Lake Baikal, Listvyanka and Irkutsk (proper Siberia!)
Z, my host in Listvyanka, had a red-velvet-padded-toilet seat! Her cottage was compact and very pretty – lots of bright coloured textiles everywhere. It was one of those log cabins that Siberia is so famous for. You’d expect to feel like you were roughing it, that a log-cabin would be like a glorified tent or whatever, but this actually wasn’t. It was like being in a brick-built house, and it was only when I went outside that I remembered that I wasn’t. All the walls inside were finished properly, just like brick walls, so no draughts could get in through the tree-trunks. I guess the first pioneers in Siberia had to work with what they had – trees – and have perfected the design over centuries. However, probably the biggest structure inside Z’s home was a brick cube maybe four feet square and the full height of the room, which housed the wood-fuelled fire and oven. (A coalman in the UK told me once that houses with coal fires are so warm because the heat doesn’t come from just the fire itself, but the chimney acts as a massive storage heater.) Z was very welcoming, although she did seem to be a bit flummoxed by the prospect of catering for a vegetarian. In fact, vegetarianism was something of a novelty in Russia; I’d been asked about it umpteen times since St Petersburg.
A novel experience for me was a session in Z’s banya, or traditional Siberian sauna. It wasn’t much different to a conventional sauna, although would a traditional sauna be hot enough to have my plastic soap bag on the verge of melting, I wonder? It was lovely to feel deep-clean again, after my days on the train.
My guide, T, showed me some of the ‘sights’ of Listvyanka – such as the church (timber, of course) and an ‘art gallery’ displaying some rather trippy paintings. We also took a ride on the ferry to Port Baikal and back. It was not unlike practically every other ferry ride I’ve taken, only during this one my mind was being persistently blown by thoughts of the size and age of the expanse of water I was passing over. Baikal is the world’s largest freshwater lake by volume – ie when you consider the length, width and depth of water. Oh, and it’s the world’s deepest, too – nearly five and a half thousand feet or over 1,500 metres at its deepest. It’s also supposed to be the oldest – the rift valley it lies in was sealed around 25 million years ago. It’s home to goodness knows how many species of plants and animals, and some of them are unique to the lake. No wonder it was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 1996. This lake is nearly 400 miles long and (in places) nearly 50 miles wide. There are whole countries that are smaller than that!
However, just talking to T was as interesting as seeing the sights. She told me, for example, that in the 1970s she was refused permission to take a job that would have used her English language skills, because her then-boyfriend was a black marketer and considered “unreliable” by the authorities. During the 1980s she had the chance to work overseas for a year. She had to be “vetted” by the KGB and during the interview she was asked if she would spy on her colleagues. She refused, and so wasn’t allowed to take the job.
T was of an age that meant she could remember how shocked people were when they discovered the extent of the things done by the State under the Soviet system, such as the work camps and the interpretations placed on events. However, in 2001, she was worried about her son not being able to get a job when he left university. In Soviet times, graduates were guaranteed a job. But then, the previous day she had told me how her mother, a native of St Petersburg, had been sent to work in Ulan-Ude (my next stop) whether she liked it or not. K in Yekaterinburg had told me something similar about his relatives – they had been assigned to jobs all over the Soviet Union, and there had been nothing they could do about it.
During Soviet times St Petersburg was renamed Leningrad. The siege of Leningrad is one of the most notorious and horrific episodes of World War II. The city was besieged by the German Army for around three years, during which time around 630,000 residents died – many from starvation or cold. T said that, as a daughter of Leningrad, the authorities would pay for her mother and T and her sister to make a return trip from Siberia to Leningrad every year. That entailed T’s poor mother trying to keep two small children entertained for five days – each way – on the train; no easy task. Mind you, if T’s mother had survived around 1,000 days of being starved and frozen I guess she could handle anything.
After three days in tranquil Listvyanka, it was back to Irkutsk. I had a day to explore before I caught the train on to Ulan-Ude. I had a ‘host family’ – a history teacher and her daughter – but they were happy to let me just dump my bags in their apartment and, after a brief orientation tour, explore the city on my own. Irkustsk, with a population of over half-a-million, is like the capital of Eastern Siberia. There didn’t seem to be many tourist sites in Irkutsk – or if there were, the city didn’t (at the time) seem particularly geared up to being shared with tourists, but it was good just to wander around and soak up the atmosphere. I found the Irkutsk art gallery, which wasn’t dissimilar to an art gallery at home, only at home I’m not followed around by a posse of older ladies who switch off the lights in each room as I leave.
