17 December 2014

Week 117 - THE END!!!!!

Now we’re home and we’ve had a chance to surprise both our families, I can finally stop dropping hints about a fictitious ski season in Austria. The last day of our trip took us from Belgium, back to the UK.

We left the hotel in Bruges earlier than originally intended as we didn’t want to get caught up in any backlog resulting from the Belgian strike. As our hotel was next to the station, we were on the train and on our way to Brussels in no time. After a quick stop in the supermarket, we checked in to the Eurostar departure lounge for the last leg of our journey. Of course, our train was delayed but only by 30 minutes.
Going home, onboard the Eurostar, Brussels.
Onboard we settled in to our seats for the short 2.15hr trip to London. As soon as we left the platform we popped open a bottle of Veuve - for months we’d been saying we’d have champagne on the train to celebrate going home.

We pulled in to London, all smiles for being back in familiar territory and having made it from Hong Kong to the UK without stepping foot on a plane, before jumping on a train to Essex. We spent the next 4 days at my mum’s after surprising her at work, surprising my sister and her family and meeting our nephew who was born while we were away. Passing through Chelmsford on the way back to London we stopped at my grandparents to surprise them.

We then had two days in London, hiding out at Karen’s house where we had a chance to surprise Rhodri, before catching a bus out to Wales.

We arrived in Port Talbot on the 23rd December and had 2 nights to hide so we could turn up on Rhys’s parents doorstep on Christmas morning. Our friend Birdy was kind enough to put us up and keep our secret, waking us up on Christmas morning with presents and a cup of tea in bed.

Birdy drove us over to Rhian and Sean’s house early on Christmas Day to surprise them and to see our niece open her presents and to meet our other nephew who had been born while we were away.

Then we really were on the final leg of our journey to take us full circle, back to Rhys’s parents house. After surprising Ceri and Billy it was time for the traditional Christmas morning open house and the rest of the Kingdom clan popped around. 
Full circle, Rhys back in Baglan outside his parents house.
After 116 weeks on the road it was good to be back, to see family and friends and to be in a house we knew and were comfortable in. It’s amazing how quickly you forget we’ve been away for so long, nothing has changed drastically, we’re just older and wiser. We’re ready to move back to London in the new year, we have jobs and a flat lined up and are looking forward to having our own place filled with our own possession and not having to pack our bags and sit on buses for hours on end. It’s been an incredible trip and the best start to married life we could ever dream of and our memories will be with us for the rest of our lives. We’ve met some amazing people along the way who made the trip what it was and who we will always remember - and who we have no doubt we will bump into again some where, some day. 

Time to start planning our next adventure....!

Week 116 - Berlin, Cologne, Brussels, Bruges (Germany, Belgium)

After a 6 hour sleep in Warsaw it was time to pack up and check out. We were only in Poland in transit and didn’t have time to see any of the city. We took the Metro north to the bus station and found the platform. We had another long journey ahead, a 9 hour drive to Berlin. Again, we were surprised at the border when we weren’t stopped for any kind of passport check but the journey was on time and comfortable, arriving into Berlin at 5:30pm.

We were picked up by our friend Monique at the bus station and beer in hand, jumped on the Metro. We met Monique in Ecuador nearly two years ago and again in Colombia and had kept in touch. We were lucky enough that she offered for us to stay at her flat in the centre of the city and she’s so easy going and chatty that it didn’t feel like it had been nearly two years since we’d last seen her, in fact we were talking so much we got on the Metro going the wrong direction and it took us 20 minutes to notice. 

After dropping off our bags and picking up some groceries for breakfast, we set out to a famous curry wurst stall a couple of Metro stops away. Ever since we met Monique, Rhys has been excited about visiting her in Germany to try curry wurst so it was top of the to do list. We joined the queue and made short work of the sausages before turning to the next stall, a Turkish kebab booth. 

We were surprised to find the extent of Turkish influence in Berlin and to learn that Turkish food has become a Berlin institution. At 5% of the cities population, the Turkish community there is the largest outside of Turkey and it’s really noticeable. In the 1960’s and 1970’s there was a labour shortage in West Germany and a deal was struck with Turkey, inviting immigrants over to fill the void, a lot of the families ended up settling there and staying.

After the best kebab we’ve ever eaten, and with the left overs wrapped up and stuffed in our pockets, we wandered off to find a pub. Another noticeable thing about the city was the lack of bars, there are hundreds and hundreds of restaurants but finding a pub was hard and Monique hasn’t lived in the city long enough to know all the best spots. We ended up in a little wine bar with a huge bottle of wine that we shared while we swapped travel stories (Monique’s trip took her all the way from Patagonia to Alaska). We weren’t out late before walking back to her flat, looking forward to getting a good nights sleep after our long journey.

Monique skipped uni the next day to study from home so we left her to it and followed her directions out to the Eastside Gallery, within walking distance of her flat. The gallery is a 1.3km stretch of the Berlin Wall that has been left to stand as a memorial. The section of the wall is covered in graffiti works by internationally renowned artists but is in a bad state of disrepair with erosion and tagging covering the original works. 
Painted section of the Berlin Wall in the Eastside Gallery, Berlin.
We were quite shocked with the sheer amount of tagging covering every inch of wall space throughout the entire city, it’s like nothing we’ve seen anywhere else and it’s a real shame to see brand new buildings covered in scribbles. The wall itself is a humbling sight, it stood for 28 years from 1961 to 1989, dividing Berlin and surrounding the West of the city, then part of West Germany. East Germany claimed it was built to protect it’s people from fascist ideas when in practice it acted more to stop mass emigration and defection from East to West.

It started raining while we were out so we didn’t stay long before walking back to Monique’s where instead of studying she’d been sitting procrastinating. Along with the curry wurst, when we’d met Monique in South America, we’d promised to cook her Shepherds Pie one day and this seemed the perfect opportunity. While I prepared the meal to heat up later, Rhys cracked open the vodka. We ended up sitting around playing cards chatting until dark when we finally got ourselves ready to head out to a Christmas market.

As we arrived at the Gendarmenmarkt the heavens opened and we ducked in to a hat stall to try on hats and wait it out, before finding a covered area to stand with a mug of mulled wine. It was a beautiful market, all lit up with fairy lights and surrounded by classical, columned buildings, the Concert Hall and the French and German Cathedrals. After a few mugs of warming mulled wine and hundreds of cheese, pate and saucisson samples (Monique’s great at getting samples!), we headed back to the flat for dinner with Monique’s housemate, Jutta. The shepherds pie seemed to go down well and instead of heading out we decided to stay in the warmth of the flat, playing cards and eating Monique’s homemade biscuits.
Rhys and Monique at the Gendarmenmarkt, Berlin.
We slept late again the next morning before sitting down with a map for Monique to give us pointers on where to spend our tourist sightseeing day. We left the flat together and first stopped at a Turkish market near Monique’s flat. Berlin was surprisingly cheap and we ended up buying yet more fabric. The food stalls looked immense but we’d had another enormous cheese, ham and fresh bread breakfast at Monique’s and couldn’t fit anything more in.

