Archive for the ‘Russia’ Category

A Posh Ride

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

We had roughed it. We had drunk water we pump-filtered ourselves. We had warmed ourselves over fires we built ourselves. We had erected shelters for ourselves. We had carried and cooked our own food. And at the end of all that, we found ourselves in the lavish surroundings of a second-class train cabin.

There were complimentary sheets, pillows, and blankets for the beds. The samovar was always full, the providnitsa was pleasant, drinking water was provided, and everything on the train worked. It was like being in a large airplane, with a flat-screen TV in our little room and little reading lights over our seats.

In layout, our compartment was similar to the platskartny cabins we had spent most of our time on, only about 4-5 feet wide with four bunks and a table along the sides. The main difference, however, was that on the side which normally had the walkway and another two bunks was a wall with a door to the train’s hallway. It was quite ritzy, we thought.

Matt and I settled in, tossing our stuff all over the cabin as we are wont to do (this may be exaggeration, but we certainly still had a lot of stuff, although less than before the camping trip). We had gotten some food and drink at a little store in Irkutsk so we had supplies. We also had two roommates. One was named Laura and she was a tour guide for an Australian company. Her route was from St. Petersburg to Beijing on the Trans-Siberian Railway. She had done it a few times before, and new her way around the train and the schedule pretty well, which was an asset to us who, as always (and by our own choice), were winging it.

Laura and her group rode second-class almost the entire time, so she was also completely comfortable in these swanky surroundings. Our other companion (whose name I don’t remember) was not so pleased to be in such a comfortable cabin. She was a Russian 21-year old who had moved to Paris with her family when she was young and lived there since. She seemed to be a bit unhappy with her life in Paris. She explained to us a lot of how the immigration system works and told us of all the protests she enjoyed attending, throughout the EU, including a recent protest at the G8 summit.

The rest of the passengers on the train were the quintessential tourists. They all had their cameras, they were all in little groups, most had tour guides, the young people were all into drinking… it was a lot of the kinds of things we had dealt with in Europe and had been frustrated with. People who don’t really appreciate the culture around and are there just for the sake of saying that they were there.

That first evening as the train rolled away from Irkutsk toward the Mongolian border, Matt and I enjoyed a good discussion with Laura and the Russian girl about what makes a good traveler and what makes a bad tourist. Laura, being a tour guide, said that a good tour group with a good guide can really see a country and get to know it well, while being able to move through it at a fast enough pace to see even more things.

Our Russian friend was more of the opinion that to get to know a country and make it worthwhile to visit it you needed to really get in touch with the people of the country, especially the people at the bottom end of the economic and social ladder. She had ridden from Moscow to Irkutsk by platskartny and had stayed with local people when possible and walked instead of taking taxis or cars. She claimed this had allowed her to connect with the people of Russian in a much more meaningful way. Of course, we countered with the fact that she spoke fluent Russian whereas Matt and I spoke barely a few dozen words, so of course she would be able to connect more easily with the local people.

It was a heated discussion that lasted for a few hours during which Laura popped in and out seeing to the needs of her group. Eventually it was evening, we all broke out our evening meals and shared bread, cheese, jams, and candied fruit around. The main course for all of us was bowls of instant noodles made with the hot water from the samovar (Laura’s Top Train-cooking Tip: “Chinese rice noodles don’t work real well if you can’t boil them,” she said as she crunched her semi-cooked, but delicious looking noodles.)

We fell asleep late-ish that evening and woke up the next morning still in Russia (It’s a huge country!). Matt and I both read for a while (I was reading Worldwalk, a highly recommended book about a young Ohio journalist named Steven Newman who walked around the world in four years back in the late eighties. Matt was reading the last chunk of The Idiot which I had finished during the hiking trip.)

After a few hours, the train stopped at the border and we all got out. The train would be there for several hours, so Matt and I set out to explore the town after taking a picture for some tourists from Minnesota. As we explored, it turned out that pretty much the only thing in town was the train station and a small freight-yard. Matt and I decided to explore the decidedly sandy countryside and went hiking up a nearby hill where we sat and drank some Orange Fanta we had gotten in Irkutsk. After seeing all there was to see on that hill, we headed back into town where we bumped into the Russian girl again and all three of us walked down the tracks for a bit exploring in the opposite direction and talking about the things we had seen on our travels and what our lives were like compared to where we lived.

At the end of the several hours, we got back on the train and were informed that the train would be leaving in another half hour, but that the bathrooms would be closed for about 3 hours. Matt and I decided not to risk it and went to the train station where we found an 8-ruble price tag on the bathrooms. Well, I wasn’t going to pay that so I went around to the back of the train station and found a small, ramshackle latrine shed and used that. Not pleasant, but free!

