Category Archives: Russia

Trans-Mongolian: Across the Urals

On our last morning in Yekaterinburg, we made sure to eat the free breakfast right before it ended at 11am. That way, we covered both breakfast and lunch (essentially brunch) and saved money. Bam. Later on the train, we had a temporary daytime roommate and we soon became the party cabin again after he disembarked at Perm. This apparently was a cue for Dean and H to describe the greatest love scene in Top Gun and sing the entire soundtrack. But, the party stopped once a Russian lady barged into the cabin around 10pm, looking very stern and unamused. We ended up with a roommate after all. At least this train had a dining car where we could continue drinking. And, a babushka who roamed the halls selling piroshki (baked/fried buns stuffed with meat and/or veg).

Moscow, Russia

Once we arrived in Moscow, we bumped into yet another Lenin statue at the station. (Take that, Natasha!) We were staying at the Best Western for the next 2 nights which was a cue to get laundry done. So, Nikka drew us a primitive map directing us to a laundromat that she swore she used several times before. 15-20 minutes into the suburbs and no laundromat was to be seen. Only apartment buildings. In a futile attempt to ask passersby for directions, I pulled up a translation of “laundry” onto Google Translate only to have everyone shake their heads no. We already lugged 2 heavy bags of laundry out here so, I was determined to find another laundromat on Google Maps. Apparently, there was one with great ratings another 15 min away. We decided to try it out.

But, then, we ended up walking through some more suburbs, crossing train tracks that weren’t barricaded, and strolling into dodgy territory. I still thought it was safe since I had seen several moms toting their strollers but, they eventually disappeared. Soon, we were walking into a construction zone with nothing but fences and what appeared to be an auto mechanic shop with scary bearded men sitting outside, smoking cigarettes. H wanted to get the hell out of there ASAP. Lucky for us, it was still bright daylight and we managed to walk back to the hotel safely. I have to say, I never saw H get this annoyed and angry before. We did, however, end the day on a good note – with Shake Shack and seeing a girl walking her pet raccoon on a leash like it was completely normal. She laid out a hat with a sign, though. “Donations.”

The next morning, we got to Lenin’s Mausoleum in Red Square (on the right in the above photo) by 9am and ended up standing behind a small group of people. By 10am opening time, the line had grown much, much longer. The whole experience was about 5 minutes, though. You literally just walk in, circle his body and walk right back out. It was definitely eerie seeing how well-preserved he’s kept. I couldn’t tell the difference between that and a wax figure.

St. Basil’s Cathedral, we finally meet.

A view of Red Square from St. Basil’s.

We then went on a tour of the Kremlin, during which the guide had to specifically point out where it was safe to take photos. The yellow building above housed Putin’s office and Pete got a little too close in an attempt to get a nice zoomed out photo of the cannon and Cathedral Square across the street. He was also wearing a bright red t-shirt with “Canada” emblazoned on the front, making him very obvious (he was from Wales). The security guards yelled at him and for a few minutes, he had no idea that this was even happening. He was a clueless tourist with wandering tendencies and we found it very endearing.

Cathedral Square was a bit manic with throngs of people trying to get in and out of the 3 surrounding cathedrals. It didn’t help that the army choir/band decided to put on a show in the middle of the square. The murals inside the cathedrals were worth pushing through the crowds for, though, so stay strong.

The tour ended with the Armory Museum and Diamond Fund which housed the famous Faberge eggs, a lot of them. Dean and I joked that they looked like bedazzled Kinder Surprises. Since the museum was packed with people, the guide gave us audioguides which we could hear her talk through in real time. There were times when she would stop speaking then start again, only to end up freaking me out because I would hear her voice sending me subliminal messages without me being able to find her through the crowd. She fell into a textbook drone 90% of the time and half the group ended up wandering off.

The 3 of us went for dinner at Kamchatka, where a waiter proceeded to take our order and tell us that he’d be back to tell us the total cost. The asshole decided to end his shift around that time and not put in our order. When the food wasn’t coming out, we confronted the waitress who then apologetically told us that our order was never put into the system. After a very hangry display, we ended up with an extra order of garlic sticks, on the house. These were probably the best garlic sticks I’ve ever eaten, and the garlic made sure to stick around for a very long time after consumption.

The next morning, we hit up the Izmailovsky Market for some Soviet memorabilia, the Tretyakov Gallery for some art history, Caffe del Parco for flat whites and a view of Peter the Great (above) and Gorky Park for lounging, all before heading on a quest to have Moscow Mules in…Moscow. According to Wikipedia, Peter the Great is the 8th tallest statue in the world and listed as one of the ugliest statues in the world. Ouch. He did, after all, hate Moscow and move the capital to St. Petersburg. The designer of the statue allegedly made it in the liking of Christopher Columbus but, due to the lack of American buyers, re-made it for Russia. I find that very ironic.

