Posts Tagged ‘irkutsk’

Ulan Baatar, the world’s ugliest capital?

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008

BaikalI met my Dutch friends, and we went to Listvyanka village by lake Baikal, about an hour from Irkutsk. It was definately a huge lake, and I took some cool pictures (that I still can’t upload, as the computers in this internet cafe don’t have accessible USB). My first priority was to find a dive centre, and lo and behold, even on our way into the village, we saw people in scuba outfit on the shore just next to the road! After a nice lakeside lunch, we trotted over to the dive centre.

I contacted a dive centre in Irkutsk a while back, www.baikalex.com, through the contact box they have on their page, and via email. They never answered, but I called them when I got to Irkutsk. They said they were fully booked, and that I should have contacted them via their web page… They suggested I just go out and have a looksee at Listvyanka village, so there I was. For a while, I actually thought I was going to get to dive! It then turned out that there HADindeed been a free spot in their previous dive, a couple of hours earlier, but the next free spot was in the middle of next week… (just about when I’m posting this) 🙁

Pribaikalsk Nature ReserveInstead of diving, we went for a hike in the pribaikalsk national park, which turned out to be an, if not equal then at least decent, substitute. We went up one of the valleys from the lakeside, between quaint old wooden houses, on frozen creeks, through snow that was about ankle deep, and up steep hills. We were originally planning to head over to the next valley, and then go back to the village from there, but we instead decided to get up to the top of the hill, and thus followed the ridge when we got to the highest point of the pass. The two Dutch guys were beside themselves, which is maybe not so surprising, seeing as they both live four meters BELOW sea level… The view from the top was gorgeous, and at least lessened my disappointment at not having gotten in that dive.

When I got back to Irkutsk, I had to take a taxi to my host’s place in the suburbs, pack my stuff, and then back to town to catch the train. Anastasia saw me off, and offered to help me getting supplies and everything before I got on the train.

The train from Irkutsk to Ulan Baatar was the most expensive so far, because they didn’t have third class, which is what I’ve used so far. The only carriage that was crossing the Russian/Mongolian border was second class. In third, the “compartments” aren’t really compartments, because they don’t have doors or walls. Second class was a whole different deal. The third class carriages look like they’re from the early seventies, but the carriage I was in from Irkutsk was brand spankin’ new! Each compartment had a tv and you could get either the onboard radio or the tv sound from minijack outlets above the beds. Each bed had a reading light, the windows were clean so you could see out, you could open them to get fresh air, the provodnitsa spoke English, the toilets smelled of soap instead of piss, all in all it was a whole different world! Still, the biggest change was being able to have proper conversations with the other travellers. I shared my four berth compartment with a couple from New Zealand, two compartments over was a father and daughter from Holland, who both were fluent in English, and a few of the other passengers also spoke English!

The train was a really slow one, however, and apparently I missed some of the most impressive scenery in Russia, going through tunnels and across bridges along the southern bank of Lake Baikal, since we passed it in the night.

We got to the border about 1pm the next day, and then found out that passport control wouldn’t come till 4pm. We went out and looked around a little, but it was a tiny village, so there wasn’t much to do. I spent my last few rubles buying some more credit for my Russian sim card, and used it to send some messages to my friends in Irkutsk. Then we waited. Around three thirty we got some customs forms to fill out in duplicates. At five to four a guy came into our compartment, looked at our passports, took the customs forms, stamped them, gave one back, and left again. A while later, another guy came in, got our passports, and trotted off with them. After more waiting, first one, then two more people searched our compartment. I couldn’t say what they were looking for, because they didn’t even touch our luggage… About seven hours after we first came to the border, we started moving again… Ten minutes later we were at the ACTUAL border, and twenty minutes after that, we got to the first Mongolian station. There, we had to write immigration documents and more customs documents, and of course the Mongolians had to take our passports. I don’t really know how long the whole border crossing ordeal took, but it must have been over ten hours… 😛

The next morning, we were woken up at 5:30am, about forty minutes outside of Ulan Baatar. The plan was to borrow a phone and write my host in UB an sms with my arrival details as soon as we entered Mongolia, but I fell asleep before I thought of asking anyone, so I obviously wasn’t met at the station. There were several hostels that had pick-up-service however, so I hitched a ride to a hostel, had breakfast, borrowed a phone, and sent an sms. Fifteen minutes later my host picked me up from the hostel, and we went to his place. He went to work, and I spent the day relaxing, catching up on international news on BBC World, and fell asleep in the middle of an airplane disaster show on Discovery. It was unspeakably nice to get a proper shower and a shave, which I hadn’t had since Ekaterinburg. (I had shaved, but my host in Irkutsk didn’t have a shower, only a communal washroom)

Today I’ve been walking around UB. It just might be the ugliest capital in the world… 😉 There are, however, some pearls buried in the massive concrete soviet heritage pig sty. My host runs a restaurant a few minutes walk from the city centre, and on my way from the restaurant to the Sukhbaatar Square, I found a small, run-down buddhist monastery, that wasn’t even among the few sights listed in my Lonely Planet guide! It was quite cool, with it’s prayer wheels,  huge communal Gers and locals going around offering their prayers! There is a bigger, more beautiful monastery in UB too, which I’ll visit later. I finally feel like I have time to do what I want, with two weeks here!

