Russia Day 11 – Gandan Monastery

It was a late start for the tours today which meant I could go out for a longer run first thing in the morning. This however was in theory – in fact a very sleepless night meant that I got up for breakfast at 08:00, and afterwards went for a run of only 5km. A little shorter than planned, and with many stops due to the traffic lights on busy roads, but it being at a higher altitude than normal did at least make up for it a little.

By the time I got back there was just enough time to shower and repack my suitcase before being collected for today’s tour. For the morning we were heading over to the nearby Tibetan-style Buddhist Gandantegchinlen monastery. When communism destroyed a lot of religious buildings, part of this one survived as a museum. The original copper statue of Buddha was melted down by the Soviet army in 1938 to cast bullets with. This however was replaced in 1996, six years after the independence of Mongolia, and the statue Avalokiteśvara is now the tallest indoor statue in the world.

To start with we went around some of the smaller buildings around the monastery and was told about Buddhist beliefs and a little about Buddhist lama life as we went around them. One of the ones we went in included a number of lamas that were praying around the middle of the room. We had to go around the room clockwise and was told we should not have our backs at any point to the Buddha statues.

The last building we went to was the one that housed Avalokiteśvara. Although we weren’t supposed to take photographs in the other buildings, in this one we could if we paid a fee of USD$10. As always I didn’t really want to miss out on the chance to take some photographs so paid the fee. Shortly after someone told me I wasn’t supposed to be taking pictures of the Buddha, but as soon as I shown them my pass they nodded and walked off.

Having finished our tour there, we then headed to the city centre to the Genghis Khan square. It was very busy though as a large number of schools were using it for graduation photos, and was also being set up for their “Mother and Children” day which is a national holiday. Once we’d been told about the place, the guide let us then wander around the square with an agreed place for meeting up.

It took quite some effort to get to the government building to photograph the statue of Genghis Khan, but eventually did manage this. As we were around a quarter of the way around the guide came over to us thinking we’d lost her. We hadn’t though and carried on walking around.

We’d still got some time left over afterwards so the guide took us to a nearby souvenir store where I bought some Mongolian stamps for 10,000 Tughriks a pack, and a fridge magnet. We were then shown to a nearby cafe that had free Wi-Fi and also a nearby restaurant where she recommended we make a reservation for 18:00. By this time it was 13:00 and so was taken to a European style restaurant where we’d be eating lunch.

The lunch stop today was “Castle Restaurant” inside an amusement park, and we had to be escorted into the castle so they could be sure we didn’t want to use the playground. Despite the fact we’re a little old for that. The castle was empty except for one table that was setup for us and the guide. This was then a four course meal – something similar to bolognese on a pastry wafer, then soup, and then a main course of beef sausage meat wrapped in bacon and pastry, and for dessert a chocolate sponge.

The afternoon was then ours to do with as we wished. We were dropped off at a shopping mall and advised how to find the souvenir shop in there. I bought a t-shirt for USD$7, and then we wandered around for some time before heading over to Cafe Bene for a cup of tea and to use their Wi-Fi.

Although our reservation was for 18:00 we headed over to the Broadway restaurant at 17:30 to make sure we had time to eat before meeting the guide at 18:45. It didn’t matter we’d made a reservation anyway as the table we’d reserved they’d decided couldn’t be used anyway. We weren’t really hungry though as it wasn’t that long since we’d finished a large lunch. Despite this I had a lasagna and drink and we made it to the meeting point a little early.

The traffic, for once, was not crazy either, so we also reached the train station with 1hr45 to spare so our guide decided to take us somewhere we could buy a drink, which I didn’t need, and to use their internet. I didn’t really need to use the internet for anything but somehow managed to waste the time we had there before being taken over to the train station.

We said goodbye to the guide and boarded the train where we’d be staying for over a day. This train was a little nicer than the last one, and there was a tiny bit more room due to it being 4-berth, but this did also mean it didn’t have it’s own basin like the last one. Unfortunately this one also didn’t have power in the cabins, so realised the next day would be without the ability to charge laptops or Kindles.

Just after 20:15 we were on our way back to Russia for the last part of the trip and was given Mongolian customs forms to complete along the way.

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Russia Day 10 – The Winter Palace of Bogd Khan

Breakfast was at 08:15, and we were on our way out of the national park just after 09:00. Today we would be visiting the winter palace of Bogd Khan – the last ruler of Mongolia. The breakfast was quite basic, but considering how many people they have to cater for, and how remote the place is I think they did a pretty good job!

It took a couple of hours to get back to Ulaanbaatar and across town to the palace of Bogd Khan. From a distance we could see just how much air pollution hung over the city like a fog. Apparently the majority of Mongolia’s winds blow from the north to the south, and the positioning of their coal power stations meant that they were positioned such that they pollute the city. They were however constructed during the Soviet time so may be something they hadn’t considered at the time.

When we arrived at the palace we were warned that photography was not allowed anywhere on the site, but for USD$26 we could buy a pass to take photos. My friend thought it was far too expensive, but I decided it’s a trip I’d only make once so didn’t want to miss the opportunity to photograph one of the few old buildings on Mongolia.

When we arrived at the palace we were warned that photography was not allowed anywhere on the site, but for USD$26 we could buy a pass to take photos. My friend thought it was far too expensive, but I decided it’s a trip I’d only make once so didn’t want to miss the opportunity to photograph one of the few old buildings on Mongolia.

The last emperor of Mongolia had four residences, but this one is the only one which remains after the majority of historical buildings were destroyed during the time of the Soviet Union. It was quite evident how much cultural destruction took place during that period, not just in Mongolia but also in Russia.

There are a number of buildings inside the palace, the majority being religious temples. We went around each one and was told about the purpose of the buildings, the history, and about the artefacts that were on display inside. At one point we were questioned over me taking photographs, but once they saw the photography pass around my neck it was soon cleared up.

In addition to the old buildings are a couple that were created by the Russians so are not of the same style. In the larger of these is a massive collection of the Bogd Khan’s belongings including a throne, a carriage, and even a ger made from the hides of many Snow Leopards.

Our lunch was not far from the palace, and not far from the office of the tour company we’d used. This restaurant served what our guide referred to as European food and was a three course meal of broccoli soup, breaded chicken and fries, and Neapolitan ice cream.

After lunch we were taken to the Soviet monument, the Zaisan memorial. This memorial is to honour the soldiers who died during the second World War and is located in the south of the city not far from the palace. The murals around the circular part of it depict the conflicts that took place and also the Soviet achievements after the war. From this point we could see all over the city and got a better idea of the amount of construction that is taking place. Apparently due to how harsh their winter can be they only have a few months each year to get as much building work done as they can manage.

Once we’d finished we were then taken to a Kashmir shop, something I didn’t really want to do so looked around quickly in case there was actually something I might want to buy. As there wasn’t I sat in the lobby of the building waiting for us to leave.

For the first time in days, we then checked into a hotel; the Ramada. We had a little over an hour there to shower and get ready for then being picked up for the remainder of our tours for the day. This did however also give us some time to pick up some more food for the train journey back to Irkutsk.

