Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Irkutsk, Lake Baikal and Ulan Ude


Rather grim train ride, managd to be sat opposite an old babushka who constantly smacked her lips and snored like a truck, horrendous. Perhaps riding in platzkart isn't the way to get that stereotypical vodka fueled train ride everyone dreams of having, let alone expects. Second class coupe carriages await when crossing international borders so we'll see, but I won't hold my breath.

Tomsk to Irkutsk is roughly around 1541 km, and again, even with all that time to do nothing but lounge around, read, eat and chill, I was still tired. Proving to be a re-occuring trend with these long train rides. Arriving early morning I just got in a taxi and managed to get to the hostel hassle free, having no problems with taxi drivers, police or any other potential Russians intent on a bribe, touch wood.

The hostel was clean with plenty English speakers which always makes a pleasant start to proceedings and with the weather picking up I was hopeful of some summer looking snaps of Lake Baikal. However, this is Siberia we're talking about and the following day it was grey and snowing, not the weather I wanted for my minibus trip down to Listvyanka, a little village 70 km away and one of the best places to go to see the lake.

With the seasons changing, it's no longer winter and not quite summer which unfortunately leaves options for activites at a minumum. As it was still cold enough though, I was able to walk around on the ice of the worlds deepest freshwater lake and get some cold looking photos. Parts of the ice had melted but it was still at least a foot deep in some parts.

Out on the ice, Lake Baikal

Iced over Lake Baikal

Regardless of the time of year, you can always get your hands on some of the local fish though, the most popular one been smoked omul. It looked a bit sketchy, but tasted delicious. After taking my obligatory photos I went in search of my eco-hostel. What was so eco-friendly about it I'll never know but I had the whole place to myself all day, so I literally read and did nothing. Perfect escape from everything.

Mmm, delicious

Eco-hostel, Listvyanka

Back in Irkutsk, there were plenty of small cafes and canteens and I basically wandered around eating for a couple days. The canteens are great because I don't need to even try and speak Russian, all I have to do is point. As well as cheap eats, there were plenty of bars along the way too. Meeting two French guys who spoke Russian was incredibly useful and we went on to have a cracking night out which included, you guessed it, far too much vodka and outrageously loud Russian dance music in some random club down by the river.

Ulan Ude

The train ride down to Ulan Ude was harmless enough, only 455 km, nothing these days. Again, having great luck with taxis and got to my hostel super cheap and easily. The hostel is bang in the middle of town, a stones throw away from Lenin Square, home to the largest statue of Lenin's head. 

Lenin Street itself is a nice enough pedestrianised area but by the time you have walked all the way down to Odigitria Cathedral, the whole area is a little seedy. Still, this is where I found the best puuzy in town. Basically, dumplings filled with pork and onion with serious juices flowing out, amazing.

Odigitria Cathedral, Ulan Ude

The biggest Lenin head in the world, Ulan Ude

Just a short ride away is the Buddhist monastery complex, Ivolginsky Datsan, the most important one in the area for the Buryat people. Back when Stalin was in power, he was constantly destroying temples in an attempt to suppress Buddhism, but eventually he allowed the Buryat people to build one. They settled on a remote area about 40km away from Ulan Ude and the site has since grown with plenty lamas and even the local university to study Buddhism.

Dennis, the owner of the guesthouse I stayed at, was kind enough to drive and he basically gave an insightful tour of the place, something that made the trip that much more enjoyable. The main attraction here, however, is the body of a lama who died in the lotus position while meditating back in the twenties. He was exhumed about twenty years ago and was in remarkably good condition, so much so that he went on display for people to touch, it was said he gave you good luck. Obviously a corpse can only take so much so now you can only touch him eleven days in a year, the rest of the time he is locked up.

The original temple of the complex, Ivolginsky Datsan

Another temple, Ivolginsky Datsan

Etigel Khambin Temple, Ivolginsky Datsan

I've had a great time in Russia, met some good people, seen loads of cool stuff and eaten some surprisingly tasty food, but now it's time to be moving on.

