Our decision to spend a couple of months in Russia, especially Siberia, didn’t get much positive feedback at first. “Why would you do that?” and “It’ll be so cold!” were some of the more common remarks. I suppose the word Siberia has a lot of negative connotations in Europe – this harsh, white landscape full of old prison camps and bears, where the temperature is always around -40 degrees comes to mind. Coming from Finland myself, I’m familiar with questions about polar bears roaming the streets and eternal winter, so breaking the Siberian stereotype was part of the appeal. A bit of research revealed that they have summer there as well, so we picked the timing accordingly. And what a beautiful summer it turned out to be. This is the third most tanned I’ve ever been – and we’re talking tanned, not just a deeper shade of pink.
We got off to a good start in Altai, followed by a couple of quick stops in Novosibirsk and Tomsk, but the most obvious place to break your journey if you’re on the Trans-Siberian is of course at the Baikal lake.
We had read that the Olkhon island would be beautiful and that Nikita’s Homestead there would be a great backpacker hangout. Elsewhere in trains and hostels we had mainly spent our time with Russians travelling for work or holidays, often struggling with a language barrier, so we thought it would be fun to experience the backpacker vibe for once as well. Lessons learned: Do go to Olkhon, do hang out with all the other travellers – it’s fun to share stories and get ideas for what to do later – but give Nikita’s a miss, the place clearly got comfortable with its reputation as hostel #1.
It’s a good 6+ hours of not-so-bumpy minivan travel to get to Khuzhir from Irkutsk and you can ask your hostel to organize a pick-up at the door, which most people seemed to do. We squeezed in with a fun mix of English and French speaking tourists and some elderly locals and got a toilet and lunch break somewhere in the middle of the trip. The driver didn’t communicate much, but when we saw him sit down to eat we figured we’d have time to get a snack ourselves. We were lucky to meet some really good people on that bus and ended up leaving for a jaunt through the Gobi Desert with Mélissa, Arnaud and Rose a few weeks later. The island itself was full of travellers and it’s really interesting to hear people’s plans and reasons for leaving.
English Amy took us under her wings for a mountain bike trip to the other side of the island, the part where no one lives and you see the “real” Baikal, not just Maloe More (little sea), where the main village is located. While Amy knew what she was doing, we were used to some leisurely biking in flat Flanders and Ostrobothnia, so the amount of sand and uphill was a bit of a struggle. To add to the challenge, we took the wrong route and ended up walking through the forest for a kilometre or two looking for the lake as our road ended in the middle of nowhere. When we finally found it, the view was worth all the hassle, cuts and bruises.
I shouldn’t forget to say (brag, actually) that we went swimming in the lake. Now, I had figured that would be the obvious thing to do, but dipping my feet the first night cleared my head. The Baikal water is cold in late June. Really cold. The kind of cold where the pain cuts through your bones if you stay put for more than, say, 10 seconds. Christophe, who cannot resist water or a challenge, still went for a swim five or so times. I settled for a once in a lifetime experience. It’s very refreshing if you keep moving and don’t think too much.
Krasnoyarsk is worth a good look
Let’s go back west for a while, I don’t want to forget Krasnoyarsk, where we only stopped to see the nature reserve Stolby. The city’s not particularly pretty – it looks much like a random Finnish town with boxy architecture – but it’s very warm and relaxed, and the riverside may have been the most appealing we’ve seen in all of Russia, full of people taking wedding photos, renting rowing boats, (taking wedding photos in rowing boats), having a drink in one of the many terraces or showing off their music skills. A cool place I would like to visit again.
Stolby was great not only because the landscape of seemingly endless forest and dramatic volcanic rocks were beautiful, but the hiking was also so accessible. While Russia has lots of nature, it often feels like your outdoors options are strolling in a city park or putting together a full mountaineering expedition. Stolby has actual paths to follow and they are long enough to keep you busy for the entire day. The park is popular among rock climbers and we tried to get up on the set of rocks you didn’t need equipment for. Bon, we got about half way and we provided the Russians with some entertainment. It’s always embarrassing when you’re struggling to move forward a decimetre and someone else simply walks up to you, pauses to look for a while, and then asks if it’s your first time. How did you notice?
