We decided to fly from Vladivostok back to Moscow, as we already had a roundtrip flight between Vienna and Moscow and thus booked the cheapest option - Aeroflot. We were a bit skeptical, but I have to admit this was the most comfortable long-distance flight I ever had. The food served was delicious and the staff amazingly friendly!
It's an 8 hour flight back to Moscow but also the most expensive leg of our trip as we booked very late. Make sure to set about 300-400 Euros aside for flying across the country (it was worth it though, going back by train would have NOT been an option for us at the point ;)).
12 September 2013
View of the harbor and city
If you're lucky enough to catch a non-foggy day in Vladivostok head up to the Eagle's nest. You can go up the hill by a funicular or walk up a flight of stairs! You'll have great view of Vladivostok's harbor and maybe even catch a glimpse of some of Russia's Pacific fleet ships, which has its home north of the city. That's also the reason you might see submarines and heavy war ships floating around in the bay.
11 September 2013
After those long train rides we wanted to reward ourselves with something delicious and while walking along Svetlanskaya Street we found the perfect place - a café called Presto. Artsy crowd, jazz background music and most mouth-watering pastries and cakes. And the coffee! Awesome espresso, perfect cappuccinos! Heaven! If you're in Vladivostok you have to go there!
Pedestrian Zone & Pier
Vladivostok is a really awesome place to just sit at the pier or wander through the pedestrian zone in order to slowly realize that you just traveled 9288km and are currently further east than North Korea. Enjoying the city for this relaxed perspective is at least what we did during the first day, because traveling by train through 7 time zones might make you let forget how far you've come and how much time you spent traveling already. Furthermore it was the last and furthest away from home, but weirdly also the most European place we've been too. Yes - except for the Pacific, but most places around had an interesting European touch to it.
10 September 2013
SeeYou Hostel Vladivostok
This is a nice hostel and like many others in Russia, located in a bigger flat. Clean, spacious and cool people to meet! The beds might have been taken directly from a submarine, but they are surprisingly comfortable! From the window you overlook the bay area and might even see submarines emerging from the water (yep, that's kind of weird).
Easily bookable via hostelworld.com and the directions provided should help you find the place without any problems!
End of Transsiberian Railway
If you traveled 9288km by train you will definitely want to document that. Stop by at the train station again if you don't feel like it straight after arriving and have a go and enjoy the fact that you just crossed most of Russia from west to east!
9 September 2013
Russian San Francisco
Khabarovsk is an interesting city located at the river Amur, being called 'the San Francisco of Russia' because of some somehow similar hills around the town. There are some interesting museums to visit, which were closed unfortunately the day we were in the city. The pier is definitely a cool place to hang out... there was some weird afternoon-party going on when we arrived, we couldn't really get the sense. It has a bit of an apocalyptical feel, but we actually very much enjoyed the vibe when walking around the hills of Khabarovsk.
8 September 2013
Items you NEED on the train
This is a basic list of things that I always kept close to me on the train once I stuffed away my backpack (and yeah - no Russian girl travels by backpack by the way ;))
- Leatherman and easy-to-wash camping fork/knife/spoon
- Little plastic bowl or cup (for tea/coffee, but also soup and noodles!)
- Basic toiletries
- Toilet paper
- Wet wipes (substituing no shower for more than a day)
- eBook reader/book
- Flip-Flops for walking around on the train
- Some money if you want to stop by at the onboard restaurant (though most of them are ridiculously overpriced)
- Pictures of home if you meet nice Russians
7 September 2013
Accepting that Russian people simply are unfriendly, it's not you! :)
I had a hard time understanding why Russians would often act annoyed or unfriendly upon meeting us. Mostly this is nothing personal but rather the general perception of European backpackers traveling through their country without any interest in the culture. As me and my friend both understand and speak Russian it was an interesting experience to hear people talk about us in the train, wondering why young girls would carry big heavy backpacks and are traveling on their own. Often, once we made the first step and showed that we were in fact interested in who we shared the wagon with, people opened up and invited us for tea and started talking.
Food on the train
Between Ulan-Ude and Khabarovsk we spent 53 hours on the train. These are my basic recommendations on food:
- Take a lot of water with you (start off with about 3 liters)
- Stock up on crackers and bread
- Take some fresh vegetables for the first day
- All wagons have a samovar, giving you access to an endless supply of drinkable hot water (bring instant noodles, tea and coffee)
- In bigger cities the train stops for about 30 minutes, hop off and by delicious Russian food from women on the platform
- Be prepared that Russians don't understand what you're doing because they brought hard-boiled eggs and half a chicken
6 September 2013
Due to the timing of our Olkhon Island trip, we had to catch our next train in Ulan-Ude which is already east of the Lake Baikal. We got there by driving in a minibus for about 7 hours, which I would not recommend at all! Also the part of the Transsiberian Railway running along the Southern end of the Lake Baikal is supposed to be one of the most scenic parts, which you shouldn't miss. We sacrificed this part of the journey as we decided to spend one more night on the island in order to have enough time for biking around and swimming.
