Category: Our story
25 June: road to Ulaanbaatar
25 June. And…. we’ve just crossed the border into Mongolia! Our train advances for a while till it stops in the middle of nowhere and starts going backwards, who knows why.
Finally the Mongolian custom authorities come in, distribute migration cards for us to fill in and take our passports away. About an hour later, or two, I honestly have no idea, after waiting for so long locked in this cage in the heat time doesn’t really have a meaning anymore.. Anyway, they finally hand our passports back to us and by 9 PM we can finally move forward, direction Ulaanbaatar.
We have dinner, noodles, again, while we watch the sunset over the Mongolian steppes and mountains. The view is breathtaking. It almost looks like the African savant at times, water specks here and there, interrupting the green fields.
Wait a minute, so Mongolian land is green? So like, the Baikal area is dry and brown and Mongolia is green? What?
There is no sign of any kind of village, the majesty of nature reigns uncontaminated. The blue sky mixes with the red of the burning sun, interrupted by the blue of the mountains in the distance, then again the green of the grass and trees and the orange light reflected in the ponds. Free-дом.
26-29 June: Ulaanbaatar & Surroundings
26 June. Ulaanbaatar. 5 AM. The provodnitsa enters our cabin and wakes us up in the most tactless way possible. Welcome to Mongolia.
The train is arriving in an hour, but she needs to gather the sheets, so we have to get up and gather our stuff. We sit down looking like three zombies till we finally arrive. The moment we step out of the train, a crowd of guesthouse PRs throws itself at us, handing us leaflets and overloading us with questions.
We zigzag through them and find the waiting room. Our plan is to sit there and rest for an hour or so, while we figure out how to get to our hostel. I find a sit and doze off till I feel Gian touching me and going: “Isn’t that your Mongolian classmate?”. I turn my face and there I see him, Ganbaatar. Wait, what? Why is he here? At the station I mean. Did he like really come and pick us up with no notice?
I say hi and hug him while still in some sort of shock. I mean, yes I did VKed him, told him we where arriving very early in the morning so we would have liked to meet him for coffee or something in the afternoon, but never would I have thought that he’d actually come and pick us up at 6 in the morning. After all, we barely spoke a bunch of times during Russian class at MGIMO, that’s it, it’s not like we were friends or anything.
So we get in his car and give him the address of the hostel. He says he’s gonna drive us there and check out the place with us so we can decide what to do today. Alright. We’re staying at Gana’s GH, which is actually located in a shady area, kinda looks like something in between a dumpster and a slum. Ganbaatar gets out of the car to check it out while we wait inside. As he comes back, he tells us that the place is really bad and that he actually has a flat where we could stay, if we want. We look at each other and, we want, obviously, so he says alright, I’ll just go get the keys and take you there.
He says that this apartment was assigned to him by the MFA of Mongolia, where he’s gonna start working on July 1. Are we really gonna stay at the Mongolian diplomatic apartments? Yes we are.
The flat is small, there’s no bedroom, but who cares: we actually have a kitchen and a bathroom and… a washing machine! And… a sofa! Ganbaatar says he’s gonna go get us plates and sheets and stuff and he’ll be back in about 3 hours. As he leaves, I collapse on the sofa and sleep like a rock.
By 11 AM he is back with a bunch of stuff for the house, and as we tell him we need to go to the Kazakh embassy to apply for our visa, he drives us there directly. Apparently, he has some connections there, he knows the ambassador or something, so in no time we’ve got everything figured out. We complete the forms, pay 60 dollars and hand in our passports. They’ll be ready by Monday or Tuesday they say. Easy.
We go for a tour of the city, which is actually pretty small and, as it seems, all under construction. There seems to be no city centre, no logic in the planning of these grey, soviet buildings, which starkly clash with the beautiful ocher mountains in the background. It’s even worse than the average Russian city, even worse than Omsk. Wow. Didn’t know that was possible.
We visit this hill, on top of which a soviet-looking monuments stands in memory of the Mongolian-Soviet friendship during the war against the Japanese. We can actually get a view of the whole city from up here and my first impressions about it are confirmed: no logic whatsoever, just a bunch of ugly buildings one after the other, spreading up to the horizon. The only vaguely attracting thing about the view is that the buildings sort of degrade in height as they get closer to the mountains: no more grey apartment conglomerates, but low, colourful little houses and gers attached to the back of the mountain.
We climb down the stairs and there’s another monument in memory of the war, a tank this time. In the square right next to it, a fountain plays at the rhythm of a Britney Spears song, little kids running around it. Neat.
We also visit the Khan’s winter palace museum, and I am immediately impressed by how old the pagodas are. They sort of emanate history, in stark contrast with the modern buildings surrounding their walls. New outside, old inside. Noise outside, quiet inside. Statues and icons of buddhas and gods are exposed inside the pagodas, along with objects and clothes from the time of the Mongol empire. Huge copper pots are lying outside the palace and Ganbaatar explains that they were used to cook the sheets, or the Tatars, who had to be punished for killing the wife of some Khan. Pretty reasonable right?
We then head to Sukhbaatar square, or Chinggis Khan square (it’s still unclear which is the real name, it has been changed a bunch of times and people still keep calling it one or the other way at random). We take a picture with the huge Chinggis Khan statue, sitting in front of the government’s palace. Another statue stands in the middle of the square, the statue of the hero of the communist revolution, Sukhbaatar, riding his horse.
Ganbaatar takes us to a fancy restaurant and we get the local mixed Mongolian plate to share: sheep meat basically, cooked in every possible way, fried, grilled, stuffed into boiled dumplings. How can they eat this stuff every day? They must have stomachs of steel or something.
We continue our tour to the Gandan Monastery, a complex of old buddhist temples, way older than the ones we visited in UU.
We enter the main one and a huge golden statue of Avalokiteshvara buddha stands right in the centre. It’s so huge his head almost touches the wooden ceiling. It almost looks like he’s holding the whole temple together. The walls are covered in golden buddha statues, thousands of them, accompanied by the usual round boxes containing the prayers.
Ganbaatar then asks us what we wanna do tonight and we look at each other: drink? So we end up at this pub called Ikh Mongol. It’s a cool place, there’s almost no foreigners and the beer is good and incredibly cheap (1.50 Euros for a Pint!). At some point, a local band starts playing Mongolian rock and roll. Wait, what? It’s actually not that bad, definitely better than the Russian trash music we’re used to hear. We’re all pretty tipsy so we vote for hitting a club.
Ganbaatar somehow finds a driver outside the pub, gives him his car keys (yeah, apparently it’s common practice here in Mongolia, as police is quite strict with drink & drive situations) and we reach this Mint club. Ganbaatar says it’s the most “prestigious” in UB. All the girls are indeed very beautiful and everyone is dressed up in fancy clothes. And then there’s us, in sneakers and t-shirts. But who cares. We’re the only westerners, so everyone is looking at us like we’re aliens or something. And we drink, and dance, and have a good time.
27 June. Mongolia, day 2.
Ganbaatar stops by our apartment, well, his apartment, and picks us up so we can go visit some landsites around UB. We get in the car and he drives, sitting on the right seat, which kind of strikes us, as it’s not like they drive like in the UK here in Mongolia. He explains that it’s actually quite common here, people choose to have the steering wheel on the left or right side of their car as they like.
In no time we’re out of the city and the roads leads us straight on to the horizon, fields with ger camps on our left, fields with ger camps on our right. On the side of the road, there’s all sorts of stuff going on: kids selling onions, sheep furs for sale, piled one on top of the other, wild horses, huge sparrows, eagles and other scary-looking non-identified birds standing on wooden poles. And then fields over fields, green, ocher and brown, spreading against the naked mountains in the distance.
After about an hour, we reach our first stop: Chinggis Khan’s statue. The notorious Mongolian warrior is represented on top of his horse, looking east. The whole thing is huge and its silver color reflects and multiplies the sun beams a thousand times in each direction. I can’t really tell if I like it or not, there’s something about it, which is probably due to the fact that the whole thing was built just a few years ago with the main purpose of attracting tourists.
We climb the stairs to enter the museum, at their feet three huge birds, my size big, stand still and look at the visitors without flinching, like they’re keeping an eye on them or something.
We climb to the top of the statue, basically we’re standing on the head of the horse, take some photos with our buddy Chinggis and then visit the museum. Not that there’s much to see in there, just a bunch of old utensils and weapons. Still, it’s interesting to read about the history, the rise and fall of the biggest empire ever existed.
Not too far from the statue there’s another one, representing Chinggis Khan’s mother , looking straight at him. We go check it out and then stop at one of the many yurts along the road to get some food. We all order whatever Ganbaatar is having, having no idea what the names on the menu stand for. All we know is that there’s probably gonna be sheep meat in each of them, and we are not wrong.
So we order some sort of chebureki and meat lapsha to go, and while we wait we walk around the ger camp. Kids and puppies are running around, playing.
We enter the ger of the woman who is preparing our food: the “kitchen” is on the left side, opposite to it there’s some sort of sink and a mirror, and in front of us, beyond the central part of the yurt, where the only opening besides the door is and which is forbidden to cross (it’s considered the sacred part of the house), there’s a bed with a baby boy lying on it. There’s something about Mongolian babies, their features, with such accentuated checks and almond-shaped eyes, that make them cuter than the average baby. Ganbaatar asks us not to take pictures of the baby, as here it’s associated to stealing the should of the child.
We get out and as we wait at the table, the woman from the yurt offers us a cup of their traditional milk with chai, which is salted instead of sweetened. Weirdest beverage that I’ve ever tried, for now.
Our food is finally ready, so we get back to the car a start driving toward the river. The road gets dustier and dustier until there’s no road at all any more: it’s interrupted by one of the main branches of the river. Ganbaatar gets out of the car to check how deep it is and, before we realise it, we’re crossing the river by car, like it’s the most normal thing in the world.
We park somewhere by the trees and set up our portable chairs and table by the river bank. The meal is really good, heavy, but good. In the end we all feel like we’re exploding though: think of a ton of sheep meat + egg noodles + horse meat + fried stuff and you get the point.
The whole atmosphere is very nice, sort of soothing, the sound of the running water in the river, wild horses, cows and sheeps hanging out.
We continue our excursion on to Terelj National Park. As we pay the toll to enter the area, the landscape changes abruptly: no more dry steppes but green fields, conifer forests and rocky mountains with weird shapes, levigated by the wind.
We stop by the “turtle rock” and Gian and I climb it to the top, enjoying the view and the fresh air.
Ganbaatar then drives us home and we then walk to the nearest supermarket to buy some food. Everything is obviously written in Mongolian so we spend half figuring out if the products we’re picking are actually what we want, trying to ignore the dead sheep heads in the meat department. In the end, we sort of manage to get all we need.
We head back home and finally collapse on the beds, well, mine is just a bunch of blankets piled up on the floor, but I’m so tired I can’t really feel the difference between this and a real bed.
28 June. UB, day 3.
Sunday lazy Sunday? Happy Sunday?
