Imperial Russian Trans-Siberian Train

Beijing to Moscow

russia_map2 russia_map1

31 August 2015 – 14 September 2015

14 Nights / 7 Time Zones

(Beijing 3 nights, Mongolian ‘ger’ 1 night, Train 9 nights, Moscow 1 night)

For most people, this a big Tick on the Box and possibly a Trip of a Life-time.

For me it was both, but from a work-related view, it gave me the opportunity to assess the ‘marketability’ of the product commercially. And on a personal level, it gave me plenty of time for introspection and a chance to embrace the Russian language (which remains a challenge) while chugging along through miles and miles of Siberia.

If you are reading this it might be for a host of different reasons eg.

  • It might be on your Bucket List as well
  • Perhaps you are a colleague in the travel industry and want more insight as to how to sell this product to your clients
  • Or you might just be curious about what I got up to in September!

Whatever your motives, here are a few facts which might be of use:

Regular train services operate across Siberia (with Vladivostok being in the extreme east and Moscow or St Petersburg in the west). These trains purely offer a means of transportation from one side of Russia to the other with loads of stops along the way. These are trains with no-frills and it was indeed on these trains from which Joanna Lumley conducted her recent report for one of the British television channels. Obviously, various excursions and encounters were arranged for her along the way. To try to do this on your own would be quite a challenge (although of course, followme2RUSSIA could provide these services for you!)

So why go for the Luxury Rail option?

If you are familiar with selling safaris in Africa, I would compare the regular train service to selling someone a self-drive Kruger holiday as opposed to a private lodge experience. The former being much cheaper – providing basic accommodation but no meals, no game rangers/trackers with off-road drives and no guaranteed ‘close-up/personal’ experiences. As with a private game lodge by choosing the Luxury Rail option, you receive a fully-inclusive curated experience. The sleeping arrangements have different levels of luxury, which will of course be dictated by the individual’s Budget.

The Imperial Russian train is owned by Russian Railways. This is only the second year they have actually operated their own fully-inclusive trans-Siberian journeys. This year (2015) and last year (2014), they only offered 2 trips: Moscow to Beijing in August, and then the return Beijing to Moscow in September. Next year there will be an expanded offering (details on www.followme2russia.com).

Absolutely everything is included (apart from your bar bill and gratuities) … i.e. Accommodation, regular change of linen/towels, all meals (the meals on the train were excellent but some clients were disappointed with some of the meals in the local restaurants during the excursions), guided excursions at every stop en route as well as bottled water (daily) in your compartment, teas/coffees, videos (although I strongly recommend you take a few of your own … the ones you’ve always been meaning to watch but have never had the time!), and even a doctor on board for the duration of the journey.

The well-known luxury rail company (Golden Eagle Luxury Trains) operates amazing rail journeys throughout the world (as well as a couple of trans-Siberian trips per year) and enjoy an excellent reputation. Interestingly though, for the trans-Siberian journeys they have to hire the coaches from Russian Railways (so on the Imperial Train you are in exactly the same accommodation) and most of the excursions (and even the guides) are the same! The main difference is Golden Eagle does not offer a choice of accommodation – they only offer the most expensive option. Another difference is, Beijing is not included.

So, if you choose the high-end accommodation (which I highly recommend), the cost difference is roughly 30%! Speaking of accommodation …. Here’s a quick summary of the two classes available via followme2RUSSIA:

VIP Compartment: Sleeps 2. Bottom bunk turns into a generous ¾ size bed with great mattress, lovely pillows and duvet. The table is movable and allows for 2 to sit on either side enjoying a cuppa tea, soaking up the views. The bathroom is well-equipped with a stand-up shower cubicle, basin and toilet*

 

Train Cabin Cabin 2 Cabin 3

 

First-Class Plus: Sleeps 2. Bunks are no larger than the seating size (during the day). Bedding is provided. Seating area much smaller than in the VIP Compartment. Share a “wet room” with the neighbouring compartment (i.e. basin and hand-held shower only). There is ONE toilet* per carriage.

 

1st Class Cabin 1st Class Cabin 2

 

*worth noting that in Asia (as is the case on many islands eg. Greek, Spanish and other remote or environmentally conscious destinations), toilets are PAPER-FREE. Bins are provided and are emptied daily on the train. This can sometimes come as a bit of a shock (especially when sharing with lots of other people). So – be warned.

Dining Carriage: The dining car is an elegant affair, and this is where our group spent time together, either before or after meals. The meals were all very nicely prepared and served. Very good wines available as well, and not over-priced. Because we were such a small group, it wasn’t financially viable for there to be a Bar/Viewing Carriage as well. I think this happens very rarely.

Which way? East to West or West to East?

