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Wednesday 27 June 2007

goodbye Russia

Before leaving Russia, I wanted to share this danse I shot in Moscow.

Unless you prefer this one!!!

Tuesday 26 June 2007

the crystal-clear waters of the Baykal lake

Going out from the Irkutsk station, a nice girl from the Est'capade travel agency welcomes me to give me the Listvianka bus ticket and the voucher of the guesthouse I'll sleep in the next 3 nights.
Here, You have to put the watch forward by 5h compared to Moscow. But to avoid time zone problems, every station and every ticket have the Moscow time. Thereby, for my next ticket which it's written departure at 15h45 on, I'll go to the station at 20h45, local time...
I put down my rucksack at the hotel reception where the agency is and leave to the town center to stretch my legs before taking the bus to the small village of Listvianska. Coming from Moscow, Irkutsk looks like a village, few cars, quiet streets and no skyscrapers. The walking is short but enough, and at 14h30, I take the public transport to go to the Baykal lake, 70 km away. I meet 2 australians who travel in the other way by transsiberian train.
As I disembark, a great surprise waits for me, I bump into the 4 dutch people I left a few hours before! Our story wasn't finished yet. We walk to a pub to celebrate that. Just a moment later, we see Hugh, the English boy, walking a few meters from here. He comes and completes the team. We enjoy this bonus the fate is giving us and we take good time together. We have the impression we shared something magical in this train and to be old friends. Dutch people go back to Irkutsk with the 18-o-clock bus and I head towards my guesthouse walking alongside the Baykal banks. My room has a clear view on the lake.

The next day, I leave my room and walk to the tiny village center of Listvianka, 15 minutes away. We're on Sunday and the Russians came in large numbers. A lot of wealthy Russians possess datchas, secondary houses in the countryside or near the lake. The Irkustk inhabitants leave the town for the weekend to invigorate next to the lake. Others simply come here to indulge in the local speciality, the omuls (endemic fish of the Baykal lake) sampling, shared with the family on the white-pebbled beaches of Listvianka. Some intrepid people swim in the 5°C water, at this time of the year.The legend says you can win 25 years in your life expectancy if you take a bath in the waters of this mythical lake.

The lake is revered by a lot of native people, and with good reasons! It contains 20% of the non-frozen freshwater reserves in the world. It reaches 1632m in its deepest part. In spite of a relative surface area for a huge lake, it holds more water than the 5 five american great lakes together. In the wintertime, the clear water is transformed into an iced road the cars goes on. The lake area is the habitat for several endemic species like the nerpa, the only freshwater seal in the world.

In the small harbour of Listvianka, some boats offer trips on the lake. From the deck, we see the pine tree forests and the green mounds of the bank. Looking at northwards, the lake stretches out of sight. The quiet, serene water contrasts with the lively, noisy beaches of the village. This mini-cruise gave me some ideas of hiking for tomorrow. I spend the evening in a pub with 3 English people (Hugh, John, Georgina) and 1 South-African (Dodge) and the conversation often centred on travel.
The next day morning, I visit the museum dedicated to the lake and its eco-system. The museum offers a few aquariums, one with strange crustaceans, one with omuls and one with the famous nerpas.

In the beginning of the afternoon, I head towards the end of the village, the road turns on the left and skirts an enclosure. A little bit further, a fence blocks the road, whoever wants to park the car beyond this line must pay the entrance fee. I walk down the path on the right which leads into the beach, I walk on to go far away from the village. Numerous paths start, intertwine and get lost in the forest. I get down to follow the nearest trail of the bank. The rough path meanders according to the natural obstacles' wishes. I pass some dangerous parts carved in the tumultuous coast. Sometimes, softer pace, I walk on in the forest before leading into green moors strewn with a lot of flowers. The undergrowth is also marvellous with beautiful tufts of pink lily of the valley.

One of the path ramifications goes down to a long white-pebbled beach. There isn't a living soul around me, the ideal place to stop and to take a nap, rocked by the wind which strokes the crystal-clear waters of the lake. These waters inspire me and it's from this beach I'm writing to you.

