Vodka, huskies and a good slapping!
Another one of the great entries for ‘Best Written Piece’ in our Vodkatrain Traveller Awards. This account of a Siberian adventure is written by India Parish and you can read more about her Ruski Huski journey on her blog ‘A backpack, a camera and the awaiting world!‘.
‘Vodka, huskies and a good slapping!’ by India Parish
“Where are you from?”
“Australia” I reply.
“What are you doing in Russia?” they all reply incredulously.
Yes, February is an unorthodox time of year to travel through Russia, but if it is an authentic Soviet experience you seek, you could not choose a better time.
Travelling 7,857 kilometres from snowy Moscow to smoggy Beijing is a once in a lifetime opportunity! Enchanted by the scenery of Russia in winter, tales of the great warriors of Mongolia and a desire to stand on the historic Great Wall of China, the seventeen days with Vodkatrain is a must.
Home to eleven million people, Moscow shows off its wealth with beautiful women parading about in expensive fur coats and hats, and children happily skate on the ice rink in Red Square. You can attempt to keep up with the locals as they guzzle vodka like it is water, or you can survive the cold with endless cups of strong, sweet Russian tea in grungy underground cafes. Cabbage and potatoes feature in every winter dish but don’t let this deter you. The soviet-style donuts will melt in your mouth – but let’s face it, after copious shots of vodka what does anything matter?
Laden with multiple cups of noodles and instant mash potato, the essential pack of cards and a good book, I settled into my cabin with my three new friends. This cosy, overly warm four-bunk cabin is our home for the next four days. The hours somehow blur together as you attempt to amuse yourself. The imperious buildings of Moscow quickly transform into rolling fields of white as you race through the countryside, rattling your way towards Siberia.
Choosing to be confined to a train for four days isn’t for the faint hearted, nor does it seem to attract sensible, run-of-the-mill folk. Our carriage was filled with many colourful characters that kept us more than amused. One such traveller was an African woman who wore a leopard print jumpsuit the entire journey clutching her grumpy flat-faced cat. At the main stops she carried it like a baby, walking up and down the frozen platform muttering “bad mummy”. Was she regretting exposing the cat to sub-zero conditions? Or, perhaps that she was doing the exercise on behalf of the cat? Or was she having second thoughts about taking her doleful cat on an endless journey into Siberia? We never found out.
On first impressions, the Russians are severe and standoffish. However, given a glass of vodka to warm up and instantly their icy facades melt. Before you know it, they are treating you like long-lost family members. Lying in our cabin late one night, our door swung open with a clatter. “Russia! Australia! Friends!” A twenty-something boy with slick hair and tight tee shirt stood grinning with his arms high in the air, waving a bottle of Rum and a bottle of Coca Cola like just-won trophies. We looked blankly at each other, mouthing do we know him? No, we whispered. Oblivious to our bewildered expressions, he plonked himself on a bottom bunk and poured five very large rum and cokes. His few words of English and our few words of Russian made for an interesting rum-filled night.
A rap on the door startled us out of our peaceful sleep. “Irkutsk” grumbled the sour-faced conductor. Have four days really zipped by? Bleary eyed, we stumble out of bed wriggling into our thermals and layers of clothes, snow jackets, beanies, gloves and scarves. Excited to finally get away from the confines of the train, we are shocked by the minus twenty-four degree air temperature on our face. Our local honcho waves to our small group and guides us through the icy platform to our waiting van.
Irkutsk is one of the largest towns in Siberia and is heavily industrial. Peering through the ice patterns adorning the van’s windows, everything seems a different shade of white. Continuous plumes of vapour stream out of the cars as the locals show off their driving skills on the icy roads. After registering our passports with the government, we drive an hour and a half to Listvyanka, a tiny colourful town nestled beside the frozen Lake Baikal. Siberia’s main tourist draw card, this great lake is not only the deepest in the world, it contains twenty percent of the world’s drinking water.
At the small market the friendly locals sell trinkets and smoked fish. I skip the fish and order a delicious Russian Blini – thin pancakes with strawberry jam. After thawing a little, we pull on our heavy winter coats and walk around the lake to a dog sledding centre.
Walking into the yard, the dogs excitedly bound around, barking and howling, hoping to be picked for a run. Siberian huskies are quite different to what we imagined. They have a sleek coat and different eye and fur colours. Once the lucky dogs had been chosen and put into two teams, the instructor gives us a brief driving overview. “When they go left, you left. When they go right, you right. This brake, OK?” he mumbled in rough English. I nod cautiously and step up to the sleigh, unsure of what to expect. Just as I grab hold of the bar, someone yells a command and the dogs bolt. Off we fly as I grip on for dear life. As we pelt along at an alarming speed, I get whacked in the face by a low branch and almost thrown off several times as we wind down the slope. The icy wind makes your nose and lips feel like they will fall off your face, but this crazy ride has to be the highlight of anyone’s Siberian experience.
Never had I imagined I would enjoy a hike in minus thirty degrees, but after climbing treacherously icy paths to the top of the hill, the view across this unique and stunning frozen landscape is extraordinary.
On our last night in Siberia we experienced a traditional Banya (sauna). At first we sat in our bikinis in the stifling hot sauna room until we could barely breathe. Entering a cooler room, we gulped in the cool air and sipped hot tea made from local herbs and flowers. Back in the sauna, it was my turn to lay face down on a bench and receive the full birch twig treatment. A person smacks you all over with a bunch of twigs held in each hand, stopping only to whirl a towel in the air, which feels like a wall of fire blasting you. After turning over and being smacked down my front, face and all, I woozily stood up as he finished the job by covering both sides simultaneously. After more towel twirling and smacking, and just as I felt like I was about to faint, I was guided outside and instructed to lie in the snow and roll back and forth. Buckets of snow were thrown on me, as I rolled over and over, giggling uncontrollably.
You would think running outside wearing only a bikini in minus thirty degrees would bring instant death, but it actually felt incredibly invigorating and refreshing. Your body temperature starts to drop pretty quickly, so back inside you go, wet hair stuck to your face, hair full of frozen icicles and frizzy from the heat, looking like a wild banshee. Speckled all over with leaves and sticks, you sit inside drinking more tea, watching your body heat visibly turn to steam. No doubt it’s a unique experience and supposedly very beneficial! Maybe this is why the Russian women are all so beautiful?
After such unique adventures, it was time to pack up and head back to Irkutsk to board the train to Mongolia. The Mongolian conductors were smiling and friendly, quite a contrast to their Russian counterparts. Although the bunks and pillows feel like slabs of concrete, I am falling asleep gazing out the window as the moonlit snow-covered paddocks become a continuous silver blur. Another thirteen hours until we reach the Mongolian border. What surprises will Mongolia bring? I dream of Genghis Khan and the infamous Hun warriors galloping alongside the train.