Take your time in Irkutsk, but be brief in Ulan-Ude
Back by Baikal. Most people stop in the “Paris of Siberia” to get on a bus to the lake, but the town deserves more attention than just a few hours. It’s rather cute, feels laid back and more European than a lot of Russian cities and has enough (quite pretty) churches to satisfy history needs. Judging from the little Eiffel tower on the shopping street they have taken the nickname to heart. We liked the fluffy white seeds blowing in the wind all over town – it looked like it was snowing. According to Irina back home, kids would set these on fire as a game. I had half a mind to try, but there were a lot of old, wooden houses there…
We stopped in Ulan-Ude on the eastern side of Baikal to switch from the train to the bus to Mongolia and, for practical reasons, probably overstayed. We had expected a cosy town, but only found a huge Lenin head, a Buddhist temple with nice views and possibly the world’s emptiest shopping mall.
Vodka and vows in Buryatia
Since we had time to spare in Ulan-Ude, we visited some Old Believers in a village about 50 km outside the town. That meant a fun road trip with Svetlana and a driver she was always pushing around. He didn’t seem to be too clear on what road to take and managed to back into someone else at a parking lot (no harm done, the other driver and he decided after a quick inspection and we found them sharing a cigarette and a laugh a bit later – funny, since the incident would have caused a big argument and a call to the cops for insurance purposes in Belgium). I swear, at one point she was even “ptrooing” him, like you would to stop a horse pulling a cart, when he was going in the wrong direction. Christophe suspects they were married.
Old Believers are people who disagreed with changes made to the Orthodox church in Russia in the 17th century, kept the old traditions, and were persecuted by the authorities because of this. We were greeted by a singing group of old women in colourful dresses, a jolly man with an accordion and a table full of delicious, homemade Russian food and vodka. Lots of tasty pickles, soup, freshly baked bread and sweet porridge.
This came with more song and dance and, oh joy, audience participation. Christophe and I were drafted to take part in a mock wedding. We won by default, as I suppose the two middle-aged Austrian men we shared the experience with didn’t make a believable young couple according to the old Orthodox faith. We were taken apart and dressed up. For me that involved a lot of hair pulling (for the braids and the head garment) and older women laughing at my lack of appropriate curves, trying to fix it by adding lots of aprons, while Christophe connected to his inner Swiss through a funky hat, belt and boots. Our respective mothers showed how bartering for a suitable partner for your son or daughter would have worked back in the day and then there was more dancing. By this time, our guide had gotten suitably tipsy, dancing around with her cigarette in one hand and my camera in the other. We have about 100 blurry pictures of the event.
We don’t do this sort of thing often, so it was an amusing experience. It was a peak into someone else’s traditions of yesteryears – the few people we noticed in the (very empty) villages we passed were all dressed in jeans and t-shirts – but it’s strange to think that there are still young girls somewhere in the world being dressed up by older women to get married to men they have not chosen themselves. That’s less funny.
Talk to people
While there are lots of beautiful things to see in Siberia, we liked the people the best. On the train from Yekaterinburg to Novosibirsk we met Evgeniy, who brightened our trip by buying ice cream, playing checkers and finally made sure we found our hostel. Between Tomsk and Krasnoyarsk, the retired couple Zhena and Vitaly fed us homemade ham and bread as they were unimpressed by our breakfast portions of instant kasha (porridge). They talked about their lives and travels, both those done by train and by television, and expressed a keen interest in Finnish cows. From Krasnoyarsk to Irkutsk, we befriended Alex and his team of kids off to swimming camp near Baikal and practiced English with the youngsters. In Krasnoyarsk, Svetlana picked us up, dropped us off, gave us excellent food advice and sent us back to change into proper anti-tick clothes before letting us go to Stolby. We had a slight medical emergency in Irkutsk and our host Sasha dropped everything to bring us to a doctor and act as translator. She selflessly helped us in so many ways, going way beyond the usual hostel responsibilities, always with a smile on her face even though she was hosting a hotel opening at the lakeside the same evening. Earlier in the same town, we asked a guy at the bus station for directions and Nikolai ended up taking us around town for five hours “since he didn’t have anything else to do and it was fun.” Try that back in Europe.
We left Siberia with an image of people as warm as their summer and generous with food, time and stories, completely defying the stereotype of the unsmiling Russian we have back home. Just what we had hoped to learn.