20 June 2017
Lake Baikal, Russia – Irkutsk, Russia
I didn’t have to checkout from my hotel until noon today, so I spent the morning enjoying the lake one last time and taking a final walk around. It was a very relaxing and easy-going morning; I enjoyed Baikal and wished that I had been able to explore more of the area, but I was ready to move on from Listvyanka.
I caught the bus back to Irkustk shortly after noon and we were back in town around 14:00. The bus dropped us off near to the bus station and it was a roughly 20-minute walk from there to my hotel in the city. Unfortunately, as I was walking to the hotel, my bag tipped over and one of the wheels got bent, preventing it from rolling properly; then, somehow, it rolled through a small bit of tar (which I didn’t even notice until later), which caused the wheel to stick even more. After checking into my hotel, I did my best to repair the wheel, but there was nothing I could do – I needed to get myself a new bag. Needless to say, I was upset at this prospect.
My hotel was located near a large square next to the river, so I went out for a walk to forget about my luggage issues. The weather was much hotter than it was at Lake Baikal – I felt as though I was baking in the heat; the temperature reached over 30 °C! I stopped for an ice cream as I walked around the square.
I then walked further into town where a shopping mall was located and also where the only luggage store was that I could find via Google. The walk took about 40 minutes and I was hot and tired by the time I reached the mall. I found the luggage store and was pleased that they had a large selection of bags; one of the ladies there spoke some English and helped me out quite a bit. I decided not to buy a bag just yet as I wanted to give fixing my current bag one last try.
Finally, I stopped in a local coffee shop, Castro Coffee, to grab something cold to drink and to do some reading. I ordered a milkshake, but what I was given was not a milkshake by Western standards: it was a sweet drink, but without ice cream in it, so it was basically just a milk drink. Nevertheless, it was tasty and I enjoyed it; unfortunately, the place didn’t have AC and it was too hot to sit inside to get any reading done, so I soon walked back to my hotel to relax for the rest of the evening.
21 June 2017
Today I finally accepted that my suitcase was beyond repair and that I needed to buy a new one; it was the cost of the new suitcase that was the difficult part to cope with: I didn’t want a cheap bag that would fall apart on me, but I didn’t want to buy an expensive one either.
Putting that issue aside at the start of the day, I had breakfast at the hotel, which was the best breakfast that I’ve yet had on this trip. Most of the food was the generic breakfast food one gets at any hotel, but the dish that I had multiple servings of was a vegetable rice; there was something about it that really ‘hit the spot’ and I devoured it.
With a full stomach and energy for the hot day ahead, I set off to see Irkutsk! The city had an interesting history of having exiles from Moscow or St Petersburg society sent to live there (exiled in Siberia), especially the Decembrists from the revolt in December 1825. The aristocracy who were exiled to Siberia/Irkutsk soon set about fashioning the city to mirror their former lives as best as possible. As such, many elegant buildings were built and many still stand (though in quite a dilapidated condition nowadays). Some of the most interesting buildings were the older wooden ones that looked to be abandoned.
I passed through a quaint square with a pool and fountains (the Soviets loved to install fountains in the city squares!); on one side of the square was a very Soviet-style governmental building, complete with a hammer and sickle on top. This square led into the pedestrian and shopping areas of the old city center, which I found to be rather nice to explore.
I walked through many of the small shopping centers, hoping to find more luggage stores with cheaper prices; those that I did find had cheap quality bags for sale, so I moved on. Outside of one shopping center was a monument to the Internationale: a large mural on the side of a building with a statue of Lenin to one side.
I walked down to a different part of the riverfront where there was a nice park, full of trees and flowers. In a large square was a large statue of Tsar Alexander III (father of Nicholas II). During the Soviet times, the statue was removed, but it was restored in the early 2000s.
I decided to spend some time walking through the park, enjoying the views of the river and I stumbled upon a large bust of Yuri Gagarin (the first human in space) surrounded by a bed of flowers! It was a random place to find a monument to him.
