It’s been quite a while since I left the balmy shores of Lake Bled, with its backdrop of castles, dramatic peaks and rolling green hills. In fact, the last month has been pretty much the polar opposite.
I have also been fielding a fair number of complaints since August about not posting any new content. Well, this should satisfy all of those individuals, because it is quite a lengthy post. But before I dive in, let me give you a brief overview of what has been happening since I left Slovenia.
My original plan of travelling to St Petersburg via Central Europe (Hungary, Czech, Poland) and the Baltics (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia) was turned on its head one morning over breakfast. I decided that this well-travelled backpacker route was too boring for me and that I would spice it up by flying to Finland directly, after which I’d travel to St Petersburg by bus via the Batics.
Soon after arriving in Helsinki I was about to receive the shock of my life…
I always knew that Finland was expensive, but I had no idea just how expensive it was. I mean the place makes the UK look like a vassal state by comparison. I was hoping to travel to the beautiful lake district in the East, doing some hikes and cruises and experiencing the traditional wood-fired public sauna in Kuopio, but after a couple of hours of planning I realised that it was simply madness. Four days in the country was equal to a month in Vietnam. It was pretty, but not that pretty.
So I hopped on the first ferry to Estonia that same day.
Tallinn is ridiculously beautiful. The old town is a UNESCO World Heritage site and it is easy to see why. This must be one of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe, complete with city walls. The cobbled streets are lined with incredible restaurants and cafes and the town square has a certain charisma that is hard to explain.
Unfortunately Tallinn is also a cruise destination, so at certain points in time the old town can be totally flooded with cruise tourists, all wearing badges and baseball caps. THOUSANDS OF THEM. When these people return back to their floating homes, however, the town returns to its calm self and is truly quiet.
After Tallinn, I visited Lithuania and Latvia. These countries all have a similar vibe, with beautiful old towns, yet at the same time also ridiculously modern infrastructure. The internet in these countries is unfathomably fast and free Wifi is totally ubiquitous. They really put the UK to shame, and I was even able to get 300 Mbps free Wifi in a sauna at one stage!
My final stop before I met my friend, Kishan, to start our Trans Siberian train journey, was St Petersburg. It is a pleasant city, though not terribly friendly and not as modern as the Baltic states. I will write a separate post some day on my experiences in that city, but let’s just say that I don’t think I will be returning any time soon…
Moscow to Nizhny Novgorod (500 km; 4.5 hours)
I met Kishan in Moscow on a Saturday afternoon. We were taking our first train at sunrise the next day. Exciting!
We spent the afternoon exploring the main tourist sites in Moscow and also stocking up on pot noodle and oats for the train. I can’t really explain why, but Moscow is a major let-down. I thought that standing on the Red Square, looking at the Kremlin and St Basil’s cathedral would be incredible, but it just turned out to be very uninspiring. In fact, the church looks a bit like a Disneyworld attraction when you stand next to it! The best thing about Moscow turned out to be the hostel – a flat inside a grim-looking soviet apartment building. It was actually pretty comfortable on the inside – if you can avoid getting munched by the man-eating elevators (which do not have sensors to stop the doors closing on you).
Though our first stop was in Nizhny Novgorod, we actually did this journey in two parts, stopping in Vladimir on the way. The real aim in Vladimir was the village of Suzdal, an hour’s drive in local buses.
Vladimir-Suzdal, or the Grand Dutchy of Vladimir, was an early proto-Russian state of the 12th century and one of the major principalities suceeding Kievan Rus. It can therefore be thought of as the birthplace of modern Russia. While Vladimir has very little to offer other than soviet-style concrete buildings and an impressive rust belt of decomposing industrial facilities, Suzdal is a charming little town (though devoid of tourists). It is said to contain one of the densest concentrations of churches per capita in Russia.
At this point I’d like to explain something about Russian churches – the undisputed tourism highlight in my opinion. They all look the same. There is usually a large decorative wall, with beautiful artwork and plenty of gold and then there are various other icons scattered across the main building. There are never any pews- Russians are hardcore and don’t sit down in church. Every church we entered was stunning, though. A great relief, as Russia is not overflowing with tourists or tourist attractions (on one occasion the museum we went to had to be unlocked just for us and on another occasion we broke into a closed one and turned the lights on ourselves).
We spent the follow day in Nizhny, which is a fairly nice city with a breathtaking location – it was built between the massive Volga and Oka rivers. Other than a decent Kremlin perched on a hill over looking the rivers, and perhaps the world’s highest concentration of McDonald’s the city is not terribly interesting. We had a good day outside, though, walking in the sun through the city centre and the Kremlin.
