So, what did she experience on the world’s most famous rail journey?
We booked on the Rossiya, the flagship of the Trans-Siberian. Interestingly, for staff benefit, no matter how many time-zones we passed the train kept to Moscow time – this is crucial to understand when using the restaurant car!
The Rossiya was home for four days, we travelled hundreds of miles with ever-changing scenery. From the riches of central Moscow we noticed changes in housing immediately, memorably an estate of pink houses with marshmallow like roofs.
As we made a stop at its grand station, I concluded in hindsight I would have liked to have stopped at Yekaterinburg, famously where the massacre of the Romanov Royal family took place. Now memorialised in a little church a little way out of the city.
We arrived at Irkutsk, the capital of Siberia, to see Lake Baikal, the world’s largest freshwater lake. We booked a day trip to Lake Baikal from Irkutsk by taxi. As it came into view the site was immediately breath taking, on one side of the lake was a seaside complex and on the other majestic mountains loomed large.
Serene Lake Baikal – a jewel of the Trans-Siberian
Ulan-Bator, Mongolia’s capital, the land of Genghis Khan. We arrived at 5.45am to the most glorious sunrise. 1.5 million people live in Mongolia, and 1 million of them live right in the capital. A huge golden god oversees the capital and is worth a morning trek. Mongolia is known as the ‘land of sky’, nothing but miles and miles of horizon. We found four more travel companions and hired a jeep and driver, who would also be our chef for the next six days to head into the Gobi. At the time, there were no roads to the Gobi; only well used scrubland tracks with flocks of sheep, goats and camels that scattered when our jeep appeared. We stayed in local yurts along the way and our meals were rice with goat meat, only horse milk was available.
Our train was now the Trans-Mongolian, a proud engine with 16 coaches. As night descended the train pulled into a huge factory-type complex. My daughter said, ‘I feel like I’m going up’; we drew back the curtain to find ourselves 10ft in the air, supported by hawsers, as the men below changed the wheels from 8’ to 6’. Foreign trains could not use China’s tracks without this change.
We arrived in Beijing and stayed in the Old City. We explored Tiananmen Square, with the huge photo of Chairman Mao being the meeting place for all tours and taxis. We visited the Forbidden City, home of China’s emperors for 500 years. We climbed part of the Great Wall whose route we had already followed along the train journey from Mongolia. We experienced a cultural evening of song, dance and food. We visited a silk factory and finally, a jade factory.
We left Beijing after 4 days and travelled to Xian, home of the Terra Cotta army. It was impressive, each face unique, the detailing intricate. Our guide pointed out though sometimes described as life-size, being made around 2,200 years ago they would have been huge compared to the population, therefore formidable guardians to protect the emperor in the afterlife.
We visited a Rescue Centre for pandas, after an hour of waiting Bam Bam appeared right in front of us. He put on a tree climbing display for half an hour before shuffling back into the undergrowth.
Shanghai was a beautiful modern city where we stopped for 3 days before Hong Kong, our final destination.
We climbed to Victoria Park on the funicular railway revealing a stunning harbour view; and visited the oldest Taoist temple in the world where a local shaman will put a curse on the head of your enemies at £4 a head. You will also find the third largest Marks and Spencer in the world, constructed in adherence to Feng Shui naturally.
We did a whole island tour by coach and sampan, Hong Kong was beautiful, the temperature is never lower than 15 degrees throughout the year.
We flew back to Heathrow, my dream holiday over. We had physically traversed over a third of the planet by train.
Where would you go?
Most tourists on the Trans-Siberian Railway travel across Russia before continuing to Mongolia and further into China. However, the possibility to take a detour to Kazakhstan is often overlooked. Let me tell you why it’s worth including Kazakhstan in your Trans-Siberian Railway experience!
Javier Sinay travelled 5,793km across the iconic Trans-Siberian route (the whole thing measures 9,288km!), seeing unrivalled natural beauty, and finding himself equally entranced by the locals and travellers the route attracts. Here are a few excerpts from an article he originally published in La Nacion, telling the tale of his Trans-Siberian adventure.
The Tran-Siberian Train, sometimes called The Tran-Sib, isn’t a single journey. Its central route is 9,288km from East to West Russia, ending in Vladivostok, the great Russian port of the Pacific Ocean. The route is a collection of unforgettable images showing the changing and varied cultures of Russia. Moscow, Kazan, Yekaterinburg, Omsk, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk, home to the awe-inspiring Lake Baikal, and Ulan-Ude are some of the most memorable stops on the train. Ulan-Bator and Beijing appear beyond, like two intense epilogues.
