The vital statistics

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I think we lost some tickets along the way…

The entire trip took 4 weeks to complete.

We passed through 14 countries if you include Belarus, and may have obliviously passed through Latvia whilst we slept en route from St Petersburg to Vinius- we never did work out the route that this train took.  Malaysia-Thailand-Cambodia-Vietnam-China-Mongolia-Russia-(Belarus)-Lithuania-Poland-Germany-Belgium-France-UK.

The total cost for the transport was around £1400 per person for the trains and buses (not including some extras for taxis that we probably spent getting from train stations to hotels, and the Metro tickets for getting around cities- probably an extra £200 or so).

We took 19 trains including split trains with connections (it should have been 18, but we were forced to take the local train after being removed by Belarussian immigration), 1 taxi, 4 buses.

We stayed a total of 13 nights on trains, 1 night on a bus and 12 nights in hotels.

Total hotel bill was around 630 pounds, with the majority of that being spent in Europe.

Other expenses incurred include for food, snacks, drinks, SIM cards and entry to tourist sights.

 

The best and the worst

Best trip- the most comfortable sleeper train was the first overnight trip from Thailand to Bangkok which cost approx £10, and was really nice because you got to curtain yourself off in a spacious and comfortable bed, with an almost empty train carriage. Amazing value- everyone should try Thai trains!

Worst trip- the appalling bus ride over the border from Cambodia to Vietnam, mostly because of the terribly designed bed-seats.

 

Travel tips

In general we thought that the older trains are much more comfortable to travel in, providing more space, but they have limited electrical supply and there has been no internet in any trains on the entire trip, except for the ones travelling from Warsaw to Berlin, and from London- Beeston which both promised wifi, but it each case it did not work.

We would recommend taking first class in the bullet trains in China which is a more pleasant experience than second which was a bit cramped.

Booking the upper or lower bunks is a matter of preference. The upper bunks are a hassle to climb in and out of, but you do have a bit more privacy with your territory marked off. The lower bunks are better to sit on and for using the table and you have better views out of the window, but your cabin mates may expect to share the space during the day.

There is plenty of scope for buying food on platforms on Vietnamese trains, including baguettes by people who come to the train at stops (keep plenty of change for this). There are fewer opportunities for buying food on Chinese trains, but the buffet cars are very good, and seem to be under-used. You can buy snacks on Russian trains when they stop and there is usually a buffet car, but the food is expensive and it’s not great. Most Russians advise taking your own food onto trains with you.

Toilets are locked at least 10 minutes before and after stopping at train stations on Russian and Chinese trains. For the longer stops this can be pretty inconvenient.

If you want to see the wheels of the train being changed at the China- Mongolia border- stay on the train- don’t get off onto the platform or you’ll spend 3 hours in a duty free shop.

The trains schedule is usually posted in the carriage wall in Russian trains, so finding out when the long stops are allows you to run out to get supplies.

Beer is much cheaper from the station kiosks in Russia than from the restaurant car.

Toilets in Russian stations usually cost money, and are not very pleasant; the toilets on the trains are usually nicer.

Having initially been reluctant to book second class tickets on the sleeper trains, which involved sharing a cabin with strangers, we found that meeting a variety of people was one of the most interesting parts of the trip. We would have had a completely different and probably more boring experience in a cabin on our own.

Things we would do differently

If time was completely unlimited we would have stayed longer to explore some of the cities we stopped in. We would have taken a more circuitous route in China to take in more cities. It would have also been nice to have stopped in Mongolia. However, the trip did provide a taster of some of these places, which we will most likely visit at a later date.

 

Things to take with you

The best gadget that I packed was my travel coffee filter with a good supply of coffee. (Tea and coffee sachets always useful too- but you can buy these most places….filter coffee is rare in China outside of the big cities)

A mug & cutlery (spork/ chopsticks/ army knife)- can be borrowed on Russian trains.

Tissues/ toilet paper- many of the train toilets were well stocked, but not all.

A good/ dense book- eventually electricals run out and you will read a short novel too quickly.

Power pack for electricals

Pot noodles- always good as a stand by, and all trains have a boiling water supply

Flip flop shoes that are easy to take on and off

Wet wipes- for keeping your carriage and yourself clean

Comfortable clothes like sweat pants and t-shirts that you can sleep in

A small bag- some of the trains do not have a large amount of luggage space. They can accommodate a suitcase just about, but best to have bags that can be squashed into small spaces and removed easily so you can get to your things.

A translation of the Cyrillic alphabet is very useful and provides some entertainment for understanding which stations you are stopping at

Small travel towel (I took a tea towel)

Disposable paper pants (or underwear if you are N American). This means that your bag gets progressively emptier as you travel instead of filling up with dirty laundry. This genius idea is courtesy of a colleague at UNMC, who will not thank me for revealing their identity in association with underwear travel secrets….but thanks….you know who you are!

 

Don’t bother with:

Pillows are not necessary- we carried them as far as Mongolia and realised that the trains provide well on this score.

Blankets/ linens- on a previous trip to SaPa in Vietnam, we were really cold on an overnight train due to the AC and so we were concerned about this. However, on this trip, we were well provided with enough blankets and we got sheets and a small travel towel in some trains. It was the middle of summer, so I can’t vouch for how this translates at other times of the year.

Useful links

The standard reference website for train trips all over the world is the amazing and comprehensive Man in Seat 61   http://www.seat61.com/

The information on the booking agents below is provided in the website above, but we used the following:

Vietnam http://www.baolau.vn/

China http://www.china-diy-travel.com/en

Russia (including trans-Siberian trains across from China) http://realrussia.co.uk/

 

 

 

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The homecoming

The weather got progressively more misty as we crossed into France, developing into full blown drizzle by the time we reached St Pancras.

