Moscow to Yekaterinburg – Saturday 1st to Sunday 2nd July
I have a general rule with travel: The longer/more expensive the journey, the earlier you get to the departure point. So even though Moscow Kazansky Station was only half an hour from our apartment, we were there a full two hours before our train was due to depart for Siberia.
However, it turns out it was time we could spend well, stocking up on some train snacks and getting a terrible coffee. On Friday, Hannah had made the terrible mistake of commenting how she’d had her unbreakable flip flops since Vietnam. They promptly broke an hour later, so she took the opportunity of picking up some £1 purple plastic sandals at the station, too.
Finally, our train, the 060 to Nizhnevartovsk, came up on the board, so we gathered our things and clambered aboard.
We had decided to throw all of our eggs in and travel first class across Siberia. To shatter any illusions, all this meant was that we’d have a cabin to ourselves. Emirates Airlines this was not. To make things a little clearer, I’ll break down our Trans-Mongolian train costs once we make it to Beijing.
From bench to bed
We had two bench seats, with bunks that folded down from the seat-backs, and a little table with a power socket. No toilet; no sink; and no shower. Though they had left a little treats basket and some water for us too… and train slippers!
We found, however, that the set up we’d ended up with was perfectly comfortable for the two of us. So, we settled into the 26 hour journey reading, playing cards, and having the occasional vodka from a bottle of Grey Goose Phil had picked up ‘cheap’ in a Moscow supermarket.
Phil admires the scenery
After a while we braved the restaurant car (or the ресторан, in Cyrillic). Thinking we were in for a wild time of delicious train meals, flowing vodka, and easy camaraderie, we were a little disappointed to discover that, alas, once again Hollywood had not given us a realistic expectation.
We were met with grumpy, reluctant, service; told we weren’t allowed to play cards (even though the train staff were); and our only car companions were a couple of already heavily drunk, and still heavily drinking Russian men.
We decided that perhaps an instant noodle dinner in our cabin with a movie on Hannah’s laptop was the way forward instead.
Sleeping on a train can be wonderful. The sound of the tracks, the gentle rocking of the carriage, and the moonlit scenery passing by.
Sadly, the Trans-Siberian tracks are not the most even in the world, so the constant shaking of the train did all it could to ensure we both slept fitfully, and awoke unrefreshed the next morning. We opted for breakfast in the restaurant car. Greasy eggs with bits of salami chopped up and mixed in. We decided that we’d sort our own out after that.
Yekaterinburg, Russia – Sunday 2nd to Wednesday 5th July
We pulled into Yekaterinburg, in the Urals, at around 8pm. A short (overpriced) taxi ride later, we were at Hostel R.E.D., where we’d got a double room for £18.52 per night.
A little bigger than Manchester, Yekaterinburg is Russia’s fourth largest city. Setting out for dinner we passed countless young couples promenading along the banks of the river; a glorious and moody sunset behind us as we headed into town. Tiny coffee vans and trailers peppered the boardwalk and we felt surrounded by life and activity.
Yekaterinburg sunset skyline
This seemed limited to the boardwalk, however, and things quietened down once we made it to the centre to grab food, where Yekaterinburg morphed into just another big city. Albeit with a few very pretty buildings.
On Monday, while Hannah worked, Phil strolled up to the Church on Blood (which was erected on the site where the, now sainted, Romanovs were murdered). Then for dinner we treated ourselves to a Georgian feast at Hmeli Suneli. Our plan had been for Hannah to have a work day, then to be tourists proper on Tuesday. Sadly, this was not to be.
The Church on Blood in Honour of All Saints Resplendant in the Russian Land… Apparently
We woke on Tuesday to discover that one of Phil’s major work engagements had been postponed. This meant not only had we lost the money we were expecting to get, but it also meant we would have to rearrange our passage into China. We figured this wouldn’t be too much of a problem so started out as tourists anyway.
We’d hoped to hit the Metenkov Museum of Photography, see some monuments and sculptures, pick up boot laces for Hannah, and get to the Boris Yeltzin Museum before grabbing dinner and getting an early night to prepare for our 3:54am train departure on Wednesday.
It’s a keyboard, of course!
We got to the Photography Museum two hours before it opened (the times had changed). Undeterred we made our way to the Beatles Monument and the Keyboard Sculpture. Then the heavens opened. Soaked through and shivering, we finally found a haberdashery that could supply boot laces, before embarking on the long schlep back across town to try the photography museum. Again.
With just a £1.50 entry charge, it was interesting to see a few old photos of the city by one of the world’s pioneering photographers and cinematographers. It was no more than a diversion, however.
After discovering that Hannah also might have some work delayed we decided to bite the bullet and try and sort out Phil’s ticket to China.
