Category Archives: Russia

Russia vs China

Which is better, Russia or China? We aren’t comparing countries here as we haven’t made it to China yet and that would be a bit of an unfair way to compare. We aren’t talking of any kind of sporting event either. We definitely aren’t trying to start a war between the two. What we are talking about are trains. Who makes the best train, Russia or China?

First Impressions

The Trans Siberian leg from Irkutsk to Ulan Bator finds us on a Chinese train. Up until now we have only been on Russian trains. The international trains from Moscow to Beijing are a mixture of Russian and Chinese trains so which we get is a matter of chance. I am sure you can work out which will come based on the timetable but we gave up trying to understand the Trans-Siberian timetables long ago.

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Let’s start with a bit of a description of the cabin. We are multi-story here with a top and bottom bunk instead of side to side. The reason for this is that on one side of the compartment we have a shared wash cubicle with next door. This allows you to wash in the sink or shower using an attachment to the tap. As such the cabin is wider but some space is lost to the washroom. A single seat occupies the other side of the washroom next to the window so the person from the top bunk (Rich in our case) doesn’t have to stay up there all the time (even though Vicki may have liked this).

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The carriage fittings are much older on this train than on the Russian trains. We have the wood panelling Vicki was expecting on previous trains and the upholstering has an interesting oriental pattern instead of the functional plain blue on the Russian trains.

Our carriage has a very smelly toilet. Unfortunately we are next to this so have to keep closing the toilet door if other people leave it open. The carpet in the corridor is sodden. Apparently this was due to a leak shortly after Moscow. Some people on the train have lived with the wet floor and smelly toilet for 4 days. Overall the Chinese train seems dirtier. The male carriage attendants don’t seem as rigorous on cleaning as the female ones on Russian trains – whether this is a question of nationality or sex, I’m not sure. Our carpets on the other trains were hovered daily. The ones here really needs a going over but it hasn’t been done (and looks like it hasn’t been done for some time).

If we put aside the smelly toilet and wet floor I think I would prefer a Chinese carriage to a Russian one. It has more character and the wash room is a definite plus. Sadly we can’t ignore the two negative points. What I think we need are some Russian provodnistas to get this Chinese carriage ship shape.

Later in the Journey…

Our Chinese attendants are getting worse. They are clearly very busy and don’t have time to clean. They are now cooking very smelly Chinese food and watching a screechy cartoon film at full volume to treat all of us to it. The icing on the cake is that one of the attendants is walking around with no shirt on. He is quite a large man and it really isn’t a pleasant sight.

After the journey finished…

We have escaped the dirty train in tact. Bedsides the mess the journey was very enjoyable. There was a large number of tourists on board. In our cabin there were two English and one Dutch couple of similar age to us who we enjoyed talking to and the 24 hour trip passed quickly. We enjoyed meals based on provisions purchased in Irkutsk and watched some more Game of Thrones to pass the time.

The most interesting event on the train was the border crossing from Russia to Mongolia. This took some time with lengthy stops either side of the border. We had surrender our passports for checking and fill in customs forms as well as answering questions and showing our baggage. Overall this took some time and we were glad this was done in the evening rather than during sleeping hours as there were many people coming and going all the time. Some of these were less official than others with people coming on to exchange money from Russian to Mongolian. We swapped our 150 RUB for 6000 MNT which was a bad rate but turned out to be the exact amount needed to get me 2 beers the following night so well worth it.

As we passed over the border it began to snow. It was very atmospheric seeing the snow fall on a lonely border post surrounded by barbed wire. This is the kind of scene I always imagined you would see while crossing Siberia.

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One of the first sights we saw at the station in Mongolia was a sign for London 2012. A little reminder of home even now we are very far away.

The Paris of Siberia

After another slightly lonely breakfast in Listvyanka, it was time to head back to Irkutsk, known as “Paris of Siberia”. We had booked a city tour, and Helen, our guide, was keen to tell us all about Irkutsk, and its history – several members of the Decemberist movement were exiled here after a failed coup against the Tsar in 1825.

Following the tour, we only had a few hours before we needed to hit the hay ready for another early start. Our train for Mongolia was leaving at 5am so another pre-dawn start awaited us.

We have found that the best way to get to know a place is to wander, so that is what we did in Irkutsk. There are only 2 major roads – Lenin street and Karl Marx street, and so it was fairly easy to get our bearings. Our first stop was the Lenin statue, and then a cute garden full of bronze figures.

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Irkutsk is unusual compared to other Russian cities that we have seen in that it still has many of the old timber houses in the centre of the town. Our guide told us that they are now mainly owned by the elderly who can’t afford to renovate, and so make do with no running water or electricity – and these shacks sit side by side with new modern glass buildings which is a very odd sight.

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Following our walk around the town we did what we do every time we are somewhere new – we went for a run, in this case, our second of the day. Richard managed to find the only hill in the area to run up, but it did give us a nice view down over the city.

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All too soon, it was time to pack everything up and get ready for the next place – Mongolia!

Water, water everywhere…and you can drink it!

We have just spent some time lakeside, not the shopping centre of course, we were staying in Listvyanka on Lake Baikal. This is the largest freshwater lake in the world. It contains around 20% of the worlds available drinking water. Its 400 miles long, between 20 to 40 miles wide and over a mile deep. That is a lot of water. Apparently sponges in the water make it safe to drink as they provide natural filtration.

