By Train from St. Petersburg to Hong Kong (3)

Part 3—Novosibirsk to Irkutsk
March 18, 2017 Updated: March 18, 2017
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The journey on the legendary Trans-Siberian Railway is one of the greatest travel adventures of our age. The Trans Siberian Girl is traveling on the world’s longest train ride from St. Petersburg, Russia to Hong Kong.  The travel from West to East took her to various places across Russia, Mongolia and China, a journey of over 10,000km. Read below about her tips, advice and stories on making the trip of a lifetime possible. 

Life on the train–Novosibirsk to Irkutsk

This time the train was almost full, only the top bunks were available to reserve online, which meant I was going to have to have someone help me put my big backpack on the top shelf. Next to me there was a group of men watching me trying to put my things on the top level, then one of them got up and helped me. We set down on the empty bunks and started talking in Russian. The four men were from Uzbekistan and offered to share their meal, some bread and hot tea.

They told me that they were on their way to work in the deep forest of Siberia and had already spent five days on the train, riding from Uzbekistan. They work in Siberia for eight months straight, in a place where the average temperature goes well beyond -50 centigrade. Each one of them had three to four children and a wife back in Uzbekistan so they send money back to support their families.

Family traveling on the Trans-Siberia train. (Vlatka Jovanovic)
Family traveling on the Trans-Siberia train. (Vlatka Jovanovic)

Soon enough other people around us joined in the conversation and before knowing it, I was showing them photos of my family on my phone and we exchanged our information to stay in touch. That’s the beauty of staying in the platzkart, the third class on the train; you can get very easily into conversations and have an even better time traveling. If you don’t speak Russian, just ask them if you can take a photo and accept their offer to eat and drink with them. After half an hour you’ll be best friends!

Siberian landscape. Vlatka Jovanovic)
Siberian landscape. Vlatka Jovanovic)

Two nights on the train, 35 hours until Irkutsk. Looking outside through the window, more trees, wooden houses and snow. I decided to take a walk and explore the train.

When I left my compartment there was ice and snow inside the train between carriages. A group of young French men in the second class, were playing guitar and drinking. A few pleasantries were exchanged as I walked past them and into the train restaurant.

The restaurant carriage

Day or Night the restaurant car can provide a unique social base for your train adventure. It is a place you can relax with a coffee or another drink, get some warm food and try to communicate with other travelers. The way it works is that the country you are traveling in provides the carriage, so depending on your route; you might get to sample Russian, Mongolian and/or Chinese food whilst on your journey. In Russia there will often be an extensive menu (usually translated into English). The food is simple but perfectly good as long as you are not expecting fine dining. Beware of the price shown on the menu and ask before ordering how much things cost. Payment is strictly Rubles only. If you’re on a tight budget, eating well on the train can be a challenge. However, below are some things you can get in the supermarket before you board the train.

Supermarket visit before you board the train

Good things to stock up on at the local supermarket might include things you can make by adding hot water – instant soups, potatoes and noodles are a main diet for many. Add to this some bread, fruit, vegetables, sausages, cheese and chocolate and you never have to worry about going hungry. There is no problem bringing food on board, as long as you can carry it all. Alcohol is usually not sold at stations, so you need to buy this in the supermarket outside or from the restaurant on the train.

There is constant boiling water from the samovar on board, so all you have to bring is a mug. Purchase packets of tea and coffee in advance, so you have something you like with you on board. Another useful item to bring is a pocketknife, which can be used for slicing up bread and other purchases.

Platform food

As mentioned earlier, station platforms can be a real culinary adventure as well. Should you not have any space in your backpack for food and come unprepared, fear not, almost every station along the Trans Siberian line will have some food for sale. Every station platform is quite different but on all of them you will have a chance to get out and buy food from one of the tiny platform kiosks or from someone standing by your train selling their food directly to the passengers.

Food market near the Trans-Siberian train. Vlatka Jovanovic)
Food market near the Trans-Siberian train. Vlatka Jovanovic)

The kiosks usually have a small hole in a window through which they do business so there isn’t much chance for browsing the goods on display as you need to make your decision quickly. The choices vary, from baked goods to small meat pies, drinks, cigarettes and souvenirs. If you can’t speak the language, just point to things you’d like to buy. If you see something you like, buy it! You may not get a chance at another station. Often there are ‘home made’ and ‘cooked’ meals alongside local produce including smoked fish (a delicacy from Lake Baikal) but these are only available after reaching Irkutsk and Lake Baikal.

Baikal lake, Siberia. (Vlatka Jovanovic)
Baikal lake, Siberia. (Vlatka Jovanovic)

As I returned back from the restaurant car, my new Uzbekistani friends were getting ready to exit at the next station and catch another train that would take them to their place of work that isn’t even shown on the map. Crossing seven time zones, between Moscow and Vladivostok, the train was slowly passing through some of the bleakest and most beautiful landscapes on Earth.