Ganbaatar picks us up in the early afternoon and we head to the National Culture and Recreation Park, which is apparently the biggest in the city and, most likely, the only one. There’s a desolation about it, a sadness that’s almost cute. It’s like they tried, they’re trying to make something beautiful out of this city but they haven’t really succeeded. I guess the climate conditions just won’t allow it. The grass won’t grow green, the newly planted trees will struggle.
The whole place is full of people, yet it feels abandoned in a way. It’s like nature won’t bend to the will of humans. The wild refuses to be educated.
We rent bikes and just spend the day riding across the park, where all the youngsters of UB seem to be gathered. School kids are playing with water pumps in the soccer field. Not far from it, a couple of teens just got in trouble with the local police for smoking what looks like weed. It’s actually a double punishment: weed is forbidden entirely, and smoking is forbidden in most public places like squares, stations and parks.
We keep riding our bikes and spot a bunch of guys carrying buckets of water and pouring them on the trees, as, apparently, there’s no proper irrigation system.
We invite Ganbaatar and his mom over for dinner as a thank you for his great hospitality so once we’re back to the apartment we start cooking: the menu consists of bruschette, spaghetti alla carbonara e gelato for dessert. And red wine, of course.
About an hour later, our Mongolian friend shows up but says that unfortunately his mother couldn’t make it. Oh well, more food for us. He seems to enjoy the meal, so at least we found a way to figuratively repay him for all he’s done for us.
And the more I think about it, the more I realize the oddness of the whole situation: if someone had told me that we’d end up staying in the flat of this guy a couple of months ago, I’d have laughed at them. After all, we really spoke but a bunch of time at school, so there’s really no explanation to why he helped us so much other than disinterested generosity.
A lot of the people we met during this journey have somehow made me regain hope in humankind. Yes, there are still good people out there. There are still nice, disinterested people in the world, people who do things just for the pleasure of it. No hidden games.
29 June. UB, day 4.
Today was a lost day. Completely useless. Ganbaatar told us yesterday that he would go get our passports at the Kazakh embassy and stop by the apartment at around 10.30 AM.
So we wake up, have breakfast and wait for him. 11 AM. We wait. 11.30 AM. We wait. 12 PM. 1 PM. We wait. Is he even coming? Is everything okay with our passports? 1.30 PM. Still no sign of him.
Alright, we need to get out of the apartment. First cause we’ll go mad otherwise, feeling like animals in a cage. Second cause we need wifi to try to contact Ganbaatar and find out when he’s coming.
So we walk to Chinggis Khan’s square and down to Peace Avenue till we find this wifi cafe, order some juice and message him, both on VK and on whatsapp. No answer. At 4 PM we decide to go to the Kazakh embassy ourselves and get some answers.
Marta starts to look worried. I can see a number of worst case scenarios running through her head. Being stuck in Mongolia with no passports is not a good thing. I try to calm her down suggesting that we can freak out after 9 PM. If by then there’s still no sign of Ganbaatar or our passports, then we’re allowed to freak out.
And it’s actually a good suggestion cause, as we finally reach the Kazakh embassy, we find out that he just stopped by and picked the passports up like half an hour ago. Great. Oh and “finally”, because finding the embassy has been a not-so-easy operation. Turns out, Mongolian people have no idea where the streets are located, they just use landmarks to navigate themselves through the city. We even asked for directions to a couple policemen who gave us contradicting answers, in Mongolian, obviously.
At some point we’re looking pretty lost so some kids, who spoke English, offered to help us and stopped a taxi for us. Oh, and that taxi. The seats are covered in white lace, a neon “taxi” sign is hanging near the rear mirror, while the ceiling is covered in green paper illustrating some sort of rain forest and, dulcis in fundo, two plastic birds are hanging from it. As we stop at the red light, the cab driver takes out his phone and takes a selfie with us. He then shows us some posters stuffed in the back seats, showing all the selfies he took with his clients. He’s even dressed like Santa in some of them. What the..?
Apparently the guy has no idea where he’s going so at some point he stops, enters a building to ask for directions, then comes out and goes: “Kazakh embassy – no, but here, Embassy Belarus! Okay?” What? No, obviously. It’s not like they’re interchangeable dude.
He goes back in and finally gets the right directions and manages to get us to the embassy and then back to our place. What a ride.
So.. back to square one. We still have to wait for Ganbaatar. Will he show up in an hour? Will he show up in four? Who knows.
Fortunately, at around 6 PM, we hear someone knocking on the door and, yes, it’s him! With our passports and visas. Slava bogu! So we thank him and tell him we’re thinking of going to Karakouroum tomorrow, or the Gobi, if we manage. So we ask him what’s the best way to get there.
And then he goes: oh, you know, maybe there’s a train going to the Gobi tonight, if you get your stuff ready we can go straight to the station and in case there’s one you can leave directly. Cool, alright, let’s do this!
So we get to the station and he starts asking around for trains. And it’s good he’s with us, cause nobody speaks English. Literally nobody. We have no idea what’s going on as we don’t understand a word. In short, the first train is leaving tomorrow, so Ganbaatar suggests we all hire a driver so we can go by car.
Wait, we? Is he coming with us? Apparently he is. Didn’t he just say he has to go to work tomorrow? Oh, don’t worry for that, he goes. Okay, whatever.
So, after a long bargaining, we agree for a ride there and back for 100.000 Tugric each. We’re leaving at 10.30.
We’re going to the Gobi! I didn’t even think that was possible, considering how little time we have in Mongolia. From what we read on the internet, it was either too expensive (tour agencies organise the trip for no less than 500 euros) or too far.
We go back to the apartment, get some dinner and get ready. We’re going to the Gobi!
Stop 1: Nizhny Novgorod
6 June. We are on board of the “Lastochka”, Nizhny Novgorod bound. It’s a gorgeous day: the sky is uncharacteristically blue and the sunbeams make the trees extra green, like splotches of color against the grayness of the khrushevy. The clouds all have the same weird shape, like an army of snails moving in synchrony across the sky. Walls of conifers surround us on both sides and our eyes get lost in the labyrinth of their tall and skinny logs.
We arrive at Nizhny Novgorod’s train station right on time and my friend Natalie is standing on the platform, waiting for us. I hug her and introduce Gian to her, although they already met at one of Nathan’s legendary parties in Moscow. She takes us to her car, a huge 4×4 (we’ll only later understand why she actually needs such a beast).
She drives us around the city, explaining how it lays at the confluence of two rivers, the Volga and the Oka, dividing it into a lower part and an upper part. We pass by the XIII century Kremlin, located on top of a hill surmounting the rivers, and we finally reach her house, in a derevnya called Taynovo, just outside Nizhny. As we enter the village, it’s like we’re going back in time. The road gets bumpy, wooden houses start lining up on one side, a pond lays on the other.
Natalie’s uncle is working in the garden, and as I say privet and walk into the living room, there’s a DEAD BEAR laying on the ground. Head and pawns and all. Natalie reads my face and goes: Oh, say hi to Misha!
What? Did they even name it? Well, apparently in Russia it’s normal to use dead bears as carpets.
The house is huge, there’s even a 2-storey banya in the garden, overlooking the pond, and Nizhny Novgorod’s skyline appears in the distance. We eat some cheese soup made by Natalie’s aunt and head out to meet some of her friends, who are having a gather up in the woods. Creepy? Not really, that’s just what people do in their free time over here.
When we get there, I am in awe. The forest is just so thick, the trees so tall. The singing of the birds gets mixed up with the sounds of the water flowing down the river and of the tree branches blowing in the wind. It’s almost like a symphony. The smell of meat on the grill melts with the aroma of flowers and berries and newborn leaves. Here and there sand fields interrupt the green of the grass. After living in Moscow for a year, this place really seems unreal.
Natalie’s friends are gathered around a table beneath a tree by the river, eating, drinking, and grilling mushrooms. They instantly make room for us and start asking us all sorts of questions. They all seem to be very simple people. Genuine.
We take a walk along the river, there’s people chilling in their teepees here and there, playing guitar and singing old Russian songs. Back at our “camp”, all sorts of goodies materialize on the table: grilled everything, chicken, mushrooms, veggies, and beer, lots of beer. Some other friends join us till this Russian policeman, dressed in military clothes for god knows what reason, shows up with a bottle of Tequila. Oy oy.
Fortunately, I am a woman and this is Russia, so I’m out of his drinking buddies’ roster. All the honor falls on Gian. I’m just happy to stick to my beer. The girls start sing Russian pesni and one of them plays the guitar, a glass of beer rigorously within her grasp. Cause you know how it is: bed bokala net vokala!
At some point one of the girls shows up with a bunch of leaves in her hand and goes: poprobui! I look at her warily and blabber: chto? She doesn’t seem to accept no for an answer so I’m like, what the hell, let’s just try this, hopefully she won’t poison me. And the leaf is actually really good, for a leaf. It tastes like lime. Natalie says they would come here as kids and eat them when their mothers punished them and left them without dinner or something. Nice.
Meanwhile, the police guy, who’s been drinking straight tequila with salt and no lemon goes: Uhm, this may actually be a good substitute for lime! And starts chugging shots and chewing leaves like a goat! How can you not love Russia in moments like this?
It’s 10 PM now and everybody is like, please don’t leave! Stay with us, spend the night here! The tequila is finished but, abra kadabra, a bottle of vodka magically appears as police guy shouts: nu, tekila zakonchilas’, nado vodku! Makes perfect sense, how to argue with that.
Thank god, Natalie saves us, especially Gian, who’s been having shots since 5 PM, and we head home. She wants us to try her banya. Why not. Apparently it’s never a good idea to mix vodka and banya, so it’s just me and Natalie. Check.
7 June. We wake up in the early morning and Natalie teaches us how to make bliny, which we eat with sgushchenka and homemade jam. Breakfast of champions.
Around 10 AM we hop in the car, direction Gorodets, a small town about an hour from Nizhny, renowned for its craftsmanship. We pick up Natalie’s Yoga teacher, Liudmila, and drive through the green fields till we get to the Gorodets Museum, located inside a beautiful wooden building. No nails were used to build it, Natalie says. Different crafts are exposed in each room: wooden sculptures, toys, textiles, clay utensils, wood paintings and decorations. This town is indeed famous for its patterns and bright colors used for decorating wood. We even decide to take a master class and we’re handed out wooden plates while a local lady teaches us how to paint a Gorodets flower on them. From the look of it, I can’t say I’ll ever become a Gorodets Master, but I tried my best.
Once we finish our tour, we sit down in the cafeteria and have some Ivan chai, served with pryaniki and other local candies. Speaking of pryaniki, we also get to visit the pryaniki museum. Yes, there is a cookie museum in Gorodets – gorod masterov. It’s impressive how the people of this tiny town really manage to put their skillful craftsmanship into everything, even cookies, baked on engraved pieces of wood so that the biscuit will take the shape of whatever the engraver wants it to take. They are also quite delicious actually.
Liuda then suggests we go to this Serflager place, so we drive and drive till we reach a forest and keep driving right through it on a bumpy (well, bumpy is an understatement) path, here and there wooden plates with painted arrows pointing toward serflager hanging on the pine trees.
As we arrive, I immediately fall in love with the place. It’s like some sort of spiritual haven, deep in the forest, looking right onto the gory-more, the part of the Volga river that gets so wide it almost looks like a sea. It’s hard to describe this place, it simply emanates such positive vibrations.
