I’d always wanted to visit Russia. It was mysterious. It was far away. It was a little bit scary. Growing up as a kid in the 1970s in England, it was a place you only heard about when something bad was happening on the news. The only images you’d see were elderly leaders standing on balconies waving as fleets of nuclear weapons were driven past them and lots of soldiers marching. And it was usually snowing.
They were the bad guys. Although they’d once been our allies in the war, when they were the good guys (hey, growing up in the 1970s was confusing).
I thought I’d never get to go. Even after Gorbachev and glasnost, it wasn’t seen as a number one tourist destination by many travel operators, and I didn’t know anyone else who might want to go with me, so it was just something that sat on my as yet unwritten ‘bucket list’ to tick off one day, probably never.
But, many years later, I happened to mention this long held ambition to see Moscow – and that’s all it was at first, just Moscow – to a friend with an impressive track record of adventurous travel escapades behind her, who had a burning desire to take a trip on the Trans-Siberian Express (which runs from Moscow to Vladivostok), and before you could say perestroika, we were busy making plans for the trip of a lifetime.
Not being quite brave enough to make all the plans ourselves, we booked on a tour with Intrepid Travel, and as they didn’t do the Moscow-Vladivostok route as an option then (they do now), we plumped for the Trans-Mongolian Adventure instead, starting in St Petersburg, stopping at Suzdal, Moscow, Lake Baikal, Irkutsk and Ulaanbaatar before arriving in Beijing.
“Four days on a train. What do you do for four days on a train?”
That was one of the questions that kept bugging us both. Russia is a big old place, and one of the legs of this epic journey was indeed a four day stint on the train from Moscow to Irkutsk. Let’s just say for now, we were worrying about nothing!
On arrival, we were whisked from the airport to our hotel by a German taxi driver, which was a surprise. Quick check that we’d arrived in the right place and we weren’t about to see the Brandenburg Gate looming up in front of us, but before long we’d seen our first fleeting glimpse of a Lenin statue and we relaxed into the journey while our driver told us all about the history of the city, but in German, so we only understood a few of the words we could remember from our schooldays, which wasn’t many.
As soon as we were checked in at our hotel – and discovering that the Russians are partial to quite a lot of bureaucracy in that regard – we ventured out on foot for our first taste of this mysteriously thrilling place.
We made a beeline for the Church on the Spilled Blood, in all its onion domed splendour, because if there’s anything other than a Lenin statue to let a western tourist know they’re in Russia it is an onion domed church.
As it was early evening and it’d been a long day since leaving London, it was time for refreshment, a meal and our first taste of vodka.
I have to admit, I’m not a big drinker of alcohol at all, let alone neat spirits like vodka, so this element of the trip had worried me beforehand. What if I didn’t like it? Was I likely to cause a diplomatic incident by a wrongly worded refusal?
Well, at first, the only thing I probably caused was puzzlement as I slowly sipped away at the measure I’d been served in a regulation sized shot glass. Russians don’t sip their vodka, I would later learn, in one of the more satisfying cultural lessons of this expedition.
One of the things I knew about St Petersburg in advance was that it was the location of the Winter Palace, legendary home of the Tsars, which just had to be a ‘must-see’ on this visit. What I didn’t know was that it was also now home to the Hermitage, one of the most expansive museums of art and culture in the world, which had been another ‘must-see’ on the list, so quite by accident we were able to kill two birds with one stone.
The Hermitage is extraordinary. People will tell you it’s big, but you don’t appreciate just how big until you’ve spent the best part of two days wandering around it, and still managed to miss the Van Gogh section. Luckily, it is well staffed, by a legion of mostly elderly ladies it seems, who were happy to help two hapless Westerners find what they were looking for within its labyrinthine innards, all without us speaking any Russian or them speaking any English.
A reminder of this city’s traumatic past can be found at the ‘Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad’, a breathtaking memorial obelisk and underground museum which tells the horrific story of the Siege of Leningrad during World War Two (known as The Great Patriotic War, 1941-45, in Russia). During the visit to the museum, I was approached by a TV crew, who asked me for my thoughts as a foreign visitor. Caught by surprise, I managed to mumble something vaguely coherent, I think. They seemed happy enough, though I’ve no idea what they were telling me about how or when the footage would be used.
