After getting married in September 2010 we decided to do the opposite of settling down; so we packed up our life, stuffed it in our parent's attic and hit the road for what is essentially an extended honeymoon! We started our trip on 29th December 2010 spending 4 months travelling overland through Europe, Russia and Mongolia to China. After many a train and bus journey we caved-in and flew from Western China to Malaysia, and worked our way north to Thailand and Cambodia. The time came for us to replenish our bank accounts, so we headed to Western Australia for work in July 2011 and lived in Fremantle until February 2012. After a couple of months back home seeing our families and friends, we headed back down-under. This time we headed for New Zealand and we are currently living in Wellington. Our blog started as part of an elaborate wedding present from two of our very good friends. The idea was that on our trip we should blog from every country we visit, detailing the sights, sounds and smells and most importantly, the beer. We have certainly had fun writing it - but moreso, living it!

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Terelj National Park, Mongolia (19th - 25th March)

Looking daft in traditional coats ready for our horse trek.

Ger to Ger is a pretty awesome organisation aimed at supporting nomadic tradition. It is well documented that the nomadic lifestyle once led by the majority of Mongolians is dying out. This wasn't helped by some severe weather conditions in 1999-2000, where a serious drought followed by an extremely cold winter killed livestock and forced many nomadic herders to flee to the city. Ger to Ger was established to try and sustain the traditions of the nomadic herders by helping them to gain from responsible tourism. The idea of the project is that tourists like ourselves, interested in finding out more about nomadic lifestyle, go out into the Mongolian countryside and stay with the families, moving on each night and helping them out with their daily routines. The majority of the money we paid goes directly to the families. We spent 6 nights staying with 5 different families in different parts of the Terelj National Park. Although the edge of the park is quite touristy, with ger camp hotels and even model dinosaurs(!), as soon as you travel deeper into the park the only people you see are the traditional nomads and their gers. At night it is so, so dark and the stars are absolutely incredible, making you realise what a difference light pollution makes to star gazing!

The families we stayed with:

After a two hour ride by ox cart from the bus stop to the first ger, we were greeted by Bold, his wife Battsetseg, their son Bayaraa, and their neice. It was already dark and so we just ate some dinner and practised our very basic Mongolian with them! Bold used to be a wrestler and has won the Lion title for his region. He certainly looked like a wrestler! He's also good at horse racing and had lots of medals hung up in the ger. The next morning we helped to feed the cows and goats, before trying on some traditional costumes (photos of us looking silly are on our Picasa for your viewing pleasure). We were taught how to play ankle bone, every family has a set of goat and sheep's ankle bones and there are lots of different games that you can play with them. Basically the bones when thrown can on any of 4 sides, which look abstractly like different animals (horse, camel, goat, sheep). Whilst we were sitting playing other people took great interest in our techniques (more likely baffled by our techniques!) We were then served tea and enjoyed meeting a one day old baby goat who was stumbling round the ger. We also had a quick ride on a camel who was now tethered outside (not sure where it came from?!). Some of Bayaraa's friends arrived from the city in their souped up sports car along with tottering high heeled girls, looking very out of context! The family were impressed with our handling of camel riding, as the Mongolian city girls were screaming their heads off. We were then led by ox cart to the next family.

Family number 2 was Bolortogoo, his wife Amarjargal and their son Erhembileg, who was very cute. They had a smaller setup, with just 2 cows for milking, 2 oxs, and 2 horses. We went for a walk from their ger out into the more exposed countryside, with the dog trotting along beside us. Amarjargal makes national Mongolian clothes, so with her we learned to make Mongolian buttons/fasteners, and also how to glue material to make traditional patterns. Later on we played ankle bone again. After a freeeeeezing nights sleep and Liam struggling for 50 minutes to get the fire relit in the morning (by which point all our water and toiletries had frozen), we helped to prepare an awesome breakfast of freshly made deep fried flat breads with sugar sprinkled on top, before travelling by ox cart to the third ger.

Family number 3 seemed to consist of quite a lot of people! The main people we had contact with were Zorigt, his wife Jargalsaihan, a 13 year old boy, 9 year old girl and young girl who may have been their granddaughter. With them we helped to collect wood for the fires, by collecting fallen wood and also sawing down some trees, before loading them onto an ox cart. The 13 year old also came along to help and entertained us with Western pop music on his radio. Later on Liam played yet more ankle bone whilst Charlotte helped Jargalsaihan make buuz for dinner; meat and onion filled dumplings - probably the best buuz we had eaten so far in Mongolia, of course due to Charlotte's magic touch! ;) The next morning we helped to collect ice from the frozen river behind their settlement, breaking up the ice with a long metal spike and heaving it into the ox cart. The ice then gets melted and boiled on the stove for everyday water use. On our return we played with kids for a while (Liam even played football with the kids, and afterwards vowed to get fitter!), before 2 other Ger to Ger tourists arrived, Alice and Tom. They were doing the same route as us but running a day behind. After chatting to them for a while we got our things together ready to move on. The family was very worried about us getting cold so wrapped us in the traditional Mongolian large coats - certainly warm enough with our ski jackets underneath! We travelled to the next family for 24km on horseback. The saddles are made of wood and despite some felt padding it was possibly one of the most uncomfortable experiences of our lives! Liam commented that he felt ready to vomit a kidney by the time we got there! We were so relieved to get to the next family and get off the bloody horses!

