Published by Johnny Ward on May 13, 2012
Russian only grants 30 day visas, and considering the train itself takes about 7 solid days, it doesn’t give you a lot of time to do what you wanna do as you make your way along the journey. That combined with the fact that I got side-tracked into a visit to Kazakhstan cut my Russian time down further still. However, the Trans Siberian being the Trans Siberian, I found enough time to fit in some pretty crazy experiences along the way:
Breakfast with the Russian Spetsnaz:
On the Irkutsk to Omsk train, I knew my 2 friends and I were stuck onboard for 2 whole days. We woke up on the second day, a bit groggy after a night on the slim train bed, one of my friends was missing, I assumed he was in the dining cart. I made my way there, and there he was sitting down with 2 of the biggest dudes I’ve ever seen, heads the size of watermelons and fists twice the size of that.
After them greeting me with non-optional vodka shots and beers (for breakfast, naturally) we tried to talk, although with my non-existent Russian and their nonexistent Russian communication was proving difficult. It transpired that these 2 dudes were part of the Spetsnaz, Russia’s most violent, dangerous and trained special forces with quite a dark history.
A quick show of tattoos to prove themselves and some bullet wounds on their arms were enough to convince me. A couple more (equally enforced) breakfast vodkas and beers later, these boys were knocking entire glasses over the dining cart, shouting in Russian to the waitresses in what sounded like less than polite terms. It was getting a tad uncomfortable, and all our requests to not drink anymore were falling on
After the 5th beer hug I was victim to (friendly guys apparently), and countless enforced drink, these guys were ready to collapse thanks to their two empty vodka bottles in the front of them so when they disappeared to the toilet, we scarpered back to our carriage hoping to never see them again. I think i probably dodged a bullet with that one, perhaps literally.
Lunch with the Mafiosas:
In Irkutsk, my first Russian stop, I went scouring the streets for a cheap eatery for lunch. After finding one I sat down, ordered some dumplings and potatoes, and sat in the corner. After about 30 seconds a Russian guy came and spoke to me (by ‘spoke’ I mean he shouted the 10 words he knew in English, repeatedly), I smiled at him but before he could finish his friendly tirade he had bought 4 beers and pulled up a chair.
Before too long his 2 friends had joined, one young guy who spoke a bit of English and one 40 year Russian version of Tony Soprano. They sat down, 4 more beers, we chatted a bit, 4 more beers, cheers to Russia, 4 more beers, cheers to Ireland, 4 more beers. You get the picture. I asked them what they did for a living, they gave me the sketchiest answers imaginable, something about the Israeli army, owning telecommunications in Siberia and gambling with his ‘Russian friends’ in Atlantic city. Hmmmm, dodgy.
Then they invited me out for more beers “Let’s go and shout at the f*cking police, they won’t touch us”. Thanks but I’m washing my hair tonight. “Ok, lets go and f*Ck some girls, if you have money, we can give you everything” What a kind offer, but really, I’m ok.
Suddenly the police burst into this small, quiet coffee shop, batons drawn, demanding the Russians (who at this stage we had confirmed were in fact part of the local mafia) go with them. They laughed, shook my hand, shouted “f*cking police”,told me to wait a second and went outside. I saw out the window, the English speaking guy, the alpha-male, was giving the police a piece of his mind, shouting at them, gesturing etc at which point the police disappeared, the gangsters went the following way. We waited until the coast was clear, finished our beers hastily, and shot back to the hostel in double quick time!
Getting locked in by the Kazaks:
Day 1 in Kazakhstan, I was wondering around the city centre admiring the amazing new architecture found across Astana, the new capital. 2 Kazak guys approached me, speaking excellent English, saying “hey guys, it’s 5pm, drinking time! Wanna join us?”. I always try to say yes to all opportunities so off I went to his swanky, huge apartment 100m away from the iconic city centre.
Within 5 minutes two bottles of vodka were cracked open. The Kazakhstanis drink their vodka in shots, no mixing here, so before too long the music was cranking and more people were at the gathering.
I was with my two friends and we wanted to check out a bar in the city, to see what the vibe was in Kazakhstan. “Sure guys, that’s the plan, just some more shots”. This continued for another couple of hours, more people turned up, more booze and other dubious substances.
By this point I knew it was time to go, I whacked on my sneakers and made my way to the door. Bham. Door shut. Half friendly, half sternly the new guy ‘suggested’ we do more shots, we obliged.
