Irkutsk to Ulan Ude 9.10.16

Up early for a short seven hour journey today. The train was at platform 1, the only one not signposted but a kind guard led us through some doors. We had booked two berths in 3rd class where 54 people share a carriage and as we got on in the early darkness it seemed very crowded. An old guy was sitting on one of our ground floor bunks and a young girl explained in whispers and sign language that he had a bad back so we swapped and I went up top and Al took the one below opposite him. We both tried to sleep but with snoring, people on the phone and constant phone alerts it was difficult. 

Eventually when noise levels grew further we had green tea and chocco pie (Russian Tunnocks tea cake/wagon wheel hybrid) for breakfast and read.

The views coming into Ulan Ude were some of the best we’ve seen as the train snaked through green pine and yellow birch peppered hills over wide meandering rivers.

The hotel was only 5 minutes walk from the station and we soon found the block, but in Russia a whole block of flats could be number 32 Lenin St. I’m not sure whether I’ve mentioned this in previous posts but finding a hostel can be a tricky business. Last night I had read reviews of the hotel and one reviewer said it was hard to find and round the back of the block so once we got to number 32 we went round the back and looked blankly at five different stairwell entrance doors. No signs anywhere and there was no stairwell number in any of the hotel details I had. At £3 a minute I didn’t have enough credit to call them and with no wifi I couldn’t add credit, so Al waited with the bags while I walked the whole way round the block but I could only see flats and a music school. In the distance was another hotel so we thought we could ask there. We passed a pastry shop and with nothing to lose I went in to ask. A fierce looking middle aged lady looked me up and down without moving from her slumped position over the counter and my heart sank. I tried to pronounce hello and then asked “Hotel Shumak?” She pointed out the window only moving her arm. I artistically mimed a door and asked “number?” She stood up and kept pointing and rambling on in Russian. I walked to the shop door and held it asking “door number? Door number?” She smiled and she shouted something to the back of the shop, something like “Katya, an educated and handsome young Englishman is asking where the hotel down the road is, can you also explain it to him in Russian?” Katya comes from the back of the shop and points and explains and they both keep miming a sign and indicating that its just down the road. By now we are all laughing (with me, not at) and the first lady walks out the shop with me and keeps pointing. A very old lady in her Sunday best passes and stops and we get handed over like a relay baton and we crawl at a snails pace for 50 metres until she stops and points round the corner. We round the corner grumbling about signage and see a big Cyrillic sign for the hotel. Oops.

Into reception and hostel owner, owners wife, son who appears drunk, sons friend, sons friends girlfriend and a young Russian girl all come out to greet us, say hello, speak to us in Russian and shake hands. Owner explains the room is not ready and we’re ushered into a small side room and given very strong coffee and using google translate, told it’ll be ready in 30 mins. We ungratefully pour the coffee down the sink else no sleep for us tonight and decide to go back to the pastry shop for food.

The ladies smile as we enter and we point to the doughnuts. “What flavour?” I suspect they ask and we smile and shrug and point again. They give us doughnuts and the first lady shouts “chai?”at us. A chair is fetched from the back and we are seated in the shop front to eat our doughnuts and drink our tea. We have been in Russia for 25 days and have only encountered two genuinely grumpy people. There is definitely a stoney face here but if you learn a few worlds of Russian and smile the stoney face evaporates and the people are caring and helpful, the same as everywhere.

Back to the hotel and Alison walked up next doors steps which lead nowhere, not even to a door. I was sympathetically in hysterics as was the hotel owners wife.

We head into Ulan Ude the capital of Buryatia but like most places on a late Sunday afternoon its quiet and there are few people about. We wander past the opera house and round the pedestrian shopping area and see delapidated wooden houses and brand new flats and two packs of feral dogs.

We end up in a Mongolian chain restaurant where we sample pastries and two different lamb dishes with rice, all washed down with Mongolian beer.

8.10.16 Lake Baikal

Had breakfast at our hostel,  chatting to a young Korean guy, early 20s, who was travelling through Russia and eastern countries on his gap year and tried to persuade us to add South Korea to our trip. It was ace to be in a hostel and chatting to other travellers again which we haven’t done since Moscow.

