First taste of Russia

Trip Start Nov 15, 2004
Trip End Nov 10, 2005

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Friday, July 1, 2005

Our train from Ulaan Baatar was the longest train ride we have taken, mainly because the train sat for 9 hours at the border towns in Mongolia and Russia and then stopped at every possible stop along the way! The Mongolian and Russian traders were interesting to watch at the border stops as they were clearly carrying more goods than just personal belongings. They seemed to have some systems for getting past the customs officials but to us it just looked like they moved boxes back and forth between different compartments. One lady put a nice new pair of shoes on the floor of our compartment to try and pass them off as ours, and a we saw a lot of watermelons being carried past.

We shared our train compartment with a lovely Russian girl who spoke good English and enjoyed (well laughed) at our attempts to learn Russian, and like most train journeys we ate a lot and stared out the window at the scenery (more grasslands in Mongolia but eventually forests and lakes in Russia). We finally arrived in Siberia.

The hostel we had booked a night with failed to find us at the train station so we went to another place which was in an apartment building and was well set up. Irkustk is a pretty little city with lots of old wooden Russian buildings with decorated window frames and colourful exteriors. We managed to eat some Russian blinneys; pancake like rolls with fillings, book diving and accommodation for Lake Baikal and use local transport. Our recognition of the Russian cryllic alphabet gradually improved and we had fun reading different signs and being pleased with ourselves when we could understand the words.

Lake Baikal
A few quick facts about Lake Baikal for your interest! It is the largest (in volume and depth) lake in the world, over 1.6km deep, and contains one fifth of the world's fresh water. 80% of the flora and fauna found in and around the lake is unique to Baikal and it has some amazing creatures in the deep, like a fish that explodes when it hits the surface and the world's only freshwater seal.

We caught an early hydrofoil (fast boat) from Irkutsk to Bolshie Koty, a small fishing village along Lake Baikal and then walked around (with backpacks) trying to find out how to get to some cabins we had eyed off on the internet. We finally found the only English speaking resident and set off along the lake shore for 3km until we reached our home for the next 2 nights, beautiful wooden cabins set in a valley, surrounded by forest and an abundance of wildflowers. The lake is huge and could easily be mistaken for an ocean although it was always very calm and it is frozen for most of the year.

We spent the first night drinking tea and vodka with the caretaker and his friend. We were a little thrown when, while talking about where we had travelled, the caretaker mentioned that the only true way to fight and kill is with a knife?!?... We soon managed to change the subject again and they were nice enough people, eventually encouraging us to try a Russian sauna (banya). The banya had a a change room, wash room and SUPER hot sauna room. We had to overheat ourselves, beat each other with ceder leaves and then run and dunk ourselves into the freezing stream by the banya. This was repeated many times. There are no photos for this event!

We celebrated Kate's last day of her 'early 20s' hiking along the lake shore and watching the seals play out in the 'sea', and finished the evening with a spectacular sunset over the sparkling water, a bottle of South African wine (bought in Mongolia!) and some Russian Vodka and chocolate. The evening was made more special by a certain proposal... you can guess what the answer was :-)

We then stayed the next two nights in Listvyanka, the main town by the lake, in an apartment of a lady that offered us a room at a good price. We think she kicked her daughters out of the room for us but leasing out rooms is common in Russia and gave us the chance to try some Russian home cooking which turned out to be fantastic and very filling. Our main reason for stopping off at Listvyanka was to plunge in to the deep blue lake and see the wonders beneath. Some would think we were pretty crazy (and they would be right!) given the lake was about 7 degrees but it was a great experience and we managed to last over 20 minutes before the cold took over. The water was remarakably clear and although there wasn't heaps too see there were many sponges, shrimps and green and yellow algaes, as well as a Christmas tree! Apparently a strange Russian tradition where they put a tree in the bottom of the lake and dress up as Santa all under water!!! We spent the rest of our time watching the Russians sunbake on the rocky shore while drinking beer and eating smoked Baikal fish.

A fantastic stop on our journey.
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