Family number 4 we stayed with for two nights. There was just one couple there, Enkhbat and Uranchimeg, but they also had a friend whose 15 year old granddaughter was staying with him who were in the ger most of the time too. Uranchimeg was fairly obsessed with watching television and films so we ended up watching a terrible Korean drama which simply seemed to feature a girl who couldn't stop crying. In the evening we played some cards with them which took us ages to grasp; Mongolian cards don't feature a 4, 5 or 6 and the run is 7, 8, 9, 10, J, Q, K, 3, 2, A, which had us scratching our heads for a fair amount of time! We had fun asking Uranchimeg about her Shamanism. She is an inherited sorceress and gave a pretty hilarious account of what happens on the 3rd, 8th, 15th and 25th of each month when she 'drinks milk, tea, vodka, sip sip, eat boordog (little patries), nom nom, and whoosh (hands in the air) go up, and my grandmother whoosh (hands back down) and talk to my husband, and drink milk, tea, vodka, sip sip, eat boordog, nom nom and then she whoosh (hands back in the air) and I whoosh (hands back down)'. Basically she's some kind of medium and her dead relatives can talk to her husband while she's 'up in the air'. She even claimed to have met Chinggis Khan when she was 'up there' - impressive stuff! The next morning we watched 'Universe Best Song' (complete with incorrect grammar) whilst eating breakfast, an amateur looking Mongolian version of X Factor, where half the audience appeared to be asleep and it was impossible to tell whether the judges were impressed or not. We then hiked up a nearby hill to get some fantastic views across the valley. In the afternoon we helped to axe our way through some ice to an underground stream, to fill large plastic containers. Later on Alice and Tom joined us, who thankfully had found the horse riding as traumatic as we did, so we played more cards and a rather raucous game of Spoons which Uranchimeg found thigh slappingly funny.

The next morning we pretty much set off straight away to family number 5, consisting of Chuluunhuu (who we didn't really meet), his wife Battsetseg, 2 daughters of 14 and 11, and a 13 year old nephew. We loved it as soon as we arrived as there was a very friendly cat and the main ger was also home to a baby goat, some lambs, and a calf who had been born that morning! Soooo lovely! We were left pretty much to ourselves that afternoon, but had fun in the evening when the kids got home from school as the 14 year old's English was actually pretty good. We were able to tell her about watching Universe Best Song, and after telling her that we have something similar in the UK she was all "yes, yes, X Factor, Britain's Got Talent, we watch it here". Good to know that the best of British is being enjoyed by the nomads. Ahem. We left family number 5 at the crack of dawn for another ox cart ride to the bus.

Each family that we stayed with had an 'additional ger' which we stayed in. All of the gers were kitted out with identical orange furniture - click here for an example. Each ger has a wood stove in the centre which doubles as a heating and cooking facility. The wood stove makes the gers toasty warm, but it got very cold at night if you let the fire go out. The families we stayed with had solar panels hooked up to car batteries to provide lighting and power for television etc. Every family that we stayed with had a satellite dish and mobile phones. The families had differing amounts of livestock, plus dogs to protect the animals. We had been warned about the dogs at our Ger to Ger orientation (including learning the phrase "hold your dogs!" in Mongolian) which alarmed Charlotte a little, but after an initial bit of barking the dogs were all very sweet. The food that we ate with the families was all pretty basic but tasty, with lots of homemade noodles in broths made from dried meat. In the summer they make lots of things with dairy products but it was the wrong time of year for that. Mongolian milk tea is also quite interesting; bought in big bricks that you crumble bits off, it's quite savoury tasting and they add milk and salt to it. Some families made the tea with leftover broth from the night before. So to think of it as tea is quite disturbing, but if you think of it as a thin milky soup it's not too bad!

Probably what we enjoyed the most about the experience was seeing just what a relaxed yet hardworking lifestyle the nomads live. They are all extremely easy going, very comfortable in everybody's presence, have a strictly open door policy, are never in a rush to get anywhere or do anything, and are very up for a giggle. In fact when setting out on journeys it is customary to have a sit down and a cup of tea even if they are late (Liam's kind of people!) It meant that we were made to feel very welcome at each of the gers, despite the language barrier. The children were interesting, with their Western music and Converse All Stars; it made us wonder whether they would stay out in the gers when they're older or if they'd be hitting the city as soon as possible. All in all, it was a really fascinating and enjoyable experience, and we would love to return at a different time of year to see what the lifestyle is like in summer.

Terelj National Park, Mongolia

Circum-Baikal Railway & Ulan-Ude, Russia (10th - 16th March)

Hiking the Circum-Baikal Railway

After being recommended to do so by the very helpful Dimitry at our hostel in Irkutsk, we decided to spend some more time by Lake Baikal. We took the Elektrichka train (a slower, cheaper, local train) from Irkutsk to Sludyanka before getting on the Circum-Baikal train.

The train was literally just a diesel locomotive and a single platskartny (3rd class) sleeper carriage. It trundles up the shore of the lake, travelling 87km in just over 6 hours, giving it an average speed of around 15km/h. The line was originally built as part of the Trans-Siberian Railway. When the Trans-Siberian was first completed, trains were ferried across the lake from Port Baikal on ice breaking ships (made in Newcastle!) to Mysovaya. In the winter of 1904 the ice was too thick and rails had to be laid across the ice, as it was imperative that soldiers from Western Russia got to the East as they were being attacked by Japan. The ice cracked and the train fell through the ice. By this point the Circum-Baikal line had been in development for 3 years, to bypass the lake crossing. The railway was a feat of engineering owing to the difficult terrain, much of the shore was originally one long cliff. 33 tunnels and over 200 bridges had to be built, made all the more difficult by the fact that labourers and materials could only reach the railway by boat. The railway was finished later in 1904, and was by all accounts quite a frightening experience due to the frequent landslides and derailments (presumably this is why the train travels so slowly!), and the fact that the Russian passengers had never been through tunnels on a railway before.