The lake contains a lot of wildlife not found elsewhere. Our guidebook tells us that there are 1085 types of algae, 250 mosses, 450 lichens, 1500 vascular plants, 255 small crustaceans, 83 gastropods, 86 worms and 52 fish that are only found in Lake Baikal. Why would you not want to go see those? Everyone loves a good gastropod. What we really liked were the freshwater seals. We didn’t see them in the lake but we did see them in captivity.

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We saw seals in two places. The first was the Lake Baikal museum, this has a small aquarium showing of some of the unique inhabitants of the lake. The star sight though is there freshwater seal. One of the other exhibits at the museum is a virtual submarine ride. You go into a room that has porthole/video screens around it. A Russian guide tells you about the various fish you see at different levels. Although we could not understand the commentary we did know what depth we were at and managed to see a golomyanka. This fish lives at around 1500m and is 35% fat. It gives birth to its young fully formed (no eggs for this fish) and melts if you take it out of water.

The second place we saw seals was at the Listvyanka Nepinarium. This is a seal show. They have two seals that perform every hour for about 25 to 30 minutes. We saw them dance, play ball games and even play trumpets and saxophones. They are some very talented and intelligent seals. Unfortunately there were some less intelligent drunken Russians in the show with us who tried to spoil the fun. The seals were instructed to get their own back by splashing them at least. We are still unsure why the drunken tourists decided that a 2pm seal show was better than staying in whatever bar they had clearly spent the morning in.

Our accommodation in Listvyanka was more of a B&B than hotel. We stayed in a chalet style room in a wing someone had added to their house. There were around 10 rooms however for most of the time we were the sole occupants. The room had unique decoration with multiple fabrics and patterns being used. Although not to everyone’s taste it was very warm as a result of the bizarre plumbing that had central heating pipes all over the place in the bedroom and bathroom including underfloor heating and pipes looping the bedroom ceiling.

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One real selling point for the accommodation was the sauna. Our itinerary mentioned that we would get a sauna and it was true to its word. We were invited to the sauna room where we relaxed in the heat before diving into the plunge pool. At least the hardy of us went into the plunge pool. The softer (more sensible) just dipped a toe in.

When we arrived early on Wednesday morning (around 8:30am), our host was not ready for us. She came out of her house in her pyjamas to show us to our room. Unexpectedly we were then invited to breakfast where there were 6 other people already. Meals were served in a restaurant room above the house which had a bar and dance floor. They must be busier in summer than they were during our stay to justify the large room. It was a bit lonely when we ate in here the first evening as it was just two of us. The food was very good with filling breakfasts which always had 2 courses and warm stew for dinner.

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The other people in breakfast were an American couple and four Brits from Cornwall. We only briefly spoke to the Americans but the Cornish were very friendly, I can’t remember their names so will call them Derrick, Jen (I think this is the only correct name), Tony and Jean. Derrick gave us a lot of local information, recommending places to visit and helpfully giving us a map. Although we didn’t copy the walk they did which involved a ferry to another part of the lake, the map and his pointers got us oriented and ready to hike off straight away. Jen and Jean are sisters. It seems Jen has dragged her sister along on a more adventurous holiday than she is used to and was in the process of wearing them out with many long walks and lots of sightseeing. Tony (Jean’s wife) had retired to his room to rest so maybe it was working.

Our main activity on day 1 was a long walk along the lake to the museum. Behind the museum there is a viewpoint on the hill (spotted using Derrick’s map – thank you Derrick). We would like to say we walked all the way up however that would be a lie. Part way we found a chairlift so took the easy route up.We were surprised the chairlift was running as there were few people around. Vicki thought they might just have been testing it out rather than running it all day. The walk was well worth it as we were rewarded with stunning views at the top.

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Following our walk we returned to Listvyanka village where there is a market with many stalls selling smoked and salted fish. There are also many barbeques set up to sell shashlik (kebabs). The way it works is you buy what food you want and then go to the beach were you can hire a hut/table to consume them. We spent a very relaxing hour sitting in a hut in the sun, eating, reading and watching the other tourists by the lake.

<<Hut photo, beach photo, vain tourist>>

Day 2 was a bit miserable. The bright clear skies of the day before were gone so another walk was off the table. Instead we explored the village a bit more visiting a church and the Retro Park. The Retro Park is the yard of a workshop where an artist creates sculptures from the parts of old cars. The sculptures were reminiscent of the film Robots. The fisherman on the nearby bridge who catches a new fish each day was a particular favourite.

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The rest of the day was filled by a trip to the market again for lunch and then the seal show in the afternoon. To warm up and escape the rain, we then had some time watching Game of Thrones back in our room. We just started watching this but have 3 series to watch during the trip which is good because we are hooked.

While at the lake we took some time to run. Two runs were completed, the first an evening run with mixed weather. Down by the lake it was ok with sun breaking through. Sadly drizzly rain was caught in the valleys that make up the residential areas of the village (all the houses are in valleys going up from the lake). Rain and many (huge, scary) barking dogs that Vicki really didn’t appreciate meant we cut the first run short doing 3.6 miles.

The next morning was bright and clear again so we headed out for a pre-breakfast run. As the sun comes up over the hills surrounding the lake a strange effect occurs. The lake begins to steam as water vapour comes of it and starts to form clouds above the lake. This was a wonderful sight that made the early morning 4.6 mile run well worth while.