Gorky Park in its sunny glory. Our already perfect day was made even more perfect when we came upon 8 Oz, a cocktail bar, within the park that served really good food and drinks. And, when we didn’t see Moscow Mules on the menu, the bartender offered to make them especially for us. Hell freakin’ yea!

Before heading back to catch the train to St. Peterburg, we embarked on a really quick tour of Moscow’s Metro system which is an art museum in itself. Above is Mayakovskaya station, which according to Lonely Planet, was a “grand-prize winner at the 1938 World’s Fair in New York” for its art deco halls and ceiling mosaics. “This is also one of the deepest stations (33m), which allowed it to serve as an air-raid shelter during WWII.” Super cool.

One of the ceiling mosaics at the station.

St. Petersburg

The train from Moscow to St. Petersburg was, although the cleanest and newest in technology, the most disappointing of all the trains we took. It ran way too smoothly, eliminating the clickety clack technology, and almost looked too sterile to have any old-world charm. I mean, part of the experience of doing the Trans-Mongolian/Trans-Siberian is to experience that charm, no?

We did a 3 hr walking tour through the city, stopping at Kazan Cathedral, the Church of the Savior on Blood, the river with a view of the fortress and, finally, Palace Square. The architecture in this city is so beautifully pastel and symmetrically friendly that it’s enjoyable just to walk around town.

Then, we broke off and went straight for St. Isaac’s Cathedral for a panoramic view of…

…the Hermitage Museum and Palace Square on the left and the Church of the Savior on Blood all itty bitty on the right.

At the last minute, we decided to look for ballet tickets at the Mariinsky Theater but went in circles trying to find the box office within the city. The tourist info center led us to one place who then claimed they sell tickets for every other show/theater except ballet at Mariinsky. About an hour wasted for something we just ended up doing online. The main theater was sold out so we went for modern ballet at Mariinsky II. Score.

The Church of the Savior on Blood (also Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood).

Just like St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, this church was beautifully designed to look like an extremely delicious cake, sprinkled with candy of divinity.

The murals inside were overwhelming to the senses and, I mean that in a good way. If I could’ve, I would’ve laid my back to the ground and stared at the ceiling for a good hour.

Later that night, we happened upon an awesome craft beer place that served amazing sausages and showed the Euros on huge TVs – Poland vs. Portugal. I also ordered a side of pork chops that I may have mumbled “Do you want some” about, only to be met with no response. So, naturally, I ate the entire thing while they were distracted with the game and then passed out on the table. The photo evidence was a nice payback, I suppose. (And then, we had Burger King which I’m appropriately mentioning within parentheses.)

Next day – the Hermitage Museum!

I’m not sure if anyone has ever managed to go through the entire museum within one day. If so, I applaud that person. In fact, I standing ovation that person. With H and Ilona as our guides, Dean and I willingly trusted their planned itinerary and dutifully followed them around the museum without a single snack break. I deem that a successful museum day.

This room was probably my favorite in terms of layout and colors, although Renaissance art is usually not my thang.

For our last night, we watched The Little Humpbacked Horse at the Mariinsky II Theater. Let’s just say that it was very modern. At times, we had no idea what was really going on. Just a bunch of colors, fire, some bathtub and what looked like date rape. No joke. We Wikipedia-ed the story afterwards to find out that Ivan the Fool, with the help of a magical horse, wins the affection of a Tsar Maiden and overthrows the Tsar (by convincing him to jump into a cauldron of boiling water) to become the Tsar himself. I may have missed a few metaphors.

Classy theatergoers. I mean, we did have a glass of Russian brut during intermission. (Photo credit for Mariinsky II: H)

Afterwards, I suggested that we walk to dinner where we were meeting up with the rest of the group. It was a nice day, after all, and the city was looking beautiful in the sunset. The walk was about 30 min, though, and H was not really into it.

H: “So, how much further is it?”
Me: “Ask me in 15 min.”

It’s allllll in the mind.

Our last activity as a group was a midnight cruise to see the drawbridges be, well, drawn. It was clear to us that a lot of tourists bought into this, given the amount of boat traffic on the river and the number of people standing at the sides. If anything, it was nice seeing the city lights?

Before heading to the airport the next day, we spent our morning strolling along the canals towards the Military Historical Museum of Artillery, Engineer and Signal Corps (the “Artillery Museum”). The very last excursion for the #backseatbandits. I had an earlier flight, though, so I requested an Uber for myself, only to have it cancel on me and happen 2 more times. I was shitting my pants by the time I managed to get a reliable one. Not only did I need to make it to the airport soon, I had to stop by the hotel first to pick up my luggage. But, I managed to get there within an hour or so of my flight and, all it cost was 1,000 rubles (about $15). Halle-freakin-lujah.