The train was created at the end of the 19th Century, under the government of Tsar Alexander |||, to unite St. Petersburg and Moscow with Sibera, a giant region rich in resources, and the Pacific Coast. In 1891, some 90,000 workers, soldiers and prisoners, began the work of cutting roads, cutting down trees, digging tunnels and building bridges. It took 25 years to complete.
The rail foundations to Vladivostok cost around 330 million rubles, equivalent to 7,000 million dollars today. It was too much for a disappearing empire but China was expanding in the South, and though half the Russian territory was almost empty, the Tsar could not idly stand by. The train was inaugurated in 1916 and by then a war with Japan, in 1904 and 1905 had served as an early trial for rail utility.
With the passage of time, some 4 million people arrived in Siberia from the West to work in the new stations and in the budding infrastructure of a new steppe. Russia built the Trans-Siberian railway, and in return, the Trans-Siberian railway helped build Russia.
I’m travelling in a Platskartny car, the third class. The wagon has 54 bunks, without doors or divisions, a single plug to share, and no WiFi. There are almost no foreigners, instead local families, workers and soldiers travel. I carry a Russian to Spanish phrase-book and when I say “Ya iz Argentiny”, there are surprisingly long talks.
Zina is my travelling companion for the 900km journey between Yekaterinburg and Omsk. She’s a quiet, shy girl who studies Geography and lives in Omsk, near the Kazakhstan border. She was, in fact, raised in Petropayl, a city in Kazhakstan. I ask about Petropayl and her face lights up, she tells me it’s quiet with lots of trees.
We have the simple, nostalgic melody of the train as accompaniment while we talk, play chess and share sandwiches. Although one of the most repeated tips I heard was, “Do not accept Vodka from strangers on the train”, I do. On the last leg of my Trans-Siberian journey, I am the one with homemade vodka, a gift from a muzhik from Irkutsk, and offer it to strangers.
Anton, another neighbor, cannot believe I’m Argentinian and travelling on the Trans-Siberian train; Zina acts as our interpreter. It’s past 10PM and the train lights have gone out. We use our cell phones for light, and the sudden intimacy makes it seem like we’re huddled around a fireplace. Anton works in a river port processing fish. He tells me about his village, Ust-Ilimsk, where a hydroelectric dam operates. The nearest large city, Irkutsk, is 650km away. “Only a few hours’ journey”, he says, accustomed to the enormous Russian dimensions.
The forests we see occupy almost half of Russian soil, and here, in the middle of Siberia, they appear like an incessant image through the windows. We watch the spectacle of nature, hypnotized. The sights merge with the clank of the train in a small fragment of our lives that, with the reddish colours of the morning, look like a movie. I have learned to say, ‘Krasiva Siberia’.
The trains run along the Trans-Siberian railway all year round, as well as the Trans-Manchurian and Trans-Mongolian railways. Whether you want to experience Ulan-Bator on the way to Beijing, or take in the immense natural beauty of Lake Baikal before heading to Vladivostok, Real Russia will be able to help. Who knows what friends you might make on the way?
Some journeys just stand out as something different, something special. For many people, such as Real Russia customer Paul, the Trans-Siberian railway is one such journey. The ‘Trans-Sib’ crosses both Europe and Asia, taking in many cultures and locations that have helped shape global history, as well as some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. Real Russia aim to make taking this journey as easy as possible, from working with you to create an itinerary, to ensuring that fantastic accommodation, excursions and rail travel is included. Here Paul tells us about his experience.
We had a wonderful time on this trip, it really was the trip of a lifetime. That’s a lot to say for us, as we have been all over the globe, and have ridden many trains. Trains in the USA, Europe, Asia, Japan, all over the place, and none will compare with this trip. Here are a few notes about the trip.
Provodnistas awaiting travellers on the Trans-Siberian railway
Modern, clean, well maintained, and vastly underrated. Ok, we travelled 1st Class, but in the end, it isn’t that expensive. Russian trains have chemical toilets, so that they are available at all times. The dining cars are clean, have a good menu, and if you like soups, salads and such, you can find a good meal. Each carriage has two attendants, and they keep the place clean, vacuum the floor, the carpet, and clean the WC’s two or three times a day. They also keep track of who gets on and off, and help maintain security.
Each compartment has its own air-con, so that you can regulate the temperate as you wish. Also, you can stand in the corridor, and open the window.
We rode on some iconic trains:
Get on these trains, and the attendant will come by and ask you what you want to eat for dinner. You have a choice of two mains, and several other minor dishes. Order a nice soup with your meal, and you will have plenty. The attendant will deliver your meal on chinaware, and come back later and pick up the dishes.
