A Travellerspoint blog

October 2012

There’s No Answer for That…

sunny 1 °C

As we near the end of the Russian leg of our trip we realize that there are things that puzzle us here:
To obtain a Russian visa it is necessary to provide an invitation from all of the hotels you will stay at – obviously a problem. Or you can simply pay $20 to someone in cyberspace and receive a completely bogus, but perfectly acceptable, invitation by email.
If your bags are missing on arrival don’t list the actual contents – copy the list that the customs officer gives you because she can understand that.
Russians drive on the right side of the road – the same as Canada – so why are two-thirds of all cars in Eastern Siberia right-hand drive models – the same as England?
Russian women have nice hairdos and clean clothes. But where are all the hairdressers and dry-cleaners? We have seen neither – though they must be there.

Here are some questions from blog readers that we can answer:
Catherine wondered if we had already left Lake Baikal before she pointed out that we could have swum there – Yes we had.
Jean asked where all the horrible places are today – try Guantanamo Bay Jean.
Tony was very interested in Olga’s woolly undies – but he is from Yorkshire!
Tom was curious about the washrooms on the Trans-Siberian. Believe it or not they are very smart aircraft type washrooms though much larger – and, just like every washroom we’ve become acquainted with in Russia, spotlessly clean. Here’s a look at the loo as we take our last train in Russia – from Irkutsk to Ulan-Ude, skirting the southern end of Lake Baikal...
This leg is by far the most scenic of our trip so far, with great views of the lake…
And ranges of snow covered mountains…
This is the playground of Siberia. Communities of small dachas line the lakeshore and riversides and millions flock here to escape the heat in the short Siberian summers when temperatures climb to 40c in the cities. In winter the frigid alpine slopes attract skiers and hunters...
Ulan-Ude in southeastern Siberia marks the end of the line on our Russian adventure. Now we will join the Trans-Mongolian and begin our trek back through the seasons. From the Siberian snows we will head south across the Gobi desert into a Mongolian autumn and keep going until we hit summer on the other side of the equator. But first a quick look at the most important monument in Ulan-Ude…
No – we haven’t shrunk. Uncle Len really has the biggest big head in the world – a whopping 42 tons of cast bronze. But, despite Lenin’s gigantic presence here, Ulan-Ude isn’t really Russian; it’s the capital of the Buryat republic, the ancestral home of the northernmost tribe of Mongols, and it is a world away from all the other cities we’ve visited. Don’t tell the Buryats, but the rest of the country has left them behind. Although this is the nearest we will get to North America on this trip, the West hasn’t made it this far. If you want to catch a glimpse of Soviet Russia before McDonald’s turns it all into a junk food heaven then Ulan-Ude is the place for you. But it isn’t pretty. This is a city of Soviet style apartment blocks, with giant smokestacks polluting the air...
The shops are full of cheap Chinese goods and the streets teem with Asian faces.
Fortunately, we like Asian food and we were happy to find this little Vietnamese restaurant…
… but we were the only customers eating there.


Posted by Hawkson 16:51 Archived in Russia Comments (4)

Wish You Were Here?

An invitation to the seaside from sunny Siberia.

sunny -9 °C
View Through Siberia to China and Beyond on Hawkson's travel map.

Why not hang up your hiking boots, slip on your Speedo, and join us on the beach in Listvyanka – Siberia’s answer to the Côtes d’Azur…

Just look at all that lovely icy water in Lake Baikal – more fresh water than all of The Great lakes combined - perfect for a Polar bear swim. Here’s the diving board…
But wait … what does this pesky sign mean Catherine…?
Shucks – foiled again. Guess we'll have to wait for New Year's Day as usual. Maybe we’ll have some of Olga’s fish and chips on the pier instead…
You know you’re at the seaside in Siberia when the fish lady wears woolly undies and a fur-lined kiss-me-quick hat. But that isn’t a nice fillet of cod in Olga’s mitt – that’s an omul. What’s an omul? A local delicacy the size of a trout that the natives eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner: raw, smoked, stewed, baked, fried or grilled - it’s amazing what you can do with an omul when you have a lake full of them on your doorstep.
Omuls rule here, but by dinner time on our first day we were omulled out, so Sheila went for the medallions of wild boar with tomatoes stuffed with cheese curds and pine nuts, while James ordered the “Turk with cranberry sauce” believing it had a Thanksgiving ring to it, (the only other alternative being a dish enigmatically described on the menu as “Feathers with rice”). So, imagine James’ surprise when Turk turned out to be Omul! Yup! You really can have too much of a good thing – delicacy or no delicacy.