After a few days of exploring St Petersburg on our own, it was time to meet up with our fellow Intrepid travellers (3 Aussies, 2 Kiwis, 1 Swiss, 1 Peruvian plus 2 more from the UK) and our Russian tour leader, who would ensure we got the most out of this adventure.
I’m not the most social of animals, so going on holiday with a group of, basically, complete strangers, was me going well outside my usual comfort zone. So, before we go any further, I need to thank Linda, Diane, Kristie, Emily, Chris, Laila, Nelson, Rebecca, Dilys and Anton, not forgetting my best pal Fiona, for being the best travelling companions I could have hoped for. Honestly, this trip would not have been the same without them and the laughs we had were quite often hysterical. I’m chuckling at some of the memories now, just typing this out.
Introductions over with, our first meal together as a group done and dusted, the next day would see us heading onto the rails, at last!
They ease you in gently on this trip, as it was only a one-stop overnight train from St Petersburg to the station at Vladimir, where we would catch a minibus to take us to our next destination proper, the town of Suzdal.
Probably just as well it was only one night, as the toilets at either end of our carriage were soon completely blocked after departure (by other passengers not following the specific instructions on how to use them, I hasten to add, not by any of our group) which made us glad we’d not been drinking too much before embarking.
We arrived in Suzdal before the sun was up, but thankfully our hotel rooms were available early, so we could catch a glorious couple of hours of additional sleep and avail ourselves of bathroom facilities before venturing out to see the sights on a tour with a local guide who told us, in fantastic English but with an exquisite Russian accent that, ‘in Suzdal there are many churches’ and she was definitely not kidding. They are everywhere.
We began the day with our brollies up, but the weather gradually improved and later we were invited to the home of a local resident, Lena, who not only provided us with a delicious homecooked lunch, washed down with horseradish vodka (fiery stuff) and tea (the Russians, like the English, love tea) but also encouraged us to have a go at our first bit of baking on this trip.
I’m not sure what Mary Berry would have made of our efforts, but we ate them anyway. Yum!
As we departed Suzdal, via minibus for the long drive into Moscow, I used the downtime to try and drum the Cyrillic alphabet into my head, in the hope it would help unlock some of the mysteries of the Russian language. By the time our bus had negotiated its way through several spectacular traffic jams that clogged the approach to the Russian capital, I was deciphering the simpler road signs for fun, and could write my own name too which gave me a peculiar sense of achievement. Give me a break, I hadn’t learned an alphabet since I was a child!
And so to Moscow. Here at last. Ambition realised. I’m pleased to say it lived up to my expectations, though I hadn’t expected quite so much traffic – remember my childhood images of the place were of marching feet and nuclear missiles – but we were told congestion on the roads is now just a facet of modern day life for Muscovites and in any case, we were going to be on foot for our two-day visit, or underground on the majestic Metro system, which takes your breath away for all the right reasons. Each station is like a time capsule of history, mini museums with trains running through. And they’re also ready to serve as nuclear shelters too, but let’s not dwell on that.
Setting foot onto Red Square for the first time was one of those ‘pinch yourself, this is really happening’ moments for me. A genuine thrill. The Kremlin walls, the Lenin Mausoleum, the stunning and instantly recognisable architecture of St Basil’s Cathedral. And the discovery that it’s not called Red Square because of anything to do with Communism. It actually means ‘beautiful’, which it most certainly is.
We were able to go inside The Kremlin, which is not just a building, more like a walled city within a city, home to the Russian President and a treasure trove of historical artefacts (although you can’t take pictures of those).
It was also hosting a performance of Swan Lake by the Russian State Ballet, inside the building where the Communist Party used to hold its meetings, for the equivalent of about fifteen pounds. Most of our group snapped up tickets for this, but unfortunately due to a prior booking, myself and Fiona had to miss out on this experience, as we were off to the Bolshoi Theatre instead that evening.
Before that, a stroll through the famous Gorky Park and the nearby ‘Graveyard of Fallen Monuments’ which as the name implies, is where you’ll find many of the imposing statues of the Communist era that would once have adorned almost every public square or government building in the former USSR. It’s a sobering reminder of the not too distant past. The familiar visages of Leonid Brezhnev and Nikita Kruschev rubbing stone shoulders with monoliths of Lenin, Stalin and a host of others, nowadays gawped at by fascinated tourists, rather than striking fear and/or awe into the hearts of the local populace.
