Day 14 on Trans-Siberian Railway: Driving into the taiga and abandoned villages

It has been a month since our great Russian-Mongolian adventure came to an end. I have been overly optimistic in telling myself to keep up with the travelling bug and give life to my memories. Weeks have gone by, work happened with its usual business and endless list of tasks and to dos and  projects, and my writing muse seems to have given up on me for a while.

With every noble intention in mind, I am sitting outside in the beautiful morning sun at a neighbourhood sidewalk café keen on breaking the spell and getting a new post out today. Wish me luck! So far I have managed to be a diligent student and catch up on my Italian studies. Totally not a sign of procrastination.

The prettiest ride ever!

The prettiest ride ever!

We are back in Bugul’deyka. We nevery actually left, still there for the last day. Remember our kind host Volodya. His mission of the day is to make our last day in the shores of Lake Baikal as memorable as possible. That includes creating ample opportunities for me to enjoy beautiful wild flower fields and for Andreas to take one last long ride in his oh-so-beloved UAZ dream car. A drive to the nearby taiga forest seems to be a perfect qualifier for both wishes.

A glimpse into the famous  Russian deep taiga

A glimpse into the famous Russian taiga

The UAZ rolls quietly on the dusty path making every small bump and unevenness of the surface count. It is all part of the countryside charm. So buckle up. My wish of pretty wildflower encounters doesn’t make itself wait for long. Just an hour on the bumpy ride, the path turns into an enchanted forest covered in a carpet of purple and yellow blooms. I have always had a thing for pretty flowers. Perhaps doing something about that gardening dream of mine one day wouldn’t be such a bad idea. Having grown up with a field of red tulips and blooming trees of apricots, peaches and cherries in the backyard probably has something to do with my enchantment of flowers.

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Enough about that. Taiga is calling. We are headed towards the middle of nowhere, where Volodya claims we will find a village with traditional wooden houses. As the fields of flowers slowly get swapped with even bumpier roads, the minutes slowly passing by seem endless. Volodya never disappoints, so we gotta trust that the village will appear out of nowhere anytime now.

Spotting an eagle on the  road brings good luck. Volodya must have called in big favours since this souring eagle has been following our ride as soon as we entered the taiga.

Spotting an eagle on the road brings good luck. Volodya must have called in big favours since this souring eagle has become our loyal companion on the road keeping a watchful eye for us.

An hour or so passes by. I manage to get comfortable in the dream car and doze off into the world of dreams amidst the bumpy, dusty drive. Someone (no need to call names) always gets amazed at my ability to fall asleep in the car on the most peculiar of roads and yet manage to get wide awake at home from the slightest noise.

The village in the middle of nowhere

We have finally arrived in the village Kurtun in the middle of nowhere

What greets us is a mishmash of beautiful wooden houses, some looking abandoned and in desperate need of repair standing side by side with more beautiful neighbours showing clear signs of modernity done in the not so recent past. In whatever state of repair the houses find themselves, there is one thing that still makes them look charming. The windows – with their unique look and feel on each of the houses. It feels like you have entered an enchanted village and forest fairies will burst open the windows any minute now and come flying out.

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There is not much sign left in the village that once housed close to a hundred inhabitants. Many have left for the city in the search of a better life. In the end of the village you come across what once used to be the Soviet cultural centre and is today totally devoid of humans and populated by a flock of goats. Across the street from the goat gathering center you will find a prominent looking house, one of the few that has been repaired recently and shows signs of inhabitance. It belongs to the mayor of the village. He and his buddies are lounged out in the front of the house chatting away with no care in the world. Encountering a group of foreigners, the mayor is quick to jump into conversation, reminiscing about the good, old Soviet times and how glorious the life was back then.

As the village tour comes to an end, we head back home  to Bugul’deyka. Volodya needs to  make provisions for the last supper – BBQ on the shore of Lake Baikal. He tried to convince me to make an Armenian style BBQ but due to lack of necessary ingredients quickly dropped the idea and turned to the Buryat traditional style.

Lake  Baikal  in the setting sun

Lake Baikal in the setting sun

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The waters of Baikal are very tranquil today. The sun is painting the lake in burning red. As we  wait for the chicken to grill, it is easy to get mesmerised by the view and draw into your own world of thoughts and dreams. The world seems so peaceful right at this moment.

What a beautiful way to  end our Baikal adventure!

What a beautiful way to end our Baikal adventure!

Baikal has been an absolute charm, largely due to our kindest host. As the evening draws closer, Andreas heads off for one last river swim. Tomorrow is a new day and we will bid goodbye to Volodya in the hope of returning one day.

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Photos © Andreas Eriksen & Ani Movsisyan

Day 12 on Trans-Siberian Railway: Tales from Siberia

Today’s adventure takes us to Olkhon island on Lake Baikal. To get there it is a 3 hour drive from Bugul’deyka. Again on dusty, bumpy roads… It seems like I will be saying these words far too often on this side of the earth.

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The landscape is nevertheless breathtaking. From a salt lake to taiga forests to grasslands and panoramic hills. Volodya for sure knows all the secret spots.

Roads like these are the standard this side of Russia

Roads like these are the standard this side of Russia

Our ride looking like it is just made for these landscapes

Our ride looking like it is just made for these landscapes

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On top of a hill overlooking Lake Baikal we meet Kostya – a local of the area in the midst of doing stretches and weight-lifting. He could easily be going for the young Siberian Rambo title. Very determined in his demeanour, we exchange a greeting, as Kostya is eager to show off his English skills. After a few minutes of introduction, he turns off to his Rambo activities in the scorching heat, while I turn away to get deeply engrossed in photographing the beautiful wild flowers of Siberia. Within a day in the area this has quickly become my favourite past time.

