Author Archives: shesgotspies

Ulan-Ude

I had a full 24 hours in Ulan Ude, the capital of Buryatia, but arriving at 6am meant I didn’t get enough sleep on the short journey from Irkutsk, so was glad that my hotel let me check in at 7am as could get some more sleep.

It was harder to work out the bus system as it consisted of mostly minibuses or mashrutkas, mostly only with a number displayed, so I took lucky dip with the first one I took and luckily ended up in the centre where I was aiming for. There they have a pedestrianised Arbat street like Moscow and many other Russian cities that copy it. The centre was quite attractive, notably the opera house with big fountains outside, and the world’s largest Lenin head on the central square was a novelty to see.

I headed for Ivolginsky datsan, but it took ages to work out where to take the 130 bus from to get there, so took a lot of wandering around before I found it on a street near the cathedral. It took about 45 minutes to get to Ivolginsk, then there was an unmarked minibus which went the 10 minutes drive further to the datsan.

The Buddhist datsan was interesting with multicoloured decorations and buddhas inside the many temples. I met one lady who explained to me the teachings of Buddhism and how they have their lama in the temple sitting in the lotus position and undecomposed for more than 30 years after his death. I didn’t get the chance to see him, but apparently the 31st July is the big celebration for him when many people will come to see him and be blessed.

After I headed back to Ulan Ude I decided to head to the city’s datsan, which Wikitravel said was at the end of the 97 mashrutka line. What it didn’t mention was that it was around half an hour’s walk up a steep dirt track road afterwards, which in sweltering 32C heat was quite a challenge. When I got there the temple itself had just closed at 6pm, but wandered around the pretty gardens with flags, bells, prayer wheels and nice flower arrangements.

Spent the rest of my time wandering around the city centre and ate at the Golden Bird Soviet style buffet restaurant which was very cheap, paying just 200R for a 2 course meal and drink.

Irkutsk

I only had a short time in Irkutsk after staying an extra night on Olkhon. I checked in to Magic hostel just for the day so that I could use the shower, then went to explore the city.

It seemed to be quite an attractive city with lots of decorative wooden buildings everywhere, although a lot of them seemed to be falling apart.

I first got the number 4 tram to Kazan Cathedral which is a pretty pink and blue building with a beautiful garden. Inside was stunning with beautiful chandeliers, garlands of flowers everywhere and pretty decorations.

I followed part of the green line trail in the centre that is painted on the ground for tourists to follow and visited the Epiphany cathedral and another church next to it which were next to the river embankment, which had a lovely view across the city and river.

The main square with fountains was also very attractive with it’s flower arrangements. The centre is compact enough to be very walkable. It’s a shame I didn’t have a bit longer to spend in the city, although Baikal was definitely worth staying longer for.

Lake Baikal

Arrived in Irkutsk at 12.30pm on the train and tried to rush across to the bus station as I knew there was a bus for Khuzir on Olkhon island, the biggest island in Lake Baikal, leaving at 2pm. When I got there the lady in the ticket office told me the tickets had sold out for that day and the next day. I started to panic about what I was going to do, but when I went out the front of the bus station I saw minibuses with signs on the side saying ‘Olkhon’, so paid 700R for a seat in one of them. The minibus was completely full and I was sat on a fold-down seat near the front, so was not the most comfortable 7 hour journey. I met some people from South Korea on the bus and we had dinner together while we waited more than an hour at MRS for the ferry across to Olkhon. I found out later we were quite lucky, as earlier in the week some people had been waiting 2 days for the ferry crossing as the queue was so big and the ferry is quite small.

The drive from the ferry was very bumpy on the hilly dirt roads and took about an hour to get to Khuzhir. I was staying at Nikita’s in a dorm which was a fairly high 1000R a night, but included breakfast and dinner. It was only 5 minutes walk from the central tourist office drop off place.

After dinner I walked to the Shaman rocks which were about 10 minutes walk behind Nikita’s and watched the beautiful sunset over the amazing scenery of the lake.