Next stop, Mongolia, on the Trans Mongolian part of the journey. Looking forward to riding horses, drinking fermented milk, eating dumplings and sleeping in a ger, just need to get past the apparent horror show of a border crossing first.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Yekaterinburg to Tomsk


Finally started on the Trans Siberian part of the trip, first leg Moscow to Yekaterinburg, 1814 km, roughly around 26 hours on the train. An enjoyable enough experience, managed to read a lot of my book, eat some decent train snacks and relax, to a certain extent. To the side was a group of  screaming children who didn't let up and opposite me was this Lenin-looking bloke who took it in turns to stare at me and then the kids. I wasn't sad to see the back of him when he eventually left, a few hours before I arrived in Yekaterinburg.

Upon arrival, I found the hostel quickly enough and settled in for the night. Even though I had been on a train for the past day, I was somehow still tired. The following day, the hostel owner was great  and made sure I knew where everything was in the city and that I knew all the sights to see.

Would you believe that Yekaterinburg is home to the world's tallest unfinished tower and the world's most compact zoo, or so the locals would have you believe. On top of these gems, there were loads of pointless statues and on top of that, one of the most famous local sights is a qwerty keyboard. Yes, they built a massive keyboard next to the river, and yes, I spelt my name on it.

However, there are actual places of significance here, non more so than the Romanov Death Site with its aptly named Church of the Blood to honour the last Russian royal family who were exectued there, and Ganina Yama, the sight where the family were then secretly buried. To honour them, there are a few churches built among the forest, including the Monastery of the Holy Martyrs as the focal point of the area.

Church of the Blood, Yekaterinburg

Church of the Blood, Yekaterinburg

Ascension Church, Yekaterinburg

Around the grounds of Gamina Yama

Monastery of the Holy Martyrs, Gamina Yama

Gamina Yama

Evenings were filled with chatting with other guests, relaxing, drinking beer at the local micro brewery and spending one evening in a restaurant eating amazing food and drinkng homemade beer with a Czech influence. In short, my three days in Yekaterinburg was the perfect way to unwind after Moscow. 


A short night train was all that was between Yekaterinburg and Omsk. In hindsight, I should have stayed on the train! Up to this point, whenever I told someone I was going to visit Omsk, they always looked at me like I was strange and asked why, usually followed with various reasons why I shouldn't go. Generally, I don't listen to people when they say a place isn't worth checking out, I would rather find out for myself than miss something I may have potentially liked. In this case, I should have listened.

However, I don't feel too aggrieved. It would be unrealistic to go on a trip of this size and expect every place I visit to be amazing and awe inspiring. I guess you need to have the odd let down, if only to help you appreciate the better places more.

Bar at Omsk train station
In a nutshell, Omsk had a few Lenin statues, a restaurant where, to be fair, I actually got some delicious pizza, one big church with no name to be found anywhere, and its highlight, for me, the poxy little bar in the downstairs of the train station. Only here for the day though so I can cope with the decision to come here, there's more fun to be had further along the track for sure. 


After another relatively short train ride, 928km, I arrived in Tomsk, a student town about 80 km off the main Trans Siberian line. Described as Siberia's most attractive city in the Lonely Planet, I was looking forward to some beautiful wooden lace architecture, but instead there were only worn-out, old wooden buildings! Still, the town had a certain charm to it and I enjoyed wandering around, aimlessly taking pictures and walking along the river front.

Random wooden house, Tomsk

This was one of the nicer ones

Lookout Tower on Resurrection Hill, Tomsk

Just off Lenin Square by the Tom River, Tomsk

When travelling alone, bumping into people always helps to make a place much more enjoyable, and this proved to be the case in Tomsk. Halfway through the day I met a lad called Alex, who happened to be a translator, and who was only too happy to hang out and practice his English. I was used to that from Korea and welcomed the company anyway.

There was another lad called Alex in the hostel, so we went for drinks together and met some more of their friends, who in turn knew some English students studying Russian in Tomsk, and it just happend to be one of their birthdays. Of couse things escalated with one too many shots, with the night ending in a stupidly cheap night club and eventually making it to my bunk just before sunrise.

With the help of good people and a little luck, I managed to spare myself another Omsk and instead had a great time in Tomsk, both during the daytime and at night.

