Category Archives: Russia

Moscow to Irkutsk – 5178km by Train

On Saturday evening we boarded our train for the ‘epic’ 5178km journey from Moscow to Irkutsk. At our hostel we met three Swiss guys (Martin, Roman, and Andi) who were also taking the same train as us, so we made our way to the Yaroslavsky station with them. The metro was less busier than on Thursday morning when we arrived, and we had done a recce of the train station the previous day so knew where we were going, which made life easier ūüôā

We arrived at the station about 45 mins before departure, the station had looked a bit dodgy the day before with some shady looking characters hanging around, but there were plenty of people waiting for the train including some backpackers and lots of Russian army guys so we felt safe. Unfortunately it was raining and there was little shelter, but thankfully we only had a 15 min wait until the train pulled onto the platform.

We were in carriage #3 which was near the front of the 16 carriage train, quite a walk! The train was painted in the colours of the Russian flag and with attendants in big hats waiting to greet passengers at every door it felt very Russian! It seemed all the backpackers were also in our carriage, and on finding our 4 berth cabin we found we were sharing with two of the Swiss guys (just can’t escape these German speakers) and next door were four Dutch travellers – all very friendly. We were all excited about boarding the Trans-Siberian, which seemed to bemuse our fellow Russian passengers.

The train departed exactly on time at 21:25 – next stop Siberia! Well actually the train stopped about an hour later and many more times, but for us we wouldn’t reach Irkutsk for 4 days. By now darkness had fallen so we couldn’t see much outside beside the odd light as we passed buildings. The Dutch guys bought some beer from one of the Carriage attendant (who looked a bit like Borat!) which they happily shared around, it was cosy with 8 of us sitting in the small cabin – we all got to know each other quickly!¬† When the beer ran out the Swiss guys got out their Vodka and we all had a shot (nasty!) before retiring to bed.

The beds are comfy, we had one side of the cabin – Lisa on the top bunk and me on the bottom. The train was surprisingly quiet and the rocking motion soon sent me to sleep. I woke a few times but we all slept till about 09:30 and I felt quite fresh. First sight out of the window was endless forest with plenty of snow on the ground, something that would be a common sight for the journey.

After a ‘wet wipe’ shower breakfast was a cereal bar for me and instant porridge for Lisa – the carriage has a water boiler (Samovar) from which you can help yourself for boiling water for tea, cuppa-soup, etc… In the day the bottom bunks fold up and become the seats, with only 4 in the cabin there is enough space to get comfortable. Passing the time reading, talking, playing cards, writing this blog on my iPhone (hence the detail!), or just watching the scenery outside go by – which I liked to do.

Around midday we made a stop at Balyezino 1194km from Moscow, here the locomotive was changed (not sure why) and we got out to stretch our legs on the platform where several traders were waiting to sell food such as bread, smoked fish, crisps, and even cooked meals and of course vodka, beer, and water.

The train was hot, comfortable enough to wear shorts and t-shirt, outside it was near 0 degrees but even so it was nice to breathe in some fresh air. Through a combination of pointing, finger counting, and some bad Russian  (Lisa is doing well, I just know spah-see-bah = thank you) we stocked up on some snacks, bread, water, and beer.

4 hours or so later we stopped at the city of Perm (no hair jokes!), which looked very Eastern block with drab looking tower blocks. We got off for a breather and grabbed the chance to take a photo with our attendant (Borat) who seemed to enjoy the attention.

There was only one trader here, but we were still stocked up, the Swiss guys bought pot mash complete with dodgy looking (dog food like) meat.  Here the clock went forward two hours from Moscow time to GMT +5, and as the train rolled on an hour or so later darkness fell at 21:30ish.

It was time to check out the restaurant car, which had a big list of meals but it seemed only a few were available Рwe went for the safe option of pancakes. Plenty of beer was available though, so we enjoyed a few if those with the Swiss and Dutch guys, there were also some English passengers there who were living it up in first class (2-berth cabins).  The restaurant car shut at 11pm and they had to kick us out, but shortly after we made a stop in Yekaterinburg where we got out for a photo.

Soon after leaving Yekaterinburg the border between Europe and Asia was due (a Russian passenger help us to know when) so although it was dark we lined the corridor with our faces pressed to the glass for a glimpse of the obelisk that is the marker. When it came we literally saw it as a grey shape flashing by but were happy and celebrated with a Vodka.

