I am a little behind in my trip report writing as I now try and remember what we did last August.
My last trip report ended in Helsinki, from where we hopped on an early morning train for the seven hour trip to St. Petersburg. Russian visas must be used within three months of their issue, and as we entered Russia during the fifth month of our trip, we had to get our visas arranged while travelling. The Russians still seem to have a Cold War mentality where foreign tourists are not very welcome, and as a result, there are lots of hoops that you need to jump through in order to arrange a trip. The official line is that you need to have all of your accomodation booked before you arrive (at expensive hotels that accept bookings from abroad). If you have a lot of time and patience, you can get around this, but we didn't have the energy to do this during our travels. As a result, we used an England branch of the Russian "foreigner" tourist company Intourist to book all of our hotels as well as our train tickets (I highly recommend avoiding them).
On arrival in St. Petersburg, we decided that our pre-booked hotel looked close enough to the train station that we could just walk. As we exited from the train station, we figured out the right direction to walk by looking at the sun, and then hit our first roadblock when we tried to cross our first street. The train station is not in a very pedestrian friendly part of town, and there were no lights to cross the street that we needed to get across. Even the locals seemed hesitant, but we eventually tagged along beside a group of locals as they crossed the street a lane at a time as the motorists whizzed by seemingly indifferent to the timid pedestrians trying to cross.
Once we crossed the river, things became much better, although after spending five months in western Europe, St. Petersburg was not a very pretty sight for the eyes. The guidebooks rave about the beautiful old cobblestone streets and grand appartments, but those seem to be only in the central part of town. Out near our hotel, it was definitely Soviet style architecture with monstrous concrete buildings with few windows and even less character. Much is said about how much capitalism is taking over in modern Russia, and I can't imagine what things must have been like before. Most of the shops had little to indicate what was inside with no windows and only a small sign with some writing in cyrillic. Our hotel was a huge hotel although we almost walked right past it as we couldn't find the sign.
As we entered the hotel, we were greeted by two overweight and unfriendly elderly women that spoke just a little English. The asked us what we wanted in a gruff voice, and we passed over our hotel voucher. They grumbled that they needed to see our passports to validate our visas, charged us a small fee for the stamp, and then gave us a little piece of paper that we then had to pass to the attendant on our floor so she would let us into our room.
I had been told not to expect too much from Russian hotels, so I was pleasantly surprised to see that our rooms were clean, had nice views, and a decent attached bathroom with reliable hot water. The wallpaper and decor looked like they hadn't been changed since early in the Cold War days, and mosquitoes managed to find their way into our room through the hotel venting, but we could live with that.
After relaxing in our room a bit, we decided to head into town and to try and find St. Petersburg's famous boulevard ... Nevsky Prospekt. It looked fairly close on the map, but St. Petersburg is a very large and sprawling city and it took us about an hour to get there. Nevsky Prospekt was a lot more lively with street vendors selling everything from small puppies to pirated CDs, DVDs, and copies of Microsoft software. The upscale Russians were shopping at elegant malls with the latest Italian fashions, and the trendy youth packed into McDonalds, KFC, and the cheaper and much better Russian versions of fast food. There were a lot of businesses geared up for the tourist trade (such as trips down St. Petersburg's canals), although surprisingly none of these seemed to cater to foreigners. They mostly seemed to speak only Russian, and completely ignored us.
About midway along Nevsky Prospekt we visited Kazan Cathedral which is one of the many large Russian churches built by the devout Tsars. Considering that religion was completely banned for almost 70 years, we were surprised at how may faithful were packing into the church, and there was even a group of Orthodox priests singing some enchanting hymns as we entered.
We spent four nights in St. Petersburg, and the highlight was visiting the famous Hermitage museum. The collection in the museum ranges from Byzantine art in 12th century Italy, to Renaissance paintings to Picasso and Dali. In addition to paintings, there are sculptures, Japanese art, Chinese artifacts, prehistoric pottery, etc. Supposedly the Hermitage collection contains more pieces than the Louvre and the British Museum combined. This means that it would take several days to see it all, and we chose instead to just spend one day and focus on a few areas (mostly paintings). In addition to the fine works of art, the former palaces of the Russian tsars were an attraction in their own right with grand rooms with high and lavishly decorated ceilings.