Needing to escape from the heat (and to get some desperately needed water), I walked back to the shopping mall. I bought a water at the grocery store and cooled off before reluctantly heading back to the luggage store to buy a new suitcase. Once that was done, I took it back to my hotel and was glad to see that everything from my old bag fit into the new one – just barely!
I began to develop a headache during this, which I attributed to the heat and not having enough water during my walk through the city. Nonetheless, I was determined to do some last bit of sightseeing. I returned to the large square outside of my hotel to properly explore it. There was an eternal flame in memory of the Great Patriotic War (World War II) and some monument to Lenin (I wasn’t sure what it was for, but I never need an excuse to snap a photo of a Lenin!).
I walked back over to the riverfront area, where there was a massive statue and a small, but pretty, Russian Orthodox church nearby. By this point my headache had become severe and I needed to get back to the hotel. I spent the rest of the evening there, reading and working.
22 June 2017
The last – and longest – leg of the Trans-Siberian Railroad journey began today! This journey would last for just over 69 hours…
I got up early and checked out of my hotel by 06:00; the hotel had attendants on each floor and they handled the check-out process, making it simple and easy. I considered taking the tram over to the railway station, but decided to walk instead; the morning was cool and pleasant; plus the station was only about a 30-minute walk away.
The train station was packed and I had some time to kill before my train was due to depart at 07:47, so I settled in to do some reading. As the departure time neared, I noticed the departures board had a display showing “01:00” next to my train; I correctly assumed this meant the train was delayed by an hour. Eventually the train did arrive and I lugged my bags onto the train one last time.
I found my cabin occupied by two young guys; happily, I had the bottom bunk again and I asked one of the guys if he would mind moving his grocery bags so I could store my luggage. The other guy in the cart exclaimed “You speak English!” and a sense of relief washed over me as I heard his British accent! This section of the Trans-Siberian has the fewest Westerners on it, so to find a fellow English speaker here was quite a treat!
We immediately began chatting and getting to know one another, both happy to have someone to talk with during the next three days. His name was James, he was 22 and he was from England; he too was traveling around the world on his own. We spent the first several hours of that day’s journey chatting. James had done almost the same itinerary that I had done through Russia, though with less time in most of the cities and without stopping in Nizhny Novgorod. I was really impressed with his knowledge of Russian history – he stopped in Yekaterinburg for the same reasons I did: to see the Church on the Blood!
One other bit of random good news: both James and I were staying at the same hostel in Vladivostok!
Our other cabin-mate was Russian and friendly enough, though he spoke no English, but tried to communicate to us in Russian. I felt bad for him because the journey was quite dull for him with no one to talk to (he was in the same position that both James and I had been on our respective trains up to that point: unable to communicate with those in our cabins).
That evening, James and I both had the standard cup of noodles for dinner (oh joy…), but as an after dinner treat, James brought out his vodka stash. Technically drinking one’s own alcohol was forbidden on the train, so James had mixed one bottle into a bottle of Pepsi; it was this vodka Pepsi that we began to drink first. Once that was gone, he got out a fresh bottle of vodka and some Sprite; this vodka was soon gone as well. We decided to try visiting the restaurant car, but it was closed by the time we got there (to be fair, it was near midnight at this point). With nothing else to do, we decided to head to bed for the night.
23 June 2017
In the early morning a large group of French tourists boarded the train and one of their group was put in our cabin. They were quite noisy when they got on board, waking all of us up, so we all slept in quite late that morning.
Both James and I spent a considerable part of the day reading. I had finished Petersburg the day before, so I started in on some simple, easy book: Thrawn (yep, that’s right, a Star Wars novel… but it was mindless entertainment, just what was needed). I read nearly 40% of the book that day. James nearly finished his book that day as well.
That night we took advantage of a long stop in some random city to get out, stretch and get some fresh air. Once the train began rolling again, we headed to the restaurant car to grab some drinks. The French tourists were finishing their dinner, so we were sat near the front of the car.
