Day 5 – Khabarovsk to Irkutsk Train Part 2

After sleeping so early, I also woke up early, around 5 am, just in time to catch the colours changing in the sky as the sun was rising.

I made some oatmeal, using a fairly genius device that I brought from home – a silicon loaf pan. Originally I wanted to buy a collapsible bowl from MEC, but decided I wasn’t going to spend $8 on something I wouldn’t use again. Then I decided on a big tupperware container, but its rigid shape took up too much space in my bag. Finally, I discovered my good old loaf pan, shown below. Since the material is flexible, it was easier to pack, not to mention light and can take (and cool boiling water). In fact, the engineer inside me got excited at the potential for heat conduction and convection due to the large surface area (my goal was to be able to cool the boiling water to room temperature fast). 

Some nice views of the journey from the day. It was so pleasant in our compartment for a while, because the family below us had left early in the morning, before we had woken up. Yes, Mayesha and I celebrated when we realized we had the compartment to ourselves for at least a while. It ended up lasting until the next morning, and we were so grateful for our luck.

However, the heat started taking over in the afternoon. The air conditioning stopped working for a few hours, and the carriage heated up to above 32 degrees (yes, there was a there was a thermometer for us to check!). It turns out that the outdoor temperature was to blame. Around 4 pm, our stop in a small town provided a temperature update – our mobile router wasn’t working well enough for us to get much internet access in these remote regions.

Notice the “48 degrees”. I’m not sure if I believe it was THAT hot, but yes it was hot. Even the convenience store at that station was running low on cold drinks.

Despite it being a rough afternoon, I still managed to catch few nice video clips throughout the day.

And later in the evening as the sun was almost about to begin going down (sunset is consistently around 9:30-10 here in Russia…).

We stayed up a little bit later this night, eating cookies and appreciating the views once the carriage cooled to about 26 degrees. 

A reflection on long train rides so far: despite being confined to a small space with people who may commit minor annoyances and despite the lack of fresh air, the sense of having absolutely nothing to do is quite relaxing. You can take your time to eat, enjoy your food, enjoy the company of your travel partner, nap literally the second you feel a little sleepy, and just gaze out the window for hours on end. And it definitely adds to the effect of slow, immersive travel to literally live in the same space as locals from all walks of life. I also enjoy the mild rocking of the train as I’m sleeping, maybe it’s similar to babies that find the rocking of cribs to be soothing.

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Day 4 – Khabarovsk to Irkutsk Train Part 1

Since we would be spending such a long time on the train (57 hours) beginning at 9 am Khabarovsk time and getting off 2 days later at 3:30 pm Irkutsk time, I thought morning run would be a good way to start of the day. It was so peaceful at 6 am that morning, and of course I captured some pictures.

I tried to get some pictures of the hostel once I got back as I was showering and packing up.

Overall, I was really impressed with how clean and comfortable it was at such a reasonable price ($15 CAD per bed per night). For me, it was a pleasant surprise to discover that the shower pressure and temperature were fantastic – a huge contrast from South America. Additionally, another funny thing to me was that there were tons of adults staying at the hostel, even a mother and son (13 year old). We were also the only tourists there, the rest seemed to be locals stopping over at the beginning of the long weekend (the Monday we were leaving, June 12, was a national holiday). Both of those themes persisted as we saw two more hostels later on: great showers and a large number of adults living the dorm life.

Another thing I can recommend about the hostel was that they “registered” our visas with the Russian government for free. It’s required that all tourists have their visas registered within 7 days of arriving in the country, and many other hostels seemed to charge about $8 for this service. It was done within the one day we were staying, and the hostel handed us a small slip of photocopied paper, about a quarter of a letter-sized page. We couldn’t read the Russian text written on it, but trusted that everything was in order.

The walk from our hostel to the platform was a bit of a struggle, since we both embarked with 2.5 days worth of food and a few litres of water each. The water was necessary because the trains only have boiling water available. An idea of mine the previous morning was to freeze our giant 2 L bottles, and usem to keep our perishable food fresh for as long as the were still melting. This ended up being a great idea in the long run, but the 10 minute walk to the platform, up 4 stories of stairs, was definitely a harder workout than my entire run. And see the hot water dispenser below.