I also happened upon the Decembrists Museum, in what was once the home of Prince Sergei Trubetskoy. The Decembrists were a group of mainly well-to-do people who in 1825 set up a revolt against the then Tsar, Nicholas I. (Nicholas was clearly not a good name to have if you were a tsar!) The revolt failed and the Decembrists were exiled to Siberia. The house was surprisingly grand for someone “in exile” but it was very woody; it wasn’t obvious whether it was made entirely of wood, but with the interior walls lined with plaster or mortar or something, or if it was mainly stone but with the exterior clad in wood. It’s not the only house of this type in Irkutsk – the Decembrists created their own little colony in the city, an area of ornate wooden homes.
Next stop was the waterfront of the River Angara, which flows through Irkutsk. The prime sight there was probably a group of teenagers and men lounging around swigging from bottles of alcohol. Clearly, drinking on the street in the middle of the day isn’t a purely British phenomenon.
The journey to Ulan-Ude was another overnight one. I and a Russian girl found ourselves sharing our compartment with a pair of drunken Mongolian men. One, who spoke really good English, explained that they were on their way home to Ulanbataar after a three-day bender with friends in Irkutsk. Eric would not let me go to bed, telling me how glad he was to have someone to practise his English with. He insisted on showing me a book about his father, who had had 10 children, all of whom he had managed to send to university. He had been a (Buddhist) lama, so he had had to keep his head down during Soviet times. Eric was a perfect gentleman, interested in nothing more than a conversation in English, and what he had to say was all rather interesting. However, I really was knackered and desperate to go to sleep, not to mention concerned about how his loud slurring might be disturbing passengers in the compartments on either side of us (and probably the compartments beyond them, he was that loud). Eventually, his head slumped onto the little table between the bunks and I had peace, although not for long. Within a couple of hours we were pulling into Ulan-Ude. Passengers (me included) were bustling about getting off the train, new travellers were boarding, and the strident station announcements could hardly be heard over the shouts and calls of the hawkers on the platform. I said a cheery goodbye to Eric and his mate, but for some reason neither of them was anything like as jovial as they had been earlier on.
Like Yekaterinburg, Ulan-Ude was closed to foreigners until 1991. I wondered what doing the Trans-Siberian was like before then (if it were even possible, that is). Imagine the frustration, going through all these interesting-looking places and not being able to get off the train to explore them.
Although the official ‘border’ between Europe and Asia is in Yekaterinburg, it was only in Ulan-Ude that I actually felt like I was in Asia. Sure, Z, my host in Listvyanka, looked as though she might have a little Asian blood in her, but almost everyone else I had contact with around Irkutsk looked defiantly European. However, the indigenous people of Ulan-Ude, the Buryats, share the same genetic heritage as their next-door neighbours in Mongolia, and it shows.
Despite the Asian nature of Ulan-Ude, my hosts in the city were ethnically Russian: A, his wife S and their two young children. S took me for a tour of the Buryat countryside around Ulan-Ude. Our first stop was the Ivolginsky Datsan monastery. Like their Mongolian neighbours the Buryats are predominantly Buddhist, and the Datsan is the most important Buddhist centre in Russia.
As S and I ambled around the Buddhas, stupas, prayer bells and prayer wheels in this Buddhist monastery in the middle of nowhere, or rather on a steppe around 10 miles from Ulan-Ude and more than 5,000 miles from my home, we were engaged in conversation by two young trainee lamas. They, naturally, wanted to know where I was from. And their reaction when they found out? “Manchester? Manchester U-ni-ted!!!” (This was a novel experience for me at the time; later I half-considered renaming myself Alison-from-England-near-Manchester-yes-I-know-Manchester-United-!.)
