast, no coffee. At least it looks clean and recently refurbished. Need some good food to kick off metabolism soon and after walking around few blocks we find nice bakery with delicious ‘pirozky’. Back in hostel after 1pm… check in our room… warm shower is quite pleasant after four days on trans-siberian. Eating out in Moscow is prohibitively expensive, after having quite miserable one or two meals we decide for self-catering option utilizing hostel kitchen. Puzzled why Moscow has been officially voted as the most expensive city in the world we must agree. Over next few days Iva prepares very tasty pasta, pancakes and fried rice from supermarket ingredients and the only shop we re-visit is the one with pirozky. Wednesday morning is more pleasant and in short sleeves we head off to explore Moscow with help of efficient Metro. Red Square is an obvious target and not just for us – plaza is buzzing with tourists, we just have missed Lenin’s mausoleum closing hours and have to return tomorrow. For the rest of afternoon we leisurely stroll around remarkably colorful Kolomenskoe Park dressed up in blossoming tulips and lilacs. First item on our Thursday’s agenda is Lenin, then Museum of Cosmos Exploration. Unexpectedly we also witness unleashed celebrations of Border Guard Service Day – by mid afternoon many half naked drunken soldiers sing and dance around water fountain to our enjoyment, some taking their liberties perhaps too far. Something impossible or unthinkable in Australia but that is exact reason why we travel. Friday is very last day of  our Round the World Trip, not accounting visit to our homeland Czech Republic, and we feel little sad that our adventure is almost over. But wait, there is more! Five more weeks in Czech and one week in Italian Dolomites before we fly back to Australia. Our departure from Russia on Saturday 30th May is not without a hitch – a two hour flight to Prague expands almost to ten hours when connecting flight from Kaliningrad to Prague is cancelled and instead we are taken via Paris landing at Praha-Ruzyne airport at 8pm. Not happy but finally home.

Despite magic Lake Baikal we were not impressed with Russia in whole, mainly due to lack of compassion and warmness from people, sometimes even bordering with arrogance. All they seem to be interested at or motivated by is money. Services like accommodation and hospitality are non-proportionally expensive as compared to average living standards of ordinary people, or rest of the world. Russians would like to be global players but they have not learned good manners and customs. Russia did not leave positive feelings on us and therefore we do not plan to come back.

 

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