After almost 2 weeks in Russia, my great train journey from Beijing to St. Petersburg is over. I can’t believe how fast the last 3 weeks have gone by. Then again, it seems like I was in China months ago, not weeks. I have seen so much and have so many new memories I think it will take me a while to decompress from this trip and actually remember everything. As for now, here is what has been going on since I left Mongolia.
It took 2 days on the train from Ulaanbaantar to reach our first destination in Russia: Lake Baikal. The train journey took so long because crossing the border into Russia is an all day process. I’ve read horror stories about intimidating Russian border guards going through everyone’s things and confiscating just about whatever they wanted, so I was ready for an intense experience. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, the border crossing was quite easy. No one even looked at our bags and no one in our group had any issues with their passports or visa. All in all, it was a pretty easy going day. It still took about 10 hours of hanging out on the train and at the train station for everything to get processed, but it was hassle free. It was amazing to wake up after the second night and be in Siberia. The landscape had finally changed from barren desert to forest and farmland. The first Russian towns we saw from the train were a bit shocking. They were nothing more than a handful of shacks with no electricity or running water and they had livestock freely roaming the streets. If I didn’t know any better I would have thought I was back in India. I knew parts of Russia were underdeveloped, but I had no idea it was to this extent.
Our train from UB took us to the Siberian city of Irkutsk and from there we went straight to Lake Baikal. This is the deepest lake in the world and contains 20% of the earth’s fresh water. Unfortunately, we were there a few weeks too early for the summer season (when the area is alive with thousands of Russians on their summer holiday) and a few weeks too late to see the lake completely frozen and the area covered in snow. It was still cold at Lake Baikal and mostly rainy and once again I had to wear more than one layer to stay warm. I spent the only full day we had hiking up the mountains surrounding the lake and fortunately the sun popped out when I reached the top.
That night, we all partook in a traditional Russian banya, which is a sauna followed by a brief dip in cold outside pool. I spent ten minutes in the sauna and it was hands down the hottest I have ever been in my life. I was so hot, that even after jumping in the freezing pool, I was warm while drying off outside where it was about 45 degrees. After 2 nights at the lake, it was time for the next leg of the journey: 3 nights on the train!
Trans Siberian Railway:
In Irkutsk we officially joined the tracks of the Trans Siberian railway. We followed this famous track of railway through 5 times zones and over 5,000 km. To be honest, the 3 days on the train are a bit of a blur. Looking back on them, they seemed to meld into one big day and night and it’s hard to remember what happened on day one versus day 3. Each day, the highlight would be one or two 20-30 minutes stops where we could get off the train to stretch our legs and re-stock on food and spirits. Fortunately, the people on my tour were a lot of fun, so there was always someone to have a drink or just chat with.
For the first two days, the scenery was just dead forest and farmland. Spring hadn’t arrived in Siberia yet, so there wasn’t anything green to see (which made it two straight weeks without seeing any greenery). By the 3rd day, we finally found spring. It was almost like we had been traveling south for 2 days instead of directly west. Somehow, the further west you go in Russia, the warmer it gets. The spring air was a welcomed relief from the cold we experienced in Mongolia and at Lake Baikal. It was great to walk around in the sun with just a t-shirt on.
After 3 nights on the train, it was finally time to disembark. We were all exhausted from days of sitting around and bad nights of sleep, and I must admit, we were all pretty smelly from not showering for that long. Our next stop was the ancient city of Suzdal, about 3 hours outside of Moscow.
We stayed in Suzdal just for the night in order to see what the days of old were like in Russia. It’s a beautiful little town on the river and the kremlin and central church are beautiful. The one night stay was a nice way to recover from the train ride and re-energize for the upcoming action packed 2 days in Moscow.
Finally arriving in Moscow was an exciting day for me since I have always been fascinated by the Cold War and America’s conflict with the Soviet Union and Moscow was at the heart of it all. It’s been a lifelong travel dream of mine to visit this city and I loved every second of it. The Moscow I grew up learning about is no longer there. True, the Red Square and the Kremlin and still around and as beautiful as always, but the dreary feel of the Communist days are long gone and capitalism is alive and well. Moscow is now a thriving metropolis with high end stores and luxury cars everywhere you turn. Granted, the wealth is share by a select few and most Moscovites look on with envy, but there is still a feeling of hope in the air. Young people are out and about everywhere and the bars and restaurants are constantly full of people. The architecture of the city is also amazing, with classic looking buildings everywhere. I always thought of Moscow as drab Communist apartment buildings, so it was a pleasant surprise to see so many grand and beautiful buildings.
