The Paris of Siberia

Irkutsk – October 22-25 2011

“Some crazy Irish guys have just arrived in a Volvo”

Not what I was expecting to hear from a fellow backpacker as I bundled through the main door of the hostel after the trip to Lake Baikal!

Irkutsk -near the big lake towards the East!

A well-travelled registration plate!

Sure enough, parked up outside was an old Volvo 940, complete with Irish registration plates, an Irish flag sticker and a load of sleeping bags and belongings inside.

Its owners are married couple Cameron and Julie, an Australian and an Irish girl. Incredibly, they’ve driven all the way to the far side of Russia from Dublin, having left the Emerald Isle in August. Along the way they’ve stopped off at Stockport to see friends, before making their way to Harwich for a sailing across to Holland, and then driven across Europe, through the Russian border, and after a few weeks battling the crazy way of driving here, managed to reach Irkutsk.

Cameron and Julie...and their Volvo!

I’m amazed – having thought my trip was a bit of an adventure and ‘off the beaten track’, driving the entire 8,000km in a 1991 Volvo pretty much trumps everyone’s traveller story, and we sit around for a few hours digesting their tales of how the engine erupted into flames at a petrol station, yet somehow still manages to work. Of how they had so much trouble bringing the car through the border. How they’ve been asked for photographs by members of the public with their number plate. And all along, we’re drinking shots of Russian vodka which had been given to them by a well-wishing trucker at their last truck stop, full of praise and admiration for their intrepid adventure.

Their story makes me smile, as one of my first ideas when I was starting to think of my trip was to buy an old van and drive it to Moscow, to help save on transport and accommodation costs. I’d have kitted it out with a mattress in the back, much to the amusement of my friends Matt and Siobhan back home.

I wouldn't fancy driving in this lot!

They had visions of me being arrested in lay-bys somewhere in Eastern Europe. It wasn’t that thought which put me off however – it was the problems with bringing a car into Russia and potentially having to leave it there while the journey continues around the world. It’s a bureaucratic nightmare to say the least- and the Russian authorities are very much against any western cars being left on their soil!

Cameron and Julie seem to have a plan, although I won’t go into it here in public for obvious reasons – but their blog is at www. wanderwithus.tumblr.com if you fancy seeing how they get on (after you’ve finished here of course!)

Nearby street

I had an important reason for being in Irkutsk – the small matter of a visa for Mongolia. It was something I desperately wanted to get before leaving the UK, and had planned to make a visa dash to London on one of my days off before leaving, but my Chinese visa application took a lot longer than it should have done – more on that in a future scribbling!

Lenin statue near the hostel

Anyway, it turned out that the Mongolian consulate was only around the corner, but when we arrived I was told they could only do a ‘next day’ service. That somewhat scuppered my plans to get a train that night to Ulan Bator, but these things happen. It meant an extra day in Irkutsk, so more time to look around.

Fishing on the Angara, Irkutsk

I went back to the hostel and searched for the trains to Ulan Bator the following day. I was quite alarmed to see there was no availability – especially as my Russian visa expires in a few days, so I needed to get out of the country. With a two-day journey to Mongolia, things were getting a bit close for comfort if I had to leave in two days time. By my rough reckoning, the Wednesday train would see me clear the Russian border by a matter of hours, delays not included in the equation.

I decided to head to the railway station in Irkutsk to try my luck there. I went with another backpacker, Hannah, who’s originally from New Zealand but lives and works in the financial district in London. With my handwritten Cyrillic ticket request (I think its harder to write with their alphabet than it is to read it) we braved firm ‘nyets’ from a number of stern female Russian ticket sellers on at least four different windows before eventually finding the international ticket window (again, no signs or help anywhere, you’re just expected to know where to go!)

Irkutsk station - confusing!

Thankfully, the website was wrong, and a second class lower berth was mine on tomorrow night’s service from Irkutsk to Ulan Bator for 4,600 Roubles, or about £90. I was relieved- it gives me a day to play with on my Russian visa, and I wont have to face the wrath of any angry border guards!

