Saturday, September 10, 2011

Mongolia to Lake Baikal (August 1-4, 2011)

 I wake up at 5 AM, as morning light begins to filter through the curtains.  The train jars and then stops and all is quiet.  Wondering what’s up, I quietly crawl out of my berth trying not to wake the other three who are still sleeping.   Taking my camera, journal and guidebook, toothbrush and toothpaste, I step out into the hallway and walk down pass the attendance’s compartment.  As expected, the bathrooms are locked.  Nemo had suggested we keep a few small Mongolian bills just in case we needed to use the toilet at the station.  I go out onto the platform.  We’re in Sukabaator, a border town named from the Mongolian leader of its communist revolution.   The air is cool and dry and a light breeze blows across the plains.  Walking on the platform, I realize that our coach (along with one other coach) sits abandon on the track, without an engine.  To the south of us is another train, which had been a part of us until a few minutes earlier.   The jarring I’d heard came from when they separated our cars from the other Mongolian cars that are being prepared for the journey back to Ulan Bator, where we’d left the evening before.  Only the two cars of passengers will continue on into Russia, which is why we had been informed to stay in our cars at night, for if we found ourselves in the other cars, we could find that ourselves heading back into Mongolia.   I find the toilet and play the 150 Tugirk (about 13 cents) to use the toilet and washroom.  The place is very clean!  The woman attendant has a sideline business, selling toiletries such as toilet paper (which is not supplied, but I have my own).  She also has, to my surprise, deodorant along with toothbrushes and paste, combs and brushes, and feminine products.  In addition she has a multi-prong power strip and a few chargers available, which could be handy as there is no power in our coaches at this point. 

 I walk around the station and out onto the streets of the town.  Everything appears to be deserted except for the passengers who are arriving for the Ulan Bator train.  When I come back to the platform, the Mongolian train attendants are all standing outside their doors at attention.  They’re all petite women who look sharp in their blue uniforms.  In contrast, our attendant the evening before was a big Russian woman who could easily be a sumo wrestler.  Terry is up and has made a similar observation, quipping that they all look ballerinas while our attendant appears to be a champion weight lifter.   I should note that it is practice of the Russian railways to have two attendants, who split the duties and alternate sleeping.  The Russian woman was on duty last night and during the morning, she disappeared and a male attendant took over.

 I spend the early morning hours waiting on the platform reading, knowing that soon we’ll be sequestered inside the rail car again.  But Mongolian customs don’t open till eight or so, so we wait till called back into the cars.  Then the train is boarder.  We have to show our luggage (pulling it down from the storage areas above the bunks) and open up the storage areas below the bottom bunks to ensure we’re not smuggling anyone out of the country.  They take our passports and again Ana has to explain what happened to hers, pointing to a bottle of water and saying it got wet.  An hour later, they give us our passports and soon afterwards an engine is hooked up and we’re finally sent on our way.

We don’t go very far.  We head down the tracks a ways to the border crossing where Russian border agents enter the train and process our passports.  The agent looks at our passports then hands them to the car attendant who stacks them together, turned to the proper page.  Ana again has to explain what happens to her passport, but this time she has Yulia who is Russia helping explain everything.  They seem satisfied with her answers (these guys weren’t nearly as scary as I was afraid they’d be.)  They take our passports for processing as the custom officials come on the train with their dogs, looking for anything askew.  Later, as we’re still waiting for the passports, they come back with the dogs and we learn that the dog is in training and they had planted some drugs in the luggage of Russian man (with his consent) who is in Yulia’s compartment.  The dog passes his test.  Then our passports are return and we’re allowed to proceed into Russia—but not that far.  We follow the Selenga River.  At the border town of Naushki, we stop for hours.  At the station, there is a sign warning that insults directed at border guards can get you a fine of 40,000 rubles and a jail term.  They don’t threaten with sending you to Siberia (as you’re already there), but I’m glad that I was on my best behavior and didn’t give them (or even Ana) a hard time.  