After we tired of walking around St. Petersburg, we decided to brave the underground metro. The cost was very reasonable (only about 20 cents per ride), although it was a little confusing at first. Finding the station was easy, and after you entered and paid for a token, you plunked your token into the turnstiles and headed to an escalator that seemed to plunge into the center of the earth. From the top, you couldn't see the bottom, and the high speed of the escalator made it a little intimidating. Luckily, there was about a 5m (15ft) flat part at the top that allowed you to orient yourself properly on a step and get ready for a three minute ride that took you down 729 steps. One reason for the large descent is that apparently the subways were built with the intention of also serving as a bomb shelter in the case of a nuclear attack by the Americans.
Once you reached the bottom, people rushed into the trains that would come every minute or two. For us, however, we would have to let a couple pass as we tried to decypher the cyrillic station names and figure out the correct train and to count the number of stations to our intended destination. However, once the initial confusion wore off, it was a great way to get around.
At one point we did a little bit of shopping in an outdoor equipment store (thinking ahead to the chilly Tibetan plateau). The prices seemed to be labeled, although things seemed way too cheap. We found a salesperson that spoke a little English, and he translated the price from "units" into roubles. It took me a minute to figure out what the process was, but I then realized that prices were marked in US $, and were then converted to roubles at the current exchange rate as a way to guard against further devaluations in the rouble.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the things we had arranged ahead of time was to have our train tickets bought for us. This was to ensure that we could actually get a ticket (they sell out ahead of time during the peak season in August), and also to save the hassles of trying to figure out a Russian train station and deal with unfriendly staff that spoke only Russian. However, as we tried to pick up our "arranged" tickets in St. Petersburg, it hardly seemed worth the money. The incompetent London Intourist agent told us that we needed to visit their St. Petersburg office, and all we were given was an address. We couldn't find this address on any of the maps, and no one we asked seemed to have any idea where it might be. Via email with our London agent, we were told a small region of St. Petersburg where we would find the office. However, we still couldn't track it down even after showing the address to anyone that spoke English including the concierge from a 5-star hotel. Eventually, I figured out that the address we were given was a translation into English of the Russian street name, while all of the maps just "romanized" the Russian names. Even after figuring that out, we still had big problems as the office didn't seem to exist. After about four hours of searching, we finally noticed a small "Intourist" sign. The troubles didn't end there, however, as the sign didn't seem to match up with an actual office. The building that the sign was attached to seemed to be condemned and all of the doors were boarded up. Someone directed us to a small alleyway, where we were further directed deeper into the alleyway to a building that looked like it should be condemned. We brushed aside the cobwebs, and creaked up five flights of stairs where we found a small room filled with four very fat and very rude middle aged women. The Lonely Planet guide has a great term for people in the service industry in Russia - "Obstructive Goblins", and it definitely seemed to apply at this office. After all our work tracking down the office, the women told us the tickets weren't ready, but that they would be sent to our hotel. I was not pleased at this point - if they were just going to be sent to our hotel, why did we waste the better part of a day to visit this office???
On the brighter side, we did have one very pleasant transaction in St. Petersburg. We tracked down the Chinese consulate and were able to procure a 60-day visa for China in a single day!
Eating is always one of the most pleasant parts of travelling, and we were looking foward to sampling Russian cuisine. Our breakfasts at our hotel were included, although they consisted of uninspiring cafeteria style buffets (although the bliny (pancakes) with sour cream were pretty good). Given the difficulty with figuring out menus and even figuring out which buildings were restaurants and which were stationary stores, we looked to our guidebook for guidance. Unfortunately, the 2+ year old Lonely Planet book was completely useless just about any restaurant it recommended was already out of business. One night we were so desparate that we even ate at a KFC.
