Category Archives: Uncategorized

Trans-Siberian Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

So, after spending a good couple of days catching up on my blogging in Irkutsk, once again it was time to head off into the unknown.  As I left my Russian home stay, I wondered what the next episode in my adventure would be…

On ariving at the station I had no clue where to go for my train to Mongolia, so I thought,as you would, to ask one of the staff.  I went up to one counter and showed my ticket to the rather grumpy looking lady there, and she just scowled at me and waved me on.  Thanks, I thought!

I did find two guards who were a little more help than this, despite them not being able to speak English they at least tried to help me.  One even used his phone using Google translate and I managed to establish that I needed to wait at a gate for my train.  I found a huge metal gate where a couple of people were standing, so decided to wait here, it looked the most promising anyhow.  A few more gathered so it was looking more like it was my train.  The gates opened and everyone rushed through, heading for the platform.  I followed and made my way through the station, and headed towards carriage number 8, I knew this much from my ticket.  I stood there a couple of minutes, and then asked a couple there, well when I say asked, I mean showed them my ticket, pointed at the train, as if asking if this was the right train, they seemed to agree it was, so I decided to wait there.  Then, it suddenly dawned on me, I had my small bag, but not my big rucksack, OH MY GOD MY BAG! I’VE LEFT MY BAG! Realising I had left my bag I took flight and literally sprinted back towards the gate where I had been standing, in my head thinking, that’s it, that’s my bag gone, what am I going to do?!

To my surprise and absolute relief, there it was, still stood there, waiting patiently for me to return to collect it!  I seriously didn’t think I’d see it there, and my heart was in my mouth!  Panic over.

Luckily after this minor bit of drama, the train was indeed the correct one, and I boarded.  As I was sorting my cabin out, I saw Hans walk by, an American I’d met on the minibus on the way back from Olkhon Island.  In my cabin was a young Mongolian girl called Oyuko, then a couple of Irish guys turned up who were also in the cabin, Dermot and JP.  They were on their way to a wedding in Fiji, and decided to make the trip via Tran Siberian, what an awesome way to do it! 

image

We had quite a laugh over the next couple of days along with Hans who joined us, a few beers and a few games of shithead passed the time quite nicely.  Also, due to this being the train that crossed the border, we had a good five hours in a little village in Russia, where we took a walk up the hill and took a few pics.

image

image

image

image

image

image

A Russian cemetery where all the gravestones have photos on them

image

image

image

The one carriage going to Mongolia

image

Ah look it’s the little people!

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

JP’s look of determination as he doesn’t want to be shithead for the tenth time!

image

The scenery had also started to change from pine trees to more open land, rolling countryside, lakes with mountainous backdrops.

image

image

image

image

The scruffy dog selection

image

image

image

image

image

And a street cow too!

image

Olkhon Island Trip

When I was arranging this three night trip to Olkhon Island all those months ago when I was back home, it was the one I was most excited about.  Well, it didn’t disappoint!  I booked my minibus taxi in the town, and they came to pick me up on the Saturday morning.  There was only one guy in the van when it picked me up, Trevor from England.  We then went on to pick up a further group of people, along with all their huge rucksacks, but we managed to squeeze them in.  Packed in like sardines, to our dismay we stopped at another hostel, with two further guys and all their gear!  It was a crazy squash but we did it, and we’d certainly be getting to know each other very well over our 6 hour journey!  Fourteen people and all their gear were packed into this what I think was probably a 12 seat minibus! (The driver certainly didn’t like to hang around either!  Although his speedo was broken so I’m not quite sure exactly how fast he was going, but he was overtaking everything in sight!)

image

At the ferry point

image

image

image

My first find at the place we had booked to stay!

image

Nikita’s Homestead was where I had booked my 3 nights, and at first I was worried because nearly all of the minivan guys I’d got to know over the last 6 hours were staying at another place, and I had enjoyed their company (I got in the bubble!) and I was worried I’d made the wrong choice, and so I very nearly changed my mind at the last minute, but I thought no, Nikita’s is where I wanted to stay all those months ago I’m going to stick with it.  I needn’t have worried one bit though, Nikita’s was lovely, a group of beautiful wooden buildings with guests from all over the world.

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

After checking in, I met a Swiss girl Silja, who had literally just arrived before me.  We were sharing the same room, and got on so well that in fact we spent the whole of the next three days together!

image

The atmosphere at Nikita’s was fantastic, everyone was so friendly, the staff very helpful, and the food was plentiful with good tasty choices.  I was also in my element, the place was heaving with cats and dogs!  I particularly took a shine to the little white kitten…..could have popped him in my rucksack!

image

On the first evening Silja and I went to the on site French Bistro, and drank some very welcome glasses of hot mulled wine.  Bliss.

