Archive for December, 2006

So, this is Siberia?

I found my hostel.
I drank some tea.
I wondered what the hell a man does with himself in Irkutsk.
I fell asleep.

I woke up a few hours later face first on the kitchen table to see a couple of oddly familiar looking girls. It soon dawned on me that I had seen them one night in the restaurant car during the last leg of the Trans-Siberian but never bothered going over to say hello. They started discussing their need to renew their VISAs, and it dawned on me that I needed to too. Fortunately I had picked up some good advice from a lost hippie who was hanging around the hostel earlier that the Hotel Angara in the city centre performed VISA registration for an unlimited period for a meager 200 rubles, whilst our hostel hostess was trying to charge us far more to only register it for the days I would be staying at the hostel. I saw this as the chance to make some friends and get something constructive done so I pounced and the next thing I was wandering the streets of Irkutsk trying to track down the hotel with Emily and Ellie. The three of us wandered from the hostel to get something to eat, having no idea that we had been snared into a strange web that had been spinning around me and everybody I met. A web which would eventually bring me back in contact with several groups of people I had met at completely unexpected points along the rest of my trip. We compared itineraries and it turned out we all had the same plan of seeing what we thought of Irkutsk before heading down to spend as much time as possible by Lake Baikal, it was clear we would be hanging out for a bit.

As for Irkutsk, well, I didn’t think much of it to be honest. Like so many historical cities worldwide, Irkutsk is now trying too hard to be a modern city and all the new construction and ubiquitous road works have placed a dusty, noisy mask over what is left of the true charm of the city. The highlight of Irkutsk has to be the wooden Decembrist houses scattered throughout the winding streets. The Decembrists (aside from being a rather good band) were a rebel group of Russian army officers who returned to Russia in the early 1800s, after extended periods in Western Europe, with drastically altered views on how their country should be run. Having experienced the more liberal forms of rule there which existed, and succeeded, with far less Monarchist influence they returned determined to make a change to the Tsarist regime which continued to reign supreme in Russia. When Tsar Alexander the 1st popped his clogs in 1825 they saw their chance to seize control, so in December they marched into Senate Square in St.Petersburg with hundreds of their troops and demanded change. Unfortunately, the powers that were weren’t too keen on crazy ideas like democracy, human rights and the elimination of serfdom and on top of those now known as the Decembrists didn’t manage the whole ordeal too well, and in the end 5 of the head honchos were eventually hung (in bizarre circumstances) and everybody else sent off to a lifetime of labour as far away from civilisation as possible. In Siberia. Anyway, to cut a long history lesson short, seeming they were stuck in places like Irkutsk for life, they made the most of it and erected some impressive wooden houses.

The houses have withstood a fair few harsh Siberian winters and many still stand (sometimes only just) today. For many of them the history of the buildings is more impressive than the structures themselves, whilst for others are equal in both appearance and substance. To be brutally honest though, despite my initial intrigue I became fairly numb to them fairly quickly. Maybe I missed the point, but Irkutsk just didn’t hold much more appeal to me after this. I was eager to get to Lake Baikal, a place I have dreamed about going to for years, so I got down to some research and decided that the best place on the banks of Baikal for me to visit would be Listvyanka, a small port town opposite Port Baikal on the southwest tip of the lake. Located just off of the Circum-Baikal railway, Listvyanka sounded just the way to experience Baikal and soak up the unique lakeside culture whilst not straying too far from Irkutsk where I would need to return to in a few days. Luck was on our side and we were offered some (supposedly) nice accommodation at a small art gallery right by the lake for next to nothing and we got an early night in order to get a bright an early minibus to Listvyanka the next day.

