Wandering the World Part 27
Russia to Siberia
Occasionally I’ve contemplated visiting the Ukrainian city of Kiev as I hoped it would give me the opportunity to visit the abandoned city of Chernobyl. This city became infamous when it’s nuclear power station, the first of it’s kind in Ukraine, suffered catastrophe during a routine safety check that resulted in the meltdown of reactor four.
It was a disaster like no other. Photographs show how everyone left their belongings behind when they fled; forever capturing a moment in time that was a glimpse into life in the Soviet Union. There are photos of the concrete sarcophagus that was erected to make the site safer after many firefighters had given their lives to put out the fires that had raged.
By the time I started to look seriously at options, it would have been thirty years after the nuclear catastrophe of reactor four. It was a trip that had the potential for some interesting and unique photographs if we could make it there.
To me it made sense that to make the trip a decent length that it could be combined with a trip around part of Russia. When we found the border was closed between Russia and Ukraine we reluctantly decided it would be somewhat easier to replace Ukraine with Mongolia. It was now going to be a trans-Siberian adventure instead.
Organisation for this was not the easiest even though we’d hired a company to handle the bookings. Even finding this company wasn’t straightforward as most insisted on us taking the train all the way to Beijing, but we wanted to turn back after Mongolia.
The first step in getting ready for this was to get visas for Russia. I knew this might not be that easy as I’d watched the “Long Way Round” adventure series where Russian visa issues had delayed their start. For us, the issue was that my friend was living in Canada, but did not yet have a Canadian passport and his permanent residency application was still in progress. It seemed his chances of getting a visa were unlikely at best.
Fortunately there was still a small chance. My friend was going to be visiting England briefly over Christmas, and would have a couple of days when he’d be in London which would coincide with when the Russian embassy was open. It was a small window of opportunity that wouldn’t allow for any error, but it was a hope.
After much back and forth between the embassy and himself, he eventually got the information he needed to know he’d be able to at least try to get a visa whilst in the country. He had no choice but to pay for their expedited service, but his visa was granted.
Whilst the Russian visa woes had been underway, the requirements for entry into Mongolia had changed for British citizens and this would now need a visa also. This could have spelled disaster as my friend was now back in Canada with no way of returning to the UK before the scheduled trip. I held off applying for my Russian visa until we found he could use a company to organise the Mongolian visa for him.
At last I took a day off work and travelled down to the Russian embassy in London. They checked over my application and told me it could be posted back to me within a few weeks. Perfect. My hope was that the Mongolian application would be just as smooth.
The next challenge was flights. I tried to book these via the United website though no matter what browser I used, it kept breaking. It was annoying, but I needed to get them booked so I decided to book by telephone.
The first time I called them I got straight through to an operator who asked me how they could help. I explained the issue I’d encountered, but was then met with silence. I could hear background noise, but they weren’t replying to anything I was saying. After a few minutes it was starting to feel awkward so I hung up and called again.
This time around I sat in a queue for ten minutes, and explained the issue again. I hadn’t quite finished explaining the issue to them when I was cut off and put back into the queue for another ten minutes.
Third time lucky I guess as I was then able to explain to the next operator the issue in full, and was then asked to provide some personal details. From this they confirmed I’d not made a booking. That’s correct — that’s what I was phoning for.
They then attempted to book the flights for me, but encountered issues as well, and was told they couldn’t help me. Before I could ask what I should do they hung up.
Booking flights has never been so difficult, and this was becoming frustrating. My last resort was to book through a site I’d heard horror stories about in the past where people would turn up at the airport to find their tickets cancelled. It was my only option left however, but the flights were at least now booked. Fingers crossed they stayed booked.
Another day off work later, and I was back in London to visit the Mongolian embassy. This one is located in the basement of an old town house on Kensington Court.
Upon arrival I noticed the door entry system and pressed the buzzer as the sign next to it asked. I waited, but there was no reply. A few minutes later I tried again, and still nothing. This time I knocked.
Someone opened the door, saw me, and then walked back into what appeared to be a waiting room. It was a lot smaller than the Russian Embassy, and a lot quieter. On one side of the room were a few chairs around a table with people waiting, and on the other side was a counter with a Mongolian lady standing behind it.
There was no indication of what I should do, so I walked over to the counter and explained I was there for a tourism visa. I handed over my passport, the application form, a passport sized photo, my insurance document, and hotel confirmations. It seemed they didn’t actually need the itinerary as they’d suggested on the website.
Once she’d got the paperwork she told me I could pick my passport up on Monday. It was now Thursday so was only going to take a few days, but it meant they didn’t have an option for posting it back. I’d have to use another day of leave for a seven hour round trip just to collect my passport. Not ideal really, but it was going to be worth it.
The lady then handed me a slip saying that the £40 for the visa would need to be paid at the nearest HSBC. She repeated that it had to be HSBC, and not any other bank.
I wandered out onto the Kensington High Street with the slip in my hand. I wasn’t really sure what I was doing, or where I was going, but I’d got thirty minutes to find HSBC before the embassy was due to close. In these situations it’s good to not be afraid to ask for directions; so when I found a different bank I asked them where to go.
Finding the bank was not the end of it though. After queueing I handed over the slip to be told that this bank would not accept debit cards for paying at the counter and that it had to be cash. I rushed to find the nearest cash point, got the money for the visa, returned to the desk to queue and was finally handed a receipt to take back to the embassy.
Back at the embassy I handed over the receipt and was given a token in return. The lady told me that either myself or someone else should present this token in order to collect my passport in a week. It didn’t feel a very secure process: if I lost it then not only could I not collect my passport, but potentially someone else would be able to.
I’d never before had visas for a trip take so much time and effort. I eventually got my passport back and was ready with the necessary visas for another adventure to begin.
The taxi to get me to the airport was waiting at 03:45 and I really had to question the sanity of flying out so early. My friend would be waiting for me in Munich though — on our way to Saint Petersburg. He’d have been flying overnight so had it far worse.
During the drive to the airport I tried my best to sleep, but the driver started talking to me every time I closed my eyes. I felt half asleep, but was still awake enough to notice that the taxi driver had put a piece of tape over the flashing “check engine” light on the dashboard to try and ignore it. The only peace I got was whilst waiting in the petrol station — something I felt he should have done before picking up a fare.
The flights went smoothly, and I successfully met my friend. I was hopeful that these smooth flights meant the trip would be an easy one after all the planning we’d done. We even got through the airport in thirty-five minutes which is pretty good by any standard. If I was to measure a country’s efficiency by the speed I could get through the airport, then unfortunately America would so far be last with Russia being near the top.
The guide we’d have for the next few days met us on the way out of the airport. She asked us what had happened to us — thinking we should have landed on a British Airways flight from London over an hour before. The panicked guide had been phoning around trying to find out where we were as she thought that something had happened to us.
We weren’t flying on British Airways, and not from London either. The tour company knew that, and we’d repeated it to them many times and got assurance from them that all paperwork was updated. The local guides didn’t know this though. It didn’t inspire us with much confidence that they’d get it right for the flights at the end of the trip either.