After the market, Monique headed to work while me and Rhys went in to the city to tick off the main sights, the cathedral, the 1791 Brandenburg Gate, the government offices at the Reichstag (although we couldn’t get tickets to go in) the Victory Monument (which we climbed for views of the city) and the Holocaust Memorial, a city square filled with standing concrete slabs with a museum underneath. We’d thought to take in a museum or two but ended up walking miles and before we knew it, it was getting late and starting to get dark and it was threatening to rain.
Sculptures on the riverside by the Cathedral, Berlin.
Me at the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin.
Holocaust Memorial, Berlin.
We’d arranged to meet Monique from work so after a quick stop back at the flat we headed out to the main shopping street. Although we hadn’t left enough time to explore to see the lights, it was still very festive. Monique finished on time and we jumped back on the Metro to head to a Dim Sum restaurant on the outskirts of the city. Monique’s housemate was moving out the following day and had invited us to tag along to her leaving meal. The Dim Sum was delicious and Jutta and Monique’s friends were really friendly and welcoming. It was a shame that we had another early bus the following day and couldn’t join them afterwards for drinks.

We jumped on the Metro back to Monique’s and climbed in to be just before midnight. The next morning we were up and out early with Monique popping out to say goodbye with promises of seeing us again in the near future. It was an easy trip back to the bus station (although Rhys was a little heart broken because we thought the trip to Berlin was our last bus trip and we’d be able to stick to trains from here on in, and then we realised the trains in Germany cost a bomb and we’d have to bus it and we assume Austria will be the same).

The journey was long and drawn out and we were delayed by an hour and a half as there were road closures just as we got close to Cologne. Karen was flying in from the UK to join us in Cologne and typically bad timing, London airspace had closed the previous evening and we hadn’t heard if it had reopened in time for her flight. Luckily her flight had taken off. We’d rented an apartment through airbnb and Karen had managed to pick up the keys and get a couple of hours nap as she hadn’t been to bed since her office Christmas party the night before. She was fresh faced and ready to start the wine when we walked in the door and we spent a couple of hours chatting and catching up in the flat. 

We’d lured Karen to Cologne with promises of mulled wine and Christmas markets and just as night was falling we jumped on a train to the centre of the city, wearing our new Christmas jumpers that Karen had bought for us. Ró, who we’d completed the EBC trek with had been to Cologne a few days previous and we’d joked about her leaving a note for us somewhere to find. We’d received instructions, something about a run in with a priest, a EUR5 note and a Roman arch and were intrigued to see if the letter was still there. We couldn’t believe it when we found it, tucked in to a hole in a brick with a little present as a reminder of the trek. We had a quick walk around the cathedral market and took hundreds of photos of the gothic cathedral towering overhead, looking quite eerie in the twilight with some of the most amazing gargoyles you could ever imagine, before retiring to a German beer house for Kolsch and to excitedly read Ró and Una’s note.
Rhys posing with Ró's message at the Roman Gate, Cologne.
Kolsch is a Cologne tradition, a really pale German ale served in tiny 200ml glasses by barmen who walk around with trays full of fresh beer and as soon as you finish a glass they replace it. We were all pretty tired so we didn’t stay for long and as soon as we got back to the flat, Rhys fell in to bed fully dressed while me and Karen stayed up chatting and making mini Christmas trees.

We all slept late the next day and enjoyed breakfast in the flat. By the time we headed back in to the city it was lunch time. We started back at the Cathedral Market and bought tickets for the Christmas Market Train. The train drove a route with 4 stops showing us the best of the markets without us having to bother navigating around the city, and it was pretty funny sitting in a little train, in traffic, listening to Christmas songs when we could easily have walked it quicker - in fact we gave up on the train at the end. The first market it took us to, in the Old Town, practically joined on to the back of the Cathedral Market and was by far and away the best market with little log cabins and gnomes scattered across the roofs. 
Cologne Cathedral in the daylight, Cologne.
Old Town Christmas market, Cologne.
Karen making one of her hundreds of purchases, Cologne.
Rhys and Karen looking suitably festive on the Christmas train, Cologne.
We’d made an error in deciding to do the markets on a Sunday and it was hellishly busy, we could barely move and you didn’t stand a chance of getting close to any of the stalls. We managed to fight our way to the front of the mulled wine stall and Karen elbowed her way in to a meat on a stick grill.

Our next train stop was at the harbour by a chocolate factory by which point we’d had enough mulled wine to loosen the purse strings and Karen ended up with bags and bags full of Christmas goodies. We had one more market to visit, the Angel market in the New Town, which was pretty small and it didn’t take long to complete a circuit. 

By then we were cold through and ready for a sit down, retiring to an Irish bar to warm up. We ended up spending the whole night in the bar, only popping back out to the markets for dinner and sausages. After a night time sneak through an empty market, we jumped on a train back to our side of the city, or to what we thought was our side of the city. It was the wrong train and we ended up in the middle of nowhere with no cash and no idea how to get back to the flat. Finally we found a taxi and jumped in.

The next morning was another late start. After breakfast we had to hand the keys back and we took our luggage to the main train station to check it in to the amazing self service luggage machines. We then had the whole day to explore the city. Done with the markets, we decided to check out the inside of the cathedral and climb the bell tower. After hundreds of steps, we were ready for a sit down and ended up back in the same Irish pub. Karen had one thing left she wanted to do while in Germany, eat schnitzel. Not wanting to disappoint, we found a little restaurant and ducked in for dinner before it was time to collect our bags. Karen headed of to the airport for her flight back to he UK while me and Rhys waited for our train platform to be called.
Inside Cologne Cathedral.
We made our way to the platform only to be told the train was delayed. And then, that the train was only going one stop and wouldn’t be continuing in to Belgium, as Belgium was on a nationwide strike and no transport was running in the entire country. Apparently there have been strikes going on for a while but the train company didn’t think it necessary to email us to tell us our prebooked ticket was affected. We were told over the speaker to head to the bus station where there would be people to help us and a bus waiting. Of course, there was no bus and we ended up running around for 15 minutes desperate to find someone to help us. We ended up on a bus where our ticket wasn’t valid but they agreed to take us and settled in for the drive, expecting there to be some kind of replacement bus in Brussels to take us the rest of the way to our destination, Bruges. 

We arrived in Brussels to find the station on lock down. After walking around for ages while the clock neared midnight, we found a staff member who laughed in our face when we asked about a bus. Our first impressions of Belgium hadn’t been good. We had no option but to find a hotel for the night, despite already having one booked in Bruges. Luckily, as no one could get in or out of Brussels, the hotels were empty and we found a decent room for EUR64 for the night. 

The next morning we woke to blue skies and as we were next to the station could hear the sound of trains running. Hopeful, we walked to the station and had to buy a new ticket to get us to Bruges. The journey was only an hour and we checked in to our hotel and were ready to head out and explore in time for lunch.

Our hotel was located a short way out of town but we’d picked up a map with walking routes highlighted that would take us around to see the main touristy areas and some of the many churches. Instantly we liked the place, it’s a pretty little town with cobbled streets and tall skinny buildings lining canals and waterways, a bit like Amsterdam but smaller. The historical centre is pretty compact and walkable and we spent a couple of hours wandering the streets, crisscrossing the canals and seeing some of the windmills on the ring road. The streets were filled with tourists and horse drawn carts with winding narrow alleyways lined with chocolate shops and lace makers, leading to towering church spires and beautiful squares. It truely was one of the prettiest towns we’ve been to.
Exploring Bruges.
A typical street in Bruges.
After a couple of hours and a bratwurst at a Christmas market, Rhys wandered back to the hotel to chill while I carried on exploring for a couple of hours. As the sun started to drop I stopped at a tea room above a chocolate shop for an incredible giant mug of hot chocolate that came as hot milk and solid dark chocolate to melt in it.
Bruges on the riverfront.
Bruges, canalside.
As we’d had a hard journey the previous day we decided to treat ourselves and after a bottle of fizz in a bar we wandered around until we found a Belgian restaurant with a great three course meal offer. Plates of delicious flemish stew and chocolate mousse later and we were content. Back out in the cold we passed the night market where everyone was in good spirits and we stopped for a final mulled wine before bed.