Our guide met us at 17:15 and took us to a Mongolian cultural show performed by Tumen Ekh. After driving through the traffic for a while it was evident we were going to be late so our guide took us the last part of the journey on foot. Photography at this one was allowed, at different rates: USD$10 for photos, a slightly higher rate for a video camera, and more for a professional video camera. For my Canon EOS 5D mk3 they considered this to be the USD$10 band – not strictly accurate, but it was okay with me!

The performances, especially the first singing one, reminded me a lot of the performances I’d seen in China. Though there were a lot of differences too such as the throat singing that produced some very unusual sounds. It also included a contortionist where she was able to lift her own body weight with her teeth.

After an hour and a half the performance was over and we were taken to a Mongolian Barbecue restaurant for food. It reminded me a lot of the one I visited in Sowerby Bridge in England, so it seems the English one did get a lot right! I had two servings of peppers, noodles, chicken, and sweet and sour sauce. This was then followed by chocolate mousse and a fairy cake. Even after all of this we got back to the hotel a little after 21:00.

Russia Day 9 – Khustain Nuruu National Park

We were due to arrive in the Mongolian city of Ulaanbaatar at 07:40, so got up at 06:20 for breakfast and to give us time to pack for the onward journey to the national park. It was a very tired start though having got less than 5 hours sleep. For breakfast I had some chocolate filled croissants, an apple, and cup of Earl Grey tea.

The conductor then went back and forth down the corridor at 06:45 knocking on every door to make sure everyone was awake – despite not everyone needing to get off at Ulaanbaatar. We were then given our tickets back – even though we no longer needed them.

The train arrived late at 08:00 and we met our guide the moment we disembarked. She led us to the car we would be taking and we headed off out of Ulaanbaatar and into the steppes of Mongolia.

Mongolia’s population is around 3.1 million, though just over half of this lives in the city of Ulaanbaatar. The majority of the rest are then nomadic, as is traditional for their people. As there are not enough buildings yet to support the city’s population there is a shanty town of sorts made from gers in a ring around the city.

The population has also caused issues with them trying to build their own industry as well as apparently they struggle to find a workforce. Prior to the Soviet government they were still mostly nomadic, and the buildings they have now were mostly built during Soviet times. During that time their raw materials were all sent to Russia, and they’d buy back the end product. Since the 1990s they’ve then struggled to get any sort of export out of the country.

The drive to the Hustain Nuruu Steppe Reserve took around 1h30 and along the way we passed a large number of cyclists who were obviously tourists, and also made a couple of stops. At the second stop there was a mass of sand that has apparently appeared there and originates from the nearby Gobi desert.

We arrived at the camp at 09:45 and shown to our ger – it seems ours was the only one that had an attached bathroom. We even had power – though it wasn’t quite working so there was an electrician fixing it whilst we waited. My friend however was not too appreciative of this and was a little sarcastic of their skills. Considering where we were and how much they have running off solar power I think what they’ve achieved there is pretty impressive.

Once the electrician had finished we then had some free time to wander around outside of camp until lunch at 12:30. We headed up into the hills which at altitude was a little more work than normal, but not that noticeable – it was more likely that lack of sleep would slow us down.

The lunch consisted of soup, which was actually more of a stew, and various other dishes such as slices of pizza and rice. For dessert I had a couple of small slices of swiss roll – it was a pretty good lunch! Once we’d finished eating we had some more free time so used this to relax.

Around mid-afternoon we had a look in the souvenir shop, but couldn’t find anything of interest. This was then followed by a visit to the information centre with the guide who told us about the area, the purpose of the national park, and the reintroduction of the Takhi horse.

The Takhi horse, also known as the Przewalksi had died out in the wild in the 1960s, but due to them being taken in large numbers to zoos at the turn of the 20th century it meant it was possible to start a program in the 1990s to reintroduce them at this national park.

Our chance to see these wild horses was getting later and later, and eventually it was decided we’d head out at 17:30 to see them. Our guide turned up 10 minutes early and led us to a local guide who would be taking us – she didn’t know as much English, but she could speak some.

In total we were out for about 2 hours, though from the sounds of it we were only supposed to be out for 1 hour. The local guide we had however took us on a walk up one of the mountains after we’d photographed some of the wild horses. We also saw some marmots on this trip, but didn’t really get very close to them – not enough to photograph properly. On the way back the guide said she was very tired as she’d gone up mountains three times today – we managed okay, but then this was only our second of the day.

For the evening meal there was a starter made from seaweed, and the main course was stewed beef, mashed potato, carrot, and some Russian rice called Grechka. By the time we’d eaten it was late and after not having slept much it was good to finally get some sleep.

Russia Day 8 – Trans-Siberian Express

Our pick-up time was 07:00, even though it was far earlier than it needed to be it was good because there was some built-in time there should we hit any bad traffic along the way. It turned out though we got to the train station just 20 minutes later, and was able to board the train about 15 minutes after that.

I’d not seen “Joanna Lumley’s Trans-Siberian Adventure” or any other documentaries about this route before going which meant I had no idea what to expect. From what I’d seen in other countries though, and from what I knew others to be like, I expected the train to be packed full of travellers and extremely basic.

The carriage on the train was only a two berth one even though we had been told we’d have a four berth one to ourselves. On one side of the table were bunkbeds, and on the other was a single chair. The space was cramped, but this is where we’d be spending the next 24 hours. There was however a single power socket in the cabin.

We began our journey at 08:15, gradually leaving Irkutsk behind us. The breakfast that the Marriott had packed for us wasn’t too bad – a sandwich, biscuits, two small muffins, an apple and pear, a yoghurt, and some water.

Once the train reached Lake Baikal I stood in the corridor with a few of the other passengers taking photographs out of the windows that had been opened. They didn’t mind people hanging out the windows, but it was something you did at your own risk as it’d be into oncoming trains at least – one of which did pass. I kept an eye on the other tracks and did hang my camera out of the window a couple of times to photograph the curvature of the train as it rounded some of the corners along this stretch.

Eventually we could see snow-capped mountains getting closer, and with them we’d be leaving Lake Baikal behind. For a late lunch we used some of the food we’d brought with us – it was a simple meal but was still better than nothing. The best bit though was a Mars bar I’d bought just in case. Whilst I looked out of the windows the landscape could have been any country, and there wasn’t really anything to photograph at the speed we were moving at.

There were a few stops along the way, and I wasn’t really sure where. I thought it was unlikely we could leave the train even at the longer stops though as the conductor had taken our tickets and kept them when we boarded.

At around 16:40 Irkutsk time I realised why – they were using the tickets to check against passports as they passed down the corridors of the train. By this time the scenery had changed to small wooden settlements that we could see across sprawling landscapes of trees. Only 25 minutes later they came around a second time getting us to write our names and passport numbers down in duplicate which seemed a little odd considering they had this from the tickets, and from checking them earlier. Moments later we stopped again though this time every briefly.

Late afternoon I went back out into the corridor to watch the settlements pass by. Whilst there I talked to an American who had boarded the train in Moscow and was riding it all the way through to Beijing to then board a bullet train to Shanghai. Whilst talking I found out that it’s possible to leave the train on the longer stops and re-board without your ticket. At some point overnight they change part of the train as well and at that point you have the decision to stay onboard or to wait off the train – you can’t change your mind about it once decided.