Our hotel was a little over thirty minutes from the airport, and located in the centre of town next to Saint Isaac’s Cathedral. The room was overlooking the square and the cathedral, but had been made up as a double instead of a twin. To give them time to rearrange the room into a twin, we grabbed our cameras and headed out to explore the city and get food.
We started off on the side of the square that would allow for a closer look at the cathedral. It was closed for the evening, but we checked their opening times for another day. We then picked a direction, west, and headed as far as we could go before reaching a dead-end.
Neither of us were sure where to go next, but we’d both started to feel hungry so decided we should look for somewhere to get food from. I’d remembered there was an area to the south east of the hotel that was supposed to have a large number of food places, but all I could remember was the name “prospekt”. If I’d realised that prospekt was Russian for “street” then I may have paid more attention to the street name. At least in future I’d now write down place names properly.
Having retraced our steps back to the square we crossed the blue bridge over the Moyka River, and walked alongside it. The first places we spotted were the typical American fast-food chains, but a split-second later we spotted an English pub called The Oldham.
I may have only just left England again, but I was too tired to try and figure out what was in local dishes. I went for a 280g steak in peppercorn sauce, and with a soft drink and tip this cost me only 1200 roubles — the equivalent to about £12. Not bad for a first meal, but it’s not exactly the local cuisine.
When we left the pub it started to rain, and as we’d both had a long day we decided the best action was to head back to the hotel and explore more another day.
For me a Sunday does not mean a day of rest. It means a day to get up early and go for a run — usually a long run. Just because I was in Saint Petersburg I didn’t see a reason to make an exception to this recent trend. Due to the runs I’d done during the week it meant I could keep this one short — just eight miles, which would equate to around an hour.
Being in a new city does mean that running can be a little slower, and difficult to find a rhythm. For the first run in a new place I find myself stopping frequently to take photographs with my phone — something I wouldn’t have dreamt of doing ten years ago. Though, I wasn’t a runner ten years ago either.
I crossed many bridges, reminding me of Venice, and weaved around all over the city as I spotted new places to take a look at. Running is a good way of exploring a new city, and this run was good for helping me to figure out where I could go with my DSLR camera over the next few days. It’s like performing a reconnaissance of the area whilst the city sleeps.
By 08:00 I’d showered, and was ready for breakfast. The choice was better than I was expecting, and having been for a run meant I was ready to try a good selection. Once we’d eaten we quickly went to buy a large bottle of water for 111 roubles that we could use for refilling smaller water bottles from over the next few days.
From our hotel the guide led us east to the Palace Square; one of the areas I’d ran through earlier in the morning. On the way there our guide told us a little about the founding of Saint Petersburg, Catherine the Great, and of the State Hermitage Museum itself.
In the hours that had passed since I’d run through Palace Square, some scaffolding had been erected in front of one of the buildings. It was there in preparation for celebrating the anniversary of the founding of Saint Petersburg in 1703. Tourists were now starting to appear everywhere ready for the museum to open at 10:30.
When it opened we had to leave our camera bags in the cloakroom before starting the tour. This is obviously for security reasons, but it’s also nice to be able to walk around without the weight of camera equipment on your back.
The first of the buildings is the Winter Palace, but the museum expands into other buildings along the Palace Embankment — the Menshikov Palace, Museum of Porcelain, a storage facility at Staraya Derevnya, and the eastern wing of the General Staff Building.
The museum was started by Catherine the Great but since that time has grown tremendously. From 1732, the Winter Palace was a home for Russian Tsars. It wasn’t until 1917, during the Russian revolution, which saw it being taken over by the Russian Provisional Government.
A few months later the palace was taken over by the Red Army in another revolution which saw them replaced with the Bolsheviks led by Vladimir Lenin. The story of the Bolsheviks wasn’t over, but was something we’d learn more of later in our adventure.
To start with, our guide went at quite a pace, walking pretty much straight through the Egyptian section though we both held back a little to take some pictures. This area reminded me a lot of the British Museum, and as the tour went on this resemblance changed to be more like an amalgamation of the British Museum and the National Gallery.
Later in the tour I realised that our guide was rushing passed these sections as she was more interested in paintings, rather than other art-forms and artefacts. I’m the opposite — I’m more interested in stone work, with some exceptions. So when we came across a room filled with statues and busts representing the pantheon of classical gods I made sure we hung around for a while.
The biggest statue in the room was of Jupiter, or as the Greeks called him — Zeus. This marble statue is so massive and so heavy that even though this is located on the ground floor they had to reinforce the floor it sits on. This one is said to be from around 100 AD. It’s amazing to think what these classical cultures could achieve.
This then gave way to paintings, and more paintings. In fact, so many paintings that I started to get bored until we were shown two by the great master Leonardo da Vinci. Shortly after we saw two more by Raffaello Santi, the artist commonly known as Raphael, and a few paintings by Rembrandt. These were the sort of artists which I’d pay attention to.
Of course though, as I’m not really into art it started to bore me once more after a few more rooms. Our guide was in her element though and enjoying every minute of talking about many of the paintings in these galleries. If I could have fallen asleep standing, I would have.
When we ran out of paintings we moved on to rooms filled with old furniture in the areas of the palace where the monarchs had once lived. At last I was interested again.
The rooms are extravagant and don’t hold back on the lavishness of the decor and the items within. It seemed to me that the Tsar responsible had probably seen a French palace and wanted to “one-up” them.
One room was coated from floor to ceiling with gold leaf paint which was also used to highlight the details of the pattern. Arranged around this room they have ornate display cases — each one a square-based pyramid of glass and gold. They each stood on tables that were propped up by a golden griffin.
Another room had red walls that looked like velvet with contrasting white pillars between each panel. Again, this was another room that used gold leaf to highlight details in the ceiling pattern, and also on the base of the pillars. Each pillar looked like it had been designed to resemble the Corinthian order — the most ornate of them.
This was the throne room — where in the alcove on the far wall they had a throne on a slightly raised floor with a portrait hung behind. Knowing that the chair was of a fairly normal size gave a good idea of scale in the room. The ceilings were in fact very high.
Not far from the throne room is the chapel where the altar and detailing have been painted with gold leaf against walls that are painted in a brilliant white. The combination of these and the light pouring in through the windows created an incredibly bright room. It felt more like a palace than a chapel, and certainly not what I’d expected in Russia.
The media has often projected an image of Russia that is cold, utilitarian, and sometimes dark; but I could see the Hermitage was far from this — it was a reminder of what Imperialist Russia was like before Communism swept across the country.
This brought our organised tour to an end just in time for lunch. The guide led us over to the General Staff building, and helped us with translating the menu choices there. We were now free to explore by ourselves until the following afternoon.
We had a rough idea what to do with the afternoon — we knew we weren’t far from the Peter and Paul Fortress and thought that might be worth seeing. We went the long way around to it though so we could stop by the cabin of Peter the Great along the way.