10 December 2014

Week 115 - Moscow, Riga, Vilnius, Warsaw (Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland)

We woke in our tiny Moscow room and wrapped up as best we could ready to face the subzero temperatures outside. We really weren’t prepared for the weather and had to wear two pairs of trousers, two T-shirts and two jumpers each. Once outside we walked back towards the city centre with the intention of visiting the Kremlin. As we hadn’t had a chance for breakfast, we spied a cheap deal in an American diner and popped in. 

By the time we reached Red Square, it was nearly lunchtime. The Aleksandrovsky gardens were closed for a military parade where carnations were laid at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier (where the body of a soldier who fought in the battle of 1941, that stopped the German advance on Moscow, is buried), so we circled around by the road to the Kremlin ticket office. Luckily we’d made it in time to buy tickets for the 12:30 slot at the Armoury and had to rush over to join the queue at one of the corner towers to pass through security. The Armoury chamber is a small museum housing an incredible collection of Tsar bling, from golden goblets to diamond encrusted thrones, ornate helmets and beautifully engraved weapons, with a small and slightly disappointing collection of Fabergé eggs. Our tickets allowed us an hour, wandering from room to room before it was time to exit and head over to the main Kremlin entrance.

The Kremlin is the heart of Moscow and the seat of the Russian government. It’s a walled citadel that houses senate buildings as well as a number of cathedrals, built over several centuries and in a mixture of styles. It’s all a bit strange when you enter as there aren’t many signs and no obvious route. We got shouted at by a guard for crossing the road not at a designated crossing point and decided to play it safe and head straight to the central square to see the golden domes of the 15th century cathedrals. We stopped to explore the Cathedral of the Assumption, the traditional place for the coronation of Russian Tsars, the Cathedral of the Archangel Michael, a burial chapel for the Tsars, and the Cathedral of the Annunciation, the Tsars private chapel. All were gloriously decorated with every inch of wall space painted and gilded.
Rhys and the Tsar Cannon, Kremlin, Moscow.
Ivan the Great Bell Tower, Kremlin, Moscow.
We had time to stop by the Palace of the Patriarch (the head of the Russian church) and to see the 200 tonne Tsar Bell, the heaviest in the world, and the huge Tsar Cannon, the largest calibre cannon in the world, before heading back out to Red Square. Most buildings in the Kremlin aren’t open to the public and even those that were were eerily quiet.

The sun started to drop as we wandered over to Red Square, passed Lenin’s Mausoleum (although he didn’t seem to be home), to see St Basils Cathedral in the light and to wander around it’s mazelike corridors. As it was cold, we decided to detour through the GUM shopping arcade, a glass roofed pavilion containing row after row of high end shops before walking back towards the hostel. Popping out again later to brave the cold for dinner in a nearby pub.
St Basil's Cathedral at dusk, Moscow.
Walking around Moscow it’s clear that there’s a lot more money there than elsewhere in Russia, every other car is either a Mercedes, a BMW or a Maserati and the streets are lined with elegant boutiques and restaurants - average wages are 6 to 20 times higher than cities in Siberia. 

We had to check out of our room the next day but our bus wasn’t due to leave until late that night. We put our bags in storage and wandered over to see the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, on the riverfront. The route took us along side the Kremlin to a junction where we were stopped by police and sent back to walk the other way around the block where it was impossible to cross the road and we had to find a whole new route walking through a metro station - crossing roads in Moscow is a right palava, you either have to wait for 10 minutes for the traffic lights to change or walk miles to try and find a crossing point. The building is a 1997 replica of an earlier cathedral that had stood on the same spot, but that was bulldozed by Stalin to make way for a Soviet Palace, a project that never came to fruition. 
Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow.
By this point, we were close to the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts and decided to pop in to the 19th - 20th Century European and American Gallery. I was keen to see the collection of Impressionist and Post Impressionist works it held and although a lot of the rooms were closed, it was well worth the visit, and gave us a chance to thaw out in the warmth.
Rhys admiring a Monet in the Pushkin Galleries, Moscow.
Our last stop of the day was ‘The Arbat’, a pedestrianised street that my guide book described as ‘one of Moscows best loved streets’ and that we thought would work to pass an hour or two. We were disappointed to find all it offered were rows of shops selling tourist tat at extortionate prices, stalls selling oil paintings and horrific caricatures and a few chain restaurants. We were getting hungry so stopped for lunch at a smart little grill before catching the metro back to our hostel, passing a supermarket where we bought cheap Russian vodka to take with us in to Latvia. 

We still had a little over an hour to waste before leaving to find the bus station and ended up in the basement kitchen, counting down the minutes. Finally, it was time to leave and we grabbed our bags and headed out in to the cold. We enjoyed Moscow, it had a real buzz and some architectural gems, random buildings on street corners and wide avenues punctuated by the Stalin ‘Seven Sisters’, giant Soviet style skyscrappers.

The metro got us to the bus stop with plenty of time. As it wasn’t a bus station, just a layby, we walked over to the bus companies office to check we were in the right place, then had an hour of sitting on a cold wall in the dark until the bus pulled up. 

It was a decent journey after we’d worked out how to make Rhys’s seat recline and the bus was of a good standard despite us having the only seats where the screens in the seat backs didn’t work. The further we got from Moscow and the closer to Latvia, the more windy the roads became. We were expecting a motorway but we found ourselves on rough country roads. We were both feeling a little queasy and ended up taking Rhys’s super strength sea sickness tablets and had both managed to sleep before we reached the border at 4am. 

The border guards weren’t too impressed with Rhys’s passport for some reason but after a quick phone call and some discussion they signaled us through. Finally we were back in the Eurozone where our magical EU passports give us a right of passage. For the first time in two years and over 30 countries, we no longer had to feel apprehensive when crossing borders. 

Back on the bus, we still had a fair old drive until we reached Riga. We arrived just after 9am and consulted our map for the short walk to the hostel. Tim was due to fly in to meet us after lunch and we took the opportunity to nap and freshen up in our room.

Rhys was still in bed when Tim arrived and bundled on the bed to wake him. It had been 8 1/2 months since we’d seen him last and we had lots of catching up to do. We cracked open a bottle of the Russian vodka and spent a few hours chatting in the comfort of our room before changing to head out in to Riga Old Town.