History lesson over! We were only heading 16km up the line to Angosolka, where we had been booked into a 'hostel' there. A family had basically converted a couple of rooms of their tradional wooden house into dorms, but it was a very pleasant place with a cafe run by the family. They kept us well fed with 3 meals a day (there wasn't any other shops or places to eat anywhere near), including some pretty legendary breakfasts of friend eggs, pancakes & jam and porridge.

The first day we walked up the line further north for 10km, taking in the wonderful views of the lake and the opposite shore. As it was quite snowy the best bet was to walk along the tracks, but in summer it's probably easy to walk just next to the rails. There is only a train about once a day, and as previously mentioned the trains don't go very fast so there is plenty of time to get out of the way. The railway and all the tunnels made for some great photos, and it was good to get outside and do some proper (although pretty easy) hiking. Just as we turned around we saw a few hundred metres up ahead on the tracks what looked like a Siberian wolf. Good job we hadn't planned to walk any further! We were booked into the banya (sauna) just before dinner which was a perfect way to recoup after a day's walking. This was a much better example of a traditional Russian banya than we had been in before, complete with hole in the lake to jump into to cool down (we didn't dare!) and birch branches to whip each other with. The Russians claim it ex-foliates the skin, but I think they just enjoy the pain. This was apparent to as the sauna cranked up to 85 degress celcius! And would have probably gone hotter but we weren't really up for that. I even managed to get a small burn on my back from lying down on the benches. You stay in for about 5 minutes before going out into the wet room next door to throw cold water over each other, and repeat this until you've had enough. We booked in for an hour so we felt suitably refreshed and headed to the cafe for a well earned dinner of smoked fish.

The rest of our time was spent relaxing, walking out onto the frozen lake and drinking some dodgy chilli vodka I had bought in Irkutsk. Even now there is still half a bottle left, I think I will leave it at the hostel when we leave! We also walked in the opposite direction, the way we had come from, and walked to Kultuk, the nearest town. This gave us a chance to pick up some supplies from the local shop, and enjoy a beer instead of the weird vodka!

We had to leave about 6am and wait for the train in dark. Quite surreal when it's pitch black, watching the bright light of the train slowly approach. And so we were on our way to Ulan-Ude, changing again at Sludyanka and returning to the present day Trans-Siberian Railway.

Ulan-Ude was our final destination in Russia. Our journey there was quite eventful as we nearly missed the train (helpfully, there were no platform numbers at the station) and ended up jumping on whilst it was moving. Whoops! Had no push our way down about 10 carriages to get to where our seat reservation was.

Ulan-Ude basically has two main draws; a massive Lenin head statue and a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. Aside from these sights, the city is OK, with a few traditional wooden buildings, and a high street with more going on than Irkutsk. We had fun trying out an Irish bar (Russia doesn't seem to have normal bars!) which didn't sell Guinness, and also went to an (overpriced) Mongolian restaurant which made us super excited about the food to come.

The giant Lenin head is the world's biggest, and certainly seems to dominate the town centre. Local Buryats believe it was put there as revenge after they resisted Sovietisation. However, they reckon they got the last laugh as his eyes look curiously Asian! It certainly made you feel very small standing next to it.

Visiting the Tibetan Buddhist Monastery, Ivolginsky Datsan, was interesting as it really didn't feel like we were in Russia anymore. The brightly coloured temples are surrounded by an impressive mountainous backdrop, and we had fun watching lots of young monks walking clockwise around the entire site and watching some of a service take place. Despite being advised that there would be someone to show us round and that there would be an information office, the office was shut and no one seemed to take any interest in us, so we simply wandered about the site watching the monks go about their daily lives and the locals worshipping. The Temple of Hambo Lama Itigilov was also shut so we didn't get a chance to see the exhumed monk who looks just as he did when he died in 1927. It was strange to see the sheer amount of tourist tat at the gates of the monastery as we were blatantly the only tourists there; it must be odd to visit in summer when the place is heaving.

We had intended to catch the train (of course) from Ulan-Ude to Ulaan Baatar (capital of Mongolia), but unfortunately the trains only run twice a week and our visas were rapidly expiring. Instead we caught a bus leaving at 6.30am from Ulan-Ude. The road to the border made it srike home how barren the countryside is; as soon as we left Ulan Ude we drove all the way down a very long and bumpy road (tarmacked but uneven enough for the bus driver to prefer driving on the dirt track next to it!), with fabulous views over the snow capped mountains. We arrived at the Russian side of the border at around 11.30 and sat in a queue on the bus for a while waiting to drive through. Whilst we were still on the bus, our passports were checked by a random lady, and then by a border guard. We then drove up to the border point, offloaded our bags, walked through a metal detector and had our passports checked again. After watching the Russian border guards being very suspicious of the Russians leaving Russia, and remembering what a breeze it was for us to enter the country, we were quietly confident that we would be let through immediately. In fact we had three guards scrutinising our passports, trying to assertain whether our photo pages were fakes, asking us questions in Russian, and forcing Charlotte to smile at them (as she is doing in her passport photogrpah) for ages. Nail biting stuff. We were eventually let through, to get back on the bus and have our passports checked by yet another Russian border guard. Cue a trundle down the road to the Mongolian border, where the process was much easier, despite the border guards being very interested in where else in the world we had visited, and having our passports checked a further three times. We finally entered the Mongolia, 3.5 hours and 8 passport checks later!

Circum-Baikal Railway, Russia

Ulan-Ude & Ivolginsky Datsun, Russia

Monday, 28 March 2011

Olkhon Island, Russia (4th - 8th March)

Charlotte satisfied after a tasty meal in the canteen at Nikita's.

