Whitlocks Round the World - Travel Diary for Russia

Click here to read the latest newsThe diary of our trip round the world. You can view other diary entries by clicking the highlighted months at the bottom of the page or by clicking on one of the countries visited so far. Click our logo (on the left) to see the most recent news entries. We are adding new entries from Internet Cafés as we travel, so updates may be irregular. Please check back often to see how we are getting along.

Countries visited so far: UK Latvia Lithuania Poland Slovak Republic Hungary Romania Bulgaria Greece Egypt Tanzania Malawi Mozambique South Africa Swaziland South Africa (again) Argentina Bolivia Peru Ecuador Vietnam China Mongolia Russia England

17th July Russia
Into Siberia
Back onto the Trans-Siberian - Click to enlargeWe picked up our passports, visas, letters of invitation, tourist vouchers and train tickets from the Legend office, and, at long last, we were on our way. The journey from Ulaan Baatar to Irkutsk took about 24 hours, with a six hour period being spent crossing the Russian border. The weather at the border was extremely hot, and the Russian officials made us close all the windows in the carriage. It was late at night and incredibly uncomfortable. They spent most of their time and energy harassing the Mongolians on the train, and made several people empty the entire contents of their compartments into the corridor. It was frustrating, sticky and slow, but eventually we got through.

During the morning we stopped a couple of times for a few minutes. Lots of people get off during these breaks, but we are so nervous about the train going off without us that we generally stay on board. Once, though, I bought some fresh garden strawberries from an old lady, without going very far from the door of the carriage!

We pulled into Irkutsk at about 2.30pm, and Sonya was there to meet us at the station. Sonya is a friend of Kirsten, who we met on the Great Wall of China, and it was with Sonya that we were going to stay while in Irkutsk. However we were not expecting Sonya to meet us at the station, as we were to spend our first night in Irkutsk at the expensive hotel we had had to pay for in order to get Legend to arrange our visas for us. Sonya had come because she had bad news, which meant that we could not stay at Kirsten’s apartment after all. She was very friendly and helpful, though and, after helping us to get to our hotel, she gave us the number of another friend, Rick, who might be able to help.

The following morning we gave Rick a ring and arranged to stay at his flat for a few nights. Rick lives in a flat owned by his family and lets rooms out, usually to students. For us, it was a great place to stay.

17th-24th July Russia
Trubetskoy house - Click to enlargeSonya showed us the sights of Irkutsk. It is a pretty, old-fashioned town with many wooden buildings that date back to the 19th century. Irkutsk grew from a remote village into the main city of Eastern Siberia, built up by settlers, having previously been exiled to Siberia. There are colourful churches, statues and parks, as well as two large and fast-flowing rivers. The huge Angar river, the only river to issue from Lake Baikal, flows through the middle of Irkutsk.

Intrigued by the romantic imagery surrounding revolutionaries who were exiled to Siberia in Tsarist days, we took ourselves off to see one of the Decembrist houses, now museums. It took us a while to find the house we were looking for, but when we did we were pleased we had made the effort. Trubetskoy house was only a very small museum, the house built by a member of the Decembrist movement against serfdom, exiled to Siberia in 1825. The Decembrist movement is so called because it had its main uprising in December 1824 in, St Petersburg. The house contained photographs and sketches to do with the lives of the men in exile, and those of their wives who followed them to Siberia, as well as original furnishings. We were given a guided tour with an English speaking guide.

The biggest problem we encountered in Russia was obtaining information about how to get anywhere or do anything. It seemed that the Russians, living as they do in a world of bureaucracy and bureaucrats, were far too used to being told that things can’t be done. Nick and Tom went on a fact-finding mission, hoping to be able to buy tickets for a hydrofoil to Bolshie Koty, on the shore of Lake Baikal. They eventually found a tour office of sorts where they got some advice, but then they had to get a taxi to the port, where they waited for over an hour in a queue to buy boat tickets. They still couldn’t get tickets for the day we wanted to go. People we spoke to were generally quite negative about our chances of finding somewhere to stay there as well, although, in the event, it turned out to be very easy!

21st-23rd July Russia
Lake Baikal
 - Click to enlargeDay trip to Listvyanka
To fill in time on the day before we were leaving for Bolshie Koty, we made the day trip to Listvyanka, also on the lake. It was raining! We took a hard-to-find bus from the centre of Irkustsk.