[About 7,600km; 6-7 time zones]

Trans-Mongolian: Into Siberia

Back on the train to Lake Baikal, we lucked out and had the cabin to ourselves for 2 nights, eventually making it the party cabin. No dining car though. (Note: all Russian trains run on Moscow time. Something to keep in mind when you’re traveling through several time zones.)

Siberia looked every bit as what people expect – derelict and remote. It’s really a wonder how this railroad was completed given the harsh climate and areas of swamp and permafrost.

Every time we were approaching a station, the bathrooms would get locked about 15 minutes beforehand since they were long drop toilets and nobody wanted that laying at the station’s tracks. So, as we were crossing into Russian territory, I made sure to do my long duration sitting business about 30-45 minutes before. I was about done when the train lady (the provodnitsa) knocked vigorously on the door. “I’M ALMOST DONE!” She didn’t care though. She unlocked the door and wagged her finger at me, like a mother scolding a child. “DON’T FLUSH!” We were still a good distance away from the station, though, and I flushed anyway. Sorry but, not sorry, Russia. I didn’t know it back then but, that’s what you get for liking tiny hands.

At the Naushki border control, the security searched through each of our cabins for any forbidden unmentionables and found something in Jeff & Diana’s cabin. Jeff & Diana, probably the most proper couple you’d ever meet, were the only ones who cleaned their cabin, took their suitcases down from the top shelf and had them open and ready for inspection. The rest of us just did the bare minimum (well, we hid our liquor since it’s technically not allowed).

So, what did they find? Deer horns, tucked away in some nook at the back of the top shelf. No one had any idea how it got there. They were then escorted out to the police station where they had to fill out a report. This is Russia.

We had a couple of hours to kill while all of this was going on, so Nikka took us on a walk into the countryside. After crossing a wooden rickety bridge, though, we ran into a bunch of soldiers heading towards us. They turned us right back around. Nikka explained that we were just going for a walk to an area still visible at this distance. Nope.

Listvyanka, Russia

We arrived in Lake Baikal and went out for lunch at a restaurant that did not give a shit about time. The people who ordered first ended up getting their food last, and the waitress completely forgot about my order of chicken wings.

Me: “Excuse me, we ordered the chicken wings…?”

She oh’ed her mouth, obviously having forgotten about them. She walked into the kitchen and walked straight back out, unapologetically saying, “No.”

Me: “Oh, um, okay.”

Nikka then took us to a street market selling all sorts of souvenirs, smoked fish and an assortment of skewered meat with rice. Um, why didn’t she just take us here for lunch? It was cheap and delicious and, still feeling hungry, I had my second meal. We walked it all off later with a hike around a part of the lake, the part that involved walking along a beach covered in flies. And, I mean covered like the plague. I made the mistake of laughing with my mouth open.

We later plunged into that lake, the deepest and largest freshwater lake by volume (it contains 20% of the Earth’s unfrozen freshwater!). I talked big of doing the Arctic plunge. And, I came back out whimpering about numbness.

Back at the homestay (super duper cozy place), a bunch of us went with the banya option, which involved sauna-ing, getting whacked with a leafy branch by a Russian man named Nikolai in a speedo and Keebler hat, jumping into a cold pool, then going for round 2. At the end, Nikolai scrubbed us down before dumping a bucket of hot water then ice cold water on our heads. The noises coming out of the participants may have been the best part of the experience. The result? Redness. And mixed feelings of cleaniliness and violation.

Irkutsk

Before heading back to the train the next day, we did a minibus tour of Irkutsk. If you plan on visiting churches in Russia, make sure to bring a headscarf (if you’re female). They provide them, too, but it’s just nicer having your own.

Fun fact: Prior to 1904, the tracks would stop at opposite sides of Lake Baikal due to tough conditions around the lake, thus requiring the ferrying of the wagons across the lake. In winter, horses and manpower were used to pull the wagons across the ice. But, in 1904, both sides, one of the most difficult lines, were finally connected.

Back on the train, we had a roommate, an older Russian man with a genteel exterior named Mikhael. Through Nikka, we were able to offer some of our snacks, all of which he turned down. I guess I wouldn’t want chips and cookies when I had my own home-cooked meals packed away in Tupperware. He was en route to Moscow (4 nights on the train) to go see his family. Amtrak Mikhael.

