Taking the Trans Siberian train was one the reasons why we set off on ths trip. In the end we travelled from Irkutsk to Omsk over two nights and one day.
Irkutsk was not only our gateway to Baikal but also to the mountains. Since none of us had spent much time researching, planning and looking for places to visit before we left, we decided to travel at random and take what comes. And for this reason we found ourselves travelling towards the Sayan mountains.
Once we arrived to Arshan, we marvelled at the freshness of the air and absence of the dust. Also the prices, it was the cheapest place we’ve visited so far. We left sorting of accommodation once there, and it turned out very easy. As soon as our bus arrived it was surrounded by many people offering accommodation.
One lady with a notice board that stood out among the rest, it read: wifi, took us home. We had dry toilet in the out house and water container attached to a tree, but a porch where we could reach the wild wide world.
Originally we wanted to take a train from Vladivostok as it is the start or the finish of the Trans Siberian Railway. But then we thought differently of spending four days on the train and decided to fly. We landed in Irkutsk just before midnight, our hostel was booked, so the only thing we needed was a nice taxi. We decided to spend two nights and one day here, enough time to see it all and organise our following journey.
Irkutsk was founded in 1661 on where river Irkut meets Angara. Since its first days the city had two main functions. Firstly it was religious centre of Siberia, Muslim, Jewish, Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches were all placed here. Its second role was a starting place of all tsar’s and exploring expeditions to Siberia. It was also a place through which many caravans to China and Mongolia passed. In mid 18 century it had 13 churches, in the years 1945 to 1956 up to 600 000 Japanese war prisoners lived here.
Our exploration was very random. We started with a visit to local tourists centre located among beautiful historic wooden buildings. We wanted to see more, sadly Irkutsk turned out not to be a town full of picturesque wooden buildings with lace like features around window frames and under roofs.
Later we found out that in July 1879 a big fire lasted three days during which 3 500 wooden buildings were burned as well as 105 brick ones. 15 000 people lost their roof. The heath was so strong that a church bell made of coper melded and dropped to ground in a heap which weighed 1000 pud (about 16 500 kg).
Following this, wooden building within the town centre were banned, within two years most was rebuilt in stones.
To give our exploration some direction we decided to follow a statue trail from the map. This allowed us to see an interesting mixture of architecture styles of old, new, nice, ugly, wooden and stone, embarkments, and of course, we met a tourist, too.
City is city, it has been great four days, but then there was time to move somewhere else. Once we had a glance on the map of the Bay of Peter the Great, it was very clear where would go next. There were several islands in the bay and we chose two, Popov and Reineke. Later we realised that we would only be able to go to Popov as there weren’t any ferry tickets left for Reineke.
The ferry timetable makes it impossible to visit it as a day trip, and so we ended up going on Wednesday night,, returning on Saturday night. The tickets were cheap, 54 RUB per person, about 80pence for two hour journey, the accommodation not so. We were lucky and the lady in the tourist centre at the ferry port helped us to book an accommodation. All what we knew was, that we were to stay in a base, which used to be pioneer camp called Mama Sacha. The Russians always used to go on such holidays and still do, at sea sides, in the mountains or forests there are many “baza oddycha” “base of rest” where people spent days and weeks. Some are basic, some are more comfortable. For us, as we have never been here, they are a bit like a lottery.
Once we boarded the ferry we stepped into a movie. We left Vladivostok while the sun was falling down. The town spread over the hills was reflecting in the water of the Golden Horn Bay. The sea gulls were following the boat. The Tokarevsky lighthouse was at the east of the East Bosphor Strait, the bridge to Russkij Island was sparkling in the west. However as soon as we went under the bridge the skye changed to dark clouds followed by fog.
For the next hour and half we didn’t see anything until we landed on the island. The first thing what we saw was the fences. Then as we were descending the from the boat following the rusty gang way there were cars and people everywhere with high activity. Yet, we could not see anything as someone decided to park in the middle and shine his headlights towards everyone’s eyes.
Within few minutes most fellow passengers were distributed among the waiting vehicles. Only us no one wanted to take or drop off. Our “Mama Sacha?” was coming to deaf ears, until one said yes. And off we went in the dark of the night at hight speed towards nowhere. The road was dusty lined by very dusty looking trees. Just when we thought that we were being highjacked, we stopped and some outlines of hut appeared among the trees.
We were shown our hut and went to sleep. Only in the morning we looked around. Conditions may be quite hard for some, but we don’t really care. We came to see and take what we’re given. Our hut was wooden, and so was the toilet, outside, of course and dry. Water tasted wonderful but not from the taps. The paths were marked by white shells. We were based on the hill and had nice view over the whole bay and sea.