I started off with a Russian beer while James had a vodka coke. Thus began our evening of fun… and getting scammed…
We asked the waitress the price of the vodka cokes (they weren’t on the menu), she indicated that they were 100 rubles each, so I switched over to those as well. We were then moved to a different table once the French group was gone, where we ordered some snacks (peanuts and crab-flavored chips). We sat around chatting as we drank a few more drinks; it was a fantastic time. The waitress came around for us to pay and we paid our portions of the bill (roughly 1,500 rubles each – the snacks plus 5 drinks or so each).
By this point the car was practically empty, except for a pair of girls and a group of younger guys. Also at this point the evening begins to get somewhat… hazy…
What I recall is that we encourage our waitress to have a glass of wine and she brought over an opened bottle to pour herself a glass. Then we moved over to have a drink with the two girls. They spoke broken English, but we could communicate well enough. Randomly, the waitress showed up with a plate of fruit slices (apples and oranges), though neither of us remembered ordering it. I began to drink the wine and James had another vodka Coke. Eventually we called it a night and stumbled back to our cabin for bed.
24 June 2017
I awoke this morning not hungover, but not entirely feeling great; a half-hangover of sorts. I drank quite a bit of water and ate a small snack, which helped. I passed the time watching Mad Men on my phone. During the early morning hours, the French group had departed, leaving the train much quieter for us this last day.
When I got up to use the bathroom, I discovered a large stack of rubles in my pocket, which had definitely not been there the night before; all I had left after paying the bill for the drinks was a 5,000 ruble note and four 100 ruble notes. Now all I had was 4,000 rubles in various denominations; clearly I had spent an additional 1,400 rubles by the end of the night.
When James woke up late in the afternoon, we laughed about the night before and remarked on how much fun it was. He was concerned about how much he had spent as well; he’d use his brand new credit card for the first time and, since no receipts were provided, wasn’t sure how much the damage was. We figured it couldn’t be more than $40 or $50 – maximum!
Our last day on the train was spent chatting for a while and also watching TV shows on our phones. It was a quieter day as we were both in recovery mode.
It was hard to believe that the train journey was coming to a close. This three-day journey, while the longest of the trip, seemed to fly by – due in large part to having someone chat with during the day. We kept remarking how lucky we both were to have been placed in the same cabin.
25 June 2017
Neither James or I slept well during this last night on the train; we had to be up early at 06:00 for our early morning arrival (somehow the train had made up the nearly 2-hour delay and was now running on time). Around 04:00 our Russian cabin-mate got off the train and from then on, I was wide awake.
We arrived in Vladivostok just before 07:00; since it was far too early for check-in at our hostel, we walked to what we thought was the train station (but turned out to be the ferry terminal) to see if there was any food to be had. Everything we’d found online in the city was closed until 09:00 or 10:00, which didn’t provide any help to us.
We spent an hour in the ferry terminal before heading to a nearby Burger King, which thankfully opened at 08:00. We were both so hungry and devoured our meals there, which helped to pass more time as we sat around chatting. It was amazing how quickly and well we’d got on with one another over the past few days. I was glad that we were at the same hostel and we made plans to explore the city together.
The hostel itself was surprisingly quite nice: it had wood-log paneling all around and felt like a mountain cabin; the common area was very large as well. We were shown to one room, which was small and cramped, but luckily all of the beds were taken, so we were moved to a larger room. I spent the next several hours freshening up and getting some work done while James rested in the room.
Later that afternoon, a Russian guy from Moscow started to chat with us at the hotel and made some suggestions on what to go and see in the city; as James and I were preparing to leave, the Russian basically invited himself along with us. I wasn’t against having him join us, but I soon grew weary of his company. James and I wanted to do sightseeing, but the Russian guy (whose name I forget) was clearly bored and impatient to get to the beach/boardwalk area.
Our primary destination for the afternoon was the Eagle’s Nest, which is a lookout over the water and the entire city. One can walk there, but the Russian insisted that we take the funicular up to the top. We walked over to the funicular only to find that we’d walked to the top of it, thus defeating the entire purpose. The Eagle’s Nest was a short climb up some stairs from there. I was surprised by how run down and shabby the Eagle’s Nest was, especially as it is a major sight within Vladivostok: stairs, fences, sidewalks all were in various states of disrepair. The views, however, were spectacular and well worth the journey.