And so then, to The Bolshoi. Not, alas, to witness one of its legendary ballets – it was too early in the season for that – but instead a bemusing performance of an obscure Russian play called Masquerade. It would have been hard to follow even in English, but in Russian, it was impenetrable. At least we got to see inside this incredible building, but we couldn’t help but feel we’d missed out on the better experience of watching Swan Lake. We were told at breakfast the following morning how brilliant the latter had been, though we had fun trying to explain what the hell had gone on in the thing we had watched instead.
After an all too brief couple of days, we said our goodbyes to marvellous Moscow, vowing to return for a longer visit one day, and braced ourselves for what was to come next. Bags packed, we trooped off in unison to Yaroslavsky Station to board arguably the most famous train in the world: the Trans-Siberian Express.
Well, we were actually boarding the Trans-Mongolian Express, as we were taking a detour through Mongolia to China rather than travelling through Russia to Vladivostok, but let’s not split hairs on a technicality. There was still a long, long ride ahead of us.
Four days on a train…
In truth, it passed in what felt like the blink of an eye. Once you settle into your cabin, pick your bunk (one of four) and get used to the routine of basically doing nothing more than eating, drinking, chatting, playing daft card games, watching the scenery change through the window as the vast expanse of Russia passes you by, and hopping on and off at various stations just for the fun of it or to buy some unusual local produce for the next stage of the journey, you end up wondering where the time went.
The carriage attendants (Provodnistas) have something of a fearsome reputation, if you believe the advance publicity, but on the third day, I’m sure I saw one of them smile as they dispensed the umpteenth bottle of beer in the dining car.
Maybe they were laughing at me and my attempts to communicate with a new Russian friend, acquired in the self-same dining car one evening, who was fascinated by our group and generous enough to want to share some food with me. Unfortunately, the food in question was dried smoked fish, a local delicacy maybe, but which I’m not altogether keen on. Desperate to avoid a diplomatic incident, I was doing my best to get it down. Thankfully, my travelling companions and our tour leader Anton came to my rescue and between us all, the fish was fully consumed and Anglo-Russian relations were not jeopardised.
Irkutsk and Lake Baikal
Our final stop on this, the longest individual leg of our journey, was in the Siberian city of Irkutsk, but only long enough to catch a bus transfer to Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world and our home for the next couple of days. The lake itself wasn’t our home, though we did get to sail on it, rather we were staying with a local family who showed us yet more wonderful Russian hospitality along with the sights and sounds of this astonishing natural wonder.
Plus, they also had a Banya in the back yard…
If you ever go to Russia, you have to undergo the authentic Banya experience. There is nothing quite like sitting in a steaming hot sauna in the buff (“when in Russia, do as the Russians do”) and then being thrashed all over with birch twigs before stepping outside and dousing yourself over the head with a bucket of freezing cold water. It’s very liberating.
Look, I know what you’re thinking, but if I can do this, anyone can!
We ended our stay in Lake Baikal with our hosts singing traditional folk songs for us, and then asking us to join in with some of our own, so they could get a feel for where we were from. After a rendition of all what seemed like six-hundred and twenty verses of ‘On Ilkla Moor Bah’t At’ they were probably glad to see the back of the Yorkshire contingent in the group, though if they were, they didn’t show it and even invited us back.
Back in Irkutsk, we had an all too brief brief opportunity to look round the city, bathed in glorious sunshine (if you imagined Siberia to be all frozen wastelands, think again) before we were due to board the train again, this time leaving Russia and heading into Mongolia.
The Mongolian train was the most basic of the journey so far, but spotlessly clean as the carriage attendants barely rested for a moment without scrubbing and wiping something. It may have been old, but they took great care of it. They also allowed us to open the windows (strictly not allowed on the Russian trains, which can get a bit hot as a result) so it was quite literally a breath of fresh air.
Speaking of fresh air, enjoy it while you can on the train, as it is in short supply in the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar. I’ve never stayed in a hotel that supplied gas masks instead of Gideons Bibles, until now. I wondered what on earth it was for, until we ventured outside.
The traffic in Moscow may be bad but it is nothing compared to Ulaanbaatar. It’s a shame, as it is otherwise a quite amazing place. Once you get out of the centre of the city, the skyscrapers, the noise and the exhaust fumes are replaced by much more serene sights of monasteries and Gers, the large tent structures that many Mongolians still spend their everyday lives living in.