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Sit back, relax, and enjoy the views

This was written while travelling on the Trans Siberian but posted at a later date as the trains don’t have wifi. Not all written at the same time so the timeline may jump a bit.

We are back on the rails again. Before getting on there was a lot of confusion over how long we would actually be on this train. Having to get up at 3am local time and setting off at 3:59am will do that to you. As such we originally thought that we were going to have a bit of sleep when we got on, then nights sleep again the next day with an early wake up to get off. Only when we got on the train and checked our tickets properly did we realise this was the 48 hour train so we had a full nights sleep uninterrupted in the middle of what we expected. We set off from Yekatrinburg at 3:59am local time on 30th September and will arrive in Irkutsk at 7:27am local time on the 2nd October.

That all seems mighty simple now but there is a further complication. Notice that I keep saying local time. Well local time is only for the locals. Train people all work by Moscow time (MT). This means that earlier we stopped at 9:35am according to the train time, outside though the sun was high in the sky as locally it is actually 1:35pm. At Yekaterinburg we started at MT+2hrs. Our destination is MT+5hrs. When we get off it will be 2:27am train time but actually 7:27am local time. Confused? We certainly are!

The mixed up time zones mean that we are struggling to work out when to sleep and eat. Ideally we would be operating on Irkutsk time so that we don’t have train lag when we arrive. Not everyone on the train is going to the same place though or have come from the same place so everyone is on a different schedule. Basically people just sleep when tired and eat when hungry.

Instead of the Russian domestic train we took from Moscow to Yekatrinburg, this is an international train from Moscow to Beijing. Although we aren’t going international some people are, this means they are spending 6 days travelling on the one train. Our carriage population is very international. We haven’t really spoken to anyone else on the train really however we know there are 2 Swiss couples heading for Irkutsk and 2 Danish couples heading for Beijing. There are also a number of British and Scandinavians elsewhere on the train that we have seen on platforms.

Our cabin is almost the same as on the last train however it is confusing us by going in the opposite direction. I am still in the right bunk but I am now going backwards. Last time I was in the same (right) bunk but heading forwards. Basically our carriage is the other way round to before and our window faces north rather than south. Surprisingly, this took some time to get used to, not sure why. The other differences are we have no TV, no tea cups and no plug sockets in this cabin. No big deal here as we have run our laptop cable from the corridor and have our own cups.

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Me…travelling backwards.

As before a restaurant car is available however it did take us some time to find. Only on the third exploration along the train did we go far enough back to get to the restaurant car. As the restaurant cars change in each country it makes sense they are at the back to allow ease of changing them over. Each restaurant car is run privately so they have different menus and differing quality. I preferred the first train’s offering however my pot of meat and potatoes did exactly what is said on the tin and was filling if not particularly tasty.

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The country side that we are passing is full of Dachas. As mentioned in the last post, these are country retreats where Russians go at the weekend to grow vegetables and escape the city. Some of the dachas seem to have been enhanced sufficiently so they are now suitable to live in all the time whereas others are still just shacks.

A lot of the way there has just been vast open space where the only thing in sight is the road that follows the same route as the railway. It is often surprising when from nowhere we come to a town. It is amazes us how people can live in places that seems extremely remote. Often it is evident that a large factory or power station will provide employment for a town. In other places it must be agriculture that supports the population as there is nothing to be seem for miles except fields.

There have been a number of 20 minute stops along the route. The process at each of these is about the same, we all hop off for a walk on the platform. Almost everyone gets off if only to get some fresh air. There is always at least one kiosk where you can stock up on supplies. At different stops we have used a cash machine, bought bread and sausage for lunch and topped up on beer and soft drinks supplies. Even with a 20 minute scheduled stop you don’t dare leave the platform for fear of being abandoned in Siberia.

Dinner on day 2 was a particularly interesting shopping spree. A small market appeared by our train shortly after we pulled in. A row of ladies with small carts set up offering  range of pastries, meats, fish, fruits and vegetables. Our usual point and hope technique was used and we ended up with meats patties, a folded pancake filled with cheese, cucumbers and tomatoes and a caramel wafer roll for dessert. At around £4 in total we were quite pleased with our haul and for once everything was eaten with no complaints.

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Our arrival to Irkutsk was uneventful if a little early. Our train pulled in before the sun had shown its face so we watched the sunrise from a car during our transfer to Lake Baikal. Watch out for the next exciting episode which will include lake walks, steamy runs and dancing seals.

Lake Baikal & Irkutsk

We are currently in Irkutsk having spent 2 days at Listvyana on Lake Baikal. The laptop didn’t want to play ball with the wifi there so we have two blog posts backed up. “Off to see the Romanovs” has just been published. We should have the other out later today. Wifi may be sporadic in Mongolia too so expect further delays in updates. We arrive in Mongolia on Sunday after another day on the train tomorrow. Our first night will be at a Ger camp before two nights in Ulan Bator. Check back soon!

Off to see the Romanovs

Ekatinburg/Yekatrinburg is the 6th largest city in Russia, with a population of about 1.5m people, and is covered in snow from November until March – good job we were visiting in September! When we arranging our trans-siberian trip, we looked at various tours, and one of the reasons we chose the one we did, was that it stopped in Ekb. There were 2 reasons I fancied a visit – the first was that it was a “closed city” until 1990, with no foreigners allowed in due to strategic armament research (indeed  there was an arms expo happening while we were there), and the second reason was that it is the place where the Romanovs met their untimely end. Having done this in history at school, I thought it was a good chance to see the place in real life.