To see the cabin it cost 200 roubles which was the equivalent of about £2 at the time. There isn’t that much to see really, but at that price it seems silly not to look. This wooden cabin was built by Peter the Great in May 1703 which is considered to be the date when Saint Petersburg was founded.
Despite being over three hundred years in age, the cabin is preserved very well due largely to a brick construction having been built around it to protect it. You can’t go inside the cabin itself but there are windows open so you can see into each room.
A short walk from the cabin is one of the entrances to the Peter and Paul Fortress. In the ticket office they list quite a few different things you can pay to see, and individually they’d cost around 1100 roubles. The alternative though was a combined ticket that covered them all for 600 roubles. It seemed like a bargain, but things aren’t always as they seem.
Peter the Great started the construction of the fortress in 1703 with the founding of Saint Petersburg. Initially it had been made from wood, but was rebuilt from stone just three years later.
Although it had originally been built as a citadel, the fortress later got converted into a prison by the Tsars. To go inside the fortress you don’t need tickets — you’re free to walk around, but we thought the tickets we bought would let us see it all. Unfortunately this was not the case.
Our first sight included on the ticket was the Museum of Cosmonautics and Rocket Technology. Outside of the building they have a scorched re-entry capsule, and inside they have mock-ups of various rocket engines. It’s not the best of museums — I think even the National Space Museum I live near has better exhibits.
The neighbouring buildings all relate to the time when this fortress was a prison. We wandered around them, looking for any that were open to the public. The only thing we actually noticed though was an American Medical Clinic helicopter frequenting the helipad on the island.
Our next stop was then the Peter and Paul Cathedral which is the final resting place for most Russian Tsars from Peter I up until Alexander III. The Ducal Mausoleum is attached to the cathedral but didn’t really have anything of note.
The Commandant’s House is now in use to house an exhibition of the history of Saint Petersburg and the fortress. One curious practice that was documented was allegedly how the Tsar would be notified of the Neva being navigable by bringing him a goblet of water. I wonder if this ever caused confusion when he just needed something to drink.
Following on from that we we tried to find the Neva Curtain Wall exhibits though we couldn’t find it. We wandered through the gate and around the beach area but couldn’t see any sign of where the entrance to the exhibit was. We did think it meant on the wall itself, but the Neva Panorama is an additional fee not included on the combined tickets. As it happens there are quite a few other exhibits which involved wax models which are not included in this supposedly complete ticket either.
We were wasting time trying to find the exhibit so eventually gave up. In all honesty we should probably have gone back to the ticket office to ask where the entrance to it was. Instead, we headed to the Trubetskoy Bastion — a prison that had been used for many years and had also housed some political prisoners.
This one could have been covered a lot quicker than we did — on both floors there are a large number of cells which are open, but they’re all identical. The only reason to walk around it all would be to read about each prisoner of note.
This brought our exploration of the fortress to an end. We left through a different exit and crossed the wooden Ioannovsky Bridge. It was the first bridge in Saint Petersburg, and was originally constructed in 1703 as a floating bridge. It seems that was a busy year for construction. Since then the bridge has been reinforced, but it still remains a footbridge — no motor vehicles can use it. At least not on a regular basis.
The route back to the hotel from there took us along the Neva River to the old stock exchange building. In front of this there are two rostral columns painted red. Around the base of these there are figures that represent major Russian rivers — a design that reminded me of fountains in both Rome and Berlin. Each column originally had oil lamps resting atop them to act as a beacon to ships, but today they’ve been replaced by gas ones and used only for ceremonial purposes.
The street I hadn’t been able to remember the name of before was Nevsky Prospekt. This is the main shopping road in Saint Petersburg and was another ten minutes walk, but we felt it was a good place to find a restaurant for the evening meal. The one we found was an Italian where you could sit outside on sofas under the awning.
On the walk back to the hotel I took the opportunity of having mostly clear skies to photograph the Mariinsky Palace and some of the surrounding area outside the hotel.
The setting sun gave everything a golden glow and I was finding that Russia so far was feeling very European. Our first full day had been a good one.
The morning started with a walk to the bronze horseman statue and along the Neva river to photograph the Menshikov Palace. This took us all the way to the Admiralty building which has an impressive golden spire that can be seen from a fair distance across Saint Petersburg. The building itself however is not one we could go inside due to in still being in use as the headquarters of the Russian Navy.
Around the front of the Admiralty we found there is also a large fountain. Getting a photo of this without a constant stream of tourists seemed impossible. If I’d thought ahead and had my tripod on me I could have done a long exposure to turn the stream of passersby into ghosts. Sadly hindsight is usually better than foresight.
There wasn’t that much we could think of to see in the time we’d got left for the morning so we decided it’d be a good idea to check out the cathedral. The admission was only 400 roubles — it covered both the cathedral entrance and access to the colonnade. If this had been a big cathedral in England, such as York Minster, it would have been three times the price.
For the cathedral itself you enter through the main door into what is mostly an empty space. The interior of the cathedral is sculpted from marble with numerous paintings from Russian masters. Looking up from the middle of the room you can see into the cast iron structure of the dome.
When you’re ready to see the colonnade you then exit the cathedral at the rear, walk back around to the front of the cathedral and then enter through a different door onto a winding staircase leading up to a narrow passage.
This passage leads out into the open air; onto the roof of the cathedral. From there you can walk single file up a metal ramp onto the colonnade to get a 360° view of the city. When I was there around midday it was very crowded though as they don’t seem to control numbers. For safety purposes they do have a different staircase for exiting down — much better than having to squeeze passed people on the narrow staircase.
I looked out across Saint Petersburg and tried to spot places we’d already seen. I thought it useful to also try to pick out places that we might yet want to see. I could see the dome of another cathedral in the distance and thought that might be worth a visit.
Having finished looking around Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, we headed over to Nevesky Prospekt to try and find somewhere quick for lunch. About halfway along this street we came across the Kazan Cathedral — the domed cathedral I’d seen from the colonnade. On the opposite side of the road was a building that interested me more.
What I’d spotted was the unusual design of the Singer Company building. This building was designed by Pavel Syuzor and was the first metal framed building in Saint Petersburg. The initial idea was that it should resemble their building in New York City, though due to the height restrictions here they had to adjust it.
Whilst the building was designed by Syuzor, the decorative part of it was designed by Amandus Heinrich Adamson. In later years it was used by the British embassy, but is now a famous bookshop named “Dom Knigi” — meaning “House of the book”.
On the corner by the entrance to Dom Knigi, the road crosses one of the many canals that meet up with the Moyka River. We could see the church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood from there, but decided that we didn’t have time to look around it yet. This could be an activity for another day.
For the afternoon tour it was an hour’s drive to the Tsar’s village. After the October Revolution and the rise of the Soviet Union, Lenin and his government wanted to remove all trace of the Tsars. In doing so they renamed the settlement to the Children’s Village, but later renamed it again to Pushkin.
The name Pushkin is what you’ll see on most maps, and this name comes from the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin — of whom there is also a statue outside the Summer Palace there.
