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

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

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