Russia. The name itself evokes different feelings for different people, but almost everyone has an opinion one way or another. Be it politics, sports, culture or history, Russia can be polarizing, but is undeniably intriguing. Being from Canada, people are generally amazed at how much bigger Canada is than their own nation. Not Russians. Covering 17.1 million square kilometres, it’s about 60% larger than Canada and represents roughly 1/8 of the world’s land surface. In short, a giant of a country, both in size and in reputation.
It seemed unjust to formulate an opinion on Russia simply by flying into Moscow, visiting St. Petersburg and then flying out, and since we had time on our hands we decided to travel from Ulaanbataar to St. Petersburg the old fashioned way – via the railroad. I make it sound as though this was a spontaneous decision, but in actuality it was more planned than this. Attaining a Russian visa as a Canadian is not an easy feat, as upon application you need to make sure that your i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed in a manner I had not previously experienced, or else risk having your visa denied. Luckily, our visa came through with about five hours remaining before we had to fly out of Bali, a close call, but the way things go.
Mark Twain. Paul Theroux. Many of the great travel writers that I look up to wrote excellent tales of their time on the railroad, with the usual characteristic dry wit and observational humour that I enjoy, and I must admit I had a somewhat romanticized version of what the journey would entail. Suffice it to say I was excited.
The first leg of our journey involved getting into Russia itself, a distance of 1027km to be covered in 24 hours to get our feet wet. The border crossing happened at around 11PM and took about four hours when all was said and done. I must say I was nervous as my passport was inspected by the Russian border controllers in a detailed manner that I had never previously witnessed, hoping that the embassy had done everything correctly. Luckily, all was well, but I was immediately made aware of the substantial language barrier that we would be up against. Frantically, we had tried to learn the Cyrillic alphabet on the first leg of our journey, and it (along with Google Translate) would help immensely for the remainder of the trip. I must admit there is a (conscious or not) sense of entitlement that people who speak English as their first language often experience traveling the world. Virtually everywhere (outside of parts of Latin America and China), I had been able to get by (miraculously in some cases, but nevertheless) with English. Not in Russia.
The first stop on our journey was Irkutsk, the gateway town to Lake Baikal. Many people felt that we were insane to travel to Siberia in early March, with temperatures predicted to constantly reach -30 degrees Celsius with the windchill, but there was a method to our madness. For only two months of the year (February and March), Lake Baikal contains ice thick enough to literally drive over and witness the incredible ice formations that result. To give some context to this lake, it reaches a maximum depth of 1,642m and contains more water than ALL of the North American Great Lakes combined.
The shapes in the ice are like abstract works of art, and despite the ridiculously cold temperatures we spent an entire day touring around the island, taking in the cold and ice in a way I hadn’t done since my childhood in Canada. It really did feel like we were kids again.
After three days on the fringe of excited hypothermia, it was time to re-board the train (well, another train) for the next leg of our journey. Many people opt to travel from Irkutsk straight through to Moscow, but we had been advised (wisely, it turns out) to break up the trip, and decided instead to visit Yekaterinburg en route. This journey was still an epic 3,470 km and took 52 hours in total to complete.
As Jaime and I traveled as a couple, we opted for the second class four bed compartments, whereas many solo travelers we met had elected to travel in the more open style third class compartments, where it was easier to meet people. We had met a Swiss girl in Irkutsk who planned to travel around the world without flying (well, as much as possible). When we asked her why that was she said that in addition to a fear of flying, she also felt that it wasn’t right for people to get on a plane somewhere and get off somewhere on the other side of the world, that our brains couldn’t quite compute. “I want to feel the distance,” she said, and this quote really resonated with us. We wanted to feel the distance, too.
I wasn’t so sure we had made the right call, however, as the train pulled up to Yekaterinburg station at 4:30AM, in the pitch black and in the midst of a blizzard and -35 degree temperatures. Frantically I attempted to communicate with a cab driver, grossly overpaying him just for the sake of getting somewhere warm. Now, if you’re staying at the Four Seasons they have a 24 hour reception, but if you stay at the kind of places you need to stay in order to sustain months of backpacking, often the receptionists take the night off. After frantically running around a building multiple times in whiteout conditions, the cab driver trying his best to take off and leave us on the sidewalk, we finally managed to sort out the precise location of our accommodation, where a sleepy receptionist greeted us in Russian (“No English”) and sorted us out after some Google Translate-based back and forth ‘conversing’.