The summer palace too is also known by another name — the Catherine Palace, named after the wife of Peter the Great. Around twenty years after Catherine I commissioned the palace, her daughter Elizabeth had it expanded upon. Even later though it was demolished and rebuilt in a design by Rastrelli and was made even bigger under her orders.
Rebuilding a palace is an expensive business, but it wasn’t the last time either. During the second world war it was occupied by the Nazis and when they left it was burnt out and left as nothing but an empty shell. It has been under repair for quite some time, and even though it’s looking in pretty good condition now there are still a lot of rooms that require repair work. It was lucky that it’s interior had been very well documented.
Our guide decided that the best place to start the tour was in the gardens whilst the sun was shining. The first part of these are French in design — a style where they are arranged in geometric shapes with a feature in each section such a a pavilion or a statue. These are all about imposing order upon nature.
French language and culture was common amongst the aristocracy in Tsarist Russia to the point that by the time of the French invasion, some of the aristocrats knew very little Russian. This was one of the lasting influences from Catherine the Great and her royal court, and is something that is touched upon in “War and Peace” when we learn some are taking Russian lessons.
Adjacent to these there is a man-made lake, and on the other side of this are gardens which are more natural — ones which could conceivably be described as being British. Overlooking this lake is another pavilion; this one was in use by a choir demonstrating the acoustics of the building by singing A Cappella.
Another building located on these grounds was used by Catherine to entertain her friends. They would never see servants though as they considered it be a hermitage — a place of privacy. So, in order to entertain her guests they would occupy only the upper floor.
This floor has a number of dumb waiters that would allow messages to be sent down to the kitchen, and for food to be sent up on. The food itself wasn’t prepared here however as they feared the risk of fire damaging the building. Instead it was prepared in a nearby building and then finished on the lower floor to be sent up.
Our tour of the gardens was at an end, and we were back at the palace crossing it’s large, but empty, courtyard. The entrance-way to the palace was another story. Inside you have to leave bags in their cloakroom and then join a slow moving queue to put protective covers over your shoes — this is to avoid scuffing their shiny floors.
We’d somehow found ourselves trapped in the middle of a tour group whose behaviour was obnoxious. As we went up the stairs into the museum they’d be constantly pushing passed, bumping into other tourists, and whenever possible jumping the queue — they had a “me first” mentality. Whenever we tried to take a photograph they’d walk straight in front of our camera to take their own photographs with a tablet device. There was no consideration for others from them.
The first proper room of this tour is the grand hall. It’s walls are lined with mirrors and gilded baroque detail. This room didn’t have any chandeliers like you’d see in many halls; instead it used the mirrored walls combined with candelabras to light the room and make it seem bigger than it really was.
The main staircase was a little more reservedly designed and used just red and white colouring, whereas the rooms on the other side of the staircase had the same baroque style as the grand hall. Instead of mirrors these rooms had their walls lined from floor to ceiling with paintings. They didn’t stop at the ceiling though as many of the ceilings also featured large pieces of work.
Of all the rooms in this palace, there was just one we weren’t allowed to take pictures in. This was the amber room — a room where the panels were made from of amber of many different colours. Our guide considered this to be the “eighth wonder of the world”. Personally I wasn’t impressed enough by it to call it that, but I could agree it did look nice.
When we finished this tour we headed back to the hotel, but making one stop along the way at what is known as the travelling palace. A name like that may conjure visions of a palace that moves, but it was actually a palace halfway between the Summer and Winter palaces. It was a stopping point for the Tsars travelling between them.
It’s not a palace we got to look around, but we did get to visit the chapel located over the road. The day so far had me imagining what Russia would have looked like during the period that Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” is set.
In the evening we decided to try out the restaurant that had been recommended to us by the guide. Teplo was about a five minute walk from the hotel to a courtyard down one of the side streets. People were sat around tables, some of them smoking, so we decided to head down the stairs to where we could eat indoors.
Inside it feels quite homely, their staff are friendly, and they sell cards for charity. Once again they demonstrated that the Russians know how to make good food.
Our time in Saint Petersburg was now coming to an end. I’d considered an early morning run to Smolny Cathedral with my DSLR, but overslept and had to keep my run to just five kilometres around the local area.
The guide had asked to make sure we were ready and waiting promptly at 09:30 as we’d be short on time, but the driver was late. It didn’t really matter though as we still got to the hydrofoil with more than enough time to spare. I was a little surprised we hadn’t walked though as it was no more than eight hundred metres away.
On every other boat I’ve been on the passengers have been free to walk around on deck whilst the boat is moving. Here we had to take a seat on the hydrofoil, and couldn’t really see out of the windows for the forty-five minute journey to Peterhof.
Upon arrival we needed to queue to get tickets for the palace. It didn’t take long for a British tourist to accuse our guide of pushing in front. Sure, she had, though they’d done it to her first — and they were in the queue for guides, not the queue for individuals like they were supposed to be. I think sometimes people can be too quick to anger. We could still hear him cursing loudly and blaming guides for bad experiences for some time afterwards.
Once we’d got our tickets we walked along the great canal to the palace. At exactly 11:00 we heard the sudden start of music, and the fountains were switched on. Dozens of jets started to fire water straight up into the air in an impressive display.
Our guide didn’t let us stop to enjoy this however, she insisted we must continue on and queue to enter into the palace building. To reach the entrance there are several layers of terraces and fountains which I really wanted to photograph, but instead we had to queue whilst our guide went off to get another set of tickets for the palace.
The palace at Peterhof was commissioned by Peter the Great as a strategic point. It overlooked the island he had captured, and the Gulf of Finland — the island being the perfect location for commercial vessels to use for a dock.
Whilst I was waiting for our guide to return I thought I’d sit down on the steps to the palace for a while. It seems they’re not too fond of people doing that there, as I was asked to stand. They also don’t allow photography indoors, and require all tourists to wear protective covers over their shoes to protect the flooring.
Our guide told us that during the second world war the building was destroyed by the Nazis and that it has been in the process of restoration for some time. This means that the majority of what we were walking around was in fact no more than fifty years old dependent upon what year the restoration started.
Apparently some samples of the walls survived which meant that they were able to recreate them with some accuracy. However, the majority of the building was reconstructed using styles that were known to be in use at various times in the palace’s history.
Many of the rooms were very similar to those in the Catherine Palace, with the exception of the Chinese rooms. These rooms had black lacquered panels that were highly decorative. They were they most interesting of the rooms, but also the ones we spent the least time in. To control the humidity in the room they would limit people’s time in there and would usher you straight through.
In other rooms they had plastic to cover some of the gilding on the walls. Each room had a number of employees that would watch every tourist like a hawk — ready to warn anyone who got too close to anything.
Once we’d completed the tour of the interior we quickly took some pictures of the fountains in front of the palace before being led at pace around the rest of the gardens on one side of the grounds. There are a number of fountains in the gardens too, some of which are what they’d call trick fountains. These fountains are ones where someone is employed to turn the fountain on and off using a hidden lever to entertain passers by.