Well, we arrived about 8pm, expecting to find a driver waiting to take us to our hotel and Mike (from Walthamstow) to his homestay, but although we wandered round the station several times, there was no one there – not a good start. We were just contemplating a taxi when Vadim came running into the station – the traffic in Ekb is atrocious and his driver was stuck somewhere down the road, and so he had run to meet us. To kill time before the driver made it through the jam, Vadim gave us a quick tour of the station, including the murals showing the history of Ekb in the main hall.

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Vadim was to be our guide for our city tour the next day, which dawned damp and cold. Having been expecting temperatures of 10 degrees, to suddenly find yourself in 3 degrees is not good.

The city tour was good for giving us a feel for the town, which was easily small enough for us to cover the main sites on foot, making it a nice change from St P and Moscow. The tour covered the main central square (Renault were having a car show) and the main shopping street, complete with unusual sculptures.

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Ekb is unusual as it is built on a dam, and this provides a lake in the centre of the town for sports activities – there was rowing and canoeing whilst we were there but in winter there is ice skating.

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The final stop on the walking tour was the Church on Spilled Blood, which is  a church built on the site of the house where the Romanovs were killed. They were later canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church, and the icons inside this church are said to be the most expensive ever commissioned. Whilst we couldn’t go into the church (they are renovating the icons) we went into the memorial to the Romanovs below the church which is beautiful in itself – very atmospheric, and as is the case with the Russian Orthodox buildings we have seen, very lavishly decorated.

Vadim was a great guide – he was very knowledgeable and enthusiastic, and willing to talk about anything, He was a complete contrast to our Moscow guide both in terms of style and in terms of views on Stalin and Putin. This time we were told Stalin killed millions and wasn’t a good man . We were told about some of the atrocities he committed in the region. Despite this many Russian’s still admire him because they appreciate a strong leader. Currently Gorbachov and Yeltsin (an Ekb native) are generally  unpopular because they were seen as weak leaders.

Vadim also told us about “normal” life in Russia – he was off to his Dacha in the afternoon to carry on the harvest, ready for the winter. Dachas are out of town plots of land given to Russian’s in the soviet era so they could grow their own food. Most contain a small house or shack and garden. We saw a lot of these from the train.

Lunch was eaten in a canteen style Russian restaurant, where all you could do was point and hope. I came a bit unstuck – trying to buy apple pies for dessert I ended up with a cabbage pie and a potato pie. In my defence they were next to the cherry pies!

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The afternoon saw the weather really close in, but we ploughed on with sightseeing – this time doing a sculpture trail that included a Beatles monument (they never visited Ekb), a qwerty keyboard monument, and a Michael Jackson monument (he never visited Ekb either).

Vicki playing on the qwerty keyboard monument

That night the weather improved – the temperature at midday had been 3 degrees, at midnight on the same spot it was 8 degrees!

The next morning we awoke to blue skies and so this meant that a Sunday morning run was in order. A total of 5.7 miles around the main sites and the botanical gardens set us up for the day nicely.

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As the weather was so much improved on the day before, we went to the highest building in Ekb to get an aerial view of the city. It was interesting to see that the city seems to come to an abrupt halt, and then there is just nothing as far as you can see – like Ekb is a kind of oasis in the Russian wilderness.

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We had planned to go to the circus in the afternoon, but by the time we arrived, all the tickets had gone, and so instead, we took a tram ride!

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That evening, as we were walking out for dinner we came across a restaurant where all your food is delivered on a miniature railway – unfortunately it had been hired for a private function, and I had a hard time dragging Rich away from the window! He was soon appeased by a beer tasting selcection on our alternative restaurant.

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An early night was then called for, as our next train left at 3.59am…..

Goodbye Europe, Hello Asia!

We are currently rolling through the Russian countryside around 1096 km from Moscow heading for Yekaterinburg (we just passed a km marker but these are not always accurate). We are eating a breakfast acquired  from the platform of a station where we the train rested for several minutes. In all we are settled and ready to spend the rest of the day watching the autumnal scenery as we move from through Russia, into the Urals and from Europe into Asia.

Our trip to Yekatrinburg began with an organised transfer from our Moscow hotel to the station. As we are travelling with a company called Real Russia, but on an unaccompanied tour we were curious as to whether we would meet any other travellers on the transfer from the hotel. We didn’t and the short transfer quickly passed with only a few grunts from our Russian driver as he left us in a car park and pointed at a station entrance.

The arrival at the station was very early. Our train was due to leave at 16:50 but we had been dropped off shortly before 14:00. This left an unexpectedly long and unnecessary 3 hours to fill. First stop was to get provisions. We weren’t sure what would be available on the train and from platforms so made sure we had the essentials: beer, coke and crisps (we already have the vodka). With a lot of time left to fill and a serious lack of seating in the station we headed for a nearby Subway for a sandwich and to pass some time. At this time our train was not even showing on the departure board but we had at least found evidence of it on a timetable so were confident we were in the right place.

After what felt like forever, a platform for our train eventually appeared on the departure board. We moved to platform 2 and found our carriage but they weren’t yet ready for us to board. We stood and watched streams of Russians pass along the platform carrying all shapes and sizes of baggage. With no restriction on carry-on luggage enforced at the Russian end of the Trans-Siberian trip, if you can get it to the train and get it on, then go for it. Most people had at least a large laundry bag of clothes (very few had suitcases). Some had their own trolleys to cart a mound of possessions. Others even recruited passers by into helping them carry bags, piles of toys, electrical goods and kitchen sinks to the train (ok, not quite sinks but anything else).

