Train Happy in Siberia

Trip Start Mar 06, 2005
Trip End ??? ??, 2006

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Monday, March 14, 2005

March 14th
We opted to travel first class on the russian train (a carriage to ourselves rather than having to share with two others). The compartment itself was comfortable with hot water on tap from a samovar at the end of the carriage, clean laundered bedding and plenty of storage space. The train attendants where dressed like airline stewardesses and each carriage had two. They cleaned the corridors and toilets regulaly even comming into the compartment to hoover up!

We gave our attendants nicknames Svetlana and Ludmilla the former being a slim well presented young woman and the latter a stout stereotypical russian tractor driver in every respect,apart from the vivid makeup she wore. It looked as if someone had loaded clowns makeup into a shotgun and fired it at her repeatedly from point blank range. This gave her the appearance of having a permanently startled look fixed on her face which was topped off with a dull orange bufont hair-do.
Both Lud and Svet were freindly (in a miserable russian sort of way).

We had stocked up on bread cheese and pot noodle for the journey although we got off at stations along the way to buy more bread, we tried a different kind each time some with sweet curd cheese in the middle and a Dark heavy Rye bread and every variation inbetween, all were delicious.
The dining car was next to us and not too expensive although the menu was limited. Overall we were happy with our situation on the train.

The first day passed mostly with us looking at the scenery and settling into our new surroundings. The snowscape flashing past was interesting (at first)and as night drew in we often saw twinkling lights from the villages trackside which seemed to exist simply to serve the railway and crossings with roads leading over the horizon to 'nowhere'.
Unexpectedly we would pass large urban sprawl as we approached the major stops along our route Ekateringburg etc. These cities and towns resembled the Russia you expect to see, smoking, industrial looking, lada ridden, soviet era in architectural style and overpoweringly GREY.

Sleeping on the train was very easy you simply turned the seats into beds and locked the door, switched out the light, and woke in the morning. The rocking of the train was very relaxing and neither of us had any problem sleeping, infact the opposite was true. The real test was to stay awake. The days were a mixture of chatting (on the train and on the platforms of stations we stopped at), reading, sleeping, and nibbling at our supplies.(Very relaxing).

March 15th
We passed Omsk today which roughly speaking is equidistant from Moscow and Irkutsk and close to the border with Kazakstan. The scenery has hardly changed in 2 days. Silver birch and pine trees line the track with open fields and woodland in the middle distance. Although there does seem to be larger gaps between villages and far less signs of civilisation ie car tracks in the snow, until we hit Novosibirsk. The temperature outside at stations we stop at has been around the -10 to -15 mark depending on the time of day.

March 16th
Woke this morning at 4:45 to bright sunshine the scenery has changed to a more dramatic snowscape. Briefly stopped in Kraznoyarsk (4065KM covered so far). Just when you think you are in the middle of nowhere a town or village turns up, consisting of wooden houses clustered together with well fenced gardens they resemble wild west prospecting towns.The houses typically have high roofs, small windows with carved eaves.Some resemble overgrown and uncared for garden sheds.

March 17th
We have arrived in Irkutsk where we will break our mamouth train journey for a few days by staying with a family in a small remote fishing village on the shores of Lake Baikal (the largest freshwater lake in the world which it is estimated contains 1/3 of the worlds fresh water).

The journey to our homestay took around two hours from Irkutsk. Boulshoe Goulostnoye (BG)is a tiny community that survives on fishing from the lake with the inhabitants living in traditional wooden houses.
(Lystvianka is 1 hour closer to Irkutsk on the same side of the lake, we thought of staying there but it is becomming developed with bars and restaurants and we wanted to be a little more remote).

The roads we travelled along where rough and covered with snow and ice the only other transport we saw during the whole 2 hours were 2 logging lorries (the other main industry of the area) the scenery consited mainly of rugged hills covered with trees,and frequent frozen rivers (the lake has over 300 tributories)and small villages housing workers from the logging industry.The whole area had a remote feeling to it.

Arrived at BG around 11:30 and found our host Galeena a very warm and friendly woman (in contrast to the other russians we had come in contact with) who spoke no English. So with the 'international translators' (ie our hands and a big smile)working overtime we sat down for our first home cooked meal.(mashed potatoe and a dark meat in a rich gravy sauce which was delicious, we were later to find out just what it was!!!).

The house was a relatively spacious 3 bedroomed single storey affair based around a central stove / cooker. The kitchen was a shrine to 1960's formica. None of the village had running water and the 'facilities' where backyard 'garden shed' style trench toilets. The main revelation was the Banya a kind of homemade siberian sauna where each evening we could wash and relax every house had one in the back yard. Our banya was situated between Galeena's cow shed and her woodstore (Banyas are superb and definately one of the highlights of our trip so far!).

The village was eerily quiet with not a breath of wind it was akin to partial sensory deprivation, not a single sound!(very strange to experience).There was one local shop which sold everything from toothpaste to fencing wire and a postoffice with the only phone in the village which worked intermittantly.