For an evening meal there was a hot water urn on the carriage we we able to use for making soup. The travel mug I brought with me wasn’t really big enough for making soup in though, but I managed the best I could and followed this with some Fanta and an iced cinnamon cake.

At 20:00 (Irkutsk time) we reached the border crossing between Russia and Mongolia. In the hour and a half that followed we had customs check the compartment, checking about half of the luggage too. This was then followed by a dog wander along the train corridor and then after the passport control took the immigration cards for Russia this was followed by another check of the compartments. After 2 hours of this we were given customs sheets for Mongolia and then finally the train began to move again, to cross the border into Mongolia.

It took around 30 minutes to reach the Mongolian side of the border, which in Ulaanbaatar time was around 23:34. Not the best of times to be reaching the border. Once stopped they went down the corridor handing out immigration forms, but then didn’t give us enough time to fill them in as they started at the end that were the last to be given them. They then disappeared off with the completed form and our passports.

Whilst the border crossing was taking place there was a lot of sharp shunts that shook the entire carriage, and then they’d move back and forth for a while. Whilst on the train I thought it could be them changing the wheels as I remembered that the gauge changes somewhere along the Trans-Siberian route, however this was not the case as it’s actually the Chinese section that differs. It was more likely they were moving carriages around and perhaps changing which track we were on if there were multiple.

There was also another search of the cabins, this time by the Mongolian customs, and they insisted that everyone kept their blinds closed. Thankfully our passports arrived back on the train around 00:40, though it wasn’t a every efficient system as they walk up and down the corridor shouting the name of whichever passport was next.

At around 01:15 we began to move again, over 4 hours after reaching the Russian border. Though now we were in Mongolia and on our way to Ulaanbaatar.

Russia Day 7 – Listvyanka

My original plan had been to go for a 5km run before breakfast as I knew I’d be awake long before I needed to be for the 10:00 pick-up time. This was put into doubt though by the weather forecast as if my running clothes got too damp I wouldn’t be able to get them dry before they needed to be packed for the journey to Mongolia. Sure enough it was raining heavy enough to instead mean that I got 10 hours of sleep instead.

We went for breakfast, and the selection in the “Courtyard by Marriott” was about the same as the selection had been in the Hotel Angleter. We met our driver for the day in the lobby just before 10:00, but the guide was running 5 minutes late due to the traffic. I assume the traffic was worse today due to the relentless rain.

We drove south for about 45 minutes and stopped at the Taltsy Museum of Wooden Architecture and Ethnography. It was raining even heavier by this point so I decided to wear full waterproofs for this. As it happens that was a good decision as it turned out to be also cold.

The 67 hectare territory contains over 40 different buildings from both Russian and Buryat history which demonstrate different parts of Siberian life in the past. We went around several of the buildings including a fort, a gatehouse and a functional Kazan cathedral before getting around to a wooden house that was locked up as the attendants were on a break.

Instead of waiting around we headed over to the cafe where I got a tea for what I’m guessing was only 25 roubles. When we headed back after this the house was open so we were able to look inside. We were told about how each living room in a house would have a corner that would have a religious “icon” which they would pray to before each meal, but only the mother would be able to touch it so it could be cleaned, and as such would hide their supply of salt behind it. This was because salt in Siberia was valuable and difficult to get in foods otherwise.

We then drove on to the small town of Listvyanka, and the rain hadn’t really improved. It made it difficult to photograph Lake Baikal due to the direction and intensity of the wind, we were however able to see what an effect it was having on the waves of this lake. Unable to stay out in the cold winds too much longer we headed over the road to their market where they sell the locally caught fish called “Omul”.

Our guide asked us what we’d like to eat here so we both said we wanted one of the kebabs. The guide however misunderstood and only ordered one of them, so I let my friend have that. By the time I realised their mistake I felt it was too late to get another one ordered as the time for them to cook it, and me eat it would mean we probably wouldn’t have much time at the Baikal museum. When leaving the market I noticed they were selling Duo Mars bars so had one of those for 80 roubles – it was at least some food.

The next stop was another church – the church of Saint Nicholas. This one had a lot of original religious “icons” as some which had been saved from the churches in Irkutsk had been brought to this one during the Soviet times as this one in Listvyanka was still a functional church at that time. We spent a fair bit of time in this one as our guide talked to the person who ran the church shop there to find out why they had so many. In hindsight, if we’d had time for a very long stop here then we’d probably have had time for me to have got some lunch before.

The tour ended with a stop at the Baikal museum which has the Pisces XI outside of it. It was 260 roubles to go in, and an extra 120 roubles to take photographs. Our guide managed to make this stop last around 2 hours due to the extensive information on the background and ecosystem of the Baikal lake that she provided us with. It was pretty impressive really.

The last part of this stop was a section which was an aquarium containing various local fish and two female Baikal seals. When we left the museum it had more or less stopped raining so we were able to take a couple of photos of Lake Baikal. On the drive back the rain returned with a vengeance however.

Fortunately when we were dropped off at a supermarket it had once again stopped raining. This stop was to allow us to buy supplies to take with us on the train as for the days on the Trans-Siberian Express it was very likely we wouldn’t be able to get food as it doesn’t always include a restaurant carriage.

The weather held out whilst we walked back to the hotel, and at this point we checked our train tickets for the morning. To our surprise and confusion, the ticket said the train was at 03:15 in the morning! As far as we knew, and as far as all the paperwork said, the train should have been at 07:53. In a panic, James phoned the travel company in England who had booked the tickets for us to find out if there was some mistake as it could mean our pick-up time to be transferred to the train station might need to be changed. They assured us this was in Moscow time, which meant we’d be leaving at 08:15 (so 22 minutes later than the paperwork said), and would be arriving at 14:45 instead of 07:20.

We were promised a phone call back once he’d confirmed what was happening, so we went down to the hotel’s restaurant for dinner. I had pork medallions with black currant sauce and apple puree which tasted pretty good, and a Russian honey cake for dessert. At last I’d have a proper meal for the day.

The travel agent still hadn’t phoned back, but by this point we’d spoken to the front desk about it as we got some packed breakfast ordered for the next day. The lady explained that the times in Russia on train tickets was always Moscow time, and after a phone call was able to confirm that the destination time was local time due to it being Mongolia. This finally made sense and we knew everything would be okay as it was in the morning.

Even though it was close to 21:00 I went out for a 5km run around Irkutsk. My watch was taking a while to get a signal so to start with I walked to get it chance. Whilst walking down one of the side streets someone started talking Russian to me and shown me some ID – which I took as suggesting he was a plain clothes policeman of some sort. When I said “sorry, could you repeat that in English” he said something else in Russian and walked off.

By the time my watch got a signal I was almost at the nearby closed power station so ran from there to the first church we’d been to the day before, and then over the pedestrian bridge to the waterfront as the sun was setting. I took a couple of photos and then carried on running along the waterfront until I ran out of path and ran back, and repeated myself a couple of times before running to Kirov square, around that and then back to the hotel.

