Новосибрск, Красноярск, Иркутск and Озеро Байкал
(((Apol, but struggling with letters P and K on this board, and I isn't great either)))
I left Tomsk at the ungodly hour of 3.35 (MT - but the local time of 6.35 was bad enough) on the solitary train to Novossibirsk. Sent much of the day wandering around aimlessly - it's somewhere i've been before a few times - without any reason except killing time. I took in the Tiny Church in the Central Reservation, allegedly built in the centre of the country (when it was much larger), Lenin of course - this time with other people, which is unusual - and the huge Opera house one of the largest in the world and who's constructon was completed mostly by untrained women and children, after the men had all b*ggered off to war.
Novossibirsk Opera House, Lenin and `friends` statue and the church in the centre of the country
The following morning i arrved in Krasnoyarsk. I felt strangely contented, as i had finally broken new ground. Whilst some of the places i had visited, especially recently, were new to me, they were stll on a trac that i had been several times (as i've been to Novossibirsk several times) and therefore, even the brand new ones ddn't feel like i was truly into the unknown. But now, 10 hours East of Novosibirsk, i truly was.
Unfortunately, time constraints (more later) mean't i only had 1 day in Krasnoyars, which was annoying as there were 2 day trips that i wanted to do, as well as see the city. And it just turned into one of those days.
My choices were Stolby, a Nature reserve to the North with large Granite pillars (some 100m+ tall) which have been weather beaten into strange shaes and even people's faces, and Divnogorsk - A 45min hydrofoil ride up river to a large damn on the Yenisey river which apparently has a very unusual mechansm for lifting boats over the dam, a kind of huge bucket escalator. The nerd in me decided that this was the most interestng/unusual option, so that's what i did. Or tried to.
I only new that the boat left every 2 hours. So dumping my stuff, waling nto town and grabbing food, i went straight to the pier and discovered that I had lucked out. The days first boat left at 11, and it was now 10.40. The mostly emty hydrofoil left on time, and for 5mins all was great. And then some cluning noises, and it stopped. This repeated itself, and although from then on it sounded OK, we returned to the pier we had left barely 20mins before. I didn't need to understand the Russian announcements to realise that there was a mechanical error and the boat was cancelled. Oh well.
I used the interlude to check into a hotel (extorsionate) and returned for 1pm. There was a huge crowd of mainly ids who got on first and then lots of peole got on and straight back off again (i hadn't got near the boat) and the boat left. I had no idea why. At 3pm I got on the boat, but was unfortunately the first person unable to fnd a seat, and - astonishingly - they were following safety rules and not allowing any standees. So off i got. Wth the following boat 5pm departure leaving me only 15mins in Divnogorsk before the last departure (and seeing my days luck, i wouldnt get on it anyway), i reluctantly opted out.
I will make it to Divnogorsk one day.
By then, of course, it was also too late to visit Stolby, so with both of my must-see's blown out of the water, i wandered around town. I managed to avoid being interviewed about some building on radio, but this is becoming a disturbing trend that i ee being approached lie this. I like Kras. It is on the river, surrounded by hills and has a thriving feel to it. The centre has some lovely old and wooden buildings, and the people seemed happy. Even Lenin seemed to have a grin on his face.
Krasnoyarsk church, quirky restaurant entrance and the view from my hotel room
The following morning i got yet another early train for the 18hour journey to Irkutsk. I hadn't deliberately choosen the only one of 8 trains which didn't run over night, that was done for me. The plan was to meet up with Ala (for any of you who have been stupid enough to read all of my inane warblings, you may remember her as being my host in Wroclaw) and a few of her friends on their way through to Mongolia, and head to Baikal for a few days together. She had sent me the train #, so it is entirely her fault i had to crawl out of bed at 5am.
And oddly, it did actually work. A few hours later i wandered down the train to meet up with Ala, Kasia (who i'd also met in Wroclaw), plus Ike and Eliza, 2 other poles they had met on the internet and were travelling with. And 2 more Poles. Kryzs and ??, they had randomly met on the train, in normal fashion. With the exception of Michel/Mjeh, who doesn't really count, they were the first non Russian/Soviet block people i had had contact with (or knowingly seen) since i left Moscow, and it was a bit odd to suddenly be back amongst people i could easily communicate with.
