Khabarovsk – the City on the Amur River

For the first time we experienced bad weather on our trip. A Taifun coming from Japan provided us with stormy and rainy days in Khabarovsk and later in Vladivostok.

Khabarovsk is the capital of the Russian Far East. It is a Russian and Chinese holiday destination and known for its attractive parks, river beaches, classic architecture and national parks nearby.

The Amur River is the centre of history and today's life and it is very impressive. The famous Amur bridge (2.6 km long!) is one of the must sees on a relaxing boat trip. For strategic military reasons the Russians also built a corresponding tunnel nearby.

The riverside is a very nice and lively recreational area (if good weather….).

Our excursion in a national park with a botanic guide was very informative. The flooding made it a wet and challenging experience.

The Vyborg Market is a huge and very lively market, with not only local Russians but also a visible example of the proximity to China – many Chinese traders selling imported products of every variety under the "sun", e.g. appliances of any kind, toys and clothing. Everywhere you can buy dried oak branches for the sauna treatment. The vegetable, fruit, meat and fish market is amazing.

For lunch we visited a Russian family. They proudly showed us their house, garden and sauna. The lunch which they had prepared for us was full of Russian specialities and it was delicious. The Russian hospitality and kindness surprised us. Together with our German speaking guide as a translator we could discuss and inform each other about our cultures. It was touching how you feel at home all over the world when the people around you are so warm-hearted and interested. Respecting and understanding each other's differences make life so much easier.

Traveling in the Standard Transsib

After our luxury first part of train travel with the Zarengold Transsib we experienced traveling in the Standard Transsib for the route from Irkutsk to Vladivostok.

We had booked a first class compartment but the train composition only had second class wagons. So we got a whole compartment with four beds which proved to be even better since we had more space (in particular for our luggage).

Traveling with the Standard Transsib went well but was also challenging at times. There were times when we were sweating like hell (outside temperature 35 degrees), the toilets were very simple but at least most times relatively clean and our Russian co-travelers were providing us with all different kinds of smells (food, body), everything was a bit filthy, etc., but all in all a good experience. We gave the conductor and the children on the train some Swiss chocolate and everybody was happy;-)!

The longest individual train travel lasted for 57 hours – from Ulan-Ude to Chabarovsk. We lived on bottled water, instant soups, crackers, chocolate and instant coffee. Hot water is always available.

From time to time there were stops of up to 30 minutes. Everybody gets out of the train to walk and/or to smoke….always being careful not to miss the departure of the train ;-). One of us got the job to run to a small shop stall nearby and buy water and most important ice cream: "An ice cream a day – keeps the doctor away";-).

At the end in Vladivostok we will have travelled 9,288 km by Transsib. We definitely experienced the distances in this huge country. We finally had time to look out of the window, day-dream, read, chat, play yatzy and relax.

The views from the train were interesting – endless forests of birches and pines….endless, meadows with colorful flowers, rivers and water ponds, little dachas with vegetable gardens, small villages, larger cities with old wooden houses and concrete buildings from Soviet times, large (typically very old and often no longer used) industrial areas.

The Buryat City Ulan-Ude

After a night train travel we arrived in Ulan-Ude at 5am on Wednesday, 2 August 2017. It is the capital of the republic Buryatia. Many Buryats are Buddhists. The Buryats have their blood roots linked to the Mongolian people.

We have never seen any larger head statue ….. the head of Lenin…..

The city is compact and very walkable. A melting pot of different Russian cultures and religions.

The ethnographic openair museum showcased the different ways of living over time by the different tribes. This was like a small Ballenberg.

An excursion to visit the Buddist Iwolginski Datsan was very interesting, too. The Lama Monastery has its roots from the Tibet. A unique moment was when we were allowed to see the Lama Dorzho Itigelov who died 1927. He is famous for not having much decayed after so many years. To see him sitting there was out of this world and very impressive.

Olkhon Island – a Jewelry in the Lake Baikal

Visiting the island Olkhon in the Lake Baikal is worth the effort to get there. It is mystic and breathtaking – we will never forget our two nights and days there.

Getting there means a few hours car drive plus a short ferry cruise to get onto the island. Unfortunately, one ferry of three was broken and the ferry capacity is very limited (5 and 14 cars only). As you can see below, leaving the island on this weekend required a lot of patience…about 11 hours waiting. Fortunately, we left on a Tuesday…..

There are only dirt roads on the island and the once in the national park were really in bad shape – but positively speaking this just keeps us young! In the national park we were driving with a small old Soviet bus – extremely simple, no comfort, almost no suspension but reliable.

We were together with 8 Russians in this tiny bus… Russian couple spent their honeymoon on the island. Thanks to their little English skills we never missed the bus after a stop;-). Russian people are reluctant at the beginning, but when they like you they open up and start talking to you and you always find a way to communicate.

Our driver prepared lunch for us: A fish soup, cucumber-onion salad and bread. Looking at my dirty bowl and seeing a fishhead swimming in the broth I wasn't sure whether Andi was right to pretend that he was a vegetarian… (I didn't eat the fishhead but all the other fish pieces in the soup!). Brave Beatrice!s

There is one small village called Khuzhir on Olkhon.

Olkhon is known for its Shamanism which was very interesting for us. We experienced Shamanism on our previous travels and it is fascinating to see the same and also different rituals in different parts of the world. Throwing coins on sacred places and wrapping colorful ribbons around bushes, trees and posts brings luck. The most sacred place is Shamanka (Cape Burhan). An ancient shamanic legend says: Han Khan-baabay, as the king of all shamans, came to Olkhon and lived in a cave on Shamanka. Cape Burhan is a bimodal rock composed of crystalline limestone, marble, covered with light red lichen.

