Russia Day 16 – Moscow to Birmingham

It was an early start – the earliest one of the trip. As our flight was at 06:05 we needed to be on the road by 03:00. The hotel did however provide a packed lunch for us to take with us for breakfast, though it was still quite an early one.

As is usual for Russian airports we had to have our bags x-rayed on entering the airport, and then after clearing passport control having hand luggage scanned a second time. The whole process wasn’t that slow as fortunately there weren’t many people about – it looked like they’d have struggled with the numbers we get through some UK international airports, though in fact they actually have several different ones depending on where your flight is going.

Whilst waiting for the gate to open for boarding I sat and had the breakfast I’d been provided with – croissant with a jar of jam and marmalade, an apple, and a ham and cheese sandwich. There was also a salmon sandwich, but not liking salmon I discarded it. To kill a little more time I also bought a Matroyshoka doll for 2800 roubles.

The plane to Frankfurt, the first of two flights, began boarding at 05:40 and only took 20 minutes before we left the gate. During the flight they served breakfast; I went for the waffles with morello cherries – an unusually good breakfast for a flight.

It took a while to get to the gate for my next flight once landed in Frankfurt – I had to take the monorail to a different set of gates and then go through security again. This time they got me to take my cameras out of my backpack and put them in their own tray, my laptop out of it’s case and in a different tray with my Kindle and iPhone, my backpack in another tray, and then the rest of my belongings in another. It seemed crazy! To make this take even longer they then did an explosives test on my backpack, though I guess with almost 4 hours to spare I did have time to waste.

At last though, I was ready for the flight home – the trans-Siberian adventure was over.

Russia Day 15 – Novodevichy Convent

Once again the Metropol hotel was able to amaze me. At breakfast we were greeted by a waitress who after seeing we were British even switched to using perfect English and even a fairly British sounding accent, and led us to a table. I quickly noticed that the breakfast hall was incredibly well decorated with a very high glass roof which helped to amplify the sound of the lady playing the harp on the stage. Live harp music is not something you see at every breakfast! The food and drink at breakfast was also an incredibly good selection.

The original plan was that we’d be picked up at 10:00 to be taken to the Novodevichy Convent, though we asked the guide if we could first visit Lenin’s Mausoleum. Fortunately he agreed to this and by 10:00 we were queueing to get through the security into Red Square. To enter the mausoleum there was then a second security check and once you’ve entered the building you’re not allowed to talk – not that it stopped a bunch of Chinese tourists from doing so. It’s weird seeing the body of Lenin – it’s preserved so incredibly well as a result of the embalming process that with the texture of the skin he looked like a wax model.

We were then driven to the Novodevichy Convent, another UNESCO World Heritage site, where we spent the next hour walking around the grounds and going inside the two churches there. To take photographs here we each had to pay 100 roubles – which wasn’t bad really.

Apparently one of the towers there which is under restoration has been so for some time due to a fire that broke out during the previous restoration work. Most of the buildings there were ordered by Sofia Alexeyevna, but begun construction under the reign of Prince Vasili III, the Grand Prince of Moscow. The buildings are in the Muscovite Baroque style which is common to many buildings in the area.

Adjacent to the convent is the Necropolis of the Novodevichy Convent, which is also known as the “heroes cemetery”. Despite the entrance only being around the corner, at best 200-300 metres, the guide insisted we drive there. We spent about 40 minutes in this cemetery being shown some of it’s more famous residents such as Boris Yeltsin, and Anton Chekov.

It was wandering around these tombs where I got the impression that our guide, Vlad, was a strong supporter of Communism. The reason for this is when we encountered the grave of Mikhail Gorbachev’s wife he commented that Gorbachev should not be buried in Russia as “he is a traitor”.

For those that don’t know, the reasoning behind this is that it was Gorbachev was the last leader of the Soviet Union and was responsible for making the government more open and restructuring it (referred to as perestroika) which eventually led to it’s dissolution in 1991.