As we were winging our way across the continent, Radio Nottingham were broadcasting a short interview that I had recorded from the hotel in Brusssels- at this link at about 2hrs 19 into the programme. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p043bwpt

I snuggled into my winter jacket, to be met at the Eurostar exit at St Pancras by Viv, sleeveless in her summer top. Perhaps I was taking a slightly over-cautious approach to the challenges of British summer weather.

After a nice catch up fuelled by Pain Quotidien muffins, chocolate spread and coffee, we were on our way to the East Midlands- on time!

We had taken the liberty of ordering our first first class ticket of the trip, and for our troubles were rewarded with broken internet and no heating. The winter jacket came out again, and the rain started to build as we passed into the Midlands.

 

Passing Attenborough Ponds- “the suburbs of Beeston”- I could scarcely contain my excitement. The rain was lashing down by then.

 

And we were here- in Beeston- with a bunch of lovely Geographers waving from the end of the platform! Right next to the Vic….

Finally…..a taste of the delicious Harvest IPA…

And an afternoon of settling back into my office- something looks a little different…

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and of catching up with everyone- HELLO NOTTINGHAM!

 

Ich bin ein Beestonian

Berlin was our last city stop where we would get any time to explore. Neither of us had visited the city before and we had done very little research about what there was to do. So, guided by a bunch of leaflets grabbed from the tourist info at the train station, we decided to try out an underground tour which sounded quite interesting.

This involved taking the Underground “U” trains to Gesundbrunnen station in the north of the city to the offices of Berliner Unterwelten to stand in line for tickets for one of the tours. I was a bit annoyed at this point, because it seems unnecessary to have people spending their holiday time standing in line in the day and age of online booking. But we only waited for about 15 minutes, and managed to get booked onto an 11am tour called “Dark Worlds”, which explored a World War 2 air raid shelter located right beneath the station.

Unfortunately, no photos are allowed on this trip, so I just have a couple of us descending into the tunnels.

My annoyance at having to queue soon passed as the tour unfolded, and it turned out to be a great way to spend a morning.  The one and a half hour tour was spent with a really excellent and engaging guide who was full of fascinating stories about the air raid shelters which were used to protect women and children, and there were many objects on display in the tunnels to help understand what the conditions were like then. Parts of the tunnels are coated with phosphorescent paint so they glow during a power outage, and there was a lot of information about the massive rebuilding effort that was required to reconstruct Berlin. (The number of railway wagons of rubble stretched end to end would circle the equator twice). Towards the end of the tour there also was a short exhibit on the hydraulic post system that was previously used in Berlin for rapid delivery, and some information about the breweries that were once located on the higher land surrounding the city. My favourite fact of the day was that the name of Berlin derives from “swamp” because it is located on marshy land and so it is extensively pumped by a network of pipes visible all over the city.

It turns out that this short tour had set us up with a mine of information to start a day of exploring, and if you are ever in Berlin I would highly recommend checking out this company. They also had a tour on the cold war which we could not get on to. The money from the tours goes towards their organisation which is dedicated to underground archaeology.

After this tour, and the most expensive toilet stop in the world….(sorry Sani”fair” I had to highlight this- I don’t know why you think your bathroom is worth a whole one Euro!), we headed back to the city centre to try to see the city’s “must-see” sites.

First stop Museum Island, on the river where there are some really impressive buildings- including the Bode Museum (photo for Leslie). Also the Jewish synagogue.

Many of the older buildings in Berlin have had to be restored or completely rebuilt after the war, and there are hundreds of pock marks from shrapnel peppering them.

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On the way to the Bundestag, we stumbled by accident onto the city’s only remaining flak tower, also extensively marked. Much of the war infrastructure including most of the underground bunkers that existed and flak towers like this were destroyed by the allies to try to eradicate Nazi infrastructure and demilitarise the area. It’s easy to understand why this happened, but at the same time there is a massive amount of history that has also been erased alongside it. The flak tower is sealed off to the public, but rather strangely seemed to have what looked like an apartment right at the top of it.

Just up the road we crossed a bridge towards the massive Bundestag building, with the Tiergarten park next to it, which was milling with tourists. It was great to get some sunny weather for this part of the trip, although we opted not to go up in the massive dome which is also accessible.

We wandered around the gardens with memorials to Roma victims of the Holocaust and to the Russian soldiers and made our way to the Brandenburg Gate. Also extensively restored after being almost completely trashed by the end of the war, it was quite easy to see which was the old stonework, and which had been rebuilt.

The road through the gate was tourist hell, with numerous overpriced souvenir shops, but when we stumbled upon the “Europa Experience”- a free museum dedicated to explaining all about the European Union, we felt like it would be rude not to pop in under the circumstances. There was a bunch of displays, including some cool maps and, quite impressively, a mock up of the European Parliament where you can sit and learn about how European laws are made. I have to say that, as well done as this display was, it’s pretty hard to make European law interesting, especially when you are subjected to footage of Nigel Farage delivering a speech. It’s clearly not yet been updated to capture recent events.

I left after posing for the requisite cheesy Euro-propoganda photo  in the special booth for geeky tourists. The EU has played a pretty important role in my life, having provided the funding for a 2-year Marie Curie postdoctoral fellowship placement in Denmark in 1998, without which I would probably not be doing the job I am now. This one’s for you Nigel.

Erlebnis_Europa_e-card

All of this tourism had made us a bit thirsty, and so as we found ourselves by the river on a sunny day, we settled in at a place called the Ständige Vertretung which is a brewery from Cologne famous for its kölsch beer. This was a really nice beer…very clean taste…. served in disappointingly small glasses, but we tried to get on board with drinking beer the German way. After a few of these, the plan for later became a little more freeform.

I had a vague idea of where to find a veggie restaurant, and we wandered around a fairly interesting part of town, but we ended up in a sports bar watching Germany play Qatar at handball. Trying some slightly less clean tasting beer.