Once we were on the train, we noticed that the carriages weren’t as modern as the night before. Our 2nd class compartment didn’t have it’s own set of outlets (we would have to share with the rest of the carriage from 3 outlets stationed along the outer hallway) and the air conditioning wasn’t very strong, but other than that, it was still clean and comfortable.

The train attendant showed us a menu to pick our included meal, expecting to serve us at lunch that day, but we had a different idea. With the help of Google Translate, we convinced her to give it to us on our final day, when we would have already finished our perishable food items. At least there was English available, a snapshot of the first menu page below.

Beyond the one (tiny) included “meal”, options for food for people less prepared than us included snacks sold by the carriage attendant (provodnista) or food at different stops along the way. Offered by the train includes the selection below, with prices on a very helpful (sarcasm) Russian menu. Still not overly expensive when I compare to airports and airplanes.

Regarding stops along the way, the stations and stopping times are conveniently located on a sheet of paper printed in the carriage. 

Some stops are very short, just enough time for someone to begin or end their journey. Other stops are longer, either because it is a planned location for the train to refuel, fill up on water, or receive a change in locomotive, or because it is a major town/city. At the former, you can buy homemade food from locals who go out and sell it on the platform (first picture below). All longer stops also have small convenience stores stationed on the platforms. 

And even very small stations are beautifully designed.

Trains and stations are still a novelty to me so I captured all views from the scenery, to platforms, and more.

And the scenery.

I didn’t think still pictures could sufficiently capture the Siberian scenery, so I also made a series of video clips of the passing nature and small towns.

On our carriage, we were again graced by the presence of many children (6) and had a 5 year old boy, mother, and baby girl below our bunks in our compartment. At times they were very cute, but of course that didn’t make up for the times that they were crying.

What a good big brother, trying to calm the baby sister as their mom was using the bathroom.

In the evening, the train passed through the most beautiful views of the day.

At around 7:30 pm, I was so so tired, either from the jet lag or the 6 am wake-up (or maybe both). The Siberian weather was also getting hotter the further west we traveled, with the air conditioning barely trudging along. At that point, I decided quitting the day would be a good idea and crashed soon after.

Day 3 – Wandering Khabarovsk

I woke up around 7 am after a solid 9 hours of much-needed sleep. Feeling a lot better, I began to notice more about our bunk-mates on the lower beds (we had chosen the upper bunks as they were about 20% cheaper). There was a young mom and 3-year-old son sharing a bunk, and a roughly 30-year-old women in the other. The cute little boy didn’t cry or make a fuss at all, which was absolutely amazing. 

The other lady spoke English, so she helped us order our “included meal” (a very small portion of pancakes or oatmeal, probably 1/2 a Western portion size). She also asked why we were visiting this part of Russia, very surprised that we said “for pleasure and interest”. I think she had a big sister instinct thinking about us, so when we got to the station at 8 am, she offered to show us the direction to our hostel (3 min outside of the train station).

After getting an early check-in to our rooms at Hostel U Vokzala (vokzala refers to station, appropriate for its location) and a quick flip through our guide book, we were off. Since the closest part of downtown was a 20-minute walk away, we decided to skip taking transit and explore by walking. We first walked by the outside of the train station again, another grand-looking building.

And the monument to the founder of the city.

But, we needed our morning sugar rush, and picked up what I would call a massive cookie with jam filling in the center at the supermarket. This type of dessert has been popular, sold at most supermarkets and convenience stores.

We began our walk towards downtown through a long park which stretched all the way towards the river (the end of downtown).

There was a section of beautiful sculptures.

And then we stopped at the city’s central market where we bought sealed smoked salmon for the next day’s train ride. We paid about $5 CAD for 2 meals worth. And it ended up being so tasty!

Afterwards, we made our way to one of the city’s famous local attractions, Lenin Square, named rightly so because of the Lenin statue overlooking the square from across the street.

In the square itself, I had a good laugh at Chinese tourists trying to get the pigeons to pose with them.

The square itself was charming, and a great place for people-watching.

Looking at my Google Maps, as I’m quite obsessed with (I like knowing where I am visually on a map!), I saw a shop labeled “dessert” nearby. Mayesha and I were instantly curious. As can be seen, dessert is clearly a priority in our travels. The shop didn’t disappoint, with about 8 display counters absolutely full of cakes and cookies galore.

