Posts Tagged ‘Hotel’

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.

Two Pretty-Good Days

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

Sunday dawned (02/08), we tried to find a church and, when we did find one, although Russian speaking, we were turned away. I suppose we didn’t meet the customary dress code and also didn’t speak enough of the language to talk our way into the service. We strolled the city, walked through a few marketplaces where Matt looked for a t-shirt with odd sayings on it, and explored the Western part of the new old city which we hadn’t seen there. It was on a road in that section that we found CafeMax, a real Internet Cafe with free wifi for its customers! The chai was a bit more expensive, but we sat down and hunkered down for the long haul, we had a lot to do having not had internet for any length of time since Riga, a week before.

We updated the blog, got closer to caught up passing the computer between Matt and I, and got caught up with correspondences. Then, at 1500 Matt went to meet up with James and I finished up another post. We spent the rest of the day swapping stories with James. From being present at the recent riots in China which made international news, to driving a motor scooter across India, James had plenty to tell. We talked late into the evening over cups of chai and made our way back North to toward the train station. James was staying in the station hotel and so we were headed in the same direction. We stopped for some shish-kabaps served straight from the grill at the side of the road and hit the hay a bit after 2300 that evening, after being informed that we needed to checkout by 11 the next morning. No problem.

Monday morning, we left the hotel and headed South again, hunted for some cheap electronics and, finding none, hung out in the nice park on the other side of the river where we watched both a wedding and construction project try to take place simultaneously right next to each other. We cooked up some food and headed north, spending the rest of the rather drizzly and overcast day in a nice little restaurant with 80KT chai called Samovar. That evening, we stopped by CafeMax again for an hour or two and then headed back to the train station.

It was late by the time we got back, after midnight, and we were expecting to be able to rent the room for 12 hours, as had been the custom, the lady at the desk, however, had apparently not been having a very nice day and had decided to surprise us by imposing a rule of 0900 checkout, regardless of check-in time, on repeat customers who had been planning on giving them a glowing review. We had no idea why and tried to explain our position, asking if she could give us a discount then, asking if we had somehow offended them or accidentally broken something in our room. Nothing, just a stolid insistence that there was nothing she could do. We finally got to our room after 0100 and an unpleasant discussion.

The next day (04/08) we awoke unhappily and were out of our room by 0900 as requested… It was drizzling outside and looked as though it might rain at any moment. We didn’t really want to be out there and had already seen most of what Astana had to offer, so we hung out in the train-station’s waiting room and enjoyed free wifi which we had not noticed before. The only problem came when Matt tried to plug in the computer and found that the station administration ladies were adamantly against anyone using their electricity. It seemed like it would be another situation like the night before where, for no reason at all, paying customers would be denied what they wished, for no good reason. That’s when I decided to stop being pushed around, grabbed my train ticket—dated for later that day—and approached the lady who had just unceremoniously and with no regard for our pleading questions, yanked our power cord out of an otherwise unused plug.

I approached with a bit of trepidation and politely explained my position. She had no idea what I was saying, but was apparently impressed by my politeness and took me to a phone where she got her friend who spoke English to translate for us. I was informed that the plugs in the waiting area were for “technical use only” but that Irena, the lady, would find a place for me to work. She did! A nice couch in a little, out-of-the-way waiting room apparently reserved for polite people with tickets. Matt and I switched off using the internet for a while and, when I wasn’t working online trying to trouble-shoot a website issue that had developed, I had a nice discussion with Alexey, a man who explained his job by informing me that he answered the radio and kicked drunks out of the station.

We talked for a few hours about politics, international relations, work, money, our families, and life in Kazakhstan. He knew no English, but with my phrasebook and my limited Russian we had a good conversation. That evening, Matt and I went and hung out in a little cafe in the train station and watched a volleyball match between Spain and Russia before boarding our train for the longish drive to Omsk.

Registering with the Police

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

Our second day in Astana (31/07) was also the last day of July. We looked back on our more than three months of travel and realised how long we had been gone. This feeling of a bit of homesickness was enhanced by the fact that we didn’t really know what we were doing in Astana.

Our first task, however, on this Friday was to get our visas registered before the government had any reason to have problems with us. We found a booth in front of the train station which looked official and had the word bureau on it in Russian. We went to the booth, tried to inform the lady inside, who did not look official, of our needs and were told to wait a few minutes (another Russian phrase I had learned, between Matt and I we had a good dozen words and phrases!). We waited and soon a lady came and hurried is out of the booth, onto a bus (60KT per person, not bad) and we drove downtown.