We had another trip organised today, the weather was clear, blue skies and minus 6 according to our guide, I can agree it was flipping freezing. 

We stopped to get petrol and is was 20 quid for 50 litres. Bargain.

Tour stopped at a wooden architecture museum, which made the best of a massive dam that was built. The dam flooded the valley with all the villages being underwater so they took the best buildings and rebuilt them as a museum. It was full of school kids on trips  (even on a Saturday) and families.  The Buryat yurt was most appealing to Guy, there were separate living quarters for men and woman and they only met in the boudoir (along with the kids), and they were meticulous about keeping clean and dirty things separate.  I think he may defect to the Buryats soon!

We then went to see a shaman rock on which suspected wrong doers were left for a night to prove if they were innocent or guilty, however there were 2 ways of calculating the outcome, if you survived the rock spirits were with you and kept you safe so you were innocent, but also if you survived it could be that the water spirits wouldn’t touch you as your were bad. Anyhow the rock looked spectacularly small to even balance on (due to the aforementioned dam and global warming).

Lunch was at a pastry shop which was so much better than Greg’s,  we had a selection of which chicken and mushroom was the best (no photos as we were with other people!)

We were then left to our own devices at the beachside of the Lake, the facts about the worlds biggest freshwater lake are on Wikipedia if you want to see. Our guide was quite geeky, and one of his mates had calculated that if you put everyone in the world in the lake it would only rise 2cm, factoid!  It is massive. We couldn’t see the other side,  it looked like the sea to us midlanders so we dipped our hands in, it wasn’t as cold as we expected hut we didn’t take of shoes and paddle as it was still a definately below 5 degrees. However in a comedy laurel and hardy fashion another couple of tourists slipped into the lake! She was first,  went to walk on partly submerged wood, slipped, fell and silver clutch bag fell into the water, her gallent husband went to help her and ended up slipping and falling in as well, and his mobile phone took a swim as well, this all happened about 2 meters in front of us,  and we looked to help but neither of us was prepared to dive in for the phone of clutch bag, eventually all soggy belongings and owners emerged from the lake and shook off excess water. In a show of admirable restraint we didn’t laugh until they had left the beach.

Then onto a food market where the main item on sale,  from about 60% of the vendors, was smoked omul fish, a local delicacy, obviously we had to try some! Omul purchased Guy then had a look at the other stalls selling souvenirs and picked a fridge magnet for our ever growing collection.

It was interesting to see pine nuts in their natural state, bags being sold to be crunched and opened up yourselves. Never thought that pine nuts came from pine cones but it is bloody obvious when you see it in a bag! 

Final part of our tour was a 20 minute hike up to a viewpoint.

We went back home on the road that was built for Eisenhower to visit Krushchev in 1950’s, it was long and fairly straight which is usually a good thing, fast road an all, but as we were in Russia it means really fast cars overtaking randomly, on hills,  and at top speed. It is generally best to look out the side window and pray! Eisenhower never visited as the cold war started, but at least the road was built and the locals can drive like nutters!

Back home for smoked fish starter, and luncheon meat and cheese pizza with the free bread we got with the fish (probably because we were supposed to haggle!) and lots of chatting with our new Chinese friends who were all heading back to China that night to go to work the next morning.

Irkutsk 7.10.16

Woke up at 7 feeling refreshed. Over breakfast read the Central Asian Lonely Planet and got intrigued about Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Today we had no trains or organised trips so we were going to follow the “Green Tourist line” painted on the floor around the city with information boards at historical sites in English. The weather was predicting an overcast day with a max of 0° so I was very pleased to finally dig out my big jumper that I’d been lugging around for the last month. We finally headed out at 10.50. 

10.50????? Where the hell had the morning gone? Train lag and time confusion is setting in. We should be five hours ahead of Moscow but our phones refuse to make the jump after behaving so well up to now.

 We headed through the “Paris of the East” past the Gorky statue, the main square, government buildings and an eysore of a 50s hotel. We saw an army cadet ceremony at the eternal flame for the war dead and the fast flowing, wide Angara river. We passed churches, cathedrals and the historic gateway into the city where everyone entering would be registered. Eventually we went off piste as we wanted to go to a museum about the Decembrists. Not the american band (who I like a lot) but the failed Russian coup. The museum was set in the reconstructed house where folklore suggests Trubetskoy, one of the Decembrists lived. On the way we walked through an area of old wooden ramshackle houses some of which had definitely seen better days. 