Irkutsk

Hannah and I went in search of some lunch, which is easier said than done here. Its so hard to spot cafes and restaurants, as there’s very few of them. The Russian view on eating, I’ve concluded, is completely different to that in the West, where its seen as a sociable way to enjoy time, with nice food and good company. In Russia, judging by some of the pre-prepared buffet-style food I have managed to find, its simply a means to an end; a way of staying alive!

Crazy tram drop-offs in the middle of busy roads

I’m used to fast food usually being available everywhere you look. So far, I’ve seen just one Mcdonalds sign in Russia, which is probably good for my addiction to the place, while there’s nothing in the way of KFC, Burger King or Pizza Huts, the usual venues for a quick but unhealthy fill.

Rows of 'food' stalls

Instead, there are hundreds of little stalls all over the place, selling cakes and biscuits and various breads through a little hatch. My musings have already prompted concern from my parents and on Twitter that I’m not eating properly. The problem is, fresh fruit and veg is hard to buy, and proper cafes or restaurants are few and far between. Even when you find them, it’s a game of Russian Roulette – or lucky dip as the travellers call it – running your finger down a menu and hoping for the best. There’s absolutely no way of working out what on Earth you’re ordering!

Park in Irkutsk

We gave it a good go trying to find something authentic. We looked for a café that was recommended, and it seemed far too pricey. We looked for another in the guidebook, and it had changed into a United Colours of Benetton (still the height of fashion here!) and eventually found somewhere that sells Russian pancakes. We settled for that, hoping for a savoury filling. That was a no-no, as only sweet fillings were left we were told! We decided to have two each, with apricot jam on the side, and laughed about having to have dessert first.

The main course was a Subway that we managed to find on the way back to the city centre. Well, we did at least try to be authentic!

Trubetskoys house

The rest of the day was spent seeing some of the sights, including Trubetskoy house, once home to Sergey and Yekaterina Trubetskoy, who caused a whole load of trouble back in 1825 when they tried to mount a coup, which failed, and so lived here in exile. By far the best thing about it however was the sign on the gate. All I’ll say is I was there on a Monday…I didn’t want to take the risk the next day!

Hmmm... I'll give Tuesday a miss

That night a few of us went ten-pin bowling at a nearby complex, which was a lot of fun.

Bowling fun

The first game was full of male competitiveness between Cameron and I, for the highest score, although his flukey Turkey blew my hopes to bits. The second game was much more fun – we’d seen the system showed your bowling speed, so invented a new game of taking the heaviest ball and seeing who could bowl, or should I say throw, it fastest!

Butterfingers at work

Of course, the 15 ball had really big finger holes, and I dropped a clanger by trying to put all my energy into it, just as it slipped off my fingers and into the air behind me. As we were the only ones in there, the noise surely alerted the staff to our shenanigans.

Male pride...

If it didn’t, the next calamity certainly did. Matieu, a French guy, bowled it as fast as he could, except the machine was still in the process of clearing pins away. We all gasped. We knew what was coming. Time did that weird slowing down thing as we hid behind our hands and cringed, almost wanting to look away, but actually really wanting to see what would happen. BANG. Pin clearing machine was broken!

Thankfully, the camouflage-wearing (!) security guards weren’t alerted, the machine was repaired for us, and we finished the game. I won the game, but Cameron won the real game. With a speed in excess of 35km/hr!

The rest of my time in Irkutsk was spent picking up my Mongolian visa, which set me back $100, and wandering around through the streets of the city. Its called the Paris of Siberia, and with its river, pretty streets, churches and cathedrals, it was easy to see why.

Damaged Cathedral of the Epiphany back then

The city centre had a display of historic photos, including some of its original cathedral that had to be pulled down after being damaged in the civil war, and others of its recently restored, and rather colourful, Cathedral of the Epiphany. An amazing restoration judging by the photos of its damage

 

Cathedral of the Epiphany today

 

I opted for a strange bit of Russian cuisine for lunch from one of the little stalls near the city stadium.

