Irkutsk, Lake Baikal and Novosibirsk.
Jun 17, 2013
|Our biggest problem in Irkutsk was food. It was difficult even finding restaurants. The style of building was wooden with small windows. There was not a lot of window frontage to display what was inside hence it was difficult to tell what was inside unless it was part of a major chain like Subway (they're everywhere) or KFC. Our initial efforts took us to a florists, a hairdressers, a solicitors office (or it could have been an architects), various clothing boutiques and a pet shop.
We eventually found a restaurant on the second floor of a building only because there was a bloke in a chefs hat outside spruiking it. We entered and encountered the second problem -no English menus. With phrase book in hand, we laboriously started trying to decipher the menu. Needless to say it took us longer to decide (guess) what to order than it did to cook, serve and eat the meal. And we were never quite sure what we were going to get. We had an idea but there was always that element of doubt. Likewise with the cost. Turned out the cost quoted for Katherine's fish was per 100gm so we ended up paying 2.3 times what we expected (ie the salmon steak was 230 gms). We also got slugged an additional 200 roubles (100 each) for the "live" entertainment and I thought it was some bloke singing karaoke!
Next day we were up bright and early just after eight. That gave us time for a leisurely breakfast before being picked up at ten for our tour to Lake Baikal. Turns out there was just the two of us so we had the minivan to ourselves for the one hour trip to the lake. Suffice to say the lake was stunning. It was everything it was cracked up to be. Beautiful location, breathtaking scenery, just great.
That night we decided to eat in the hotel as we had to be at the train station shortly after 6.00 am. The restaurant had been booked for a function so we were shunted to a side room with a few fellow guests. The dinner was actually very nice, we has a couple of really nice cold beers and retired to bed early.
We got a really good deal on the room rate with booking.com. Now we know why. The rooms were on the second floor, directly above the restaurant/function room. It was a Friday night and the function didn't finish until 3.00am. I can still hear the thump, thump, thump of the drums when I close my eyes. It seemed to go on and on forever, well until 3.00am at least. Our wake up call was for 4.30am. Didn't leave a lot of time for sleep.
The only consolation was the wake up call. I was expecting an automated recording saying "good morning, this is your wake up call" or words to that effect (in Russian of course). Instead I got one of the lovely young receptionists saying "Hello, wake up please...." in accented English. Very sweet. As we had to leave before breakfast, the hotel had even packed us two lunch boxes.
Anyway, we got up and made it to the train station without incident. Again, the difference with the train stations in China was in stark relief. No crowds, no security, no queues. You just wander in, look for your train number on the board, hope the extra number beside it is the platform, and wander out. The only person who ever asks to see/check your ticket is the provodnitsa as you get on, what you hope is the correct, train.
The train to Novosibirsk takes approximately 30 hours and covers 1,850 kilometers. That brings the distance travelled to 7,201 kms (excluding the side trip to Hohhot). Only another 5k to go.
Waiting on the platform for the train to arrive I couldn't help overhear a couple next to us talking in English to a Russian bloke (turns out he was their guide escorting them safely to the train). Turns out they were from Brisbane and they ended up in the cabin next to us. Spent some time discussing State of Origin and our respective experiences in China, Mongolia and Russia to date. They were doing a similar trip but without as many stops and all pre booked. Sometimes I think it would be great not to have to worry about selecting and booking trains, hotels etc but then, it's our choice.
The tickets we had booked actually turned out to be business class and included meals on board. We were looking forward to this and expected some quality cuisine with drinks included. We were in for a rude surprise. For dinner, Katherine ordered the fish and I the pork (there were three options). We both got the chicken (the third option!). It was overcooked to buggery and as tough as shoe leather. Just about inedible. There was no veg, only mountains of fried potatoes. Also, no drinks. You had to purchase whatever you wanted (and the white wine was warm).
For breakfast we had requested scrambled eggs. We got burnt pancakes. One side was actually charcoal! Ramsey would have had a field day. All in all very disappointing and not a good advertisement for on-board dining.
Arriving in Novosibirsk, we decided to walk to our hotel as it was less than 1 kilometer away. As I may have mentioned previously, we had preloaded maps of most of our intended destinations. With the hotel located and the GPS on it was a breeze and took just over ten minutes.
Having decided to stay only the one night, we were keen to book our onward ticket as soon as possible. We had looked up the available trains and selected one leaving late afternoon the following day. The hotel was supposed to have a travel desk who could book tickets for you but of course it was closed as it was Sunday. Not wanting to leave the booking of tickets to the day of departure, we decided to go back to the train station and attempt it ourselves. After all, how hard could it be?
We returned to the station to find out. Downstairs was departures, shops etc so we headed upstairs. Now I should point out that this station is the largest on the Trans Siberian route so it is a reasonable size (in fact it's enormous). Upstairs was wall to wall ticket windows with waiting areas in the middle. Over each group of windows was a list of, we presumed, stations/destinations. There were queues of 5+ at each window. There were no signs in English indicating "Information" etc. For example, in China there is always a window titled "Foreigners". Here, even the major destinations were not evident, everything was in Cyrillic script and very difficult to interpret.
We wandered aimlessly for a few minutes before I finally approached an old dear at a desk who appeared engrossed in her magazine. Asking her if she could speak English, she replied with an emphatic NO!. Undeterred, I showed her a piece of paper where I had written (in English) the details of the train we wanted to book. She took one look and replied in Russian. We conversed like this (she in Russian, me in English) for a while without actually making any progress. She then picked up the phone and dialled a number. Ah, she's phoning someone who can speak English and can interpret for us I thought. Clever old dear.
No answer. She hangs up. Oh dear.
She gets up and wanders off (wanders is my word of the day). We follow. She goes to three ticket windows, pushing to the front of the queue each time. Eventually she waves us forward to a ticket window indicating this is THE ONE. We indicate that we will wait behind those already in the queue (four people) and take our turn.
Finally, we reach the window. We pass our piece of paper through the gap and wait expectantly. We get asked a question. We shrug. She writes (in Cyrillic) on the paper and passes it back. We shrug. More questions. This is not going as hoped!
She finally starts typing on the computer and turns the screen to face us. Through a series of thumbs up, thumbs down approach, we finally reach agreement and tickets are printed. We can't understand everything on them (all printed in Cyrillic) but they look okay so we take them. Success! I must also say that the crowd behind us were very patient and understanding of the "bloody foreigners" in front of them. See, it was really rather easy after all.
It had only taken an hour to book the tickets so we took off for an afternoons sightseeing. It took only a couple of hours to see the sights (all of them) and then returned to the hotel. It was a lot easier to find restaurants in Novosibirsk than in Irkutsk. Being a more modern city, the shop fronts were more revealing. We settled on Italian and had a nice feed of pasta washed down with some French chardonnay. The main trouble started on the way back to the hotel.
We were wandering down a side street when we stumbled on... an IRISH PUB. I couldn't help myself. We had to go in. They had draught Guinness, Kilkenny and Harp all on tap. Anyway, we had a few before stumbling back to the hotel later that night. All in all, a very successful day.
Tomorrow, we'll see if we actually got the tickets we wanted.
Until then, take care and have fun.
Brian & Katherine