We got back on the train, had our passports checked and stamped and we were off for half an hour to the other side of the border. At that side the train once again stopped for several hours after we had gotten our passports checked and stamped on the Mongolian side. The sun was setting and we had started this border crossing business at about noon and we were getting a bit impatient. After the stamping, the Russian, Matt, and I got out again, walked around the larger Mongolian town for a bit admiring the Soviet architecture, the Buddhist temple, and the basketball court.

Just as the sun dipped below the horizon, we were along the train tracks about 15 minutes north of the train station when all the sudden our train came chugging past. It stopped a few people waved calmly at us as we stood gape-mouthed. A switch snapped and our train chugged off again around the corner. As we watched, it steamed off in the direction of Ulaanbataar, leaving us at this small border town!

We decided the thing to do was book it back to the train station and see if there was anything we could do. When we arrived at the train station, we were relieved to find our train sitting there on the tracks, just on a different siding and all of our touristy companions were milling about the platform. We joined them for a bit before it started getting cold and we got back on the train and stewed up our suppers again. Half an hour or so later, we were off again after about 9 hours of border crossing formalities.

That evening, Matt and I both slept well. Well, that is, until 5 AM when the providnitsa knocked loudly on the door, opened it up and shook both the Russian and I, leaving Matt and Laura alone. Well, I groggily got up, washed my face, unmade my bed so the providnitsa could have the linens and sat down, still mostly asleep. Out the window, the pre-dawn light began slowly dimming the darkness. The greyish light illuminating the gers (round, cloth tents Mongolian nomads have been using for centuries, since before the time of the Khaans) scattered throughout the countryside.

As the sun rose, we approached the city of Ulaanbataar and just past 6 AM we arrived. It was still mostly dark and it was freezing cold, and we didn’t quite know where the guesthouse was that Matt had told we would be staying with. We said goodbye to the Russian and Laura and set off, but not before a lady on the platform gave me a card for the Golden Gobi hostel.

It was a bit of a rough introduction to Ulaanbataar, a city nestled in the beautiful countryside that makes up Mongolia. It was about to get rougher.

At the End of the Trail

Monday, August 24th, 2009

We were wet. We were miserable. Matt was feeling better than he had, but still not completely cured. I was freezing cold despite my coat and Deutschland hat. We were facing the a Siberian summer storm.

We plodded on in our coats, fished the last bits of Wild Bill’s Beef Jerky from the bottom of the bag with our soaking wet hands, and resigned ourselves to being cold and wet. The view was spoiled by the clouds, mist, fog, and rain. The lake was calm again, but still frigid. The warmth of the fire that morning, the hot tea and cocoa, and the rather odd pancakes I had made without butter seemed distant memories as we focused on completing those 10 kilometers remaining and reaching our goal: the town of Bolschoye Goloustnoe.

The town of Bolschoye Goloustnoe was about 4-6 hours of hiking away, according to a French-speaking Russian I had met on the trail while Matt had fetched the water that morning before the storm began in earnest. We had begun hiking at around noon, so we expected to reach the town well before dark and hopefully in time to sit down in a little café and warm ourselves with some coffee or tea before locating the bus station that would take us into Irkutsk the next morning (at 9, the Russian man informed me). Then we planned to find a camping spot outside of town, settle in for a cold, wet night, and get to the bus station in time to leave the next morning.

Little of those plans worked out. As we walked into town we found a sprawling, muddy camping area stretching out for several kilometers from the southern end of the town. It was mainly full of drunken Russians. One old lady was in a bush by the side of the road relieving herself and shouting at two guys who were drunkenly trying to set up a tent. Two middle-aged ladies who had obviously been drinking pulled up beside us, spraying us with mud accidentally and invited us to ride in their brand-new car which was very clean on the inside. We declined and trudged on, despite their insistence. They slid all over the road as they made their way toward the town and we were glad to not be in the car.

In the town we found everything closed down. There were two little cafes, both of which were closed. We couldn’t find the bus station either. I found myself in a downright foul mood, made little better by the fact that the only semi-dry camping spot we found was in the middle of a cow pasture and we didn’t even consider making a fire in the downpour that continued.