Mystery pasty-esque food

The best way I can describe it is as a deep-fryed Cornish pasty containing yet more mystery meat. I ate it sat on the banks of the River Angara, near to the Trans-Siberian railway memorial, dedicated to the work of those who built the line I’m travelling on.

Trans-Siberian Railway memorial

After stopping at a shop to buy some supplies for the train journey – some bread rolls, cheese, tea and apple juice, it was back to the hostel to pack. There’s a two-night journey ahead, and another country to discover.

Lake Baikal

Sunday, October 23 2011

Lake Baikal

I woke up in a panic – I knew I’d pressed the snooze button on the phone alarm, and I had the guy who runs the hostel waking me up. I had a trip organised to Lake Baikal, the world’s oldest and deepest lake, and the pick-up was at 9.50am.

Thankfully, I still had 20 minutes to get ready. I’m staying at the Nerpa backpacker’s hostel in Irkutsk, close to the city centre. It’s clean, homely and friendly, everything you need when you’re adjusting to life as a backpacker. They’d booked me a trip to the lake after I saw it on the noticeboard, and it was one of my main reasons for stopping off in the town – the other reason being that it has a Mongolian consulate, so I can get a visa for the next country on my trip.

I was under the impression that it was an organised trip, and as the minibus turned up, I was quickly taken to the town’s market. An hour later, and the minibus now full of locals, we were on our way to the lake, 60km away. It was a pleasant journey, a couple of passengers tried talking to me and kept repeating the word ‘London’ with smiles and a nod. I kept smiling and nodding back!

The journey

The journey took me through some fantastic countryside – long straight roads cutting through evergreen forests, rolling hills and villages made up of tiny wooden huts, a typical sight in Siberia. It did not feel like the Russia I had imagined – it felt much more like I was in the French Alps. It was about an hour before we reached the lake, stretching out for miles and meeting snow-capped mountains on the far side.

Chillaxing!

We arrived in the lakeside town of Listvyanka, the minibus driver gave me a list of car registration numbers I could get a lift back with, and I went off to explore. Some fellow backpackers told me there was a ski-lift to take me to the top of the hills around the town for a great view of the lake, so finding that was the main objective. I quickly found however that the town was very spread out along the main road at the edge of the lake. I read my guide book on the shore for a few minutes, before deciding to walk to the main village.

The water was incredibly clear and blue, lapping onto the pebbly beach. On the horizon, snow-capped mountains, and the borders of Mongolia and China.

Listvyanka

The sheer scale of the lake is immense – it’s known as the ‘Blue Eye of Siberia’ for a reason. It’s the world’s oldest lake, formed 50-million years ago; the deepest at 1,637m (5371ft) and is among the largest lakes on the planet, stretching 400 miles long and between 20 and 40 miles wide. There’s so much water in it, that if everyone’s taps ran dry in the world, Lake Baikal could keep the entire population of Earth going on fresh water for 40 years! And its so clear and clean, that the locals simply put a bucket in and take it home – I even saw one man who works at a diving company filling two cups, presumably for a warming cuppa, straight from the lake.

Siberian village by the lake

The guide book revealed how it was a nice walk to the town’s church, nestled at the back of the town in a valley.

The church, minus its 5-star toilets!

Walking through the streets was like walking back in time – people were in their gardens turning over soil, tending to their vegetables, while rusting cars and tractors were dotted around. Most houses are wooden, many are falling apart, but nearly all of them have beautiful painted shutters adorned with carvings.

One of the reasons for finding the church was because the guide book told me some concessions had been made for tourists, and that there were some new five-star toilets located behind it. I thought that would be a ‘convenient’ stop after a while travelling, so headed towards them. There were some cheery waves from people as I walked past, and after about fifteen minutes, I found the church…and the ‘five-star’ restroom. Needless to say, I didn’t use it, but did spend the walk back to the main road chuckling about how many other travellers must have followed the words of the guidebook expecting to find a shiny, sparkling w.c, maybe with hand driers, basins, mirrors, the works – only to find a shed and a hole in the ground!

