European Russia or Trans-Siberian Adventure Part 1

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September 29th 2019
Published: September 29th 2019
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Unlike my usual meandering drivel, in case anyone has stumbled onto this blog seeking guidance on taking the Trans-Siberian Railway, I will actually provide some. This relates to our trip which we took throughout July 2019. Later on I'll share a few comments on where we stopped.

• It was a lot easier and cheaper to organise than we expected. We spent a few hours one night while still in the UK and booked nine individual tickets that would get us from St Petersburg to the Mongolian border with plenty of stops in between over 3.5 weeks. The Russian Railways website is very easy to use and the app makes printouts of your tickets unnecessary. We only had to actually show the ticket on my phone once as your ticket is linked to your passport which is scanned as you get on the train. We tried to get second-class tickets the whole way but twice had to get third-class as second was sold out (even a couple of months in advance). The total cost for two of us was just over £500. Try booking the Trans-Siberian from one of the tour companies which will be for less time with fewer stops and you are looking at over £2000 each.

• In addition, while on the train the app will tell you how long till the next stop and how long the train will stop for. This is really useful if you are hungry and want to know if you have 8 minutes to buy something from a platform kiosk, 20 minutes to buy something from a station café, or an hour to nip into town. This information is also posted inside the train but the combinations of Cyrillics and English, Moscow time and local time, made the app a lot easier to fathom.

• Third-class was fine and I may recommend it more highly than second-class. The second-class compartments that sleep four could get pretty hot, even when with air-con. The open arrangement of third-class meant it was always cooler. Also, the people were even nicer in third-class and even more generous with even better food. The only negative is that the beds are it shorter so us two being quite tall had feet sticking out the end into the corridor.

• We never had two
Suzdal KremlinSuzdal KremlinSuzdal Kremlin

Old wooden church and newer monastery behind.
consecutive nights on the train so got off the train at quite a few places as we headed east. I really enjoyed all the stops we made – most had more going on than we expected. We only met other Trans-Siberian-taking foreigners when in Mongolia, most of whom only stopped in Irkutsk between Moscow and Ulanbataar. They complained how boring it had been. Well no wonder if you spend 80 hours constantly on the same train! If you have gone to the trouble to get the visa, why not get off the train and have a look around? When is the next time you are going to be in Siberia!?

• The Russian visa is not that much trouble to get. It’s more time-consuming than most visas but it definitely isn’t sufficient reason to not go. The online paperwork was much more voluminous for me (UK passport) than for Magdalena (Polish passport). For me it required additional details of my parents, of my previous passports, a list of all the countries I had visited in the last 10 (ten!) years (I got as far back as the previous October – about 12 countries – and then
The Hermitage, St PetersburgThe Hermitage, St PetersburgThe Hermitage, St Petersburg

Even without the art, it was the finest palace we went into.
the box wouldn’t accept anymore), plus addresses and phone numbers of all the hotels we would be staying at. We had already made provisional hotel bookings in order to get our “letter of invitation” so these went on the visa forms. If you google “Russia visa letter of invitation” there are lots of Russian travel agencies who offer the service for under 10 euros. You just give them proposed dates and locations and within ten minutes they will email you back the required letter. The letter, the paperwork, the payment, passport and passport photos must then be taken to a visa office (we used Edinburgh) in person because they also need fingerprints. The passport can be posted back to you. Once we had the visas we booked our train tickets, consequently, the dates and some of the locations changed completely due to train times and ticket availability. Once you have the visa you can basically go where you like.

• Now to perhaps disappoint you: The Trans-Siberian Railway isn’t the nostalgic or romantic or backward journey that people, or the Lonely Planet, or other authors, may lead you to believe. The trains are not dilapidated Soviet
Interior of Saviour on the Spilled Blood Church, St PetersburgInterior of Saviour on the Spilled Blood Church, St PetersburgInterior of Saviour on the Spilled Blood Church, St Petersburg

It isn't painted, the whole interior is covered with incredibly detailed mosaics of tiny (1 cm) tiles.
relics, there are no babushkas selling goods out of baskets on the platforms, third-class is not the realm of vodka-swilling men in tracksuits, and the train officials are not wannabe KGB officers.