All morning the weather had been toasty warm, but just as we were leaving the cemetery there were a few spots of rain, hinting at the weather which was to come. Back at the hotel, having made a few phone calls during the course of the morning, our guide estimated that we’d be picked up at around 02:30 though wasn’t totally sure as he’d been given the incorrect flight information by Audley Travel to start with (allegedly).

We then set back out, during a thunderstorm to get lunch. I decided to have a club sandwich, which would then turn out to be my last proper meal in Russia. By the time we left the rain had more or less stopped and it was only a short walk to the metro station.

For the afternoon we’d decided to visit the Tsaritsyno museum and park which was located quite a way out of town. It took over 30 minutes by metro to get there, but was very easy to find the entrance to.

These grounds were originally owned by Tsaritsa Irina, sister of Tsar Boris Godunov, but later was taken over by Catherine the Great. If the weather had been better I think we could have spent quite a bit of time there due to it’s great scenery and the number of different buildings that were there. We were however on a schedule and the weather wasn’t great either.

We did however do a reasonable amount of walking, despite my swollen ankle, and managed to see most of the buildings there – though buildings such as the great palace were only from the outside.

Finding our way to the metro station at the opposite end of the park wasn’t too difficult and we were back at the hotel before 18:00. To finish the trip we went back over to Burgermeister where we’d had lunch and had a dessert – I went for their strawberry cheesecake which was amongst the best I’d had on this trip.

Our time in Russia had now come to an end and in a matter of hours we’d be heading to the airport to begin our journeys home.

Russia Day 14 – Back in Moscow

The flight to Moscow wasn’t a particularly early one, though we were told to get there 3 hours before the flight, despite it technically being a domestic flight. As we checked out of the hotel they gave us the packed-breakfast we’d asked for and it was pretty much the same as the one we’d had from them a few days previous.

As expected, we arrived at the airport too early to check-in so had to wait around for 40 minutes until we could. When I entered I had to empty part of my suitcase as they thought that my shower gel and electric toothbrush together looked a bit suspicious. The business class line was really slow though as it was taking them on average around 10 minutes to process each person. When I got to the front the lady behind the desk pointed at the business class sign and said this is for business class customers only – which I was! I guess they don’t expect someone in shorts.

Getting through security was then pretty quick and we had about an hour to wait until boarding would begin. Unlike the previous business class flight we didn’t get a separate vehicle for transferring us to the aircraft. Once it left the gate it then taxied down the runway before turning around at the end at taking off – something you wouldn’t see at busier airports as they need to clear the runway as quickly as possible. Once again we got a meal on the flight with proper cutlery and some fairly “posh” food.

We landed in Moscow at 12:50 local time, but it still took 20 minutes for us to collect our luggage, which was followed with a 1hr15 drive to the city where we then encountered a 45 minute queue to get passed the Kremlin. Apparently the traffic was due to a VIP arrival which was holding up traffic due to closed roads.

The Metropol hotel is where we’d be staying the next couple of nights and looks incredibly decorative inside – it has even had famous guests such as Steven Seagal, Sylvester Stallone, and the late Michael Jackson. I didn’t stay long though and soon headed out in search of the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics.

I’d got my phone giving me rough directions to the best metro station to get and we made good progress there, even though it was raining. This however soon had a disastrous consequences – going down the stairs in the metro station I slipped and twisted my ankle with a loud clicking sound. At first I was concerned I’d broken it, but after the initial shock I was able to limp to the underground carriage with some effort. The metro ticket only cost 50 roubles per trip so was far cheaper than travelling in the UK and the trains are more frequent too. It then took around 15 minutes to reach the stop we needed and headed out into what was now sunshine.

The Space Museum was really easy to find – as we walked out of the metro station the other end we could see a large memorial to the Russian Space Program. Around the back of this was the entrance to the museum. On my way to the entrance though I tried tightening my shoelaces, thinking it might give my ankle more support, but this back-fired when the laces snapped. When I eventually limped to the entrance it cost 250 roubles to enter, and then another 230 roubles to be allowed photography (without flash).