Our hostel wasn’t far from the city wall and it didn’t take long to find an Aussie Pub i’d read about that had great reviews. It was nearly dark when we went out and it wasn’t until we checked our watches that we realised it was still only 4pm. After a game of foosball and pints of cranberry beer and super sweet cider, we continued to find a new pub. The old town was packed with souvenir shops, boutiques, bars and restaurants and every hundred metres, the windy cobbled streets opened in to another square headed by a church with a towering spire, filled with Christmas markets and Christmas trees.
St Peter's Church, Riga.
We had cups of mulled wine, peered into strange brews in huge cauldrons, chatted to a few locals (Latvian people are so friendly and they seem to like British accents) and found ourselves in a British pub where we ducked in to get out of the cold. By that point we were starting to get hungry and spent forever walking around trying to find a restaurant that was on the cheaper side but offered Latvian food. Struggling, we ended up at a pizza restaurant. Calling it a night, I jumped in a taxi back to the hostel. The boys followed me back shortly after.

The next day we were late to rise and only made it down to breakfast just before it was tidied away. The kitchen was hectic but the breakfast spread was one of the best we’ve seen in a long time (although a hostel buffet was below Tim whose preference was for a MacDonalds). We decided we should explore Riga a bit before going to a bar and headed in to the Old Town, map in hand to explore the twisting alleyways and the photogenic buildings, stopping to buy hot cider at the Christmas markets. It was much colder than the previous day and a light rain followed by freezing temperatures had turned the cobblestones in to treacherous passages. Tim had swanky boots on without an ounce of grip and spent most of the day literally skating down the roads yet I was the only one who actually managed to fall over, right in the middle of a square for the whole of Riga to see.
Rozena Street, Riga, where you can apparently touch both sides, but only if you have ridiculously long arms.
Rhys and Tim with warm cider in Riga Old Town.
After leaving the Old Town, we wandered north to the Art Nouveau district. The city has the largest and most impressive showing of art nouveau architecture in Europe with more than 750 buildings adorned with gargoyles, nymphs and goddesses. We didn’t spend long in the area as the wind had picked up and it was starting to get too cold to explore. Tim popped in to a pipe shop and came out with a new cigar and after walking the length of Alberta Street, we circled back to Elizabetes and the KHL Sports Bar, in the basement of the Radisson hotel. After asking the hotel manager a couple of times where the door was we realised it had two names and was closed for 15 minutes. We braved the sleet outside and found a cute little coffee shop where Tim was manly enough to drink the espresso that arrived instead of my cappuccino. By then, the bar was open and we settled in to a nook with leather couches and a huge flat screen TV for pints of cherry flavoured beer.
Art Nouveau building on Alberta Street, Riga.
We watched some football and a bit of rugby over lunch before realising they didn’t have the channel with the Spurs game on and deciding instead to relocate to the hotels roof top bar, the Skyline. By then it was dark and the lights of the city, including hundreds of Christmas lights, were twinkling below. Tim went to the bar and reappeared with a bottle of Taittinger as a special treat. For a minute, we forgot how scummy we are at the moment and instead just enjoyed the light show in the classy bar with our glassed of champers.
Champers courtesy of Tim in the Skyline Bar, Riga.
We decided to make a stop back at the hostel to freshen up before walking back into the Old Town for an evening of bar hopping. To not make the same mistake as the previous night, we started by searching for a restaurant and ended up at a lovely traditional Latvian place. We’d arranged to meet a friend of a friend in town and were a little disheartened when they text to say they were in TGI’s, since we’d seen hundreds of beautiful little wine bars and pubs during our day time exploration. We weren’t in TGIs long before they called last orders and along with our two new Latvian friends we walked around the corner to a Cinema Bar, again, not one of the cute bars we’d seen in the day. We didn’t stay for long before we twigged our new friends had only wanted to meet us because being British, they assumed we had money and wanted us to treat them all night. Ditching them, we ended up in a British pub again, for a final drink before again, last orders were called and we realised the city was closing for the night. After a cold walk back to the hostel, we climbed in to bed at about 3:30am.

Tim had a 11am flight and was up and dressed and out of the hostel in no time, leaving a trail of promises to visit us in Austria in a couple of months. We’d had an epic couple of days but were tired and shaky from lack of sleep and excessive alcohol. Nevertheless, after breakfast, we checked out and wandered out to find a flea market that was highlighted on our tourist map. When we got there we were surprised to find rows of tatty market stalls selling mostly second hand TV remotes and old tools. We left quickly and walked to the Central Market, a much better find. The market is located in four adjacent warehouses that resemble aircraft hangars and is full to bursting with all kinds of food stuff, fresh fruit and veg, cured meats, smoked fish, cheeses, dried nuts and pulses and piles and piles of pickled, grated cabbage. 

By then it was time to walk back to the hostel to pick up our bags and head to the bus station. The bus left on time and this time our seat screens even worked. The journey to Vilnius was due to take 4 1/2 hours and when we left Riga the sky was turning blue, having been white and full of snow for the duration of our stay. We arrived 30 minutes early and hadn’t even realised when we’d crossed the border. We had a vague map to get us to our hostel and after a few wrong turns, found the main road leading through the Old Town. We’d booked a dorm bed to save a bit of cash and found we were sharing with an odd Russian boy. 

We were both pretty shattered and it was already dark when we arrived. We dropped off our bags and headed straight out to find somewhere easy for a quick dinner before bed.

We were woken the next day by our strange Russian room mate and spent the morning drinking coffee in the common room. Just before lunch, we donned our coats, grabbed a map and went out to see what the city had to offer. Rhys came to Lithuania for his stag do and although they stayed in a different city, they spent a day in Vilnius, shooting guns and working up a thirst on a communal beer bike. Despite that (or probably because of that), Rhys didn’t recognise a thing in the city so it didn’t feel like he was just revisiting somewhere he’s already been.

We walked to the Cathedral Square, near our hostel before climbing up the Gediminas’ tower on a hilltop at the south of the old town to see the view. It was a shame it was so foggy as there are literally hundreds of cathedrals scattered throughout the city and we could barely make half of them out. Walking back down towards our hostel, we made a photo stop at the red brick St Anne and Bernadine Church Ensemble, before finding ourselves in Uzupio. Uzupio is a bohemian area that, tongue in cheek, declared itself an independent state and posted it’s constitution on a wall in 9 different languages, listing things like ‘everyone has the right to look after a cat’ and ‘everyone has the right to celebrate or not celebrate their birthday’. Compared to the main road running through the Old Town, the buildings in Uzupio were more rustic and run down and we found a lovely little pub on the river for lunch.
The Bell Tower in cathedral square, Vilnius.
St Anne and Bernadine Churches, Vilnius.
Walking back into the centre, we wandered along Literatu Street with some beautiful wall art, before passing the Town Hall with it’s rubbishy Christmas Market and the southern border of the Old Town at the Gate of Dawn. By then we were ready for some apple pie. We struggled to find a coffee shop with apple pie and settled on a shop with rows and rows of calorific cakes in an area known as the Ghetto with quaint cobblestone alleyways.
Walking through the ghetto, Vilnius.
We made one final stop at the Presidential Palace before deciding it was time to head back to the hostel to defrost. It was still in the minuses and we were starting to get fed up of being constantly cold. 

After a couple of hours in the hostel it was time to wake Rhys from his nap to head out for dinner, to a Lithuanian restaurant i’d found on trip advisor. The meal was great value and atmospheric, sitting in a brick vaulted basement, but the Zeppelins (potato dumplings) were extremely heavy and we didn’t stand a chance of finishing them.