The travel agent still hadn’t phoned back, even though we now knew the answer, they didn’t know that. So as far as they were concerned they were ignoring tourists who had no idea what was happening. It was too late now, so instead of waiting I went sleep.

Russia Day 6 – Into Siberia

I can never sleep on planes, and this one was no exception even though business class offered bigger seats, with more space and comfort it seemed sleep was not an option. When breakfast was served it was done so with real cutlery and ceramic pots, not the normal plastic ones I’m used to on flights. The breakfast however consisted of “posh” food that I wasn’t keen on so only ate the bread roll and drank the apple juice and tea that came with it.

It was 09:30 local time when we landed, the equivalent of having been awake until 04:30 in Moscow time. After having been tired for most of the previous day, I was starting to no longer feel tired, or hungry by the time we met our guide at the gate. What is odd about Irkutsk airport though is that you don’t go from the gate to baggage and then arrivals, you go from the gate to arrivals and then baggage collection.

The drive from the airport to the hotel was only around 15 minutes and the route was one which was new to our guide as well – but fortunately the driver knew his way around. At the hotel we were given 35 minutes to get ready and this was enough time for me to have a shower and get changed before heading back out on the first tour in the Siberian capital.

At the time we visited, Irkutsk was only about 355 years old but this young town played a part in the history of Russia as a whole. After the failed Decembrist revolution of 1825 those that were involved were exiled to the far reaches of Russia, but were eventually allowed to settle in Irkutsk where they brought new culture to the town. They were then again at the centre of Russian history during the October Revolution which saw a civil war between the “White” and “Red” armies.

After the suppression of the anti-Bolsheviks the Soviets brought industry to the town and built a hydroelectric dam to provide power. The main industry in Irkutsk is now aircraft construction, though it’s not something which is apparent when visiting.

Our tour of Irkutsk started near the Angara river and two churches. Irkutsk originally consisted of mostly wooden buildings but after a great fire in 1879 a lot of them were destroyed and resulted in a new law that new buildings in the city centre must be made from stone, such as the many Soviet-era apartment blocks that now sit between the wooden buildings that survived.

Apparently the Cathedral of the Epiphany got so hot from the fires of this time that it melted the large bell it once it had, but both of these churches were restored. When a lot of churches were being destroyed during the time of the communist government these ones survived and were repurposed. We went in the Church of Our Saviour though our guide said she had to wait outside as she wasn’t allowed inside without covering her head. This is because the Russian Orthodox church doesn’t allow women inside places of worship without head coverings – to me this just sounds like yet another way the church has treated women differently for no reason.

At this point a green line was pointed out to us and we were told how it is a route that takes tourists to all the points of interest where there are information boards about places. This led us to a monument to those lost in war, and where school children of approximately 15 years were practicing marching and standing guard. Our guide was surprised they didn’t have rifles today, but then said that their marching isn’t about showing power to the west, but remembering and honouring their ancestors.

Across a bridge from there we got down to the riverside and various memorials along the way including one dedicated to the Russian cossacks. This part of the walking tour ended with a Moscow gate – a modern rebuild of one of the old customs gate that used to sit along the route from Moscow to Irkutsk in the days when the journey was done by road and by boat.

Our next stop was yet another church, and we were told about how Russians like to know a lot of details about history and places they visit. This was a good explanation as to why our previous guide had gone into so much incredible detail when we were in Moscow. Today’s guide did go into a lot of detail, though it seems she didn’t go into as much as she could have for a Russian group. In the grounds of this one we were told about a few of the people that were buried there, including the wife and 11 year old son of one of the Decembrists.

After a short drive we were taken to Trubetskoy Manor, the home of one of the Decembrist exiles. To take photographs in this old wooden building we needed to pay 100 roubles per camera being used, though I imagine it was actually meant as being per person who is taking photos. I took several photographs around this house as we were told about the Decembrist revolution and their subsequent exile. Out of all those that were exiled, only 9 of them had their wives join them in exile as in doing so it meant they would lose their wealth, title, and status in society.

To finish the tour we were taken to a memorial of Alexander III. It seems to be the case for many things in Russia that they were destroyed by either Napoleon, the Nazis, or the communist party. In this case it was the communists that destroyed this statue and replaced it with a memorial to the workers instead. Approximately 20 years ago this was then replaced with the memorial that stands there today – an approximation of the original based on the notes that were available.

As it was now mid-afternoon we were asked if we’d like to go for a snack or be taken back to the hotel. We were then given directions to where we could find food and was dropped back at the hotel. As it was chilly in Irkutsk compared to Saint Petersburg and Moscow I grabbed my coat from the room and headed out in search of food.

Along Lenin Street there are quite a few shops, and we found a place called Double Coffee that offered a good selection to choose from. As it turned out though it was also one of the cheapest meals of the trip so far with the meal costing 750 roubles per person with the tip. I went for beef stroganoff with mashed potatoes and a large drink of coca cola.

For the remainder of the afternoon I relaxed at the hotel – it was a chance to catch up on sleep that had been missed over the previous couple of days. Due to the late lunch we decided to not have an evening meal and instead headed down to the hotel’s restaurant to just try out their dessert menu. I ordered a Russian honeycomb cake however they’d run out of this – instead I tried the chocolate truffle cake. This turned out to taste really good and was a very large slice for only 300 roubles.

At last though, I could get some proper sleep.

Russia Day 5 – The Kremlin

A bumpy train ride had meant a mostly sleepless night for me when I got up for breakfast a little before 07:00. For breakfast I had a few warm pancakes spread with jam, but the rest of the breakfast I didn’t eat but included a croissant, an orange, and some bad tasting cheese.

We pulled into Moscow at 07:40 and was met by Vlad who would be our guide for the day, and would meet again on our return to Moscow. Our first stop was near the Metropol hotel, but before we could get started we both needed to sort out our camera backpacks so that we could walk with lighter bags.

The walking tour started at Teatralnaya Square and Revolution Square with details about all the buildings that surrounded us and continued along the route into the Alexander Gardens alongside the Kremlin. Before entering Red Square though our guide left us for 15-20 minutes whilst he went off to get the tickets we would need for the day.

Once into Red Square we were told about the history of the Kremlin, the mausoleum and the graves of Communists along the wall including the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space. He then continued on with the history of other buildings such as the GUM (Gosudarstvennyi Universalnyi Magazin which translates to “State Universal Store”) which has been a centre of trade since at least 1812.

As we moved on to Saint Basil’s Cathedral we didn’t get to go inside, but lingered outside long enough to take photographs of it’s world famous spires as he told us about it’s previous name and the history behind it.

The official name of this UNESCO World Heritage site is the church of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat. It’s commonly known name on Western countries comes from a bad translation of “Church of Vasily the Blessed” – one of the double vaulted sections of the building. It’s construction began in 1555 by Ivan the Terrible, over the grave of Saint Vasily (Basil) as a way of commemorating the Kazan victory.

After Vlad had finished telling us about these buildings and their history he gave us the choice of either going inside the mausoleum that is the final resting place of Lenin and Stalin, or to go on the planned metro tour. We felt we could come back and do the mausoleum easily enough another day and that seeing how the metro worked could be useful for when we’d need to use it by ourselves.

