It has always been Sara’s dream to travel to Russia and cross the (huge) country on board of a train. But planning it in the average 2 weeks’ holiday time you get off from work would have meant a massive rush.
And this is something that definitively does not go well with long train journeys. So the immediate thought that Sara had when starting to plan this sabbatical was to finally head off to St. Petersburg and start the adventure from there.
How we planned our trip on the Transiberian railway and what we discovered
Watch our Vlog on the Transiberian railway
Well, in truth the original idea was to enter Russia from the North, crossing the border from Norway and experiencing the Arctic area around Murmansk…
But even with a 30 days’ Visa there are choices to be made and the wish list has been later and wisely trimmed down to fewer places, ensuring we would have had enough time to both explore and enjoy them.
So after collecting all documents and paying a solid amount of money to get our Visas (260 GBP to get them quick for both of us in London…) we were all ready to go.
Sara was full of expectations, Ale did not really know what to expect at all. But we must say the trip was a real success for both of us, something we will definitely remember for the rest of our days.
Because it is a long journey, covering over 6,000 km by train, involving a lot of filler time to be planned and teaching us again to see the world slowly pass by. Most of the time with no Wi-Fi connection, forgetting about the speed of planes.
Waking up every morning a bit further on the route, meeting different faces in the carriage and watching the time zones progressively leave the Moscow time behind.
What we thought (and in some cases feared) we would have found?
A world pretty closed towards foreigners, significant changes in the landscapes as we crossed Asia, an exciting train experience, a lot of tourists and not particularly enticing food.
What we actually discovered?
How European St. Petersburg is different if compared to Moscow, the real centre of the soviet legacy.
How smooth the train journey was, extremely comfortable and real fun when you had the chance to meet lovely people and spend hours chatting, eating and playing cards together.
Some Russians do speak good English and even when they do not, they do their best and are genuinely interested in having a chat, discovering where you are from and what you are doing in their country.
Not so many tourists still attempt the trans-Siberian or trans-Mongolian journey and we have always found ourselves as the only foreigners in the carriage.
The landscape up until Ulan Ude (i.e. 6,000 km) is pretty much all the same. Ulan Ude is in fact part of Russia but also the capital of Buryatia, whose inhabitants are a Mongolian sub-group.
The food is far better than we expected and the variety of filled pasta can challenge Italians (although the Russians are not particularly creative with sauces and they do love their sour cream).
Faces do change dramatically from Irkutsk onwards and Ulan Ude is more similar to Mongolia than Russia. Lake Baikal is a magic place also because it is sacred for the shamans, who still live there.
Which route and stops we went for?
We opted for the trans-Mongolian, but decided to use the bus to enter Mongolia from Ulan Ude.
After visiting St. Petersburg, we started the cross country in Moscow and stopped 5 times.
First check was Vladimir (2 HRS journey), beautiful in itself but perfect to explore more of the Golden Ring and in particular the idyllic Suzdal. A countryside place where time seems to have stopped 30 years ago.
Second call was Ekaterinburg (24 HRS from Vladimir), famous as the place where the Romanoff were killed but in itself not a particularly enticing destination. Would not recommend it unless you want to break up the travel time.
Third stop was Novosibirsk (24 HRS from Ekaterinburg), the new capital of Siberia. Still a big Russian city but very recent if compared to Ekaterinburg. We liked it more than the former as we also managed to meet local people and spend a crazy night out on a Monday (yep, I am serious), plus a banya party on a Tuesday. But would not settle here for more than 2 days.
Fourth stop is mandatory even if you are in a rush and need to skip all the previous ones and it is Irkutsk (36 HRS from Novosibirsk). Not so much for the city itself (although nice I must say) but for the fact it does represent the main gate to the Lake Baikal.
And this is definitively a place where we would recommend to spend at least 4 days, to have enough time to travel up to Olkhon Island. It is 7 HRS by local (hot) bus + ferry but once there you will not regret it.
No roads on the island (in fact there was no electricity there until 10 years ago!) and each excursion will take you on an adventurous bumpy road but it will all be so worth it.
Last call for us was Ulan Ude (6 HRS from Irkutsk), a true gate to Mongolia as you will start feeling you are still in Russia (the traditional Lenin statue here gets as majestic as the biggest bust in the world!) but definitively part of a Mongolian heritage as well.
What to eat and drink?
Flavours do change whilst you will cross the country, leaving the most traditional Baltic Russian tastes like salmon and caviar, and starting to leave beef Strogonoff for progressively bigger dumplings filled with goat and mutton meat. Those you have to sip to taste the juice before you actually eat them. A lifesaver was to learn the world “slatki” to ask if something was sweet or not as most of the time people do not speak English. And of course… do try different types of vodka and find your favourite one!
When to go?
Summer is the perfect time, but late autumn will bring a lot of charm to the landscapes with the first snow.
For the most adventurous ones, winter can give a completely different perspective, for example you can drive on the iced Baikal which must be super cool!
It was so hard to condense a month in Russia into a small blog post but more specific articles will follow with specific tips and suggestions. Plus a tiny attempt to tell what we have really understood of this huge country, which is mostly a continent in itself.
Write directly for more questions or help with the planning, in the meantime we hope we have shared enough Russia love to sparkle curiosity!