Dining on the Trans-Siberian
The tickets are issued as E-Tickets, and are registered. You just show the ticket and your passport to the attendant, and you are ushered on to the train. This all works very smooth, without drama.
This was a semi-guided tour. In other words, we were on our own on the train, and for parts of the excursions. Having said that, I have to add that we had ‘door to door’ service. We were met at the airport in Beijing, and taken to our hotel. We were then taken to the train station, escorted through the station, and out to the platform and into the carriage!
But there were no busses with 40 other tourist to contend with! No busses! No 40 other passengers to have to wait for while they got lost shopping. No hearing about someone’s grandkids back in Nebraska. It was just the 2 of us, with a guide, and driver, in a nice motorcar.
The beautiful Lake Baikal
We toured Beijing, Irkutsk, Lake Baikal, Novosibirsk, Yekaterinburg, Moscow, and St. Petersburg. The guides knew what they were talking about, knew the history, knew the art, the architecture, and all the little things. All were fluent English speakers, had worked for the Russian Foreign Ministry, or even one had worked for the KGB. All were ardent Russian patriots! Even the Chinese guide in Beijing had been trained in Russia, spoke Russian, (and Mandarin) and knew her history.
They did a great job, from start to finish. They help with visas, with tickets, and throughout the journey, they checked on how things were going. We worked with Alla. And she is brilliant. She kept up with us all the way, and she was in Volgograd (Stalingrad) and was there to offer assistance if needed. She even organised a free guide of the Moscow Metro Stations. You can’t go past Real Russia for this kind of thing, and they even organised good hotels, usually located in the heart of the city. I would use them again.
Russia is prosperous! Everything is freshly painted, clean, and kept up. Stores are well stocked, supplies are easy to get. Streets are cleaned, washed, and rooms also clean and fresh. Russians are helpful. There isn’t a lot of English being spoken, so it was a good thing that I had taken the time to learn to speak a few words, and read Russian as well. But Russians are helpful, and kind people. They will go out of their way to assist you even when they don’t really know what it is you’re after!
Ah Russia: if you go there looking for the good, you will easily find it. If you go there looking for the bad, you can find that too, but it isn’t as easy as finding the good. Don’t trust what you read in the western press and media. It’s all self-serving nonsense.
We had a great time. A genuine ‘Trip of a Lifetime’.
Paul relaxing on his travels
Trains run along the length of the Trans-Siberian all year round, so whether you want to bask in the sun along the shores of Lake Baikal, or gaze at a Siberian winter wonderland, Real Russia can help you get there.
The end of this epic journey approaches, as Helen and Charles near the end of their Trans-Siberian adventure.
Having started in Moscow in part one, travelled to Irkutsk and Baikal in part two, they now find themselves heading onwards to Beijing, before exploring one of the most incredible cities in the world.
It was good to be active in Irkutsk ahead of our next 3 days on the train again. A chance to catch our breath and reminisce and relax and mingle. It transpired we were the only people in the whole carriage, which not as plush looking as our first train, functioned much better, the beds were more comfortable and were cleaned daily. A Chinese family boarded later on who were really nice neighbours.
The dining car not as nice as the first one, but we had stocked up in Irkutsk and actually did not get that hungry as we were stationery most of the time. We followed the stations along the way and liked anticipating where we would be stopping next and for how long. Very few vendors on the stations, but the few which did have, we shopped at, mostly ice cream and airtime! I was intrigued by the female voice making the announcements at ALL the stations en route and the number of female railway workers in overalls or uniforms. In our country it is strictly male dominated. This train was a steam train we realized, which was interesting in itself, and much smoother than the first train. The female Russian conductors were efficient and quite friendly, which made a change for our first train which was manned by Chinese men, rather gruff and not terribly friendly. We did get the odd smile out of one of them!
The second train (Vostok) quite different to the first, as I may already have mentioned. Definitely cleaner and more comfortable. I considered what it would have been like had we booked on the Golden Eagle (which I think is your top train and very expensive). And I realized we would not necessarily have enjoyed it more. The basis of the train trip was that we would have passed the same scenery, stopped at the same stations, and not had much to do on the train other than what one had brought with one and mingling with other travellers. I felt sure it would not have been as easy striking up friendships on the Golden Eagle. Our neighbours were down to earth types and easy to chat to. The awe of knowing one is crossing 7 time lines and the famous Russian/Siberian countryside was constantly in my mind. It was meaningful to me.
I do think the first train (Chinese train 4) should have been cleaner and that the water should have worked in the shower, definitely.
I was astonished at the 6 hour stop in Zabaykalsk and then another 6 hours at the very next station! I visualized we could have used that time in Beijing! The Russian officials were more concerned at our leaving their country than the Chinese our entering theirs. A part of the trip we will never forget and an exercise in crossing borders.
