St Petersburg

Sadly all good things must come to an end and for me my adventures came to an end in St Petersburg. I think it has taken me so long to write up this post due to a weird kind of denial. If I don’t write about the end it can’t have happened. Right? However, it would be unfair to just disappear into the mists without a wave goodbye and a final tale.

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Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood

Thus we find myself standing on the pavement having just disembarked from what was was the most luxurious commuter train I have ever had the pleasure of riding.  Orienting myself, I begin the hike to my final hostel, Polosaty, which really deserves more of a mention than most hostels since it had a different breakfast every morning and did the laundry for free every evening not to mention being wonderfully decorated in bright colours.

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Inside the Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood

My first foray into St Petersburg took me along Nevsky Prospekt to the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood because with a name like that, how could I not go? The church was built on the spot where Emperor Alexander II was fatally wounded in March 1881 by political nihilists. To me though, it was a beautiful building with delightful domes and complementary colours. Personally I would say it averages on a level with St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. I prefered its exterior, but the fantastically colourful mosaics were a little too imposing for me and I prefered the quieter, soothing corridors of St Basil’s.

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St Isaac’s Cathedral

Continuing to the end of Nevsky Prospekt after sushi and sangria by the canal, I visited  yet another the cathedral, this one by the less imposing name of St Isaac’s Cathedral. It’s appearance on the other hand, was far more intimidating with sharp corners and towering columns. The interior, normally open as a museum, was equally grand and to my mind the most stunning pieces were the artfully decorated upper reaches of the walls and ceiling.

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Inside St Isaac’s Cathedral

After a jaunt through the Alexsandrovskiy Gardens to see the bronze horseman I turned my head home, pausing for a moderately awful coffee at a place called the coffee bookshop (with a name like that I couldn’t give it a miss, even if all the books were in Russian).

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The Bronze Horseman

The evening saw me pairing up with another hostel guest to go out for drinks. On the advice of the hostel staff we headed to Ulitsa Belinskogo, a road with plenty of watering holes to choose from. We ended up in a cocktail bar that had the most mouthwatering of old fashioneds I have ever had the pleasure to drink. From there we strolled through the streets and parks of St Petersburg, admiring the city by night. It is extraordinary how different a place looks with sodium and neon in the place of sunlight.

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The Hermitage

Rising in time for porridge, I braved the trolleys to get to the Hermitage at the opposite end of Nevsky Prospekt. This was a lot less intimidating than I thought it was going to be. I just found the person in a hi vis vest and handed over my 40 rubles in absolute silence. On a side note, clearly I have the Russian expressionlessness and dress code down pat as people kept asking me for help in Russian, not figuring me for a tourist. It definitely needs a little more work however, as it would seem my five foot one of pure glower is not powerful enough and I am still “approachable”.

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A stairwell in the Hermitage

The Hermitage was what I expected it to be, a museum with lots of artwork in it. I had been assured it was different to most museums and that I wouldn’t be bored. This was only half true. Aside from its sheer size it was the same as the vast majority of art museums I have visited. What lessened my boredom fractionally was the fantastic architecture and decor of the museum, which was quite stunning.

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A room in the Hermitage-so much gold!

Having rested my feet for a bit at the hostel, I dress up and with much excitement caught an Uber to the Mariinsky Theatre. I have expressed my love of The Ballet before so you can understand there was no way I was going to miss a trip to watch Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake in Russia. To do so would be heathen. With the Bolshoi in Moscow on it summer break, I had been forced to wait until St Petersburg. Fortunately the wait was most definitely worth it. The performance was impressive, although I was not expecting the less used, more traditional ending in which the prince breaks the spell, enabling him to marry Odette.

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A not at all creepy bust

The biggest drawback was that I had to share the theatre with other people, many of whom had merely come for the kudos points they would earn. People were continuously chatting, on their phones (including taking photos and videos) and being generally disruptive. This lack of respect for the dancers was horrifying and even more shocking was the vast exodus that occurred even though the curtain call had barely started. The constant grind of absent respect-since I’ve no doubt this was a regular occurance-had definitely taken a toll on the quality of the performance, but honestly who can blame the cast when faced with such a disrespectful rabble every night?

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Fountains outside the Summer Palace

My holiday drew to a close the next day with a trip to the gardens of the Summer Palace, made cheaper by the wonders of a student discount. I wasn’t prepared to spend the extra to see the interior of the palace-there is only so much gold moulding a person can see before they get bored-but the gardens were well worth the visit. The numerous fountains and waterways were captivating and I wandered aimlessly through the gardens, stumbling across them now and again until I found a good spot to perch and alternate between people watching and reading my book until I caught the hydrofoil home.