While you might think that it is a very relaxing experience: travelling by train for such a long time (14 nights, of which 9 are on board the train!), this is not entirely the case. It takes a few days to get used to the motion of the train (as well as the clunky noises) so don’t assume you’ll simply be rocked to sleep! And the days start quite early – with a full day tour right after breakfast, not returning to the train until mid-to late-afternoon. This is sometimes frustrating because you might be longing to get back to your ‘home on wheels’ for a quick nap after long walks through museums, churches, mosques, monasteries, historical sites etc. only to discover that the train is NOT waiting on the platform for you! It will have been shunted off into a no-man zone where only empty trains go, making way for the rest of the busy rail service to operate. It generally only returns a little while before departure!

So, things to take into consideration when deciding which route to choose:

Our own (followme2RUSSIA) guide in Moscow told me that her most challenging groups were the ones that had recently disembarked from the trans-Siberian train because (a) they were exhausted (b) they had seen too many churches, museums etc. and sadly couldn’t even get excited about Red Square and the Kremlin and (c) the group was hardly speaking to one another! Yes – 9 nights cooped up in a confined space with the same people is a long time!

If Moscow is the ‘jewel in the crown’ for you (or your client), then I would definitely recommend you start in Moscow while you are still fresh OR (and I favour this option), you start in Beijing and then extend your stay in Moscow by at least 3 nights. This gives you time to catch your breath, say goodbye to your new friends and enjoy this amazing city. OR – extend your stay in Russia to include the magnificent St Petersburg.

Another very important factor to consider is that when you travel from Moscow to Beijing (or Vladivostok) you practically LOSE AN HOUR a day! So you have to get up earlier and earlier every morning! Travelling in the opposite direction from Beijing (or Vladivostok) means you GAIN AN HOUR most days which makes the nights longer and altogether more relaxing.

And a final note for consideration (quite an important one!): The train can be fairly claustrophobic so it is important to prepare for this. One can safely assume that fellow-travellers will be like-minded, interesting people but just worth noting that you are not in your own ‘bubble’. In fact, I chose to dine alone in my compartment (with a dvd) on a couple of occasions and the staff were happy to bring me my meals.

And so the adventure begins … my notes are pretty random; scribbled down as the guides were speaking … So get comfortable with a cuppa tea and buckle up ….

DAY 1

Mon 31 August 2015 – Beijing

09:15 BA arrived 15min ahead of schedule Sailed through Immigration and Customs.

Interesting …. No sign with my name on it. Oops.

Fished out the correspondence for my visa and found the number of the local agent.

Of course I had no idea whether I was supposed to select an extension because everything was in Chinese. So I hung on. Eventually a human voice. Which didn’t speak English. Two transfers later, I reached a gentleman who recognised my name. He said the driver will ‘find me’. I suggested I waited at the nearest coffee shop ‘Lai Cafe’. Eventually a chap came and found me. No sign. But he had my name on his iPhone. Interesting. No English.

I am now in the car. As expected, no sign of the sky.

Taken to the Hilton Hotel – not the Regent as per my paperwork. A bit of an altercation on arrival expressing my disappointment at poor communication.

Anyway, it transpires that the entire area around Tianneman Square is under strict security because of the big parade taking place on Thu 03Sep marking the defeat of Japan in WW2.

Police everywhere. And this is where the Regent Hotel is located – hence the change of hotels.

I had dinner alone in the Hilton’s very nice, friendly dining room. Obviously, I was checking out the rest of the guests and wondering which of them would be my travel companions over the next couple of weeks. By the end of the meal, I’d decided on exactly who was who and even guessed their nationalities!

DAY 2

Tue 01Sep15 – Beijing

09:00am Full day Tour

We all met in the foyer.

All new faces – it turns out none of them dined in the hotel last night. So much for D.I. Normski!

So – 15 in total:

3 from the UK (a lovely couple from the Cotswolds and me)

3 from France (a couple celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary and a lecturer from the Sorbonne)

3 from New Zealand (a couple and the lady’s sister – my age)

3 from USA (a single lady from California and a father and son from South Dakota)

2 from Czech Republic (two blokes – one retired, and one semi-retired)

1 from China (female biker who lives in USA)

Average age of the group probably mid-50’s

Raining. Well, drizzling.

Large tree lined boulevards. Lots of shopping malls.

5 million cars. Odd / even number plates on alternate days. Heavy fines if you are caught with your ‘odd number’ plate on an ‘even number’ day. Big Brother is definitely evident. Remember – no Facebook or Google in China.

Population of Beijing: approx 20m to 25m

Beijing

Beijing (calendar notes):

City very quiet during New Year (Feb).

Family gathering festival 05April (sweeping of family tombs and offering to spirits)

Full moon festival in October

Dragon boat festival in June (the 5th day of the 5th lunar month so the date changes every year. 2016 it will be held on 09-11June)

We arrived at the Temple of Heaven – the largest of Beijing’s imperial parks. We entered via the eastern gate.

Walking tour lasting just under 2 hours.

We visited the Hall or Prayer for Good Harvests: Not about any specific religion. Focus is on food, and giving thanks for having enough to eat!

Blue ceramic tiles on roof. The rest of the building is built of wood. The original Ming Dynasty building was struck down by lightning. The exact replica dates back to 1890.