The next morning we were woken by our strange room mate clunking around on the wooden floor in his clogs. Neither of us had slept particularly well and we’d hoped for a lie in before our hellish journey to Berlin via Warsaw. We spent the morning drinking coffee in the common area before stopping by the supermarket to pick up lunch and some dinner to eat on the bus. Leaving Rhys in the hostel, I rushed out to squeeze in a visit to the Museum of Genocide Victims in the 2 hours we had before we had to leave for the bus station. The museum is based in the old KGB/Gestapo building and I figured it would be educational to learn a little about the atrocities that happened there, sadly, the museum was closed, I spent a few minutes reading the names of Lithuanian’s who had been executed there on the memorial wall before heading back down the sweeping main shopping avenue Gedimino. With a bit of time left, I turned back in to the Ghetto to wander the twisting cobbled streets. The more time I spent in Vilnius, the more I liked it, the back streets being far more appealing and filled with small wine bars and cake shops, than the repaved high street that cuts through the Old Town.
Back streets of Vilnius.
It was an uphill walk back across town with our bags to reach the bus station where we boarded our 11 hour bus to Poland. We had to change in a small town close to the border but other than that the journey was painless and we arrived on time in Warsaw at just after 11pm. We took a cab straight to our hostel and checked in for the 6 hours until we had to leave again. It was a shame we couldn’t stay longer since the hostel, Oki Doki. looked right up our street.

3 December 2014

Week 114 - Olkhon Island, Yekaterinburg, Vladimir, Moscow (Russia)

Nikitas had managed to arrange for the minibus to collect us at 7am instead of 9:30am, to give us more time to make sure we crossed to the mainland and made our train. That meant that everyone else who was leaving that day (which was everyone but one person, as no one wanted to get stuck on the island if bad weather was rolling in), had to get up early too. We were given a packed lunch and bundled into the van, hoping that the ferry would run. The wind had been fierce in the night and we’d heard it ripping at the roof panels in our cabin, but it seemed to have died down. We still weren’t sure whether it would be enough, the previous day we hadn’t thought the weather was bad at all, nothing compared to some of the crossings we’ve done in other countries and this was a solid car ferry, not a creaky little Indonesian wooden boat.

We drove passed areas of the lake where the ice had advanced a few metres compared to what we’d seen the previous day and suddenly it seemed perfectly reasonable that the whole lake would be completely frozen over in a month. When we got to the ferry there was a queue to board, our driver drove straight to the front and with in no time we were on board and setting out. We clambered out of the van to stand on deck for the crossing. It was absolutely magical. The mist was swirling on the surface of the water and the sun was just starting to rise turning the sky pastel shades of pinks, greys, purples and blues. It was possibly the coldest weather we’ve faced too. Without the sun up to warm us, everything hurt from the cold, fingers, toes, cheeks, even eye balls, it was easily -35C. The Siberian winter was quickly advancing.
Worth getting up early for, sunrise over Lake Baikal from the ferry with swirling mists.
Sunrise over Lake Baikal from the ferry from Olkhon Island.
Back in the van, we huddled together for warmth. Then the radiator kicked in, tucked under the seat in front of me. Before long I was baking. There’s something weird in the way Russian’s feel the need to overheat their indoor spaces when the cold outside is so brutal. You end up going from -30C to +30C every time you step through a door, it’s just so uncomfortably hot.

We made it in to Irkutsk with 3 hours to spare before our train was due to leave. With Melanie, a french girl who’d been staying at Nikitas and had a later train, we jumped on a tram to the train station and dropped our backpacks in the cloakroom. We didn’t really have time to see anything of the city and instead perched in a cafeteria for a quick lunch. Saying goodbye to Melanie, we then had plenty of time to stock up on instant noodles for our 48 hour journey before weaving through the groups of soldiers leaving for their camps and finding empty seats at the station. 

We boarded our train only to find we’d be sharing our cabin with a Russian girl and what we presumed was her father. The cabin was ridiculously hot (the thermometer outside read 28C) and the guy had extremely smelly feet. It wasn’t as bad as our last cabin on the trip to Irkutsk but wasn’t far off. We read for a couple of hours, ate our noodles and tried to get some sleep. Although I slept ok, Rhys ended up taking sleeping tablets in the middle of the night that knocked him out until 11am the next day.
Freezing on a platform, somewhere on the TransMongolian.
The two people in our cabin left us at Krasnoyarsk and a new man climbed aboard. He didn’t smell or snore and spent much of the day out of the carriage so we had a bit of space, the perfect room mate. The heat was oppressive though, there were Australians in the cabin next to ours and they were struggling too, everyone was walking about in shorts and with their shirts off. I tried to ask for the radiators to be switched off but got shouted at and the two lady attendants were quite intimidating and didn’t want to deal with any of us since we didn’t speak a word of Russian. We finally twigged we could insulate the radiator in our room by wrapping our blankets around it, bringing the temperature down a degree or two, but with the thermometre showing 29C, it was still way too steamy for comfort.
Just after we changed room mates, we passed the halfway point from Beijing to Moscow via Mongolia. Although the route took us through a region that had had more snow than in the east, it was a less harsh environment with forests and rivers and the odd village and engine repair depot. At some spots on the route, the snow must have been over a foot deep and it looked quite festive with the branches of the neverending pine trees sagging under the weight.

Rhys jumped off the train at one of the stops to run into a canteen to pick up some lunch, potato filled doughnuts and chicken schnitzels and we stood outside watching the attendants using axes to sheer off the ice that had attached itself to the undercarriage of the train. 

During our second night, the train passed in to the Baraba Steppe, 600km of track passing through bogs and swampland. At this point we were in spitting distance of the Kazakhstan border. The train continued through Omsk, Siberia’s second largest city and on to Tyumen, Siberia’s oldest town, founded in 1586 and now important for the nearby discoveries of oil and gas. In Tyumen, we had one last chance to stretch our legs and cool off in the snow, away from the stifling heat of our carriage.
Cooling off at a station on the TransMongolian.
300km before we reached Yekaterinburg, our destination, we left Siberia and entered the Urals. The train skirted through Talitsa, famous for selling watered down industrial strength alcohol as vodka, then finally we arrived in Yekaterinburg, the largest city in the Urals, 49 hours after leaving Irkutsk.

Yekaterinburg, originally founded to exploit the Ural regions mineral deposits, hit the headlines in the 20th century as the site of the murder of the Romanov family, the location of the U2 affair, and for giving the country Boris Yeltsin. The Romanov family was moved to Yekaterinburg and imprisoned there in a house in April 1918. On 16 July, the Bolshevik government decided the continued existence of the Tsar was too great a threat to them and ordered their execution. Nicholas, Alexandra and their 5 children were marched to the houses’s cellar and murdered, their bodies dumped in a mine shaft on the outskirts of town. The U2 affair followed in 1960, when an American spy plane was shot down and denied by the US despite all the evidence to the contrary.

We jumped off the train, glad to be in the fresh air, and headed towards our hostel. After taking a wrong turn, we found the right block of flats where I had to ask a kind man with his kid to help us find the right building. The hostel was small but modern and would do for an overnight stop.