We heard all about the politics within the Government, what the Kazaks really thought about their new found oil money, about the 20 year rule of the ‘democratic’ President. Sporadically we tried to leave, shut down every time until finally we made one last combined effort. After much protestation we managed to squeeze out the door, down the lift and onto the main road, taxi straight to our place.
Why they wouldn’t let us leave, I’ll never know but let’s just say I’m happy we left when we did!
Bus station accommodation:
In the last 6 years I’ve stayed in some skanky accommodation, bed bugs, no running water, hookers drifting in and out of rooms – none of it phases me too much, but this little beauty is right up there with my worst accommodation!
Located in the bus station (yep, actually in it), we rented a twin room, with no running water, no bathroom, no sheets and 2 very battered mattresses and some strange stains on the floor.
I only stayed one night, but it was long enough to work out that the stains were in fact puke on the floor and that the holes in the walls were rat dens. The rat den discovery was due to the fact that in the shared bathroom was a sticky tab to catch creatures, I went for a pee and was greeted by a squealing, gyrating rat stuck to the tab, fighting for his life, 30cm from the toilet. Wonderful way to start the morning.
The worst thing about this place was that it cost $27 a night! Damn that new oil money dragging the prices up everywhere.
I wrote an article about this here. In a nutshell, I stayed with a nomadic Mongolian family who’s son recently became a shaman, he then became possessed by two spirits. I stayed in their tent on a night of a full moon when the Shaman became repossessed so he had to excorcise the spirits from his body immediately, while I sat there for 2 hours watching the ritual. Amazing.
Traveling cattle class:
In a bid to maintain my budget travel policies I choose to book 3rd class tickets where available on the Trans Siberian journey. This consists of 6 beds to each section , with 10 sections per carriage. Each section is about the size of a king-size bed, so it’s cramped beyond belief.
After sharing booze with a Uzbek family, drinking with Russian soldiers, sharing salami and hard liquor with Kazaks, getting my photo taken endless times and having entire conversations with people despite the fact that my Russian is constricted to about 3 words, I discovered that if you really wanna ‘feel’ the Trans Siberian, cattle class is the only way to go.
Renting out a gay Russian bath house:
I’ve written an article about this little mishap, which ultimately turned out pretty cool (read about it here), but suffice to say a naked Russian bath house with a mirrored bedroom as the centre piece and naked dudes all over the walls is probably not the standard Russian bath house the people in the Lonely Planet were suggesting we visit. Ooops.
Tags: crazy stories, trans siberian
Published by Johnny Ward on May 12, 2012
So apparently Russian bath houses are all the rage, a bit like the Scandinavians and their saunas, so being the willing tourist I am I thought I’d sample a bit of it. My guidebook had it down as a ‘must see’, I was tired from sightseeing all day, perfect plan by all accounts, although apparently it was a little flawed.
Our russian bath house plunge pool!
I enquired from the hostel chick (who certainly wasn’t the brightest pea in the pod) about a cool bath house in the city, she gave me some directions and to be honest they were sketchy at best, anyways it had been a long journey to Moscow (81 hours on the train) so I went looking for the address with new found levels of motivation, eagerly awaiting a hot tub, steam room and some serious downtime.
The genius hostel girl had chosen not to write either the correct phone number OR the actual address OR even the actual name of the place so when my mates and I couldn’t find it, we’re were in a spot of bother. I asked person after person and no one knew where it was, the closest we came to someone recognizing it was an old man who didn’t know exactly but he heard there was a “gay people’s bath place” around here. Hmmmm, alarm bells should have rang then for me and my 3 (male) friends, but nope, it didn’t’ even register.
It took us over 2 hours to find the bloody place, but when I descended down the dingiest stairs into the basement of some shady building I began to wonder if this could really be the right place. I banged on the door, some creaky lock was unlatched and on we went.
The 2 staff members spoke no English so when I walked in they were shocked to say the least. They were giving us some very strange looks, casting a few giggles too, but I just put that down to us being foreigners. We tried to tell them we wanted to enter the bath house, we asked for bathing suits (unnecessary apparently) but after much laughter we finally paid our $30 and entered.
The area was pretty small, cosy would maybe be a better word however the alarm bells turned into sirens when we realised the entire place was kitted out with naked dudes and chicks on the wall, teaching the kama sutra a few new moves, I didn’t know 2 dudes could bend like that. There were not-so-personal shower rooms at the end of the corridor, and then the centre piece.. a huge (orgy?) sized circular bed, with silk streets, and a massive oval shaped mirror on the ceiling and on the wall were sitting proudly in the centre of the complex. Interesting. Suddenly the sly glances, giggles, confusion and ridicule were making a lot more sense!
