|We rolled out of Ulaanbaatar mid-evening and settled into the rhythms of life aboard a train, loads of card playing, reading and pointless chatter to while away the hours. This trip would be two nights and seeing as how we had a border crossing to deal with early on the first morning everyone opted for an early night.
We woke the next morning at the Mongolian border post where we sat for what felt like a couple of hours before anyone came to look at our papers. Eventually our passports were taken, our customs declarations made and our compartments searched. Then we waited for our passports to be returned, and waited, and waited. This was followed by some more waiting around unable to leave the train or use the toilets due to the waste being dumped onto the tracks when you flushed, seemingly acceptable when the train is moving but not so when stopped at a station. After about 3 and a half hours our passports were returned to us and we were finally allowed to leave the train to make use of the station facilities for a small fee. When I got off the train to stretch the legs I was surprised to find that our carriage was the only one sitting at the platform. The engine and all the other carriages had been de-coupled and taken away, presumably for customs and immigration reasons. Our carriage was occupied almost entirely by Aussies and a few Brits; the few Mongolians on our carriage were removed along with all their luggage and taken away for processing. It appeared tourists don’t raise the interests of border officials like the locals do.
After around 5 hours the train finally left the Mongolian border post and crossed into Russia. Soon after the border the train stopped once more to allow a team of immigration officials to board the train. They seemed quite friendly and some even found amusement in the name of the tour company, ‘Vodkatrain’. The customs lady didn’t seem quite so friendly. Dressed head to toe in military fatigues she gives the impression she is all business and could more than likely kill an out of line tourist 50 different ways using only her little finger. Needless to say we follow her instructions to the letter and allow her to search our compartment for the 40kg of blow, nuclear warheads or designer orphan destined for Hollywood she is looking for. It would have to be that obvious as her search is very brief. We stopped at a station just inside Russian territory so that the rest of the train could again be taken away to be searched. The whole border crossing took around 11 hours to complete.
Good company sure is a blessing because we were able to pass the time without it becoming too tedious. We played a lot of Yaniv and at one point split our group into two groups of five with the victors of each group to meet in the Trans-Mongolian Yaniv Championship Final. For one reason or another the final never eventuated, that would have to wait for the Irkutsk-Moscow leg of the journey. Once over the border we were able to kick our heels up a little and enjoy a couple drinks. We watched a few episodes of Boston Legal during which Mitch formulated the Boston Legal drinking game in which any time William Shatner’s character says, “Danny Crane” or James Spader’s character makes a sexual advance the players are required to take a drink.
Early on the second morning our train arrived in Irkutsk, a city in the heart of Siberia. It was here we met Costa, our honcho for our 3 days stay at the nearby Lake Baikal. Lake Baikal is the largest freshwater lake in the world at 600km long and 60km at its widest point. It is also the world deepest at 1637m and it continues to get deeper as the tectonic plates that formed it move further apart. It contains one-fifth of the world’s fresh unfrozen water- that’s more than North America’s five great lakes combined.
From the station we had to go to get our visas registered by a local authority. This is a requirement of Russian Immigration so that they can track where all those pesky tourists are. While Costa took care of that for us we had a little time to look around central Irkutsk. By this time it was around 8am and still very dark. It was strange to see so many people rushing around, on their way to work in the dark. It was also very cold, at -21°C, I kept my excursion from the relative warmth of the bus brief. Formalities out of the way we headed to the town of Listvyanka on the shores of Lake Baikal about an hour from Irkutsk.
As we neared Listvyanka Costa told us the lake was to our right. We wouldn’t have known as the condensation on the inside of the windows had frozen forming a thin sheet of ice making it impossible to see out. I rubbed the ice from the window making myself a kind of peephole to see a large, choppy body of water almost completely shrouded in mist. Soon after we arrive at our lodge and upon dropping our bags in our rooms we headed for the dining room for some breakfast. Breaky took a while as the lady was cooking for 23 people on a small household gas stove. She also had no electricity due to maintenance works being carried out on the street.
