Day 14 on Trans-Siberian Railway: Driving into the taiga and abandoned villages

It has been a month since our great Russian-Mongolian adventure came to an end. I have been overly optimistic in telling myself to keep up with the travelling bug and give life to my memories. Weeks have gone by, work happened with its usual business and endless list of tasks and to dos and  projects, and my writing muse seems to have given up on me for a while.

With every noble intention in mind, I am sitting outside in the beautiful morning sun at a neighbourhood sidewalk café keen on breaking the spell and getting a new post out today. Wish me luck! So far I have managed to be a diligent student and catch up on my Italian studies. Totally not a sign of procrastination.

The prettiest ride ever!

The prettiest ride ever!

We are back in Bugul’deyka. We nevery actually left, still there for the last day. Remember our kind host Volodya. His mission of the day is to make our last day in the shores of Lake Baikal as memorable as possible. That includes creating ample opportunities for me to enjoy beautiful wild flower fields and for Andreas to take one last long ride in his oh-so-beloved UAZ dream car. A drive to the nearby taiga forest seems to be a perfect qualifier for both wishes.

A glimpse into the famous  Russian deep taiga

A glimpse into the famous Russian taiga

The UAZ rolls quietly on the dusty path making every small bump and unevenness of the surface count. It is all part of the countryside charm. So buckle up. My wish of pretty wildflower encounters doesn’t make itself wait for long. Just an hour on the bumpy ride, the path turns into an enchanted forest covered in a carpet of purple and yellow blooms. I have always had a thing for pretty flowers. Perhaps doing something about that gardening dream of mine one day wouldn’t be such a bad idea. Having grown up with a field of red tulips and blooming trees of apricots, peaches and cherries in the backyard probably has something to do with my enchantment of flowers.

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Enough about that. Taiga is calling. We are headed towards the middle of nowhere, where Volodya claims we will find a village with traditional wooden houses. As the fields of flowers slowly get swapped with even bumpier roads, the minutes slowly passing by seem endless. Volodya never disappoints, so we gotta trust that the village will appear out of nowhere anytime now.

Spotting an eagle on the  road brings good luck. Volodya must have called in big favours since this souring eagle has been following our ride as soon as we entered the taiga.

Spotting an eagle on the road brings good luck. Volodya must have called in big favours since this souring eagle has become our loyal companion on the road keeping a watchful eye for us.

An hour or so passes by. I manage to get comfortable in the dream car and doze off into the world of dreams amidst the bumpy, dusty drive. Someone (no need to call names) always gets amazed at my ability to fall asleep in the car on the most peculiar of roads and yet manage to get wide awake at home from the slightest noise.

The village in the middle of nowhere

We have finally arrived in the village Kurtun in the middle of nowhere

What greets us is a mishmash of beautiful wooden houses, some looking abandoned and in desperate need of repair standing side by side with more beautiful neighbours showing clear signs of modernity done in the not so recent past. In whatever state of repair the houses find themselves, there is one thing that still makes them look charming. The windows – with their unique look and feel on each of the houses. It feels like you have entered an enchanted village and forest fairies will burst open the windows any minute now and come flying out.

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There is not much sign left in the village that once housed close to a hundred inhabitants. Many have left for the city in the search of a better life. In the end of the village you come across what once used to be the Soviet cultural centre and is today totally devoid of humans and populated by a flock of goats. Across the street from the goat gathering center you will find a prominent looking house, one of the few that has been repaired recently and shows signs of inhabitance. It belongs to the mayor of the village. He and his buddies are lounged out in the front of the house chatting away with no care in the world. Encountering a group of foreigners, the mayor is quick to jump into conversation, reminiscing about the good, old Soviet times and how glorious the life was back then.

As the village tour comes to an end, we head back home  to Bugul’deyka. Volodya needs to  make provisions for the last supper – BBQ on the shore of Lake Baikal. He tried to convince me to make an Armenian style BBQ but due to lack of necessary ingredients quickly dropped the idea and turned to the Buryat traditional style.

Lake  Baikal  in the setting sun

Lake Baikal in the setting sun

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The waters of Baikal are very tranquil today. The sun is painting the lake in burning red. As we  wait for the chicken to grill, it is easy to get mesmerised by the view and draw into your own world of thoughts and dreams. The world seems so peaceful right at this moment.

What a beautiful way to  end our Baikal adventure!

What a beautiful way to end our Baikal adventure!

Baikal has been an absolute charm, largely due to our kindest host. As the evening draws closer, Andreas heads off for one last river swim. Tomorrow is a new day and we will bid goodbye to Volodya in the hope of returning one day.

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Photos © Andreas Eriksen & Ani Movsisyan

Day 13 on Trans-Siberian Railway: From fields of wildflowers to thunderstorms and hail

Copenhagen is so irresistibly pretty when the sun is shining. Today is yet another gorgeous day of perfect summer weather. Sitting on the balcony, listening to 70’s music and watching the sun set over the city, it feels like just the perfect setting for catching up on my travel writing.

