Thursday, 4 October 2012

Trans Siberian - Part 4 - Ekateringburg - Irkutsk - Ulan Ude

Part 1 - Introduction
Part 2 - St Petersburg - Moscow - Vladimir
Part 3 - Vladimir - Ekateringburg
Part 4 - Ekateringburg - Irkutsk - Ulan Ude
Part 5 - Ulan Ude - Ulaanbaatar
Part 6 - The Final Leg - Ulaanbaatar - Beijing

Ekateringburg to Irkutsk

It was another early start, and this was to be the longest leg of our journey – 2 whole days and nights on the train! We were still a little dazed after the last journey, and our fleeting stay in Ekateringburg hadn’t really given us the opportunity to recover. We boarded the train at about 6.30am and found that we were sharing our compartment with a young couple in their very early twenties. To our dismay, we had both top bunks again, and on this occasion it was the worst possible arrangement.

We were embarking on our trek through Siberia and passing from Europe to Asia where the landscape begins to noticeably change. You pass through endless terrain which just continues for miles upon mile and hour after hour.  For this reason along the journey is remarkable.  As you travel through the forests of silver birth, seeing so little evidence of human habitation you begin to have a real perception of how vast Russia is.  It has been said by others that this makes the journey boring, but really the time just flies past and you try to take in just how far you are travelling and just how few people live in this seemingly desolate place, so far away from towns and cities. 

Birch trees
As we were travelling in autumn, the colours were mesmerising and the weather just perfect – there were clear blue skies all the way (except nighttime of course) although we suspected it was as chilly outside as it had been in Ekateringburg.

However the seating arrangements we had were frustrating because we were unable to see very much from our upper bunks and the young couple made it patently clear that the bottom two bunks were their bunks and they had no intention of sharing throughout the duration of the journey. This was a perfect example of our experience of Russians in general, which was very disappointing, particularly after our experience with Aleksei.
We made some effort to talk to them but they barely spoke to each other for the duration of the journey, and it became apparent that they certainly had no intention of passing the time of day with us.  When they weren’t eating, they were sleeping, or just stretched out on their beds, reading or listening to music, enjoying the luxury of being able to watch the amazing scenery fly by, although clearly taking no notice of it whatsoever.

As a result, in order to watch Siberia go by, we spent a lot of time stood out in the corridor and looking out the window there, or at the end of the carriage where we could smoke and bitch about them, but we couldn’t stand for the whole 48 hours so a lot of time was spent on our bunks, straining to see some of the Siberian countryside, and mouthing insults to each other about our companions. We did have a lot of giggles between ourselves and we were a bit mean about them but more than anything I was really disappointed that we seemed to be missing so much.
That was why I, in particular, began to foster deep feelings of dislike for these two people. It’s amazing how irritated you can get when you feel cornered, which I did, and to top it all we were missing some of the incredible scenery which was one of the major reasons for taking this trip.  We didn't want to miss anything and I just thought that they were incredibly selfish and I was beginning to feel trapped and claustrophic.

We did spend a couple of hours in the restaurant car as the sun was setting across the Siberian plain, where we had a couple of beers, and were able to take some photographs and enjoy the landscape passing by outside at our leisure. However, when the sun went down and there was nothing to see but darkness outside the train window we returned to our compartment and both settled down on our bunks.  Paul had a couple of beers and I had a couple of large slugs of vodka and read my kindle before passing out.
The next morning I woke at about 7.00am, yawned, rubbed my eyes and looked down to see the boy coming back from the bathroom.  I mumbled good morning to Paul (I was still a bit grumpy) and clambered down from my bunk to go to the loo. When I came back I glanced at the boy who seemed a bit older and a lot bigger than I remembered from the day before but I thought it was my imagination. Then I looked at the girl, who was very clearly someone completely different – very blonde and very smiley and she said "Good morning"!  I was visibly startled. They were obviously a completely different couple in their thirties, and I had no idea that the other lot had gone or that this lot had moved in! I had been hit with the vodka cosh and I had slept through the whole change of personnel.

Accordingly to Paul, Mr and Mrs Young and Miserable had set their alarm for 1.00am (yep, 1.00am!) and then proceeded to get up, turn the light on, get their food out and graze for a good hour before they packed up and got off the train at their stop at about 2.30am. Paul is a much lighter sleeper than I am, no matter how many beers he has had, and was able to report that at this time of the morning they decided they had quite a lot to say to each other, completely ignorant of the fact that we were trying to sleep above them. Obviously, I managed quite well to get some shut-eye thanks to the vodka but Paul’s whole night was disturbed.
Our new compartment companions replaced the old at the same station as they disembarked, and apparently after making their beds (which, try as you might, cannot be done quietly but I still slept through the entire rigmarole), settled down to sleep.