Costa gave us a few hours to rest following breakfast before taking us for a walk around Listvyanka. Going for a stroll in -25°C conditions was of course a bit of a new experience for me. Unlike strolling around in other conditions, a stroll at -25°C takes preparation. You have to don your thermals followed by as many layers as you can get your hands on until you resemble the Michelin Man. The walk its self was fine until we got to the lakeside where we were no longer protected from the icy wind racing across the lake. Almost instantly my toes froze and my fingers began to ache. My eyelashes froze together from the moisture in my breath. None the less it was a unique experience and once in the warmth of a plush hotel on the waterfront we were able to thaw out while we made use of the ATM’s in the hotels foyer. Cashed up and ready to go we kitted up once more for the walk to the bakery, a further 10 minutes down the road. Along the way we passed boats with ice hanging from every possible place and a skirt of ice around their bows. They sat silent for the winter as the lake is left to freeze over. Rocks on the shore were covered in a thick layer of ice from the waves crashing into them. The water freezes to them before it can run off and back into the lake. Along the shoreline a strange sort of ice wall forms from the waves rolling up the shore and freezing before they can retreat into the lake.
Our intrepid trek through the difficult conditions was rewarded upon arrival at the bakery with a reasonable cup of coffee and some delicious pastries. I could have stayed there all afternoon but alas, once we had had our fill it was time to return to the lodge via a local market. The market was a pretty strange affair. It was open air market, largely deserted due to the weather. The few hardy souls that remained at their posts were mostly selling tacky souvenirs, the few others not selling souvenirs sold dried fish from the lake, a great source of omega 3 and according the Costa, botulism. Nothing at the market appealed to me so I returned to the lodge.
Upon returning to the lodge the lady motioned for me to pull a chair up to the fire. I responded to her kind offer with “Dasvidanya!”. This sent the lady into a fit of laughter. Turns out I had confused my words and accepted her hospitality by saying “Goodbye”.
Once thawed out the males of the group decided to go on a hunting and gathering exercise to the supermarket in search of vodka and snacks for the evening. Armed to the gills with cheap Russian vodka, the appropriate mixers and a large supply of snacks we returned to the lodge and enjoyed a few pre-dinner drinks. In the meantime Costa had prepared the banya, a traditional Russian sauna. Our group were first up so we donned our togs and headed into the small pine room, heated to a pleasant 84°C. Costa proceeded to thrown water, infused with birch and pine, on the hot coals in the corner of the room. In no time we were sweating up a storm. Each application of water to the coals brought a wave new wave of heat that opened the pores and coaxed another litre of sweat from them. I thought I was going to shrivel up right there in that tiny pine box of a room. Just then Costa announced it was time to break for tea. After a lovely cuppa it was back in for round two. Round two was followed by a snow roll. As the name suggests it involves leaving the banya to go outside into the -30°C night to roll in the snow. It sounds crazy and it most certainly is crazy but it is also extremely invigorating. The snow roll was followed by the third and final round in the banya. To finish off the whole experience Costa gives us ‘the treatment’, this involves being whacked from the shoulders to the feet with birch and pine branches. It’s actually quite nice, like a kind of massage and doesn’t hurt a bit. Although it does look painful. I dash from the banya back to my room in my boardies for a hot shower which leaves me completely cleansed and relaxed. A couple more vodkas and it’s time for our dinner a hearty potato and meat stew, followed by a few more drinks and bed.
As the sun in these parts doesn’t rise until 9am it’s easy to sleep in, which I do until around 9:30. Breakfast is served at ten following which a group of us set out for the “Baikal Dog Sledding Centre”, a 45 minute walk away. The weather this morning was much worse than the previous day and it seems that no matter which direction we walk in the wind is in our face. It’s quite a mission to get to the sledding centre as the wind was quite strong and on several occasions nearly blew me off my feet, not to mention that with the wind chill factor the temperature surely must have been around the mid minus forties. Everything froze, my eyebrows, eyelashes even my scarf, wet with the moisture from my breath, then my beard froze to my scarf. It was a little unpleasant at the time but looking back it was quite an experience. It made me feel like one of those intrepid souls on a mission to conquer the North Pole. Once at the centre we bundled inside and thawed out with some piping hot tea.