And then our arrival in Beijing. Lilly spotted us straight away, no waiting involved and walked us to her driver. When we got to the hotel it was established that we could not go straight up to our room as it was not 8.30 and also that we could not have breakfast as it had been booked for the following morning! An awkward moment which we made the best of. We definitely wanted to shower and get our cases up to our room and prepare for the long day ahead. So, we arranged with Lilly that she would leave us and come back at 9. Whilst waiting for our room to become available we strolled out of the hotel and found a place to have breakfast. Eventually we were allowed into our room and a quick shower – then off to first the Jade factory and then The Great Wall. We realized we were not going to fit in the silk factory, taking into account traffic in Beijing that day ahead of a special day in China the very next day. Lilly was friendly and accommodating and gave us some interesting background to Beijing and Jade, and The Great Wall.
Once at the Great Wall, Lilly led us to the starting point of The Wall and left us to climb as we wished, which we thought was appropriate. Because we were several hours on the Great Wall there was not enough time for lunch. I think, had the travel time in rush traffic been taken into account it could have been established, at the time of preparing the itinerary, that we would not fit all of the places in!
We had a couple of hours back in our room to collect ourselves before Lilly returned to walk us to the chosen restaurant. Because time was of the essence, we were a little alarmed at the long walk we took to get there. Lilly explained she did not know exactly where it was, just a vague idea. It transpired that we could have taken a much shorter route as she realized after the meal we had taken the long way round. I was a little on edge as we had to be at the airport by 8. Meal was very nice and we loved the Peking Duck. Once again traffic was an issue and we got to the airport an hour later than advised but it did not seem to matter.
And, we headed for home … With sights and sounds dancing around in our heads.
A real adventure of a tour Alla, I loved all of it. 14 days was the right length. I am impressed at the way the tour flowed, all our guides were punctual, friendly and accommodating and well informed.
I believe the slight hitches we experienced were due to the language and in fact, in my opinion added just that bit of surprise, thereby enhancing the tour.
Thank you Helen and Charles for your fantastic tale and feedback.
Anyone else feeling inspired to hop on the Trans-Siberian now?
Fancy sharing your Trans-Siberian tale? Get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Part two of this ‘Customer Tale’ takes place as our intrepid customers leave Moscow and head east into Siberia, visiting the beautiful Lake Baikal and the city of Irkutsk.
If you didn’t, let’s continue this tale!
By the time our departure day arrived we had begun to feel a part of Russian life in that area, and knew we would miss it. However we were excited for the next leg which was on the train of course. We were impressed and grateful for Rita getting us to the station and even onto the train with our luggage before leaving us. We would not have managed this alone. A big thanks to her. I have emailed her in the meantime, as well.
Dining car aboard train number four
I had an idea what to expect from the train from pics you had sent me, so was not surprised to find the compartment quite small, but the wooden panelling was nice and we had our own shower hand basin attached and a flask in our cupboard to fill at the samovar. A disappointment that the water came out at a trickle in the hand basin which also meant we could not shower either. I was not too fazed about this, but I think Charles was! We brought along a big supply of wipes and found we did not really get dirty on the train, I liked the fact it was not exactly as we expected and found it added to the adventure, but I think for some that would have been a problem. I needed to unwind from the time before we left on the trip and catch up on some daily notes and just feel all pressures fall away. I loved the movements and sound of the train, which incidentally reminded me of my school days when I attended a boarding school far from my home. We used to catch the train to school each term. I was interested to note that we travelled on both electric and steam trains. The dining car on our first train was nice, and we had a taste of Russian matriarchal dominance, but once Natalia had gotten used to us I think she quite liked us! I was able to take a few pictures on the train through a partially open passage window and was grateful for that. Managed to capture a few nice ones that will forever remind us of this train trip. I enjoyed our neighbours in the other compartments of our carriage, all of them going straight through to Beijing without a break in-between as we were doing. I imagine they may have been a little envious when we got off after 3 days. I think 6/7 days at a stretch without a break could have become tedious.
Our driver was waiting for us with a sign saying MRS ALLEN & 1! And we were whisked away for an hours’ drive through Irkutsk to Listvyanka. I had visualized being right alongside Lake Baikal in what I consider to be a chalet, but equally nice was Nikolay’s Cabin, which is actually a part of his house, and about a kilometre from the Lake. We were well looked after, meal wise, and Erene even did two big laundry washes for us. A lovely setting in a small valley with forests on either side. The front to Lake Baikal and the small town was not terribly interesting except for the Lake itself and the boats.