The next day I booked onto a 4×4 tour of Cape Khoboi, the Northernmost point of the island. While waiting I bumped into 2 colleagues from work who were booked on the same tour – proving again what a small world it really is!

On the tour I could see why 4×4’s were needed as it was an incredibly bumpy ride across the dirt roads, with our driver driving like a lunatic, probably trying to impress the all-female tourists he had on board. We stopped at an old fishing village and a few other points before we got to Cape Khoboi. There we had more than an hour to walk to the end, where there were beautiful views of the clear waters of the lake and the cliffs of the island. It actually looked a lot like Wales! Fish soup was served for lunch before we headed off to another viewpoint before heading back to Khuzir. I would definitely recommend the tour as the scenery was beautiful, and cost just 700R, plus had to pay an extra 60R for entrance to the National Park.

I was meant to stay 2 nights at Nikita’s, but ended up cancelling my night in Irkutsk as it was so beautiful at Lake Baikal and didn’t want to leave so soon.

At night the stars were beautiful, and even though the skies were hazy or cloudy all the nights I was there was able to see the Milky Way one night. The other thing was had to wait until around 2am until it was properly dark.

The next day I walked around the lakeside by Khuzir then went to the big beach to the North of Shaman rocks. I wanted to attempt swimming in the lake after I’d seen so many Russians do it, but also knew from putting my hand in before that the water was ice cold. Eventually managed to slowly acclimatise myself to the shockingly cold temperature by sitting on the edge with my feet in for a while, then moved more and more into the water very slowly. After about 20 minutes or more of doing this I managed to walk fully into the water. The freezing temperature was still a massive shock, but managed to submerge myself and have a bit of a swim. Had to come out after about 10 minutes cos a massive rain storm came which forced everyone to leave the beach.

Later I went on one of the 2 hour sunset boat tours on the lake which was good fun. Halfway through the trip they gave us bread to feed the seagulls, so our boat and the other two boats in the convoy were surrounded by flocks of seagulls.

Before I started the Trans-Siberian trip I thought that Baikal would be the highlight of the trip, and so far I’m right as visiting the vast, bleak but beautiful landscapes together with the deepest lake in the world has been an amazing experience.

Krasnoyarsk

Arrived quite tired after a 12 hour journey which wasn’t long enough for a proper sleep. Found the trolleybus easily enough to get to the hostel, but when got to the right stop it took a while of aimless wandering to find the right block with the strange numbering system used there. Kiwi hostel was an apartment converted to dorms which was nice enough.

Went on a mission first to the Stolby nature reserve and managed to find the right buses I needed to take to the Bobrovy Log cable car through Google maps. It took nearly an hour to get there and I was worried when I saw the cable car was closed when I arrived, but thankfully it was just K2 cable car, and K1 was open until 10pm. I got a ticket for 250R and took the scenic ride up the mountain.

At the top I walked first to the stolby rock Takmak. The stolbys are rock formations protruding from the tops of the mountains and was interesting to see them poking out from vast amounts of forests. I didn’t have the ideal footwear on as my walking sandals had got soaked in Novosibirsk, but managed to scale up to the base of the formation. Walking around the side I ended up on a ledge with an amazing view over Krasnoyarsk and the surrounding forests, but also a very long drop below!

Later I walked into the part where the main stolbys are but you have to walk around 4 miles though the forest before you reach the start of the trail. It was very pretty and serene but full of annoying mosquitoes and ticks. When eventually got to the first stolby after a sweaty walk through the forest there was an awe inspiring view across what seemed to be endless forests on the mountains stretching out into the taiga. I didn’t walk much further than the first few stolbys before heading back to the cable car, and lucky I did as it started raining not long after I got down. Spent some time walking around the city centre which was quite pleasant, especially the pedestrianised bridge going over the river to an island.

The next day I wanted to see the Paraskeva Pyatnitsa chapel which is featured on the 10 rouble note, but I struggled to find information on it’s exact location, so was hit and miss on the buses until by chance I got one to Ploschad Pobedy from where I could walk 20 minutes up the steep Stepsna Razina Ulitsa to get to it. When I got there the church itself was cordoned off as it was under reconstruction, but there was an amazing panoramic view over the city from there. Bride and groom after bride and groom kept arriving there to have their pictures taken while I was there. Krasnoyarsk is definitely one of the better places I have visited in Russia and would definitely recommend a stop off on Trans-Siberian here.

