Russia Part 6 – Vladivostok

Day 165: August 24, 2018

At 5:30 am our train bunk mates left and two new ones arrived. We slept in not wanting to disturb them as they had laid down to sleep. We had yogurt and cereal for breakfast and met our roommates. They are a younger couple from a town at the border of Russia-Mongolia-China. The guy is a teacher of science in Vladivostok and the girl is studying music to become a conductor.

I watched the end of Orange is the New Black and Danny played another chess match with Sasha. Three hours later he came out the winner. I was so hot and had such a headache.

At 5:00 pm we had sandwiches then we were able to get off the train at 8:00 pm and 10:00 pm for 15 minute stops. It was nice to have some fresh air and escape the heat. I read for a bit then we went to bed around midnight.

Sunset train views
Day 166: August 25, 2018

We woke up and had oatmeal for breakfast. We spent some time staring out the window and catching the breeze in the hallway. I watched some Alias Grace which is a bit heavy for railway riding.

Around lunch time we got off at a stop and bought a meat pie from a babushka. At the bigger stops there always seem to be babushkas selling homemade pies, perogies, chicken and veggies. There are also usually stands with beverages and snacks. There is sometimes beer at the stands as well, although not publicly. We also bought a Fanta because I was craving something cold and refreshing.

Babushka sales

Danny was playing a chess game on his phone and our roommate came in and said, “Play me”. So they played a game. The Russian won this game. The girl told us that my Russian name is Marina and Danny’s is Denis. They were very nice.

Chess with our Russian roommates

For supper we had sandwiches then stared out the window some more. Around 11:00 pm we went to bed.

Day 167: August 26, 2018

I woke up around 3:00 am with major cramping in my stomach. I was then in the bathroom every hour after. Luckily, the bathroom was free all night.

At 11:00 am we rolled out of bed and had some oatmeal. Danny’s stomach was also hurting the night before. We deduced that it was the meat pie. We really should have known better.

We spent the rest of the time on the train looking out the window. The area around Vladivostok was very flooded. Apparently they had 20 days of rain.

View from the train

We had our final drink on the train with the group then at 2:37 pm we finally got off. The 68 hour leg was the worst for me. Being stuck in one car with nowhere to escape and no A/C was hard. At times I felt claustrophobic because there was nowhere to go.

I’m not sure I would suggest others to do the full Trans-Siberian journey. We enjoyed the trip, but it was definitely not our preferred method of travel. We missed being able to stop in the middle of nowhere as most of our stops were in larger towns. It is exciting to say we completed the trip and it was an interesting way to move from our European portion of the trip to the Asian.

Map of our Trans-Siberian Railway trip

We stopped for pictures in front of a train and then hopped in cabs to our hotel. It was so nice to finally shower and clean my greasy hair.

Group photo at the end of the train journey

After showers, we met the group and walked to the main square. There was a car audio show going on that was insanely loud. We went to a souvenir shop where Danny found some Soviet coins. From there, we walked to the memorial submarine S-56 from WWII. It was originally part of the Pacific Fleet and then sent to the Northern Fleet in the polar region. It sunk 10 rival ships in WWII.

Submarine S-56

There was a museum inside then the “command centre” with loads of valves and a periscope. The next room looked like an eating area with a nice photo of Stalin in the corner. The last room had bunks and torpedoes. The museum portion was a bit boring, but the rest made it worth the 100 RUB.

Inside Submarine S-56

Next, we walked passed the Triumphal Arch then through a park back to the Main Street. We walked out to the waterfront and viewed the sunset.

Sunset in Vladivostok

We met the group for a farewell dinner in a very nice restaurant. We had a vegetable stir fry with tongue, a mix of seafood and a deer plate. For dessert we had an assorted plate of four cakes. The food came out very quickly for a Russian restaurant.

We said goodbye to some of the group and went with the rest for some drinks up the street. We enjoyed some vodka shots and chatted. We walked back to the hotel and said goodbye to everyone else.

Goodbye shots
Day 168: August 27, 2018

We woke up at 8:00 am and had breakfast in the hotel. At 9:30 am we met in the lobby and took a taxi with the UK ladies to the airport. They were so sweet to us, real mums. As we said goodbye, they told me how lucky I am to have such a gentleman for a husband. He really is pretty sweet.