A walk along the shores of Lake Baikal
Little did we know we were to experience some beautiful views of Lake Baikal and endless birch forests on our ‘Easy Hike around Listvyanka’ – a complete surprise as it was not an easy walk at all, but quite a strenuous hike. Alex was very professional and accommodating and went the extra mile by carrying with him the food and utensils he would need to provide for us what we would consider a 5 course picnic, with typical Russian fare, including soup and tea! We were astounded. And, I was so hot after the 5km hike through the forest that I decided then and there, as we got to the beach that I was going to swim in Lake Baikal, no matter how cold it was. What an absolute highlight for me. How many people can claim to have swum in Lake Baikal! We were very tired when we got back and Alex had said good-bye, almost too late to catch the bus back to Irkutsk. And then that night we experienced Banya – my word! We assumed it would be a regular sauna the way we know it from our gyms over here. Not at all, Nikolay led us through the whole process in great detail. Without resisting we followed through and were quite alarmed to know the temperature was over 90 degrees in the Banya, unheard of in our part of the world. How wonderful to experience something truly, uniquely Russian. Never to be forgotten! I was covered in bright red blotches overnight but did not feel worried, and in the morning it had cleared!
Ivan drove us back to Irkutsk and launched straight into our tour of the city. Once again very intense and informative, luckily I can look up names and dates on the internet of cathedrals and statues which were pointed out, as we could never have absorbed all the facts given out. Different architecture and feel to the city compared to Moscow, and we learnt of the importance of Irkutsk in Russian history.
Our hotel was well situated too Alla, thank you. We did a lot of walking in Irkutsk and almost got lost once. Luckily we had a map and Charles was good at getting us to where we wanted to be. Very interesting was the statue of Alexander III who commissioned the building of the Trans Siberian Railway, that was pertinent to me. And the Angara River, deep and faster flowing that the Moskva, was interesting to know that it linked with the Yenetsei, which we crossed while on the train, and then on to the Arctic Sea.
And part two comes to a close. If this has inspired you, why not take a look at the tour that Helen and Charles took through Russia, our Discovery Range Siberian Eye tour.
Check back soon for part three, as the train draws ever closer to China’s incredible capital, Beijing!
To continue our series of customer tales from the Trans-Siberian over the summer of 2015, we have a three part tale taking us from Moscow, via Irkutsk and Lake Baikal to Beijing on a tailored version of our Discovery range Siberian Eye tour!
Read part one below to find out their thoughts on arriving in Russia and exploring Moscow, and then keep your eyes peeled to our social media channels and our blog page to read parts two and three over the next couple of weeks!
Good Morning Alla
I wanted to mail you once I had fully settled back here and could think clearly as I am sure you will be interested to hear about every detail of our trip.
My head is half full of Russia as I go about my daily things, visiting another country give one an opportunity for adopting a different perspective and a better understanding of oneself and another culture. Just love it. We have taken so much from this trip. The Russian language, whilst I cannot fully read it I feel familiar with it when I see a Russian word. Charles was good about learning quite a few phrases and words which came in useful on many occasions. I liked the way we communicated and eventually managed to get the other person to understand what we were saying. I think the few hitches we had were mainly because of the language difference and looking back actually enhanced the trip.
Our arrival in Moscow was a little disappointing as any airport might be, the officials were extremely unfriendly and when we arrived in the main entrance hall and got to the Academ desk, the little girl behind it could not understand what I was trying to explain to her even after taking out my Russian itinerary, and it seemed we were not going to get through to her, but eventually she called a gentleman over and he seemed to understand and said because it was a Sunday they would not be able to organize a taxi. However, I persisted and eventually we got a taxi – and a long ride into Moscow.
The receptionists in the Maxima were very nice and helped us always, although once again not all of them could speak good English. The Maxima was perfect from a location point of view Alla, thanks for that, right next to the Metro, which we took twice, after asking a kind receptionist to put in English the station names next to the Russian ones so that we could recognize which station to get out at! We found a supermarket right there as well, with the prices very comparable to ours, and an Exchange Bureau which was very handy.
Our boat cruise was a lovely introduction to Moscow and our guide Olga, although a little quiet, was suitable actually, as she was quite right, we did want to take a lot of photos and she did not interfere, but made herself available to any questions we asked. We realized the following day that we would be covering most of what we saw on the boat trip, again, with Rita, which on reflection was very good, as it helped us retain some of the facts given out. Rita was the complete opposite to Olga, brisk and very knowledgeable, we walked our feet off that day but felt exhilarated nevertheless.