Novosibirsk

Got to Novosibirsk after the 23 hour journey from Yekaterinburg, which seemed surprisingly short, mainly due to the company on the train and getting some decent sleep.

Was gutted to see it was cold and pouring with torrential rain outside, so had to scrap my plan of getting a train to the Ob Sea. Was hard to believe I saw it was 37C on the weather forecast last week! This was my second visit to Novosibirsk, as had previously been last year in the middle of winter. It was never the most interesting of places then when I visited on a 16 hour layover on a flight to Vladivostok then, and in the terrible weather it didn’t make it easier. Had previously wanted to go to nearby Tomsk alternatively but the train times in my timescale wouldn’t allow it unfortunately.

Wandered to the deserted river embankment and to Lenin Square in the centre to see the Soviet statues in front of the opera house (the largest in Russia), and got completely soaked. There was so much rain the roads around the main square had turned into rivers, and crossing the road meant having to walk through 10cm of water.

Went to get something to eat and tried to dry off slightly before briefly stopping at the Chapel of St. Nicholas which was built on the site of the geographical centre of the USSR. Walked around a bit more seeing nothing much of interest apart from the closed Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and the Cathedral of the Ascension which was beautiful, and importantly, dry inside!

Had a bit more of a wander and something to eat before heading to the station for the 18:29 092 train to Krasnoyarsk, where I would thankfully have a base once again.

The train I got on was coming from Moscow and seemed quite old, and had the dreaded lack of rail on the
upper bunk to keep you from falling out. At least it’s a relatively short 12 and a half hour journey, so will just have to try not to roll off in my sleep!

Yekaterinburg

Arrived in Yekaterinburg after my 14 hour journey from Kazan. It was very pleasant and went by fairly quickly as there were spare window seats near my upper bunk, so sat there a few hours watching the countryside go by. One man came to speak to me in broken English (miles better than my Russian), and found out he was from Cheylabinsk and saw the recent meteor there before it struck.

Went to sleep early before crossing over my first time zone on the journey, meaning I arrived at 8am in Yekaterinburg – 2 hours ahead of Moscow time. Was disappointed to see that it was raining and cold at around 9C, a far cry from the tropical weather of Kazan.

Was staying at Omnomnom hostel, which I managed to find easily from the directions, and was handily near a metro station, so paid 26R to go by metro there. Was met by Ekaterina (fitting for Yekaterinburg) who was very helpful with directions and let me have a well needed shower when I arrived before check in. It felt luxurious to have the shower in the huge modern and clean apartment used as a hostel. It was definitely one of the best hostels I’ve stayed at in the world, so was very happy with my choice.

Headed out on the 223 bus to Ganina Yama, one of the most sacred places in Russia, as is the place the burned bodies of the murdered last tsar of Russia and his family were found in a pit. It took around an hour to get there, but only 40R on the bus. It seemed quite empty and a lot of building work was going on, but the chapels I did see were very beautiful. It was very serene out in the forests, but it was the sort of place where an hour maximum would’ve been ok, but had to stay 2 hours as that was the frequency of the bus, so waited around quite a bit.

When I got back to the city it was late afternoon but thought it would be my only chance to try to get to the Europe-Asia border marker as my train was 12pm the next day. Tried the taxis but their price quotes were way too high, so attempted to go by bus as wikitravel said it was possible to do. Got on the bus to Pervouralsk but couldn’t see where to get off, and no one near me knew, so went into the town before getting a taxi from there. It was a short 3 mile or so drive from there to the old granite border and my driver Erig tried to explain the history of the site, but as he only spoke Russian I only half understood. One of the things I did learn though was that the column was a copy of the one on the main square in St. Petersburg, and that there were a few markers, one on each peak. I did the customary standing with one foot in Europe and one in Asia before heading back to the bus station and then Yekaterinburg.