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As we were waiting we took  few photos. What I believed to be a Russian approach to wait at the same door as us. He started taking photos too. After I had got in the way of one of his photos we established that he wasn’t Russian and was actually Mike from Walthamstow who is also travelling with Real Russia. He is now in the cabin adjacent to us. The reason we had not seen him so far on the trip is that he is on an Explore tour and we are on Discover. There are some differences in accommodation (he has homestays while we have hotels) and we have more tours arranged. It is possible there are other Real Russia travellers on the train still as we are in first class (cabin for just the two of us) but there was also an option for second class travel.

The train carriage is a lot more modern than we expected. It is probably from the 1990s at the earliest and even has comforts such as a flat screen TV and a power socket in the room.Vicki did have dreams of old wooden panelled carriages, more like those we travelled on from Vilnius to St Petersburg, however this is more than acceptable being comfortable and spacious for the two of us in our cabin.

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On leaving Moscow we spent time exploring the cabin trying to see how things work and settling in. Some things took a while to work out such as putting the seats back after stowing luggage took us about 5 minutes of fiddling to achieve. The provodnista (train lady) came to check our tickets and tell us about the train. She spoke extensively(in Russian) for a couple of minutes but all we took from it was toilets down the corridor to left, restaurant car down corridor to right. She then tried to sell us various items such as food, slippers and very optimistically Russian crossword puzzles.

After 2 hours of travel we had our first stop. We couldn’t tell you where this was but we had 20 minutes there which meant we had time to step out onto the platform. We didn’t stray far from our carriage for fear of being left behind by the train however all sorts of traders came to us. We were offered flashing trinkets, glassware sets, chandeliers and even taxidermy owls and squirrels. We politely declined all offers – 10 weeks is a long time to be carrying a squirrel around.

Back on the train, Mike had found another English speaker on his movements through the train. Pauline Scott is a 72 year old lady travelling on her own from St Petersburg to Beijing. She is on a longer tour than us with more stops but has the same initial leg to Yekatrinburg. We all descended on Mike’s cabin where his Russian bunk mate, Valentin, seemed quite welcoming to 4 people he had very limited means of communication with. Over vodka and cokes we learnt a lot more about Pauline as she has many stories to tell of her time as a carriage driving competition judge, pub landlord and world traveller.

As Valentin was to leave the train at 4am we left his cabin to allow him to sleep. Instead we moved to the restaurant car where a beer and Russian salad were waiting. The food was much more reasonably priced than we expected at 100RUB for a beer and 159RUB for the salad. That makes about £5 for the meal overall. The food was good and conversation continued until we decided it was time to retire for the night.

Back in the cabin I decided to watch a movie before bed. On the recommendation of Rob WA (friend from Imperial hockey) I brought a film called Tran Siberian along. This is a thriller about drug smuggling on the trans Siberian. It seemed appropriate ton be watching it on board even at the risk of nightmares about being left behind or falling out the back of the train.

Our nights sleep was unsettled as it seemed they were trying to cook us alive. The heating would occasionally be set on full blast and in a small enclosed cabin it quickly became sweltering. Our discovery that the window opened saved us and allowed us to cool the cabin a bit. Unfortunately it was too windy to leave the window open  all the time so brief periods of cool were used when the heating was put on too high. Fortunately the heating was not always on, at times it pumped out a cooling breeze instead. At this point we were very glad of being in a cabin for 2. Sharing with others in those temperatures would have been torture.

We woke as late as possible in the morning, eventually raised by the provodnista wanting to hoover our room. This wasn’t required however she insisted by repeated knocking only eventually to have here efforts thwarted because I had spilled my change on the floor in the night so she couldn’t hover anyway.

Being woken meant we were dressed and ready for our second significant stop. Again a 20 minute stop meant you wouldn’t want to leave the station. Luckily, traders were again on hand to provide supplies. We decided to get breakfast from the platform and I managed to buy two apple pastries before sending Vicki out to try and she managed a meat and an apple pastry. It was a case of just pointing and hoping what we got was edible which seemed to work just fine.

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The train ride continues now. I will be staring out the window for a while now and Vicki is taking a nap. We have a Moscow post to write up, some photos to sort I am sure we will read a bit. Generally we will just be taking it easy before our arrival in Yekatrinburg this evening. Onwards into the unknown…

End of Day Update:

We have arrived in Yekatrinburg. I spent the day continuing my theme of Trans Siberian movies and watched Dr Zhivago. Thanks to Nathan (BAML) for the recommendation of this one. The film stars Omar Sharif as a doctor/poet struggling to come to terms with post-Bolshevik revolution Russia. A large part is set in Siberia during the winter. I am glad our travels across Europe and Asia are in more comfort than theirs was. Very different to last nights thriller but a good way to pass 4 hours allowing me to look out the window at the same time.

Over the day I also manage to take a lot of photos of blurred trees and villages. Vicki spent a large part of the day reading. All in all a very relaxing way to travel.

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After a bit of a wait at the station for our guide we made it to our hotel. A quick (but excellent) pizza for dinner and we are now looking forward to a tour first thing tomorrow morning. Mike from Walthamstow will be joining us on this.

