The train trip from Ulan Bator to Irkutsk, two nights and one day, was a promising start of my trans-Siberian journey. I shared the four-bed compartment with three jovial Mongolians. They occupied the small table right away by piling up an enormous stack of tupperware boxes filled with food. I had the lower bunk, which meant it also served as seat for other people. It was pretty late at night, so after a brief acquaintance I kindly requested them to go sit on the opposite side so I could sleep. Some time later, when I was already dreaming about Mongolian steppes and galloping horses, my sleep was interrupted. Someone was sitting on my bed, and people were chatting loudly and obviously drinking vodka. I though, "Oh man, did they really have to throw a party at one o'clock in the morning?". But then after a while of fruitlessly trying to get back to sleep, I realized the best thing to do when a party is bothering you, is to just join it. I opened my eyes, pretending to just wake up, and found myself staring right in the eyes of the fattest, loudest and most enthusiastic of my roommates. "Hello, you drink?", he shouted. I rubbed my eyes, acting as though I still didn't understand completely what was happening: "Uhm? What?" -"Drink! Vodka!" -"Oh, well, yeah, why not..." Half an hour later we were best friends, drinking, laughing and eating. They kept offering me delicious meat with an awful lot of fat, and I just chewed away for hours. When the second bottle was empty, around three, we all went to sleep. I opened my eyes around twelve: "Hello, you drink?" - this time, I declined. They drank, a lot, and went back to sleep in the afternoon. Which meant they were very awake again all night...
The next morning, I arrived in Irkutsk. I was in Russia! I was in Siberia! "-33°C", the thermometer outside the station told me. Luckily, I didn't have too much trouble taking the tram and finding the hostel. My train to Moscow wasn't until the next evening, so I had two days to achieve my main goal: to see Lake Baikal, the most voluminous freshwater lake in the world. I was tired and it was misty, and there were no other travelers in the hostel, so it didn't seem like the right moment. I stayed in for the morning, taking a shower and a nap. In the afternoon, I went walking around in the city. It was about -25°C when I went out. "This is not so bad", I thought at first. But after a while, the cold started creeping in, and my face froze completely. Luckily, there were a lot of well-heated churches - I must have seemed a very religious man that day. I was surprised how nice a city Irkutsk actually is. The churches are beautiful, and it's not all Soviet gray; there are quite a few buildings in 19th century architecture, and also some authentic wooden houses. With all the churches and Western style buildings, I felt that I was getting closer to Europe.
The next morning, a new guest had arrived. He was a solo traveling Englishman, about my age, and at least as crazy. He had been bitten by a dog in some village some days before, and he hadn't been able to find a rabies shot. As the clock was ticking, he had less and less chance of being cured if he was infected by the dog, but he still insisted on going to lake Baikal with me first. He was also planning on going dog-sledding, which sounded like a pretty cool idea. So off we went - it was even colder that the day before, a good -30°C I think. We had gotten instructions to get a tram and then a minibus to the lake. We went to the tram stop and waited, and waited, in the freezing cold, and it wouldn't come. So we thought we'd just walk, to keep warm. We ended up spending three quarters of an hour outside, which was a pretty interesting experience. I was dressed with plenty of layers (including thermal underwear with wolf hairs), so my body was pretty warm. The problem was my face, the only exposed area. Below -15°C, your own breath starts freezing inside your nose every time you inhale, which is pretty annoying. My eyelids seemed frozen as well, so that my eyes were half open at all times. We both had a beard, and by the time we got on the bus, they were completely white, just like our eyebrows and eyelashes - we looked like two crazy Santa Clauses. The weather was better than the day before, but when we arrived at the lake, it was covered by a thick layer of fog. There we stood, at the oldest, deepest, and one of the biggest lakes in the world, containing roughly 20% of the world's surface's unfrozen fresh water...and we couldn't see further than a few meters. "Okay, let's go dog-sledding then", we said. We arrived at a wooden house next to dozens of barking dogs who were tied to small doghouses. After a tea, I was the first one to put on a warm overall and stand on the back of the dog sleigh, with the driver sitting in front of me. After a few quick instructions (lean left when we go left, lean right we go right, stand on the break with both feet to stop), we were off. Pulled by seven dogs, we slid elegantly through a small piece of beautiful Siberian taiga. Although it wasn't as fast as I had hoped, I had to concentrate to keep my balance while the sled swung trough the narrow trail. The ride took about fifteen minutes. It was short and expensive, but I'm glad I did it, and I can imagine it must be a really beautiful experience if you do it for a couple of hours. It was very cold as well, though. My hat was a bit small, and my right earlobe stuck out. By the time we came to a stop, it was frozen solid. It didn't fall off, but it did hurt for a couple of days.
That night I started the longest train journey of my trip: four nights and three days from Irkutsk to Moscow. I hoped it would a similar experience to the UB-Irkutsk leg, and armed myself with a bottle of vodka and tons of food to compete with the other passengers. This time, I was traveling third class, so I thought the atmosphere would be even more festive. The first two days, I was in company of two young guys who just came back from their army service in Siberia. They were pretty shy. I really had to win them over by teaching them some card games and offering them some food and vodka. It was the wrong way around, and, I must I admit, kind of disappointing. But I still enjoyed being in the train, as I always do. Siberia flashed by through the window; I could spend hours just watching the beautiful snow-covered taiga and occasional villages with wooden houses. The two army boys left during the second night. From then on, as we had left Siberia and were in the European part of Russia, people would start coming and going more frequently. Some were nice and social, other's weren't. In the afternoon of the third day, a really drunk Russian couple came in. He was very fat and noisy, and probably around fifty years old, and she was blond and rather pretty, and probably much younger. I laughed a lot with the man, although he didn't really speak English that well, but after a while he started annoying me. Luckily, I could turn my attention to other people. There was one other young army guy who was very interested in me, and we spoke quite a lot, as far as was possible with the language barrier. He ended up giving me a helmet, worn in tanks, which he had stolen from the army - kind of cool. He warned me explicitly that I should hide it well when crossing the border.