On the Sunday we booked to go on s tour to the Northern cape of the island.  It was an extremely bumpy ride, as there are no roads on the island, only dirt tracks.  At least they were generous with the seating numbers in this one!

A few pics from the tour of the island

image

image

image

image

image

A funny little bit of driftwood with a face!

image

Cow on the beach!

image

image

image

image

People here tie little bits of material to the trees as shamanic offerings

image

image

image

They also leave coins and cigarettes as offerings

image

image

image

image

Seals on the rocks

image

Our driver made us a lovely fish soup for lunch

image

image

image

image

image

Apparently if you throw stones at the big rock you will get a husband (or wife, whichever your preference!)

image

I am quite ashamed at this blatantly obvious ‘girl throw’!

image

You even get to choose the kids!
image

Bit of a better throw!

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

Back at Nikita’s, I find another friend….

image

Cat selfie!

image

image

On the Monday Silja and I went to a cooking class with a lovely lady called Marsha. She taught us how to make varenikki. We made dough which was similar to pasta, and the filling, although I was a little unsure at first on hearing what it would be, cabbage and egg….was actually delicious!

image

image

image

image

image

In the afternoon we went on a two hour horse riding trek. It was lovely trotting through the woods, over the hills and along the dirt tracks on the island, taking in the views around us. The guy that took us was a bit miserable and just disappeared at the end without saying a word! Oh well, we enjoyed it even if he didn’t!

A few more pictures from out and as bout on the island, and the views from the hill on the last night.

image

image

The room we shared

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

This is by far my favourite bit of the trip so far. I would love to come back to Olkhon Island in the winter, when the lake freezes with ice 1-3 metres thick! Apparently it freezes so clear though, that it doesn’t even look like it’s frozen! Brave are those who drive across it, especially as apparently you can hear the ice cracking and creaking as you drive across it. Even though this is normal and is pretty safe, I would be terrified!

My home stay and a wander in Irkutsk

Well, I managed not to turn up drunk at my home stay!  I was greeted by my host Tamara, who had made a nice meal for me. 

Tamara in her kitchen where I had many a pile of pancakes, plates of pasta and meats, and slice after slice of homemade apple pie!  Suffice to say, the belly has taken a hit this week and I need to get back in trim.  A week back at work would have done it, a little far away though from South Wonston!

image

I spent a day wandering in Irkutsk, there are some truly beautiful old buildings, really old and run down, but I love buildings like this, they ooze character, more so than the main centre which is predominantly new buildings which have been made to look old, not quite the same!

A few pics from my wanderings

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

Monument to the seals!

image

A selection of pictures along the Trans-Siberian way…

So, the rest of the train journey was pretty good. On the last day I was invited to join some Belgian guys in the bar at lunch time, so I obliged, just to be polite of course!  Anyhow, I had informed one of them that I had yet to have a vodka shot in the land of vodka, even though I’d been in the country over a week!  Well, this had to change…Joe, one of the Belgians had been shown one way to drink vodka shots by a Russian guy earlier on in the trip, so, after we were brought our 100g of vodka, he poured it into two glasses and then added the magic ingredient – pepper! And lots of it too!  He gave it a stir, then let it settle slightly, then boom! Down in one!  (Carefully leaving most of the settled pepper in the glass).

Give it a few seconds then wow, I could feel my shoulders burning from this stuff!  Surprisingly, it wasn’t unpleasant, although my initial face may say otherwise!

I was pleased I got to have some vodka finally, hey I know I like the stuff but it wouldn’t have been the same having it on my own.  Two was enough though as later that evening I was meeting my home stay host in Irkutsk, could hardly turn up drunk!

image

image

image

image

image

image

This one must be where the heat hit…..!

image

With one of the provodnistas!

image

And a beer to wash it down with!

image

More pics from the journey

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

The building with a mouth!

image

image

Starting the epic journey that is the Trans Siberian…

I am now sat on my first proper Trans-Siberian train, not quite as nice as the St Petersburg to Moscow one, but not bad either.  It feels good to be doing this trip, it’s been so full on I haven’t really had chance to sit down and think about it!

I am loving the fact that the huge language barrier brings about constant surprises, be them good or bad!  I am unsure how the meals work on this train, but I believe I get one per day included, be that breakfast, lunch or dinner.  Anyhow I have just been brought in some noodle soup that I wasn’t expecting.  I’m not that hungry but I won’t pass up the opportunity to eat, who knows, the next surprise may be that I don’t get any dinner!  Everything is unsure in the world of ‘not having a clue what’s going on!’. I do love a food surprise too, pick something, bite into it, and find out that way what it is that you’ve picked! 