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Eventually we settled on a fairly upmarket restaurant called Mani for dinner which seemed to have decent veggie options, and was a short stagger away from the sports bar. The middle Eastern influenced food was really great- including an aubergine in tahini sauce, tomato salad and a beetroot salad.

The walk home was long, wandering through the streets getting lost (like all good geographers) and with me moaning about how cold it was. We got some great views of Berlin by night though.

Next day, we wanted to learn something about the wall, and we had a few hours before our train to Brussels was booked. So, we wandered a few hundred metres down from our hotel to Checkpoint Charlie. There is a good display here explaining the political context for the construction and removal of the wall.

It seemed like there was no need to pay to go into the museum next door, and we also decided to pass on the 360° wall theatre experience. This place has been turned into a theme park. The actors posing as American soldiers for you to have your photo taken with them seemed particularly tasteless and, rather aptly, there was MacDonalds positioned right behind the gurning fools.

One quick trip around the Gendarmarkt, and it was time to travel to the Hauptbahnhof station to get our train to Brussels.

This was the most expensive ticket so far- at around 180 Euros each. We had to change at Aachen on the Belgian border, through the agricultural regions and industrial landscapes of the Ruhr valley. We were wondering what exactly we would be getting for our money. It turned out we were getting something pretty similar to a train you might find in the UK. Same sort of seat booking system (we had no reservation because we booked late, so just had to take what we could…at one point I ended up sitting on the floor). It was quite a good reminder of what we could expect once we were back on British trains. Amazingly…for the first time in the entire trip we had a 30 minute delay due to an accident on the line. Not what I expected in Germany.

They delayed the connecting train for Brussels for 5 minutes so we could catch it.

Brussels was having a party when we pulled into Midi station. Nice under other circumstances, but quite distracting when you are looking for a hotel in the middle of this.

 

It seemed as though the hotel had prepared our room especially…

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It’s our last day of travel tomorrow on Eurostar to Brussels early morning, and then from London to Beeston (straight to the Queen Vic). The challenge is on for the East Midlands trains….18 trains so far….will the 19th one be on time?

 

 

Train of Thought. смех и улыбка пройти долгий путь

A laugh and a smile go a long way, they say. But they have not encountered the staff on Russian trains. One of the two carriage staff on one leg of the trip looked a bit like a mafia gangster only rather disgruntled as though he had been kicked out of his cartel and forced to pimp poor quality train memorabilia on the overnight from Ulan Bator to Irkutsk. We tried to nod and smile but this was apparently tantamount to asking for a knife fight. One of the main goals of the staff was to keep the toilets locked long enough for people to start wetting themselves, but I realized it would be possible if it came to the end game to get round this by peeing through the gap in the floor between two carriages as they did not entirely match up properly, although the stroboscope effect of the track whizzing by underneath might lead to a wavering aim.

Distraction from both toilet emergencies came in the form of the Russian Cyrillic alphabet which was a little confusing at first, but gradually fell into place over the 5000 miles across Russia. Here are the letters, and phrases in which you might find them useful on a train journey………….

A is for ‘a’ as in ‘border crossings are really aggravating

ƃ is for ‘b’ as in ‘I am basically not interested in your gap year stories

B is for ‘v’ as in ‘no we haven’t got a visa

G is for ‘g’ as in ‘I’m going out, I may be gone some time…

Д is for ‘d’ as in ‘did you pick up the tickets?

The most important food stuff after a good night out….

kebab

e is for ‘e’ as in ‘are we there yet

ё is for ’yo’ as in ‘your currency has too many zeros

ж is for ‘zh’ as in ‘please measure out that vodka carefully it has to last 5000 miles

з is for ‘z’ as in ‘this carriage is like a zoo

и is for ‘i’ as in ‘we have run out of food to eat, where is the buffet car?

й is for ‘y’ as in ‘’yes it’s a long way to Moscow”

k is for ‘k’ as in ‘keep  toilet roll with you at all times

The aweful end to a good night out…….

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Л is for ‘l’ as in ‘the last train has already gone

M is for ‘m’ as in ‘this trip is madness

H is for ‘n’ as in ‘no, you can’t dry your socks in my compartment

o is for ‘o’ as in ‘oh sh*t the train has left

п is for ‘p’ as  in ‘stop the train we have run out of beer

p is for ‘r’ as in ‘No the restaurant is not open

c is for ‘s’ as in ‘it was a mistake to smile at the carriage staff

T is for ‘t’ as in ‘train of thought

y is for ‘oo’ as in ‘Suzanne’s mood is improved by food

F is for ‘f’ as in ‘the train toilet is fetid

X is for ‘ch’ as in ‘there is no chance that we will make that train

Ц is for ‘ts’ as in ‘why are there bits of hair in my sandwich?’

Ч is for ‘ch’ as in ‘turn off that bloody air conditioning, its chilly

Ш is for ‘sh’ as in ‘sh*t’ I’ve lost my passport

Щ is for ‘sch-ch’ as in ‘I could murder a bag of hot, fresh chips

Ъ is for … a ‘hard sign’ in Russian for the previous letter

Ы is for ‘y’ as in ‘any chance you could unlock the toilet

Ь is for … a ‘soft sign’ in Russian for the previous letter

З is for ‘e’ as in ‘eleven Rubles is not enough for a bottle of vodka

Ю is for ‘yu’ as in ‘this is a useless timetable

And:

Я is for ‘ya’ as in ‘the trans-Siberian railway from Irkutsk to Moscow is approximately

                        8800000 yards long so is probably 8799999 too many if you don’t

                        like trains or need to arrive in a hurry’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

e is for ‘e’ as in ‘are we there yet

ё is for ’yo’ as in ‘your currency has too many zeros

ж is for ‘zh’ as in ‘please measure out that vodka carefully it has to last 5000 miles

з is for ‘z’ as in ‘this carriage is like a zoo

и is for ‘i’ as in ‘we have run out of food to eat, where is the buffet car?

