13/08/12 – 10.30 (Day 6, 19 hours into second leg)
Well we have already been on the second train for a night. There is not the access to power supply as there was on our first train, so we only brought the laptop out for the first time now. One thing we forgot to mention when we were leaving Omsk was how damned hot Siberia can be, with the temperature at the station showing 36c when we left there. This was compounded by the fact our second train does not have air-conditioning. At the time of booking we probably thought something like “hey, we will be in Siberia, how hot can it be?”. How wrong we were. Luckily from the time we hopped on at 15.25, until about 23.30 we had our cabin to ourselves, so were able to make the most of the limited cool air coming through the tiny open window. Luckily the temp dropped into the evening and by the time our cabin-mates hopped on it was relatively pleasant. The 50 or so year old Russian couple that hopped on are extremely nice. Tess was already asleep, but Jared was still reading, so they offered some chocolate and whiskey that it would have been rude not to accept. There were still some massive communication problems, so apart from names, the fact their children can speak English well and that they are going to a destination further than ours, there wasn’t much talked about. But the chocolate and whiskey was well enjoyed. Despite the lack of air-con it was still a good night’s sleep and we have only recently hopped up for breakfast. Nearly half way through this leg and again the time seems to be flying by.
13/08/12 – 21.30 (Day 6, 28 hours into second leg)
Another day on a train is nearly done. We have gone forward another time zone and have one more to go through before arriving in Irkutsk, which will make a jump of 5 hours now since Moscow. The scenery on this part of the Trans-Siberian has been much more to look at than the first part out of Moscow. In particular the first day from the Russian capital had no sign of life and was pretty much all forests of spindly pine and another white barked tree. We even started playing a game called “Bird”, where we got a point for every bird we saw or 3 for a flock. By the time we arrived in Omsk the score was 6-3. Which says more for the lack of nature than the amount of time spent staring out the window. Getting nearer to Omsk there was a few more wooden home villages and the odd city, but since leaving Omsk there has been plenty more to see in this part of Siberia. The small wooden homes that seem to be the norm here must be hell in winter, but I guess it means there isn’t a lot to heat. They are so different though to the massive brick and concrete constructions that are so prevalent through Eastern Europe. These places are something more similar to New Zealand, all with a bit of land around them filled with gardens of vegetables and sunflowers. It is so hard to imagine the area being in sub-zero temperatures for such a long part of the year. As well as the villages the landscape has become more varied as well. There are open fields (most of which not planted in crops), forests of varying trees, rivers, ravines and mountains (well hills anyway), that all make for an interesting view. With the laptop running low on battery it is unlikely we will make another entry on this journey, but again it has gone by so quick it is quite crazy. I guess it all comes down to expectations. If you expect something to take a long time, it doesn’t seem to bother you. Our train journey that felt the longest has been one that was meant to take 8 hours and took over 12. Now that seemed to go on forever. These 40 hour trips are nothing…if they only take the expected 40 hours.
Irkutsk and Lake Baikal (Listvyanka) – 14/08/12 to 20/08/12 (Days 7 to 13, Beginning of third leg)
We arrived in Irkutsk early morning as expected and the weather had changed so much since leaving Omsk a couple of days ago. Now we have more understanding how Siberia can be so cold in the winter. Compared to the 36 degrees when we left Omsk it was 12 degrees when we arrived in Irkutsk, grey skies and showers. Not pleasant at all. Sadly this weather stayed with us for our entire time here and at Lake Baikal, although at least at last we felt vindicated for carrying around warm clothes for the past 4 months because now there was plenty of need for them. We spent one night in Irkutsk on arrival and another before we left again. The middle 4 nights were spent in Listvyanka, on the shores of Lake Baikal. Irkutsk was an interesting enough town and we enjoyed walking the streets and seeing Siberian city life in action. They had a huge market there which if we had of spent more time would have been great for self catering. The other interesting thing was all the old wooden houses. They were all sadly in a bad state of repair, but must have been grand in their day. We really didn’t do too much here though, with the weather being a major deterrent.
At Lake Baikalthe weather was equally bad, so we didn’t do much there either, although there didn’t seem to be much to do. Tess was also still recovering from her upset tummy, so the four nights of relaxation were probably a good thing for us. We did make it out on a lake trip one day and it would be a fun lake if the weather was nicer. Either warmer or colder. In the middle of winter it freezes over and can be skated or driven on. It would be amazing sight to see, as is one of the biggest fresh water lakes in the world and is also the deepest lake. We were expecting more tourist activity, but apart from stalls selling jewellery made from the local gem stones and others selling smoked fish, which is by far the local food specialty, there wasn’t much else.