Pillars on each floor represent days / months etc. and Chinese year symbols.

Amazing construction: absolutely no nails used.

Temple of Heaven

We saw the famous ‘Nine-dragon’ cypress tree 800 yrs old. Its trunk resembles dragons climbing up into the sky (with a bit of imagination).

Nine Dragon Tree

The word ‘nine’ symbolises ‘infinity’.   Everything built around the temple is in multiples of nine.

Driving to a restaurant for lunch. Big boulevards. Loads of trees. But also passed through a more interesting ‘local’ shopping district: not as glamorous but streets and pavements spotlessly clean. Much more character than the rest of the steel and glass city.

13:15pm. Interesting lunch at a local Chinese restaurant. No other foreigners. Passed the Lama Temple. Guide quite vocal about Dalai Lama ;). Uncalled for, I thought.

There’s a moat around the old city.

Loved the small alleys nearby.

Also drove by The Temple of Earth.

Now en route to the Summer Palace (a 1hr drive)

Summer Palace – the playground of Emperors of yore who left the suffocating summer heat of the old imperial city.

We were taken on a boat trip on this large man-made lake.

It’s a favourite place for kite flying.

Rather strange marble boat close to the Palace. A replica of an old famous boat which ‘Sails only in your imagination!’

Imagination Marble Boat

Walked along an open Corridor nearly one km long, depicting the various seasons. Each panel has a different picture. 6,000 in total. Each panel has a story. Omg, exhausting! But interesting.

Supper was at a local ‘duck’ restaurant. It was ok. But I think the Peking duck in our restaurants in Soho London is better. Oops!

Nightcap with John and Zweit (father and son from South Dakota).

DAY 3

Wed 02Sep15 – Beijing

Blue sky! Who said the sky would never be seen in Beijing??

(However, discovered afterwards: huge preparations for Victory celebrations over Japan at Tiananmen Square tomorrow, so all factories closed which will explain clear skies!)

Going to climb the wall today.

600m above sea level

We went to the ‘Badaling’ section of the wall.

Not exactly a pleasant experience. One part of the wall was completely deserted as it was reserved for all the VIPs attending the ceremony / parade on Thu. So – where we were was completely overcrowded. People like ants swarming all over the place. 28C and tough uphill walking. But magnificent blue sky and amazing views.

Nonetheless an incredible sight and achievement: 8,800 km of wall! Very challenging for the elderly … and even some people being pushed in wheelchairs. Crazy.

Lunch was a buffet style affair in a massive, impersonal restaurant near the entrance of the Wall – totally forgettable. And then the 90min journey back to the city.

Great Wall Great Wall 2

We stopped off for a Tea Ceremony. We tasted about 4 different flavours of tea. Of course purchases expected. And of course, I did not disappoint.

Time for a quick shower before meeting the South Dakota boys for a pre-supper drink. The restaurant we went to was the best so far.

A nightcap back at the hotel and then packed ready for a 3:45am wake up call.

DAY 4

Thu 03Sep15 – Beijing to Ulan Bator (Mongolia)

Note: Because the size of the group was very small (approx. 17 passengers), it was cheaper for Russian Railways to fly us to Mongolia than to hire overnight rail carriages from China Railways for the short overnight journey to the Mongolian border. This might not always be the case.

Flight from Beijing to Ulan Bator approx 3hrs. Flew over the Gobi desert. Yurts (gers) visible in the stark surroundings.

Arrived at 10:30 local time. One hour behind China.

Ulan Bator (Genghis Khan Airport) – Mongolia

Surrounded by mountains.

Population of Mongolia only 3million (although 3 times the size of France)

20 ethnic groups.

Capital is Ulan Bator: 1.3m.

1,300m above sea level.

Founded in 1639. The city moved 20 times (easily do-able for nomads with gers!) Average altitude of the country is 1,500m

Seriously unattractive place. Looks a bit battered and bruised. Shame.

Altai mountains – highest peak 4,374m in the west.

Lots of industry – cashmere, leather, building materials etc. Power plants everywhere. Pollution quite bad.

Cyrillic alphabet plus extra two vowels. But pronunciation is different.

English at school is mandatory.

The city has Central heating supplied to everyone 15Sep to 15May. Coal is the source of energy. Solar in the countryside. 266 days a year are sunny.

Mineral resources: Copper, coal, gold, uranium. Oil in the south-east.

Nine districts in the city. Older generations prefer to live in gers.

Gers always face south.

(Winds come from the north)

Wooden base. Sides made of wool. Covered in canvas.

‘Ger’ means home. They have been used since 2,000 years ago.

The country is home to about 350,000 Camels – all have 2 humps. Gestation 12mths.

They can survive up to 30 days without water.

Wrestling is the national sport.

Genghis Khan (b. 31 May 1162) is recognised as the Founder of the Mongol Empire. He unified most of the nomadic tribes of North-East Asia and went on to earn a fearsome reputation, brutally conquering most of Central Asia and China. However he practiced meritocracy and encouraged religious tolerance and is credited with bringing the Silk Road under one political environment increasing communication and trade from NE Asia to Muslim SW Asia and Christian Europe.

