Listvyanka and Lake Baikal

The cold seems to be slowly moving away. It hit me a little harder than it did Amy, so while she dealt mostly with the sniffles, I’ve been dealt the ol’ phlegm-attack. Mostly throat clearing, so it ain’t all nasty.

Until today, I had yet to cash any of my traveller’s cheques. Useful things these are not. Major problem: very few places in Russia care to honour them. You have search high and low to find places that will handle them, and not for an obscene rate of conversion. It’s silly, really. In future, I’m sticking to my usual system: bring a bank card. It’s accepted at most ATMs world-wide, though you do sometimes have to hunt for the right ones.

After that, we got our visas registered for Irkutsk. It’s a leftover from the Soviet era, so far as I can understand. Basically, any place you stay overnight, you should have your visa registered by your hotel or by the registration office. What ultimate purpose this serves, I have no idea. All I do know is that if your visa isn’t suitably registered, and you don’t have all the paperwork, you’re likely to be buying out the border guard as you try to exit. Most importantly, as in our case, if travelling by train.

Jack had double-booked himself for today, and had to take a group out of town on a three-day excursion (to where, I have no idea). He was supposed to take us to Listvyanka, a small town on the shore of Lake Baikal, about 60 kms away. Instead, he made arrangements with his friend Leonid (yes, like the meteor shower) to take us out.

When I’d talked with Leonid last night, I had wondered what lay in store for us. Was he just a “friend”, or was there more of a professional association to him? (As Amy has pointed out, Leonid has his own company for this very thing. Normally, he does long-term fishing excursions, but made an exception for us.) He rolled up to Jack’s homestay almost exactly at noon — when he’d promised to be there.

Leonid has a nice car — nice by Russian standards, definitely; nice by North American standards, pretty much. It’s a Toyota Mark II — Japanese model, so far as I can tell. (It was right-side drive.) The sound system was aftermarket, though, and was regularly playing Ivan Kupala — an artist reminiscent of Enigma and Delerium, except that he used the songs of old Russian women (singing old Russian songs) as the main part. Amy and I will be hunting for this CD, without question.

After a short stop at the local DHL (despite packing light, this is the second batch of things Amy has sent home — keep in mind, however, that she did buy 10 balls of yarn in Kazan), we headed out on the sole road from Irkutsk to Listvyanka. It’s a rolling road, curving sometimes within sight of the Angara River, lined with birch, larch, and various coniferous trees.

Our first stop, however, was not Listvyanka — it was the Museum of Wooden Architecture. Sounds kinda silly, I know, but museum is just like Heritage Park (in Calgary) or any other pioneer-esque recreation village showing the way life used to be here. But it’s not all about the stereotypical exiled-Russian-living-in-Siberia thing. This was about the Cossaks, the first Europeans to move to this region. How they built their forts to survive against the weather. And about the Buryats, decendents of the Mongols who settled here in permanent wooden gers.

The Museum of Wooden Arcitecture near Irkutsk

The entire village is made of various buildings, most of which were brought to the museum before their original village locations (often many kilometres away) were flooded out with the damming of the Angara back in the 50s. The reconstruction is mostly complete, and gives a pretty clear idea of what life was like in this region of the world, 300 years ago.

Inside one of the buildings at the museum

That’s the key difference between what we see at home and what’s here. The stuff we have in Calgary is rarely older than 150 years. This is twice that. The buildings are solid wood — mostly log houses (in various forms). Some are intricate, having several rooms, and separate buildings (for storage of grains and animals). There was a certain flow to everything.

Me, at the Museum of Wooden Architecture near Irkutsk (I gotta try to keep up with Amy!)

Each building also had what Leonid called a “red corner”, which is supposed to be on the right side of the main room when seen from the door. This is what most would call a shrine. It depicts the Russian orthodox religion, and is a personal place of worship outside of the church. Leonid didn’t know why it was a “red” corner, though. I think it’s because the Russian word “??????” originally meant “beautiful” in English. Only today does it mean “red” — and the original meaning is lost in translation.

An example of a Red Corner; the museum screwed up and put it on the left side by accident

From the museum, we continued down to Listvyanka. When we reached the mouth of the river, Leonid pulled his car over and told us a story about a rock that you can see in the mouth. The legend says that Lake Baikal has 340 sons, but only one daughter — the Angara River, the sole outlet of the world largest freshwater lake (by volume). The Angara flows into the Yenisey, and it’s said that the Angara wished to leave Lake Baikal to be with her lover. Lake Baikal refused and threw a stone to keep her from getting away. Today, it’s called the “shaman’s stone”. Angara got away, however, and Lake Baikal grew bitter and cold. It’s known for freezing over entirely, and for very nasty storms.