 Hungry for lunch, Yulia asks and is told about a restaurant down the tracks.  The place has the atmosphere of an elementary school cafeteria and is eerily sterile.  Its primary customers are railroad crews.  But the food is good and cheap.  Most of the group has meatballs, but I have already had enough and decide instead to have soup and goulash.  After eating, we walk back toward the train station, stopping in a small grocery store.   There’s very little in the way of food, but half of the store is dedicated to alcohol and there is an incredible selection of vodka, larger than anything I’ve ever seen.  We’re in Russia.   Back at the station, we wait another hour or so before we’re called back on board the train to begin our journey into Mother Russia.  When we finally start moving, I note that in the past ten hours, we’ve covered all of 70 kilometers!
 The run up to Ulan Ude is pretty as we follow the Selenga River and skirt by the shore of by Goose Lake.  I spend an hour standing by an open window watching in amazement as the sun slowly drops from the sky.  The lighting on the countryside is beautiful.  Along the way, I notice a car pulled over by the side of the road and a man standing in front of it.  Something catches my eye and I look back and see that he is taking a leak and the sunlight shines through the stream of urine, giving it a golden color.  I laugh and several people look at me and I point and they too laugh.

When I come back to my compartment from photographing the sunset, I see a pack of Chinese cigarettes on my bunk.  I toss them back to Ana, telling her they were a gift and she can’t give them back.  When she asks what she should do with them, I suggest that she give them to our train attendant (the male one is on duty) as I’d seen him bum a cigarette at our stop.  This she does and it makes him very happy as he spends the rest of our time on the train sequesters in his compartment (the trains are supposed to be non-smoking), puffing away!     

It’s dark when we pull into Ulan Ude (a town, if I heard correctly, means Red River), we’re met by Dennis, our local tour guide.  He takes us to the Geser Hotel, and as we check in asks if any of us are up for a night on the town (on a Monday night).  A few take him up on his offer, but I decide to forgo such an experience because we have to be ready to head out early in the morning.

The hotel room is incredible—Terry and I share a suite.   Unfortunately, we’re only there for eight hours. I shower and wash some clothes (it seems I am constantly washing clothes).  The next morning, we’re provided an extensive buffet breakfast.  I’ve noticed in my travels that the further north I’ve gone, the meals have gotten larger.  At breakfast, I sit at a table next to a table with “the ugly American.”  The suited-man is there for a conference and loudly complains to a couple of women at his table, who obviously are attending the same conference, about how things work (or more correctly, don’t work) in “this god-forsaken country.”   I give him a dirty look as he’s too loud and my Southern conscience tells me it just ain’t right to complain about your host when you’re in their living room.  Later, an American woman from Texas asks if she can sit with us at our table.  She begins chatting about the conference and I pause her long enough to ask what kind of conference.  She thought we were attending the same event.   At least, from her, I was able to learn that there’s an international social worker conference going on in Ulan Ude and she is more than happy to tell us about her work and what they’re doing in Russia.  Although she talked a lot, she was thoroughly enjoying Russia and expressed the hope we’d have a similar experience.

 After breakfast, Dennis meets us and takes us on a walking tour of Ulan Ude, a town that boasts the largest statue of Lenin’s head in the former Soviet Union.  Dennis notes that the people in this part of Russia (who are more Asian) got the last laugh with the statue in which the artist cast Lenin with “Asian features.”  To me, the bronze Lenin looks more like a giant “Mr. Potato Head.”  Over the next week, I’d see enough potatoes to wonder if I ain’t right.

