A Travellerspoint blog

Russia

Exploring the world's deepest lake

In Russia – from Nauschki via Irkutsk to Listvjanka

semi-overcast 12 °C
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As soon as we had successfully completed the immigration formalities for Russia and had the impression that the procession of various officials had ended, Sam and I went to bed. We laid down on our comfortable mattresses, covered us with the fresh (and ironed!) linen provided and slept almost immediately. The soothing sound and gentle movement of the train was the perfect recipe for an excellent sleep.
When we woke up, we realized that the landscape had changed dramatically: from yesterday’s empty steppes of Mongolia, we suddenly found ourselves in the depths of Siberian taiga (or boreal forests) mainly consisting of birch and larch trees. I had not been aware that the world’s boreal forests make up for almost 30% of the world’s forested areas and are consequently the most important carbon storage – more than all rain forests and temperate forests combined. Here and there, we passed small settlements that looked very different from what we had seen in Mongolia. The only similarity were the high wooden fences and the colorful roofs.
Checking the mile posts vs. our handy ‘Trans-Siberian-Railway’ guidebook, we realized that we had covered already quite some ground in Russia. At km post 5504 (calculating from Moscow), we had just reached the Eastern shore of Lake Baikal. And indeed: once we opened the door of our apartment, we could see the waters of the lake. On the side of our compartment, there was much less to be seen. The odd settlement from time to time and only two larger towns, one of which featured a ski area.

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Unfortunately, not only the landscape had changed, but also the weather. It was cloudy and seemed to start raining any minute. We were freezing! When we used the 20 minutes stop in the town of Sljudjanka to get off the train, we realized that the 30 °C of yesterday had turned into merely 12 °C.

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We also experienced the Trans-Siberian time warp for the first time: the clock at the train station showed 7:45 (Moscow time), while in fact it was already 12:45 local time. To find an easy way to operate trains in such a vast country, all trains and train stations operate on Moscow time. It takes a bit of thinking when checking time tables, but after a while we got used to the system quite well.
As we left the station, we also left Lake Baikal and the train started winding its way up the hills of the Primorsky Mountains. We had a couple of nice views down towards the lake along the way. But as we headed into the hills, the vistas were reduced once again to forests, little streams and not much more.

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After 24 hours on the train and 1146 km, we arrived in Irkutsk. Our first impression was rather mixed: the weather was simply awful at rainy 9 °C, but the train station was beautiful. Unfortunately, the building’s nice architecture did not reflect on the attitude on the employees: when inquiring where to take the bus to Listvjanka at the shores of Lake Baikal, we were faces with shrugs and shaking heads. There seemed to be no effort whatsoever to help us along.
Suddenly we received unexpected help: a Chinese girl (which we learned was called Bella) got up and asked us if we were trying to get to Listvjanka. Seemingly, she had encountered exactly the same difficulties two days ago and had painfully found out the solution. She advised us to take the tram to the central market where the minibuses would be waiting. Excellent – what a great help!
The tram was full of people, but due to the fogged-up windows, we were not able to see anything. Fortunately enough, a couple of elderly Russian ladies helped us out and made it their mission to point out which stop we had to get off at and which way the minibuses were located.
We found the minibuses without any issues and were admitted on board. For 400 rubles (less than 7€) the driver took us on board and would take us to Listvjanka, which is a drive of over an hour / 70km.
Originally, we had planned to go to Olkhon Island. As we started planning the details a couple of days earlier, we learned that the drive there would have taken six hours and that it would have cost us 8500 rubles – due to the arrival of our train in the afternoon, we would have needed to take a private driver. We then concluded that Listvjanka would be a much better option for us – closer to Irkutsk and much less expensive.
After 15 minutes the minibus every seat in our minibus was filled and we left. Next to us was a nice guy, maybe 55 years old. Talking with him, we learned that his name was Rashoud and that he was a Tadzhik living in Uzbekistan speaking Farsi. Suddenly he hands us one of the three rings of bread he had bought as a present. It was excellent. But even better – we were amazed by that act of unexpected kindness! Between his little English skills and our almost non-existing Russian, we learned about his kids, his job and about the region. It was fun.
We arrived in Listvjanka, got a taxi and were taken directly to our hotel. We had a comfortable nice room with a view of the lake. It was grey and windy outside and we were hoping for a day with nicer weather to fully appreciate the view of a hopefully then calmer lake.
The next morning we had breakfast, when we noticed two Australians that looked familiar. They were Geoff and Jennifer, who had stayed in the same hostel in Ulaanbaatar. They were very sympathetic and we spent the whole morning chatting away with them. They have extensively traveled the world since 1972 and had stories to tell about countries we have not been to (so far).
When Max got hungry, we suddenly realized that it was already early afternoon and time for us to head out and explore the lake. Along the way, we passed a couple of nice old Siberian wooden houses.

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In a café at the lakeside we got good food. And we were surprised to see that the outside tables and chairs were all branded by Gösser Beer – a brewery that is located only 30 minutes away from Sam’s Austrian home town. We could not resist to buy two bottles for the evening.

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We also headed down to the lake. After all, there is a saying that dipping your hand into Lake Baikal’s water will give you an additional year of life. In the attempt of doing so, I even managed to get five years extra – as a managed to get my feet wet in the process. With the lake being unfrozen only for a few days, at 3 °C water temperature that was not really intended and admittedly not very pleasant. Still, real Russians prefer to go swimming in the lake which is supposed to guarantee you 25 additional years of life.
We rather preferred to head towards the hills and to do some hiking. The craziest taxi driver of our trip so far delivered us to the lower station of the chairlift, where we realized that due to the heavy wind, it was not operating.
So we decided to hike up to Cherskogo Stone. It was a very nice walk through a light forest. All over the place, there were spring flowers blooming. From the stone itself we had a nice view of the lake and its outlet, the Angara River. Around the stone and in the bushes and trees around it, there were lots of colorful strips of cloth. Some of them had something written on them, others not – a custom that we had noticed already in South Korea intending to wish for good luck.