Lake Baikal is the world’s deepest lake, containing 20 percent of the world’s fresh water, and in midsummer it can hit a sizzling 14 degrees. O.K. It’s not exactly the Mediterranean, but when they say fresh they mean fresh…
This lake is so clean and clear that water foulers can be spotted from space - And don’t mess with the toilet attendant either…
With daytime highs currently hitting a toasty minus 8 degrees (though it gets a little chilly in the evenings) why not bundle up the kids and head out for a fun day at the beach…
Or you can take advantage of this balmy spell for a picnic with friends…
Either way… Listvyanka, Lake Baikal…
It isn’t the French Riviera, but it’s a great place to chill out for a few days before getting back on track for Mongolia.

Posted by Hawkson 03:05 Archived in Russia Tagged listvyanka Comments (7)

Irkutsk - le Paris de l'Est


We have solved the riddle of Russian time travel, (no formula necessary).
Russia spans one-third of the earth's circumference and the Trans-Siberian trains take a week to travel the eight time zones from Moscow to Vladivostok, or vice-versa, passing through a zone roughly once a day. But the trains’ speeds are inconstant and the time zones are not equidistant; meaning that clocks and watches on each train need to be changed at a different time every day otherwise passengers will alight in the wrong place, or, worse still, the drivers could end up playing ‘bumper-trains.’ Therefore, to prevent confusion and accidents, the whole show is set to the same beat; every clock on every train and station in the country marches to Moscow’s metronome irrespective of the local rhythm. So, continuing on the musical score, all railway and station clocks in Vladivostok are set 8 hours slow, meaning that Gladys Knight’s memorable hit, “I’m leaving – On the midnight train to Moscow”, should actually be, “I’m leaving – On the four o’clock afternoon train to Moscow.” Consequently, by keeping all railway clocks permanently on Moscow time, the Russians not only avoid nasty accidents, they also prevent Motown from producing lyrics that don’t scan.
Now, as we have been travelling eastwards for the past month, local time has always been ahead of Moscow time, and whenever we boarded a train we gained a number of hours – until we alighted and left the station at the next city and real time caught up with us again. Confused? We hope not.
The handsome city of Irkutsk in Siberia is as far east of London as our Canadian home is west, which means that we have now travelled precisely two-thirds of the way around the world (and are 16 hours older than had we stayed home). However, had we dropped in by parachute, we might have thought that we were in Cannes or some other French provincial city.
The elegant stores lining Irkutsk’s main shopping street have “Paris” written all over them. L’Occitane, Cartier and Louis Vuitton vie with French restaurants and cafés on a street named in honour of Karl Marx, the man who called capitalism the ‘dictatorship of the Bourgeoisie’, and the girl in the coffee house says, “Bon appetite,” as she serves our café au lait.

There are numerous architectural gems and the city is bursting with elegant pre-Soviet cathedrals and merchants' palaces…
In addition to large numbers of traditional wooden houses…
Unfortunately, climate and time have not been kind to the architectural wonders of this place and we cannot help thinking that the locals are simply waiting for these beautiful old buildings to fall down so that they can build something new – something like this futuristic market hall…
…unquestionably, the cleanest, brightest, most advanced market hall that we have ever encountered. You really could eat your dinner off the floor – in a market!

Irkutsk may be deep into Asia but there seems little really ‘foreign’ here, apart from this pub…
Yes, under a thick blanket of Siberian snow, we found a genuine English pub. But this is not an English pub in name alone. There are real Scottish bagpipes, a whisky still and genuine English beers pumps, and on the walls are posters for Wright’s coal tar soap, Benger’s baby food and even cricket bats…
But why?
It seems that in 1997 ‘The Royal Standard’, a famous old Bradford drinking house, burned down and an enterprising Russian salvaged everything possible and shipped it to Irkutsk to furnish a bar in the city’s top hotel as a novelty.

It is certainly novel, and we felt right at home. However the best thing about The London Pub in Siberia is the food. No, there are no jellied eels or pie and mash, but the four course Russian lunches are quite superb and only cost six quid, (nine bucks), each.

