До Свидания Russia

Posted on October 2, 2012

We have arrived in Beijing and I could already write a lot about it. But I won’t do that now because I don’t want all of our Russia impressions to get lost in time and memory. This post is intended two give a rather brief overview about our time there (but fails to be brief). More detailed stories are following soon (I hope).

Москва

We arrived in the late afternoon in Moscow Domodedovo and proceeded to the German embassy to meet a friend of A. We grossly underestimated the time it took us to get there. Moscow is huge! And busy like hell during rush hour. And I mean seriously busy. And huge. Berlin is tiny and calm compared to Moscow at rush hour.

Nonetheless we had a very nice evening in Moscow with some beer, квас and great Ukrainian food (don’t ask). The next day, we did the usual sight seeing before getting our bags out of the embassy and going back to Domodedovo to catch our plane to Irkutsk. All in all, our Moscow trip was short and intense, but we enjoyed it nonetheless. One thing about Domodedovo: guys, broken and rotten airplanes are not the best decoration for an airport. It creates nervous feelings.

Lake Baikal

This marks the start of an amazing, yet exhausting week in Siberia. We arrived in Иркутск (Irkutsk) before sunrise, somehow managed to get on a trolley bus to the center and walked the rest to the hostel, at which we intended to stay a week later. At the hostel, we woke the poor lady in charge that day, dropped off some of our baggage, we wouldn’t need in Russia and left again. Without sleep or real breakfast, we moved to the ferry port to take the boat to Листвянка (Lystvyanka) - at least that was the plan. However the boat was already sold out. This was a bit off a downer.

We were not the only ones who were in this sad situation. There were two Russian couples in their early thirties with their children who wanted to go to Lystvyanka as well. It is safe to say there was a slight language barrier between us. They decided to go there by Маршгутка (Marschrutka) instead of the boat and kindly offered to take us along. Although it took them and us a while to communicate that.

If you’ve never been in a Marschrutka before, this can be a bit scary and it absolutely deserves a post of its own. Lets just say, it was a relief to do it together with locals for the first time. About an hour later we arrived in Lystvyanka - sleep deprived and tired. This might add up to the fact that we were a bit disappointed about it. Lake Baikal is beautiful! But Lystvyanka is a rather boring tourist trap for Russians. And off-season there really wasn’t that much to do or see. Somehow we were expecting more.

Therefore we changed our plan a bit and got on the ferry to Port Baikal on the opposite side of the River Ангара (Angara). The ferry looked a bit… Let’s call her battle proven.

Port Baikal also deserves its own entry. A long time ago it must have been a thriving place – a key port to the Trans Siberian Express. Now it is just a shadow of its former self. But it has a calm, melancholic beauty and is a good place to start short hikes. We stayed there for two nights, had a great time and met some wonderful people who are now new friends of ours (Ivan & Mascha).

In Port Baikal we also discovered that our original plan of going directly to Слюдянка (Sludyanka) via train was not feasible. The time schedule of the trains is a bit weird. So we went back to Lystvyanka via ferry, took another Marschrutka (this time on our own) to Irkutsk and stayed there for an unplanned night.

After we arrived in Irkutsk, we must have looked a bit lost because a lady, that was on the same Marschrutka asked us if we might need help. Turned out, she was German and lived in the area for a while now. She recommended us a nice pension (Pension Galina), called there to make sure, they have room for us and told us the way. Then she disappeared. We were very thankful (and lucky) we met her. The pension was very nice. Galina herself looks a bit like a friendly witch. She lives in an old, wooden house with a beautiful cat and makes amazing влини for breakfast. And she even talks a bit German.

After our first shower in days and a good night of sleep, we left her in the early morning to take the regional train to Sludyanka.

At the train station, two young Americans (?) approached us: “do you speak English?” We said yes. “Very good! Here, this says…” At that point we interrupted them and told them, we don’t really speak Russian. Did we really already looked like locals to them? We tried anyway but couldn’t really help them. They had some sort of trouble getting their preordered train ticket. I hope they somehow figured it out.