We got out in the middle of the new old city (the Soviet-looking part) and walked a block to what proclaimed itself in small English letters to be the Migration Office of Kazakhstan Police. This is what we had been looking for! Inside, our friend sat us down and gave our passports to a police officer. That police officer directed her to another room, where she disappeared for a few minutes and came back, rather agitated. Apparently the Migration Office could not register our passports because we were tourists, not actually migrants, at least that’s how we understood it. Our guide then took us down the street and we walked a bit looking for, from what we could understand, a tourist agency where they could register our visas.

Apparently, and to our great surprise, we were expected to have an arrangement with a tourist agency when we requested our visas (hence the confusion and concern of the border guard) and that agency would then register us upon our arrival in Kazakhstan. We had not heard any such thing before applying for our visas and therefore were at a bit of a loss when we heard this. We did eventually find a tourist agency and someone who spoke excellent English. She explained the situation to us but told us she couldn’t register us. She did, however, point us to an agency that could. We made our way there with our guide (we had decided at this point to offer her 1000KT for her selfless assistance). At that agency we handed over our visas and 6000KT, got an official receipt, and left, thanked our guide and offered her the 1000KT Matt and I had agreed on.

She refused the money, but not because she was too kind, but because she claimed we had somehow agreed to pay 10000KT for our visas, 6000 of which was to go to the travel agency and 4000 was to go to her. We understood that it would have taken significantly longer than the half-hour it did take to figure out for ourselves how to register our visas, but we were quite convinced that it was not worth a full nights hotel cost for half an hour especially since we had agreed to no such arrangement. She was not happy and claimed that she would take the receipt (which I had firmly placed in my wallet) and return it to the agency (something the agency told her it would not allow). We finally got her to accept 2000KT, and, as we parted ways, felt a bit bad about the situation.

We wandered the city again, bought some delicious street-food for cheap, and stopped in at a little restaurant for 90KT chai. We relaxed there for quite a while, strolled the riverside watching the ferry boats make there way up and down the river, and made our way back to the hotel. On the way back, we found a little internet cafe and stopped in for an hour mostly so Matt could print off his airplane itinerary for his departure from Ulan Bataar in just a few weeks. Then, we returned to the hotel, bought another night, cooked up some food in our now-empty room, read a bit, and went to sleep.

The next day (Saturday, 01/08) I got up, exchanged some more money, and went to a gostinitsa (hotel) we had noticed just off the square in front of the train station. It was only 3000KT a night for a two-person room! And it included a shower! The only catch was that the cheap price for for only 12 hours so we would have to do something with our four heavy bags. I went to the train station, discovered the left-luggage office was only 300KT per bag for 24 hours, and we had a deal. 400KT less and we had showers and a place to wash our clothes.

That day, we again wandered the city, enjoyed some 80KT Chai (we were finding the cheap places), found a bit of free street-wifi, and learned more Russian. Matt went to use the internet again before we checked into the hotel and met an interesting Canadian fellow named James who had been doing a very similar thing to us, except he started six months earlier in China and travelled through Southeast and South Asia before making his way up to Kazakhstan. He was traveling with his brother until his brother found a job in Almaty just a few days before. James was leaving from Astana on the 5th, the day after we were, heading home to south-central Alberta via southern Ontario. He had just arrived in Astana and Matt and he decided we should meet up the next day at the odd statue of the wolf with the kid on its back, so we could swap stories.

In the meantime, I had been accosted by a very nice completely soused man who attempted to inform me of his need for more vodka. He did so in Russian however and, except for the words vodka, magazin (a small shop), and Guri (his name) I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. That is until a 14-year-old chain-smoking boy showed up who, though unable to speak English, was quite good at explaining things in a way which the pissed-as-a-newt Guri was not. I talked with them both for about an hour and a half learning a lot about their life and about Russian. My vocabulary surely doubled.

After Matt came back, I finally convinced Guri that I wasn’t going to buy any vodka or even schnapps for him, and bid goodbye and thank you to the boy. Matt and I made our way back to the hotel that evening, checked in around 2230 and were informed that we had the room until 1030 the next morning. We stocked the refrigerator with a drink we couldn’t identify which Matt thought was milk (tan it was called… neither of us enjoyed it) and some real milk (moloko, another Russian word). The next morning we had Müesli and oatmeal with 3.2% milk straight from the bag. Like being back at home.