To get back to Saint Petersburg we went by car, and they agreed to drop us off at the Artillery museum. What we hadn’t realised though was that they were closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. I guess our guide didn’t know that, though to be fair she couldn’t be expected to know everything.
Unsure what to do next we decided that we’d confirm the location of the Fabergé museum ready for visiting later in the day. We walked across two bridges and down Nevsky Prospekt to where we’d seen a sign the previous day. However it turned out that this wasn’t the museum, and was just an expensive shop. We’d need to look elsewhere.
Next up was the Kazan cathedral, though we felt that as a service was going on we shouldn’t really take photographs inside. Instead we decide we’d go inside the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood — the one that has the colourful spires.
To go in this cost 250 roubles, and I think it was worth it — almost every inch of the wall was covered in colourful mosaic with lots of blues and golds. The architecture and the design was unlike any church I’d been in before.
The church gets it’s name due to it being built at the location where Emperor Alexander II was fatally wounded by an anarchist’s bomb. It was constructed by Alexander III as a memorial to his father, and was deliberately designed to resemble Saint Vasily’s Cathedral in Moscow.
When the Soviet government came into power the church interior was damaged, and was not reopened as a museum until 1997 after twenty-seven years of restoration work. I think it’s awful that governments can damage or destroy parts of their history — but it’s the same story as what we’d seen in China.
We continued along Nevsky Prospekt and soon found the actual Fabergé museum. This one was 450 roubles to go in after having been through security and dropping our backpacks off at the cloakroom. We were lucky we’d found it early as we’d been told tours didn’t start until 18:00 when in fact that is when they ended.
This was another museum that required the use of protective covers to be put around your shoes to protect their floors. The first room has a number of decorative Fabergé eggs; most of which are owned by one of the richest businessman in Russia.
These decorative eggs were created by the House of Fabergé, a jewellery company based in Saint Petersburg, who had been tasked with creating an Imperial Easter Egg for Tsar Alexander III to give to his wife. The company was eventually nationalised by the Bolsheviks and the Faberge family fled the country.
In addition to the famous eggs, there are rooms filled with ornate clocks, serving dishes, and other things. It didn’t take anywhere near as long as we thought to look around so found ourselves with more free time than we expected. This gave us more time to find somewhere to eat.
When going for a meal it’s normal that everyone at the table will be served their meal at more or less the same time. It’s usually only a few minutes at most between people getting their food. Strangely this wasn’t the case here — I was served mine first, and had just about finished eating by the time my friend got his. As the week went on this is something we found happening with greater frequency.
As we’d still got a bit of time before we needed to meet up with the guide for the final time, we decided to sit in the hotel lobby to relax a little. We collected our suitcases and stood them up next to the chairs we were sitting in.
I think the week so far had taken it’s toll on my friend as he fell asleep in the chair whilst waiting. It was short-lived though as a member of the hotel staff came over and asked him not to sleep in the lobby. If we hadn’t been guests of the hotel then I could have understood that, but I think they were being a bit rude.
By the time we got to the train station it was 22:30, but still had another thirty minutes before we could board the sleeper train to Moscow. Our guide stayed with us for this time to make sure we boarded the train okay.
The train carriage reminded me of ones in old James Bond movies, and of Harry Potter. Instead of open plan like most trains back home, this one was made-up entirely of compartments with seats facing each other and a table in between. I could have imagined we were on our way to Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. Magic.
We were short on space with our suitcases, but managed to make enough room to fold the seats down to reveal beds. With a bit of luck, we’d get some sleep before arriving in Moscow as sleeping on trains is something we’d need to get used to in the near future.
Once the train had left the station an attendant came to take our order for breakfast. As this was one of the first-class cabins it also included drinks, and things such as a toothbrush and slippers to try and make the journey that little bit more comfortable.
It felt strange to be sleeping on a train, but I closed my eyes and tried to ignore the flange squeal of the wheels on the track.
When breakfast was served at 07:00 I was still tired. Throughout the night the train had bumped along the train tracks and jolted me awake whenever I was fortunate enough to have fallen asleep.
For breakfast I had a few warm pancakes spread with jam, and the rest I didn’t feel like eating. I was more interested in looking outside at the rain falling on the outskirts of Moscow. Already this city had a very different feel to Saint Peterburg and we’d not even made it into the station yet.
We pulled into the station at 07:40 and was met by Vlad, our guide not just for the day but for our eventual return as well. His accented English was more like the sort you’d expect to hear in a film.
We were driven to Revolution Square, where the most prominent feature is the statue of Karl Marx. The walking tour then started at Teatralnaya Square and Revolution Square with details about all the buildings that surrounded us and continued along the route into the Alexander Gardens alongside the Kremlin.
Before entering Red Square our guide left us for twenty minutes whilst he went off to get the tickets we would need for the day.
When we eventually made it into Red Square, Vlad started to tell us about the history of Red Square and the buildings around it. The building with the large “GUM” sign on the top (in Cyrillic I should add) is the Gosudarstvennyi Universalnyi Magazin which translates to “State Universal Store”. It has been the centre of trade in Moscow since at least 1812. My attempt at pronouncing it’s name sounded more like a drunkard slurring his speech.
It’s basically a shopping arcade, but in a very fancy building. When it was nationalised by the Soviet Union it became part of their plan to build communism through consumerism and was regularly the most well stocked of stores. When the Soviet Union collapsed the GUM gradually became privatised once more.
We carried on walking towards Saint Basil’s Cathedral, but didn’t get to go inside. Instead we stood outside whilst Vlad told us a little about it’s history, and I tried to pay attention whilst taking photographs.
The official name is the church of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat. It’s a bit of a mouthful so I can understand why that name might go unused. The name that most of the world knows the church by is actually from a bad translation of the Church of Vasily the Blessed.
Ivan the Terrible, the Russian Tsar who conquered many neighbouring territories, began construction of this church in 1555 to commemorate victory over Kazan. The site of this church was on the grave of Saint Vasily, a historic figure who would shoplift to give to the poor — a sort of real-life Russian Robin Hood.
Once Vlad had finished his history lesson he gave us a choice: we could either go on the planned tour of the metro, or we could be taken to the mausoleum — the final resting place of Vladimir Lenin. We felt we could come back and do the mausoleum easily enough another day, and that seeing how the metro worked could be useful for when we’d need to use it by ourselves.
To get to the metro station we walked around the GUM and down a shopping street to the entrance to a very well decorated station. It was cleaner and better decorated than any I’ve seen in London, but reminded me a little of the museum station in Toronto.
The stations the guide took us to were all highly decorative, and many of these were strong with Communist imagery. One of the most obvious of these was a mosaic with a five-pointed start, a hammer, and a sickle; but if you looked up at the ceiling of another station you could see pictures of Vladimir Lenin.
This tour finished at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. A church had long stood in this location, but during the Soviet-era the country converted to atheism and knocked this one down to make way for a skyscraper that was never built.
When the Soviet Union collapsed the land was bought by a business, and they built a new cathedral there as a business investment. The land had been lowered when it was originally cleared, and so to create the cathedral at the height of the previous they decided to incorporate a cellar into the design. Once complete they then let the church use the cathedral for services.
