Thursday, December 01, 2016

Trans-Mongolian Adventure - Part 3 - Siberia

As Amy and I left the rolling steppe of Mongolia, the Trans-Mongolian Adventure really kicked into high gear. We still had thousands of miles to cover, and many stops to make.

Our first stop in Russia was Ulan-Ude, the capital city of the Russian Republic of Buryatia. Most tourists know of Ulan-Ude because it is home to the world's largest bust of Lenin. But, the inhabitants of this region are far more interesting than this rather banal record. This area is the ancestral home to the Buryat Mongols and was later captured by the invading cossacks.

It is also home to the largest population of "Old Believers", a faction of the Russian Orthodox Church created by a schism of ideology. The old believers initially fled from central Russia to the remote wilderness of Siberia, and they can now be found all over the world.

We wanted to learn more about this interesting group of people, so we took a tour of the countryside, and were able to have a homemade lunch with a practicing member named Ducai.

Many of the traditional Siberian homes are painted with bright colors. The residents explained that the winters are so harsh and cold, that they do anything they can to add some cheer to their day, including painting their homes.

After our quick stop in Ulan-Ude, we found ourselves back on the train speeding towards Lake Baikal, the largest body of fresh water on the planet.

Lake Baikal is impressive, but our first views of the lake were obscured from the smoke of a massive forest fire that was raging near the border of Russia and Mongolia.

The scenic train stopped at a few remote villages as we traversed the edge of the lake. The scenery was beautiful, but the best part of the stop was the villagers home made pirozhki and cedar vodka!

The train ended at Port Baikal and we ferried over to the lakeside town of Listvyanka. Even though it is a small town, Listvyanka receives the majority of tourists heading to Lake Baikal. Because of this, the once quaint town is littered with roadside attractions and tourist magnets.

You'll find plenty of visitors at the beaches of Lake Baikal, but only the die-hard go swimming. The water is almost perfectly clear, and absolutely freezing!

Random sculptures along the lake waterfront lead us to the Museum Retro Park, a homemade sculpture garden, and vehicle cemetery. The father-son team that resides here have spent years creating whimsical figures and creatures out of scrap metal and parts from old vehicles. Sprinkled between the massive collection of sculptures are old Russian vehicles and motorcycles. I've wanted to get my hands on a Ural with a sidecar for a long time, but unfortunately, none of these were for sale.

Before leaving Listvyanka we explored remote parts of the town and visited the seal "nerpinary". The Baikal seal or Nerpa seal is the only exclusively freshwater seal in the world. The "nerpinary" is an aquarium where performances by trained seals take place. The seals are adorable, and it is nice to know that the nerpinary supports seal conservation efforts.

A short bus ride from Listvyanka is one of the largest cities in Siberia, Irkutsk. Irkutsk has become home for exiles. Whether it was artists and scholars from the Decembrist Revolt against Tsar Nicholas I or fleeing Bolsheviks, by the end of the 19th century, one in three people in Irkutsk was in exile. These people left their mark on the area with the beautifully constructed wooden houses that can be found throughout the city.

Our time in Irkutsk was far too short, and I long for the day that we can return for another plate of Beef Stroganoff from Rassolnik. But, the trains in Russia don't wait, and we had to make an early morning dash to the station so that we could catch our twenty-eight-hour train to Novosibirsk! (complete with The Scorpions Wind of Change playing in the cab).

After completing the marathon train ride we arrived in Novosibirsk. Even though it's the third largest city in Russia, Novosibirsk does not feel like a big city. Maybe that's just my inner Hong Konger speaking, but the city did not feel crowded, or even loud. With only a single night before another marathon train ride, we found a Georgian restaurant and feasted on Khachapuri!

After another twenty plus hour train ride, we finally arrived in Yekaterinburg. This city is infamous because it is the location of the Romanov Family execution. The "Church on Blood" was built on the spot where the family was murdered. Icons in the basement of the church depict the family as holy saints.

In spite of the tragic history associated with the Romanov Family, Yekaterinburg has a very pleasant and even whimsical feeling about it. In addition to the classic Siberian homes, one can find art throughout the city. And, if you're hungry, you can even get a stellar meal with a magic carpet riding cat at Pashtet!

The following day we journeyed to the natural land border between Europe and Asia. Even though the "border" is somewhat anti-climactic, we had champagne with us, and that turns the most boring of events into a party! In addition, it was neat to see that Hong Kong had sent gifts to Russia.

We ended our stay in Yekaterinburg with a visit to Ganina Yama, a monastery complex built on the site where the Romanov family member's bodies were first discovered. It's taken decades for the mysteries surrounding the Romanov family to be uncovered, and the number of churches, shrines and tributes reveal the incredible impact the execution of this family had in Russia.

Next, we travel to Kazan, Vladimir, Suzdal, Moscow and Saint Petersburg!

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