Vladivostok is quite similar to San Francisco – indeed, Nikita Khrushchev made the comparison back in the 1970s. To emulate the US city, the Russians built two large modern bridges that resemble the Golden Gate Bridge; the bridge in the middle of the city is aptly named the Golden Horn Bridge.
Making our way back down from the Eagle’s Nest, we set about finding a way to walk across the Golden Horn Bridge; James was quite keen to do so, but I was rather uneasy due to the height, but I’d have faced up to my fear and done it. Unfortunately, the bridge is closed to pedestrians and we weren’t able to cross it!
We then headed down to the waterfront to walk along Golden Horn Bay. There was a nice promenade for pedestrians to walk around and it was full of people; food stands were located sporadically around and we eventually stopped to get a quick bite to eat. The food stand served corn dogs, something James had never had, so we decided to order those, but they were out of them; James went with a regular hot dog and I decided to wait for dinner as nothing else looked enticing.
We turned around and headed back towards the city center and eventually made out way to the C-56 submarine, which was located next to the Great Patriotic War Memorial (complete with an eternal flame). The entire memorial area was very nice, as all memorials to the war are throughout Russia.
The submarine was on land and we were able to go aboard and explore: the first half of the sub was a museum (all in Russian) and the second half were a series of the preserved rooms in the submarine itself. It was a quick visit, but very interesting.
One thing that James and I discovered during our time hanging out is that we both like to make random – and sometimes obscure – references to movies or TV shows, such as South Park or Family Guy; we could easily figure out what the other was referring to, which made it even funnier. I was reminded quite a bit of my friend Kevin in Scotland; he and I do the exact same thing. James could simply say (in a dark and sinister voice): “Do it!” and I knew he was quoting Palpatine from “Revenge of the Sith” right away! He also got my South Park reference when I would sing “You’re the best around… nothing’s going to ever keep you down!” and he replied “I thought this was America!” Good times, good times…
Sportivnaya Harbor was our final destination; to get there we walked through a large public square with a memorial to the Russian Civil War (1917-1922). It was particularly interesting to see this memorial here as Vladivostok was occupied by foreign supporters of the White Army (the anti-Bolsheviks): the Japanese, the Czech Legion, the Americans and the British.
Sportivnaya Harbor itself is a large and very busy promenade along the waterfront, full of restaurants, shops, and various entertainment stalls (including air-rifle games). We strolled along the walkway and stopped at a small restaurant where we enjoyed some drinks on the patio: James and I each had some ciders while our Russian companion had beer.
Soon it was time for dinner and the Russian kept pushing that we eat at the restaurant; the place was reasonably priced and the food looked good, so we did. We each had pork BBQ with lavash bread. The meat was very good and tasty, but the bread was rather dry (the lavash bread I had in Armenia was vastly superior to this bread).
The sun was setting by the time we left to head back to the hostel. We tried to stop in a local bar on our way, but there were no other customers in the place (it was 21:30 and people didn’t usually show up until 23:00), so we left. We decided to grab some drinks from a local store, drink back at the hostel and then return to the local bar as it looked like a great place to drink. James picked out a cheap bottle of vodka at the store, but the Russian kept insisting that he buy a better bottle; James stuck by his choice, which seemed to annoy the guy.
Back at the hostel, James and the Russian mixed up some drinks and I decided to skip it for now. James wanted to do some video chats with people back home, so I hung out in the common room on my computer getting some work done. It was getting quite late and James and I were both exhausted, so we decided to call it a night without returning to the local bar.
26 June 2017
Today was James’ last day in Russia before he flew off to Beijing and we’d planned to head out to Russky Island, which was located across Golden Horn Harbor. Our hostel had provided information on taking the bus there, which would take roughly an hour each way; we both were quite keen to take the ferry over to the island and get to see the area from the water in the process.
