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Saturday, June 30, 2012

Baikal Day 2

We were awakened from our deep slumber at about 1:30 am by students celebrating their graduation from school.  There was a lot of noise, fireworks, and festivities.  It was a enjoyable to be able to see the local people enjoying themselves.  So often throughout this trip we have seem gloomy faces.

Today I learned the town down by Lake Baikal is called Listvyanka.  We started the day by walking up the hill from our hotel to a local ski resort.  Not very large at all compared to Colorado standards, they only have one lift.  We took the chairlift to the top of the hill and went to a spot that overlooks Listvyanka and Lake Baikal.  This was a very scenic location.  There are many trees that look very similar to Aspens.  Many of the trees branches were covered with hundreds of ribbons.  Shamanism and Buddhism are common beliefs here.  Each ribbon is a prayer, and the belief is that as the wind blows through the ribbons the people's prayers are carried heavenward.  These beliefs were carried here from Mongolia and from southern regions.

In the early afternoon we went to the port in town and boarded a ship for a three hour cruise...the weather started getting rough...the tiny ship was tossed...if not for the courage of the fearless crew the minnow would be lost...sorry about that I just got carried away in the moment.  We took the ship to the south and actually went ashore for a little walk.  The shoreline drops off almost like a cliff to several thousand feet so the boat can ride up all the way to the shoreline.  It was a pleasant little excursion.

We we got back to Listvyanka we stopped for lunch and I had pork-kabobs and something like naan bread.  The local people here look a lot more Asian than European.  We are actually pretty close to the Mongolian boarder.  The faces and religious practices here are starting to be more eastern in origin.

Since today is Saturday the town of Listvyanka was busy and full of commotion.  The locals from Irkutsk come here for a nice weekend away from town.  They can relax at the “beach” and have a picnic, because “warm” is relative.

Afterward we went to a local museum about Baikal.  We learned a lot about the region, the lake, and the local wildlife (above and below the water).  We are in a seismic hot spot.  That is the reason for the lakes great depth.  They had a couple live Baikal fresh water seals in an aquarium.

Today I found out that my mom will video tape anything...including a dead fly among other things.  In the evening my dad and I went out on the balcony overlooking the lake.  We had a couple ice cold cokes and talked for a long time.  We are having a wonderful time.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Irkutsk & Baikal Day 1

The entire time on the train we were living on Moscow time.  The train schedule across the entire country is always governed by Moscow time.  Our final night on the train we had to go to bed early to try to get 5 hours back.

Now that we are off the train we are running on local time and have a full day ahead of us.  We took a small tour of Irkutsk.  The city is located on the Angara River and was originally a tax collection outpost for local fur trappers.  It was founded by Russians in 1652 as a major fort beyond the Ural Mountains, it was populated by exiled political prisoners sent by the tsars and communists.  For many being sent to Irkutsk was as good as a death sentence.  Now I get to experience it without the fear associated with that name.  We took a tour of the old part of town and saw dilapidated homes that existed through these dark times.
Afterward we took a bus to Lake Baikal about 37 miles east of Irkutsk.  Lake Baikal is the largest single body of fresh water in the world.  It is about 400 miles long and at it's deepest it is about 1 mile deep.  During the winter the lake is frozen over with about 10-12 feet of ice.  The water, when it's not frozen, is quite cold .  Today was a hazy cool day but for the locals is was a beach day.  We took a walk through the old historic part of town

There is a particular type of fish that is only found in this lake and now where else in the world.  I was able to sample a smoked piece of it today.  Not to bad but a little too fishy tasting for me.  I did have a lamb-kabob for lunch that was fantastic!

The hotel we are staying at is having internet issues, so I don't know when I'll be able to make make first batch of postings.  I am hoping I can do this in the morning.  God bless & good night!