The dining car came back and it was manned (or wo-manned) by a babushka with a sweet grill who totally had the hots for Dean. We ordered dinner from the menu only to have the scowling chef come out and say “We have beef with rice.” The menu was whatever he had or felt like making. Fair enough. It was the only air-conditioned car on the train, and they kicked out anyone trying to stay for free. The chef/babushka duo took a liking to us, though, after our non-stop orders of beers. Then when the dining car closed, we brought out the Baikal vodka. Far better than rice wine.

Day 2 on the train involved more reading, more philosophical conversations and more clickety clack technology. With 10-15 min stops at Mariinsk, Novosibirsk and Barabinsk, we managed to squeeze in a platform picnic with a bread roll, a package of salami and cheese and a cream cheese chive dip. A nice change from the high sodium content of bowl noodles. We closed out the dining car again later that night not only with beers but also with talks of reforming New Zealand’s stance on a capital gains tax. Important conversations happen on 2nd class trains…just as important thoughts happen in showers. Am I right or, am I right?

I had trouble opening a sesame seed snack since Beijing. I swear that thing was quadrupled-wrapped in plastic made to survive nuclear warfare. Lucky for me, H was able to document the moment I managed to open the damn thing and take one bite before realizing that I didn’t want it anymore.

Yekaterinburg

Glorious showers and decent cappuccinos later, we were on a mission to find delicious pierogis and pelmeni (Russian dumplings). Our tour guide, Natasha, recommended a place but could only tell us approximately where it was. The street she led us to had maybe 2 restaurants on the block so, we walked into one that looked a bit too fancy for dumplings.

Me: “Menu?”

The waiter hands over a menu completely in Russian.

Me: “Pierogi?”
Waiter: [Scoff] “No.”

The other place on the block had a gated outdoor garden which we almost missed in a second passing. This place looked promising and it totally delivered. We ordered a jar (yes, a jar) of beer and most definitely an order of dumplings among other assorted Russian dishes. Soon after, these 3 Russians sat at the table adjacent to ours and one of them was clearly drunk. It didn’t take him long to realize we were foreigners and, after asking us the basic questions, he went into his love of trance (check out his Space t-shirt) and listed out his favorite DJ’s. He then handed me a bouquet of peonies and asked if I was Russian. Dean and H made sure to get a kick out of that. By now, I’ve become a heavily misunderstood person.

The waitress then walked over, not with our food, but with a vase for my newly acquired flowers. I immediately felt my awkwardness intensify. I mean, just look at my face.

We did a walking tour of the city (Russia’s 4th largest city) the next morning with Natasha, the never-ending Twilight Zone babbler of information. She claimed that it was rare to see a Lenin statue anywhere, particularly in Moscow. Then, we bumped into one.

Then, we visited a church for ants.

The highlight was definitely the Church on Blood / Church of All Saints, built at the site of Ipatiev House (demolished in 1977) where Nicholas II, the last emperor of Russia, and his family were exiled then executed by the Bolsheviks.

The Yekaterinburg War Memorial, also known as the Black Tulip War Memorial, depicts a soldier sitting in defeat to the powerlessness felt because of war, in the midst of pillars of names of soldiers who died in Afghanistan and Chechnya during the 9+ year Soviet-Afghan War.

War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.

Europe/Asia Border

On the way to the Euro-Asian border, we stopped at 2 other memorials/cemeteries, one of which housed the bodies of mafia members of one of the 2 gangs (the Shirokorechenskoe Cemetery). It was tucked away by a memorial apparently for the fallen soldiers of the Great Patriotic War. It’s easy to tell that it was a mafia cemetery given the tombstones scattered about containing life-size laser etchings of the guys buried there, sometimes next to an etching of a car or holding the keys of a Mercedes. Because all of that matters after death.

   

We got creative at the border, courtesy of H. Not only did we jump over the line, we also segregated ourselves into one Asian and two Europeans. My pose, on the other hand, was a knee jerk reaction to my photo being taken without having a pose in mind. Natasha then made us do some good luck ritual that involved touching the European side, then the Asian side, then while straddling the border, opening a bottle of sparkling wine and splitting a bar of chocolate. I was pretty sure she was making us do this for shits and giggles but, then, we walked over to a fence/wall full of empty wine bottles where we then placed ours. Perhaps this was a ritual after all. Then again, this area was also a known popular newlywed destination where right after the ceremony, they come here to make the husband climb this one big tree to tie a love ribbon. The area was full of them. True love was, truly, all around us. I suppose this was better structurally than love locks on a Parisian bridge.

While here, we ran into 2 newlywed couples and began shouting “Gorka! Gorka!” at Natasha’s encouragement, leading them to kiss. We later found out that this word meant “acid” or “something sour” and the kiss was supposed to make it sweet. Aw, with one “w.”

By the time we left this city, I was full-on addicted to sour cream and borscht.

Fun/scary fact: There was a nuclear plant disaster in 1957 about 150km from this city.