(James) Hello everyone, sorry we have not kept more up to date, two main reasons, firstly we have been in the middle of nowhere and secondly trying to find an internet cafe has been a mare... anyway, we are now in Beijing, China, so I am going to finish off Irkutsk in Russia.
At the last update we had only just arrived Irkutsk, which we thought was a bit grey and stern along with its inhabitants. That evening we had a meal at the hotel and both ate a Horse steak along with a fish soup containing Umal (local Baikal fish tasting a bit like trout) which was nice, although I think mine had more saddle than horse. Mark, the beer ranged from $4 - $12. We we also trying to speak Russian which was a disaster - our waitress however was studying English so she was able to understand us. We asked her if lake Baikal was worth visiting and how to get there as all the information at reception suggested it was going to cost a fortune. In the end we managed to convince her to be our translator for the day in exchange for a day out with a couple of doughnuts.
Before we left a Swiss guy on the next table sneezed himself so much he fell off his chair and pulled down a huge curtain - everyone in the restaurant thought he was having a heart attack, but it was just the wine...
The following morning we met our waitress in reception and she brought her friend who could not speak one word of English. We got a taxi to lake Baikal along some rather rustic roads. I asked the driver to turn up his dance music and the two of us were bopping in the front as my attempt to talk to him had left him bemused.
The scenery around the lake was magnificent with big mountains coming down to the clear blue lake, at the point where the river met the lake you could see the freeze line. The frozen lake was awesome and in many places you could see the ice had frozen several meters below with air bubbles etc (see photos). After having a snowball fight and Ant nearly breaking his ankle showing off we found some quad bikes for rent. We got two bikes and burned up and down the frozen lake for half an hour. We both got told off several times for spinning them around, but what do they expect from 2 lads in charge of quads on ice....?
After spending some time looking around the local market and the village we got a minibus back with a load of angry Russians and a large American who spent the entire trip slagging off Rusia in front of his Russian wife and the rest of the bus - he was even chewing the token toothpick. Of course whatever we had done, he had done it six times better - one of those...
That afternoon as Ant and I were moaning how boring Irkutsk was as a town the two girls showed us the non-tourist part of the town which was far busier. It was really strange, everyone seemed to be in drunken stoopers. They showed us a typical 'Russian Bar', it was the sort of place that has saw dust on the floor - we both had a couple of beers whilst the girls sat looking scared - we started to understand why when people kept falling down the stairs drunk - it was only 4pm...? Even the dogs and cats in the bar looked hammered.
From there we went for some typical Russian food in a sort of Russian Mcdonalds, the food was nice but you had to sit on baby chairs which was bizarre. After that we thanked the girls who made their own way home and we went back to the hotel as we had to get up at 4am to catch the trans-mongolian to Ulaan Bataar (UB)
I hardly slept that night and was woken by two calls, firstly the American from the taxi saying where he planned to stay in UB (I wrote it down to make sure we stayed somewhere else), secondly a Russian to tell me I had been overcharged, and finally at 1am the external coloured flashing hotel lights were coming into our room - I was in such a wig I rang reception and tried to tell them to change their lighting policy - I think it was lost in translation!
That day on the train was long with scenery not changing much other than slowly getting more arid and less green. We got to the Russian border at 11pm and had to fill out about 200 forms having been woken up by power crazed officials in uniforms. As if that was not enough at 1am the same episode was repeated but with Mongolian power crazed officials, again a number of forms had to be completed - by this time I wanted to suggest a range of process improvements but Ant wanted to go to sleep...
b***** - out of time, will write Mongolian blog once we have found a cafe that enables photo upload. Thanks for all your posts J & A x