In the winter of 2006 I took “the” train journey through Russia from St Petersburg to Vladivostok. I chose to take the Transsiberia instead of the transmongolia trip because I considered this to be the classic Trans Russia train journey, instead of the modern “the lonely planet says” journey. A trip of only 11000km by train turned out to be my hardest backpacking trip due to the language barrier, bad food and my choice to travel through Siberia in November.
Heres a brief summary of my adventures…..the context may be out of place at times due to a bit of lazy copy/paste work from e-mails.
The plan was simple, jump on a plane at Schiphol to St. Petersberg, then jump on a plane a few weeks later at Vladivostok to Schiphol , stopping off here and there to see some sights and sit on a train for a little while along the way.
St. Petersberg is a beautiful city ( well the city centre is, dont look out of the bus between the airport and metro station;) , it was a cool refreshing minus 5 degrees with a nice northerly wind..”cool”. I had a couple of days running around seeing all the sights and fighting to get into the Hermitage, the Russians don’t seem to understand the idea of waiting in a queue, its a case of survival of the person with the biggest elbows. This is valid at train/metro stations, stoplights and even at the museum ( I’ve never met such uncultured culture buffs, I really had to fight my way into the Hermitage….bonkers!!!).
I then had my first buying a long distance ticket experience, and of course nobody speaks english at the booking office. But eventually I was able to get a ticket for the night train to Moscow in 3rd class, between the drunks and football hooligans ( Moscow where playing St. pete that night,).
Cue cut and paste moment…
Well I survived my night in cattle class from St Petersburg to Moscow, didn’t get any sleep but I’m alive. I spent the night watching a guy drink a liter of homemade vodka, 2 football hooligans drinking vokda and gambling with cards and the riot police charging past every 10 minutes. And there I was trying to do my best to blend in and not look like a tourist………
My hostel is 3 km from red square which is handy, had a quick look around there yesterday and got all emotional because I finally made it here after all those years dreaming about one day getting to red square. I can’t get in to see the ugly guy in a glass box, he’s only open on thursdays, haven’t missed anything there I think.
Im off to see if I can get into the Kremlin now and St Basils cathderal, then I’ m off on the train tomorrow night, its a 78hr trip to Irkutsk then I’ll hang around Lake Baikal there for a couple of days then on the Vladivostok….
..Great fun and games today, I tried to go to the kremlin and red square but everything was closed off and there where hundreds of dodgy looking soldiers hanging around. It turns out Putin was visiting today so I couldn’t get in anywhere…aah well I’m pleased I at least had a look around red square and St Basils at the weekend.
Im getting a train tonight at 2330, quite a strange idea really to be sitting on a train for 4 days straight, then I hope I arrive on time to catch the 1000 bus, its the last one and it takes 10hr to get the Olkhan island which apparently is very nice, I’ll stay there a couple of days then back to Irkutsk to catch the train to Vladivostok (another 75hrs on the train), will be getting tight on time tho, I won’t get there till about the 19th/20th, then I still need to find a way to get to Soeul, and hopefully Hong Kong for a day.
I’ll send the next sign of life if and when I stay somewhere with electricity and internet, may take a while in east Russia.
The train journey was very pleasant(though generally less blurry than the photo). The food on the train was very bad as had most of the food been in Russia. I was the only tourist on the train and no one spoke English…great fun, but hey thats one of the reasons I chose to travel in November, the lack of tourists and the fact that you should travel in Siberia when its minus 20 outside not +15:)
Irkutsk was a typical frontier town (read shithole), only stayed 1 night then moved onto Olkan island and lake Baikal(The largest fresh water lake in the world 270km long 80km wide)….cut and paste time….
11000km by land across Russia….and I smell like I’ve only had 2 showers in 2 weeks (probibly becasue I have only had 2 showers in 2 weeks), damn eco friendly guest houses and shitty train:), time for a nice hotel with warm shower and porcelin toilet:)
So the story continues, from Irkutsk we took the classic knightmare scenario bus to Olkan Island, picture this so there you are at 0930 ready for the bus, standing with 14 other people expecting a bus, wrong, think 12 person mini van, and yes they do all fit with alot of effort and alot of baggage on your knees.
So begins the hell, 4 hours later the engine starts steaming, yup in siberia -10 and the bus stops in the middle of nowhere! So we all throw our water into the radiator and back track 2km to a building site, and took shelter there while the bus driver tried to fix it, Turns out one of the radiator hoses was leaking, ouch…….what do you mean irony, stuck in Siberia due to lack of cooling???
So he salvaged a piece of plumbing from the building site and made an emergancy repair, 6 hours later hey presto at Olkan island pheww.
A nice couple of days at the island at lake Baikal (the biggest and definatley most impressive fresh water lake in the world), did a nice 4×4 tour and saw all the sights almost crashed of course, luckily the driver was really good at correcting his skid, ooh and got stalked by a wolf when I was out walking in the hills( alone of course), luckily we where both just as scared of each other so he stayed an exciting 100m away, pheww again.
Then the bus journey from hell strike 2…..also went well for 4 hours then we got held at a police check point for 6 hours because the road was closed( strange how they only stopped buses and not trucks and cars!!!).Nobody in the minivan spoke English so know one could tell me what was going on despite their best efforts in sign language, though they did feel sorry for me I think:). Most of the passengers went to a nearby cafe, but I didn’t dare leave the bus for long just incase they drove off with my rugsack and without me. Eventually we where allowed to carry on but got a police escort in convoy for an hour or so. (update 2010: I recently heard from a Belgian cyclist that got mugged along this route that the area is well know to have several prisons, guess some had escaped that day)
Arrived at Irkusk at 2200. It was -10 and I was starving but had to chose between looking for accommodation or looking for food. A warm roof over my head seamed the most important choice so I found a hostel by 2300. Then went out looking for food and luckily there was a crappy pizza place next door that was just closing but I managed to get a couple of saggy cold pizza slices from them. Up again at 6 to catch the transiberian part 2 to Vladivostok, Nice scenery and Iwas the only tourist on the train, and no one spoke English…great fun:), vodka, vodka, vodka!!
So finally made it to Vladivostok, haven’t been arrested for taking photos of big navy ships yet…hehe.
Got a flight booked for tomorrow to Soeul (450 dollars, ouch), then tomorrow I’ll make the decision to go home or go to Hong Kong for a couple of days, we’ll see,
It was a long hard trip due to bad food, nobody speaking English and hoping you’ve got the correct train,class and date when you hand over €200 for a ticket.
Thats all for now folks………………………………