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We hiked down directly to the Baikal Limnological Museum. We took a virtual submarine tour to the bottom of the lake at 1642m. The lake is not only the deepest freshwater lake in the world, but also the most voluminous – containing more water than all of the Great Lakes combined. The museum also hosts two freshwater seals called 'nerpas'. They are the only species of freshwater seals in the world and are endemic to Lake Baikal. It was funny to watch them racing through the water like cannonballs (yes, they seemed to be almost as wide as they were long).
A minibus took us back into town where we had dinner. Everyone had local food: I had omul, a local fish, Sam and Max had pelmeni (dumplings) with meat and cherry filling respectively. Food was excellent, but we were not able to enjoy it too much. We had discovered that on our hike we had managed to collect a fair number of ticks. Between us we had five bites and found another ten which were still crawling about in the intention of finding a nice spot to bite. This is not fun! In retrospect, it was probably not such a great idea to hike in the Siberian woods after all.
We walked home as the sun was setting over the lake. By then the wind had stopped and the water was very still. What a beautiful end of the day!

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Back at our hotel, we met again with Geoff and Jennifer and kept chatting away with them until late after midnight. Their wonderful stories from their travels kept us entertained and we could have continued forever. We also used the opportunity to try some local vodka, called ‘Baikal’. We were not too impressed and had to check out if it gets better after getting used to the taste. In my humble opinion, it rather got worse. But maybe I did not try enough.
The next day, we headed to the fish market and from there to the lake to watch the hovercrafts. A guy asked me (in Russian) to take a picture of him and his friends. I answered in English that I’d be happy to help, even though I did not speak Russian. He also spoke English and after I had taken a picture, invited me and Sam to come over and to have a vodka.

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It was 1pm, but why not. It turned out to be just the right decision: we joined them at the little rented hut along the lake and had an excellent afternoon. Our hosts (Serge, Denis, Sergey, Andrey, Ludmilla and more who’s names we don’t remember) turned out to be professors of law of various Russian universities and all of them spoke great English. And they were so kind and welcoming to us. The promised vodka turned out to be Chivas Regal whiskey and there was also a food. It was a fun afternoon.

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When they eventually left to see the Baikal Museum, we went back to the fish market to get some smoked fish. We then rented a little hut for our own and were sitting there leisurely, having our food and marveling about Russian hospitality. What a great country and wonderful people!

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Posted by dreiumdiewelt 22:55 Archived in Russia Tagged train lake museum stone hike vodka hospitality Comments (0)

Crossing Eastern Siberia on the Trans-Siberian Railroad

From Irkutsk to Krasnoyarsk

sunny 27 °C
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After three nights at the shores of Lake Baikal, we took a minibus to Irkutsk. The name of the town sounded very familiar to us – after all both Sam and I had played the strategy board game ‘Risk’ since our childhood which features an area called ‘Irkutsk’. For many other people, it is probably better known as one of the centers of Siberian exile. By the end of the 19th century, almost every third inhabitant of Irkutsk was in exile and not allowed to ever leave Siberia again.

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We were not forced to stay in Irkutsk – rather the opposite: we intentionally wanted to spend some time in town to experience Eastern Siberian city life and to see some of its cultural heritage. After briefly stopping at our hostel to check in and to leave our belongings, we headed into town. The tram got us right to the Quarter 130, a lively pedestrian zone attracting tourists and locals alike. It was a tough choice of restaurants and we eventually settled on the terrace of a nice brewery for lunch.

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It was great weather and we could see the crowds passing by. Some of them were headed to the music festival at the southern end of the quarter. Others headed north towards the book festival. We enjoyed the music festival and listened for quite a while. The book festival turned out to be rather disappointing – after all we are very slow in reading Cyrillic letters and simply don’t understand enough Russian to make much sense of the books on display.

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We passed the statue of Lenin and crossed Karl Marx Street to reach the main park. From there it was just a five minutes’ walk to the main attractions. We passed the Polish Church, the Church of the Savior (which seems to be the oldest stone building in Eastern Siberia) and visited the Cathedral of the Epiphany across the road. As in all Orthodox churches, women were provided with scarves to cover their hair before entering the church. We were lucky to get there during a service. The choir was singing beautifully.

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Just below the church were the banks of the Angara river. This morning we had already passed it’s starting point at the outlet of Lake Baikal. It was a nice area for having a walk and we joined the locals before deciding that we had seen enough for today. We headed back to our hostel, made dinner in the nice kitchen and had a great night’s sleep.

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The next morning, we spent a bit of time at a nearby park before shouldering our backpacks and heading to the train station. We had booked train number 1 the ‘Rossiya’. We wanted to spend at least one of our segments on the Trans-Siberian-Railway enjoying the classic experience on this Vladivostok – Moscow service which runs every other day and takes 6 days and 4 hours for the 9289 km.
The train seemed to be a bit newer than the last one we had been on. To Max’ big delight, here was even a TV in every compartment. This time, we were not alone, but shared the compartment with Maksim, a 32-year-old engineer from Khabarovsk. Fortunately, he spoke English, so we were able to easily communicate with him.
But he was not our only acquaintance on the train: in the compartment, next to us we met Kat and Ed - a Welsh couple who spent the last couple of months biking from the Southern tip of India all the way to Kathmandu in Nepal. As always it proved to be a lot of fun to compare experiences. They had been blogging as well (their blog is doctorswithoutmotors.blogspot.uk.co in case you’re interested to learn more about their travels). Contrary to us, they were using couchsurfing throughout their travels. The way they explained the great hospitality they experienced along the way, they inspired us to try that one day as well as a means to getting even more contact to locals. But we were able to inspire them a bit as well, as they had not thought that traveling with a kid can be both easy and rewarding.
Back in our compartment, it did not take long for Sam and Maksim, to take out their respective bottles of vodka. Sam’s Baikal vodka did not stand a chance against Maksim’ Sand Crab vodka from Kamchatka.