Luckily enough the boys and I had clearly not made our innocent intentions clear to the Russian staff outside, but amidst the confusion it turned out we had booked the whole place out for the 4 of us, so we were safe, almost.
Not to be outdone, we stayed for our one hour session as the only dudes there, sinking our cheap booze and playing some horrible Russian hiphop. 1 litre of vodka later, ample nudity between friends, saunas and plunge pools and we made a discreet, if a little sheepish, exit from the place.
I know it’s normal to be stared at when you’re a foreigner in a new country, but the looks we got upon leaving that place should never be cast on anyone, that was a true walk of shame! I wanted to scream ‘we just had a few drinks and chilled in the sauna, it’s not what you think”, but it would be a waste of time. So I slapped my mate on the ass, and we walked back to the hostel. Happy travels!
Tags: crazy stories, moscow, trans siberian
Published by Johnny Ward on May 11, 2012
St Petes is to Moscow what Beauty is to the Beast. After a month in Russia I thought I had worked out Russian cities, with their Soviet hangover still lingering, mass apartment blocks, they were interesting if not pleasing to the eye, but then I came across St Petersburg and it is just simply gorgeous.
Thanks to the difficult visa situations in Russia (30 days to get across the biggest, bloody country in the world, thanks a lot Russian Government, great idea) I only had 2 days left so I had to get moving. This is what I did with my 2 days in St Petes:
The main road in all of Russia, Nevsky prospect dissects the entire city, and runs all the way down to the city’s most treasured site, the Hermitage.
You can spend an hour or two meandering down the street on the way to the Hermitage, fighting the urge to order a chocolate sundae or big mac in one of the endless fast food outlets (I failed). The architecture along the walk is beautiful, and on the way you’ll walk past the next site, below.
Church on Spilled Blood:
Built on the spot where Alexander III bit the dust, this church is St Pete’s answer to St Basil’s in Moscow. To be honest, it’s every bit as cool as St Basils, but not as famous.
Free for people with student cards (or any other ID that a Russian ticket vendor may not be able to decipher in English, hint hint) or $15 for non-students.
This is one of the world’s most famous art galleries and has endless pieces by Da Vinci including Madonna, Van Gogh, Picasso, Monnet, Rembrandt (that’s about the end of my art knowledge). I’m no fan of art galleries, or museums for that matter but this is pretty cool; however, I’d dispute anyone insisting you need “at least 2 days” to do the Hermitage justice, one morning was enough for me. z
Palace Square and Winter Palace are both connected to the Hermitage and are worth a bit of extra effort to check out too.
Short and sweet, this museum is the sort of museum I can spend a bit of time in! $5 entrance, $10 if you want tasting and entrance (easy choice). The actual museum is all in Russian so that’s not great, but the posters and old shots are great. Then you get fed some canapés and Russian vodka, and that my friends, can only be a good thing. There’s an awesome gift shop too.
Peter and Paul Fortress:
Both a former political prison and military fortress for the city, the fortress is steeped in history. You can walk here from The Hermitage. You don’t have to buy a ticket for the entire place, with individual tickets available for each section of the fortress but make sure you get tickets to the Cathedral, it’s certainly worth it.
That still leaves you with enough time for a night on the town, or to watch a Zenit St Petersburg footy game! Happy travels!
Tags: St Petersburg, trans siberian
Published by Johnny Ward on May 09, 2012
It only cost me $300 in visas, 10 nights on trains and too many bottles of vodka to county to finally make it here, and it was worth all the effort. Moscow, I’d heard, was in the top 5 most expensive city in the world, so when I managed to find a hostel for $15 a night I was delighted, let the sight seeing begin….
I only had 3 days in Moscow so I had to be fast. My first day was on the back of my epic 81 hour train journey from Almaty, Kazakhstan so although I’d like to tell you all that I was a trooper and powered through the entire day as if I had been sleeping sound in my own bed the previous night, that wasn’t the case! After my first shower in 4 days, a quick nap and a footlong meatball in Subway most of the day was gone but there was still enough time to squeeze in my dream, St Basil’s cathedral.