We found Russian cities to be very sparsely populated and the few people that one did find in the street either didn’t talk very much to each other or were actively rude. This was very interesting, because whenever we met Russians on the train or in hostels they were incredibly hospitable and friendly and talkative. In fact, they don’t care if you don’t speak a word of Russian and will talk to you for hours about their lives and politics, etc. In those situations we generally just ate their salami and nodded, saying “Da! Da!” every so often.
Nizhny Novgorod to Perm (1200 km; 13.5 hours)
Our next stop was (in hindsight) perhaps the most interesting of them all. Perm is not exactly going to charm your socks off as a traveller. In fact, it was pretty disturbing how often we were told the following phrase by locals “Why on earth are you stopping in Perm?”.
The city has its fair share of dangerous looking stray dogs, concrete brutalist buildings and broken pavements. The “Top Choice” sight in the Lonely Planet was boarded up with graffiti planks. Also it was cold…really cold for early September, at a crisp -2 celcius. And I won’t even go into our drug-dealer den of a hostel, where the dirt walks around in wellies for fear of getting dirty. But all of this creates memories and is so interesting!
The real reason we stopped in Perm was that the last remaining Soviet Gulag in Russia can be found a couple of hours from the city. We took a public bus the following day to visit the labour camp. The journey was supposed to take around 4 hours, but after 2.5 hours I looked on the map on my phone and realised that the little blue dot said we were right next to the village where the camp was located…
After shouting at the bus driver, he stopped the minibus and we got out, about 3km (supposedly) from the camp. At this point it was -4 celcius, we were alone in the steppes of Russia, next to a road with limited traffic.
So we simply started walking in the direction of the camp, trying not to concentrate on the cold which was devouring our central nervous systems. The surrounding countryside was beautiful, with autumn colours everywhere and an eerie silence surrounding us. We could only hear the crunching of our boots on the gravel road.
Eventually we got to the camp (which officially closed in April this year, by the way. Apparently this is due to the rising nationalism in Russia, where the USSR is increasingly seen in a positive and nostalgic light. People don’t really like to dwell on the negatives, so the government decided to cut the museum’s funding).
We were offered the chance to join a local Russian school group on their tour of the camp, but as this was exclusively in Russian we decided to go it alone. I was so glad that it was totally freezing, because it gave you a better idea of what it must have been like as a prisoner in these camps. And remember this was only September…it gets much much colder in winter!
The Soviet Union built hundreds of forced labour camps and these were absolutely integral in the growth of the early USSR, which could not have developed at such a pace, were it not for the prisoners working themselves to death in ungodly conditions across Siberia.
For me, personally, Perm is the most interesting insight into the former USSR. With its simple yet brutal feel, there is nothing fancy or fake about the place. What you see is what you get – a no-nonsense kind of place. Russians are often very cold and do not like small-talk. They will barge into the front of a queue and tell you off in a very aggressive manner if you dare to retaliate. It seems like it takes a lot to live in a place like Perm. It is a place where you need to be hard to survive the winters and the lack of imagination of the city layout. People are poor too, and even the dogs look like they are suffering.
Perm to Tyumen (800 km; 10 hours)
Our next journey was a relatively short hop to Tyumen, the capital of an oil-rich region in Siberia. We crossed the Urals on this leg, which meant that we were officially in Siberia – before, it only felt like we were.
Our main aim for this leg was to visit the town of Tobolsk, a major centre for the Orthodox church in Siberia. The town is a mere 4 hours away from Tyumen by train – a journey which we did in third class (all of our other journeys were in the relative comfort of second class).
It was a serious distance for a day trip, but in Russia it is a mere trifle. Tobolsk was by far the best presented place of our entire journey. It was even nicer than Moscow or St Petersburg. The government must have pumped a lot of money into the place – perhaps thanks to some lobbying on the part of the church.
The white walls of the kremlin were stunning and the church was even better. The cold wind, ice rain and sub-zero temperatures aside, this was my personal highlight. As I have alluded to, there are not many tourists in Russia. And there are not that many things to see in Russian cities. And the weather is not exactly conducive to sipping a coffee in town squares.
All of the above combine to make Russia an interesting (if tough) place to visit, but not a terribly interesting place to write (or read) about. I’m trying my best here guys…
Our train journey in third class was very interesting and we had some great conversations with a couple of Russians sitting close to us. Unlike second class, where a cabin is shared between four people, a third class carriage is akin to a hostel dorm room on wheels, with around 20 people sleeping in one open compartment. The carriage is filled with smells of vodka, sweat and packed lunches. I can think of more pleasurable ways of travelling, not to mention the very dangerous looking thugs who often share the same space with you.
