I was trying to think of something witty to call this post, but I think Greg's already used "From Russia With Love". And there's only so many Bond movie titles to go around.
(By the way, I've also updated Mongolia, so be sure to scroll down and read that first!)
We arrived in Irkutsk early Saturday morning, after another interminable train journey. Actually, the trains are not so bad, it's the ridiculous amount of time doing the border crossings that really gets right on your raving titties. We thought five-and-a-half hours from China into Mongolia was bad - that was a cakewalk compared to getting into Russia. We arrived at the border at 4am Friday, but everyone was still asleep. So the Mongolia checks didn't begin until 9am. Then the Russian checks didn't start until about midday. It was close to 4pm when we finally got on our merry way again.
What helps to pass the time is watching the amazing amounts of racketeering going on before you. When we first boarded the train in U-B, we chucked out a bag of something, as well as some boxes of kitchen scales. That really pissed off the stewardesses, as it was part of their stash that they were taking into Russia, no doubt to sell at high mark-ups. The passengers were in on it too - we had to stop a woman who wanted us to hide a boxful of cheap cigarettes above our sleepers. No thanks, lady, we don't want to get stung with the import tax when the Russians do their searches!
It was crazy - one guy was standing near the toilet at the back of our carriage trying to flog fake sneakers; women kept walking up and down with far too many denim jackets to be their own; and in one cabin people were taping packets of cigarettes under the tables to try to hide them!
Anyway, after everyone got through Customs unscathed - we assume bribery was involved! - we headed into the Land of Bears and eventually arrived Irkutsk at 7:30am Saturday. Our guide was a young student named Kostya. Our first stop was a pharmacy, as Andrew needed some bandages for his hand (see last post). I also had a desperate need for a more personal medication - I don't like to be obvious, but if I say it was a common feminine complaint I think most people will get the idea. ;) After embarrassing Kostya (the poor guy's studying medicine but didn't appear to have taken "Feminine Hygiene 101" yet), I employed some rather creative mime to try to get across to the Russian chemist what I wanted. She eventually pinging when I started yelling "Diflucan!" at her. Thank God, they stocked it, and I happily shelled out the 400 rubles (about $20) for that beautiful little pill. ;)
We continued onto Lake Baikal, which breaks more records than Ian Thorpe on steroids. It's the world's oldest lake, it's the deepest, it holds 20% of the world's freshwater supplies. And it is stunning. We only saw a small part from the village where we stayed, but we did take a fun boat ride out to the famous Shaman rock in the Angara river, which is the only river to flow OUT of the Lake (all the others flow into it). Greg, Phil and our guide Kostya also braved the cold to have a quick dip in the Lake, which they reported back as "goolie-shrinking cold". Karen, Andrew and I went in up to our knees - it was very crisp but I was happy the rest of me was esconsed in a fleece!
Saturday night saw us have a traditional Russian "banya" or sauna. We got whipped with the birch leaves and everything - it was very relaxing. However with my recent head cold I've been easily overcome by heat recently, so I had to make a break for the cool room pretty early on. I thought Greg would have trouble with the sauna as he's not good with heat, but he enjoyed it too.
Lake Baikal's been a refreshing break from the repetiveness of the train, and has given us a bit of energy ahead of the upcoming encounters with Moscow and St Petersburg. I would recommend it to all travellers. Keep in mind though this IS Siberia, and it's cold. Yes, even in summer!
And now, off to the train for four days! The others have gone to buy games so we don't go stark-raving mad, and I think a toga night has been planned. I'll keep you posted!