A Travellerspoint blog

Lake Baikal & Irkutsk

The world's largest lake by volume


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After 6 days of seemingly constant travelling we were extremely happy to arrive in Listvyanka, a small town directly at Lake Baikal, where we set up our base for 4 nights, meaning 4 days of not having to pack or carry around the luggage. Also, for the first time on our journey we were not stopping at a major city, but close to nature, at a place of fresh air and dramatic sunsets. Our guest house was located perfectly to experience this, with our balcony overlooking the lake. The local wildlife was shown in the form of may impressive hunting trophies spread throughout the guest house. We did not encounter much of this ourselves, we did however see the Baikal seal, the only fresh-water seal in the world and a species endemic to Lake Baikal, on our first day. We’ve mistaken it for an oddly shaped piece of driftwood at first but when it suddenly made a dive down into the depths of the lake it became clear that it was a seal. They must have big lungs as we have not seen it reappear again despite waiting for a while.

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Lake Baikal is the largest (by volume), deepest and oldest lake in the world, but surprising to us tourism seemed to be very little developed in the area. Despite us staying in the most popular town at the lake, the number of tourists we saw did not even come close to the amount of guests you would find at lake Lucerne for example. The town had a very calm feeling to it and it was wonderful to relax by just strolling along the shore and looking out at the lake. On the downside, getting around was a bit difficult, as schedules were changing seemingly randomly from day to day with no one really able to tell us when the ferry from A to B is going to depart the next day.

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Legend has it, that swimming in Lake Baikal increases your life expectancy by 5 years, so it was very important for Sam to take a dip in it to close the gender-gap and be able to grow as old as Marta. Not so careful planning only left the last day to do this when the weather was unfortunately worse than forecasted, but despite the 12 °C water temperature and 16 °C air temperature Sam swam for a short time in the lake and felt very energized after.

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After our time in Listvyanka we spent a short time in Irkutsk. We arrived in the afternoon and had only time for a short walk through the city. Many newlyweds were taking pictures on the unfortunately slightly rainy day and brought happy memories of our own wedding to us. The next morning we left very early for our train to Mongolia that would end our Russian adventure.

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Posted by samandmarta 16:00 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

5200km from Moscow to Irkutsk

Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk and a lot of time in the train


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On our way to Lake Baikal, we have decided to make two short stops, Yekaterinburg and Novosibirsk. Yekaterinburg is famous for its mining and military industry, its many universities and for being the birthplace of Boris Yeltsin. We have done a 3 hour walking tour with Mikhail, a geography teacher, and have seen many cathedrals, churches and government buildings. Of course, we also saw the place where the last Tsar and his family (the Romanovs) were brutally murdered by the Bolsheviks and where today the Cathedral on the Blood can be found. Their bodies were moved to St. Petersburg for an official burial in the nineties. Overall, Yekaterinburg is a very industrial city, where people live from mining and are proud of military technology achievements and defense systems sold to countries all around the world. Given the fact that this city was closed to foreigners until 1989, we felt quite lucky that we could visit it now.

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The three segments on the train took between 20 and 32 hours each, so there was quite some time to spend there, but we did not get bored. It is in fact an excellent opportunity to unwind and do some things for which there is often not enough time, like reading a book. Apart from our guide books on the Trans-Siberian railway and Mongolia, Samuel was reading ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ by Agatha Christie and started reading ‘Doctor Zhivago’ by Boris Pasternak. Marta was reading ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ by Gabriel García Márquez.

It is also a great chance to meet some fellow travelers. We were surprised how many people we kept meeting again and again, because they were visiting the same cities or happened to be on the same train and the same carriage as us a few days later. We also got in touch with some local people. Between Novosibirsk and Irkutsk, Sam was in the restaurant carriage alone as Marta was not hungry and he got invited to drink Vodka by two Russians. They talked to him for almost two hours despite Sam understanding little to nothing of what they were talking. Besides some food and a lot of Vodka, they also gave him a cross to hang around the neck despite Sam’s best efforts to refuse the gift. Between Yekaterinburg and Novosibirsk we were travelling 2nd class and shared the compartment with a student of medicine who was returning home from a semester abroad in Slovenia. Being one of the best English-speaking Russians that we’ve met, he was kind enough to help us with all our translation-needs on the train.

