It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas... That's the song that's been going through my head for the last two days. Seeing the snow thick on the ground and hanging heavy on the branches of trees and a pleasant grey-white haze to the air just makes me think of all those American Christmas movies.
Not sure what I last wrote about so will start from the birthday dinner back in Listvyanka. It was John from my group and Tim from the other group who celebrated birthdays on the same day. We went to one of the local cafe's which barely fit the 22 (both groups plus honcho) of us but they managed well even with the language barrier. The decor was very 1970's and had a feel similar to Kuma's cafe on Orange Grove Rd for anyone who has been there - imagine decorated glass tables, plastic chairs and a lovely glass light feature that hung from the roof with rotating illuminated flowers on it!
The food was beautiful though - I had a raw Omul (fish only found in Lake Baikal) salad, followed by chicken stuffed with apricots, prunes and pinenuts and then some dark Russian chocolate to finish off. Following the dinner I braved the walk back to the lakehouse - 15mins in minus 36, and regretted every step. Should have just waited for the cab - but I still made it home before the others so there was some reward!
On Monday morning I tried to dry the remaining items of my laundry by the fire before re-packing my backpack which seemed to take forever. I also decided that I needed to brave the cold and go for a walk to take some photos. I had a system going that allowed me to take about 6 photos without my hand being out of my glove for more than 10 seconds at a time, yet still could not feel my fingers and had that unpleasant burning sensation as they slowly defrosted when I entered the posh hotel one last time to escape the cold. Around 2 we caught a bus from the lakehouse back to Irkutsk to catch our train to Moscow. Most of the group wanted to go to the Internet cafe so while they did that, Joe and I went to a German beer hall and had a Russian beer with some garlic cheese toast that was to die for. After a quick bite to eat at the dodgiest fast food joint I have ever been to (everything was reheated in a microwave including the fries!) and a power shop in the supermarket, we headed to the train station. Aside from a plastic bag blowout running along the platform I caught the train without a hitch.
A few things about this leg of the journey:
• It is four nights straight on the train with the longest stop being about 30 minutes in a select few places along the way.
• It's a relatively comfortable train, and like the others, has 4 berth cabins.
• As there are 21 of us with the two groups, we had 5 cabins and one berth in a 6th cabin. One of the couples in our group got split up and had a cry (yep tears and all) and rant about how s*** it was that the group could be split up (I'm no mathistitian, but am not sure how else you divide 4 into 21?) so I put my hand up to go into the cabin with 3 random Russians and have been loving every minute of it!
• Time for my rant now - if you're gonna get that upset about which berth you end up in on a train in a country where you don't speak the language, then don't f***ing travel. Travel is all about random experiences so suck it up and make the most of it. That is all...
• I am actually grateful it has worked out this way as not only has it got me away from the group for a while, it's been a hoot trying to communicate with 3 people who don't speak a word of English when I don't speak a word of Russian. It amazes me how they continue to speak to me in rapid russian in the hope that at some point i will just miraculously understand! Points for persistence! But with the help of a trusty phrasebook, we've discussed family, occupations, where we are going, the weather and where we are from. I even got a private Russian lesson where Veronica (a middle aged woman in my cabin) taught me to tell the time in Russian. It was such fun and so rewarding to work it out together. We will have lesson two tomorrow and pick another topic! As we were finishing, a Russian guy from the next cabin who speaks some English came by and Veronica told him I was an excellent student and she gave me top marks! Gold star for me! Apparently at school in Russia they grade kids on a 1-5 scale where 5 is the best opposed to the A-D scale we use. I was given a 5 today! I will be fluent by the time I get off the train (not quite but will know more than when I got on at least!).
• The other two Russians in my cabin are guys - Olec and Alexander (classic Russian name!) Olec is a bit of an alcoholic chain smoker, but is very affectionate and shakes my hand every time he or I enter the cabin and touches me as he moves past if I'm standing in the hallway. Olec passed out last night and has just done so again tonight! Alexander is a younger guy around 30. He speaks a word or two of English but is pretty quiet and mostly just smiles! Although he did congratulate me when I got the hang of telling the time - I am not sure if he was happy for me or just sick of me trying!
• The difficult part of this leg is the train passes through 5 timezones. So the system the russian's developed is pretty simple - all trains in Russia operate on Moscow time regardless of where they start or stop. Right it is 9.48pm where we physically are, 6.48pm in Moscow and 11.48pm where we got on (1.48am Brisvegas). This makes deciding when to eat and sleep rather interesting so I have also developed a simple system - eat when I am hungry and sleep when tired. It seems to be working so far but may hit a snag when I get to Moscow and am not properly adjusted to their timezone.
• Have already noticed a change in temperature. The photo of me in thongs was taken in minus 21 and it was not actually too bad, although I could feel the cold of the ice on the platform coming up through the rubber of my thongs! The station where we just stopped for half an hour was only minus 17 so I am hopeful the worst is behind me in the temperature record setting stakes.
Well that's enough for today, will post again from somewhere else along the tracks to Moscow.