Again I fall guilty of failing to keep the blog updated, and for this I apologise. Since coming back from Baikal things have all been rather hectic as it became apparent we had dangerously neglected our year abroad essays in favour of snow and vodka related frolics. With June on the horizon and not even a smidgen of slush underfoot these excuses began to sound more and more hollow we have consequently subjected ourselves to a grueling library regime that has no doubt left the guards wondering what has overcome some of the rowdiest members of the общежите. I believe I mentioned in my last blog the ‘turning into a crocodile’ phenomenon that had blighted us in the spring transition…now we are suffering from another condition – I call it the post-Baikal blues.
Our trip began over three weeks ago when we left Tomsk on an incredibly crowded электричка headed for Тайга, somewhere that potentially wins the award for the most depressing place I have visited of late. We decided to leave the train station to stretch our legs and were greeted with more than the normal amount of potentially rabid dogs and Soviet architecture. Spirits not damped however, we had a play on the roundabout with some rather zealous Russian children before boarding the Trans-Siberian to Irkutsk. Our tickets were 3rd class on the way, which is definitely a must-do experience for any intrepid Russian traveller/anyone who doesn’t mind having no personal privacy! When we clambered onto the train (a feat in itself) I couldn’t quite imagine how we would survive the impossibly long stretch of time before us. Although our Russian teachers and friends had expressed concern about our planned journey (our coordinator even insisted on giving us a 5 page list of medications to buy from the pharmacy in preparation), in the end all was fine, and we could even claim to be rowdier than the Russian passengers as we swigged beer and played endless games of ‘Durak’. I was usually the Durak.
The evening of the first day wore on (this sounds almost biblical) and we even succeeded in making some new friends – by this I mean I decided the train would be the perfect place to practice my Russian and thus pounced on the poor student opposite the aisle from us. Engaging her in an hour long conversation that to my beer-mellowed mind seemed dare I say…flowing…we covered numerous subjeсts including alcoholism, the economic crisis and popular music. Sally did have to gently suggest I should refrain from asking strangers about politics as she overheard me inquiring about Putin’s ‘strong man’ image in the Russian media though. Oopsies. The worst part of the train had to be the toilets that flushed straight onto the track and my inability to climb onto the top bunk post-train party. I distinctly remember one of the Russian passengers (who oddly happened to have lived in New York for 6 years?) giving my bum a push and shouting ‘Crawl! crawl!’ at me. An amusing sight for all I am sure. A lot of napping, eating and kindling (by this I mean kindle reading, not fire-making) later, we arrived in Irkutsk. I can safely say I have never felt more troll-like as I emerged from the dark, incredibly humid and sweaty conditions of that train into the light of the outside world.
Although the weather was awful on our arrival and one of my first sights on emerging from the train station was a large amount of abandoned needles (Irkutsk is coincidentally the HIV capital of Russia), the day after our arrival the sun arrived to lift everyone’s spirits. I even got to pull out the sunglasses as we tripped merrily around the city visiting church after church after bar after church. I had initially been dubious of Irkutsk’s status as ‘the Paris of Siberia’ and although I’m not quite sure it lives up to the French capital in terms of beauty, it was definitely surprisingly attractive in the sun. We profited by walking along the river, getting ice-creams and achieving our first Russian sun-burn. It seemed our poor pale faces just couldn’t deal with the scorching 15C + temperatures…
The next day we headed to Listvyanka, (which is not really famous for anything apart from its location by the lake shore) and caught our first glimpse of Baikal. The bus journey down was rather torturous as the Mashroutka driver seemed intent on punishing us for having drunk a little the night before by charging over the potholes at alarming speed. Fortunately, our valiant journeying efforts were greeted by a free upgrade in the beautiful eco-hostel that we had chosen. We pottered down to the shore after dumping our bags and spent a while just staring at the vast expanse of ice before us. Baikal was still mostly frozen, and it is so big that it just looks like an ocean when you stare out to the other side. I’m not even sure I can really describe it so here are a few photos for reference. It was completely beautiful!
