As a recap, we set off from Beijing aboard the Trans-Siberian railway. After a stop in Mongolia, we headed onto Russia. On the first two legs of this journey, we shared our carriage with smugglers. For me smugglers conjure up images of shady characters moving illicit drugs and the like. These folks, however, were more like black marketers just trying to make a buck. They toted everything from tea to car parts.

We left off last time just as our smuggling cabin mate departed the train in Russia. We watched as she carted off all her goods for the outdoor market nearby. Before leaving, however, she filled our storage bin full of little blue and white boxes, the sort of boxes checkbooks use to arrive in. We speculated with the other foreigners about what they might contain. “Oh, gosh—maybe they’re chocolate!” one of our friends exclaimed. After nearly 10 hours sitting around a deserted train station, even the most absurd ideas start to sound reasonable. And thus, we all held hope that our storage bin was full of chocolate. Once our smuggler was long gone, our friends gathered around our cabin as we pulled out the storage bin. With our mouths watering in anticipation of chocolate, we discovered it was just a bunch of tea. What a major let down. Who needs this much tea! There were easily 30 boxes in the bin, not one of them containing chocolate.      

Interestingly enough, the tea didn’t make the whole trip with us. We have no idea who entered our cabin or when (a little disconcerting to say the least) but by the time we reached Irkutsk, it was all gone.

When the train arrived in Irkutsk, we immediately caught a cab to the bus station. Several travelers recommended making the trip to Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal and staying at Nikita’s Guesthouse. We didn’t have many days for a stay, but soooooo many folks praised the location that we decided to make the 6-8 hour jaunt anyway. Our trip to Olkhon Island and Nikita’s is one of very few instances on this trip that the hype didn’t meet our expectations. Others hyped it as some sort of paradise. Um no, it’s an island surrounded by a beautiful lake with an ok guesthouse. Sure Nikita’s sports traditional Russian banas, but when you only get to bathe one of four days during your visit the allure of said facilities lessens. The paper-thin walls that allowed us to hear our neighbor’s breathing and the outdoor pit toilet dubbed as a “bio-toilet” didn’t do a whole lot more to convince us our stay was a great value either. However, we could see how the friendliness of staff and camaraderie of fellow travelers could color people’s memories of their trip here.

Shaman rock of Olkhon Island

Shaman rocks of Olkhon Island

If not for Nikita’s, the real reason to head to Olkhon Island is to get a great glimpse of Lake Baikal. Claimed as the largest and deepest freshwater lake, its waters are a fisherman’s dream. Loaded with nearly 30 species of fish, locals eat fish nearly everyday. Not being a huge fish-eater, Chris grumbled at every meal. By our eighth meal of fish, he’d become a little bitter about the cuisine.

Loads of fish in Lake Baikal

Loads of fish in Lake Baikal

Eventually the time came to hit the Trans-Siberian railway again. Like any good train travelers, we picked up some Russian vodka for the long journey. For a little over US$4, we made out with some exceedingly good Russian vodka. Meeting up with our friends in the dining car, we toasted the last leg of our Trans-Siberian journey with a shot of vodka. That first shot was followed by many more over the four day journey.

A toast to a good journey

Having a good time aboard the vodka train

Drinking vodka with friends allowed us a break from our otherwise dismal cabin mate, Mr. Nyet. Russians in general are fairly reserved. Many a traveler told us that after sharing food and drink, their cabin mates warmed up and they had a jolly good time. So when our so called Mr. Nyet entered our compartment we made  niceties in the hopes we’d make a new friend. We gave up all hope though when upon asking him his name, he gave us a stern, “Nyet” (that’s No in Russian). Everything from that moment on was “Nyet”. Nyet to our sausages, Nyet to our vodka, Nyet, Nyet, Nyet. And thus, we started to avoid Mr. Nyet entirely.

Mr Nyet and Jodi

Mr Nyet and Jodi

Siberia itself wasn’t as we expected. We mistakenly thought it was a barren wasteland, but forests blanketed the landscape. Intermingled among the forests, little villages dotted the hillsides. We enjoyed passing by the rustic Russian villages with their wooden shacks and garden plots. At some of the larger towns, the train stopped for 20 minutes or so, just enough time to jump off onto the platform and restock our goodies. Sellers hawked crayfish, ice cream, beer, instant noodles—but not vodka. Nope, vodka is illegal at the train stations. A little fact we thought quite bizarre aboard the vodka train.

More pictures from our journey on the Trans-Mongolian train and Lake Baikal can be found on Chris’ and Jodi’s respective flickr pages.

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