Saturday 2nd November
The final nights sleep on the train was pretty terrible. I’m not sure what caused this but there had been a number of changes to the timezone and i think the school kids were staying in Moscow time and staying up late as a result. it didn’t help that after 3 days of waking up at 11am or whenever we liked we now had to be up at 7am. I also think we were all relieved that it was our final morning as cabin fever was starting to set in.
Our experience with Elena had left us (me) doubting the honcho system and because I was feeling in a Karl Pilkington mood I jokingly said “I hate our Honcho already”. That all changed the moment we (I) saw Dimitrij after we’d arrived in Irkutsk and scrambled off the train. “Are you on the Vodka train?” Our hero.
Instantly things were looking up. We loaded our bags on to a bus and were on our way to Listvyanka our home for one night on Lake Baikal. We all fell asleep on the 1 hour journey but soon we were at the chalet and after 4 days we were finally able to have a proper shower (though sadly the hot water couldn’t handle the pressure).
Next we walked in to town to get some food. Dimitri knew all our needs and the order. Clean and hunger satisfied we went on a walk along the lake and to a chair lift where we got the chance to see some spectacular views of the worlds deepest lake.
We then walked back down the hill and Dimitri was able to flag down a van and agreeing a price of 10 roubles each we hitch hiked back in to town by the market. Here we were able to buy some souvenirs and some Russian street food.
We walked back to the chalet and we were finally able to connect to the outside world after 4 days. It had felt rather liberating at times but I had missed not being able to share some of my feelings with those closest to me.
6 of us had arranged to have a Russian Sauna. I vaguely remembered this from an idiot abroad and I therefore knew it would be a slightly unique experience. I’d also never been in a proper sauna before (the fitness first gyms don’t count) and every time Dimitri poured water on to the coals the heat became more intense.
Gary told us about the saunas in Norway and gave us advice on how to breathe correctly. He also told us about the championships in Norway where a Russian who won died as soon as he came out because he’d spent to long inside. This made us all laugh a little bit nervously – how long would be too long?
We were dripping and eventually after what felt an eternity 3 of us bailed to get a relaxing cup of tea. I sat with Claire and Fi and soon Callum and Chris joined us. We returned to the Sauna just in time to see Gary lying face down and Dimitri’s friend Dennis holding a birch branch in his hand. He started flogging and brushing Gary whilst dipping the branch in hot water and waving this over Gary and spraying us in the process. It didn’t look relaxing. It looked like a weird torture. Eventually it was over and after vacating the sauna a bucket of ice cold water was thrown at Gary’s back.
Soon it was my turn and I found it a lot easier to breathe with my face in to the towel. The whole experience was also lot more relaxing than I have described above. The leaves felt like they were tickling rather than thrashing, the heated water felt like a warm shower and the cold water at the end was refreshing after being baked for so long. I went outside in the middle of Siberia and stared at the stars above. I then had another cup of tea and returned to the sauna.
After we’d finished it was time for dinner. A proper Russian meal prepared by our hosts and Dimitri gave us the wonderful news breakfast wasn’t until 10am. A lie in. We all agreed that we were content and the slog of the choo choo (the word train was now banned) was a distant memory. We were however all aware within 24 hours we’d be boarding another to the Mongolian capital.
Sunday 3rd November
I didn’t sleep particularly well. Perhaps I missed the swaying of the train or it may have been because I’d seen Watford had lost to Leicester but I ended up spending an hour on Wikipedia reading about the Bolshevik Revolution, and the Soviet Union. When I then got a message from a friend to say my blog wasn’t working I did become concerned I was being monitored and that perhaps I’d written something I shouldn’t!
Eventually I must have fallen asleep because soon my alarm was going off. Why is it at night it sometimes seems so hard to get to sleep and that no position is comfortable and then in the morning such a struggle to get up and it feels like any position will do?
Anyway eventually i got up and checked the Moneycorp situation. The issue is still unresolved but at least the money is finally showing in my bank account again rather than being in limbo. We had breakfast and after a few last minute messages to friends and family we were walking down in to the village to get a 1 hour boat ride.
