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Mongolia Part Two and Lake Baikal, Siberia

2nd September 2014 We were able to get our Chinese visa yesterday (see Travel notes/Border entry) so we are now free to travel up to Lake Baikal in Siberia. We have heard that the road is good by Mongolian standards so we will spend a week or so up there before heading south to the Chinese border. In Ulaan Baatar we are staying at an overlanders checkpoint, The Oasis Guesthouse. It serves western fast food including Crumbled eggs for breakfast, good description I thought.

3rd September 2014 The road from Ulaan Baatar to Kyakhta, the border post, was all tar of varying quality but just so good compared to what we have been used to. Wild camped at a shallow lake with the usual horse, goat and sheep herds strolling past. We thought the isolated border post would be quiet, which it was, however it still took about four hours to get through. Why I don’t know but the delay was all up in the Russian entry control post. The Russians made a very thorough search of every car and were pleasant about it right up until the final official. I had been directed to park in a certain spot and the official, a harassed looking Mongolian female called me to the office. Curtly told me to sign the documents and gave me a pen. I signed. She said why did you use the red pen, I replied you gave it to me, She questioned why did you park there, I replied I was told to. She threw the documents onto the desk, finished? I asked. Humph was the reply. Nice As soon as we entered Russia we noticed the difference in the landscape back to fir and deciduous trees, just like the Russia we had left. We have noticed this about many countries, that is to say, as soon as you enter a new country it has it’s own characteristic almost straight away. The roads on the Russian side are very good and this is now Eastern Siberia so I expected worse. As we were looking for a suitable camp spot for the night we passed by an abandoned industrial complex just out of Ulan-Ude, spooky, so we drove on through the hilly fields to find a small river just out of Ulan-Ude 80 odd K’s from Lake Baikal. This is it for the night.

4th September 2014 Arrived at Lake Baikal and found a campsite by the water, already the climate is colder with a very strong wind blowing. The sea, I mean lake, is pounding, roaring, very loud, you could almost surf it. Lake Baikal looks and behaves like an ocean, it is huge. All night the wind howled with some rain but we were snug in our little penthouse boudoir.

5th September 2014 Slowly cruised along the east coast looking for potential camping spots and stopping for lunch for Salyonka, a savoury soup of carrots, potato’s, sausage and gherkin and then, a second course of palmeni, a meat filled dumpling. Entered Zabankaliski National Park at the northern end of the lake and found a spot right on a beach just as the weather cleared. Good Russian pine has been provided so we are having a fire as the sun sets. It is cool here anyway as it is now autumn but as soon as the sun goes down you feel a definite drop in temperature. This whole lake is has golden sand beaches, probably the best we have seen on the whole trip so far and there is a crescent of blue mountains surrounding us. Lake Baikal holds the largest volume of fresh water in the world. It is a narrow lake, about six hundred kilometres long and is 1.6 kilometres deep.

6th September 2014 Spent the morning exploring the National park including Svyatoy Nos or Holy Nose, a big pelican head shaped peninsula, put out a small grass fire we found along the way and later drove around some of the backcountry of Siberia getting as far north as the village of Bodon. Suddenly it’s autumn as the trees, overnight, have changed colour giving us an idea of what is yet to come. We did about 350k’s today and are again camped on the eastern shore of Lake Baikal looking at a beautiful sunset. (Half an hour later). This sunset is now like a psychedelic poster, an orange sky with magenta clouds, purple mountains on the other side and mauve waves with crimson crests, no I’m not smoking funny stuff. All of this time driving across Russia/Mongolia and we are still only a little over half way across this biggest country on Earth.

 

7th September 2014 Happy Fathers Day! Judy cooked a special breakfast of crumbled eggs with onions and sausage, fantastic. Drove slowly around the shore of Baikal not really wanting to leave, before stopping for lunch at Ulan Ude where we had a Subway (there are three Subway franchises in this town). A beautiful sunny day saw us say goodbye to Russia and hello again Mongolia. This time the border crossing was much quicker than before with forms and fee payments completely different from both previous entries to, and departures from, both countries. I received a salute from one Russian border soldier. I love that kind of treatment. We didn’t find a campsite until about 8.30pm but lucked in again with a spot on a hill in a wooded area looking down on what appears to be an English village, not your usual Gers.