Our trip also took in an ethnography museum, an open-air village that wasn’t that different to the one K took me to outside Yekaterinburg. This one did, though, appear to be a popular venue for people having wedding photographs taken. On the way back to the city we passed a pretty cool statue, of a plane taking off. It was up a broad flight of steps at the end of a wide avenue, with the plane taking off towards us. S told me it was a monument to an aeronautics factory; Ulan-Ude is an important centre for the aviation industry.
Ulan-Ude is famous for another reason: the city centre is the home of the world’s biggest head of Lenin. I have no idea why the city fathers of Ulan-Ude decided to build it – whether, for example, Lenin had any special connection with the city – but it’s there anyway, 25 feet tall (7.7metres) and weighing 42 tonnes. I have to admit that it does look pretty impressive and dramatic, dominating the square around it.
S had taken me shopping in the city centre. I needed to change some money so S took me to the black-market moneychangers outside the market. Our moneychanger of choice was going to give me change for US$10 rather than the $20 I had given him, but S realised what he was doing and made him pay up properly. S told me that even now the Soviet era was over, the black-market was still the best way to change money. Until a couple of years ago, she said, she, A and the children had had to share the flat with A’s parents, until they had been able to find enough money to buy a separate flat for her in-laws. When they were buying the flat, S said, they had used black-market moneychangers, as the rate for US$1,000 was so much better than the official rate. I asked her why, in such a massive country, where land is so plentiful, families had to share (usually quite tiny) flats, but she said she didn’t know.
In the market – which was huge and chock-full of stuff – S bought me a treat: “Sirra”, or “Siberian chewing gum”. It’s basically pine resin and I think it’s fair to say it’s an acquired taste. That said, it started disgusting but after I’d been chewing for a while, it improved a little. But then a new problem emerged: it sticks your jaws together! I think it’s OK if you don’t open your mouth, but if you do, the cold air makes the resin set solid! S said it was good for your teeth, and it probably is. Firstly, because if your jaws are stuck together you can’t cram in anything else that might be bad for your teeth, and secondly, if you do manage to get something else in your mouth, the sirra has coated them so thoroughly nothing harmful will find a purchase!
Back at home, A showed me a video of him and his mates driving over Baikal in winter, when the lake was frozen, when a four-foot wide crack appeared in the ice right in front of them! They managed to stop the car just in time (even on the ice!), but it was one of the maddest things I had ever seen. A said he wanted to build a sledge hotel, so he could take tourists camping on the ice in winter. I’m thinking that if he did manage to make that happen, he would share the video with them after they’d spent a night on the ice, not before. (Ulan-Ude is probably not that much further from Baikal than Irkutsk is from Listvyanka and the lake, probably only around 50 miles or so. It’s like the two cities are at either end of a flattened-out U-shape, with the narrow end of the lake sitting in the bottom of the U. For probably half of the journey the train line is running along the edge of the lake, but as I was travelling overnight, viewing the lake from the train was an experience I missed out on.)
As if going to Mongolia wasn’t a memorable enough experience in itself, the train journeys to and from Ulaanbaatar were beyond unforgettable.
After I boarded the train in Ulan-Ude I met five other Westerners travelling with the same company as me. I would be sharing a compartment with three of them; the other two, J and T, were next door, with two Mongolian men. The guide booklet supplied by the travel company had been pretty rubbish so far, but it was right to warn us to expect an “interesting” journey.
The bulk of our fellow passengers were Mongolian traders, returning to Mongolia with goods they had bought in Russia. However, they had perfected a way of, shall we say, ‘minimising’ the import/export taxes due at the border. As we left Ulan-Ude, the carpet running down the corridor of our carriage was peeled back and the trapdoor underneath was lifted. Men (as far as I could see it was only men) appeared from nowhere and started to cram goods into the compartment below: coil after coil of electrical flex, and countless pairs of shoes. Seeing as this activity wasn’t exactly subtle, I assume it was happening with the blessing of the provodnik.