At a set of traffic lights I noticed a minibus with a machine gun barrel poking out the window. We cautiously walked past using our peripheral vision and definitely not staring and realised it was a group of teenage army cadets. The lights changed and they drove past us waving.

The museum was good and had info in English too. The mandate of the Decembrists was very progressive and would put many governments to shame now. Stomachs rumbling we checked our guide book and the oldest cafe in Irkutsk was nearby. On the way we saw the main market where a lot of fruit was on offer. The watermelons were huge and roasted pinenuts still in their shells seemed to be the local snack.

The oldest cafe in Irkutsk wasn’t located where our map said so into a local caff where we sampled flavoured minced meat in a variety of casings. Steamed buns called buuzy, baked pastry and deep fried dumpling. Mmmmm

Back on the green line we saw the Circus house and finished by strolling down Karl Marx street to the river front. It was definitely cold now and Al was suffering and luckily we stumbled across Harts Irish Pub, a Russian chain which had started here in Irkutsk. Two dark beers and a seat next to a radiator in the window for some people watching.

Back at the hostel we chatted to a European traveller, the first we’d met since Moscow. Before we left the UK, people had said to us we were brave to do the trip we had planned but in our hearts we both knew it was nothing special and we were following a well worn route. This Italian guy though was either brave or crazy or both. He’d travelled through Iran, Afghanistan, many other “Stans” and the Hindu Kush to get to Russia. He said the people were super friendly and very hospitable. Wow.

6.10.16 Somewhere in Siberia to Irkutsk

We have been on the road for month now!

SNOW! We woke from our gently rocking slumber to the bright whiteness of snow, everywhere. It was a shock even though we are in Siberia and a light flutter of snow had been promised by the BBC weather app. 

We were mesmerised by the change in scenery and took loads of photos.

We are slightly confused by the time though as our phones haven’t jumped an hour we were promised, my FitBit is 2 hours out and the train clock shows Moscow time which is about 3 hours out so all in all we are pretty stumped when it comes to what time it is. 

As stomachs were rumbling we had a pot of noodles for brunch (breakfast in Moscow, lunch in Irkutsk) they were delicious, in a pot noodle kind of way. 

The train etiquette is slightly different here in that no one really opens their doors and chats, which we are slightly surprised at having heard stories of drunken nights and lots of new friendships. However as we are both getting older, and sometimes grumpier, we are actually happier having a cabin to ourselves and being able to relax and do what we want, and not have to share our vodka!

On arrival in Irkutsk we had decided to get a taxi from the station as it would would be a 30 min walk. We were tired and slightly out of sorts and so so fell for the oldest trick in the book and didnt ask the price of the taxi before getting in, realised there was no meter and you are at at the mercy of the driver. I went to put my seat belt on, he said ‘No’ and sped off out of the car park. The only issue being there was no official exit point so on turning out of the car park he came across someone coming in at the same time I bent down the get my bag. I so wanted that seat belt after the screech of brakes and me being flung across the floor. Still, suitably woken up we had a 10 min journey for the princely sum of 10 quid, which is more than Kenilworth taxis! We were so annoyed, but life goes on and you (should) learn from these things, eh?

We then spent another 20 mins looking for our hostel which was where we first went but as the sign was in Cyrillic and we didn’t think to translate it we didn’t realise.

Finally we had our room and laundry sorted so we set off to explore Irkutsk.  There was snow around but not much so no snowball fights for us, so instead we decided it was mealtime. Went to a Soviet style restaurant filled with Asian tourists  (we found out that this is one of their 2 weeks off a year, hence the high number of Chinese everywhere.) It is quite odd being back in the world of tourists especially young ones who do no interaction with their friends at the table only interact with their phones. We did the same whist waiting for our meal which seemed to take the same time to cook as it would to queue for bread in soviet times. It wasn’t great but it filled a hole!

We then set off looking for a tour place we had seen on Internet and again came a cropper looking for it was no signs any where, still we got there in the end and booked a Lake Baikal tour for Saturday.