We walked down to the edge of the lake to a tiny wooden orthodox russian church decorated with golden fittings on the roof and built / rebuilt entirely from local donations (although the service we saw only had 4 people in attendance).

For the first time we ventured out onto the vast expance of ice covering the lake (around 80 centimetres thick). Incredible patterns had been formed within the ice consiting of fracture marks running at all angles and frozen air bubbles trapped on their way to the surface as the lake froze. (the patterns they formed where mesmerising and we spent quite a while studying them, even the villagers would stop to look at them) It was the strangest feeling to walk across the completely transparent ice and be able to see the bottom of the lake several metres below (further out on the lake it drops away to a dark green void). It was as if you were magically suspended above the lake literally walking on water!

The size of the lake is awe inspiring it is more akin to a sea, stretching to the horizon where it is bounded by high snow covered mountains. We were surprised to have our quiet walk interupted by a large lorry driving across the lake and later we saw someone 'joyriding' along the edge of it spinning the car round and round and ramming on the brakes causing it to slide / glide out across the villages small harbour.

March 18th
Lena our local buddy guide and interpreter arrived at 9am today and she will be staying with us at Galeenas house.
Having some time to spare we wandered around the village, a rather ramshackle affair with a mish mash of wooden houses surrounded by wooden fencing and typically containing a cow or sheep shed a Banya and workshops for anything from broken speedboats to tractors.

The preffered mode of transport for most of the villagers is the motorbike and sidecar (more of a trailor attached to the side of a motorbike) these were affordable and used for almost everything a tractor couldnt do. With the local men wearing fur hats with ear peices flapping in the wind as they wizzed passed, often with the family dog in the sidecar we had several 'wallace and gromit' doubletakes.

The major trip of the day was a 5 and a half hour hike to Ushcani Cape a small group of wooden houses on the edge of the lake which are looked after by two fishermen who live there year round, the houses are also used as holiday lets in the summer months when the lake is a haven for campers. (Simon Calder, travel editor for the independent had visited the lake last year for a BBC programme and our driver had his business card stuffed into his sunvisor).

The hike took us along the edge of the frozen lake (were jane fell over heavily, AGAIN!) and up steep and precipitous paths (Dave H...You would have hated it!) along the hill side overlooking it. BEAUTIFUL views of the far side of the lake and the frozen waves running into headlands were spectacular.

During our walk jane mentioned the amount of 'Crap' on the footpath and commented that it was probably Moose or something similar, I took the 'mickey' saying we were in Siberia not Canada, but on arrival at the cape we had lunch in one of the fishermens cabins and saw a huge moose head on the wall Lena our guide said it had been shot locally!(Jane reminded me of this for the rest of the day). There were also bear skins on the floor which Lena informed us had also been shot in the surrounding woods (we kept our eyes open on the walk back and every broken twig or noise along the path and Jane was convinced we were being stalked by Bears!)Lunch consisted of Omul a fish found only in lake Baikal (in fact 85 percent of the creatures in the lake do not exist anywhere else on the planet)

On returning to BG we asked Lena to enquire what the delicious meat was that we had eaten for lunch yesterday. She asked Galeena and she said it was called 'wild meat' (ie shot locally). We asked if she knew exactly what it was and her reply was "Yes of course it's MOOSE!".

Special note.... we later recounted this story to some fellow travellers we met on the way to Mongolia (Simon and Katy)and Katy looked quizzical and said " was it like a lemon or chocolate type thing" no not that kind of mousse we repeated "a real live Moooooose" (sorry Katy but we had to tell everyone!).

Being very tired after our hike we chatted with our hosts through our interpreter and after a late night Banya we went to bed around 11:30pm.

March 19th
We woke early and climbed a hill overlooking the village which had superb views of the surrounding area after finishing our photo session we packed, thanked our hosts, and left for the two hour drive back to Irkutsk. It turned out to be a three hour drive as we had a puncture which we had to fix by walking to the nearest village to borrow a length of piping to help lever off the wheel nuts which had seized up. Jane waited in the car and I kindly reminded her that there were "BEAARS in them thar hills!" so lock the doors!

Irkutsk has a frontier town feel to it. There is little to delay any traveller here,it's simply a staging post on the way to somewhere else (unless you like cold windy and drab industrial sprawl, covered with grey snow containing the odd dead and frozen Dog). After spending the afternoon and evening wandering around the town we spent the night in a rather tawdry and delapidated soviet era hotel, before leaving on the morning train for Mongolia and our planned stay in a Ger tent on the steppe.

PS We have been finding it hard to keep upto date with our travelogues but we intent to make a big effort to catch up in the coming weeks, cheers for now and just in case you were wondering and also to 'rub it in' WE ARE HAVING A FANTASTIC TIME! Love Jane and Aubrey.
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