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Train Day 3 and early a.m. arrival on day 4

Guess what...more trees!  We are Tiaga wilderness.  I know I am witnessing all Siberia has to offer.  I am here in late June, the sunny days are long and it is beautiful.  The wilderness is seemingly unending, it is green an lush.  It looks so appealing.  To the north of us there is very little in terms of habitation and then you reach the polar circle.  I fully realize this season is short lived.  Soon the reality of short summer and the brutally long winter be realized.  This region will soon fall into a deep freeze for 8 months until next years summer.
This reminds me of a joke my boss told me...There is a man in the mid-western US while the region is in the middle of a cold spell.  This streak of cold weather has hit the US hard and lingered around for a several weeks.  He is talking to a business associate on the phone in Siberia.  The Russian inquires about the weather.  The American informs him about the cold spell and the -30 degree weather.  The Russian agree that it is brutally cold and shares him sympathy with his associate.  He says that sometimes it gets that cold in Siberia too. The American reassures him that his house has good insulation and that they have plenty of firewood to keep warm in the cold weather.  The Russian says, "Oh...you're referring to the temperature outside, I was referring to the temperature inside.".
View of the plains from the train.
Today I estimate I am on the opposite side of the world from my home.  It just reminds me that there is an entire world of people here I don't often even consider their existence.  They are also created in God's image and just as valuable to Him as I am.  Today also mark the half way to Vladivostok, but we will get off of the train in Irkutsk.

In the afternoon the scenery is starting to give way to rollings hills.  There are humble little shacks, in various stages of upkeep, nestled into the hillside.  The plains are sprinkled with little purple and yellow flowers.  It is truly picturesque.  Krasnoyarsk is certainly not what I was expecting when I thought of Siberia.
Cottages on a hillside.
Today’s trains stops include:

Krasnoyarsk: 2526 miles (4065 km); 2d 9h 20 min. - Krasnoyarsk is turning into one of the most attractive regions in Russia for both Russian and foreign tourists. The region offers a unique combination of beautiful rivers and mountains, clean air, hunting and fishing, architectural sites and the ethnic culture of a unique northern nation.

Ilanskaya – This 20 minute stop allowed us to sample local cuisine...Piroshki.  They are similar to a hot pocket.  Bread stuffed with with either veggies or meat.  And of course I had to top that off with ice cream.
Angarsk: 3177 miles (5113 km); 3d 2h 20min. - A hazardous city with unsightly landscapes. Recently the construction of an oil pipeline between Russia and China, which would begin in Angarsk, has been discussed.

IRKUTS: 3202 miles (5153 km); 3d 3h 20min. - Irkutsk has over 600,000 people and is located on the Angara River. It is the starting point for many who adventure to the Lake Baikal area because it is a major point on the Trans-Siberian/Trans-Mongolian train route. Founded by Russians in 1652 as a major fort beyond the Ural Mountains, it was populated by exiled political prisoners sent by the tsars and communists. Today, the city has become a college town with many young people attending universities there.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Train Day 2

We crossed the Ural mountains in the middle of the night.  The Ural mountain marks the end of continental Europe and the start of the Asian continent.  I am now in Asia.  This is the first time I've crossed continents while on land.
Local village at a station stop.
The view out the train window is unchanging.  I have seen mile after mile of unending wilderness.  The forest are birch and pine.  The vast wilderness is broken by fairly frequent signs of life.  The signs range from shacks that appear barely habitable to quite large cities.  Novosibirsk, the capital of Siberia, appears to be a quite large and modern city.  We were at the train station long enough for me to purchase an ice cream cone for desert.  I have a plentiful supply of Coca Cola to keep me going (the only thing better would be if it were cold).

I am busy taking as many photographs as possible from our station stops and from the moving train.  There are certain obstacles to taking the perfect snap shot from the train, and I mean that literally.  Every time I take a picture I am virtually guaranteed to capture either a passing pole, a passing train, my lens cap, a window reflection, or I was just too slow in reacting.

Today’s trains stops include:

Yekaterinburg (Sverdlovsk): 1005 miles (1778 km); 1d 2h 20min. (we slept through the stop) - Russia’s third largest city and the capital of the Urals. Sverdlovsk oblast is one of the most developed and advanced regions in Russia. It is very rich in minerals and raw materials and is a heavily industrialized area. It is located far from ethnic conflict areas and is politically stable.

Tyumen: 1307 miles (2104 km); 1d 6h 30min. - Tyumen was the first Russian town in Siberia and has always been famous for rich trade fairs and skilled craftsman. The city was considered the richest Russian town in the pre-Soviet era. Today it’s an oil and gas capital.