Our flight had been moved back so we had to wait to check in. There was a flight to Pyongyang, North Korea checking in. The people in line were all men and all dressed in suits. Right after that one was a flight to Seoul, South Korea.

We sat in a coffee shop until our flight came up. My family had celebrated birthdays including mine the previous day. They recorded some videos and sent them to me. As I was watching, the tears started to pour down my face. There are certain things that are harder to miss than others. My birthday hit me hard. My favourite part of my birthday has always been spending it with family and friends.

We checked in and went through security. The international departures in Vladivostok airport had only three gates. Our flight to Seoul took much longer than you would have expected. When we looked at the map on the plane we understood. The flight went all the way east to Japan before heading back west to Seoul. This was all to avoid North Korean airspace.

We were fed a meal on the flight and there were free movies. Arriving in Seoul was interesting. The airport was shiny and new, the toilets had built in bidets and the people were friendly. They didn’t butt in line and were just pleasant. It was much different than Eastern Europe where everyone comes across as harsh.

We were fed another meal on our flight from Seoul to Ulaanbatar. We arrived and took some cash out of the ATM for a cab. We strategized our cab ride much better than we did in Russia. The cab driver we approached didn’t try to rip us off. He offered us a fair price up front and we agreed. We gave him the phone number of our Airbnb host so he could provide directions. The Airbnb is quite spacious with a bedroom, living room and kitchen.

Leaving Russia was one of the few times where I was ready to leave a country. I enjoyed Russia, but it was time to move on. I was glad to be finished our Trans-Siberian adventure. My mom asked if I would recommend the railway trip to others and I don’t think I would unless you loved trains. The sights were nothing incredible, the food wasn’t that great and the train journey was hard mentally. I am grateful for the people we met.

We were talking with some of the people in our group about Mongolia and it got us very excited about this upcoming leg of the trip. We have some days in Ulaanbatar to relax before we head out of the city for a bit.

M

Russia Part 5 – Ulan-Ude

Day 163: August 22, 2018

I didn’t have a good sleep last night on the train. It was very jolty and we had to be up at 4:30 am to get off the train. We arrived in Ulan-Ude and were taken to our hotel for an early check in. We had showers then I had a short nap.

We went down for breakfast in the hotel. I had a crepe with honey that literally tasted like the toilet on the train. Danny thought I was exaggerating, but when he tasted it he agreed.

At 9:00 am we met our guide for a tour of Ivolginsky Datsan Monastery about 50 minutes outside of Ulan-Ude. It is a Buddhist monastery within the Buryat Republic. The republic is the size of Japan or Germany, but only 975,000 people live there. The area previously belonged to Mongolia until Russia invaded 400 years ago. It took the Russians a century to conquer Siberia. An agreement between Russia and China led to the current border.

The Buryat language is a dialect of Mongolian which is actually more similar to Turkish than Chinese. In 1923, Lenin would not give the Buryats autonomy, but agreed to the preservation of their native tongue and culture. In 1958, the name Buryat was given to the group of different tribes living in the republic area. In Soviet times, talk of Genghis Khan was prohibited to prevent a separatist movement in the region.

Empress Elizabeth was the Russian ruler that accepted Buddhism as an official religion in 1741. She believed treating those at the frontier well would help protect the border. She preferred Buddhism over Shamanism as the lamas were more organized making the people easier to control.

Stalin destroyed many Buddhist monasteries and sent lamas to labour camps during his rule. A local lama negotiated with Stalin for the building of a monastery in the Buryat Republic. Many locals had fought for the Soviet Union during WWII. Stalin agreed that they could pick a spot for the monastery. While looking for a spot, the horse the lama was riding refused to go any further so the people decided it must be the location for the monastery. The Ivolginsky Datsan Monastery was built in 1945 and is the centre of Buddhism in Russia. The Dalai Lama cannot currently visit Russia as it would upset their ties with China.

We walked around the monastery clockwise passing the prayer wheels along the way. Inside the monastery is a university where students study for eight years to become lamas. We visited a couple of temples that were very adorned inside. No photos were allowed inside.

Prayer wheels at Ivolginsky Datsan

Outside one of the smaller temples was a black kitten. I picked him up and he was purring like crazy. I skipped the temple and held the kitten. I didn’t want to put him down.

Temple at Ivolginsky Datsan

There was a well with a rock on top that the Mongolian tourists line up to walk to with their eyes closed. If they reach the rock their wish will come true.