The drive to Listvyanka was pretty, through miles and miles of conifer forest with odd glimpses of Lake Baikal through the trees. There was mist over the lake which gave it a mysterious air.

The sky was very grey when we arrived. We went into a lakeside restaurant to get some fish to eat. The meal was delicious; a fresh fish bake made with omul, a lake fish a bit like trout in flavour, which only exists in Baikal. We gazed out of the window across the water.

Lake Baikal holds an incredible 20% of the world’s fresh water; more than all of the American Great Lakes put together. Many of the creatures that live in the water, including the tasty omul, and the Baikal seal, only live there and have no close relations anywhere else. It was an amazing place to be. With that in mind we went for a walk a couple of kilometres along the lake shore, following a nature trail.

Bolshie Koty
Although it had initially seemed complicated and uncertain, when we actually got started our trip to Bolshie Koty turned out to be easy, and a really enjoyable way to spend a couple of days. In fact, when we realised just how beautiful the lake is, and how helpful the people there were, we began to wish we had gone for it earlier and tried to get to Olkhon Island, further up the lake on the north-west shore, and supposedly very remote and beautiful.

Our boat tickets, it turned out, were for a super-duper hydrofoil which took an hour and a half to get to Bolshie Koty. The village was small, not served by any road, but linked by a rough farm track (in summer) to Listvyanka. The sky was clear blue and so was the lake, and the only sounds were the buzzings and chirpings of insects and birds. It was breathtakingly beautiful. The lady at the museum spoke no English, but was helpful when we showed her our little note in Russian, written by someone in Irkutsk, and especially helpful when we agreed to pay the entrance fee and visit the museum! It was a bizarre collection. Large fish in jars, stuffed animals including a huge eagle, a brown bear and a snake, and an old-fashioned diving helmet. After ten minutes or so, the babushka (a Russian word for an old lady, literally meaning ‘grandmother’) hurried us off to see where we were to stay.

Up the grassy slope beside the museum and through a gate we walked to the door of wooden house. I think the people there were her daughter and son-in-law. They had a wooden chalet built in their garden, with four beds and a beautiful view over the lake. It was really lovely. Also lovely was the banya, a Russian style sauna, which they stoked up for us after dinner. With our tummies full of fresh lake fish and herby potatoes we sat and soaked in steam and heat, looking out across the beautiful, peaceful lake through the little window.

In the morning, after breakfast, we took ourselves off for a walk along the shore of Lake Baikal. The day was beautiful, the air was fresh and clean and the calm, still water of the lake glistened, wonderfully clear. We were walking along the hillside rising from the water and, as we looked down into the lake, we could see clearly through to the stones at the bottom. Later the babushka lady told us that the drinking water here is pure lake water, taken from a depth of forty metres. The path was wooded and shady, but the sky was clear and the sun was strong. We returned to the house for lunch, and then took our books back to the lake shore to let the children play on the beach until the hydrofoil was ready to take us back to Irkutsk. Bolshie Koty had been a beautiful place to spend a couple of days. Our last chance to escape to wild countryside as our trip draws to an end.

24th-27th July Russia
Trans-Siberia to Moscow
Keeping busy on the journey - Click to enlargeOur final train, Irkutsk to Moscow, left at 4.20pm on Saturday 24th July, and took three days to convey us the 5185km that was to be our longest overland trek.

We spent the morning preparing for the journey. Nick and I went into town on the bus, leaving Esther and Tom with Sonya. We bought a variety of entertainments for the children, anticipating that they would be bored during the journey, and went to the supermarket to stock up on noodles, snacks, fruit and sweets. Back at the flat we cooked and ate a decent meal and packed a last few things into our rucksacks before waving goodbye to Sonia and Rick as we left, by taxi, for the station.

The train journey itself was actually relatively uneventful, all three days of it. We put our watches back an hour each morning, and another hour on arrival in Moscow. Illustrating just how enormous Russia is, we passed through five time zones while we were on that train.

In the event, no-one got particularly bored, although the children didn’t meet such suitable playmates this time, and our carriage was full of Russians rather than tourists like ourselves. We rationed the little presents we had bought for them so that, even on day three, we still had something new to offer.

We ate in the restaurant car once. The meal was nice and it was great to sit at a table eating a “proper” meal while the Siberian forest slipped by the window, but mostly we ate in our compartment, supplementing our snacks with food bought from babushkas on the platform when we stopped.

