05 August 2008

Siberian Sightings

The Russian leg of my journey started on the Fast Train out of Ulaan Baatar and ended on a local train out of Novosibirsk, heading south to the heart of Central Asia. My only stop of significance was at Irkutsk, a charming "Decembrist's city."

On the first train I was in with a lovely young couple (Kate from UK; Rodrigo from Spain) who had been teaching English in China. The trip bodes well with jolly companions as we break out and share our food rations. They spent two weeks in Mongolia struggling to get the Russian visa and could only achieve transit status, so they are on for the distance all the way to Moscow, where they catch their flight out for Spain.

After a delightful afternoon things deteriorated rapidly at the Mongolian border. It wasn't the time sink I encountered on the Chinese side, but with a whole lot more drama. It seems nomad hospitality is reserved for the vast central steppes of the country. Sour faced officials boarded the train and I, with my no visa requirement was fine, but Kate and Rodrigo were branded instantly as criminals with a one-day gap between the expiration of their Mongolian visa and the start of the Russian visa. In Ulaan Baatar they were assured by Mongolian Immigration it would only be a small fine at the border, no worries, however, Stalin's granddaughter was on duty that evening.

They were removed from the train, yelled and screamed at, fined $150 each and very nearly not allowed to return to the train. Minutes after their exit, the "Babushka" in charge of our car rushed in and reclaimed the sheets she had issued while I sat silently fearful that (a) they wouldn't make it back, and/or (b) guilt by association would extend their wrath to me. Amazingly on the Russian side we were greeted with smiles and nuanced voices. Sleep came late after the exhausting ordeal.

The following day we hit the border of Lake Baikal mid-morning. At first we could only see traces of it through the trees, but as the forest thinned out we could see shinning waters clearly looking more like a vast sea than a lake, with waves lapping at the shore. Continuing on we had a brief stop at Sludyanka where Kate managed to score some omul, the famous Baikal fish, from the vendors on the platform at the last moment as the train was pulling away. It was smoked and each individual fish was propped open with fine splinters of wood so they looked like little boats.

The three of us then headed to the restaurant car for cold beers to go with our culinary treats. Soon we were joined by an Italian woman to share our booty during the last stretch into Irkutsk where I detrained.

One day to wander around Irkutsk before I went out to Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal. There are lots of advantages traveling in the shoulder season and the occasional disadvantages, like having to do the trip to Olkhon on the bus that takes five hours on bumpy roads since the shorter boat run doesn't begin until the official season later in June. No matter which route the trip to the Island is well worth it. Remnants of Shamanism from the Buryat settlers with links to Mongolia, it's a world apart from the rest of Russia. On one day I did the jeep trip to the far shore of the island and amid the spectacular views our driver grilled fresh omul over an open fire for lunch.

Back in Irkutsk I was just in time to celebrate "Children's Day," a wonderful festival where the city comes alive--bands, music, balloons and dancing in the streets, with the children all decked out in fancy clothes. Spring may come late in the land of permafrost, but it comes with full force in riotous color and joy.

The biggest headache traveling in Russia is their quirky practice of listing all transport schedules on Moscow time. Forget the reality that the country crosses five time zones--Moscow time rules. Calculations can get a bit complicated if you don't know which time zone you are physically in, but not enough so that I missed any trains. From Irkutsk I traveled on to Novosibirsk where my sources told me I could connect with a train going south to Kazakhstan. For that leg of the journey, my compartment mate was a friendly Ukraine businessman conversant in English. I'd prepared my stores for the trip properly, bread, cheese, salami, juice, etc. and included the essential for train travel in Russia--vodka. So it turns out Mr. Ukraine is a non-drinker. Down with another Russian myth. Good thing I'd gone convervative and brought only a small bottle. We knoshed on his raisins instead.

My sources were spot on and I was able to get a great train out of Novosibirsk going south all the way to Tashkent. Bidding farewell to Russia on a train car full of jolly Uzbeks, I settled in to prepare for my last views of Russia and greet Kazakhstan.

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