Back on the train to Lake Baikal, we lucked out and had the cabin to ourselves for 2 nights, eventually making it the party cabin. No dining car though. (Note: all Russian trains run on Moscow time. Something to keep in mind when you’re traveling through several time zones.)
Siberia looked every bit as what people expect – derelict and remote. It’s really a wonder how this railroad was completed given the harsh climate and areas of swamp and permafrost.
Every time we were approaching a station, the bathrooms would get locked about 15 minutes beforehand since they were long drop toilets and nobody wanted that shit (pun) splattered on the station’s tracks. So, as we were crossing into Russian territory, I made sure to do my long duration sitting business about 30-45 minutes before. I was about done when the train lady (the provodnitsa) knocked vigorously on the door. I shouted, “I’M ALMOST DONE!” She didn’t care though. She unlocked the door and wagged her finger at me, like a mother scolding a child – “DON’T FLUSH!” We were still a good distance away from the station, though, so I flushed anyway. Sorry but, not sorry, Russia. I didn’t know it back then but, that’s what you get for liking them tiny hands.
At the Naushki border control, the security searched through each of our cabins for any forbidden unmentionables and found something in Jeff & Diana’s cabin. Jeff & Diana, probably the most proper couple you’d ever meet, were the only ones who cleaned their cabin, took their suitcases down from the top shelf and had them open and ready for inspection. The rest of us just did the bare minimum (well, we hid our liquor since it’s technically not allowed).
So, what did they find? Deer horns, tucked away in some nook at the back of the top shelf. No one had any idea how it got there. They were then escorted out to the police station where they had to fill out a report. This is Russia.
We had a couple of hours to kill while all of this was going on, so Nikka took us on a walk into the countryside. After crossing a wooden rickety bridge, though, we ran into a bunch of soldiers heading towards us. They turned us right back around. Nikka explained that we were just going for a walk to an area still visible at this distance. Nope, access denied.
We arrived in Lake Baikal and went out for lunch at a restaurant that did not give a shit about time. The people who ordered first ended up getting their food last, and the waitress completely forgot about my order of chicken wings.
Me: “Excuse me, we ordered the chicken wings…?”
She oh’ed her mouth, obviously having forgotten about them. She walked into the kitchen and walked straight back out, unapologetically saying, “No.”
Me: “Oh, um, okay.”
Nikka then took us to a street market selling all sorts of souvenirs, smoked fish and an assortment of skewered meat with rice. Um, why didn’t she just take us here for lunch? It was cheap and delicious and, still feeling hungry, I had my second meal. We walked it all off later with a hike around a part of the lake, the part that involved walking along a beach covered in flies. And, I mean covered like the plague. I made the mistake of laughing with my mouth open.
We later plunged into that lake, the deepest and largest freshwater lake by volume (it contains 20% of the Earth’s unfrozen freshwater!). I talked big of doing the Arctic plunge. And, I came back out whimpering about numbness.
Back at the homestay (super duper cozy place), a bunch of us went with the banya option, which involved sauna-ing, getting whacked with a leafy branch by Nikolai (a Russian man in a speedo and Keebler hat), jumping into a cold pool, then going for round 2. At the end, Nikolai scrubbed us down before dumping a bucket of hot water and then ice cold water on our heads. The noises coming out of the participants may have been the best part of the experience. The result? Redness. And mixed feelings of cleaniliness and violation.
Before heading back to the train the next day, we did a minibus tour of Irkutsk. If you plan on visiting churches in Russia, make sure to bring a headscarf (if you’re female). They provide them, too, but it’s just nicer having your own.
Fun fact: Prior to 1904, the tracks would stop at opposite sides of Lake Baikal due to tough conditions around the lake, thus requiring the ferrying of the wagons across the lake. In winter, horses and manpower were used to pull the wagons across the ice. But, in 1904, both sides, one of the most difficult train lines, were finally connected.
Back on the train, we had a roommate, an older Russian man with a genteel exterior named Mikhael. Through Nikka, we were able to offer some of our snacks, all of which he turned down. I guess I wouldn’t want chips and cookies when I had my own home-cooked meals packed away in Tupperware. He was en route to Moscow (4 nights on the train) to go see his family. Amtrak Mikhael.
The dining car came back and it was manned (or wo-manned) by a babushka with a sweet grill who totally had the hots for Dean. We ordered dinner from the menu only to have the scowling chef come out and say “We have beef with rice.” The menu was whatever he had or felt like making. Fair enough. It was the only air-conditioned car on the train, and they kicked out anyone trying to stay for free. The chef/babushka duo took a liking to us, though, after our non-stop orders of beers. Then when the dining car closed, we brought out the Baikal vodka. Far better than rice wine.