Ike, Kasia, Eliza and Ala on the train to Irkutsk
With a delightful 3am local time arrival in Irkutusk, we farted around the station for most of the night. The only moments of interest being repeated attempts to stick Ike (the only one who slept) to the bench with duct tape, and when Ala, Kasia and I took a wander to change some money and encountered a suicidal man trying to jump off the road bridge into the Angara. The odd thing was that the police were there, but hadn't stopped the traffic or pedestrians, and were actually sitting in their parked car in the central tram tracks shouting at the guy, whilst traffic and pedestrians went past between themselves and the jumper. It just seemed a tad odd.
Ike asleep on Irkutsk station, shortly before the duct tape incident
That afternoon, after a bit of a wander around one end of Irkutsk, and somehow acquiring a couple of new friends - an English girl, Sofia, and an American, Chad - we piled on to one of the few buses to Listvyanka. The bus was predictably late and falling apart, limited room for luggage beneath the bus meaning we had to lug stuff on with us, and despite us having reserved seats, was hopelessly overcrowded, meaning that the 3 Polish guys and I got to stand/sit in the aisle. And the journey was a combination of break neck down hill sprints and sharp corners followed by snail pace up hills (literally at 3 or 4mph). We got stopped by the police, and an elderly drunk guy kept fondoling Ike's legs, but we got there.
Cramed into the bus to Listvyanka. Note the 2 asleep Poles behind Ike
Listvyanka is a small port at the mouth of the Angara river on the banks of Lake Baikal, about 60km from Irkutsk. Lake Baikal is the oldest and deepest lake in the world, and with a couple of exceptions, the water is completely safe to drink, and could easily supply the entire population of the Earth with it's drinking water for 40 odd years, even if every other source was to dissapear tomorrow.
Mainly due to Lake Baikal, Irkutsk is the one place on the route of all 3 Trans-Sib routes which is stopped off at by virtually all TS travellers, and hence has a more of a tourist feel/focus. and when in Irkutsk, virtually all visit Lake Baikal. Which means Listvyanka.
The village itself was a ribbon along the lake, and although containing a fair splatterings of lovely old wooden houses, was nothing special, and obviously very touristy. The central square was full of tourist stalls, and coach parties of daytripeprs from Irkutsk(inclucing large numbers of orientals) were much in evidence. It was odd that after seeing no foreigners at all for weeks, i was suddenly seeing them everywhere in a small village.
The weather was still wonderful, and after the amount of farting around and indecision that always accompanies a large group with no one leader (and the loss of one American), we walked along the coast out of the village and set up camp on the beach. Followed a few hours later by a group of about 10 poles, 2 of whom actually knew Krysz and his friend. Why is Baikal full of Poles??? A great evening of doing not allot except relaxing and drinking, admiring the scenery, failing miserably to keep a fire lit for more than an hour or so and eating Omul (a wonderfully tasty fish, found only in the Lake) was had by all (except Ike, who went to sleep in the eraly evening and wasn't seen a again!). The night was perfectly clear as well, and we got a fantastic stary night. There is very little i enjoy more than being in the country/middle of nowhere, with no artificial lights, and a clear sky, and just gazing up at all the stars. I get mesmerised by it, and can spend hours doing it, and this was probably the finest sky i had seen since my nights in the Sahara a couple of years previously.
Lake Baikal, near Listvyanka
I did get a timely reminder of something i tend to peridocally forget though. Despite my proximity to the worlds biggest vodka factory, i'm not a vodka fan. I can drink some, but not lots, and especially when tired or haven't slept much, my drinking vodka is, how shall we say, not pretty. At some point i wandered off, and probably after making a huge fool of myself and a being a drunken idiot (i'm waiting for the first people i have to pay off to come forward), lay down and half fell asleep and half star watched whilst ignoring everybody else. In the early hours as things were winding down, i was handed my sleeping bag, rejected the offer of tent space (we were already over capacity after we gained Sofia, and i love sleeping outside, so never had any intention of agreeing, although possibly the vodka had clouded my judgment. And the sky) but swiftly abandoned my original plan of heading up the hill a bit to sleep in favour of lying on the beach.