After walk around Irkutsk Guy decided he needed yet more food, so we went to a modern food court, where the longest queues were for KFC. As tempting as that was Guy went for sushi which turned out to be in tempura batter, which he liked, and I chose noodles using the point it method which was disastrous as they were cold with tofu, ugh. So I consoled myself with a massive sweet cinnamon bun slathered in sweet sticky sauce, truly dirty. Guy had Baskin Robbins ice cream which was so bad we couldn’t figure out the flavours apart from the plastic banana tasting one. 

A short, cold, walk home, temperature is about zero degrees, we were back in our hostel room which was about 28 degrees and we couldn’t work out how to open the window or turn down the radiator so a hot sweaty night in Siberia commenced.

Leaving Novosibirsk 5.10.16

Up at 5am and a brisk walk to the train station. Our carriage attendant didn’t like my ticket and kept pointing to something which in the early morning darkness I couldn’t see. He checked Al’s ticket, smiled and led us onto a spotless empty compartment. On our first overnight train, our Russian travelling companion had declared “this train is not comfortable. It is not a Russian train” and now we understood what she meant. The compartment was bigger with a longer bed and more headroom underneath the top bunk. The table was bigger and we were given sheets, a towel and a comfort pack with a toothbrush, toothpaste and a shoehorn. There was also a menu in English for our included evening meal. Pleased, we rolled out our mattresses and settled down for sleep.

We roused about 9 and at 9.30 a small plump man appeared in our doorway with a ramshackle patched up trolley. He grinned at us revealing gold teeth and said in English “Cold beer” We laughed. “Cold Russian beer?” He asked. We laughed again. “Cold beer?” His face looked confused as he didn’t seem to understand that at 9.30am we didn’t want a beer. He walked off despondently.

We read and watched the birch trees roll past with their yellow leaves thinning and were jolted at 3.30 with a knock on the door. A lady appeared with our free meal. Beef goulash for me and chicken stroganoff for Al. It was warm and free.

At some point in the afternoon we miss the marker that indicates we are closer to Beijing than Moscow.

The light fades. Our golden toothed friend appears at our doorway again. “Cold beer?” He asks. Its the only English he speaks. We indicate positively and he hurriedly shoo’s us back into the compartment and wheels in his merchandise. He closes the door and digs out two cans of Baltika, hidden underneath dried fish and unidentifiable beer snacks from the bottom of his trolley. We pay him and he adds our cash to a huge wad he pulls from his pocket. The whole transaction seems very dodgy and I can’t ever remember buying a beer under such covert circumstances. He leaves and indicates we should close the door. Cold beer, crisps and the compartment to ourselves. Bliss.

The China lonely planet comes out and we chat about where we should go. Later our friend is back. He opens our compartment door and walks in without knocking. The cabin fills with his odour. “Kozel beer?” He asks demonstrating his increased vocabulary. We pay and he disappears to return 5 minutes later with a supermarket basket with a tea towel in. Under the tea towel is a brown paper bag and in that is another brown paper bag and in that are two cold kozels. He indicates we should hide them rather than drink them and leaves.  

Beers sunk we wrestle our duvets into their covers and sleep very soundly.

Novosibirsk 4.10.16

Another cloudless sky in the Siberian capital. After a trip to the post office we head to Travellers Coffee as we like coffee and we’re on our travels. We didn’t realise that alongside our uninspiring latte we’d be buying into a middle class aspirational lifestyle with smooth comfy sofas, framed pictures of laughing coffee bean farmers and indulgent cakes. Like the rest of the world, Russia is in love with coffee and there are many, many coffee shops. We left Travellers coffee realising that to drink there, we had become middle class dropouts with aspirations of a clean toilet and a lack of body parasites.

As it was Tuesday the History museum was closed which pleased one member of team Roberts. On to State Art museum which had some excellent Soviet art and some wonderful pictures by talented local children.

Soup, salad and Pelmeni for lunch in a restaurant attached to the Double tree Hilton. Pelmeni are little pasta parcels containing veg or meat like ravioli or gyoza. One type contained stock which were good.

We walked up to the very impressive opera house and watched the local bmx kids ignore the signs to keep away from Lenin.