Finding Astana

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

As we stepped off the train onto the platform at the Astana, Kazakhstan Train station on that chilly Thursday (30/07) we quickly realized two things. First, we had almost no idea how to speak Russian and I had only a very rudimentary ability to read Russian and, second, we had no guide book to help us find anything in Astana. We left the train station, loaded to the hilt like pack-mules, walked in a highly confused circle around the square not recognizing a word on the signs, and returned the the station feeling as though we had failed our first foray into the sleepless city.

We decided the thing to do was turn to the all-powerful Internets. There was a little internet shoppe in the train station near the waiting area and, after grabbing some Kazakh Tenge (€1≈400KT) from the cash exchange shoppe around the corner, Matt and I split an hour of internet time. During that time, I discovered that all of the hotels listed online had prices in the €30 a night category for a twin room. I did discover, however, that there was a resting-room hotel in the train station which had much more reasonable prices: in the €5 per person a night range (2000KT). I also discovered that there was no easy way to get out the National Park which was a hundred or two kilometers away without using a travel agency and, again, the prices listed online were astronomical.

Matt and I were a bit dejected. We had wanted to come to Kazakhstan so that we could see the beautiful scenery! Look at Astana from Google Maps and you’ll see just to the South-West of the city, a series of spectacular blue lakes… but… they seemed completely inaccessible. We were carrying hiking equipment and it didn’t look like we’d be able to use it. Man, things were not turning out as we had hoped. We bought an Astana map from a little kiosk in the train station, dug out our Russian phrasebook and sat down in the train station waiting area to decide on our course of action. Before we decided, however, I went to the Train Station information office, asked the location of the tourist office in phrasebook-Russian, was assisted to a booth outside by a kind lady who spoke no English, and was rather rudely informed at that place, that they could not offer me any information on hotels, guesthouses, or other accommodations.

We decided to spend the night in the cheapest place we knew, the Train-Station Hotel—despite the fact that the price didn’t include showers—, drop our bags there and wander around the city looking for a better place to stay. We also had another mission. Upon finally being allowed to enter Kazakhstan, we had read on the back of our entry/departure form we filled out that we had to register within 5 days of our arrival in Kazakhstan. We were convinced that it was too late to register that night, and we had no idea where to go to register. We were in a pickle.

That evening we spent a few hours wandering the city, familiarising ourselves with it. The city lies in the middle of a flat plain and consists of three informal divisions on a north-south axis. The first is the old, crummy city on the North side of the train-tracks. This area has existed for decades, since Astana had a different name and was the capital of nothing. It is filled with low-rent, three-to-four story apartment buildings, shacks, sheds, and markets. According to everyone we talked to, it was filled with seedy individuals, the “Russian Mafia,” and unsavory people of various sorts.

The second division of the city is between the train station and the river to the South. This consists of a lot of older, Soviet-era cement-block buildings. Several universities, a museum, a few dingy parks, and a number of palote apartment buildings. In this area, older restaurants, cafes, and a few “Beesnes Tsentrs” or shopping centers mingled with police headquarters, a military university, and a place called “Congress” which is apparently where the circus performs when it’s in town. I liked this area, because it was rather what I was expecting from Astana, and because there were several odd statues, like a naked boy standing on the back of a lion-sized wolf.

The third part of the city is South of the river and past a large park/amusement park area. It consists of gleaming new buildings, a “diplomatic quarter” slated to be completed by 2030 and house all the diplomats in the capital city, and dozens of buildings of stunning un-Soviet architecture. This entire region had been built up since 1991 when Astana became the capital of a free Kazakhstan after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Architecture was the main feature of this picturesque part of town. The famous tower of Astana, now a national icon sits at the middle and is surrounded by buildings which spiral, curve, and angle skyward proclaiming the worth of this oil and land-rich nation and perhaps reflecting a bit of its space-faring past (the spaceport from which most of Russia’s cosmonauts and Soyuz vessels launched is inside of Kazakhstan and the nation makes some money renting the spaceport out to both commercial groups and nations).

We realised that the main adventure of this part of our trip would simply be learning how to survive and do the things we needed to do like register our visas, find a cheap place to stay, and see the city.