Transsiberian 1/3: Russia
Back in 2014 I had the opportunity of living my childhood dream: Travel from Moscow to Pekin in the Transsiberian Railway!
I joined this awesome trip thanks to AEGEE and the Summer University project, that takes young Europeans to many places of the continent and beyond! Thanks to that, Russian part was much more affordable and the best of it was that 35 active people were also joining the trip. And there was a nice ending surprise, I found a 200 € flight from Pekin to Dubai so I was able to stay there for 24 h, enough to get the most of the city.
This post will be a mix between my personal experience and info about the visited places
This city is really amazing, impressive, vibrant, imposing... There are no words to describe the feeling of walking between the massive buildings and wide streets.
There is a lot of stereotypes of this city, of course you can see some of them but if you want to make the most of it, you should look beyond them. I was so lucky that for the first two days, I was hosted by an amazing local that decided that mainstream monuments could wait and took me and a friend to other places famous for Russian people but maybe not so known for tourist like the Moscow State University and the nice views of the city or enjoying the sun in Gorki park.
Once program officially started, we had many parties and cultural visits to main monuments (Red Square, Kremlin...), as well as interesting tours like the Metro tour (3 h surviving a hangover, checking the wonderful piece of art that Moscow underground is).
There are two special places that I want to talk about since they totally surprised me, first is White Kremlin, a big flea market located in a beautiful Tsarist fortress and the place that really blew my mind: Astronomy gardens and USSR expo.
This place is located in the outskirts of the city and it's one of the most monumental places in Europe, everything is huge here (you will need to rent a bike to see it), there are massive buildings as Cosmos Hotel, impressive monuments as Vostok sculpture, exquisite fountains and outstanding pavilions. The cherry on the top is the real Vostok rocket that is displayed there, where you can get under it, as well as other space crafts like Buran.
All of this under the watch of the high Ostankino tower.
Finally, I will mention the awesome nights and parties we had in this city, especially when we rented a boat and partied till dawn sailing in the Moskva river!
The Transsiberian Route officially starts in Moscow, we went to the train stations district (where trains go to almost every part of Russia, and each monumental station has the name of the main destination) and from there we took the night train towards our first stop: Kazan
This is an incredible and unique city, Kazan is the capital of Tatarstan, an Islamic republic inside Russia, whose main ethnic group are Tatars. Tatars are a fully integrated minority in Russia, their religion doesn't make them any different to any ethnic Russian (in fact, if you don't see them going out of the mosque, there is no way of guessing their religion since they are very open with many aspects that are not like that in many Muslim countries, most women don’t wear niqab and there is total gender equality and widespread religious tolerance). Their culture and food (such as Cheburek) is famous all around the Russian Federation.
City architecture is as well a perfect example of integration, and the white Kremlin (fortress) with the Qolşärif Mosque inside as well as other cathedrals. The old town is really impressive, displaying a lot of Tsarist era buildings!
A building that got my attention was the giant goblet-shaped building near the river, a friendly local told me it’s the place where people can get married.
After a long train ride we arrived to real Siberia, Ekaterinburg, an important old Russian city where shady episodes of modern history took place. It's also the city where Europe and Asia officially converge (about 20 km from the city).
Let's face it, Ekaterinburg is a good example of a Russian Soviet city, it combines Tsarist era buildings as the queen palace with a socialism brutalist style. Recently and due to its strategic location it has become an important business hub and massive skyscrapers had appeared near the city lake, giving the city a modern look.
But this city has also a nice "secret", it's full of funny statues! You can find a big cheese grater monument, Michael Jackson, keyboard monument and even Ninja Turtles hideout! It's quite easy to get around since there is a walking route painted (literally) on the floor!
And let's not forget an important point: This is one of the greatest places to party in all the Transsiberian route!
58 hours in train
There is a huge distance to cover from Ekaterinburg to Irkutsk. It takes about 58 hours until you get there, so it's important to get comfy and be nice with your travel mates. Why? Because in case you didn't know, the layout of Plaskart (3rd class) wagons is like this picture shows, so you need to share a minimum space with other 5 persons and no doors between compartments.
In my case, I was extremely lucky, I got the down corridor bed (I could sleep horizontally in the train direction, and not depend of somebody under me to display my bed) and my nearby passengers were 2 young architecture students from Irkutsk who could speak good English and a funny and kind woman who was a language teacher, and was very eager to know about other cultures. Those 3 were with me until the final destination while other passengers who were traveling alone didn't speak much (but shared regional food and smiles with me).
Every day you have a stop somewhere, and you can rest for 1h outside, almost all stations have Wi-Fi so you can use your social media. In big cities like Omsk and Novosibirsk there is 2/3 h stop, so you have more time to check a bit of stuff (take a taxi ride, you pay 10-20 € but you see the best highlighs, specially in Novosibirsk!)
There is free hot water, so instant noodles and tea will be your food and drink for the trip, but if you want better food or party, head to the restaurant wagon to enjoy Russian beers and alcohol!
irkutsk and baikal lake
Final stop in my trip was Irkutsk (about two thirds of the whole railway), but we just went to sleep and woke up early to take a bus (sponsored by Gazprom) towards Baikal Lake (2h drive).
We were in a camp near Bolshoye Goloustnoye, which is a real rural Siberian village, but with 2-3 "touristic" hosting options. The place is amazing, you really feel like in other century and you get to know the locals, both ethnic Russians as well as the local Buryats.
There are several hikes from the place to nearby mountains or to calm fishing places but the best trip is the boat tour that takes you to Olkhon island.
This island allows almost no use of vehicles inside and you will really feel in touch with nature, also there is a camp in the middle of the island where you can find a small bar... But the best of this place is the nice beaches which it has, with cold but not freezing water (you can drink this water, since Baikal lake is the oldest fresh water lake in the world, swimming and drinking at the same time is a really curious experience!)
We spent few hours in Irkutsk, a Soviet-like city that still preserves Siberian traditional homes in some parts of its centre (the decorations around the windows are awesome!). The main cathedral and the riverfront are probably the most famous attractions of the city.
Finally, we continued our trip towards Mongolia, we took a night train from Irkutsk to Ulan-Ude (city where biggest Lenin head statue is) and from there a 12 h bus drive to Ulan-Bator, Mongolia capital city.
In the next post, I will talk about Mongolia, the country that inspired me to start this website!!
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