Aren't they just gorgeous <3

Aren’t they just gorgeous <3

Leaving the Siberian Rambo behind we continue towards the main attraction – Shamanka Rock. Now Buryats religion is shamanism and there are traces of it everywhere in this part of Siberia. As we drive along we often see Volodya raise up his right hand in a gesture of greeting. Greeting the spirits that protect the areas he says. Shamanka Rock is the center of shamanism.

Shamanka Rock

Shamanka Rock

As you drive along in Buryat lands you will notice colourful pillars erected along the roads. They are are called sergeh (ritual) pillars. They are needed so the spirits can come down from the sky and tie their horses to the pillars.

Sergeh pillars at Shamanka Rock

Sergeh pillars at Shamanka Rock

The pillar is a symbol of the tree of life, uniting three worlds. Three horizontal rings are carved on the pillar. The upper ring is for the gods to tie their horses when descending onto the earth, the middle one is for the humans and the lower – for the horses of the underground world.

Prayers made out of colourful clothing pieces are tied to sergeh pillars

Prayers written on colourful clothing pieces are tied to sergeh pillars

By the pillars we also find broken cigarets, rice and coins with eagle side up and an unusual smell. Volodya’s calm voice is heard again explaining that those are offerings to the spirits. Apparently there are different offering classes, the best being milk vodka the smell of which is what I apparently was met with (not a pleasant one I can tell you), wheat products coming second, followed by broken cigarets and coins. Coins need to be with the eagle side up.

Offering to the spirits

Offering to the spirits

The religious matters settled, for us the most beautiful draw of the area is the view to Lake Baikal. And what a serene view it is – out of this world beautiful.

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Heading back on the dusty, bumpy roads we get home tired and smiling from the day’s adventure. I get back to my evening favourite past-time – chasing the unraveling generic drug saga and transferring my travel memories on the digital ink. Andreas strikes up a half-German, quarter-Russian and quarter hand gesture conversation with Volodya which basically revolves around paydyom plavat (let’s go swimming) and heads off to do sunset pictures of and swimming in Lake Baikal.

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Photos © Andreas Eriksen & Ani Movsisyan

Day 11 on Trans-Siberian Railway: Privet Irkutsk!

IMG_03052 days 5 hours and 33 minutes, 3,500 km of distance, crossing 3 time zones… they just flew by. The documentary series ranging from Our Planet to Rotten loaded on my phone in the anticipation of the long hours on the train did not get fully utilised. It turns out I am more into reading on the train than watching films. Second revelation – time really just flew by.

It is nearing 06:22 – the ETA for pulling into Irkutsk railway station. And once again the Russian railway system is hits the metric for timeliness. On the dot the train pulls up at the train station. If this trend continues I will have to consider modifying German punctuality and adding a Russian twist to that.

Welcome to Irkutsk. A quick hello and goodbye as we head to our home for the next 5 days tucked away by the shores of Lake Baikal

Welcome to Irkutsk. A quick hello and goodbye as we head to our home for the next 5 days tucked away by the shores of Lake Baikal

The train comes to a stop. Commotion in the train corridor as carriage doors are pulled open and passengers starts marching towards the exit. The pleasant connections once forged in the train are now being pulled apart in a hasty manner. Going down the train steps and into the platform we become strangers again. Everyone rushes out into the open world waiting for them. A quick goodbye to our neghbours – the Russian grandma and her grandson – is all there is to say. They hurry out the train living behind a pleasant memory. One can’t stop but feel sentimental, at least I do.

Enough sentimentality, Irkutsk is waiting, looking all pretty and sunny. Our host Volodya is delayed in picking us up in his Soviet furgon, so there is nothing else to do but to find somewhere to get some food.

Breakfast in once glorious now spooky looking palace room turned into a sad hole

Breakfast in once glorious now spooky looking palace room turned into a sad hole

We didn’t have to go far to find this glorious ballroom that in the height of its fame in the Soviet years was probably quite the place to be seen in. Now in its ramshackle state it felt kind of spooky actually. A huge hall with a small counter on the side serving a sad menu of blinis and grechka (boiled buckwheat, the Russian equivalent of rice), the two kitchen dames looking stern and unwelcoming, half of the tables overturned and the rest looking like they could use a much needed upgrade into the modern age. At least the ballroom was light and airy and you half expected palace guests to flung open the big white doors and waltz right in.

The breakfast ordeal in the grand room is well accomplished. An hour has passed and still no trace of Volodya… Traffic jams we are told. Waiting out in the morning sun seems like a good idea giving us a chance to observe the flow of passengers in and out of the railway station.

As the second hour is approaching to its close, Andreas notices his dream car – a grey UAZ pull into the parking lot. Volodya is here finally together with his friend heading to Volodya’s mother’s place to help them build a new guesthouse! We hurry towards this kind looking man of Buryat origin as he walks in hurried steps and with outstretched arms to give us a welcome hug. Perhaps you will get a chance to meet Volodya in a later post, if not I tell you he has the kindest face and as it turns out is a very humble and quiet soul. Russian quickly becomes our speaking language as we strike up conversation like old acquaintances reunited again. Even Andreas seems to be catching up quickly with his small vocabulary of Russian words and Volodya spices the conversation up with his equally small German lingo.

