Day 15 on Trans-Siberian Railway: A day in Irkutsk

It is time to say good-bye. To the tiny village in the middle of nowhere going by the name Bugul’deyka, to the tranquil waters of Lake Baikal and to our kind host Volodya. And such moments can often get emotional. Especially when you get to experience special places and meet special people along the way. This one good-bye is shaping definitely out to be a pretty emotional one. Before we get to the tears welling in the eyes, waving farewell and shining the last smiles, there is still the last breakfast to be enjoyed in the company of Romanovs.

Yep you heard it right! Romanovs – the last tsarist dynasty of Russia. In this era where your every move, wish and preference can be tracked and predicted, a series about the Romanovs popped up on our Netflix radar as we were making our way through the vast Russian empire. How convenient. And so in the company of Romanovs we enjoyed a quiet morning in our Buryat home until the clock stroke 09:30 and it was time to head to Irkutsk.

The car is packed, and a sentimental walk around the house and the courtyard to bid farewell is accomplished. What is left is an emotional good-bye with Volodya. He managed to turn it into a beautiful, tear-filled ceremony as he put on his full Buryat suit and came bearing gifts.

Volodya clad in his full Buryat outfit came out to see us off

Volodya clad in his full Buryat outfit came out to see us off

Remember I told you some time ago, that you might get a chance to meet Volodya. Well here you go. A kind, kind soul that made our trip so special with his stories, kindness and humble personality.

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Irkutsk is calling. A dusty, yet beautiful 4 hour drive in a right-hand car takes us to our destination. Being driven in a right-hand drive vehicle in a country where the traffic is officially left-handed can easily turn to an exhilarating experience. As you move from west to east in Russia you start noticing a few wrong sided adventurers, but wait until you reach Mongolia. There right-hand seems to be more the norm than the exception.

View from our hotel room over Irkutsk

View from our hotel room over Irkutsk

Four hours later we arrive to the very heart of Irkutsk to find the central streets and squares closed off for traffic. Apparently there is this thing called Silk Way Rally and it is slated to launch the day of our departure from nowhere else but Irkutsk and take on Russia, Mongolia and China. So the whole city is filled with show-off offroad vehicles. At this point Andreas is totally ecstatic and half-contemplating a change of plans to stay a day longer in Irkutsk.

This being our last day in Russia and preceding a yet another 24 hour train ride across the border to Mongolia, we decided to treat ourselves real nice and check into the fanciest hotel that Irkutsk has to offer with a real bed and a real shower. Apparently majority of Silk Way Rally participants had the same idea and so the hotel lobby and restaurant is filled up with groups from all corners of the world.

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IMG_0914The sun is shining, it is a gorgeous day, the city is smiling and that all you need for smiling back. Irkutsk turns out to be such a charming city. Pity we only have a few hours to explore. We end up walking for hours and hours exploring small, cosy streets and big Soviet avenues.

Welcome to Irkutsk!

Welcome to Irkutsk!

No matter where you go, you will find Chinese tourists even in the most remote locations.

No matter where you go, you will find Chinese tourists even in the most remote locations. And one thing they never fail doing is taking selfies and posing for photos

Guess policemen also need a break

Guess policemen also need a break

IMG_3723What made me fall in love with Irkutsk are its wooden houses. We found a whole bunch of them scattered around in the city hunched over from the years of service and neglect, yet standing still proudly to tell stories of former days of glory. Even in their state of total despair, neglect and lack of loving care, they don’t fail to catch your eye.

Me wandering from one wooden house to another, admiring its architecture, colours and shapes.

Me wandering from one wooden house to another, admiring its architecture, colours and shapes.

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Wooden house trail leads us to the Soviet neighbourhoods

What a beauty!

What a beauty!

Circus building - an important remnant of Soviet times. For some reason having a dedicated building for circus was quite a thing in the Soviet republics.

Circus building – an important remnant of Soviet times. For some reason having a dedicated building for circus was quite a thing in the Soviet republics.