5 September 2013
If you feel more like enjoying the nature I would recommend renting a bike for a few hours! This was a great day because we ended up packing some food to have a picnic on the top of a hill, where nobody was except for us, some butterflies and wild horses. Peaceful and beautiful!
Swimming in Lake Baikal
If you believe the myths evolving around the water's mystic powers you should definitely head for the beach. Because if you dive into Lake Baikal's ice-cold waters, it is said you're adding about 7 seven years to your life-time! And believe me - it's cold!!
4 September 2013
North of the island
Even though it's just an island in a lake - don't forget about the dimensions! Olkhon island measures about 71km in length, which means you won't see too much within a day if you just hike around. The only way to get to the Northern part of the island is actually to book a tour, which is going to include a minibus ride to the most scenic points on the way to the cliffs in the North and in our case an interesting tasting fish soup. It's definitely going to be an adventure because you're solely driving along paths through the forest and sand dunes as there are no paved roads on the island at all. :)
Close to Khuzir, the biggest 'town' on the island, where also most of the accommodations are located, you will find the Shaman's Rock at the shore. This is the holiest place for the indigenous people of Buryat, which are still worship natural sacred shrines like rock formations and certain trees.
If you have hiking shoes with you and feel comfortable climbing up some steps, find yourself a place close to the top and watch the sunset. This is one of the most beautiful sunsets I've ever witnessed.
3 September 2013
Definitely try and spend your nights at Nikita's. This more or less a little village on its own in Khuzir (island's main town) and if they are full they will try and find a place to stay for you at their neighbours. The rate for a night usually also includes meals, which is great because you can taste local food and there are not that many restaurants around Khuzir. The homestead is also only a short walk away from the shore, which makes it a great place. There you also book trips and get tips about hiking and biking trails.
Just be aware that it's all very basic accommodation - there is no running water on the island!
If you have enough time you NEED to go to Olkhon Island. Plan to spend at least one night there, as getting there and back can be quite cumbersome. There are minibuses leaving from Listvyanka and also Irkutsk, which you can book at most hostels.
Prepare yourself for a long journey as you probably have to wait a few hours to advance in the waiting line to cross over to the island via ferry. This on the other hand gives you the possibility to go off and explore the amazing landscape and immensely fascinating views of Lake Baikal.
The island is one of the most beautiful places I've been to, check the other tips for more info!
2 September 2013
Enjoy some smoked fish at the markets while admiring the views of the world's biggest and deepest freshwater lake. Learn a bit about the rich biodiversity of the lake's environment in the museum (english signs too!) There are even freshwater seals living in the lake, though they are rarely spotted in wildlife - don't go to the seal-show, it's a very over-priced and touristy place where they have little seals jump through hoops. Take some time wandering along the shore, we heard visiting little villages around for a daytrip is a great idea too.
1 September 2013
We stayed two nights at this place in the town of Listvyanka which lies at the shore of Lake Baikal instead of spending more time in Irkutsk, as we heard excellent feedback about this cosy energy-efficiently built hostel and the beauty of the lakeshore.
Make sure they got your booking right, they are often overbooked and quite chaotic! Otherwise it's a great, friendly place - they even have a sauna open to everybody and you'll definitely meet some interesting people there. The 'normal' tourist usually doesn't find his way to a hostel uphill from Listvyanka village.
Picture taken from baikaler.com.
31 August 2013
Life on the train
The 18 hours from Krasnoyarsk to Irkutsk was our first 'longer' train journey as the other cities were mostly about 8 hours apart.
Spending a whole day with Russians in a train can be difficult. Me and my friend spent this part of the trip in different wagons because of the ticket availability. She spent 18 hours next to 4 dogs, I had a charming worker from a Northsiberian pipeline with golden teeth and two students from Irkutsk as my very interested/interesting neighbours. From the question if I wanted to teach my future children Russian back to their amazing knowledge of English ('blue', 'car', etc.), we talked about everything.
30 August 2013
Stolby Nature Reserve
When we broke our trip at Krasnoyarsk we read about a Nature Reserve, easily reachable by bus and a chairlift. So we deposited our backpacks at the storage room at the train station and headed out to the nature because we had enough of running through Russian cities at that point.