The main road has some great examples of Soviet architecture with huge simple unadorned buildings with clean lines.

In the evening we walked down to a brewpub opposite the art gallery. Its located on one side of an old red brick building which had been split into many bars, restaurants and shops which were full of the cool kids, wealthy middle aged and a couple of scruffy looking English midlanders. Craft ale and pizza for tea but the evenings entertainment was the table next to us who were celebrating a girls 17th birthday. They looked really young and drank plum wine and her birthday candles were arranged in a giant hamburger which they could only eat half of. Happy Birthday was sung in English.

Into Novosibirsk 3.10.16

Very sunny in Siberia but alongside the further two hours we’ve jumped ahead, we have the expected temperature drop down to 6° C.

Metro and walk to hostel and after checkin we head to a recommended Georgian restaurant just round the corner. This is the 4th one we’ve tried and are loving it. We are seated in front of Spurs v Man City but try and focus on the menu.

Red bean stew with spices, mutton meatball spiced soup, mutton and mushrooms in sour cream sauce, chicken shashlik and kachapuri (bread). Food is delicious. You need to try Georgian food people!

Al heads for a siesta as she has a cold and I explore the capital of Siberia alone. The streets are wide and full of cars some with bumpers some without. Trams look battered and old. Pavements are uneven in places and kerbs are very high so you need to watch your step but people look relaxed and smiley in the October sunshine. Many bars and restaurants are located below ground with just a sign next to a stairwell so my Cyrillic translation skills get tested. I go into a supermarket to buy tissues for the patient and am surprised by the lack of identifiable products but then I was surprised by the opulence of StP and Moscow. Siberia is how I had wrongly envisioned all of Russia to be before I got here.

The Theatre and Opera house is huge and has a dramatic statue of Lenin in front. His coat flapping in the Siberian wind. Opposite is a very Gaudi-esque building.

I pass a hat shop and the prices in the window look reasonable. When Alison threw the last of our Euros off the ferry she also lost my new hat she was borrowing. (Although there is no blame in team Roberts). I decide on a greyish one and very pleased with it I vainly look at my reflection in shop windows on the way home. 

Al is better so we walk 200 yards to………a craft ale bar. Dark Russian beers casually supped and an early night.

Yekaterinburg to Siberia 2.10.16

Russian canteen fast food breakfast then tube to main train station. As we entered, we tried not to stare at the unconcious woman being wheeled past on a luggage trolley or the haggard drunk tramp lying face down in front of a puddle. Our train had just pulled in and was the same type and travelling the same route, from Belarus to Novosibirsk as the one we arrived on. We were in the same cabin number and bunks too so we quickly settled in, happy that for now we had no cabin companions.

Alison was suffering from a cold so rolled out her mattress and donning a woolly hat climbed under her two blankets and nodded off.

Full of excitement, I sat staring out of the window watching Yekaterinburg slowly fade away, swallowed by birch and pine forests. The yellowing birch trees thinned and large open areas of marsh and grasses were revealed. The blue sky turned grey, then black and rain streaked along the train windows. 

I felt so happy. Wallowing in a pool of contentment, sitting on a Russian train heading east, pushing at the edges of my comfort zone.

I collected two silver mugs from the carriage attendant and made some tea and for lunch we had bread and pickle flavour pot mash.

Along the trans-sib railway there are kilometer makers by the side of the track measuring the distance from Moscow. At 5.03 we realised we had passed KM 2118 so we were in Siberia.

We pulled into Tyumen, our last big stop of the evening where we waited for 40 mins. No one got on. Woohoo! Cabin to ourselves. We pushed the top two bunks up and I prepared our evening meal of steak flavoured pot mash and chicken pot noodle. Before you could say pass the honey and mustard seed pickles a glass of vodka may have appeared.

Lights out and gently rocked to sleep by the rolling motion of the train. Such a great way to travel.

1.10.2016 Yekaterinburg 

Up for a tour this morning that started at 10am so we needed coffee beforehand to get us going at that ungodly hour.

