While travelling Russia, we come across some surprises. Travelling in general comes with surprises, most of the time pleasant surprises, sometimes unpleasant. The start of the train ride from Novosibirsk to Krasnoyarsk is definitely an unpleasant one, as it is absolutely terrifying.
Did you read part one of our Russia Journal yet?
We get on the train in Novosibirsk in the middle of the night, after a long wait at the train station. Upon checking our names in the system, the conductor seems to have some troubles working the system, so she takes our tickets and lets us on the train. We’re settling in and, oh gosh, a big strict looking Russian guy enters our coupé.
We’re only moving for about 15 mins when another strict looking Russian guy, in uniform, enters our coupé. Big problem, we can tell. It is the head conductor of the train and he starts talking loud to us. When he understands we do not speak Russian, he makes a cross-movement with his arms and points to the tickets.
Then our coupé-mate speaks to the conductor and then to us, in surprisingly okay English! He says our ticket is not valid, as the money is refunded. We have no idea about this, but we think it might have happened as we refunded our other tickets (we bought two overlapping train rides, oops). A little sweaty we explain that we have no idea what happened. After a lot of translation of Russian to English and vice versa, the head conductor suddenly says: OK, and walks away.
Our cabin mate, who we learn is called Andrey, looks at us with disbelief. We ask, so is it okay now? He says, no it is far from okay, but this man is a very very good man and you can stay on the train. This never ever happens. BIG relief. This possibly is the moment Andrey decides he is going to take care of us. He gets us tea, later on we drink beers and in the morning he buys us croissants. He’s the sweetest. What started as the scariest trip of all, ended in the most fun one, bonding with the big Russian guy over invalid tickets.
Stunning Stolby (and Krasnoyarsk)
Just like Yekaterinburg we have absolutely no expectations for Krasnoyarsk. And when there are no expectations, you can only be surprised… The first big surprise is that there is little to no snow in the city, and it is… warm! Another nice couchsurfer (also an Andrey) picks us up at the station and walks us to his home. We are his first international couchsurfers, so he is very curious, and wants to practice his English.
Soon we are walking the streets again to explore the city. We walk along the bridges, the pretty buildings (historic ones and new ones), and then back to the awesome apartment on the 14th floor with an amazing view. We enjoy an evening with food, a very pretty sunset, two cute dogs and close it off with hookah (since Andrey is a hookah-master).
Our second day is well spend in Stolby National Park. We start off the day with a cold, windy -13 degrees Celsius. I can tell you that I know it was really cold because my nose hairs were frozen. We warm up during the all-day-long-17-kilometers-hike to the top of the mountain (and back) to see the stolbis (big rocks), and we even manage to climb on top of some. Life threatening, since the snow is still very much there, and makes the entire track slippery. We do fall down a couple of times (and yes my butt hurt for two more days), and slide, rather than walk our way down.
After this intense day we have our first vodka in Russia (mixed with sprite though) at Andrey’s and fall asleep as soon as our heads touch the pillows. All in all, our stay in Krasnoyarsk was short, but powerful (as our saying in Dutch goes ‘kort, maar krachtig’)!
Two girls on the train – Part V: Krasnoyarsk – Irkutsk
We are traveling into East-Siberia, a feared place in Russia. Historically, East-Siberia is the place where all criminals were banned. Already in times of all the Russian Tsars criminals had to go there, but also in times of the Gulag many prisoners had to work in East-Siberia… So there we are, two blonde girls going into East-Siberia. And there is our coupé-mate, the first annoying drunk Russian we meet. We do not sleep very well on the ride, we can tell you that. The guy is banned from the hallway at night, so he comes into the cabin and talks and talks and talks in Russian. He keeps us up for another three hours, and then he finally falls asleep.
The more we travel east, the more mixed ethnicities we see in Russia. There are clearly more Mongolian influences and we learn about Buryat culture. Buryats are the major northern subgroup of the Mongols, and they share many customs with other Mongols. Aside from different ethnicities, we see lesser western influences (no McDonald’s for example), and different architecture (more wooden Buryat houses with wooden window shutters).
We meet up with the girls Lisa and Engelina and they show us around the pretty city centre of Irkutsk. We stroll around and have a lovely time together. As for our couchsurfing-sleeping-place, we stay with a peculiar guy named Anton, who reads our hands (in two years Maartje will have a big choice that decides if she lives a long and boring or a short but exciting life) and speaks a little Dutch to us. He also tells us there are three things you should not talk about in Russia: 1. Crimea – 2. Winner of World War II – the Russians saved Europe, not America, and 3. Homosexuality – just because, you know, gays. Well, it’s a good thing we tell no one we are a couple then!
Olkhon Island and Lake Baikal
From Irkutsk we decide to do a 3-day trip to Olkhon Island and Lake Baikal. It is the best decision we have made so far. It is magical to say the least.
The trip is long (about 5hours), but the landscapes are breathtaking. And the last part is the most fun, as we drive over a frozen Lake Baikal!!! Isn’t that awesome? We are totally afraid though, especially because the driver drives 120 km/h, but we survive! In the afternoon we arrive in Khuzhir, the biggest village of Olkhon Island. It feels so peaceful! We get to our guesthouse and we have the cutest room (but with three single beds, so we will have to squeeze in one). There are these cute paintings on the wall and we love the flower-details everywhere. There is no bathroom though, and the toilet is just a hole in the ground. We later learn this is Mongolia-style living.
So we decide to explore the area, and walk to the famous rock near Khuzhir, Mount Zhima. And it is so pretty. We visit the rock about four times during our short stay, and we take pictures with almost every position of the sun.
On our second day (that is our only entire day at Olkhon), we decide to do a tour to the north part of the Island, to Cape Khoboi. This place is considered of the most sacred on the island. This is the place where the “large” and “small” sea meet. Because it is “spring” (more like winter to us), we do not travel over land, but over ice. We stop at a few places and see magical rock formations and stunning ice creations. We even hear the “heartbeat” of the lake when we’re on the ice!
Two girls on the train – Part VI: Irkutsk – Ulan Ude
During our one but last train ride on Russian ground, we ride around the south part of Lake Baikal. On a third class train wagon! An entirely new experience, as it is an entire wagon without doors, which makes it feel like a 45-bed dormitory. It is an amazing experience, and we feel almost like locals!
The last city we visit in Russia is Ulan Ude. Again we have the pleasure to meet locals to show us around the city (of course see the famous Lenin-head), and even show us the Buddhist temples far outside the city center. We learn about the custom of walking a circle, turning all the mantra-freeing praying wheels (cylindrical spindle), with only happy thoughts. And also we learn about the symbolic deer that are on top of all temples. Deer are a reference to the Buddha’s first teaching in the deer park, Sarnath, where even de animals came listening.
We also learn to say ‘nasta novkè’ on the bus, meaning ‘next stop’ or something. Everyone says it, so we say it. And then it is time to go; we spend an entire night at the train station (because it is too much a hassle to wake up super early and take a taxi and everything), time for our train ride into Mongolia! Read it here.
What are your experiences with Russian people? Tell us about it! And if you have any questions about our trip, feel free to ask anything!