Another pretty sight of former glory

Another pretty sight of former glory

Definitely Soviet architecture - quite cool!

Definitely Soviet architecture – quite cool!

Entrance to an apartment complex - typical Soviet look and feel again

Entrance to an apartment complex – typical Soviet look and feel again

Marx Street - one of the main streets in Irkutsk

Marx Street – one of the main streets in Irkutsk

Oh hello there - of course we had to find a red star somewhere

Oh hello there – of course we had to find a red star somewhere

Lenin square. Lenin and The Internationale on the wall next to him.

Lenin square. Lenin and The Internationale on the wall next to him.

After exploring the streets of Irkutsk for hours, finding pre-Soviet, Soviet and post-Soviet traces imprinted all over, we end up at Kvartal 130. Based on the recommendation of the hotel receptionist it was an area totally worth checking out, claiming to have replicas of Siberian style wooden houses. Oh we found the houses alright – nothing charming about them. What we also found was a totally touristic, soulless pedestrian street filled with loud restaurants, encircled by shopping stalls and malls and caged animals kept for petting.

Don't ask why - this creature was the main design icon in the biggest shopping mall

Don’t ask why – this creature was the main design icon in the biggest shopping mall

This icon outside the mall was much more relatable.

I love Irkutsk - yes, I have to agree!

I love Irkutsk – yes, I have to agree!

Leaving Kvartal 130 behind we head back through the city, greeting Lenin on the way to find our home for the night.

Lenin keeping a watchful eye over the city

Lenin keeping a watchful eye over the city

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It is the last few hours in Russia, I cannot believe tomorrow we will bid farewell to this beautiful land and cross the border to Mongolia. I seriously do NOT want to leave the comfy bed!!! The thought of getting up at 06:00 tomorrow morning to catch a 23 hour train ride to Ulanbataar sounds absolutely brutal. This is what goes on in my mind as I lay my head on the softest pillow ever.

Good night Irkutsk!

Good night Irkutsk!

Photos © Andreas Eriksen & Ani Movsisyan

Day 11 on Trans-Siberian Railway: Privet Irkutsk!

IMG_03052 days 5 hours and 33 minutes, 3,500 km of distance, crossing 3 time zones… they just flew by. The documentary series ranging from Our Planet to Rotten loaded on my phone in the anticipation of the long hours on the train did not get fully utilised. It turns out I am more into reading on the train than watching films. Second revelation – time really just flew by.

It is nearing 06:22 – the ETA for pulling into Irkutsk railway station. And once again the Russian railway system is hits the metric for timeliness. On the dot the train pulls up at the train station. If this trend continues I will have to consider modifying German punctuality and adding a Russian twist to that.

Welcome to Irkutsk. A quick hello and goodbye as we head to our home for the next 5 days tucked away by the shores of Lake Baikal

Welcome to Irkutsk. A quick hello and goodbye as we head to our home for the next 5 days tucked away by the shores of Lake Baikal

The train comes to a stop. Commotion in the train corridor as carriage doors are pulled open and passengers starts marching towards the exit. The pleasant connections once forged in the train are now being pulled apart in a hasty manner. Going down the train steps and into the platform we become strangers again. Everyone rushes out into the open world waiting for them. A quick goodbye to our neghbours – the Russian grandma and her grandson – is all there is to say. They hurry out the train living behind a pleasant memory. One can’t stop but feel sentimental, at least I do.

Enough sentimentality, Irkutsk is waiting, looking all pretty and sunny. Our host Volodya is delayed in picking us up in his Soviet furgon, so there is nothing else to do but to find somewhere to get some food.

Breakfast in once glorious now spooky looking palace room turned into a sad hole

Breakfast in once glorious now spooky looking palace room turned into a sad hole

We didn’t have to go far to find this glorious ballroom that in the height of its fame in the Soviet years was probably quite the place to be seen in. Now in its ramshackle state it felt kind of spooky actually. A huge hall with a small counter on the side serving a sad menu of blinis and grechka (boiled buckwheat, the Russian equivalent of rice), the two kitchen dames looking stern and unwelcoming, half of the tables overturned and the rest looking like they could use a much needed upgrade into the modern age. At least the ballroom was light and airy and you half expected palace guests to flung open the big white doors and waltz right in.