The very first metro station we entered turned out to be very well decorated – much better than any of the ones I’ve seen in London, and reminded me a little of Museum station in Toronto in terms of decorative quality. Our guide then took us to several other stations that had mosaics and stone carvings depicting different parts of Russian history and culture, some of which was strong with Communist imagery such as the mosaic whose background was a five-pointed star and the hammer and sickle.

Once our tour had finished there we were taken to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. This is a cathedral which was not built by the church, but by a company who created it as a business investment and let the church use it for services. A church had stood there previously but with the change to atheism during the Soviet era it had been knocked down and the ground flattened to make way for a skyscraper. This however never got built so in recent years the cathedral was rebuilt, but due to the lowered ground they raised it to it’s original height by giving it a cellar.

This cathedral does not allow the use of cameras inside as it’s used for worship, but with a local guide they can take you up onto it’s roof so you can get a good view of the city. On the roof they do allow photographs to be taken. Whilst going around the roof we were told the history of many more buildings, and some was repeated from what we’d been told in the morning.

As it was now around 14:00 we asked if we could go somewhere to get food, so our guide called for the driver who had dropped us off first thing in the morning and drove us to a nearby cafe. I went for a piece of chicken (which was cold), mashed potatoes, and green beans. My friend had ordered similar, but was overcharged as he’d paid for two pieces of chicken but only got one of them. It was only a difference of 90 roubles though so wasn’t much.

We were then driven to the Bolshoy Novodevichy Prud which we were told was the inspiration for Swan Lake – though it doesn’t appear to be referenced in any literature about Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece so wasn’t sure how true this was. This one was located behind the Novodevichy Convent which we’d see the following week upon our return.

The next stop was quite a drive out of the city and was to a viewpoint that overlooked a couple of stadiums and a ski jump. Behind us we could see the Moscow State University, and we were told to not worry about taking photographs of it yet as with the tram cables in the way we’d go closer to it. We didn’t though, instead Vlad got the driver to head back to the city centre for our scheduled 15:15 tour of the Kremlin.

The traffic on the way back was bad and eventually we got out of the car and went the rest of the way by metro, but it was only three stops so wasn’t too far. Although we’d arrive about 20 minutes early we were still allowed to check-in our backpacks at the baggage drop and to enter the Moscow Kremlin.

The Moscow Kremlin is one of many Russian citadels (Kremlin translating to citadel) but is often referred to as just “The Kremlin” due to it being the most famous and important of them. The site of the Moscow Kremlin at the side of the Moskva River has been inhabited since the 2nd century BC and by 1237 had become a fortress that was destroyed by the Mongols. In 1339 the fortress was strengthened with oak walls which were eventually replaced 30 years later with the white limestone that was often used in Moscow buildings.

It was around the time of the construction of the limestone walls that the cathedrals inside the Moscow Kremlin were built. Then between 1485 and 1508 the walls were redesigned to how they appear today and the towers, including the Ivan the Great Bell Tower, were constructed. A 30 metre wide moat was later added to further defend this citadel, along with further rings around the city that were later replaced with “garden rings”.

The Kremlin was abandoned during the reign of Peter the Great, and was damaged much later during the occupation of Napoleon’s forces during the Peninsular war. During the Soviet era the capital moved back to Moscow and the Kremlin once again became the seat of power and symbols of the Tsarist times were destroyed.

Once inside we were told about the administrative buildings, the great palace, and a few of the cathedrals that surround a square. After every few steps we took, Vlad would stop and tell us another piece of history, even if it was something he’d already told us. One of the new bits of information we got though was about the Tsar cannon and the Tsar bell. In the case of the canon it was one which used to sit in Red Square as a show of power, but was never used. Eventually it was moved to inside the Kremlin for display and a carriage added to it.

In the case of the bell, we were told that it was a tradition for each Tsar to create a new bell and this one when created by Empress Anna Ivanova – the niece of Peter the Great. As it happens our guide was incorrect with it’s history – it’s actually only the third generation of the bell. It was too heavy for it to be lifted upon it’s completion, so instead they constructed a mechanism underneath it for the bell to ring for the coronation. Eventually though it was damaged due to the contrasting temperatures between a raging fire that had broken out and the cold temperatures of the snow that surrounded it.

The weight of the Tsar Bell is so great that even when Napoleon occupied Moscow during the Peninsular war, he was unable to remove the bell and take it to Paris as a trophy as planned due to it’s immense weight.

We went inside two of the cathedrals: the Assumption Cathedral and the Archangel Cathedral. Both of these were incredibly busy, and by this point we were tired and our feet were aching from the amount of walking we’d done over the past few days. The guide didn’t really care though and insisted on telling us about each of the paintings and parts of the cathedrals, even if the story repeated bits he’d already told us. By this point I was getting incredibly bored and felt that a self-guided tour of the Kremlin may have gone better.

When we’d finished at the cathedrals we entered the armoury building and jumped at the chance to pay 500 roubles to go around the Diamond Fund exhibition without the guide. It wasn’t really something I was interested in, but I looked around anyway just for some quiet time. Apparently this collection is comparable to the Crown jewels in England. It was originally started by Peter the Great and held in the Winter Palace and was added to by each Tsar after this. During the time of the Soviet Union and the first World War the collection was moved to Moscow, and was put on public display in the 1960s as a permanent exhibition.

Once we’d done in the Diamond Fund we were back to being led around the armoury. This entire building, as with the cathedrals earlier, did not allow photography so we had little choice but to listen to the guide. It might sound awful, but when you’ve got a guide that genuinely never stops talking it starts to grate after several hours. For over an hour the guide led us around the exhibitions, describing every single exhibit on show – that was until one of the members of staff told the guide to hurry up as they wanted to close. This was a bit of a relief and the remainder of the armoury tour was rushed.

This brought the tour of the Kremlin to a close. We had to exit through the Alexander park to get back to the baggage drop to collect our backpacks – but it wasn’t that straightforward. Due to a concert that was taking place in the Kremlin they’d closed off one entrance and were directing people to the other. Once there they let the guide and my friends through but then stopped me from going through being told I couldn’t pass. I shouted to my friend as I’d got the token for collecting the backpacks, and one of the guards that were passing by came over and stood behind me. When my friend came back they told him he couldn’t go in either, even though he already had been, and made him leave.

It was getting frustrating – we weren’t sure at this point what to do so shouted for Vlad as he could at least translate for us. Instead of figuring out what was going on he took the token for us and collected our bags. Afterwards we found that due to the concert they were only letting people through with concert tickets at that entrance, and if you needed to collect your bags you’d be allowed through the other entrance. If only there had been some attempt to explain that, but they had no patience.

Once the drama was over our guide asked us if we wanted to walk over to Red Square or go to find some food – we opted for food as we weren’t sure what we’d be able to get at the airport. Instead our guide decided he’d take us for a walk instead, and then asked us again what we wanted to do – again we repeated that we’d like to go for food. He then led us back to where we’d started the day, and asked if we’d like to walk back to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour we’d seen in the morning.