An Indian guy who speaks Italian with a Bergamo accent (I know, right?) serves us samosas and masala chai, which I love and missed so much. People are doing yoga and massages in the tents scattered through the woods. Some kids play on a swing knotted on two pine trees overlooking the beach. A guy is kitesurfing, while a woman bravely bathes in the ice-cold waters. Everything is wonderful.
On our way back, we pass by the house of Natalie’s cousin, who makes us chai and introduces us to her seriously obese cat. We get home and homemade pel’meny are waiting for us. They are so good I could eat them forever. Nothing to do with the shit you buy at the producty. As we eat, Natalie pours us some Samogon, a very strong liquor made by her uncle. Fortunately she has to go to work tomorrow so the drinking of this deadly thing stops at 2 glasses.
We then decide to watch a movie, a Russian one, Lyubov’ v bol’shom gorode. It’s supposed to be a romantic comedy I guess, but seriously I am laughing so hard the whole time at how ridiculous this film is. Only the Russians could create such a thing. Just watch the movie and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
8 June. It’s Monday and Natalie has to go to work, so we wake up at 6 AM so she can drop us in Nizhny on her way. There’s probki everywhere, and we have to take the backroads, in the countryside, till the kanatkaya doroga, where Natalie drops us off. Apparently it’s the longest in Europe and was built by the French. That’s reassuring..
We buy our tickets and as I look at Gian, I see his puzzled face as he goes: What is that exactly? – And when he realizes we’re gonna be suspended in the air I can see fear crawling up his face. But he acts as a good soldier, and before we know it we are crossing the river and reach the old part of the city.
We walk along the Oka on Verkhnovozhnaya naberezhnaya, or something like that, until we get to the Kremlin. It’s about 9 AM now and it’s actually very pleasant at this time of day. Everything is quiet and still and the weather is wonderful.
We spend the day walking around the city, which is quite small and cute, compared to Moscow at least.
Our train leaves at 7.24 PM, but Natalie really wants us to have some dinner before getting on the train so she picks us up and we go back to her place. We has soup and grechka with meat, pirozhki and ice-cream and candies and chai (not exactly in this order I might add), and then we all take the elektrichka to the station. Apparently t’s faster than driving there due to the probki.
So we get to the platform of the closest stop and wait. The problem is the damn elektrichka only shows up at 7.10 PM. Our train to Yeka is leaving at 7.24. Uhh.
Still, as I always do in these situations, I’m not too stressed about it and stick to my philosophy of “don’t worry until you have to, or unless you can do something about it”. But Gian is already nervous. I try to calm him down and everything seems under control until I see Natalie’s face, as she tells me: ya perezhivayus’. I check my phone: 7:18, and we are still on the elektrichka. Uhm. This doesn’t look good, the odds seem to be against us, but let’s see what happens. I think in my head.
As we are finally approaching the station, we all frantically try to check the trains outside to see if we can spot ours and find out the right platform. Gian manages to read the screen for the train standing in front out us: 092, it’s ours!
19:21, we might actually make it! If only the damn elektrichka didn’t keep going so slowly. That’s what you get with old Russian suburban trains.
Come on, just open the freaking doors!
19:23, they’re calling it. The train is about to leave. My mind is going, oh, this would be funny if it left right under our nose, with us stuck in the effing elektrichka.
Then, magically, incredibly, against all odds, fate kisses us, and the doors open. We throw ourselves onto the platform, waving our tickets to the rzhd lady standing in front of carriage # 10, ours.
I hug Natalie as the train lady hurries me in, yelling: Just get in, i’ll check your documents later!
Wow. We made it. That is incredible. Life is beautiful.
We get to our sleepers at the end of the wagon and an old lady is sitting with two kids around the age of 6 or 7. She seems okay. A bit cranky, but all Russian ladies are cranky after all.
A while later, the provodnitsa comes to us to actually check our passports and tickets and goes: What about the sheets? – What about them? – Do you want them? Its 135 Roubles. – Aren’t they included?
She explains to me that when you buy your tickets online, you actually have to tick the sheet box at the bottom of the page. – Oh, that explains the discounts we thought we got. Good to know.
So we buy the sheets and as I start to make my bed on the upped berth, the old lady, Liudmila Petrovna, goes: davaite ya sam pomogu. And she makes my bed without me having a say in it. Thanks?
Gian and I start walking through the wagons until we reach # 13, and there we find Jean-Yves and Solene. What! How did we even end up on the same train! They are also stopping in Ye-burg for a couple of days. Crazy. Totally unplanned. We hang out with them for an hour or so, chatting and drinking beer (Shhhh, we know it’s forbidden).
And the world is so big. And it is so small.
Stop 2: Yekaterinburg
10 June. We’re still on the train to Yekaterinburg and there’s about 5 more hours to go. The kids in the lower berths are reading and making bracelets. They’re going straight to Krasnoyarsk, so it’ll be another 3 days for them to arrive. They’re actually really well-behaved, I mean, if it were Italian kids it would be an absolute nightmare. One of them even offers me a candy.
I’m quite curious about Yekaterinburg, although somehow I know it won’t be as amazing as these past few days we spent with Natalie in Nizhny and her village. There really are no words to describe how thankful I am to her and how great and heartwarming our stay was. It’s true that when you travel to a place and get to hang out with locals it is a completely different experience. It is perhaps the only way for you to get a real vibe of that place.
We finally make it to our destination and it’s freaking cold here. We arrive at 5 PM local time / 3 PM Moscow time (yeah, long story… Apparently the Russian railway system always refers to the Moscow time on the tickets, which, given the fact that there’s shitloads of time frames in Russia, can get quite confusing to say the least). In fact, we almost missed our stop as we both fell asleep and the babushka from the lower berth had to wake me up like: Weren’t you supposed to get off in Yekaterinburg? – Shit!
We gathered our stuff in a rush (I left the fish Natalie gave us as a present.. well, it was starting to smell what can I say) and hopped off the wagon.
As soon as I get on the platform, my body starts shaking in the cold and rain. Great. Nice to me you, Yekaterinburg.
I have my little hand-drawn map to get to the hostel, so we take the metro at Ural’skaya and get off at Geologicheskaya. Our address is Radisheva 33. However, once we get there, we realize that that is just the number of the dom, which is actually huge. So we end up going round and round for about an hour, no sign whatsoever of a Hostel Dostoevsky. We’re almost giving up hope, till a Russian man, carrying his daughter in his arms, approaches us and kindly asks: Are you looking for something? Do you need help? – And smiles.
So I explain the situation and he nicely offers to call the hostel for us. Once he gets the right directions he even offers to escort us there. The nicest guy ever. I just want to hug him. So no, Russians are not all aggressive assholes.
We get to the hostel and decide to rest for a while. In the meantime, Solene messages me and we set up to meet around 9:30 PM and go for drinks.
We end up at this Doctor Scotch pub, one of those suggested by Lonely Planet, but after a while we decide to move on to a new bar as this is way too expensive for our budget.
While we walk down the streets, it’s not that we have a good or bad first impression about the city, although it is probably mostly bad, surely puzzling cause really there is no city centre in Yekaterinburg, no central hub, every area looks pretty much the same, a.k.a. a huge outer kol’tso quarter of Moscow.
Anyway, we walk for about 10-15 minutes till we bump into this Shtab bar, illuminated by a massive red neon star. That’s our place. We immediately know it. It definitely looks cheap enough and fucked up enough.
And it is. Inside there’s this whole WW2 theme going on, camouflage curtains, pictures of the siege of Berlin, snipers hanging on the walls and a soldier’s statue standing at the entrance to greet you. Sweet.
We have a few many drinks, start to play Never Have I Ever till Jean-Yves gets too drunk, as always, and we decide to get home. It’s about 3 AM and as Gian and I walk back to our hostel in the freezing cold, me wrapped in my Air India blanket, the sky is already light. Yeah, there’s this little something about Russian summers, with the sun going down after 10 PM and rising back up at 3 AM, that is really cool and disturbing at the same time. I’d probably never get used to it.
11 June. We are supposed to meet Jean-Yves and Solene at 12 PM at Dinamo metro station so we can visit the city together. As we find each other, we start walking in the direction of the golden domes of some churches in the distance, right across some sort of park.
We get to the site where the Romanov family was assassinated in 1918 and it’s honestly quite underwhelming. It’s basically just a cross with the statues of the royal members around it. Ou-kay.
We enter the church of the Spilled Blood or whatever and I have to say that’s really probably one of the few things worth seeing in Yekaterinburg. It’s the typical orthodox church, with golden icons everywhere and golden everything. Then on one side we see the tombstones of the tsars, Nikolay II and his wife and children, including the legendary Anastasia. In one of the semi-hidden hallways behind the main chapel, we also get to see a photo exhibition about the tsars and their relationship with God, nature and Russia.
It is actually impressive to see these photos and read the letters of Nikolay II and his children, cause they immediately make you realize how deeply attached they still were to God, to the divine mission that he invested them with: to protect Russia and its people at all cost. Their relationship with nature and land was also quite profound and somehow primitive, as one can tell from the photos of the princesses dressed as farm girls and working the land in Tsarskoe Selo.
The events of the Russian Revolution would easily evoke images of oppressive monarchs that needed to be punished and eliminated so that the people could finally get their freedom, but actually what I get from this exhibition is really the image of loving and caring monarchs, who just fell victims of their time and whose memory got clouded by some sort of damnatio memoriae for the whole duration of the Soviet regime, only to be rehabilitated in the past few years.
“When I become Tsar, there will be no poor or unhappy people. When I become Tsar, I want everyone to be happy” – These are the words of prince Nikolay III.
Also, ever noticed that Medvedev looks EXACTLY like Nikolay II?
Anyways, as I said, this is pretty much the highlight of the day, and we spend the rest of it mostly walking aimlessly in search of something worth visiting. Except from random graffiti mocking Obama and the US. Literally. Everywhere.
We end up in a 70th Anniversary of the Great Victory Museum, then pass by the so-called Literary Quarter, which is basically just a wooden house, yes, one, walk on the river “bank” until we decide, what the hell, let’s just go eat.
We find a cheap Georgian restaurant near the 1905 square and stay there till about 3 PM, when we decide to go look for this panorama place suggested by Lonely Planet. Apparently you get to see the whole city from up there.
So we climb on top of the Visotskiy, a 53-storey buiding, all excited to see the Ural mountains, till we realize, there are no mountains whatsoever in sight. What! Are the Urals a lie?
We will later find out that the mountains actually exist, but they stop right before Yekaterinburg and start again right after it. Well, that’s great, Yekaterinburg.
At around 5 PM, we figure it’s a respectable time to head back to our hostels and chill. Gian and I stop at a produtky to buy some stuff for dinner and when we get back to our place, we find Marta waiting for us, jumping toward us and hugging us. She has just flown in from Moscow. Now the trio is finally complete.
We cook some pasta, have some beer, only to later find out that it’s forbidden to drink in the hostel, but hey, we didn’t know. Then, we head toward Shtab bar to meet Solene and Jean-Yves. We actually find them already drinking pints of beer. And downhill from here, we just keep the booze coming, chilling, playing Never Have I Ever, again, and just having a good time.