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At the first longer stop in the station of Zima, we used the opportunity to get out and to stock up our beer supplies. We only realized after our purchase that Maksim’s beer recommendation was rice beer from China. On our own, we would probably never have tried it. We soon realized that despite our prejudices, it tasted very well. After an extensive dinner, lots of dried fish (which are eaten together with beer in Russia like we would eat chips) significant amounts of beer and vodka, we had a good night’s sleep.
The next morning, we had a quick breakfast on the train and then had to pack our stuff. At 8:07 we reached Krasnoyarsk, today’s destination. We waved good-bye to Maksim who was staying on the train until Novosibirsk and to Kat and Ed who will only get off far-away Moscow. Thanks to the clock at the railway station we realized that in Moscow it was still 4:07 in the morning and that consequently we had already crossed our first time zone on the train.

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Contrary to the majority of tourists along the trans-sib route, we had chosen to break our journey in Krasnoyarsk. The town itself is just a regular Siberian town, but its location certainly is special. It is located on the banks of the mighty Yenissei River. Its tributaries include the Angara River (the outlet of Lake Baikal) and reach all the way into Northern Mongolia. Together with them, it is forming Russia’s longest river system.
But that’s not what we came for: we stopped in Krasnoyarsk, as it offers not just the flat tundra that most of Siberia is known for. We wanted to spend a day in the Stolby Nature Reserve which offers great hikes in the hills and granite rocks.
It was only a short walk from the train station to our hostel. We had a bit of trouble finding it until we realized that its entrance was in the back of one of those ubiquitous apartment blocks. And once we got there, we came to realize that the lady in the hotel spoke only Russian and not a single bit of English. Even with pointing on the map and using some Russian words she was unable to tell us which buses or trams would get us where we wanted to go.

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So we headed out on our own and tried our luck by just taking one of the trams passing by our hostel. We were not lucky, as it turned the wrong direction already after the first stop. We got out and reluctantly decided to do our city tour by foot. From the massive statue of Lenin that seems to adorn every single Russian town, Gorkii Park was just across the street. Presumably, this is the favorite weekend outing for all locals with kids. But on a Monday afternoon, not too much was going on.

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We crossed the park to get to the banks of the Yenissei. It turned out to be a great decision, as we got to witness the step dance practice of a young ambitious ballet dancer. On the planks of the wooden deck, his steps were amplified like if he was playing a big instrument.

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Just before it started raining, we made our way into a local Russian version of Starbucks called ‘Traveller’s Coffee’. The cakes were just perfect, the drinks as well and the atmosphere was very nice – a perfect end for the day.

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And then there was one of those unexpected random acts of kindness: at the supermarket I had a full shopping cart and was about to pay a sizeable amount. Out of the blue, the lady next to me asked the cashier to swipe her customer card, which resulted in a 10% of my bill. What a nice surprise! Those are the instances when I wish to fluently speak a language instead of only being able to repeat Спасибо (Spasibo / Thank You) over and over.
The next day we were picked up at 9 am by our guide Anatoliy and headed to the nearby Stolby nature reserve. Already on our drive, he provided us with lots of information about the town, the river and the surroundings. Especially the stories around the closed town of Zheleznogorsk (which was formerly known as Krasnoyarsk-26) were fascinating. We had been aware that many towns in the former Soviet Union had been closed to foreigners. We only realized that such closed towns continue to exist even now.
Anatoliy showed us a hidden path up towards Takmak Rock – without his help we would definitively not have found it. It was a pleasant hike through a light larch and birch forest. Max was alternating between extremes: either he raced ahead or he dragged behind such that eventually Sam and Anatoliy resorted to carrying him part of the way. Once we had reached the top, we stopped for a break to eat our sandwiches and to enjoy the view.

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Following the break, we headed to another viewpoint before heading steep down and then up again. As we walked along, we not only got to see many more rock formations and many spring flowers, but also some insights into Russian leisure activities. We hiked along some ski slopes, saw the start of a steep mountain bike track and passed a couple of cabanas that can be rented for private festivities. And when Max started watching some men working, we learned a very true Russian saying that there are three things you can watch endlessly: running water, fire and other people working. How true!

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On our way down, we took the chairlift and then had a surprisingly good and cheap lunch at the buffet of the ski restaurant. A great finish for a perfect outing! Next time around, we’d definitively come back and do a tour with Anatoliy again – maybe during the Siberian winter at temperatures of below -30 °C. I’m sure it would be very different, but as much fun.

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After our busy day, we took it easy and did not do too much. Still, the atmosphere in our hostel was not too tempting and we rather went outside to have dinner vs. spending time in the communal kitchen with the guys there. The hostel seemed to be exclusively used by Russian working class men. In their uniform training outfits they just did not appeal to us as potential conversation partners. Who knows – potentially we would have had a great time with them. We’ll never know as we preferred the comfy atmosphere of a nice café in town.

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The next morning, I packed our stuff while Sam and Max went shopping. They had an ‘interesting’ experience when a 60-year old lady approached them and asked them if Sam would be willing to come up to her flat to help her fix an electrical appliance. Sam was not willing to and used our upcoming train as an excuse. That turned out to be a big mistake, as the lady (which spoke excellent German, as she used to be a German teacher) then imposed herself to get the shopping done more quickly such that Sam would not miss the train. I had a good laugh when hearing his account how he wanted to buy certain products. She then dismissed them as ‘too expensive’ and suggested alternatives at a lower price (and lower quality). Eventually Sam got quite frustrated – after all he wanted to shop for a hostess gift which was supposed to be high quality.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 12:29 Archived in Russia Tagged lenin beer park church train river rock hike vodka Comments (1)

Bye, bye Asia – welcome Europe

From Krasnoyarsk to Yekaterinburg

semi-overcast 20 °C
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Eventually we headed to the railway station and boarded our train. In an attempt to save some money, I had booked train no. 69 instead of the faster trains no. 1 or no. 19. For the longest segment of our train journey of 2282 km to Yekaterinburg we’d therefore be spending 36 hours in the train instead of 30. The train was just as comfortable as train no. 1 had been. The only difference seemed to be that it lacked the TV screen which we did not miss.
As we left Krasnoyarsk we noticed its size (almost a million inhabitants), as the apartment blocks seemed to continue forever. Once we left the town itself, for the next 40 km we passed lots of datcha colonies – the second homes with garden that many Russian families own. With many people living in rather small apartments without their own garden, this is their place to get away from the city and to grow vegetables and to have a base for outdoor activities. It was a lot of fun observing how people were planting their plots. It was a fairly hot summer day and Sam was quite disappointed that he did not catch some of the beauties with his camera.

