Get up early and take a taxi to the Irkutsk station, the train to Ulaanbaatar also known as UB leave at 5 past six. In the station I meet a bunch of German and also the two ladies from London. The big topic is the general election in Germany and all the Germans get the latest information about it from home via their mobiles.
As the sun comes up we arrive on the shores of Lake Baikal, the sky is blue and the view is fantastic, the lake on one site and snowy mountains on the other. We go north on the east coast of the lake for a while and pass through Ulan Ude where there tracks for the trans-Siberian and the train-Mongolian routes split. From there we go straight south through beautiful landscapes. This day is by far the most scenic so far. I share a compartment with Mari and Anne from Norway who were in the compartment next to me on the Moscow-Irkutsk train. We get along very well. I also spend several hours in the first class with Lorenz and Doreen from Hamburg and a couple from Stuttgart who's names I sadly forgot.
After breakfast by mini-bus from Listvjanka back to Irkutsk, we stop at an open air museum with loads of old traditional Siberian buildings. More walking around in Irkutsk.
Talk to the really nice young Swiss couple for a while at breakfast. Then do a hike inland for a few hours. Really nice views over the lake from the top of the first peak. I start listen to the Harry Potter audio books. Walk around town for a while in the afternoon but also spend some good time relaxing in my room. Diner with the Swiss and some drinks afterwards.
The weather is getting better and I do more walking around in the village. At 5 p.m. we all take the boat to Listvjanka about 20 minutes away. This is a bigger place with restaurants and cars and even a nice market near the habour. I stay in another great new challet up a hill and this time there are showers, and not just ordinary showers, power showers with four different devices to spray water. The meals are served in a house just next door down the hill. On the way to diner halfway down the stairs I hear shouting from behind me. I turn around and a lady is falling down the stairs, I try to catch her but she's got such a momentum that we both fall down the next set of stairs and end up in a flower bed. Both of us are fine expect for some bruises. I end up having diner and her and her female friend. Both are from South London and we talk about home and our travel plans for a while.
The temparature has dropped about 15 degrees and it rains and even snows slighty (Both Irkutsk and Ulanbaataar see heavy snow on this day). I have a quiet morning and then do a hike with Heike along the shore northbound for a few hours. The three meals are provided by Natasha our host, who lives in another building about 8 minutes walk away. In the evenng we sit all together in the common room of the challet.
By taxi to a small habour on the edge of the city. From here I take a fast boat to my first stop on Lake Baikal, a small village called Bolshye Koty. On the boat I meet up with four German Gentlemen who were also on my Moscow train. We ended up in the same summer house or challet. Also there was a Danish couple with their 5 year old son and Heiko a German Greenpeace activist. Lovely place. MORE
I arrive in Irkutsk and after checking in with my home stay family, my guide Olga, a 25 year old, takes me through the few sites of the city. She is really nice and I ask her a lot of questions. One was about where to get a haircut. Instead of just showing me, we actually go directly to a hairdresser and she is very helpful because my hairdresser asks lots of questions. In London I just have a quick No.4 cut and off I go in 10 minutes. Here she used real scissors and I also got a wash and a short head massage and for about 3 quid. Later I walk around myself, the driving is already much worse than in Moscow. About half of the cars are Japanese second hand models and have the steering wheel on the wrong side. In the evening I have diner at a hotel with the three Swedes from the train.
Back home I have a chat with my host who is a security guard in a hotel and his dad who is a professor at the local university. Also in the flat are the mother and a younger sister and normally the wife but she is at the hospital, expecting a baby.
77 hours will it take to travel the 5152 Km to Irkutsk. About 20 minutes into the ride we have an unexpected stop. Some drunk Russian was crossing the tracks and didn't see or hear the train and got killed. Pretty sad, in the UK this would have meant the end of our journey, as the train would have to be checked and the whole scene investigated. In Russia however we wereback on our way 20 minutes later and reached every stop on the whole journey within a minute of the scheduled time. I share my compartment with a couple from Ireland who are on their way to Australia to teach and Robert from Sweden. Next door are a Swedish couple and two girls from Norway. The landscape is relatively boring and the 12 to 20 minutes stops in some Russian town are used to buy food on the platforms. I also make friends with three English girls and two German couples, Anne and Holger and Juergen and Annett.
I can't find a place that rents out bikes so I have to walk again and take the Metro or the tram. In fact I saw one single bicycle on the streets of Moscow the whole time I was there. I first went to the station to leave my main backup and then do more exploring of the city. The places I remember most now (Oct 11th) are the peace park and a park in the south east with great views and old palace ruins. I have a really nice dinner at a restaurant opposite the station and do my food shopping for the days to come on the train. The platform is packed but I manage to get on board without a problem.
I got picked up by the same driver as the day before and my guide, a woman in their fifties who speak resonable good German. We do a sightseeing tour around town which includes a full tour of a monestry, the Red Square and the main shopping district. The latter afternoon I spend on my own doing more walking around.