Omsk: 1663 miles (2676 km); 1d 13h 50min. - Originally built as a fortification for Russia’s southern border by Peter the Great's guardsman Ivan Buchholz; when in spring of 1716 he and his detachment made a landing on the shore of the Irtysh, at the place where this powerful Siberian river joins the quiet Om. Thus, was founded the town of Omsk, which in our day has become the largest industrial and cultural center in Siberia.

Barabinsk: - I could not find this in our guide book.  This was our longest stop, just over 30 minutes.

Novosibirsk: 2052 miles (3303 km); 1d 21h 30min. - The Siberia region’s largest city was founded in 1893. Novosibirsk is the third main cultural and scientific center in Russia (after Moscow and St. Petersburg) and also is home to the famous University of Novosibirsk. The city is developing quite rapidly, and is considered to be the capital of Siberia. The area around Novosibirsk and the Altai Mountains hold some incredible nature for the outdoors men.
Novosibirsk train station at night.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Train Day 1

Today I woke up after about 9 hours of restful sleep.  The rhythmic clacking of the wheels on the track and gentle swaying of the train is soothing.  I feel refreshed and relaxed.  We are sharing the cabin with Martin, our tour guide.  The Trans-Siberian railway is the longest railway in the world.  It stretches 10,500 km (6,500 miles) from Moscow to Vladivostok, but we will not take it all the way to its terminus.  Siberia is the largest, mostly untouched, wilderness in the world.
Typical view from the train.
We are fortunate that our wagon car is a fairly new one.  We have an outlet in our cabin which is keeping all of our digital equipment fully charged.  The bathroom is quite acceptable.  To our surprise we are getting a small breakfast and lunch every day.  It is a peaceful journey.  There is no strict schedule.  You wake up when you are ready, eat when you are hungry and absorb the scenery.  There is plenty of time to converse and nap throughout the day.  This is my first prolonged train trip and it is quite enjoyable ... ask me again in 77 hours if I still like it.  During the day we make a handful of stops stops that are just under 30 minutes each.  That is enough time to stretch our legs, get some fresh air and sample local foods.  I will list some of the city names, distances, and transit times from Moscow.
One of our daily train station stops.
Today’s trains stops include:

Vladimir: 130 miles (209 km); 2h 30min. (slept through) - Built on the Klyza’ma River, Vladimir, founded in 995, was at one time a capital of Russia and its political, cultural and religious center. It has a reputation for its unique cathedrals, four of which are on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

Nizhny Novgorod: 286 miles (461 km); 6h 30 min. (slept through) - This city was founded in 1221 and was a trading center for people from the Orient, Siberia and Turkistan. Formerly named Gorki, it held political exiles and was closed to outsiders for many years. The city recently opened its doors for visitors and its many well preserved memorials from the 13th and 14th centuries are an amazing attraction.

Kirov: 570 miles (917 km); 12h 50 min. - Kirov has a population of 350,000 and is the seat of a great agricultural center on the banks of the Vyatka River, a navigable river that connects with the Volga.
Perm: 868 miles (1397 km); 20h 10 min. - Perm lies about 800 miles east of Moscow on the western slopes of the Ural Mountains, and stretches along both sides of the Kama River. Perm was founded in 1568 as the village, Lagoshikha. Since 1756, Perm has been a center for Russia’s military manufacturing. By 1781, it was established as the administrative center of the northern Urals and gateway to Siberia.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Moscow

We arrived in Moscow at 1 am on Monday morning.  By the time we got through customs and were settled in our hotel room it was just past 2 am in the morning.  We were asked to be ready to go at 6 in the morning.  We set our alarm for 5 am.  The sun rose at about 4 in the morning, so we ended up with just over 2 hours of interrupted sleep.  Our guide arrived a bit early and we were on the road by 6 am.  Our guide informed us that our train did not leave until after 11 pm that evening.