Listvyanka is a town that was forgotten by the Soviet regieme — or the town chose simply to ignore it. The entire village is wooden; the original part, anyway. Because of its proximity to Lake Baikal, many of the nouveau riche have bought up land and erected the most gaudy monstrosities you’ve ever seen. They look like someone tried to replicate a fairy tale castle, but used cheap bricks and garish pink paint.

Ew.

Lonely Planet (among various sources) recommended Listvyanka as a place to visit because it is reflective of an old Russian fishing village. It’s harder to see now, with the newer buildings (and a hotel under construction) that effectively ruin the charm. It was neat to see, but I imagine that within two years, Listvyanka won’t have the same appeal it did even a year ago.

As we drove down the waterfront, we spotted ice washing up on shore. Leonid had told us that as little as three days ago (!), there was still ice on Lake Baikal in this area. Indeed, if you go further north, you can still drive across the lake — the ice will remain until well into June. The ice, combined with Lake Baikal’s ferocity, turned a wooden breakwater into near toothpicks a week ago.

The pier was full of vendors. Some selling cheap (but expensive) souveniers, and lots of fish. The lake is full of fish and tends to be quite bountiful. And clear, so the fish likely taste quite good. We weren’t too keen on anything fishy today, though.

Me (with suitably dopey grin) at Lake Baikal

We returned to Irkutsk, stopping only a couple of times for a last look at the lake, and for a nice photo op we noticed on the way back. It was a six-hour excursion, and both Amy and I would highly recommend calling Leonid if you’re in the area and need an excellent guide.

Tomorrow, we head off for Ulan Ude. We’re nearly out of Russia and into Mongolia. Time is passing too slowly for me, though, as I want to get moving back towards home. As much as I love travelling, I really miss Alex.

There can never be too much Amy

I think Geoff has thrown down the gauntlet. Thus today will be the almost “All Amy All The Time” post. (It conveniently worked out this way because I took most of the great shots on my film camera, for once, and only used the digital for the silly ones.)

Today was our one and only day in Russia with a guide. We had originally hired Jack, whose house we are staying at, to give us a 5 hour tour of Listvyanka, a nearby village on the shores of Lake Baikal. I’m usually not one for tour groups, but since this was just us, and since paying $45 each to Jack was pretty much the only way to get all the way to the Lake and back in one day, I thought it was well worth the expense.

Little did I expect that I would have gladly paid twice that for the experience we had today.

Jack was heading out on an overnight tour with a larger group, so he put us in contact with his friend Leonid. Now, at the time, we basically heard “My friend Leonid” and never imagined this guy would actually be a professional in the travel industry. We expected mafia, some sort of good-for-nothing, one of the beer-for-breakfast crew that’s so popular around here, but we never expected what we got.

It turns out that Leonid manages and runs a rather professional independant tour group, Baikal Explorer, here in Irkutsk. And let me tell you, next time I’m in the area (and I will be!), I am calling Leonid.

To start with, he was an extremely fantastic driver. Had the reaction time of a cheetah. Negotiated road bumps so his car would be babied the entire time. Just amazing. And on top of that, at our first stop, the Wooden Architecture “Museum”, he proved to be a knowledgeable and fascinating narrator. When he knew some of the rooms or buildings he would tell us about them. Otherwise, he would translate what the very helpful museum curators had to say about the building.

Having never been in a “guide” situation other than in large groups, perhaps I can’t really convey how amazing it was to be able to ask questions. Just to ask questions. For example, in one of the first buildings, a display featuring a loom and what looked like knitted socks had been set up. The curator didn’t mention the socks, but I wanted to learn more about them so I just asked Leonid. Just like that. And I found out what I wanted to know.

OK, enough raving for now.

The Museum wasn’t so much a museum as it was an outdoor reconstructed village with old (17th century) and (18th century) Russian homes and buildings, as well as a Buryat camp. The Buryats are the “native” people of the area before the european Russians settled here. A non-nomadic Mongolian group, they settled in this area long ago in dwellings of similar construction to the mobile Ger camps we’ll be staying in this weekend. (yeep!!!!)

One of the highlights, aside from the huge wealth of information, is just being able to appreciate some of the craftsmanship details.

At the Taltsy Museum

After the museum, we headed back into the car to Listvyanka and Lake Baikal. I knew in advance that Lake Baikal would be one of the largest “names” on our list of destinations. But, I wasn’t prepared for exactly how striking this largest freshwater lake would be.

