Better times through Siberia: Trains, Towns and Taiga

Better times through Siberia: Trains, Towns and Taiga

After only our one night from Vladimir to Yekaterinburg, we felt like old hands getting back on the train. We found our car, had our meat-pie disappointment, and set up the cars for sleeping and got to bed, hushed to sleep by the rocking of the rails.

When we woke in the morning, we faced another long hot day in the train. Luckily, despite it being the same car and the same compartment as the previous trip, we were now on the north side, so far less hot, and we could keep the blinds open. We passed the day reading, playing games and just hanging out. Travelling all day in these sort of cars is actually fun – unlike other vehicles, or even seats in trains, you have enough room to move around and stand up if you want, or lie down for a nap. And travelling as a family of four is perfect, because it remains our private space – bigger or smaller families would have to share a car.

Even though we could now see the scenery, it was not that exciting, to be honest. Between Yekaterinaburg and Krasnoyarsk lies taiga, almost nothing but taiga. But that didn’t seem to matter. On the train, on days like this, nothing really does seem to matter. The motion of the train and window soothes the thoughts and leaves you in quiet contemplation. Even the kids were mostly quieter than normal.

L in the morning
The view didn’t change much
Occasionally there was an abandoned industrial remnant
K was reading, still in her pjs
Playing Pass the Pigs

We did stop a few times – at each long stop there are maintenance workers checking under each car, banging on every device with their one tool, listening for faults. The tracks are busy, with freight and passenger trains passing in the other direction regularly, and for most of the way it’s only a double track, one in each direction. Breakdowns could disrupt the whole system. It is amazing that with these trains that travel for a week a trip, they’re almost always right on time.

At one stop we all got out and got some fresh berries and water, and K took a picture with an old train. Ivo also played a cruel joke on the kids, not coming back to our compartment until after the train was moving. They thought he missed the train and were genuinely scared, so maybe we won’t do that again.

The berry seller, and everyone sticking to the shade
Walking down the platform
K and the old train
More taiga
Crossing into Novosibirsk – the rivers in Russia are huge
The Novosibirsk station

Early on the second morning, we arrived in Krasnoyarsk. On the map, it looked like the hostel was close by, so we walked there – it turned out to be a longer walk than we’d anticipated. And when we got there, again it was hard to find the hostel in the dilapidated looking apartment building, so we had to call. But once we did, we were super happy. There was a lovely, helpful woman who was waiting for us to check in, and a great room and kitchen. We got settled in, and took a bit of a rest. When we ventured out for food, we found a Russian fast food place around the corner.

Leftover Soviet art on the walk to the hostel

I’d planned two nights for Krasnoyarsk, thinking we’d see this museum that great write-ups in the guide on the first day and then the stolby on the second. So, as afternoon dragged on, we headed out to the museum. On the way, we luckily managed to find a new Tangle Teezer brush for K in a random hair products shop that I peaked into (on sale even!).

The river by Krasnoyarsk

Once we got to the museum and paid the small amount to get in, we were somewhat disappointed. We have been spoiled in our lives with some great museums, and, to put it kindly, this was not among them. There were some cool things, like a woolly mammoth skeleton and some communist propaganda and a few cultural dioramas, but it the kids were not enthralled, to put it lightly.

The museum building
The woolly mammoth skeleton
One of the dioramas – life in Siberia
A bride and her trousseau
Not sure about the planes dive bombing the cossack ship
How Russia saw Europe in 1914
Diorama of a ger

Walking back through Krasnoyarsk was interesting. We passed statues and people out in an informal market, including a 3D ride simulator out of the back of the car, and a Mondrian like building. Walking back to our apartment was a bit scary at the end, just because the area around the market was deserted, and we started to talk to the kids about times they really need to pay attention to their surroundings, instead of playing games with each other. But there wasn’t really any danger, just a deserted area.

The full moon over the river
VR experience out of the back of a hatchback
Mondrian building
Kids involved in their fantasy game and ignoring us

The next day , we went to see the stolby, or rock formations in the hills. And unbeknownst to us, to give the kids the best part of the trip so far, for them. Rather later in the afternoon than we got the city bus out to the park area where the stolby are. And then we took the chairlift, which the kids absolutely loved. It was pretty cool, actually, silently moving over the forest.