Three main things are on the island, the sandy beaches, rocky shores and trees surrounded by clear clean sea. After few minutes on the beach we decided to indulge in some coasteering while walking towards a headland.
The next day the fog returned and we decided to visit local museum dedicated to sea life. Sadly local history isn’t really discussed here. But in the past it was a place where the Japanese, Korean and Chinese pirates lived. Then, since the end of the 19th century the Russians started to live here. And Mama Sacha according to a tale means Black Land bellow the Only Star.
Our stay on Popova was like a movie. The base was run by two ladies, and they had a young guy with them, who they run by very firm hand. His name was Sergey, and we heard it called very often. On Friday evening the ladies decided to have Russian sauna “baňa”, so they asked us whether at the end of the wet foggy day we would like to have sauna, someone needed to pay for the wood. Well, we had nothing to loose and said yes. Sergey started the stove. We had an hour and it was absolutely great. When it became too hot, we decided to cool down outside as well as with the cold water. So we were standing outside wrapped into our sheets drinking cold water watching the leaves moving in the evening wind. Suddenly the stillness of the evening was broken by a scream “Sergeej!”. And soon high activity started again, there were at least five pigs that broke into the camp and the ladies wanted them gone. So Sergey came and started to chase them off, as well as the two ladies, the family from the hut next to ours, and my mum. Michal and I finished our glass of water, went inside to have the last run of the sauna, and then let the ladies to have a go. Unfortunately tomorrow morning we have to leave.
It all started sometime ago by one email from my mum. She sent me a random presentation with photos of the Trans Siberian Magistral with one little word, which read: ” Are we going?”. She may have expected the answer “Of course”, what she didn’t expect that it would be now, this year, this Summer, in this year. Firstly I had to convince her that the Port of Vladivostok is no longer shut to people from outside. Something many may not realise nowadays, but the town was indeed shut to outsiders, including Russians until mid 1990’s. Next, was to calm her down, that we could get visa and travel freely similarly to what we’ve done last year and no, we won’t need to spend times at police stations trying to register. After that everything was piece of cake.
However, our original plan has changed quite a lot. We moved on from the original not so original idea of travelling via the rail from Moscow to Vladivostok to going the other way. And so, one Saturday in July saw us boarding a plane in Prague direction Vladivostok with change in Moscow. We will be travelling from the east towards west via Baikal, taking return flight from Omsk, where ever that is.
Although Vladivostok is a fairly new town built in the second half on the 19 century, it escaped the strict linear architecture common in new towns of that era. Russian navy reached the Bay of Peter the Great in the 1860 a decided that this natural harbour with its many volcanic hills would be the best for the new port. They were looking for the gateway to the east to the Pacific Ocean.
Not wanting to take any risks and following their experiences of loosing Port Arthur to Japan construction of new fortification was started at once. The fortress of Vladivostok was to become the largest in the world and the most modern in its era, only the best military engineers were used.
The fortification was around the new port, on surrounding hills and islands, mostly Russkyj. It served its purpose and Japan has never managed to take it. The new town quickly became cosmopolitan and attracted new people from all over the world, but also many from its closest neighbours, Japan and China. Before 1936 they all lived in a borough called Millionka named according to the number of people living there. Nowadays the many oriental restaurant remind of their presence.
The changes in Russia in the 1920’s and after second world war brought changes to Vladivostok, which became shut to the outside world. This might be the reason why the atmosphere today is so different to other places we’ve visited so far. The town feels calm, yet in the four days we spent here we were not bored once and still there are many places we haven’t seen.
We couldn’t find any tourist guide, but one map, and so our exploration was rather random. Travelling through the town was easy due to its extensive bus network, buses although not always listed on relevant bus stops were frequent, cheap and stopping everywhere. And if we were in any doubt, the locals were always more than happy to help.
At some point we just indulged in travelling by random buses through unknown places, yet arriving exactly where we wished to be.
The shores of Vladivostok are washed by three bays, Amur, Ussurij and Golden Horn. Along those are working and naval harbours as well as pebble or sandy beaches, and places to walk, relax, have coffee and beer and so on.
Yes, we arrived to Vladivostok by plane, yet we couldn’t resist taking photos of the last kilometre of the Trans Siberian Railway. It was started in 1891 and finished in 1916. The train station here is a copy of the one in Moscow. There’s one more thing which is was a bit of a surprise to us, all train tables and time at the station are in Moscow time, some seven hours behind.