Baikal is also the deepest lake in the world. At it’s greatest depth, it’s more than 1km deep, plus an additional 900m of loose sediment. It’s also the center of two of the earth’s techtonic plates, and really important geographically speaking.

We arrived just as another rain shower was clearing. The mountains in the distance were hazy and quiet and calm, and the water was crystal clear.

Lake Baikal

One interesting (the only) site in Listvyanka is this breakwater that had been… broken… just a week before by a huge wave of ice, as Leonid described it.

The broken breakwater

All in all, today was a definite highlight of our time in Russia. I’m much less skeptical about the whole “guided tour” thing. Certainly, had we tried to do this on our own, it would have taken two days and I doubt we would have gotten this much out of it.

Blue beautiful sky

Happy.

Squeaky clean

I’m finally clean! That was the best shower of my life!!!!!!!!

Finally clean!

After getting our bags, scouring… I mean showering… and changing, we headed out in search of dinner in Irkutsk. Mind you, we had already had somewhat satisfying sushi for lunch today, but we couldn’t resist this little gem near our hostel…

Bacabu doesn’t have a website, but it was designed like something out of SOMA. And the food was great! Geoff and I agreed that it easily slid into our respective “top 10 sushi restaurant” lists, even when you include Japan. (Which is hard for me to remember, so I guesstimated.)

Mmm... dinner!

Look at this fantastic presentation!

Maguro Maki like I\'ve never had it before

It’s BBQ eel (unagi), wrapped in rice, wrapped in seaweed, wrapped in raw tuna (maguro) and it’s amazing. The cool crisp flavor of the tuna really contrasted nicely with the sweet and slightly warm unagi. Perfect.

For those of you keeping track, this is the third time we’ve had sushi since arriving in Russia. Odd? Hardly. Considering this trip was initially discussed over sushi in Calgary, it seems apropos. Plus, even without an english menu, it’s easy to order sushi in any language.

Maguro is Maguro is Maguro.

Alive in Irkutsk!

You know that feeling you get, when you’re finding yourself walking down a street in a dream, and you’re not sure if you know where you are, but you keep going anyway? That’s what Amy and I have been feeling like the last few hours. We’ve been speculating to guess why (I attributed part of it to being sick and drugged up on Contac-C; Amy’s blaming the fish she had for dinner last night), but we’re not entirely sure.

The Irkutsk railway station

We figure part of it is due to not knowing exactly where we were staying. Amy’d emailed Jack — our homestay host — only to receive not that he was out of town. Turns out he’s not, and it was an old notice. Before we’d found that out, though, we’d endulged ourselves in a little comfort food.

Sushi. (We love the stuff.)

It was the first time I’d ever been in a Japanese restaurant that didn’t have a single Japanese person working there. Bit of a switch, I have to say. The food was pretty good, even if I could only barely taste the pickled ginger (I hate being sick (cough)).

We wandered around a bit, still in a daze, before we finally found a pay phone that took coins. Weird thing — almost none of the phones in Russia take coins. Almost all of them take phone cards. Which we don’t have, and aren’t even sure how to buy. The connection was lousy (it was an old phone — you dialed the number, inserted the coin, and then pressed a little button to make the coin drop when you finally connected with the other person), but we got enough information to find the building.

Yes, it's a camel. No, I don't know what it's doing in Irkutsk.

Just not the door. We had to call back from the internet cafe we were at this morning. That was much better, and we met Elena in the alley. Figured that it was the one door we didn’t try because we didn’t see the buzzer. Now we know better…

I feel a whole lot better having finally found the place we’re staying for two nights. It’s going to be relaxful because there is no rush, no need to run to the next place. And no flotilla of security to prevent us from going wherever we want.

We’ve been on the go, more or less, since we left Moscow. (Which, incidentally, was the last time I showered properly. I’m amazed Amy hasn’t passed out from the smell. I’m sure my pants are fully capable of sentience at this point.) You have no idea how good it feels just to stop moving, even if just for a day.

The place is nice, though you wouldn’t know from the stairwell. It’s even sketchier than Nord Hostel in St. Petersburg. The inside of the apartment is quite nice, and there’s a little cat (Fyodor, apparently after the writer) to entertain us.

Fyodor the cat

Tomorrow, we’re off to Listyvanka, which is a small village on Lake Baikal, which is “traditional siberian”, which means all wooden buildings. There’s a number of those here in downtown Irkutsk (pop. ~600k), but I imagine kept in better conditions.