Posted by Hawkson 03:42 Archived in Russia Comments (6)

Time Machine

snow 0 °C

When H.G.Wells was writing about the adventures of ‘The Time Traveller’, in his 1895 sci-fi novella The Time Machine, little did he know that the Russian railways were already way ahead of him. And, with a track record going back over one hundred years, the Trans-Siberian train is not only the longest railway on the planet it is still the world’s only bone-fide time machine.
Here’s one of Russia’s earlier time machines…
And this is the very latest model, called the Sapsan…
But time travel is not the only technological achievement of the Russians. A Russian invented the monorail in 1820 while another, Sikorsky, built the first passenger airliner in 1913. Perhaps equally remarkable is the fact that a Russian, Boris Rosing, first demonstrated television in 1907 – eighteen years before John Logie Baird claimed the invention for the Brits. However, all these time warping inventions – and even Russia’s greatest ‘first’ of space travel – pale into insignificance compared to the miracle railway that daily swings thousands of passengers back and forth in time with the ease of a pendulum.
Here’s James enjoying the experience of going back in time…
Long distance travel always gives us glimpses into the past and we have previously experienced the shifting of time on our travels in south Asia, where camel carts and ox-ploughs are still the norm. But this is not the medieval landscape of rural India. Russian woodsmen and farmers may live in rustic trackside cottages but they drive jeeps and tractors and follow the commodity markets on their I-Pads…
So, you ask, how do we know the Russian railways secretly operate time machines?
Take our recent overnight trip from Krasnoyarsk to Irkutsk. When we board it is definitely 1.30pm. (we know because we just finished a filling lunch). Then “Bam!” we get caught in a time-warp and suddenly we’re four hours younger. It’s now only 9.30am. and we are being served a hearty breakfast by a young stewardess who can’t understand why we’re not gobbling down her sausages.
But it gets worse: the following morning when we alight in Irkutsk we discover that we’ve lost another hour. The clocks on the train and the station claim that it’s 2.30 in the morning, but it’s not the middle of the night, it’s the middle of rush hour, and our taxi driver assures us that it is nearly 8am. We are suddenly 5 hours older than we thought we were when we left Moscow. No wonder our bags seem heavier – we have inexplicably aged.
This keeps happening - but as soon as we start to feel our age, we hop on a train and immediately become younger. We should soon be turning south across the Gobi desert to Ulaan-bator in Mongolia but we are tempted to keep going east to Vladivostock where, on the train, we would be a full 8 hours younger than our present selves. And what if we were to keep going? With a hop, skip and a leap we could be across the Pacific, and home, where today is still yesterday, and we would be younger still. But why stop there?

But hold on - all this time travel is beginning to wear us down. Perhaps, dear blog reader, you could help us solve this mystery of time travel while we chill out for a few days and get acclimatized to the snow and to old age.
Answers on a postcard please to: Sheila and James somewhere in eastern Siberia.

Posted by Hawkson 03:35 Archived in Russia Comments (5)

The Snows of Siberia

snow -2 °C

Siberia is a mysterious mythical land that has no name in the cartographer’s lexicon. It lies somewhere east of the Urals and west of the Pacific, south of the North Pole and north of almost everywhere else. With its dense birch forests, its vast grasslands and its inhospitable tundra, it is both alluring and menacing. To a traveler it seems almost endless and timeless, rich yet poor, cold yet hot. And to a Russian it has either been home or hell.
A few threads of steel have stretched unbroken across this land since 1894 and the railway will be forever linked with Stalin’s ignominious gulags, but travelling across Siberia by train today is a wonderful experience...
The carriages and sleepers are warm, comfortable and very clean; the staff (generally) helpful; the other passengers a complete cross-section of everyday Russians. While most took English at school few are willing to risk embarrassment, but they are all pleasant and respectful - one lady even nudging James aside and making his bed when she felt he was underachieving in that department. There have been many pleasing surprises on this journey but perhaps the greatest has been the warmth, generosity and attractiveness of the people. Forget the sergeant-majorly stereotypes of the Soviet era women; forget the Bolshevik images of fat farm workers singing patriotic songs as they harvest the grain. Today’s women are just as chic, coutured and manicured as any in London or Paris. The cafes, restaurants and stores teem with hordes of beautiful young women and hip young men, while the older generation have mostly sloughed off the pounds and their drab clothes, bought themselves cellphones, I-Pads and Audis, and caught up with the western world in every respect.
However, as we progressed further into Siberia, and deeper into Asia, we expected to see changes. Krasnoyarsk may be nearly five thousand kilometers from the sophisticated boulevards of St. Petersburg, and may lack the grandeur of that city, but at street level we hardly noticed the difference – apart from the snow.
Yes, dear blog reader, winter’s icy hand has finally dealt us a blow. We don’t mind – after all it wouldn’t seem like Siberia without snow, and we have woolly socks and warm boots. Unlike many of the young women who, like fashionistas anywhere, are suffering in their stockings and high heels.
This mammoth in Krasnoyarsk's museum is also feeling the cold, but he lost his woolly coat 100 thousand years ago.

Posted by Hawkson 00:40 Archived in Russia Tagged travel train trans-siberian Comments (7)

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