After making my selection (3 cookies, a walnut cake bite, and a small chocolate trifle), we were off again to continue wandering. I took some nice shots of the buildings on the main street downtown.

It was now lunch time, and we started poking our heads into cafes and restaurants looking for something at the right price point. We were intrigued when we saw waiters dressed up as jesters serving at a nice outdoor patio. It turned out to be a pizza place with an awesome theme to match.

Feeling very satisfied, we began to head to the riverfront of the Amur River, the named after one of the founders of the city. 

Since it was a Sunday, we had a great time watching the locals enjoy their day off, again most of them wearing jeans. We then walked back towards downtown to take a look at a church located in another of the city’s main squares. I really appreciated the beatiful blue hue of the lower part of the domes.

In the distance, about 15 minutes walk from the city center, we could see another nice church and made it our mission to walk over.

And just next to it, we were surprised to encounter an extremely impressive WWII Memorial, the first of many we would continue to see (excuse the crooked photograph).

Once we got back to the center of the city, we were tired from the large amount of walking and stopped at a nice cafe to grab a coffee.

And then for dinner, we found a cheap fast food place to get $4 set meals. The menu was entirely in Russian so by necessity, this was when I discovered that the “picture translate” function on Google Translate works very well. Either you upload a picture of Russian text, or you hold your camera over Russian text to get a live translation. The live feature is hit or miss, but most of the time you can catch the gist of a phrase or menu item.

By this time, we were both really tired, and took an 8 minute bus ride back to the train station in order to do our grocery shopping for the long 57-hour train ride ahead. I saw the coolest ketchup that I would love to try at some point! But too bad it was so big. Ever heard of walnut and dill ketchup?

My haul for the trip, with prices in case anyone is curious, is as follows:

-3 small prepared salads, $1 each

-A medium-sized case of the best cherry tomatoes of my life, $1.25

-5 small cucumbers, $1

-2 large apples, $1.50

-2 pear-apples, $1

-Spicy dijon mustard (small), $0.50

-Large (600 ml) kefir, $1.50

-3 large carrots, $1

So the prices were extremely reasonable! And I had also already had/brought from Canada:

-Cookies and cake from the bakery that day

-Granola bars, oatmeal, and nuts from home

-Salmon from earlier in the day

After washing the fruit and veggies, we were exhausted and off to bed.

Day 2 – Exploring Vladivostok

The first step for us upon entering the arrivals hall was looking for money. I had tried exchanging currency back in Calgary at Calforex, but both locations, downtown and Chinook center, were pretty much out. I was able to get a meager $15 CAD worth of Russian rubles, so I brought emergency cash of USD and Euros (Euros would be useful later in my trip) to exchange in case my bank card didn’t work at the ATM. 

I ended up using the Posbank ATM, which said that it didn’t charge any fees from their end! Which is quite nice – the ATMs in Panama and Peru charged a decent $7 CAD fee per withdrawal, while Colombia and Russia no fees.

We took the minibus numbered 107 connecting Vladivostok airport with downtown. The airport is actually quite far from the center of the city, and it was over an hour drive. There was also an Airport Express train connecting the airport with downtown, but I thought it would be a nice way to see a little more of the surrounding area from sitting in the bus. I think total fares were fairly similar for each, around $5 one way. 

The bus dropped us off right across the street from the station, and I was left with positive first impressions of most Russian train stations. The building was quite elaborate on the exterior.

We decided to head in, and below is a picture of the inner waiting area. 

From my guidebook, the Trans-Siberian Handbook (more on the book later), we had read that most larger stations had “rest rooms”. We made it our first mission to search for these and showers! The area operates similar to a hostel, where you can rent a dorm or private room to sleep in for 3/6/9/12 hours at fairly reasonable prices. I think it’s $30 CAD for the 12 hour option. You can also pay for just a shower, which is what we each did, about $4 CAD. I was pleasantly surprised at how clean the lobby and shower rooms were, pictured below.