June 12. Today’s plan is: go see the famous Europe-Asia border Monument (although we did find out last night from the bartender that technically we already are in Asia). Still, we read that the monument lays where Tsar Aleksandr II stopped in 18something and opened a bottle of wine, so we figure it might be a cool thing to do. Especially considering that there is literally nothing else really worth seeing in the city.
We head to Ural’skaya metro station and exit at the Severnyi avtovokzal, where we buy our ride to Pervoural’sk, for just about 80 Rubles. I ask the bus lady what we need to do to reach the monument and her eyes brighten up and smile, as she merrily tries to explain that she’ll tell the driver to stop where we need to, and then we’ll have to walk through a small path in the woods till we reach the monument.
We sit in the back and drive away from the city. Soon the countryside begins, tall pine trees on both sides of the road, nothing else in sight in front of us or behind us.
That’s the thing about Russia, it is so big and wide, the breadth of its space is almost intimidating. Each oblast’ has its capital city, which is really the only city in the whole region, isolated, nothing around it but woods and small derevn’i, which all look like they’re stuck in time. There’s something about the wideness of Russia, the fact that there is so much space left to itself, untouched, that conveys awe and desolation at the same time.
Suddenly, the driver waves at us and we figure we have to get off. We are in the middle of nowhere, but we can see a small path leading to the woods, just like the lady told us at the station. We start walking, a thousand mosquitos attacking us, till we reach a cemented road and right across it we can see the border monument.
Of course, it’s under renovation, cause that’s just our luck. Well, at least we get to breathe some fresh air and admire the mightiness of the Russian forest. We take some pictures and then spot a sign indicating: Pervoural’sk – 1 Km. Since there’s nothing else to do, we decide to just go to this village and check it out.
So we start walking on the side of the road and almost feels like a movie. It’s hard to explain the feeling of just walking on a straight road in the middle of nowhere toward an unknown location.
At some point, the road crosses with another one and we spot the sign: Pervoural’sk, along with a charming Gazprom gas station. The smell of gas pervades the atmosphere. Wow. This is it. A bunch of wooden houses along one road and desolation all around. I feel like I’m in a Jack Kerouac book.
We enter a cafe, most likely the only one in the whole village and which apparently operates as a restaurant, banquet room, wedding reception facility and god knows what else. It’s also probably one of the kitschest places I’ve ever been. Christmas lights are illuminating the counter, long red velvet drapes frame the windows, rose and golden cloths cover tables and chairs, in turn wrapped in yellow bows on the side. Also, birthday balloons are floating on the ceiling, as middle-aged men sit alone on scattered tables, having lunch.
We order some bliny and soup and just enjoy the surreality of the situation. We also realize we have to find our way back to Yekaterinburg. I read that basically we should stand on the opposite side of the road until a bus or marshutka passes by and picks us up. Fantastic.
Okay, let’s try this. As we wait, cars passing us by and no sign of any bus, Jean-Yves calls Gian asking where we are and suddenly appears with Solene, walking towards us. In Pervoural’sk. What? They tell us that they also took the bus to see the monument, but as they didn’t ask the driver to stop there, they ended up on the other edge of Pervoural’sk. As they walk toward us, a bus suddenly appears, so they start running and we all manage to get in, for another 40 minute drive back to Yekaterinburg. Pervoural’sk, it’s been real.
Back at the station, we say bye to the guys, who we are going to meet again in Irkutsk. They’re going there directly tonight, with 3-day train ride.
We go back to the hostel, pick up our bags and on to the station once again. This time direction: Omsk.
30 June: The Gobi
It’s midnight and we’re on board of our “Limousine” minivan, desert bound.
The road is pitch black and we can feel the vastness and emptiness around us, although we can see anything but darkness from our windows. Only a few sparkles twinkle in the distance. They’re probably fires in some ger camps.
We’re about two hours in and suddenly Ganbaatar calls: Look!
A bunch of baby deers is crossing the road in front of us. Wow.
We try to get some sleep but the road is so bumpy there’s just no hope for it. At 5.30 AM or so we get to our destination.
The darkness is fading out and a pink line paints the horizon in the distance. We walk up to the Khamar monastery, a pilgrimage site for women, who we see walking around it and pouring cups of milk on it, while everyone else is waiting for the sun to rise.
I stand there, looking straight onto the horizon. The sky gets pinker and pinker, an orange halo indicates the spot where the sun will rise. All around us red dirt and rocks, interrupted here and there by bushes.
Then it begins: a flash of light and up up up. Each second the sun discloses itself a bit more, till it reaches its full shape and hangs there, a few inches over the skyline, while the Mongolians behind us start chanting with their arms wide open and their hands pointing to the sky. It’s breathtaking.
We walk up to the Northern Shamble Energy Center, its entrance is marked by a huge painting on a red wall, representing the Buddhist eye symbol.
The ground is covered in bright red stones, the biggest ones concentrated in certain spots, as if brought together by some sort of hidden magnet. People lie on them with their limbs spread open as to capture such energy.
The sky is incredible. The now almost white sun floats on the pink and blue sky, hitting the red of the ground and the white walls of the monastery.
Blue Buddhist flags hang around a round stone on the edge of the walls.
A golden sphere dominates its top part, to capture and multiply the energy.
Your perfect qualities,
are like colors reflected in a mirror
I see your shining face, my dear
and truly you have captured
my entire mind and body.
Like the cuckoo’s song
you relieve the stress in my mind
your kind words are gentle, my dear
with such kindness you sit
and offer comfort
Your elegant body
born upon the breeze
is beyond words my dear
like the scent of red sandalwood
you more enter my thoughts
Like the taste of honey
flowing from the heart of the lotus
joy in you, my dear
makes me even happier
happier beyond belief
Makes me even happier
happier beyond belief
in this human age
to do what you wish is to wish
for the things so heaven
afloat upon the ocean
of deep enjoyment
let us be joyful together.
We spend the rest of the morning visiting local sites: the Ike Tenger Bell, the Uvgun Suvraga Temple Complex (still under construction) and the Meditation Caves of Noyon Khutugt.
Buddhist statues are hidden inside the caves, gifts and offers at their feet, Sakura bushes surprisingly growing in the gorges. There’s one particular cave that’s called the womb and has two round holes on each side: crawl in from one hole and crawl out from the other in order and you’ll be reborn.
We drive on till we reach an area where different landscapes seem to weirdly coexist: the ground gets greener as the bushes become more frequent and close to each other, hiding the red dirt and then they suddenly stop, interrupted by sand dunes. Then, the ground goes back to its brownish color while blue hills appear in the distance.
We walk on the dunes and the wind hits our faces, carrying waves of sand and blinding us. I take off my red bandana, tie it to a wooden stick and plant it on the ground. Then I write the initials of a dear friend who passed a couple years ago and who always talked about making it to Mongolia. I look at the red thing blowing in the wind and think of him for a second and I can see him, happy, with a smile on his face. It’s like he is here. And it’s hard to explain and maybe I’m just tripping, but while we were walking from the Energy Center to the Ike Tenger Bell, a dog kept following us, leading the way, stopping when we stopped. Then he came to me and leaned his head on my leg. And as I stroke him and he looked at me, it felt more like he was comforting me in some way. Saying “don’t worry, I’m still here. Everything’s okay”. And if souls do reincarnate, I could swear that it was him, in that dog, saying hi to me.
We drive to a Ger camp and order some buzy, while our driver rests for a while. Then, the others fall asleep and I decide to go for a walk. I climb the nearest hill to its top, curious to see what’s behind it, and there another hill appears on the horizon. I climb that one too and the game repeats itself. Over and over.
I sit down and look down at the ger camp. Everything is quiet. Time goes slower. The sun hits my face but it doesn’t bother me. I could stay here for hours, letting all this quiet take over me and speak to me.
After a while, I reluctantly walk back to the camp, we pay for our food and go back to the car. Ganbaatar says it’s time to head back to UB, and well, we’d like to stay, maybe spend the night here, but apparently he’s in charge of everything and whatever he decides goes.
We pass through Shainshand, the one and only city in the area and as I look at the desolated streets I wonder how it would be to be born here, to grow up in such a place.
I fall asleep despite the heat and the terrible road conditions while looking out the window, the wide steppes repeating themselves over and over, acting like a lullaby.
We’re about 10 kilometres out of UB, when our car suddenly stops. I wake up and look at Marta next to me as she goes “What’s wrong now”. We look out the window and see one of the wheels lying on the ground. Wait, no, it can’t be. Not again!
And well, yeah it did happen again, the car broke down (this is what the fifth time it’s happened since we left Moscow?). What is wrong with us? Gianmario blabbers something about his grandma and that we seriously need to Skype her so she can do an anti-malocchio or something. Yep!
Alright, we get off the van and walk to the river nearby, while the driver calls for some help and tries to figure out how to fix the problem. A bunch of horses is running in the field in front of us, lead by their khozyain.
Half an hour later it becomes clear that the problem can’t be fixed within reasonable time, so another car comes and picks us up. There’s two drivers in it, for who knows what reason, so both the front seats are occupied. We squeeze in the back and hang in there till we finally get to Ulaanbaatar. Not comfortable, but well we made it back.
Stop 3: Omsk
13 June. I wake up on the train, upper bed, again. It’s almost 8 AM, local time, and in less than a couple of hours we’ll arrive in Omsk.
I climb down my berth using my incredibly graceful and refined technique, and take my seat. The man in front of me is already up. He’s huge and I remember being sort of wary of him as I first saw him yesterday, as I thought to myself: oh man, why did I have to end up in front of this 40-year old fat Russian man?
Actually though, I had to change my mind about him, as he proved to be an genuinely nice and kind person. I remember asking him last night where he would stop, and after telling me he would also get down in Omsk, he opened up completely and started telling me about his life, his job, his wife, his view about Russia and his support for Putin. I remember him asking me: is President Putin feared abroad? I guess this would sound like a really weird question in any other country, but not in Russia. As I answered, well, yes, he said: Good. It’s good that he’s feared. I support him 100% in everything he does!
He also explained to me about the Russian land, how the landscape changes along with it, going east. He made me notice how the taiga would start around the Omsk area and warned me about insects, ticks especially, some of which can be quite dangerous as they bring entsefalit, so he recommended me not to walk in the grass in Omsk.
Then he asked me about myself and showed me how to move around and what to see in Omsk. He even gave me the number of a taxi driver and told me to just call him and say I wanted to go to Tarskie Vorota and that I could walk through the city and see everything I needed to see from there.
As we are having breakfast, as soon as he sees that Marta doesn’t have a seat to eat (her bed neighbor is still sleeping), he gets up and gives her his seat, like a true gentleman. As if that isn’t enough, he also gives us directions to reach our hostel, using a weird app on his phone to show us the way.
The more I spend time on this trip, the more the image of the rude and cold Russian gets disintegrated and substituted by that of genuinely interested and kind people, ready to listen to you as a foreigner and help you out and tell you about their great country and the love and attachment they have toward it.