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A bit later, we crossed the border between Eastern and Western Siberia. Once more we realized that we were getting closer and closer to home and to the end of our journey.
We passed through a hilly area. In regular intervals, we crossed some rivers and here and there a small town. Along the tracks there were endless swamps. We were wondering if potentially some of the ground might still be frozen in May, but were not able to check that theory. If we would have passed through this region in summer, we would have probably been haunted by mosquitoes. We clearly preferred spring time, as this is an experience we would not have been keen on making. Sam was plagued a bit by his allergies and it certainly did not help that along the tracks there were mostly birch trees.

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Time passed quickly on the train. Between watching the landscape pass by, playing with Max and eating, we did not get bored. We checked the timetable closely and made sure to get out of the train at all longer stops. Seemingly everyone left the train for the 20-min break In Mariinsk. There were lots of hawkers on the platform trying to sell their goods to the passengers. We also stocked up our supplies with them and then enjoyed the sunshine and the fresh air.

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At every wagon, the conductor was standing and making sure that only people with a ticket enter the train. She only checked the tickets of those people joining the train - all other passengers of ‘her’ wagon she knew by sight. That way we felt also safe to leave our compartment alone during our platform outings. Anyhow, we always felt very safe and secure in the trains and the stations.
We had originally considered if we should buy 2nd or 3rd class tickets and decided to go for 2nd class on all segments. This way we have a compartment with a door and potentially one person joining us. In 3rd class there are 54 instead of 36 people per wagon and there are no compartment doors. We were happy about our choice to go with 2nd class, as it was comfortable and we had a space for ourselves. In 3rd class, we would have probably met more people and seen more local culture. Still, whenever we passed through a 3rd class wagon, we agreed that we were not too keen on spending much time there. Due to the heat, most men were only wearing shorts and there was a clearly noticeable smell of alcohol in the air.
Even though we had bought only three of the four berths in our compartment, we had been alone for the whole day. But as we did not know if someone might potentially join us at one of the upcoming stations, we tried not to spread our stuff everywhere.

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We slept very well and did not even notice the long stop the train made in Novosibirsk in the middle of the night. It is a bit complicated to tell at which time we woke up: it was 6 am (Moscow time / train time), 8 am (Yekaterinburg time / our destination), 9 am (local time at our current location in Omsk) and 10 am (Krasnoyarsk time / where we entered the train). Maybe we would have slept even longer, but the fourth berth in our compartment finally got occupied. Pasha, an artist from Yaroslavl joined us. He had had a couple of performances in Omsk and was now on his way home.
We spent the whole day on the train. With the help of our guidebook and the km markers along the tracks, we were able to follow all major landmarks and sights. As we approached the town of Ishin, we noticed that here was significant flooding. We were not able to find out the cause of the flooding and also Pasha did not know what had happened here.

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As usual, we cherished every opportunity to get out of the train. It was sunny, but fairly cold. That did not stop some other passengers to stand outside in shorts and t-shirts. We got chatting with two Australian ladies. We introduced them to kvass, the Russian beverage we had repeatedly seen and finally tried: it is made by fermenting bread and sold to consumers from large yellow barrels. It reminded us a bit of malt beer with a nice lemon flavor. While it has a slight content of alcohol, it is considered non-alcoholic by Russian standards and the standard summer drink for the whole family.

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In the evening at km post 2102 (or 3800km of train travel within Siberia) we eventually passed from Siberia into the Ural region. Thanks to the fact that now the days of Siberian exile and forced labor camps are over, we had found our stay very pleasant and felt sad to leave.
At 10pm local time we reached Yekaterinburg, Russia's fourth largest town. We were picked up at the train station by Julia, the owner of the apartment we stayed that night. We enjoyed that luxury of being picked up and taken to her place. Even though it was still fairly light outside, we were already quite tired and happy not having to search for her place.

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Along the way to her very centrally located apartment, we passed many of the key sights and already got a first impression of the town. It was a perfect evening: there was not a single cloud in the sky and from our place on the 10th floor, we had a spectacular view of the town.
When we logged into the wifi at our place, we were stunned by a long WhatsApp from Elena. She’s a friend of Andrey and Angelica (who we had met a couple of weeks earlier in Cambodia) and lives in Yekaterinburg. Andrey had asked her if she’d like to meet us while we’d be there and she agreed. But more than that: she took off a day at work and had sent us a list of at least a dozen potential sightseeing opportunities for tomorrow. It sounded fabulous and we were looking forward to meet her.
We met Elena at 9am at our apartment. Even though we had not even seen a picture of her and she had only seen a picture of us at the pool, we immediately recognized each other. She was very sympathetic and we could not stop thanking her of taking a day off to meet people she never saw before. Our breakfast next door at Paul Bakery was a perfect start into the day. We used that opportunity to talk through the various options she had proposed to us and we decided to start with going in her Mini Cooper to the Asia – Europe Monument. The monument is located in the Ural Mountains some 40 km outside of the town center. Presumably the border of Asia and Europe is along the watershed. But the high Ural Mountains of our imagination turned out to be rather small rolling hills.

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In principle Europe and Asia are arguably on the single continent of Eurasia. As there is no real physical separation of the two, the borderline seems to be more of an artificial matter of definition. Still, we had lots of fun, standing at the monument with one foot in Asia and one in Europe. After 392 days of absence, we were officially back in Europe. And it was great being able to stand there at the exact border and to enjoy this event instead of just passing through by train.

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And as seen already a couple of times, here they were again: uncountable pieces of cloth tied to the trees, fences and everything around. What a beautiful custom!

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Elena had included into her list of potential sights also the local military museum. Sam did not hesitate and soon enough we found ourselves on the premises of UMMC’s Museum of Military Technology. In the large open-air exhibit, there were tanks, fighter jets, submarines, trains, artillery, amphibian vehicles and much more. To Sam’s surprise, there were also a couple of tanks from the USA on display, most notably the Sherman. A bit of research revealed that during World War II, the United States provided to the USSR with more than 7,000 tanks, 400,000 jeeps and 18,000 aircraft under a lend-lease program. Neither Sam nor I had ever heard of such a program and we were stunned about the incredible numbers.