After lunch in Town (overlooking the Genghis Khan Square) we headed to the Terelj National Park (one and a half hours). Very beautiful. Steppes. No trees – just magnificent undulating hills.

Buddhist Temple for meditation quite a climb.

After democracy temples were rebuilt. Approx 700 were destroyed during communism.

60% Buddhist. Shaomism still exists.

Genghis Kahn embraced all religions.

Toilets – no comment. Check out the photos.

 

Toilet Toilet 2

Random cows, horses, dogs and even yaks wandering around.

Horses play a major role in Mongolian life. They train them to race with young children. They are also reintroducing horses into the wild. Currently about 500 already running wild. They have larger heads and shorter mains than domestic horses. We were given a presentation on the TV in the bus about the many traditional events that revolve around horses.

Arrived at our accommodation in the middle of the plains (Elstei Ger Camp). No trees. Welcoming fires had been lit inside the gers so they were beautifully warm (the temperature dropped dramatically at sunset). I had my own ger. Four beds – built on wooden structures – arranged around the edge of the ger. Fire in the centre with small table and little stools. Dressing table. No hanging cupboard. Floor covered with an assortment of carpets. All very cozy.

 

Ger 1 Ger 2 Ger 3

Obviously, no bathroom! The walk to the communal bathrooms (loos and showers) was quite a little distance away (close to the dining area).

DAY 5

Fri 04Sep15 – Mongolia

Quite a good sleep on the box-like bed. Lots of layers of bedding. Apart from the dogs barking occasionally, the silence was amazing.

Went to the loo at about 3am! Oh boy. Torch a must. Nearly went into the wrong Ger … They all look exactly the same.

Fab brekkie – tasty chicken soup. Twisted doughnuts, lovely berry jam. Home-made butter.

They showed us how to deconstruct and reconstruct a ger – just for us! Fascinating.

Left at 08:30 to pay a visit to a family in their ger. We were offered horse milk and other Mongolian snacks. Delightful couple and their 2 children. They will soon be packing up their ger to move to greener pastures for their animals.

Locals Ger Mongolia View

We then continued our journey to the Genghis Kahn statue. In the middle of nowhere. 250 tonnes of stainless steel. Houses 2 large rooms: one dedicated to the Bronze Age. The other to the 13th century. Atilla the Hun and all that.  We climbed up through the neck of the horse to a viewing platform. Vast country.

Genghis Kahn Statue Genghis Statue 2 Genghis Statue 3

Left at 09:50

All boys have to go the army for 1 year (unless you pay a lot to the government to be excused!)

Ulan Bator.

Climbed up Zaisan Hill for a view of the city. Seriously unattractive.

Zaisan Hill

We are doing a fair amount of climbing … Great Wall, monastery in Terelj National Park, Genghis Kahn monument and now this hill. But I guess we’ll be sedentary on the train.

When we finally get on the train.

Now to the Buddhist Gandan monastery. We managed to just get inside one of the temples as their Ceremony was about to start.

Main temple has a massive statue of God of Goodness – four hands.. holding 5 colours of silk

God of Wisdom (has Dalai Lama in front)

Circular prayer cylinders which spin around. All over. As you spin them, you say your prayers.

After a death, candles should be lit for 49 days to light up the path for the soul to find its way for a good reincarnation.

13:00 Mongolian barbecue buffet lunch. Excellent. Great selection of salads etc. and then you choose your raw meat together with whatever veg etc. and noodles for the chefs to cook on the hot plate. Sort of tempenyaki-style without the drama. Went down very well.

We were then taken to the Mongolian Museum. For one and a half hours. The Czech guys and I did a duck. It was definitely a question of information overload. We found a coffee shop (with wifi!) and easily found enough to talk about before meeting the group on the Square. Father and son from South Dakota very put out that we sneaked off without them!

Anyway, we all met up briefly only to go our separate ways for an hour. Our very lovely guide Zuwila took me and Maria to a cashmere shop where I managed to do a bit of damage to my friendly flexible plastic card.

We then all met at 6:00pm for a concert of Mongolian music and folklore at the nearby theatre. I admit I dragged my feet and was kind of dreading it. But oh my, oh my – what a fabulous 90min of amazing entertainment and talent. The costumes were beautiful, dancing spectacular and some of the singing absolutely amazing. The last 30min was dedicated to a full orchestra on stage – utterly beautifully turned out. Most of the instruments were completely new to me. One of the soloists played a 2-string instrument. Heart-breakingly beautiful. A couple of the singers had a very strange (like very strange! .. throaty) technique but it was very authentic and traditional Mongolian singing. Altogether a superb concert. We then all piled back on the bus and scooted off to the train station.

Imperial Train

We arrived with 30min to spare. A number of the party had been upgraded to compensate for disappointing delivery of some services in Beijing. So everyone was very happy. Love my new home with private facilities.

Train Brochure

We’re on the train. Finally! Hooray!  Now 9 nights to go!