Oh, and also, this guy had quite an interesting story. He was born in Donetsk, where he still has a brother, then grew up in Kazakhstan and moved to Russia to work for Gazprom. He told me how small the zarplaty are in Russia and Siberia especially, around 40,000 Rubles a months, less than 500 Euros, and finally, when I asked him what he thought about the situation in Donbass he went: А Donbass, eto – nash, da!
As we arrive to the station and start walking toward our hostel Dostoyevsky, again, we are kind of thrown off by the fact that the city, or at least this part of the city, really looks like a village rather than a city, made up by crumbling wooden houses with eternit roofs, scattered around two main streets crossing each other. Here and there kiosks of babushki selling pirozhki or flowers.
The more we move further along the Transsiberian, the more we have the impression that Russia really is a massive village in the end, surrounded by limitless forests and fields.
Anyways, it’s den’ Rossii today, the Day of Russia. Hurray. We take a bus toward Uspensky Sobor, from where we can see the “celebrations”. A crowd of soldiers all lined up is standing in the middle of the square, ready to start the parade. On a stage in the distance a bunch of generals and I’m guessing local government members are dispensing medals to lieutenants and other army members, thanking them for their service to Russia.
After watching the parade, we visit the church and start walking around the city. Call me crazy, but all in all, I can say I actually find it “prettier” than Yekaterinburg (Sorry, Catherine). I mean, it is definitely poorer, in worse conditions in terms of infrastructure, but at least it has its own vibe. There is some desolation in it that makes it charming. It’s like this city has its own identity. Yes, the identity of a godforsaken place in the middle of nowhere, bended by the incredibly harsh weather and by its location, but an identity all the same.
As used as we are to Moscow’s urban jungle, what strikes me about it is the absence of tall buildings. Most buildings in Omsk have the height of those you would find in an Italian city, steep roofs alternating with flats of no more than 8 storeys. Yet this, coupled with the width of the roads and the space separating each building, gives the city a weird atmosphere, definitely uncommon to the eye of an Italian or even a European. It’s like it adds to the general desolation of the city and gives it breadth at the same time.
We walk along Tarskaya ulitsa, then down the river till we find a stolovaya where we have lunch for just 100 Rubles. The sun is shining and there’s about 25 degrees. Finally a warm city! We walk to Park Pobedy, find some benches and just lay there in the sun for an hour or so, the sound of the water running the square fountain in the background.
We then cross the bridge down on Lenin Avenue and reach the point where the Om and the Irtysh rivers fall into each other, then keep walking along the Irtysh and discover some sort of beach. People are laying in the sun, playing ball and bathing in the river. Music is playing and a group of youngsters is having some sort of push-up competition. It’s the saddest and coolest place in town somehow.
We ask for a lemonade at a kiosk by the beach and they give us a sparkling orange beverage served in unlabeled plastic bottles. Not what we were expecting. We decide to have a sip anyway and… don’t do that.
We finally hop on a marshutka from prospekt Karla Marksa and stop at a produtkty to buy some food for dinner. The situation gets a little out of hand an we walk out with an entire grilled chicken.
We spend the evening at the hostel, cooking our chicken, planning our moves in central Asia and playing UNO cards with the two administration girls who are just so lovely and friendly.
14 June. We get up around 11 AM, no pressure, have breakfast and head to the station to find a marshutka for Achairskii Monastyr. We drive for about an hour in the deep countryside, random women appearing out of nowhere and hooping on the marshutka.
Suddenly the driver stops and yells: Achairskyi zdzes’!
We get off and walk across the entrance gate of the convent into a a huge park with a number of churches scattered here and there. At the other end of the main path, right in front of us, there a huge statue of a patriarch, standing in a mighty pose, his arms raised toward the sky. Creepy.
We visit the monastery and walk around, enjoying the fresh air and sound of the leaves blowing in the wind. Then we find the famous istochnik, a holy source of hot water with supposedly healing powers. A whole bunch of people are bathing in it, from children to old ladies. We are actually impressed at how warm the water is. I read it maintains its 36.5 degrees temperature even during the Siberian winter.
Not too far from it, there’s some kind of resting area with tables and benches and an old chubby nun serving chai and bulochki in exchange for a small donation. As soon as she realizes we are foreigners, she encourages us to take more.
At about 5 PM we figure it’s time to head back, so we exit the convent and cross the street. We see a bench with a bus sign next to it. That should be it. We sit down a look at the road. Nothing but us and the empty fields. Cars start passing us by and we have no idea how long we’ll have to wait till a bus shows up. Finally, we see a marshutka and hop on it.
Back at the hostel, we hear some loud Russian music coming through next door: it’s a wedding reception! We take a look from the open door: it looks like a wedding from the 80s, cheap oversized dresses and music you could only hear in a Russian club, or canteen, for some reason there’s no difference.
We climb upstairs and find Nastya and two other guys from the hostel watching Zoluchka on the projector. They ask us to join but the music from the wedding is so loud that we all quit it after 10 minutes and decide to start cooking pasta alla carbonara. When it’s ready we invite everyone in the hostel, who seem to love it.
After dinner we go down to catch some fresh air and there are now three people dressed in bees costumes in the hallway. Why? We don’t even wanna know.
It’s now time for goodbyes, as we’ll leave early tomorrow morning. We leave our signature on the Dostoyevsky wall, even try to draw a map of Italy and shamefully fail, but it’s the attempt that counts.
… and that’s pretty much it! And yeah, I’m glad we ended up at this hostel, Katya and Nastya were just so cheerful and it was just nice to know these two Siberian girls, born and bred in Omsk, somehow stuck there and eager to know about our country and our story.
1-2 July: Back to UB
1 July. Ulaanbaatar.
We finally manage to go see a traditional Mongolian dance and song show, at the National Song & Dance Academic Ensemble, on one of the corners of Chinggis Khan Square.
The show is incredible, we get to see and hear the traditional throat singing, horse fiddle playing, as well as shaman, folk and tantric buddhist dances. The costumes are just amazing, from the scary masks of the gods, to the golden dresses of the ballerina-bodhisattvas, to the colourful vests of the throat singers.
But the best part of it all is the so-called Long Song, played by the orchestra and sang by a woman wrapped in red and gold clothes. As she starts singing, the vastness of the Mongolian steppes takes over my head, and before I can realize it or control it, tears start streaming down my face, irrationally, carried by that song and that voice. It’s probably one of the most moving songs I’ve ever heard.
After the show, we find an Irish pub and sit to get some beer, but as we order, the waiter looks at us and goes:
“Oh, no beers today”
“What do you mean no beers? Like, they’re finished?”
“No, no, it’s no-alchool day today!”
“Really? Is it a special festivity or something?”
“No, no, the first day of every month is no-alchool day in all of Mongolia”
“What?” We look at each other and start laughing, not sure if it’s a joke or not. “So what can we order?”
“Oh, you can have cocktails, cause in there the alcohol is hidden under the fruits!”
“What! Seriously?” Well that makes sense right?
Anyway, we’re too broke to afford cocktails so we leave the pub, still finding it hard to believe that this no-alcohol thing is even real. Just to be sure, we ask a couple more bars and yep, it’s all true. They actually don’t even sell booze in the supermarkets. Apparently it has nothing to do with religion or tradition, it’s merely a government decision to counter the high consumption of booze.
Bummer. As a rebound, we buy some Coca Cola and lemon and head home, defeated.
2 July, Ulaanbaatar. It’s our last day in Mongolia and we really don’t have much left to do but pack our stuff and wait for Ganbaatar so we can give him his keys back and find a cab to the airport.
Yeah, we are actually flying to Beijing instead of taking the train. A decision we all came to because of money and time reasons: the price of the ticket was basically the same and it would have taken us a couple of days to get to our destination. A decision which I honestly kind of regret, cause I feel like I’ve got used to trains, I’ve grown to love them and I don’t know, making it to a place by road feels way more real than just flying in. Anyway, what’s done is done.
Ganbaatar arrives at noon or so and offers to drive us to the airport. And then, as he’s standing by the door, about to walk out, he goes: “So guys, I calculated everything and for the flat and gas and everything else it’ll be 200 dollars total”. Just like that.
What? We look at each other and blabber a “okay”, after which he disappears out the door. We stare at each other in complete silence for a bunch of seconds, then we all burst out at the same time: “What the fuck? Is he for real?” Etc. etc. etc. We’ll spare you the details.
The worst thing for me is not even about the money. It’s about the fact that he didn’t say it from the start, I mean that was a pretty sneaky move. This way he completely killed the idea I had of him. That renewed hope in humankind and genuine generosity I was talking about before. In the end, everything he did for us, well, he did it for the money. There was nothing genuine about his kindness and that’s the worst feeling ever. It’s like you feel deceived. Otherwise, why in the world wouldn’t he say he would ask for money from the start? It’s like he slammed in my face the ugly truth that no one does anything for free.
Still, I don’t wanna bend to this reality. I choose not to believe it. I want to believe that there are still good people out there, pure and generous and untouched by the money devil. I don’t know, it’s just that in Russia we got so used to witness and benefit from the generosity and the big heart of the Russian people, and it’s just sad to be thrown back into reality and realize that that is not something common to all people and countries. In a way, it makes me appreciate Russia even more.
Gian spends the all afternoon walking around all angry, repeating how he’ll let Ganbaatar hear it from him, that there’s no way he’ll get those 200 bucks just like that. Still, Marta and I look at each other and know, deep down, that that in the end he will shy out, leaving one of us to do the dirty work. And that’s what happens and that’s what I do.
Once at the airport, as we are about to take money, tugriks, cause there’s no way we’re giving him euros, I confront him in Russian, trying to keep my cool and not succeeding very much, asking him why he din’t tell us from the beginning that he wanted money, instead he let it look like he was hosting us. He just looks at me with an awkward smile and all he says is: “Ladno, davaite sto” (Okay, let’s do for 100 dollars then).
I’m so nauseated at him that we just give him his dirty money and head off behind the gate. None of us wanting to hear his name ever again.
Whatever, chapter closed, we don’t wanna linger on the disappointment, we’re going to China! We board our plane and in about 2 hours we’re landing in Beijing. Time literally flied. The shortest flight I ever felt.
We are in China! None of us speaks the language and we’ve read the city has about 16,000 km of surface. That’s about 7 times the one of Moscow. Shit’s gonna get interesting now.
Stop 4: Krasnoyarsk
15 June. We’re on a train headed to Krasnoyarsk and we’re gonna spend about 25 hours in here. And it’s only 10 AM. Boring? Wrong. We immediately meet this couple from a small town in the Siberian north, Valerii and Tamara, who are headed to Novosibirsk and from there to the Altai mountains for their summer vacation. They’re about 60 or 70 and start asking us where we’re from and so on. When they hear we’re Italian their eyes brighten up and the conversation just flows on and on from there on. They wanna know what’s our story, what we are doing in Russia and what we think about it.
Then Valerii opens up and it’s kind of lovely to see the way he shows his love for his country, how he defends it (although it doesn’t really need defending, but that’s just a Russian hing, they’re always on defense). He explains us why he supports Putin and how he really only admired three political leaders in his life: Vladimir Putin, Helmut Kohl and… wait for it… Silvio Berlusconi (yes, you read it right).
