Sunday, June 22, 2008

Siberia: the wild, wild East

I’ve been in Russia for over a week now. The best I can describe the week is a learning experience – traveling independently in Russia may just be harder work than traveling anywhere else in the world, certainly harder than any of the countries I’ve been to so far. And I even speak the language here… almost like a native… The problem, of course, is that this may not be Soviet Russia anymore (and thus we’re actually allowed here now), but the attitudes of the people in the so-called service industry haven’t changed a whole lot and the infrastructure is developing but tends to work in curious, circuitous, occasionally unpredictable ways. And the lack of hotel space is downright criminal!

When you’re traveling, say, anywhere in South East Asia, there’s always going to be a dozen local ‘guides’/helpers, who [for the right price] will solve any problem you may have – find a place to stay, get a ride anywhere, at any time... In Russia? I don’t know if it’s the Soviet Union-instilled reluctance to bend the rules and come up with creative solutions to problems (for fear of reprimand from above?) or just the relative newness of the whole service industry, but getting things accomplished is always a challenging task. The customer, let’s just say, is not always right. The unfortunate (for me, at least) result is that in order to successfully travel in Russia, you have to actually plan ahead and make arrangements ahead of time, which is certainly sensible, but I’ve tried pretty hard to avoid doing so on the trip this far…

With that little bit of venting out, on to the fun stuff. My first stop in Russia was in Irkutsk, near the shores of Lake Baikal. The train from Beijing to Irkutsk runs straight across Mongolia, stopping briefly in Ulaan Baator (which, btw, looks like a thoroughly depressing, dusty town) and was generally uneventful as for most of it, I didn’t just have the compartment to myself, I usually had the entire carriage all to myself. The ride involved plenty of rest, a bit of the over-priced food from the dining car, and getting through more than half of the 900+ page book I have since finished. (I recommend Shantaram by the way.) The most exciting part was crossing from China to Mongolia where the track changes from the narrower Chinese gauge to the wider Russian one, so the wheels are actually swapped from right underneath each carriage with the help of a huge hydraulic lift:

At this point, your passport gets taken away for a couple of hours by the Chinese authorities, who don’t speak much English. I passed the time attempting to talk with my conductor:



After having a couple of these, I was pretty sure that he understood the word passport… and this conversation had stretched our cross-cultural communication abilities to their limits. And I was kinda optimistic that I’d eventually see my passport again (I did, with a Chinese exit stamp even). Also during this time, we got a fairly casual inspection by the Chinese custom authorities… or maybe they were from the Mongolian side… On to the Mongolia-Russia border. No fancy hydraulics here, what you do get here though is the most thorough inspection you can imagine. They checked my compartment… twice! The second guy took some of the ceiling panels off and inspected up there too. Apparently, the Mongolians tend to smuggle things into Russia. And then we were into Russia (well, after another lengthy passport-stamping delay), but eventually. And Russia greets you with the awesome site of Lake Baikal, flanked by snow-capped mountains:

And then to remind you that this is, in fact, Russia, you also see this on a passing train:

Irkutsk itself was fairly unremarkable. A couple of nice churches, apartments turned into hostels, tour agencies everywhere. But it’s actually some 70kms away from the lake itself, so not what I came for. I was, however, immediately reminded where I had come when I needed to take a tram from the train station to the hostel, saw the tram rolling towards me, raised my hand trying to flag it down. Were this, say, Indonesia, the driver would’ve stopped even if I hadn’t signaled and tried to convince me I needed to go wherever he was going. In Russia, the woman behind the wheel gave me a somewhat curious glare and calmly kept going. 15 minutes later, I caught the next tram… from the actual station, 30m down the way.

After a day in Irkutsk, it was off to Olhon island – a beautiful place a little ways up Lake Baikal, where I had actually wished I could’ve spent more time:

And the next morning caught the bus back down South to Irkutsk (so I could go North to Severobaikalsk…). The bus is a fairly ancient PAZ-3205 – I can’t decide whether or not it’s older than me… I’m betting that it is! But it only broke down twice(!) – once on the way there (30 minutes), and once on the way back (a mere 10 minutes). The driver, Valeriy Ivanovich appeared to have both situations calmly under control.