Meal on Train

Excellent dinner – we all ate far too much and drank far too much …. Just the relief to finally be on the bloody train!  Even had Pinotage! I sat with father and son and Maria (she’s a fabulous lady who lives in California, of Russian parentage / born in Germany and has never been to Russia. What a romantic story!)

Back in my compartment – bed very inviting with lovely soft pillows (so only needed my travel- pillow from London for Mongolia … but thanks Jono!). Quick shower and now to sleep. Can’t wait. Apparently we will be crossing the border into Russia at about 1:00am. The attendants have our passports so hopefully we won’t have to be ‘checked’.

I plan on having a lie in …

DAY 6

Sat 05Sep15 – On board the train

Lie-in? Haha

We only reached the Mongolian border at about 6:00am. The attendants knocked on our doors at 8:00am saying we had to go to breakfast. I managed to have a quick shower before making my way to the restaurant carriage (next one along). Had some porridge and then almost immediately we had to return to our compartments to await the border officers. Oh boy – what a lengthy process. The Mongolian custom officials boarded the train and checked everyone’s documents. This took about 3 hours. The train then rumbled along a few kilometres to the Russian border where it was their turn to come on board. Another 3 hours. In fact we didn’t move until lunch time!

At least we were allowed off the train to walk about at the station.

Lovely lunch. Salad, borsch and then some beef with roast veg and pasta. Fresh fruit salad.

Came back to have a nap.

And then clackety-clack ….

Dinner

Clackety-clack …

DAY 7

Sun 06Sep15 – Ulan Ude

5,640km to Moscow 

The train was stationary for most of the night. Apart from some random fireworks going off at about 9:30pm it was an un-eventful night.

Woke up at 6-ish. We left the train at 8:00am for breakfast. Lovely sunny day though still quite chilly so early.  We were driven 10min down the road to a hotel for breakfast. Very odd. Bog-standard hotel. Restaurant down a passage. No view. Meagre offerings. But they did have kasha (porridge)! No explanation given why we were taken there. Down to communication again.

It’s Sunday so I think maybe the staff needed a day off. Who knows.

Ulan Ude was founded in the 17th century by the Russians.

Population 500,000.

Half Russian half Buryat (descended from Mongols).

Both languages have to be studied at school.

Religion: Buryat / Buddhists (traditional Tibetan) / Shaman

Industry: helicopter manufacturing and locomotives.

Nice pedestrian streets. Opera house.  Buryat University.

Soviet Town Square : Largest monument of Lenin’s head (built in 1971) to mark his 100th anniversary.

Lenin Head

Two Large rivers. Selenga from Mongolia to Baikal, and the Ude River

Quite rich in agriculture, even though it is such a short season. Hot summers. Very cold winters. Russians are the farmers.  Buryats have animals. They live in yurts (slightly different to the gers in Mongola).

Part of the town houses are made of wood and have no heating or running water. They gather wood year round for warmth. And have deep wells for water.

Only main roads are tarred.

We drove south for about 45min to the Buddhist monastery. Built in 1945.

Passed through a Buryat village of about 5,000 inhabitants. They have their own administration, schools etc.

Pieces of cloth hanging from the trees. Based on what year you are born. You write your name on it and then it’s supposed to bring you good luck.

No visas required between the two neighbouring countries.

At the temple you are expected to walk around clockwise before entering the temple. Spin the wheels for prayers.

Only university in Russia to study Buddhism eg. the green and yellow temple is where philosophy is taught. Men only. Education is free – depending on your results.

Main temple has over 1,200 statues of Buddha.

Main palace devoted to the most famous Buddhist monk in Russia, Dashi-Dorzho Itigelov. After WW1 he tried to encourage the continuation of Buddhism by proving miracles ..  He ‘died’ in 1928. Buried and exhumed in 1955 and again in 1973. His body is still in the lotus posture as he wished, and after being exhumed again in 2002, it was discovered that his body was still showing very little signs of decay …. Google it.

Buddhist monastery Buddhist monastery 2

We were treated to a traditional Buryat musical concert at the hotel. Love the Morin khur (2 stringed instrument)

Buryat Concert Buryat Concert 2

Arbizhil

Buryat village – we had lunch in a wooden yurt. Delicious! The alcohol was 45% strength and slipped down nicely.

Princess Anne visited the village in the 90’s. In preparation of the visit, workers spent the night laying a tarred road to the village from the main road.  They didn’t quite finish it in time so the villagers filled the last kilometre with carpets! The locals were told not to crowd the royal entourage of 150 so HRH only met 2 people … The local doctor at the hospital which she visited. There were no patients so they put the oldest lady in the village in a bed to pretend she was ill. So she met HRH!

After lunch we played ‘throwing the bones’. The bones are from the ankles of a sheep. So each sheep produces 4 bones. The bones are then collected over the generations and kept in the family to play the game. The bones have 4 sides. The challenge is to flick one bone against a similar one without touching any of the others. The one who collects the most ‘flicked’ bones, is the winner.