Then they start setting the table and offer us lunch, no chance for us to refuse: Valerii serves us ogurtsy and bread with kolbasa and cheese and biscuits, repeating on a loop “ne stesnyaites’! voz’mite eshche!” “You are in Russia so you are our guests!”. Meanwhile, he tells us Russian jokes and anecdotes, all of them revolving around some foreigner struggling with the alcohol endurance of Russians, and concluding with the observation that no one can keep up with the Russians at drinking, except for maybe the Finns.
Valerie also asks us to sign his ticket and leave a message, in Italian, cause he’ll be happy to have it translated and keep it as a souvenir. The train then stops in some forsaken town, he gets off and comes back with three ice-creams, one for each of us!
We are stunned by the kindness and generosity of this couple. There are no words to describe them.
At 6PM we reach Novosibirsk and we get off the train with them, as we promised we would take a picture all together. We say goodbye and they his us, wishing us safe travels and fortune and happiness. The Russian way.
Back on the train, we spend the rest of the evening playing cards, hanging out and eating “delicious” noodles (yuck).
16 June. Krasnoyarsk, 7:40 AM, local time. We get off the train and start walking toward our hostel. At least we think we are walking toward it. We have the screenshots of the directions on our phones, but we don’t really know how long it’s gonna take (that’s another thing about Europeans in Russia, we don’t really have the feel of how big spaces and distances can actually be over here, no matter how close it seems on a map: as far as you know it could take 10 minutes or 50).
Anyway, the weight of our backpacks and he heat really make the road seem neverending and I literally have no idea whether we walked 20 minutes or an hour. Finally, we reach the address, but once again, we only have the number of the “dom”, the door is closed, we have no idea what domofon we should call and there’s no hostel indication whatsoever. Great.
Fortunately a man comes out of the building and we ask him whether he knows if there’s a hostel in there. He looks confused, said he never heard of a hostel bit kindly offers to go check for us with the komendant and let us know.
So he lets us in and disappears in the elevator. Afte a few minutes he’s back and tells us that the hostel is in apartment 23, most likely on the 6th floor. Then smiles and leaves. How the hell is a normal traveler supposed to find this place? I mean, is it so hard to put up a sign outside the building? We will later know that no normal traveler has ever or will ever stay at this hostel, which is more of a shady dorm for local single people, but anyways.
We get to the 6th floor, ring the bell of apt. 23 and yes, a weird lady opens the door and confirms we’re int the right place, apparently. She lets us in and takes us to our rooms, gives us sheets and towels (I got yellow sheets with sunflowers and butterflies, yay! So lucky!). She doesn’t ask for our passports and when we try to pay her she goes “later later, when the owner comes back with the keys”.
The whole thing looks a bit shady, like we immediately get the impression that there’s something off with the place, as if its unregistered or illegal or something. We also don’t really get the target of the hostel, there’s an old lady in my room, then a 20-sth year old girl, then a mom with a kid. Well the host lady seems nice though, she treats us kindly so whatever, we don’t really care.
We settle down and while we try to figure out what’s to see in the city, the owner shows up and hands us the keys. Then with a cheeky smile he asks: “Are your rooms okay or maybe you wanted to sleep all together in one room?” And winks. What? Two girls traveling with a guy and god knows what sorts of ideas popped up in the mind of this man.
He then offers to drive us to the Chasovnik and almost without thinking we agree and get in his car, as he starts driving us to a place we don’t know exactly where or what is.
Midway Marta and I look at each other and realize how stupid this likely is: this guy from this shady hostel really could be taking us anywhere, grab our passports and whatever to us. Smart. But we’re like, let’s just hope for the best.
And the guy ends up taking us exactly where he said he would and proves to be genuinely nice. See? You never know, sometimes people don’t need ulterior motives to be nice. And it’s cool and at the same time kind of sad that we get so surprised and wary when someone offers something out of pure generosity, we no apparent material gain behind it. Again, the more we travel in Russia, the more we realize that that’s just how people are over here. Their hospitality really goes beyond.
So the chasovnik is basically a small chapel on top of the Karaulny mountain, which overlooks the whole city. The hostel guy tells us that the cossacks used it to stand guard against potential enemies and shoot at them when needed. Speaking of shooting, there’s a gun right near the chapel and at noon, a polkovnik approaches it and within a few seconds a blind shot goes off. A “what the fuck” escapes from my mouth and before I even realize it, all the kids around me, who are probably on a school trip, start repeating it over and over again, right in front of their teachers. Oops.
The hostel guy then drives us to the city and drops us off at prospect Mira, so we can walk around. Not that there’s much to see, really, the city center is rather small and basically made up of 3 streets, guess which? Prospekt Mira, prospekt Lenina and prospekt Karla Marksa, duh. All of them lead to the Yenisey river.
We walk down prospekt Mira, visit a couple of churches, Marta and I putting on the skirts and plot we find near the entrances to cover our heads and legs, according to orthodox customs. We then reach the naberezhnaya, there’s an arc in the middle of the square, completely disconnected with the rest of the architecture, half soviet, held modern. Cars are scattered all around the square. On the left, toward the bridge, a number of cafes, kiosks and shashlik places, rickshaws and rollerblades for rent weirdly disconnect even more from the rest of the square. It’s kind of like the whole place is trying to be something that it’s not. It’s hard to describe anyway, just have to see it.
We walk back on Lenin avenue, or Marx avenue, one of the two, they’re both ugly as fuck anyways. We stop for lunch at a 24/7 stolovaya called “7 slonov”, after the Siberian expression “being so hungry I could eat 7 elephants”, cause a horse isn’t enough, of course.
What to do now, what to do now? Right, we still have to see the Ballet & Opera house and square, and as we get there, all we see are fountains, fountains everywhere. Which is nice actually, it’s like the flowing water breaks and masks a little bit of the ugliness of Soviet architecture. We walk around the square and reach the big Krasnoyarsk bridge as we walk along the Yenisey. This area, I have to admit, is quite nice. Bars and cafes lay on the boardwalk, people ride bikes or rollerblades, here and there old men fish and smile as we pass by.
We read somewhere on our LonelyP. that there’s a cafe from which you can call any number in the world for free. We figure it might be cool and maybe even allow us to get in touch with that guy from Kazakhstan we tried to call in Omsk to confirm our stay in the mountains at his guesthouse. So we start walking and walking down on Lenin street in the heat. We’re actually dying of thirst but obviously as we get to the address, we realize the cafe is not there anymore, it was probably closed down and replaced by some tacky grill lounge. Bummer.
A stolovaya will have to do then. We find one down the corner, order Lemonade (this time a real one) and Marta messages this friend of one of her Russian classmates, who agrees to meet us in the evening to show us around.
At 7.30-ish PM we head to the Opera Square to meet her. We’re obviously late, but as we get there we’re apparently talking so loud in Italian that she immediately recognizes us, despite having no idea what we look like.
I’ll speak to you in Russian, she goes immediately, cause, well, we are in Russia. Okay. Then we hop in her car and she drives us around the city, to the filarmonica, prospekt Mira, and to the tsentral’nyi park, located right behind one of the many huge Lenin statues.
The park also leads to the naberezhnaya, where people sit and chill eating shashlik and drinking beer. Down on the boardwalk, some kinds are hanging by the river bank, ducks with their ducklings are swimming in the pond.
Cool, let’s stay here and chill! But no, Ol’ga is committed to show us the “true” wonders of Krasnoyarsk so Park Pobedy is our next stop. A permanent flame is burning in memory of the WWII victims and soldiers, while a bung of tanks is parked on one side of the square. Right.
We’re kind of starving and we’d love to go back to the park and have shashlik and beer, but none of us has the guts to tell Ol’ga that we thank her but we just really want to chill and have some cheap stuff, so we end up at this expensive restaurant on top of a building in the new part of the city, for which we are not dressed at all (I mean, I’m wearing flip flops).
The walls are all made of glass so we get at 360-degree view on the skyline. Which is actually nothing special, but don’t say to Ol’ga. It’s nice to see how proud she is of it, as she goes: “finally we are also developing, we are building this beautiful tall buildings, no more just derevnya!”
Once again, we are stunned at how nice and genuine she is. The sole fact that she agreed to meet us in the first place although she din’t even know us, that she took the time to prepare an itinerary says it all.
17 June. We wake up in no rush and as we have breakfast we check out how to get to the Stolby national park. Our train to Irkutsk is leaving tonight at 3 AM, local time, so there really is no hurry, we have the whole day.
Apparently bus # 50 passing by the Opera house goes directly to the Stolby. So we walk there, and as we hop on I ask the driver where we should stop to get to the funikuler. We cross the bridge and the city takes a whole new face. It’s back to derevnya. One main street and wooden houses on its sides, trees and fields all around.
We get off at the stop indicated by the driver, but there is no funikuler in sight. I ask a couple at the bus stop and they tell me that, unless we wanna climb for 7 km on foot, we should take a bus and go back a few stops. We thank them and hop on the next bus. Once arrived, this time at the right stop, we see the funikuler in the distance and start walking toward it, coasting a narrow stream.
As we get closer, we realize the funikuler actually lies within an deserted amusement park. We buy our tickets and get on the kanatkaya that takes us on top of the mountain, well, a 500-meter tall hill let’s say. We fly through the pine trees, surrounded by the green, the wind blowing in our faces.
We get to the top and on one side we can see the city and the Yenisey river, on the other side the mountains covered by woods. The place is stunning and the weather is perfect.
We have our lunch packed to we decide to walk along the path and find a nice spot for a pick nick. The road leads us toward one of the Stolbys, this rocky summits of the “mountains” with weird segmented shapes. A red flag waves on it. On the side of the path there’s a series of wooden huts, with proper tables and chairs and bbq grills and all. We find one that overlooks the Stolby. That’s our place!
It’s locked but we figure, who cares, let’s just jump in. We set the table and have our lunch, immersed in the nature. In front of our hut, a sign says: “watch out for the bears”. Ah!
We chill here for a while until, suddenly, the park okhrana shows up with an angry face and yells us that the huts are not for free and that unless we’re willing to pay we should get out immediately. Oops. He sees we’re foreigners and asks us where we’re from. “Italy”, we reply. That’s the magic word, he smiles and goes: “So, will Berlusconi become president again?”. We look at each other and without and go: “of course!”. He smiles and helps us climb out and well, what? Whatever, at least Silvio got us out of trouble, for once. I’m not really sure whether we should be happy or sad about it.
We keep walking along the path till we reach a smotrovaya ploshchadka in the middle of the woods, overlooking the whole park. I sit on the wooden floor, my feet hanging in the air, my arms on one of the wooden bars. It’s like I’m sitting by a window and the infinite beauty of mother nature opens up in front of me. I look at the woods, hills succeeding one another till they fade in the distance, soothing me. And I could watch it forever. Everything is so still, even the clouds barely move. Yet it’s a stillness that vibrates. It’s alive. A butterfly landing on a flower, a gust of wind shaking the trees, moving in waves. The white of the clouds melts with the different shades of green of the woods, and in the distance the two colors come together, becoming one. Everything is one.
I am awaken from this sort of trance by one of the visitors saying as he leaves: “Spasibo, Stolby!”. Yeah, thank you.