й is for ‘y’ as in ‘’yes it’s a long way to Moscow”

k is for ‘k’ as in ‘keep  toilet roll with you at all times

Л is for ‘l’ as in ‘the last train has already gone

M is for ‘m’ as in ‘this trip is madness

H is for ‘n’ as in ‘no, you can’t dry your socks in my compartment

o is for ‘o’ as in ‘oh sh*t the train has left

п is for ‘p’ as  in ‘stop the train we have run out of beer

p is for ‘r’ as in ‘No the restaurant is not open

c is for ‘s’ as in ‘it was a mistake to smile at the carriage staff

T is for ‘t’ as in ‘train of thought

y is for ‘oo’ as in ‘Suzanne’s mood is improved by food

F is for ‘f’ as in ‘the train toilet is fetid

X is for ‘ch’ as in ‘there is no chance that we will make that train

Ц is for ‘ts’ as in ‘why are there bits of hair in my sandwich?’

Ч is for ‘ch’ as in ‘turn off that bloody air conditioning, its chilly

Ш is for ‘sh’ as in ‘sh*t’ I’ve lost my passport

Щ is for ‘sch-ch’ as in ‘I could murder a bag of hot, fresh chips

Ъ is for … a ‘hard sign’ in Russian for the previous letter

Ы is for ‘y’ as in ‘any chance you could unlock the toilet

Ь is for … a ‘soft sign’ in Russian for the previous letter

З is for ‘e’ as in ‘eleven Rubles is not enough for a bottle of vodka

Ю is for ‘yu’ as in ‘this is a useless timetable

And:

Я is for ‘ya’ as in ‘the trans-Siberian railway from Irkutsk to Moscow is approximately

                        8800000 yards long so is probably 8799999 too many if you don’t

                        like trains or need to arrive in a hurry’.

Warsaw, not Krakow

Our hotel in Warsaw, The Metropol was a good pick, located right off the central square next to the main train station with pretty swanky rooms, so you get great views of the city and feel a bit like a film star for about fifty quid a night. It was something of a miracle we had arrived here…I had at some point got it into my head that we were travelling to Krakow.

The first priority this day was to try to figure out how we were going to get to Berlin. We had not booked this part of the journey, because it’s only possible to collect German train tickets by post, which is too much of a hassle to Malaysia. So, we still needed to sort out Warsaw- Berlin- Brussels). We only had to wander to the Central station the next morning to get the ticket to Berlin at 14.00 (cost approx. 50 pounds each) that afternoon, leaving us the morning to explore Warsaw.

I’ve never been to Poland before, and Warsaw is a really pleasant place. The large impressive tower looming above the central station is very much like the ones we saw in Moscow and, we later learned, built by Stalin. It is much hated by many Polish people.

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Having discovered on this trip that we both appear to have an unhealthy interest in human misery and suffering, we headed straight to the Warsaw Uprising Museum which was a couple of Metro stops out of the centre. We were surprised to find that the Metro in Warsaw is, quite unhelpfully, not connected with the other rail networks, so it took a bit of searching around to find Metro Centrum. It’s not quite as spectacular as the Russian metro systems, but it got us to where we needed to go.

Unfortunately, we managed to show up at this museum on a day when it was closed. A quick look at the tourist map revealed that the next nearest tourist site was….you could not make this up…..a railway museum. So….off we went to the Warsaw Railway Museum, which is an old abandoned railway station filled with model railways, lots of station memorabilia and many old locos.It was a pretty good way to kill an hour or so before heading back into the centre. But also quite hard to drag Nick away from the model trains.

Lots of old rolling stock, including an old Russian armoured train.

 

We took the tram back to the city centre, passing the delightfully named off licence on the way.

On today’s veggie venture, we were headed to the Ambasada Restaurant which was accessed via some really pleasant streets with shops and bars. Definitely somewhere to come back to…we had to rush.

The restaurant turned out to be slightly posher than we were anticipating, but not expensive and really great to get some healthy food inside us after the preceding day’s Eurolines chipstick & kebab diet.

We had some tomato cake things with dips, and beetroot carpaccio followed by veggie burger and potato rosti with bean stew. This is one of the best places we have been to all trip…so if you are every in Kracow much recommended.

A great meal to send us off on our journey, but on the way back, we called by the Lokal vegan bistro. There are actually an inordinate number of veggie cafes in this district, and so I wanted to pick up some snacks for the trip which was going to last late into the night. The menu at this place looks great, but the slightly gormless bloke on the counter seemed unable to work out how to sell us any take out quickly and we were in a rush for the train. I left with a couple of blueberry pastries.

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We were quite interested to get on this train, as it would give us a chance to see what the Polish trains were like. Interestingly, they have you sitting in small compartments of six, facing each other. Like in an Agatha Christie novel with 1990s livery.

It made a nice change and the windows were large, providing views of a landscape that was pretty much like North Lincolnshire, with large potato fields and the combine harvesters out harvesting the wheat.

We popped into the restaurant to break up the journey of about 6 hours.

And before too long we had crossed the German border, noticeable only (to me) by the change in station names and (to Nick) by the marked improvement in railway infrastructure. Berlin has to be one of the more impressive cities to enter by train, as the tracks are perched high up amongst most of the cities main sights. We rolled into Berlin main station just before dark.

 

Thanks Belarus- but no thanks

It was quite sad to think that this would be our last night on a train. We were on a one night trip to Vilnius in Lithuania, which we had booked to avoid the requirement for a transit visa for Belarus. The train was ultimately headed for Kaliningrad which is a small Russian enclave located next to Poland and Lithuania. Our cabin mates included an historian who had been working in the archives in St Pete’s and it’s easy to see why this previously war torn region would be of interest to historians.  We were told by the staff that tourists did not often use this train, and there was quite a flux of travellers on the trip. The carriage filled up as the night went on, including one traveller with a cat on a lead

We visited the Pectopah car to use up some Reubels, and spent some time enjoying the moonlight at one of the night stops before settling in for the night.

We were expecting to cross the Lithuanian border at around 7am, and so when the immigration officers entered for a passport check, it was fairly routine. Only, these officers were from Belarus, and wanted to know whether we had a transit visa (we did not). “Where are we?” I asked.

It turned out we were somewhere close to the Belarus-Lithuania border, on the Belarus side, and about to get “a bit of a bollocking” for this. We were told to pack our stuff up and taken off the train, along with another Russian lady, which made us feel a bit better about the situation. It’s always good to know there’s another numpty to share the humiliation.

We were not massively concerned about this imminent deportation. For a start I had a lengthy e mail correspondence with our ticketing agent explaining that I wanted to avoid Belarus. It was obviously a mistake on the agent’s part- but the main concern was that we needed to get into Lithuania by 2.30pm to catch our bus to Poland.

Back in the detention centre (surprisingly…I have only a few photos…), we were placed in a room with a large wooden desk, a reclining couch (a bit like a psychotherapist’s couch)…and…..wait for it…..no fewer than SIX electrical sockets. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. There was better access to electricity here than on the entire Russian rail network. After a quick freshen up and change out of my pyjamas, I plugged in, spread my stuff over the expansive desk and started to catch up on some work things that had been looming for a while.

The Belarus guys in uniforms seemed like they had a bunch of paperwork that they needed to process, and we were told it would take about 3 hours or so, which left little margin for error in catching our bus. I should mention that these guys were actually very nice to us….I think they understood our circumstances. We had to patiently explain that we had absolutely no desire to be in their country, and had gone to great lengths to avoid it. They patiently explained that they also wanted us to leave. Everyone’s a winner.

So- the process, it seems, was that after a 3 hour delay, we were presented with a 13 page document, which required 12 signatures. This document, we were told, was a warning not to do anything like this again. Most interestingly, it was all filled out in Cyrillic, and so I now know the Russian translation for Scunthorpe! The guard then instructed Nick to “leave your baggage and your wife here and come with me to get a ticket”. Having explained that I was the one with the credit card, he had to make do with escorting the wife.

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Now- here’s the interesting part of this story. Because our journey had been disrupted, we were told that we could apply for a refund on our train ticket (about 100 pounds). We then had to buy a local ticket to Vilnius for about 15 dollars or so. It seems to me that this is a really good way to travel between St Pete’s and Vilnius really cheaply…as long as you don’t mind Belarus being a bit annoyed with you. It was, of course, a little inconvenient being held up for what turned out to be five hours in the end…but in our case the alternative of obtaining a transit visa would have involved the time and expense of a trip to Jakarta months in advance, as well as the cost of the visa. This was by far the cheapest and quickest option for passing through this part of the world. Crazy Belarussian admin…

Back to the job in hand- paperwork signed and tickets bought, we were booked onto the 13.03 train to Vilnius, and escorted on, after saying goodbye to the station dog.

We were told it was just a 20 minute journey to Vilnius, and it turned out to be a few minutes longer. We were a bit twitchy about catching our 14.30 bus which was leaving from a station of unknown location. This did give us a chance to try out the Lithuanian trains though….a shame that they don’t run right through to Poland

The queue for passport control in Vilnius seemed interminable (it must have been quite quick in reality), but we finally exited the station to the welcome site of the bus stop over the road. Shame we did not get any time to explore Vilnius as it seems a really pleasant city, but we miraculously had time to buy a veggie kebab, and were sitting on our bus to Warsaw by 14.20. We felt like this deserved a bit of a celebration….but there are limited opportunities for enjoyment on a Eurolines coach.

Still, the coach was half empty, the sun was shining, and we were on the road to Warsaw with free wifi.

Life was good……until about an hour later we pulled into a nameless town and had to decamp onto another bus which was destined for Berlin via Warsaw. This was more like what I had expected. The bus  was packed full of students, and the seats which had no people in them had been reserved with neck pillows. If this had been the Costa Del Sol it would have been beach towels. We found our single places next to our respective headphone-wearing youths and settled in for the journey of about 6 hours more to Warsaw.

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There is limited scope for taking scenery shots from a crowded bus, but the skies were quite interesting, over a landscape that was mostly agricultural with some tall pine forests as we entered Poland. For some reason Eurolines seem to take the B roads in the back country, and it was interesting to be off the boring motorways. It was a relief that there was no noticeable border crossing to contend with. How great it is to be a part of the EU!

The only free seat on the coach was cordoned off by “mean grandmother” who managed to spread her bags of knitting so far around the place that she secured the double spot for herself. A few hours later and we were released for a short service station break, which was like a proper taste of home, being something like a lorry park near on the A1 near Grantham. We celebrated the riches that we could look forward to back in the UK by buying a jumbo bag of chipsticks.

And so we rolled into Warsaw around 10pm, jumped into the most expensive limo cab in the world and arrived in Central Warsaw at the Metropol Hotel, where I discovered that my credit card had gone AWOL. The Belarussian immigration official would have enjoyed this because it now meant that the husband had to pay for everything. In some ways it was convenient to get all of the irritating travel occurrences (deportation, lost credit card) packed neatly into one day, leaving us free to enjoy the rest of the trip….

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s a bit Baltic here

It’s possible to get the “bullet train” from Moscow to St Petersburg in 4 hours, which seemed like a walk in the park at this stage.

We were sad to say goodbye to Moscow- even the taxi ride to the station was pretty stunning.

The seats in 2nd class were quite large and comfortable but, in keeping with Russian trains so far, no power socket that I could find (maybe I missed it). It’s not really necessary for a 4 hour trip, but it does seem strange to me that the newest trains are still powerless. I am hoping that my obsession about recharging electricals passes by the time this trip is over.

