After the 5 days on the train, I was quite happy to arrive at Irkutsk and get off the train. I decided to walk to the hostel, nearly 1 hour walk – I normally do walk to the hostel if it’s a up to a 1 hour walk. Any longer than that and carrying my pack starts to be just too difficult. I was happy to be walking around after so long in that train carriage.
When I got to the hostel, I really just wanted to have a long hot shower and go to sleep. The shower was amazing – I felt clean and human again… The sleep was not quite as easy. Partly jetlag (train lag?) and partly because people in my room were noisy ALL NIGHT. This continued every night that I was there, and I left more exhausted than when I arrived.
The next day, I got them to register my visa which was a bit of an ordeal. In fact, the whole visa registration has been a headache! Technically, you only need to register your visa if you stay in the same place for 7 days or more so as I’ve stayed a maximum of 4 nights in any one place, technically I don’t need to register my visa at all.
However, the advice I’ve read is that you should try to register your visa in each place you stop – just to make sure everything goes smoothly when you try to leave the country, especially if you get a dodgy corrupt border guard. I’ve got all the tickets to prove each time I moved on, but I’d prefer to have it registered so I don’t have any troubles.
Usually your hotel will register your visa for you, however my first stop in Russia was Moscow, where I CouchSurfed for 2 nights so didn’t register. My next stop was St Petersburg for 4 nights, so I thought I’d register there but my hostel refused to do it. I went to a place recommended by Real Russia, the company in the UK that helped with my visas and Trans-Siberian tickets and they charged 800 Rubles (£14 / $25) for this. However, I got an email later that day to say that the place they take it to register had refused because there was no serial number on my migration card, even though that’s correct when you transit Belarus. They would try somewhere else, however they couldn’t get that done before I left Saint Petersburg.
So anyway, back to Irkutsk… I asked her to register the visa, but due to her English skills, it took a while for us to work out what each other mean. She could get it done, for 500 Rubles, and it would take about an hour and I’d have to wait in the hostel while that happened.
Sure, fine – I’m ok with that.
So she took my passport etc, made copies, made phone calls and it was all set, it would be registered and the registration slip will be delivered in an hour. 90 minutes passed, and I asked if I still had to wait. Yes, yes 15 minutes more. Another hour passed, she kept apologising, looking out the window and making phone calls. It ended up being 5 hours in total!
The poor girl was terribly upset to keep me waiting so long, and kept apologising, but didn’t have enough English to really explain what the problem was. “Taxi – problem. Much much sorry!!” oh well, it’s done – I have a registration slip so hopefully there will be no problems when I cross the border into Mongolia tomorrow.
Once I was free to leave the hostel, I went to the nearby Tourist Information place to get some information on Irkutsk and also how to get to Lake Baikal which is about 70km away and is the deepest lake in the world, and the biggest collection of (unfrozen) fresh water in the world. The Russians are very proud of this lake! Anyway, she was very keen to be helpful and give me information, including lots of free handouts and books on the area – so much that I needed to get a carry bag off her, as they wouldn’t fit in my normal day pack!
So I then walked to the places in Irkutsk that she recommended seeing, however this didn’t really change the perception of the town I already had – the place is a bit of a hole and I don’t really want to be here. That feeling never really left, for the whole 3 days.
The next day, (after another sleepless night) I got the minibus to Listvyanka, on the shore of Lake Baikal. I was convinced I was going to die on this minibus! He drove so very very fast, and a child was vomiting into a plastic bag near me. To explain how fast – it was meant to take 90 minutes to get there. It took 50 minutes! Amazed I’m alive. Really!
Anyway, it was a very small town along the shore of the giant lake – that looked more like an inland sea. Sadly, it was not the clearest day so I don’t think the full effect was quite the same. I spend a couple of hours walking around, had a lovely meal, took plenty of photos and then got the courage to get the minibus back to Irkutsk. Luckily it was a different driver, so it took 95 minutes but I never once thought I would die!
I had another whole day to kill in Irkutsk before my 22:00 train to Ulan Ude, so I spent a lot of it walking around. I started following a tourist trail, with maps at each landmark and a line painted on the ground. However, all of a sudden the painted line disappeared and I couldn’t find my way to the next stop, so went to a pub/restaurant for lunch and ended up spending about 4 hours there eating, drinking, playing on their WiFi and reading.
It was then time to collect my bag from the hostel and head to the train station for my train. This 8 hour train wasn’t exactly enjoyable either… A boy, about 6 years old I’m guessing refused to sleep… Climbing all over the compartment, jumping, talking, playing with noisy toys. I almost threw him out the window.
Anyway, eventually arrived in Ulan Ude, and omg this place is awesome. Love it so much more than Irkutsk! You really can start to tell you’re in Asia here – a lot of the people appear Asian, it is the centre of Russian Buddhism… And you cross the road by finding a marked crossing, walking out and expecting the traffic to stop.
When I got off the train, I went to a cafe called Marco Polo which opened at 8am. It was amazing, great breakfast – my favourite foods of eggs, mushrooms and bacon along with possibly the best coffee ever. Then I went to check into my hostel at about 9:30am – I assumed that being so early I would not actually be able to check in, but I could leave my bag while I explored the city. Amazingly, I could check in and was straight away shown to my bed. Awesome! I had a shower, and a rest before exploring.
I decided I would go to the Rinpoche Bagsha Datsan (Buddhist Temple), which can be accessed by minibus in about 20 minutes, however I decided I’d be good and do the walk. Took about 90 minutes there and 60 minutes back – as it’s on a large hill (or possibly MOUNTAIN!) Totally worth it – amazing views of the city and surrounds, rivers, mountains, buildings and of course the temple itself. I walked around the temple grounds for a while, and then went inside to find monks chanting and local people coming to pray. It was an amazing atmosphere, and I stayed for 15 min, 30 min or an hour – I’m not sure, I totally lost track of time and was just absorbing everything.
When I got back to town, I decided I’d find a supermarket to get some beer and food for dinner before heading back to the hostel for a shower and rest (and food and beer) … It took me ages to find a supermarket and by the time I did, a huge storm hit!
Heavy rain, wind, lightning, thunder, hail…
Streets flooded within minutes, and car alarms were set off. I love storms, and something I missed living in Belfast was proper storms (they all bitch about the weather, but really they have boring weather!). The thing is… I prefer storms when I’m inside, watching out at the storm, not out getting wet and hurt by hail! haha
After that, I chilled in the hostel for the rest of the night. It’s a great hostel, my favourite so far. I sat in the common room with other travellers and a few beers, and shared a bottle of vodka. It was a really good night… And ended with the first full night sleep I’ve had in forever! Was amazing 🙂
Today I had a very chilled day in Ulan Ude. I considered doing the day trip out to the big Buddhist Temple, which is the most important Buddhist temple in Russia, however I decided I really wanted a lazy day. I slept until I happened to wake up, and then went back to the same cafe for breakfast before wandering around the city for a few hours. I then just went back to the hostel and chilled out, read, played online, talked with other people staying at the hostel… And typed this blog post!!
Tomorrow morning I leave Russia on a 7:30 train to Ulan Bator in Mongolia. Things should start getting interesting from here, with more cultural differences as I head into the “real” Asia.