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Making friends

Thus this adventure of mine has come an end and reality returns once more. From here I have one more year of university and then will have to face the real world, and won’t that be an adventure in itself?

Moscow

There is a silence that is unique to cathedrals. It pervades the stones and muffles the chatter of tourists. Even the echoing harmonies of a men’s choir fail to fully pierce the blanket of peace, instead they only enhance it. The towering ceilings stretch high above the painstakingly decorated chapels and the connecting tunnels wind amongst them, creating an intricate maze.

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St Basil’s Cathdral

This slice of silence in the middle of Moscow was St Basil’s Cathedral and well worth the steep entry price. It was a place of truly marvellous architecture, saturated with the feeling of spiritual presence. With the Red Square closed and some stadium inhabiting most of it, my first tantalizing glimpse was of the tallest dome alone. As I walked closer, I had to crane my head to take in all of it, squinting against the morning sunlight and jostling against various other tourists all trying to get a photo from the best angle. The interior was simply gorgeous and by far my favourite when compared to the other cathedrals I visited. The aforementioned men’s choir’s voices wound through the entire cathedral in a beautiful touch that completed the atmosphere.

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A couple of the cathedrals in the Kremlin

With Lenin’s Mausoleum seemingly inaccessible, I headed around the corner and spent two hours queuing for tickets into the Kremlin. The actual access ticket that allowed one to see the cathedrals took only fifteen minute to get however, I really want to look around the Armoury museum and the queue for this was much longer due to limited tickets and because the two ticket booths seemed to alternate breaks such that only one of them was open at a time. With the vast crowds of tourists packing their interiors, the cathedrals, which are the main sights of the Kremlin, became a very unappealing spot to linger. Unfortunately, this meant I spent the same amount of time looking around the Kremlin as I did queuing for it, even including my look around the Armoury with its fantastic collections. Most notable were a number of historical gowns which had the most ridiculously tiny waists.

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A deserted section of Izmailovsky Market

The next day, I decided to pick up a few gifts and continue my hunt for a nice furry hat. Hence I ventured once more into the beautiful metro stations of Moscow.  I emerged next to the Izmailovsky Market. This was a strange world of plyboard facades creating the illusion of a fairytale castle with empty stalls crowded below. I expect that come the weekend these stalls would be crowded with furry hats and matryoshka dolls however, now most were silent and empty shells. Fortunately I was able to pick up my gifts and found a suitably fluffy hat for myself so I was able walk along the touristy Arbat Street on the other side of the city centre without diving into every other souvenir shop.

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The renaissance fair

From Arbat I strolled down to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, passing through a sort of mini renaissance fair on my way. An incredibly imposing building on the Moskva River, I elected not to enter the cathedral, deciding that I had seen enough overly crowded cathedral interiors at least for a few days. Instead I crossed the river and wandered through the scenic Gorky Park, eventually stopping to rest my feet and read next to a pond.

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The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour

The next day I visited the planetarium, which turned out to be rather disappointing. Despite having an English version of their website, the only English within the museum was a couple of exhibit labels such as “sextant” and “telescope”. It was only by trial and error with a lot of pointing at a Russian program that I managed to book a ticket to see Incoming! a short film about asteroids and comets within the solar system.

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I admitted to getting excited over the maritime navigation tools on display in the Planetarium, even if I couldn’t read the descriptions.

With my plans to browse the museum scuppered by the lack of English, I amused myself with the cafe’s WiFi until I could make my way up to the large star hall and trade in my driver’s licence for an English audio set. The full showing consisted of two parts,  The Sky Above Us and Incoming!. Both were very good and almost made up for the disappointment of not being able to read anything in the museum.

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This beautiful fabric, the colours of which are destroyed by my camera, cost £95 a metre. Normally, I consider more than £15 a metre expensive.

My final day in Moscow I opted for some retail therapy and visited a couple of second hand stores and fabric shops as well as the GUM department store off Red Square . This was a nice way to just chill and relax, although I did shed a couple of tears over the £8 Louboutins that were just too small and some gorgeous organza that was £95 per metre.

A Whistle Stop Tour of Kazan

While I took little to no interest in the football world cup, I cannot deny that its recent presence in Russia has been of significant advantage to me with a clear and present effort to make each of the host cities welcoming to non-russian speaking visitors. In Kazan this was apparent in the pop up tourist information tents around the old city and the handy “Nightlife of Kazan” booklets at my hostel. The latter were particularly good, suggesting sights to see and various eateries in addition to live music venues and a few vouchers.