Photography is not allowed inside this church, but it is allowed from it’s roof. The only way you’re allowed onto the roof is if you’re with one of their tour guides, which Vlad had arranged for.
To get to the roof it’s a short escalator ride to one of the four rooms located on each of the corners of the building. It’s an open air walk to get from one to the next, but it gives you an unobstructed view over Moscow.
It was now mid-afternoon and we’d not eaten for just over seven hours. When we got back to the square in front of the cathedral, Vlad called for the driver we’d had in the morning and drove us to a nearby cafe for a snack.
Our next stop was the Bolshoy Novodevichy Prud, which translates to “big Novodevichy pond”. Our guide told us that it was Tchaikovsky’s inspiration for Swan Lake, though I don’t know how true this was. Following my return from this trip I researched a little, but couldn’t find any sources that corroborated this other than trip review sites.
I did already know I shouldn’t trust everything a tour guide tells us as we’ve had some make mistakes in the past as well such as in Kenya. Sometimes I think they do it as it makes a good story for the tourists — or to make places seem more important than they are.
The next stop was quite a drive out of the city to a viewpoint opposite the Moscow State University. Immediately below us we could see a couple of stadiums and a ski-jump. Out beyond the Moskva River we could see the towering skyscrapers of the business district.
Vlad promised us that we’d drive closer to the university once we’d seen the view across the river. He didn’t take us though, instead we were driven back to the city centre for our late afternoon tour of the Kremlin.
In some ways it’s a good job he’d lied to us. The traffic was bad enough that it was looking like we’d miss our scheduled slot for visiting. We eventually had to resort to leaving the driver to sit in traffic whilst the three of us took the metro the rest of the way.
Having taken the metro again meant we actually arrived twenty minutes early, so we had time to drop our camera backpacks off at security — we wouldn’t be allowed to take them inside the Moscow Kremlin.
Kremlin is the Russian term to describe a citadel, so when people refer to “The Kremlin” it could technically mean one of many, but the one in Moscow is the most famous and important of them — the one that everyone usually means.
This Kremlin is located at the side of the Moskva River and has been inhabited since the 2nd century BC. Sometime after this it became a fortress but was then destroyed by the Mongols in 1237. In 1339 the fortress was strengthened with oak walls, but only thirty years later these walls were replaced yet again. This time with the white limestone that was used in many buildings around Moscow.
It was around the time of the construction of the walls that the cathedrals inside the Moscow Kremlin were built as well. Then between 1485 and 1508 the walls were redesigned to how they appear today, and the towers, including the Ivan the Great bell tower, were constructed. A thirty metre wide moat was later added to further defend this citadel, along with further rings around the city that were later replaced with “garden rings”.
The Kremlin was abandoned during the reign of Peter the Great, and was damaged much later during the occupation of Napoleon’s forces during the Peninsular war. During the Soviet-era the capital moved back to Moscow and the Kremlin once again became the seat of power as symbols of the Tsarist times were destroyed.
Once inside we were told about the administrative buildings, the great palace, and a few of the cathedrals that surround one of the squares. With every few steps we took, Vlad would stop and tell us another piece of history, even if it was something he’d already told us.
Amongst the repeated history lessons, we were also told about the Tsar cannon and the Tsar bell. In the case of the canon it was one which used to sit in Red Square as a show of power, but was never used. Eventually it was moved to inside the Kremlin for display and a decorative carriage added to it.
We were also told that it was a tradition for each Tsar to create a new bell, and the large one inside the Moscow Kremlin was created by Empress Anna Ivanova — the niece of Peter the Great. When it was completed it was too heavy to be lifted so they constructed a mechanism underneath it to allow it to be rung for the coronation.
What our guide was telling us was not entirely correct though — this bell was the third and final Tsar bell, and has never actually been rung. Whilst the bell was still being worked on, a fire broke out which the guards feared might damage the bell. In their attempt to save it they threw cold water over the bell, and as anyone these days would understand, this produced thermal shock. As different parts of the bell were expanding from the heat at different rates it caused the bell to crack until a large piece of it broke away.
The bell itself dropped back into the casting pit where it remained for almost a century. The weight of the Tsar bell is so great that when Napoleon Bonaparte occupied Moscow during the Peninsular war, his plan to remove the bell and take it to Paris as a trophy failed due to it’s immense weight.
Between the bell and the canon is the entrance to a courtyard surrounded by cathedrals. We went inside two of the cathedrals: the Assumption Cathedral and the Archangel Cathedral. Both of these were incredibly busy.
By this point we were tired, and our feet were aching from the amount of walking we’d done over the past few days; we just wanted to sit for a while. The guide didn’t really care though — it was more important that he could repeat the bits of history he’d told us whilst we’d been outside of the churches.
I was getting incredibly bored, and felt that a self-guided tour of the Kremlin may have gone better. It was probably unfair of me to think that, but sometimes it’s nice to be able to go at your own pace. What I was feeling though was that Vlad was like a vampire — sucking the life and any interest out of us with every word he spoke.
The tour continued on in the armoury building which historically had the responsibility of managing the storage of weapons and jewellery for the Tsars. During the time of the Soviet Union the building’s purpose was changed to become a museum — and is now home for the Russian Diamond Fund.
When we found we could look around the exhibition without our guide for 500 rubles we jumped at the chance. It wasn’t really something I was interested in, but I looked around anyway just for some quiet time. This entire building, not just the exhibition, did not allow photography of any kind — the same as had been the case inside the cathedrals.
This collection was started by Peter the Great and was originally held in the Winter Palace of Saint Petersburg. It was then added to by each Tsar that succeeded him and it became a collection that is comparable to the Crown Jewels in England.
During the time of the Soviet Union and the first World War the collection was moved to Moscow. It was put on public display in the 1960s as a permanent exhibition.
It’s amazing how long you can spend looking at them when you’ve got the motivation. It might sound awful, but when you’ve got a guide that genuinely never stops talking it starts to grate after several hours. When we finished we returned to Vlad to continue the tour.
For over an hour the guide led us around the exhibitions, describing every single exhibit on show — that was until one of the members of staff told the guide to hurry up as they wanted to close. This was a bit of a relief and the remainder of the armoury tour was rushed.
This brought the tour of the Kremlin to a close. We had to exit through the Alexander Park to get back to the baggage drop to collect our backpacks — but it wasn’t that straightforward.
A concert was about to take place in the Moscow Kremlin, so they’d closed off one entrance and were directing people around to another. When we got there, Vlad and my friend walked straight through but then a guard stopped me from following.
I was confused at him putting his arm out to stop me, but whatever it was he’d said in Russian, his intention seemed clear — I wasn’t getting passed. I tried to explain I needed to get my bag, but still he wouldn’t let me through. I shouted to my friend as I’d got the token for collecting the backpacks.
I think maybe the other nearby guards didn’t know what was going on as another came over and stood behind me. At this point I had a feeling this wasn’t going to go well. I couldn’t speak Russian, and I couldn’t get the attention of Vlad for him to translate for me.