Consider this as a little day hike - there are only few signs, beautiful views for hiking not too far and interesting rock formations, the nature reserve is known for! You are most likely also alone, because Russians mostly only go up the chairlift to the café as we noticed, because up their they seem to realize that there is no way to get further in high heels. :)
29 August 2013
Time to talk about time zones
While crossing the country on a train you have to be aware that you are passing 7 time zones while on the way! I point that out because ALL Russian train stations run on Moscow time. Also, all train tickets you get have the time printed in Moscow time on it.
What worked best for me was to have my iPod or Kindle on Austrian time (to not get lost at all), have my phone on Moscow time and change times on my clock according to the time zones of where I was at.
This may sound confusing... and it is - sometimes. But once you just accept the fact that it is a confusing and weird system it works better - I promise ;)
28 August 2013
People's Bar and Grill
This is a Russian food chain, although very much decorated in an American style. They have great deals and can be found throughout Siberian cities - if you feel like a hearty meal and some Siberian beer, you have to stop by at 'гриль-бар People's'!
27 August 2013
Off the 'beaten track' - Tomsk!
Tomsk is definitely a very beautiful city, old wooden buildings all around and lots of parks, trees and overall green spaces in the city. AND the biggest 1 Rubel coin made out of wood in the whole world. Don't miss that! ;) We spent two nights there to rest a bit from the train rides and have some relaxing days in one of the nicest towns in Siberia. There are also a lot of young people around as it's a popular student town and you can find signs of 'real civilization' like a 'Cinnabon' in the middle of the city.
The wooden lookout tower is a great place to start, as you get a feeling for the city and it's surroundings!
26 August 2013
Russian canteens as a (delicious) budget food option
As we visited several cities where we could not find exceptional things to do (Omsk, Novosibirsk especially), we spent a lot of time exploring the Russian cuisine! :)
A good tip to get by on a tight budget is eating in Russian canteens (столо́вая). My tip: Вилка-Ложка
Try the борщ whenever you feel real Russian, because canteens are known to have the best Borschtsch.
Still, most traditional Russian food consists of stews, soups and other dishes for colder seasons, so don't feel bad if you often opt for something else while traveling in summer.
I'm personally a fan of Vilka-Lozhka's блины (Russian pancakes), which you can get sour or sweet!
25 August 2013
If you are as crazy as we were you most likely want to see every Siberian city in-between Moscow and Lake Baikal if possible. Something we learned: One day is often enough even if you're amazingly motivated to meet locals and see everything, you are doing fine by arriving in a city in the morning, storing your luggage at the train station, walking around the city and leaving in the evening to your next destinations.
BUT I guess you want to shower, right? Most big train stations offer showers for a small fee, which is something we valued a lot!
24 August 2013
Sleeping at the train station
An option we did not consider at the beginning was to sleep at the train stations. A lot of the stations offer rooms for prices that are pretty competitive with most hostels or cheap hotels. This makes your life so much easier if you have to re-arrange and break your trip at a less touristy place (like Omsk), where even taxi drivers ask why on earth you would come to visit the city. Our looking-for-accommodation-in-Omsk-experience also almost ended with us having to stay at a place where you... let's say rather pay for hours than nights, which is why I strongly recommend opting for train station rooms if in doubt ;)
23 August 2013
Europe - Asia Border
Buy as bus ticket to Pervouralsk at the inter-city bus station in Jekaterinburg and ask the driver to let you off at the Europe - Asia Border (yes, you are already in Asia at that point!). The driver is going make you leave the bus somewhere along the road - do not freak out. Find the path into the woods and follow for a few minutes. Soon you're going to see a huge pillar, marking the border between the 2 continents. Do not get confused by the second 'official border' which is located a bit closer to the railway tracks. In Russia the border you choose is the official one!
22 August 2013
Jekaterinburg is a good place to spend about a day (even except visiting the Europe-Asia border). It was the first real industrial Siberian city we visited, which is why we were still impressed by the old Soviet buildings combined with the modern flair in the center. You also find fun stuff like stone keyboards and a Beatles monument around the city and if you're interested in the history of Russian Tsars - the Romanov cathedral is the right place to start your journey back in time.
21 August 2013
The common known Transsiberian Railway actually passes Nizhny Novgorod, but we decided to go a bit off track on our first part, as Kazan is a beautiful city, with the Kremlin being UNESCO World Heritage and also housing the biggest European Mosque - the Qolsharif Mosque. Furthermore it is the capital of the Russian Republic Tatarstan, a great place to see Christian and Muslim influence mixing into an amazing city.