We also stored our bags there for about $3 for the day, and went searching for our internet access for the trip. Unfortunately, neither of us could get SIM cards (a very cheap option – $17 for 16 GB of data with unlimited Whatsapp/Facebook/Instagram – ridiculous!) because Mayesha’s phone is locked and my phone has a broken SIM tray which can’t be removed… oops… After checking their 3 major providers, MTC, Megafon, and Beeline, only one had a wireless router with nation-wide internet coverage and that was Beeline. It worked out to $80 for 20 GB of internet, expiring at the end of 2 weeks, split between us. Coverage is great in the cities, but along the rail line in the middle of Siberia, not so much. I wonder why. 

I sent my parents my mandatory “I’m okay” message, and we headed out to find lunch. We were walking north from the station, in the direction of the main commercial area, and Mayesha stopped at a bank to exchange some USD. It was a very easy and quick process, so another option for getting the local currency.

So many other positive first impressions of Russia and of Vladivostok! First of all, my mom tried warning me that there would be no fresh fruit or vegetables. I took this picture outside the train station just for her. By the way, fresh produce IS available in most supermarkets as well as each city’s “local market” (picture it similar to a farmer’s market except open everyday).

Many people warned me that Russia would be a very backwards country, with few nice things to see, and a grim appearance, but I think the general pictures I took of the city prove otherwise.

For lunch, we decided to try an option in the guidebook, because we expected the city to be not as much geared towards tourists. Therefore, most restaurants wouldn’t have any signage or menus in English, nor someone who could help us translate. I think our assumption on that side was correct. The other thing I was aiming for was food on a budget 🙂 as I had also heard that many restaurants in Russia can be expensive, providing a fancier dining experience. We settled on a typical Russian “cafeteria” where you pay by the serving of food that you choose. It’s all laid out in large buffet dishes, so you just point to what you want as the staff serves you and you place the dishes on your tray. I believe it’s called Stolovaya No 1.

The selection was great: pastas, grains, salads (20 kinds), soups, meat (stewed, fried, battered, in a meatball, covered in cheese). I opted for a cabbage and chicken stew as well as a bowl of borsch, which came out to $2.50 total for fairly small portion sizes. This was my first discovery that one of the cheapest and most abundant foods in Russia is potatoes. There were plenty potatoes in both of the dishes, which in my opinion were serious fillers. I literally got one bite of chicken, and maybe two bites of cabbage, but that was okay because I was saving room for dessert, at $1.50 a piece. On the left is bread crumbs coated with a sweet tangy cream, and on the right is a “Napoleon” layer cake, also with more tangy cream.

After the cake, we were ready to walk. Very close to the restaurant is a beautiful oceanfront boardwalk, and it seemed to be a hot spot with locals on the Saturday afternoon.

As a typical ocean/beach destination, vendors were selling trinkets made with seashells, but most of people wandering around seemed to be locals.

Mayesha and I really enjoyed simply people-watching throughout our day, at lunch and while walking. One immediate observation? Most Russians dress much more formally than we do in North America. In the restaurant, for example, we were the only women wearing leggings or any attire that looked sporty. Despite it being a “cheap” restaurant, locals were wearing jeans at the very least. And again, the locals going for a Saturday afternoon walk, similar to us going to the park, were dressed better than you see some Canadians at the mall.

The ocean views weren’t amazing, but for a landlocked Canadian like me, summer waterfront is a novelty, and I enjoyed being by the sea.

We saw a skate park, and it was fun to watch local boys (no girls yet) using scooters and bikes on a small skate park on the waterfront.

Among the shops selling snacks (especially ice cream and steamed corn), virtual reality experiences were being sold to kids. I would describe it as almost one of those “5D” rides where you sit in a moving chair, while watching a screen. Except in this case, customers wore VR glasses while the ride operator manually moved the chair. I can only imagine what a good workout it is for those guys by the end of the day. I found it too hilarious and made a video.

After leaving the waterfront, we saw a random church and took a detour in our walk to grab a picture. I’ve found so far that all of the religious buildings (mostly Orthodox churches) are beautifully designed, often with gold painted domes. 

I’m also a sucker for nice graffiti.

Next, we walked up to a nice viewpoint of the bridge and harbour. Vladivostok is famous for being fairly hilly and a fairly new suspension bridge crossing part of the harbour. With all these features, I had read that people compare the city to San Francisco.