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Volodya puts the UAZ in gear and on we roll first onto the paved streets of Irkutsk that after a while turn into dusty offroads. Our destination is a small village called Bugul’deyka north of Irkutsk by the shore of Lake Baikal. The 230 km will take around 4 hours to cross we are told. Well we are not in a hurry – everything is new and exciting and someone is excited like a kid to be riding in an UAZ.

Shortly into the roadtrip we realise that the Soviet design of our beautiful UAZ failed to consider modern amenities such as A/C. Let alone that the ingenious design of the van makes the windows in the back area close shut after a few bumps on the road. Very convenient given it is over 30 degrees of Celsius outside. Good we have an engineer on board – it didn’t take long for Andreas to design an A/C for our UAZ ride.

Good we have an engineer on board - it didn't take long for Andreas to design an A/C in the UAZ

Good we have an engineer on board – it didn’t take long for Andreas to design an A/C for our UAZ ride

Opening his bag to find one of the tools he always carries – a heavy-duty string, he quickly musters up an ingenious A/C system to force the window to stay open and allow for air to flow in. Now I finally feel appreciation for why he always insists on carrying his camping tools with him. I am making a mental note for myself to stop commenting on his habit on packing 3 kg of weight in his bag at all times when travelling consisting solely of various camping equipment.

With handmade A/C running efficiently we hit off the road again. Seems like a world apart from the tightly packed avenues of Moscow. And it couldn’t have been any  farther, we are more than 5,000 km away from the glamorous capital. The road here is open vastness covered with green fields, roaming horses and wild flowers.

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The symbol of Bugul'deyka area.

The symbol of the area. Volodya said that Bugul’deyka means the pasture where deer graze. So it only seemed appropriate to pay respects to the beautiful statue before continuing our roadtrip.

After four hours or so of bumpy and dusty ride we arrive at the village of Bugul’deyka. This will be our home for the next five days staying with the family of Volodya – all Buryat people native of the area. In the words of Volodya, Buryat are the descendants of the forest Mongols, while the Mongols living in Mongolia are the steppe (grassland) Mongols. Good to know. It is a mini introduction to what is expecting us on the other side of the border in the neighbouring Mongolia.

Our home in Bugul'deyka

Our home in Bugul’deyka is hidden behind the UAZ beauty

 

From five star hotels in posh Moscow to long drop toilets in the end of Russia - life is beautiful

From five star hotels in posh Moscow to long drop toilets in the end of Russia – life is beautiful

The house complex comes with a banya - every evening it gets heated up for shower purposes at least in the summer

The house complex comes with a banya – every evening it gets heated up for shower purposes at least in the summer

After getting a tour of our home and the key attractions – the toilet and the banya, we set off for the main draw of the area and of the highlight of our trip – Lake Baikal. It is just two km away from Bugul’deyka. We get there close to the sunset to find an absolute beauty.

Lake Baikal -  so still and pretty

Lake Baikal – so still and pretty

IMG_3042IMG_3028Lake Baikal – I am left mesmerised by its beauty, as I gaze to its still waters and a surface calm like a mirror with the sun softly dancing on it. Volodya standing next to me, looks longingly at the water, pointing at some yellow particles that are not supposed to be there and says quietly that the lake used to be so clean 10 years ago. A result of human contamination along the shores of it. Not dangerous he adds, you can swim it. I am not much of a swimmer, but it doesn’t take long for my Danish half to jump into the water which is clearly freezing cold for my taste being around 10 degrees but just perfect for his.

After a while we head back onto the road again. Volodya wants to show us his favourite panoramic spot. We drive into the forest to find a beautiful carpet of wild flowers. Everywhere you look – pretty flowers in shades of pink, purple, white and blue smile at you. My joy couldn’t be more complete. Siberia is so full of surprises. Wild flowers is not the thing that comes to mind when you think of Siberia. For me this vast land has always been associated with perpetual snow and freezing cold temperatures.

Wild flower fields everywhere - my happy place

Wild flower fields everywhere – my happy place

internal.5977f0ccffb34b44625e4ea918ab1781.DO01034073As I go crazy with taking pictures of all the pretty flowers I can find, I notice that annoying little creatures are feasting at my legs. Nasty mosquitoes are really having a blast. Within the 15 minutes that we spent in the forest, I was left with probably just as many humongous mosquito bites. Andreas got his share too. I think Volodya on the other hand must have some kind of magic potion on him that repels the annoying flies. Either that or the flies don’t touch the locals. The wild flowers are worth it though I try to tell myself… though during the next couple of days as my itching urges intensify I am not sure I still stay of the same naive opinion.

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After some short time of admiring the nature, we call it a day and head back home. At least some of us do. The fish in the family, aka Andreas decides that the swim in Lake Baikal is not enough for him. He also wants to test the waters in the local river. Armed with a newly mastered Russian expression – paydyom plavat (let’s go swim), Volodya and he set off to have an evening swim in the river.
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I turn to my exciting book world. After finishing the second Jan Guillou Hamilton book, I have transferred myself to India to read about a deceptive, disgusting and scary world of generic drugs. It is unfortunately depicting a reality we live in. Don’t even ask why. Bottle of Lies by Katherine Eban. Just read it and I promise it will scare the hell out of you and you will think twice next time you buy a drug that is generic. The world we live in can be so twisted and dirty.

To drive the crazy generic drug thoughts away I look at the wild flowers again to put a smile back on my face. It does the trick. Good night from Siberia!