We only had 2 full days in Moscow, so we had to make the most of them. The first day was an intense day of being a tourist. We toured Red Square (during the day and at night), saw Lenin’s body, toured the Kremlin, and then I did some shopping.
My second day in Moscow was one of the best days I have ever had in a city. After sleeping in, I hiked to the top of a hill on the other side of the Moscow River and took in a panoramic view of the largest city in Europe. Needless to say, it was impress how far Moscow stretched into the distance.
Then it was off to the famous Gorky Park, which is kind of like Coney Island. There I enjoyed a few drinks by the fountain with my 2 of my fellow tour group members and basked in the warm sunshine. After that, it was off the Modern History Museum, which used to be named the Museum of Revolution. This was my favorite place in Moscow because it documented the rise and fall of Communism. Most of the museum was only in Russian, but there were enough English plaques for me to understand each exhibit. After a full day of sightseeing, I headed to one of the great monuments to capitalism: McDonald’s! I ate my dinner at the first McDonald’s in Russia and it was the busiest McDonald’s I have ever been in. I have never seen a city that likes McDonald’s more than Moscow; you can’t walk ten feet without either seeing a McDonald’s or someone caring a McDonald’s bag.
The only downside to Moscow is how expensive it is. Going out to a mediocre restaurant or coffee shop will easily set you back $25. I guess there is a reason why Moscow is now the most expensive city in the world to live in. After 2 nights in this great city, it was time to move on to the our last stop: St. Petersburg.
It took one more overnight train ride to reach this lovely European city from Moscow and thankfully it was the nicest train we rode on all trip. It took about 8 hours and we arrived at 7 am to a beautiful morning.
Right away we got down to business of seeing this magnificent city. I had always heard that St. Petersburg was gorgeous, but I had no idea it would be this amazing. The city was built on a system of canals and it’s like walking through Amsterdam or Venice. The buildings are all traditional European style and elegantly line the canals. We took an hour boat ride to start off our day and it was a great way to get oriented with the city.
That afternoon, I did some great people watching with some friends at a sidewalk café. St. Petersburg is the cultural center of Russia and you can tell by watching all the young people go by. One thing to note about St. Petersburg and Russia in general, is that the male to female ratio is skewed. There has to be 5 women to every man in this country, and it’s not only in volume that the women have the advantage. Russia is home to more beautiful women than I have ever seen, but unfortunately the men here don’t match their elegance. This was something everyone in my tour group noticed over our two weeks in this country and we were all blown away by it.
The next day in St. Petersburg was spent doing cultural activities. I went to the Hermitage Museum, which is the largest museum in the world. It’s housed it what used to be the czars’ winter palace and the building itself is magnificent. The collection at the Hermitage is incredible, but after about 2 hours I was worn out from walking all over the place and called it a day. Plus, it was time for me to get back to the hotel and get ready for the ballet.
That night I went and saw Carmen Suite at the Mariinsky Theater. It was a visually stunning performance and unlike any ballet I had ever scene. If you ever get a chance to see Carmen, take it. It’s amazing (and this coming from someone that is usually not a big fan of the ballet).
St. Petersburg is a spectacular city and one of the most beautiful cities I have ever visited. I was lucky enough to experience it when the weather is at its absolute best. The days were warm and at night there just a hint of coolness in the air. One of the coolest things for me was experiencing the white lights of summer time in the North. This is the furthest north in the world I have ever been and during most of May and June, the sun really doesn’t set and the nights are cast in perfect twilight. It was great to walk around the city at 11 pm and it was just as light and busy as it would be at 5.
Now it’s time to say goodbye to Russia. It’s hard to believe this great journey is over. It was this train ride that sparked my interest in doing a long-term trip and it was this part of my seven months of travel that I was looking forward to the most. I have learned so much about the people and cultures of China, Mongolia, and Russia. I have had experiences that can’t be replicated anywhere else in the world and I have completed a journey not many people get the chance in life to make: traveling 8,000 km and over a 6th of the world’s surface by train. Next up on my trip around the world is 2 weeks of hanging out with friends in Europe! I’m looking forward to being back on familiar ground again and to see familiar faces. Madrid, Brussels, and Rome, here I come