Sat 12/07/08 03:26

I’ve made it to Russia, though I’m not sure it’s such a good thing. J

I’m in a b&b outside of Irkutsk, Russia on the shore of Lake Baikal. It’s overcast and about 50 degrees.

One of the things that I would like to write a little about is Mongolia. I left Ulaanbaatar about two days ago, and I’m still thinking about it. Mongolia is one of those countries that most people, if they’re like me, don’t really think too much about. It’s surrounded by two super-powers that seemingly suck away the attention that Mongolia rightly deserves. When I got there I didn’t have any idea of what to expect so I was surprised to find it a great country filled with friendly people. Many people on the tour didn’t enjoy Mongolia the way I did, but for some reason the Mongols treated me differently. I don’t know if it is my blue eyes, or the perma-grin that I seem to wear whenever I’m somewhere new, but whatever the reason, the people were very friendly and seemed to go out of their way to say hello. Speaking of the people, the Mongolian women are absolutely beautiful; nearly all the guys on the tour have made comments along the same lines of how impressed they were with the Mongolian women.

The train ride to Irkutsk:

After our two-day trip from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar on the train, I thought that I’d be an expert on riding the train for long distances, unfortunately though I found out very quickly that was not the case. The Chinese/Mongolian trains are much better run than their counterparts in Russia. Russian trains don’t give any meals, the staff are very rude, and there is no air circulation except for open windows, but with the temperatures fairly warm outside there was no rest from the oppressive heat in the carriage. At least on the Chinese trains they would let us get off the train to buy cold drinks along the way, the Russian train that we were on only stopped twice in about thirty-six hours, long enough for us to get off and walk around a bit. It was kind of funny, the first time the train did stop long enough for us to get off, three of our group were left behind. They said that they saw the train pull away and knew there was no way for them to catch up to it. They ended up catching a taxi to meet with us a few hours later. I actually kind of envied them, two hours less time in the train.

One of the things that I should have expected, but didn’t realize the reality of the situation was the border crossing into Russia. I woke up yesterday morning at 7am, the train was stopped and I had no clue of where we were. As I write this the whole morning is a little bit hazy in my memory. Anyway, I look out the window and the train is surrounded by a security (barbed wire) fence, and I see about 10 soldiers and one dog walking towards us. When they get to the train they start making us get undressed and told us to lean against…. Just kidding, they told us to get into our cabins, get our luggage in front of us, and have our passports ready. It was really a sense of old-world Russia for me, actually it was more like a WWII Nazi feeling for me than anything else. While we were sitting there, we could hear people walking on the roof, and I could see the dog walking along the train. What really surprised me was the compound that they had our train in. Like I mentioned we were surrounded by a fence, but it was really much more secure than just a fence, there were guards posted all over the place, there was more than just one fence, and the locomotive was not there. The only thing in this compound were two train cars and a bunch of shocked tourists… well, at least I was shocked.

So, like I mentioned I’m sitting in bread and breakfast overlooking the shore of Lake Baikal, and I’m trying really hard to think positively about Russia right now. It hasn’t been easy though. Yesterday on one of our stops, I bought a 7-Up and a few waters for later. I was with a couple guys as we made our way back to the train, a Russia guy smiles, points to my 7-Up, and says something that I don’t understand. So in a little bit of confusion I kind of hand it to him… still don’t know why I did that, but he takes it opens it up, takes a drink and gives it back to me and says thank you. What? I mean, What? Never would I have expected that… Kind of funny though.

Like I said, I’m trying to stay positive. This morning at the B&B we had the best pancakes that I’ve ever had in my life… they didn’t look like pancakes though. They were small and very thick, but damn they tasted good.

This afternoon I stayed behind while the rest of the group went to a local museum and a hike up to a viewpoint. I kind of wanted to go, but after the harrowing trip on the train I kind of just wanted to be alone, so I kind of just did some little things like clean up my backpack and write on my journal. I really think it was a good decision in the end. About 2:30 I ended up meeting the group for lunch, and even that went really well, before they showed up I sat in a nice little café sipping on a cappuccino overlooking the lake. It was very relaxing and just what I needed. Later we took a lake tour for about an hour.

For the record, I’ve started to like it here in Russia.

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