By the time we were settled in, it was about 3pm and we didn’t have many hours of sunlight left. We were hungry from living on pot noodles and biscuits for the last two days and wandered in to the centre of the city to find an international restaurant i’d read about. We ended up ordering a feast and spending a couple of hours relaxing with a bottle of wine (or two). By the time we left to walk back to the hostel it was dark outside. Rhys has always wanted to walk across a frozen river so we wandered towards the water. Having checked there were foot prints on the ice (if the locals weren’t walking on it, we weren’t), we slid down to the river and trudged through the thick snow covering, zigzagging across the river to the bridge. We scrambled back to the road and wandered back to our room. Although it was early, there wasn’t a whole lot to do and we turned in for the night.
Rhys braving the frozen river, Yekaterinburg.
We stayed in our room until the noon check out to shorten the amount of time we’d have to spend in the cold waiting for our 6pm train. Leaving our bags in the hostel, we walked in to town to see the main sights. After crossing the frozen river again, we found a TGI Fridays, around the corner from the City Administration building, grateful to be able to order lunch hassle free from an English menu. We then walked the length of the pedestrianised street, lined with some bizarre and comical bronze statues, and through a small park with birds and squirrels with extra fluffy ears.
Ice fishing on the river in the centre of Yekaterinburg.
Passed the dam of the city pond, we stopped for photos at a few small church buildings, a statue monument to the city founders and Sevastianov’s House, a green gothic style mansion. By that point, we’d reached the Church on the Blood, consecrated in 2003 and built on the site of the merchants house in which the Romanov’s were murdered, the family having been elevated to the status of saints.
Church on the Blood, the site of the Romanov murder, Yekaterinburg.
As the sun was starting to drop and it was getting colder, we hurried back to the hostel to collect our bags and head over to the train station. Yekaterinburg was a nice, cosmopolitan city but didn’t have a whole lot to offer tourists, we were glad we’d only decided to spend one night before moving on.

For our last overnight train, we’d booked 3rd class tickets, having traveled 2nd class in each of the other Trans-Mongolian legs. We were a bit nervous to see what beds we’d been allocated and were happy when we boarded to find we had two bottom bunks facing each other. In 2nd class carriages, there are rows of cabins, each holding four beds, two up and two down. In 3rd class carriages, there are no cabins but banks of beds, set in groups of 6, 2 up and 2 down like in 2nd class, then another 2 parallel to the aisle by the window. The three bottom bunks in our area were taken as were most of the bottom bunks throughout the carriage but there was plenty of room and no snoring and no bad smells. It was bliss, we even had a window we could open when it started to heat up. We wandered why we hadn’t been traveling 3rd class the whole time, it was our best train experience in Russia.

Shortly after leaving Yekaterinburg, the train rolled passed the Asia-Europe border although as it was already dark, we couldn’t see the marker. Instead we spent the evening reading, watching TV and eating instant smash.

It was a 26 hour journey and by lunch time the next day we were both getting bored. We’ve spent so much time on trains lately and there’s not a whole lot to do or see. Much of the landscape looks the same, especially since there’s a blanket of snow over everything and it’s dark for nearly 17 hours a day.

Finally, we arrived in Vladimir. We had a rough map to get us to our hostel but couldn’t find the main road and ended up walking up in to town, along the main street and then back down to the hostel. As with all hostels we’ve stayed at, it was more like being in a guestroom at a house with a family sitting in the common room watching you and making you feel slightly awkward. We showered and walked back to the main street for dinner. Completely unintentionally, we found ourselves in a British Pub and ate delicious plates of stroganoff before it was time for bed.

Although we’d only changed time zones by 5 hours in the last week, we were finding ourselves in bed early and awake by 7:30am, waiting around for the sun to rise so we could venture out and explore.

Vladimir is one of Russia’s oldest cities and until the 14th century, was the religious centre of the entire country. The main street is lined with churches and it took us a couple of hours to wander between them while the snow continued to dust the whole city. Leaving the hostel, we circled the Golden Gate, one of the only surviving remanents of the 1158 city ramparts, and continued to a view point, overlooking the Old Town. We zigzagged through town, aiming for any golden domes we could see, stopping at the Assumption Cathedral (built in 1160 and at that time, the tallest building in the whole of Russia) and the Cathedral of St Demetrius (a square cathedral, completed in 1197, covered with intricate carvings and with a small exhibition inside). 
Walking through the snow, Vladimir.
Rhys swinging from the lamp posts, Assumption Cathedral, Vladimir.
More snow covered parks, Vladimir.
We ducked in to the shopping plaza to escape the cold for a pricey canteen buffet lunch (smoked fish, urgh), then, after walking around the walls of the Nativity Monastery, we headed back to the hostel. Later than afternoon, leaving Rhys in the room with the vodka, I walked back in to town. The snow had covered the streets in a blanket of white and I didn’t have long until sun down. I stopped by an odd little antique shop and a few smaller, more run down churches before walking back to the other side of town, to the History Museum. As all the info boards were in Russian I had no idea what I was looking at but the attendants enthusiastically pointed me to certain displays and directed me around. 
Anyone who knows us will know that a Vodka aisle is our idea of HEAVEN.
In search for a Russian flag badge for Rhys, I ended up in another museum that I didn’t even know existed. Upstairs in a chapel, there was a small display of the most beautiful lacquerware, little boxes painted with miniature scenes from fairytales in exquisite detail. I got so sucked in that I lost track of time and after walking through the crystal/cut glass section of the museum I realised it was getting dark outside and I had to rush to get back before Rhys started worrying.
Vladimir Old Town view point at dusk.
That night we went back to the main street where we’d spotted another bar that looked good for dinner. It wasn’t until we paid the bill that we realised it was a sister bar of the British bar we’d been to the night before. In addition to the beautiful churches in the town, it was worth a stop over for the delicious gastro pub meals.

We had a lazy start the next day as our train wasn’t due to leave until noon. We’d bought ourselves some Heinz baked beans in the Spar the previous day and were excited to have a late breakfast at the hostel. 

Leaving the hostel we had a long walk back to the train station, along slippery roads and through the centre of town. We had a fast train to Moscow and squeezed in to our seats for the short trip. 

Once in Moscow, we jumped on the tube and followed the instructions to our hostel. After asking a kind policeman for directions, we eventually found the right building and checked in to our miniature room. As we only had two nights in the city and we were keen to visit Red Square to see it lit up at night, we popped out to grab some fast food before chilling in our room. Moscow was much warmer than Siberia at about -5C but it still wasn’t warm enough to just lose ourselves walking the streets without freezing.

As soon as it was dark, we wrapped up wearing as many layers as we could without looking stupid (bearing in mind all our thermals were in the wash), and walked towards Red Square, about 20 minutes from our hostel. Immediately we both took a liking to the city with beautiful architecture on every corner. After walking along a shopping street, we emerged at a junction with the Bolshi Theatre and the Kremlin. We found our way around the corner and in to the Red Square, hemmed in on one side by the GUM shopping arcade, filled with expensive Bond Street stores, and on the other, by the Kremlin walls. 

We wandered through the unexciting Christmas market, feeling festive with all the fairy lights and baubles anging from the trees, before spying St Basils Cathedral, built in the 1550’s to celebrate the capture of Kazan by Ivan the Terrible. Although we’d both previously seen pictures and thought the cathedral was something of a Disneyland monstrosity, we were pleasantly surprised. Some how, it seemed to work with the towering gothic buildings surrounding it. 
The lairy bbut oddly attractive domes of St Basils Cathedral, Moscow.
Heading back towards our hostel, we stopped at a basement Irish bar (all the pubs here seem to be British or Irish themed), where we ordered a 800ml, giant sized Magners each. As we didn’t intend on having a big night, we re-layered up and went back out in the cold, before finding a nice pub near our hostel that drew us in by having a Tottenham scarf in the window. Rhys ordered a pint of Welsh Brains while I treated myself to a Strongbow before we called it a night and headed to bed.