We kept having to repeat ourselves that we didn’t want to walk any more and wanted to get food. Eventually Vlad took notice and called for the driver, but instead of going for food he told us he was taking us to the airport. When we set off it was 18:35, so we had quite some time until we needed to be there, but due to an accident on the road we were stuck in very slow moving traffic for the next 1hr30. Once we’d passed the accident it was another 45 minutes to the airport and we got there with little time to spare.

Upon entering the airport we had to go through security for all our bags first, and could then go to the baggage drop for the airline. We told Vlad we were flying business class, but instead of joining that queue which was virtually empty he insisted we joined the main queue. This same thing happened when he led us to the queue for security so then had another long wait instead of going straight through as we should have been able to.

There wasn’t much time for food by this point, but I bought a turkey sandwich and drink for 750 roubles. Just 15 minutes later, at 22:15, the gate opened and following a private transfer from the gate to the plane we were on the plane to Irkutsk.

Russia Day 4 – The Summer Palace of Peterhof

I wasn’t sure if I was going for my normal Tuesday run to start with as my feet had been tired the previous day. I had considered running to the Smolny Cathedral and back with my backpack and camera, however the morning was a tight schedule and I was only able to fit in a 5km run.

Our pick-up was at 09:30, but we had to make sure our suitcases were reasonably ready for the train journey and subsequent flight. Despite being asked to make sure we were on time, the driver was late. We did however still make it to the hydrofoil in time as it turned out we were boarding this on the “Two Lions” pier behind the Admiralty building which would only have been a short walk from the hotel anyway.

Once aboard the hydrofoil we had to take seats and couldn’t see out the window that well. As it happened though there wasn’t that much to see on the 45 minute ride to Peterhof so it didn’t make much difference. Upon arrival we then had to queue for tickets for the palace, though one British tourist had an argument with our guide for pushing in – despite him having pushed in front of us instead, and the fact that he was in the queue for guides not individuals.

The palace at Peterhof was commissioned by Peter the Great as a strategic point. It overlooked the island he had captured and the Gulf of Finland – the island being the perfect location for commercial vessels to use for a dock.

At exactly 11:00, as we were walking along the canal to the palace some music started as the fountains switched on and sent jets of water high into the air. Our guide didn’t let us stop however, she insisted we must continue on and queue for entrance into the palace building. To reach the entrance there were several layers of terraces and fountains which I really wanted to photograph, but instead we had to queue whilst our guide went off to get another set of tickets for the palace.

Whilst waiting I sat down on the step but was asked to stand – it seems they don’t like people doing that there. They also don’t allow photography indoors, and require all tourists to wear “slipper” overshoes to protect the flooring. Our guide told us that during the second World War that the building was destroyed by the Nazis and that it has been in the process of restoration for some time. This means that the majority of what we were walking around was in fact no more than 50 years old dependent upon what year the restoration started. Apparently though some samples of the walls survived which meant that they were able to recreate them with some accuracy, but a lot of the building was done so using various styles that were known to be around at the time and were known to be used at various points in time in the palace also.

Most of the rooms were very similar to those in the Catherine Palace, but the exception was the Chinese rooms where they had black lacquered panels that were highly decorative. Although these were the most interesting of the rooms they were the ones we spent the least time in as to control humidity they have to limit people’s time in them and usher you straight through.

Once we’d completed the tour of the building we quickly took some pictures of the fountains in front of the palace before being led at pace around the rest of the gardens on one side of the palace. We saw a number of “trick” fountains where someone would operate them as tourists went passed so they’d get wet, and various other fountains too.

To get back to Saint Petersburg we went by car, and they agreed to drop us off at the Artillery museum. By 14:30 we were back in the city and seated in a restaurant we’d been shown to near the museum so we could have lunch. The service here was slow though – after 10 minutes we’d been given a menu but by this time some of the other people eating there had started to smoke so we moved a couple of tables along to be out of their way.

Another 10 minutes passed and they finally took our order and another group had started to smoke near us so we moved once more after they’d taken the order. Surprisingly it was then a further 10 minutes until they’d brought the drinks out to us. By the time we’d had our “quick” lunch and paid over an hour had passed. It didn’t really matter though as we’d got a lot of time between then and needing to be on the train.

Fortunately it wasn’t far to the Artillery museum, but it turned out they were closed on Mondays and Tuesdays – something our guide hadn’t warned us of when we’d said about it! Unsure what to do next we decided that we’d confirm the location of the Faberge museum so walked from there, across two bridges and down Nevsky Prospekt to where we saw a sign the previous day. However it turned out that this wasn’t the museum, and was just an expensive shop! Fortunately along this road I got Wi-Fi access from a place we’d been to previously and was able to confirm it as being about 30 minutes away on foot.

To pass some more of the afternoon we walked to the Kazan Cathedral that we’d passed the day before. This time we went inside, which it was free to do so, but felt that we shouldn’t really take photographs at the time as there was a service taking place. Instead we went over the road and along the canal to the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood that has colourful spires. To go in this cost 250 roubles, and I think it was worth it – almost every inch of the wall was covered in colourful mosaic.

The church gets it’s name due to it being built at the location where Emperor Alexander II was fatally wounded by an anarchist’s bomb. It was constructed by Alexander III as a memorial to his father, and was deliberately designed to resemble Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. When the Soviet government came into power the church interior was damaged, and was not reopened as a museum until 1997 after 27 years of restoration work.

We continued along Nevsky Prospekt and soon found the Faberge museum. This one was 450 roubles to go in after having been through security and dropping our backpacks off at the cloakroom. Again this was a museum that requires “slippers” to be placed over your shoes to protect the floor.

The first room of the museum has a number of Faberge eggs, but after that every room is filled with ornate clocks, serving dishes, and other similar things. It didn’t take anywhere near as long as we thought to look around this museum and so was back outside and looking for somewhere for an evening meal before we knew it.

We walked for sometime but didn’t really find anywhere suitable so decided to go back to Italy Bottega again. This time I went for a four cheeses pizza, which they did have this time, and a mango drink which again they didn’t have. This one was a little odd though as unlike other restaurants where they’d bring dishes out to us at the same time they brought my pizza out first and by the time I was finishing it off they brought out my friend’s meal. For dessert I once again tried a slice of their homemade cheesecake.

The meal took around 1h30 which meant we’d got about 2h30 until we were being picked up from the hotel by our guide for the transfer to the train station. At the hotel we collected our bags and got ourselves sorted. My friend however got told off by the hotel staff for falling asleep on one of the chairs. Despite us having been staying there it’s not allowed apparently.

Although we got to the train station around 22:30 we weren’t able to board the sleeper train to Moscow until just after 23:00. Our guide however stayed with us until this time and made sure we had boarded the train okay. On boarding we had to show our passport and ticket and then found our way to our cabin.

The cabin looked like the one that Harry Potter and his friends would ride in on the way to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the Harry Potter films due to the way it had seats facing each other. It was soon transformed though when the seat backs folded down to reveal beds and sheets that we’d be able to use for the journey to Moscow.

The train left Saint Petersburg at 23:55 and shortly after an attendant came around to take our order for breakfast. As this was one of the first-class cabins it also included drinks, and things such as a toothbrush and slippers to try and make the journey more comfortable.