Once we had recovered in our hotel room that night we felt keen to visit Red Square again and go into the Kremlin and get to Arbat Street, which is exactly what we did. This time we could take it a little slower and savour and re-inforce what we had learnt with Rita. The weather was perfect the whole time in Moscow and in fact the while trip through, we were lucky. Charles was very keen to visit the Armory in the Kremlin and disappointed we could not take photos in there! I had no idea how many cathedrals there would be in there – full of Byzantine art, and oozing with history, really beautiful. We had thought we would be allowed into the Kremlin itself and would have appreciated if the lady we booked the ticket with had been able to convey to us that that would not be possible, but once again the language was a barrier. Charles was disappointed!
We loved wandering the streets in the area around our hotel and explored almost every single shop, and especially a delightful bakery across the road. I liked listening to the Russian accents and watching their mannerisms. They all walked very briskly and upright, almost as though marching, very unlike our pace of life over here! Very few smiles, but a feeling of serenity on the faces of passers-by, as though they all live a good life.
We noticed how clean the streets were and even street cleaning machines. And we noticed stray dogs crossing busy streets, Charles had heard that there were packs of wild dogs that roamed the streets, but Olga denied this.
…to be continued…
What did you think to part one? Come back over the next couple of weeks to continue reading about this fantastic journey.
And while you wait, why not take a look at our Trans-Siberian tours?
Alternatively, why not tell us all about your Trans-Siberian tales in the comments below, or via email to email@example.com.
Another week and another great story from one of our customers of life on the Trans-Siberian! So without further ado …
Hoping you are all well down there at the bottom of the world. This is going to be a very incomplete account of things (as far as we are concerned anyway) as it has been basically a month since I sent the last “brag” and there is just too much to tell.
Anyway, as briefly as I can, we are basically winding up the Russian leg of our travels and it has been absolutely amazing.
The ship trip down the Chukotka/Kamchatka coast was quite fantastic. As a reminder – we were on the same Russian ex-research ship (Prof. Krohmov/Spirit of Enderby) as we were on over last Xmas/New Year down in the Sub-Antarctic islands so I won’t explain the boat life in any detail except that this time we only had 35 paying passengers as opposed to 48 last time and were only about 4 that some of us thought we’d like to throw overboard so a good time was had socially as well as the activities. Had great weather, mainly cool but only one bad day that was wet and really rough and couldn’t get out in the zodiacs, which was pretty good in a region that has a reputation of much mist and few views. We certainly got the views and couldn’t have been better for all the beautiful volcanos of Kamchatka.
Saw many animals – walruses, bears, arctic foxes (I want one!), a red fox, dolphins, 7 species of whales including apparently a rarely sighted Baird’s Beaked whale, sea otters, seals (yea well), Steller’s sea eagles, puffins, kittywakes and many more birds.
A bear enjoying a swim
The title of this image was 'Arctic fox – I want one!' … who wouldn't!
Whale watching near Kamchatka
And visiting some of the villages that Rodney (owner of the expedition company and leader of the arctic expeditions) has built up a trust and rapport with was pretty special and gave us a good feel of how life is way out in eastern Siberia – man it would be harsh in winter!!!
Really was a fantastic couple of weeks but pretty full on getting changed about 4 times a day, on and off the zodiacs once if not twice daily, lectures, debriefings – man we were busy!!
And the trip across Russia on the Trans-Siberian railway has been quite something. Disembarked the Prof. Krohmov at Petrapavlosk Kamchastky and flew to Vladivostok where we had a couple of nights to stop the lurching and loved it. Think we have both decided it is our favourite Russian city. From there we commenced our/the Trans-Siberian railway journey, getting off at Irkutsk and taking a trip down to Lake Baikal on a small hydrofoil which was pretty cool apart from it running aground, the hatch above our heads blowing off and then completely konking out in what seemed like the middle of the lake – we did a lot of bonding with our fellow Russian passengers that day!
Provodnista's gathering outside the train
The trains have been something else really. Our little compartment (admittedly we were traveling first class) with our seats folding into two beds, TV, towels and wee cubbyholes to put things, big windows with views both sides meticulous (shared) bathrooms that are regularly cleaned, a diner with really good food (contrary to what the Lonely Planet says). And then there are the Providnistas, the women that look after your carriage – VERY important people! Can’t talk more highly of the railway system here and although I know it is Russia’s life line, it leaves us for dead with the services! On time to the minute every time.
The scenery Russian past the train window (rushing, Russian, get it?)