Even with me hobbling around on my bad ankle we got halfway around the museum pretty quickly and then paused to have some lunch in the cafe there. I went for a double hamburger, which was incredibly greasy and took around 25 minutes to arrive – so couldn’t really count it as fast food though. It felt like the cafe was there to cater for Americans based on the decor and the contents of the menu.

The things to see in the museum were a mixture of genuine and mock-ups, though not all the mock-ups were 1:1 scale. It was definitely worth seeing, and worth the 250 roubles to enter (and the 230 roubles to take photos). In the first room it reminded me a little of the entrance to the Johnson Space Center – it has a large focal point to the room and is then surrounded by smaller exhibits, which in this case includes a Vostok descent capsule.

By the time we left the museum it was almost 16:30 which meant we could potentially get back across town on the metro before their rush hour. Sure enough we made it and walked almost all the way back to the hotel. To rest my ankle a little I sat outside the hotel whilst my friend rushed back in to get a different lens for his camera before we then headed over to Saint Basil’s cathedral.

The entrance for Saint Basil’s Cathedral was 350 roubles, though there wasn’t a massive amount to see inside. Once you’ve seen so many Russian Orthodox churches I feel the interiors start to feel pretty similar – if we hadn’t seen the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood in Saint Petersburg first then I might have been more impressed by the interior. The exterior though is still impressive, and is an iconic part of Moscow’s Red Square.

When visiting the cathedral and red square we had to go through a security check upon entering due to there being a large market on – this did make it more difficult to get exterior photos of the cathedral but after completely circling the building I think we took sufficient photos. As we’d now left the restricted part of Red Square we decided to have a look around the GUM to see why it had been recommended to us.

This time upon visiting GUM we didn’t need to have our bags searched – we were just waved on through. We soon realised though that there wasn’t much in there other than expensive shops. I’m not particularly keen on spending ages looking at shops, and even less so with a bad ankle that was starting to feel swollen so after about 20-30 minutes of wandering around we eventually left.

Not long after leaving GUM I spotted a souvenir shop so we headed over to have a look – I bought a model of Saint Basil’s Cathedral and a decorated egg for a total of 3000 roubles. I considered getting one of the famous Matryoshka dolls as well but these were considerably more expensive and would be at least 4000 roubles by itself.

Not far from that main shopping area we found a small restaurant down the alleyway that led to Revolution Square. The service there was incredibly slow though, and my friend’s meal was delivered cold. I went for breaded pork, which with the tip only came to 700 roubles.

Once back at the hotel I found my ankle had swollen to at least three times it’s normal size so was glad that I could finally rest it after an eventful day.

Russia Day 13 – Back in Irkutsk

I got up at 04:00 in the morning as the sun was rising over Lake Baikal. We weren’t entirely sure what time we’d be arriving in Irkutsk as we’d had many conflicting times provided by different sources. We were up early enough though to have a few bits to eat for breakfast and then get ready for leaving the Trans-Siberian Express behind us for the last time.

We pulled into the station at 07:15 and by 07:25 we were at the Courtyard Marriott and checked in. It was a relief to be able to check-in early and shower, and whilst there we also ordered a packed breakfast for the next morning.

Heading out just before 09:00, since it had been almost 4 hours since breakfast, we thought we’d try to find something in terms of either a second breakfast or brunch. We couldn’t at first though – it seemed everywhere was closed and in most cases would not open until 10:00 or later. Eventually, a place called Coffee Company was open where I had a large cup of Earl Grey (yet the smallest they did!) with a croissant coated in chocolate sauce and nuts.

We then started what they call the “Green Line” in Irkutsk which is a trail of 30 sights which you can find by following a green line painted onto the paving stones. The route is supposed to be about 5km so in theory shouldn’t take too long to do. Though when you factor in trying to find where the green line goes when it frequently disappears due to it being worn, the time for taking photographs on the route, and crossing the roads – it all adds up.