We take the kanatkaya doroga once again and walk back to our hostel. It’s about 7 PM by the time we get there and we still have like 7 hours to kill before our train leaves. We decide to stay at the hostel as long as possible. The owner doesn’t really seem to care, so we go to the store and buy some stuff to cook pasta.
The last bus to the train station is supposed to be at 11 PM, so around that time we take our bags and head to the bus stop. We sit on the benches and wait. And wait. And wait some more. It’s 11.45 PM and still no sign of any bus. Great. We look at each other with defeated faces as we know we’re gonna have to walk to the station with 15kg on our shoulders and pray we don’t get lost.
After what seems like a lifetime we finally arrive, find some seats and rest. Our train is coming in 2 and a half ours.
Stop 5: Irkutsk & Lake Baikal
18 June, 2.41 AM. Krasnoyarsk train station. Our train is finally here. We reach the platform and it’s raining, obviously. We run to the wagon and settle in our seats, while a Russian lady, who has the berth beneath mine, hears us speaking in Italian and immediately starts a conversation with me. Her name is Oksana. She talks and talks and talks and everything she says is so interesting but it’s almost 3.30 AM and I am dead tired. Finally we say our goodnights and I can go sleep.
We are woken up but the loud music playing on the train radio in the early morning. I climb down my berth and we have breakfast all together. Oksana is also up, but she starts gathering her stuff as she’s getting off at the next stop. She tells me I look like one of her daughters and asks me to leave her my contacts, so we can keep in touch. Then she tells me about the history of her city, Krasnoyarsk, of the fact that she actually wanted 5 kids but that after the disintegration of the USSR life got more costly and she just couldn’t afford it. She explains to me why Russians are so attached to May 9th, the day of the Great Victory, as there is practically no family in Russia that did not lose somebody to the war or that doesn’t have some relative who at least fought in it. And about the situation in Ukraine, she also says that it pains her and saddens her to see what is happening and that she is sure that most Russians feel pretty much the same, cause they know what it means to suffer and to die at war.
She gets off the train a bit past noon, and we spend the rest of the day eating “delicious” instant noodles and grechka, again, and just laying around. A woman takes Oksana’s seat. She is accompanied by a man, her husband probably, who terribly smells like cigarettes and looks definitely drunk. He immediately gets her to make the bed, after that he takes her place and falls asleep. What a gentleman.
We can now see the real taiga out the window: huge grass fields and nothingness, just some lonely trees here and there and bunches of wooden houses.
We finally make it to Irkutsk and guess who’s here? Jean-Yves and Solene! So we settle in at our hostel in Karl Marx Street, which is actually really nice (the hostel, not Karl Marx street), although the reception guy definitely looks like he is high, and we head out to meet them. We walk out the door and there they are, talking to some hobo guy from Mongolia! We all walk down the street and end up at the Chili bar, drinking Sangria and Mojito and just having a good time.
18 June. Irkutsk. We get up at 6 AM, bright and early, to start this beautiful day: we are going to Olkhon island! We walk down Karl Marx street and take a right till we reach the bus station. We haven’t even crossed the street yet, that a man with golden teeth and a bright green t-shirt approaches us: Olkhon? I ask him how much he wants and he says 800 Rubles. Still, I remember Jean-Yves saying they paid like 400-500 Rubles, so I tell him that we’ll think about it and keep walking to the station square.
I walk inside and ask at the counters: the price is 475 Rubles, but the first bus available only leaves at 10 AM. Looks like we’ll have to wait. So we buy our tickets and find a spot to sit in the waiting area, cause, I mean, we’re so good at this by now.
Finally, we hop on our marshutka and we immediately have to struggle to make our bags and those of the other passengers fit. We put them in the last row, one on top of the other, like some sort of tetris.
Our fellow passengers: a wild Russian backpacker-hiker, 3 weird Chinese tourists and a Russian man with his woman. In the front, a guy from Kazakhstan with his wife (one of the many, as we would find out later).
The driver turns on the engine and off we go. We are soon out of Irkutsk and the wildness englobes our marshutka, once again. In front of us only the straight road, going up and down and mildly turning at times. At our sides, woods of pine trees, alternating with uncultivated fields. And cows or horses, chewing near random isolated bus stops. Everything is green. Light green. Dark green.
Then, suddenly, the road goes up and up and up, we get to the top, take a turn and… BAM! Everything changes. Are we even still in Russia? How is this possible? Everything turns brown, and yellow, and ocre, hills on one side, hills on the other side, running one after another. Lonely trees, all branches and no leaves, appear here and there. It kind of reminds me of the road between Jaipur and Pushkar, in Rajasthan. Or between Yerevan and Sevan in Armenia. Again, how is this possible?
We stop in a small, crumbling village in the middle of a valley. There’s some sort of cafe, so we all get in there, the door covered by a white curtain (to keep flies and insects outside, I guess). The counter is basically a tall, narrow table and the handwritten menu lies on it, together with juice bottles and plates of pirozhki. I order chai, which is served in a plastic cup, and a pirozhok and go sit with Gian and Marta at one of the tables. There are 4 in total. A cat comes in a starts purring under our table.
We need to go to the bathroom, so we go outside and, in the middle of the backyard, there’s a wooden cabin. It’s the toilet. Yes, one of those with the hole in the ground. But as we shall see, we’d better get used to it.
As we wait for Gian, Marta and i hear someone calling us. The guy who was sitting next to the driver yells in Russian: “Where are you from?” – “Italy!” – “Oh, so you have good wine there! Come, do you want to try my wine? I made it myself, I wanna offer it to you!”. Then he disappears into the marshutka and walks toward us after a few seconds with his blonde wife, with a plastic bottle and two full cups of wine. We drink it and it’s incredibly strong. As we talk to them, we find out they’re from Kazakhstan, Chimkent precisely, and when we tell them we’re gonna pass by it, the man, Rafael, insists that we take his phone number and call once we’re there. He will host us and show us around. What?
The driver yells something like: “Hey! Let’s go! Or you wanna stay here chatting forever?”. We get in the car and we’re on the road again. I still cannot believe my eyes at the landscape they’re seeing. I would have never expected such dry lands in Russia. I actually imagined the Baikal area to be green. Here and there, small woods of pine trees shyly appear, which kind of looks like a contradiction in the brownness and dryness of the land. It’s like we travelled through space, into a surreal world.
The road is so bumpy we actually don’t know whether to laugh or be scared. The driver drives like he has to win a race and we jump up and down. It’s ridiculously funny, cause it almost seems like we’re dancing at the Russian disco music playing on the radio.
The road isn’t cemented anymore and it really looks like it was created through the wheels of the cars passing on it. It will stay like this from now on. Up, down, left, right. We suddenly stop, behind a line of cars. We made it to the harbor! Well, quay.
We’ll have to wait for the ferry to take us on to the island. The line is pretty long , and as the ferry can fit no more than 5 minibuses, we get off and start walking around. Kiosks selling souvenirs are scattered all around. There’s also some sort of cafe, selling dried omul fish, beer and chai.
After an hour or so, the ferry is finally here, so we follow our minibus and get on it. It’s freezing cold on the water, but fortunately about 5 minutes later we reach the other bank.
Dry hills and no road. Dust everywhere. Rocks and lonely, naked trees. The desolation of the place gives it beauty. It’s wildness is mezmerizing, untouched, uncontaminated.
The hiker guy gets off the marshutka in the middle of nowhere. There’s only an old car with two guys waiting for him. He takes his tent and backpack and soon disappears behind us, the sight of him obscured by the dirt raised by the marshutka.
In the end, some sort of village appears out of nowhere, so we guess we made it to Khuzhir, our destination. It looks like the set of an old western movie: there’s only one main dusty road, on its side wooden houses, a few stores and cafes. Other dusty roads intersect, forming 90 degrees angles, more wooden, crumbling houses. I am surprised these streets even have names, but as we ask for directions for ulitsa Nagornaya, where our hostel is, they point us to the end of the main street. Meanwhile, the 3 Chinese decide to follow us to our hostel, cause they don’t have any reservation.
We get there and as we pass through the wooden door, we realise it’s more of a camping than a hostel, a few wooden huts are lined up on one side, in the middle there’s a kiosk and hanging clothes, cats, and dust. Our room is actually okay, but as we ask for the bathroom, the administrator points us to a fence. Behind it, three wooden cabins. Oh, it’s the hole toilets! Hello again. As for the showers, the girl tells us we have to warn her in advance before taking one, so she can “prepare” the hot water. Well, at least it’s gonna be a good training for Mongolia.
The Chinese also get a room here, right next to ours. We settle in and go for a walk down main street, where we book an excursion to the north edge of the island for tomorrow. Walking back, among the cows, stray dogs and cats, we bump into the Chinese woman, who says the men are cooking and invite us over for dinner. Free dinner? We’re in.
We get back and they indeed yell in their broken English: “Dinner! Dinner!”. Alright, we climb in their hut and a round table is set in the middle of the room: there’s fish, vegetables, some sort of meat and a bowl full of fish soup. They serve us and open up a bottle of beer for each of us. Before we’ve even started to eat, they raise their glasses and go: “Ganbei!” or something like that, and have us cheer with them, as they chug their glasses. And from here onwards, it’s all downhills. The beers seem to multiply, over and over and each time they say “ganbei” we have to chug our glasses. In no time, we’re speaking Chinese words at random, no idea of what we’re really saying. The whole situation is ridiculous and I have no idea what time it is nor how long we’ve been at this.
At some point Gian is throwing up in the backyard, so Marta and I help him out and put him to bet, and pass out ourselves a few moments later.
19 June. Olkhon Island. We wake up and as Marta and I look at each other we realise: oh shit, we have to do the excursion today! What the fuck happened last night? My head is pounding and my body feels so weak. Perfect day for a hangover. Damnit. Freaking Chinese.
We try to go for a shower, but there’s no water whatsoever. Fantastic. Alright, we’ll just have to make it through the day. We have breakfast and walk out of the hostel, as the Chinese trio salutes us. Even the sight of them is too much for us right now. We reach the tourist information point, where our driver is supposed to pick us up and there he is, with one of those minivans we saw everywhere in Siberia. It kinda looks like a fake wolkswagen for hippies. Ours is dark green. We hop on and there’s two old men with huge beer bellies, whose bags are full of beers and dry fish. We then pick up the other passengers: 2 couples, a Russian one and a Dutch one. There. Ready.
The rollercoaster begins and as we drive through the island we are stunned. It’s hard to describe the feeling of passing through such wilderness. It’s something one has to go and see for himself I guess. On our way toward the North point we make some stops on the coast.
The first thing that strikes me is the color of the water. It is the exact same color of the sky. So much that you actually cannot distinguish where one stops and the other begins. the water is so clear it reflects everything, every single detail. The hills in the distance, the rocks on the coast, the boats floating on its surface. And the shade of the whole thing is stunning. I’m used to the blue sea, sometimes light blue, green. But this lake, this water is lighter, it’s celeste, like the sky, and I have never seen something like this. It really gives you a sense of infinity. You’re eyes get lost in the limitlessness of this celestial blue. And there’s no picture able to convey such beauty, no lense can capture it.
