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Posts from the ‘Travel Russia’ Category

LAKE BAIKAL, SIBERIA: OLKHON ISLAND TO LISTVYANKA

Inside Passage or Lake Baikal?

Inside Passage or Lake Baikal?

All aboard the Hydrofoil for an eight-hour ride from Severobaikalsk, down to the middle of Lake Baikal’s Olkhon Island. Snow-capped peaks resemble a ride on the Alaska Marine Highway through the Inside Passage…so does the rain. We glide along the island, watching for nerpa seals, one of only two species of freshwater seals on earth. Roughly 400 miles long, Lake Baikal contains an incredible amount of endemic animals and plants. Geologically speaking, this is the world’s next sea.

I sure hope one of these guys are here for us, otherwise we are screwed!

I sure hope one of these guys are here for us, otherwise we are screwed!

Shamanist sacred sites reveal ancient legends that cover Olkhon Island. Spirits reside in trees, posts, and rocks, referred to as obos, and are often draped in colorful rags. It is customary to place coins, cigarettes, and vodka on the ground, as gifts. I’ll take help in any form!

Obos

Obos

After an exhilarating drive from the ferry, we check-in to “Nikita’s Homestead,” a colorful, log cabin compound, which serves three organic meals daily to world travelers. Omul fish, pozy (mutton meatballs) and stuffed ear bread make tonight’s menu. Of course, we find a place that serves beer.

Our front porch at Nikita's Homestead

Our front porch at Nikita’s Homestead

Wow, we have fried eggs in the morning (first since leaving USA), along with porridge. On a trek to Shaman Rock, and then along the shores of Maloe More Bay, we pass obos and a portable Russian Banya, where after a sweat, folks jump into the frigid waters. Did I mention that you can drink this water?

Shaman Rock, Khuzhir, Olkhon Island

Shaman Rock, Khuzhir, Olkhon Island

The Banya is an integral part of Russian culture. Sit in a wood-fueled sauna with some steam, break a sweat, have someone thrash you with a birch branch, and then douse in cold water. Okay, my first banya…I am alone. I sweat (no thrashing) and then enter a different room where there is a hose hanging from a wall. I turn it on to douse with cold water, unfortunately, it is SCALDING HOT! I run to a tub of cold water and dunk, barely escaping the banya without blisters.

Can you see the people?

Can you see the people?

Time to leave Olkhon Island, this time by land taxi, and a short ferry ride. We arrive in Irkutsk (pop 660,000) lugging those grossly overweight backpacks, and find the Baikaler Hostel. “Sorry,” the manager says, “No beds available.” We are at a loss… Until Jack, the owner, enters the room. “Don’t worry. I will accommodate you.”

Hiking yet another section of the Great Baikal Trail

Hiking yet another section of the Great Baikal Trail

Jack walks us to a place and helps us exchange our train tickets to Mongolia, as our current tickets are too late…meaning our visas will expire and we could be detained in Russia indefinitely. No thanks. Then, off we go, into Jack’s van along with another couple, Joseph from the UK, and Carrie from Boston…our first American tourist! We drive to Jack’s beautiful Baikaler Eco-Hostel in Listvyanka, a resort town on the “Baikal Riviera.”

Wild Flowers

In the morning, we hike 12-miles with Jack, Carrie and Joseph, while the sun shines in Siberia. This portion of the Great Baikal Trail takes us through thick forest, hills, and wildflowers.

Trail was way worse in places, but I was too freaked to photograph

Trail was way worse in places, but I was too freaked to photograph

We find ourselves clinging to the side of a shoreline cliff on a six-inch wide trail. Jack stops and asks, “Is anyone afraid of heights?” Too late, Jack, what if we were? Where would we go? We laugh, and carry on, to the remote village of Bolshie Koty.

Lunch in Bolshie Koty

Lunch in Bolshie Koty

Mare and I huff and puff trying to keep up with these youngsters. We only stop to check each other for ticks…a tiny creature that carries the fatal disease of tick-borne encephalitis. Once in the village, we sip a cold beer, sit on a log, and eat smoked omul fish…staring over Lake Baikal, my new holiest place on earth.

The Hydrofoil takes us back to Jack’s hostel in Listvyanka, where a shower, beer, and ibuprofen dominate our menu. Our new friends leave the next day. Mare and I decide to say here for four days. I serve dinner of smoked Omul, with buckwheat made tasty, thanks to a gift of spices from a good friend.

Getting really, really, really, really, really sick of smoked fish and buckwheat

Getting really, really, really, really, really sick of smoked fish and buckwheat

Hop on another ferry to the remote village of Port Baikal, where a segment of the Trans-Siberian Railway abruptly ends because of a dam, which flooded most of the once thriving town. Massive, decaying ships and barges dominate the shores, while Siberian log houses hug the hillside. A train stops here twice weekly, for tourists to ride through scenic terrain and stone-dug tunnels. We hike many miles along the deserted tracks, and then sip beer, while waiting for the only ferry that crosses the Angara River back to Listvyanka.