One place that was in the guidebook was a famous Russian fast food chain, and its menu was quite appealing. As opposed to having just burgers and fries, the Russian fast food restaurant had a complete menu including rainbow trout, lasagne, and our dinner choice - chicken cutlets stuffed with mushrooms and with a side of fresh vegetables. It was very reasonably priced and quite tasty, although Hitomi was a bit shocked when she noticed writing on the side of her chicken from underneath the battered coating. On closer inspection, you could see that the writing was from a thin layer of newspaper that was still wrapped around her chicken.
The highlight of our dining experience in St. Petersburg was stumbling across an Uzbekistan restaurant. Central Asian food is apparently becoming quite popular in Russia, and it seems deservedly so. The food included fresh nan-like breads, rice dishes, and a delicious pasta like dish with a nicely spiced meat curry sauce.
On our last day in St. Petersburg, we needed to check out of our room at noon, but our train didn't leave until 11pm. We lugged our backpacks down to the train station, and after 15 minutes of searching, we headed downstairs to the locker room. The locker system was quite complicated, and the first step was procuring a token. The line for the tokens seemed to be taking a very long time, so I sent Hitomi ahead to find a locker to put our bags in. She found one of the few empty lockers, and waited next to it while I went back and stood in line to get a token. A few minutes later, a very angry elderly women came and yanked me out of the line, had the cashier sell me a token, and took me to the locker that Hitomi was guarding. Apparently, the slow line was because all of the lockers were full and the cashier was waiting for someone to empty a locker before they would sell another token. I still had to go back in line and wait another 45 minutes for a second token, as our packs wouldn't fit into a single locker.
Once you manage to get your token, you then need to go to your locker and select a combination of cyrillic characters and numbers on the inside of the door before shutting the locker. You later need to dial the same characters in order to get your items out. The process didn't seem to work too well as many people couldn't open their lockers, and the grumpy attendant needed to over-ride the lockers and force them open.
After our last day wandering around and a last Uzbek dinner, we headed to the train station well before our train to make sure that we would be able to get our bags. Thankfully, everything went smoothly and we headed up to the platform. Once you were able to read a bit of cyrillic, the station was pretty easy to figure out, and we were soon in our beds aboard our train, ready for our 7-hour journey. The train was comfortable, but it was not an auspicious start for our Russian train journey. We had two middle-aged bunkmates, and one of them was one of the loudest snorers I have ever heard. My earplugs were burried in my backpack, and neither Hitomi and I slept a wink all night.
We arrived in Moscow very early in the morning, and there was a surprisingly large amount of people milling around the train station. We headed to the metro and quickly found ourselves within walking distance of Red Square. There were no people or cars around at all, and we had a nice walk to our hotel. It was easy to find as it was a typical Soviet era hotel with 5000 rooms and spanned several city blocks (about 400m by 200m). Surprisingly, we were allowed to check in at 7am, and we were looking forward to getting some much needed sleep. The only obstacle left was actually finding our room which was easier said than done. We took the elevator up to our floor, but the room numbers ran out well before reaching ours. We walked back and forth a few times before we were able to find someone that told us we had to go to the next building over to find our room.
The highlight of Moscow was visiting its famous Red Square. To the south of Red Square was the Kremlin, to the north a fancy shopping district, and within Red Square was Lenin's tomb and the famous St. Basil's Cathedral. We never actually entered St. Basil's Cathedral, but instead marveled at its multi-colored turets and domes that looked like something out of a Disneyland theme park. The Kremlin was a must see, although I was a little surprised at what we saw inside. After years of hearing of the Kremlin as the center of Soviet politics, we were surprised to see that it was filled with cathedrals. The Kremlin is still active as the seat of the Russian government, but the part that tourists are allowed to see are the numerous churches. Since they were neatly cut off from the general public by the Kremlin walls, the Soviets didn't bother destroying the churches, and they made for a fascinating visit. The decorations were very different from those in Western European churches, although no less elaborate. There were Byzantine style paintings all over the walls, and a museum of old "icons" which are paintings of saints that include metalwork to give them a 3D feel. The Orthodox church specified the exact styles that were allowed to be painted, preventing them from evolving as happened in Italy, but some painters were still able to excel within their limited framework, giving their icons a very lifelike gaze as they stared down at you from the walls.