My friend had come over to join me to find out what was going on, but whilst I was explaining the situation they kicked him out as well. It was now getting incredibly frustrating, and I had a bad feeling we wouldn’t be seeing our camera backpacks again. An irrational fear I’m sure.
I shouted to Vlad as loud as I could, and this time he headed over to us. The Russian guards had closed around us, I’m not sure if they were expecting us to do something. Vlad in this time had come over, and my hope was that he’d be translating for us. Instead, he nodded his head, took the token from me, and went back to collect our camera bags. The guards then relaxed, so my friend and I stood to one side whilst we waited for Vlad to return.
Afterwards we found that due to the concert they were only letting people through with concert tickets at that entrance, and if you needed to collect your bags you’d be allowed through the other entrance. If only there had been some attempt to explain that, but they had no patience.
Once the drama was over our guide asked us if we wanted to walk over to Red Square or go to find some food — we opted for food as we weren’t sure what we’d be able to get at the airport. Instead our guide decided he’d take us for a walk instead, and then asked us again what we wanted to do — again we repeated that we’d like to go for food. He then led us back to where we’d started the day, and asked if we’d like to walk back to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour we’d seen in the morning.
We kept having to repeat ourselves that we didn’t want to walk any more, and wanted to get food. Eventually Vlad took notice and called for the driver, but instead of going for food he told us he was taking us to the airport.
It was a long time before we needed to be at the airport, though an accident on the road meant we were stuck in slow moving traffic. The result of this meant it was fortunate we hadn’t gone for food — we’d arrived with little time to spare.
We started to head towards the queue for business class which was a virtually empty queue. Even though we’d got business class tickets, Vlad insisted we had to join the longer queue instead. This same thing happened when he led us to the queue for security so then we had another long wait instead of going straight through as we should have been able to.
At security we said goodbye to the guide, knowing we’d see him again in about a week. Now we were on our own we could take advantage of business class and get the private transfer from the gate to the plane to the Siberian city of Irkutsk.
Business class is a nice experience and was worth what little extra it cost for these seats. The seats are a little bigger, and there’s more space; but sleeping on an aircraft is still something that eluded me.
When breakfast was served it was done so with real cutlery and ceramic pots; not the normal plastic ones I’m used to on flights. The breakfast was of higher quality, but it wasn’t anything I was keen on so I ate the bread roll and left the rest.
It was 09:30 local time when we landed, the equivalent of having been awake until 04:30 in Moscow time. I’d been tired for most of the previous day as well, and we had barely eaten either. Now I was beyond tired but felt strangely awake — too exhausted to realise I was exhausted.
We met our guide, collected our luggage, and met the driver who dropped us off at the hotel. We were given just thirty-five minutes to sort ourselves out before heading out to explore the Siberian capital.
At the time we visited, Irkutsk was about 355 years old — a young city compared to other Russian cities; but it has played a big part in the history of Russia as a whole.
One of the most notable periods in it’s history was following the failed Decembrist revolution of 1825 when those that were involved were exiled to the far reaches of Russia. When they were eventually allowed to settle in Irkutsk where they brought with them new culture to the town.
Again this town was at the centre of Russian history during the October Revolution which saw a civil war between the “White” and “Red” armies. After the suppression of the anti-Bolsheviks, the Soviets brought industry to the town and built a hydroelectric dam to provide power.
The industry was in the form of the Irkut Corporation who produced aircraft for the VVS — the Soviet Union’s air force. They still produce aircraft today with some components being built for Airbus, and aircraft for the Indian Airforce. To look at the city you’d never have guessed this.
Our tour of Irkutsk started near the Angara River and two churches. Irkutsk originally consisted of mostly wooden buildings but after a great fire in 1879 a lot of them were destroyed. When they started to rebuild the government passed a law that stated any new buildings in the city centre must now be made from stone.
During this fire the Cathedral of the Epiphany got so immensely hot that the large bell it had in it’s tower melted as well. The cathedral was eventually rebuilt in stone which is what we could now see.
When a lot of churches were being destroyed during the time of the Soviet Union, these ones survived and were repurposed. We went in the Church of Our Saviour, though our guide said she had to wait outside as the Russian Orthodox church does not allow women inside places of worship without their head being covered.
Back outside the cathedral, our guide pointed out a green line that ran across the pavement. This line is there to guide tourists around the city to all the points of interest.
We followed this to a monument to those lost in war, and where school children of approximately fifteen years in age were practising marching and standing guard. Our guide was surprised they didn’t have rifles today, but then said that their marching isn’t about showing power to the west, but remembering and honouring their ancestors.
I think it’s an interesting viewpoint, as from our side it often looks like a show of power. Maybe there are political motives behind it, but to the people that live there, they believe that to not be the case. I guess in some ways it’s their equivalent of having scouting and guiding.
Behind the memorial there is a bridge over the road to where you can get down to the riverside. There are other memorials along the riverside, one of which is dedicated to the Russian Cossacks.
This part of the walking tour ended with a Moscow Gate — a modern rebuild of one of the old customs gates that used to sit along the route from Moscow to Irkutsk in the days when the journey was done by road and by boat.
Our next stop was yet another church, and we were told that Russians like to know a lot of details about the history of places they visit. This was a good explanation as to why our previous guide had gone into so much incredible detail when we were in Moscow.
I would say our guide for Irkutsk did go into a reasonable amount of detail, but I think she would have gone into a lot more for a Russian group. Some of the information was quite interesting; it was also refreshing that she wasn’t repeating herself.
In the grounds of this church we were told about a few of the people that were buried there. This included the wife and eleven year old son of one of the Decembrists.
Our tour continued at another place connected to the Decembrist revolt — Trubetskoy Manor, the home of one of the Decembrist exiles. It has long been a museum, and recreates the interiors of the times. The items within are all ones which belonged to the different exiled families.
To take photographs in this old wooden building we needed to pay one hundred roubles per camera being used, though I imagine it was actually meant as being per person. I took several photographs around this house as we were told about the Decembrist revolution and their subsequent exile.
Out of all those that were exiled, only nine of them had their wives join them as in doing so it meant they would lose their wealth, title, and status in society. I’m not sure if it says more about the people, or about the society in which they lived if they cared more about those things than their families.
To finish the tour we were taken to a memorial of Alexander III. It seems to be the case for many things in Russia that they were destroyed by either Napoleon, the Nazis, or the communist party. In this case it was the communists that destroyed the original statue.
The government didn’t leave the space empty after they were done — they replaced it with a memorial to workers instead. In 2003 it was the centenary of the Trans-Siberian railway, so as Tsar Alexander III was responsible for the decision to build this railway they reconstructed his statue from detailed notes to mark the occasion.
The guided tour for the day was now over, so we were driven back to the hotel. As the Siberian capital is colder than Saint Petersburg and Moscow, I quickly grabbed a jacket from there as we headed out to find food.