Walking the Circumbaikal Railway outside of Port Baikal

Walking the Circumbaikal Railway outside of Port Baikal

The next day we travel to Irkutsk, and spend the night in the crowded Baikaler Hostel. Although we know that Jack will “accommodate” us, we splurge for a few days at Hotel Irkutsk (our first private room w/private bath and shower in 6 weeks). Tonight, we will board a two-day train to wild Mongolia. Thank you Abundant Universe!    Ron Mitchell

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BREAKING BARRIERS IN SIBERIA, ON THE SHORES OF LAKE BAIKAL

Northern Lake Baikal

Northern Lake Baikal

Mare and I seek some shade on the porch of a small store, in the remote fishing village of Baikalskoe, Siberia. We are thirsty and exhausted from an exhilarating hike along the mountainous shore of magnificent Lake Baikal – the oldest (25 million years) and deepest (1600m/5,200 feet) lake in the world.

Baikalskoe Village

Baikalskoe Village

This portion of the Great Baikal Trail, which will one day circle 2,000 miles around the lake, twists through virgin forest, and onto steppe like slopes that disappear over craggy cliffs. Bays along the way appear Caribbean, as the visibility of this water is up to 42m/137 feet, but frigid, as the ice roads over the lake melted only one month ago.

Hiking a section of the Great Baikal Trail

Hiking a section of the Great Baikal Trail

This peaceful 300 year old Siberian village was the only seal hunting and seal fur collective in the northern Baikal region. Today, fishing is the primary source of income for the fifty or so inhabitants.

Trouble Brewing

Trouble Brewing

Back on the porch, a man approaches with a fresh fish in his hand, an omul, which is endemic, and a distant relative of the salmon. He says something in Russian. I shrug and laugh. Mare tells me, “He said Vodka.”

I gotta get Ron out of here!

I gotta get Ron out of here!

He smiles and lifts up his shirt, to reveal a full bottle of vodka in his pants. In an instant he secures glasses from the store, sits next to me on the floor and pours shots. Ah, my first taste of the Russian vodka ritual. You do not leave until the bottle is empty.

If this does not sober him up nothing will

If this does not sober him up nothing will

He makes toasts in drunken Russian. I respond in inebriated English. Laughs sound the same in any language. Drinking half a bottle of Vodka could lead to a body hair contest?

Mare takes me to the lake, for a sobering dip in the ice cold water…because we have a date for dinner…in a family’s house.

Which house is it?

Which house is it?

These wooden houses, made from logs and ornate trimmings, display traditional Russian architecture. All of them use blue or green as the primary accent color. We roam the dusty streets, dodging cows, in search of our dinner. “It has a green gate,” Mare says. “They all have green gates!” I respond.

Cows

Grandma Gertrude flags us down, and serves delicious fish soup, with fish and rice stuffed rolls. Dinner is topped with tea and wild blueberry tarts. Sweat pours from us, as we eat hot soup in this hot house with no running water.

Keeping an eye out

Keeping an eye out

We have discovered warm, friendly, hospitable people, beneath that cold Russian veneer. Strangers help us at bus stations, folks invite us into their homes for food, and we have witnessed neither violence nor hatred. We’re glad to have jumped off the Trans-Siberian RR, and onto the BAM (Baikal-Amur Mainline) RR in order to explore Northern Lake Baikal.

Waiting for the bus

Waiting for the bus

We catch the one daily bus, from Baikalskoe Village back to Severobaikalsk, to the comfort of Baikal Trail Hostel, where Anna has registered our visas and purchased Hydrofoil tickets for us. Thank you Anna, and son, Misha, for making us feel at home.     Ron Mitchell

Our gracious hosts, the lovely Anna and the very smart Misha!

Our gracious hosts, the lovely Anna and the very smart Misha!

TRANS-SIBERIAN RAILWAY: TO THE CAPITAL OF SIBERIA

I crawl into lower bunk #13, and Mare climbs into #14 above, for a 48-hour train ride to Novosibirsk, the capital city of Siberia. Being “train savvy,” we change into a pair of shorts, before somebody inhabits the bunks across from us. The scent of stale cigarettes and body odor lingers. A Russian woman enters, carrying a terrier in a dog cage. We cannot converse, sitting there face to face. Her dog understands more Russian than we do. I perform my “Tarzan” routine, and point to my chest. “Me, Ron.” She nods and responds, “Meerron.” Good enough. I point to the dog. “Jos,” she says.

