Train to Irkutsk and onto Beijing - Sept 15-24
Sep 24, 2009
The train ride from Moscow to Irkutsk was excellent. The train left Moscow dot on time and thankfully we had our 4-bed cabin to ourselves at first. This meant we could sort all of our stuff out and get organised in the little space we had. We got all our food and drink out and tucked into the nice big box of wine we'd bought! At the first stop, Vladimir, a Russian couple got on and were to be our companions for the next few days. They were very friendly but spoke little English. Combined with our non-existent Russian, conversation didn't exactly flow!
On the first full day, with the novelty still in place, we wandered around the train a bit, found the buffet car and realised most people spent most of the time in their cabins. Elizabeth and I both got a lot of reading done and I got some more of my first story done, too. The cabin was so cramped and Elizabeth and I kept taking little trips out to wander around, as well as getting off at many of the stations we stopped at. At least twice a day, the train stopped at a large-ish station and was there for 15 minutes or so, enough time to stretch the legs, get cold and buy more food if we needed it! We had bought some crackers and bagels and cheese so we had that for lunch but gave the buffet car a go in the evening - we both had stroganoff and it was surprisingly good!
The second day was similar. My main problem was getting changed - my bag was wedged under the seat and I needed some room to move it around and get clean clothes out. Unfortunately, the Russian couple NEVER left the room for more than about 2 minutes at a time, spending their entire time laying on their bunks and watching one of the three Russian TV channels we had - loudly! In the end, I didn't bother, resorting to a quick wash off in the toilets each morning and little else. In fact, as I write this I am wearing the same t-shirt for the 5th day running! I know, disgusting! There are no showers on the trains so I am quite glad we are stopping off here in Irkutsk - seven days without a shower is too much for me. I bet even my brother showers more often!
On the third day, things were getting a little tiresome and monotonous but thankfully that all changed mid-afternoon when we noticed snow on the ground and over the next few hours it continued to fall. By the time we went to bed that night, there was plenty around.
On the fourth morning, we arrived in Irkutsk, about an hour late due to the bad weather. Here in Irkutsk, it is COLD - 0C (about 32F) compared to the 40C we were experiencing in Egypt two weeks ago! Big change, and my cold weather clothes were buried at the bottom of my bag. Anyway, it's 10am here so time to get breakfast!
We really did nothing all day - got breakfast, bought some food and lazed around the hostel, chatting to various other travellers, avoiding the rain and catching up on sleep! And I had a few vodkas...
Today, we took a tour to Listvyanka - a small town on the edge of Lake Baikal. The tour was run by Jack, the owner of our hostel and he sure packed a lot into our day! The tour was supposed to be just the two of us but others heard about it and tagged along - a couple of Chilean guys, a bloke called Dan from Dublin who had been on our train, a Danish couple and a weird Italian bloke!
The tour started around Irkutsk itself and that was a bit dull - Irkutsk is a small town but Jack seemed very proud of it's history and was very knowledgable. At one point, we stopped by a statue and he was telling us about it. However, in the background was a group of people in karate outfits lining up to collect awards to "Eye of the Tiger". The whole scene was literally a cross between Karate Kid and Rocky, played out on a wet, cold river bank!
From there we headed towards Listvyanka with stops by the river leading out of Lake Baikal as well as a museum of wooden houses. These houses were typical of those around Siberia in the past and many are similar to those still used today. Given that we didn't have time here to really head out to the small villages, this was a good way to see the houses.
We visited various other sights during the day, including the lake itself, a couple of derelict hotels (which had good lake views, honestly!) and a walking path along the hill by the side of the lake. Jack also took us to his house - not the one he currently lived in but the one he was building and was obviously very proud of. It included a "banya" (a Russian bath) and a building which would be a hostel for travellers. He'd built it to be as ecologically friendly as possible. The views were amazing from the house, looking over the snow-covered hillside.
That night at the hostel, a few of the guys were leaving the next day on early flights so rather than a vodka night like previous, they were having a tea and biscuits night! It was all very civilised but it was nice to be surrounded by other travellers and getting to hear some of their stories.
Our final day in Irkutsk and the weather was truly miserable. A new batch of guests arrived at the hostel and we managed to get some shopping done before we got completely soaked.
One of the new arrivals, a girl called Christina, came to talk to us both as we laid in our room. She was obviously bored and it was good to have someone at the hostel with some life in them as many of the new arrivals were, let's say, more elderly!
We planned a few drinks that night and it wasn't long before we were tucking into bottle after bottle of vodka. Joining us and Christina were Charlotte (an English girl whose boyfriend Andy was asleep and ill for most of the evening!), Philip (an Irish guy travelling around Russia on his own) and Marsha (our lovely Russian host who had been looking after the hostel on most days). She taught us how to toast the Russian way and it sure went down easily! I have to admit, soon after the fourth bottle was opened, I passed out in bed!
Back on the train and hangover central. I felt like death warmed up and it was my turn to let Elizabeth worry about packing! Our taxi arrived with plenty of time to take us to the station but the morning traffic meant we only just made it! I think I slept most of the day!
Another day on the train - well, mostly at borders. We spent SIX hours at the Russian border, mostly sat in the station while they changed the train wheels. The customs and immigration staff were so rude, particularly one little Russian bastard with a Napolean complex who climbed all over our stuff and left our bags just strewn all over the beds and floor with not so much as a word to us, even in Russian.
From there, we finally crossed the border... and spent another SIX hours sitting in China, having our passports checked 4 or 5 times, having our bags searched, the pics on our cameras searched and the books we had, too! I asked the woman why she wanted to see the pictures and she replied "Do you want me to explain law to you?"... her exact words. Stupid woman. I'm still not sure what exactly they were "looking" for, it seemed like an excuse to be nosey. Despite all that, they missed searching Elizabeth's bag completely and would've been there all day searching my spare hard drive with almost 10,000 pictures on it!
Final day on the train and it dragged. Nothing much to report, just glad to have got to China and ready for Beijing!