The bridge behind us is quite unique because of the curved design. It seemed to be one of the most popular attractions in the city, because just as we were arriving, a large Chinese tour group was leaving, and as we were leaving, a large Korean tour group was arriving.

There were tons of locks left (by couples) on the railings surrounding the viewpoint. Pretty heavy duty locks in my opinion.

The views of the harbour portion were really nice as well. This was very unexpected for us in the Russian Far East.

As we were walking down, I found a nice idea for a DIY home gardening project! Who would have known that painted tires make nice planters?

For dinner, we walked back to our lunch spot to try a couple new items and fill up on some solid food before our night train ride. As you can see I was hungry…

We walked the 10 min back to the railway station, picked up our bags, and headed onto the platform a solid 45 minutes before the 9 pm departure. We were quite early, but wanted to be safe for the first ride. It wasn’t too hard to find the right spot, since there are only 6 platforms in Vladivostok. Even with 6 platforms, the whole area felt quite large to me, with one platform stretching long enough for at least 20 carriages. I was entertained taking pictures on the platform. The train below was just decoration.

Below is the outside of all Russian Rail passenger carriages.

When we got on, we were quite tired from the travel, jet lag, and lack of sleep. After observing how small our 2nd class compartment (4 bunks) was, there was time for one picture (I know a little dark) before being lulled into a deep sleep by the rocking of the train. Later on, I didn’t feel like the compartments were too small to be comfortable – it was just a first impression after not having been on a long-distance train for a while. Another nice thing about the train was how clean it was, even the bathrooms (although that could have been because Vladivostok was the train’s departure terminal). 

Overall, we felt like the one day in Vladivostok was just right. It was a long, but rewarding day of exploring without very many “spots to hit”.

Russia Trip! Day 1 – Flying to Vladivostok, Russia

We started off in the the beautiful, quiet lounge at the Calgary airport, eating surprisingly good butter chicken while we had plenty of time to wait for our 3 pm flight to Beijing on Hainan Air. It’s very nice that this one airline does direct flights from Calgary to China. 

The flight was uneventful (a good thing!) as I had quiet, respectful seatmates, traveling back to China to visit family.The interesting thing about flying into China on Chinese airlines is that you are not allowed to use your cell phone at ALL during the flight. Not even on airplane mode. Frustrating when trying to catch up on blogging ;). But at least I was able to tune it to Spotify, discretely hiding my phone and headphones under my good old hoodie.

There was a very cute and creative eye mask given to us on the flight, even in economy class, with labels indicating whether you wanted the attendant to wake you up for food or not.

We booked our second flight from Beijing to Vladivostok under a separate ticket with a major Russian airline, Aeroflot. I know, risky in case the first flight is delayed or cancelled, but we left 9.5 hours scheduled layover time to be as safe as possible. When planning the trip, starting in the east of Russia and heading west (flying to Asia and from Europe) would be the cheapest. Later on, when we told people about how we had gotten in to Russia, they seemed surprised we had chose the Russia – Vladivostok route. 
Our plan was to hang out airside in Beijing Airport’s Terminal 2, where our first flight landed and second flight was taking off, but for some terrible reason, we weren’t able to use online check in to get our boarding passes for the second flight. Off through immigration and out past security we went!

We tried to check in and get boarding passes for our second flight immediately, but eventually found out that check in counters only opened 3 hours in advance. We would have to spend 5 hours landside waiting. An ice cream from the typical Family Mart convenience store eased my frustration. 

Finally, at 11:30 pm Beijing time, we were able to check in for our 2 am flight, and proceeded past security. Thank goodness the Priority Pass accessible BGS Lounge was still open, where we relaxed until the flight. 

In typical big-airport fashion, there was a traffic jam on the runway and once we boarded our plane, we had to wait an additional 2 hours to take off. By this point, I had been awake for over 24 hours with maybe 2 hours of sleep, and I barely noticed the extra time on our flight to Vladivostok. 

The Aeroflot plane itself was similar to other planes I had been on, minus the much taller flight attendants. Juice, tea, or coffee was provided twice during the flight as well as a chicken sandwich with mayo – tons of mayo! It was a taste of the plenty of mayo to come, as Russians love their creamy sauces.

Since we were leaving around 3 am and arriving in Vladivostok at 7 am local time, I got a great view of sunrise from the plane.