By 13:30 we’d done about two thirds of them, and decided it’d be time for lunch. This is when we came across a place called DonOtello which has a menu in English available. I went for the chicken burger with fries, though my friend’s meal didn’t arrive until 15 minutes after I’d already finished eating mine. It’s been a common occurrence for one of us to get our food served first all over Russia, yet every other country we’ve been to it’s always been served at the same time.

We eventually finished going around the sights at 15:40, so even with lunch amongst the sights, a complete route of 14.6km took us around 4 hours. If I’d been running the route I’d have expected it to take little over an hour – but you can’t really compare this to a run.

After dropping off our cameras back at the hotel we browsed the internet and found a place for an evening meal called Asador Pectopah (“pectopah” being the Russian for restaurant) that did steak. It was quite easy to get to using Google Maps, but I think if we’d been looking out for it on the street we’d have missed it. I think to be honest only the locals would realise a restaurant was there at the time as the entire front of the building was hidden behind scaffolding.

I had a 300g fillet mignon steak with fries and barbecue sauce, followed by an apple strudel. It was quite a good steak and in some ways reminded me of the one I had eaten in Argentina a few years previous due to it’s thickness. This did however mean that although the steak was mostly cooked “medium”, it was a little bloodier than normal in the middle. Including the tip, the meal cost 2800 roubles per head, so the equivalent of about £28 in the UK – easily our most expensive meal of the trip, and a stark contrast to the other meals in Irkutsk, but after days of questionable meals on trains it was worth it.

For the next day we’d be heading back to Moscow for a couple of days to finish the sightseeing that was interrupted by this trans-Siberian excursion.

Russia Day 12 – Trans-Siberian Express II – The Return

After the last train experience we realised that the facilities on the train carriage would close before we pulled into a station. As we predicted we’d reach the border crossing at around 04:00 Ulaanbaatar time we had an alarm set for an hour before. It didn’t quite work out this way though – 04:00 came and went and at 04:40 we pulled into the station at the Mongolian border of Sukhbaatar. Though by this time I’d fallen asleep.

At 07:30 the Russian lady who was one of the two conductors for the train went down the corridor opening each door and saying “Border crossing. Toilet outside”. It didn’t really make much sense though as we couldn’t see anything – but when she insisted on us leaving the train we did as we were asked.

Once off the train I could see that the rest of the carriages had gone, and there was no train engine to move us either – there was just the three carriages remaining. Eventually we were able to find out that what the conductor meant was that we’d got until 09:00 to use the facilities on the train station (at a cost of 10 roubles) which is when the officials would board the train. Once they had boarded no one was allowed to leave the train, and our planned departure time was 11:00.

As before, we gave over our passports and they disappeared with them before collecting the customs declarations and completing a quick search of the cabin whilst we waited outside. The whole process only took about an hour, but we still left the station 15 minutes later than planned to arrive at the Russian border at 12:00. For this one we handed over the immigration form we’d been asked to complete during the transit between border stations along with our passport. This time they took a photograph of each passenger – the same as did when we first entered the country in Saint Petersburg. An hour later they had finished, and we could now consider ourselves to be on Irkutsk time.

The train didn’t leave immediately though – it then hung around in the station with no real purpose it seemed until 15:00, though our carriage got renumbered and additional ones were added in this time. These long stops were frequent, and seemed pointless – if they were to let other trains pass then I could understand it, but they didn’t seem to be. It seemed to be for the purpose of delaying our arrival only.

Once we left the border one of the two Russian conductors went through the cabins and tried to sell souvenirs. They tried to persuade us to buy some by trying to suggest we were wealthy due to us having bought two tickets each to get more space in the cabin (four people would have been beyond cramped). When no one onboard wanted to buy souvenirs one of them even tried to hold the onboard facilities hostage until people had, but the other one put an end to that though. Someone on this non-smoking train was also smoking which was an annoyance.

Early evening I then had chicken soup again for an evening meal before trying to get an early night due to our expected early arrival time in Irkutsk. This didn’t quite work out however due to the amount of noise at one of the stops around 22:30 when some passengers got off and some new ones boarded. Eventually though they quietened down and I was able to sleep.

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.

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.