An Omul fish, unique to Lake Baikal

I walked along the path and headed to the easternmost side of the town, which looking at the map seemed to be a short walk. I failed to look at the scale, and three kilometres later, I eventually found the Baikal museum. It cost about £3 to enter, but I’m afraid to say it has to go some way to rival The Deep. There were a couple of endangered freshwater seals swimming around in a tank that was clearly far too small for them, along with a few other exhibits of wildlife unique to the lake, including the Omul fish. People were selling these fish all over the place, normally barbecued and at the side of the road. Its supposed to be lovely, but my dislike of fish makes this delicacy off-limits!

My map shows the hilltop lookout as being behind the museum, so I set off to try and find it. Yet again, Russia’s aversion to maps and helpfulness means I walk around in a big circle for a while, getting trapped on some form of wooden walkway, and then asking the person at the museum which way it was. Helpfully, she gave me instructions in German, although her pointing gave me the general idea of where to head.

As I walked up a dusty track, and then climbed steps to another dusty track, I wondered if I was on yet another Russian wild goose chase. There was no ski-lift to be seen, just hills and trees. I walked up a hill, and was about to head through some gates, when there was a whistle from behind. One of the locals, wearing a traditionally big and fluffy Russian hat, motioned me to turn left – mainly as I was about to walk up to a military camp!

The world's slowest ski lift!

After what seemed like an eternity aimlessly walking up dusty tracks, looking for signs and wondering if a hilltop viewpoint actually existed, I began to see a metal building and heard a familiar noise – the low drone of a ski-lift winding its way up a hillside!

It was a fairly hefty £4 to take the lift up, but after a good few hours hiking, I was ready for a rest, and I rest I certainly got. It was possibly the slowest ski-lift in existence! I’d have probably crawled up quicker if I’d tried, the chairlift slowly bumping over each wheel on the pylons at a boredom inducing pace, but it gave me a chance to analyse the slope below me, obviously a piste when it snows, and by the looks of it, a short but challenging run!

Success -I found the top!

The wait was worth it, the view at the top was spectacular. The sun was in completely the wrong place for photography from the peak, but I still managed to get some nice shots. Below, the lake flowed into the River Angara, which itself flows all the way up to the Arctic Ocean. I met an American man from Charleston in the States, he’d asked me to take a photograph of him and his wife at the top, and he seemed as surprised as I was to find someone else who speaks English! They are few and far between around these parts, so we both enjoyed finding out about each others’ travels. He was there with his Russian wife –they had married in May and so had both now travelled to her home country to meet family.

The view from the top!

Also at the top was the Russian man in the furry hat, the local who’d whistled at me. He asked me to take a photograph of him on his phone, and then motioned to the sun and managed to gesture enough to me that it was a good day to visit the top of the hill. He seemed to enjoy telling me all about the lake in his native language, motioning how deep the lake was, how big it was, the fact Mongolia and China are on the other side.

Cheese!

Clearly proud of living there, and now having the opportunity to show off this amazing natural wonder to tourists, we both leaned on the railings admiring the view for about an hour, taking it in turns to try to explain different things to each other. He would be giving me facts in Russian and hand signals, at one point writing numerals on the ground (it was how deep the lake was) while I showed him maps of where I was travelling to and showing photographs of life back home (Russian people absolutely love this!)

Eventually I decided to go – he shook my hand, smiled, and said pretty much the only bit of English he knew: ‘Goodbye my friend’

Mountains in the distance

I decided to walk down the hillside, and comprehensively beat the chair lift down to the bottom, before walking the three kilometres back to the marketplace. While there, I bought a barbecued kebab. I asked if it was beef (‘rosbif’) but he just said it was 150 roubles and gave me it anyway. It came with a blob of ketchup and some onions, and it has to be said, was very, very nice. I sat on the beach eating the meat – be it beef, pork or yak – watching as the sun started to drop behind the mountains. There was a really nice atmosphere, people strolling along the prom, sitting on the beach, laughing and joking, despite the fact temperatures barely rose above freezing point all day. It was so cold, my camera battery died really quickly, so I wasn’t able to get any shots of sunset over the lake, but it was stunning.