Where were we? Oh yes, still in a far, far away village somewhere in Siberia, called Bugul’deyka. According to our Trans-Siberian schedule it is day 13. Good thing I scribbled down some notes throughout the days to remember the adventures and impressions of the day. The memory has a very fleeting habit, the small details tend to fly away like butterflies, leaving you with high-level contours after some time.

Good morning from Bugul'deyka!

Good morning from Bugul’deyka!

The day is a laid back one with no specific plans or agenda. Perhaps due to the fact that our host Volodya had quite a merry evening involving some vodka consumption (no judging), so he needs some recovery time. Me not minding some laissez faire-ness. Gives me a chance to catch up on my suspenseful reading of the Bottle of Lies (remember the book about the scary story of generic drugs). It is an absolute page-turner. Finding a sunny corner on the porch, with a cup of black tea and my favourite childhood chocolate – Krasnoya Shapochka (little red riding hood) for desert, I am totally enjoying the morning.

Time flies by in the total bliss of reading. Suddenly it’s midday and rather an opportune moment to explore the main attractions of our village.

Our home in Bugul'deyka

Our home in Bugul’deyka

Everything starts and revolves around the main avenue of the village – Lenin Street of course! Like any other self-respecting Russian city, something named after Lenin is a must. Moscow has the crown jewel of all – the Mausoleum, that’s naturally hard to beat. But naming the central street, which in the case of Bugul’deyka, is practically a dusty path, after Lenin, is quite prominent after all.

Lenin Street marks the heart of the village life

Lenin Street marks the heart of the village life

And of course the street comes with a prominent memorial to the fallen hero of the Great Patriotic War (WWII)

And of course the street comes with a prominent memorial to the fallen hero of the Great Patriotic War (WWII)

Just off the Lenin Street we find one of the two stores providing the food/drink/cigarette supplies to the village. Svetlana store becomes the lucky recipient of our attention. Among some exciting things, including Armenian brandy, you will find a very big selection of mayonnaise. Yep Russians seem to like their mayonnaise. On the picture below you can find 13 different mayonnaise containers, I would say after alcohol selection mayo must have the biggest assortment in the modest store.

The humble selection of the store all marked with orange stickers

The humble selection of the store all marked with colourful price tags, brings back memories of Soviet times

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Typical wooden houses spread out in the village valley. Some have seen better days, others look like they just had felt the tender touch of recent renovations.

Typical wooden houses spread out in the village valley. Some have seen better days, others look like they just had felt the tender touch of recent renovations.

After a few minutes of dusty strolling in plus 30 degrees, the grand village tour comes to an end as we decide to walk to Lake Baikal. At the point of making that decision, the distance of 3 km seems like a pretty casual stroll. In the sun and the dusty roads, the initial decision soon started losing its glamour. What strengthened the argument in favour of walking was the surrounding beautiful nature of blooming grass and wildflower fields.

The colours of summer

The colours of summer

Passing by wildflower fields

Passing by wildflower fields

These flowers seem so resilient

These flowers seem so resilient

By the time we reach Lake Baikal, it is almost time to get back home in order not to be late from our agreed lunch time. Luckily Volodya has recovered from his evening escapades and comes to our rescue in UAZ, to someone’s absolute joy.

Andreas fulfils his dream of driving a UAZ!

Andreas fulfils his dream of driving an UAZ!

The afternoon programme suddenly comes alive. Volodya has some plans of course. He wants to show us his favourite hideouts – a marble quarry, wildflower fields (especially for me) and a secret trail leading to the most gorgeous panoramic spot. Bring it on!

A giant slab of marble and a little birdie

A giant slab of marble and a little birdie

An abandoned marble quarry

An abandoned marble quarry

My favourite type of hike minus the annoying mosquitoes

My favourite type of hike minus the annoying mosquitoes

We meet again pretty flower

We meet again pretty flower

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A serene moment taking in the panoramic view over Lake Baikal

A serene moment taking in the panoramic view over Lake Baikal

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One last glance at the beautiful view and we descend down into our Soviet rides that are waiting at the foot of the hill.

Our rides are waiting

Our rides are waiting

Such a beautiful day filled with Sovietness, wildflower fields and prettiness everywhere. Before we call it a day, Andreas utters the magic words again – paydyom plavat and Volodya and him set off for their usual evening ritual of river swimming. And just out from the banya, we hardly escape an absolutely crazy downpour of insane hail and thunderstorms. That lasts for about half an hour and fills the entire courtyard with large hail and puddles, let alone the feeling that the sky will soon rip apart and an ocean of water will come storming down.

The aftermath of the evening hail and thunderstorms

The aftermath of the evening hail and thunderstorms

At least a beautiful and fresh morning can be awaiting us tomorrow. Good night!

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