We greatly enjoyed four fabulous days on the island of Olkhon in the middle of Lake Baikal. To give you some context to what kind of a place this is, here are some fun facts about Lake Baikal and Olkhon:

1. Lake Baikal, at 1637m deep, is the world's deepest lake.
2. It is 400 miles long and between 20 and 40 miles wide.
3. It is the world's oldest lake, formed almost 50 million years ago.
4. It contains more than 20,00 cubic kilometres of water, roughly 20% of the world's freshwater supplies. If all the rest of the world's drinking water ran out tomorrow, Lake Baikal could supply the entire population of the planet for the next 40 years.
5. The water is incredibly clear and safe to drink owing to the filtering action of numerous types of sponge.
6. Lake Baikal also contains hundreds of species found nowhere else in the world.
7. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.
8. Olkhon is the largest island on Lake Baikal.
9. It is the same banana shape as the lake itself, and is 70km long and 15 km at it's widest point.
10. It is sparsely inhabited by native Buryats and Russians.
11. Olkhon got it's first electric powerlines in 2005.
12. Lots of people say that March is the best month of the year to visit Baikal and Olkhon, as it isn't too cold but the lake is still completely frozen. After two months of 'But why have you come in winter?' this was absolutely music to our ears.

Getting there:

We caught a marshrutka (minbus) from Irkutsk to Khuzhir on Olkhon, driving up Lake Baikal's western shore. After an extremely bumpy minibus ride, changing into two different minibuses, getting a flat tire in the middle of bloody nowhere, chuckling at a tortoise in a bag that kept trying to escape, and a delightful iced pee and poo encrusted hole in the floor toilet, we finally arrived at the shore of Lake Baikal. We were super chuffed as the last bus we had changed into was a cool and retro UAZ-452, think Soviet style VW Bay window Camper. And this was to be our super high tech mode of transportation across the lake! After bouncing over the shore line, we raced across the frozen lake in this noisy bus, hitting our heads on the roof every time there was a large bump in the ice. It was brilliant.

Our accommodation:

We stayed at Nikita's Homestead, in the largest village on the island, Khuzhir. The place is run by an ex-table tennis champion and his wife, and is a collection of traditionally constructed wooden houses containing small, cosy double or single rooms, with bio toilets to share (Olkhon has no running water). The downside to these traditional houses was realised on our second night here when our electicity suddenly went off. Looking out of the window, we quickly summised that the barking dogs, people running about and lots of buckets of water being passed around, meant that the building next to ours was in fact on fire. We quickly evacuated, fearing that ours being next door would be next, but the locals and the fire brigade managed to keep it pretty well contained. The extent of the fire meant that the entire first floor of the building was now in ashes blowing around in the wind, only the brick chimney remained.

Aside from the fire - Nikita's has lots of perks! All meals are included here at the traditional canteen, so we really enjoyed being fed better over four days than we had been over the last two months! The food was basic but lovely; breakfast was fried eggs, porridge and pancakes with homemade jam, lunch was soup, a potato and veg based salad and fish, and tea was generally a meat dish served with potatoes or buckwheat, with again some kind of salad and fish on the side. The fish was the freshest we'd ever had and was absolutely beautiful. The last two evenings our dinner was accompanied by a traditional Russian musician, who sung and played the accordion, piano and guitar. It was interesting to note that Russians seem to have quite a lot of traditional songs that everybody knows and can sing along to. Is the nearest we have to this in the UK 'Agadoo'?! Depressing! There were also a bunch of Germans who entertained us by singing drinking songs, including one where they did a lot of standing up and sitting down in quick succession.

Another bonus that we enjoyed at Nikita's was bathing using a traditional Russian banya. After reserving your time in the banya using the timetable outside, you undress in the first room before hurrying into the warmer second room. There there is a very hot tap with water heated from the sauna, which you mix with cold water from the barrels to enable you to wash. The third room is a traditional sauna, which can be heated further by throwing water on the hot stones. So the general gist of the banya is to wash, bake in the sauna, throw cold water over yourself, bake, throw cold water over yourself (repeat as often as you want!) and then to have another final wash before redressing. One missing part of a traditional experience is that there would normally be birch provided to whip yourself with whilst in the sauna (Charlotte was rather relieved that no birch was provided).

What we spent our time doing:

A lot of our time in olkhon was spent with activities out on the ice. On our first full day in Olkhon we hiked out the back of Nikita's for a fantastic view of the lake, including of a recently cleared ice skating rink on the lake. Olkhon is partially populated by Buryats, so some of the large rocks in the lake are sacred to them. We were warned not to 'touch the rocks or scream nearby'(!). Reverence for trees is an important part of Buryat tradition. They especially revere large or unusual trees, which are believed to be the residence of powerful spirits. They may be honored by tying on pieces of cloth or placing offerings of tobacco or coins to the spirit of the tree. It was very odd to see trees with cloth tied round them, with lots of coins and cigarettes placed at the bottom of the trunk. We then headed down to the shoreline to walk out across the frozen lake. It was fascinating to examine all the cracks in the ice and try to determine how deep the freeze was. In the middle of the lake we sat down on the ice and listened to the utter silence that surrounded us. No cars, no birds, no people, nothing. Just the sound of us breathing. For lunch we stopped by one of the village shops to pick up some freshly smoked Omul (the most popular fish from Lake Baikal). After picking some of the meat off we were grossed out by the fact it wasn't gutted and so left it for one of the numerous roaming dogs to enjoy. The village seems more populated with dogs (and the occasional cow) than it does with people. As it's Siberia, they're pretty hefty looking dogs with great big coats to keep them warm, and their barking at us did nothing to endear them to Charlotte. At dusk we had fun exploring an old abandoned factory and shipyard, with lots of old boats coated in snow and ice. One of the boats was huge and welded to the rickety pier with thick ice. It made for quite an eerie atmosphere, although it was interesting looking at the old boats. It is also the start of one of the ice roads so we enjoyed watching the soviet vans bumping over the shoreline before hitting the smoothness of the actual road. Another day we hired bikes to take out on the ice. They were pretty impressive mountain bikes, with huge tires that had tiny metal studs protruding from them to help you to stay upright on the ice roads. We had masses of fun whizzing about the ice on the them and exploring our surroundings a little more.