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Photos © Andreas Eriksen & Ani Movsisyan

Day 10 on Trans-Siberian Railway: 1,000 km to Irkutsk

Good morning Siberia!

Good morning Siberia!

It is another day on the Trans-Siberian. Just 24 more hours to go until we reach our destination – Irkutsk. Not much to report. It is the same, same. Restaurant visits, reading, writing, talking, day-dreaming.

On the menu of the day - borsch and our usual Greek salad

On the menu of the day – borsch and our usual Greek salad

C9C56D8E-78DB-48E3-BCCA-0F970250B30EOur Russian grandma turns out to be quite a cool lady, having travelled extensively around the world. She makes for a good travel companion, albeit a bit strict for the poor grandson, the 13 year old Sasha, that is under constant supervision. The control measures include strict phone time limitation and mandatory Russian reading. The list of control mechanisms is not exhaustive, but these two are the one Galya the grandma was very fond of imposing. She even tried to coerce me into some Russian reading time, which I politely managed to get out of.

As we draw closer to Irkutsk, the news about floods in the region intensify. It is still the topic of discussion for our German neighbours and now our Russian grandma has also gotten word about it. Angara river has caused quite a stir in the Irkutsk region resulting in quite dramatic floods to an extent that Putin had to fly in and make an appearance. We follow the famous British motto – keep calm and roll on. One of us is more predisposed to the keep calm part, and that one is for sure not me.

Angara river has caused quite a stir in the Irkutsk region resulting in floods to an extent that Putin had to fly in and make an appearance

Angara river has caused quite a stir in the Irkutsk region resulting in floods to an extent that Putin had to fly in and make an appearance

 Just 7 hours to go until the train pulls up at Irkutsk railway station.

Good night from Siberia!

Good night from Siberia!

Photos © Andreas Eriksen & Ani Movsisyan

Day 7 on Trans-Siberian Railway: Yekaterinburg

14 hours or so later the train pulls up at the Yekaterinburg station right on the dot. So far the Trans-Siberian trains have been rigidly following the train schedules with German punctuality.

Right on time!

Right on time!

Needless to say I didn’t get much sleep. Woken up by the arrival of the midnight passengers, there was no point in trying to get back to sleep. Instead I ended up reading a book by my favourite Swedish/French author Jan Guillou. He is so so good. I am a total bookaholic and have always been. Last year I was introduced to the Guillou universe and I cannot stop reading his books. If you are contemplating to embark on a Trans-Siberian adventure, Guillou book series can become your trusty train companion, making the hours just fly by.

Nåh back to Yekaterinburg. The city also goes by its more commonly known Soviet name Sverdlovsk. A city in the Urals, a city at the geographic border of Europe and Asia, a city where the last Russian emperor – Tsar Nicholas II and his family, were murdered in 1918, a city of traditional wooden houses and glass skyscrapers, a city of monuments paying homage to The Beatles, to the invisible man (whoever that is) and to nothing less than a computer keyboard, a city in the making and of contrasts. Welcome to Yekaterinburg! We have two days to explore it until the Trans-Siberian train whistles us on board again.

Yekaterinburg - a city on the border of Europe and Asia

Welcome to Yekaterinburg – a city on the border of Europe and Asia. Just in case you forgot, the big sign in the train station stands as a proud reminder.

Even the sign on the gates of the railway station reminds you of the mining region that you are in - the Urals

Even the sign on the gates of the railway station reminds you of the mining region that you are in – the Urals

Our plan of arriving in the hotel early in the morning and hoping for a way too early check-in works like a charm. The sweet receptionist, with Russian seriousness and a face with no hint of a smile, gives a green light and this time, unlike the Kazan capsule place, no extra charge is required. Just wait for 30 minutes. Excellent start of the day! Now that the shelter is secured, some breakfast is what will put an even bigger smile on my face.

What! Apricots - the lovely fruit of my home, Armenia.

What! Apricots – the lovely fruit of my home, Armenia.

Imagine the surprise on my face, where at the buffet amongst Russian blini and sirniki, I come face to face with this beauty – apricots! What! My first reaction is – have we taken the wrong train and woken up in Armenia. I am in heaven. Apricot is the fruit I miss the most from my home and finding it here in the middle of Russia, looking exactly like the apricots we have at home, my heart skipped a beat. I already like this city.

Having devoured most of the apricots in the buffet – sorry other guests, it is time to catch up on some sleep that I was deprived of in the train. Yekaterinburg explorations need to wait for a few hours, otherwise my sleep-deprived head cannot properly function.

Visotski Tower sticking out amidst Soviet architecture of Yekaterinburg

Vysotsky Tower standing out amidst Soviet architecture of Yekaterinburg

I must have been really tired – slept like a baby for a few hours the moment my head hit the pillow. Now I am ready to take on the city. Let’s go!

With no specific plan in mind we set off on a sunny walk in the neighbourhood, passing cosy parks and peculiar monuments along the way.

internal.59b8b86ecb494a3671ce0192d8c1afc9.DO01033938The first curios site is the keyboard monument – don’t ask why. Just because, I suppose. Standing there admiring the white stones dedicated to something so common and something that has permeated our lives so irreversibly seems strange at first sight, but why not?

IMG_9914We overhear a Russian girl telling her visiting friend that you are supposed to make a wish and hop around the stones to spell out the wish and that will make the wish come true. The friend looks pretty dubious and not really in the mood for hopping around spelling random wishes. The girl decides to be the brave one and set an example by jumping around for some time until she apparently decides that the wish is spelled out alright. The friend then has no choice but follow the example.