8th September 2014 Back to Ulaan Baatar and booked the car in for a service at Toyota and camped just out of town on a hill overlooking Ulaan Baatar, the giant Budda statue and accompanying monastery.

Had the quickest haircut back at the Oasis Guesthouse $6.

Days are perfect here at the moment with clear blue sky and 25 to 28 degrees. Much warmer than I expected at his time of year.

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Russia Part Two

25th July 2014 Yesterday we wild camped at Chechenino on the Volga river. We had read about this place on another overlanders website which mentioned the locals kindness to them. We found a spot right on the river but the mosquitoes were horrendous so after looking further decided on a more friendly site, still on the river. We had just settled in to our, out of the way spot, when an extended family arrived, at dusk, for a swim. We got to talking to them and sure enough they invited us back to their house for dinner and we would have taken them up on their offer but for our tiredness and that our dinner was ready.

A family that swims together stays together.

Today drove on to the city of Kazan, another beautiful place again with its own ancient Kremlin, churches and Macas. It is the Capital of the Tatarstan Republic which is still a part of Russia and ended up wild camped on the shore of Kuybyshev Reservoir.

We are about a thousand kilometres east of Moscow and Judy has just downloaded a book, isn’t technology wonderful?

I have been wondering whether I’ve been speaking some sort of old style Russian as the Russian that I learnt was sixty years ago (I call it Shakespearian Russian) but no, I have figured it out. Today there was a children’s show, on the radio, complete with The Dog Song. I understood it all. So the form of Russian that I speak is six year old’s.

26th July 2014 Passed the city of Ufa, capital of the republic of Bashkortostan, again a part of Russia, and again a modern and attractive city of one million or so. I wonder where these dirty industrial towns, that they keep talking about, are? Cause I haven’t seen any yet.

We had Maccas for lunch and a haircut costing AUD$4.50 but could have had a budget job for AUD$2.50.

Late this evening, looking for a place to stay we again did battle with a mud road before finding a cosy little truck stop alongside about twenty juggernauts and a junk yard.

28th July 2014 We have found our first two Russian National parks, last night Zyuratkul and tonight at Taganai but it has been raining and cold, 11c as a daily maximum. Bear in mind that this is pretty well mid summer. I have been told that this is freakish weather and that it is usually much warmer and that last winter was unusually warm i.e. snow only a foot deep as opposed to the usual one meter.

Today whilst trying to find Taganai N.P. a man insisted on showing us the way. This only took him about twenty kilometres out of his way along wet, muddy roads in his little two wheel drive car, no worries. Thank you Valdimir!

In general the Russians don’t seem to let anything faze them. In the poor weather conditions people were out and about, picnicking, bush walking and they seem to have not so much of a can do attitude as a will do attitude.

1st August 2014 We spent two days at Taganai the weather slowly getting better, regrouping and organising ourselves. One of the highlights was the Banya. This is the traditional Russian sauna where large rocks are heated by coals for two to three hours and water poured over them to produce the steam and release heat from the rocks, a mild thrashing with birch leaves producing a healthy erythema (pinkness) on the skin is followed by a dip in the very cold water of the lake which is right next to the Banya. (Done three or four times to taste) After the intense heat the cold water of the lake is easy to take though it does take your breath away and you have to be careful not to suck in a mouthful of water, as I did.

Yesterday we drove to the city of Chelybinsk where we had to check the T-belt warning light with the local Toyota dealer. This is a huge and modern dealership and we were quite a novelty to them. The General Manager came down and welcomed us and told us of the cross world sailor that they had just sponsored, followed by an interview and photo shoot with our car and the Toyota staff. They gave us a complementary Toyota Frisbee as a parting gift.

Today we dove about 650K’s with the weather really nice now. Russia is so huge and all of it seems to consist of either forest or fields of wheat. The soil throughout all of Russia is that thick black stuff, great for growing but bad for bogging.

The roadhouses offer generally average food and toilets of varying quality from very good to, literally, the pits. Worse than anything Africa threw at us, I wont go into details here. At some you could even get a good shower for a small price.

We haven’t been stopped by any police as yet, so no document inspections or bribes again as we had heard.

Haven’t seen a drunk yet and the roads are OK and whilst the driving is on the aggressive side the truck driving is very good with all sticking to their speed limits and not to many driving gymnastics.

Some myths may be put to rest.