The playground by our apartment, playing before we left
The ride up – you can’t see the storm chasing us

And we timed it perfectly. Just as we got off the chairlift, it started pouring down with rain. We took shelter in the restaurant with everyone else and waited it out. Others weren’t so lucky – we saw lots of absolutely drenched folks. After it stopped, we went and explored the various paths at the top and the beautiful views before heading back down and into town, picking up groceries on the way to make ourselves dinner. Months later, the kids still think the chair lift was one of the best things about the trip. It’s kinda like getting them presents and them playing with the box – you just don’t know what’s going to appeal. Krasnoyarsk was also like that – we quite liked the city and our time there, and might have easily spent another day or two and seen some of the other sights.

Raindrops in the forest
The stolby. Better tourists than us would have hiked to see them all up close. We didn’t want to miss the last chair lift down.

Pretty wet branches
Looking down at Krasnoyarsk
More stolby that we didn’t walk to
The one the kids did climb on
Going down the chair lift

The next morning we were back on the train for our last night on the train in Russia, heading to Irkutsk. This was the first train where we’d met other foreigners, with a group of young European university students who had been doing a straight shot from Moscow. They had definitely entered into a train state, lulled into rest by five straight days on the train. There was also an elderly couple who looked like long retired British academics, but they weren’t interested in talking to us. It was inspiring that despite their age and less than full spryness, they were still taking the Trans Siberian.

Krasnoyarsk station
Hanging out at the station while I go to try to find stuff for the train
Success! A mini market under more red propaganda
More trees now
Starting to do some school
More of this
Wooden houses along the track
More people walking
The train corridor
Fisheye of the compartment

A settlement as the sun sets
In Russia, they want to make sure you don’t try to beat the train

We got to Irkutsk in the early morning, and headed off to the hostel. We started walking, than figured out that the tram was a super easy and cheap alternative. After some walking, we found the building, our most dilapidated yet. And yet inside, it was a nice hostel. However, they had not read the request for an extra bed, and the too small bed that the kids would share had a paper-thin mattress. We started to look for other options, but they came through and gave us a six person dorm room to ourselves. Since the kids love that arrangement – they both get top bunks! – we went with it.

The building
The door
The reception area inside (from the web)
Our room (stolen from the web)
The playground outside

After catching our breath and eating a bit, we headed out to explore Irkutsk. I’m not sure what I expected, but the name had always seemed exotic to me, ever since playing Risk as a child. And in some ways it was exotic – the elaborately carved wooden houses, some crumbling, some still doing well, gave a definite sense of being in Russia, as did the stores and the market and the crumbling uneven sidewalks and the Soviet era apartment blocks scattered about. But there was also a sense of western American towns in the grid system streets and the sense of being a regional centre for a very remote hinterland. It felt at once very Russian and very familiar to me, if less so to Ivo and the kids.

A restored house
Restored on the right, not so much on the left
Street and tram tracks

We walked through the market, assured the kids that we couldn’t get them a puppy or kitten from those on offer, and then headed to a couple of old museum houses where the Decembrist exiles and their wives and families lived. It was interesting to see the choices that the women made to come be with their men, even in hardship (some of them were literally princesses) and how they built their lives out in Siberia, long before there was a train. The kids, of course, weren’t as entirely impressed, except at maybe the projection of the princess going up the stairs.

Inside the Volkonsky house
Another parlour
Trubetskoy House Museum

For dinner we finally got some vegetables! Highly recommended to anyone, veggie or not, who goes through Irkutsk, especially if you’ve been eating hearty Russian cuisine for long. At Govinda’s you can choose your meal from the selections on offer. We all enjoyed our meal.

Govinda’s (from their FB page) – we were too busy eating
Vegetables! (from their FB page)
And yummy desserts too (from their FB page)

We then headed back to our hostel to sleep. In the morning we’d get the mini bus to Olkhon and Lake Baikal!

(note: I’m about four months behind, writing this in late December, but I like to keep the dates to when it actually happened).

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