Next stop was Severobaikalsk, on the northern edge of Baikal – this is where the hydrofoil came in. It supposedly made a stop at Olhon, but since I’d already bought a ticket from Irkutsk and nobody on the island could actually tell me whether or not it was possible to get on it from Olhon, I headed back to Irkutsk. Changing the ticket is certainly possible – you just have to do it in person, at the ticket office in Irkutsk. I was on the very first hydrofoil run across the lake of the summer, so maybe things hadn’t been fully worked out yet, but presumably the service had operated in years past… Obviously, as we made the stop at Olhon, a few people came on, including a guy I’d met there the day before, so I could’ve stayed on Olhon and skipped the trip back to Irkutsk… oh well…

Getting to the northern end of the lake involves a 10 hour ride on the hydrofoil Kometa

So, we arrived in Severobaikalsk – of the foreign contingent on the boat, it was me, Jake, a Canadian I’d met on Olhon, and David, an Australian, who was aiming to reach Yakutsk by land. I suspect we were the only three foreigners in Severobaikalsk… The hotel, obviously, didn’t have any rooms available, but the exceptionally friendly lady working reception, Olga, runs a bit of a homestay business right at her house, which is where we ended up staying… for less than the hotel would’ve been and what I’m pretty sure was a nicer room. The next day, Jake and I tried our luck with the neighboring village of Nizhneangarsk, which was supposed to be an excellent place to see the wild Siberia. I can report finding exactly one hotel there (which was expensive, and the staff, oddly enough, not particularly friendly), a state-run tourist information center (which was fairly useless, unless we were interested in spending lots of money on the trips they half-heartedly organized), and some fairly run down wooden buildings sprawling for a 5km stretch along the lake. We went back to Olga’s in Severobaikals the next morning, and promptly decided to buy tickets for the train – me to Krasnoyarsk (30 hrs), Jake all the way to Moscow (4+days!). Prior to leaving, made a quick side trip to Solnechnoye, a spot with some natural hot springs – I’m not sure what exactly I’d been expecting, but something a little more natural than the hot tub with a pipe running, supposedly, from the hot spring, I suppose… This trip, however, was not without merit, as we spent the next four hours hiking (and fighting Siberian mosquitoes, which were out in full force) in the hills around, getting some spectacular views, and finding plenty of snow… two days before the summer solstice!

Oh, and train is certainly the preferred way to get around here in Siberia:

The other fascinating thing about being here is that the sun absolutely refuses to set in the evening! Yes, yes, I know it’s just about the longest day of the year, and we are quite far up north, but it’s still weird when the sun is still high up in the sky at 9PM. The sunsets can be quite beautiful… they just tend to happen a bit after 11 at night:

And the following afternoon, we got on our train and bid Baikal adieu. A parting shot of Severobaikalsk:

It’s a busy train station they’ve got here! My guidebook tells me that the BAM line, on which we are traveling, was quite the technological achievement considering the terrain it covered, and may have nearly bankrupted the Soviet Union, but it does provide a rail link to a lot of the Siberian natural resources. Can’t confirm any of that, but the scenery on the way to Krasnoyarsk was pretty spectacular:

And 30 hours later, I got off in Krasnoyarsk, which is a bigger town, closer to Moscow, and thus even more expensive! But it is home to some spectacular limestone pillars, so that’s in the plans for tomorrow – to compare and contrast with the ‘Twelve Apostles’ limestone pillars I saw near Melbourne in Australia… And on Tuesday, it’s off to Moscow, which will certainly try to be even more expensive, but I get to cheat by staying with family instead of in the outrageously expensive hotels! But before all that, Russia plays Holland in the quarterfinals of Euro 2008 at 2:30 in the morning local time, so the entire city is excited! We’ll see if I can make it through the whole game…

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