In my cabin is Ludima.  She speaks as much English as I do Russian, however I have established she is a doctor, and my job in Russian is ‘patyana’, that’s if my ‘charades version’ translated as it was meant to……! Her colleagues are in the next cabin, and one of them has brought us both in coffees and chocolate, and knows a handful of English words.  I was slightly bemused when he kept calling me their ghost…..until I realised he meant guest!  And, as I write he now brought us in ice cream, this is after also offering me beer and Pepsi cola! He says ‘Welcome, Russia’ a lot!

Ludima started spraying her face with a mysterious vapour, and to my bemused look she passed the pink contraption over to me and started to spray the vapour on to my face, let’s hope the vapour is something pretty innocent!  Must be as she’s spraying her own face with it!  Turned out it’s just water, a freshener I guess.

The lady at my hostel in St Petersburg said that on the Trans Siberian train I would see trees, trees…..trees…..and more trees.  You know what, I could look at these trees all day 🙂   Which is a good job as that is exactly what I’ll be doing for the next 3 days in fact!

image

Further out into the countryside, there are many wooden houses with tin roofs, and I can’t help but wonder how difficult it must be for them in the harsh Siberian winters….

image

image

Lots of great grafitti along the buildings that run alongside the railway

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

Well, I’d got used to Ludima being in my cabin and her friend popping in, but early in the evening they’d obviously reached their destination and they left the train.  Another travel bubble burst.  Although it turned out I had the cabin to myself for the night – result!  So it was just me, my music, and a couple of beers for the night.  Happy days.

image

image

Next morning I tried to get breakfast from the restaurant car, only to be told, as I understood from the body language, hand gestures, and tone, that there was no more breakfast.  Oh well, least I have muesli bars and a huge bar of chocolate.  I bought a tiny carton of apple juice for £1.60, so perhaps it was just as well I didn’t get breakfast there.

I now have a new girl in my cabin.  I don’t know her name but boy do her feet smell!  Stronger than the packet of TUC biscuits I had in my possession.  Let’s hope this one won’t be a stayer either!

A few hours later….

Luckily she was not a stayer!

One more girl came and went, and another came last night and has been here all day, and it’s looking like maybe for another night too, but you never know.  I am fully in my Trans Siberian bubble, and this again, could burst at any moment.  But, when one bubble bursts, another, different bubble is created.  I have spent my time on the train mainly: sleeping, reading, blogging, eating, drinking beer and listening to music, and contemplating.  It’s all been a pretty good experience so far.  Even the carriage assistant is used to my ‘one beer please’ and ‘hello’, and ‘thank you’.  Pretty much my limit.  Oh, and I can say black cat, Ludima taught me that, although haven’t found use for that one yet.

My cabin to myself

image

Now, going back to my earlier comment about how I love food surprises?  Well, that’s because I’d never had a bad food surprise…..this morning a carriage attendant selling what looked like some kind of pastry or croissant passed by our cabin.  I called him back and pointed at one of the food items, as I was a little hungry for breakfast.

Deep fried cabbage donut anyone?

No, me neither.  I must admit the cabbage innards themselves weren’t too bad, so I ate these from the centre.  But the stodgy deep fried sickly surround…..?!  This one goes down as a bad food surprise!

Last day in Moscow and Gorky Park

So, I start my final day in Moscow with the intention of going inside St Basil’s Cathedral.

Plans sometimes don’t work out as intended, but sometimes, this leads to better things…

Yet again the Russian guards were out in force, blocking off entrances to metro stations, the paths in the gardens by the Kremlin, and the main road with four lanes was empty, another blockade.  Do they do this for fun?!

Anyway, I’d kind of had enough playing cat and mouse with guards and subway tunnels, and the thousands of people all trying, but failing, to get somewhere….anywhere!

I couldn’t do it anymore, so I grabbed my little guidebook map out, and looked for the biggest bit of greenery on the map I could find – I needed to escape this frenzy of people and find somewhere to chill.

Boy did I strike gold….