Anyone who has ever dreamt about visiting Moscow has envisaged setting your eyes on this, one of the most unique and beautiful buildings in the whole world, it’s an icon and I felt like a kid on Christmas morning when I finally laid my eyes on it. Huge bucket list item checked!
The next day we hit the sight seeing hard. First up was our second visit to Red Square, the huge area in front of St Basil’s. We arrived before midday and paid a visit to Lenin’s mausoleum. Despite his wishes to be buried in St Petersburg, Russian first premier is embalmed and on show (for free) every morning from 10am until around 1pm. It’s a pretty surreal affair to be honest, but very cool nonetheless.
Next up was the Kremlin, I paid using my Khao San Road student card (75% off thank you very much) and wondered in. The Kremlin is a huge area, and it’ll take you at least a couple of hours to wander around. There are some amazing orthodox churches to check out, amongst which Ivan the Terrible is resting. The actual government buildings are there too, as is the Armory which is an epic collection of Russian treasure from over the years. Most of the secondary places, like the armory, require extra admission fees so if you don’t have a student card to see everything costs about $45, with an ISIC card, it’s about $15.
After the Kremlin, I headed over to another UNESCO world heritage site, Church of Christ the Saviour (after Red Square, this was my second UNESCO of the day, no big deal, whatever). My mate Stalin knocked this entire place down once before, replaced it with what used to be the world’s biggest swimming pool, only for that to be knocked down and re-replaced (?!) with the Church of Christ the Saviour for a cool $360 million. Not very efficient urban planning, but an awesome church.
Next up was a 20 minute walk to a gargantuan statue of Peter the Great, sitting loud and proud on top of his disproportionately sized boat, which he is about 100X the size of. A few snaps there and you’re good to go.
I hit up a former Cold War nuclear bunker, Bunker 42,, built in the 60s, but has since been transformed into a museum. We had a Russian guide who wasn’t the US’s biggest fan, if you make it here you can watch all the Cold War information from the other side, which was really cool.
Also, there was a school outing the same day and one of the activities the kids did, red by the Russian guide, was to pretend to launch a nuclear attack on the US, complete with movie clips and everything. Madness!
My final stop was the Novodevichy Convent & Cemetery. This place is where Peter the Great imprisoned his sister so he could seize control of Russia. It’s an impressive complex that fully warrants it UNESCO World Heritage Site status, and it’s only $2 to get in. Bargain.
The cemetery next door is a who’s-who for important dead Rushkis, Boris Yeltsin is probably top of the list.
The day was almost up, in the evening I managed to pay a visit to the Moscow circus (read about that here), and had a very enjoyable evening at a gay Russian bath house (not as dodgy as it sounds, honestly). Happy travels!
Tags: moscow, top 5, trans siberian
Published by Johnny Ward on May 01, 2012
I don’t like to follow people’s paths, I always have a burning desire to blaze my own trail, to find my own way to when I subscribed to taking the Trans Siberian railroad from China to Russia, 1/3 of the way around the world, I knew I had to do something a little different.
3rd Class on the Trans Siberian train
So rather than taking the normal route from Omsk all the way through to Moscow via a serious of rather non-descript Russian towns and cities I thought I’d try to freestyle my way to Kazakhstan instead.
After searching on internet for a way to get from Russia to Kazakhstan I couldn’t really find anything so it was time for a little adventure! There is a train that runs from Novosibirsk to Astana, Kazakhstan’s new capital city but it’s far from ideal. It only runs once a week, and with the restrictive 30 day Russian visa that can mess up your whole trip, also from Irkutsk to Astana, via Novosibirsk looks like madness to me. I’d have to go north, north, north just to go south.
So I looked at the map, saw that Omsk was the nearest biggest city near the Kazakhstani border and headed straight there from Irkutsk. I figured I’d work out a way to get to Astana from Omsk once I arrived.
After 41 hours on the train, I got off in Omsk train station, wondering around the parking lot trying to speak English to people, enquiring about a bus to Astana wasn’t proving fruitful. Not a word of English was spoken and when someone finally worked out I wanted to go to Astana he was trying to charge me $500 (payable in Euro) to drive me the whole way there, eehhhh cheers mate but I think I’ll give it a miss.
Finally a fat, stumpy Russian cab driver started shouting ‘autubus, astana’ repeatedly, it was the best offer I’d had, so after a spot of negotiating I jumped in his taxi and paid the $13 prearranged fare. Overpriced for sure, but what choice did I have?!