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When we headed back into town, Elena suggested taking the metro for part of the way. It was a great idea: for one thing, we did not get stuck in traffic, but even more importantly we got to see the nicely decorated metro stations and the locals using it. For many years, the Yekaterinburg metro system held the official Guinness book entry for the smallest metro system in the world. But since a couple of extensions, they had to give up their record in return for a more efficient public transport system. The trip from ‘Kosmonautilor‘ to the ‘Geologicheskaya’ was indeed much quicker than if we had taken the car. As we emerged from the underground, we were greeted by the impressive circus building.

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A couple of minutes later, we felt like being in another world: Elena had suggested to have lunch at ‘Nigora’, an Uzbek restaurant. It was an excellent choice. The food was great and the atmosphere very friendly. With the Uzbek decorations and handicrafts, it seemed like we’d actually be there. And yes indeed: after that great lunch, we agreed that Uzbekistan is rightfully so on our list of places we want to visit someday.

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By the time we left the restaurant, we realized that we had perfect timing: we had obviously missed a massive rain shower, as there were puddles of rain all over the place. Max was happy to do some jumping. But the fun did not last for long: as the sun came out, the puddles dried up as quickly as they had appeared and we walked along the pleasant pedestrian zone of Yekaterinburg.

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We loved the town: everything was very clean, buildings were nicely renovated, there were lots of statues and monuments. Passing by the museum of illusions we were intrigued and had a look inside. We had no real idea of what was expecting us and soon found ourselves surrounded by fun wall filling pictures that invited us to stage as part of the scene. We had lots of fun.

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A bit further we passed a fountain just like the ones we had seen months earlier in St. Louis or Perth. Back then Max had not hesitated a minute to join other kids getting wet in the fountain, this time at about 20 °C it was simply too cold. Still, we considered ourselves very lucky with the weather: two days earlier the daily high in Yekaterinburg had been at 7 °C – while we had been sweating at 27 °C in Krasnoyarsk.

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We passed the dam of the Iset river, the beautiful Sevastyanov building and eventually reached the Church on the Blood. The church was built in the location where the last Russian tsar Nicolas II and his family had been killed in 1918. Even though the church is the highlight of many visitors of Yekaterinburg, we were already very saturated by everything we had seen so far. So we resorted to relaxing in a nearby café before heading back to our apartment.

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Wow – what a full day. We had so much fun discovering Elena’s beautiful home town. We enjoyed our time with Elena so much. And we’re still stunned by the Russian hospitality: taking a day off for an unknown family and to take them all over town that is very special. We are keeping our fingers crossed that one day we’ll be able to reciprocate and to host Elena (or Andrey and his family who got us in touch with her) at our place.

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By the time we reached our apartment, we realized that it was just an hour until Julia would pick us up to take us to our 10pm train. Time was flying and it had been such a fantastic day!
As we left the train station very late, there was not too much landscape to be seen anymore. We rather took our time to chat with Alexeyi who had booked the fourth bunk in our compartment. He is a super friendly lieutenant colonel working for the Russian army. He spoke a bit of English and so we found out that he had been stationed in Germany in the busy times of 1989.
While chatting with him, we realized how tired we were. We were sound asleep already before the train crossed the border into Europe. There was no doubt that we’d be having a good night’s sleep on the train to Kazan.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 21:05 Archived in Russia Tagged military train museum europe asia border tank ural Comments (0)

A -stan within Russia

Kazan und Nizhny Novgorod

semi-overcast 14 °C
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When we woke up on our train from Yekaterinburg to Kazan, we had already covered most of the way to our destination. We had left Asia behind and were now solidly in Europe. And we had covered two time zones along the way and consequently were only one time zone away from home. Admittedly, still being in Russia, it did not feel very different to us.
This impression was confirmed when we reached Kazan. Already at the train station we were greeted by announcements which were made not only in Russian, but also in Tartar. We were in the capital of Tartarstan – one of the 21 or 22 (depending if you count Crimea as Russian or Ukrainian) Autonomous Regions in Russia. Tartar is a Turkic language and most Tartars are Sunni Muslims. So while having reached Europe, we were now immersed in a culture that was significantly more different to home vs. all of Asian Russia we had been to so far.
Before checking out the culture, we had a more pressing need: the heavy rain clouds above the beautiful railway station indicated already that we did not have much time left if we wanted to reach our hostel dry. We headed off at a brisk pace to cover the ~800m to our hostel. We made it to the right building just in time, but were then facing a backyard with dozens of entries. Just barely before the rain started, we spotted the tiny sign next to the last entrance and made it in safely. Even though we were a bit early, the lady at the reception told us that our room was ready. Well, to be precise: she showed us her mobile phone and we were able to read that information from Google Translate.
As we were very hungry and had no intention of getting very wet, we headed to a café just across the street to get lunch. The typical Tartar food was great and the big jug of lemonade even better.
As it was pouring rain outside and quite cold, we resorted to not doing too much that day. Max was happy to have an excuse to play Lego, while Sam and I took turns on the laptop writing the blog and getting the pictures edited and uploaded. In the process, we also realized that something strange was going on with our latest blog entry. We had uploaded ‚No roadsigns in the steppe‘ just a couple of days earlier and it had already over 3000 page views – thanks to being featured on travellerspoint.
After such a lazy day, we did start the next morning full of energy. We had breakfast and headed through the pedestrian area along Baumann Street towards the Kremlin. The area of the Kremlin is huge. Within its walls, all key buildings of town can be found: there’s the presidential palace, the impressive Qol Sharif Mosque and the Russian-Orthodox Annunciation Cathedral. With the combination of elements of the Christian-orthodox and Islamic architecture, the Kazan Kremlin has been named a UNESCO world heritage site.

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The mosque was built from 1999 to 2005 and is a modern, light filled building. While we were there, it was the first full day of Ramadan and no worshipers were in the building. It would be intriguing to see the building at some stage during prayer time, as the mosque can hold up to 6000 people. The original mosque had been destroyed in the 16th century by Ivan the Terrible.

