11.06.2017 - 19.06.2017
11 June 2017
Moscow, Russia – Nizhny Novgorod, Russia
Today began my Trans-Siberian Railroad adventure! The first leg (today) was to be the shortest, lasting roughly four hours.
I was up at 05:00 to catch the metro over to the train station where I was easily able to find my way to the correct platform. The train left just after 07:00. The train itself was quite nice: no sleeper cabins, just rows of regular seats with designated areas for luggage. The first part of the journey had the train quite full, but after the first hour or so, the crowd had thinned out. I spent the time listening to music.
The train arrived in Nizhny Novgorod around 11:30 and I made my way over to my hotel. I had booked hotels for my stopovers during the train journey so I could have a measure of privacy in-between trains. The hotel was quite close to the train station, which was in a so-so area: it was evident that it was an industrial city, especially this part of the city.
However, the hotel itself was very nice (though it didn’t look that way from the outside). The staff spoke no English, but we were able to find ways to communicate (miming, pointing, etc). I couldn’t check in until 13:00, so I spent the time in the hotel dining area, getting some work done. Once I got checked in, I freshened up and eventually decided to grab a late lunch.
I had found a small shopping area roughly 30 minutes away (walking) from my hotel and I decided to head over there. The city was distinctly Soviet in design, layout and style: cement buildings everywhere, sidewalks and streets falling into disrepair, dozens upon dozens of cords stretched between buildings. Despite my best efforts, I was unable to reach the shopping area as I couldn’t find a place to cross the major street that stood between it and me (no crosswalks or underpasses). I did, however, pass by a smallish square with a Lenin statue!!
I ended up heading back to the train station where I found a McDonalds (by this point I couldn’t be bothered trying to find anything better).
12 June 2017
Nizhny Novgorod, Russia
Today was my day to do sightseeing around the city itself, which I had inadvertently planned for Russia Day. I caught the metro into the city center: the majority of the metro stations were in the industrial area, with just one station near to the city center (still a 20-minute walk from the center).
After exiting the metro, I walked down the central street towards the city center. The street was lined with shops and restaurants, many of which were closed for the holiday. The crowd of people steadily increased as I ventured further into town.
I eventually found my way to the city’s kremlin (fortress), which is open to the public. Inside there was a small display of military vehicles: tanks, jeeps, airplanes; on the brick wall were a few murals depicting WWII. Upon closer inspection, I found that the murals were made up of thousands of photographs taken during the war. They were amazing.
The kremlin complex had a nice walkway overlooking the Volga River, which I strolled along as I made my way over to one of the guard towers. In a central square was an eternal flame dedicated to the memory of WWII.
I discovered that there was a large event going on in the city center for Russia Day; to get in, everyone had to pass through metal detectors and let the guards search our bags. Along the main road were several areas where kids could engage in various sports: basketball, wrestling, soccer; there was a large stage at the end of the street where performers would sing or dance. Sadly, the stage blocked one of the city’s sights: a great staircase leading down to the Volga.
In one area there was a military-themed display, with people dressed in period costumes from the various wars Russia has fought in: 1600s, 1800s, WWI, WWII, modern day. In this same square were some people dressed as 19th century nobility who were dancing to music; I quickly recognized the music and dance as the one used in the “Pride and Prejudice” TV mini-series (the Darcy and Lizzy dance).
By this point the weather had turned nasty and began to rain quite a bit, so I made my way to a small coffee shop, where I spent some time reading, letting the rain pass by, before heading back to my hotel. On my way back from dinner that night, I bought a “Fidget Spinner” from a street seller. Street vendors line all of the major streets in Russia, selling everything from toys to food to clothes. Fidget Spinners were everywhere and I thought it could be fun to play with during my days on the train. I’m still not sure if I’m ashamed of myself or not…
My train departed around 23:00 that night, so I checked out of the hotel (which the staff found strange and clearly thought was ridiculous). Boarding the train, I found only one other person in the 4-berth cabin with me. He was a younger guy, around my age; he spoke basic English, but was very friendly (and rather attractive!). I was quite relieved that the other beds weren’t being occupied, giving us space and quiet. I stored my bags under the seats and setup my bed (I was assigned to the lower bed) and was soon fast asleep.
13 June 2017
I slept rather well on the train and my cabin-mate greeted me with a pleasant “Good morning!” when I woke up. The train would not arrive into Yekaterinburg until 21:00, so I still had the majority of the day to spend on the train. To help pass the time, I did some reading, listening to music, sleeping, and watching Netflix (downloaded shows): House of Cards mostly, along with Watchmen.
When the train pulled into the Yekaterinburg station, my cabin-mate offered to help me out with my luggage, which I politely declined. We said goodbye to one another, shook hands and then I was off into the city!
