Saturday, July 14, 2012


Irkutsk / Baikal (Ирку́тск / Байка́л)

The night train from Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia took me all the way to Irkutsk without any problems. We did have to spend 2 (or was it 3?) hours at the border crossing in the middle of the night while they checked our passports and made sure we weren't smuggling any people or things into Russia. I'm happy to say the border agents didn't give me any problems with my passport on the way in; the visa I put so much effort into obtaining worked like a charm.  
Irkutsk is known as “The Paris of Siberia,” and it's the closest large city to Lake Baikal, so it seemed like it would be worth a couple days visit. And it was. The city itself is very nice to stroll around in. It's right on the banks of the Angara river which is very clear, clean, and cold – perfectly safe to drink if you ask the locals. From the looks of it, I believe them, but I didn't want to tempt my fate by testing their claim. 
The city also has a rich cultural history which is evident through some of it's architecture and museums. I'll probably get this wrong (feel free to correct me), but the way I understand it, back in the day the Decemberists were kicked out of Moscow and exiled to Siberia. Many of the Decemberists were the great artists, musicians, and intellectuals of their time, so when they all settled in the frontier-town of Irkutsk, they created a rather interesting mix of a city. 

Unfortunately, and in an uncomfortably sharp contrast to the previous weeks of my travel, much of my time in Irkutsk was cold and rainy. It even snowed a little the day I arrived (May 26)! The weather limited my time exploring the beauty of the city, but luckily I had found a last minute couchsurfing host who, in addition to feeding me some great food, took me on a walking tour of the city in the cold blowing rain. I definitely wouldn't have had the will to do that by myself. It's good to have other people around to help motivate you.
I got out of town during a break in the weather for a short visit to Lake Baikal (and it's science center). This is the deepest, most voluminous, and oldest lake in the world. And I think I read it contains 25% of the worlds liquid freshwater. I could list off some more statistics about the lake, but really you would be better off reading the wikipedia article yourself. The lake was an impressive sight. It's huge, clear, and cold and the mountains and forest that surround it just added to the beauty. And they sell great-tasting smoked Omul at roadside stands around the lake.

An interesting side story: To get to the lake you take these normal looking vans which have had the seating modified to cram as many people in as possible (seatbelts? never heard of them). These are pretty common across Russia; they run on fixed routes like buses; and they aren't so different from the collectivos in Central America. Anyway, on this bus/van the older lady who happened to sit across from me spoke really good English. This was surprising for two reasons: it seems not many in Russia (especially eastern Russia) speak English at all unless they worked in tourism, and generally those people are relatively young. Also, studying English wasn't a very high priority 30 or 40 years ago in Russia. It was really nice to have someone to talk to. Then, a little while later when a mother, father, and their ten year old daughter got on and took the seats next to me, I was surprised to encounter an English speaker once again. Not the mom or the dad, but the 10 year old! She told me all about her home town and a couple places she really wants to visit (including London) in travel-guide level detail and style. When I started asking questions it became apparent that she had essentially memorized these descriptions, but her pronunciation and British accent were so good that I kept forgetting that her comprehension and vocabulary still had some catching up to do. Incredibly impressive for being only 10 years old! 

Novosibrisk (Новосиби́рск)

From Irkutsk I took a 30 hour train to Novosibirsk, making my way toward Moscow (and the terminus of the Trans Siberian Railroad) little by little. Even though Novosibirsk is the third largest city in Russia, it isn't a typical tourist stop. The city isn't especially old or beautiful and there aren't really any interesting sights near-by (except maybe the Altya mountains). But I had a good reason to stop: my friend Anya lives there. I met Anya through a little over a year ago when we were both in Chicago. As we were both there on business-trips, we didn't need couches to sleep on, but the website also has features that help travelers meet other travelers. Eating alone in restaurants after work while traveling gets old fast, so we were both happy to have some company. 
Novosibirsk - prettier than I give it credit for being.

Birthday party for Yulia with Anya and her friends on the Ob Sea. 
As with many of my distant friends, Anya and I were able to stay in touch through the magic of email and facebook. And I'm glad we did. There might not be many sights Novosibirsk, but I enjoyed getting a taste of “real,” non-touristy, Russia. Visiting with Anya, meeting her friends and family, seeing how they live, observing differences and similarities, and taking a step back to absorb it all in a place where I could blend in to the crowd was well worth the stop. And it was really nice to be staying at a friend's house after so many weeks in trains, buses, hostels and couchsurfers. There's an extra level of comfort you feel when staying with someone you've known for a while. Anya was a great host, and it was really nice to have a few days break from the traveling life.

Moscow (Москва)

The train ride from Novosibirsk to Moscow was about 50 hours and crossed 2 time zones. It is the longest nonstop segment I've taken thus far, and it definitely felt like it (the train I'll take from Toronto to Vancouver at the end of July will be longer; almost 4 days in total). The first day I slept and read and slept some more. Every couple hours or so the train makes a longer (10-20 minute) stop so you can get out, walk around on the platform, and buy ice cream and other snacks. It breaks up the monotony, but it doesn't make time move any faster. By the middle of the second day I had finished listening to all of the podcasts I had downloaded and read all that I wanted to know about Moscow and St.Petersburg. I had even finished reading half of Cat's Cradle, but my eyes were too tired to keep going. In spent a lot of time staring out the window.... 