Every carriage on our trains had a dedicated attendant, or provodnista in Russian. The provodnistas check your passport before you are allowed to enter the train, they bring your included meal to your compartment (usually tiny portions of Beef Stroganov or Sausages), they distribute the bed linens and pillow covers and from time to time, you can see them vacuuming in the corridor. Surprisingly, despite there often being more foreigners than Russians in the carriage (at least in 1st class), our provodnistas never spoke anything but Russian. They are also in charge of the Samovar, a coal-powered water-cooker, where you can always get hot water for your tea, coffee or noodle soup.

Our second stop, Novosibirsk, is the third largest city in Russia and the unofficial capital of Siberia. It was founded at the end of the 19th century when the Trans-Siberian-Railway was built, as a place for the workers to live. In just 70 years, it grew to 1 million inhabitants, making it one of the youngest large cities in the world. It is a very industrialized place, where most people work in engineering and heavy industries, like steel and machinery. It is proud of the famous Lenin statue with the coat blown by the wind and one of the largest Opera and Theaters in the world. After a short sightseeing tour, we decided to spend the afternoon like many middle-class families in the city and went to the extensive zoo. In the zoo we have seen a polar bear who visibly had enough of the warm weather and was resting lazily on the platform. In the evening, we boarded our train to Irkutsk, which took almost 32 hours.

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Posted by samandmarta 18:00 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Sankt Petersburg and Moscow

Russias two biggest cities


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Sankt Petersburg is like a mature woman who knows her self worth and does not allow anything to influence her. She walks through all of Russian history’s troubles and still stays intact, there are no Lenin statues here, no red stars on top of the buildings (unlike in Moscow).

We were quite lucky as the city experienced great renovations for its 300th birthday in 2010. So most of the buildings look nice and some renovation works still continue. The Winter Palace, called the Hermitage, is a house of 3 million art pieces, but sunny weather encouraged us to stay outside. Instead we did a boat tour through the canals which remind one of Amsterdam. The dry and hot European weather reached Sankt Petersburg too and temperatures were close to 30 °C, unusually hot for the city at roughly the latitude of Helsinki, but we dare not complain as the city looked beautiful in the sun. From our boat tour we saw the locals sunbathing and even swimming at the shores of the river Neva.

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Our hotel was located in an old tenement house resembling the house of Raskolnikov from Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, with big staircases and thick walls. Every time when walking down the stairs, you’d wonder which flower pot would fall on your head. In Sankt Petersburg we also had a chance to try the Georgian cuisine which is dominated by vegetables (especially beetroots), lamb, wine leaves, and pomegranate seeds.

On our last day we went to Peterhof, the Summer palace of Tsar Peter the Great, who must have been a fountain-enthusiast, as more than 100 fountains of many kinds are spread throughout the vast gardens. Especially interesting was the Water Way which literally created an arch of small water droplets - very refreshing in the hot weather. As our train to Moscow departed very late, we had the chance to visit the Sankt Isaac Cathedral colonnade at sunset, which provided fantastic panoramic views of the city and was the highlight of our stay in Sankt Petersburg.

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Half an hour before midnight we boarded the famous Red Arrow train to Moscow. The Red Arrow was the first branded train of Russia, the first that aspired to be more than just a train. In its history, it has served many famous Russians like Lenin or Stalin in their need to move fast between Sankt Petersburg and Moscow. Nowadays, with its 8 hour travel time, it is far from the fastest connection between Russia’s two most important cities (the Sapsan train makes the same journey in 4), but it is nevertheless one of the nicest. We booked a first class compartment, so we had it all to ourselves. It was definitely the most luxurious compartment on our journey so far. Water, orange juice, bread and chocolate was provided for free, as well as slippers, towels and some toiletries. It was a big relief to take off our shoes and socks and put on the slippers, after a long day of walking around Sankt Petersburg. After ordering breakfast (which was included as well), we promptly prepared our beds, which were very comfortable, and went to sleep. Despite the luxurious interior however, the train rattled along the tracks like any other, which kept our sleep rather shallow. Still it seems a great way to travel since you do not loose any “productive” time, you go to sleep when you depart and you arrive just after finishing breakfast. At 7:55 AM, right on time, we arrived in Moscow.