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Just a few steps away from the keyboard monument stands another one – to The Beatles and the Wall of Love.

internal.09b2e0ece894e92c149085c340fb444a.DO01033939Seems like the city is under major construction, there were high-rises popping up everywhere.

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Firework kiosk - what!?

Firework supermarket just off a main street in the middle of practically nothing much – what!?

A few hours of strolling around led us to a small café. The blue sky was quickly turning into a serious shade of grey with a promise of heavy rain. We sought refuge and found a nostalgic menu of Soviet/Russian delights to keep us busy – borsch, fried potatoes with mushroom and onion (this one is a big hit also on board the trains), blini and more.

Mors - a Ural specialty

Mors – a Ural specialty, made from fresh berries, sugar and water

Honey cake

Honey cake – this was a very popular cake in my childhood. A Soviet heritage, it was a must item on the menu for every New Year table.

The threat of rain is long gone. Free to roam the streets again or rather head to the hotel for a few hours of rest before our local tour of the city with Alexander. Who is Alexander, you might ask? Good question – a Yekaterinburg resident we found through Airbnb. He promised to show us the best of the city and his favourite spots.

The residents of Yekaterinburg have a sense of sarcasm

The residents of Yekaterinburg have a sense of sarcasm

Monument to the invisible man

Monument to the invisible man

We meet Alexander down in the hotel lobby and venture out into the city. Originally planned as 1.5 hour walk, it turns into a 3 hour beautiful sunset tour as Alexander excitedly leads us through one favourite landmark of his to another. It is always so exciting seeing a new place through the eyes of the locals, hearing their stories and their takes on places.

Beautiful wooden carvings on traditional Russian houses

Beautiful wooden carvings on traditional Russian houses. The few houses that are left in the city are under state protection.

Remnant of Soviet architecture

An interesting remnant of Soviet architecture

Site where the Romanovs were murdered

The Church on Blood – the site where the Romanovs were murdered in 1918. There stood a mansion here once, in the basement of which Romanovs were hiding. Now the church is rising here as a memorial to the last tsar of Russia and his family.

Soviet symbol and religious site in the background. There was time where those two didn't go well together

Soviet symbol and religious site in the background. There was a time where those two didn’t go so well together

Sunset by the river promenade

Beautiful sunset by the river promenade

Putin's residence when in town

Putin’s residence when in town

Playing chess

Deep in the game

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A beautiful sunset to seal off another beautiful day in Russia. Yekaterinburg has shown its prettiest side to us. Good night from the Urals!

Photos © Andreas Eriksen & Ani Movsisyan

Day 6 on Trans-Siberian Railway: Kazan -> Yekaterinburg (14h 4m)

The quietness of the previous night apparently was too boring for our newly arrived Russian neighbours lodged in the upstairs capsule. They launched into nightly romantic escapades, which also continued in the early morning hours. Guess they didn’t consider or care about the thin walls and rocking floors of the capsule…

Today is our last day in Kazan so we decide to go all in on Soviet hygge and that essentially consists of visiting a military park across the street. Tanks, planes, Katyushas and kids everywhere crawling happily on top of the tanks. Interesting sense of entertainment.

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Well now that military arsenal is off the bucket list, the remaining hours in Kazan are spent back in our favourite rooftop hangout spot indulging on our favourite pilmeni soup.

It is called a bride's soup - the trick is to make the pilmeni dough as thin and gentle as possible. That way the bride can show her true love to her soon to be husband.

It is called a bride’s soup – the trick is to make the pilmeni dough as thin and gentle as possible. That way the bride can show her true love to her soon to be husband.

Do svedanye beautiful Kazan! Next stop – Yekaterinburg.

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There are around 1,000 km dividing Kazan from Yekaterinburg. It is another overnight train ride stretching across 14 hours and 4 minutes. This time we have booked a second class sleeping compartment.

Our home for the next 14 hours

Our home for the next 14 hours

The experience reminds of Russian roulette, you never know what kind of person awaits you behind the door of your compartment. With a certain anxiety we open the door – to my big relief it is empty! No other train companions, how lucky can we be.

After the initial excitement of having own compartment quiets down, you realise that there is a difference between first and second classes, from the slippers you get to the food that you are served. Sounds posh I know, but when you start first class, rest pales in comparison.

Train restaurant - looks quite fancy with a decent menu

Train restaurant – looks quite fancy with a decent menu

What we also learn is that for Trans-Siberian the lower the train number the better. Our first stretch, Moscow – Kazan, was on 004. This one is with 140. Single digit is the key here!

Grechka - Soviet staple food rich in vitamins or so I was told when growing up

Grechka – Soviet staple food rich in vitamins or so I was told when growing up

We enjoy our humble Soviet dinner – grechka with a meatball and prepare for a few hours of sleep before our midnight neighbours get on board.

Another beautiful day passing by through a train window

Another beautiful day passing by through a train window

Good night from the endless train tracks somewhere in Russia!

Photos © Andreas Eriksen & Ani Movsisyan

Day 5 on Trans-Siberian Railway: Still in Kazan

It was a relatively silent night in the space. Our capsule neighbours were surprisingly quiet all through the night or I was too exhausted from the train ride to notice any slight noises and slept like a baby all the way through.