In Moscow, after my early morning arrival and subsequent hours at a coffeshop, I met with a couchsurfer, coincidentally also named Anya, who had responded to my post the city-wide message board. She had free time that day, and said she would enjoy showing me around part of the city. This was particularly fortunate for me because my time in Moscow was very limited. In an effort to save more time for my friends later in the trip, I had decided to spend only 16 hours in Moscow: I arrived at 5:30 AM and departed on yet another sleeper train 9:30 PM. As I'm (apparently) fond of saying, efficiency was key, and having a local at my side definitely helped. With Anya I visited the Red Square, Kremlin, St. Basil Cathedral, the Lomonosov University, a scenic ski lift, Victory Park, and several other lesser known sites. It was really great to have my own “guide” for the day – someone to talk to, show me things I wouldn't have discovered on my own, answer the random cultural questions that pop up in my head, and help me navigate yet another giant subway system.
My general impression of Moscow was a positive one. It was a much bigger city than anything I had seen since Beijing, and it was the most “Western” feeling cities I had been in since Los Angeles. From the perspective of an American, Moscow was unmistakeably European  – cobble stones, winding streets, parks, central squares, etc, etc – but writing this from a Polish train after having visited Scandinavia, Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, I can see how Moscow still had a very Russian feel, especially in the architecture and, of course, the customs and traditions of the people . The same applies below for St. Petersburg, but to a lesser extent: more European than Moscow, but distinctly Russian.

At the end of the fast-paced day in Moscow we met with two other couchsurfers for dinner, and then I made a mad dash for the train. I was almost late due to confusion over which train station was the correct one for my train (there are 3 major ones within less than a city-block of each other), but luckily I made it and was able to get some good sleep on my way to Russia's “Venice of the North.”

St Petersburg (Санкт-Петерб́ург)

I wouldn't expect any of you to remember, but I had originally planned to go immediately to Poland after Moscow – which is not at all in the direction of St. Petersburg. After my almost-mistake regarding the Vietanamese visa, I took the lesson to heart and double checked the visa requirements for the rest of my trip. I discovered that unless I wanted spend 3 days in Moscow and pay for a Belorussian transit visa, my best over-land option for connecting to Poland was a someway tenuous route through Ukraine that didn't sound like much fun (a plane would have been cheaper and faster, but remember that one of my primary goals is minimize the number of flights I take). As an alternative to the Ukraine, I saw that there was a land border between Russian and Finland, nearby to both St.Petersburg and Helsinki. Scandinavia is a place I wanted to see anyway, and I knew I could make a connection to Poland from Germany later in the trip if I still wanted to satisfy my urge to visit my great-grandmother's homeland. Avoiding a visa and visiting Europe's "Land of the Midnight Sun" was enough to send me on my way to St. Petersburg. 
As with Moscow, I arrived quite early in the morning, and as usual, my first step was to figure out exactly where I was in the giant city. A usual safe be is to find a nearby tourist map, subway station, or bus stop, as these often have “You Are Here” markers or identifiable landmarks. (Travel tip: once you've found one of these maps, take a photo of it so you can look it up on your camera later when you're lost again.) After finding myself, my next concern is usually figuring out where to sleep that night – luckily I had already made contact with a young married couple on couchsurfing, Yanis and Yulia, so instead of wandering around until I found a hostel with free beds as I did in Irkutsk, I just jumped on a subway train headed toward their apartment. 
Yanis and Yulia were simply amazing! They were welcoming, fun to talk to, and very sympathetic to needs of a worn out traveler. They offered me some good food, let me shower (much needed after 3 nights in the train), and then I went back out to explore part of the UNESCO World Heritage city - taking advantage of the long daylight hours at nearly 60 degrees North. I took some photos, walked around, and enjoyed hearing more English speakers in one place than I had since Thailand 
The biggest highlight of St. Petersburg, aka Leningrad, was the Herimtage Museum. I could type pages and pages about the Hermitage, but you're probably better of reading a more eloquent source, looking at the virtual tour and taking a peak at my photos to get an idea of the things that I saw. It's huge place, and the 4 or 5 hours I spent there weren't even close to enough time to really enjoy it. Overall, it's a very impressive collection of art and artifacts that are presented in an up-close and personal way within an even more impressive Russian Palace (since when did I become an architecture fan?!). The collection is sometimes compared to the Louve in terms of significance and magnitude. As you would expect, it's crawling with tourists, but the place is big enough to handle the crowds. 
Church of the Savior - St. Petersburg. 

Hermitage Square

Crouching Boy by Michelangelo 

After three days in St. Petersburg it was time to leave, but I had to decide by what method. There are buses, trains, boats, and of course, air planes all providing connection to Helsinki. Airplanes were ruled out on account of principle, the boats looked expensive, and the trains were about twice the price of the buses, so I found myself on an overnight bus to Finland. The bus ride was a memorable one, but I'm currently tired of typing, so I'll save that for next time.

I always have more things I want to say and stories to tell than I have time or energy to type. Russia is no exception. Let me know if there's anything I didn't mention that you want to know about and I'll add it in. I'm writing this largely for your benefit, so I might as well do what I can to keep you happy. 

The maps and photo albums linked at the top of the page have been updated (lots from Russia and sneak peaks at Europe). Go check them out and let me know what you think!


  1. Hello Thomas! Awesome trip. I will be in St. Petersburg in a couple of weeks - any advice on what I should do, expect, or not do?

    1. Erin, you should definitely go to the Hermitage Museum. You aren't allowed to bring food in, nor can you leave and re-enter, and food they sell inside is overpriced and not great, so it's probably best to go in right after you eat lunch. I could only last 4 or 5 hours before I was too tired to concentrate, but there is definitely many many more hours worth of exploring that can be done. Taking more photos inside the subway stations is something I wish I would have done. Couchsurfing in St.P is highly recommended - they have a very active CS group. Nothing else in particular. Make sure you read ahead about the draw bridge closing and opening times. All of the info I found on wikitravel was good: