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  • Day9

    From Irkutsk train station we somehow find our way through the cirrilic labyrinth to the central bus station. There we take a 6-hours bus to Khuzir on the island Olchon which is situated at lake Baikal, the largest and deepest fresh water lake on earth. People say the water is clean enough to drink it straight away. The village itself is a fascinating mix of an 80 years old fishermen settlement and a rapidly expanding tourism sector since the last 5 years. Streets are not paved but newly build holiday apartments frame the dusty streets. Old Soviet UAZ trucks share the road with brand new SUVs. No tap water, but a fully equipped supermarket. Cows and quads. We find accommodation in a wooden shack in someone's backyard. Let's see what this island is all about.Read more

  • Day8

    Time to say goodbye. A melancholic mix of sadness and excitement dominates my feelings. This train was my beloved home for 4 nights. Playing Russian cards games and Chinese chess, watching the landscape passing by and drinking tea were the main activities. Now, Irkutsk is our last station. Time to return to reality.

  • Day7

    You think 48 hours on a train never pass? So, so wrong. I can't explain how the last two days could pass so quickly. There wasn't even time to start reading one of my three books I brought here. Oh, next stop is in 90 minutes. Time to get up and prepare to buy some dinner. Time becomes relative in Siberia.

  • Day225

    Tuesday's encounter with the locals must have taken its toll on me for I woke up hours later than planned and in need of a glass of water. Eventually make it outside I managed to find and secure a few more camping supplies for the journey west but by the time this was completed was unable to make it to the Glass Beach Dima told me about last week.

    In the evening I ventured out to a bouldering hall, east of the city centre. It was a small affair; one main room maybe 12m x 5m and a training room/corridor squeezed in behind the panels of one of the steeper walls. It appears russian climbing, and climbers in the East are the same as in the West. A number of this bunch could be seen doing push-ups between routes and had wash-boards you could wash a wash-board on.

    The man in charge was a likeable guy, eager both to practice his English and point out suitable routes to try. He even refused payment at the end of the session (the centre's called онсайт, 'on sight', go say hi.)

    Afterwards a few of us headed for an authentic local experience, in a Chinese restaurant. The crowd, it appears, were mainly students at the Far Eastern Federal University and all studied a science of some description, though one girl was learning Korean. Unlike last time I was here, in Russia, this lot also seem to drink though unlike Tuesday we stuck only to beer. I think I gained points for know what two problems Russia suffers from and appropriate use of the country's name as an answer to a problem.

    Have been invited to go climbing at the weekend on local rocks, am changing my plans accordingly.

    Today relocated to cheaper accommodation where I met a young girl, aged 12, and her mum, an English teacher. They live in a small city 3 hours from Vladivostok. Have been invited to go to the aquarium with them tomorrow, I think so that the girl can practise her English. Not sure if I'll make it but nice to be invited. The mother wants her daughter to have a better life than her, with more opportunities than are on offer in the city they currently live in. Might be an interesting opportunity to learn a bit more about a different side of Russia.

    Afterwards made it as far as the bus station before abandoning my trip to the beach. Will try again tomorrow.
    Read more

  • Day226

    It has begun.

    My first hitch of the trip :D!
    Once I had my visa I wrote to my Russian friends telling of my impending return. A hitchiker/traveller I know from Moscow, who's currently in Kamchatka!, mentioned that outside Vladivostok there's a glass beach, so called as it's covered in bits of broken glass and pottery, worn down by the ocean waves. I decided to visit and considered making it a practice hitch ready for the first big leg up to Khabarovsk.

    I'm a massive woos (sp?) though so merely imagined it not working out and/after finding it was on a bus route. That bus runs very infrequently though so after a couple of failed attempts I again failed this morning after arriving at the bus stop only to find it was already full with the small crowd of other later arrivals slowly growing. Eventually I plucked up the courage, and found the appropriate moment, to say I was also trying to get to the beach and a while later a taxi arrived with a seat saved for me along with the group I'd been stood with.