• People were really nice. It helps if you speak Russian. I don’t, Magdalena does. Generally, she was engaged in conversation for entire journeys whereas I just nodded occasionally and accepted all the food we were offered. This ranged from fresh fruits from their gardens to jars of honey and homemade honey liquor and even smoked salmon. In return we could rarely offer more than a chocolate biscuit or whatever the closest supermarket to the train station had supplied. We didn’t meet any non-Russians on the trains we took, but, this being midsummer, many of the Russians were tourists heading around their vast country on their holidays. We learnt about and were shown photos of a lot of nice places that have gone on our list of stops when we take the Trans-Siberian again.

• You can get a Mongolian visa in Irkutsk. You need a passport photo, a hotel reservation and a copy of your travel insurance. It takes three days.

• Travelling in Russia means you can eat delicious and authentic Georgian food at least every other day. Why wouldn’t you?

• Guesthouse owners typically go from being openly hostile to impolite to indifferent within the first ten minutes of your approach, checking in, and getting to your room. By the time you see them again, and especially if you stay a few days, they are extremely warm and friendly. It follows a similar but speeded up pattern in restaurants; do not expect American-style service. There is no “great to see you guys!” I grew to like the Russian way. It’s genuine.

• Moscow and especially St Petersburg are dominated by large tour groups. Round and about the city they all seemed to be Chinese whereas inside any museum or other building they seemed to be Italian or Spanish. It can be frustrating when it prevents you from getting close to some sights and we generally caused trouble in galleries by waiting for a group to leave a particular painting then when we got near the front we actually stopped to look and discuss the work. The tour groups behind were not happy about this. The best quote was heard from an Australian tour group who were queuing to see the single tiny Raphael painting at the Hermitage and when a couple reached the front and the husband paused to actually have a look at it he was immediately admonished by his wife: "Just take a photo, you can look at it later!

• Russian cities are not built for pedestrians. After spending time recently in Scandinavia where bicycles and pedestrians are prioritised, it was disappointing in Russia to find that cars are king. Large roads through city centres can leave you with a sore throat after a day of breathing the fumes. Crossing these roads can take ages as you search a long way in each direction for a crossing; on which you need to keep your eye on the traffic rather than assuming a green man means you can cross.

• You probably will get churched- and monasteried-out. There are a lot and many are stunning, consequently a lot are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The later ones we were whizzing around no longer as thrilled by probably beautiful icons.

• parkrun Russia is brilliant. Great courses and lovely people. In Moscow we went for the monastery-filled park alongside the Moskva River at Kolomenskoye as there can't be many places where you can run a timed 5k at a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Yorkshire's beautiful Fountains Abbey being another notable example). Amazingly they ran the event with only two volunteers (even small UK parkruns need at least five or six). We timed it well as there was also a folk festival on at Kolomenskoye the weekend we were there. The fortunate timing continued as our next parkrun the following Saturday was Zatyumensky in Tyumen just as the city was celebrating its 403rd birthday with an extreme sports festival. After 100 parkruns at 59 different events in 10 countries I now have a favourite. Zatyumensky parkrun is by far the most fun event we've run. Basically, they put on a show every week worthy of a once a year event. We were picked up by Vitaly, who described himself: "I do not run, I am showman", and was just one of the very friendly bunch of volunteers alongside a DJ, a rapper, a warm-up
Sviyazhsk Town-Island near KazanSviyazhsk Town-Island near KazanSviyazhsk Town-Island near Kazan

Yet another completely unpronounceable UNESCO World Heritage Site.
exercise lady, a meat shop providing endless sandwiches and a lead moped with a cameraman.

Now some info on where we stopped:

• St Petersburg is one of the grandest cities around. Majestic palaces are so ubiquitous that most are not even marked on the map even though each would be a tourist attraction if it were anywhere else. It was White Nights’ Festival while we were there though there isn’t really any sign of this other than performances every night at the great many theatres (but this seems to be the case all year). We got tickets to an opera and a ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre and both were marvellous – even from the cheap seats at the very top. Try and dress up to fit in with the Russians (for whom the reasonable to us prices are expensive) rather than the jeans-wearing tourists. The mosaics inside the scaffolding-covered (a theme of our trip) Saviour on the Spilled Blood Cathedral were incredible. The Hermitage could be the best art gallery I’ve ever been inside. If you make the effort (it's a train ride out of town) to go to the Peterhof Palace; stick to the gardens. The time you have to spend queuing is not worth the far shorter time you are whisked around inside to see just a portion of the place.