Okay, so we didn’t get such an early night and wound up at a horrible Russian Karaoke bar with some Irish lads we met belting back more than our share of Vodkas and I was a bit of a sorry sight at 8am the next day. We delayed our departure a bit and decided we would instead head over and get a group taxi from the Main bus station when we felt up to it. At around 11am we finally set off for Baikal in style; crammed into the back of a minivan laden with backpacks, suitcases and fishermen, nursing the slightest Vodka induced headache. I realized the driver was clearly insane as we hurtled through the busy streets weaving in and out of trams and humans at break-neck speeds and off into the countryside. Once out of the city the road to Listvyanka is as straight as an arrow and lined with beautiful pine forest which I could just about make out as it flew past our window. The ride is about an hour and a half long (whilst traveling at these speeds) and fairly uninteresting unless you REALLY like pine trees. However, as we skidded, tilting around a corner at 1000mph the trees dropped off into the sea to reveal Lake Baikal in all its glory. I was lost for words. For the first time in my trip I wasn’t thinking about what country was next on the list, when my next train left or where I would sleep tonight, I could only stare in wonder at the sheer size and beauty of this lake in the blistering midday Siberian sun. Eventually I managed to blurt out something, which considering I was in the back of an over packed deathtrap of a minivan with a suitcase and large backpack crushing my legs, was a little bit daft:

“Right now, there is nowhere else on this, or any, planet I would rather be”.

I meant it.

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Thailand! Elephants! Party! Yeah!

Okay, I’m going to take a short break from recounting the past to talk about the future. I am all booked on another trip (albeit a very short one) to Thailand over the New Years holiday. It’s not so much of a traveling experience as a quick holiday, but I am excited all the same. The basic plan is this:

30th December: Leave Hong Kong arrive in Thailand and hopefully go out in the evening for a good meal and some night market browsing. No doubt padded out with several beers and some quality banter.

31st December: The big day. Plans are vague but the general idea is to hit the streets of Bangkok during the day and in all likeliness buy far too much Thai memorabilia and have to find a post office to ship it back to my new place in Hong Kong. Then comes the evening. My plan: throw myself into a sea of people and see where the tide takes me.

1st December: A Write off.

2nd December: Early rise and a boat/train/taxi to Ayutthaya for a day of temples and elephants. Well, that’s the plan anyway! For those who don’t know, Ayutthaya is the ancient capital of Thailand and lies slightly north of Bangkok. It is a world heritage site and is famous for is numerous Buddhist temples. Which is the main reason we are going, the other being the opportunity to see those temples on elephant back! After that will be an early night back in Bangkok ready for our AM flight.

3rd December: Back to Hong Kong

That’s right, rushed but crammed full of Thai goodness. I got my flights really cheap on a special VISA card only deal from the mighty Zuji. I am really excited about Ayutthaya, especially if the elephant back tours work out. The elephant camp in Ayutthaya was flooded a few months back and all the elephants evacuated but from my research so far it would seem they are back up and running. It comes highly recommended and they take very good care of their elephants by the sounds of things. This is especially important given the plight of many of the performing elephants in Thailand who are terribly mistreated. As for accommodation I am going a bit up market and staying a proper hotel! It is right on the Khaosan Road (which is, by all accounts, where the NYE party action is at) and seems reasonable in quality and price.

I guess that about sums it up, and I hope some of the above links are useful for anybody planning similar trips any time soon. The only other point of note is that I plan to start my very own one-a-day/project365 photography project on the stroke of midnight ’06/’07. The basic idea is that you take a photograph every day for an entire year and keep them blogged/flickr’d. I love the idea of being able to really document what stands to be a very exciting year for me in pictures as well as expand my photographic skills. I just invested in a new digital SLR (a second hand Nikon D70 with plethora of accessories for a total bargain) and I am slowly becoming comfortable with the myriad of settings and features. I figured it is a perfect way to develop my technical skills as well as test my creativity in having to come up with something interesting and attractive every day for a year. Not difficult during the countdown to 2007 in the centre of Bangkok, but probably a bit more so on the average Tuesday at work.

So there you have it, my New Years in a nutshell. Now back to Siberia…