    After making like a Russian and lobstering myself very unevenly, I forgot the sun cream, I decided to get out the sun and give hitching a go. Making it an attempt at a coast to coast trip across Russia. On the road, recalling the tips I'd read about online or heard from friends and after practising my lines to myself multiple times "Здравствуйте! Я английский автостопчик пробую ехать через Россию от этого мора до чёрного мора без деньги." ('Hello. I'm a british hitchiker trying to go across russia from this sea to the Black Sea without money.') I set off to stand by the first stretch of straight road I could find.

    The second car that drove pass turned on its indicator. I started waking towards it. It reversed a little. I wondered if it was actually parking and if I'd soon be apologising to a confused and unfriendly looking Russian face. The window wound down. A young, central
    Asian looking looked at me. He was alone in a very tidy looking car.

    "Здравствуйте! Вы такси?"
    "Ага." This wasn't looking good. "Я английский автостопчик и пробую ехать отсюда до чёрного мора без денги..."

    I can't remember what I said after that but his response came something along the lines of.

    "И куда хотите ехать?"
    "В Владивосток."
    "Да. Я могу водить тебя до города."
    "Без деньги?!"

    All of a sudden this trip that, admittedly has been done by at least a few people before, was starting to look possible to me. A total novice hitchhiker who rehearses conversations in his head if he has to ask for something from other people.

    My ride, or first дурак - which I'm using in the most affectionate was possible, was Misha, or Ma'rufjon, an ethnic Kazakh from Uzbekistan. I actually might've mixed up my 'Stans there for which I can only apologise, I am aware they're different countries with different histories and cultures - actually part of that is a myth created by (post-)Soviet nationalist and ethnic policies but I can't remember the details of that now and I imagine it's disputed anyway.

    Misha arrived in Russia about 5 years ago, after finishing school where he now lived with his family including a younger brother and his dad who served in the army in Russia, during the Soviet period, and himself had eventually settled in Vladivostok. He, Misha, now had a russian passport and had worked as a builder in South Korea for 6 months before becoming a taxi driver two months ago. He seemed to really like living here in Vladivostok and had nothing bad to say about the place but thinks people in Central Asia are even nicer but, as with several of the migrants I've met in the past, there's no work at home.

    En route to the city we picked up his 18 year old brother, who's training to be a car mechanic and works on a building site during the holidays if not also during term time, then drove onto a small cafe located in a small stand alone building that resembled an outhouse or shed more than anything else. Inside I was treated to Uzbek plov and samosas cooked at this, his friend's family's cafe. Inside I was quizzed on my travel plans and my interest in Russia by, the father and cafe owner. He had a flick through my passport then warned me to keep it closed by at all times. At this point I wondered if, although I'd been cautious, I'd given far too much away about myself and if the plov I'd been given, that no one else was eating, had been tampered with. I reassured myself it wasn't but still sent my parents my location on whatsapp, just encase. The dad left so I chatted a bit with one of the younger guys who described the cafe owners as being "almost family". He threw out a few questions about salaries in London, what religion I was and what language people speak at home; he seemed to take some interest or be surprised all my answers to the above.

    Food eaten, down to the last grain of rice at the insistence of the old man (again meant lovingly) me, the two brothers and the cafe owners son, also 22, headed off to the city centre. I followed them around a clothes shop as they picked out clothes for the younger brother's return to college, they took the opportunity to check out girls at the same time. For not the first, and all most certainly not the last time, during my travels I was asked if I liked girls from (insert name of country I happen to be in).

    With that done they headed off and that was it. First hitch done.