Getting off the train to buy provisions always felt very daring! Our provodnitsa (carriage attendant) would tell us how many minutes there were until the train would move off again, but we were never quite sure how she knew! Still, none of us ever managed to get left behind, although Tom panicked terribly whenever I got off the train on my own.

The children played, we read or played cards, we ate snacks, we made up a Trans-Siberian song to the tune of ‘Yellow Submarine’, and we kept track of our progress in the Lonely Planet book (which was pretty accurate this time, with regard to the journey and route). Then, at about 4.30pm local time on the 27th, we pulled heavily into Moscow railway station, and set off to find somewhere to stay, for the last time!

27th-30th July Russia
St Basil's Cathedral through the Resurrection Arch - Click to enlargeIt felt a bit strange, as we walked along the platform with our rucksacks on, to realise that we had finally arrived at our end point. I can’t say that we really felt elated or excited to be there. It was just hot, and we were (paradoxically, as on-train life had been so lazy) tired from the journey. And, too, we felt as daunted as ever by the prospect of trekking around a big, busy city, trying to find somewhere affordable to stay. It was quite a trek, too. We used the metro, walked quite a way, Esther fell over and hurt her knee, and then we found that the place we were looking for no longer existed. Then we walked a bit more, and then took a taxi to the Traveller’s Guest House, where we stayed. We could not believe the prices. For really basic accommodation in three beds in a dorm, with a shared toilet and bathroom, we paid 42 pounds per night!! That’s a whole day’s budget! It was not even particularly nice, or friendly either. The other travellers there were nice though, and we enjoyed meeting and chatting with them throughout our two-night stay there. And it was a nice change to sleep in beds that were not swaying from side to side!

We had two full days to spend in Moscow before flying to France. We made a few decisions fairly quickly: 1) We decided to avoid paying for accommodation on our third night by going to the airport early and sleeping there for the night leading up to our flight, and 2) We decided not to visit the Kremlin. Although this would be a ‘must-do’ on the lists of many visitors to Moscow, we decided that we could manage without that particular guided tour, interesting as it may have been. However, when we went to Red Square on the 28th we saw the buildings of the Kremlin and their compound from the outside.

We did visit St Basil’s Cathedral, the building most often seen as a symbol of the city, and of Russian architecture. It was a mildly emotional moment when we first glimpsed the cathedral, with its profusion of colourful cupolas, framed by Red Square’s Resurrection Gate. Standing in front of that building in Red Square was the symbolic moment we had all been waiting for: our official Journey’s End! However, it was strangely peaceful in the busy square. We took some photos and went to see the cathedral from the inside. It was an interesting building with many winding passages, vaulted ceilings and interesting artwork.

The 29th of July was our last day. We spent it visiting Gorky Park. This park is like a fairgound mixed in with an ornamental garden. There were also many exotic animals there, like lions, monkeys, bears and a huge boa constrictor. People paid to have their photograph taken with these creatures. They all looked well cared for, but it was a bit bizarre!

Fittingly, we had our final minor crisis during that day, too. I suddenly realised, having checked out of the hostel several hours before, that I had left my money belt under my pillow. Terrible thoughts flashed through my head. Here we are, having made it all the way round the world and, without any money, we might not even be able to fly (departure tax and all considered), and we could be stuck in expensive Moscow until the dreaded HSBC could be persuaded to come to our aid. Aaargh!! We hurried back to the hostel at breakneck speed, just as, almost poetically, the clear blue sky became a thunderstorm above our heads! Luckily most of the rain fell while we were on the metro. We hurried through the puddles, anxiously snapping at each other as we went. The missing article was easy to locate, being, as it was, still under the pillow of what had been my bed. They had already re-let the bed, though. It just goes to show the standard of hygiene you get in Moscow for £42 per night. They could not possibly have changed the sheets without finding it!

We took the metro, and then a stuffy local bus, to the airport, and arrived at about 11pm, for an 8.35am flight. The night was OK. The children, accustomed as they now are to travel, got a fair amount of sleep, lying on seats in the check-in area, and Nick and I got some rest too. At 6.30 we checked in our bags and headed for the appropriate gate.

As our Aeroflot plane left the ground, headed for Prague, where we would change to Air France for Charles de Gaulle, our journey of a lifetime was all over, and our re-adjustment back to ‘real life’ about to begin.

July 03August 03September 03October 03November 03
December 03January 04February 04March 04April 04
May 04June 04July 04August 04September 04

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