We were still on Moscow time so weren’t ready for bed until 2am (midnight in Moscow), but then we slept through until nearly midday as we¬† had gone forward another hour to 3 hours ahead of Moscow (GMT +6).¬† Soon after waking we stopped at Omsk where from some Kiosks on the platform we bought water, bread, and popcorn – surprisingly it was warm outside.

The train rolled on through the afternoon through vast plains of marshland with what looked like silver birch tree forests. We made a stop at Barabinsk (3040km from Moscow) where the sun was shining and the traders sold ice cream to the passengers, although the Russians were more interested in the smoked fish, and it was pleasant to stand in the sun for a while.  As darkness fell some young Russians invited us into their cabin for some Vodka, and at one point there were 12 or so people in the cabin, including some Danish girls who had recently joined the train. The Russians are very hospitable abs insist on sharing their drinks and food. Vodka is drank straight with some cheese or sausage after every shot, and once a bottle is opened it is finished Рthankfully there were enough of us to mean we only had one shot each!  It was a bit of a party, which went on until the early hours Рthe Russians only spoke basic English so communication was via lots of pointing and repetition. It was funny being the only Englishman and hearing people from carious countries conversing in English.  At a late night stop in Novosibirsk, a city of over 1 million people and the capital of Western Siberia, lots of people joined the train and our carriage was now pretty much full. 

Next day I woke at 10ish due to the loud station announcer at the station (Krasnoyarsk i think) where we had stopped. I quickly got dressed and got some fresh air, as the air conditioner had made me very dry, it was warm enough to be on the platform in a t-shirt which was nice. After leaving the station for the train wound through some hills for a few hours with small wooden houses set amongst pine trees, it was the best scenery so far.¬† There only were muddy tracks and I didn’t see much signs of life, it made me wonder what these people do as there seemed little industry, not even farming. There were several more short stops through the afternoon, and around 4375km from Moscow, we made a stop at Llanskaya where stocked up on the platform with Instant noodles, fried bread with filing of meat and veg (a bit like a fried pasty), small cake/biscuit things, and a few beers. Also around here we moved another hour ahead (GMT +7).

The atmosphere on the train was nice, even though we had now been on the train for 3 days everyone was happy and we enjoyed chatting with our fellow travellers. Everyone liked the stops as it was a chance to stretch legs and also buy supplies, which were shared around and quickly consumed once back on the train.  The train rolled on with blue skies above, whilst the scenery was back to endless forest РI made this short video blog.

Late in the afternoon we made a stop at Tushky, 4516km from Moscow, it was only a 5 min stop though so we didn’t get off – with only 600km it felt like we were nearly in Irkutsk. The further east we went the less snow on the ground, and it was quite warm outside.

At a later evening stop Erik, one of the Dutch guys, nearly missed the train trying to buy Vodka having to sprint back to the train just before it departed – with only two trains a week you don’t want to get left behind!¬† We finished the remaining beers with the Swiss guys and turned in for an early night as we were scheduled to arrive in Irkutsk at 06:16.¬† The train arrived right on time, which seemed a good feat considering the distance we had covered, and we walked more than 10m from the train for the first time in 4 days – nice!

After saying goodbye to the Swiss guys we shared a minibus with the Dutch guys to the village of Listvyanka, which lies on the south shores of the giant Lake Baikal –¬†about 60km south of Irkutsk.¬† Having left the train at 06:16 we were in Listvyanka at 08:00, and it was quite cold – the lake was frozen – and everything seemed to be shut including the guesthouse we had booked¬†ahead.¬† After a bit of knocking the lady owner¬†came to the door in her dressing gown, but was very welcoming and we soon climbed into a warm bed for a kip until lunchtime ūüôā

In the afternoon we had a walk through the village, which is picturesque with lots of wooden houses, to the fish market and a few km along the shore of the lake.¬† The lake is the worlds deepest lake at 1637m deep, and¬†it is estimated to contain 20’000 cubic kilometers of freshwater –¬†approx. 20% of the world’s freshwater supplies.¬† In the midday sun the temperature rose to about 15 degrees , which surprised us and seemed wierd with the lake being frozen.¬† The ice was apparently though still up to 1m thick, although at river inlet to Irkutsk it was already melted and we could here the sound of the ice melting across the lake.¬† We gingerly walked a couple of meters out onto the lake for some photos.