Until then… to rest, to sleep — perchance to dream…

I like this place already

Ah, Irkutsk, the “Paris of Siberia” as I’ve heard it called. So far, it’s living up to it’s name. The architecture is a cool mix of victorian-in-shambles and Stalinist/Constructionist concrete. There are great looking restaurants, lots of people out and about, and the internet cafes are easy to find. Additionally, it LOOKS like we’ll be able to post all the photos from the past week! Just have to go back to the hostel and grab our cameras this evening.

Speaking of the hostel, three phone calls and many blocks later, we found it and are checked in. I suspect Geoff is explaining the process for finding an unmarked door on the backside of a building. Not as easy as you might think.

The plan for this afternoon is decidedly low key. It’s already 3:30pm, both of us feel pretty crummy, so we’re going to head back to the hostel after a bit more internet time and just relax for a few hours. Right now I feel a bit headachey and lightheaded. A nap might be just the thing. A nap and a wee bit of knitting.

In the evening, we can go back to the train station to retrieve our bags. After that, I suspect we’ll be fighting over the shower.

I am so glad to be staying put for a few days. Well, two nights and a morning. But the great thing is that our next train ride is only 6 hours or so, all during the day, and in a 4 berth compartment which should be fine, even if it is on a train more like the one from Kazan to Yekaterinburg than the nice #10 and #28 we had earlier.

Amy, communications superstar!

So, sitting in the only internet connection in all of Krasnoyarsk (or seemingly so), Amy dove into one of the sites she used extensively for planning this trip: poezda.net. There, she found that there was a train hitting Krasnoyarsk (roughly translated as “ass end of Russia”) in about an hour and a half from then, which could whisk us away from the cultural wasteland that is Krasnoyarsk.

(As a note, someone actually told us that Krasnoyarsk is the cultural centre of Siberia. This leads me to conclude that the person is lying or vastly misinformed, or Siberia has no culture whatsoever. Personally, I find the latter very hard to believe.)

Arriving at the train station, we bolted upstairs to the ticket office and tried to figure out which ticket booth to go to. It took a moment to realize that the four displays showing the lists of trains were for different days. We lined up for the booth selling tickets for … well, yesterday, now.

Actually, not entirely true. Amy stood in line. I went to get the bags we’d put in storage for our 18-ish hour foray into town.

Thus began Amy’s Herculean task: trying to buy train tickets without speaking Russian. Krasnoyarsk is the first place we’ve been where English is more-or-less unknown. The major catch here was to make sure that Amy and I were in the same compartment. (Neither one of us really wants to get stuck in a room with three drunk Russian men, Amy least of all.)

Try and explain the need for that when you don’t know Russian, the clerk doesn’t know English, and our handy phrasebooks don’t cover that scenario.

But Amy did it. A small notebook became a place for certain keywords (written in Russian) and drawings showing the four bunks in a room. The clerk caught on fairly quickly that we didn’t speak Russian, so did her best to try and tell us that there weren’t two bunks in second class — at least not in the same room. (If you’ve ever played charades, you’d probably have done well to decipher what went on.)

I really should have video taped this. Though not nearly as funny as Amy’s experience trying to buy yarn in Kazan, it was an amazingly frustrating thing to watch — I still don’t know how Amy did it. (I doubt I could have taped it, though, since I doubt Russians like having cameras in their ticket areas.)

Finally, after about 10 minutes, we learned that two berths in the same compartment were available — but in First Class. Certainly more money than we would have cared to spend before we left North America. However, the pain we felt in Moscow still lingering, we didn’t want to rot away in a city neither of us had taken a liking to, and the prospect of moving on earlier to Irkutsk just seemed like a far better solution.

Besides, we’ve been keeping it pretty lean with expenditures.

The #10 train is quite nice, and the First Class great if for only one reason: no-one else for us to bother, or to bother us. It’s much more relaxing.

Birch trees -- there are a *lot* of these in Siberia

Amy in the Pectopah (Restaurant) car

So Amy comes to the rescue again, and we’re now safely in Irkutsk. All we need to do is hook up with our homestay guide. This should be interesting, since his email automatically replied saying he was out of town…

Sleepy in Irkutsk

Yesterday afternoon was frantic. We caught the first bus back to the train depot and hustled to the ticket hall. Over each pair of the 8 or so “kacca” windows was an LED display listing upcoming trains and, presumably, the number of vacant seats. One such LED display listed only 1 seat in Kupe (the 4 bunk rooms we’ve been travelling in thusfar), and another said 8, so we queued up under that Kacca window.

5 minutes later, and with the baggage storage room closure time fast approaching, Geoff went to collect our bags in hope that we’d get on the train at 13:55.

