Days spent – 13 days (19 August 2016 to 1 September 2016)
Places visited – Saint Petersburg, Moscow, Irkutsk, Olkhon Island
Things done – Hermitage, walking tour, Saint Isaak Cathedral, Church of our Saviour of the Spilled Blood, Saint Basil’s Cathedral, the Kremlin, Olkhon Island tour
Highlight(s) – Atmosphere, Lake Baikal
Lowlight(s) – Russian unhelpfulness
Cost – £706.35 (£54.33 per day)
Ok, I feel bad, I’ve lied to my Mum. I told her I caught the train perfectly well in Irkutsk, that’s the lie, I didn’t. I had organised to Skype home the evening before I left Russia because I could, and in Mongolia I wouldn’t be able to. I’m watching the departures board and waiting for a platform number but it doesn’t appear. The train arrives in eight minutes, perhaps I better find it, bye Mum. I don’t find it. It’s left without me… When did I get so lackadaisical? When did I become that over-confident? At what point did I start to think that nothing could go wrong? What to do? Well, panic mostly. Not only have I missed the train but my visa expires tomorrow. I quickly realise my only real option is to get a taxi to chase this train! Let the negotiations begin, twenty five thousand rubles, about three hundred and ten pounds, not a good start. I have limited Russian but nyet rolls quite easy off the tongue at that. I try to play the ‘confident, I’m not desperate’ trick but I’m asking to catch a train! I evetually settle on eight thousand and five hundred rubles, about one hundred and five pounds, after much fighting on Google Translate.
The first stop is an ATM because I have no cash because I’m leaving the country. There we wait, and wait and wait. I think we need another driver but I didn’t really know then and I don’t know now. Someone else arrives, he gets in the back and off we go. Traffic is still quite bad in Irkutsk so getting out of the city takes a while. After that my driver morphs into a hybrid of Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton. It was like a death cab, the smell of burning rubber, the scream of the unwilling engine, the mountainous chicanes and hairpins. At one point we nearly have a head-on but it wasn’t the fault of my driver. He’s driving fast but he’s good at it. On an earlier train, I’d joked with people I’d met that I’d read stories online where people take a Russian taxi to catch the train they’d missed. Karma has struck, I wasn’t sure why but I’ve tried to be a better human since. We arrive at a station (I don’t know which one to this day) at ten past eleven, my train is at twenty past. Phew, ten minutes to spare. Except it wasn’t, the train arrived at twenty past eleven but it didn’t depart until five past midnight, fifty five minutes to spare. Perhaps next time I’ll prioritise my safety. At least I’m here to tell the tale and at least when someone asks if I have any interesting or funny stories to tell, I have one!
On the train, I sit in the aisle to charge my phone as I’ve used a lot of battery trying to sort my life out after the above incident and I won’t be near a plug socket tomorrow (or what is now technically today), Skype is also a battery killer. I get chatting to a guy because we’re wearing the same shirt. He’s of Mongolian descent and it becomes immediately obvious to the carriage that I’m English. Not only that, I’m the only Westerner, at least that’s still awake. I seem to be a novelty here. Everyone wants to talk to me about English football etc. And suddenly I’m surrounded by a dozen Russians. They’re all trying to talk to me at once. I feel like a clown!
I love Russia. All you hear before entering are stories about Russian unhelpfulness and them being non-English speakers as if that makes them bad people or something. I wonder if many of these people have actually been to Russia. What struck me was the atmosphere. Both Saint Petersburg and Moscow were a pleasure to be in. Street performers and random dancing in the street. In a restaurant I’m eating at, the waiting staff and I have a good laugh when a sudden thunderstorm assaults us, and they were kind enough to find me a charger! I’d advise anyone to go, and that’s in spite of the difficult and costly visa application process!
That said, those Russian dissenters are partly right. Russian unhelpfulness is pretty rife, especially in the west. You need to be organised here because asking for help is virtually impossible. In Saint Petersburg I’m getting the night train to Moscow. It’s my belief that I need to print my ticket at the station before boarding. After asking at least fifteen people to help I give up and hope for the best on entering the train. As it turns out they only need my passport anyway.
The border getting into Russia wasn’t particularly fun. I miss Schengen! The night bus from Tallinn gets to the border at two am, it leaves at four. Arrival in Saint Petersburg is at six, it’s chucking it down. I’m going to Hermitage. The Russians have told me it’s the largest museum in the world but the French have told me that’s the Louvre! Who to believe? I go to the art bit first because that’s the quietest place to get a ticket. Here we go again, me and art… I go to the top floor to work my way down. I wander into the room, look at that rubbish! Right, let’s see if the have English on these plaques (yes they do – Russia one – France nil). It turns out ‘that rubbish’ is by Henri Matisse. It must be quite famous because even I’ve heard of him! I found the realism section most interesting. It’s cool to see the flaws of consumerism and materialism of Western societies highlighted in that way.