• Despite how I've just described St Petersburg, I may have preferred Moscow. It seems more real. A definite highlight is the Metro. As well as being (arguably) the fastest, the most punctual (99.99% accuracy) and deepest (84 m) in the world, the stations are beautiful. We spent our final afternoon in the city just touring the best stations. If you are a fan of old communist mosaics and statues then you'll love it. My favourite Moscow Metro fact is that stations are announced on the trains in a man's voice on the way towards the city centre and in woman's voice travelling away from the city centre. This is to help blind people navigate their way around the city. Apparently, the way to remember this (putting the sexism to one side a moment), is that the male voice is your boss calling you to get to work in the centre while the female voice is your wife urging you home. In contrast to this beautiful piece of engineering, the new (built in 1997) enormous statue (98 m high) commemorating Peter the Great (who most famously didn't like Moscow as he moved the capital to St Petersburg) and sitting in the middle of the Moskva River, is quite the ugliest thing I've ever seen. A human figure standing on a galleon that sits on top of galleons with more galleons on his head and fountains emerging from about his person is incredible in its hideousness.

• Vladimir was just a jumping off point for Suzdal but it turned out to be worth a bit more time. Especially in an evening, the paths running along the escarpment away from the road and at the back of its many UNESCO churches were filled with canoodling couples, strolling pensioners, a salsa-dancing class, really good musicians and singers, gangs of pals eating takeaway KFC, all enjoying the sunset.

• For once the Trans-Siberian Lonely Planet Guidebook got something right: Suzdal is a lovely bucolic escape from the pace and bustle of Moscow. Churches, monasteries, old wooden houses and windmills, collonaded old shops and cafes, set in flower-filled meadows either side of a languid river. We recommend it.

• Next stop was Nizhny Novgorod at the confluence of the massive Oka and even more massive Volga Rivers. There's a lovely promenade plus great views from the Kremlin stuffed with Russian World War II tanks and vehicles that you can clamber on.

• Kazan was definitely the most liveable city of all of our stops. There seemed to be more pedestrianised areas including wooden walkways skirting the edges of lakes and a broad promenade by the river with cycle lanes, bars, restaurants and educational installations for kids such as weather stations and free books. The Kremlin was lovely with its churches and mosques, especially when lit up at night. Kazan is the capital of Tatarstan, a semi-autonomous republic, whose people are a bit different in appearance and whose food is refreshingly different. Other Russians told us the autonomy is granted as the region is oil-filled and Moscow wants to keep them sweet. Therefore, less money goes to Moscow explaining the wealthy feel of the city. There are a few worthwhile boat trips you can take along the mighty Volga to even more UNESCO World Heritage Sites if you haven't yet had your fill.

• Although Tyumen is technically in Asian Russia because it's across the Ural Mountains - which can't be very mountainy as we didn't even notice them - I'll bring it up now as I mentioned it earlier when talking about the world's best parkrun. We only stopped in Tyumen because it broke up the journey; we never wanted to spend two consecutive nights on a train. The riverside location is thoroughly pleasant, but I suppose we liked it most because of the parkrun and the extreme sports festival. Think massive Russian muscle-marys doing competitive cross-fit, children racing spider-like up climbing walls, freestyle football keep-it-up to Russian hip-hop, remote-controlled car races, and kebabs.

As this blog is getting a bit lengthy, I'll spare you the Asian Russia part across the Ural Mountains until the next time...

Additional photos below
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Interior of Saviour on the Spilled Blood Church, St PetersburgInterior of Saviour on the Spilled Blood Church, St Petersburg
Interior of Saviour on the Spilled Blood Church, St Petersburg

It isn't painted, the whole interior is covered with incredibly detailed mosaics of tiny (1 cm) tiles.

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