Apart from the racket outside, our compartment was relatively peaceful. Next door, however, had become a clearing house for hooky stuff. J and T, who sought refuge with us, thought they had figured out how the system worked. Anything that wasn’t concealed was shared among the traders. One person would have, say, 10 CD players. He would get four other people to take two each – for ‘personal use’ – in exchange for him taking maybe two food processors, four duvets, two sets of pans and a microwave from them. Each of those four traders would be striking deals with other traders, who, in turn, were arranging swaps of their own. This wasn’t happening in just our compartment, though; the whole train was alive with men staggering from carriage to carriage laden with consumer goods. It was a(nother) overnight journey, but needless to say, even though we were left pretty much alone, we didn’t get much sleep. Nothing disturbs your slumber quite like a man carrying a television tripping over a trapdoor and stumbling against (and nearly through) the wall of your compartment at 3am, or a bewildered soul flinging open the door offering a set of bedding then changing his mind when he realises you’re not in on his act. And that was just on the way to the border. Once we were through that and on our way to Ulaanbaatar we had to go through the whole process again, only this time in reverse.
I’m vegetarian and my first meal in the capital city of what was once known as Outer Mongolia was…? Pasta with fresh spinach sauce, and a cappuccino. Both of which tasted as they should (ie not exactly as you would get them in Italy, but almost – the cappuccino was espresso with milk and foam, not, say, instant coffee with frothy milk). So much for the tour company guide booklet; that had warned us not to expect anything other than meat, and especially not vegetables, as the Mongolians were suspicious of anything that came out of the ground. (Plus, I suppose, try growing anything in land that’s frozen for umpteen months of the year.) Whoever wrote the guidebook had clearly been caught out by the rise of globalisation; our lunch venue, the Millennium Café, wouldn’t have looked out of place in any city in the world, it really wouldn’t. Our tour guide had met us off the train, taken us to the café and then, after lunch, given us a handful of hours to enjoy Ulaanbaatar on our own.
Ulaanbaatar is the capital city of Mongolia. Modern Mongolia, a country in its own right, lies on land roughly equivalent to what was once known as “Outer Mongolia”. As in the place that when I was growing up was shorthand for absolute remoteness and inaccessibility, but … I WAS THERE!!!! How jaw-droppingly amazing was that?
I hadn’t really thought about what I wanted to see in Ulaanbaatar – just being there was overwhelming enough. However, while flicking through a magazine (in English, so much for Mongolia being the back end of nowhere!) in the café I spotted a plug for somewhere that sounded like just my kind of place: the International Intellectual Museum. Not because I consider myself an intellectual (although of course I am…) but because it sounded so downright weird. And it did not disappoint. It was run by a little old man and it was stuffed full of toys. Some were indeed “intellectual” – metal puzzles and chess sets with the pieces made from interlocking bricks, like a puzzle; some not quite so intellectual – farting figurines, anyone? “American toy, American toy,” the man would tell me as he followed me round, or: “Mongolian toy, two years old.”
Having failed to solve any of the puzzles, thereby proving myself to be an International non-Intellectual, I headed to the hotel where I was to meet my fellow travellers and our guide. We piled into a minibus and were driven to our accommodation for the next couple of nights – a ger (the Mongolian word for yurt) camp on the steppe about 50 km from Ulaanbaatar. Despite the unusual location and nature of the accommodation, I couldn’t help feeling that I was just in a funkier version of Butlin’s, without the redcoats, obviously. Sure, the gers were, we were told, ‘authentic’, built just like the ones lived in by real nomads, but it was still, after all, a camp for tourists. Even so, I wouldn’t have missed the experience for the world.
Considering a ger is nothing more than animal skins stretched over a wooden frame, with a wood-burning stove as a centrepiece and we were on a freezing Mongolian steppe, the ger was bloody boiling inside. After a mammoth supper I tried to sleep in what felt like a furnace. In the middle of the night I had to go to the loo. The toilets – hole-in-the-ground compostable ones – were a little way from the ger, and the short walk gave me chance to appreciate how amazingly clear and starry the sky was – no light pollution here! It was spell-binding, if too cold to hang around for long.
The following morning it was time for what was supposed to be our main/mane? (ha ha) event: a horse-ride across the steppe. I wasn’t really that bothered about the ride – I was happy just to be on the steppe – but I was so glad I did go; it was incredible. It was a 16km round trip on (supposedly) wild horses. We were assured that there would be no nasty accidents in the middle of nowhere, as the horses had been trained to ignore tourists and respond only to the instructions of their handlers plus just a couple of basic commands from whoever was on their backs. To get them to move we were told to jerk our heels into their sides and shout “Chew, chew!” which, apparently, means something like “Giddyup!”. Only I suspect it probably means “fart”, because that’s exactly what the horses did every time we told them to chew, chew. We must have been quite something to behold, eight riders trotting across the steppe on our stocky, trumpeting mounts.