By the time I got back it was evening, so had a quick walk around the town centre around Ploschad 1905 metro. Saw the duma and other fancy buildings, then realised my hostel was a short walk from there so went back.

I realised that my hostel was opposite a huge hypermarket and 24 hour shopping centre, so used the chance to get as much non-pot noodle type food while I could. Getting back to the hostel I realised I had the place to myself which was awesome, so had a chance to relax after being in the 54-bed carriage dorm on the trains.

The next morning got up early to cram in a quick walking tour of the centre, and saw the Church on the Blood and the nice riverside area where there were great panoramic views of the city.

Got back to the hostel after with enough time to pack my stuff and have one last precious shower before my 23 hour stint on the train to Novosibirsk.

 

20140716-121847-44327384.jpg

 

20140716-121848-44328752.jpg

First stop – Kazan

Arrived in Kazan this morning after taking the 22:16 train from Moscow last night. It took 11 and a half hours and didn’t get as much sleep as I’d have liked as it kept stopping several times. I was lucky to have the bottom bunk on the train in the platzcart carriage (3rd class) as you can store your luggage under the bed and know it’s secure as you have to lift the bed up to access it. I wanted to book the lower bunk on all sections of the journey, but even when booking the tickets 3 weeks in advance almost all the bottom bunks were sold out. It’s a struggle to manouveur up on to the top bunks, even more so if you’re unlucky enough to get those on the side of the carriage which have no table to use as a step up once the person below has converted it into a bed. It would’ve been nicer of course to travel in a cabin, but going third class all the way to Vladivostok meant the total price of the 8 tickets was around 15000 rubles (£250), so a bargain for that distance and always get a bed.

Only have a 6 hour stop before the train on to Yekaterinburg, but as I came here 2 years ago previously, I’m mostly retracing my steps. It’s certainly improved from my last visit, as the city was mostly looking like a building site as they prepared to host the Universade games. It is a beautiful place, and very different to other parts of Moscow as it is the capital of Tartarstan and has a large mosque as the central feature of it’s kremlin. Had a walk around the kremlin and went into the mosque and the Islamic museum in the basement, and the hot and partially sunny weather is perfect for strolling around the city centre. Went to the bizarre soviet museum as well which was full of all kinds of Soviet paraphernalia.

Kazan was previously the furthest place I’d travelled to by train in Russia, so that’s all going to change as I head on to Yekaterinburg. I’m very much looking forward to having a base there, and therefore a shower!

Trepidation of Trans Siberian

I’ve lived in Moscow for 3 years, but am moving from here soon to return to the UK, so to end my time here I wanted to do the Trans Siberian from Moscow to Vladivostok – the longest train route in the world at 5772 miles long.  I’ve travelled around Russia a lot in my 3 years here, and have even visited Vladivostok previously, albeit by plane and during the winter when the sea was frozen over, along with a few of the other cities along the route and elsewhere.

Tonight I leave, and have mixed feelings about the journey, as I leave late tonight and haven’t finished packing yet, am worried about how I will deal with lack of vegetarian food options on the long journey (which I plan to counteract by packing lots of Pot Noodles!), the lack of washing facilities on the sections of the journey that last more than 2 days straight, and whether I will manage to negotiate the 5 different time zones and calculate the correct time that I actually need to be on the trains, as they all confusingly run on Moscow time.

On the other hand, it is a journey I have dreamed of doing my whole life, and will be a huge adventure for sure – something I never shy away from.  Russia is a beautiful country, and will be great to see where Europe becomes Asia, when the landscapes and cultures change, and all the rolling scenery in-between here and the Pacific coast.  I am now equipped with enough basic Russian to at least be able to read everything and communicate in a mixture of basic Russian and sign language, which will certainly make the solo trip easier, but being Russia, nothing will go exactly to plan!

I will say do svidaniya to home comforts tonight to embark on my next adventure, going to Kazan, Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk (Lake Baikal and Olkhon Island), Ulan-Ude, Khabarovsk and finally Vladivostok.