Lucky ribbons - a Siberian tradition

The man from America walked past me and said hello again, and asked if I’d had a good day. He joked if I didn’t hurry up, I’d miss my bus – but I had one more task before heading back to Irkutsk…

Legend has it that the Baikal waters are holy, and that if you dip your hands in, you will add an extra year to your life. Well, I’d done that just to wash the greasy mess off from the kebab – but if you dip your feet in, apparently you add another five years on to your life. So off came the shoes and socks, and I felt a bit stupid as I walked over the cobbles and went for a paddle.

It was icy cold – the lake freezes over with three metres of ice for much of the winter – and it was almost unbearable. But being slightly superstitious, it was worth it for another five years!

As for the legend that a swim in the lake adds an extra 25 years to your life – judging by the temperature around my feet, I don’t think I’d have seen the sun finish setting that day if I had gone for it.

Some superstitions are worth forgetting about!

A Trans-Siberian adventure

After a quick stop to see the Kremlin and St Basil’s Cathedral lit up at night, I made it to the station with an hour to spare before my train. Totally unlike me, I know, but it was nice to be relaxed for once!

Thankfully they still use numbers - Train 44 was mine!

Although it was cold and dark, the station was full of people, laden down with suitcases, rucksacks, carrier bags and the odd animal here and there.

'The train now standing at Platform 3 goes to Asia'

The train I’m booked on goes right across the entire width of Russia to Khabarovsk, some 8,500km, so naturally many people have supplies for the trip too. Some travellers seem to have brought an entire shop with them!

I’ve already come prepared – a trip to Tesco before I left the UK means my rucksack is full of Batchelors Super Noodles, some cheap Tesco home brand noodles (thought I’d give them a try!) pasta snack pots, crisps and biscuits to keep me going, as I’d been advised by my guide book.

Im in carriage 10, and given berth 10 by the carriage attendant as I clambered onboard the train.

My train, the Moscow-Khabarovsk service

Its warm and cosy inside, with wood panelling, Russian-style carpets, curtains and a soft light. I’m in a top bunk in a room with four beds, which actually works out quite well because I can put all of my luggage in the compartment above the corridor.

Soon after I get in, a Russian family arrive and start stowing their suitcases everywhere.

In the corridor I see someone wearing a German football tracksuit top. I asked if he was German, thinking that he’s likely to speak a little bit of English if he is. Turns out his name is Igor, and he’s Russian – but his English is fantastic.

Igor

Igor works in the cosmetics industry, and told me of his trips to Italy on business. He seemed surprised I was on the train on my own, and even more surprised when I said I was heading to Irkutsk. He’s heading to Yeketeringburg to see his family, a couple of days away, but he gave me his business card and told me if I needed any help to go and see him. A nice guy.

Back in my cabin, and the family are getting settled. At first, I didn’t think anyone could speak English – I worked out there was a mum, a teenage daughter and a younger girl who kept appearing from down the corridor, clutching a cuddly camel. At first, communication was through smiles and nods, but then we introduced ourselves. Nastya Kristell, the 15 year old daughter, knew a little English, and worked as translator. Then her dad Andrey appeared from down the corridor – their friends were in another cabin, and so were spending their time between the two.

Andrey and his daughter Nastya

I spent many hours that night talking to both Nastya and her father – they had just returned from a family holiday in Hurghada in Egypt, and were now embarking on an 18 hour overnight journey to their home city of Kirov. Never again will I complain about a two hour drive back from Manchester Airport after a week in the sun!

Beers all round!