Our destination was a ‘monument’, best described as a Mongolian equivalent of British standing stones. It was set in a truly gobsmacking landscape: we could see nothing for miles around, other than steppe – even if that steppe did have electricity pylons strung across it – and, right by the monument, two grubby kids from a nearby (real) ger playing around a mobile phone mast.
Over supper, T, our guide, told us a little about what life had been like when Mongolia had been a satellite state of the Soviet Union. Then, she said, there was usually just one style of shoe on sale, usually made in Poland, almost always in black. “Everywhere you looked,” said T, “People were wearing that shoe, just in different sizes.”
In the mid-1990s, after the Soviet Union had collapsed and Mongolia was in a mess, T went to the shop and all it had to sell was salt. How things have changed! As I had read in that magazine in that café in Ulaanbaatar: “Five years ago Mongolians wouldn’t have known the difference between a tomato and a taco, but now they’re both widely available, and other foods as well…” and it was right. It was bollocks what the guidebook had said about you starving in Mongolia, especially if you were a veggie – pretty much all foods were available, if you could pay for them. It was a bit unnerving, though: I was so used to veggie food being the cheap option at home, but in Mongolia, where meat was widely available but so much veg was imported, veggie food was at least as expensive, if not dearer than, meat.
After supper, T showed us how to play ankle bones, which involves shaking and tossing a handful of small bones onto a table (a bit like throwing a dice), then flicking together the ones that have landed the same way up (which are called sheep, horses, camels and goats, according to which side is facing upwards). Well, if you don’t have access to Subbuteo…
The following day was our last in Mongolia, and it was a full day in Ulaanbaatar. The famous winter palace of Bogd Khan, the last proper ruler of Mongolia, was closed, but the Natural History Museum was open. Mongolia has one of the richest collections of dinosaur fossils in the world, and although some attempt had been made to display them properly, it was all rather sad. There was an entrance fee of US$2, but additional fees of US$5 if you wanted to take pictures of the most impressive stuff – massive dinosaur bones – and $20 for shooting video. The Choijin Lama Museum was beautiful, if tumbledown, but most of the temples were locked, including the main one. A woman got a member of staff to open it for me; it was lovely but absolutely freezing.
Having seen Lenin in Moscow, I was desperate to see the preserved body of Damdin Sukhbaatar, the “hero of the revolution”, who in 1921 declared Mongolia’s independence from China. (‘Independence’ was a bit of a loose term, however, as Sukhbaatar drove out the Chinese with the help of the Soviet army, which stuck around afterwards, thereby replacing one bunch of foreign overseers with another.) Sukhbaatar was supposed to be on display à là Lenin in a mausoleum in the central precinct, Sukhbaatar Square, but it was closed, so I couldn’t. [And I will never get another chance, as the mausoleum was demolished in 2005 and replaced with a hall to … Genghis Khan! Sukhbaatar’s body was cremated in the presence of Buddhist monks.]
One sight I hadn’t expected in the city was a small encampment of gers – which looked like ‘real’ ones, as opposed to something set up for tourists – just a short walk from the downtown area. That kind of summed up Mongolia in a way: on one side of me sophisticated, mobile-phone-wielding urbanites in the city centre, and on the other, Mongolians living as they had for centuries, shifting their gers and goats from place to place.
Before meeting the others and catching the train to Beijing, I had a veggie lunch at City Coffee, described as “Ulanbaatar’s best internet café” by the English language newspaper the Mongol Messenger (three concepts I did not expect to experience in Mongolia – “veggie lunch”, “internet café” and “English-language newspaper”!)
On the train I tucked into my ‘afters’ to my veggie lunch. It was a tin of Del Monte peach slices I had carried all the way from home, to stave off the scurvy I was sure I would have got by now, thanks to the dire warnings in the ever-reliable guidebook about there being no such thing as veggie food in Mongolia. (I’d brought two tins – would have been more but I could barely carry my luggage as it was – but I had given one to Z, my host in Yekaterinburg, because she seemed to be rather taken by it.)