All I knew about Yekaterinburg was that it was the sight of the assassination of the Romanov family in 1918, ending the reign of the Russian Tsars and their subsequent legacy. We visited the Church of All Saints, the Russian Orthodox church erected on the site of the house where they were murdered. I’ve been inside many, many religious buildings in my travels, but this place was powerful. Seeing people in tears and weeping in front of idols and photographs of the Tsar was strange, and I must admit that I felt really out of place.
The rest of the day was spent with a quick tour of the sights before hitting up the grocery store for some red wine and home cooked dinner. Despite our claims of the cold not bothering us in lieu of our Canadian lineage, I think that two plus years in a tropical climate lowered my threshold for cold tolerance significantly.
After a good night’s sleep, it was off to Moscow, 1748km to the west and 26 more hours on a train. Part of my romanticized vision of the train I must say did come true, as there was no Internet and little to occupy ourselves with. I found myself reflecting further and in a different manner than normal when everything is a distraction, reading and writing more, eating cup noodles and drinking tea, just living simply. It was really a delight.
When we arrived in Moscow it felt like the vision of Russia I had had in my mind. Big, towering buildings adorn the city sidewalks, a cosmopolitan and European front covering a Soviet facade underneath. I loved it there – the architecture, the people, the food, the Kremlin. Everything was larger than life. We spent three full days exploring and it felt as though we had barely scratched the surface.
From there it was on to St. Petersburg, 650km to the northwest and ‘only’ nine hours on a comfortable overnight train. As a big fan of many Russian novelists including Dostoyevsky, Turgenev and Tolstoy, I was excited to see the city where many of my literary heroes had derived their inspiration. St. Petersburg is, without doubt, one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever seen. It positively radiates with old-world European charm, the buildings on each block more beautiful than the next until you are forced to wonder whether people actually live in this city or it’s just a facade for a fairy tale or a movie set. Our first stop was to the Hermitage, situated in the Winter Palace (and adjoining buildings) where the Tsars held court and entertained guests in a lavish manner that would dumbfound anyone with their sheer extravagance.
The buildings themselves are a work of art, and you could spend hours simply wandering the halls admiring the different rooms in the palatial mansions without even seeing a piece of artwork. However, in addition to this, the Hermitage houses an incredible array of art and history, from an excellent ancient Egyptian collection to antiquities from ancient Greece and Rome to paintings by the Dutch masters including Rembrandt’s (since it was still low season, you could simply walk up and gaze at these paintings without anyone around, something impossible at the Louvre or equivalent museums), Renaissance art including Da Vinci’s, and so many works we had to skip simply as a result of lack of time and mental exhaustion.
Not to be outdone, however, the building opposite the Hermitage (also included in your entry ticket of roughly $15USD) houses an incredible collection of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings, with rooms filled with the work of Monet, Renoir, Cezanne and Picasso amongst many others. It’s worth visiting St. Petersburg simply to see this museum. Two full days went by all too quickly (as they usually do) filled with seeing beautiful buildings such as the Saviour on the Spilled Blood and the St. Petersburg mosque.
And like that, our time in Russia was over.I must say that despite the incredible distances covered, I really enjoyed the train and would recommend it to anyone. I wasn’t able to articulate it in this piece (I’m already over 1800 words, thanks to those of you who stuck in it this far), but one of the things that really affected me positively in Russia was the people. In total we travelled 6,895km by train, and we certainly felt the distance, but a constant along the way was the friendliness of the people we encountered along the way. Despite an often virtually insurmountable language barrier, most of the people we met were kind, caring, curious and considerate. I was interested to see how the political scene would affect your everyday Russian, and much like it was in Iran, what I discovered was that the people are more acutely aware of what is happening within their own borders than we in the West can ever understand. Judging a group of people or a country based on their political leaders is a simple demonstration in ignorance, and I’m certainly glad that I ignored what I had read and witnessed this beautiful, dynamic country for myself. Hopefully you one day have the opportunity to do the same.