St Petersburg (trans-siberian)

We arrived in St Petersburg at the end of May. This was our final stop on our 28 day trans-Siberian/Russian adventure. Our train arrived at 4am and we quickly arrived to our hostel and went to sleep. The thing that surprised us when we arrived was that it was already light outside at 4am, we would later find out that we arrived during the season of “white nights” in St Petersburg- it never gets completely dark, and it only starts to darken at night at around 9pm. It is very confusing, especially for people (us) who had changed time zones 4 times in the last 24 days!

We thought we would book ourselves into a 10 bed room at the hostel at a “party” hostel, obviously it was cheap, but having only spoken to each other for the last 24 days we were looking to socialize. The Cuba hostel was in a great location to all the major sites in the heart of the city. The room was social in the afternoons, and at night the 9 boys in the room created a loud symphony of snoring (Chris was a real team player here!).

It was chilly, pink nose season here

We explored some the major sites. A lot of these we saw on a free walking tour with a local guide through the city-checking out the river, statues, monuments, and museums along the way.

This is Peter the Great making a boat, one of his many trades, apparently he had several, including being a dentist!

St Petersburg is named after the Tsar Peter the Great who fought a war against Sweden to capture this area of land and the city, giving Russia access to the Baltic sea via the gulf of Finland and the ability to develop a ferocious navy. Back in the day (17th century) Russia had a “serf” population who were basically peasents who belonged to a noble family, like slaves with a bit more autonomy. These serfs were conscripted by Peter to come to his new conquered land and to build him an european city from the swapland. The conditions were terrible and tens of thousands of these people died during the construction- they call St Petersburg the city built on bones.

Peter the Great on a big horse on a big rock
We did not pack for things to be this cold!

The sight we most enjoyed was the Hermitage museum which we explored over two days (a few hours at a time) guided by a very handy English audioguide. The Hermitage was probably the most impressive museum/art gallery either of us have been to with the most impressive paintings, and at least one painting of every famous artist you have ever heard of. We were very interested to find out a lot of the painting were seized from German private collection at the end of WWII.

Posing by the hermitage photobombed by the wind

We were also lucky enough to be here during the 316th birthday of St Petersburg city. We were told by locals to expect something big, we were not disappointed. At midnight the drawbridges over the river lifted upwards to 90 degree angles to create screens that were filled with projected images of St Petersburg, followed by dances on cables in full LED suits flipping and swinging down the bridge/screen. Next came the man in the white suit playing electric violin as men in LED suits on water powered jet packs flew over the river with fire exploding out of their flame throwers, then of course the fireworks. It was pretty spectacular.

For those worried that we may not have been able to satisfy our new kebab addiction we picked up in Moscow- fear not! We found a little restaurant by our hostel called Pita’s which did delicious falafel and meat filled kebabs (visited twice).

Our last day we went to Peterhof, the former summer palace for the royal russian family.

The Grand Cascade (pictured above) forms the centrepiece of Peterhof. The three waterfalls, 67 fountains and 37 golden statues had even the most nonchalant tourists wide-eyed with amazement. Centre to all of it stands a golden statue of Samson ripping the jaws of a lion, representing Russia’s victory over Sweden in the Great North War over the Gulf of Finland. 

Russia was awesome, but after 28 days we were ready to leave to try something completely different. We are heading to central asia (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan) to do explore the old silk road territory, previously held soviet states, deserts, dictator run countries, yurts and nomads. Let’s do some intrepid travelling!

Moscow (Trans-siberian)

You truely Moscow to Moscow!

Moscow is the financial and political center of Russia and the countries formerly comprising the Soviet Union. It has a population of around 13 million, one-tenth of all Russian citizens live in the Moscow metropolitan area. Moscow is the second most populous city in Europe, after Istanbul. We explored Moscow on a walking tour and solo as well during our time. We found the food was significantly more expensive here than it had been so far in Russia, luckily we discovered a kebab shop not far from our hostel which was so delicious we went back several times and I left a tripadvisor review! So TASTY!

These kebabs were the highlight of our Russian cuisine experience~
It did not take long until we bumped into Stalin on the street
Chris enjoyed the look of one of the seven sisters (the building in the background, not a lady- I have googled this to make sure)
Absolutely loving exploring the kremlin!
We decided Moscow is the most beautiful at night

One of the highlights was going to a show- we watched Anna Karenina the musical. We opted for the cheapest seats because we are on a budget and didnt think we would understand much of it because it was all in Russian. We were lucky to find that the level of the theatre we were on was only half full and we got a perfect centre stage view for the equivalent of $10 NZD (we were very smug). The musical stage set was very hightech and the cast and costumes were amazing! We ended up having a really good time!

The second highlight was doing a tour of an old soviet underground bunker that was used during the cold war by Russian generals called bunker 42. The facility (located 65 meters underground) operated as an emergency Command Post Headquarters and long-range aviation communications. The Bunker 42 was fully equipped with everything needed for a nuclear attack: air recycling system, diesel generators, stocks of food, fuel, artesian wells to provide clean drinking water. Up to 3000 people could live and work there for 90 days without assistance from the outside world.

I got to follow the nuclear launch sequence, enter the number, turn the key, and press the big red button. Then watch on the screen as my nuclear weapon destroyed a large (?american) city into a mushroom cloud. Chris was concerned about the amount of smiling he saw during this.
At the underground bar and restaurant

Our final train would take us overnight to St Petersburg, our last stop in Russia…

Siberia (Trans-siberian)

the train from Ulanbatar, Mongolia to Irkust, Russia (in pictures):

Within an hour or two of leaving Ulaanbataar we encountered a blizzard snow storm! Later we induged in instant noodles and chips before bed
Our view the next morning, skinny trees and pines, mountain ranges in the distance
We tried to DIY what we thought a russia brunch would be– bread, cheese, pickles, coffee, finished with a shot of vodka
Chris decided to have his vodka as an entree
tasty!
Soon encountered Lake Baikal! The pearl of Siberia! It was mostly frozen over from what we could see (Its past the trees in this photo taken from the train.

Irkurst

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!

It was so hot at times, and cold at others- classic spring weather making it very hard to dress appropiately

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!


Then we were off again on the train, to Novosibrisk!

Novosibrisk

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 taco place!

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

YEKATERINBURG

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).

This is the outside of the museum commemorating Boris Yeltz, the first Russia president. It was incredibly informative about the fall of communism party and the last 20 years of Russian history as well as being a very modern and cool museum! 10/10

Kazan

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.

Our favourite place in Kazan- the aquapark!
Inside the Kazan Kremlin
The church of all religions
Kazan Kremlin at sunset
Ferris wheel at sunset