I walk back to Listvianka for my last night before taking the bus back to Irkutsk the next day morning. Waiting for the train, I spend the afternoon with John, a nice English man who will take the Vladivostok train tomorrow. He walks with me up to the station where I get on the Transmongolian train.

Saturday 23 June 2007

the transsiberian experience

There are trips which leave marks on who lived them, there are trips we'd like them to last and for which the word "the end" comes too fast, there are trips which backs up your wish to discover the world an to meet its people. The transsiberian expedition is forged with that. I write down these few words to make share it and above all, to plunge back into it.
77 hours of train, about 30 stops which hardly last a few minutes, 5185 kilometers covered, a few Russian-sounded cities such as Yekaterinburg, Omsk, Novossibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk. All these arguments would make a bad impression on a touristic brochure and wouldn't make dream an exotic place-addicted traveller. However, it's this train I get on the 18 of june at 23h25, platform 3, carriage 7, couchette n°17.

On the platform, I'm looking for foreign backpackers, I meet Tom and Mark, 2 deutch cousins who went far away from the old continent for 10 months. Checking our tickets, we see we're in the same carriage, here is a good news. We load our rucksacks onto the shoulders and approach the carriage entrance. Several people wait for the inspector authorizes them to get on the train. Peering the faces, we notice three quarters of the travellers of this carriage are european. As well as us, you have to add, Henrik and Valérie, Deutch brother and sister left to rest for 6 weeks, 2 finnish girls, 2 swedish boys Gustav and Jonas, Hugh moving away from his native Great Britain for a few months and Beckie, an intrepid English girl who, after discovering the oriental Asia, will go back through Pakistan and Iran following the silk road.
Contrary to a classic train or plane trip where everybody stays silent reading, listening to music or sleeping, we know we're going to spend a good deal of time together. The shyness is packed at the bottom of the bag and each one makes others' acquaintance. As far as I'm concerned, I've the thirst for talking after the silent week I spent between Saint-Petersburg and Moscow.
Each compartment of this second-class carriage is formed by 4 couchettes. I share mine with a Russian woman, the 2 top ones will stay vacant all along the journey. The communication is limited since she speaks neither English nor French, and I don't speak Russian. I spend a lot of time talking with my new friends and topics aren't missing. We "rebuild" Europe and the world, we compare our cultures and our itineraries, we set out our travel experiences, We chat about a lot of different topics as we were old friends and we laugh a lot.
We count the hours before the next stop always repeating to Nathalia, responsible of our carriage : "zdyess Irkutsk?" ( "here we are in Irkutsk ?" ). She always replies "Nyet". On the platform, travelling merchants hurry as soon as we get off the train. They offer us dishes, fruits, sweets, and the competition between them is hearty. A few shops complete the scene with a bigger choice of food, instant chinese noodles, chocolate, yoghurts, biscuits. Chinese noodles is a big hit and the basic food of our trip.

Except taking a shower because there aren't any cabins in the carrriages, we "live" in the transsiberian train. And it would be a real pity to make sacrifices when we know we can get on this type of train for 7 days (149h) to link Moscow to Vladivostok, on the shore of the Japan sea. With its 9289km, here is the longest railway track in the world.
Its birth goes back to 1891 when Alexander III approved the idea of a transsiberian line in order to connect numerous remote areas and to link the faraway Orient to the West. The work was divided into 7 areas and started simultaneously. In exchange for colossal work, the first links were put into operation in 1900. The transsiberian train was introduced the same year during the international exhibition of Paris. Since this date, the line was completed by a lot of ramifications and by its electrification.
In spite of the slowness of the train, time goes by fast on board. The kilometers increase and the landscapes pass by. At the sunrise of the 4th day, the train slows down and stops for the last time. The cyrillic-written sign of Irkutsk appears through the window. It's time for the painful goodbye but the trip goes on. We hope a good luck to each other wishing to meet up. And each one scatters into the crowd that has come to welcome his travellers.

The Transsiberian is an incredible adventure and before all a human experience. The fact of living together in a close space for these numerous hours intensified the relationship and increased the emotions, but above all, it showed me how much I'm keen on travelling and why I'm here. Bag on the back, full-charged batteries and a large smile on my face, I go again for the next episode of my trip.

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