Our tour guide was Maria, a student with really good English, and a Dutch boyfriend, so she had a dry sense of humour which suited us. Our driver was a typical 50 /60 yr old Russian guy, smoked and the car had 2 massive cracks across the windscreen. These didn’t change throughout the day. The main road was closed for a running event so all other roads were chokka which made him quite grumpy, understandably, as there didn’t seem to be any warning of this event.

First site was Church of the Spilt Blood, built on the site of the house the Romanov family, Russia’s last tsar, were held in captivity and then executed on 18 July 1918. The church was full of incense and military men. Morning service was in progress so we avoided getting in anyone’s way and learnt about their execution and subsequent canonisation. Maria was very knowledgeable about the history and her English was excellent.

Next we were off, 30km out of town, to the site where the bodies of the Romanovs were first disposed off, down a mine shaft. The place is now a monastery and ladies need to wear a long skirt to cover their legs if they are wearing trousers so they don’t put the monks off their deliberations, although it is o.k. for knee high skirts and bare legs to be on show. The buildings are all really new and have been treated with paint to stop wood decay so it does look quite theme park like which is strange.

There are plenty of pilgrims and Russian tourists there. We also saw an icon owned by Nikolas II and a relic of Mary Magdelene, apparently. There was also a museum showing relaxed family photos of the Romanovs and some photo’s with the rest of the royal families from around Europe as they were all related.

We were then driven to the final resting place of the bodies, according to scientists who have done DNA tests.

The execution of the Romanovs is seen as the crime of the 20th century in Russia, Lenin supposedly signed the document to execute them in revenge for his brother, who was killed by the Tsar as a terrorist. The whole investigation has been a struggle between Soviets, the church, scientists and modern politicians to find out exactly what happened, but with no one really believing the others due to religious and political differences.

As the traffic was so bad back in town we were dropped at Yeltsin Institute on the recommendation of our guide. It is a brand new building that has a very, unsurprisingly, biased view on Yeltsin’s career. The building itself is very futuristic with massive open space for conferences and exhibitions, an art gallery and a museum to the Great Man himself. We accidently got a ticket to gallery AND museum but were glad we had in the end.

The art gallery was full of black and white photos from late 1970’s and early 1980’s on everyday life in Russia at that time. You could easily think they were taken about 50 years earlier, they were of schools, industry, orthopedics hospital. It was a truly fascinating insight into Russia that we had looked for in other museums but not got. Another part of the museum photography was about the 1991 Military Coup with photos from around Russian cities of the protests and also newsreels of the events. It was an excellent exhibition especially considering it took place less than 20 years ago and you can see the effects of it throughout Russia today, it was really moving and real.

Onto the Yeltsin Museum, which is unashamedly biased but hey, if you can’t blow your own trumpet in your own museum where the hell can you???

It was set out as 7 days which shook the world, in reality it was about 10 years that reshaped Russia but quite a bit was in English, not all, but extremely interesting and moving (again!).

Suitably educated we wandered back into town alongside the edge of the City Pond (I kid you not!!!!) past Hari Khrishnas to a restaurant called Horseshoe recommended by our guide. It wasn’t the best experience ever. Although they had an English menu no one spoke English, although that means they will speak to you in Russian and they think that you will somehow understand what is being said.

We were told about this trait in St Petersburg in that Russians just don’t understand why you would go to a country if you don’t understand the language, so will speak to you in Russian regardless of you understanding them.

Anyhow, this is our excuse as to how we ended up with double set of shots and 2 other random shots we weren’t expecting. The food was O.k. although we did avoid the bollocks sauce on the menu.

Next stop Barrel Bar next door, yep you guessed it, another craft ale bar in deepest Russia!!! Again not much English spoken but with the aid of Google translate we kept the bar staff entertained for the duration of dreadful beers. Again, another example of really friendly Russians.

Last bar on our way to the supermarket was a German bar, complete with scantily dressed buxom whenches. Guy wanted to stay longer than me! We left after one.

Provisions bought for the train, pot mash, pot noodle, bananas and vodka and we were back to our hostel (filled with women) and off to bed.

We weren’t expecting much from Yekaterinburg but we have loved it, it is small enough to get around, friendly people, excellent (mostly) food and fascinating history. The only annoying thing is all the speakers outside the shops demanding (we assume) you to buy more stuff.