Listvyanka is only a small place so we bumped into many of the backpackers who were on the train with us, and met up with Erik and Vivien (part of the Dutch guys) and the Swiss guys (on a day trip from Irkutsk) for the walk up to the hill above the village for a scenic view across the lake.

We spent two nights in Listvyanka, where we sampled the lake’s fish – the Omul, which was smoked and a bit like Mackarel, nice.¬† It was very dark in the village at night, and with most houses having a dog barking outside it was a little eery.¬† It was a lovely place to relax and breathe some fresh air for a few days after the confines of the train. There were some beautiful sunsets as you can see in this video – sorry didn’t realise I was chewing gum at the time!

Today we caught the bus back to Irkutsk, and after a bit of a stressful cross city trip in a minibus from the bus station (we had no idea where we were going and no one spoke English) we made it to our hostel near the train station where we need to be at 5am tomorrow for the train to Mongolia.

Irkutsk is very busy, smoggy and dusty so we are glad we are only here for one night, we will have a quick look around the city this afternoon, but are looking forward to riding the train through the deserts of Mongolia.  We are due to arrive in the countries capital, Ulaanbatar, on Sunday morning, I will update more from there Рuntil then you can see our Trans-Siberian photos here.

On to Moscow

We spent our last day in St Petersburg in it’s two main art galleries – The Russian Museum and the impressive Hermitage, which boasts collections from artists such as Picasso, Monet, and Van Gogh. ¬†Personally though the building was much more interesting than the paintings, it is absolutely massive and the decor would rival that of Buckingham Palace (I suspect!).

We had an evening meal of the local speciality Рpancakes (bliny) with savoury (caviar if you can afford it!) or sweet fillings.  In the late evening we humped our bags down Nevsky Prospekt about 15 mins to the Moskovskiy train station, where we were cautiously one hour early so sat, slightly nervously, for 20 mins or so in the station concourse. We had nothing to worry about though as boarding the train was easy, in fact it was very impressive!   The train was 16 carriages long and outside each was an attendant stood waiting to greet passengers.  I was slightly worried as we had a e-ticket and were told we just needed to show our passports to board the train, but relieved to find our names at the top of the attendants list Рwe were on!  We quickly found our 4 berth cabin, which we shared with two polite Russian guys.   The train was immaculate, a cloth was laid on the carpet to protect it whilst passengers boarded before being removed after passengers removed their shoes in their cabins and donned paper (issued on the train) slippers.

The train pulled out of the station precisely on time and we were on our way to Moscow!  After 30 mins or so we got into our comfy beds and slept through until just before arriving in Moscow 8 hours later, arriving 10 mins early at 07:45 on Thursday.  We were even given a small breakfast.  A really pleasant experience all round, hopefully it will be the same for our onward legs through Siberia.

From the tranquility of the train we walked into the Rugby scrum that is the Moscow metro at rush hour, heavily laden with backpacks it was a baptism of fire as we had to fight our way through the crowds twice as we had to change lines all the time trying to decipher the cyrillic signs.  We made it though and soon found our hostel (Godzillas), which is nice and well run РI would recommend it to anyone looking for budget accommodation in Moscow.

After a shower we headed out to discover Moscow, the metro was quieter by this time and without backpacks much much easier!   The metro is actually very impressive as it is decked our with chandeliers, mosaics, monuments, and paintings.

It is also very deep (200m in some places) as it was designed to double as a bomb shelter, and was used as such in WWII and the Cold War.  The escalators are massive and run a bit quicker than those back home!  I read that volunteers dug the metro as a showcase of the communist success.  The system is very efficient with trains every 3 minutes or so, even so due to the amount of people the train s usually full.

First stop was at the agent who booked our train tickets (Real Russia) to collect our onward tickets to Mongolia, their office in a large Soviet style tower block was exactly how I envisaged Moscow!¬† From there we headed to the city centre and Red Square where we caught our first sight of St Basils cathedral with it’s colourful onion domes.

Red square is actually smaller and more enclosed than I expected, although no less imposing. ¬†The mighty fort of the Kremlin overlooks one side with Lenin’s tomb alongside (where his embalmed body can be visited). ¬†The GUM shopping mall occupies the other side of the square, St Basils is at the far end and the large Resurrection gate and small but quaint Kazan cathedral at the other end – this was rebuilt in 1995 as it was demolished by Stalin to allow easier access for the parading of his troops.