Siberian Taiga

We went to Sludyanka in order to hike up to Пик Черского (peak Cherskogo) and see lake heart. It is said to be good for a young couple to see lake heart together. I guess we are on the safe side now because in the end we did manage to see the lake. However we would not have made it without the help of two other nice people we met in Sludyanka.

Since we arrived in Sludyanka too late to start the hike the same day, we stayed for a night at the local mineral museum that also has a guest house. We asked them whether it is possible to get up to the peak and back down on the same day. Apparently it has been done before but it requires top physical condition. We decided to try.

In the evening however two middle aged men also arrived there: Andrei and Nikolai. They had a slightly longer hike planned than ours (with a much more relaxed time schedule). But the peak was their first stop as well. They offered to take us along with them. And they assured us that there is a base camp were we could sleep (even without a sleeping bag). We agreed to join them and spend the following night together with them at the camp.

Nikolai is a professional guide in the area and his skills were very useful. The next day started rainy which would quickly turn into snowy as we progressed. And hiking in Russia is different. The trail is not really marked. You can see where people usually walk and that is it. No painted trees or rocks like on European routes. And with a few cm of snow, it is very easy to loose the trail. But Nikolai knew the area very well and got us safely to the Base camp.

The two days with Nikolai and Andrei are also worth a separate post. In short, we managed to get to the lake together. However A. and myself sadly had to turn around a few hundred meters before we could reach the actual peak to get back to Sludyanka in the evening.

TransSib

We had to make it back down that day because we had tickets to a 2nd class sleeping car in the trans sib to Улан Уле (Ulan Ude). The train departed around midnight local time. If you ever get to take a train in Russia, be aware: times are always announced in Moscow time - no matter where and in which time zone you are!

The sleeping car was quite pleasant and we had a four person cabin just for us. We even managed to get a few hours of sleep. In Ulan Ude, we did the usual sight seeing. Learned a bit about buriat culture and visited a Buddhist temple. After some buriat food in the evening, we got to the station again to catch another train the same evening back to Irkutsk. But this time in 3rd class. Lets just say, the difference is obvious and the ride was not as pleasant as the first one.

Irkutsk - finally

We arrived late in the night (~ 2:00), got to the hostel where our baggage was stored, took the second shower in Siberia and slept. We slept well and long.

After we finally got up and had a little breakfast - nah… lunch - at a wonderful small place that had tasty local food, some culture: the local art museum which claims to be the biggest in Siberia. Later in the afternoon, we met Ivan and Mascha again and spent some great time together. They showed us a bit around in Irkutsk. We went to a fire jugglers spectacle and finally settled down in a local brewpub (!!!) that had a few really good beers! (I have to tag it in open street map soon so it’ll show up in the openbrewpub map). In the end, we said goodbye at the Аеропорт around 23.30 and tried to check in to our flight to Beijing. If you ever get to Irkutsk, be aware, the Аеропорт and the Airport are different buildings! However, they are right next to each other. One is for domestic and the other for international flights.

Take away

In the end, we both agree, that we had a very exhausting but wonderful time in Siberia. The nature is breathtakingly beautiful. Surprisingly similar to german nature but on a much bigger scale. You can see up to the horizon without a trace of human constructions. If you enjoy hiking, consider visiting the Baikal area! However, without A.’s sparse Russian skills we would have had problems - basic understanding of the Russian language is a requirement in the area.

Another thing that is very different: the extreme temperature difference between day and night. The afternoons were usually very fit for t shirts. However as soon as the sun set, temperature fell quickly below zero. The upside: no moskitos. This makes the Siberian autumn a great time for a visit!

One more thing must be mentioned: the people in the area! Each and every one of the people (except one - who was very drunk), we had direct interactions with in Siberia were extremely kind, friendly and tried to help us as much as possible. In that sense: thanks to everyone and до свидания!