Visiting Lenin's tomb was another must see. There is a lot of talk about giving Lenin a burial (which is what he had asked for before he passed away), so he may not be on display for much longer. You couldn't take any baggage with you at all, so we headed to the square camera-less, found the right line up, and soon were heading into the small chilly cubist tomb for a look at the USSR's famous founder. It was amusing to see many Chinese tour groups in line with us, all proudly wearing the badge from their Communist founder - the Great Helmsman Mao.
As was the case in St. Petersburg, the dining highlight of Moscow was Central Asian food as we found a very nice Georgian restaurant. The waitress spoke no English, and seemed very annoyed by our pressence (the usual Russian obstructive goblin). However, we left her a small tip, and on our return visit a few days later she seemed very excited to see us and was much friendlier.
After four days in Moscow, it was time for the real trans-Siberian journey to really begin with a 30 hour train ride to Yekaterinburg which is just before the official start of Siberia. After a bad first trip in Russia, we were a little worried about our second longer train ride. We took the metro to the train station, and were a little shocked at what we saw on arrival. The station was the gateway to Siberia, and everyone on the platform seemed to be a trader with huge amounts of luggage. Our impressions of Russia were definitely one of contrasts. Sometimes we felt like we were in a well organized, modern, first world country, and at other times we felt like we were firmly in the third world. This station was definitely the latter.
We arrived rather early and sat on our packs waiting for our train to arrive. It did so about an hour before departure, and we mistakenly found our way to our seats right away (partly worried that some trader was going to stuff our compartment so full of junk that we wouldn't be able to fit :-). As it was very hot, it was like a sauna inside and we took turns waiting and guarding our bags until the train finally departed and the aircon was turned on.
We started with a single bunkmate - an engineer originally from the Ukraine that is now living in Yekaterinburg. We were used to the unfriendly people walking the streets of Russia, but at the same time we had read about how warm Russians are once you break through the first barrier. Sharing a train compartment with a local was our first experience at this, and our bunkmate was indeed extremely friendly. We had packed our own food, but our friend insisted on sharing all of his own food which included tasty bread, cucumbers and tomatoes, and various grilled meats including some tasty smoked duck. Unfortunately, he also appreciated having a drinking partner, and insisted on me drinking half of his small bottle of vodka, and then bought me beers for the rest of the evening. He spoke about as much English as we spoke Russian, but between sign language and our phrasebook we were able to do a bit of basic communication.
The Russians really settle into their trains and make themselves at home, and the first thing they do is to change into their "train clothes" which consists of sandals, track pants, and for the men, an optional sweatshirt. They are also surprisingly clean, and despite no showers, they would bathe in the toilet room using the sink and a small cup to scoop cold water on themselves.
We were joined in the evening by a young student from Yekaterinburg, and thankfully we were able to get a great sleep that night (maybe partly from the alcohol and partly from the earplugs). The next morning, as soon as my bunkmate saw that I was awake, he slipt out of the door. He came walking back with two beer in his hand, and was rather disappointed when I didn't seem to want to indulge first thing in the morning. I hadn't really enjoyed drinking the night before (especially the vodka), but there was no way that I felt like drinking again first thing in the morning.
However, that disappointment didn't seem to dull his hospitality as when we pulled into Yekaterinburg station that evening, he insisted on giving us a ride to our hotel. As it was getting dark, this was greatly appreciated.