Greetings from the galaxy

Greetings from the galaxy

Today is shaping up to be a slow one. Someone had to catch up on work, and for once that someone was not me! Unheard of I know. I just spent all morning sitting out on a café porch in the middle of the pedestrian street enjoying a good book, delicious cappuccino and sunshine. Of course people watching was part of the past-time as well.

Coffee and cake and people watching and reading

Coffee and cake and people watching and reading

Well after 15:00 work is done and packed away, and beautiful Kazan is calling us. The hysterical weather of the morning transitioning between sun, rain, sun, decided to make up its mind in the afternoon. A beautiful canvas of bright blue sky shone through dotted up with big, beautiful clouds.

The famous Kazan cat

The famous Kazan cat

Bauma Street full of life

Bauma Street full of life

The main attraction of the day was Kazan Kremlin, a UNESCO heritage site atop the hill housing the presidential palace, a Russian Orthodox Church and mosque side by side. I won’t dwell on the historical importance of the site, there is plenty Google can tell you on that. What struck us most was the insanely beautiful colours of the buildings, the shades of blue on white, accentuated even more by the playful sun.

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Kazan Kremlin

Kazan Kremlin

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Kazan Kremlin

Kazan Kremlin

Presidential palace

Presidential palace

Intricate gate design

Intricate gate design

Mosque and the sun

Mosque and the sun

Panoramic view over Kazan

Panoramic view over Kazan

The rest of the day is spent lounging on a rooftop terrace with the most beautiful view over the city and indulging on the tasty dishes of the Tatar cuisine.

The clouds are totally mesmerising

The clouds are totally mesmerising

Looking at the world through a colourful lens

Looking at the world through a colourful lens

It's tea time, darling

It’s tea time, darling

Tea in Kazan comes with pine cone marmalade

Tea in Kazan comes with pine cone marmalade

Kazan so far has been such a pleasant experience, it is a very neat city with really friendly people, taking pride in their city and really glad to see foreigners visiting.

Cheers to another day on the Trans-Siberian!

Cheers to another day on the Trans-Siberian!

Photos © Andreas Eriksen & Ani Movsisyan

Day 4 on Trans-Siberian Railway: Kazan

It feels like the 11 hours and 10 minutes on the train passed by very quickly. There was not much landscape to see since it was an overnight train crossing through endless forests.

Train landscapes

Train landscapes

Suddenly the clock was 07:00, just an hour short of arriving in Kazan. Out come all the Armenian culinary delights for breakfast in bed experience.

Simple things often are the best. It is the case of our breakfast!

Simple things often are the best. It is the case of our breakfast! The hand cream is not part of cuisine, just happened to throw itself into the picture.

08:00 sharp and the train pulls into the Kazan train station. Thanks for the nice ride!

We and the happy train lady

We and the happy train lady (provodnitsa)

Kazan Railway Station

Kazan Railway Station

The first and only planned item on the list in Kazan is to check into this crazy space themed hostel that somebody, read not ME, insisted on booking. I have my reservations and concerns, but when planning the trip a few months ago, decided to concede and keep an open mind. Andreas is totally ecstatic about finally arriving into the space station. Not kidding – this must be one of the things he has been most looking forward to in the entire journey.

Well here we arrive and are left off by the cab in front of a very Soviet, very low and very unassuming looking structure in the middle of a parking lot. Hmmmm get me out of here please, 2 nights in this hole – no way. Someone else is already excitedly walking into the building. On we go. The kind receptionist lets us do an early check-in against an extra charge of course (500 rub). Good news at least, some hot shower wouldn’t hurt.

Crossing a common dining/gaming/working area we enter into the space station. And space station it is. I feel like I have stepped into a Star Wars set. You literally get a capsule to live in complete psychedelic light shows, doors opening as if you were on board one of the Imperial Star Destroyers (you gotta be a Star Wars fan to picture that).

Our space station ready for take off

Our space station ready for take off

Hmmm this could be fun I am thinking. On second thought hope it will not be noisy at night being the light sleeper that I am. Two nights in this space… Let’s see. Somebody else is already jumping up and down from joy and deep into taking pictures and shooting artistic films of the whole light-door-space station feel.

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After some freshening up in the capsule we head off to explore Kazan. Now that the sleep shelter is secured, comes the other physiological need on Maslow’s Hierarchy – getting some food into our quiet hungry tummies. The choice falls for a rather cool pub serving Texas style BBQ. Google food rating never disappoints no matter the country you are in.

The answer is horse meat! Tasted quite OK actually

The answer is horse meat! Tasted quite OK actually

Food check! Full and smiling. On the wall of the pub we find this quote by Hemingway that sends us off to the day with a bigger smile.

"I drink to make other people more interesting." E. Hemingway

“I drink to make other people more interesting.” E. Hemingway

Just around the corner is Bauman pedestrian street – where shops, restaurants, bars and cathedrals coexist in harmony.

This stunning cathedral is literally perched in between  more imposing neighbours.

This stunning cathedral is literally perched in between more imposing neighbours.

What should we do next? It is a take it easy kind of a day. I have read about a Soviet lifestyle museum. Now that could be a cool nostalgic thing to do. A little trip down the memory lane. We hit the streets of Kazan and step into the Soviet times.

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So many artefacts, many familiar, many not. Brings a smile thinking back on that era – growing up in late 1980’s I managed to get Soviet birth certificate and a tiny bit Soviet exposure.