Wishing well at Ivolginsky Datsan

We ate lunch in a ger canteen within the monastery. We had fresh bread, salad, noodle soup and buuza (dumplings very similar to khinkali) then there was a deep fried dough for dessert.

Buryat food

After lunch, we returned to the hotel. In our room, I napped again to try to catch up on some sleep. Around 5:00 pm we ventured out. We went to the main square and saw the head of Lenin, a statue. The bronze statue is over seven metres tall and was built in 1970.

Head of Lenin

Then we went to a different square in front of the theatre where a celebration with music and dancing was going on. Danny also found the finish line for the Mongol Rally. The Mongol Rally is a charity rally where teams race beater cars from one city to another. This year the rally went from Prague to Ulan-Ude. There is no set route and teams can take their time as there is no winner or loser.

Mongol Rally finish line

We continued down the street towards the river. We passed the Holy Cathedral Odigitrievsky then walked passed some of the historic buildings. On our way back we went through the central market.

Holy Cathedral Odigitrievsky

At 8:00 pm we met the group at the hotel and walked up the street to Bar 12. There was a very nice view over the city at sunset. We had drinks then Sasha left to spend time with his family. It ended up taking over an hour and a half for our food and they all came at different times. We have come to expect a delay when in a foreign country especially when we are with a group. We were just enjoying the night and the drinks.

Sunset in Ulan-Ude

We returned to the hotel with the group, but then we weren’t ready for bed. We went to the hotel restaurant and ordered another round of drinks and dessert. When we were finished we returned to our room for bed.

Day 164: August 23, 2018

We slept in a bit then went downstairs for breakfast. At 10:00 am we both called our parents. We checked out of the room at noon and stored our bags in the hotel. Sasha suggested a pizza place for us for lunch, but warned it wouldn’t be as good as pizza in Canada.

We had a bit of trouble finding the place as it was downstairs in a row of buildings. The waitress only spoke a bit of English and there was no English menu. We ordered a pepperoni pizza which translated easily then pointed to another pizza on the menu unsure what we would get. It ended up being a chicken, tomato and ham pizza. The pizza was acceptable, but nothing amazing.

After lunch, we walked to a grocery store and picked out items for our 3 1/2 day train trip. Back at the square we sat for a bit to do some people watching. There was a man with balloons that he had obviously taken off the main stage. It appeared he was trying to sell them to people. He came towards us (likely because we were staring at him) and we decided it was time to return to the hotel. We noticed a lot more street people in Ulan-Ude than other cities. The further west cities may have been “cleaned up” for the World Cup.

At the hotel, we met the group and traveled to the train station. We waited a bit inside until we knew our track number then boarded our train. We were all in the same car except Sasha. Danny and I are with two randoms. A mother and young daughter boarded a stop after us and were in the two top bunks. We prefer the top ones as we are able to get out of the way and lay down whenever we want. The train has no air conditioning and no dining car so I think the ride may be harder than the previous one. You just don’t know what type of train you will get!

We stayed up for a midnight stop to get some fresh air then went to bed. Our lunch was so big we weren’t even hungry for supper.

We have a long train journey ahead of us before we end our Trans-Siberian journey in Vladivostok.

M

Russia Part 4 – Listvyanka and Irkutsk

Day 160: August 19, 2018

I didn’t have as good a sleep as the previous night on the train. We woke up around 9:00 am and finished packing up our stuff. We had dry cereal for breakfast. We got off the train around 10:40 am and a bus was waiting for us in Irkutsk. On the bus we all sat alone needing some space after being cooped up in the train.

The bus took us to Listvyanka on Lake Baikal. Lake Baikal is the largest freshwater lake by volume and the deepest lake in the world.

We checked into our room and then all had showers to clean off after three nights on the train. We met at 2:00 pm to walk to the market in town.

Listvyanka market

The market had mostly fish and then some souvenirs. I had the hot smoked fish and Danny had the cold smoked fish. They were so tasty. We also had a salad and pilaf. We walked around the market a bit then sat on the shore of Lake Baikal watching the waves.

We met the group again for an hour boat ride on the lake. It was a bit wavy, but the fresh air was nice. We were able to taste the fresh water of the lake which was very nice.