Stopped again for a night in Krasnoyarsk wandering and getting a feel for things, a day stop in Novosibirsk, the only wet day so far so sploshed around the town for the day and back on the train for Moscow. I had been to Moscow and St Petersburg back in 1978 and couldn’t believe the difference – quite beautiful now, modern, clean and the buildings are something. Went to the Bolshoi Ballet one night (Giselle) as you do when in Moscow! And although we were probably the most underdressed in the audience (some people use it as an excuse to dress up and were certainly some Fab sights) and not thinking we were really “ballet people” we actually loved it and the atmosphere. Did the usual Red Square/Kremlin thing but also we had to experience another aspect of life in Moscow – a trip to the doctor. I had a bit of a tendonitis problem in my foot, compounded by a sprained ankle, and it finally got the better of me. An amazing experience it was as my Dr Denis was fantastic, spoke good English, X-rayed it and found the problem which unfortunately can’t be completely rectified just now a needs a little op but he gave a good diagnosis, instructions and gave me what seem to be wonderful Russian drugs & ointments and voila I am off bounding again!
The magnificent St Basil's in Moscow
Now in St Petersburg and wandered around doing the usual touristy things. Staying in a really neat boutique hotel (Rachmaninov Antique Hotel) which is very quirky with stark traces back to the Soviet era. And yes Rachmaninov used to board here once upon a time. And tomorrow we are off on the train to Helsinki, Finland.
We are both quite sad to be leaving Russia although it has been constant so are quite tired. Have been so lucky with the weather, the time of year that we are visiting is perfect coz the autumn colours really enhances the scenery in the countryside and most importantly the people just keep blowing us away with their friendliness, generosity of time to help us overcome the language barrier, and also in giving us little gifts, just all over the place is quite extraordinarily great and quite the contrary to what a lot of westerners would have us believe. When we were at the airport in Nome, Alaska an American who was assisting our ship group commented “beware over there [Russia] they are paranoid”. Well he couldn’t have been more wrong and are inclined to think it is America that is paranoid! We have had a very special time and love the country!
Well that is enough as have shed a tear for Russia and are now in Helsinki. Are about to hire a motorhome and spend 2 weeks motoring around Finland, Norway and Sweden.
So “dasvidanya” and my hearty congratulations to those that have gotten to the end of this epistle!!!
Me & He (Sarah & Barrie)
I am hugely jealous of this incredible trip, particularly the trip to Kamchatka. Did you know that there are no roads connecting the Kamchatka Peninsula’s main city, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky and the rest of Russia, making it one of the most isolated and remote large cities in the world!
In retirement one has time for long bike rides but the time window is short before age and decrepitude take over. Last year we began the Iron Curtain Cycle Trail: more than 7,000 km that roughly follows the path of the historic Iron Curtain, starting in Grense Jakobselv on the border of Norway, Russia and the Arctic Ocean and finishing in Virolahti on the southern border of Finland and Russia. The route at this stage follows Eurovelo 13 and is marked as going through Russia to the Baltic States. Cycling through Russia? Much opinion was against it: the roads were unsafe, there were bandits, there were a lot of accidents on the roads, we would need to give a bribe at the border, our bikes would be stolen, St Petersburg was very dangerous and only to be visited with a tour.
We listened, then began to learn the Russian alphabet and plan our journey of 12 days and 500kms, booking our visas and a couple of hotels with Real Russia and more hotels through Booking.com. We took heed that the road E18 was rather unsafe for cycles. Instead we took the train from Helsinki to Imatra and on 22nd April, with a strong cold North wind behind us, we cycled the few kms to the border. No one asked for bribes. No one spoke English. We followed some local cyclists through, showing papers at various windows and causing some perplexity from the staff on duty. But eventually with passports stamped and luggage checked, we were through. For maps we had downloaded Galileo onto my iPad. This proved to be excellent and marked our first hotel in Svetogorsk, the first town over the border. Again no English but there were obviously problems. We were shown a form. No, we didn't know about this. Impasse. Then a Danish man who spoke English and Russian explained to them that the Migration Card they were asking for was only issued to motorists, not to cyclists. Incorrect! But we had forgotten the information about Migration Cards that came with our visas from Real Russia and in any case would not have had the Russian to ask for one. However, his explanation was accepted. Our bikes were safely locked in an attended car park, for which we paid a small fee, we enjoyed a good meal and fell asleep in a comfortable room.
The first morning in snowy Svetogorsk on the border with Finland
We woke to a view of whiteness and snowflakes swirling down. Pretty but not the best thing for cycling. Our next hotel in Vyborg was booked, so we had to keep going. The day was a mixture of snow, sleet, rain and sun. The road itself was snow free, hilly and often through forests, pleasant for our picnic lunch but cold in the snow. The road surface was variable. On the whole, lorry drivers were excellent and gave us a wide berth. The same cannot be said for car drivers, particularly the next day as we cycled towards the coast and St Petersburg, on a Friday. Like any big city, fast cars were escaping for the weekend and were not concerned about overtaking towards an oncoming cyclist.