Another day we went on an excursion organised by the accommodation. We were picked up in the morning (in, joy of joys, one of the UAZ-452 Soviet vans) and driven up to the north of the island. The driver spoke very little English but enjoyed trying to explain to us where we were in each place nonetheless. Our first stop was a huge rock in the lake that the water had been thrashing up against before freezing, causing some interesting ice formations which we had fun photographing. The ice looked in parts really bulbous and plastic-like, the kind of thing which if you saw in film you wouldn't believe was quite real! We then headed across the lake towards the mainland. As we got closer to the mainland the ice started to become much clearer (rather than being covered in frost or snow like much of the lake) and our driver enjoyed doing some huge silent 360 degree spins in the ice. When we got off the bus near the shore, we realised that the ice was clear enough for us to be able to see the rocks on the bottom of the lake below us. We then collected fresh water from a stream that was feeding the lake, which was delicious. Then we drove towards the northern shore of the island, impeded at one point by a naturally formed ice 'wall' which we guess was a natural fault line created where the ice had shifted and been driven upwards. After driving up and down the wall looking for a way over, we finally found a route. We were treated to further vast landscapes of ice and mountains, and got off the bus to take some photographs within an ice cave. We walked out onto the lake before rejoining our driver, who had by that point reheated our lunch (of fresh fish and veg wrapped up in foil) on the engine of the van. Classic :) After a well needed refuel, and a cheeky tea with a dash of cognac, we headed off once more to our final destination. This was the Khoboy Cape which is another sacred place for Buryats, as there is the face of a woman which can be seen jutting out from the rock, hence it is known as Deva (maiden) Rock. There was a rather disconcertinly large crack here, with the water visible beneath it, and we could also hear the ice cracking in other places on the lake which sounded like distant explosions. However, our driver didn't seem in the least concerned and therefore neither were we! There were some people who were diving through a large hole made in the ice, who were on the end of a long string so they could find their way back to the hole. Rather them than us! We had fun getting paranoid that any moment a face would come looming up from beneath our feet and knock on the ice! The van then returned us to our accommodation for dinner and a banya.

Olkhon is perhaps the most incredible place we have ever visited. Although we don't feel that any blog post could really do our experience justice, we hope that the above goes someway towards explaining why we loved it so much. :) We would love to visit again in summer and do some more hiking, but it is unlikely to be quite as beautiful as in the wintertime. Definitely our highlight of our time in Russia!

Olkhon Island, Russia

Irkutsk, Russia (1st - 4th & 8th - 10th March)

Bootleg Pilsner Urquell with weird smoked cheese shavings.

We didn't think there was too much point banging on about our few days in Irkutsk, so here are the edited highlights and lowlights!

1. Used to be known as the Paris of Siberia.
2. There are some pretty churches and female monastery, complete which chanting nuns when we went inside.
3. There was a friendly French dude at the hostel who had done some amazing travelling but was quite hilariously negative about pretty much everywhere he'd been.
4. Irkutsk feels like an old school Russian city, with lots of old dilapidated wooden buildings which surely won't be lasting much longer. The numerous old wooden buildings hint at a former glory, but the only one we saw in good condition was the offices of the tourist information centre.
5. It has a rock bar called 'Liverpool' (loosely Beatles themed) with lots of quirky old objects hanging on the walls.
6. There are some funky tanks at the top of Karl Marx St.
7. There is a microbrewery making it's own fairly decent lager, which it then inexplicably tries to pass off as Pilsner Urquell, and incorporating the famous brewery arches into it's logo. It also serves strange smoke dried cheese shavings as a snack (a bit like eating rubbery, cheesy wood shavings).
8. The owner of our hostel (International Friendship Hostel), Dimitry, was a legend and helped us plan our trip to Olkhon Island and the Circumbaikal Railway. He also helped us out with our onward journey to Ulan-Ude and Ulaanbaatar.
9. Irkutsk has a pretty decent art gallery where we checked out some cool wildlife photography.
10. We had some of the best pancakes of our time in Russia at the down earth Cafe Blinnaya. Also the best 'salad'; a mixture of gherkins, beetroot, salami, cheese and mayonnaise.

1. Not sure it would be called the Paris of Siberia anymore, half the town is a bit of a dump.
2. Drinking too much Russian champange at 'Liverpool' gives you a revolting hangover.
3. The main streets are pretty boring to walk up and down, and fashion shops blast out 80's pop to try and entice you in.
4. We didn't have quite enough to do to occupy our time in Irkutsk.
5. Food here in restaurants here is expensive for fairly miniscule portions.
6. The cafe we went to (recommended by the hostel) served the most disgusting pancakes and pizza slices we've ever had.
7. Traffic is omnipresent, often with no pedestrian crossings.

Irkutsk, Russia

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Trans-Siberian Railway - Moscow to Irkutsk, Russia (25th -29th February)

Liam with our train, the No 340 from Moscow to Chita.