25 November 2014

Week 113 - Ulaanbaatar, Ulan Ude, Olkhon Island (Mongolia, Russia)

After realising the Russian woman in our cabin wasn’t traveling with the man with verbal diarrhea, (it was the pillow over the head and pretending to be asleep that really gave it away), we managed to get a couple of hours of sleep before we arrived at the Mongolian border. The train pulled in and we sat at the station for nearly 4 hours.

Immigration was pretty straight forward and we had plenty of time to get out and stretch our legs on the platform. You could tell we were now on a train with Russian attendants, they were a little scary and intimidating and the man walked around in his pyjamas all the time grabbing us to tell us to get out the way and ordering us back to our beds. The border station was in the middle of nowhere and there wasn’t anywhere really to go. The most exciting thing to happen was the realisation that all the other train carriages had disappeared, as had our engine. We had been expecting to find black market money changers at the border and were disappointed to find there wasn’t anyone there to meet us, no money changers, no food carts, nothing.
Our lonesome carriage, abandoned at the Mongolian border.
Finally, we got a new engine and rolled over the border to Russia. The immigration procedures were pretty straight forward again but with more intense searches of the train. Along with an English and an Australian couple from the cabin next to ours, we headed straight to the loo as you can’t use those on the train when in stations, and we had another 3 hours before we’d be moving on. It turned into a big drama since you had to pay for the loo and no one had any roubles. There was absolutely noting or no one around again apart from the odd Russian van driving passed and a sweet shop across the road.

At last we were joined to another 3 carriages and we set off to Ulan Ude. It had been snowing and everywhere was white, the trees, the hills, the roads, the rooftops. We gazed out of the window, trying to keep distance from the smelly man in our cabin, as the train zigzagged over the Selenga River and skirting around Goose Lake.

We’d spent most of the daylight hours sitting at border stations and it wasn’t long until darkness fell and people started getting ready for bed. Luckily for us, we were getting off the train that night. We rolled in to Ulan Ude, grabbed our bags and escaped to the platform. With all the strong lights the snow sparkled like glitter and although it was bitterly cold it looked quite magical, until I slid down the stairs. Unhurt, we continued and before long were at our hostel.

Immediately we could tell something was odd about the place. Our room backed on to a dirty common room with plates piled up in the sink and on the table and TV blaring. Our room had windows on two walls and no curtains so half of Ulan Ude could watch you getting changed and the shower room was some bizarre communal set up with a toilet in the middle. It felt more like a halfway house with strange old Russian men hanging around and walking in to our room looking for lighters. We popped to the 24 hour shop downstairs to buy our first bottle of Russian vodka and locked our door.

The next day we decided to have a chilled day. We stayed in bed late, found a breakfast cake and an egg had been left on the table for us, then ventured out to the central square to see a giant statue of Lenin’s head. The statue is 7.7m high and weights 42 tonnes and is one of the only tourist sites of interest in the town. We were a bit unprepared for just how cold it was and after walking around in circles a few times trying to find a supermarket, we walked back to the hostel, buying sausages, cheeses and breads on the way, for dinner.
The giant Lenin head, Ulan Ude.
The next day we had to check out of our room at lunch but had 10 hours until our train was due to leave for Irkutsk. Not being able to bare the thought of sitting around the hostel we decided to don our thermals and head to the Ivolginsky Datsan, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery that is the centre of Siberian Buddhism. Although our hostel had given us the wrong information, a nice bus driver picked us up and took us to the bus station (an empty car park) for free and pointed us to the right bus. After changing to another bus in the village of Ivolga we arrived at the entry gate. The complex was a lot smaller than we’d imagined. Built in 1946, it’s pretty new and only took us about 20 minutes to complete a lap, spinning prayer wheels and entering a few of the buildings that were open. It felt like quite a journey for nothing too spectacular but considering how little there is to do in Ulan Ude it was a good way to while away a few hours.
One of the buildings at the Ivolginsky Datsan, near Ulan Ude.
Back in town we decided to walk along the pedestrianised street to the Virgin Hodegetria Cathedral. I’d hoped we’d pass some of the beautiful wooden buildings we’d seen elsewhere and from bus windows while I had the camera to hand but the buildings were modern. The wooden buildings have door and window frames carved so intricately that they appear to have lace cloth drapped over them. We found the cathedral, saw it was much smaller than we expected, peered in the door, took a photo of the golden bulbs mounting the white spires and continued to try and find the Trinity Church. It was -21C and every bit of exposed skin was hurting from the cold. We couldn’t find an easy route to the church and gave up to go back to the warmth of the hostel.

It was as weird as ever at the hostel and we didn’t want to sit there in the dirty kitchen feeling unwelcome for the next couple of hours. We discovered a ‘lounge’ in the same building where you paid for the time you were there, had free coffee and biscuits, good music playing and fast wifi and settled in, returning to collect our bags and eat our left over sausage and cheese before going back to the lounge to wait for the train.

We didn’t fall in love with Ulan Ude and other than giving us a chance to catch up on sleep there wasn’t a whole lot to do. The city is the capital of the Buryat Republic, a federal subject of Russia and it was interesting to be in a Russian city, with stereotypical Russian people with their full length fur coats, fur hats and boots alongside the Buryat people, a subgroup of the Mongols. The Buryat’s share a lot of customs with Mongolia (including nomadic herding and using gers for shelter) and speak a Mongol dialect. 

The Russian Federation is made up of 85 federal subjects, 22 of which are republics that mostly represent areas of non-Russian ethnicity. The Republics have their own constitutions and their own official languages. The parliamentary assemblies of the republics have even enacted laws which are at odds with the federal constitution although Putin has tried to reduce their autonomy and impose the supremacy of the federal constitution (got to love Wikipedia).

Finally, it was time to head to the station where our train was waiting on the platform. After a bundle at the door to get our tickets checked, we were allowed on and settled in to our carriage, for once being lucky enough to share it with a non-snoring lady. We settled in for a few too many drinks as the train rolled out of the station. Other than the heat (Russian train attendants seem intent on cooking you in your sleep), we slept ok, just not for long enough and before we knew it we were being woken to hand our sheets back in.

When we reached Irkutsk, it was still dark. We had directions to take a tram to the minibus park by the central market and headed across the river and in to the city. We still had a couple of hours before the bus was due to leave and found a small coffee shop, to hide from the cold until the sun rose, where wet omelette was on the menu.