It might seem strange that we are travelling north to St Petersburg at this point and, in fact, there is a much more direct Moscow-Warsaw route that we could have taken if only we could have got a transit visa for Belarus. This proved impossible in the time we had and would have involved a trip to the embassy in Jakarta, and so we opted for the alternative route recommended by the ticketing agent via Latvia and Lithuania, which involved a bit of a detour, but it did mean that we got to check out St Pete’s, which sounded like a must-see.

For this part of the journey we were staying overnight in an apartment, which I had booked in a bit of a rush once it became apparent that we would have to make a detour. Called the South Pole Apartment, I think that the South Pole might have been a bit closer to the city centre. When the taxi driver dropped us off and we read the instructions of how to access the flat under a bank, we were feeling a bit uncertain about what  we had signed up for…..

Fortunately, the flat turned out to be a lovely place to unwind after the many days in hotel rooms & trains. There was a massive TV, multimedia spa bath and a fridge full of pickles, preserves and vodka.

For the first time on the trip, we opted to stay in for the evening and did some much needed laundry. It was a real treat to spend some time in a Russian apartment to see how the people there live.

The following day we packed up and headed out into the drizzle. This felt like a wet Wednesday morning on the way to work, and it was hard to be cheery in the windy and cold weather. My winter jacket (carried with me for emergency situations) got its first outing as we boarded the trolley bus, looking for Bucharestskaya Metro station.

The signage for Metro stations in St Pete’s could probably be described as discreet. Whilst I thought that the art nouveau look for the logo was pretty cool, you don’t really want signage that is trying its best not to be noticed.

We were soon on the way to Admiralteyskaya in the city centre, setting off from the beautifully decorated station, and getting to check out some other equally  impressive stations as we dropped off our baggage at the storage area.

 

St Pete’s reminds me a lot of other Scandinanvian cities, which is probably not surprising given its location on the Baltic. It is probably slightly more fancy than its Scandinavian counterparts though, with the massive Hermitage, Peter and Paul Fortress and many other impressive buildings which border the massive Neva River.

We might have felt more inspired to explore if the rain and wind had not been battering us, and so we thought that a river/ canal tour would be a warmer and drier way to see the city sites. This was an undoubted low point- I think my tolerance of Baltic weather has been dented by Malaysian living.

The tour was only in Russian, and so we did not learn a whole lot about the city, but it gave us an overview of the place in an hour.

Disembarking, the weather started to fair up a bit, as did my mood, and we wandered around the tourist traps in the massive main square towards a small café for some lunch.

Ukrop means dill in Russian, and also the name of a lovely veggie café, which finally gave me a chance to try out the famous Russian cherry dumplings (I think they are called Vasseliki), as well as burritos and ravioli. Definitely one of the better restaurants we have tried out so far.

Seemed like it had come around really quickly, but our train for Vilnius in Lithuania was leaving that evening. The departures for this part of the continent are from Vitebskiy station, which turned out to be one of the highlights of St Pete’s.

It was built around 1904 and looks like almost all of its original features have been retained, including a really traditional buffet restaurant.

We spent quite a while looking around this station, and really enjoyed departing Russia in style.

Onto our last overnight train- it was the same as all the other Russian trains we had been on so far, but perhaps a little older. We decided that we would try to enjoy the final night of train travel.

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Pectobahs and kbac in Mockba

Maybe it was the four days in a train carriage that did it, but when we arrived at Moscow slightly before dawn, we were taken aback by the massive and stunning buildings that surrounded Yaroslavsky station.

The morning was warm and very still, so we were in no hurry to get to the hotel and took a wander around to find a cash machine.

We thought that we would be pushing the boundaries of early check in by arrival at 5am, and as expected, the hotel offered to look after our bags but had no room available. We looked like we had been sleeping on a train for 4 days, and did not smell too great either, but decided that we might as well head off to do some sightseeing before all the main tourist sites got busy. So, after a quick electricity (yay) recharge in the lobby we headed into town on the Metro, arriving at Red Square around 7.30 in the morning.

What a great time of day to look around- we were almost the only people there and the morning was sunny and warm.

We wandered past Lenin’s mausoleum, and towards St Basil’s Cathedral. Much of the square was blocked off for the military tattoo that had taken place a few days before.

St Basils has to be one of the most bizarre cathedrals around- amazing paintwork.

We wandered down the hill along the walls of the Kremlin towards the river in search of a cup of coffee, which was not easy at that time of day before everything opened.

The most stunning and unexpected views we got were along a massive (and empty!) footbridge across the river looking back onto the city and towards the cathedral at the base of the bridge.

It’s probably worth mentioning at this point that having had no plug for the wash basin in Listvyanka, and being on the road since that, Nick had reached peak beard. I credit this development with the fact that we managed, by accident or by hipster telepathy, to stumble on the “Left bank” area called the Red October Chocolate Factory. This is an abandoned factory space repurposed for media & arty ventures where we managed to find a really good cup of coffee at “Urban Coffee”.

It was right next door to the impressive and slightly bonkers “Peter the Great” monument.

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Wandering back across the river and around the other side of the Kremlin walls, we walked past a number of gardens, museums and other monuments- lots of old beardy (pre-hipster) men with pigeons on their heads (Dostoevsky is one of them here).

At this point, we were seriously impressed with Moscow. It is absolutely breathtaking, and the amazing buildings seemed to go on and on.

In the water gardens in front of Red Square there are representations of Russian fairy tale characters (there is a whole bunch of stories that we never learned as kids…I later managed to pick up a small book describing some of these).

We stopped at the tomb of the unknown soldier with the two sentries standing either side. This is to commemorate the World War 2 soldiers- a war which started in 1941 for Russia and led to 20 million Russian deaths.

Opposite this morbid memorial, the depressing sight of McDonalds dispensing its uninspiring and nasty food seemed like a particularly disrespectful insult to the monument nearby.