In Saint Petersburg I also visit the Church of our Saviour of the Spilled Blood (yes – most Russian churches have crazy long names). This one has an interesting history. There’s a chapel in there on the site of where Alexander II was fatally wounded, hence the name. In the twenties it was used for storing potatoes, which is interesting given what was going on in Russian at that time. In World War II it was a morgue. Yes, you read that correctly. Another travesty of the war that few talk about. Saint Petersburg in the war was a city under siege. One million people died of starvation. Six thousand per day were dying, the city couldn’t cope so the church was used. I’ve heard great things about the inside of this church, the decoration of the walls is one hundred per cent mosaic. To be honest though, I was a little underwhelmed.
Moscow is the start of my Trans-Mongolian train adventure. You know that meme with Bilbo Baggins skipping through Middle Earth and the caption reads “I’m going on an adventure”? That’s what I feel like! Five thousand, six hundred and twenty three miles to Beijing. The first leg is to Irkutsk where I get off, seventy four hours and forty three minutes later. I know, the maths isn’t easy. That’s three days, two hours and forty three minutes, plus five hours for time difference. Time enough to get to know the Russian family I’m compartmented with, they’re really nice even if the language barrier is a bit of a problem. The carriage I’m in is ninety per cent Russian but I do meet Ho who is Korean and two Swedes called Toby and Marcus (thanks for the entertainment guys). We get to know each other quite well because there is nothing to do. There isn’t much to see either. I’m asleep for the Ural Mountains and it’s dark for Lake Baikal. Travelling through rural Russia, I knew it would be desolate. But I wasn’t prepared for how desolate. It’s easy to go for hours without seeing a car, a person, a road, even a field. I see weird things, like an old lady walking her four goats. The train creates its own market, both on the platforms and off them. On the train you arrange trades with noodle boxes, chocolate and fruit. Off the train baked goods from the locals are available. They sell a weird hot dog cross doughnut type thing, this works miraculously as a concoction somehow. I wouldn’t say it was up there with mojito gelato or currywurst but it’s close. There’s a community feel on this train.
In Irkutsk, I stop and get off the train. I have my first shower since Saint Petersburg! Ahhhhh, bliss. It’s a wonderful shower too. It’s like the hostel knows everyone will be looking forward to a shower more than anything in the world, although to be fair everyone here is doing the train in one direction or the other. Thanks to Kai and Jari for the night out in Irkutsk, it was great. We were in a pub, the Chelsea game was on one screen and Audioslave playing live in Cuba was on another. I was like a dog with two dicks! I head back here after the lake and I’m the only patron there. The guy at the bar puts ‘Classics’ on the TV, am I really that old? First song is Saltwater by Chicane, ahhh tune. Oh god, I am that old… Irkutsk is a great place. But, the real reason I got off here was for Lake Baikal. The largest and deepest freshwater lake in the world. Asia is literally splitting apart here, in several million years it won’t be a lake, it’ll be an ocean.
A weird thing happened at the lake. I get approached by two middle-aged Asian women. Initally they speak Russian at me, no luck. They use their broken English, ah success, I can understand, they want a photo. One of them stands and poses and I go to take the camera from the other… Wait… No… They want a picture of her with me… Wait… What? At what point did I become this photogenic?!
The lake. Damn I love that lake. The lake, the island, the journey to the island (with great people (Jan and Siawjern)), the journey from the lake. A photo that’s my favourite so far of the whole trip (headline photo for this blog too obviously!). It’s a multi-hour bus ride to Olkhon Island from Irkutsk and again, everyone is doing the same thing so I hear a lot about it… I hear it can take four hours. I hear it can take ten hours. I’m advised to wear my seatbelt to prevent my head hitting the roof! It can’t be that bad surely… To start with, it isn’t. The road is quite good and all is well. The bus is old, the windscreen looks as though it’s been in a warzone. The seating layout is weird, behind the ‘cab’ are two seats facing backwards and two seats facing sideways before a normal layout commences. It’s quite good though because it gives a communal feel to it. Jan, Siawjern, myself and a Korean family from Busan have a great time. The Koreans ply us with free food and I hate them for it because it makes me feel guilty. I guess that’s a good reason to dislike a nation’s people, because they’re too nice…! The island is great and Christopher and I do a tour (thanks again for the profile picture Christopoher!) which is really good and includes a lunch with Omul Baikal fish soup, presumably straight from the surrounding waters. The bus back is more modern and quieter. I don’t care, I’m so happy and content that James Blunt comes up on my playlist and I don’t even skip it! I wonder what could go wrong to change things. What could be so bad that would make me want to go home? Six hours later, paragraphs one and two happened! Was that my karma? For thinking those thoughts? I left this paragraph until last because I wanted to remember that feeling that good was and is possible.
Strawbs – written 25 September 2016, published 26 September 2016
I just love this photo…
Who needs Venice when you have Saint Petersburg?
Couldn’t have a Russia blog without these…
The famous cannon at the Kremlin, the cannonballs weigh a tonne, literally!
Kazan Cathedral, my first panorama.
Rome has quadrigas, the Russians had to go two better. In fact, when in Saint Petersburg I felt that parts of Rome had been airlifted in and dumped there.
Olkhon Island – there are some stories here. Some say, this formation looks like an angel’s wings, if a couple struggling to conceive goes up the left wing, they’ll get a boy, the right wing provides a girl and twins for the middle. Others say it’s an elephant’s ears. Our tour driver says it’s a woman’s legs…!