Ron and Jos

Thanks for that window, which provides an escape for our eyes. Forests zoom past, broken by country houses (Dachas) with gardens, and wild lilac bushes in bloom. We sleep soundly tonight, swaying with the cab as if in a cradle, keeping beat with the clunking rhythm of steel rolling on the rails below…Datdat da da…Datdat da da…

Dachas

Each car has a vat of boiling water near the exit. Instead of tea, like everybody else, we make Nescafe, and eat salami, pesto cheese and bread – breakfast, lunch and dinner for two days. We avoid the notoriously nasty “dining” car, except for occasional beers.

Food

The train cars have basic bathrooms at each end. The car matron locks the bathrooms twenty minutes before, and after stopping at a town’s station…on account of toilets flushing directly onto the tracks below.

Toilets

Our nice Russian roommate, and “Jos” get off, and we have the cabin to ourselves until that night. A young Russian man enters. He is small, mannerly and silent, and watches videos on his tablet to break the boredom and avoid interaction. Perfect.

Train tracks

Four middle-aged guys from Berlin fill the cabin next to us. They are loud, pounding vodka day and night, as they are on a boy’s trip, away from their wives for one week. The bulk of their trip will be spent on this train (4 straight days) before getting off at Lake Baikal.

The Germans

Soon we arrive in Novosibirsk, Siberia, the third largest city in Russia, with 1.5 million people. We have a connection here, through Mare’s sister, Sally. His name is Oleg, who sent his friend, also named Oleg, to pick us up at the train station and drive us to our hostel for the night. The woman in charge of “Hostel Province” says in broken English, almost with emotion, “You are the first foreigners I have ever had.” We are officially out of tourist territory.

Olegs

I cannot sleep. My bunk squeaks like 10,000 mice while I toss and turn. In the morning, Mare asks, “What were you doing last night, masturbating?” I wonder what the Asian woman in the top bunk thought? The official answer is “No!”

The following day, Oleg and Oleg walk us around town. Actors, dressed like master Russian writers, perform in the park, with their version of “Red Rover, Red Rover, send Anton Chekov over.”

Actors

Oleg says, “I know that you watch your cholesterol, but how about lunch at KFC?” We opt for a Russian restaurant instead, and a platter of mixed grilled meats. Let’s at least have local cholesterol. Oleg is hospitable and charming. He shows us the few sights of Novosibirsk, including statues of Lenin and others, who welcome comers to the Opera and Ballet Theatre which is larger than Moscow’s Bolshoi.

Theatre

The next day we do not wake until eleven o’clock, sleeping soundly in the basement room without windows of the comfortable “Hostel Zokol.” We sit at a café that evening and post a blog. Tomorrow, Oleg the driver will take us to the train station, for a two-night ride to Severobaikalsk, located in the boonies of Siberia on the northern shore of Lake Baikal, the deepest and largest freshwater in the world. Thank you Oleg, and Oleg!   Ron Mitchell

MIDNIGHT TRAIN TO MOSCOW

I lay on an 18-inch wide lower bunk, in the four-person train cabin. The bottom of Mare’s bunk lies within arm’s reach above me. A young Russian man climbs up and into the top bunk about 18-inches across our aisle. He does not say a word. A business man hangs his sport jacket and looks at me. “Hello.” Then he points to my bench, points to his, and flips down a two-foot mattress to cover it. “Speciba,” (butchered Russian for “Thank You”). We enjoy the best sleep of the trip. A cup of tea in the morning, along with a box of snacks is served. Pull the top from a tin can, and eat what we shall eternally refer to as cat food.

Marx

A taxi driver speaks English (nonstop) and whisks us from the Moscow train platform for the drive to our hostel. “Communism was a much better system. I worked two-weeks, then off two-weeks for holiday with family. Now, I work 12-hours a day with no days off. Things were cheaper. Moscow too expensive now.” We later find that he scammed us 3x the normal fare. Perhaps that will give him an extra day off.

Kremlin walls

During our walk to the Kremlin, we dodge many of the 15+ million population, half of them seemingly smoking cigarettes. The Kremlin and Red Square are closed. Apparently Putin is in conference, as evidenced by a massive presence of soldiers, guards and police. Still, we are allowed access to St. Basil’s Cathedral, which dominates the landscape of many domes and towers.

St. Basil's

We find the Bolshoi Theatre, where a woman breaks into a beautiful song right there on the sidewalk. No doubt, a former performer. Her two companions clap, “Bravo!” We join in the clapping. They talk at us, but we cannot understand a word. However, that outburst proves to be the single display of emotion that we will witness during our entire 3 days in Moscow. Everyone’s facial expression appears morose. What lingers under that veneer?