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In search of more upbeat cultural sights, we headed towards the impressive Bolshoi theatre, home of the famous ballet. The weather was starting to cool as the sky clouded over.

At this point it was 11am and, felling pretty pleased that we had managed to see most of the things that we had set out to, we were ready for an early lunch at “Fresh”- a veggie restaurant located up a very swanky shopping street opposite Louis Vuitton and Laboutins. I have always wondered who shops in these type of places (and why?) but as we left the restaurant we saw a blacked out limo and security guards with machine guns at the doors of the shop. What a hassle….none of this was necessary when I shopped for my Uniqlo sweat pants and hoodie which were looking mighty fine at this stage in the trip. Fashion conscious to the last.

Back to much more interesting pursuits and I had a really tasty miso burger with choc-peanut soyamilk latte for the early lunch and left feeling ready for Moscow tourism part 2.

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All of the tourist guides tell you to call into Pushkin’s café because of its old style décor. It took us a while to find- even though we had been trying to understand the Russian characters, it’s a bit of a tricky signage to interpret.

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But it was well worth it- gorgeous old interior.

We just wanted to grab a quick drink and have a nosey, so I ordered a kvas. This is a fermented and slightly alcoholic drink made from bread and in Russian characters looks like kbac- very satisfying to figure this out all by ourselves…. Nick ordered a hot chocolate which was literally made from molten chocolate and delivered very theatrically by the bar tender.

You always have to try out the toilets in this type of place….and they were pretty impressive…

So, next mission was to pick up our tickets from the agent in a station up to the north of the city, which, conveniently, was located on the same Metro line as the Cosmology Museum. This gave us a chance to work out properly how to pay for the Metro tickets (seems like it’s a flat rate of 50 Reubels to most places), and to sample some of the varied and beautiful stations.

The Cosmology Museum is topped by one of the coolest statues ever. It’s very tempting to want to run up this massive ramp to see how high you can get, and I guess that’s why there’s a security guard posted there.

We spent a few hours in this museum which documents the history of Russian space exploration, allowing some fascinating looks at the inside of the Mia space station, and other space capsules, a look at some of the 1960s space suits and track suits worn by the cosmonauts (and not 100 miles away from some of the leisure wear that is worn by train travellers today).  There was a fairly depressing part dedicated to the use of dogs in space travel, showing how the small street dogs had been trained to be confined within the small capsules in the early exploration missions.

After this tour, we were getting pretty tired and decide it was probably time to check into the hotel and finally have a long awaited shower.

After a couple of hours’ rest we just about had enough energy to head to a Pectobah (our Russian was getting better all the time…) for some dinner. We looked for the nearest branch of Taras Bulba, a Ukranian restaurant recommended by Marina, our carriage mate between Irkutsk and Novosibirsk. She said they had dedicated veggie dishes on their menu, and also did very traditional types of foods. I enjoyed the sorrel soup (I have never eaten sorrel before) and the massive pickle selection (which defeated me in the end).

I could probably have lived without the accordion playing folk singers who seranaded your table- although they were pretty good if you like that sort of thing.

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We left the restaurant to the shock of weather which can only be described as “Edinburgh summer weather”. Rainy, squally winds and about 10 degrees. The hypothermic search for a taxi, squelching through the puddles in my sandals reminded me of what I would miss about Malaysia. We were definitely on the threshold of Europe.

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The iron road

Running around to tourist sites is one way to get to know a country. But we found that spending 4 nights in close confinement in a railway carriage is another equally fascinating way of doing this. The journey to Moscow is punctuated only by a few “long stops” of half an hour plus some more extended hour long stops at the major cities of Novosibirsk and Ekaterinberg. It crosses 5 time zones, with train timetables being provided in Moscow time, so it’s quite tricky keeping track of the local time of day.

The long stops involve everyone spilling off onto the platform to stretch, smoke and buy provisions from the small kiosks.

It’s important to get the right mix of people in your cabin (or kupe as they are called on Russian trains). We were fortunate to meet some really lovely people on this leg of the trip, and kept counting our blessings that we had not been allocated the next door kupe which smelled like someone was shipping a crateload of goat’s cheese to Moscow. We never did work out the source of this smell.

Our first batch of room mates consisted of Marina, a Muscovite originally from Novosibirsk who had been visiting friends and family out west and was a mine of information on everything tourists need to know about Russia. She had excellent English, and spent two days translating for our other cabin mate Andre who was a working for Russian customs and was travelling to Novosibirsk with another colleague in the next cabin to take an exam for work.

There are various useful things that we picked up about Russia. We now have a reasonable idea of what some of the Russian foods are, including handy tips for things that can be veggie, and some restaurant tips for Moscow. We now understand that train food is mainly easy to carry dumplings like these potato dumplings, and that the kilo of raspberries and blueberries that I brought on board quite rapidly turn to mush.

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We tried wild thyme tea from the Baikal region sent by Marina’s grandmother. We also worked out a few things about train etiquette including- always wear your shoes outside of the cabin, make your bed with the sheets right away instead of sitting on the bare mattress, ask the carriage attendant to borrow the lovely tea cups and other cutlery and leave the carriage if someone wants to get changed.

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The other handy tip we learned about was that Russian people like to look very stern and if you smile Russian people will assume there is something wrong with you. I guess we should feel grateful that nothing too bad has happened to us until this point. This photo is for Viv, who challenged me to try to get our provodnista to smile- she definitely did before the photo was taken- does that count? She was a lovely lady, who kept the carriage immaculately clean and was very patient with us annoying tourists.

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The scenery on this leg of the journey is quite similar- birch-pine forest. It was a bit of a geographical highlight to stop at the town of Taiga, and also to stop at Omsk, which I have always thought had an interesting sounding name.

There were some beautiful wetlands….