    Last time Russia had buildings and I'll probably again but, to completely buck the trend I've developed over the past 8 years, I'll be trying to take pictures of people...with me in them! I might even get a photo of a road or two when I remember.
    Read more

  • Day10

    We decide to take a seat in a Uasik bus which takes us to the far north of the island. No other car would be more suitable to race down these heavily washed-out sand tracks leading through steppe and pine forests with over 60 kmh at max. Back in Khuzir we meet Anastasia, Anja and Armeni from Novosibirsk to spend the evening together. We have a picnic and talk a lot. Though English is not very common, Armeni does an excellent job at English-Russian translation. We're more than happy to get to know these 3 friendly Russians. Unfortunately, they have to leave the next day. Life on the road demands it's tributes, too short friendships are one of them.Read more

  • Day11

    Sometimes one needs to take a rest and so did we. This is our last day on Olkhon, so we hired bikes and pushed them up the mountain nearby. The rest of the day we spend at Shamanka, a picturesque and very distinct rock outcrop near Khuzir, probably the first picture popping up if looking up Olkhon on Google. However, google won't instantly reveal Olkhon being a top holiday destination hidden in Russia's remoteness. Tomorrow we enter the minibus which takes us over bumpy roads back to Irkutsk and therewith leave this rugged but heartwarming, this harsh but authentic place. Then, another train ride eastbound begins.Read more

  • Day13

    Finally, we are in Russia.
    This involved a 5am wake-up call and a drive of 350k from Helsinki. Of course, the border crossing took some time. Our early departure was intended to keep us ahead of the crowds and there was only one coach load ahead of us when we entered the queue in the building. Proceedings slowed somewhat when one of the two of four stations went for a smoko and our TD (Tour Director) allowed the coach ahead to squeeze in ahead. Eventually we all got through and made our way through timbered country - no farms like in Finland - to our 10.45 lunch stop. Photos tells me that it was Vyborg. The chicken broth and accompanying rice dish were well received.
    We still had another 200k to go and somewhere along the way I nodded off, to awake in time to see the under construction Petronis Tower on the outskirts of St Petersburg. We picked up our local tour guide, who was an expert this time, and she guided us through the St. Peter and Paul Fortress. Very picturesque and just a taste of what is to come.
    Our hotel is charming. We wandered/motored up to Nevsky Prospect and walked down the busy road to the Neva river, to discover access was impossible. Tess again motored back to an Eastern themed restaurant which served authentic Russian food. The wine was Georgian, like a Beaujolais.
    Worldview is an app that uses the phone camera to translate signs - excellent for Cyrillic countries- but comes up with amusing guesses sometimes.
    Technology has its limits it would seem.
    Read more

  • Day15

    Sadly, as an overweight economy passenger, I'm unlikely to join the mile high club anytime soon but at least I have managed the above feat today on the high speed (made in Germany) train from St Petersburg to Moscow. It's deceptively fast. I'm using this entry for assorted images from our time in Petersburg that don't fit a narrative. I'm still having fun with World Lens, my translation app. It would be tedious to read the paper with it but it has helped with some menu items. The map out to record our visit to Peterhof. Just a small part of our wander in the gardens but I was not taking any chances after my watch died just as I tried to save our long walk along Nevsky Prospect.Read more

  • Day14

    It's hardly late but everyone else has called it a night such is the pace of our travels. Enjoyed another meal across the road at the mid eastern restaurant.
    One day later.
    I'm halfway through our train ride to Moscow after another wonderful day of sightseeing in St. Petersburg. We're passing through an unnamed city at a leisurely 133kph while Tess sleeps. Might be the effects of the wine consumed soon after boarding! Must cover the bottles here lest you offend other passengers. Rail staff seem more Soviet era in manners if not age, whizzing by with the coffee cart for Russian speaking passengers despite our rubles. Things are cheap here in Russia. They must be, else how to explain the souvenirs/gifts in our luggage?? From the Hermitage.
    The photos are from our tour of the city and the czar's summer palace, Peterhof. The gravity fed fountains were the only things left working after the Nazis abandoned the place in 1944, looting and desecrating as they ran. Most of the rooms inside remain in a state of Soviet disrepair. Our lovely guide suggested it outdid its inspiration, Versailles. I'll let you be the judge. It was crowded with tourists and locals alike on our humid and warm visit.
    Previously, Lena had given a wonderful 2.5 hour tour of the city. The whispers work unobtrusively as we follow her through the historic town centre. I thought she might get tired of talking but while we had lunch, she chatted away with our driver in Russian. She has visited 70 countries.
    Read more

You might also know this place by the following names:

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