Our plans from the night before had us getting up and leaving by 09:00 – and our Russian friend had again invited himself along. However, we all slept in quite late and we didn’t get going until nearly noon! I had woken up earlier, but I got distracted with Mad Men and video chatting with my sister, Jack and Jane; when I noticed the time was 11:00, I went and woke James up. We hurriedly got ready and planned to grab the first ferry available. The Russian guy seemed less enthusiastic about it and still needed 20 minutes to get ready, so James and I left to grab food nearby.
Our breakfast/lunch was Burger King again: it was close, fast, and cheap. James had checked his credit card balance this morning and found that he’d been charged nearly 90 GBP on the train! There was absolutely no conceivable way that we spent that much on the train and he was understandably concerned and angry about it; he contacted his credit card company to investigate the charge. I picked up the bill for lunch: a small gesture, but I felt I owed it to him since he could very well have been charged for items that were mine.
As we finished eating, we both admitted that we weren’t terribly interested in having the Russian guy join us again today; we both wanted to head down to the ferry terminal and get to the island. To help ease our consciences, we said we’d contact the hostel to tell him what time to meet us at the ferry, but then we realized we didn’t remember his name, so that gesture would have been useless.
We arrived back at the ferry terminal and went to the ticket office, but the prices we were shown were astronomical! It turned out that the lady was showing us prices for the long-distance ferries to South Korea and that there was no ferry to Russky Island from that terminal; the ferries left from a smaller dock just up the road.
Upon arrival at that dock, we discovered that there were no ferries running to Russky Island at all, which was intensely disappointing. It was nearing 14:00, which meant we didn’t have enough time to take the bus out to the island. There was a boat trip around the harbor that was departing soon and we were told that it would go around Russky Island. Deciding that it was the next best option, we decided to take the boat trip. I paid for our tickets in a continuing gesture of thanks/repayment/help; James reluctantly let me, but insisted that this was the last of it. We both laughed and I agreed.
The boat was a small vessel and we were the only English-speakers on board; we were joined by a Chinese tour group. Their Russian guide discovered that we spoke English and came over to talk to us. He was friendly, but very talkative; he kept telling us about getting to see Limp Bizkit in concert in Vladivostok and getting to meet the band. He then kept insisting that we meet up and go out that night; James and I were clearly not too keen on it, but we told him that we’d contact him via WhatsApp (but we never did).
The boat tour itself was… disappointing. We had been misinformed on the route the boat would take: it went across the harbor and got near the island, but then promptly turned around, heading to the bridge before returning to port. There was no sailing around the island, nor did we see the lighthouse that was mentioned by the cashier as well. On the plus side, seeing the city from the water was nice: there were quite a few cargo docks and cargo ships just sitting in the bay. The entire trip lasted roughly an hour.
Once we were finished, we decided to try walking out to the lighthouse, which was roughly a 90-minute walk away; we may not have the time to reach it, but the walk through the city would be nice. The route took us south through the city, into some neighborhoods and areas that tourists would normally not venture. It was a fun and interesting way to see more of the city.
We stopped at a local supermarket to grab some drinks; James doesn’t drink beer (he prefers ciders); they didn’t have a cider, but he found a fruit beer that was passable; I grabbed a German beer for myself. We drank our beers as we continued to stroll through the city.
We eventually ended up at a nice park/square area that afforded some amazing views over the harbor, out to Russky Island. We spent quite a bit of time sitting on a park bench, admiring the views, and chatting. There was a cat wandering about in the grass, who was clearly trying to hunt something; we were mesmerized by the cat and waited anxiously for it to pounce; when it did, it didn’t catch anything.
Around 18:00 we decided to head back into town so we could grab dinner before James had to head to the airport (his flight was at 00:30 that evening). Given the late time, I suggested that we grab a bus back into the city; luckily enough, one came by within minutes and we got on. Busses in Vladivostok cost 21 RUB no matter where you get on or get off, so it was a cheap way to get back into town. The ride took 15 minutes, whereas the walk would have taken over an hour.