Day 2 on the train involved more reading, more philosophical conversations and more clickety clack technology. With 10-15 min stops at Mariinsk, Novosibirsk and Barabinsk, we managed to squeeze in a platform picnic with a bread roll, a package of salami and cheese and a cream cheese chive dip. A nice change from the high sodium content of bowl noodles. We closed out the dining car again later that night not only with beers but also with talks of reforming New Zealand’s stance on a capital gains tax. Important conversations happen on 2nd class trains…just as important thoughts happen in showers. Am I right or, am I right?
I had trouble opening a sesame seed snack since Beijing. I swear that thing was quadrupled-wrapped in plastic made to survive nuclear warfare. Lucky for me, H was able to document the moment I managed to open the damn thing and take one bite before realizing that I didn’t want it anymore.
Glorious showers and decent cappuccinos later, we were on a mission to find delicious pierogis and pelmeni (Russian dumplings). Our tour guide, Natasha, recommended a place but could only tell us approximately where it was. The street she led us to had maybe 2 restaurants on the block so, we walked into one that looked a bit too fancy for dumplings.
The waiter hands over a menu completely in Russian.
Waiter: [Scoff] “No.”
The other place on the block had a gated outdoor garden which we almost missed in a second passing. This place looked promising and it totally delivered. We ordered a jar (yes, a jar) of beer and most definitely an order of dumplings among other assorted Russian dishes. Soon after, these 3 Russians sat at the table adjacent to ours and one of them was clearly drunk. It didn’t take him long to realize we were foreigners and, after asking us the basic questions, he went into his love of trance (check out his Space t-shirt) and listed out his favorite DJ’s. He then handed me a bouquet of peonies and asked if I was Russian. Dean and H made sure to get a kick out of that. By now, I’ve become a heavily misunderstood person.
The waitress then walked over, not with our food, but with a vase for my newly acquired flowers. I immediately felt my awkwardness intensify. I mean, just look at my face.
We did a walking tour of the city (Russia’s 4th largest city) the next morning with Natasha, the never-ending Twilight Zone babbler of information. She claimed that it was rare to see a Lenin statue anywhere, particularly in Moscow. Then, we bumped into one.
Then, we visited a church for ants.
The highlight was definitely the Church on Blood / Church of All Saints, built at the site of Ipatiev House (demolished in 1977) where Nicholas II, the last emperor of Russia, and his family were exiled then executed by the Bolsheviks.
The Yekaterinburg War Memorial, also known as the Black Tulip War Memorial, depicts a soldier sitting in defeat by the powerlessness of war, in the midst of the pillars of names of soldiers who died in Afghanistan and Chechnya during the 9+ year Soviet-Afghan War.
War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.
On the way to the Euro-Asian border, we stopped at 2 other memorials/cemeteries, one of which housed the bodies of mafia members of one of the 2 gangs (the Shirokorechenskoe Cemetery). It was tucked away by a memorial for the fallen soldiers of the Great Patriotic War. It’s easy to tell that it was a mafia cemetery given the tombstones containing life-size laser etchings of the guys buried there, sometimes next to an etching of a car or holding the keys to a Mercedes. Because all of that matters after death.
We got creative at the border, courtesy of H. Not only did we jump over the line, we also segregated ourselves into one Asian and two Europeans. My pose, on the other hand, was a knee jerk reaction to my photo being taken without having a pose in mind. Natasha then made us do some good luck ritual that involved touching the European side, then the Asian side, then while straddling the border, opening a bottle of sparkling wine and splitting a bar of chocolate. I was pretty sure she was making us do this for shits and giggles but, then, we walked over to a fence/wall full of empty wine bottles where we then placed ours. Perhaps this was a ritual after all. Then again, this area was also a known popular newlywed destination where right after the ceremony, they come here to make the husband climb this one big tree to tie a love ribbon. The area was full of them. True love was, truly, all around us. I suppose this was better structurally than love locks on a Parisian bridge.
While here, we ran into 2 newlywed couples and began shouting “Gorka! Gorka!” at Natasha’s encouragement, leading them to kiss. We later found out that this word meant “acid” or “something sour” and the kiss was supposed to make it sweet. Aw, with one “w.”
By the time we left this city, I was full-on addicted to sour cream and borscht.
Fun/scary fact: There was a nuclear plant disaster in 1957 about 150km from this city.