the train from Ulanbatar, Mongolia to Irkust, Russia (in pictures):
Irkutsk is a popular stopping-off point along the Trans-Siberian Railway and is known as one of the first major Russian cities after the railway the trains arrive on the Trans-Mongolian route (from China and Mongolia). Most visitors come here in order to visit the nearby Lake Baikal, but the city was actually quite an interesting place!
Our first night in Irukust we tried out a restaurant that had been recommended by a travel buddy in Mongolia. It was actually great! It was a traditional style soviet restaurant serving russian soups in bowls made of rye bread that you can eat as you go, kompot (russia juice drink), and the entertainment was amazing- a man in a tuxedo stood on a small stage in the centre of the room playing an electric violin to songs like wake me up by Avicii- it was outstanding!
Lake baikal and Orkohn Island
The next day we took a 5 hour minibus (then ferry) organised by our hostel out to Lake Baikal and across Orkohn Island.
Lake Baikal is a lake of tectonic origin located in the southern part of Eastern Siberia, the deepest lake in the world (1,642 meters) and the largest natural reservoir of fresh water (19%). The lake stretches from the southwest to the northeast for 620 km in the form of a giant crescent. The width of the lake is in the range of 24 to 79 km. So if you look at it on a map it looks like a banana.
We arrived at Orkohn Island to the local town with a population of around 500- unfortunately it was low season and most of the restaurants and shops were closed leaving us to make most of our own meals here. The lake was still frozen in this area but the ice was thin at the shore line so we couldn’t walk out onto it without running the risk of falling in and having a miserable walk back to the hostel. During our time here we went for walks, and hung out on the beach. We tried to go biking which turned out to be a bit of a nightmare because most of the ground on the part of the island where we stayed was sand- Chris took a corner too quickly and ended up over the handlebars and smashing up his elbow- a day later the elbow blossomed a violet coloured bruise about 30cm long!
The highlight of our time on Orkohn island was definitely the sunset- it was truely spectacular. Watching the sky turn orange and purple over the frozen lake as the sun set behind the mountains (sitting on a rock having a beer and listening to fat freddy’s drop on our speaker) is not something I think I will ever forget.
We travelled back to Irkurst and spent two days exploring the city on self guided walking tours. Our favourite part about all the old historic sites was reading about the great fires of 1600 and 1700s that destroyed most of the city which was made of wood- it was only after the second massive fire that they decided to change their favoured building material into something a bit less flammable. One of the most memorable places we ate was at New Zealand Pies. It is a bakery in the heart of the city selling classic style New Zealand pies- the story in the shop goes that the owner, originally from Irkust, lived in NZ for a year and fell in love with the pies. She came back to Irkurst and started to bake them for herself and got a stall at the annual local food festival and they sold out in minutes. She then decided to open up a kiwiana themed restaurant in Irkurst to sell her pies!
Novosibrisk is the largest city in Siberia, and the third largest in Russia (after Moscow and St Petersburg). We were informed by our Lonely planet guide for the trans-siberian trip not to expect much, that the highlights included a monument to the first traffic light in the city, to make up for this dull day time the night life is very vibrant.
We arrived early evening to Novosibrisk and walked about 2km with our bags to our hostel which was in an old soviet style apartment building. We found ourselves that evening somewhere completely unexpected- a hip taco restaurant- serving delicious fresh tacos, home brewed beers, and we even shared tequilia with the owner! It was great!
The next day we went to the highest rated attraction on tripadvisor- the zoo! Low expectations were well and truely exceeded. It was really cool, with animals from massive birds and reindeers to tigers/lions/lynx/puma/etc and polar bears! There was also an area with rides which topped the day off.
We finished the day at a fancy tapas restaurant with cocktails to celebrate graduating from our diplomas that we did last year! We weren’t able to attend the ceremony in Auckland for obvious reasons…
After the short trip we were again back on the train to Yerkaterinburg
The 4th biggest city in Russia, Yekaterinburg was the natural next stop on our train journey across Russia.
Our time here started out like a nightmare, we arrived at 4:30am morning couldnt find hostel that we had booked and paid for a few weeks before. We were in the spot that was marked on the map on booking.com but no hostel in site. We tried for over an hour walking around the same area, trying to call the number provider for the reception but with no luck. We eventually gave up and booked another hostel nearby which thankfully was easy to find.
We spent our two days in Yekaterinburg doing a self-guided walking tour, seeing the sites including the church which was build above the place were the last Russian Tsar and his family was slaughtered in 1917 during the Russian revolution (the story that the disney movie Anastasia is based off).
If it sounds like we were shooting through places quickly, we were! Finially in Kazan we were able to have a break with a 4 day stop over.
With a population of about 1.3 million, a rich history, deep culture and strong economic influence, thus taking the title from Nizhny Novgorod. By many measures, Kazan has one of the highest standards of living in Russia, following after Moscow and St. Petersburg. Located between Europe and Asia, having both Russian and Tatar populations, Kazan peacefully blends Muslim and Christian cultures. There are also many other religions represented in Kazan, we even visited a church that was dedicated to representing all religions in the world.
We spend one full day at an aquapark which was really fun on the water slides and lazy river pools. We saw another Ferris Wheel and couldn’t resist a sunset ride either.
The second stand out would have to be watching the new Avengers movie when Chris was feeling a little poorly, unfortunately it was completely dubbed in Russian (not an english subtitle in site)- we luckily got the gist of it (Chris fell asleep during some of it) and enjoyed a bucket of salty popcorn.
We checked out the rest of the city sites, including the famous UNESCO kazan kremlin, before heading onwards on our second to last train to Moscow.