This was part of the trip that unless people had already bought into the romantic notion of the Trans-Siberian railway, they couldn't quite understand why we would want to spend 4 days on a train. And while its clearly not a mode of transport to be taken if you're in a hurry, it is the only way to get across Russia on a budget and in more comfort than a bus or a plane. On the face of it the journey might sound like hell but actually it was rather pleasant.

We boarded the train on a cold afternoon in Moscow, and met our cabin-mates for the trip. They were 2 friendly, middle-aged Russian sisters called Anna and Luba. It turns out they had come to Moscow for hospital treatment for Luba, but despite this they were in good spirits and were quite typical, giggly sisters. Anna spoke a small amount of English which she had remembered from school, but the conversation didn't really got past where we lived and what were our jobs. We learnt that Anna was a military doctor, and she had children working in Israel and Egypt. They were both always very smiley and always offered us food, I think they took pity on us as we were living off instant noodles and biscuits! So we had some good Russian snack food; meat, cheese, bread, and more was offered to us, keeping us well fed throughout the trip. We felt a bit ashamed at only being only able to offer them biscuits and sweets, although we did offer them vodka, which was gratefully turned down due to Luba's medical condition. One day Anna was excitedly looking out the window at one of the stops, before hurrying off the train and return with a large smoked fish. Being the only male in the cabin I was given the honor of cutting it half. We weren't quite sure how to eat it at first as there was a lot of bone and tough skin, but picking out the bits of tender flesh, it was actually very tasty. On the 3rd day Luba left the train at her home town but Anna was continuing on to Irkutsk. Luba's family had given Anna some hot homemade food and so I was treated some very tasty chicken soup and Charlotte to some meat and potatoes.

Their hospitality went beyond what you would ever expect of some you were sitting with on a train journey, and it was great to have a somewhat 'real' Russian train travel experience, rather than sharing a cabin with other foreigners which is what would happen if we had booked it through a travel agency. Buying our tickets from the railway station more than halved the cost too, so it's a no-brainer really for independent travelers looking for an authentic experience.

The journey was 87 hours, travelling 5185km over 4 nights (up until now we had probably traveled roughly the same distance in 8 weeks!). We traveled through 5 time zones, although all long distance trains in Russia stick to Moscow time to avoid confusion. This is strange as when we got off the train the station clock said it was 5am, despite it being daylight and clearly mid-morning. The jetlag wasn't helped by the lack of any real concept of time on the train anyway, as you can imagine normal routine was out the window, with the added confusion of the train running on Moscow time, and half the day would be spent dozing anyway! We were in 2nd class or Kupe (one up from the platskartny accommodation we had on the Moscow to St Petersburg train), our accommodation was a 4 berth cabin (Two beds each side, one up and one down) and just a little table by the window and enough room for your feet so you can sit on the bottom bunk during the day. A couple of evenings we stretched our legs and had a change of scenery in the restaurant car, giving us the opportunity for a couple of beers and the room to play cards. We made the mistake of eating there once, very bland and overcooked fish with undercooked potatoes.

For the most part we very much enjoyed our time on the train. It was a perfect excuse to kick back and almost completely isolate yourself from daily reality, with no feelings of guilt just spending the days relaxing, reading, listening to music, eating and sleeping. After the 3rd night we felt a little stir-crazy though, and can't imagine doing the whole stretch (8 days to Vladivostok in far eastern Russia) in one go. If it was summer and our visa was valid for longer we would have thought about visiting a few places along the way, but we were saving our time for Lake Baikal.

Images of the Trans-Siberian probably bring to mind a rollicking piss up with free flowing vodka, but actually everybody was very respectful and quiet. To be honest though I can't imagine anything worse than a hangover on a stuffy train! There was a group of militia (soldiers) a few doors down who when they got on promptly changed out of their uniforms and into shorts and t-shirts, cranked up the radio and got on the vodka. But actually they were pretty well behaved and we didn't hear anything else from them.

The scenery along the way was just how you would imagine Russia. A snowy wasteland basically and every few hours we'd go through a big dirty industrial city but apart from that it was quite hauntingly scenic. There was a point in the journey where in the distance it looked like a forest, but I read that actually they were just single trees hundreds of metres apart. They stretched out for so far that it looked like a forest from a distance. Numerous people have apparently got lost out there (and not returned alive) as there are no landmarks at all.

On arrival in Irkutsk we were completely zombified, not being able to sleep during the night due to a combination of jetlag and the cabin being roasting hot. One thing we have noticed about Russians is that despite them presumably being used to very cold conditions, they love to crank up the heating to often pretty unbearable levels indoors!

On arrival in Irkutsk, Luba very kindly offered us a lift to our hostel as her husband was picking her up. We gratefully accepted as the railway station is quite far from the centre of the city. So all in all a great experience, and we were quite taken aback just how hospitable our Russian companions were!

Trans-Siberian Railway - Moscow to Irkutsk, Russia

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Moscow, Russia (21st - 25th February)

Charlotte with the beer teapot!

Our first overnight Russian train experience was spent in Plastkartny (3rd class). This is an open carriage, therefore just rows and rows of bunks with no doors to section off different segments as in the other classes. We had a mild panic when we got on as we realised our numbers were to the right of the carriageway, which on first glance appeared to be just two small chairs and a table, rather than bunks. Thankfully a young guy realised our consternation and showed us how to put the top bunk down, and we then realised that the table top flipped over the form a bed along with the chairs. This meant that the beds we were in were really narrow (the cheap tickets were starting to make sense now!), and were also running parallel to the aisle. Sleeping feet first rather than side-on to the train's movement did feel a little more natural, although it was odd for people to be wandering up and down the carriageway right next to your bed. Everyone was very quiet and respectful and we got a pretty good nights sleep all things considered!