Whilst at Listvyanka we took the opportunity to sample ‘Omul’, the fish species native to the lake. The fish market was an interesting experience and although we were warned about potential food poisoning, we couldn’t say no to the crowds of бабушки wanting us to sample their catches. When in Rome after all…It is very tasty and I tried both the smoked and un-smoked variety, although I did feel a little guilty when I returned and googled it to find it is actually an endangered species. Sorry Mr.Omul!
After a day of walking and fish-fuelled fun, there is no better way to unwind than by taking a traditional Russian баня, which is essentially a slightly more hard-core sauna. It was a rather tamer affair than normal as we were not packed into the room with a large number of naked strangers but rather rented it privately to properly relax. The hostel owner gave us some advice before entering such as ‘Just listen to what your body is telling you’ and ‘Make sure to detox, perhaps take a green tea with you’. We initially followed the latter advice but quickly realised what our bodies were actually telling us to do was drink a cold beer and so we began on the ‘Три медведя’. It was great to sweat away the toxins whilst actually feeling very clean, and I found the whole experience quite spiritual, especially when we decided to do things the Russian way and just get naked. There is no closer bond than the bond of three girls who have thrown buckets of cold water over each other’s steaming bodies. But that is a story for another time…
After cleansing bodies and minds at the edge of the largest freshwater lake in the world it was high time to find our inner Buryat (not to be confused with Borat). We hopped on another train (this one a mere 7 hours) and circumnavigated the lake, experiencing some beautiful views on the way, before arriving at Ulan-Ude. As previously mentioned, this is the Buryat capital of Russia, the Buryat people being the major Northern sub-group of Mongols. Ulan-Ude has a lot to boast besides just its main claim to fame – being home to the largest Lenin head in the word (see photo below). Apparently he looks a little cross-eyed from the front. Apart from selfies with Lenin, we spent our time sight-seeing, drinking cocktails and visiting various Datsans (Buddhist temples). My favourite of these was Ivolginksy Datsan, the most important Buddhist pilgrimage site in Russia. Interestingly, it was mainly built by money given by Stalin to the Buryat people in recognition of their sacrifices during the Second World War. Incongruous I know. The hour bus journey out of the city was well worth it when we arrived to stunning panoramic views of the mountains and steppe. After eating a traditional Buryat lunch in a yurt and accidentally participating in a one and a half hour Buddhist service (we thought it would be rude to leave half way through), I was feeling well and truly at inner peace with myself. The most intriguing factor of the service itself was the gifts given to the monks. In rising order of curiosity these included; sweets, green tea, milk, a beef joint, some butter and lastly a large amount of vodka. The monks seemed to be having a great time.
All too soon it was time to catch the train back to Tomsk (this journey a casual 33 hours). But not before a final pub session in which a hefty amount of personal history emerged from all parties, there is no bonding like Baikal bonding. The most amusing consequence of this Siberian Stella binge was the mildly inebriated super-market shopping engaged in by some members of the group. We ended up with blue cheese, two chickens and even some bacon for the trip. Having splashed out on a kupe (2nd class) for our return, we profited from some more space, a comfier bed and a (supposedly) closing door to our compartment. Nothing of much note happened on our return apart from Phil befriending a Russian man called Vlodya who was enthusiastically celebrating ‘Victory Day’ (the Russian holiday celebrating victory over the Germans) in his cabin. We began to wonder where the sloth had got to when he reappeared and told us he had asked for a lighter only to be invited in for some cheese, sausage and vodka shots. It suddenly all made sense.
Although it was great to get away, it was also nice to get back to the safe and familiar territory of our beloved Tomsk (although not so much the TPU library). I can’t really believe how much time has flown and it only really hit home as I bought my tickets yesterday that I am only going to be eating unidentified meat products for another month! Fortunately, we are planning to go out with a bang and are in the process of organising a British-themed party on Friday for our international friends. I will also be turning 21 on Sunday so I am sure there will be some stories for the next blog! Some tea-related games of ‘hidden shot’ are definitely in order.