Our first stop was at Lomonosov University overlooking the Olympic park.  The western world boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics games in Moscow to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.  It's interesting to see how Geo-politics has changed over the years, and it is now the US in Afghanistan.  Following that we drove to the most recognized location in Moscow.  We arrived at the Kremlin and Red Square just after 7 am.
View of St. Basil through a gate to Red Square.
As a child of the Cold War, I remember watching documentaries of the Soviet Military parades through the Red Square displaying the Soviet might.  It was a bit eerie, standing at was the center of hard line communism.  After taking pictures from all angles we were able to ride the Moscow subway.  All the stations are unique and extremely ornate.
Station in the Moscow Subway.
It is fast and very extensive.  Now I see how Prague ended up with such a nice subway system.  Everywhere you look there are still signs of Soviet Russia.  We saw statues of Karl Marx, Lenin and memorials to former presidents, cosmonauts, war heroes, and famous Soviet artists.  It is still common place to see the hammer and sickle in addition to a red star, both symbols of communism.  The equality of poverty is the natural result of a communistic system.  With the fall of communism Moscow now has one worlds most dense populations of the uber wealthy.  We went to the Gum mall located in Red Square.  This is the equivalent of shopping in Beverly Hill, on 5th Avenue in New York, in London or in Paris.  But this wealth is reserved for a handful of people.  Governmental corruption and individual depravity keep the vast number of Russians in poverty.  Then we went to St. Basil's Cathedral.  This is the single most iconic symbol people recognize when they think of Russia.  It was more compact than I expected but still very ornate both outside and in.  I was just as impressed with The Cathedral of Christ the Savior.  What is more amazing is that it was built in less than 5 years in the mid 1990's after the Soviet Union dissolved.  The plot of land it occupies has an interesting history.  Stalin wanted to build a monument to himself there, which would have been the tallest building in the world at the time.  It would have been topped with a statue of himself upon which helicoper could land in the palm of his hand.  Stalin wanted to unite his country as one people.  In order to do this he wanted to eliminate any sense of national group identity.  His means to accomplish this was to eliminate religion and integrate the people through forced relocation.  This plan was preempted by the start of World War II.  I find ironic that rather than it being a monument to atheism and communism it is a monument religious in nature.  Afterward we went to a local cemetery where a lot of national celebrities are interred.  Then we went to Arbat Street, a pedestrian shopping district. i  There we ate dinner, I had borscht and Russian ice cream.

To finish out the day, we made our way to Yaroslavski train station.  Nearby we made our final food purchases because we did not know what to expect on the train.  Our guide prepared us for both extremes.  Either next to nothing will be available, or our conditions could be quite normal.  What you end up with is pure luck of the draw.  Since I do not subscribe to luck, I prefer to say that it is ordained by His providence.  In the late evening waiting for our train to arrive we we're all exceedingly tired.  We are running on about 2 hours sleep in the last 40 hours.  Prior to boarding the train I made a final bathroom visit.  There I was greeted by squatty potties.  I felt like I was back in Uganda or in the jungles of Peru.  Finally our train arrived and we boarded our home for the next 77 hours.  We departed just before midnight Monday evening.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Pre-arrival jitters...

I am writing this entry on the plane from Prague to Moscow.  I am flying with Aeroflot Russian Airlines.  I feel like I am leaving the comforts of western civilization.  Earlier today the reality of this adventure hit me.  I don't think I truly understand what is ahead of me.  It's been been just over 60 hours since I began this journey.  This is less time than the duration of our first leg on the train.  Our train accommodations are still a mystery.  But I am anticipating the worst.  I am looking forward to Moscow...more about that tomorrow.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

2012 Jouney - Moscow to Beijing


Currently I am in Prague resting for a couple days before my adventure begins. This year's trip is something completely different than in previous years. Tomorrow evening the experience begins. I am taking a train from Moscow, Russia to Beijing, China via Ulan Batar, Mongolia. I will be travelling with my parents for the two week journey. This is the portion of the trip I am looking forward to most, since I only get to see them about once a year. We've travelled together several times in the past. We've been together to India, Spain & Portugal, Egypt, and now this. The train portion will consist of three legs. First we will take the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Irkutsk, then we will take the Trans-Mongolian Railway to through Ulan Batar into China, and finally the Orient Express into Beijing. On Monday we arrive in Moscow and spend the day there. Then we board the train for the 4 journey to Novo Sibirsk. I've already determined that there is no internet access available on the train. So my updates will be sporadic. Towards the end of next week you should see burst of about 5 days of entries covering the first leg of the trip. So until then you can wait in anticipation of my updates. God bless!