3rd August 2014 We expected the frontier town of Novosibirsk to be a little rough around the edges, maybe fur traders. Instead we spent three hours in Ikea, identical to the one at Rhodes in Sydney back home and while this was good therapy for Judy I quietly slipped into Retail Trance. This is a condition where one can be led anywhere and made to say Yes to anything. We visited a Bunning’s style hangar, which makes our Bunningses look like corner shops and a supermarket with 76 checkouts.

Oh, we also saw the Opera House, which is meant to be even bigger than the Bolshoi in Moscow.

4th August 2014 Arrived at Tomsk about 250k’s north of Novosibirsk as we had heard it is a lively university town with interesting buildings and street life. Scouted around for a camping area where one was shown on our map. It turned out to be a disused youth camp with a dog-training workshop in progress. The Caretaker/Manager, Lena, told us that it hadn’t been used for eight years but that we were welcome to camp overnight, free of charge. Some interesting Soviet era street furniture and an old Aeroflot plane made the place worth staying at and true to form, about an hour later, Lena arrived with homemade jams and bags of berries for us.

The dog seminar has turned out quite funny as we are now surrounded by them and they all seem to be barking, being walked, panting and all of those other doggy things that they do. A girl came over and showed us all the tricks her dog (a kind of miniature Shitszu) had learnt. It must be a very clever dog as there were many of them and she was so proud. All most unexpected at 9pm.

5TH August 2014 Being tourists today and seeing the sights of Tomsk such as the Oppression Museum which shows, among other things, how many punishment camps (Gulags) there were, many many. Tomsk has a good feel about it with old wooden buildings mixed with golden spired churches, historic buildings and gardens.

On the way into town we stopped at a tyre repair place, flat tyre number eight, and had it repaired. The repairer did not want payment and I had to insist of even a small payment.

Judy noticed that she had run out of her tablets and we thought we would spend all day, chasing around finding, a doctor to write a script and then getting them but first I thought I would just ask at a chemist shop. No worries, no script necessary as they could tell from the old box what was needed, and pick them up next day. No RED tape here.

Returned to our camp late to find the guard dog seminar still in progress with lots of growling and barking and later spoke the the head trainer in his full body padding. This guy had been all around Russia and he really recommended that we visit Lake Baikol, he is about the fourth person to say this, so I think, if we have time, we will.

6th August 2014 Judy made pancakes for breakfast and we just took it easy, used our solar shower and went into town to get the tablets, which were waiting for us. Had a trendy meal, rang the girls did a bit of WIFI. This is our third night here at the camp and Lena has just arrived with some Blinnies, a Russian pancake.

7th August 2014 Just as we left Tomsk I was pulled over by the police for crossing an unbroken road line. At first the officer was a bit stern and did check our documents but as we spoke he warmed up and any misdemeanour was soon forgotten. He did ask if I had any Australian money and I thought it was the start of a bribe, but no, he just wanted some coins for his collection. We parted the best of friends. On we travelled via Kemerovo, the capital of the region to almost Novokuznetsk along first class motorways, through large landscapes of fields and big towns. So much for the wild Siberian frontier.

8th August 2014 Finally found the real Siberia just 400 k’s shy of Mongolia. We are in the Altai region, which is mildly mountainous, very pretty, and with a dirt road, although this only lasted for about 50 K’s. Now wild camped on Biya river by Lake Teletskoye, near the village of Artybash, which is a bit of a tourist trap Siberian style i.e. a few souvenir stalls and people standing on the side of the road advertising that their house is available for rent. There are actually some camping grounds here but the toilets are really bad and no showers so we have preferred to just find a nice spot, easy enough, and go al fresco.

Warm enough but looks like the rain has set in. No mozzies or ticks.

9th August 2014 Gorno-Altaysk is the regional capital of the Altai Republic and we may or may not have some daunting visa/registration type of chores to do here. The blogs we have read give conflicting information and things have changed here in very recent years so armed with the information given to us on entry to Russia we think we may just try to wing it and drive to the Mongolian border. The countryside is getting prettier by the kilometre. Last night we wild camped by a river and same again tonight except that tonight we face a small birch island and a full moon. Could be one of those paintings that are too good to be true.

It gets to -40c here in winter.

