Leaving Yekaterinburg meant that we were continuing on the Trans Siberian Railway and moving deeper into Russia; on to the Siberian capital, Irkutsk, and the impressive Lake Baikal. Impressive because it is the largest freshwater lake in the world (by volume), larger than all the North American Great Lakes combined. When you throw a minus 40°C temperature into the mix you can have some amazing and fantastic results!
Boarding the train at Yekaterinburg I knew that we were about to embark on our longest single train ride of the whole England to Hong Kong journey, and our last platskartny. Platskartny is essentially 3rd class on Russian trains: the carriage is a 54 bunk open dorm where the concept of privacy and comfort are not known. The train that we boarded was partway through a 7 day trip from Moscow to Vladivostok; so 52 other Russians had made their home amongst the beds and tables. And yes, there was a musty two-day-old smell in the air; of Russian food, heat, and well, people!
Sidling through an already full and heaving train, I found our home for the next 52 hours and set about packing away the bags under the bunks and in true Trans Siberian fashion, arranging our food on the table. When you know that you are going to spend two full days and nights (plus some) stuck in the same bunk, you want to make it as comfortable as possible. The downside of travelling during winter is that you only get a few hours of scenery through the solidly frozen window whilst there is daylight. For reference a kindle is a good buy for this point of your train journey.
Of course we became minor celebrities once again being the only foreigners in 3rd class for at least 2 carriages either side. Most Western travellers opt for 2nd class (kupe) or 1st class (spalny vagon) which respectively involve 4 and 2 bed compartments; a better proposition if you want some more comfort. But for me, where is the fun in shutting yourself away when you have a whole world to experience in front of you.
This is the first time in my life that I have been able to fully understand the meaning of cabin fever. The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as ‘irritability and similar symptoms resulting from long confinement or isolation indoors during the winter’. That description really does not do the term justice. There are only so many times that you can walk up and down in front of 50 people before you start getting strange looks; apparently that is twice an hour!
I could go on more about what its like but I think you’re better to read about that in my guide to the Trans Siberian.
Minus 34°C and 9pm in the evening was a chilly and brisk welcome to Irkutsk: the gateway to Lake Baikal. That, and a horde of Russian taxi touts outside the train station. Nearly every one was fighting for our business. If you have ever come out of an airport or train station in South-East Asia or India you know exactly what I mean. A horde of people shouting ‘Taxi’, ‘Car’, or ‘Where you go?’ in pigeon English; it can be daunting the first time you ever have to deal with it. Just remain firm, ignore them and carry on with your plan; which unless you love haggling and uncertainty, is to make arrangements before you arrive, which works well with pre-booked accommodation. With the help of maps.me (a handy GPS map app which does not use data) our plan was a brisk but extremely cold 3.3km walk to the hostel.
It was dark and so cold it was painful to breathe, it stung your nose and the back of your throat, Suzie was definitely regretting the choice to walk. In a big way.
This all changed when we made it to the hostel. ‘Rolling Stones’ hostel in Irkutsk is a gem for the whole city, and in my eyes redeemed my hostel experiences in Russia. From Bedbugs at our very first one in Moscow through to two really dodgy ones in St Petersburg – the first was actually the spare room in a couples apartment that had gun shot impacts on the outside, and the second was a host of resident Russian workers who played music so loud at 4am that the wall next to the dorm bed was vibrating!
Rolling Stones was the complete antipode to these. A hostel decorated in a fun and funky style, with a fantastically chilled out and relaxed vibe; by the second day I was even helping them on reception!
The hostel works on a capsule bed basis, so each individual dorm bunk had its own workstation table, light and fully enclosable area for privacy, as well as a solid wooden step set-up rather than a flimsy ladder. It may be comparatively pricey for Russia but it was only £6 per night for a dorm bed. If you are going to stay in Irkutsk this is the place you need to go to!
If you ask anyone that travels to list what their favourite things are, ‘meeting new people’ usually pops up near the top. For me it is no different. I love meeting new people; finding out about where they are from and why they are travelling, their plans and where they have been. It’s a great way to find out about new things to add to your bucket list that you didn’t even know existed, and to find advice from people who have been where you are going to as well.