We were invited to meet one extraordinary lady, an octogenarian, inside her own Ger – her summer residence, we were told, the winter one we would lend a (hopeless) hand in building later! We were served tea and biscuits and treated to some fascinating tales of local life and the rigours of raising a family here. The tea was flavoured with salt, which sent my unprepared British tastebuds into something of a tailspin. After a few sips I nursed my cup in my lap and politely refused seconds.
For me, the highlight of Mongolia was our own stay in a Ger Camp in the Gorkhi Terelj National Park, on the way to which we stopped off at the impossibly huge metal monument to Genghis Khan (or as we learned to refer to him, by his proper name: Chinggis Khan) standing almost in the middle of nowhere, which makes it even more remarkable, quite honestly.
We only had one day at the Ger Camp, but we packed a lot into it. A trek to a nearby monastery (‘nearby’ is an ambiguous term in Mongolia, it felt like miles away to me) during which I managed to make a pratfall over a stray log on the ground and planted my hand in the middle of something prickly. Ouch! Still, kept on going like a trooper though!
Then, back at camp, we got to prepare our own evening meal – well, a bit of it, they didn’t want us to completely starve. So quickly forgetting the damaged hand, I was handed an apron (I should point out here I didn’t get to choose the apron) and a rolling pin and off we went on a dumpling making exercise.
To round things off, we celebrated three birthdays all at once, for group members Kristie, Emily and Laila, with a rousing party which was absolutely brilliant but which none of us can accurately remember now. I’m told that I had difficulty finding my way back to my Ger afterwards, but who really knows…
One thing I can confirm is that they make wonderful vodka in Mongolia, and by now, we had all learned how to drink vodka properly, ‘like a Rrrrussian!’
In the morning, which came far too early for some (mentioning no names, Fiona) we were given a masterclass on using a bow and arrow by our local tour leader, Nemo. I think it’s fair to say, despite the excellent tuition, we were mostly rubbish at it. Only one shot hit the target during the entire session. Hats off to Emily, how she did it remains a mystery.
Ulaanbaatar to Beijing
We had a last chance to enjoy the sights and sounds of Ulaanbaatar before climbing on board for our final train journey on this epic adventure and heading to China.
As we left the city behind, which we had enjoyed in late summer sunshine, we witnessed the sight of snow starting to fall on the plains. Winter is Coming (hmm, where have I heard that before…?)
The Chinese train had the most beautifully ornate dining car, though we didn’t use it as frankly it was considerably more expensive than we’d got used to paying, plus we were all by now seasoned long distance train travellers, well versed in the art of picking up the provisions we’d need before getting on board and then fending for ourselves…
Crossing the border into China was a lengthy business. Not because of excessive customs or passport checks that you might expect, but because they have to physically change the bogies on every train carriage due to the tracks being on a different gauge. You stay on the train while they are doing it, so there is much banging and clanking going on, for several hours, and eventually you have to go to bed because it takes so long. Then, you are almost rolled out of bed by the jolting of the carriages being recoupled afterwards. Sweet dreams…
Arriving in Beijing, somewhat battered and bruised (I exaggerate for artistic effect) after those overnight shenanigans, we just about managed to avoid losing a member of our group on the exceptionally busy and crowded platform before heading off into the baking hot city for an acclimatisation tour, led for the last time by our brilliant tour leader Anton, who maintained unbelievable levels of energy and enthusiasm throughout the entire journey and went out of his way to make sure we all had the trip of a lifetime.
This was our final day on the official Intrepid tour, so we all gathered in the evening for a farewell dinner, trying out a vast range of Chinese dishes and sharing our best memories of an unforgettable adventure. We rounded it all off back at the hotel with, what else, a toast of vodka. It was actually by some distance the worst vodka of the trip, which made it even funnier.
Several of us stayed on in Beijing for a few days to take in the sights of Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven and, of course, the Great Wall of China, before heading our separate ways home and back to reality.
If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading, I know this has been a lengthy blog post, but hey, it was a lengthy trip and I wanted to do it justice, and even now, there’s loads I’ve had to miss out.
If you fancy doing it yourself someday, I would definitely recommend it. So much so they didn’t even have to pay me to put the link below!