It may not have been the most spectacular in terms of wildlife as there were were no seals, dolphins or as Dimitri confirmed to me a loch ness monster but it was a very peaceful setting and not a cloud in the sky. We travelled along the coast and started to approach a bay. we wondered if we would reach the bay before our time was up and we had visions of it being a beautiful sandy beach. When we finally rounded the bay we discovered it was just another cliff.
Eventually we did turn back and we were back in Listvyanka. We went back to the market from the night before to get some food for a picnic. Dimitri then took us on a short coastal walk to an area we could sit down. I don’t think any of us expected to have a picnic in Siberia in autumn but it was still fairly warm. A family on the table next to us even appeared to be having a BBQ.
We walked back to the chalet and loaded our bags back on to the waiting bus and by just after 3pm we were all sleeping on our journey back to Irkutsk.
The train wasn’t until 22.20 so unlike with Elena we had plenty of time to see the town before the train. We saw a few remaining examples of the old style wooden buildings that were once common in the city before the city was destroyed by fire. Dimitri explained most of the older style buildings had been replaced during the time of the Soviet Union and that the replacements were practical but had less character.
We wondered down to the river and saw a number of statues including Tsar Alexander III responsible for commissioning the Tran Siberian Railway, Set (the first astronaut in space) and (the man who founded the town).
We also had plenty of time to get a drink from a coffee shop in an area of the town that had been rebuilt in the historic style, to get a proper meal before returning back to powdered food and to get rations for the train.
The bus picked us up and dropped us off at the station. Dimitri even got on to the train with us to make sure we had the correct cabins. There was no doubt that that Dimitri had nailed it. We hadn’t known what his plans were in advance but it didn’t matter we were all part of his masterplan.
The 4 berth compartments were luxurious compared to the 6 berth open compartments we had used on the train from Moscow to Irkutsk. We had: Clean windows, a rug, a table (and table cloth which Callum later wrecked with his spilt coffee), our own bed lights, a duvet rather than a woollen blanket, a towel rack, coat pegs and a door! Even the attendant frowned slightly less and the carriage toilet contained air freshener. Luxury.
Monday 4th November
The nights sleep was probably my best since being here and by the following morning I was back in the train routine. Waking up about 11.30 I had a wash, got dressed and prepared lunch. The menu had a slight variance from the last time. Whist the dried mash potato remained a key part of the diet I couldn’t find dried soup and so this had been replaced by a cheap Russian equivalent of a pot noodle. This actually turned out to be a blessing as it was (slightly) more filling. Sadly there was no more advent calendar chocolate however i was able to find the cheap cheesy crisps before leaving.
By about 1.45pm we’d arrived at the Russia/Mongolian border. First we had to vacate the train whilst the carriage was shunted around. We stood around on the station but it was cold so we went inside. Not a lot happened except a local started trying to talk to Gary about the currency of Norway.
After about 1 hour we went outside just our carriage was shunted away but the rest of the train looked ready to go. We were standing around talking when very slowly the train started to leave “uuum guys the train is leaving” I said. “Haha yeah yeah…oh Jesus it is as well” said Chris. At which point we just all started laughing at the potentially disastrous situation we were in. I think we all knew it wasn’t really our train and seeing what we knew was our carriage standing all alone at the border just made us laugh more.
After another hour of waiting around inside we decided to stand by our carriage and by about 4pm we were finally allowed back on board. Now the customs and immigration process began. First we had to hand over our passports a couple of times one of which included staring in to the eyes of the immigration official who took an instant dislike to me because I didn’t realise she was asking me to take my glasses off. We also had to hand over our immigration and registration cards. I haven’t mentioned this process yet but basically in each new city we stayed at we had to register (and pay for the privilege) to say that’s where we were. In return we were provided with a certificate which we had to carry around with us.
I think an hour or so passed during which Gary, Fi Callum and I fell asleep and soon we were being ordered to get all our luggage down whilst every corner of the compartment was checked by a scary looking soldier. As we were now fully accustomed to the whole process wasn’t the most friendly experience. Including the stop at the station it took about 5 hours and by 6.50pm we were finally being shunted over the border to Mongolia to begin the whole process again…