A Travellerspoint blog

Ulan Ude

Last stop in Russia

13 °C
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My final stop in my trip across Russia was the town of Ulan Ude. To be honest there wasn't much to the city. I saw the world's biggest Lenin head (see below for a picture of me picking Lenin's nose) and also visted the home of Northern Buddhism in Datsan which was about 40 minutes on a bus journey outside the town. After that there wasn't much to do in Ulan Ude.

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The bus ride to the Buddist monastery, following on from my bus ride in Irkutsk and experiences as a pedestrian in the cities, confirmed my view that the Russian drivers are suicidal maniacs. The bus I travelled on was unique enough in that the décor was of the tastes of an 80 year old woman, it was all tassles and flowery curtains.

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It was also packed to capacity as all small buses seem to be in Russia. If you moved suddenly you ended up knowing the person next to you quite intimately. It certainly wasn't the most comfortable journey for people with long legs. Anyway there we all were wedged into a small mini bus traveling at the bus' top speed (any faster and I think the structural integrity of the bus would have been compromised) and our driver decides to overtake the car in front. Nothing too wrong with that (the oncoming hill and accompanying blind spot none withstanding). My problem lay with the mad man who over took us while we were overtaking. A risky maneuver at the best of times but with the road surface and the fact that all three cars were completely blind to what was over the hill made for a veritable automobile Russian Roulette. Oddly enough I seemed to be the only one concerned by this action. I suppose the Russians are made of sterner stuff.

I departed Ulan Ude early in the morning and was now on my way to Mongolia. It was to be a short overnight journey across the border – until customs and immigration got involved. We arrived at the Russian border controls at 13:00 in the afternoon and pulled out of the Mongolian border control at 21:30. The majority of the people in my carriage were all foreigners and like me were doing the Trans Mongolian. At one point we figured out that our passports weren't going to be checked by the Russian border patrol until 17:00 so a few of us jumped off and were going to walk into the small town to get a few beers to pass the time. We had taken about 10 steps on the platform when we look back to see our train beginning to pull away – uh oh!! Turns out they had unhooked the last 2 carriages (including our own) and the rest of the train was leaving. Happy days and we continued on our way. After a short exploration, we found a shop and purchased our drinks. There was myself, 2 Finns (who I'd met in the hostel in Moscow), 2 other Irish and 2 English people enjoying our drinks when we looked around to see our two carriages being dragged away in front of our eyes – Not again! This time they seemed to be just moving the carriages and they stopped a couple of hundred metres up the station. If we hadn't had our beers and the sun hadn't been shining I think we might have been quite worried.

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There was nothing particularly interesting about this border crossing. There certainly wasn't the same imitating atmosphere compared to when I entered Russia. There was one Mongolian woman in our carriage who was escorted off the train and into a room in the station. I haven't a clue what was going on and it all seemed very calm and unimportant but that woman never came out of that room and certainly didn't cross the border into Mongolia with us! She mightn't have survived the rail journey across Russia but I had (It seems your predictions on my survival chances on the Trans Siberian journey weren't correct Petr! Maybe your horror stories will play out in the two countries I have left to travel on this train journey!)

Next stop Ulaanbaatar the capital of Mongolia!

Posted by ronanm32 14:32 Archived in Russia Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Lake Baikal

Largest fresh water lake in the world

sunny 21 °C
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The train arrived into Irkutsk early in the morning so after saying goodbye to some of my traveling companions from the carriage goodbye a few of us headed into town to organise a trip out to Lake Baikal.

Lake Baikal is an amazing natural wonder. It is simply colossal in size, it measures about 600km by about 70km and contains about 20% of the world's fresh water. Indeed Lake Baikal has more fresh water than all the the US Great Lakes combined. The only thing more amazing about its size are the statistics and descriptions of its size.

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The group stayed in a small chalet on the side of one of the many hills that surround the lake. We spent three wonderfully relaxing and peaceful days there. The chalet was run by a lady accompanied for the duration of our stay by her hyper active grand daughter. Angelika was like a Duracell bunny with her energy levels. We'd often see her tearing around the hillside and the chalet in a frenzied game that we could decipher. She was very friendly and despite not having any English she became firm friends with us, she would often arrive at our door with a bunch of flowers for us which was extremely cute. People also got individual flowers depending on who was in favour or not. The only fault in our relationship was our unequal energy levels, often games with her would find us exhausted and lethargic afterward while she would be trooping off to find something else to amuse herself.