The traditional sports are horse riding, wrestling and archery.  Quite a few in the group tried their hand at archery, while others walked around the hostess’s vegetable garden.

Buryat Archery

I decided to have a light supper in my cabin and watch a Russian dvd. Fab.

Lots of coughing going on in the carriage. The Kiwi couple struggling and now the neighbours from the Cotswolds. The lovely French couple on the other side of me are very worried that I’ll pass on the ‘microbe’.

Clackety-clack …

DAY 8

Mon 07Sep15 – Lake Baikal in the middle of the eastern part of Siberia

Siberia is 7million square kilometres. Pause. Process.  

Construction for the trans-Siberian railway was started simultaneously from the east and the west. Lake Baikal is where the tracks met. A Newcastle firm was involved with building a ship to connect the two ports across the lake. 

336 large rivers flow into the lake. 

646km long (same as the distance between Moscow and St P)

Width is 27 to 80km.

Depth 1,637m. 

Equals 20% of the world’s fresh water. 

Over 25m years old. The oldest lake on the planet. Pause. 

Over 3,500 species of plants and animals. 2,600 are endemic. 

Very clear water… visibility up to 40m. When it’s iced over you can see the fish beneath the ice. Very strong ice: coped with huge army trucks during the war. 

Volume of water: 25,000 cubic km. 

In size, Lake Tanganyika in Africa is in second place. Its volume is 12,700 cubic km

The lake is surrounded by mountains. 

Raining. Sadly. But a very impressive place.

There is an 85km museum (!) with ships from the Soviet times, homes etc.

We went by boat from Port Baikal to Listvyanka – pretty village. Very popular in the summer months.

Outflow of the Angara river – Shaman Rock.

We visited the main museum. Omg – information overload – but truly fascinating. We didn’t see ALL 3,500 species but I’m sure our guide would’ve dragged us through every fish and micro-organism if we’d let her.

Lake Baikal

I thought the most interesting was the Baikal seal ‘Nyerpa’ which weighs 120kg.

Nyerpa

Tastiest fish is ‘omul’

Fauna incl. sable, bears, lynx, wolves.

In the 19th century, 20,000 Polish people were exiled to Siberia. Some were very well educated and studied the lake contributing enormously towards the knowledge about the lake.

One of the Polish scientists devoted his life to studying the lake. A hill was given his name Cherski which we went up by chairlift. (Well, I didn’t – too cold / too wet!)

Had a coffee stop – free wifi!

Souvenir shop.

Market – fish etc

Lunch (erm … raw fish starter … didn’t go down too well with everyone).

Baikal hotel Lunch

Back to the train. Yay

We trundled for a while along the lake and the further west we travelled, the better the weather became. By the time we stopped for our picnic right beside the lake, the sun was shining. There was a lovely old steam train parked by the lake – a reminder of where the tracks actually met when the railway was built.

Lake Baikal Steam Train Lake Baikal Steam Train 2 Picnic Stop

The cook and some locals made a great barbecue (chicken and pork kebabs (served with tasty fresh salads and vodka). One of the Czech guys stripped (kind of) and swam in the lake. Very brave! It was still fairly light when we boarded the train again so we all adjourned for a few more vodkas in the dining carriage. Not such a clever move.

Clackety-clack zzzzzzzzz

DAY 9

Tue 08Sep15 – Irkutsk

Move clocks back an hour

Capital of Eastern Siberia

Population: 588,000

Founded in 1661

5,185km to Moscow

Nice looking city – on river

Attractive railway station next to the river.

I opted to stay on the train. Wasn’t feeling too bright … too much vodka last night.

Managed to rest, read and think a lot (didn’t reach any conclusions though!).

Also chatted to the lovely couple from Gloucestershire, Christine and Eddy who also stayed on the train. Both rather poorly.

I’d like to have seen the Volkonsky House – Museum. A duck-egg blue and white home of the Decembrist Count Sergei Volkonsky whose wife Maria Volkonskaya cuts the main figure in the Christine Sutherland’s un-put-down-able book ‘The Princess of Siberia’.

Had supper in my compartment – very tasty leftovers from the picnic the night before. Delicious.

Clackety-clack

DAY 10 

Wed 09Sep15 – All day on the train. 

Move clocks back an hour. 

Siberia all the way.

Actually so far my favourite day.

Scenery spectacular. Massive forests and then huge expanses of fields. Small villages dotted along the way. The houses are all built of wood, with tiny windows. How do these people survive the winter months?? Lots of activity involving chopping wood – stock piling for the cold months. Only the main highways tarred now. All the villages have dirt roads. Must be such a mess in winter.

Autumnal colours truly magnificent.

At 4:00pm we were treated to champagne and a performance by a very good violinist who played some popular music in the restaurant carriage which had been rearranged into a little concert hall.

Stopped at Krasnoyarsk – big city – and we had a 20min walk up and down the platform. A few jitters from our hosts lest the train pulled out without us!

