Irkutsk’s Unexpected Character

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Irkutsk Coat of Arms: A Siberian Tiger with a Sable in the mouth

The train arrived early in Irkutsk at 7:28am. When I woke, I was overcome by the need to get off the train, to get some fresh air, strech my legs and get out of the tiny cabin. At the station the platforms were packed with people bustling to get off and get on trains. Walking out the station it was clear that Irkutsk is the most popular stop for people doing the Trans-Siberian journey. We saw the back-packers, the odd German and English speaker, the Chinese groups and the typical swarm of taxi drivers trying to make the most of tired train commuters who just woke up in a foreign place. We opted for 30 Rubles tram that took us straight from the station to our hotel.

Irkutsk is a city known for its wooden houses which are constructed with an impressive amount of detail. Despite these houses giving the city its character and showing its real personaility, the majority of these wooden houses are poorly maintained and are very dilapidated. Its clear that the city has invested a lot in tourism, with multiple language sign posts and historical information points but it almost seems the city would be content in letting the wooden houses fall apart and disapear. Walking around the city many of the wooden houses are actually burnt down. Perhaps this is what the people of the city want as well, I can’t imagine the wooden houses holding enough heat when the temperatures are dropping to -30degC in winter.

It has to be said that Irkutsk is just not what I expected. I expected an Industrial town, run down and cold, frowning people. But it’s something completely different with it’s fancy cafes, low to high end restaurants and big tourism setup. The people are very approachable, friendly and even can be seen smiling (unlike Moscow).

After a few days in Irkutsk, we head North towards Lake Baikal to spend several nights on Olkhon Island.

Remember to checkout Nadine’s blog as well!

 

Trans-Siberian Railway – Moscow to Irkutsk

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Train 20, The Vostok, Beijing to Moscow, Trans Manchurian

5,152km
78 hours 48 minutes
4 Nights 3 days
6 different time zones

After months of planning it was a great feeling to finally get on board this train and start heading from Moscow further East. We were using Train 20 to get to Irkutsk in Siberia, but it continued another two days until Beijing. This is no special tourist train as people tend to think, it’s a standard long distance public Russian train used mostly by Russians. Just happens to be one of the longest train journeys in the world.

Life on board the train was enjoyable and quite relaxed. We had chosen a 2nd Class cabin and it was much nicer and comfortable than I had expected. The carraige was quiet, the cabin was cosy and the toilet was cleanish.

Staying hydrated – on each carraige there is a water boiler providing 24 hours hot water keeping us happpy with tea and filled with instant noodles.

Between looking out the window, drinking tea, reading, sleeping and playing Hornochsen the time seemed to go by pretty quickly! We didn’t have a huge amount of food though, we prepared in Moscow with instant soups, noodles, nuts, fruits etc. But the instant stuff was difficult to look at already on the second day. Our breakfast consisted of bread slides with peanut butter and banana and instant coffee. We had been told a lot about “Babushkas” on the station platforms selling food and drinks, but we never really seen any of this. Stations we arrived at were usually empty with only train conductors and station personel.

The views as we travelled through Siberia were amazing. Since we’re travelling in Autumn, it was great to see the changes in landscapes with the the Autumn colours. The landscapes were generally barron and wild. Towns we travelled past seemed incredible remote and isolated with wooden houses and dirt roads. Others towns blended into hard industrial areas and cities such as Omsk.

Moscow’s Charm and Attitude

Saint Basils Cathedral

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We arrived in Moscow late morning, the train rolled into Beluruskaya station in central Moscow. No border, no security and no customs checks. We just wondered out of the station and into the city. Easy and a bit surprising.

The hard part was 12 hours earlier when our train reached the Belarus border….