Our journey to Beijing was enlivened by a) the gross realisation that we had spittoons – spittoons! – under our bunks (better than the alternative, I suppose) and b) spotting camels out on the steppes.
But in terms of excitement, neither came anywhere close to what happened when we reached the Mongolian/Chinese border and… the wheels were changed! The tracks are different widths (no idea how that happened), so the Russian-Mongolian-sized bogies had to be taken off and replaced with ones that fit the Chinese tracks. Although the guidebook had warned us about the whole wheel-changing thing, it was still rather alarming when it happened; one minute we were travelling in the pitch black (it was another overnight journey) the next we’re in one of the biggest sheds I’ve ever seen watching the carriages around us being jacked into the air.
I didn’t realise it was actually happening to us until the carriage started to jolt and sway. It was really unnerving to look through the window and down and watch the ground getting further and further from us. We must have been raised about 10 feet (three metres). The whole process took something like three hours. And, of course, the toilets were out of action for the entire time – which was far more concerning than the whole being stuck in a carriage above 10 feet of fresh air thing.
Two things worth commenting on from the journey through China: a view of the Great Wall as we stopped in one station or another, and, on another station, an elderly lady with the tiniest feet I have never seen. It is just possible that she was one of the ever-diminishing number of women with bound feet. The practice was banned officially from around 1912 onwards although I think it still happened unofficially for several years, so it was technically possible for her to be one of the women affected.
Highlights of my three days in Beijing? The Forbidden City, which was ginormous. And ‘boasted’ a Starbucks. I didn’t fancy a coffee – not one from Starbucks, anyway. I was, though, rather tempted by the idea of having my picture taken dressed as an empress and sitting on a throne, by one of the professional photographers loitering in an outdoor ‘studio’ within the City. I wasn’t brave enough, but lots of other tourists were (although no Western ones, as far as I could see). As a non-smoker l didn’t have to heed the public information sign: “No Smoking. One small match can destroy a 100-year-old Palace”, but I did wonder if it would be worth trying to get a ticket for the band “High Five of Teenage Boys”, as advertised on a poster elsewhere.
Even from the outside the Forbidden City was stunning – as I learned when I looked down on it from Prospect Hill Park. On the (long) walk to the park, I crossed a bridge over the moat around the Forbidden City. For some reason there was no one around. It was sunny and I stood looking at the moat, getting quite overwhelmed by the thought of just where the bloody hell I was (Beijing!) when some bloke cycled past hoiking his lungs up. (Mind you, people were spitting everywhere in Beijing; some tourist sites had signs up, warning people against spitting there.)
I checked out the Mao-soleum (har har), where Chairman Mao, preserved, lies in state. There were the same rules here as with Lenin – no cameras and no stopping; you’re in a queue that is perpetually moving, so you can’t really study the leader before you. The mausoleum fills one side of Tiananmen Square. After checking out Mao, I stood in the square and paid my respects (not publicly, of course) to the victims of 1989 and wondered if the lively, cosmopolitan, glossy shopping malls stuffed full of consumer goods would have been any different if 1989 hadn’t happened (or, for that matter, if the democracy protestors had succeeded in their aims). Not so far from Tiananmen Square I wandered through what I assume were hutongs; these narrow alleys of tiny properties right by this massive public space. (They might not even be there in 2016 – I read somewhere that most of them were being demolished to make way for buildings more representative of ‘modern Beijing’.)
Another new experience was dinner in a vegetarian restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet. While it wasn’t the first time I’d eaten in a vegetarian restaurant, it was the first (and so far only) time I’d been confronted by a menu like this. “Stuffed goose intestines”, anyone? “Prawns”? I’ve consumed countless meat-like-but-veggie sausages, burgers and pies during my life, but vegetarian offal? That sounded too unlikely to be true. I’ve since found out that Chinese cooks are geniuses (genii?) at turning agar-agar, starch, soya and the like into something almost identical to meat, seafood or offal, but even if I’d known that at the time I doubt I would have been brave enough to try them.