And then when were landing, I was surprised by how lush and green it was outside.

After the disappointment in Beijing, having to wait outside security (it was a zoo) for so long, arriving in Vladivostok was anticlimatic. We had both been asked questions going through immigration in Beijing, and we expected some sort of questioning at Russian customs. Turns out, we were out of the airport within 15 minutes of arriving. It almost felt too easy… 

Why I Stopped Updating the Blog

I have a few good reasons and a few not so good reasons.

Good reasons: 

1. My phone had a very bad software glitch, to the point where it kept restarting itself every 30 seconds (not long enough to do anything with it). So I spent a few days troubleshooting and eventually restoring the phone to factory default to get it working again.

2. For some reason, most of the hotels we stayed at (cheaper ones) had very slow Wi-Fi speeds

Not good reason:

1. I overplanned our itinerary and I didn’t have as much spare time :). And I generally started getting tired and taking more naps

Going forward, I’m going to try my absolute hardest to get back on track!

Day 19 – Lima Viewpoint and Sunset ATV Tour

We started the day at 7 am with the PeruHop bus picking us up from our guesthouse. PeruHop is a unique bus company for traveling through Peru because it allows you to hop on and off at any destination according to how long you want to stay at a place. Most passengers travel either south from Lima or north from Lake Titicaca, Cusco, or Bolivia I believe. The most remarkable thing about the company that I found is that it helps you book accommodation and tours at each destination. You could literally have nothing booked and no travel plans when beginning the trip, and still have a fantastic time (on a tight budget).

Now on to our first stop, we visited Cristo del Pacifico, “the Christ of the Pacific” to get a nice view of the city and the ocean. Some of the adjacent neighborhoods were very poor, as shown by the poor condition of the houses.

The statue itself, known by local Peruvians to have a  disproportionately small head, is in the background. Peru is a very religious country and we’ve seen many Catholic churches, statues of Jesus, and churches during our trip.

More cityscape.

When PeruHop was giving us our briefing of what to expect in the following days, they also gave us cool wristbands to identify us as their passengers.

The next stop, about 200 km south of Lima was to see the Chincha slave tunnels. This is where African slaves arrived and then lived during Spanish colonial times. We saw the grand colonial house where many slaves worked.

Slavery was not completely legal, and in order to have more slaves, the family owning the house built tunnels for the slaves to live and hide from the government. The tunnels were quite small and extremely dusty – we were all coughing down there. In my opinion, it would have been fun to peak my head in and out, but the guide was talking down there for a solid 15 minutes. My mom was not impressed.

Afterwards, we rode on the bus another hour south to Paracas where we would be spending the night. We opted for a late lunch after arriving at around 2 pm at Paracas Restaurant – there was a set menu provided for PeruHop passengers with our wristbands. It came with appetizer and main for around $12 CAD. Byron ordered the ceviche appetizer and I took a picture if how it’s supposed to look nicely plated rather than my giant container of leftovers I shared from the night before :P.

At 4 pm, we began an ATV tour to the Paracas National Reserve. Paracas is famous for its desert landscape, beautiful coasts, and abundance of sea and bird life caused by ocean currents which bring a huge amount of nutrients to the area. We were told the 2-hour tour beginning at 4 pm was strategic in order to catch an amazing sunset. 

I think I look pretty awesome with my shades, GoPro head strap, and helmet.

Feeling the wind in the open air was so nice, despite the bumpy ride.

Man, I’m always a sucker for the beach. I found the waves crashing against the shore so beautiful.

And our crew of ATVs parked at the beach.

As the sun was setting, the desert sand seemed to almost glow.

We descended to a second beach for our second stop in the National Reserve. The colours were really changing in the sky.

Finally, we got to the beach to enjoy the view some more. As with many desert areas, it was getting very cold and windy as the sun set, so I also began to layer up.

It’s moments like these that make me wish that 1) I was travelling with a better camera and 2) I knew how to use a better camera to capture great sunrises and sunsets. 

We stayed a little too long savouring the views so it was pitch dark by the time we got back and street lights were not abundant on the road. That was especially fun for me without headlights. Overall, it was great value at about $30 CAD pp for the tour. And it was neat to see my mom step out of her comfort zone and ride an ATV on her own!