After blaring out some Europop on full volume and him (unsuccessfully) trying to convince me to have sex with some Russian girls finally he pulled into a run down station 30 minutes late, it was about 11am. Time for another game of charades with the ticket agents.
Astana, astana, bus, Kazakhstan.. Repeat in the vain hope that they understand and that buses do infact go there. Then some angel of a lady grasped the concept I was trying to convey, wrote down 21.20 on a piece of paper followed by 967 Rubles. Awesome! Looks like im on my way to Kazakhstan! I had to wait around the station for 9 hours, and the run down bus was another 15 hours but I knew I was finally on my way, and now here I am, in Kazakhstan, recounting the stress about buying a ticket.
So here’s how to get from Omsk to Astana:
- There are two buses from Omsk to Astana, one leaves at 6pm the other at 9.20pm
- The journey takes 15 hours
- The bus costs 967 rubles ($33), plus 193 rubles ($6.50) for your backpack. $40 total.
- From Omsk train station to Omsk bus station, it’s about 20km and cost me $13 in a taxi
- I bough the ticket on the same day, but the 6pm bus had already sold out.
That’s it folks, so there are indeed buses from Russia to Kazakhstan, every day you can take the bus from Omsk to Astana, I’m off to try to stop myself from doing Borat impressions every 5 minutes, it’s proving to be quite a struggle. Happy travels!
Tags: astana, bus, omsk, train, trans siberian
Published by Johnny Ward on April 29, 2012
The most epic train journey of them all, and one which every traveler has on their bucket list, the Trans Siberian conjures images on Soviet train carriages, drinking Vodka with people in your cabin, vast landscapes and huge distance – it’s pretty much exactly like that.
Me getting comfortable in second class!
Already I’ve done 2 nights from China to Mongolia, 2 nights from China to Irkutsk, 3 nights from Irkutsk to Omsk and I’m just about half way to Moscow. It’s been an awesome trip, and I’ve really fulfilled one of my backpacking dreams, but I wish I had thought about the stuff I should have brought on each journey! Here are 5 things every traveler should bring on the Trans Siberian with them:
A plug adapter for Europe:
Russian plugs are the same as most of Europe (the circular indented gap with 2 round pins), so all their plug sockets require adapters. You’re probably gonna be the only foreigner on the train, especially if you travel third class, so if you forget yours you’re screwed! And there’s no chance of buying them en route.
A multi-tap adapter:
There are only 3 or 4 sockets per carriage, and each carriage holds between 40 and 100 people, you don’t have to be a mathemagician to work out that those figures don’t work in your favour. Bring an adapter to make one socket into 2 or 3 and you’ll be everyone’s new best friend.
Water and food:
Pretty obvious right? Apparently not, I’m sitting on the train, like an idiot, now without any of the above. The train does have a food cart but it’s nearly $2 per bottle of water, and up to $10 for food so if you’re on the standard $30 a day budget, the dining cart is not for you. Instant noodles are a great addition, you get free hot water at the end of every carriage.
A Russian phrase book:
Russian’s don’t speak English, really. If you’ve been to Japan, China, Pakistan and think that you’ve had extreme language barriers, Russia beats those hands down. Even numbers are beyond Russians, and this is no criticism, it’s there country and they shouldn’t have to speak English, so bring a phrase book and build a bridge, no doubt you’ll be drowning in complementary vodka for making the effort!
There’s only so much of Siberia you can see until you begin to get bored, even if you squeeze 4 or 5 hours out of the landscape, you’ve still got days and days of it ahead. Bring at least 2 books, you’ll be doing a lot of reading.
An Irish buddy of mine packed this in China, before that I had no idea about it. It’s the size of an external hard drive and charges your laptop, iPhone, dslr etc. I’ve never had one but I’ll be looking into it as soon as I make it to a major city.
Toothbrush, deodorant, shorts, flip-flops:
I’m sure you’ll have all of these packed in your backpack anyway, but I’m including it here because you’ll want to move all of this stuff into your daypack. There’s so little space that accessing your big bag regularly is a nightmare, so have everything you need in your smaller bag. It gets hot as hall on the train too, so flip-flops and shorts are the way to go.
A bottle of Vodka:
It’s the Trans Siberian, you can’t board it without some Vodka surely, right?! Buying it in a shop for around $6 a litre as opposed to $15 on the train is sound economics too! Also, if you’re in the third class, it can smart smelling a little funky after the third day or so, a night cap to help you sleep might be very well appreciated by you and your buddies!