The Bolshoi

Onward, to the magnificent Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. This church sits on the site of the original, built 300 years ago to commemorate Russia’s victory over Napoleon. Leveled under the Stalin regime, and converted into the World’s largest swimming pool, the Cathedral was resurrected in 1997, to mixed reviews from the locals.

Cathedral

Finally, we rest at a street side Italian café, for drinks and people watching, not to mention tasty pizza.

Cemetary

After Nescafe at the hostel in the morning, Mare inquires about taking the Metro beyond our city map. It would require three station changes with signs that may as well be written in Chinese. So, we opt for a taxi to the Novodevichy Convent and cemetery. Actually, it is a sculpture garden, where elaborate busts, scenes, sea nymphs, angels, and full-figured statues of the dead adorn the bones buried below. Although we visit the graves of Chekov, Stalin’s second wife, and Yeltsin, the most ornate headstones adorn the “regular folks.”

Cemetary

A long street-hike back takes us along the Moscow River, across from Gorky Park, where we dodge bicyclists and roller-bladers. Worthy of one more sit, we dine on artichoke, olive and ham pizza at our favorite Italian Café before settling in to our hostel with a bottle of wine, looking out over Moscow for this final night.

Moscow River

The next day, we again walk to the Kremlin, (closed) and sit at yet another café, awaiting our taxi to the train station for a 48-hour ride to Novosibirisk. Even the taxi driver is confused as to which of the nine train stations we need to find, but we eventually figure it out.

Gold Domes

In truth, we have seen enough of the domes, Cathedrals, and gigantic structures of Moscow, and now look forward to 48 hours of rest on the upcoming train ride, to Siberia, Baby!   SpaCiba, Abundant Universe!                      Ron Mitchell

ST. PETERSBURG: SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL

That song from the Rolling Stones plays in our heads. A stranger on the streets of St. Petersburg helps us locate the MIR Hostel. (We know 5 words in Russian) Our first order of business will be the ominous task of copping train tickets from the notoriously impatient, cold-hearted women behind the counters in the crowded train station. The receptionist at MIR writes our ticket requests in Russian for us.

Probably should not drink while doing this

Probably should not drink while doing this

Exhausted from no sleep last night, we hit the streets to find an ATM in order to get roubles. The first thing I notice…most women in St. Petersburg are gorgeous…with long legs, high cheekbones, and provocative style. Mare agrees.

Women

After numerous attempts, our ATM card will not work. We must break in to our emergency cash fund, and find a money exchange in order to purchase train tickets. Our panic subsides once we have cash in hand. We walk the streets and stroll past the “Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood,” which dwarfs our senses and relieves our exhaustion.

Church of spilled blood

A 2-hour walk leads us to Moskovsky vokzal train station. Our hearts pound fast, while waiting in one of the many long lines that lead to the grouchy women, who reject some potential purchasers. What will we do if we cannot purchase tickets for our Trans-Siberian Railway trip? The ticket ladies walk away from their station at random, for a necessary break, leaving lines standing. What else can they do?

Views of the city

Finally, we reach the window, and hand the written Russian language ticket requests to the “Soup Nazi.” We neither move nor smile. She looks at the request and then glares at us. “Passport.” We hand them under the window. She fumbles papers, and taps on a keyboard. I take out my wallet. She somehow notices and shouts, “No Visa!” Okay, 24,000 roubles later we have train tickets to Moscow, and then on to Novosibirisk!

Borsch

We celebrate at a street side café with drinks and Country Borshch soup.

I feel like grandpa, dodging the kids in the hostel kitchen in the morning. A gal on the couch, who speaks some English, notices me. She calls me over. “Russians not rude, culture not shake hands or look at you. If you smile at people, they will think something is wrong with their face.” Well, that is good to know.

Hermitage

Back on the streets we pass the Hermitage, which holds unimaginable works of art.

Artists

Roam through Peter and Paul Fortress and view the many cathedrals and domes in the city from a river beach, while artists sketch the scene.

From St. Isaac's

Climb the stairs of St. Isaac’s spire for panoramic views of St. Pete.

Midnight

Eat sushi in a café at midnight, which looks like noon on the city streets.

The Kazan Cathedral is the only one that is not a museum. I light 3 candles, hoping for health and happiness for those I love.

Kazan

At the train station, Mare receives an e-mail from Joel, our credit union contact. Joel has fixed our bank card! I withdraw roubles from the ATM with glee. Thank you for saving us, Joel, our hero!

While Mare is out in the station, trying to decipher Russian language procedure signs, a young woman from Moscow sits next to me. She wants to show me around Moscow, and practice her English. Mare comes back, and suddenly, the woman cannot speak English. Oh well, time to catch a train…    spaSIba, Abundant Universe!                                Ron Mitchell