Qolşärif Mosque

With only a day to explore the city and having caught up on my sleep with an early night, I got and early start, wandering up Bauman Street to the Kazan Kremlin. Coming to see the beautiful Qolşärif Mosque was my main reason for stopping in Kazan and having caught a glimpse of it from the taxi the day prior, I was buzzing with anticipation as I wound through the old buildings of the Kremlin to see it. The cyan roofs stretching toward the sky atop glistening white towers did not fail to impress and stole my breath as I craned my head back to admire them.

Qolşärif Mosque

By comparison and given the lack of English signage (the World Cup accessibility boost fell short at translations in museums) the rest of the Kazan Kremlin paled. This is not to say it was not good, the view over the Reka Kazanka was spectacular and the domes of the Annunciation Cathedral were suitably elegant, it is just that the Qolşärif Mosque is the type of building whose elegance and architecture are so magnificent that it takes several days for the memory to fade and before most other buildings can compare.

Annunciation Cathedral

Having finished my exploration of the Kazan Kremlin and resisted the urge to get a horse and cart ride around the city, I found myself heading to the Soviet Life Museum. This turned out to be a bit disappointing as all the English was outside and once one got into the museum there were hardly any Russian descriptions and no English ones. Overall the Museum also had the air of a jumble sale from forty or fifty years ago rather than that of a museum.

View of the Reka Kazanka from the Kazan Kremlin.

Unfortunately, with the departure time of my train to Moscow drawing closer, I had to finishing my sightseeing of Kazan at this point and grab dinner before walking to the train station. This final leg of my Trans Siberian journey-I shall not count my commuter train to St Petersburg-was the shortest, and does not merit its own post as very little can be said about sleeping soundly on a train for eight hours. The train itself was very smart and new. Indeed both third class carriages I have stayed in have been rather nice and a whole lot better than I had been led to believe. That or as a student backbacker, I just have very low standards and am easy to please.

The Soviet Life Museum

Trans Siberian Leg 3 – Irkutsk to Kazan

View from the train

I struggle to keep my eyes open as I slouch in the waiting area. While it isn’t so late as to be early, days of travelling and rising early have convinced my circadian rhythm that anything much beyond 10 o’clock is unacceptable so that as we begin to board at 11:40, I am hard pressed not to full asleep standing up. This did have its advantages because, as we finally crept from the station, I was able to quickly fall asleep and not get jerked awake by the train.

Third Class

My first day on the train passed quietly and I was finally able to finish my book. This was both good and bad because on the one hand plot progression and story arc conclusion but on the other hand I now have to wait for the next book to come out, which will undoubtedly be in a few years time. Since then I have been working my way through the first few books of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series which, while different from the writing styles to which I normally isolate myself, has so far proved itself to be an enjoyable read. The only real disturbances to this blissful peace and quiet was the videos the small boy opposite me was watching and a very odd Chinese lady who was almost continuously leaning across me to charge or check her phone.

One of the longer platform breaks

The second day trickled through the sand timer of life in much the same way as the first. I was awoken at six thirty and then again at seven by the Chinese lady kneeling on the edge of my bed and leaning over me to plug her 77% charged phone in and later check on it. I also had a small audience eating my lunch as everyone wanted to know what the mayo was and we spent five minutes trying to explain it to the Chinese woman. After that, the young lass in the bunk above mine seemed to pick up the courage (with some encouragement from Mum) to practice her English with me and I spent a large slice of the afternoon trying to remember what sort of vocabulary secondary school languages teach and asking relevant questions such as “what is your favourite subject” and “do you have any hobbies”. This was pretty fun and with Google Translate murdering our respective languages, we just about manage to cover any vocabulary holes.

The covetted charger that was right next to me and which I did not need to use once.

The third and final day of this leg crawled by as it always does when one is anxious about not missing their stop. A large contributor to this was also that the clock kept going back an hour until we eventually reached Moscow time, three extra hours in total. As well as chatting to a few of my fellow passengers, I had a portrait drawn by a gentleman at one end of the carriage. Considering I struggled to write smoothly on the train, I was most pleased with the finished piece. Although, baring in mind I barely recognise myself these days, especially without glasses, I have no idea if it actually looks like me.

Several stations had old steam engines on display which quickly became children’s climbing frames when we disembarked.

Arriving in Kazan, I bit the bullet and agreed to the ridiculously overpriced taxi, deciding one and a half hours walking was too far even for me. I suspect the extortionate rate was further compounded by leftover football fever from the World Cup since Kazan did host one of the stadiums.

