Sept. 10 (Chelyabinsk)

Our hotel is on the fourth floor of an massive tenement across from the railway station of “Tankograd”. The building has it seems a mix of apartments, offices, stores and hotels. There is wireless internet and guarded parking for the bikes behind the building, should we need them. There was hot water last night, but the kind receptionist who spoke a little English warned us that there will be no water at all today.

The breakfast was rather strange…the receptionist took a Russian language breakfast order form, annotated it with English translations, but then took it to the cafe next from the hotel door (still on the fourth floor) where a staff of four women almost completely filled the tiny space all by themselves. There they asked us if we would like “sandwich with sausage and cheese” vs. “pancake”, “salad” vs “porridge”, optional “omlet”, and “tea” (with milk?) vs “coffee”. They filled out the form for us, and then asked us to sign it. Jerome has asked for his sandwich without cheese, but ended up getting one without sausage instead.

By this time we received a couple of replies to my couch surfing plea for help at the railway station with getting the bikes back in the afternoon, but we decided to scout the train station by ourselves first.

We walked through station gates with the ever-present and always-ignored metal detectors to the information desk. There the woman spoke no English, but pointed us toward the left. There we got to a younger lady who seemed to be in charge of the toilets, but she was a tiny bit more helpful, and told us to go downstairs to the baggage claim. At the baggage claim a young man indicated that he spoke no English but called out his boss from the next room. This man spoke some English and was kind enough to take us all the way to the freight railway station, which was a ten minute walk away. There he spoke to the clerk and let us know that the bikes will be unloaded, and we should come tomorrow morning to pick them up. Communication was not good enough to get more details. As we were leaving, we hear “Hi guys, where are you from?” and we are promptly introduced to Ilya, a couch surfer who says he works here near the railway station. He double checked with the clerk for us that the train is indeed coming tomorrow and we should not worry about the disembarkation of our stuff. We arranged to have dinner with him tonight.

Afterwards Jerome bought a Russian SIM card so that we could more easily call people and have internet access, it seems my Swisscom SIM does not work totally reliably here.

Now we will try to do some sightseeing in this place.

Here are some photos from the sightseeing. I also added another post about the train trip with photos.

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Sept. 9

We arrived with the train at midnight in Chelyabinsk, and checked into the hotel closest to the train station. We have not had the opportunity to shower since we left Irkutsk so we’ll start with that. Tomorrow we will try to figure out how to repossess our bikes.

Sept. 6

Note: I also updated the previous two posts with photos, please go back and check them out!

We got up at half past six this morning and walked to the train station, where we embarked on a single-wagon tourist train headed for lake Baikal. The on-train entertainment alternated between live Russian language commentary and Russian language DVDs about the lake. From the DVDs we learned things such as Moose can not only swim in the lake but they also dive(!), and that the cute seals from the lake make excellent pets.

The train stopped at select places on the tracks for about 15 minutes each time and we got to get out and take pictures. At one spot we went down to the water, and to my surprise a number of the tourists stripped and went for a swim in the cold water which probably was around seven degrees Celsius. Later the train was abandoned in favor for a boat, and then a bus in turn, which brought us back.

The best part however were again the people. The crowd consisted of assorted Russian tourists, three older Finnish gentlemen who traveled all this way from Helsinki by train, and ourselves. Teppo, a very sympathetic man born in ’44 with biceps of steel spoke English, and told us about how we used to teach road construction to Russians, and how he is now a knife smith. He helped create a wonderful mood on the train, and in fact everyone was sharing their food and drink that they brought along… we also got generous helpings of sausage, tea, vodka and Russian liqueur. The people took turns singing in Russian and Finnish until we arrived back at the hotel in the evening.

What made us even more happy was the news I received from Rostislav when we returned: He is asking us to show up at the train station with our bikes tomorrow, so it seems that there will be a train for us!

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Sept. (Updated with Photos!)

We tried to use our time wisely, being stuck in Irkutsk. In the morning we did a tour of all the nearby churches; took photos. We also visited the Volkonsky House-Museum, the restored manor where he spent his exile from St. Petersburg.

In the afternoon we signed up for a whole day tour to the northern shore of Lake Baikal, taking place tomorrow, to give this #1 local attraction another chance. 🙂

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Sept. 4 (Updated with Photos!)

In the morning we walked to the main station. We found the freight office just like it was described with photos in this horizons unlimited forum post. We even found Rostislav, just as described. We communicated over google translate, and he told us that there was a train going to Chelyabinsk on Sunday; however, because of the recent flooding in the east of the country, a lot of the freight wagons were stuck there, so the logistics company is operating with a fraction of its normal capacity. They could not guarantee us space on the train. They would only know by Saturday if our bikes will fit.

This news caused quite some consternation. We thanked Rostislav for his kind help and proposed to invite him for dinner as thanks. We agreed to meet at 6 PM after he is done with work.

We left to take a cab to the hotel and then have lunch at a Sushi restaurant where we discussed our options. We were initially not even sure if we understood everything correctly. I mentioned to the sushi waitress who spoke a bit of English that we were having this language problem at the train station. She asked her boss and said that she was able to take time off to come along and help translate! We decided that this was not needed, but I was seriously impressed by this degree of helpfulness that would have been completely unheard of in Europe.

The fact is that if the train has capacity, we will be in Chelyabinsk by next Tuesday. If the train does not have capacity, we may have to wait up to a week for the next train with exactly the same uncertain prospects for capacity…which is definitely not a good idea. The alternative is to ride the bikes ourselves to Chelyabinsk, which would take maybe 8 or 9 days depending on the weather and our toughness. In other words some days longer than the train, even if we leave immediately.