One by one the group went out for their ride on the dog sleds. Eventually it came to my turn so I kitted up and headed outside to meet my team. There they were, nine of the finest canines I have ever laid eyes on except of course my loveable black mutt back home. All of them straining at their tethers, ready and raring to go. After a quick rundown on how to steer and stop the sled the master of the dog team let off the rope that restrained the dogs and we were away. It was a lot quieter out there than I thought, the dogs barked a little as they pulled me across the soft snow. Controlling the sled is a lot like water skiing in that you lean into the turns, putting all your weight onto the inside leg. About halfway the trail opens out and the dogs pick up pace, my legs had grown weary and while trying to negotiate a bit of a chicane I come unstuck and am sent headfirst into a snow bank by the side of the trail. The dogs continue on without me and I quickly spring to my feet and try to chase them down while Alexi, the handler, eventually gets them to yield. He offers me the jump seat on the sled but I am determined to see this thing through so I once again take the helm. The rest of the 5km ride goes by without incident. What a great lot of fun. It’s still -34°C outside but I return to the warmth of the waiting room lathered in sweat and the adrenaline pumping. Once everyone has had their turn Costa mercifully arranges a car to ferry us back to the lodge. However, James, a member of another Vodkatrain group, and I opt to walk to the bakery nearby hoping to get some nice photos of Listvyanka along the way. After some more stuffed pastry goodness we walk back to the lodge. The wind has eased significantly so the walk back to the lodge is much nicer although at -34°C out it’s still a little on the chilly side.
The rest of the afternoon is spent relaxing in front of the fire at the lodge before another pre-dinner banya. Most had an early night in anticipation of the double birthday celebrations the following night.
The following day we hired snowmobiles and went for an hour’s joyride around the woods near Listvyanka. Unfortunately we weren’t able to go too fast but it was still a lot of fun carving up the trails. To satisfy the revhead in me I would drop back from the person in front and when the gap was sufficient I’d give the beast the berries, slamming on the brake before I got too close to the machine in front. At one point I was even able to get the thing to part company with the earth momentarily as I crested a rise with the taps open wide. They are a lot like a jet ski in that for them to be responsive to steering input you need to have the throttle open. No throttle, no steering, simple. They are also powered by a similar engine that powers a jet ski. Snowmobiles are also inherently unstable, especially at low speed as Jon found out on a few occasions. When the skis hit deep soft snow they seem to want to roll on to their sides. It would have been nice to really open them up but seeing as though my travel insurance doesn’t cover snowmobiling it was probably better that I wasn’t given the opportunity to run into a pine tree at full throttle. Still I was reasonably satisfied with the hour’s joyride and after an hour my knees were frozen along with my hands and most of my face.
That night we headed out to a local restaurant to celebrate Jon and Tim’s (from the other group) birthdays. I would critique what I had but to be honest I can’t remember what I had as the celebrations started mid-afternoon. I do recall eating some kind of fish dish that resembled tapas and I do recall it being very salty but anything more than that is a little fuzzy. From the restaurant it was back to the lodge via the bakery to collect a couple of cakes. The night descended into a vodka soaked romp. At one point we were chanting “Yaya Boobs"(This place is cool) but due to our poor pronunciation what we were actually chanting was “Shit Boobs”. Luckily Costa was able to convey what we were actually trying to say before we offended the owners too much.
The following morning was occupied with collecting all my worldly possessions and attempting to fit them into my backpack. After a few attempts I was finally able to close the zips and prepare to leave for Irkutsk. We left Listvyanka at 2pm for Irkutsk, our train left at 7pm which left us enough time to grab a bite to eat and find somewhere we could access the internet. We ended up getting to the station with just enough time to quickly thank Costa for all his help over the past few days. It was then onto the train and in no time we were on our way to Moscow four days away.