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Irkutsk and Lake Baikal

Several days in Irkutsk saw me doing embarrassingly little. With the end of travels looming on the horizon and the exitement of horse riding in Mongolia over, I was not feeling in the most adventurous of moods. The fact that I had an extremely good book that stole away hours of my time the moment I ventured into its digital pages was an additional diversion.

After a good night’s sleep-my hostel had delightfully comfortable beds-I set out into the city, following the tourist walking route. The hostel desk had a stack of city maps with the route printed on them but when I reached a road on the route, I discovered a green line had been painted to mark the route. Hence I was easily able to wander the city and see each of the 30 sights the line snaked passed, reading the plaques that marked them. Had I been in more of a sightseeing mood I may have also entered some of the museums or churches but as it was, I was content with stretching my legs and seeing a little of the city. The plaques were a tad dry, being of the factual nature but I still enjoyed reading them and discovering the history of Irkutsk, it was interesting to see just how many of them had been damaged in a huge fire that took place in 1879.

At this point I would like to insert an aside to extol the virtues of having a walking route fully marked out on the road in addition to the more traditional “here is a map with a line drawn on it” method or the occasional “signposted when we remember” approach. For starters, tourist maps are notoriously terrible as they have an unfortunate tendency to forget the existence of many roads. Furthermore, they cannot be used if there is even the slightest hint of rain and in both the case of map and signpost, one inevitably ends up feeling lost due to a lack of suitable signage giving directions or road names. On a personal level, I enjoyed the opportunity to walk without having to stop and consult my map every minutes. All in all I think more places should adopt this sightseeing approach though perhaps they could include amusing anecdotes and local lore in addition to who built what and when.

Accompanied the next day by looming clouds and a steady rain, I caught the bus to Listvyanka on the shore of Lake Baikal. For a drive that takes between one and two hours I was happy to discover it cost a mere £1.60 each way. Before I eventually gave up at peering through the continuously steamy windows-somewhere between here and Singapore, condensaton switched back to forming on the inside of windows-I was surprise by how quickly the city ended and we returned to the countryside.

Lake Baikal is the largest lake in the world, containing some fifth of the world’s fresh water, and it certainly gave that impression as I stood on the shore and strained to see the other side. With the low cloud cover, this was not initially impossible but after I had warmed up with some borscht and coffee in a quaintly maritime themed cafe, the clouds had cleared enough for me to make out the faint smudge of land. This was only possible because Lake Baikal’s true size lies in its length of 636 kilometres while its maximum width is only 79 kilometres. Due to my short stay in Irkutsk, I had decided not to visit the more scenic section of the lake around Olkhon Island because of the time constraints involved and given the grey weather I think this was indeed the best option as I doubt hiking around would have been that enjoyable and scenery is only good if you can see it. Instead, I nosed around the small market for a bit and sat on the shoreline enjoying the sound of waves as I delved back into the pages of my book.

My finally day in Irkutsk was spent lazing around the hostel and buying some food for the next leg of my trip along to Kazan. I settled on porridge sachets for breakfasts, instant noodles for dinners and then some bread and cucumber with salami to make sandwiches at lunchtime.

Trans Siberian Leg 2 – Ulan Bator to Irkutsk

After a few days of recovery from riding and several glorious hot showers, I set off on the next leg of my Trans Siberian adventure. The morning before I left, I stocked up on food. With less than twenty four hours of travelling, I managed to avoid instant noodles, instead opting for a loaf of bread, a cucumber and some tomatoes along with some snacks to stave off any nibbles I might catch.

Boarding the train was easy and I quickly found my bunk. In the cabin of four, I was sharing with a Korean couple and an Israeli. With the couple on the bottom bunks I mostly spoke to the Isreali who had been travelling around Mongolia and China for a few months. Needless to say, I was rather jealous of how long he had had in Mongolia. As we chatted I could hear the distinctive tones of an American and Brit drifting throughout the carriage as they chatted away to their various companions. It is amazing how certain accents carry above others.

The Russian side of the border.

Our border crossing was painless in that nothing went wrong but at the same time seemed to drag on forever on both sides. With the late hour (we didn’t leave the Russian side until 0145) everyone got a little grumpy and there was some screaming and crying from the aforementioned Brit although this was quickly stopped with some stern Russian words.

As always, I slept well once we set out from the border, even if it was for far too little time since we pulled into Ulan Ude around 0600 and the Isreali disembarked, sadly waking me up despite his best attempts to be quiet. I think the sun was halfway to waking me up anyway. I dozed fitfully for a little longer before giving up and staring out at what I could see of the scenery from my position on the top bunk.

We eventually pulled into Irkutsk, my first stop in Russia, and I set off towards my hostel ignoring offers of a taxi, instead choosing to walk and see a little of the city.