Our Yekaterinburg hotel was not as nice as our previous two hotels, although it was still adequate. Yekaterinburg doesn't have a lot to see, but we had decided to spend an evening here to break our journey and to have a hot shower. Yekaterinburg's claim to fame is being the place where the last royal family was imprisoned (and later executed). There is now a large church being built in their honor, and it was very surprising to me to see how much the people seem to love the final Tsar. Lenin seems to be completely out of fashion and people are pretty open with their disrespect. However, the last Tsar has been made into a saint, was given a royal re-burial, and a lot of money was being poured into the church being built on the site where he was executed. As much as Lenin's USSR ended in disaster, the Russian revolution sprang up from people's discontent with the Tsar and his self-indulgent policies, so I'm not sure why people have decided to love him now.
As opposed to Moscow and St. Petersburg, there is not a lot of history to Yekaterinburg, and in general it was a pretty depressing dusty Soviet style city with large concrete buildings, no greenery, and chilly Siberian grey skies.
>From Yekaterinburg, we would be taking our biggest journey of the trip with a 54 hour train ride to Irkutsk. We were a bit nervous about who our bunkmates would turn out to be as we headed to the train station and tried to find our way to the train. Our previous train started in Moscow and ended in Yekaterinburg, but this time we would be boarding the real trans-Siberian train. It started in Moscow and travelled for seven days in total before reaching the far eastern port of Vladivostok.
We were lucky again as our bunkmates were a middle-aged police detective and her 22-year old detective son who were both on their way home to Vladivostok after a trip to visit family in the Ukraine. They were extremely friendly and also insisted on sharing food with us. Fortunately, after buying us a single beer at the start of the trip, they didn't drink any more alcohol for the remainder of the trip. The son spoke a little bit of English, and we were able to communicate a little bit with the additional help of our phrasebook.
There wasn't a lot to see out of the window - just endless forests with occasional fields and lakes. When we were near big cities, you would see many "Dachas" which are Russian country homes. Apparently every Russian dreams of having a country home where they can retreat to and grow some of their own vegetables.
The train stops were sometimes interesting as you could get off and see what the locals had to sell. Usually it was just beer, packaged foods, and instant noodles. However, one stop must have been near a lake as the vendors were selling all sorts of dried fish.
There seemed to be no other foreigners on our train, although Russians would stop by to chat with our bunkmates. This was an interesting experience for us, and several encounters helped drive home the reality of life in modern Russia. On one occasion, an elderly woman stopped by and was having a very animated chat with our neighbours. All of a sudden, her ear to ear smile left her face, tears welled up in her eyes, and she abruptly left our compartment. We figured out later that the woman was also from Ukraine - near Chernobyl, and it turned out that her sister had died during the nuclear accident.
On another occasion, a woman and her son stopped by. The son spoke pretty good English, and the conversation quickly turned to the Chechnya conflict. The mother was terrified that her son was going to be sent to Chechnya for his mandatory military service, and the boy was reading a book on the conflict. He showed us pictures of the various Chechnyan commanders that have escaped capture, and seemed shocked that we didn't instantly know their names.
They also asked us if there were homeless people in our home countries. Apparently it was their first time in Moscow, and they were shocked to see homeless people there. They were also surprised that we said there were also homeless in our countries.
The Russians also appear to love reading, and are especially proud of the Russian writers. The guidebook said that Russians talked about their writers the same way that other countries talk about their sports heroes, and this was definitely the case with the people we ran into. We were given a lot of grief for not having read more Russian literature, and were angry at our guidebook for not having a picture of their super-hero Pushkin.
As we pulled into Irkutsk, our Vladivostok bunkmates begged us to come visit them some day, letting us know that it is just a short visit from Japan. We arrived in Irkutsk at 3am, and as this was only 10am Moscow time (5 time zones earlier), we were hoping to still be on Moscow time. However, whatever time zone we were on, we were exhausted on arrival, and were glad to have pre-paid for the transfer to Lake Baikal. A person was waiting for us with our names on a little sheet, and we were immediately on our way for the one hour shuttle to Listvyanka on the shores of Lake Baikal.