Andrey offered me a beer, and at first I politely refused, but then remembered from reading my handbook that it can be seen as rude to refuse. When he asked again, I accepted, and we laughed as we all tried to swap English and Russian phrases together. Nastya was practising her English, and secretly whispering Russian phrases to me as I tried to remember them, to our mutual amusement! As the lights of Moscow outside changed into the darkness of the Russian wilderness, we all fell about laughing many times with our stories and bad translations, and after sharing some photos our lives back home, before we knew it, it was 2.30am and time for bed.

Its quite perculiar trying to sleep on a train. First there’s the movement, and while I’m sure I’ll get used to it, it does move around a lot! Its more of a gentle wobble really, with the occasional jolt added just for fun. Then there’s the noise- the tracks aren’t especially smooth, so there’s the traditional clackety-clack, clackety clack that’s disappeared back home with better rails. The rest of the noise is passing trains – my head is right by the window, so anything going the other way is pretty noticeable, especially as it seems to be a Russian rail tradition to sound horns as the locos pass each train!

I slept like a log in the end, so much so that I struggled to wake up the next morning. The motion of the train kept rocking me to sleep, and while I woke up at around 10am to have a look around, I made the fatal mistake of getting back into my bunk. Cue more soothing rocking and the repetitive clackety-clack, and I was dead to the world once again. I needed it though, the past few weeks had left me shattered, and to be honest its nice to be able to switch off and relax a little.

My home for four days!

Aside from the sleep, Im completely cut-off from the outside world now. As we head towards the 1,000km marker post, mobile phone signal is something of a rarity, while my new USB Data Modem stopped working as soon as we left Moscow. Without my music (iPhone issue again!) and having to preserve battery in my netbook, I read my Trans-Siberian Handbook for a while, planning the next few weeks, and decided to explore the train.

Im finding it really comfortable, although Igor tells me it’s a very old train, and the newer replacements are much better. The only thing that is a bit grim is the bathroom – but even then, I’ve been in much worse. I’ve tried to get water out of the tap twice in there now though, and without success. It’s got two big cogs above it, which I presume are for hot and cold water, but try as I might, I can’t get any H20 out of the tap. It works, and I know it works as someone has splashed water everywhere, almost to tease me, but I give up for now.

My trans-Siberian carriage

Each carriage in second class has about nine cabins in it, all aligned to one side with a corridor along the other side. At the end of the carriage is a samovar, a coal-fired water boiler which has an endless supply of water, and is also responsible for the intense heat which seems to build inside the train!

The samovar...teas, Super Noodles, intense heat...

Every now and then, somebody walks past with a bowl of steaming noodles or soup, and from somewhere there’s a supply of tea in a glass cup with a handle. I’ll look for those later!

I decided to head down the train, and over the slightly daunting joins between the carriages where the tracks are whizzing by in the big gaps below you at 40-50mph. The restaurant car is only two carriages away, but it seems quite pricey and from what I saw, the food didn’t look that good. I decide to stick with the Super Noodles from the samovar for now, and pick up some supplies from the station traders as we stop along the way.

I searched through my book for answers about how to get water out of the taps in the bathroom – and there it was. Apparently, you have to use a little lever right underneath it. I ventured to the bathroom to give it a go, and out the water came! I was quite relieved – I was in need of a wash by now, so freshened up. Then I went to the carriage attendant and asked for some tea – its 10 Roubles for a teabag and glass, so about 20p. More importantly, it came with a spoon, so I can now stop slurping my noodles straight out of the Tesco Snack Pot container I’ve fashioned into a reusable bowl!!

Back in my bunk, Andrey and his family are preparing to get off. He told me how he wants to go to Thailand next year, and I showed him some of my photos from my visit earlier this year. He’s got a battle on at the moment, as his daughter wants to go on holiday on her own. He asked me what age children in England are allowed to go on holiday on their own, and disappointingly for Nastya, I told him around 18. She rolled her eyes and laughed- she was pinning her hopes on me taking her side… I told her you’re never too old for a holiday with your parents!