Russia Day 3 – Puskin, The Tsar’s Village

I’d finally had more sleep and got up again around 08:00, even though I’d been awake for a few hours. The breakfast was a filling one once again, but this time used this opportunity to also hydrate better for the day ahead. We weren’t too sure where we were going to visit in the morning, but had a few ideas of what would be possible.

To start with we headed north again, this time to the Bronze Horseman statue. After taking a few photos of the Menshikov Palace from across the south side of the Neva river we walked alongside the Admiralty to the front of the building. Although we’d passed the building before, this time we took the opportunity to photograph it. The Admiralty has an impressive golden spire which can be seen from quite a distance across Saint Petersburg. The building itself however is not one we could go inside due to in still being in use as the headquarters of the Russian Navy.

In front of the building there is also a waterfall, but with the steady stream of tourists passing between them it was near impossible to get a photo without people in the way. After a few photographs we walked along Nevsky Prospekt and then across to Saint Isaac’s Cathedral. Before going up however we both nipped back into the hotel to get an extra camera lens for use on the colonnade. The admission to the cathedral and the colonnade was 400 roubles so again was quite cheap. The design of how they manage tourists around the cathedral is quite odd though. When you go into the cathedral itself you go in through the front, can wander around inside, and then you leave through the rear. To see the colonnade you then have to walk all the way around the outside to the front again so you can take the other front entrance in.

To get to the colonnade it is a winding staircase that seems to go on and on for a long time before it eventually reaches a narrow passage which leads back out into the open air and the roof of the cathedral. From there it’s a metal ramp you walk up to get onto the colonnade but from there you can get a 360° view of the city. It was however quite crowded as they don’t really try to control numbers – but for safety they do have a different staircase for descending down – again at the back of the cathedral.

Once we’d dropped off the extra lenses we headed back out to look for somewhere for lunch – we had a little over 2 hours for this. We decided the best option was to head over to Nevsky Prospekt and to see what was there. We walked along this until we got to the Kazan Cathedral.

We also spotted the Singer Company building (Dom Knigi). This building was designed by Pavel Syuzor and was the first metal framed building in Saint Petersburg. The initial idea was that it should resemble their building in New York City, though due to the height restrictions in this city they had to adjust it. Whilst the building was designed by Syuzor, the decorative part of it was designed by Amandus Heinrich Adamson. It was later used by the British embassy and today is a bookshop, with a cafe on the second floor. We did actually try that cafe, however my friend didn’t like the selection they had available.

Not far from here we also saw the spires of the Saviour of the Spilled Blood church so headed along the canal to this whilst still looking for somewhere to have lunch. We didn’t find anywhere along there that sold small meals such as a sandwich so backtracked to Nevsky Prospekt and headed back in the direction of the hotel. Moments later however I noticed that the Coffeeshop Company sold sandwiches and this is where we decided to eat.

For lunch I had a chicken and bacon bagel, though once again it was swimming in mayonnaise – one of the things I don’t particularly like. Even with drinks and a tip this only came to 400 roubles per person. The service was very slow though and it took asking for the cheque twice, with long waits, before they finally brought it to us so we could pay.

The delay didn’t leave us with a massive amount of time before our tour though. We got back to the hotel relatively quickly where we could sort out what camera equipment we’d need for the afternoon.

For the afternoon it was an hour’s drive to the Tsar’s village. When the Soviet Union came into power they wanted to remove all trace of the Tsar’s and so this was renamed to the Children’s village, but is also known as Pushkin. The name Pushkin is what you’ll see on most maps, and this name comes from the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin – of whom there is also a statue outside the Summer Palace there.

The summer palace too is also known by another name – the Catherine palace, named after the wife of Peter the Great. Around 20 years after Catherine I commissioned the palace, her daughter Elizabeth had it expanded upon. Even later though it was demolished and rebuilt in a design by Rastrelli and even bigger under her orders. This wasn’t the last time it was rebuilt however. During the second world war it was occupied by the Nazis and when they left it was burnt out and left as nothing but an empty shell. It has been under repair for quite some time, and even though it’s looking in pretty good condition now there are still a lot of rooms that require repair work.

When we arrived we started in the gardens – the first part of these are French gardens that are arranged in geometric shapes with some feature in each section such as a pavilion or a statue. On the far side of the man-made lake the gardens follow a traditionally British style where it looks more natural. Next to this lake though we went into a pavilion there for a while and listened to a choir sing to demonstrate the acoustics of the building.

Around this area we were also shown to another building that was used by Catherine to entertain her friends. They would never see servants here however as it was considered to be a hermitage – a place of privacy. So that she could entertain in privacy she would occupy the upper floor with her friends. This floor had a number of dumb waiters that would allow messages to be sent down to the kitchen, and for food to be sent up on. The food itself wasn’t prepared here however as they feared the risk of fire damaging the building. Instead it was prepared in a nearby building and then finished on the lower floor to be sent up.

The palace itself has a large courtyard in front of it which was at the time quite empty. Inside though we had to join a queue to enter the museum part of the palace. This takes some time as you have to swipe your ticket on the way in and then put covers over your shoes so that you don’t risk scuffing or damaging the floor. They also didn’t allow backpacks inside so these had to be left in the cloakroom.

In front of us, and behind us was a tour group of a particular nationality whose behaviour was obnoxious. As we went up the stairs into the museum they’d be constantly pushing passed, bumping into you, and whenever possible jumping the queue – they has a “me first” mentality. Whenever we went to take a photograph they walk straight in front to take their own. There was no consideration for others from them.

Our tour of this museum started with the grand hall which did not have any chandeliers – it’s light came from a large number of candelabras on the walls which had mirrors behind to help reflect the light and also give the impression of a bigger room. This and many other rooms were gilded with gold in a baroque style, whereas the main staircase was more traditional and consisted solely of red and white. To continue the tour we had to go back across the main staircase and through room after room that was used for dining or for living in.

There was however one room we couldn’t take photographs in – the amber room. This room consisted of panels made from amber of many different colours. Our guide considered this to be the “eighth wonder of the world”. Personally I wasn’t impressed enough by it to call it that, but it did look okay.

On the drive back to the hotel we stopped at what was referred to as the travelling palace. Halfway between the Catherine and Winter palaces it acted as a stopping point for the Tsars when travelling between them. We didn’t go in this palace however, but we did go inside the chapel that is opposite it which was constructed for a special event.

For the evening meal there was a restaurant that had been recommended to us, Teplo, which was only a 5 minute walk at most from the hotel. I went for the fillet mignon with vegetables and baked potatoes (which turned out to be roast potatoes), and for after had the hot chocolate dessert with ice cream.

Our time in Saint Petersburg was now coming to a close – we needed to think about packing what we didn’t need so that after the next day’s tour we could take the overnight train to Moscow.

Russia Day 2 – Exploring Saint Petersburg

Sunday mornings usually involve a run of some sort, and even with being in Saint Petersburg I did not make an exception to this trend. I’d been able to get about 13 miles done during the week so only needed to do a run of no more than 8 miles – which would equate to about an hour if I kept an easy pace.