The breakfast ordeal in the grand room is well accomplished. An hour has passed and still no trace of Volodya… Traffic jams we are told. Waiting out in the morning sun seems like a good idea giving us a chance to observe the flow of passengers in and out of the railway station.

As the second hour is approaching to its close, Andreas notices his dream car – a grey UAZ pull into the parking lot. Volodya is here finally together with his friend heading to Volodya’s mother’s place to help them build a new guesthouse! We hurry towards this kind looking man of Buryat origin as he walks in hurried steps and with outstretched arms to give us a welcome hug. Perhaps you will get a chance to meet Volodya in a later post, if not I tell you he has the kindest face and as it turns out is a very humble and quiet soul. Russian quickly becomes our speaking language as we strike up conversation like old acquaintances reunited again. Even Andreas seems to be catching up quickly with his small vocabulary of Russian words and Volodya spices the conversation up with his equally small German lingo.

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Volodya puts the UAZ in gear and on we roll first onto the paved streets of Irkutsk that after a while turn into dusty offroads. Our destination is a small village called Bugul’deyka north of Irkutsk by the shore of Lake Baikal. The 230 km will take around 4 hours to cross we are told. Well we are not in a hurry – everything is new and exciting and someone is excited like a kid to be riding in an UAZ.

Shortly into the roadtrip we realise that the Soviet design of our beautiful UAZ failed to consider modern amenities such as A/C. Let alone that the ingenious design of the van makes the windows in the back area close shut after a few bumps on the road. Very convenient given it is over 30 degrees of Celsius outside. Good we have an engineer on board – it didn’t take long for Andreas to design an A/C for our UAZ ride.

Good we have an engineer on board - it didn't take long for Andreas to design an A/C in the UAZ

Good we have an engineer on board – it didn’t take long for Andreas to design an A/C for our UAZ ride

Opening his bag to find one of the tools he always carries – a heavy-duty string, he quickly musters up an ingenious A/C system to force the window to stay open and allow for air to flow in. Now I finally feel appreciation for why he always insists on carrying his camping tools with him. I am making a mental note for myself to stop commenting on his habit on packing 3 kg of weight in his bag at all times when travelling consisting solely of various camping equipment.

With handmade A/C running efficiently we hit off the road again. Seems like a world apart from the tightly packed avenues of Moscow. And it couldn’t have been any  farther, we are more than 5,000 km away from the glamorous capital. The road here is open vastness covered with green fields, roaming horses and wild flowers.

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The symbol of Bugul'deyka area.

The symbol of the area. Volodya said that Bugul’deyka means the pasture where deer graze. So it only seemed appropriate to pay respects to the beautiful statue before continuing our roadtrip.

After four hours or so of bumpy and dusty ride we arrive at the village of Bugul’deyka. This will be our home for the next five days staying with the family of Volodya – all Buryat people native of the area. In the words of Volodya, Buryat are the descendants of the forest Mongols, while the Mongols living in Mongolia are the steppe (grassland) Mongols. Good to know. It is a mini introduction to what is expecting us on the other side of the border in the neighbouring Mongolia.

Our home in Bugul'deyka

Our home in Bugul’deyka is hidden behind the UAZ beauty

 

From five star hotels in posh Moscow to long drop toilets in the end of Russia - life is beautiful

From five star hotels in posh Moscow to long drop toilets in the end of Russia – life is beautiful

The house complex comes with a banya - every evening it gets heated up for shower purposes at least in the summer

The house complex comes with a banya – every evening it gets heated up for shower purposes at least in the summer

After getting a tour of our home and the key attractions – the toilet and the banya, we set off for the main draw of the area and of the highlight of our trip – Lake Baikal. It is just two km away from Bugul’deyka. We get there close to the sunset to find an absolute beauty.