11th August 2014 Wild camped again last night alongside a crystal clear stream having driven through some beautiful and spectacular country. At the idyllic campsite some very inquisitive cows welcomed us by generally hanging around and occasionally poking heir heads into the back of the car, and they are here now as I write. We are hoping for bears, as this is bear country or a moose or even a squirrel.

After a couple of hours three young blokes approached us saying that we had to pay a camping fee of three hundred roubles ($9.00). I asked for ID, which they produced but I could not read and so I paid, asking for a receipt, which they produced but I could not read. So I don’t know if I’d been had or not.

(think I did) In any case no trouble.

Didn’t get going till 2pm through a changing landscape from coniferous to semi arid with snow-capped mountains in the close distance, starting to feel like Mongolia now. Pulled in to get some last supplies at the second last outpost but people here would not look out of place on the streets of Moscow, tank tops with board shorts or platinum blondes on high heels. No traditional garb yet.

The driving has been ideal with very good roads, no trucks and light traffic.

Now wild camped at Lake Chenbekkel about 8k north of Aktash.

 

12th August 2014 Driving though drier and drier country as we approach Mongolia but still very spectacular and we have lunched by a raging torrent of snow melted water surrounded by mountains with many recent landslides visible. At the last Russian outpost, Kosh-Agach, a real frontier town, we did our last fuel and veg top up and checked with the local police whether we needed any more approvals or permissions. No was their answer.

The border crossing was more complicated than expected, as we had to go through numerous checkpoints. The last stumbling block presented an unexpected problem. We had been given the wrong information at the Russian entry point. We were told that we only needed to register our visa if we stayed at a location for more than seven days but in fact we had to register it every seven days. Result, a fine of 2000 roubles each was mandatory  (total AUD$120.00), however the nice officer only imposed one fine of $60.00 because of our age. It actually turned out to be cheaper than had we gone through the correct registration process.

 

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Russia Part One

14th July 2014 Entered Russia at the Koidula check point with no queues but took two hours to pass through both Estonian and Russian border posts with no trouble. The officers of both countries were polite, cheerful and helpful. We were able to get car insurance ($100 for two months) at a petrol station at the border. A further fee of 150 roubles ($5) road toll, so have some roubles or go to the nearby shop and change Euros or US dollars as I did.

So far the roads aren’t bad nor the Russian’s driving, as we had heard, and there were no more bread queues as we shopped at probably the biggest supermarket we have ever seen, in Pskov, a provincial city, fully stocked. Judy was able to get beauty products that she hasn’t been able to get since Sydney. This supermarket was like Woollies, Big W, Bunning’s and Super Cheap Auto all in one. I wonder what they will be like in a big city?

Our first night in Russia and we are wild camped (bush camped) just off the highway, on our way to Saint Petersburg, should get there tomorrow.

15th July 2014 Driving into Saint Petersburg we see a huge, grand city, the size of Sydney, with wide streets, some with eight lanes surrounded by six storey centuries old buildings, golden spires and domes adorn palaces and churches.

The Olgino Hotel has a camping area, which is past its former glory but has pleasant parkland, the Wi-Fi works and Visa card is accepted. The reception staff is friendly but I’m slightly miffed that no one is paying the slightest attention to my excellent Russian speech.

We thought we had the place to ourselves but the German contingent from Estonia has just arrived, thirteen mobile homes, and, unbeknown to ourselves we have made camp right in the middle of their “booked” area. However they seem to have accepted us. One of their number had a bad crash here in Russia, a write off and unknown injuries.

I later found out that his injuries were not serious.

18th July 2014 Wow! The Hermitage, which is Peter the Great’s palace, is a museum/art gallery, indescribable. More Rembrandt’s than the Louvre, sculpture, period clothing, Egyptian section, Da Vinci’s, Michael Angelo’s, what can I say. As a bonus you walk around these beautiful rooms in which the nobility lived.

Getting around is easy by public transport. The Metro runs at double speed with a train every one to three minutes depending on time of day and cheap. It is day here till midnight so you can fit a lot in.

People are helpful. We got talking to an old Babushka (Grandmother) as we got off the bus, and the next thing you know she is volunteering to be our tour guide to Pushkin, which is meant to have an even more glorious palace than The Hermitage.

We visited the Peter and Paul Cathedral in which all of the Tsars are interred and the Spilled Blood Cathedral (built on the spot where a Tsar was assassinated? Alexander) then took a Neva (river) and canal boat ride. A lot of these buildings have golden spires and when you see them in the flesh they are very impressive.