That was when the francophonic Russian, Sasha, and his hiking partner Bruno arrived. We had passed them a few hours earlier and apparently made it to the town at the same time. They had stopped at the home of someone Sasha knew and gotten the real times for the bus (6, 7, and 8) and learned that a minibus would be leaving sometime that evening. They intended to have some supper then catch the minibus to Irkutsk. Sasha invited us to join them at their campfire. To tell you the truth, I was a bit dubious. The ground was wet, the woods were wet, the trees were wet, we were wet, and it was still raining.

But, Sasha came through! Matt and I finished setting up our tent and then rushed around helping Bruno find any dry wood we could. In my despair I had forgotten that in most storms the majority of rain comes from one direction, leaving dead wood on the lee side of trees still dry. With that memory, we quickly gathered a pile of dry wood, and a pile of semi-damp wood that we could dry once the fire got going. And it did get going! With a roaring blaze, our spirits were instantly lifted and we had soon dried out. The rain stopped falling quite as strongly as well, lifting our spirits even more. A good pot of well-cooked rice and topping and a taste of some of Bruno and Sasha’s porridge left us feeling pretty good. We finished off the evening by sharing some of our adventures and hearing about some of Sasha and Brunos’.

Bruno was a retired fellow from Paris, France who went hiking every so often and was in Russia to visit some friends. Apparently he had, a few summers ago, been hiking in Finland, north of the Arctic circle! Sasha was a photojournalist with a large, nation-wide newspaper and had been working and living in Irkutsk for a long time, during which he had hiked the shores of Lake Baikal relatively often. He was on call for a friend of his who was a tour guide and gave hiking tours whenever his friend was too busy. That’s what he was doing with Bruno, although two members of their team (who had set out from Listvyanka just like us, just a day later) had left after being scared out of the hike by the terrain. This made Matt especially feel better since he had done the entire thing with a cold like a real man.

We fell asleep that night warmer and drier, though still a bit damp and chilly. The next morning dawned cloudy at 6 AM when we got up to make breakfast and pack the tents up in time for the 8 AM bus. We did, eating the last of our porridge. Matt was feeling almost entirely cured with just a hint of a runny nose. We hopped on the bus and made it back to Irkutsk where we lounged the day away and ate some delicious food. It was a good day and we had such a sense of accomplishment after muscling through the hiking trip.

Even now the memories of the less pleasant bits of the hiking are fading away leaving crystal clear, shimmering lake water, verdant mountains and valleys, pleasant camping spots, good friends, and the sense of a job well done.

A Good Day Hiking

Monday, August 24th, 2009

I was feeling a lot better at the beginning of the third day of our hike, but Matthew was not. He had been staying hydrated and getting plenty of rest, but the hiking was beginning to wear on him. I got up a bit before Matt and went and fetched water from the lake, a short walk through a marsh away. It was still quite windy and the breakers got me soaked in freezing cold water, but I managed to fill all three Nalgenes and my Platypus (which holds 4 Nalgenes worth). We were ready for the day and when I got back to camp, Matt had stirred the fire from its slumber, and went to lie down again, still not feeling very well.

Just as I was about to put the porridge on the fire, a man in a motorcycle with a sidecar pulled up, got out, took off his leather, aviator-cap style hat and came running over to me and began telling me in a broken mixture of Russian and German (neither of which I understand very well) that I had to put the fire out! Well, I informed him that we would and that we always make sure fires are completely out before leaving our campsites, but he didn’t understand English. I figured he would figure it out when he stopped by later after we were on our way and found a soaking wet fire pit.

He went on his way with his ear-flaps flopping in the wind. I thought I had finally convinced him I was trustworthy. Fifteen minutes later, just as Matt and I were tucking into our hot porridge, he came back, ear-flaps flying, with a TV antenna in his sidecar. He stopped again and made his way to our campsite where he once again informed us of something that we couldn’t understand. He seemed adamant about it, whatever it was so we doused the fire (with the help of 10 gallons of water he brought to us), packed up and we were off.

I was feeling good, the kilometers were flying past, we were surrounded by flowers in fields, birds in trees, and spectacular rock formations, and then everything went wrong. We followed what looked like the most major path (nothing was marked really) and ended up spending an hour hiking up an almost vertical cliff face and getting stuck in a cauldron at the top of a scree slope with no outlet. A rather disappointing day, but we broke out some more Wild Bill’s Beef Jerky and trudged on.

We camped that evening just 10 kilometers from where we had started, but Matt was not feeling good at all and the wind blowing in our faces wasn’t doing anything to help. We did have a good camping spot, however, with a little path down the cliff to the water, a nice flat, mossy area for the tent, an existing firepit, and plenty of firewood. All of this with a view of the entire lake. I went to pump water and Matt made a nice little firepit and we burnt the parts of our Russia guidebook we didn’t need as tinder. It was a nice evening, medicinal tea from home, hot chocolate, rice (Full-cooked rice! Hooray! I finally succeeded!) with a topping made of different odds and ends and lots of fresh garlic.