Everything was white and covered in snow when I woke up the following morning, but as we were nearing Irkutsk, the sun was high in the sky and the snow melted away.

The Paris of Siberia – Irkutsk

Before deciding to stop in Irkutsk, I read that it was one of the most popular stop off points on the Trans-Siberian railway route. I was particularly intrigued having read that the city is often referred to as ‘The Paris of Siberia’ or ‘Saint Petersburg Of The East’. A taxi took me to my hostel, a few hours of sleep and I was ready to explore the historic Irkutsk. With Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest lake being a mere 70km away, the city is the best base from which to strike out for the western shoreline. Although I was now deep in Asia and five hours ahead of Moscow, the city, its 19th century architecture, the people and food still felt very much European.

Bogoyavlensky cathedral, irkutsk, Siberia. (Vlatka Jovanovic)
Bogoyavlensky cathedral, irkutsk, Siberia. (Vlatka Jovanovic)

 

Cross church doors, Irkutsk, Siberia. (Vlatka Jovanovic)
Cross church doors, Irkutsk, Siberia. (Vlatka Jovanovic)

 

Old military vehicles in Irkutsk, Siberia. (Vlatka Jovanovic)
Old military vehicles in Irkutsk, Siberia. (Vlatka Jovanovic)

 

Lost backpacker statue Irkutsk, Siberia. (Vlatka Jovanovic)
Lost backpacker statue Irkutsk, Siberia. (Vlatka Jovanovic)

With its detailed city maps, it was quite different from other places I’ve visited on the way, and even in the wintertime it was quite touristy.

About 200 years ago, Irkutsk was established as a trading and administrative center for Eastern Siberia. From here they exported fur and ivory to Mongolia, China and Tibet. A group of aristocrats called the Decembrists were exiled to Irkutsk after an uprising against the Tsar as well as many other artists, officers and nobles with their families. Gathering in Irkutsk, they lead a cultural and intellectual social life and established a cultural oasis, which led to the growth of Irkutsk’s universities.

Much of the city’s cultural heritage comes from them, just like the wooden houses that you can find in Irkutsk and all over Siberia, hand-carved decorations, in a big contrast to the Soviet apartment blocks that surround them. Wandering around town, I spent a lot of time walking the streets looking at the wonderful mix of old buildings, 1960s soviet blocks, modern and old wooden houses. 

Blue wooden house, Irkutsk, Siberia. (Vlatka Jovanovic)
Blue wooden house, Irkutsk, Siberia. (Vlatka Jovanovic)

Love keys on a bridge in Irkutsk, Siberia. (Vlatka Jovanovic)
Love keys on a bridge in Irkutsk, Siberia. (Vlatka Jovanovic)

Sculpture. of lovers in the city of irkutsk, Siberia. (Vlatka Jovanovic)
Sculpture. of lovers in the city of irkutsk, Siberia. (Vlatka Jovanovic)

 

Statue of Peter and Fevronia Murom that represents faith, hope, love and family. (Vlatka Jovanovic)
Statue of Peter and Fevronia Murom that represents faith, hope, love and family. (Vlatka Jovanovic)

Since I decided to take the Trans-Mongolian line to Beijing, I needed to get a visa for Mongolia and I heard that in Irkutsk, you can get a visa in 24 hours or less without an invitation letter that you normally need, and without having an itinerary beforehand, because quite frankly I had no idea yet what to expect in Mongolia or how I was going to get there.

 I have heard from the other travelers in the hostel, that there was a much shorter, better and a lot cheaper way of getting to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, by bus and I was going to explore that option.

Walking around the downtown of Irkutsk was quite easy and so I found the small Mongolian embassy office, walked inside, paid with cash, left my passport with them and was told that I should come back in 3 hours! That easy and really hassle free.

By the late afternoon my Mongolian visa was ready and in my passport. I was already planning my next trip on the train to Ulan Ude to try and catch the bus to Mongolia.

As I was walking back to my hostel, two Russian girls approached me and started asking me all kinds of question. When I said that it was my first time in Irkutsk and that I was a traveler, they took me under arm and said that I must come with them to experience the real culture of their city. So I ended up getting involved in the local night scene and making new friends in Irkutsk. When I arrived back at the hostel, I was certain that I wanted to catch the early morning train so that I could have a full view of Lake Baikal. In the early morning I was already on my way to Ulan Ude, the capital city of the Republic of Buryatia, Russia.

Vlatka Jovanovic is an ex-professional WTA ranked tennis player, independent journalist and a podcaster. You can follow her work under www.chinacalling.org or https://www.facebook.com/hkchinacalling/

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