Jerome is an optimist, so he thinks that the train will have capacity, and so we should wait until Saturday to hear about capacity. I am a pessimist, so I would prefer not risking that there is no capacity and losing 3 days by waiting. Also, I am thinking that this is supposed to be a rally, so it is somewhat disgraceful to take the train, even if it can potentially help our schedule. But neither of us wants to split up, so we made the compromise of waiting until Saturday, and then starting to ride if the word is that there is no capacity.

In the afternoon we went to a hardware store to get more wire and fasteners, and I re-mounted my backpacks on the bike i a way that was both rock solid and will no longer reach the tarmac in corners.

We were concerned that at our dinner party in the evening we will not be able to communicate with Rostislav very much. We ended up finding a Czech couchsurfer online named Vladimir who also arrived in Irkutsk yesterday … except he got here from Vladivostok by hitchhiking(!). In fact before then he hitchhiked his way through Thailand and China. And the best part is that he spoke fluent Russian and Czech. We invited him as well. At 6:30 PM (damn rush hour traffic) we collected Rostislav and went shopping with him. We then went down to his ‘Dacia’ (which was exactly like a Schrebergarten in Zurich), made a fire, and grilled and drank until 2 AM or so, having an excellent time, which made the thought of having to camp out here for more days a little bit more bearable for me.

P.S.: I started getting spam comment posts on the site recently, so I installed a spam filter. You should not have to worry about this, but if for some reason your comments are not showing up, please email me and I will try to fix it.

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Sept. 3

Last night we watched “The Long Way Round”, the documentary where Ewan Mc.Gregor and a friend of his film themselves as they drive on motorbikes from London to Magadan. They have two support vehicles, a camera man, and his celebrity status to help them. Otherwise they suffer through similar situations as we did so far. And they also cheat by putting their poorly chosen super heavy motorbikes on trains and trucks to get through the particularly challenging bits.

We tied my metal frame backpacks to my bike’s luggage rack after the hotel breakfast this morning and rode off toward the Baikal Lake. The backpacks held up well, though we mounted them a bit low, so I had to go extra slow in the corners so as not to scrape them on the asphalt. This will have to be improved upon. The weather was chilly in the morning but by the afternoon the sun came out and it turned into a very nice ride; the road was perfect save for a few rough bits.

The lake was a bit disappointing. It is interesting to note that this is pretty much exactly what Mc.Gregor says about it in his film when he goes to see it. Basically it is an enormous and completely wild lake. But because it is so huge one can not really appreciate its size; it is larger than what is comprehensible. It might as well be the ocean. What is off-putting is that it is very hard to get to. There are railroad tracks between the road and the lake, and one has to search hundreds of km-s of coastline for the odd spot where there is a tunnel under the railroad tracks that is not flooded with water, such that one can go under the tracks and walk down to the lake. I do have a few photos of the lake itself and the forests and the railroad tracks which I will add tomorrow. It was really very scenic in a few places though I doubt I have captured it very well — there are probably far better pictures on the internet already.

There are of course a number of villages along the shore, but most of them are inhabited by extremely impoverished people who probably have very little appreciation for how scenic their environment is, and I am pretty sure they very rarely desire to go down to the lake shore. Instead most of them seem to try to sell suspect looking fruits and vegetables to passing motorists.

Really, it is just industrial railway dock yards surrounded by shanty towns. Admittedly, many of the hovels have intricately carved window frames, but that is literally just window dressing. I am sure that the couple of scenic buildings one sees in tour guides really exist, but those few buildings being depicted are the ONLY good looking buildings, and 90% of what one sees is simply absolute squalor. I guess I would make a poor ethnographer, but I am not comfortable photographing the homes of really poor people, so I did not.

Anyway, we stopped over lunch at a conveniently uninhabited stretch of lake shore, and ate some cans of fish with cookies … the same stuff we always eat when we’re between hotel rooms. That was around 3pm. We then set out to drive on until we find a nice camping spot, but by then the sun was shining so much and the road was so nice we did not stop riding until we arrived in Irkutsk around 8 PM. There we checked into a hotel room, because the one thing better than camping out at lake Baikal is not having to camp at lake Baikal. Sorry if this disappoints our dear audience, but sometimes a hot shower and a warm meal is really hard to beat, even by the largest freshwater lake on earth.

Tomorrow we will try to figure out this Trans Siberian Railroad thing, and maybe visit some museums here.

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Sept. 2

It is raining today. We decided to learn from our mistakes and not go biking and camping in the rain again. So we extended the reservation at the hotel and will take it easy today.

I am sure our dear readers have noticed that we are not making progress very fast. 🙂 Jerome figured out a back up plan, which is to put our bikes on the trans-Siberian railway in Irkutsk. We are not completely sure where it will take us yet, probably to Moscow. In any case it should let us recover the lost time, and it should be an experience in itself.

I am in touch over Facebook with Rostislav in Irkutsk, a couch surfer and very kind employee of the Russian railways, who I hope will help us execute this plan.

Update: Of course as soon as I extended our hotel reservation by a day, the rain stopped. The weather is clearly playing games with us.

We went for some sightseeing again, and changed more money. I also got some locally made ear rings for my wife. They are in this retro style that she is fond of, except here it does not count as retro, its what people still wear. The storekeeper told me they have a kind of Nephryte that can only be found in Buryatia. I hope she will like them.

I also made this video for my son, I hope he likes it:

Here are some more pictures from the sight seeing:

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