Next stop, a 32 hour train ride to the heart of Siberia in Irkutsk and the shores of Lake Baikal.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Moscow, Russia

Not quite on the Trans Siberian route yet, but my first Russian train journey none-the-less. A pretty standard train ride really, departure time of 0010 and arrival time of 0953, St. Petersburg and Moscow are only a paltry 800km apart, so nothing much to do other than prepare my bed with the token starched bedding that everyone receives and try and get some rest.

First glance of my first train in Russia
By riding third class, known as platzkart, I subjected myself to the hustle and bustle that comes with sharing an open plan carriage with 53 other people, basically nine sections of six. I also had the pleasure of a side top bunk. If you’re ever given the option, try and avoid these bunks, they are supper cramped and a pain to get into without getting a sweat on. Also, I had a light in my face. However, as it was a night train, things soon settled down and everyone was snoring around me and eventually I dozed off.

Upon arrival I was a little tired but managed to navigate my way around Leningradsky terminal to find the entrance to the Metro. Everyone I encountered in St. Petersburg said how the Moscow Metro had absolutely no English, so, fearing I’d get completely lost I spent my last afternoon in St. Petersburg learning how to basically read Cyrillic by reading every sign I came across. No museums or anything of that ilk open on Mondays remember.

Thankfully I went to the effort, not that the Moscow Metro is any more complicated than that of London, Seoul or New York, but if you can’t read where you are or understand the overhead announcements, it makes things a bit harder. 

Having gotten a little used to reading the language I soon found the hostel I was staying in, although I’d rather I hadn’t. Much like Moscow itself, my hostel had a pretty unfriendly atmosphere, being the only English speaking foreigner certainly won’t have helped either.

I decided to get out and explore instantly. The Kremlin and the Red Square were only a ten minute walk away so I headed in that general direction. Heading north, you come across St. Basil’s Cathedral first as you walk up the length of the Red Square, with the Kremlin occupying the whole of the west side. Right in the centre, on the west side, of the Red Square is Lenin’s Mausoleum and at the north end are the State History Museum and Kazan Cathedral. 

St. Basil's Cathedral

Having five days in the city (which it turns out is more than enough, three would be just fine), I didn’t want to see everything in one day so I aimlessly wandered around, getting a feel for the city. Of course, by the end of the week I had visited the mighty Kremlin, its armoury and the churches within – Annunciation Cathedral, Archangel Cathedral, Assumption Cathedral and Church of the Deposition of the Robe. No photography in any of these buildings, and that also went for St. Basil’s Cathedral, possibly/ probably Russia’s most famous cathedral.

Clock Tower along the Kremlin Walls

Cathedrals within the Kremlin

Lenin's Mausoleum
Again, Lenin’s Mausoleum was a camera free zone, and definitely no lingering around the body or you were in for a quick ear bashing from security. However, Lenin’s security was slack in comparison to Ho Chi Minh’s over the top security where the body is just surrounded by bayonette wielding soldiers, Lenin only had twelve guards in the whole building.

One thing that is very prominent in Moscow is the ridiculously heavy police presence all over the city. Never walking alone, always in gangs of minimum two or three. They are to say the least, rather intimidating. No more so than when I went to the Luzniki Stadium to watch Zenit St. Petersburg versus Spartac Moscow, Russia's biggest derby game. Some friends I'd made had come down to watch the game, so having already watched one Zenit game, I joined them in the away stand. 

Standard celebrations
No booze to be had at the stadium, too much of a security risk. Had to go through four security checks, frisks and pat downs, it took so long just to get into the stadium. Flares, setting scarves on fire, kicking in chairs all seemed to be perfectly normal before the start of the match and when either team scored, the pyrotechnics were out in force again. Apparently the fans kept their toys in their pants, hence the reason they were able to smuggle them into the ground.  

Even without the booze, you could tell that basically every Zenit and Spartac fan was itching for a scrap, and, with Zenit winning 2 - 1, this only fueled the Spartac fans hatred. It took an hour and half before the police finally booted the last of the Spartac fans out, who were all clearly hanging around for the chance of a fight. Half the Zenit fans around me were warming up for one, with all the cops, I'm not quite sure how they thought they were going to achieve it. Still, I left them to it! 