We walked across the square with the intention of visiting St Basils, but the police/army (it’s hard to tell the difference – lots of big furry hats) started to cordon off the square as it seemed someone important was visiting, we waited a while to see who it was but no one turned up so we went for a coffee in the GUM.

Afterwards we visited the gold roofed cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which is a replica rebuilt in 2000 of the 19th century version the communists demolished to build an outdoor swimming pool! It was getting pretty nippy so we headed in to the warmth of the Russian photography house Рinteresting ish!   Feeling pretty knackered after a long day we headed back to the hostel for an early night.

We had a little lie-in on Friday morning (we are on holiday!) and then took the metro to the gargantuan monument to the conquerors of space, which is in the shape of a rocket blasting off.  The Russians love these massive monuments, which can be seem across the skyline of the city.

We then headed to the Kremlin, parts of which can be visited. There are several cathedrals in it’s grounds, all with gold onion domes – probably the most impressive is the Assumption Cathedral which hosted Russia’s most important ceremonies from 1326 until being closed by the communists in 1918; religious services resumed in 1990.

There are also some gardens to stroll through, although it was a little cold and wet today to be outside for too long!  We decided to head indoors for some lunch of Meatballs before visiting the museum of modern Russian history (the last century or so) which was interesting as I knew little about it Рalthough it was information overload after a while!

Today we checked out St Basils from the inside, which is not as spectacular as the outside.  Afterwards we did this video blog in he middle of Red Square Рit was snowing and very cold at the time!!

Video Blog from Red Square

In the aftenoon ¬†we went to¬†market and bourght a few souvenirs – Russian dolls!¬† Afterwards we went to a Russian buffet, and had some grilled pork topped with melted cheese and tomato – nice.¬† We were happy to have a quieter day as all this sightseeing gets quite tiring, Moscow is massive so theres been lots of walking – our legs ache!¬†¬†¬† That said we won’t be moving much for he next 4 days as this evening we start our journey into Siberia with 3 nights on the train to Irkutsk about 5000km from here, crossing from Europe into Asia.¬† Very excited!

We are scheduled to arrive in Irkutsk on Tuesday,¬†so I’ll post the next blog from there. ¬† In the meantime you can see some photos from St Petersburg and Moscow here.

First stop St Petersburg!

Yesterday we flew into St Petersburg (Russia) from London, and it seemed a quick flight at just under 3 hours.  I was expecting it to be pretty chilly when we stepped out of the airport, but was pleasantly surprised to find it around 8 degrees.  We took a bus to the nearest Metro station, and then took that to the city Рvery quick and loud!  It took us a bit to find our hostel as it is located in a side street with no sign or numbers to mark the address Рbut eventually we did and it is ok, basically a large apartment turned into a hostel (I think hostels are a new concept to Russia).  We had a bit of  a walk along the main street (Nevsky Prospekt) and a coffee and cake before heading back as it got dark Рaround 9pm here!

This morning we did a guided walking tour for 5 hours around the city, which was a great way to both see the sights and also learn some basics of Russian culture РEnglish is not widely spoken here.  We walked a long way Рtaking several bridges over the frozen rivers (the ice here was broken by an ice breaker):

It is a picturesque city with impressive architecture everywhere¬†–¬†including St Isaac’s Cathedral,¬†Peter the Greats fortress,¬†winter palace, and the¬†very impressive Hermitage (which is a¬†big art gallery).¬† Probably the most impressive sight was the Church of the Resurrection of Christ ‘ On Spilled Blood’ – so called as it was built on the site of Tsar Alexander II’s assassination in 1881 – with it’s bright colours and patterned domes and arches.

It was equally impressive inside, with mosaic pictures accross every wall and ceiling and marble floors – it must of taken years of work to uild but crazily during the soviet era it was used as a warehouse!

After the tour we went for some food, I had Beef Stroganov and Lisa had a Borscht which is a beetroot soup, both were lovely. 

We are having a great time, the Russians aren’t the most friendly people but they are happy to help you if ask them.¬† We don’t attract any attention on the street, in-fact several times the locals have mistaken me for one of them!¬† They seem to be very proud of their city and rightly so as it is very impressive.

Tomorrow we are planning to go to the Russian museum and then we take our first Russian train overnight to Moscow Рshould be interesting!