Along Lenin Street there are quite a few shops, and we found a place called Double Coffee that offered a good selection to choose from. As it turned out though it was also one of the cheapest meals of the trip so far with the meal costing 750 roubles per person with the tip. I went for beef stroganoff — a suitably Russian cuisine.
It was a very late lunch, so instead of having an evening meal later I decided I’d just try a Russian honeycomb cake from the hotel restaurant. Unfortunately, they were out of this so I decided that as the European part of Russia is influenced by French culture, I’d go for a French dessert — chocolate truffle cake. Any excuse.
Next morning I’d planned to go for an easy five kilometre run around the city. In most cases I’d go out for a run regardless of the weather, but this time chose to get more sleep. It was raining, and I didn’t want to be taking wet clothes onto the train we’d soon be riding to Mongolia.
When our guide collected us, it was still raining. If anything, the rain may actually have gotten heavier. I was glad to have packed my waterproof clothes as we’d got a few outdoor sights to see so could keep warm and dry.
It was a forty-five minute drive south to the Taltsy Museum of Wooden Architecture and Ethnography. The sixty-seven hectare territory contains over forty different buildings from both Russian and Buryat history which demonstrate different parts of Siberian life across history.
We went around several of the buildings including a fort, a gatehouse, and a functional Kazan cathedral. These buildings were all made from logs that had been cut to fit together to form the different types of building. They had a different level of detail depending upon it’s age and purpose.
We also tried to look around a wooden house, but the attendants were on a break so had locked it up. Instead of waiting around we headed over to the cafe where it was warm and dry. To help with warming up I bought us all a cup of tea, for what I think was only around twenty-five roubles. We sat and talked with the guide about life in Irkutsk until she decided it would be a good idea to return to the wooden house.
We were told about how each living room in a house would have a corner that would have a religious “icon” which they would pray to before each meal, but only the mother would be allowed to touch it so it could be cleaned, and as such would hide their supply of salt behind it. This was because salt in Siberia was valuable and difficult to get in foods otherwise.
We then drove on to the small town of Listvyanka, and the rain hadn’t really improved. Every time we turned to face Lake Baikal we’d be hit hard by the rain being driven into us by strong winds. This made it difficult to photograph, but we had at least seen it. The winds were that intense that it was creating waves across the lake.
In better weather it looked like the pebbly beach was probably popular with tourists. There were many small jetties onto the lake, and buildings with tables facing the water. I guess that in peak season they probably got hundreds of people visiting.
The wind blowing across the lake was cold, and the rain wasn’t helping us want to stay there longer. We headed over the road to their market square where they sell the locally caught fish called “Omul”.
Our guide asked us what we’d like to eat here so we both said we wanted one of the kebabs. Whilst these were being prepared we went upstairs to a seating area that looked out over the corrugated metal roofs of the stalls.
When the food arrived it became apparent that the guide had misunderstood, and had only ordered one. I let my friend have that, but I felt it was too late to order another due to the time it would take for them to cook it. If we’d had to wait then we’d have missed out on visiting the Baikal museum.
I did have something to eat though — I bought a chocolate bar on our way out of the market. It might not have been much, but at least it was some food to keep me going until we got back to Irkutsk.
The next stop was another church — the church of Saint Nicholas. This one has a lot of original religious icons as some which had been saved from the churches in Irkutsk had been brought to this one during the Soviet times. This one in Listvyanka had managed to remain a functional church throughout.
The rain by this point had eased off a little, and showed signs of stopping shortly. We spent a fair bit of time in this one as our guide talked to the person who ran the church shop there to find out why they had so many icons. In hindsight, if we’d had time for a very long stop here then we’d probably have had time for me to have got some lunch before. As Douglas Adams would have said, “You live, and learn. At any rate, you live”.
Finally we reached the Baikal museum which is hidden away off the main road. Sitting outside is the Pisces XI — an oceanology submersible; or at least I thought it was. I couldn’t really be sure if it was a replica, as apparently the Pisces XI is supposed to be in a museum elsewhere in Russia.
This museum cost 260 roubles for entry, and then another 120 roubles to be allowed to take photographs. A lot of the museum may not be worth photographing, but I thought it worth paying in order to take pictures in the aquarium.
Although the museum is small, our guide managed to make this stop last around two hours due to the extensive information on the background and ecosystem of Lake Baikal that she provided us with. It was pretty impressive really — this was the sort of information I could appreciate.
The last part of the museum tour is the aquarium which is filled with various local fish, and two female Baikal seals. We hung around for a while watching the seals as they were interesting to watch. Though I also felt sorry for them as their enclosure was pretty small. It’s always a shame to see animals in captivity.
When we left the museum the rain had stopped which meant we could finally photograph the lake. This break in the rain was short-lived though as the wet weather returned with a vengeance for the drive back to the city.
The rain had stopped once more by the time we arrived back in Irkutsk, and the sun was shining. Fortunate, as we needed to do some shopping ahead of boarding the Trans-Siberian Express. It was possible the train wouldn’t have a restaurant carriage so we needed to make sure we’d got our own food with us. The only thing the train would provide is a hot water urn, so powdered soup was one possibility.
Back at the hotel we checked our train tickets for the morning, just to confirm the details we’d been told. To our surprise and confusion, the ticket said the train was at 03:15 in the morning! As far as we knew, and as far as all the paperwork said, the train should have been at 07:53.
My friend panicked and quickly called the tour company in England who had booked the tickets for us. If there was a mistake and these times were correct, then it could mean we’d need the guide to pick us up a lot earlier than they thought.
We were promised a phone call back once they’d figured out what was going on. Whilst we waited we went down to the hotel restaurant for some food. I was more than ready for a proper meal, and even went as far as to finally try their Russian honey cake for dessert.
Still no sign of the promised phone call though, so whilst booking a packed breakfast from the hotel reception we decided to ask the lady about the tickets. She explained to us that in Russia, train tickets will normally display times based on Moscow time — though this didn’t quite match up.
The lady made a quick call, and was then able to confirm that the destination time was local time due to it being Mongolia we were travelling to. This finally made sense and we knew everything would be okay in the morning without changing arrangements.
At 21:00 I went for a five kilometre run around Irkutsk. I started to walk down a side street next to the hotel whilst waiting for my running watch to get a signal. I was then approached by someone, talking to me in Russian, and showing me some sort of ID.
I had no idea what they were saying, or what their ID was for, but I took it to mean they were some sort of plainclothes policeman.
“Sorry, could you repeat that in English,” I asked him. He replied with something brief in Russian and walked off. A little confused by this, I carried on walking as my watch was taking it’s time to locate a signal.
I ran from the nearby power station to the first church we’d visited the day before. I knew I was near the bridge that would take me to the waterfront so I quickly found that and started to run alongside the water as the sun began to set. I went as far as the path would allow before turning back and then repeating the route a few times before deciding to run over to Kirov Square on my way back to the hotel.
The tour company still hadn’t phoned back however. Even though we now knew the answer, they didn’t know that. So as far as they were concerned they were ignoring tourists who had no idea what was happening in a foreign country on the other side of the world.
It was too late now, so instead of waiting I went sleep.