 After our walking tour, we board the bus for a trip to an “Old Believers Village.”  Dennis asks if anyone has ever heard of the Old Believers and seemed both amazed and a little annoyed when I raise my hand.  (I felt like the kid who always sat in front of the class and answered every question, a position that I never assumed in school).  Of course, I had only recently become aware of the sect.  When I was in Malaysia, Cyclops had given me a book written by an anonymous Orthodox priest titled The Way of the Pilgrim.  The pilgrim in the story has an encounter with an Old Believer.  At first, he is impressed with the piety of the Old Believer, but then finds his fundamentalism to be a barrier that keeps him from encountering God.  Then, in the book I’d been reading by Ian Frazier, Travels in Siberia, the exile of Old Believers to Siberia is discussed.  The Old Believers broke away from the Russian Orthodox Church during the reforms of Peter the Great who wanted to make Russia more European (which included making the church more like the Greek Orthodox Church).  The Old Believers was the group that said, “We’ve never done it that way.”  Such groups seem ubiquitous in any institution.  Holding to their values, they broke off from the mother church and maintained their purity with eight hour worship services (standing, of course) and the old way of positioning their fingers when they cross themselves.  As most of the Old Believers ended up as settlers in Siberia, the museum showed how they lived in such a rough climate. 

We also got to visit a church, which was fairly new as most of the older churches had been destroyed by Stalin and his goons.  There were a few older icons in the church.  These had been hidden by the faithful during Stalin’s purges. 
After visiting the church, we headed to a recreated home of Old Believers, that is now a living museum.  Unlike most Siberian homes which the siding is not painted, Old Believers paint beautiful patterns on the side of their houses.  At this home, we had lunch where we learned first-hand, that unlike most Protestant fundamentalists, these guys really like to drink.  Our lunch included three shots of “homebrewed” vodka, taken in between a feast of pickled fish, breads, soups and variety of root vegetables as well as meat—a hardy lunch (all our meals in Russia were hardy)!

The fun didn't stop with lunch.  After fortifying us with vodka, it was time to play dress up.  Anastasia and Daniel were selected to play the bride and groom and we all got to attend a wedding with dancing and games.  The party broke up before the union could be consummated, as we had to get on the road and head to Lake Bailak. 

We drive back to Ulan Ude and drop off Dennis, then we head east (once again following the Selenga River which we’ve followed since Mongolia).  Half way to the lake (the Selenga flows into Baikal), we cross the river and head north.  The ride is beautiful and reminds me of places in the American West.  It’s a three hour drive and at one point I fall asleep (I’m sure a three vodka-lunch helped) and wake up thinking I’m on the top of Cedar Mountain, between Cedar City and Duck Creek, Utah as the birch forest resembles aspen and both sites have rolling grassy meadows.  There are even a few black boulders that I mistake for lava rocks.  Like Cedar Mountain, this is open range and our driver has to slow down in order to navigate between cows.  There are few bathroom stops along the way and my fellow Americans, who seem to have small kidneys, need to stop.   After a “mini-Chernobyl” (a term that became to define any fit thrown by one of us in the group), the driver agrees to pull over and they run into a small clump of bushes.  Ten minutes later, we make the scheduled toilet stop and when I learn it costs 25 rubles, I find myself wishing I’d joined them in the bushes!

We first see the lake at the village of Gremyachinsk and then drive along the shoreline for 15 or 20 kilometers.  The waters are magnificent.  In Turka, we leave the lakeshore and stop at a guesthouse that is located on the Turka River, just a few kilometers from the where it enters the lake.  The three Americas—Daniel, Ben and me—decide we’ll try the waters of the Turka River and change into swim suits and jump into the invigorating 14 degrees C water.  We spend two nights at this guest house ran by a couple, Valery and Larisa, both of whom have many gold teeth.  I wonder if Steely Dan was here first.

The highlight of our time in Lake Baikal is the banya (a treat we enjoyed each night we stayed at the guesthouse).   After dinner, Larisa fires up the banya as it takes time to warm the water.  A number of our group went into the village to the store, but since I didn’t really need anything and there wasn’t enough room in Larisa’s car, I go for a hike up the road, looking at the traditional Siberian wood homes in which only the window frames and shutters were painted.  When I come back, the banya is getting hot and ready for action.  I put on my swim trunks and join the group in the sauna.

