After our strange, challenging and wonderful 6 days with the Mongolian nomads (check back to our post about it; we’ve added more photos) we hightailed it back to the relative luxury of Ulaan Baator. Of course, being desperate for a shower, the powers that be decreed that we would have no hot water for a further 12 hours. Agony!
Eventually, suitably bathed and relieved (and supplied with beer), we embarked on the next phase of our trip – a two night train ride to Irkutsk, an hour or so from the immense Lake Baikal. We lucked into having the compartment to ourselves for the trip. However, this joy was curtailed by the discovery that there was no restaurant car on the train, no food vendors at most of the stations, and that we had brought just a few sweet snacks. Finally, at about 10pm on day 2 we found some food, but needless to say we spend most of the preceding day playing the “what would eat right now if you were at home?” game. (Again.)
Irkutsk is a pretty nice place. We also had a pleasant, comfy hostel which felt a little as though we were staying in someone’s home. And we met up with some travellers from the UK that we had bumped into intermittently since the train to UB, so got to spend some time with people other than each other. Hooray!
Of course, one of the biggest attractions of Irkutsk is Lake Baikal – a lake of many superlatives. It is the deepest, oldest and clearest lake in the world and the biggest freshwater lake. It’s immense. We spent a day visiting a town at the southern tip, but I imagine you could spend months exploring the lake and its environs.
Sadly, we were visiting the lake at an inconvenient time – close enough to summer that the ice had broken up and almost completely melted, but not summery enough for things like swimming or diving to be an attractive proposition. At least there was some ice left over for us to play with.
There’s a myth about the lake that if you submerge your hands, you’ll earn an extra year of life. Stick your feet in, and you get 5 years. Have a proper swim, and you get a bonus 25 years of life. While Alex and I weren’t brave enough to swim amongst the ice (although our newfound friends, Kath and Daniel, did grace us with a demonstration of the agony we could have expected if we did take the plunge), we at least doffed our shoes and socks for a pretty painful 30 seconds in the icy water. I think our faces say it all.
And it seems that Kath and Daniel weren’t the only ones taking the water here.
Anyway, we spent a very fun day exploring this small part of Lake Baikal. It’s definitely a place we’d both like to come back to sometime.
After a couple of days relaxing in Irkutsk (and eating great food – the supermarkets were full of delicious beetroot salad, cheese, ham and bread – things we haven’t really eaten since leaving Australia 3 months previously. Oh, and don’t forget the great vodka) it was time to head off.
Between Irkutsk in southern Siberia and Moscow in the European part of Russia lies 5152km of railway. We covered this immense distance in a single hop, departing on Monday afternoon around 4pm and arriving on Thursday at about 6pm. Given that we would be spending 3 days straight on the train (and that we’re on our honeymoon, lest we forget that important point) we opted for first class. We were very happy to see our cabin – a brand new refurbishment, and I didn’t have to sleep on the top bunk! (Also note the important addition of a bottle of Baikal vodka on the table).
Of course, after 3 days on the train, the tidiness had been completely banished.
Spending so much time on the train was quite soporific and very relaxing. We spent time listening to music, playing games, reading books, napping, and staring at the changing scenery out the window. It was definitely an enjoyable thing to do. We especially enjoyed watching the landscape slowly change from Siberian to European.
Arriving in Moscow was exciting. It felt very cosmopolitan after our time in Mongolia and Siberia and we regretted that we only had 3 days there. We checked out a couple of great museums, including the brilliantly bizarre Polytechnical Museum (documenting the history of industry in Russia) and the moving Sakharov Museum (with exhibits on life under Stalin and the gulags).
On our final afternoon in Moscow, we thought we’d engage in a fine Moscow tradition and go for Sunday brunch. Suitably attired in our most natty jeans and t-shirts (the effects of the long trip are starting to be seen on our wardrobe, sadly), we turned up at the Marriott, paid a relatively large sum of money, and sat down to eat and drink to our heart’s content. Alex binged on blinis and caviare, I relished the seafood station and we both sampled plenty of Russian champagne, vodka and desserts. After 4.5 hours we rolled out, having done our very best to imbibe our money’s worth. A fitting farewell to Russia.