We take off our flip-flops and enter the lake: the water is freezing, so cold that after just a few seconds we can feel needles in our legs.
We finally make it to the North point and the driver says we can walk around for an hour, after which we’ll have lunch on the hill.
On our way to the edge, we pass by trees dressed in colourful lentochki. Then, towers of stones, a tall tock covered in ribbons, coins at its feet and the blue abyss in front of us. There’s a special atmosphere, a strange vibe, like you somehow can feel why this lake, this place is the home of so many shamans and the cult of nature in general.
Walking back, we look down and spot a bunch of seals, resting on some rocks. The famous nerpi! We meet back with the others, who are all gathered around a table, and eat omul fish soup, local bread and pryaniki with chai. It’s incredibly hot and the hot food is making us all sweat, but nonetheless everything is very tasty and we all enjoy it.
It’s now time to get back, but we still have a couple stops to enjoy. One of them is on the eastern side of the island, basically on top of a rocky peninsula overlooking the water from up high. I climb on one of the rocks and as I reach the edge I shiver and can’t help but repeating out loud “oh my god oh my god”. My eyes are lost in the blue. There’s no end and no beginning. There’s only continuity. I look down and I can’t breathe. The deepest lake on earth looking right back at me.
I hear the honk of our minivan, so I climb down the rock and walk back so we can hit the road again and get back to our small village of Khuzhir. Russian songs are playing on the radio, one of the Russian beer belly guys tells Russian anecdotes and funny stories. All is fine and jolly till our driver pulls over and gets out of the car. After a few minutes, since he’s not back, we realize there’s something wrong and we all get out. The wheel is broken or something like that.
Other marshutka drivers stop and try to help out but apparently there seems to be nothing that can be done. Not quickly at least. I hear the Russian men from our marshutka say that oh well, we should get comfortable, cause it’s gonna take 2 or 3 hours before we can get back. The young guy jokes about the fact that we should watch out for the bears. But are they even joking? I think to myself.
Meanwhile, the other lady from out marshutka starts telling Russian jokes to the Dutch couple and the whole situation is surreal. We’re stranded in the middle of the woods on a wild island on lake Baikal with a bunch of strangers and really we don’t know whether to laugh or to actually get worried. Marta and I just lie on the ground, waiting for something to happen.
Then, out of nowhere, a minivan shows up and takes us in, as our driver Anatoly explains to us that this guy will give us a lift until a certain point, where we’ll have to wait for somebody else to pick us up. So we stop by a beach and as the beer belly duo bravely takes a swim in the freezing water, we just lie in the sand and enjoy the sun. It actually doesn’t take too long before a third driver shows up and finally gets us back to Khuzhir.
We then spend a deserved, quiet night. We visit the so-called Shaman’s rock, which is probably one of the most interesting, beautiful, mystic places I have ever seen. There’s little point in describing it as every attempt sort of takes away from it. Just go and see it.
We then go for dinner in a small hut by the main street, eat pozy, some sort of local dumplings and get back home when it’s already pitch dark and freezing cold.
It’s hard to put into words the eeriness of the island at this time of night. There are no lights, only the pale hale of the moon, and as we walk down the street we can feel the eyes of the cows and stray dogs on us. It’s so sinister it could be a perfect setting for a horror movie.
20 June. Today’s a travel day. Our objective is Listvyanka, a village on the Southern coast of the Baikal and, as there’s no road connecting the island to it, we actually need to get back to Irkutsk and grab another marshutka from there. We booked our ride yesterday, for 11 AM, and it’s a good thing we did so in advance, cause when we get to the bus stop there’s a crowd already waiting and I am wondering how in the world we’re all gonna fit in one minivan. And I wonder well, cause when the driver arrives it doesn’t take too long to realize that there’s more tickets sold than seats available.
So the ticket lady and the driver start yelling at each other in Russian. Apparently, some people bought their tickets online and she didn’t know about it, so she sold more tickets than she should have. In the end, after a lot of arguing, the driver, who seriously looks like Fred Flintstones, agrees to carry more people, so our marshutka is literally so packed with people and bags that nobody can move. A girl is even sitting on her friend’s luggage cause there’s no more seats.
Anyway, after all this fuss, we hit the road and think: okay, a rough start but everything will be fine now. Wrong. We’re still on the island, just outside Khuzhir, and the driver takes a turn up a bump and gets us stuck in the sand. “Everybody out!”. As we do so, he starts grabbing rocks from the ground, positioning them near the back of the wheel to create some sort of ramp. He then hops in and turns on the engine. Nothing. Still stuck. All the male passengers start pushing as he goes for a second attempt and… success! So, that was actually quite funny but, what’s gonna happen next?
And indeed, it’s not over. About 150 km away from Irkutsk, Fred Flintstones suddenly pulls over, a weird sound coming from the engine. It looks like it’s overworked or something like that. Still, Fred doesn’t seem too worried about it, he just turns his back on us and starts peeing on the side of the road, smokes a cigarettes and after 10 or 15 minutes restarts the car and off we go again. The noise continues though, and, as we see Gian’s face, Marta and I, who understand nothing about cars, go: “Wait, why are you so worried? Should we be? Like, what’s the worst thing that could happen? Could we like explode or something?”. Fortunately, he reassures us by saying that, worst case scenario, the car stops in the middle of the road. I mean, as long as we don’t explode, that’s fine with me.
And in the end, after a bunch of pullovers and a lot of cigarettes, Fred takes us to our destination safe and sound. It’s been 7 hours, I can’t feel my legs, but hey, we made it! Our fellow passengers yell “pobeda! victory!”.
We now have another ride to catch, and it’s already 7 PM. We go to the bus station counter, ask for a marshutka to listvyanka, but the grumpy lady says that the last one left at 4 PM and we’ll have to wait till tomorrow for the next one. What? No way. We decide to walk to the nearest info point in the hopes of finding a way to get to Listvyanka tonight and as we do so, some Russian men, drivers probably, stop us and ask us what we need. They then point us to the opposite direction, where we actually find a marshutka, a sign next to it saying “Listvyaka”. Bingo. It must be from some private company or something. Or just a gypsy marshutka, who cares. We hop on it and in about an hour and a half we’re in the beautiful Listvyanka.
Once again, the sight of the lake is stunning. It’s 9 PM, the sun is going down, and the water and the sky are painted in pink, violet and light blue. It looks like a fairytale.
Our hostel is located at the very end of ulitsa Chapaeva, on top of a hill, surrounded by woods. It’s actually a very nice place, kind of looks like a mountain hut. A 15-year old boy opens the door for us and introduces himself as the hotel manager. He shows us the house and gets us to our rooms. There’s a huge common area with a fireplace, dining table, kitchen, TV, sofa. A sofa! A german guy and a swiss girl introduce themselves and we start chatting. They’re also travelling on the Transsiberian but, unlike us, they’re going westward.
In some way, this place is like some sort of hub, a crossroads for Transsiberian travellers. Also, finally some young and relatively “normal” people in our hostel! Travellers, not weird Russian workers or grumpy lonely women actually living in the hostel, as it happened in most places we’ve been staying in Russia.
We’re starving, so we decide to go find a place to eat on the coast. We end up at this bar with an outer terrace overlooking the lake. There seems to be some kind of party going on, most likely a birthday, Russians are dancing to their Russian disco music all around. Neat. We order food and find ourselves a table. In no time, a Russian man, Maxim, approaches us and asks us, in English: “Where are you from?”. And then keeps talking to us, still in English, which is pretty unusual in Russia, and even offers us some of his homemade vodka. Before we have time to kindly decline, he’s back with a plastic bottle and 4 shot glasses. He pours one for each of us and 3,2,1, down. It’s actually quite good I have to say, it leaves some kind of retrotaste in our mouth, which, he explains, is due to the orekhi he put in it, which also give it a yellowish color instead of the usual transparent one.
We thank him and again, before we know it, he’s back with another bottle, filled with another type of home-made vodka, this time transparent. “You have to try this one! 70 degrees!”. Oh boy. Alright. 3,2,1, down. Ouch. That was a rough one. Thank god our food is finally here so we can use it to chase this poison somehow.
Maxim walks away to let us eat, but regularly pops back to introduce us to his friends and finally his wife: an Azeri girl who looks much much younger than he is. She is probably younger than we are. And she’s pregnant. “Dance! Dance!” he goes. We go out on the terrace and can’t resist the call of the trashy Russian hits. This sort of hits:
So yeah we start dancing, while some men from one of the tables creepily take pictures and videos of us. Honestly, we don’t even care, after a whole day spent in marshutkas, fuck it.
In the end, Maxim and his wife, Lyudmila, offer to drive us back to our hostel and before we get out of the car, Maxim says: “Russians love Italy! Italy and Greece! Very good! We don’t want to fight! We like Italy and Greece! But you have to understand, I hope it doesn’t, but if situation get worse and it comes down to fighting, I have to go, you know? Fight for Russia! I hope not.” Yeah, let’s hope not.
21 June. Listvyanka. We’re chilling today, we feel like we deserve it so we’re in no rush whatsoever. The German guy and the Swiss girl told us they would go on the Great Baikal Trail and hike up to Bolshie Koty. They asked us if we wanted to join, but fuck it, we’re just gonna enjoy the beach and eat fish. And that’s what we do, literally.
We wanted to swim, even just for a few seconds, but the water is so cold that we cannot bring ourselves to actually do it. I put one foot in and it goes numb instantly so I’m like, okay, no way. The water is about 8 degrees, 10 tops. On the other hand, we do manage to eat the famous local hot-steamed omul fish. We buy it from a stand at the market for just 100 Rubles, together with some lavash bread and it is delicious. We eat it by the beach, with our hands, and life couldn’t be better.
We then spend our evening in the hostel, cooking our usual 500 grams of spaghetti al sumo and just chatting and exchanging travel stories and tips with the other guests, Marcel from Germany, Anya from Switzerland, Jean-Martin from the Netherlands, two Irish women who are actually super funny and super Irish, and a British girl. The atmosphere is great.
22 June. Irkutsk. We manage to get back to Irkutsk with no particular hinders, leave our bags at the station’s kamera khraneniya and now have the whole afternoon to visit the city, before our train to Ulan Ude, which leaves at 12.40 AM.
Too bad, once again, there really is not much to see, apart from a couple of I’ve-already-seen-this Orthodox churches, the incredibly ugly Angara river bank, and the usual Lenin and Marx streets. Pff, Russian cities.
So our day really can be summed up with us walking down the main streets and looking for stolovai to find harbor from the cold and annoying wind. Around 6 or 7 PM we decide that “fuck it, let’s just go to the station”. We find a table in the station cafe and hang out there for a couple of hours. Then we remember that Jean-Yves and Solene are supposed to come back to Irkutsk from Ulan Ude this evening. So we check the trains and there’s one coming from that direction at 11.18 PM. We lay around in the waiting room for a while, and just when we’re on our way to get our bags back from the kamera khranenya we hear someone calling us. Guess who? Jean-Yves and Solene! Good to see them.
We now have about an hour before our train leaves, so we all go for one last beer together at the Harat’s Pub in front of the Station. We hug them goodbye and finally get on our train, direction: Ulan Ude, capital of Buryatiya.