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Spending an hour at the museum amongst Soviet memorabilia, we are ready to head out into the sun again and try out some of the local Tatar cuisine. Chak-chak is on the menu – dessert consisting of fried dough drenched in honey. That we try at the Chak-Chak museum – yep there is a museum for chak-chak.

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Take it easy day finishes at a riverside restaurant in the new part of the city with beautiful sunset and panoramic over the old city. But before that we are stopped by a beautiful rainbow stretching across Kaban Lakes.

internal.9584541858373491c8b778f28c595131.DO01033852Somehow we go really crazy on the menu and end up ordering so many dishes that they keep brining something new every 10 minutes. We make our way through the feast, as our neighbours at the table across do vodka shots. Everything tastes so delicious and is really nicely presented. First impression of this city is very pleasant.

Fried pilmeni (dumplings) and borodinsky bread

Fried khinkali (dumplings) and black bread crutons with garlic sour cream,

Time to call it a day and head back to our Millenium Falcon. Good night from Kazan, fingers crossed for quiet neighbours.

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Photos © Andreas Eriksen & Ani Movsisyan

Day 3 on Trans-Siberian Railway: Moscow -> Kazan (11h 10min)

A quiet morning on Nikolskaya Street

A quiet morning on Nikolskaya Street

Last day in Moscow started bright and early for some of us, aka Andreas. He tried to sneak out of the room at the crack of dawn to document the beauty of Moscow without its crowds.  Now in his mind the whole operation was done very discreetly, in reality I got wide awake in a state of sleepy surprise.

Zaryadye Park resembling New York's High Line offers a beautiful panoramic view over the city

Zaryadye Park resembling New York’s High Line offers a beautiful panoramic view over the city

IMG_9531It seems that during our three days in Moscow, the roads kept leading us to Red Square. It was also hard to avoid it living kind of right next to it. It is hard to resist its glorious sight.

Red Square in all its glory

Red Square in all its glory

The square was full of joyful people and amongst hundreds of them we found these Chinese couples who were pushing the photography limits to whole new levels. It was mostly the ladies in front of the lens with and without head scarves, standing and sitting, smiling and serious. The husbands were mostly staying humbly behind and diligently carrying out the supporting roles.

The Chinese couples in the middle of a serious photoshoot

The Chinese couples in the middle of a serious photoshoot

From socialist side of Red Square you cross a few meters and voila you magically appear in the epitome of capitalistic world – GUM department store with all its shiny designer stores, glitz and glamour designed to make you spend your hard-earned €€€. We were there for one very special attraction.

The famous attraction of Gum is not all the fancy stores it is the yummy ice-cream!

The famous attraction of GUM is not all the fancy stores it is the yummy ice-cream!

The GUM ice-cream! Another childhood memory of Soviet and post-Soviet times. When asking Andreas to comment on his first Soviet ice-cream experience, his response was: “Det var surprisingly lækker.” (It was surprisingly yummy). I don’t know what else he expected.

Chocolate and cherry flavours

Chocolate and cherry flavours

From socialist-capitalist explorations, we moved out of the heart of Moscow and into Arbat, a central residential district, filled with hyggelig sidewalk winebars, coffee shops and restaurants.

Backyards of Arbat neighbourhood - loving the shade of blue

Backyards of Arbat neighbourhood – loving this shade of blue

 

Patriashki prudi

Patriarshi Rubniki

The last stop of the day before bidding farewell to Moscow is a special corner of my homeland in the center of Moscow – the Armenia store. We needed to stock up on some lavash, panir (bread and cheese) and other goodies for our long train travels.

My favourite store in all of Moscow - little Armenian corner stocking up on the Armenian food essentials

My favourite store in all of Moscow – little Armenian corner. Essential for stocking up on the Armenian food.

It is about 19:00 and time to head off to Kazan train station for catching our first ever Trans-Siberian ride from Moscow to Kazan!

Kazan Train Station in Moscow

Kazan Train Station in Moscow

Departure board - waiting for Kazan train to orient itself on the board

Departure board – waiting for Kazan train to orient itself on the board

Since it was the first train travel experience in Russia we decided to follow the official guidelines of arriving at least 45 minutes before departure time to be “ready for check-in”. Turned out that we were really in good time. The train was not there and the departure board did not get updated until about 30 minutes before departure and the doors of the train did not open until the clock hit 20:55.
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Our home for the next 11 hours - Moscow -> Kazan train, coupe 7

Our home for the next 11 hours – Moscow -> Kazan train, car 7

For the first leg of our journey we decided to go all in and splurge on a first class ticket. Very nice experience.

First class coupe Russia style with a fruit platter waiting for us - Danish DSB could learn a bit

First class coupe Russia style with a fruit platter waiting for us – Danish DSB could learn a bit

It was a really cosy and comfortable experience. With very delicious 3 course meal served on board, Wi-Fi, TV, music, A/C, nice clean sheets and towels. Everything you may need. There is even an app where you can make in-train orders, follow the journey, read books and watch movies. Such a fun experience! This was also the shortest leg in our planned journey. Hope the next 3 rides will be just as fun. Time will show.

Borsch for dinner - yum!

Borsch for dinner – yum!

After some borsch, beef stroganoff and hearty Russian black tea, it is time to bid good night, hit the bed and close eyes to the rumble of train tracks.

Cpakoynoy nochi!

Photos © Andreas Eriksen & Ani Movsisyan

Day 2 on Trans-Siberian Railway: Moscow

Dobroe utro from Moscow. It is another beautiful day in the Russian capital. Time to rise and shine. It sounds a bit like a newsperson on Good Morning (INSERT COUNTRY) show :) It is really a beautiful day, the sun is shining, you have all of Moscow spread in front of your eyes, and a delicious breakfast with all the Russian culinary delights is waiting for you.