10 more minutes, and the lady in front of us finished her business, leaving me to try to communicate with the ticket clerk. I had written down the train number, time, date, and number of passengers and had our passports ready. I indicated Kupe and she said something long in Russian that we chose to translate as “there aren’t two bunks in the same compartment available in Kupe, but Luxe is available.”

Luxe, another name for S.V., is the “first class” sleeper compartment, comprised of 2 beds. We said “Da!” and she wrote down the price. 6600 rubles for the two of us, about $150 CAD each. I only had 4000 on me, so I ran around the corner to the Bankomat (ATM) to grab some more cash and then back to the window to purchase our tickets with about 20 minutes to spare.

I fear that this relatively calm entry doesn’t fully express the sense of panic and adrenaline we experienced yesterday afternoon. We wanted out of Krasnoyarsk, and we wanted out BADLY.

So, with a lot of relief, we were pleased to find a pristine cabin with two bunks instead of four, and a useless flat screen tv. 2 bottles of Baltika later, we were feeling Mo Betta.

We spent the afternoon chatting and daydreaming out the window as Siberia flew by. I don’t think I’d realized how stressful and… maybe tense isn’t the right word… but quiet it can be with strangers who don’t speak the same language. But with just the two of us, it was time finally to totally relax for 18 hours.

Train 10

And in 18 hours, I didn’t knit once. I didn’t read one page of Dostoyevsky. I just snacked and talked and did a backbend on my bunk and looked out the window at the small villages and backyard farms and birch trees. Lots of birch trees.

Birches, birches everywhere

Of course, it’s not all birch trees. Sometimes you have cute wooden villages between the trees.

Cute wooden village in the distance

One of my luxury items that have proven MORE than worth their weight are my loose LuluLemon yoga pants. These have proven to be 24 hour wear on the trains and a comfortable (and comforting) slice of normalcy for me.

Shameless product shot

So now we’re in Irkutsk and needing to find a phone to call Jack about the homestay since we’re about 9 hours too early still. I just sent him a quick email and it was returned with an autoresponse saying he’s out of town. But the email isn’t dated, so I’m really hoping it’s old and he forgot to turn it off. Because otherwise, I’m not sure where we’d be sleeping/showering tonight.

Oh, a word on that. My last REAL shower was on the morning of May 9 in Moscow. The hotel in Yekaterinburg didn’t have hot water at night, and I couldn’t figure it out in the morning, so I did a quick once-over with the spray hose and washed my hair the first night. And I think I washed my hair in the sink a few times in Krasnoyarsk and on the train last night. Still, I am grimy and gross and am really looking forward to a proper shower. Considering I am not much of a camper, it’s a miracle I can stand myself right now. Or that Geoff can stand me.

All the way back to St. Petersburg

Let’s go back a few days, shall we? Or a week? Or a week and a half?

It’s been that long since we’ve been able to post photos, and unluckily enough, my last post/upload from St. Petersburg failed before I was able to save it. So let’s try again. If I can remember what happened back on May 6….

Interior of St. Isaac's

After packing up, we started off the morning at St. Isaac’s Cathedral. Beautiful and very opulent interior. The day was rainy and gloomy and I was sore from walking, so Geoff and I split up so he could climb to the belltower and I could stay warm and dry inside.

When I was done checking out the fantastic religious art, I crossed the street to the Astoria Hotel, where apparantly they serve a fantastic High Tea.

And fantastic it was!

Tea at the Astoria Hotel

A (hopefully) brief stop in Krasnoyarsk

Krasnoyarsk.

I think it’s Russian for “ass end of the country”.

There ain’t much here. This is the most utilitarian city I’ve seen in a very long time. Until just over a decade ago, I couldn’t have come here — it was verboten to outsiders. Mostly defence contracts here, and it shows. Toe jam has more character than this place.

It’s also cooler here. Despite being about the same latitude as Ekaterinburg, which was a balmy 25 degrees when we left, it was hovering around 0 this morning as we streaked across the taiga. You could see ice on some of the pools of water. It warmed up quickly, mind you, but we haven’t warmed up to here.

Amy’s found a potential early train to get us the heck outta here. Hopefully, it’ll work.

(A note to those of you traveling across Russia and thinking of stopping here: save yourself the trouble and spend your valuable time in another city.)

The internyet

Okay, just a general bitch about Russia.

Where the hell are all the internet cafes?? Our guides are out of date — we accept that. But do we have to traipse around every city for an hour looking for the damn things?! I mean, really, people — Russia is not that backwards, is it? Even the post offices aren’t consistent. Some have internet, some have internyet.

I can’t wait to see how hard it is in China… (we’re only in Ulaan Baatar in Mongolia, and god help us there)