Finally it was light enough for us to find the bus park and check we could get seats. Passing a glove stall we realised we weren’t prepared for the cold and ended up buying super thick gloves (which with the state of our tatty clothes are probably the nicest things we own) and making a short lap of the food market to waste time. The bus had free seats and we were directed to settle in with our luggage on the back row. We’d hoped to nap on route but being over the back wheels on a bumpy road didn’t give us much opportunity. The journey went smoothly, taking 5 hours including a very scenic albeit short ferry ride over to Olkhon Island with the only scare being when the driver ordered us out of the bus at a loo stop and then disappeared, with all our bags and passports still on board. Thankfully he returned 20 minutes later. 
Me at the ferry pier, heading to Olkhon Island.
By the time we reached the town of Khuzhir, a cluster of wooden buildings on the lakeshore, we were tired and ready to be in a warm room with a comfy bed. We’d reserved a place at Nikita’s, the most famous homestead on the island and in no time had our wish. We were taken to a separate building set away from the main compound, where there were about 10 rooms around a courtyard with their own canteen - the main buildings owned by Nikita seemed to be closed for maintenance.

Rather than explore that evening and bearing in mind we only had an hour or so left of sunlight, we relaxed in our room before dinner was due to be served. The food was far better than we’d expected, we had fish broth, fresh bread, dumplings, lots of beetroot and a plate of chicken and rice. Impressed, we went to bed with full stomachs, glad to be at an all inclusive homestay where we’d get to try some good Russian food.

Olkhon Island is the largest island on Lake Baikal. It’s about 70km long and 15km wide and is sparsely inhabited, only getting electricity in 2005. It’s a mixture of grassy steppes, woodland, sandy beaches and towering cliffs with views across the water to the rolling mountains on the mainland. For 3 months of the year, the lake is frozen up to a depth of 3 metres and you can drive to the island. As winter was only just beginning, we could see the ice starting to form but couldn’t drive across. Instead, we crossed by ferry and contented ourselves with peering at the icicles hanging from the cliffs and the small iceburgs floating in the lake.

Lake Baikal, known romantically as ‘the blue eye of Siberia’ is one of the world’s largest freshwater lakes and holds 20% of the planets fresh water. If every other source of freshwater were to dry up, the water held in the lake could still provide for the entire population of the world for 40 years. At it’s deepest, it reaches 1,637m and its about 400 miles long and between 20 and 40 miles wide. The lake is a UNESCO site and is ringed by nature reserves, but it is still threatened by factories flushing their rubbish in to feeder rivers and oil and gas pipelines nearby (there is fear that a pipeline might rupture as it’s an earthquake zone).

After a great sleep we had breakfast in our canteen before dressing in our thermals and heading out. As the hours of daylight are short there was no point setting an alarm to be up early. We had decided to walk south in the morning, return for lunch, then walk north in the afternoon. By the time we started walking it was gone 10am but the sun was still very low in the sky. Over the first cliff, we reached the Khuzhir pier and were stunned to see the ice covering the wooden structure. Inches thick and with thousands of delicate icicles it was beautiful. 
The coast by Nikitas, Khuzhir, Olkhon Island.
Rhys on the frozen Khuzhir pier, Olkhon Island.
We continued along the coast, following the frozen beach to the promontory to peer into the next bay, glad that the temperature was much kinder than it had been in Ulan Ude. It seems so bizarre to see the beach covered in inches of ice and you have to keep reminding yourself that it’s fresh water and in a month, the whole lake will be one sheet of ice. It was incredibly peaceful and we only saw a few other people as we walked. 
Ice ont he beach south of Khuzhir, Olkhon Island.
At the end of our exploration south, we came across a frozen pond, about the size of half a football pitch. Rhys tested it out and as the ice was ridiculously thick, I followed. It’s the first time either of us has walked on a completely frozen pond like that. 
Rhys braving the frozen pond, Olkhon Island.
2 1/2 hours later and we were back in our cabin and it was time for lunch, another Russian feast. We didn’t waste much time before we pulled our boots on again to wander north along the coast. Close to Nikita’s, was Shaman Rock, a rocky outcrop with a curving beach and spectacular views. We continued along Long Beach, as always, picking up a dog on route to accompany us. The scenary was breathtakingly beautiful and peaceful and was only disturbed by the odd snowball or us stamping through ice overhangs on the shore.
Shaman's Rock, Khuzhir, Olkhon Island.
By the time we arrived back in the village we’d been gone for another 2 1/2 hours. Before going back to our cabin we walked along the track that acts as the main road and found one of the only shops that had stayed open passed the high season. We bought a couple of litre cans of Tuborg (made for giants, Tim, you’d love them) and bought a treat for our dog.

Back at Nikita’s we tried to book a trip to the northern most point of the island for the following day, supposedly the best trip offering spectacular views, but it being off season and there not being many people around, when we were told the price for two people we balked and decided against it. Our dog found it’s way into the compound and followed us back to the cabin where it sat outside pining for us while the sunset turned the sky a bright fushia.

After dinner we stole outside with pieces of bread for the dog and then just as we were starting to get ready for bed there was a knock at our door. A couple at another homestead in the village had called Nikitas, keen to go on the trip north the following day. Excited, we agreed and paid for our seats.

We slept late the next day and rolled out of bed in time for a quick breakfast before the van arrived to collect us. We were delighted to see it was another UAZ-452 Russian van (although abit more road weary than our Mongolian one). We jumped in and claimed the best seats. The other couple were running late but finally we were on our way, bumping and rattling along the islands dirt tracks. There are no tarmac roads on the island and the further north you go, the worse the trails get. The van had no problems though and was sprinting up steep, ice covered inclines and swerving around trees onto the flattest paths, our driver was brilliant.

We stopped 5 or 6 times over the course of the day, first traveling up the east coast, before stopping at Cape Khoboy, the northern peninsula of the island and returning along the west coast passing through acres of forest and kilometre after kilometre of windswept steppes along the way. We drove past Long Beach, where we’d walked the previous day and stopped at Crocodile Rock (that did really look like a giant crocodile) and other rock formations before reaching Khoboy, the most sacred part of the island. The whole island is considered one of the five global poles of shamanic energy by the Buryat people and there are coins, lighters and even spark plugs scattered around the rocky peninsulas. 
Coastal view on the north coast road, Olkhon Island.
Out in the snow, me and the north coast route, Olkhon Island.
Rhys at Cape Khoboy, Olkhon Island.
After a picnic lunch in the van with delicious fish and our happy driver gesturing and pointing at things (it wasn’t soup, it was tea), we had a couple more stops before we began the drive back, along the islands spine and through the pine forest to Nikitas. As the sunset had turned the sky such a bright pink the night before, we asked to be let out at the top of the hill overlooking the village incase it was repeated. Sadly it wasn’t and by the time we made it back to our room we were cold through. 
Frozen beach and the last stop of our northern Olkhon tour.
The next day we were up and waiting for the minibus to take us back to Irkutsk. It arrived 30 minutes late and we were squashed in to rubbish seats. It took about 40 minutes to drive to the port where a ferry was just pulling in. Thinking we’d be across and back on the mainland in no time, we were surprised when our van didn’t move. 4 hours later and we were still sitting there. The ferry man had heard there was a storm coming in and didn’t want to sail. We were getting increasingly uncomfortable, cold and bored, and were disheartened when the 3 vans waiting made the joint decision to turn back to Khuzhir. Luckily, as the ferry wasn’t running, no new tourists could arrive and our room was empty and waiting for us. 

We’d missed lunch so we dropped our bags in our room and went straight to the shop, accompanied by our favourite island dog who was rewarded for her loyalty with biscuits. By the time we got back to our room, the sun had gone down. We had a few hours to waste with cups of tea and Russian vodka before dinner, then we headed to bed, hoping to make it back to Irkutsk the following day to catch our 4pm train.