The large area of green I found on the map was called Gorky Park.  So I got the metro (as I now considered myself pretty darn good at catching those trains and arriving in desired station!) and took a walk over the bridge into the park.  The park was huge, and it was such a lovely hot, sunny day.  I stumbled across a live native Indian group playing some really nice music, so I sat on a bench and whiled away about an hour, soaking up the sun and the relaxing sounds, and partaking in a spot of people watching, this was just what I needed.

image

image

image

image

After a while I was starting to feel a whole lot more chilled and rejuvenated, and I took a wander further into the park. I came across some skateboarders competing on the ramps, and sat awhile watching the crazy kids practise their free running skills on a purpose built practice area.

I came across a group of break dancers, battling it out amongst themselves

image

image

image

image

image

I carried on wandering to find beach volleyball, plenty of ice cream shacks, a boating lake, unusual places to sit, beautiful gardens and fountains…

image

image

image

image

image

Capoeira dancers and drummers

image

image

image

And an amazing brass band, who played a great version of Pharrell’s ‘Happy’

Just getting the lungs ready!

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

And then, the best find of the day, a gorgeous little outside restaurant that served my favourite tipple, Prosecco! I sat at a table with the early evening sunshine beaming down through the trees, and as I sipped on the Prosecco (yes I can be civilised) and tucked into a Thai green curry, I thought what a perfect day it had been. All in all I spent 8 hours here, watching, chilling, eating, and most of all escaping, getting away from the frenzied tourists and grunting guards. Thank you, Gorky Park!

image

image

After my first week in Russia, and my tales of Moscow

Well, I’ve already done one week in Russia, and what a baptism of fire it has been into the world of travel!  I can now attempt and sometimes succeed, albeit very slowly, at reading a Russian word out loud (usually street names or metro stations) as a case of having to, so I know I am on the right track, as usually I only knows the names in English from my map.  

Day one in Russia –  I arrived with a tense, nervous, terrified feeling in the pit of my stomach, and this only intensified as I arrived at my accommodation, which was a half hostel set up, only private rooms but shared kitchen and communal areas.  This feeling would not shift!  I wondered if it ever would?

Day two – by the second day, the feeling had subsided greatly, which I was thankful for, but not completely.  A couple of days in, and then I found my St Petersburg bubble, and got into the swing of things.

The move to Moscow refreshed those feelings, but only on a smaller scale, and this has led me quickly to learn about the travel bubble, as I have named it.  This consists of so far, a nervous start, then a little familiarity, then really getting into the swing of it and having a feel for where you are.  Then, all of a sudden, that bubble can burst, as quickly as it was formed.  This happens at an alarming regularity at the moment.

Anyhow, going back to my arrival in Moscow, after what I must say was an extremely pleasant overnight train ride, I had no idea where I was, only an address of the hostel I needed to go to, along with my map, in English.  I went to information and they kindly gave me a metro map, in English, and showed me which metro station I would need to go to.  Excellent, I thought.  The absolute sheer panic when I arrive in the metro station, something that had been so easy in St Petersburg, had now turned into a logistical nightmare, in that no Russian metro station was actually written in English, so both maps were practically useless as I could not correlate with the Russian in the metro station!

This is where one lucky member of the Russian public gets me coming up to them and saying the name of the station I need (very slowly I might add!) And pointing at the train I think might take me there….yes was her answer (or ‘da’, as she also knew none of my language).  She even kindly held up her hand to say 5 stops once we were on the train, and then ‘2’ more stops as she got off.  What a kind lady.

I spent my first day in Moscow wandering around haplessly, partly due to my inability to understand any Russian, and partly due to the fact that there seemed to be a major event going on and half, no, most of the subway exits were closed off by guards….and being told ‘No’ in a rather deep, stern voice, by a Russian guard is enough to send me in the other direction, no arguing.

The thing is, all I needed to do was to cross the road.  It was a huge one, granted, and could only be done underground.  However the closed exits were hindering my progress, as I kept popping up from underground, thinking I had got somewhere (ie. across the road) only to realise I was still on the same side of the road, however a little further down each time.  Frustration is not the word!  I felt like a poor mouse in a maze, and the cheese was still no nearer!

I remembered there was a tour of the underground stations at 4pm, so thought I’d try to make my way to that, to try and actually accomplish something in this day!  The meeting place – blocked off.  Alternative meeting place?  Well I didn’t actually think I’d need that did I!  Anyhow managed to find an open WiFi spot to find the alternative meeting place, I make my way back up the road, through the maze of guards and blockades,  only to arrive there a few minutes too late, tour gone 😦  Mission abandoned!

I wandered back down the street and watched some of the event that appeared to have caused this chaos.  It was Russian graduation day, there was a brass band and scores of young people clad in beautiful dresses and tailored suits, the Russians it appears, really know how to dress up.  A stunning red satin and diamante dress is one that sticks in my mind, worn by an equally stunning young lady.