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While Sankt Petersburg is an elegant city and Russia’s window to the West, Moscow was and remains uncompromisingly Russian. It all starts with the huge Red Square, proud Kremlin and St. Basil Cathedral, and all other monumental buildings around, and ends with the Lenin Mausoleum and brightly lit red stars on top of each important building.

Our first two days were filled with sightseeing of the most important sights, including less touristy items like Arbat street where Bulat Okudzhava used to live and the Museum of Cosmonautics with a original-scale-model of a segment of the MIR space station and a 100m tall titanium obelisk topped off with a rocket. In the evening, exploring the city by night turned out to be a treat, with the Nikolailevska Street lit up with Christmas-like lights and the State Department Store GUM trying to imitate Harrods in London.

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On our last day we woke up earlier to visit one of the strangest tourist attractions in the world, the Lenin Mausoleum, where the preserved body of the famous Soviet leader can be seen, notably against his own will and that of his entire family, who believed that the glorification of a single man contradicts the very core of the communistic idea. Stalin apparently didn’t care. Everybody who knows Marta will understand that the only reason she went to see Lenin was curiosity. Curiosity was definitely not the reason for other guests, including several Chinese visitors who came and bowed several times to give glory to their hero. After waiting in line for 1.5 hours, we finally saw the great leader, who looked like a sleeping man and his skin resembled plastic. We read that his body is treated with many chemicals every year to prevent the decay of the body. Maybe that is why his skin looked like that of a mannequin. Many still debate if his body is true or fake. Guidebooks even say that his brain was in the past analyzed by a group of scientists to find out the reasons for his greatness. The institute was closed after several years and rumors say findings were not spectacular enough to be published.

Posted by samandmarta 17:00 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Belarus

Our stay in the forgottten country of Europe


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After saying goodbye to Kasia and her family, we went to the train station and departed Warsaw towards Brest in Belarus. The fun started at the border. First, our passports were checked by Polish border control, then the train moved 5 more km and stopped again right after crossing the Belarussian border. The change in countries was very apparent. Amongst old concrete buildings and wired fences the Belarussian border guards were waiting for us, dressed in uniforms we have seen before on the stereotypical Soviet antagonists in movies set during the cold war. Two ladies collected everyone’s passports and started to check them. Next, a man in a blue uniform, most likely a customs officer, wanted to check the identity of the bags on the huge luggage stack. After that another lady asked us swiftly about the purpose of our visit, how much cash we have with us and if we carry medicine. After 30 minutes, the first lady gave back our passports and the train moved again.

It was smoother than we expected and we arrived quickly to the Belarussian border town Brest where we exchanged some Polish Zlotys for Belarussian Rubles and bought our tickets to Minsk. After that we went to search for a restaurant to eat lunch in the town. This proved more difficult than expected, but after some wandering around, a nice man on the street approached us and offered his help. He walked with us five minutes to a small restaurant for which we were very grateful. Marta ordered cold beetroot soup, with cucumbers and eggs, and Sam ordered Draniki (the national dish of Belarus, basically potato pancakes, very similar to the Swiss Röschti) and a Belarussian beer. For this we paid around 7$.

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After lunch we went back to the train station to board our train to Minsk. It turned out that unknowingly we had bought two places in a 4-person-sleeping-compartment. Online we read that we should always ask for “Kupe” when buying a ticket which turned out to be the sleeping-compartment. It was odd for us that this even existed on a train which departs its first station at 15:48 and arrives at its final destination at 19:31.

Our entrance to the train was very funny. In our compartment were 4 people and quite intense screams. It turned out that a small boy had to say goodbye to his grandmother. The farewell was very dramatic. After the train (and the grandmother) left, the lady with the boy has started preparations for the night (it was 4pm and bright sun outside). The boy, approximately 3 years old, was lullabied in her arms for the next 15 minutes with completely closed windows and doors, and no fresh air. Complete darkness was supposed to help. Indeed, it was very efficient. The crying boy went to sleep and she opened the compartment door for fresh air.