For me, the Trans Siberian has lived up to every expectation I had. The second class compartments (4 people cabins with doors) were nicer than I expected and the third class areas (sections of 6 beds, with an open corridor running throughout) were a little dingier than I expected, but still very manageable and my transport of choice (being 35% of the price of the 2nd class!). Russians are a lot friendlier than their stereotypes suggest, and I can’t wait to make it to Moscow and see the Red Square, after everything I’ve seen so far, I’m sure it’s gonna blow my mind. Happy travels!
Tags: luggage, mongolia, packing, russia, trans siberian
Published by Johnny Ward on April 28, 2012
A wholly underappreciated and often skipped leg of the Trans Siberian railiroad, Irkutsk really surprised me with it’s sights, atmosphere and cheap vodka.
I guess it could be said that this is actually my first leg of the Trans Siberian route with my 30 hour Beijing to Ulaan Batataar and my 36 hour Ulaan Bataar to Irkustk journeys strictly being the Trans Mongolian express, whichever you look at it it was certainly my first stop in Russia, my first experience of a country I’ve dreamed about visiting since I was a kid and my first realization that I’m not in Asia anymore.
After the luxury of my 4 bed cabin into Irkutsk, arriving at 7am, I spent an hour and a half trying to hunt down my hostel (IF hostel, great place), 20kgs on my back, -5 degrees outside and not a word of English spoken by the overwhelming majority of locals, this certainly finally felt like Siberia. And despite the uncomfortable situation I was in, I was still loving it.
After wandering around aimlessly I managed to stumble across my hostel, Dimitri the computer programming Russian hipster who owner the hostel hooked us up with maps, a great wifi connection (allowing me to write and post this, deal with advertisers etc) and some ideas on where to go. I knew I was saving Lake Baikal for tomorrow (LINK) so a day sightseeing in my first Russian city was on the cards, there are few better ways to experience a new city or country than pounding the streets for a few hours, so that’s exactly what I did. Here are 5 great things to see in Irkutsk:
Tsar Alexander the third:
Right on the waterfront promenade is Alexander III standing loud and proud complete with the most awesome Russian beard.
Seal show at Akvarium Nerpy:
Straight from Lake Baikal’s fresh water are a couple of seals, Nessie and Tito, who perform quick shows every hour or so for about $3 entrance. Believe it or not, they can sing, do maths and breakdance.
This is what a Cathedral should look like. It brighten ups the seafront with it’s golden spires and Russian architecture. The whole area around the cathedral is pretty nice with monasteries, smaller churches and government buildings but the Cathedral steals the show.
Our Lady of Kazan:
The brand new church is about a 45 minute walk from the Bogoyavlensky Cathedral but it’s absolutely the highlight of my time in Irkutsk. I’ve been dreaming about coming to Russia for year, and this orthodox Church confirmed every dream I’ve had about what Russian sights should look like, absolutely beautiful.
The architecture and Soviet statutes everywhere!
I was trying to decide which should be the fifth thing to include so I kopped out and included everything. With this being my first stop in Russia I was so excited to be seeing everything, from Lenin and Karl Marx Street, to the communist statues dotted around the city, to the oh so very Russian buildings like the train station and former parliament. Just follow the walking path suggested (there are signs everywhere) and you’ll get a chance to soak it all in.
I’m off to Omsk, and then on to Astana Kazakhstan next but I can’t speak highly enough of Irkutsk. Ignore the haters, put this on your itinerary when you’re jumping on the Trans Siberian and go easy on the vodka, a messy, messy night ensued after the sight seeing! Happy travels!
Tags: irkutsk, top 5, trans siberian
Published by Johnny Ward on April 27, 2012
My first stop on the Trans Siberian proper was Irkutsk, from all accounts it was meant to be quite dreary, non-eventful stop but after a day of sightseeing and a night of vodka, I certainly don’t subscribe to that. That combined with the fact that the world’s deepest lake and largest freshwater lake, Lake Baikal,
Anyways, with a pounding hangover (don’t tell my mum!) my friend dragged me out of bed and we made our way to Irkutsk’s nearest Lake Baikal coastal town, Listvyanka. It’s about 70km or so from Irkutsk and takes about one hour in a minibus from Irkutsk bus station. The buses from Irkutsk leave when they’re full, but you shouldn’t have to wait more than 30 minutes, it costs 100 Rubles ($3).