We arrived in Moscow at 7.40am and had the joy of our first experience of the Moscow metro at rush hour. Over 10 million people live in Moscow, and around 9 million use the metro every day. This does not make tackling the Moscow metro at rush hour with backpacks much fun, particularly when none of the signs are translated into Roman alphabet as in St Petersburg. Standing there getting in people's way desperately trying to get the Cyrillic signs in front of you to match up with the map you have which uses Roman alphabet was tricky to say the least. At times like this it makes us very thankful that we had learnt the Cyrillic alphabet before we arrived.

Our first day in Moscow allowed us a wander down to Red Square. It currently has a touristy ice rink in the centre of it, which looks quite odd juxtaposed next to the Kremlin walls, St Basil's Cathedral, Lenin's mausoleum and the grand State Museum. One side of Red Square is taken up by the GUM - a shopping centre akin to Harrods. Probably the swankiest shopping centre we'd ever been in, with reams of fresh flowers, piped opera and an Emporio Armani Cafe. We treated ourselves to... a loaf of bread from the food court downstairs. Stopped by Pier. O.G.I, a lively, smokey, noisy student hang out, on the way back to the hostel for some beers.

We then had to spend some time sorting out our Mongolia visas. The lovely ladies that Liam had been emailing at the Real Russia travel agency were very helpful (highly recommended if you are thinking of taking a trip to Russia, very helpful with visas, although to be honest apart from that Russia isn't all that hard to travel independently in) and issued us with an official letter stating our passports were with the Mongolian embassy - in Russia everyone (locals and tourists) is expected to carry around their passports at all times, and the police can stop you and ask for it. That afternoon we had intended to do some shopping to set us up for Siberia and Mongolia. It turns out that Moscow does not cater for people on a budget! All we could seem to find was either designer shops or rather dreary looking shops that were still pretty expensive. Where's H&M when you need it! This trudging around took us a few hours in the bitter cold, and we needed some cheering up. Back to Pier. O.G.I, where the beer teapots on the menu turned out to be literally 3 litres of beer in a teapot. Classic :)

WIth our passports returned and sporting a shiny new Mongolian visa, we headed out to the Kremlin. However, today was 'Defender of the Fatherland Day', known locally as 'Men's Day', when the nation celebrates fallen soldiers, war heros, and men in general seeing as any of them can be called up at any time. Charlotte should really have bought Liam presents, given him breakfast in bed, and showered him with pancakes; funnily enough that didn't happen (note from Liam - this isn't a dig as this blog was written by Charlotte!). Unfortunately this means that it's also a national holiday, and the Kremlin was blocked off by the militia as there was some kind of commmemerative event occuring at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Frustratingly some of the Metro was also blocked off which made it difficult to get around the city! We travelled out of the centre a little to take a peek at Gorky Park (a theme park in the summer) before heading to Moo Moo to stock up on canteen style Russian food. It seems that these cheap eateries are really popular in Russia which is great for people on a bduget who still want to eat what the locals eat. Russia is actually quite a bit more expensive than the rest of Eastern Europe, so we can't afford to eat out at proper restaurants here. We jumped on the metro and realised that we got on the wrong way when we stopped at a big shopping centre which sold... things we wanted! We had both come to Russia with an intention to buy an authentic Russian hat. Charlotte did have some ethical qualms over this and had avidly researched on the internet the fur versus leather industries, as well as the European/Asian fur versus Russian fur industries. After all of this, it turned out we were too stingy to challenge our ethics with fur hats (they are expensive - literally hundreds of pounds!), so made do with hats from.... Next and Topman. Haha ;)

On our last full day in Moscow we visited Lenin in his mausoleum on Red Square. A very surreal experience indeed. We had left our bags at the hostel to avoid getting charged at the cloakroom, but ended up being charged £4 anyway to give up Liam's phone as you weren't allowed any form of cameras, bit of a bummer! To get in you are then ushered through metal detectors and walked down dimly lit corridors with militia guards on every corner. Finally you turn a corner and there he is, lying down but slightly propped up for our viewing pleasure, looking like a waxwork under the spotlights. Apparently there is a bit of controversy as to whether it is actually him there, and he's now a little bit of an embarassment to the Government and they don't quite know what to do with him. Stalin used to lay beside him until Krushev quite rightly reassessed his legacy and buried him outside, along with other deceased political leaders. There were fresh flowers next to Stalin's monument as we passed, presumably laid there on 'Defender of the Fatherland Day'. Scary stuff.

After a visit to St Basil's Cathedral, with it's onion domes and colourful decor making us feel that it was a kind of cathedral Walt Disney would have designed, we trekked off to get our rail tickets for the long journey. We had attempted to buy them previously in St Petersburg but the ladies gestured that there were no good beds left and to try again 24 hours before. After a slightly panicked look at the internet in Moscow where it appeared to have no two beds together, the hostel guy helped us with a script to give to the lady at the ticket office. Success! We then stocked up on Trans-Siberian essentials which was akin to packing for a music festival: baby wipes, instant noodles, deodourant, toilet roll, sweets and alcohol! After a quick trip out to see the Lenin statue near Gorky Park we returned to the hostel to cook some dinner and share Soviet champagne (actually champanskoe - obviously they wouldn't be allowed to call it champagne) kindly provided by one of the hostel workers. It was sweet but we would most definately recommend it!

On our final morning we visited the Kremlin. We weren't quite sure what to expect but it wasn't really that impressive, just some nice old buildings juxtaposed next to ugly new Government ones. It had a cool Tsar cannon (biggest in the world but has never been used) and the Tsar bell which at 6 metres high and 200 tonnes is also the biggest in the world. Cathedral square was full of... cathedrals (small churchs would be a more accurate description!), which were all much of a muchness. So feeling Kremlined out we hurried back to the hostel, grabbed our bags, and hit the train - which was to be our home for the next 4 days!