The scenery on Olkhon is just amazing and there are so many beautiful places to visit. There are many beautiful small flowers and some raptors flying around.

Sacred Cape Sagan-Khushun

The Cliff of Maidens at Cape Khoboi

The Cliff of Love at Cape Shunte-Leviy

The legendary Lake Baikal.

Another dream comes true – we experience the beauty of the Lake Baikal. The lake, its flora and fauna and its legends are amazing!

The Lake Baikal is with 25 million years the oldest lake on earth. It is the biggest fresh-water lake in the world (636km long and 23/80km wide). There are larger lakes when it comes to the surface only. But combined with the record depth of 1,637m Lake Baikal is by far the world's largest fresh-water lake (about 20% of all fresh-water reserves). The water is extremely clear and clean. The lake continues to widen about 2cm a year. Geologists predict that it will become a new ocean in some million years.

Our first view on Lake Baikal was at 5am on 29 July 2017.

We were traveling with our Zarengold train along the old Baikal railway track to its dead end of Port Bajkal. Beatrice and I were allowed to get onto the locomotive during parts of this trip – what great and unique adventure and view on this scenic route!

There are several animals which only exist in the Lake Baikal. E.g. the tasty and famous Omul fish (a kind of salmon) or the strange Baikal-Oilfish Golomjanka. The latter is almost transparent, has no scales, consists mainly of fat and swims only vertically up and down even to the bottom of the lake. Golomjanka is the main nourishment of the Baikal-Seal. And we were very lucky to see one laying on a large stone along the coast in the morning hours. The Baikal-Seal is from the same family as the North-Ice-Sea seals, but it is unclear how he was able to get up to Lake Baikal and cope with the fresh-water.

In Port Bajkal our Zarengold travel ends. We have spent six days and six nights on this train. The whole train had 180 passengers from all over the world, mainly passengers from Portugal, Spain, Brazil, America, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and France. In our group were two couples from Italy and Austria (the Austrian lady left after two nights because the compartment was too small?!) as well as a lady from Germany. Ludmilla was our guide during the whole trip. She was very knowledgeable, warm-hearted and her German was just perfect. Her Russian course, her Russian tea ceremony and the Wodka tasting were really funny and are unforgettable. We could even sing a Russian song together after some Wodkas ;-). The train rides were never boring. Every day we could listen to speeches transmitted via loudspeakers in our compartment. The topics were "The Transsib Route", "Russian Potpurri", "Gulags" and many more. If we missed some of it we could always listen to them in French, English or Spanish;-). In the cities we had special tour guides. Their German was impeccable and we learnt a lot about Russian architecture, culture and people.

A short boat trip brings us from Port Bajkal across the Angara river to Listvjanka on the Baikal lake-shore. It reminds us of a Riviera fisher village – pretty but overrun by Russian tourists. People from Irkutsk come in buses or their cars (1 hour drive only) to enjoy the beautiful lake.

A pretty legend is about Djed ("Daddy" or in German "Väterchen") Baikal and its niece (river) Angara. All rivers were flowing into Lake Baikal. Angara fell in love with (river) Enisej. Djed Baikal stopped Angara joining Enisey by throwing a big rock in the middle of Angara. And this is why Angara is still there and it is the only outward flow of Lake Baikal. Below you see the rock in the middle of Angara.

Irkutsk – the Capital of East Siberia

We visited Irkutsk twice, on 28 July and on 1 August. The city has a special atmosphere (lively, authentic, positive and prosperous) and we like it a lot. We enjoyed walking in the city or along the pretty Angara river, eating ice cream and watching Russian people living in their city. Russian ice cream is very tasty and it became a must on our day-trips….. another surprising fact of Russia: there are so many ice cream stalls all over the cities and Russians must love ice cream as much as Swiss people do!

Some pictures of the beautiful Irkutsk.

Irkutsk is famous for its large number of old wooden houses. The very old ones do not have any proper baseplate, i.e. the wood was just built onto the soil. Over the many years, the wood started to sink into the soil. Consequently, you see windows close to the ground which is fascinating. There is also a newly built/renovated wooden house area with lots of small cafes, restaurants and shops – really enjoyable.

Quite a funny story is the heraldic animal (Wappentier) of Irkutsk. This legendary creature should have been a tiger with a sable in his mouth. But the administration officer in St. Petersburg misinterpreted the Russian word "Babr" (=tiger) into "Bobr" (=beaver) and adjusted the drawing of the animal slightly. Now, the heraldic animal is a "tiger-beaver".

An unexpected stop in Krasnoyarsk

We were traveling with our train ahead of the original schedule and to avoid arriving in Irkutsk during the night we benefited from an unexpected stop in Krasnoyarsk. It is a large industrial city with a population of more than one million. It was an administrative center of the Gulags (labor camps), a dark side of the Russian history. During the Soviet Union time, Krasnoyarsk was industrially very strategic. Consequently, it was one of the closed cities for many years where only locals were allowed to go to.

The city is nicely placed in the beautiful Enisej river landscape. From a viewpoint we had a gorgeous view and we were visited by a raptor.

The impressive railway bridge over the Enisej.

The Paraskeva Chapelle is situated on top of a hill overlooking the city of Krasnojarsk.