Well, I started my trip of what I thought was a straight shot into Russia, however before I could even get out of Mongolia, the train stopped at the border! WHY?! It turns out, we had to switch trains and in the process, they had to take off the wheels of the train. Why would they be taking wheels off a train? Apparently the gauges change on the track when you exit the Mongolian border. This was about a 6 hour transition that took us through the night and into the early morning, about 3am, before heading out. While we were well on our way again, so I thought, we were stopped once more! I was called to attention, unable to leave the train and my passport was thoroughly examined before getting stamped out of Mongolia.
Going in the wind at about 25mph, I finally started making my way into Russia on the Trans-Siberian Express. After about 30 hours of train travel, I made my first stop in Irkutsk. This is where things got a little funky. I ended up having to walk 1 hour away from the train station and stay in a 10-bed hostile after finding out my original hotel reservation was never booked. Thankfully some friends from Australia, Paul and his wife Laurie, took the trek with me. Once we settled in to the hostile I saw that all the bottom bunks were full. I wasn’t going to be climbing to get into bed on a top bunk so I managed to talk a guy into switching with me and that ended my first night in Russia.
In the morning I headed out with Paul and Laurie to the deepest lake in the world! Lake Baikal in Siberia, just north of the Mongolian border. It was the clearest water I’ve ever seen and it’s the largest and purest body of fresh water. As we hiked along the lake on the Great Baikal Trail, we could see a bunch of islands there. The three of us stayed at a hotel on the lake for just a night and had a great time with some friendly Russian guys that hardly spoke a word of English. These guys drank through the night. One who offered me a drink was drinking enough for the both of us. I don’t drink anymore, but I turned it down and turned into bed as they drank into the wee hours of the morning. After the amount of wine and vodka they drank, those young warriors definitely weren’t feeling 100% in the morning.
When it seemed as if the day was shot due to rainy weather, I decided to head back to Irkutsk while Paul and his wife stayed inside the hotel at Lake Baikal. I wasn’t going to let rain deter my adventure in Russia. I checked myself into this 4-star hotel, unfortunately the service wasn’t all it was hyped up to be and about the only good thing I have to say is that the gym was really impressive! Instead of staying indoors I decided to spend most of my time downtown away from the cold coffee and cold shoulders I was getting at the hotel, so away I went, in the wind and rain to find a currency exchange and a decent place to eat.
While I was dodging raindrops, I ran into a group of Russian college students- all female and they had never met an American before. We ate some pizza and hung out in the restaurant as they practiced their English. They were amused with the idea of hanging out with an American so they helped me along to buy my groceries for the train and exchange money. I didn’t mind them tagging along until we stepped out of the grocery store and they left me with my hands full stranded in the rain. Those girls took the only cab available and I had to walk, groceries in hand, through the rain, back to my hotel. Honestly, I knew this was all just part of being on the road.
During my stay in Irkutsk I also took some time to tour a Siberian zoo. Honestly, it was quite sad. All of the animals were confined in small cages- NOT GOOD. There weren’t any thin animals, so I assumed they were eating plenty, but these poor guys definitely weren’t moving much! I wasn’t too fond of this experience as it reminded me of being in jail. After being incarcerated for all of those years, I don’t like anything in a cage. Those innocent animals are stuck doing life. I couldn’t wait to get out of there.
When I headed back to the train station, I was a little hesitant to hop on the next train. The challenges faced of not speaking the native language of a country brought me back to the memories I have of learning Spanish in Mexico. “Gringo stupido.” It isn’t easy picking up another language but as I submerge myself in these different cultures I realize the importance of being educated prior to travelling. In Mexico, I had to do what I could for survival, which meant taking my broken Spanglish along with me.
I couldn’t wait to get to Moscow to meet up with some of my friends over there who are world-class kite surfers. Other than knowing them, I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into. This one guy I met on the train was nice enough to give some insight on what to expect when I arrived in Moscow. According to him the people there are very friendly – he described them as “full of hope.” We were all really excited to finally arrive in Moscow to see what the place is all about!