War and Peace

One of the books they say you should read on the Trans Siberian is War and Peace. We won’t be doing this however it seems we have written something nearly as long while on the train. Stand by for epic write up of Moscow. The first half was penned by Vicki, the second by Rich.

Day 1

Moscow started with a wet transfer from the station to our hotel in the south of the city. The hotel is right next to the subway so we could quickly head off to begin our sightseeing. With a tour of the city scheduled for the next day we didn’t want to hit the big sights straight off. We decided on exploring the theatre district however couldn’t resist a trip to Red Square first. The really iconic Moscow sights can all be seen from here, St Basil’s Cathedral, the Historic State Museum, the Kremlin and Lenin’s tomb.

Since we had an early start to get the train from St Petersburg were were soon ready for lunch. Next to red square is the Gum shopping arcade. This became our Moscow lunch location after we discovered the self service restaurant inside. They had all sorts of different food available that was good value and easy to select. This little gem kept us out of the fast food restaurants at least.

Despite the fact that it was still raining quite heavily, we bravely soldiered on through the sightseeing in the afternoon, with a walk around the Theatre District, bumping into a statue of Chekov on the way.

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About 4pm, we were wet and cold, and fed up of trying to avoid puddles so called an end to the days sightseeing, and headed back to check in to the hotel. Having had an early lunch, snacks were required to see us through till dinner, and so having deposited our bags in our room we nipped out to find a shop near the hotel. At first we struggled to find a supermarket, but what we did find was an arcade full to the brim with little shoe shops – not just one or two, but about 50 all in the same place. Given that one of my pairs of shoes had fallen apart in St Petersburg, I thought this would be a great time to replace them with another cheap pair– I was mistaken. The cheapest shoes were about £50 – and these weren’t even designer shoes! Fearing I might be about to blow our travel budget on shoes, Rich hastily guided me out of there, and after stocking up with beer and Pringles, we retired to the room to watch a film and wait for the rain to subside.

Which it didn’t. By the time we headed out for dinner, the rain was at least as heavy, if not heavier than before. We has used the guidebook to find a restaurant for dinner, but the trouble with using a guide book updated in 2007 is that 6 years is a long time to expect things to stay the same! We weren’t able to find that restaurant, instead opting for a log cabin style place, with an indoor stream and woodland decoration. However dubious the decoration, the Georgian food they served was delicious, and we are now trying to seek out Georgian food in our next few stops.

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Day 2

Day 2 in Moscow didn’t get off to the best start – the guide who had been booked to give us a half day tour didn’t show up. By the time we had contacted the company and re-arranged the tour for the afternoon, it was already late in the morning. Never the less, we donned waterproofs (again) and headed out to explore the south area of the city. We came across lots of pretty churches in various states of disrepair and finally ended up across the river from Red Square. We had arranged to meet the guide on the opposite side of Red Square, and so naively thought that we would cross a bridge and walk across the square to meet him. This was a key example of one of Moscow’s failings as a city – it is just not designed for people to walk around. There are major 5+ lane roads through the centre, and to find a crossing point you may have to walk 300 metres up the road from where you want to be. There is also a lot of building work happening, which results in pavements being closed, forcing you out into the traffic – definitely less than ideal, which is why I suppose everyone drives – it is just easier!

Despite the best efforts of the Moscow traffic planners, we made it to the rendez-vous point with our guide in good time. However, after waiting 15 minutes, the guide himself had still not turned up. I was getting distinctly grumpy at this point – after all, what is the point of paying for a guided tour if the guide doesn’t show up? It turns out that he had been waiting downstairs in the Metro station, which is apparently what Russians do, as opposed to waiting outside the station, which is what Londoners do.

And so after brief discussions about what to do, we set off in the direction of Red Square. As already mentioned, Alex (our guide) was a Stalinist, new-monarchist, deeply religious man, whose views on certain aspects of life were certainly different to our (“Stalin only killed 600,000 people, America killed more in Vietnam, and so therefore Stalin wasn’t a bad man”). However, he was amazingly knowledgeable, and gave us lots of information about the history of Moscow.

Given that the rain was now torrential, we opted for a tour of some of the metro stations. In the UK, this would be considered an odd thing to do, but in Moscow, the Metro stations are a sight in their own right. They are elaborately decorated with mosaics, lots of marble, and brass statues depicting various scenes in Russian history, as well as Russian constitutional ideals. My favourite was the station with the statue of the man and his dog – everyone rubs the dog’s nose for good luck as they pass, and this dog now has a really shiny nose. (Alex: “This is superstition. Superstition is sin. Don’t do it”, Us: “Ok…”)

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Alex also gave us some recommendations for dinner, but as it was only 5.30pm, we declined and went to a bar instead. We had intended to move on for dinner later, but as it was still raining, we just ended up having food in the bar – slightly worryingly, the drinks bill was double the food bill!

Day 3 (Rich writing now)

We woke up to find it had stopped raining. This was fabulous news. We headed for the centre to see the dead dude mentioned in our last post. It seems this confused a few people who were wondering who this dude was. Of course it is Lenin who lies in a tomb in the middle of red square and people can visit, filing past him to pay their respects. These days very few Russians visit whereas in the past a visit was a big thing to people. Now it is mainly tourists who go out of a sense of curiosity.