Food-wise our general feeling of Russian cuisine being some of the worst in the world continued here with some very average restaurant meals. We were spoilt, however, as Olga’s Guesthouse where we stayed had a great cook. Namely, Olga. We had breakfast every day there and decided it wasn’t worth risking the restaurants and ended up having a couple of dinners there too. Her meals were always big and delicious and she would be a little offended when someone didn’t leave their plate clean. This meant Jared got extra servings at most meals, firstly from Tess, but then when some Australian ladies arrived also, as they did not want to risk the tut-tutting of Olga at an unfinished meal. This was probably the highlight of Lake Baikal for us, although it is quite a beautiful place and maybe in better circumstances (weather and health) we would have found more to entertain us and get us out to enjoy the natural beauty like we had expected when committing to four nights here. It was still great for more recharging of the batteries before our last Trans-Siberian leg into Mongolia.
21/08/12 – 17.30 (Day 14, 20 hours into third leg)
Our Russian train journey and general travel through Russia is nearly over. We are sitting at the border with Mongolia waiting for all the paperwork to be completed and the train to continue. They allow 5 hours for this border crossing and it appears that they plan to take every minute of it. Then we have another 3 hours when we arrive in Mongolia to get those formalities out of the way. All on the time plan though, so it is expected, but that still hasn’t allowed for a great deal of confusion with all the tourists in similar positions to ourselves, wondering what happened when we arrived here 4 hours ago and were told that passport control would be in 4 ½ hours, or maybe that was 4.30pm, none of us could work it out.
But that has been the beauty of our most recent Russian train on the Trans-Mongolian. The rest of our carriage is all travellers like us, so we have had heaps of people to talk to who are all in the same boat as us. Hopping on the train was crazy, with everyone speaking English. One guy even commented “at last they have put all the backpackers together this time”. But we think it is more that it is only the travellers who take the train into Mongolia, most Russians don’t holiday here. It has made for a completely different train experience, with lots of people to talk to. Even the Chinese mother and daughter that are in our cabin speak good English. So far we have chatted to Irish, Australian, Dutch, Portugese, French and Chinese and I am sure there are plenty of other nationalities on this train. All sharing their experiences of their crazy times travelling through Russia.
Scenery-wise this leg of our trip has been awesome also. We left Irkutsk in darkness, but ever since it got light the landscape has been brilliant. There has been so much water, with rivers and lakes everywhere. Plus there is plenty of green farmland with mountains as their backdrop. We have seen a lot of farmers in the fields and everywhere seems to be alive, despite the isolation that is abundant in what is one of the quieter areas of the world. There are parts that really remind us of New Zealand, with all the green and variation in landscape so similar.
It will be interesting to see if much changes once this border crossing is finally over and we hit Mongolia. We have heard only good things about the Mongolian countryside and it seems that these good things have already started a few 100kms from the border.
Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia – 22/08/12 – 7.00 (Day 15, third leg complete)
Well we made it. The dread of the long trips, no showers and lack of sleep proving to be much less painful than expected. The last leg in particular was a breeze, as we knew what to expect and, as mentioned, the addition of plenty of fellow English speaking tourists made this the easiest part of the journey. The border crossing on the Mongolian side was almost as confused and time-consuming as the Russian, but again it had been planned in the timetable so we were kind of expecting it. Although there was even less to do in the small Mongolian border town than the Russian one, so our entire carriage just sat and waited for the couple of hours to pass until it was time to hop back on and have our passports stamped. By the time we left it was dark and it was a bit of a pity not to be able to see the North Mongolian landscape as we entered into the country. Once the sun had risen this morning we were getting pretty close to our final destination, the capital Ulaan Bataar, but we could see even then that the landscape here was something else. With plenty of water and grasslands around and the traditional Mongolian Gers dotting the landscape, we really felt like we had entered into a different world from Russia. And there was a sense of relief at this. It is hard to be too critical as our experience of the massive country is only a short one and was mixed with weather and health issues, but we left with a feeling that we were in no hurry to return. This is strange for us, as we have pretty much loved every other country we have been in. Again, maybe it was just us, but the coldness of the people, the poor quality of food and the general high prices of everything really did put us off. Now we are in Mongolia and are really excited to check out this new country that we know so little about. Things have already started so well for us here, with Tess’s uncle Graeme having his driver pick us up at the train station and whisk us back to his comfortable and modern apartment. We can’t wait to have a shower, wash the Russian dirt off us and start a new leg of our trip. In saying that, the Trans-Siberian was a very interesting experience and we are definitely glad we did it , we just probably wouldn’t do it again.