The Belarus border guards piled on board the train – military outfits and hard Eastern looks to match. The train staff had already opened all cabin doors in preparation for their boarding. The atmosphere in carriage and cabin had become tense. We first heard the guards entering the carriage toilets, opening the pipe panels and checking for anything unusual. Three guards then appeared at our cabin door and indicated for passports. They didn’t speak English. They wanted our immigration cards that we didn’t have. It was intimidating. One searched his pockets and found two crumpled pieces of paper that turned out to be immigration forms. They hesitated over my passport and asked me something in Russian. A Belorussian that we shared our cabin with could translate that he wanted to see my health insurance. I pulled it out but he didn’t look at it. They then ordered all of us out of the cabin. We lined up in the corridor while one of the guards entered. We could hear him rummaging around and seemed to be looking behind pillows and sheets. Once he was satisfied with cabin he disappeared off the carriage with our passports. I hate not having my passport, it made me anxious. After 15 minutes the train started to move again and I still didn’t have my passport! Forgotten that they still have my passport (?). We had Belarus and Russian visas in our passports but I was even starting doubt there validity, an inaccuracy or something. A few more guards were still walking up and down the corridor, one of which approached us and wanted to look inside our rucksacks. After clarifying that we were Tourists he decided not to bother. We waited, stressing. The original guard eventually reappeared with a pile of passports belonging to passengers. He looked through the pile and handed out the passports. Nadine received hers straight away, but after the repeatedly going through the pile he did not pull out that British passport. My mind was going crazy – he’s lost it or it’s been held somewhere else. Eventually he pulled out my passport after what seemed like a personal tease. Then, with a final nod to us he said “Good Luck” and walked off.

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This is my second time in Moscow, I was here 7 years ago, but I have forgotten a lot and the city seems different. It seems cleaner and more setup for tourism, but this is likely the affect of the recent World Cup.

The language barrier is bigger than I remember, very few people speak English. I get the impression many people’s English is good but they are too shy to try.

It’s actually quite expensive, particularly trying to find cheap food in restaurants. If it’s cheap then the portions are likely really small.

Electric scooters, roller blades and hover boards are popular.

Russians only smile when there is a reason to smile. This can unfortunately make them seem cold and unapproachable. It was something we noticed early on and apparently this is rooted in the culture. Russians say “only fools smile without any reason” and apparently smiling to strangers can make people feel uncomfortable.

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Red Square – St Basils and the walls of the Kremlin
Monument to the Conquerors of Space
VDNKh – Moscow Exhibition Centre
Peter the Great statue

The Peter the Great statue is massive and it stand out across the Moscow skyline. Unfortunately, the 98 metre tall statue is also know for being one of the ugliest. Apparently originally constructed to honour Christopher Columbus, but no American buyer was ever found and was later converted to honour Peter the Great instead.

But seems like Moscow never really wanted it either…

The people of Moscow aren’t thrilled they wound up with the statue—after all, Peter the Great disliked the city so much he moved Russia’s capital to Saint Petersburg. It’s been proposed to relocate the monumental effigy to the emperor’s favored city, but so far Saint Petersburg has kindly declined that offer.” – Ref

Friendship of Nations Fountain

The Friendship of Nations Fountain showing 16 statues of women that represent the former member nations of the Soviet Union.

Moscow State Historical Museum
The Moscow State History museum which was originally constructed as an Principle Medical Store. Located at the north end of Red Square The deep red of the bricks helped give the Square it’s name.
Moscow Metro Station
The metro stations in Moscow are quite amazing. Chandeliers, dramatic paintings, powerful statues and impressive architecture showcasing socialist art.
Given that I used Yorkstraße station in Berlin everyday, this is quite a difference!

The Highlands

Glencoe

Since I’m back in Scotland to visit family and friends before leaving, I thought I would throw in a few shots (when it wasn’t raining) from my visits home over the past few years. Mainly from the Isle of Skye because it’s one of my favourite places in Scotland.

If you’re visiting Scotland, sure, checkout Edinburgh and Glasgow. But seriously, just rent a car and head North towards the Isle of Skye and take yourself past Loch Lomond and through Glencoe. Getting to Skye it’s more interesting to take the ferry from Mallaig fishing town (avoiding Fort William which is not up to much!) and then use the bridge back to the mainland on the way back.

Portree – Isle of Skye
The Quiraing – Isle of Skye
Fairy Pools – Isle of Skye
Isle of Skye

Taj Mahal

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Taj Mahal – September 2017

As the first post and so it doesnt look quite so empty, I wanted to pull out one of my favourites. Last year it was a challenge travelling in India, it was crazy. But there are some sights that made it all worth it.

Here’s a throw back to the Taj Mahal. The standard, classic picture. Visiting early morning as the gates open was key. The queues build up fast and it can get incredibly busy. But if your the first to arrive you can enjoy it without the chaos.