Larisa is a man’s man.  He’s built the guest house by himself, and did one heck of a job on the banya.  In the center of it is a water boiler, welded out of thick plate steel that has a radius of nearly three feet.  The bottom of the banya is the firebox (with a chimney that runs through the boiler and out the top. As this boiler is in the corner between four rooms, the firebox is in a separate room in which he also stores firewood.  This also keeps the water separate from the fire and smoke out of the other rooms.  In the sauna room, there are cedar benches where we sit or lay and enjoy the banya.  Here, on top of the firebox is an opening and stones that heated and a water drip system that keeps the steam up.  Outside of this room, there is the shower room, where he also has an opening to the banya’s water take for putting more water into the tank and also drawing out warm water to put on the rocks.  There is also a shower in this room.  The fourth room is for changing.

In the corner of the banya, Larisa has a pail of water and a collection of birch branches (with leaves).  The Russian way of cleansing is to lie on the bench and have someone stick the birch leaves into the water and then slap you all over with them.  As weird as it sounds, within an 80 degree C banya, it feels pretty good.  (Or maybe at that temperature, pain and pleasure get all mixed up).   As we began to overheat in the banya, we find that Larisa has an answer.  He’s built a slide off the back porch of the banya (with flowing water) that takes you out into Turka River.  I find that after soaking for an extended time, I can swim way out into the river.   But I stay in the water and keep moving, for there are hoards of mosquitoes waiting to feast on fresh meat.  When you come out of the water, you run back into the banya and do it all over again.
On the morning of our second day at Baikal, Larisa takes us to the beach.  We sit soaking up sun and even swimming (quick dips) in the cold water.  The Russians believe that to swim in Baikal will add to your life (that is, if you don’t have a heart attack jumping in).  Having swum in both Lake Superior (which is colder in the summer) and Baikal, I should have a very long life…   We next visited a hot springs, which was so crowded (the pools were all in buildings and there was a long wait), that we had to be satisfied with soaking our feet in the stream.  After lunch, Larisa took us out in his motorboat, which looked as if he held it together with chewing bum and bailing wire.  I was glad he also had oar locks and oars in case the motor decided to stop spitting, but it kept running and thankfully the oars didn’t need to be employed

After the banya experience on our second night, Larisa built a camp fire and roasted fish for us.  His method was simple.  He scaled the fish, rolled them in salt, and pierced them with a metal skewer and roasted over coals.  The meat was delicious, it fell off the bones in chunks (and I quickly learned to avoid the guts). 
On our final morning, Larisa took a number of the group hiking, but Leo and I decided to stay and take him up on his offer for us to use his boats.  Taking a row boat, we traveled around the river using his homemade oars (that weren’t exactly even or the same size, which meant having to do a lot of correction strokes).  But it was fun.  After lunch, the bus picked us up and we traveled back to Ulan Ude.  The diver wouldn’t turn on the air conditioner until there was another “mini-Chernobyl” and he drove so fast and reckless we were all concerned he’d take out a cow or bounce us off the road.  But we arrived safely back in Ulan Ude, went shopping for provisions for our three day train ride and boarded the train on time.  

For the next installment (which I posted a couple of weeks ago), click here.


  1. fundamentailism as a barrier to encountering god. I actually think that's true, myself.

  2. I am really enjoying your accounts of your travels, Jeff! Such an amazing trip.

  3. Living vicariously through your trip. Amazing.

  4. I have to hand it to Ana. I would be terrified having to explain anything about my passport...but it's comforting that all seem understanding. Love the ballerina/sumo wrestler discriptions. The "ugly American" is a social worker...perfect. I'm glad you're having such a nice time, Jeff. Thank you for sharing your adventures with us.

  5. Your journeys continue to sound like a real learning experience - it is at least for us your readers. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  6. If I were Ana and Daniel, I'd be worried if I had actually been married. :) Love this journey with you, Jeff.