I had booked another hotel near the train station, but this one was rather difficult to locate. I was able to find the building, but there was no signage for the hotel. After walking up and down the block several times, some locals pointed me in the right direction – the entrance was right in front of me! The hotel itself was quite nice; once again, the staff spoke no English, but we used Google Translate to communicate. After check-in, I went out for a short walk before crawling into bed to rest up for the following day.
14 June 2017
Today was packed with sightseeing around the city and I made the absolute most of my time.
Breakfast was brought to me in my room in the morning: two pancakes with tea. The hotel has an order form for breakfast each morning, but I wasn’t clear on how much one could order, so I kept it small. It was actually quite good and gave me some energy for the day.
I walked over to the main bus station, situated next to the train station. Based on research I’d done online, I had identified which bus (#150) ran from the city out to the Europe-Asia border monument (the bus actually runs to the small city of Pervouralsk, but the drivers often drop people off on the side of the road at the monument). Buying the ticket was simple enough, but communicating to the driver where I wanted to go proved somewhat problematic. I showed him signs and pictures of where I wanted to go and he gave a noncommittal response, but I took my chances anyway.
Shortly after leaving the city limits, the driver pulled over next to the newer (and smaller) border monument, which wasn’t the one I wanted. I indicated that he should drive further on and tried to tell him where I wanted to go. A younger guy on the bus tried to help out as well: he spoke no English, but knew where I wanted to go. Over the next 15 minutes we were able to communicate and get it sorted out; the main thing he and the driver stressed was that I had to walk through the woods from the road to the monument, which I knew of from my research.
The driver pulled over at the correct location and pointed me through the woods; I thanked him and set off to find this border monument. It took me roughly five minutes to get there. The monument was a large column, topped with the Romanov eagle and a line of lights along the border itself; on either side were signs saying “Europe” and Asia” (in Russian). The monument was erected on the spot where Tsar Alexander II supposedly stopped in the mid-1800s, popped a bottle of wine and declared it to be the border between Europe and Russia.
There was not much else to see, so I soon set off to walk to the nearest bus stop on the outskirts of Pervouralsk (about a 15-minute walk away). The bus back to Yekaterinburg pulled up less than a minute after I reached the bus stop and I was back in town by noon, with plenty of time to explore the city itself.
I walked through the city, finding some interesting monuments and sculptures on my way to reach the Church on the Blood. It was a very pleasant walk, with excellent weather, which I was quite thankful for as rain was in the forecast for the afternoon.
The Church on the Blood was my primary reason for stopping in Yekaterinburg. In 1918, Tsar Nicholas II and his family were imprisoned in the Ipatiev House and were brutally murdered in the basement of that house by the Bolsheviks as the White Army approached the city during the Russian Civil War. The bodies were later taken to the woods for disposal (after acid had been thrown on the bodies!). The house was eventually torn down in the 1970s to prevent it from becoming a focal point of monarchist sympathizers. A Russian Orthodox church, Church on the Blood, now stands on the spot where the Ipatiev House once stood, with the altar inside standing where the Romanovs were murdered.
The church was quite large, with brilliant golden-topped domes. I was in awe when I saw it: the sun was shining off the domes, making the gold glitter. Outside of the entrance to the church was a large statue of the Romanovs, including Nicholas II carrying the young Tsarevitch Alexei. It was actually quite moving and somber, really hammering home the tragedy that occurred that night.
Photos were forbidden inside the church itself and, despite my best efforts, I wasn’t able to sneak any photos. It was a small area, but covered with the usual Russian Orthodox opulence: gold, paintings, candles, etc. I spent several minutes inside the church, silently reflecting on the sufferings of the last tsar and his family.
Leaving the church, I had a few more rather interesting sights to see in the city. I walked further into the city center and came across the massive Square of 1905, the main city square. There were some Soviet-style statues at one end of the square, facing a long pool with fountains. People were scattered all around the square, relaxing and hanging out.
I walked through the square and made my way over to the banks of the Iset River. Along the way I stumbled across some great street art along the side of a building. Russian cities are full of street art, but this was particularly impressive to me.
There was some construction going on along a stretch of the riverfront, forcing me to take a detour from my route. I discovered that I had missed my destination: the QWERTY monument. I crossed over the Iset River and backtracked so I could circle back; thankfully I found the monument tucked away right next to the construction site.
The QWERTY monument is a large reproduction of a computer keyboard in both the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets. It is one of the many unique and random monuments throughout Russia.
After a long day of exploring and adventures, I walked over to a nearby shopping center to grab dinner. It was good timing on my part as the rain began right as I was walking into the building. The rain had let up slightly by the time I left and I caught the metro back to the bus/train station, where I could quickly walk back to my hotel.
15 June 2017
I spent the day doing practically nothing: I did some reading, watched the latest season of “House of Cards” and had an overall lazy day. My train was scheduled to depart at 22:16 that night and I had to keep my backpack with me throughout the day (including my laptop), which made doing much exploring difficult. I had an exhausting time the day before, so having a slow and quiet day was rather refreshing. Before catching my train, I stopped by the grocery store to stock up on food: cup of noodles, chips, peanuts, etc.