20 August 2013
Traveling Platskartny (3rd class)
A big part of our journey we obviously spent on the train. As we travelled the cheapest way possible - third class or платцкартний билeт - we shared the wagon with about 50 other travelers. The third class wagons are organized in bunk beds, 4 beds on one side of the aisle and 2 on the other side. The lower beds can be used as seats during the day, in order to have your meals sitting at a table.
On both ends of the wagon you find a little bathroom (a simple toilet and a sink) which mostly do have running water. The conductor - проводница (mostly a woman) is responsible for keeping the compartments and bathrooms clean.
Booking train tickets II
Unfortunately when we traveled in 2012 could only book online using a Russian credit card and the booking process couldn't be switched to English.
Booking directly at counters in train stations can be a hassle as most ticket officers don't speak anything else than Russian. Have everything you need wrote down (date, cities, class, maybe times etc.) in order to make the process as easy as possible. Just bring a lot of patience and friendly smiles with you and you'll be just fine :)
Another option is to get an agency to book your tickets, we met backpackers who did that, but they spent about 200 Euros more for train tickets on average.
Booking train tickets
Traveling via the Transsib does not work the Interrail-way unfortunately. You have to buy tickets to and from each city you want to visit. 'Transsiberian Railway' also only describes the tracks connecting cities from west to east and not a specific train - there are those kinds of very fancy tourist-trains crossing the country, but these are most likely out of most people's price range (outside of ours for sure!). So we aimed for the cheapest option possible - booking train tickets at the counters and via rzd.ru, the official website of the Russian Railway Organization.
19 August 2013
Sushi in Russia? Hell yeah!
If you believe it or not - Sushi is wildly popular in Russia and there are more Sushi Restaurants in Moscow than in Tokyo!
Russians may not fully commit to a Japanese food experience when serving Sushi (you'll find Sushi fast food chains, Philadelphia Roll + Mojito Combos and Sushi might also describe Maki), but it was fresh and delicious anywhere we tasted it - and cheap! Try especially the rolls with Kaviar to get a 'cuisine fusion experience' :)
The Russian word кремль translates into 'fortress', which definitely is the first word that comes to your mind at first sight of the high walls surrounding the complex. It is the official residence of the president of the Russian federation and an enormous tourist attraction. It is a pretty mainstream place to go to, but you want to have seen it! Get your tickets online or try visit during the week to avoid waiting in line for hours. Fun fact? Vladimir Putin commutes back and forth in a Soviet-designed Mi-8-helicopter.
It's a great place to watch Russian tourists as well. 'A canon! Let's have a picture in front of it, but let's NOT smile!'
18 August 2013
Izmailovo Kremlin, Vodka Museum & market
Apart from the well-known Kremlin in Moscow, there is a second one a bit outside of the center (but still easily reachable via the metro). The Izmailovo Kremlin is a beautiful complex with some buildings completely built from wood which is mostly used for weddings, fairs and city events - don't be surprised by all the limousines standing around!
It also houses the Vodka museum (entrance ticket includes a shot of vodka!). It mostly shows different types of vodka and some creative bottles, but is still a nice place to visit in combination with the Izmailovo Kremlin and especially the outside market! PERFECT souvenir shopping place!
If you want to enjoy the nightlife of Moscow, but are traveling without fancy high heels - this might be the place. Most of nightclubs won't let you in if you're net dressed 'Russian style'. This club is a great mix as foreigners, students and Russians go there to drink and dance. Only order vodka - you want to try and blend in ;)
17 August 2013
Godzillas Hostels is a super-nice and pretty hostel chain, which offers a great start into traveling in Russia. It is a bit pricier than other hostels, but has comfortable beds and is amazingly clean (bathroom and common kitchen!). We deliberately chose a place with good recommendations that was a bit fancier because most of the nights of our trip we would be spending on the train anyway ;)
I would definitely recommend it - it's also a hostel I would take my parents to on a visit of Moscow as it's a great cheap option compared to a hotel.
Pictures taken from godzillashostel.com.
Orientation in Moscow
Different to St. Petersburg, metro stations as well as street names are only depicted in cyrillic letters around the city. I would definitely recommend at least getting familiar with the letters, but if you're going to study them on the fly and Moscow is your first stop, try memorizing the stations you're aiming at as pictures.
Definitely carry your guide book and a map with you where you marked the stations of sights and your hostel/hotel/friend's place in order to find them without problems. Most maps you buy contain the phonetic notations of the places too, making asking for the way a bit easier!