Andrey gave me some Egyptian jam and a teabag as a gift from his family, and took some photographs of me with them. I took some of them too, and I knew Nastya was impressed when I told her that I worked for the BBC, and knowing I had a BBC Open Centre pen in my bag, I gave it to her as a present. Just the BBC logo on it meant something to her as she ran her fingers along it – I think the BBC is still so well-known and respected here. She gave me a hug, as did her father, and we said our goodbyes.

Andrey and his family at Kirov station

I watched through the window as they ran out to meet their family who had met them at the station. They turned around and waved at me. I was sad to see them go if im honest – they had made my first daunting night onboard such an enjoyable experience. I realised we were stopping at their station for a while, and as they were still on the platform, I went out to get one last photograph of them all together as a family. The camera was quickly taken from me, and I was ushered into the middle for a few photos with me too.

Saying goodbye to Andrey and family at Kirov station

It was lovely to meet them, and I wished them every success in the future before they headed to their cars and their nearby flat. If everyone I meet on this journey are as friendly and fun as Andrey and his family, this will be a fun trip!

I bought some Coke from the station shop and got back onboard. Two older Russian men were now in my cabin, and although they mustered a ‘hello’ didn’t really say much else. Thankfully I bumped into Igor who was heading for a cigarette, and we spent the night chatting. We got off at one station and walked the entire length of the train, getting some much needed fresh air, and watched as the locomotive was swapped over at the front for the next leg of the journey. It’s a cold night, our breath drifting into the stillness. Police dogs and guards are patrolling the tracks, checking the trains, while a maintenance man does what the maintenance man does at every station I’ve seen so far- walks along whacking every axle with a long-handled hammer and listening to the noise it makes. It sounds strangely like a xylophone.

Back on the move – with all axles intact – and after another hour of talking in the corridor, Igor and I are politely told to shut up by another passenger, so we went to bed!

A morning stop in Yekaterinburg

The next morning I wake up as we approach Yekateringburg, some 1,816km from Moscow. It’s where Igor is getting off to meet his family, but he gives me a guide as we drift into the town, pointing out the main factories and a huge towerblock that was built on unstable ground without planning permission. Even Igor says it was a crazy thing to do!

As we arrive in Yekateringburg, I walk to see Igor off the train. His mum and dad are there waiting, and he introduces me to them in Russian. The only bit I understand is the word BBC, to which there are raised eyebrows, gasps and then hugs all round! I think his parents must have been parked on double yellows or something, as they needed to be off in a hurry, and Igor gave me a manly hug and a pat on the back, and wished me well for my trip before walking down the platform with his suitcase and parents in tow.

There’s an old lady in my cabin now. She got on in the middle of the night in Perm. She wears really thick glasses and fairly bright lipstick for a grandmother. At first im not sure how to take her – she looks a bit serious, and clearly cant speak much English. I think she’s a little unsure of me too. For anyone reading this who went to Healing School, she reminds me of Mrs Storey, same height, build, even looks very similar.

She motions me to sit down near her on the lower bunk, pats my knee and says something in Russian. I do my usual ‘Sorry, im English, I don’t know Russian’ act with a big smile and a wave of my hand near my throat (I don’t know why that seems to indicate we cant speak the language!) In broken English, she asks my name, and the ice is broken.

Yekatarina (left) and Yuri and his partner

Her name is Yekaterina, and she’s on her way to visit family at the last stop for this train, Khabarovsk, not far from the Sea of Japan. A lot of our conversation is done through pointing, smiling, motioning and looking at photos on her camera and on my laptop. I work out she’s got a son, and her grand-daughter is a student. That’s when the food offering starts again, and she pulls out what look like some uncooked Findus Crispy Pancakes. She tells me I must eat three of them, as it’s a Russian tradition, and thrusts one into my hand.

