Moskva - Beijing
From July the 29th to August the 2nd
Here we are, in front of this big blue train in which we are about to spend 31/2 days. Actually, we were about to cover more than 5000 km to go to the centre of Siberia, close to Irkoutsk, on the western shore of Lake Baikal. It is through a green desert of birch-trees that the train progresses. Some landscapes, such as the counterforts of the Oural Mountain that we contemplate as the sun sets, let some unforgettable memories. We draw profit from the frequent stops the train makes to purchase some supplies. The autochthons are actually always present on the platforms with baskets full of fruits, vegetables, drinks and local specialities such as the « omoul », a delicious endemic fish which is smoked or which buns are stuffed with. The atmosphere is each time different. Life in the train hides some tiny secrets. The transsiberian seem to be perfectly built for the comfort of travellers.
Each wagon is under the responsibility of two stewards, the « provodniki », who are on duty one after another every 12 hours. We find a Samovar in each wagon, which provides hot water at will, any time of the day. It's especially the friendly atmosphere that didn't stop surrounding us !
From August the 2nd to the 7th
It's amazing to get back on the ground after an 80-hour journey in a train. Our contact in Irkoustsk doesn't show up at the railway station. After having waited for two hours, we decide to go to the village where he is living on our own. We take one, two and three trams to reach the bus station. Because we still have time before the bus leaves, it is an opportunity to visit the town : the collective buildings of the socialist modernity are standing right beside the old houses of the merchants. In front of the sad and ruined buildings, the first impression might be repelling but we quickly get used to it, and the kitsch and gigantic feature even lead us to smile at it.
The bus is progressing along the Angara River, the only river that carries this precious water away from the lake, until we reach the small shipyard in Listvianka. We don't really know where to go when a nice autochthon proposes us to stay in his wooden house. It's a true Isba, a typical tiny Siberian house. Comfort, compared to western standard, is at its lowest : no bathroom (but we have the cold rain-water that poured into big metal tanks during the previous night), restroom in a small wooden cabin in the back of the yard and for heating, a stove made out of bricks that we won't wait too long to light up, helped by the precious advice of our host Youri. We have got a great overview of the Lake the people call the precious rock, or also the pearl of Siberia.
This Lake is the world's biggest reservoir of fresh water : 650 km long, 79 km wide at its maximum and up to 2000 km of coast line. Our host spends some time telling us about his region he is very proud of. Following his advice, we spend our first day hiking along the shore. The following days, we are used to going on the lake where we make some interesting encounters, like with a Russian Professor who teaches French in a University similar to ours in Irkoutsk. We also happen to go on the other side of the lake for a walk.
We visit a few musei in order to learn a little bit more about the history of Siberian people and about the flora and fauna of the lake. We attend to a performance of Cossack folklore. During our walks on the shipyard, we stir up the curiosity of local people who even happen to stop us in order to share a glass of Vodka. At night, our host's son brings us some water in little tanks, sometime along with this tasty smoked fish, the omoul, that we will eat without hunger all along our stay on the shore of this lake which holds the purest, the most transparent water on earth.
August the 7th and the 8th
The train from Irkoutsk to Oulan-Bator covers more than 1000 km in 34 hours. The beginning of the journey allows us to admire the Lake for a few hours since we are going around it until we reach Oulan-Oude. It is in this city that the railway splits in two parts, one going to the Mongolian border in Naouchki. Oulan-Bator is located about 300 km from there. Mongolia then shows us new landscapes : grassland, young mountains... This trip also allowed us to get used to Russo-Mongolian trade : our wagon was occupied by a dozen of merchants who were pulling, pushing, moving lots and lots of bags and boxes when approaching the border. When we got in Oulan-Bator, everybody took his merchandise out at the window, some Russian stuffs bought at chip prices in Moscow.
From August the 8th to the 15th
Oh, Mongolia ! Thank you for having given us so much ! The train enters into the capital city. We see some gers not even five minutes before getting to the railway station. The mountains are situated at the gates of the city.
Our contact (found thanks to the Mongolian embassy before our departure) comes to pick us up at the station... The atmosphere is totally different in Mongolia. People smile to us, and propose their help at the corner of a street. During the first days, we attend to a religious ceremony in a Lamaist monastery ; we visit quite a few musei in order to feel a little bit more the history of these wonderful people.
We then spent a day with Mongolian students hiking in the surrounding mountains. We learn a lot about the Mongolian usage and customs with these 5 people. We also spent two days in a ger along with a family of herdsmen. We then discover how they live in the ger and we even taste some Mongolian food, mainly made out of milk. We spend our afternoons with a bunch of kids playing football and other games. What a pleasure to be with these children ! They are sane, in complete harmony with nature, curious about anything and laughing for nothing. Such a great feeling ! We spend the night in open sky not far away from the ger, with, as neighbours, a herd of Yaks. The organisation of this whole family is held on the shoulders of only one person, the grandmother that we help in her daily tasks : preparing food, going to the well for water a few km away... The day of our departure, Khulan, the student who went along with us during our stay at the nomads', is waiting for us on the platform at the station. Last « Good bye » to this country we have appreciated so much.
August the 15th and the 16th
Last part of the trip in the spine of the Russian giant. The atmosphere is once again different : we now share our wagon with Chinese people. We go through the grassland, we enter into the Gobi desert. Gobi ! This name evokes long swells of dunes and flat grassland where float white and round-shaped gers, and the indefatigable horse riders that fed us with fermented mare's milk (known as Airak) few days before ! In the south of Oulan-Bator, the natural park of Gobi sums up the hugeness of the country. We reach the Chinese border where we spend a few hours in order for the axles of the train to be replaced. The landscapes keep on changing and, as the sun rises, give us a wonderful view on Chinese rice-fields and people on bicycles wearing the typical straw-hat on their head. The train stops briefly at the Great Wall before entering into Beijing. What a strange sensation to see highways and buildings again !