More birch trees
Paul said that it was worth having a disturbed night just to see my reaction the next morning. I really had no clue whatsoever what had gone on during the night and my face was an absolute picture. I couldn’t work out whether I was disappointed or not to have missed the first miserable lot leaving! I think I would have cheered!
Nevertheless, we were both pleased they had gone and the new couple were much, much nicer. They couldn’t speak English but some attempts were made to chat – we worked out that she was a customs officer who had travelled quite a bit to many places except England, because it was too difficult to get a visa. Paul managed to chat quite a bit with them, me less so. My confidence speaking Russian wasn’t great and Paul was getting on much better with the language.

It was on this leg of the journey that we summoned up the courage to venture out of the train when it stopped for about 20 minutes, to get a breath of fresh air, have a cigarette (I am aware of the irony), stretch our legs and restock on beer from one of the platform kiosks. We were well into Siberia by then, and as we stepped down onto the platform we were hit by a wall of heat. The temperature must have been in the mid 20s at least which was a real surprise as it had been really chilly and damp in Ekarteringburg.  We certainly didn’t expect it to be hot and humid in Siberia!
Looking back down the twising railway track
I can’t remember where we stopped but it was a small town in the middle of nowhere and the station was very busy. There were some very strange looking people wandering about at this station and it did make us wonder whether the gene pool in the depths of Siberia is really particularly healthy.

We boarded the train before it left without us and continued our journey.  Paul continued to try to speak with our new travelling companions and, funnily enough, we continued to spend most of the time in our bunks, despite being invited by the second couple to sit on the lower bunks but we had got used to living up there and because the atmosphere was completely different, we felt much less cooped up and the whole second day was a much more relaxing and enjoyable experience.
A Siberian village
Paul was getting on really well chatting to our new friends. I, on the other hand, was enjoying my vodka therapy too much and any attempts by me to make conversation were usually time delayed by a few minutes as I worked out what I wanted to say in Russian.  Most of what I said was therefore not relevant by the time I said it.  I am assured by Paul that I was the cause of much hilarity and in the end, as the sun went down and I am sure to everyone’s relief, I just fell asleep.

The following day we didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to the second couple properly. We didn't realise that they were getting off at a stop before Irkutsk.  We disappeared for a cigarette when the train stopped at their station and by the time I returned to our compartment it was empty. I looked out onto the platform and saw the couple emotionally greeting friends and/or family, so I knocked on the window and waved madly – she gave me such a huge smile, blew a kiss and waved goodbye.

Lake Baikal from the train
I was really sad to see them go. They were some of the genuinely nicer Russians we met, and the sort that make me feel a pang of guilt when we describe Russians as generally a miserable bunch because it’s clearly not true, as they were absolutely charming, and meeting interesting and lovely people like them really makes travelling an amazing experience!
We only had a couple of hours left before we arrived at Irkutsk, which being situated in south Siberia, was experiencing a heatwave in September, with warm sun and clear blue skies. It was a welcome change from Ekateringburg.

Irkutsk to Ulan Ude

We were booked on an early train ... again! We were tired as usual (it’s exhausting all this travelling) and had our rucksacks and a replenished bag of goodies to nibble on the train. Ulan Ude was our last stop in Russia and this journey was an 8 hour day train.

The railway track follows alongside the shore of Lake Baikal south and then along the south eastern shore for a while before branching off to the city of Ulan Ude.  We had loved Lake Baikal and were looking forward to seeing more of it.

We still had berths but, again, had lower berths so we could relax. As it turned out we didn’t share our compartment with anyone and were able to enjoy the amazing views of the lake in comfort and privacy.
Travelling close to the shore
of Lake Baikal
The only problem was that the window in our compartment through which we could see these incredible views of the lake needed a good clean. Not so bad for us but not so good for taking photographs, so a fair few visits to the smoking area at the end of the carriage, where we had a clearer view out of the window, were in order.

More views of the lake
It really was a breathtaking journey. The train follows the coast of the lake for hours, sometimesonly metres from the water's edge, the track twisting and turning along the coast so you could see the train snaking along the rails ahead or behind you. They have built a fair few tunnels through the rocks but none of this could be captured on camera – not by me anyway although you can google it and see how others have successfully managed to snap a few photographs of, what must be, one of the most picturesque journeys in the world. 

The weather was also amazing. The clear blue sky just made the views even more classically beautiful and the good weather had encouraged lots of fisherman and other random people to enjoy the lake. Otherwise, it was pretty deserted.
We loved this journey – it was worth a day’s travel to see more of Lake Baikal and we heard from other travellers that they missed this part because other trains run along this section at night. We felt lucky we were able to take some time and enjoy what must be one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world.

<<Prev Part 3 Vladimir - Ekateringburg

>>Next Part 5 Ulan Ude - Ulaanbaatar

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