Once finally outside, it was clear that nothing was ever going to happen, there were literally thousands of police and army, ushering everyone along, all the way until you reached the Metro. Every station had groups of police, there was no where to go but onto the train and home for anyone!

I had fun in Moscow, but travelling with someone or getting lucky with your hostel and meeting cool people would definately help you get more out of the experience. That said, there is plenty enough to keep you entertained and certainly enough things to see and do to comfortably spend three days absorbing the sights and ambling around, you don't really need more than that. Being in Moscow during the thaw period cast a pretty grey and dank light to the place, I'm pretty sure it looks far more picturesque in both summer or winter and has a more welcoming feel to it, but that said it was still a great experience. 

Next stop, Ekaterinburg, and finally starting on the Trans Siberian railway.


Tuesday, 10 April 2012

St. Petersburg

After clearing immigration and stepping out into the cold afternoon air, I instantly realised I should have probably taken the time to at least know how to read Cyrillic, maybe even some choice words or phrases in Russian. Not a lick of English anywhere, save for the giant KFC sign in the distance, a welcome sight!

Thankfully, I have my Trans Siberian Lonely Planet which is already turning out to be ridiculously useful. After waiting for a bus that was clearly not coming, I hopped into one of the marshrutky, basically a minibus on a set route. I knew vaguely where I wanted to go and after a few attempts the driver seemed to nod in agreement at my pronunciation and we were off.

Unsure of when to get off the minibus, I decided that when we were doing a U-turn to head back to the airport was as good a time as any. Once on the street, even with my map, I was a little lost, limited to no English in the city centre, and certainly none on the road signs. I just walked up the road and eventually the map and what I could see seemed to match so I was okay. Finding the hostel was another matter, rather than just been a door on the road, I had to go through a gate which led to a courtyard of a bigger building, round a couple corners, in a back entrance and up two flights of stairs.This happens to be quite normal.

The hostel, Apple Hostel, was really good though and I’d recommend it to anyone visiting St. Petersburg. Friendly staff up for a drink or two and clean, cheap accommodation, perfect.

As luck would have it, there were plenty of friendly foreigners all very capable of speaking English, making my life much easier. There was even a group of English students studying Russian in Russia who were up for the weekend. As a result I was able to head out to Russian bars rather than the tourist friendly ones where I wouldn’t really see anything different from a Friday night in Leeds. The bar fight that started within ten seconds of walking into the first bar is pretty standard, or so I'm told.

Boyarskiy shots...delicious
The beer in St. Petersburg was excellent. Of course now, none of the names come to mind, all I had to say was ‘pe-vo’, which is beer in Russian. As usual, one of the first words I learned in a foreign language was beer, incredibly useful. As well as good beers, there was the ‘famous’ St. Petersburg shot, which apparently you don’t get anywhere else, called Boyarskiy.

Whether this is named after some particular native of St. Petersburg I couldn’t tell you but it was basically a shot glass with half a shot of grenadine, then topped up with vodka and then a splash of tabasco. Sounds rank, tasted good, and they only got better the more you had!

Of course, St. Petersburg has more to offer than cheap booze and shots. There’s the world famous Hermitage in the Winter Palace, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, Peter and Paul Fortress and many more museums, palaces, gardens and churches besides. Although I only had three days, I was able to fit most sights in. 

Kazan Cathedral is a huge building on Nevsky Prospect (the main road through downtown St. Petersburg), St. Isaac’s, where you can go to the top of the dome and get great panoramic views of the city, Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood where every square inch inside is covered with beautiful, biblical mosaics. There's Dvortsovaya Plaza with the Hermiatage to the north west, the General Staff Building opposite and ALexander column in the centre.

St. Isaac's Cathedral

General Staff Building

Alexander Column with the Hermitage in the background

Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood

Kazan Cathedral

I even managed to fit in a Zenit St. Petersburg game. The atmosphere was only average though, one whole stand of the home support decided to leave in protest because they thought there were too many police, even though they had all bought tickets, strange.

Getting Started

Ever since I finished travelling three years ago I have been thinking about how and when I would  go travelling again. Last time away, after a six month stint teaching in Thailand, I travelled around South East Asia, India and Nepal before heading home.