Lake Baikal -  so still and pretty

Lake Baikal – so still and pretty

IMG_3042IMG_3028Lake Baikal – I am left mesmerised by its beauty, as I gaze to its still waters and a surface calm like a mirror with the sun softly dancing on it. Volodya standing next to me, looks longingly at the water, pointing at some yellow particles that are not supposed to be there and says quietly that the lake used to be so clean 10 years ago. A result of human contamination along the shores of it. Not dangerous he adds, you can swim it. I am not much of a swimmer, but it doesn’t take long for my Danish half to jump into the water which is clearly freezing cold for my taste being around 10 degrees but just perfect for his.

After a while we head back onto the road again. Volodya wants to show us his favourite panoramic spot. We drive into the forest to find a beautiful carpet of wild flowers. Everywhere you look – pretty flowers in shades of pink, purple, white and blue smile at you. My joy couldn’t be more complete. Siberia is so full of surprises. Wild flowers is not the thing that comes to mind when you think of Siberia. For me this vast land has always been associated with perpetual snow and freezing cold temperatures.

Wild flower fields everywhere - my happy place

Wild flower fields everywhere – my happy place

internal.5977f0ccffb34b44625e4ea918ab1781.DO01034073As I go crazy with taking pictures of all the pretty flowers I can find, I notice that annoying little creatures are feasting at my legs. Nasty mosquitoes are really having a blast. Within the 15 minutes that we spent in the forest, I was left with probably just as many humongous mosquito bites. Andreas got his share too. I think Volodya on the other hand must have some kind of magic potion on him that repels the annoying flies. Either that or the flies don’t touch the locals. The wild flowers are worth it though I try to tell myself… though during the next couple of days as my itching urges intensify I am not sure I still stay of the same naive opinion.

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After some short time of admiring the nature, we call it a day and head back home. At least some of us do. The fish in the family, aka Andreas decides that the swim in Lake Baikal is not enough for him. He also wants to test the waters in the local river. Armed with a newly mastered Russian expression – paydyom plavat (let’s go swim), Volodya and he set off to have an evening swim in the river.
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I turn to my exciting book world. After finishing the second Jan Guillou Hamilton book, I have transferred myself to India to read about a deceptive, disgusting and scary world of generic drugs. It is unfortunately depicting a reality we live in. Don’t even ask why. Bottle of Lies by Katherine Eban. Just read it and I promise it will scare the hell out of you and you will think twice next time you buy a drug that is generic. The world we live in can be so twisted and dirty.

To drive the crazy generic drug thoughts away I look at the wild flowers again to put a smile back on my face. It does the trick. Good night from Siberia!

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Photos © Andreas Eriksen & Ani Movsisyan

Day 8 on Trans-Siberian Railway: Yekaterinburg -> Irkutsk (2d 5h 33 min)

Dobroe utro from Yekaterinburg! It is our last day here as we prepare to embark on a 2 day 53 hour and 33 minute train journey through Siberia to Irkutsk. It is going to be an exciting ride.

We decide to pamper ourselves in preparation for the long train ride and basically spent a good part of the day indulging on Russian/French delicacies. How does the French cuisine come into the picture? Well, have some patience, you will find out later. In between the restaurant visits we managed to take an exhilarating taxi ride to the border of Europe and Asia and a good-bye stroll in the city. Our morning starts with a visit to Vysotsky Tower and skyline breakfast.

Vysotsky Tower sticking out amidst Soviet architecture of Yekaterinburg

Vysotsky Tower sticking out amidst Soviet architecture of Yekaterinburg

Panorama restaurant on one of the top floors of the Vysotsky Tower

Panorama restaurant on one of the top floors of the Vysotsky Tower

Another Ural specialty - sea buckthorn tea mixed with orange slices and other herbs

Another delicious Ural specialty – sea buckthorn tea mixed with orange slices and other herbs

Yekaterinburg in all its glory

Yekaterinburg in all its glory – view from the Panorama restaurant

Blocks and blocks of Soviet style architecture

Blocks and blocks of colourful buildings

Descending from the sky, we called a Yandex cab to the take us to the point where Europe stops officially and Asia takes over. The 15 minute ride was nothing short of exhilarating. With the driver looking like he just escaped prison with a toothpick in his month and the phone in his hand manoeuvring the busy city traffic… To his question “Should I wait to take you back to the city or you are going to stay here”, the quick response that followed was: “No, thanks. We are staying!”