The Babushka was right, Ekaterina’s palace and grounds, in Pushkin was even more impressive than the Hermitage. The Russian nobility’s wealth must have been huge, too bad about the peasants.

It took us four hours to get out of Saint Petersburg due to traffic jams.

Apparently Vladimir Putin regularly frequents a local eatery in Pushkin.

Russia is pretty well right up to date now. Plenty of Landcruisers, Mercs, Range Rovers, good roads, huge hypermarkets, no drunks and plenty of ATM’S. I believe they put a man into space once.

Now camping on a small lake on the road to Moscow.

Judy wrote her first Russian word today, in Russian, it was Pushkin, and what a word to start with. One of Russia’s greatest literary masters.

Just heard about the Malasian airline plane that was shot down over the Ukraine killing many including some twenty eight Australians.

19th July 2014 Popped into Novgorod to see their Kremlin, fortress and church, impressive as usual and finished the day wild camping on one of the most beautiful spots yet. A halcyon day on the small Tvertsa river just out of Torzhok (and if you can say that you must be a Russian).

We met another overlander couple at a road stop, Hauke and Ragnhild aka Rags (of Max Hunt website), they are professional hunter/ travellers on their way to Kamchatkaand are just ripping their way through Russia to get to the remote wildernesses.

This trip seems to get better and better by the day, and I’m saying this ten months into the trip.

Tomorrow we enter Moscow.

20th July 2014 Saint Petersburg is a village by comparison to Moscow. Massive buildings, sixteen lane roads in the middle of town and twelve million people in residence. It took us all day to find a hotel to stay at and even though it was a Sunday and traffic relatively light I found it very difficult to get from A to B as there are many through roads and one way roads. Very hard to pick from a map.

Subways are very expensive here, not the train but the fast food franchise, however our hotel room is only $80/night. It is central, clean with good facilities provided such as kitchen, gym, cinema and bar. Not bad value as we had heard that Moscow is THE most expensive tourist city.

We have had perfect weather in the high 20’s by day and cool nights.

21st July 2014 We started off the day slowly trying to sort out the parking. There are no parking stations, which will take the height of our car, but you can park in the street and pay an astronomical fee, the problem is that their system doesn’t recognise our number plates (or is it a problem?). Anyway we didn’t get going until midday. From here the day really happened. We got to the Mongolian embassy by metro (the stations are like art galleries) and got our visas that afternoon, paying express US$320 total. In fact the Metro trains are like a conveyor belt, a train coming as little as thirty seconds apart and costing two thirds of bugger all for a ticket.

Had a most delicious lunch of Khinkali, a Georgian dumpling and walking it off along Arbatskaya a shopping and tourist precinct before arriving at Red Square. It looks so drab when you see it on all of those old Red Army parades but drab it aint, being surrounded by not only the Kremlin but an astounding Saint Basils cathedral and other monumental buildings. The scale of Moscow is incomprehensible but if you want BIG forget Red Square, just go to your local shopping mall. You see we used to get stories like this: Moscow has a butcher but sometimes the meat doesn’t come in and there are shortages, also bread lines, look again buddy!

I’m hoping to get a peek into Lenin’s tomb tomorrow ghoul that I am.

23rd July 2014 Yesterday we visited the Kolomneskaya gardens after sorting out our Sony camera, which had a problem with its viewfinder, we found a repairer but also bought a new Canon as a back up.

Today another huge day starting with poached egg on spinach, eggs benedict and two coffee’s = $50, yes these guys have got the gist of capitalism. Next, Lenin’s tomb, he’s is in there alright, for how much longer we do not know. It was a strange sensation, the crypt was very dark and there must be many accidents on the steps leading down to the body, which is bathed in an eerie glow. As I walked past him he gave me a wink but I don’t think anyone else saw.

Next, went on a tourist bus ride followed by a visit to TSUM, a David Jones +++, but not before stopping at the Kamchatka, opposite for some piroshky almost as good as Mum’s.

On the way back to the Kremlin, in a subway, was a three piece, string quartet. Yes that’s right, a three piece that sounded like four or rather forty musicians. The sound was just great.

The Kremlin, again words escape, many cathedrals, the biggest cannon never fired in anger and a huge Tsars bell.

 

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