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The Tsar celebrated his victory over Tartastan by building new churches. One of them is the Annunciation Cathedral which survived the centuries until now. After having survived the Soviet time, it had been given back to the church and since been renovated.

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We were impressed seeing the monuments of the two key religions of the region standing side by side. How nice to see that both religions seem to get along here. And that’s also the impression we had all across town: everything felt laid back and very low-stress. In the restaurants there were women with hijab working next to others without and in the stores we noticed a couple of ‘halal’ signs. Nice.

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After lunch at a Chak Chak, we headed down Baumann Street. Just when Sam was commenting that there were hardly any tourists around, we suddenly recognized some known faces: there were Rob and Gay, the Australians who had stayed at the Zaya Hostel in Ulaanbaatar while we were there. What a coincidence. Just as we talked together, a group of Russian youngsters approached us, requesting to take a picture together. And of course, we agreed.

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They just came from the Museum of Soviet Life and confirmed that it was worth seeing. And that’s where we were headed anyhow. We truly enjoyed our experience at the museum. Contrary to classical museums, this was hands on, fun and very interactive. Visitors were able to try on all the costumes, glasses, wigs, toys etc. We had a fabulous time.

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After a break in a café, we shopped in a classical mom-and-pop store. Not having worked out in advance the full list of what exactly we need, made the experience rather stressful. The lady behind the counter was seemingly not used to people not knowing what they need. As other customers came in, we let them go first such that we had a bit more time to figure out what else we might need. We only realized when these customers were served, that many things on sale were not visible, but available upon request. Not being able to speak Russian, we rather stuck to everything we could see and point to. That’s when we realized that being used to browse in supermarkets and being able to physically see and inspect everything is a big luxury.

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We enjoyed a quiet dinner at home in our apartment. The night before, we had been the only guests in the three rooms and had the kitchen and bathroom for ourselves. Tonight, it was full house. In the room next to us, there were two moms: Natasha with her daughter Sasha (13) and Natasha with her son Timo (7). Within just a couple of minutes, they invited us to join them at the kitchen table. Luckily one of the Natashas spoke excellent English and all others did understand quite a lot. We all drank whisky-cola (that is the adults). Natasha’s amusing recommendation was not to use too much coke in the mix as it’s not very healthy.

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Once their whisky was gone, we realized that we should take up the offer to have some of their dinner as well. After all, alcohol consumption requires a base. After all, we were able to make sure that the reserves were replenished: with our supplies of vodka and beer we were able to continue the party. We had lots of fun and laughed a lot. We invited them to come to Germany and to visit us there. Unfortunately, one of the Natashas works for the Russian army as an accountant and consequently is not allowed to leave the country. What a pity! At midnight, we finally ran out of alcohol and went to bed. Once more, we had had a great evening – we love Russia and its people!
The next morning, we had a relaxed breakfast before having to pack our stuff and leave. Unfortunately, we were not able to stay longer in our room than 11am and our train was only leaving at 10pm that evening.
We walked below the Kremlin Hill to the Volga River. At the embankment, everything seemed to be ready for the Soccer World Championship in 2018 already now. The modern, clean, well-signposted (in both Russian and English) quarter with its many restaurants, bike rentals and miniature train was perfectly set up to receive masses of tourists. While practical and purpose built, it lacked all references to the local country and culture. A newly built area like this would not have looked much different in other parts of the world.

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As we walked back towards the center of town, it soon became obvious again in which country we are. The massive soviet style Agriculture Palace was impressive and had all the features to excite visitors like us. We were less impressed by the weather though. Heavy rain clouds had moved in and it started to drizzle. While a summer rain might have been pleasant, at an outside temperature of merely 12 °C, it was just awful.

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So we headed into a restaurant for lunch. It was an extended lunch until the afternoon – after all we did not have a room or home base to retreat to. Admittedly, it was not much fun trying to kill the hours. Eventually, we moved from the restaurant to a café, where we spent the remainder of the time until our taxi picked us up at 8:30 pm.
Our train left from another train station than the one we had arrived in. We were surprised that all of our bags were screened. That had not happened at a single train station so far. Once the train arrived, we were greeted by a very well organized conductor who even spoke excellent English. Once more we were surprised: contrary to the last times we boarded the train, she ignored the print outs of our boarding passes, but rather wanted to see our passports. We concluded that we’re obviously nearing Moscow and that the laid-back atmosphere of the outposts in Siberia is starting to be replaced efficiency and structure.
When planning our train journey, we had no clue how reliable trains would be. And as there are no direct connections from Kazan to St. Petersburg, we went for a safe alternative: we’d spend a full day in Nizhny Novgorod and be able to reach our connection even in case of a long delay. In retrospect, this was an unnecessary move: all trains had been perfectly on time so for. And having had already yesterday a day without a home base, doing this once more today, seemed less tempting than when we made the plan.
We shared our compartment in the night with Elgar who went to work from Kazan to Nizhniy. The conductor brought us three cups of tea. That was not really needed, as Max fell right asleep as soon as we had his bed set up. And we were not keen on drinking black tea right before going to sleep.
It was barely 7am when we reached Nizhny Novgorod and had to leave our train. On our way from the platform to the exit, we had to pass through the station building and had to get our baggage screened. That seemed unnecessary to us, but confirmed our theory that things were getting more and more strict as we neared Moscow.
We deposited our baggage at the station and headed for breakfast at the Макдоналдс just across the street (in case you’re not reading Cyrillic, you would have recognized the branding easily anyhow: we went to a McDonalds). After a relaxed breakfast, we took metro and headed into town to see the main sights. We walked along the main pedestrian zone of town downwards towards the Kremlin. It was cool Tuesday morning and the sun just came out sporadically, so there were not too many other people around.

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Once we reached the medieval fortress, we were able to see some similarities to the Kremlin in Kazan, but also some significant differences. Both Kremlins are built on hills next to the Volga river. They are dating back to medieval times and continue to contain the administrative centers of their respective towns / regions. But as Nizhny’s Kremlin is built on a very steep hill, its wall fortifications seem much more impressive. And there was a different focus on the inside: in Nizhny we were greeted by an exhibition of WWII tanks, vehicles, planes and artillery. And in addition, there were a couple of monuments and an eternal flame honoring fallen soldiers in WWII.