Listvyanka is a quaint little town, with a population of 3,000. I day tripped it from Irkutsk and to be honest that was more than enough time for me. In the peak of winter you can take dog sledding trips across the frozen lake which would be awesome, but the ice was thawing so it was a no-go for me. You can also take the hydrofoil across the lake (season permitting), go on fishing trips and horse rides but most of the activities are saved for the summer.
The landscape in winter is beautiful and for me it made up for the lack of activities, skating across the lake, with endless snow-capped mountains serving as the backdrop, knowing that beneath you is the full 1700m of the world’s deepest lakes.
A local specialty, is omul, a smoked salmon-like fish. It’s absolutely delicious and goes hand in hand with visiting Lake Baikal. They’re caught and smoked fresh, and one fish costs around 70 rubles ($2.20). I’m no fish connoisseur but this was one of the best fish I have ever eaten!
Eating Omil at the Lake
Anyway, after drinking some of the fresh water from Lake Baikal in the vain hope it would negate my hangover (it didn’t) I made my way back to Listvyanka tourist information, where the minibuses run back to Irkutsk. I paid my 100 rubles, forgot how late it was and almost missed my next 40 hour leg of the Trans Siberian, next stop Omsk!
Tags: blog, irkutsk, lake baikal, trans siberian, transsiberian
Published by Johnny Ward on April 15, 2012
For anyone who’s interested in taking the train from Beijing to Ulaan Baatar, I thought it’d be cool for you guys to see what it’s actually like, so here’s a quick recount on my time on the train.
Me about to board the first leg of the trans siberian train, so excited!
Being the budget backpacker that I am, I bought the cheapest, 3rd class tickets for the 30 hour train from Beijing to Ulaan Baatar (1430RMB/$230). I managed to rope two buddies into the trip too so lucky we filled up 3 beds out of the 4 bed cabin. The ticket lady kindly informed us that it’s low season at the moment so there’ll be no one else in our cabin, we’ll have the 4th spot free. Great news.
I haven’t been this excited about a trip since I went to North Korea. I’ve dreamt about this trip for so long and finally it’s a reality, it feels like I’m really traveling again.
We got to Beijing railway station around 7.30am for the 8.05am departure, as I went through the gate I saw my train – an old school throw back train from the communist era, perfect! We were shown our cabin by our carriage’s conductor, bags thrown in, hearts pumping, it turns out not only do we have the cabin to ourselves we had the entire carriage to ourselves!
Sunset on the Gobi Dessert
One piece of advice I’d have for anyone jumping on this journey is to brings plenty of supplies – water, fruit, chips, biscuits, noodles, bring it all! I brought half a packet of Oreos and a bottle of water, not quite sufficient for a 30 hour journey, schoolboy error johnnyboy! You do get a couple of opportunities every 6 hours or so to try to jump off at a station and buy some food before the train sets off again, you just gotta be quick.
The 3rd class cabin itself is great, comfortable, spacious and it comes complete with sheets, pillows and blankets. I guess it’s the equivalent to a Chinese soft sleeper (LINK). It’s got a western toilet at one end of the carriage and a hot water dispenser on the other, no showers though. It’s even got a couple of power sockets too, so travel blogging just got a lot easier.
The dining cart, dishes cost around $3, beers about $2
We pulled up to Erlian, the Chinese town on the Mongolian border around 8.30pm, the borders guards take our passports and tell us to get off the train. We have to linger around Erlian until 11.30pm but it gave us a chance to resupply for the second half of the journey. After we reboarded, you move forward for 5 minutes and then wait on the Mongolian side, stuck in the train, for another 2 hours. The Mongolian border guards come into the cabin, stamp us in, and finally 5 hours after pulling into Erlian we finally set off again.
The Gobi Dessert in Mongolia
The reason you have to wait so long at the border is because the Mongolian railway line and the Chinese railway lines are 6 inches different widths, so they have to change the wheels on the train, the only border crossing in the world they do that.
Waking up after a night on the trans siberian to ulaan baatar
Anyway, we carry on through the night – straight through the third biggest dessert in the world, the Gobi Desert. Morning comes, I wake up around 10am – yep, still in the desert. A couple more hours through the barren, yet beautiful, landscape and we finally arrive in Ulaan Baatar. 30 hours in heartbeat. Step one of my Trans Siberian journey complete, and what an awesome train ride it was too.
Tags: beijing, trans siberian, ulaan baatar