The train was very old. The compartments are wooden inside and old carpets are spread on the grounds. There are 3 charging outlets for the entire carriage and AC does not work. The beds are quite hard. For 4 hours we watched never-changing forest pass by our window. Belarus is a very big country but not very densely populated. Most of its territory is flat lands covered in thick forests.

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When we arrived in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, we were positively surprised by the city. Our hotel was located right on the most important street of the city, which was full of beautiful buildings. The city is very clean and spacious and it is very comfortable to discover it on foot. The main difference we noticed compared to other European capitals was the lack of tourists. Even though we were definitely not the only ones, there were clearly not many which meant that the main sites were never crowded like they would be in other countries. In general, the city, despite being very lively, never seemed very full, which we enjoyed a lot.

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On the day after we arrived, we mostly just walked around the city. Architecturally, there were a lot of massive concrete buildings which must have been built during the Soviet era. There were also many nice churches and parks. Belarus has a law that “official buildings” must not be photographed, so we were hesitant to take pictures on that day, since any building might be an official building. The next day we did a guided walking tour of the city, where we learned, besides the history of Belarus, that this photography-law applies only to very few buildings and that almost anything can be photographed, so we took more pictures on that day. The cloudy weather that day added to the Soviet look of some of the city’s buildings.

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To learn something about the life in Belarus, we decided to join an English-speaking-meeting that we found online. Indeed, we met only Belarussians that were eager to practice English there. From our conversations we got the impression, that Belarussians are nice and friendly people, but that they are not particularly optimistic about their life in Belarus. They see the future in Europe, but themselves standing at the side, not having access to the opportunities that people in other European countries have. Of course this was only communicated between the lines, since criticizing the president is illegal in Belarus.

Our train to St. Petersburg was fortunately significantly nicer than the train from Brest to Minsk and no one else seems to have booked a spot in our 4-person-compartment, so we had a comfortable night on the train to St. Petersburg.

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Posted by samandmarta 12:00 Archived in Belarus Comments (0)

Departure from Switzerland and Warsaw

The first segment of our trip from Zurich to Warsaw and our stay in Warsaw


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So we go! After one week of farewells with both parents, we have departed from Switzerland, to be precise from Greppen, on our round-the-world-trip. Before departure we spent significant time packing and preparing, managing to pack all our stuff into 16kg (Marta) and 18 kg (Sam), split into one small carry-on-suitcase and one backpack each.

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Our first stop was Vienna - just to change the trains, and a proper stop was planned for Warsaw where we stayed two nights with Marta’s friends Kasia and Pawel, from her university.

For the train Zurich – Warsaw, we chose a two-person-compartment in the sleeping wagon until Vienna and normal seats in the Euro City from Vienna to Warsaw. The train went on time and after a moderately comfortable night of sleep, a nice breakfast was served in the morning (included in the ticket price).

To our surprise, the two-person-compartment was smaller than expected (see photos). There were two beds, one above the other, and space for two people standing. It is definitely good to share such a small space with somebody you know.

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In Warsaw, we arrived in the late afternoon of Friday 20 July, and spent most of the evening resting with Kasia’s family. On Saturday, we walked around the Warsaw Old Town and learned about the Warsaw history, the city battered by many invaders, wars, uprisings and unrest. After the walking tour, we ate cake and drunk refreshing drinks at the famous Café Blikle, which is still the favorite place for elderly Warsaw ladies, who come there just out of fashion.

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Later in the day, we strolled around Royal Park Lazienki, which in this beautiful and sunny weather was presenting itself at its best. Many newly weds were photoshooting their wedding sessions around the Palace on the water or the benches among the trees.

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It has been some years since Marta was in Warsaw and she was positively surprised with most developments. More people and more traffic are visible, but the city is even cleaner and well taken care of. New restaurants and cafes catering to vegetarian and alternative tastes are more abundant and one can really find some special places. Overall, the one day in Warsaw we had was a great experience. In the evening we had a farewell dinner with Kasia’s family and prepared ourselves for the train to Belarus, which was leaving at 8:40 the next morning.

Posted by samandmarta 20:00 Archived in Poland Comments (1)

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