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Only one of the previously many churches of the Kremlin precinct remains to this day. Contrary to Kazan, there is obviously no Islamic heritage in Nizhny and consequently no mosque.

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We enjoyed the beautiful view from one of the platforms down to the Volga River. That’s also where we headed next. It was fun to observe the many river cruise ships pass by.

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From the Volga, we then walked up the impressive Chkalov Staircase with its almost 500 stairs. Up at the monument of Mr. Chkalov (who was the first man to fly directly from Europe to North America via the North Pole), we noticed many renovation and infrastructure works going on. Similar to what we had seen already in Ekaterinburg and Kazan, also Nizhny will be hosting the next soccer world cup. And we assume that some of the improvements are directly connected with this big upcoming event.

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By the time, we had completed our tour of the Kremlin, we had walked already for quite a while and for considerable distances. We deserved a good break and found it at a nice and comfortable café where we stayed for quite a while. Eventually, Max was ready to get some exercise again and we headed to a playground and then played Frisbee in a nearby park.

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We did not want to take a lot of chances and made sure to get to the train station well ahead of our departure time. That way, we had enough time left to buy some provisions (especially kvass and beer). Considering that roughly a quarter of Russian supermarkets seems to be dedicated to selling alcohol, it can take a while until we find a brand we like.

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It was easy to get our baggage out of storage and to go through the security checks. Our train had already pulled into the station and by showing our passports we were admitted to our compartment. This time, we shared with Feodor, who was going to St. Petersburg, just like us.

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Contrary to most other tourists on the Trans-Siberian Route, we had opted not to stop in Moscow. After all, both Sam and I had explored Moscow already a couple of years ago when Sam worked in Russia. We rather preferred to spend more time in St. Petersburg, where none of us had been so far.

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Our train did stop at some stage in the middle of the night in a Moscow train station. Admittedly, we missed it and slept profoundly. Anyhow, we would not have been too impressed anyhow: that night a major storm hit Moscow which even resulted in a couple of deaths. We were lucky that our train was not affected in any way by falling trees or other objects.
When we woke up the next morning, we had breakfast and got ready to leave our train as it was approaching St. Petersburg at around 10am in the morning.
In total, we had covered the whole distance from Ulaanbaatar to St. Petersburg by train – a total of 6895km, 116h 27 min and five time zones. Split into six legs, train travel was comfortable and a reliable, safe and convenient way of traveling. We truly enjoyed approaching our destination step wise and being able to make so many stops along the way. And in addition, we got to see the landscapes and small towns along the way as well.
Still, knowing that we had now finally reached the very last stop of our journey of more than a year did feel strange after all. Having approached it in intervals and rather slowly, made the process easier. But still, there was an element of sadness in knowing that before too long, this trip of a lifetime would be over.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 07:21 Archived in Russia Tagged rain kremlin mosque church train metro vodka islam volga Comments (1)

White nights of St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg

rain 12 °C
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Arriving in St. Petersburg on a grey morning at 12 °C and pouring rain was a bit of a damper. Even though our apartment was only 20 minutes walking distance away, we were rather put off by the thought of getting drenched.
We knew from our host Anton that an Uber to the apartment should cost around 100 rubles. So we were not keen on taking up the offers of the taxi drivers waiting in the station who tried to charge up to 2000 rubles. As we walked towards the exit of the building, the offers got lower, but admittedly we were only able to find a guy offering 400 rubles in the end. By that time, we were already at the end of the parking lot of the railway station and had gotten a good share of rain. In other words: despite knowing that we had a bad deal, we did not mind anymore.
At the apartment, our host Anton was already waiting for us. The ‘Zoe Suites’ were a super nice and luxurious three-bedroom apartment with shared bathroom and kitchen facilities. For the first night, we’d be the only guests, so we had the place for ourselves.
Anton also shared with us that in St. Petersburg, there are only 60 sunny days per year, so that we should not bee too surprised about a rainy day like today. We couldn't resist to recommend to Anton to move to sunny Mongolia which features 300 days of sunshine. Given how far north we were, it was no wonder that temperatures were not very high either. St. Petersburg marks the northernmost point of our travels so far ever located almost as far north as Anchorage in Alaska.
It took us until the early afternoon to motivate ourselves to get out into the rain. Admittedly, we had been spoiled on our travels so far. Strolling along St. Petersburg’s main avenue Nevski Prospekt, we passed luxurious shops, important architectural highlights and many monuments. We also observed as one car hit another at an intersection. Both cars continued as if nothing had happened. We were rather astounded about that. A local next to us only shrugged and commented ‚normalnyi‘. Ok, that's also a way of looking at things...
The Nevski Prospekt was impressive and much bigger than what we would have imagined. But anyhow, even though we knew that St. Petersburg is Europe's second largest city after Moscow, it still surprised us by its sheer size. We walked along, passed the statue of Catherine the Great surrounded by her associates (aka lovers) and made it all the way to the Kazan Cathedral. By then we were soaked enough to give up our sightseeing effort and headed into a café.

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We had great plans for the evening: Anton brought his daughter Zoe over and she played with Max until both of them were long overdue to go to bed. I skipped the fun and went for an evening program of a different kind: I went to see a classical production of ‘Swan Lake’. Being in Russia meant that I also wanted to see Russian ballet. I had a great evening.
When I left the theater at almost half past ten, it was still light outside. Being so far up north means that the nights are really short in June and it hardly gets dark at all – the famous white nights of St. Petersburg. I felt extremely safe walking through the streets of St. Petersburg on my own. In fact, I was not alone - there were many people out and about on the way to and from restaurants, clubs and bars.
The next morning, we were greeted by the sun. We were delighted and headed out right away to take the metro. The St. Petersburg metro system is the deepest in the world and we realized that it took us quite a while to reach the ground level again. Similar to the Moscow, the stations are very beautiful - the so called workers' palaces.

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The metro took us to the Peter and Paul Fortress, St. Petersburg's citadel next to the Neva River.