I arrive on the Russia Railways train no.1 from St.Petersburg in Moscow. Transfer by private car to my family which is actually and old lady who lives in a small flat in the south of the city near to the university. She doesn't speak and English or German but someone we still manage to communicate on a very basic level. I take the Metro up north to an Agency where I have to register myself. The rest of the day I spend walking and metroing around the city. I am particulary impressed by the great buildings from the 50s. On the way home I visit the University, the main building is the biggest of all the 50s Stalinest buildings. I love it. I manage to sneak through the checkpoint at the main entrance (so much for Russian security) and have a nice stroll inside. Have diner at a small market next to the Metro station. Really nice Kebab, quite different with a great sauce.
During breakfast I had a good chat with Yuri and he really recommended Peterhof, the summer palace of the king in the suburbs. I took the Metro for a few stops and then a public bus for about 40 minutes, loads of traffic and St.Petersburg is huge, it didn't end. The palace and the park were really nice and the fountains were amazing. There were more places to see in the area but I had a few more things planned for the city so I took a hydrophile back to the center of town, that only took 20 minutes and was great. I took another Metro to the shop where I rented the bike and got another one. In the morning it was a bit overcast but now the sun was back with full force. I cycled to some parts of the centre I hadn't been to and checked out the sights. Then I cycled up and down Moscow prospect, which is 11 Km long and passes through many different areas of the city.
Cars and traffic
Loads of SUVs on the streets, also many upscale western or Japanese cars I've never seen before but also tons of old russian cars I haven't seen since the mid 80s in East Germany. Speed limits doesn't seem to matter here, if there is space, they go as fast as the can. Rush hour is pretty mad, they block intersections and even tram tracks and sometime drive so close that I couldn't even get through with my bike. An underground ride costs about 20p, the 40 minute bus ride to Peterhof 60p. Besides the metro, buses and trams there are also mini-buses with fixes lines and numbers. You hail them like a cab anywhere on the route. The police stop and checks cars frequently but it seems like random and they never stop the big cars that are going too fast. There are hardly and motorcycles, mopeds or bicycles on the road.
People and fashion
The first thing one notices is the unfriendliness, no smiles, no thank yous when holding a door open. If a person smiles at you, you can be sure it is a tourist, sad. The fashion is more or less westernized, maybe a few years behind. Women dress up a bit more than at least in Germany and men's clothing still has an Eastern block touch. Not as many track suits as in Warsaw though. Everybody has a mobile. There are no black people and hardly and non-caucasians. And yes there are a lot of very cute girls in Pieter.
Except for some fast food joints, there are non of the western chain shops anywhere which is really nice. After a while I noticed a few local chains but that's okay they are different. In the center there are many shops selling expensive western goods like clothing and jewelery. The grocery shops are still all of the old Eastern block type. Everything is behind the counters and you have to tell the shop assistant what you want. No self service at all. The problems is if you don't speak Russian or know the product names you have to point at things and it can take a while before she gets the right item.
I had a nice breakfast at my family, they are really nice and Yuri is the only male Russian I have seen smiling yet. I rent a bike from a place near by. The young shop assistant just speaks enough English to charge me and get me on the way. First I check two different custom authorities because at the border I didn't receive the mandatory custom declaration but nobody knows about or has anything to do with it. I even check the customs booth at a huge cruise ship on the river, no luck. I spend most of the day cycling through the three island just north of the river, except for the Peter and Paul fortress, the whole area is without tourists. I cycle through old and new residential areas, docks, some industrial parts, but also nice parks and streets with expensive shops. Discovering cities by bike rules. It was very easy to find an internet cafe near my flat and now I'm off for a proper dinner.
I arrive in St.Petersburg at 6:30, outside the train is a guy with a 'Hahndorf' sign but he doesn't speak English. There are literally thousands of people on the platform and it takes a while to get out of the station. The ride in his big BMW takes only 10 and he escorts me to a the back part of a building (do they have Hinterhaeuser in English?). The outsite looks a bit poor but the flat inside is really nice and Yuri welcomes me and I fell asleep in my room right away.
From 11 to 7 I walk around town, the flat is pretty local and it's another sunny day. It's Sunday and there are many tourists in the central areas, I love the city, you can see a lot of history in the different architectual styles. Back home I fell asleep without dinner.
During the night we cross the Polish/Belorussian border in Brest where Polish, Belorussian and Russian border guards check out our papers. Also the train is transformed to the different sized Russian tracks but I'm too tired to watch. In the morning we pass through the Belorussian capital Minsk, they play military marching music on the platforms and the most locals boarding another train are carrying empty buckets, not sure why, maybe they don't have toilets on their train. The facilities on mine are fine, the compartment is a bit bigger and I'm on my own. By noon we reach the small town of Orscha where we have a stop for 4 hours to wait for a train from Odessa to pick our carriages up. There is a group of nice older German ladies on the train and they have a Russian speaking leader who helped me a few times as well. I walk around the place, it's pretty tiny and feels really Eastern block. They have for own rubels and things are cheap. Back on the train I make friends with Wibke, an assistant doctor from Berlin and Victoria a student from St.Petersburg. We spend the rest of the day together and share our food and some cheap red wine for dinner.