Matt went to sleep early again, but I stayed up reading for another hour or two and what I saw during that hour or two began to concern me. Clouds started rolling over the lake from the South-West and the cold wind strengthened. Lightening showed up in the distance and mist began rolling over the lake. A storm was coming.

I packed everything up, put the fly on the tent and went to bed, hoping everything would be dry the next morning.

Another Day Hiking

Sunday, August 23rd, 2009

The light of our second Siberian dawn trickled through the trees and woke me before it did Matt. I got up, packed my sleeping bag and the cooking supplies, made sure the fire was completely out (we had spread the ashes the night before, but I wanted to make sure it was cool. It was) and finished the last swig of water in my trusty Nalgene. It was looking to be a warm day and I knew we needed to find some water, but the lake was at the bottom of a 50 foot cliff, so we’d have to walk on until we found a stream or a beach.

Matt woke up after I had been reading for 15 minutes or so (I was in the middle of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot) and we set off down the hill. It was a bit of a rough trail, but after 15 minutes we came to a beach and sat down to enjoy our fill of crystal clear, filtered (thank you Mommie and Papa for letting me borrow the water pump), and frigid cold water. And we made breakfast, porridge again.

Matt was not feeling any better, his whole body was aching and he had a low-grade fever that had started the evening before. We took our vitamins and I encouraged him to drink a Nalgene of water right there. I also filled up my Platypus bladder which I had forgotten I had with me. We were much better off and as the morning progressed, we hiked on with hourly rest breaks and some delicious Wild Bill’s beef jerky from my parents that I had been saving for a special occasion.

Lunch that afternoon was a can of tuna steak (delicious) and a two hour nap on the pebbly beach of what was turning into one of the worlds most beautiful spots. Matt was feeling better after our break, and plodded on stolidly. We camped early that night after hiking just 15 kilometers, but arriving where we had hoped to make it. We set up camp under a spreading evergreen, lit a small fire and Matt went to sleep early. I stayed up for a while longer tending the fire and being bitten by mosquitoes while reading The Idiot (half of which we had used to start the fire that evening.)

That night was cloudless, but a strong wind started from the North East and smashed the coastline with oceanic breakers all night long. I slept well, waking just once in the middle of the night to check on the fire and our bags (we were just past the town of Bolshaya Kadilnaya and a bit close to civilization for my comfort).

A Hiking Trip

Saturday, August 22nd, 2009

The sun rose lazily over Lake Baikal, chasing away the demons of uncertainty from the night before. Matthew and I had arrived in the city of Irkutsk, now over 40 kilometers away, late morning the day before (09/08) and spent hours trying desperately to get some information via the internet on the Great Biakal Trail that supposedly stretched for over 500 kilometers of the lake’s shoreline. We checked out some hotels for that night, but, finding everything either full or expensive, we had opted to take a taxi from the dirty, soviet Irkutsk to the confusing tourist villa of Listvyanka.

Listvyanka sits at the mouth of the Angara river which drains Lake Baikal north into the Arctic ocean. It was dark by the time we arrived, and we had no idea where the trail actually began. We walked the roads and paths around the northern end of town, eventually settling on a path that followed the shore for about 100 meters, before climbing into the hills overlooking the lake. An hour or so of wandering in the dark woods and we admitted we’d have to wait ’til morning to clear our minds and show us the way out. We camped late that night on a grassy ledge that sloped precariously toward the 20-foot high lakeside cliff.

Matthew had woken a bit earlier than I and had pumped some water from the crystal clear lake. He had also talked to a few British tourists down the beach a ways who also had no idea where they were going, the only difference was that they had a guide. I woke groggily and helped him prepare breakfast. Over bowls of hot oatmeal we went over what we knew about the lake and the trail. The lake itself is considered the oldest lake in the world (between 25 million and 6 thousand years old, depending on your views) and contains 20% of the world’s freshwater—more than all 5 great lakes combined. Along the banana-shaped lake, a dozen or so little towns nestle between the frigid waters and the majestic peaks of the surrounding mountain ranges. We would be hiking from Listvyanka, near the southern tip of the lake, along the inside curve past two little lake-side towns—Bolshiye Koty and Bolshaya Kadilnaya—ending up at Bolschoye Goloustnoe, a slightly larger town where we could get a bus back to Irkutsk. If we timed it right, the trip would take four days getting us back to Irkutsk on Friday with our train leaving later that day.