Moscow, Russia

St. Petersburg, Russia (17th - 21st February)

Eating pancakes with our Couchsurfing hosts Ania and Sergey

I think it's fair to say that our Russian experience does not start well. We caught the overnight bus from Riga to St Petersburg, crossing the border at around 3am. About an hour before the border, after being very restless and uncomfortable, Liam throws up on the bus. Luckily for us, at the border our bags are offloaded so we cross the border with them. Cue quick change of clothes in the toilets. The border guards waved us through no problem, despite Liam's still slightly green complexion. Some (chilly) fresh air later we are back on the bus with Liam feeling a little better.

We were due to Couchsurf that night ( but decided that meeting our hosts with a faint sickly odour and Liam still feeling ropey may not be the best first impressions, so we trudged round looking for a hostel / cheap hotel. After finding one we spent the day there with Liam recovering. As dusk fell we headed out to try and get a feel for the city. First impression was... wow. The sun was setting and giving the buildings beautiful pink and orange hues. It's a city full of amazing buildings, from the Winter Palace, to the Church of the Resurrection, to the Kazan Cathedral, to St Peter & Paul's Cathedral. It also didn't seem as run down as what we had read about St Petersburg had suggested, although it's fair to say it isn't as well kept as some European cities.

Our first proper morning in the city was spent trudging round looking for a laundry. The two addresses we had found onine turned out to be closed for winter. Do Petersburgites without washing machines just not bother in the winter?! Our aim to simply wander the city was quickly reassessed as we realised how cold it was. It was around -22, and just wandering the streets you could feel your eyelashes freezing and sticking together. So, in the afternoon we headed to the Hermitage Museum, housed within the Winter Palace. One of the exhibits was examples of Russian interior design in the 19th and 20th century. Completely over the top and not to our taste at all! The Hermitage is huge, with over three million pieces of art, so we didn't exactly see much of it. The main draw is the building itself, the interiors were very grand and ornate.

That evening we set off to our Couchsurfing hosts', Ania and Sergey. Ania very kindly met us at the metro station and walked us back to their flat in a high rise at the edge of the city. She sympathised about the cold and said we had arrived in St Petersburg for the coldest day of the winter so far. D'oh! After enjoying tea and snacks, Charlotte started to feel a little ill... oh no! After a repetition of the bus incident Charlotte went to bed shivering whilst Liam kept our hosts company, eating dinner with them before watching a Russian version of 'Winnie the Pooh' (dubbed into English). It was very quirky and cute, with A.A. Milne's original story, but with completely original animation. This was followed by Tarantino's 'Inglourious Basterds', which it's fair to say was a little less cute and a lot more violent.

The following day, with Charlotte feeling a little better, we visited St Peter and Paul's Fortress. On the way we booked our onward rail tickets to Moscow. Sergey had written down for us in Russian our request to show the ticket office, but with much very good humoured gesticulations and lots of repeating Russian to us we realised that those seats were no longer available, so we got the cheaper plastkartny tickets. After walking around the fortress (including walking over the frozen river at one section) we visited St Peter and Paul Cathedral, where most of the Russian various rulers are buried including the Romanov royal family. The cathedral is much more impressive from the outside than on the inside, although we supposed that if you had a burning interest in Russian rulers (and could read Russian) the interior would have had more interest.

Later on we met up with Ania and Sergey to go ice skating. They were certainly much more proficient than us, and despite their best attempts to get us to improve our technique our best effort was shakily lurching around the rink! However, seeing as it was Liam's first proper go at ice skating he did pretty well. Back at their flat we enjoyed some beers and playing Uno - which we'd forgotton how great a card game it is. It was really interesting getting to know them, hearing about their plans for the future and how they would love to visit Europe and the UK but can't get visas. It seems harsh that the Western world would be so suspicious of a well educated young couple with steady jobs etc in Russia.

Ania and Sergey left us in the flat on the Sunday morning as they went out to church. Just as we were about to leave to head into the city, we received a text from Sergey saying they were stuck in the lift! Tried to help to no avail, and so they had to sit and wait for an engineer (although we could shout to them through the lift doors). They said they'd catch us up so we headed into town. First stop - food! We fell instantly in love with Teremok, a fast food blini (pancake) place and will certainly keep an eye out for it in the future. We then climbed the tower of St Isaac's Cathedral for an utterly magnificent view over the city. It truly is amazingly beautiful and we would love to return in a warmer climate to properly explore. We then wandered up to the Church of the Ressurection Built on Spilt Blood (so called as it was erected on the spot where Alexander II was assassinated in 1881). It's onion domes were very reminiscent of the pictures we had seen of St Basils Cathedral in Moscow. We then hopped on the metro to meet Ania and Sergey (now freed from the pesky lift) at the Etagi loft project, an old bread making factory which had been turned into a hip art gallery and cafe space. There was a garage sale on there which meant that the building was very busy, but it was still nice to pootle round looking at the odd exhibit and have a beer and some tasty food in the cafe. It's a great light and airy studenty hang out and the cafe has seating on the roof top to be utilised in the summer.

We headed back to Ania and Sergey's place to pick up our bags and eat some delicious pancakes that Ania had made with yoghurt instead of milk. We stuffed them with curds and jam which is a brilliant combo. Ania told us about living in a rural village in her teens where she milked the cows and made her own curds. Jealous! Can you get curds in the UK? We were sad to leave Ania and Sergey - they were fantastic hosts and really made our first Couchsurfing experience a success :) However - Moscow calls!

St Petersburg, Russia