The visit was quite strange as you walk around the maze like tomb. Along the way are very young but solemn looking guards. You then come to a chamber where Lenin lies in his box. Having been dead for around 90 years he is in remarkably good condition. He looks quite wax-like leading to some debate over whether it is really him still or if he has been replaced. Overall the experience was quite weird. Having seen this I think they should close off the old chap and let him rest in peace as I have since read it was never his desire to be put on display in this way and he just wanted a normal burial.

Continuing to tick off major Moscow sites, the next stop was the Kremlin. This was much bigger than we expected – there are 3 cathedrals in the complex plus other palaces, museums and conference venues. It was a nice area to walk around, although slightly spoiled by the herds of coach parties trekking with single minded focus from one site to the next. We also bumped into our guide Alex again, but as he was guiding some others people round a church we didn’t stop to chat.

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The security is very visible in the Kremlin, as you would expect being the location of the government, and where president Putin has his residence. However, this doesn’t just extend to restricting access to certain areas, it also results in whistles being blown if you cross a the practically deserted roads outside of a designated crossing point. Many tourists were victims of frantic whistling but fortunately we remained their good books.

Our last big sight was St Basil’s cathedral. Although we had already seen this a number of times we took the opportunity to go inside. The cathedral is made up of 9 separate chruches around a central space. A quartet singing hymns resonated around the different chambers as we wandered though.

Having had our fill of sights for the day we decided it was time for a run. The biggest park in central Moscow is Gorky park and actually a sight in itself. We did a leisurely 4.5 miles between two metro stations taking in a large portion of the park. We found a space shuttle on our route and managed to avoid a short rain shower by taking strategic cover in the woods.

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We escaped a football crowd around our hotel for the evening by heading the the north of the city for Georgian food. We had been promised by Trip Advisor that while they didn’t speak English or have an English menu the staff were very helpful. I had been looking forward to muddling through with the help of pictures however it turns out they do now have the English menu. This allowed us to acquire some delicious dumplings, Georgian bread, chicken in walnut sauce and dolma. For me this was the best meal so far in the trip and we will be looking out for more Georgian food in the rest of Russia.

Day 4

With a morning free before our transfer we decided to head out of town to a park called Kolomenskoye. This is the site of one of the earliest Moscow settlements where you can now find a number of churches and other historic buildings such as one of Peter the Great’s log cabins (we had already seen another in St Petersburg). With the rain holding off again we had a very pleasant walk through the park. At one point we found ourselves in an orchard where many people were picking and collecting fallen apples. It was a lovely place to spend a morning making a huge contrast to the urban throng elsewhere in Moscow.

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Moscow is a vast sprawling city that we could easily have spent more time exploring. There were some areas we didn’t visit but wanted to and many museums we didn’t go into. Also due to the bad weather we missed out on seeing the sights by night. Another trip to Moscow some time in the future will no doubt be required.

From Russia with Basil

We are moving through all the herbs it seems. This time greetings from St Basil’s Cathedral on the Red Square in Moscow.

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This isn’t a full report on Moscow but just an opportunity to further drag out the poor title based joke from my last post.

It is coming to the end of our third day in the Russian capital. We have had 2 days of rain but today has remained dry with the sun even making the odd appearance. Highlights from Moscow have been seeing a dead dude, having a tour from a Stalinist turned Monarchist, Russian Orthodox Moscow enthusiast and visiting the kremlin for a Putin party. We have just been for a run around Gorky park and now preparing for an expedition out to a Georgian restaurant found on the interweb. If you want to see where we are check: www.shepkina.com.

Tomorrow we move on using the first of the Trans Siberian trains (Moscow to Yekaterinburg). This is only an overnight train leaving at 13:30, arriving at 18:09 the next day Moscow time. We lose 2 hours though as we move to GMT + 5 so arrive 20:09 local time. The time difference will put us the equivalent of New York away from GMT but in the opposite direction from London. Progress around the world is being made!

To let you know what else we do with trains here is the breakdown:

  • Moscow to Yekatrinburg – about 1 day
  • Yekatrinburg to Irkutsk – about 2 days
  • Irkutsk to Ulan Bator – about 1 day
  • Ulan Bator to Beijing – about 1 day

Choo choo!

Since I don’t want to talk about what we have done in Moscow I will ramble about other things…today’s topic is reading (NB. small R so not the Berkshire town).

The amount of time we have on trains will give a great chance for catching up on our reading. So far I have gone through:

I Think I’m Ok by Christopher Kenny. This is a story about a guy who spent his childhood in a variety of care homes. I got it as a free kindle book on Amazon so wasn’t expecting much but was surprised about how engaging the story was. Having recently read a few other prison themed biographies this was continuing a theme. Writing the book was clearly meant to be a cleansing activity of the author but in doing so he has given us an insight into a world that most of us are oblivious to. Easy read and well worth the money spent on it.

Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne. John, my brother, bought this for us as a leaving gift. It seemed very appropriate as a travelling book (although we left the present copy at home we downloaded a free version to kindles – thanks for the thought John even though we by-passed the extra weight). We aren’t quite doing 80 days around the world, ours is 78 days halfway around. Phileas Fogg had a lot more commitment than we did. I enjoyed reading this for what I believe is the second time. I couldn’t help myself picturing Phileas Fogg as a well dressed lion though.