I headed back to the hostel, this one a little more social than my first, and a Dutch guy named Robert and a Russian called Andrei kindly took me to the supermarket so I could stock up on food and beer 🙂

As I was left feeling clueless and hadn’t really achieved much after Friday’s events I decided that Saturday would not be the same, and decided to go on the free city walking tour in the morning, to familiarise myself with Moscow, and not let it beat me!  Arriving at the tour over an hour early, (I had allowed plenty of time for getting lost on more than one occasion!) a guy approached me asking if I was on the tour, his name was Mahmut (not sure on spelling!) and he was from Turkey.  Mahmut actually turned out to be my saviour for the day, as I was telling him about the Moscow metro nightmare and how it was very difficult to navigate not being able to correlate any of the Russian metro station names with my English map, and how panic was setting in as I had to collect my train tickets from a location in Moscow and the thought of trying to get there was filling me with dread, so much so that the second I arrived back at my hostel on the Friday I had emailed my train ticket company asking them if they could deliver them to my hostel!  I then realised they do not work weekends and would not have got my email until it was too late, as my train was leaving on the Monday!  Anyhow, it turns out he had a map in both English and Russian, result! So I wrote down the names of the stations I needed in Russian, but then he said I could have the map as he could use his phone.  I was so grateful for this and it made me feel like I could take on the challenge and do it!

We went on and did the walking tour, followed by the tour of the Kremlin with the same guide, along with a few other people I’d met in the morning, Judith from England, Sarah from Australia, and Jamie from Spain. 

Here are a few photos from the morning and in and around the Kremlin and the Red Square

image

image

image

image

St Basil’s Cathedral

image

Our guide for the day, Irina

image

My first experience of one of these, albeit quite clean!

image

Mahmut the saviour of the day, and a lunch stop!

image

image

image

One for Tammy

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

Now, on getting inside the Kremlin itself, our group approached the entrance only to come across an absolutely colossal queue that would have taken an hour to get through.  This is where, the Lady in Yellow came into force.  Nobody knew where she came from, or how it worked, but she pointed and said something in Russian, to which none of the English speaking group responded, she promptly followed this with ‘go to me’, an American guy said ‘I got that one’, and we all followed her, up a different set of steps, to the side of the main entrance, and to the guards who were slowly letting the huge queue in, one by one.  Some words were exchanged, and boom, there we were, jumping this entire queue of people!  Not quite sure what was said or how this was done, but the Lady in Yellow came along with our whole tour, until nearly the end, where she disappeared just as quickly as she had appeared.  Never did find out how exactly that worked, but I’m sure a few rubles were exchanged at some point!

The mysterious Lady inYellow  

image

And then she was gone…..

image

Sarah was also going to a Russian National Dance show produced by the Russian ballet, and I asked if she could possibly ask her guide to arrange a ticket for me also.  She managed to do this, so after the Kremlin tour, we did a tour if the underground as many of the stations are like palaces themselves, see the pics below.  Although to be honest after this I was all ‘toured out’.  Those that know me know my retention of historical information is not great at the best of times, and although thoroughly interesting, and the guide was fantastic, I couldn’t absorb any more information in this small, fried brain of mine!  However, that being said, this was the best thing I could have done, because as much as I am loving being in Russia, amongst mainly Russians (obviously! but what I mean by this is even in my accommodations there has not been another English person, we are few and far between in these parts!) it was nice to be able to converse more than a few words with others, and also to be shown around the city makes it feel a lot less alien.  I have also made a point of learning some of the Russian alphabet, so I can fathom out what street I am on when looking at a map in English, it’s kind of useful to know!  All this put together meant navigating the Russian underground is a little easier, and every time I look at a Russian word and work it out in my head,  how it sounds, it feels like I am starting to crack this!

METRO PHOTOS TO FOLLOW

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

Sarah from Australia

image

Various parts of these statues are considered to be lucky if you touch them, hence the bronzing rubbing off on the dog’s nose, the cockerel’s head, etc…

image

image

image

The Russian dance show, I have to say, was phenomenal, I mean, absolutely outstanding.  The number of stunningly beautiful costumes appeared endless, and the quality of the dancers was superb, this was by the Russian ballet of course!  There was one piece that was so beautiful I felt my eyes welling up!  I have NEVER felt emotion like this watching a piece of dance before, but this was something else. I am so glad that the day worked out like this and I had the opportunity to go to such an amazing show. Unfortunately no photos were allowed inside the theatre!

Sarah and I outside the theatre where the National Dance Show was shown

image