We would be spending four nights at the lake, and our bleary eyed host greeted us on arrival at 4am. We spent just one night in this room and the next morning we transfered to a second homestay who I guess wasn't willing to get up so early in the morning.
Lake Baikal is the biggest lake in the world, and one of the deepest, apparently containing more than 20% of the worlds fresh liquid water. There are nice Siberian forests along its banks, although the roads and cities along its shores were clearly not built with tourism and resorts in mind.
Our hostess was very friendly (although she didn't speak any English), and every morning we were treated to a different breakfast with fresh fishes, baked goods, pancakes, and fresh vegetables sprinkled with Russia's favourite herb - fresh dill. Lake Baikal is home to a lot of different wildlife that doesn't exist anywhere else in the world including a fresh water seal and a very delicious fish called Omul that is apparently related to Salmon. All along the shore vendors would sell freshly caught and smoked fish which was some of the best food that we ate in Russia.
Our room was simple but nice, although there was no hot water. The Soviets decided that hot water was a luxury that everyone should have and not just the rich. As a result, hot water is heated centrally and piped separately to each house. However, the pipes need to be cleaned each summer and are out of comission for several months during the renovations. On one morning, we didn't even have cold water, and later saw trucks driving to and from the lake and filling up our apartment's tanks with a big hose.
Our third day in Listvyanka happened to be our first wedding anniversary, so we celebrated by dining at the nicest hotel in our vicinity. They looked extremely confused when we tried to make reservations, and we understood why when we dined in a large elegant room with great views of the lake that was shared only with a Japanese tour group.
The food was very good, and we started with a surprisingly tasty Russian champagne. We continued with several courses of lake fish dishes, including an appetizer of "salmon caviar", the Russian name of which was borrowed by the Japanese for use in their salmon egg sushi (ikra or ikura).
After a few days of relaxing at the shores of Lake Baikal, we took a bus back into Irkutsk for a final afternoon before getting on a Mongolia bound train. After me being confused for a local for the past few months in northern Europe and European Russia, it was now Hitomi's turn. The Russians thought that Hitomi looked a lot like a Central Asian, and would come up to her and start speaking Russian.
That evening, we boarded our last Russian train for the 36 hour ride to the Mongolian capital of Ulaan Bataar. Our two bunkmates were Mongolian Russians, and while quiet at first, they too warmed up and were very friendly. The worst part of the journey was probably the wait at immigration. We arrived at the border the following morning, and waited for more than 10 hours to just get through customs on each side of the border. I have no idea what the wait was for as we waited five hours before customs even showed up (we were allowed to walk around the uninteresting border town and change roubles into Mongolian Tukrik). The border crossing also involved an interesting scam that we managed to avoid by pure luck.
When you enter the country, you were given a customs declaration, and in one of the fields you would declare how much foreign currency that you are carrying with you. As you exited the country from this particular border crossing into Mongolia, if you had any money that exceeded your declaration, you would get in trouble. Where the scam came in is that people who arrived in Russia by plane were told that they didn't need this form. Others who arrived by train from Helsinki (like we did) filled out the form correctly, but the immigration people on the train never put an initial on the foreign currency section (to prevent you from adding fields to it later). If you had more money than was declared on your form, people were told that they would have to hand over all of their foreign currency to the customs officials, or optionally exchange it to roubles with the local moneychangers at very bad exchange rates (and you would then have to try to get rid of the roubles at poor exchange rates after leaving Russia). This last part made no sense to me since theoretically you can't export roubles from Russia, and it served no useful purpose at all. However, many people ran into this scam to the tune of thousands of dollars. A Dutch tour group had to hand over $2400. We were lucky because we had a fair amount of US $ and even more in travellers checks, but we had our form filled out correctly and weren't hassled.
After our long wait through immigration was over, we endured a much shorter wait on the Mongolian side, and were soon on our way into Mongolia and to Ulaan Bataar.
I will relate our experiences there in the next letter which I will hopefully send out shortly.
Ron and Hitomi
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