April is the beginning of spring in Siberia and so the beginning of the thaw. The Lake for the last few months has been frozen solid with nearly a metre and a half of solid ice. When we arrived the lake was still frozen for the vast part but parts were beginning to melt, another week or so and the lake would be completely thawed. This unfortunately ruled out some activities like ice-skating or dog sledging on the lake but none the less there was lots to do.

We fitted in a few walks into the surrounding hills which gave us some dramatic and spectacular views.

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We also tried a traditional Russian Banyan (Russian Sauna). This involved entering one of the hottest saunas I've ever been in (about 94 degrees) for about 20 minutes, then retreating into the freezing night outside to drink herbal tea. You repeated this ritual three times. After the third visit out into the night you re-enter the sauna room where you are beaten vigoursly with a combination of pine and birch branches!

There I was on a Friday night in a Russian Banyan and my mind wandered to what I would be doing at home at that time and I decided that being beaten mercilessly with various birch and pine branches in an hellishly hot room what still more palatable than filling out weekly status reports in rainy Shannon :-). The whole process was actually really enjoyable and was very relaxing and cleansing. Another evening was spent around a bonfire cooking sausages on the fire and drinking the local beer on the lakeside.

I enjoyed my relaxing break to Lake Baikal, it was a fitting end to my Russian experience. I have a quick stop in Ulan Ude before I leave Russia and enter Mongolia, the ancient home of Genghis Khan and the Golden Horde.

Posted by ronanm32 05:30 Archived in Russia Tagged lodging Comments (0)

Shenanigans on the train from Ekaterinburg!

If there is a better way to travel overland, I haven't found it yet

sunny 8 °C

I was well prepared for this train journey as I had made a pit stop at the local supermarket and had bought lots of snacks, noodles and most importantly vodka.

We were joining the Moscow to Irkutsk train so there were lots of people on this train who were doing the trans Siberian route.

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There was a real communal feel to our carriage and after a while everyone seemed to get to know each other, especially after the 1st night when the vodka and beers were cracked out. I met so many different people from Alex who was a Ukrainian investment banker who was on his way to Lake Baikal to volunteer building a 15 metre long scale model of lake in a village for touism purposes. Kevin a french truck driver was also traveling for the same reason. I also met a trio of retired Finnish men who were traveling to Lake Baikal for two weeks of ice fishing(who seemed to be in a constant state of inebriation!). There was also Karl and his Dad from Switzerland who were traveling to Beijing and then Karl was going to travel around Beijing before returning to Switzerland to enter university. The most unique person I met had to have been Denis though. He fascinated me. He was a Russian army major in the space program. His job is to monitor all Chinese missiles and satellites. He was returning to his base after a month's leave where he returned home to St. Petersburg. As well as his pretty good English the guy could also speak Mandarin. He was very friendly and I had a good laugh with him and copious amounts of vodka (I figure if I can keep up with a Russian army major I can keep up with nearly anyone!).

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Other than chatting with the other travelers there isn't much else to do on the train. You read, sleep and enjoy the scenery. There was the odd long stop (20 mins or so) where you could disembark from the train and stretch the legs and buy some food from the babushkas on the platforms.

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I even had the guts to buy a fully smoked fish which turned out to be quite nice despite the rather nasty business of first tearing off its head and peeling off its scales! I was having some initial problems deciding on how to tackle the fish until Denis whips out a knife (no a small sword would probably be a better description) and with what can only be described as scarily accomplished knife work had the fish gutted and prepared with a few quite dexterous moves.

I have to say that I enjoyed the long train journey and would be fully prepared a journey of a much longer duration as there is something quite relaxing about having nothing to do but relax. Still its always nice to break up a long journey by stopping to see in depth the country you are traveling through.

Next stop Lake Baikal for a few days.

Posted by ronanm32 05:23 Archived in Russia Tagged train_travel Comments (0)

Ekaterinburg, Russia

A grizzly tour of end of Czarist Russia

sunny 12 °C

Well I arrived in Ekaterinburg in the afternoon local time and made my way to my hostel. Surprisingly enough the place had free wi-fi and I was able to get online. It astonishes me how ubiquitous the internet is here even in the remotest of places. We can't even get broadband at our house at home. I didn't do much that evening apart from walking up town to a cafe and getting some food. I also went for a few quiet pints in a local Beatles themed bar!

The next morning I arose and when for a walking tour around the town and got some of the history of the place. The highlight for me was seeing the “room” where the Romanov family and their servants were executed in 1918 as the Russian civil war raged.
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Lenin gave the order to have them executed as he feared the White forces were nearing their location and if they were freed they would act as unifying symbol for all the opposition forces to the new Bolshevik regime (Extra detail added as we have a few pedantic historical readers (which I love), thanks Brad :-) ). The actual house was destroyed in the 1970s by order of the central communist council and the local party leader Boris Yelsin (yes that Boris Yeltsin! He was born here. He joined the local communist party after graduating from the local state university as a civil engineer (pesky engineers, don't know when to leave well enough alone). He rose rapidly up the ranks and would eventually lead the coup to overthrow the Soviet State and become the 1st president of the Russian Federal Republic). In 2006 a large cathedral was built to commemorate the Romanovs on the spot where they were murdered. It really is quite puzzling to observe how both sets of diametrically opposed heritages can be so revered side by side. Here was this huge cathedral built remember and honour the Romanov's (who were also raised to the status of Martyrs in the Russian Orthodox church)
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while in the same town the main street is called pr. Lenina after the man who ordered their execution. The street also boasts an impressive statue of the founder of Bolshevikism. This dichotomy is consistent across Russia. As I said before, its a land of contradictions.

In the afternoon we hired a driver to bring us out to the woods where the remains of the Romanov family were found in the 70s (although it wasn't publicly announced until the 1991). A monastery of 50 or so monks coupled with seven small chapels built in the traditional Russian way i.e. without nails now adorns the isolated landscape. I was able to view the mine shafts where the family's bodies were thrown after they were shot and bayoneted. A ton of sulfuric acid was thrown on their remains so it astonishing to think that the historians and archeologists were able to find anything at all.
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I also headed 25km outside Ekaterinburg to have some photos taken at the border between Europe and Asia. This spot marks the watershed of the Iset and Chusovaya Rivers and scientists have confirmed after examining geological studies that the spot is the exact tectonic division between the continents of Europe and Asia. Like a child with a new rattle I was kept amused for several minutes jumping over and back between the two continents. What can I say I'm easily amused at times.
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That night my train to Irkutsk didn't leave until 4 in the morning so I didn't bother going to bed and instead started playing drinking games with the others in the hostel who were catching the same train. We were quite “merry” when we clambered aboard the train :-).

The next leg of my journey is going to the longest time on the train. For the next 50 hours there wouldn't be much else to do apart from eat, sleep, read, chat to my fellow travelers and enjoy the scenery of Siberia as I continued my journey on one of the worldl's longest train journeys.

Next stop Lake Baikal in the heart of Russian Siberia!

Posted by ronanm32 05:14 Archived in Russia Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Moscow

Red Square in the snow

snow -3 °C
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Well I arrived in Moscow at 08:30 in the morning and armed with my metro map I set off to find my hostel, Godzilla Hostel. I was so impressed with the Moscow underground, they have beautiful stations. The décor is simply spectacular in some of the stations, Leningradsky station which I arrived in was particularly beautiful.

Unfortunately the metro map that I had printed from the internet had only the roman script version of the station names and all the stations were obviously in the Cyrillic script. The other hassle was the fact that I arrived into the Metro system at the height of rush hour traffic and I was not at my most mobile with my backpack. My backpack and my lack of understanding of exactly where I was going was my not appreciated by my fellow Metro users as they made their way to work. The old women had no qualms about shoving me around as they made their way on and off the station. Thankfully I didn't make any wrong turns and arrived at my desired station and from there made my way to the hostel.

I met up with a few people and headed out in town with them. We wandered around the square seeing all the sites. The Kremlin, the Lenin Mausoleum, St Basils. We then wandered down to the river and tried to get a boat trip up the Volga but unfortunately we were too late. It was quite cool to finally see Red Square, it really is one of those iconic world sites and it was a pleasure to wander around it.

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That night we headed out for a bit to eat and to get a few drinks. After we left the restaurant we wandered around for an awful long time desperately trying to find a bar. We finally found a bar called Cafe Gogol. It was a a pretty cool club – it was playing the wackiest and most eclectic mix of music. Everyone was jumping around and going crazy on the dance floor. It was a place you could do anything and most importantly it was open 24 hours. A few of us bought a bottle of vodka and several beers. I was never one for doing shots of straight vodka but hey when in Russia. The vodka and the beer and the speed at which we drank ensured we had a good night (it was definitely more fun that drinking vodka in my dodgy St. Petersburg hostel with all those Russian merchant sailors!)(I have since learnt that the hostel was mainly used by Russians and mainly merchant sailors at that and not by tourists, ah well you live and you learn)!

We all left the bar at about 06:30 and started to head home to hostel. Myself and this American headed further afield to look for another party or some food. We were foiled on both counts and could only find a cafe that was open. I've never had a ginger bun with icing as my post night club feed, another unique experience. We finally got back to the hostel at half seven. I debated not going to bed at all as we were due to meet Mascha and Elena (these Russian girls I had met) at 09:30 the next morning so I surfed the net for a while but eventually I hit the sack after a half hour or so.

I did manage to get myself up in the morning and we headed into town. It was going to be a full day though and one in which I was going to be doing a lot of work. We firstly headed down to Red Square and got some tickets for the Kremlin Cathedrals and for the Armoury.

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The tickets should have been a pricey 700 rubles but thankfully Masha and Elena had student cards and they kindly offered to use them to get us vastly reduced entrance tickets. Once we had got our tickets we commencing queuing to enter the Lenin Mausoleum. It was quite surreal to see the man in his marble tomb. He was back on display again after a month off where his body was retreated and he got a new suit. There were guards everywhere and you weren't allowed to take photo graphs ( They had to be checked in before you entered after the metal detectors) and you weren't allowed to even stop in the tomb itself. I was delighted to see the body though and then just outside on exiting you see the busts of other famous Russians who have been buried in the Kremlin walls e.g. Stalin, Breznev, Andropov and Gagarin.

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Since you can only enter the Kremlin armoury during pre allocated time slots we then quickly headed into the Kremlin. The armoury holds all the treasures for the Russian state. From ceremonial armour of Ivan the Terrible, to coronatino gowns of Catherine the Great, to royal carriages right down to all the jewels and various gifts from other heads of state to the Russian Czars through the ages. On exiting the armoury we wandered around the various cathedrals that are within the Kremlin walls. I enjoyed the walk and although it was cold it was bright and sunny. I also got photos with the royal cannon and the broken cathedral bell. After lunch we made our way to the cultural museum of Revolution. This fascinating museum gave a full account of Russia's tumultuous and revolutionary past. I found the place fascinating and very informative.

My train was leaving Moscow at four o'clock so I spent the morning We trekked quite a bit out into the suburbs on the Moscow underground and arrived at a rather ornate and vibrant flea market. This was a place you could buy anything from illegal DVS, to basic souvenirs to army memorabilia. One individual was quite intent on selling me some knives from his extensive collection, after much haggling in a combination of Russian and English I had to walk away from the deal, weird experience and even weirder individual!

I continued my cultural experiences of Russia by making a trip to the vodka museum. It was quite small but interesting none the less. We got a tour around the museum and were informed about the history and development of what we know as Vodka in Russia. We also were given some fascinating anecdotes about the drink. Stories about the peasant who fixed the angel on the spire of the fortress of St. Peter and St Paul in St. Petersburg and who asked to be able to drink as much vodka as he desired in any pub in Russia for the rest of his live. He was duely given a document to grant him his wish complete with a royal seal. As you can imagine after a week of hard drinking that he “mislaid” his document. Brave (or stupid depending on how you look at it) he returned to Nicholas I and asked for a replacement. Nicholas flew into a rage but granted him his wish this time giving him the royal seal in such a way that he would never lose it again. He had it tattooed to his neck. From this day in any bar in Russia if you tap your neck with your finger to anyone it means that you want to have a drink with them. Excellent – a chat up line without a need for Russian! The vodka museum tour ended up with several shots of the national drink. Would you believe I tried horsh radish and cherry vodka as well the the standard stuff.

Next stop Ekaterinburg in the Ural mountains. It's only a 26 hour train journey away, I think we are going to spend the majority of that time drinking (I'm getting quite a taste for vodka)

Posted by ronanm32 10:51 Archived in Russia Tagged tourist_sites Comments (1)

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