‘Paka-paka!’ (Bye-bye)

Clackety-clack … zzzzz

DAY 11 

Thu 10Sep15 – Novosibirsk

Move clocks back an hour

Capital of Siberia

Population: 1.5m

3,343km to Moscow

Ok, so I didn’t get off the train! Hideous streaming head cold. It was inevitable.

Don’t feel like I missed out..

But here’s the low-down according to the Lonely Planet: ‘Russia’s third-largest city has embraced its status as capital of Siberia and has opened its doors to the world. A slew of quirky museums and monuments, a relaxed big-city vibe and pulsating nightlife ..’ ‘The city is festooned with original examples of the wood-lace architecture that prevailed at the time before the Soviets took over and started chucking concrete everywhere’

By the way I have to mention again – the autumnal colours of the Siberian countryside are utterly magnificent. Sometimes huge forests of skinny, upright yellow-leaf birch trees and then sometimes massive expanses of open fields. Very beautiful. And this is what the train journey is about! Mind-boggling.

Siberia Train Views

Clackety-clack …

DAY 12

Fri 11Sep15 – Yekaterinburg

Move clocks back an hour

Founded in 1723.

Population. 1.4m (4th largest city in Russia)

1,814km to Moscow

Lots of people from China, Kazakhstan and the former Soviet countries.  

Thriving industry – mainly minerals.  Mining UGMK – ore, copper. No oil or gas but they have factories that produce machinery for oil and gas industry. 

The city has a mayor and a governor. The latter is in charge of the region. There is a struggle for supremacy. Putin appoints the governor so he is more important. 

Lots of parks and trees.

Modern city. Lovely riverside boulevards.  Deloitte has a huge office on the riverbank. Also spotted Price Waterhouse.

A few wooden houses dotted amongst the very modern buildings.

Concert hall is a Soviet style ugly thing. Stadium is quite central – being reconstructed.

Opera house is a beautiful imposing building opposite the main university complex.

The border between Europe and Asia is 15km outside the city. Yekaterinburg is in Asia.

On our way there, we stopped to see the Memorial in honour of the people who were sent to the concentration camps (gulags) during Stalin’s rule.

Our pretty guide Tatiana told us about her great grandfather who was taken away in 1937 after an innocent dinner party during which he sang a song about Stalin.  He was never seen or heard from again. Her grandmother died not knowing how or where her husband ended his days. Unbelievable. And this is only one tiny little story ….. It will take a long time for Russian people to be less suspicious of people’s motives. What a painful history.

Stalin’s daughter is still alive and lives in the U.S.  She gives rare interviews and of course says that he didn’t know about the repressions etc. Yeah right.

Wedding days generally take place on Fridays and Saturdays and the bride and groom go on a guided tour! Really? Yes.

Average salary RUB30,000 per month. Approx USD500. Of course many businessmen earn much more than this. Monthly electricity bill is less than USD10 

A Kindergarten teacher works from 07:00 to 18:00hrs and earns USD500 a month. 

Big divide between rich and poor.  

Also a large gypsy quarter – behind fences along the highway. 

We had lunch at a nice restaurant – Pashtet (French pate)

Cathedral of Blood

Cathedral of Blood

The last Tsar and his family and 4 servants were brought to Yekaterinburg on 30th Apr 1918.  They stayed for 78 days before being executed in July in the basement of the house in which they were housed. Pretty horrific. Very moving visit. This was definitely a Big Tick on my List. No doubt, you (dear reader) know enough about these tragic events so I will not expand on the history. Suffice to say that a beautiful and amazing museum has been built on the exact place where the execution took place as a tribute to the Romanovs.

DAY 13

Sat 12Sep15 – Kazan

Move clocks back 2 hours – now same time as Moscow. 

Population: 1.14m

820km to Moscow

Kazan – part of Russia since the 17th century – Ivan the Terrible. 45% Russians / 45% Tatars (Muslim) / 10% others. Very tolerant of all religions. Kazan means ‘cauldron’

Guide : Luisa (best guide of the trip – hilarious)

‘Alghar’ – go forward. … There is no word in the Tartar language to ‘go back’

Very well designed city. Magnificent modern buildings / hotels

Beautiful sunny day. Cold though.

Tatars. Used to be called Bulgars.

(Bulgaria was formed by the old Bulgars/Tartars in the 7th century)

The snow leopard is Tartastan’s emblem.

Magnificent river (Kazanka – a tributary of the Volga) and Lake with restaurants and parks, walkways along the banks.

We went to see the Famous Icon (Mother of God) – to do with sight – at one of the 60+ churches.  

We walked down a pedestrian street with 2 mosques (in Tatar area), and beautiful wooden houses.

Kazan Kazan 2

Catherine the Great gave permission for the mosques to be built in stone, with the minarets emerging from the roof (no longer separate). There are 60 mosques in the city.

We went into the main mosque where only men are normally allowed : shoes off etc. and then we were given a lesson about Islam. Really interesting.

Football stadium for 40,000. Was used for FINA – and then was remodelled into 2 swimming pools. Will be changed back into a football stadium for 2018.