In Irkusk, we met two Australian lads who were doing Beijing to Moscow by train and a girl from Hong Kong called Tess. Walking through the door of the hostel the receptionist Sasha and the group invited us straight over for a drink. We pretty much spent the next 24 hours, besides taking a trip to the shop for some vodka (we were in Russia), playing cards indoors hiding from the temperature!
We only had a couple of days in Irkutsk and had a few walks around the town, which had some amazing and intricate old wooden buildings that stand up impossibly well against the cold. The real highlight for me though, was a trip we arranged with the others to spend a day out by Lake Baikal at a ‘banya’ – a Russian sauna. When I say a trip, I don’t mean a tour (those of you that know me well know I hate tour groups). I am not saying that do not have their place, but I personally hate the overpriced cost and rushed mentality. The group of us managed to find a minibus running out to Listvyanka, one of the first few small villages on the shore of Lake Baikal, it only cost around £1 for each person for the 40-minute journey.
Luckily the outside temperature had warmed up to about minus 18°C, and the water, although not frozen solid, was icy cold as it lapped on to the shore. Chains sitting in the water were covered in two inch thick ice, and to think I was going to jump into that soon. Why else would you go to a sauna by an ice-cold lake if not to jump in to it?
The banya was an old, wood-fired room which was piping hot and beautiful for a private sauna, with a door opening straight out to a set of ladders leading into the half frozen abyss outside. It took a little while for us to build up the courage but as a group we bolted outside and went for it. And within seconds, I could no longer feel my feet. I have done ice water challenges on obstacle races such as Tough Guy in the past, but nothing has prepared me for the intense cold I felt in Lake Baikal. The sauna barely felt luke-warm afterwards.
But wow, what an experience it was, I felt so revitalized and amazingly fresh. If you have a bucket list, you need to put this on it!
I realize now that I haven’t mentioned that our sauna trip was the day before Christmas Eve, and on Christmas Eve I received an early present from Santa: Flu so crippling I couldn’t get out of bed. To this day, I maintain it has nothing to do with jumping out of a sauna into Lake Baikal when its minus 18°C outside.
Fortunately, I managed to feel slightly better before we had to catch our train out to Mongolia on the evening of Christmas Day. Irkutsk is somewhere that I would love to have spent more time at; it is my aim to go back again both in summer and winter. During summer they are constructing a walking path, which will extend all of the way around Lake Baikal, a worthy volunteer project. Through winter, in the north the lake freezes so solid you can comfortably drive across, and sections can freeze with lightning strike style patterns underneath the ice; a trip our new friend Tess managed to go on with some amazing photos, the blog title being one of them from the north end of Lake Baikal!
Overall, I loved Irkutsk and Lake Baikal, both were so emotive and the people extremely friendly. I wish that we had had more time to spend there, but that is the problem with having to pre-book all of our tickets before we left the UK, no room for flexibility.
But the journey always continues on. And now it was to Ulaan Baatar the capital city of Mongolia. The train leaving Irkutsk had no platskartny class, so we had to move up to Kupe (2nd Class) and into a 4-berth cabin on a carriage, which is usual for trains going in and out of Mongolia. We arrived early and boarded the train as soon as we could to get out of the cold and into the warmth.
Admittedly it was great to have a little privacy on the train after so many days of complete open plan sharing. The carriage was a newer one than any we had been on previously, with modern toilets and more comfortable padded seats. The carriage was eerily quiet and the provodnitsa took our tickets and just told us to go wherever we wanted. Slightly confused, we picked out a cabin and sat waiting for our prospective bunk-mates to arrive. And then the train pulled away from the station and we realized that, for the next 36 hours, not only did we have the compartment to ourselves; we had a whole train carriage. We didn’t know what to do with ourselves! We actually managed to get a beautiful night’s sleep on a train in Russia for the first time.
What else was there left to do other than plan out what to do in Mongolia, the next step?
Have you been to Irkutsk and Lake Baikal? Is there anything that I have missed that you recommend I should do next time?