For dinner, we opted to go to a café that we had noticed on our way into town the first day. It was a nice little restaurant and we were able to use my Google Translate app to decipher the menu. We both ordered a steak topped with an egg and sauce, with a side of potatoes. As a starter, we ordered katchapuri – the Georgian dish that I’d fallen in love with and James quite enjoyed it as well. We spent the next few hours having a couple drinks, eating, and chatting. It was one of the most enjoyable meals that I’ve had so far on my trip: good food and good company.
We both agreed that, though the day didn’t go as planned, it ended up being a very enjoyable one.
By this point it was 21:30, so we went back to the hostel so James could collect his things and call a taxi. When we reached the hostel, the Russian guy silently glared at us, but said nothing (thank god). James and left his bag with mine all day and so we spent a few minutes bumming around the hostel before he had to go. James had picked up a small journal on his travels and was now having people he met write little blurbs in it: each person would have a page to write whatever they wanted. He gave me the journal and I filled up the entire page: thanking him for all the amazing memories, saying how much fun I’d had hanging out with him.
Finally, it was time for him to leave and I found myself getting quite sad that our time together was at an end. Making friends is one of the best parts about traveling the world, but saying goodbye to them never gets any easier. I went outside with him to wait for the car, which (sadly) pulled up right as we got to the street. We said our goodbyes, promised to stay in touch, and gave one another a hug goodbye. I stayed there until his taxi was driving off and then headed back into the hostel.
James truly made the last leg of the Trans-Siberian Railroad and my time in Vladivostok very memorable. I’m quite glad to have met him on the train and that we got on so well together. Hopefully our paths will cross again sometime: there’s a slim chance we could see one another in Southeast Asia, but odds are it’ll take a trip to the UK or to the States for us to meet up (both options will happen at some point too).
27 June 2017
My last full day in Russia! Seeing as I had seen the major highlights of the city with James already, I focused today on getting some last-minute things taken care of before heading off to Mongolia.
My top priority was getting a haircut. I had not had a proper haircut since Edinburgh, though I’d been buzzing the sides and back of my hair regularly myself; now I needed the longer top part trimmed down. I found a well-reviewed place called Chop-Chop nearby and decided to give them a try.
On the way over to Chop-Chop, I stopped by the statue of Lenin across the street from the train station. James and I had stopped there the day before, but the sun was not in the best position for pictures, so I wanted to try and get some in the morning. I’m a sucker for a good Lenin statue!
Chop-Chop was a very nice barbershop, staffed entirely by men and they spoke passable English – more than enough for me to explain how I wanted my haircut. The guys asked where I was from, thinking that perhaps I was from Denmark; they seemed surprised when I said I was American. My barber seemed nervous at first to trim the hair on the sides and back of my neck so short, but I assured him that it was ok. After washing my hair, he began to buzz it and he paid meticulous attention to everything; in the States, the buzzing part takes minutes, but this guy spent over 20 minutes doing it. He quickly figured out how I like to style my hair and I couldn’t have been happier with my haircut!
I also needed to print out some passport photos for my visa-on-arrival for several countries in Southeast Asia; I’d found what I thought were photo printing shops via Google, but it didn’t pan out (I’m planning to get the photos printed in Singapore). Instead, I walked back over to Sportivnaya Harbor and then into the city center.
There was one last sight that I did want to see: Nikolai’s Victory Arch. It was a small, but beautiful arch located right next to the submarine that I had visited with James earlier (it was a shame that we didn’t visit the arch together).
I then walked over to yet another memorial statue for the Great Patriotic War before heading to a coffee shop to relax and do some reading. I eventually made it back to the hostel to pack my bags and prepare for departure in the morning.
It was hard to believe that my five-week journey through Russia was coming to a close. I had spent 36 days in Russia and traveled from one coast to the other, seeing everything from Tsarist splendor to Soviet cold-hearted architecture; the train had been a Bucket List item for me. I had spent the most time in Russia out of any other country on this trip (and there’s no upcoming country that will come close to this length). I look forward to my next visit to Mother Russia.
На здоровье, Товарищ!