After three days and four nights in the train, at five o'clock in the morning, I arrived in Moscow. I was a bit afraid that the taxi I ordered wouldn't show up and that I would be stuck in some shady railway station in the middle of the cold Russian night. Luckily, he was waiting for me on the platform, and I arrived at the hotel safely. I was excited: I would see my Russian friends, with whom I had had such a good time in Delhi! My former roommate was studying in Moscow, and the girl from Saint-Petersburg - the very first person I had met on my trip, at Delhi airport - had come over so that we could spend some time with the three of us. They came to my hotel later that morning, after I had taken a good nap and shower. It was great to see them again. They showed me around Moscow, but I was so happy to see them that I barely paid any attention. "Oh wow, Red Square, cool...anyway, so tell me, how have you been?" The weather wasn't really that good - it was misty and snowy, and kind of cold, but after Siberia, it felt pretty warm. Our friend went back to Saint-Petersburg that night. I had hoped we, the boys, would go partying that night, but in the end we were both too tired. Not so surprising, considering I had spent three days in a train and had crossed five timezones. The next day, we did some more sightseeing. The coolest thing I saw in Moscow was Bunker 42, the top secret nuclear shelter of the KGB during the cold war. The network of tunnels and rooms, about 60 m under the ground, was impressive to see, and reminded me a lot of the game "Half Life". The vintage communication equipment has been left unmoved, which made me feel like I was in some old James Bond movie. And then, once again, it was time to say goodbye to my good Russian friend. That night I spent in a train, on my way to Saint-Petersburg, where I would meet my other friend again and stay with her.
Posing as a KGB officer in Bunker 42. Maybe I should have taken off my scarf and my fake second-hand North Face jacket to make it a bit more realistic.
I was picked up by my friend the next morning. We went sight-seeing right away. I enjoyed the city, well-known for its very European style, with a lot of Baroque style buildings. It was interesting to be there in winter. My friend told me about all the problems they have. She showed me the gigantic icicles, sometimes more than one story high, that hang from the roofs and injure and kill people every year. Everywhere, people could be seen shoveling snow off the roofs to prevent them to collapse. Of course, the ground was snowy and icy and slippery. I fell a few times, but no-one even stops to ask if you're alright - it's a pretty normal thing.
We would be staying at the dorm room of a friend of my friend, where we arrived around lunchtime. We were all kind of lazy (you get that after 10 months of traveling), so we spent the afternoon just chattering in her room. The next day, I had to take my bus to Riga in the afternoon-my ten days in Russia were over. My friend had to go to classes, so I just walked around on my own. It was the 21st of December, the shortest day of the year. The sun stayed close to the horizon all day, which gave the city a special atmosphere. I went to the Hermitage, which, apart from being a beautiful building, has an impressively large art collection - it's kind of the Louvre of Russia. Unfortunately, I had only one hour left before I had to go to the bus station.
The last part of my journey was a very long bus trip: St-Petersburg - Talinn - Riga - Antwerp, with one day in Riga. It all went very fast. Buying some vodka with my last rubles at the border. Arriving in Talinn at 11 p.m. and having to wait for two hours for a bus in a waiting room with strange looking people. Arriving in Riga early in the morning and having to look for a hostel while the town was still asleep. Visiting beautiful little Riga with its beautiful churches and Art Nouveau. Meeting a whole group of Indians on the Christmas market there, and being so happy because it felt like the circle was complete. Having my last party with some people from the hostel. Taking yet another bus, the last one, with destination: Antwerp. Being relieved that the roads were okay again despite the heavy cold and snowfall of the previous days paralyzing Europe, just like when I left - another complete circle. Spending 37 hours in the bus, just looking out the window, reading, writing, chattering, listening to music, dreaming, sleeping. Being amazed at seeing, after all those exotic languages and characters, signs in German and then Dutch. Being so happy to see the port of Amsterdam. Catching a glimpse of the cathedral of Antwerp in the distance. Arriving in Berchem and taking a Belgian train, which was, of course, delayed. And there I was. On the 24th of December at 9 p.m, I arrived in my hometown, Kontich.
"Kontich", I said to myself, shaking my head. "That's where I am. In Kontich". It sounded stupidly common after all the places I had been. I walked to my home, through the snow, anxious to know if my family was having a Christmas dinner like I guessed they would. They were. I heard their voices behind the glass and curtains. At last, the moment my big surprise had come. I started singing loudly: "Jingle bells, jingle bells...". I heard them startling, asking themselves what it was, until my father said calmly: "That's Julien." The door opened. My "ho-ho-ho" was smothered by hugs and excited laughter. I didn't know what to say. My granny cried. My mom said I smelt bad. My brother said he had missed me. My dad gave me a hug. And I just stood there. I couldn't believe it - it would take days before I would realize it. I sat at the table and ate the lavish Christmas dinner, and drunk champagne, and answered about a million questions, but all the while I felt like I was in a bubble, and I had to convince myself that this was just as real as all the other things I had seen. Because real it was. My adventure had ended. After almost eleven months of traveling thousands and thousands of kilometers, I was home.