Very impressive university buildings – loads of famous scholars in mathematics, chemistry etc.

A number of famous people were born in Kazan viz. Lenin, Leo Tolstoy, Rudolf Nureyev and some famous astronauts etc etc .

We visited the beautifully preserved church of St Peter & Paul.

St Peter Paul

Synagogue close by.

Second shipyard in Russia built in Kazan (1st was St P)

Lunch – although in a shopping centre (?), it was very nice. Salad, soup, some kind of meat with cheesey sauce and flat pancake filled with cheese (?). As well as the triangle pie things we were taught to make during our cookery class in the restaurant. Basically – Cornish pasties!

After lunch we had a drive to the suburbs of the city. We wanted to see the ‘real’ Kazan – where are the imperfections and the ‘dirty’ bits? (Turns out there aren’t many ..)

One chap was inspired to build a ‘place of all religions’ .. he started on his own plot and slowly progressed to adjacent land. He never received money from the government but received many generous, private donations which enabled him to continue with the vision.

He died 2 years ago.

There is also a Concert hall for young talented people to perform.

We were very lucky we happened to visit the place at the time when a concert was taking place. Very local. Very lucky to have witnessed this.

Quite an incredible place of peace and harmony.

Place of all religions Place of all religions 2

Kazan Kremlin 

Originated in the 10th century – built in WOOD. It has subsequently been rebuilt in bricks and mortar.

Ivan the Terrible conquered the Kazan Kremlin in the 16th century

A Unesco site since 2000

Kazan Kremlin

We also went into the mosque – into the gallery area from where we could see the entire proceedings.

In the gallery downstairs somebody is always reading out the Koran 24/7 – in 2-hr stints.

Views from the Kazan Kremlin amazing. Such an incredibly beautiful city.

This will be one of the most popular and beautiful Football World Cup 2018 venues. For sure.

Kazan Kremlin 2 Kazan Kremlin 3

Last night on the train!

Champagne before dinner

Quite emotional ..

Clackety clunk ….

DAY 14

Sun 13Sep15 – Moscow

Population: 12m

Finally!

Founded in the 12th century (1147) by Yury Dolgoruky known as ‘long arms’ because he was able to spread his power. The Mongols destroyed the city in the 13th century. And then there is the fascinating succession of the Princes Ivan: 1st (Moneybags), 2nd (didn’t do much), 3rd (the Great), 4th (the Terrible). Then in 1712 Peter the Great relocated the capital to St Petersburg. And then the French (Napoleon and his bandits) caused further damage and suffering to poor old Moscow. But after the Napoleonic Wars the city was rebuilt and industry prospered. The Bolsheviks gained control of Russia in 1917 and the capital returned to Moscow. Stalin’s influence on the architecture in the city is very evident – the stark neo-Gothic skyscrapers continue to be landmarks in the city.

Anyway …. Back to ‘my’ trip…

We arrived at Kazansky Station – situated on the 3-railway square: Leningradsky, Yaroslavsky in the eastern part of Moscow.

Moscow Moscow 2 Moscow 3

We immediately embarked on a City Tour:

The wall around the city only survived 200 years; the ring roads around the city have been built where the city walls used to be. Most of the monasteries were founded in the 14th century. Most were rebuilt and strengthened in the 16th century.  The Kremlin was originally built in wood, then lime stone. Then finally rebuilt by Ivan the Great (3rd) – with help from the Italians in the 15th century – but stayed ‘white’ right up until after WW2!  The Tatars ruled the country for 260 years. Ivan the Terrible (4th) took his army to Kazan and held the city under siege for 6months and finally beat the Tatars.  Lenin died in Jan 1924. His body was frozen and embalmed into a mausoleum.  Stalin took over leadership 4 years before Lenin died because Lenin had a stroke.  The people did not give Stalin the same treatment because by then the news about the gulags etc. had become known.  So Stalin’s body is buried behind Lenin’s. But his body has not been embalmed. 

Ok … so enough about the history lesson. Pages could be written about the Kremlin and Red Square alone. You need to go and see and hear for yourselves!

We had lunch in a touristy spot at Red Square and then everyone was taken to their hotels for a final night together as a group. The 2 Czech guys and I once again bucked the system because we had managed to get tickets to the Bolshoi to see one of the most magnificent Russian Opera of all: Boris Gudonov. I will never be able to see it anywhere else. What a way to end the tour!

Red Square

The Group disbanded in the morning. Some went on to St Petersburg and some went home. I cannot emphasize strongly enough that Moscow simply isn’t do-able in one day. If it is unlikely that you will return, I highly recommend you extend your stay by at least 2 nights to do it justice (and bear in mind you will be quite tired after the long journey), and then it is almost mandatory to travel up to St Petersburg for a few days (at least 3). And that magnificent city, my friends, is another magical story.

Apologies for the quality of my iPhone pics, but happy to share a great video which one of the Czech guys (Viktor) has put together of the trip.

I urge you to go!

Dasvidanya

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