I also went to a large park that was marked on my map, but it turned out to be more like the ghost of a park… I don’t think it was supposed to be open to the public, because all the entrances were welded closed, except the one I reached first, and even that one was deserted. I was the only person in there, which was both nice and really eerie at the same time… There was a broken fountain with no water, a big, empty, dusty bowl where a pond was marked on my map, lined with broken statues of exotic aquatic animals. Further over were the skeleton of an old rollercoaster and a rusty ferris wheel that looked ready to collapse. The walk paths had almost no paving left on them, and dry, brown undergrowth was sticking up through the snow everywhere. I was really far from the place I’d gotten in, and all the other entrances were welded shut, so I ended up squeezing through a hole in the fence, in order to get out of the park on the right side…

My cs host has friends that are nomads, and live in a yurt out in the countryside. He’s arranged for me to go there tomorrow! I will be staying and working with the family there until Friday. Then I head back to UB, because I’ve been invited to a concert with Mongolia’s first (and only) death metal band! Can you say clash of cultures, anyone?

Last day in Russia

Saturday, November 29th, 2008

Ganina YamaIt’s been almost a week since I hurriedly posted an update in Ekaterinburg. The girl who came to meet me was a couchsurfer that had offered to show me her city, and we met up with two more surfers as well, and we drove around to a couple of locations outside the city. The first one was a monastery called Ganina Yama, which was founded in 2001(!) at the site where the remnants of the last tsar and his family were found. The whole family are now saints in the Russian orthodox church. Before I met up with my guides, I found the church devoted to them in the city, Church of the Blood.

In Ganina Yama I tried to make another short piece of film, featuring two of my guides talking about the monastery, but it had already gotten a bit dark, so I don’t know if it’s of any use. When I was transfering the shots from St.Petersburg to the computer, I made a mistake, so I lost the files. Having time to come up with good ideas for these little pieces, and then filming it, is turning out to be rather more difficult than I had anticipated. Hopefully it’ll be better when I leave Russia, and have more time. I have really felt the time pressure of my visa these last few days!

EurAsian borderAnyway, back to Ekaterinburg: After Ganina Yama we grabbed something to eat, and then drove some kilometers west of the city, where there is a monument marking the official border between Europe and Asia. It’s not just a random line on the map, it is the actual area where the continental plates meet, the climate changes, and the water divide, where the european rivers run west, and the asian rivers run east. One foot on each continent, that’s not something you do every day! 😉

That night I got on the train to Irkutsk. It was my longest train ride so far, two and a half days! That does not mean I was bored, however. I’ve only travelled on the cheapest tickets so far, and it really feels safe. The train car is open, but with sort of coupés with no doors or curtains between. In each are three double bunks, two on each wall of the “coupé” and one on the wall along the “corridor.” The landscape is beautiful, with picturesque Russian villages, and long stretches of forest, but you can’t look at trees for 60 hours, so luckily people are very sociable! On the train from Ekat to Irkutks were a bunch of soldiers on their way home to their families and friends, after two years serving in Moscow. Needless to say, they were in a good mood, and anxious to meet everyone back home again. None of them spoke any English, but one knew a little German, and I know a little German, so he acted as translator. Before long the beer was passed around, and toasts made to meeting new friends, and to seeing old friends and family again soon!

I also met a couple of students on their way home from Moscow, and they spoke a bit of English. After talking for a couple of minutes, the guy says “wait here”, goes back to his place in the car, and returns with a Russian military hat, schapka, and says “Here, take it to remember Russia!” Shortly after that a guy in the next coupé leans over, and asks in Russian where I’m from. My heavily accented “Ya iz Norvegie” immediately caused him to produce a bottle of vodka from his bag, proudly pointing at the name on the bottle, saying it is the pride of his home town of Krasnoyarsk, and hand it over. When I make to open it and pour us a little, he shakes his finger at me and has me put the bottle in my bag, produces another bottle of the same kind from his bag, and pours two shots… Luckily I’ve found out that by proclaiming “Ya svisjenjik”, “I’m a reverend” I can get exempted from the Russian custom that you have to keep drinking with your host until the bottle is empty… 😉
The other student who spoke a little English, Anastasia, was from Irkutsk, and we exchanged phone numbers, so she could help me around the city if needed, and in return she’d get an opportunity to practice her limited English skills.

I arrived in Irkutsk three days ago. I was picked up on the train station, immediately bought a ticket for Ulan Baator, and I’ve stayed in the suburbs, in a flat of rather low standards, where my host actually lives for free! She also works in a hostel downtown, so that’s where I’ve been getting online. My host has been working a lot, so I’ve been spending the most time with another traveller, Leonid, and with Anastasia from the train. NastiyaLeonid is a hitchhiker from western Russia, who got here a month ago. Now he’s working at a tecnical museum to save money for a Chinese visa, and then he’ll hitchhike to China. His goal for now is Bali…
Last night I went to the first CS meeting in Irkutsk EVER, which was kinda cool! With the night spent at bar Liverpool and then a pizzeria, it got too late to go out to the suburb where I’ve stayed, so I got a mattress on the floor at Anastasia’s. This morning I got up early, and I’m taking a bus out to Lake Baikal with two Dutch guys I met at the CS meeting last night. 🙂 Gotta run to meet them at the bus station! (Pictures later…)

PS: Thanks for the comments, it’s good to know someone’s actually reading this! 🙂 Keep those comments coming!