This is what one calls breakfast with view

This is what one calls breakfast with a view

On today’s menu is semi Soviet, semi mingling with the locals walks. Nikolskaya, Vorobyovi Gori, Moscow State University, Gorki park, rose garden, selfie crazed people, rain showers, riverside promenade, and finally the culinary jewel of the day dinner in one of the world’s best restaurants.

Let’s start the day with Nikolskaya promenade. This street has become my favourite in Moscow. The atmosphere here is just so uplifting.

Nikolskaya Street is all about taking it easy and enjoying life

Nikolskaya Street is all about taking it easy and enjoying life

After a small promenade on Nikolskaya we take the metro to Vorobyovi Gori (Sparrow Hills) for a riverside promenade and panorama views over the city. Now metro in Moscow is a whole other level of aesthetic experience. It is not just a simple mode of transportation. There are several stations where you feel like you have stepped into a jaw-droppingly beautiful exhibition. I think that deserves a separate post on its own, so I will not dwell onto metro much here. If you are in Moscow and have a few hours to spare – do it!

Moscow River

Moscow River

The panorama platform on top of the Sparrow Hills is not just any platform with beautiful views over a city.

Sparrow Hills panorama platform

Sparrow Hills panorama platform

Here you meet casual passers-by, tourist groups, matroyshka (Russian traditional dolls) vendors, motorbike loving leathermen and even a cheerful and totally out of place and at the same time why not half-naked guy casually holding a WWII gun.

This guy! Question one - wonder if the gun is loaded??? Question two - why on earth would he be standing there?

This guy! Question 1 – wonder if the gun is loaded??? Question 2 – why on earth would he be standing there? Question 3 – will the rig on this motorcycle get you faster through Moscow in the rush hour? I sense some opportunities there.

Us trying to pose as the space around us gets smaller and smaller and the crowd bigger and bigger

Trying to pose as the space around us gets smaller and smaller and the crowd bigger and bigger

Turn your head 180 degrees and in front of you opens up the imposing building of the Moscow State University. You might have seen this iconic structure elsewhere in Moscow. Nope you are not having a déjà vu. There are seven of them spread around the city bearing the prominent name – Stalin’s Seven Sisters.

Moscow State University housed in one of Stalin's Seven Sisters

Moscow State University housed in one of Stalin’s Seven Sisters

I remember my very first time visiting Moscow back in 2004. This was one of the places where I was brought to by my kind hosts. Back then the structure felt so imposing and important and the student in me felt like it could be a cool place to study. 15 years later stepping onto this exact place felt a bit nostalgic.

Soviet bus

Soviet bus

Seeing this cute bus drive by across the street from the university didn’t help the nostalgic matters much. On the contrary it only accelerated the emotions and took me right back to my school years. Every morning come snow, rain or sun I would do the 30 minute commute on one of these buses void of any modern A/C amenities to my school in Armenia and back. Though sometimes in the summer months the heat levels would go excruciatingly high, there are mostly fond memories associated with it.

This little girl and her carefree ride into the tunnel of light captures the moment and the spirit so beautifully

This little girl and her carefree ride into the tunnel of light captures the moment and the spirit so beautifully

From the university we ended up in Gorki Park, place beaming with life and people enjoying life and taking it easy. The northern section of the park is home to many Soviet statue. That section we visited in the wintertime some months ago and the Soviet heritage in me was quite excited from the nostalgic feel of things. This time the focus was on the southern grounds.

Stumbled upon a beautiful rose garden in the middle of the park

Stumbled upon a beautiful rose garden in the middle of the park

The rose garden was an enchanting sight and apparently a magnet for selfie crazed and wanna-be models.

You can either opt for a professional setup or if you don't want to splurge of personal photo takers then...

You can either opt for a professional setup or if you don’t want to splurge on personal photo takers then…

... you can take the matters into your own hands

… you can quite literally take the matters into your own hands :D

The photoshoots came to an abrupt end as a sudden rain shower decided to befall upon the crowd. It was fun to see families and “models” alike running to seek cover under the tall trees. For families the priorities were ensuring the kids don’t get wet and saving the picnic food. For “models” and their personal photographers the demands were tougher as they had to rescue the hair, the dresses, and at the very last the photo equipment.

Rain showers in the summertime are quite magical

Rain showers in the summertime are quite magical

The heavy rain stopped as suddenly as it started and the sun came shining through the clouds. People appeared quickly out of their covers to continue their strolls, picnics, songs, chats, and dances…

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Impromptu dancing by the dancing fountains

Impromptu dancing by the dancing fountains

After hours of walking and some 20.000 steps, the last stop of the day was of culinary nature. An exciting dinner experience was waiting in one of the world’s best restaurants – Twins Garden. Each of the dishes was quite a special treat. My absolute favourite was the baby sturgeon. This is where I should quickly add – pause NOT. I literally squeaked in terror as the waiter put the dish in front of me with the sturgeon staring right into my face. The fish was quickly beheaded to ease my conscious.

Twins Garden

Twins Garden

Sunset

Magical sunset paired up well with the dining experience.

A few hours and several culinary delights later we ended up where we started the day – in our hood at Nikolskaya Street.

Isn't this just magical

What a magical sight!

Photos © Andreas Eriksen & Ani Movsisyan