It turned out though that I’d be a little slower than normal as I photographed various places I encountered. I crossed many bridges and weaved around all over the place as I spotted new places to take a look at. Running is a good way of exploring a new city I find, and this run was good for helping me to figure out where I could got with my DSLR camera over the next few days.

By 08:00 I’d showered, and was ready for breakfast. The choice at the Hotel Angleter was actually pretty good so having been for a run this morning I decided to have a good selection. Whilst waiting for our guide who was going to arrive at 10:00 we went across to a 24 hour store to get a large bottle of water for 111 roubles that we could use to refill our water bottles over the next few days.

The guide for our tour was already waiting for us when we went down to the lobby a little before 10:00 – better than the timekeeping abilities of our guides in Mexico last year. From our hotel we walked east to the Palace Square, and area I’d ran through earlier in the morning. It was a little busier now, but the work they were doing to prepare for some celebrations was obscuring the buildings that form the State Hermitage Museum. On the way there our guide told us a little about the founding of Saint Petersburg, Catherine the Great, and the museum itself.

We arrived just before they opened at 10:30 so had to hang around outside for a while initially. Once in we left our backpacks at the cloakroom and started our tour. The first of the buildings is the Winter Palace, but the museum expands into other buildings along the Palace Embankment – the Menshikov Palace, Museum of Porcelain, a storage facility at Staraya Derevnya, and the eastern wing of the General Staff Building.

The museum itself was started by Catherine the Great but since that time has grown tremendously. Originally the Winter Palace was a home for Russian Tsars from 1732. It wasn’t until 1917, during the Russian revolution which saw it being taken over by the Russian Provisional Government. A few months later it was taken over by the Red Army in another revolution which saw them replaced with the Bolsheviks led by Vladimir Lenin. The story of the Bolsheviks wasn’t over, but was something we’d encounter more of later in our adventure.

For today we’d be trying to see as much of the museum as we could, but our knowledgeable guide, whilst quiet (in terms of volume, not how much she had to say), would try and lead us to the highlights of the museum. To start with she went at quite a pace, walking pretty much straight through the Egyptian section though we held back to take some pictures. This area reminded me a lot of the British Museum, and as the tour went on this resemblance changed to be more like an amalgamation of the British Museum and the National Gallery.

The first section we spent any real time in was filled with statues, including one incredibly big statue of Jupiter, or as the Greeks called him – Zeus. This statue was so massive, and so heavy, that even though this is located on the ground floor they had to reinforce the floor it sits on. This then gave way to paintings, and more paintings. In fact, so many paintings that I started to get bored until we were shown two paintings by the great master Leonardo da Vinci. Shortly after we saw two more by Raffaello Santi, the artist commonly known as Raphael, and a few paintings by Rembrandt.

I’m not really into art, so after a while it started to bore me once more – but then they came to an end as we got to see rooms filled with old furniture in the areas where the monarchs had once lived. These areas also included a large throne room with large chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. It was quite an impressive site – as was the chapel where the altar had been painted with gold leaf and walls were bright white. The whole effect made it a very light room.

This brought our tour to an end, a couple of hours after it had started. We were asked what we wanted to do and our plan was food. She led us over to the cafe in the General Staff Building before letting us know she’d meet us again at 14:15 the next day. For lunch I had a toastie (cold) filled with bacon and lettuce. Unfortunately it also had mayonnaise which I don’t like, but it was spread thinly enough for me to cope with it.

Once we’d eaten I went looking for a restroom – I couldn’t find one initially and asked the shopkeeper inside the building if there was one around. She gave me a look as if to say I was stupid, and said “no”. A few minutes late we then found that there was actually one around the corner.

For the afternoon we decided we’d head in the direction of the Peter and Paul Fortress – but going the long way around so we could see the cabin of Peter the Great along the way. This cost 200 roubles to go in – so the equivalent of about £2. At that price it seemed silly to not have a look once we were there. This wooden cabin was built by the Tsar, Peter the Great in May 1703 and is considered to be the date when Saint Petersburg was first formed.

Despite being over 300 years in age, the cabin is preserved very well due largely to a brick construction having been built around it to protect it. You can’t go inside the cabin itself but there are a windows open in each section so you can see inside at what it was like.

Our route continued on and eventually got us into the grounds of the Peter and Paul Fortress. There were a number of different sights they listed, and individually would have totalled around 1100 roubles. The alternative though was a combined ticket that covered them all for 600 roubles. It seemed like a bargain!

The fortress was constructed by Peter the Great starting in 1703, with the founding of Saint Petersburg, but was rebuilt in stone three years later. This was originally used as a citadel and was later used as a prison by the Tsars. To go inside the fortress you don’t need tickets – you’re free to walk around, but we thought the tickets we bought would let us see it all. Unfortunately this was not the case.

Our first sight included on the ticket was a museum of cosmonautics and rocket technology. There isn’t much to see, but they do have some mock-ups of various rocket engines. My hope was that the cosmonaut museum in Moscow would be better – something we’d be able to see at the end of the trip,

We then wandered a little outside, taking notice of a helicopter that was frequenting the helipad. Our next stop was then the Peter and Paul Cathedral which is the final resting place for most Russian tsars from Peter I up until Alexander III. The Ducal Mausoleum is attached to the cathedral but didn’t really have anything of note.

The Commandant’s House is now in use to house an exhibition of the history of Saint Petersburg. Once we’d done there we tried to find the Neva Curtain Wall exhibits though we couldn’t find it. We wandered through the gate and around the beach area but couldn’t see any sign of where the entrance to the exhibit was. We did think it meant on the wall itself, but the Neva Panorama is an additional fee not included on the combined tickets. As it happened quite a few other exhibits which involved wax models were not included in this seemingly complete ticket either.

Having given up on finding it we instead headed to the Trubetskoy Bastion – a prison that had been used for many years and had also housed some political prisoners. This one could have been covered a lot quicker than we did – on both floors there are a large number of cells which are open, but they’re all identical. The only reason to walk around it all would be to read about each prisoner of note.

This brought our exploration of the fortress to an end and we began our walk back in the direction of the hotel. After leaving the fortress we managed to take a couple of photos of a second (the first was near the cabin of Peter the Great) old-fashioned sailing ship that had been converted into a restaurant.

To get back we had to cross a wooden bridge that looked like it may have been constructed around the time of the second world war. This route then followed by the Neva river around to the old Stock Exchange building which is located next to the two pillars which when lit were once used to guide ships along the river.

It wasn’t long after this we were on Nevsky Prospekt – the main shopping road in Saint Petersburg. After walking along this for about 10 minutes we came across an Italian place called Italy Bottega. This was a comfortable restaurant where we could sit outside under the awning on a couch. I’d hoped to have one of their homemade pizzas, but it turned out they weren’t able to do pizzas at the time. Instead I went for chicken with mashed potatoes, and had one of their homemade berry cheesecakes for dessert. I did try to have one of their own homemade drinks too, but it turned out they were out of mangoes.

This restaurant was only a short walk back to the hotel which was lucky as the temperature had dropped. Though I took the opportunity of having clear skies to photograph the Mariinsky Palace and some of the surrounding area before heading back for the evening.