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It was sunny, but extremely windy and rather cool. That did not stop the people from sunbathing at the beaches along the fortress walls next to the Neva River. Probably they had protection from the wind. We did not and almost got blown away as we crossed the Trinity Bridge over to the other side of the Neva River. The high wind was also the reason why we did not get to do a tour through the canals of St. Petersburg. The wind caused the water levels to raise and to make the smaller bridges in the center of town impassable.

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We continued our tour on foot. Via the Summer Garden we reached the Church of Savior on Spilled Blood. The church marks the spot where emperor Tsar Alexander II was mortally wounded in 1881. The church looks a bit similar to St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. Being a recognizable landmark, it was also the prime spot for the many TV crews to setup their camp such that they can report live from the St. Petersburg World Economic Forum which took place these days featuring Russia’s President Putin and important politicians from many countries.
The inside of the church was as beautiful as its outside. The interior walls are covered by 7500 square meters of intricate mosaics. Heading out of the church, we got to enjoy the church from the same angle as we had seen it a day earlier. What a difference! Yesterday it had looked nice in the grey rain. Today with the blue sky it looked spectacular.

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We had lunch in an excellent Georgian restaurant ‘Cha Cha’. Having relaxed there, we were motivated again to walk the remainder of the way home. We passed the Russian Museum, the Circus and other nice buildings along the way. With so many nice buildings, the city reminded us a bit of Vienna. And also the food reminded us of home: the strudel we bought in a bakery was meeting even the highest Austrian strudel standards.

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We spent the evening at home and took it easy after a busy day. The next morning, we woke up with a big surprise: after the beautiful day yesterday it was raining heavily again. The weather was purely awful. So we dropped our plan to visit Peterhof today. Lucky us that we had not bought tickets in advance. In this gruesome weather it would not have been any fun to explore the extensive gardens with the fountains.
Anton recommended that we rather visit the Yusupov Palace. Contrary to many other St. Petersburg sites, it is not quite as overrun by tourists as e.g. the Hermitage Museum. So that’s where we went. And indeed: the palace was beautiful and when we did our tour there were hardly any other people around. And once more it was the site of a murder: Rasputin had been assassinated in the basement of the palace in 1916.

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By the time we left the palace, it was still raining. We tried to catch the bus back towards the Nevski Prospekt. After searching for quite a while to find the bus station into the other direction, we gave up and started walking. Luckily, the rain eventually turned into a mere drizzle. We walked by the Saint Isaac’s Cathedral and the Admiralty Building to reach the Hermitage Museum which includes the Winter Palace, a former residence of Russian emperors. On the Palace Square the rain finally stopped and even the sun was peeking out a bit.

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At a café, we relaxed a bit before taking the bus back to our place. We used the time to pack our bags – after all we’d be heading back home tomorrow.
A bit later, Anton and Zoe picked us up. We took their 30-year-old Mercedes Benz S Class to a park. We had to use a hole in the fence to get in. Officially, all park doors were closed due to a predicted storm. But considering that there was an event of the Economic Forum taking place right next to the park, we speculated if the park was maybe just closed for that reason.

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From the park, we headed on to the Smolny (or Resurrection) Cathedral. In the evening light, it was a beautiful sight. But as we were hungry, we did not spend much time and headed towards the Ukrainian restaurant where Anton had booked a table for us. Luckily, he had reserved, as the place was packed.

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It was a great last evening of our trip. We had great food and enjoyed Ukrainian music. It was fun to chat with Anton and his wife Nadia. We exchanged stories from our travels and laughed a lot. We confirmed once more, how friendly and pleasant Russians are – great hospitable people. Zoe even presented Max with a good-bye present: a typical Russian stuffed animal called ‘Cheburashka’, which can even speak a couple of sentences and sing the Cheburashka song. But also Sam and I requested a souvenir: we asked Anton and Nadia to write into our traveling guest book, which by now is almost full. What a great last night out – an absolute highlight.

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When we left the restaurant after midnight, there was still light on the horizon. Despite the lack of sleep, Anton did stop by at our apartment at seven in the morning to make sure that we made it well to our taxi to the airport. Let’s hope that one day he will come to visit us in Germany, such that we can reciprocate the great hospitality we enjoyed.
Within thirty minutes, we reached the St. Petersburg airport. It did not take long to check in our bags. But then, we encountered a couple of difficulties. At first, the guy at the customs desk asked us if we had any liquids in our checked bags. We truthfully answered that ‘yes’ there were not only toiletries, but also two small bottles of vodka in the bags. That caused him to make us wait at his desk for about ten minutes until he had received a message that our bags were ok and that we could proceed.
Immigration was worse still. We knew already that the Russian embassy in Cambodia had stuck our visa into our passports such that the machine-readable part was on the inside fold, i.e. the visa was not machine readable. While the immigration officer back at the Mongolian – Russian border had been only slightly frustrated by this issue, the lady at the airport made a huge deal out of it. It took her almost 15 minutes to clear the three of us such that we could get out of the country.
Fortunately, we got through the security checks without any further delay, as otherwise we would have probably missed our flight. For the first time in our 26 flights so far, we had to run to the gate in order to make it on time.
All that rush avoided any possibility to get melancholic about the fact that this is the absolute end of our trip around the world. Even though we knew it was our last flight and that we’d be at home with friends and family within just a few hours, it felt still very unreal and hard to believe.
We were able to see a bit of the landscape underneath us also from the plane. But maybe it would have been easier approaching the end of our travels more slowly by train. As we had learned in the last few weeks, there’s a different quality to traveling by train. But then we would not have arrived within 2 hours and 40 minutes, but we would have needed to spend at least 34 hours in at least four different trains.

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The immigration officer at Vienna Airport briefly checked our passports and waved us through. It’s so easy being an EU citizen arriving in another EU country – what an advantage over what we faced in many other countries. Despite the fact that it is not needed, we asked for stamps in our passport to mark our arrival back home. That way, it’s officially documented now that we have reached the European Union again after more than 13 months of having been away.
We are home…

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 20:57 Archived in Russia Tagged rain church palace river museum fortress wind cold Comments (0)

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