We were at the station for a frustrating four and a half hours, and our ticket situation remained unchanged. With time getting away from us, we decided to try and sort it out in Irkutsk.
Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk – Wednesday 5th to Friday 7th July
In the end, we decided to stay awake until our taxi collected us at 2:45am to take us to the station. Within minutes of boarding we were crashed out asleep.
Pre-dawn boarding for a 3:54am departure
We woke late, after midday, groggy and unrested. Despite this, the following two days on the train flew by. The rocking, lurching, and constant noise all faded hypnotically into the background. What we had thought would be monotonous Siberian forest revealed itself to be a beautiful, wild, and subtly ever changing scenery. We both excitedly jumped to the window whenever we saw a river, or a bridge, or a tank-laden freight train pass by. We were traversing countryside devoid of population in a way that neither of us had ever experienced.
To say it was magical would be to go too far; but we both now understood what it was that had drawn us to this astonishing marvel of effort, engineering and ingenuity. And we were both so happy to be exactly where we were.
Irkutsk, Siberia, Russia – Friday 7th to Monday 10th July
After forty eight and a half hours, we pulled into Irkutsk station at 7:18am. Way too early to check into our accommodation, we had a leisurely breakfast, cancelled Hannah’s China train ticket, and made our way across town to have a slow cup of tea in a cafe next to our apartment. At around midday, Hannah made contact with our host to be told that actually the apartment wasn’t available, but he had another we could use back across town, for the same price of £25.50 per night.
Yuri Gagarin. First man in space. Nothing to do with Irkutsk.
Finally settled in, we were straight out the door again to try and get boat tickets to Lake Baikal – the main reason for stopping here! Saturday’s trips were all sold out, so we opted for just a Sunday trip to Bolshie Koty, a tiny gold rush village on the edge of the lake with no roads in or out.
We needed to send Hannah’s cancelled ticket back to Moscow in order to get a refund, and by the time we’d got that sorted it was already the end of the day! Exhausted rom our train ride and relentless to-ing and fro-ing across town, we gave up on our first day in Irkutsk and went to bed.
Unable to get to the lake, we decided to make a bit of an effort with the city instead. Almost to our surprise we actually felt rewarded with our efforts! Irkutsk is known as the Paris of Siberia, and we felt like we could understand why.
It isn’t a wealthy city. The ageing Soviet infrastructure is crumbling and in disrepair; transport is crowded and a little chaotic; and it is well over 3000 miles from Moscow. Yet there is a sense of cosmopolitanism and culture here. Its proximity to Lake Baikal makes this one of the most popular stops on the Trans-Siberian. Cafés, restaurants, and museums abound. And there is a real sense of life here.
We walked along the river and discovered a brass band playing ballads and classics while elderly locals danced. Older men fished, while young men worked out in an open air gym. Couples and families strolled around the parks and gathered in the shade of the trees by the river.
A Saturday morning dance
We happened across the Russian Geological Society Museum and went in on a whim. While the presentation was a little bit A-level, the quality of the artefacts and objects was evident. Irkutsk is a city, and Siberia a region, with a long, rich, and complex history.
Ironically, we opted for a Mongolian late lunch/dinner at Kochevnic (Nomad), before ambling up and around Kirov Square. When we arrived we discovered, too late for us, that the city has mapped out a 5km self-guide walking tour around all the key sites of the city centre. You just follow The Green Line painted on the pavement. Such a good idea!
The next day was Lake Baikal. Phil had been looking forward to this since he started looking at possible routes to Bhutan! We hurriedly had to find a packed lunch when we discovered there were no facilities at Bolshie Koty; then at the ferry terminal we checked the ticket to discover we only had tickets one way. Not only that, but all the return ferries were sold out!
So, with five minutes to spare we were at the ticket office desperately trying to work out how we’d get back from Bolshie Koty (I mentioned there are no roads, right?). Thankfully there was a solution. We’d get a boat part way back to Listvyanka, then grab a minibus from there.
Our high speed hydrofoil on Lake Baikal
The hydrofoil pulled in to Bolshie Koty after a speedy one and a half hour ride along the lake. The little village is just what you’d expect of a pre-Soviet gold rush village. Wooden shacks, fishing boats, little Lada cars, and cows wandering wherever they like.
We strolled through the village, sunbathed, and read. Then, all too soon, it was time to catch the boat, and then the hot bumpy minibus back to Irkutsk.
Daringly, Phil paddles into Lake Baikal
With that, our Siberian adventure was nearly complete. The next day we hopped on a tram to the station to embark on the next leg of our Trans-Mongolian journey; into Mongolia!
Next week we arrive in Ulaanbaatar in time for the Nadaam Festival.
Hannah and Phil x