Thanks to Google Translate, however, we were able to have some very meaningful conversations with the two older people next to us. There is nothing like sharing some Russian cold meats and cheeses and discussing European politics in the middle of Siberia. Certainly more interesting than watching Eastenders.
Tyumen to Irkutsk (3,200 km; 44 hours)
The next leg was the big boy. Two full days on a train.
The things is, however, that Russian trains are amazing (when you are not travelling third class, that is). The time absolutely flies on board. I found the quality of the rolling stock and the tracks to be way way better than even my wildest dreams. The carriages were also incredibly well insulated from noise.
All of this means that the journey is as smooth as a baby’s bottom. There is also a hot water urn (or Samovar in Russian) in each carriage with unlimited, free boiling water. So between movies you can make yourself a coffee, then snuggle up with a book in bed and take a nap for as long as you want. The scenery does not really change, but is very pleasant to look at: thousands of miles of birch and pine forests. I think the Autumn colours make these forests look extra good.
In fact, in our next stop, Irkutsk, our main activity was a whole-day hike along the shores of lake Baikal. Luckily the temperature increased during the day to around 10 degrees and the skies were blue, otherwise the hike would have been miserable. Nighttime temperatures were still well below zero Celsius, however.
When we arrived in the tiny village (with 100 inhabitants) we were told by two Russian men that the ferry we were planning to take back to the start only ran twice a week. We’d have to wait 3 days for the next one! Given that we had nowhere to stay and nothing to eat or drink, we thought it important to find some way of getting back to our hostel in Irkutsk.
Kishan found a friendly looking lady and Google told her that we wanted to go back to Listvayanka (where we would be able to catch a bus to Irkutsk). She explained to Google, who explained to us that her friend has a boat and can take us for a steep fee. Of course we agreed to pay and waited for her friend next to a highly dodgy looking motorboat.
Eventually an obese Russian man, who was completely drunk arrived on the pier – totally out of breath. We were both thinking “please don’t die of a heart attack in the next 30 minutes, because we need to get home before it gets dark and very cold”. Luckily our man did indeed survive the journey back to the start of the hike and we were able to get a bus back to Irkutsk before sunset.
Mongolia and China
Our next leg was by far the most miserable. We said goodbye to the fantastic Russian trains (I love them so much that I want to return just to do a train journey and then fly back home). Instead we settled into the backpacker train to Mongolia. This was a Mongolian train with almost exclusively Western tourists. The quality was absolutely terrible in comparison and we had to wait for 11 hours on the border.
Upon arriving in Ulaanbaataar we realised that Russia was not cold at all. At a relatively chilly -8 Celcius, we were longing for those days of -2 C in Perm! The next morning was even colder, when it struck bloody -13 C!!
We walked around for half an hour in heavy snow, slipping and sliding on pavements and being sprayed with icy slush by cars and buses driving past. This was just not fun. We tried to organise a trip into the legenary countryside, but soon found out that our 4 days in Mongolia was just not going to be enough to do what we planned. The roads are bad and things take time. On top of this, the alternative (lame sounding) tour close to UB was going to cost around £300 per person for 3 days!
So we decided that we were going to cheat and book a flight to Beijing for the following day. This would allow us to see more of Beijing save money and avoid the dreadfully cold Mongolian autumn weather.
It was totally worth it. Beijing turned out to be very cool indeed (but not in terms of temperature).
Unfortunately the Golden Week holidays started a couple of days after we arrived, which meant that the city was totally and utterly rammed full of people. But we did get to see all of the major tourist attractions in temperatures that contained two digits and started with a 2 in most cases!
We went to a night market which sells some odd looking things…
…not as pets, but to eat…
And we drove three hours out of town to see the Great Wall at Jianshiling. This part of the wall has much fewer tourists and also has on display some original unrestored pieces of wall, which were very interesting to see. I’d actually recommend this part of the wall instead of the much closer Badaling section. There are others too, but we found this excellent and well worth the £30 it cost for the day trip.
Overall it has been a very interesting trip across Asia in trains (and a plane). It certainly was not easy-going, with severe language barriers, aggressive locals, tasteless food, and bitterly cold temperatures, but I’m so glad to have done it. It was a fantastic experience and I’d recommend it to anyone in a heartbeat. Just remember to take it easy, have no real expectations and bring a mobile phone with Google Translate!!