Lake Baikal boat ride

We returned for supper at the hotel then we went to a banya, a Russian sauna. We were given wraps and hats to wear inside. The hats are to stop your hair from getting wet. It wasn’t too hot to start, but I could only stay in for 15 minutes. David got the local treatment of getting hit with birch branches. The owner added more water to the coals which made it super steamy and near unbearable to stay inside. I went in and out to watch. Wearing contacts was probably not the best idea as they dried up from the heat. There was a bucket in the adjacent shower and you could pull a rope to dump ice cold water on you. It was quite refreshing after the heat.

I tried beating Danny with the branches for a bit, but it was so hot. He then beat me for a bit. When we were sitting afterwards I could feel the blood pulsing through me. We spent about two hours at the banya before returning to our rooms for some sleep.

Day 161: August 20, 2018

We slept in until 9:00 am, but probably could have slept more. Between the time change and sleeping on the train we’ve needed to catch up on some sleep.

Breakfast was served in the main lobby area. We had an “omelette” which was eggs cooked in a casserole dish with veggies on the side. We sat for a bit chatting then returned to the room for the iPad. Danny tried to call his parents, but it was a bit noisy and he wasn’t in the best mood. He returned to the room while I caught up on blogging.

At 1:30 pm we had lunch in the lobby. The grilled veggies I had were very good, but the chicken wasn’t so great. We weren’t sure it was cooked through.

We met the group at 3:30 pm and the youngest of us went for a hike. We had to register in town that we were going for a walk. In summer no one can go into the forest without registering to prevent forest fires. It was about a 20 minute walk to the end of town and then we went up a trail. My belly was starting to get very rumbly.

Hike to look out over Lake Baikal

We got a nice view out over Lake Baikal. From there we went through the trees and back down to town. By the end of the hike my stomach was ready to explode. We had planned to go for a swim, but I just wanted to get back to the hotel.

The walk back was way longer than I remembered. When we got back I realized it must have been that chicken that wasn’t good as I definitely had food poisoning.

We went for dinner at 8:00 pm, but I could only eat a bit. I was feeling weak and fluish. We returned to the room so that I could get some rest.

Day 162: August 21, 2018

We had breakfast at the hotel then we boarded the bus to Irkutsk. We toured a Decembrist’s home. It was the home of Sergei Volkonsky who was a friend of Tsar Alexander I. He had fought in the war against Napoleon and while fighting in Europe saw that there was no serfdom. When he returned to Russia he formed a secret society to discuss abolishing serfdom. The society created a new constitution and presented it to Alexander I. He died in 1825 and Nicholas I became tsar. He didn’t want to abolish serfdom.

On December 26, 1825, the Decembrists went to Nicholas I and demanded he reject the throne. He chose instead to send 121 Decembrists to a mine in Siberia for hard labour until their deaths. Twenty-four of the Decembrists were married. Nicholas I allowed the women to divorce, but many chose to share their husband’s fate. They were forced to resign their noble titles and leave their children in European Russia.

The criminals lived in prison with their wives living nearby. The wives wrote letters to their relatives back home telling them of the awful conditions in the prisons. The families were able to influence the tsar to improve the conditions.

We were shown around the house and it seemed the family lived fairly comfortable there. We were hoping for more history on the actual revolution, but the guide told us mostly about the family.

Decembrist home

After, we were driven to a hotel where we had two day rooms to store our luggage and freshen up. We dropped our bags and walked with the group up Lenin Street to a restaurant for lunch. I had a couple of different types of dumplings and Danny had a salad with rabbit meat.

Group photo

Following lunch, we walked up the street to a mall. It was similar to the main mall in Batumi with lots of small clothing shops. We walked up the pedestrian street and I bought some insoles for my shoes that are worn. Danny found some socks at a different shop and had to wait in line for 15 minutes.

Back at the hotel I booked an appointment for a haircut. It was a bit complicated to explain what I wanted when I didn’t know Russia and the stylist didn’t know English. She kept going over to the aesthetician to show layers and bangs. The haircut turned out pretty well.

We sat in the lobby and wifi’d until it was time to head to the train station. We purchased Subway for lunch which was a bit disappointing compared to Subway in Canada. On the train we roomed with Helen, a lady from Canada and David, a guy from the UK. We settled in and went to bed for a short ride to Ulan-Ude.

Listvyanka was an amazing place to spend some downtime. The fish market was fantastic and Lake Baikal was beautiful.

M