…and lots of wooden houses…

 

….some Soviet era factories….

…and lots and lots of pine forest (it does not photograph well)…with some birch

One major frustration of the journey was trying to get access to the internet, primarily because there was one 220V plug located at the end of the carriage which was always in use. The other sockets were 54 volts, which was not much use to anyone. For some reason every important deadline had decided it would converge during this trip, including submission of the previously mentioned grant (thanks Ginnie for helping out) and the publication of an article which involved several media requests that I was trying to deal with. I managed to write and send off a small article for The Conversation, but it was impossible trying to deal with everything with a dying laptop. Ah well…I guess I’ll now never get to appear on Columbian TV. (Note- none of these things routinely happen to me…all the more frustrating that the timing was a bit off…). I spent much of the day searching around other carriages to try to find plug sockets, and was probably quite an irritating carriage-mate. Marina was a hero, producing a multiplug from her bag which led to much celebration, until it tripped out the only socket in our carriage. We were not popular with the carriage attendant…

Eventually, when Andre and Marina departed at Novosibirsk and we could get off for an hour they asked a security guard at the ticket gate if we could use the socket in his office to charge for half an hour. We repaid the favour by buying them some (famous) Novosibirsk chocolates. Novosibirsk was also a bit of a milestone, as it’s the halfway point between east and west.

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After the departure of Marina and Andre, we spent the night with a Russian railway worker and another man, neither of whom spoke much English. The railway worker was replaced by a builder, Radic, travelling to Moscow who stayed with us for the rest of the trip, telling us stories about how he had served in the Russian Military, whilst sharing his bottle of brandy with us.

The restaurant car provided a welcome change of scene, and much cooler temperatures with AC, devoid of the smell of goat’s cheese. We escaped there late afternoon with fellow traveler John, a southern Californian from the next cabin, when the sun was lower in the sky and beaming into the carriage making it stiflingly hot. The lady in the canteen, worked long shifts from 10am-12pm, but kept us well provided with cold beer and crisps (or potato chips as I kept having to translate for N American friends). John told us about his travel plans over the next three months when he is heading to the Baltic states and North Africa, whilst showing us photos of his beautiful beachfront home.

John also very kindly bought us a beer on day 4 when the restaurant had run out of almost everything except a strange Czech stout which was very expensive, and we had run out of Reubels.

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Otherwise the journey was fueled by my new staple for northern climes. Peanut butter, bread and pickled cucumber….mmmm…. which was a bit more appetizing than the veg stew from the restaurant car.

As the train pulled in closer to Moscow, we started to pass through the Ural Mountains and the trees got a little taller, and we approached the massive Volga River.

And finally at 4am…we rolled into Moscow station

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Baikal in a day

Listvyanka is the closest place to Irkutsk to access Lake Baikal. As we have been reminded a few times by Russian travellers, it’s not as stunning as the resort towns further north, but it suited us well for the one day we had to explore. It’s a small village with several hotels, a market and a harbour.

Our place, The Dauria Hotel was located up a quiet country lane about 20 minutes’ walk along the shore from the main village. A series of cute log cabin rooms with an outdoor balcony which let you peek over onto Baikal. The very nice lady at reception let us check in early so we could rest up a bit.

Resisting the urge to lounge around doing nothing, we booked on a boat trip along the southern shore of Lake Baikal to see the circum-Baikal Railway (a bit of a busman’s holiday at this point). I was interested to travel down the lake that way because it was in the same direction as I had visited in 2013, but that time we drove across the lake ice in a van. The trip took us on a small tourist boat to sample the famous Baikal waters. They did not taste as good as they did on 2013- perhaps because they are 15 degrees warmer at this time of year, and because I now know about the picocyanobacteria that are quite abundant in the waters at this time of the year.

Otherwise though, Lake Baikal looked as beautiful as aver- stunning views across the lake.

The railway was built around the turn of last century, and we got to take a look at some of the old rolling stock.

And took a hike through one of the tunnels.

And saw one of the trains approaching- mostly used for tourist trips these days

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We did not learn a whole lot from the trip, as the guide spoke in Russian, but we have a very kind Russian tourist from close to the Finnish border who helped out with translations.

The best part of the trip was just hanging out on the pebble beach and looking for Gammarus shrimps in the rocks by the lake edge. We spotted some growths of filamentous green algae…up north this has been taken to indicate evidence of localised eutrophication.

One of the best parts of Listvyanka in the summer is the gorgeous smell of pine forests, mixed with the scent of wood smoke. In the markets there are buckets of pine nuts for sale, and strange herbal teas of dried woodland plants. The Siberian summers definitely make up for the extremely harsh winters. I remember being so cold here last time we visited that we were diving into cafes to keep warm.

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We only had the one night in Listvyanka and our train to Moscow was leaving Irkutsk at 6.30pm the following evening. I had to spend the morning doing a bit of a catch up with work as we had a grant deadline looming. Taking advantage of the internet in the hotel, and the inspiring views of Baikal I got up at dawn to spend the morning finishing things off before the trip back to Irkutsk. This has to be one of the better office spaces I have worked in.

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We packed up and hiked down the lake front into the village, admiring the cute houses and lovely gardens filled with flowers. There was a light mist rolling in from the lake, but it was still warm.

As we approached the “bus stop” i.e. place where minibuses park to try to figure out how to get back to Irkutsk, we were approached by a man in a car asking if we wanted a lift. We bargained him down to 500 Reubels which was much more than we paid for the bus on the way in, but he was leaving right there and then so it seemed like a pretty good deal.

Only an hour or so later, after a lot of conversation in Russian and English that neither of us understood, and we were back at “Beeston market” in Irkutsk.

Time to browse the fresh berries that seem to be sold everywhere.

Just a short wait in what has to be one of the most impressive railway restaurants ever in Irkutsk, and we were ready to board the train to Moscow!

 

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