Irkutsk and Beyond - Trans-Siberian Railway Part 2
We arrived into Irkutsk extremely disorientated. We’d been on a train for the best part of five days and, without knowing when, we’d passed through five-hours of time zones. It was early morning and we were hungry, slightly hungover and tired. Our first port of call was some authentic Russian food.
As we finished up our Subway we went to our accommodation, which was a hotel/ B&B run by a local lady. She gave us a map and explained as best she could about the local sights. After a power nap, we were up and raring to go. Our main reason for stopping here was to see Lake Baikal, however we were saving that for the next day, so we spent some time wandering the streets of Irkutsk and exploring local markets. With Russia being such a large country it’s easy to understand how some cities and towns may be forgotten and, unfortunately, it seemed that Irkutsk was one of them. A ‘recent’ article by the Guardian addressed these issues and the poverty surrounding the city. Whilst it wasn’t a normal bucket-list destination, i’m glad we got the chance to explore it.
The next day we got a minibus to the highlight of the area, Lake Baikal, a lake which contains more water than all of the North American Great Lakes combined and is estimated to be the oldest lake in the world (25-30 million years). It’s home to its own species of seal, aptly named the Baikal Seal, and over 2500 species of animals including the Eurasian brown bear and the Siberian musk deer. Many locals make a living off of the lake and we couldn’t wait to see it in all its glory. At this point I should mention that the journey to the lake wasn’t consumed with anticipation of seeing the lake, rather of fear of never seeing it or anything else again. The driver was a maniac.
We lived to tell the tail though and the lake was glorious. Standing on the shore and not being able to see the land on the opposite side doesn’t really explain how large this lake is. If we’d had more time we would have got the ferry to the north of the lake, but due to the time it took to get there and back, we wouldn’t have made our bus journey back (which probably wouldn’t have been a massive loss). The weather wasn’t great that day, but thankfully we managed to get about an hour of walking in before the heavens opened and the wind picked up. We then went to explore a local market and ate some fish which had been caught from the lake that morning. Having come all this way by train, to the oldest lake in the world, it was a bit of a shame that we couldn’t explore it further. But due to the weather, and time restrictions, our hands were tied and we were forced into the pub to get some dutch courage for our journey back with Dick Dastardly.
Back on the train
We woke up the next morning ready for the next phase of our journey, to Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia. This part of the trip was much shorter, only 24 hours. Mongolia always seemed like such an exotic location to me and was definitely the country I was looking forward to the most on this adventure. The train set off travelling around Lake Baikal which was beautiful. Another testament to its size is that we were following the lake for several hours before it slowly started to disappear out of sight. As Lake Baikal disappeared so did the familiar landscape that we’d grown accustomed to. The green, mountainous scenery of Russia was replaced by a more arid environment as we got closer to the Mongolian border.
Being back on the train, we’d restocked for food and drink and we were well underway with our normal frivolities; playing cards, drinking beer and mingling with other travellers on the train. We hadn’t crossed any borders yet, so our assumption was that there would be a border control, but presumably it would be a well oiled machine, much like the train itself. As we approached the Russia-Mongolia border, half an hour before to be exact, we realised the toilets had all been locked (i guess this is to do with the passport checks). The doors then didn’t reopen for an additional 30 minutes after we’d passed the Mongolian border (For this, I can’t give a reason). Having been drinking (both water and alcohol) for the previous few hours this wasn’t music to our ears; nor were the three hours in-between that it took the Mongolian border control to permit the train to pass through. There are no further records of what happened in said 4 hours.
We were in the Gobi Desert, amazing! It’s incredible to be going through just a deserted area on a train, occasionally seeing a camel, a lone tree or a small community. But in general it was transfixing emptiness. The train had changed at the border too, providing some explanation as to why it took so long. The carriages were the same, but the engine and restaurant cart were now Mongolian. With that came new cuisine, a new style of seating and new staff members. It was great and for the rest of the journey we moved our card games to the restaurant cart. Feeling half like Hercule Poirot and half like Paul Theroux I sat there in the old fashion cart until we were the last people awake. We slowly made our way back to our cabin (which was about 12 carriages away) to get some sleep before arriving into the Mongolian capital.
The next morning, around 6am we arrived into Ulaanbaatar. As we stepped off the train we were surrounded by weightless snowflakes floating around in the air. This was somewhat of a surprise to us having come from the heat of the desert the day before. I later realised that Ulaanbaatar is recognised as the coldest capital city on the planet due to its location and altitude. Winters in Ulaanbaatar often get to highs of -20C. We found our hostel and got a few hours sleep in before a day of exploring.
Having napped for several hours we woke up to a completely different climate. The temperature was warm and sunny and perfect for us to explore the city. Mongolia is an interesting country in that its had close ties with both Russia and China in the past and this has had a clear impact on its architecture. Add to that the recent investment into developing the city and you have a big mix of soviet and asian architecture surrounded by both modern and old buildings.
The people of Mongolia were lovely, friendly and welcoming. It’s a city which really does need more than three days to explore and has a buzzing nightlife too. We decided though, that to really experience Mongolia, we needed to escape the city for a day. Having hired a private tour guide we travelled up, into the mountains to a traditional Buddhist temple. We also went and spent half the day with a Mongolian family who cooked us a traditional stew inside their yurt. The father of the family then took us out on his wild horses. Having grown up riding I wasn’t too worried that I didn't have a saddle. My two friends, however, hadn’t ridden before and to be experiencing it for the first time without the safety net of a saddle, on what was essentially a wild horse, was slightly concerning for them. Having taken us a good half an hour away from the yurt (and our tour guide) the father then decided to leave us for an extended period of time; we waited on our horses whilst one of the horses decided to take a bath in a nearby ditch (thankfully not mine). Upon his return, the local man found this highly amusing, and proceeded to slap the hinds of the horses to encourage them to go faster; and go faster we did. Health and safety clearly isn’t as big of an issue in the Mongolian countryside as it is in the UK, and before we knew it was were all galloping at full speed back to the yurt.
Having made it back in one piece, we were pretty exhausted from our day’s activities and an early night was beckoning. We had another train to catch in the morning, to Beijing. The final time we’d be on a train this trip (or so we thought). China was somewhere i’d really been looking forward to visiting and we were only one day or so away from arriving.