I grabbed my bags and went over to the train station around 21:00 and waited for the platform announcement. By this point I had become an expert on navigating the Russian train system (ok, it really isn’t that difficult!) and I soon found myself onboard and in my cabin. Once again I was assigned the bottom bunk; this time I had two other people in the cabin with me: an older military guy and another guy who was quite friendly and who gave me a beer. Neither spoke English and they began to talk to one another, so I soon watched more Netflix before bed.
16 June 2017
When I woke up this morning I found that my two cabin-mates had departed during the night and I was now sharing the cabin with an older Russian woman. She spoke no Russian and was rather unpleasant: I said hello to her and waved, but she just ignored me – this basically set the tone for the next two days.
I passed the time on the train doing some extensive reading, as well as watching movies. The cabin had power sockets, which was an amazing perk that I was quite thankful for! There was no guarantee that the cabin or even the car itself would have power sockets, so I was worried that my phones and laptop would run out of power; now I could watch all the movies I wanted!
That evening I was provided with dinner, which was some pork with pasta and a roll. It was a basic meal, but most welcome!
17 June 2017
Another full day on the train spent reading, working and watching movies. My cabin companion spent much of the time sleeping and she snored quite loudly. Ugh! I was so annoyed, but I was able to mostly tune it out with my headphones.
The Siberian terrain in this part of Russia was covered with forests and some small lakes; it was mostly flat and unremarkable. I had rather hoped the scenery would be more… impressive; I actually found myself reminded of driving across the Unites States.
18 June 2017
Lake Baikal, Russia
The train pulled into Irkutsk around 11:00 this morning; I said goodbye to by cabin-mate and was glad to be leaving the train behind for a few days. I exited the small train station and walked over to the tram stop outside (in reality, it was just a place on the road where the trams would stop). I was hoping to catch tram 4a over to the bus station, but after waiting for nearly 20 minutes I gave in and took tram 1 to the central market stop, a 15-minute walk from the bus station.
Walking over to the bus station I was surprised to see how poorly maintained the streets and sidewalks of the city were; I didn’t expect anything as nice as Moscow or St Petersburg, but this was quite bad. As I approached the bus station, tram 4am drove past me – of course! Haha Inside the bus station I was able to easily buy a ticket to Listvyanka, on the shore of Lake Baikal.
The drive from Irkutsk took roughly 90 minutes and the “bus station” in Lisvyanka was right outside of my hotel there. The hotel was the tallest building in town and the staff there all spoke very good English. I checked in, but was disappointed to find that my room was in a separate buildings and didn’t overlook the lake itself. I took a much needed shower as there were no showers on the train (three days with no shower is never fun).
I went out for a walk along the shore of Lake Baikal, but soon had to take shelter inside as a storm moved in and it began raining. The rain lasted for a few minutes before moving on and I was able to continue my stroll.
The locals and tourists alike soon crowded back onto the rocky beach, laying in the sun, cooking food, and having fun. The beach was lined with covered picnic tables for visitors to enjoy (and stay dry when the storm hit!). I found a small grocery store where I stocked up on some food before heading back to my hotel for the evening.
19 June 2017
Lake Baikal, Russia
Today was a full day focused on enjoying Lake Baikal.
After having a hearty breakfast at the hotel, I ventured out around the lake. I walked for roughly 8km, heading south along the waterfront. The views were stunning: mountains and hills surrounding me and in the far distance I could just make out the mountains on the other side of the lake. Along the way I found a couple statues: one of a scuba diver and one of a fisherman.
Lake Baikal is the world’s largest freshwater lake (by volume), containing around 22% of the world’s freshwater. The water was amazingly clear and it was quite cold when I dipped my foot into it. The beach itself was quite rocky, not the smooth sand that one typically associates with beaches. Listvyanka itself is nestled in the hills among the trees: the town was a mix between a beach town and a mountain town.
I walked down to an amazing overlook where there was a memorial to some guy and a neat sign advertising a nearby hotel. This was the furthest that I cared to walk and there wasn’t much else beyond this point; getting anywhere further on would require a boat and to hike through the forest.
When I reached the town again, I walked north along the lakefront and soon reached the end of town again, where I stopped in the small grocery store to grab an ice cream. I wanted to try and get out on the lake on one of the many boats, but a storm was blowing into the area, with very dark clouds, so I decided to wait for it to pass.
I went back to my hotel and up to the 7th floor terrace café, which overlooked the lake – and was covered, protecting me from the approaching storm! I ordered a coffee and curled up with my book as the storm hit; it was great fun and exciting to sit there and watch the storm cross the massive lake.
After the storm was over, I went out for another short walk along the lake before calling it a night and heading to bed.