The monument marking the continental division point is a very Soviet, very serious sign. Nothing special about it, other than two words saying Europe and Asia. A little bit of creativity wouldn’t hurt. At least the nearby souvenir store tried to make up for the Soviet dullness.

This is the point where Europe stops officially and Asia takes over

This is the point where Europe stops officially and Asia takes over

This cute souvenir could make for a better and a far more exciting landmark than the Soviet pillar

This cute souvenir could make for a better and a far more exciting landmark than the Soviet pillar. No surprises there – the brown bear signifies the European part and the cute, chubby panda – the Asian.

Staying on our side of the continents

Staying on our side of the continents

The landmark is set by a small forest and in the forest you find a few curiosities – a playground to keep the kids busy, while the parents tie a ribbon to the wish tree and pose in the Gates of Love.

Gates of love, say the two endearing swans

Gates of love, say the two endearing swans

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Look up, up, up…

Getting a more civilised taxi ride back to the city, we arrive at Le Grand Café, a special treat to ourselves before the 53 hour train ride. And what a treat it is!

Le Grand Café

Le Grand Café – hidden inside a fancy shopping mall

The crown jewel of Russian cuisine - black caviar and champagne. Now we are ready for the 53 hour ride!

The crown jewel of Russian cuisine – black caviar, blini and champagne. Now we are ready for the 53 hour ride!

You half expect a Russian tsar family to appear any minute on top of the staircase and come gracefully down

You half expect a Russian tsar family to appear any minute on top of the staircase and come gracefully down

As we are well into enjoying our beautifully hand-crafted dessert plates, we are joined by a mother-daughter duo at a neighbouring table. More interested in selfies and photoshoots, the duo provides a rather exciting entertainment.

A treat from the kind French chef at Le Grand Café

A treat from the kind French chef at Le Grand Café

The following and similar scenes continued on and off during the full 30 minutes that we had the pleasure of having this mother-daughter duo as neighbours. Dressed up in their Sunday best (it was only a Friday according to the calendar, but who cares…) featuring a red Chanel bag (can’t verify the authenticity of the bag), posing with the bag, without the bag, standing, sitting, together, alone, with food, without, trying out different tables…

OMG - this and similar scenes continued on and off during the 30 minute that we had the pleasure of having this mother-daughter duo as neighbours

OMG! This and similar scenes continued on and off during the 30 minutes that we had the pleasure of having this mother-daughter duo as neighbours.

A short park walk to enjoy the evening sun and we are ready to say do svidanye to Yekaterinburg!

Evening light in Dendropark

Evening light in Dendropark

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Scenes like this accompanied us all the way in Russia from Moscow to Yekaterinburg.

Scenes like this accompanied us all the way in Russia from Moscow to Yekaterinburg.

Arriving 30 minutes earlier at the train station we are ready to board the train bound for Irkutsk. 2 days 5 hours and 33 minutes, 3,500 km of distance, crossing 3 time zones.

Yekaterinburg Train Station

Yekaterinburg Train Station

Our carriage - favourite number 7 again!

Our carriage – favourite number 7 again!

Inside the train, the Russian roulette is in action again. With an anxious heart I open the compartment door to find a sweet Russian babushka with her grandson. As we come to learn later they live in the US and are spending their summer vacation in Russia, where the grandmother takes his grandson every year on a homeland visit. How delightful! Chance to practice some of my rusty Russian since the grandma doesn’t speak English.

The train pulls off the tracks and we slowly roll towards the vast landmass of Siberia. The sun is setting off and the night will soon fall.

Photos © Andreas Eriksen & Ani Movsisyan