Never Go Back by Lee Child. This is the next book in the Jack Reacher series. I have read the whole series and really enjoy them. Despite Jack’s ever more extraordinary abilities to take on the world and come out unscathed they still entertain and as usual I didn’t want to put this one down. Some parts of these books are always dubious however it was the interesting view on 50/50 probability that annoyed me the most this time. If you are a Reacher fan this meets expectations. If you haven’t experienced him yet, definitely go for the earlier books first.

I am now reading The Cuckoo’s Calling  by Robert Galbraith. It is a shame I know who the author really is as I keep thinking of wizards while reading it. I guess without the hype of the un-masking I would never have read it though so can’t really object.

You probably gave up reading a while ago since this is not about travelling. Hey ho. Rich out.

From Russia with Parsley

Read “From Russia with Love” first.

As Vicki has already written the official blog and we still have 2 hours of our 4 hour trip from St Petersburg to Moscow left you get some unofficial reflections from me too. Vicki is reading over my shoulder and will soon criticise (as I criticised her over use of bracketed asides in her blog). We currently are speeding along on a comfortable Saspan (saucepan?) train at 220 kmph through the Russian country side (choo choo!). Getting to it required a 6am wake up when it was still dark (boo). This is the earliest we have been up all trip (we have been quite lazy). Even the bus driver gave us a lie in until 8am.

In the style of our guidebook, my top 10 thoughts on St Petersburg…

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1. Metro – liked it. Really deep escalators as it was designed to double as a nuclear bunker. Vicki was a bit scared of these, escalators that is not an impending nuclear holocaust. The tunnels were far more spacious than you get on the tube. The St P metro would be better called the cavern than the tube. Stations were also very elegantly decorated but apparently Moscow is even better so something to look forward to. 28 RUB per ride which is a bit over 50p. That wouldn’t get you far in London, would it?

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2. Traffic – didn’t like it. Most of St Petersburg is not suited to pedestrians. There are many 6 lane roads passing through the centre. The best way to describe it would be the A3 does Oxford Street. I mean the big bit of the A3 out by us too. Lots of underpasses and long diverted routes to find crossings were required. This took away a bit from the impressive surroundings and if I were in charge I would kick out a lot of the cars and make people get the bus leaving a lot more room for everyone else.

3. Cycle tour – enjoyed it. As Vicki said, cycling here was very different to at home. It was more about hoping up and down pavements and cycling across pedestrian crossings rather than obeying the rules of the road. St P has a long way to go to becoming a green city. The tour itself was fun but could have been better structured. Our guide gave us a lot of info but jumped around a lot between periods in history rather than trying to link it all together with any kind of narrative. I think he was more interested in playing on his mountain bike than planning tours.

4. Crazy Russian shop assistants – quite scared of them. On the way home on Saturday I stopped to get a quick snack / breakfast from the shop and Vicki went straight into the hotel. As part of the transaction, the crazy Russian shop lazy stole all my change and gave me a 50 RUB note in exchange. I managed to save the metro tokens before she took those too and think I came out on top but that is debateable.

5. Crab crisps – undecided. Like prawn cocktail but far more fishy.

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6. Mosquitoes – hate them. One of the damn things was resident in our room. We could here him and caught occasional sight of him. Unfortunately even a dousing of insect repellent didn’t stop him feasting on Rich based suppers two nights running.

7. Food – so so. Before heading off I was told bad things about the food in St P, and I personally have mixed feelings. One of the issues was getting food when it is all advertised in Cyrillic. Pasta with red caviar at “The Idiot” was excellent and easily ordered from an English menu. Beef stroganoff from restaurant in hotel also good. Borscht disappointing as I am yet to get a really thick soup I would expect, so far all quite watery. On 3 occasions in St P we gave in to the ease of fast food to get something to eat rather than trying to obtain food by pointing and hoping for the best. Although Big Mac, Whopper and Steak and Cheese Sub are written differently in Cyrillic they are fortunately pronounced the same so very easy to order.

8. Run – not so pretty but good to get out and exercise. Although we have done a lot of walking it still isn’t the same as a good run. Evening run had a couple of good parks but linked by many nasty roads. Tried to along a canal but found the towpath permanently sealed off and forced back to path beside the dual carriage way. Would go on a Metro ride to get to a bigger park and stay in it if doing another run there.

9. Canals – enjoyed strolling by them. More central ones which only had moderately bad traffic along side them did give the city a nice feel. They are missing out on canal-side cafes to sit and pass the time in though. As we did the cycle tour and a lot of walking we skipped a boat tour. I usually like a boat tour but was ok with this decision as tours were mostly in Russian anyway. Would have been good to do a night boat tour to see the bridges lifting but this would probably be better on a summers evening.

10. DK Top 10 guide book – annoyed with it. I like a good guide book and usually go for the Dorling Kindersley ones as they have good range of informative content, itinerary suggestions and restaurant recommendations. The top 10 one we had here was chosen because it was lighter than the main one. This was a bad compromise in the end as I found the information we wanted scattered although the guidebook in different top 10 lists rather than being arranged by area.You also find you get padding on the lists when there aren’t actually 10 things to say.  Much like I have done here. Happily we have the full guide for Moscow.

Back to book reading now as we still have time before Moscow. Looking forwards to lunch there as we weren’t very prepared and didn’t bring much food for the journey. The people next to us had sausage sandwiches and even brought themselves a bag of parsley that they used as a garnish. They are now eating a second meal of sushi washed down with a swig from a hip flask. Show offs.

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Vicki blogs while our neighbours eat parsley.