As I walked down the snow covered train platform in Omsk, I was admittedly anxious. I’d bought, what I thought to be, a second class ticket on from Omsk to Irkutsk. The trip would span two time zones, two nights and a combined 41 hours. This would, by far, be the longest single journey I’d ever taken on any bus, train or plain. Getting closer and closer to my carriage, towards the front of the train, I glanced at a scattered group of passengers who’d stepped off the train for a smoke as it was being de-iced with shovels and metal rods by railway workers. There was one lanky man with a gold tooth and a silver glare, another with addicted eyes, a few with burnt fingers and all of them visibly exhausted. These must have been passengers of the third class I’d heard so much about. The carriage where 60 men, women and children are stuffed together to endure each other for however the journey mandates. Luckily I wasn’t headed there.
However as I entered the train, the man with a gilded tooth and the other in withdrawal quickly followed suite. I opened the compartment door and was greeted with the humidity, dank and commotion of a varied population of around 60. It quickly dawned on me, that the stern lady at the ticket office had indeed put me in third class. All hope was lost, surely.
The train started to thud and clank forwards. I quickly made my bunk and began to mentally settle in for the long journey ahead. Hours passed me like the multitude of snow covered trees outside. For a day or so a nice lady sat across from me, sharing food and many stories which remained unintelligible to me due to my poor Russian. The top bunks of my “compartment” were occupied by a stereotypical street-brawler in tattoos and a gentle Uzbek. Across from us, a large man worked on crossword puzzles for 7 hours straight. More hours, cities and trees. The first night was one of the worst ones I’ve spent in recent memory. A bunk as big as an ironing board, a mattress as thick as a blanket, a pillow as thick as a sheet, two dozen snoring Kazaks and cold water dripping on my head from the condensed frost of the window.
After a horrid night of unrest, the journey slowly settled into me. In my daze I observed older Kazak men telling tales to groups of youngsters huddled around them and the people in bunks around me disappear to be replaced by others during the long hours. Another day. Another night. A morning.
Upon arrival into Irkutsk, the -20 something weather seeped through my phone and affected it dearly. I’ve not been able to normally charge it since, and this “mobile” phone has transformed into a cable-ridden mess infused with a power bank. This is the first real setback of my trip, and it’s annoyed me to no end how much time and energy I’ve had to put towards trying to fix this piece of technology I’ve come to rely on far too greatly.
But I digress. Due to the technology problems, a long post-train nap and bookings made for the future I had to face skipping much of the city of Irkutsk in order to find the time to get to witness Lake Baikal. After finding the local bus station and securing a ticket on a minivan to the coastal town of Listvyanka I had enough time to choose one of the adjacent sights to visit.
Across a withering river, through a herd of street dogs, past an industrial lot and in between rusting car repair shops, I found the local Kazan Cathedral. There seems to be one in every city in Russia. This one however was very special. The yard of this beautifully ornate cathedral was decorated with ice sculptures slowly being melted by the black soot and sun. A prayer was being megaphoned through a tinny speaker somewhere. Inside there was some of the most beautiful Christian art I’ve seen anywhere. Simple, yet exquisitely done. The hanging smoke of incense in the light emanating from a pained glass window. A man in a black suit dabbing tears from his cheeks. Actual spiritualism like this can rarely be found inside religious buildings anywhere. The feeling was only enhanced by the contrasting atmosphere outside.
A quick rush back to the bus station, onto the backseat of a cramped and creaky minivan and towards Lake Baikal. The old Hyundai tried its best and only stalled around a dozen times, much to the bemusement of the babushkas on board, during the hair-raising ride over Siberian hills dense in pine. After over an hour of near concussions from bumping my head on the ceiling of the van, a vast expanse hued in blue started to spread out in the horizon.
Lake Baikal is the largest, deepest and some say cleanest lake in the entire world. During the summer, Russians from all over the country rush to the lake to enjoy its waters and abundant supply of fish. This time of the year however, ice. A vast expanse of thick, yet completely transparent, blue ice walled by the final reaches of the Altai Mountain range.
Having walked a few hundred meters into the lake, the only thing breaking the natural beauty and silence was a few locals rushing by on snowmobiles, trucks, and a hovercraft buzzing around entertaining tourists. A smoked whitefish from one of the various market stands for dinner inside a beach booth overlooking the sunset. A moment of solitude. A ride, this time vastly more comfortable, back to town.
The next day brought me back to the lake. This time around it on the Circum-Baikal railway line, which would represent my last leg on the rails in Russia. The scenic ride took me to the city of Ulan Ude, considered as the gateway into Mongolia. Almost all my grand plans for the interesting city and its surroundings, was thwarted by a late arrival and lack of a functioning phone. My main goal, to attain a bus ticket into Mongolia. After trying to find help at the local train station without success, I was ready to give up for the day, catch some sleep and delay my arrival into Mongolia by at least 24 hours.
Enter, the kindness of strangers. Two girls, the kindest and most noble examples of humanity, had overheard my attempts at conversation at the train station. Without a common language, the two heroines began to pull me with them through the city. At first I understood that they too were keen on acquiring said tickets to Mongolia, and were informed that help could be found at a bus station on the other side of town. After an hour or so of walking, many failed attempts at small talk, a few cigarette breaks and a detour or two the bus station was finally reached. After getting help from the pair with buying my ticket, I was amazed to realize that they were not even heading out of Ulan Ude.
Out of the kindness of their hearts, they’d just decided to take a vast amount of time out of their Friday evening to help a lost traveller find his way. I said goodbye to these two amazing people, and misty eyed from having faced the best humanity has to offer, ended my last night in Russia with a delicious plate of sushi, a stroll along Gagarin boulevard, and a bus ticket which in the morning would take me to the capital city of Mongolia, Ulan Bator.