Another stop in Siberia

I’m not entirely sure what was in it, I think it was minced chicken or something, but it tasted quite nice. It’s a good job, as I wasn’t going to be let off with just one, and two more later, I’m quite full. I offer to get her a cup of tea to return the favour, but she asks me to fill her cup with hot water instead. She’s got her own supply of teabags, and looks at me as if I’m daft for buying one from the carriage attendant!

The train takes a breather at Novisibirsk

Outside, the scenery is changing. Until now, much of the view has been of trees and forests, but as we’ve headed west, its visibly turned from Autumn into Winter. In Moscow, trees were still hanging onto leaves, rather like back at home. Gradually, the leaves have disappeared, and are now all on the ground. Igor had told me its unusual not to have snow by now – maybe I’ll see some before we arrive in Irkutsk.

Getting colder!

The trees are also thinning out, with lots of empty grasslands and meadows, interspersed with a few huts and houses here and there. Every now and then, we’ll stop at a station, the longest today being at Tyumen. A young couple get on, meaning for the first time on the trip the cabin is full. Yekaterina talks to the guy, and shows me his bracelet/necklace thing he’s playing with. Its something to do with the game Warhammer apparently. Ive never played the game, and I probably shouldn’t say this, but associate it with geeks – and despite him not knowing much English, he strikes me as the sort of person that would play Warhammer! I think there’s been some Warhammer convention on somewhere, and he’s heading home to Novosibirsk, where we’re due to arrive tomorrow. Nice enough couple though.

Life onboard is getting to be a bit of a routine now. The trick is not to think of it as a journey to somewhere, and to count off the hours until you get there, but to enjoy it as an experience.

It was certainly fun trying to have some form of decent wash in the toilet earlier – and I mean in the cubicle, not in the actual pan, before anyone says anything!

Space is limited, so I managed to hang my clean clothes up on the peg, filled the bowl with water thanks to my squash ball plug (a great travel tip by the way – they block up sinks and you can play with them!) and basically gave myself what can only be described as a standing-up bed bath! It was awkward, water was sloshing around everywhere, but I didn’t care as before long there would have been complaints from fellow travellers…or I’d have to start handing out nose pegs! It felt much better to freshen up and have clean clothes on, and I returned back to my cabin and an admiring glance and squeeze of my shoulder from Yeketerina!

Another trans-Siberian train pulls in

Im fascinated by how many people are using the train, and indeed how many trains there are travelling backwards and forwards across this vast country. Back home, I had visions of an empty railway line with one or two trains a day trundling along, each with a few tourists doing the same as me, knowing they can add ‘worlds longest railway journey’ to their list of things to do before they die.

Another station and more passengers!

These are actually really busy railway lines – at least one train passes us every 10 minutes or so, be it a passenger or freight train, and most of the compartments onboard are full of people travelling around this huge country.

Speaking to a few of them, they reason that the train is safer that flying. Russia has a dubious flying safety record at best, so its understandable. Its certainly more relaxing – I’ve got my nose into Piers Morgan’s ‘Don’t You Know Who I Am’, his follow up to ‘The Insider’, and the first time I’ve properly read a book for years. I sometimes get ridiculed for this, being a journalist and not reading much doesn’t seem to compute with some people, but the fact is I hardly have the time! On here, I do, in between dozing off for a few minutes after being rocked to sleep. Its just what I needed, and something I certainly wouldn’t have considered on a normal annual leave holiday- I’d have seen it as being stuck on a train for a week and wasting my time off, rather than treating it as a once in a lifetime experience, as I am able to now.

Once in a lifetime or not, im certainly getting fed up of Super Noodles. I went for the chicken flavoured packet tonight. I’d hoped that the station vendors would be selling sandwiches, or something useful to eat. Instead there seems to be lots of packets of fish strips, manky chicken and big Russian Pot Noodles, none of which particularly float my boat at the moment!

Irkutsk-bound

I take myself down to the restaurant car in the end, not to eat, but to sit and watch the world go by with a beer and my book.

Today seems to have flown by, and already we’re almost halfway to Mongolia.