A picnic in a forest on the way to Vyborg
It is true that there were not many cyclists outside the towns. We only once saw another person with panniers, doing a long distance ride, but coming into St Petersburg on a sunny Saturday, many people, including families, were out on bikes, roller blades, scooters and skate boards. For much of the way there was a separate path for pedestrians and cyclists and in the town itself it was acceptable to ride on the pavement. However we were a sufficient rarity that the owner of the bike shop in Vyborg, where we went to buy bike oil, took a photo of us. Perhaps even now it is advertising his bikes. Coming into St Petersburg had some scary moments when the footpath disappeared and we were in the middle of an awful junction with roads going everywhere, curling around above and circling underneath. Get it wrong and we would be heading on a motorway across the sea. And what was the colour code for motorways? Blue as in England or green as in France?
Saturday cyclists enjoying the sea. Children had fun climbing over the ice boulders on the shore.
St Petersburg and Petergof were days for tourism. A rainy St Petersburg was not a problem. We were inside the amazing museums and art galleries. Petergof on 1st May was a day of sunshine. May Day is no longer a big celebration but there were many school parties enjoying the fountains and delightful gardens. In St Petersburg there was also an attempt to solve the problem of the lack of a Migration Card. So far each hotel had accepted us because we had a receipt from the previous one but this time we were staying longer and the hotel wanted it sorted. They sent one of their staff with us to the Immigration Department. We spent an intriguing afternoon being sent from one section to another. At one point we joined men from the former Socialist Republics of Central Asia who were seeking work permits. They looked a fairly desperate group, as do any people who have journeyed far from their homes in search of work. When finally we got to the right place we were far back in the queue and the window was closed firmly two people ahead of us.
Classy facilities parked outside the Hermitage (туалет is Russian for toilet …)
Grand Fountains in the Summer Palace
From Petergof we planned to follow the coastal road through Sosnevey Bor. The road was busy and not very pleasant to cycle along. We were glad of a cafe en route and enjoyed the stalls of hand-made baskets. Then disaster struck. About 2015 kms before Sosnevey Bor there was a military road check and “Niet”. There was no way they would allow us through. We were told later that this was because of a nuclear power station in the area. We consulted the Galileo map and found a route inland that missed out the peninsular and with a hotel marked at Gostilitsy. We had another 40kms to cycle. The wind was against us bringing icy rain and the road was hilly. Would the hotel exist? We had a tent but the forest on either side was decidedly boggy. We were at a low ebb. Then the sun came out, the wind dropped, we arrived in Gostilitsty and found the hotel. They were surprised at our unexpected arrival but sign language and Google translate brought smiles all round plus a nice room and an evening meal. By the morning they were trying to teach us Russian but sadly we had to leave.
Marshland outside of Saint Petersburg
Our route now took us on minor roads with little traffic and much birdsong. The rain stopped and the sun shone. At last there were signs of spring, with wild flowers coming out and the leaves just starting to open on the trees. We passed a castle and resisted temptation to buy the jam and pickles at a market. On bikes you have to watch how much you carry. We knew we would be on very minor roads that were likely to be unsealed but maps don't show the condition. The first 40km were fine but how much of the second 40kms would be cyclable? After a further 20kms the road deteriorated with long, extremely rough stretches. Finally we had to get off and push through deep muddy ruts. Logging lorries coming out of the forest had churned up the road. A couple of kms later we were through and onto a quiet, good road to our hotel at Dubki. Again no English but a young couple staying there translated and once again we were offered an evening meal.
Our trip would obviously have been much more enjoyable if we had spoken Russian. You can get a long way with sign language and Google translate but you cannot go much beyond the basics. Learning the alphabet made a big difference and enabled us to read the essential words such as toilet, chocolate and vodka.
Our last day was 93kms to the Estonian border where we crossed into Narva. The road was mainly good with little traffic. There were more villages, one with a store, and more cyclists. Many of the villages we passed through had closed factories and abandoned workers flats but always there were people tending their gardens and allotments and on the riverbanks men were fishing. Gardens were beautifully kept but the forests were spoiled by heaps of rubbish. Apart from the St Petersburg district, every ditch, picnic spot or lay-by seemed to be a refuse tip.
And the Migration Card? It seemed to be less of an issue after St Petersburg. We were asked for it at the border. Again no English, we looked puzzled, shrugged our shoulders, said “Niet”. After a discussion we were issued with them to fill in. It was duly stamped and filed. With little fuss we were now legal and pushed our bikes into Estonia.