As we sat eating and basking in the morning sun, alone until the pack of British tourists we had seen earlier traipsed past us with their guide. The one Matt had talked to earlier told us we were on the right path and we rejoiced. We packed up and were soon on our way, loaded down with food and camping gear, enough, we hoped, to last us those 4 days. It was an easy hike for the most part, but neither of us were in good shape after several weeks of immobilizing train rides. We each had 50 pound packs on our backs, no hiking boots, not enough water, and Matthew was starting to show signs of a cold or flu as we left. Not a good start for a journey of 55 kilometers over rough, mountainous terrain in the heart of Siberia, but we were not faint of heart and we plunged on.

The trail wound its way beside the deep blue lake, but Matthew and I could only enjoy it when we stopped from time to time to catch our breath. An hour or so in, we passed the British group, but other than that we felt we were going extremely slowly. Our lack of water along with Matt’s disease did not make for easy going and the constant up and down of the cliffside trail didn’t help either. We made it to Bolshiye Koty late that evening, found it to be significantly smaller than we had expected and found only a closed shack with “Museum” written on it, a few houses, a ferry terminal, and overpriced soda on the shelves of the only magazin (shop) in town. We moved on, made it out of town just as the sun was setting, and, after a grueling hike up a little hill, eventually found a place flat enough to sleep that night.

Unfortunately, it was also a place apparently frequented by horses, as their droppings surrounding the site attested. We were feeling a bit ambivalent about the day. I had a dull, dehydration-induced headache and Matt was not looking extremely healthy. We lit a fire to encourage ourselves and I tried my hand at my first campfire-cooked meal. The rice was underdone, which I intensely dislike, so that did nothing to lighten my mood. Later that night, when I woke to the frightening sound of horses pawing and neighing right by my head in the pine-darkened forest, I wasn’t so sure about the whole hiking idea.

Clueless American Tourists Leave Omsk

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

The next morning we had a late start and were beginning to feel pressed for time before our train left at 1216. With twenty minutes left, we were a little unsure as to the distance after I proposed we try a more direct route than that which we followed two days before. With only 26 roubles to our name, even a taxi was questionable. The clock at fifteen until our only TSR train left the station, I found an ATM and we tried to hail a cab. A few minutes dragged by until we wedged ourselves into the back of a yellow van and asked for the вагзал or train station. The ride wasn’t long but I doubt we would have been able to walk it in time. The driver accepted my 20 roubles and we hurried inside the station with a minute to spare. We didn’t even check the train but boarded the first one we encountered. Barely settled, we pulled out of the station with the consolation that it was 1216 on the dot; it had to be the right train.

We shared this two-night trip with a congenial older woman and an always-smiling middle-aged man. The woman took it upon herself to explain much about the train to the clueless American tourists. Unfortunately, she did so very quickly in Russian. Between reading and sleeping, I was able to learn that I could not plug Dan’s laptop into the two power outlets when we were stopped or when we were moving, for that matter. They were for cell phones, only. I also learned why the smiling man was smiling; he was traveling to Irkutsk to visit his girlfriend. Before night fell, he presented the train’s blankets to Dan and I, smiling. At least one clueless American tourist was thankful during the chilliest night in a while on this trip.

It didn’t help, however, that I had the bunk against the end of the car, next to the doorway to the bathroom and area between cars where many people smoke. That door happened to be one of those that people feel required to slam as hard as they can. All day and all night, people loudly passed. My bunk also had a footboard which prevented me from a comfortable sleeping position. I have always preferred to sleep in a K-shape but the bunk only allowed something like a ƙ-shape. With my feet planted on the board, I couldn’t even lie flat without tilting my head to the side. My mattress kept sliding nearly off the bunk as I tried to find a comfortable position in my sleep. My smiling friend, sleeping below me, was always ready to assist the clueless American tourist in repositioning my mattress.

During the evening we played a version of Charades with the smiling man. It took a few minutes, but we identified his occupation of air traffic controller based on his sketch. Dan’s web developing and my design occupations were easier to guess. He also bought us a “souvenir” at one stop, a steamed pine cone or шишка. He demonstrated how to peel back the segments to reveal delicious seeds or оген. I wonder if I could do that with the millions of pine cones at home. This morning both he and the woman wished us hearty goodbyes as we arrived in Irkutsk about 1030 local time (5 hours ahead of Moscow time). We thanked them and I wanted to wish him well with his girlfriend, but as a clueless American tourist I didn’t know how. If I had to guess, I would say he’s still smiling.