And so it was that i awoke at around 5am in the pouring rain. Most of you know that i have no great problem getting wet, and rarely even carry waterproof coat etc. In addition, i'm sure most of you are aware that i have a habit of sleeping in odd places etc anyway (sometimes by choice, but often not entirely - such as in the famous cases of Hoor station, the Odense hedge, Czech burnt out car and many others which assorted of you will know about), and don't carry a tent with me. But i'm not necessarily always a huge fan of lying asleep on the beach in the pissing rain without any sort of shelter. My sleeping bag was still dry inside, so for a good 30-45 minutes, i just lay there getting wet, pondering developments and what i should actually do about them.
Being the hardy (read: stupid) idiot that i am, there was no way i was going to admit defeat and sheepishly crash a tent. So i climbed the hill to the place i was originally going to sleep before vodka and stars won over. But the trees didn't give the cover i'd hoped, so i ended up cheating (or depending on your point of view, using intellect and quick thinking. This is admittedly unlike me, but everybody else subsequently thought it was), and head back towards teh village. In every Russian resort etc, there is a half built hotel, normally now sitting vacant and not still under constructon, as ideas &/or money have run out. And at the edge of Listvyanka, barely a half Km from where we had camped, there was such a structure which i clearly remembered. So i wandered to it, clambered inside, checked the area for brown lumps and smell, and then settling on a pile of straw in my sleeping bag, fell fast asleep.
Camping by Lake Baikal
The following day, the damage was assessed. Sofia was long gone, and most people were wet. It finally let up raining a bit, enough to pack up the camp (although Kryzs and ? were satying on for another few days), and we repaired to the village for coffee - Ike had cunningly woken up after about 16 hours and his first major act had been to kick over the boiling water, Mr Bean style - and freshly smoked Omul, amd to kill time before the return bus. A few of us took a wander around the village and up one of the side roads/valleys, which was quite pleasant with wooden buildings, but still felt touristy and the weather still wasn't great.
The Listvyanka fish market, back street with typical housing, Poles asleep after a night on the vodka and after pictures of coloured cows, i figured its time for some real ones
Back in Irkutsk, said fairwells to Ala, Kasia, Ike and Eliza who were only on a transit visa, and had to head to Mongolia that evening, and with the weatehr now (typically) cheering up, i went off to find a ho(s)tel. Frustrating to say the least, and took me 3 hours before i found one that (a) was still a hotel and open (b) had space and (c) accepted foreigners. And even then i got lost trying to find the building with my room in it, as they sent me back out of teh hotel and across the square! But i did. It was dingy, but only 300rbl a night (6 gbp), so can't complain. Although my visa registration cost more than a night in the hotel.
I spent 2 more nights in Irkutsk, and frustrating ones they were. Despite being a pleasant city with enough foreigners and influence around to make it feel Un-Soviet, It rained virtually the whole time, meaning that sight seeing wasn't as much fun as it could have been, although there were a few interesting things to see. And there was no real point returning down to the Lake as i'd hoped to. I also discovered that a combination of factors (high amongst them being no useable boat) mean't that my plan came unravelling at the spine.
Irkutsk - Church near the bus station, Cathedral, Lenin statue, Tomb of the unknown soldier, Monument to the Trans-Siberian railway workers and the building which if it was larger, in Sydney and an opera house, would be the Sydney Opera House, but is instead used mostly for dog shows
I'd long intended to get the boat up Lake Baikal, and then cross through the BAM region, get the ferry to Sakhalin, and spend a couple of weeks on thge island before heading on the ferry into Wakkanai, Hokkaido, the northern most Japanese island. In fact, the stretch Irkutsk - Baikal - Sakhalin - Wakkanai was the one on my entire trip/outline idea that i had been looking forward to most. But logistically, i had to conceed that in th eremaining visa time, it just wasn't going to happen. It might be pysically possible (just), but would be very tight and requiring allot of luck. And mean't i wouldn't see anything. So reluctantly, i had to scrap it. And come up with a new plan.
I wonder where the heck to go next?!