Day 9 on Trans-Siberian Railway: Somewhere in Siberia 40 hours to go

The sun rises pretty early in Russia at this time of the year. Drifting in and out of sleep with my Guillou book under the pillow, I open my eyes at around 04:00 to find the sun peeking in from the partially drawn black-out curtain. No use in tossing and turning, the unraveling story of secret agent Hamilton is far too exciting for the sleep to kick back in. I succumb happily and transfer for some time to the 1970’s secret agent world of Western Europe. That keeps my intense attention for an hour. Looking at the watch again – 05:35. Time to day-dream a bit gazing out the train window at the passing Siberian landscape in the morning sun. I sneak out of our compartment, while my cabin neighbours and the whole carriage pretty much is deep in sleep.

What an idyllic moment!

What an idyllic moment!

Silence lulled by the sound of moving train. Beautiful morning light. Endless and endless forests. Thoughts wondering far and far.

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IMG_0135Soon other passengers aboard the train wake up filling the silence with life. Time for breakfast in the train restaurant. It is one of the exciting times of the day sampling the delights of the train chef and people watching.

The restaurant features quite a fancy decor

The restaurant features quite a fancy decor

In the restaurant amidst a big group of Germans discussing worriedly the ongoing floods in the Irkutsk region, we find a merry two-man group of locals. They are not wasting any time. Vodka is out and shots come one after another accompanied by a plate of pickles. Na zdorovye!

Na zdorovye!

Na zdorovye!

Back in our compartment, a provodnitsa comes by selling freshly baked buns filled with potatoes, cabbage and apple. We learn from our neighbours, the veteran travellers who have already spent 2 days on the train, that this a morning tradition. Well good traditions must be followed.

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Rest of the day is spent with “hygge” (the now world-famous Danish word for having a cosy time) in our cabin, watching Anastasia with our Russian neighbours, restaurant visits, admiring the Siberian countryside, Jan Guillou. Hours glide by. You don’t even notice and the day is slowly drawing to an end. Night has fallen over Siberia. 30 hours to go.

Anastasia is playing on the screen and black tea served in trademark RZD train glasses is ready. What more do you need for a good time!

Anastasia is playing on the screen and black tea served in trademark RZD train glasses is ready. What more do you need for a good time!

Our train favourite - fried potatoes with mushrooms and onions and of course smetana (sour cream)!

Our train favourite – fried potatoes with mushrooms and onions and of course smetana (sour cream)!

Another train favourite of ours - Greek salad

Another train favourite of ours – Greek salad

Sometimes the stops are long enough to hop out of the train, stretch out and stock up on goodies

Sometimes the stops are long enough to hop out of the train, stretch out and stock up on goodies

30 hours to go

30 hours to go

Photos © Andreas Eriksen & Ani Movsisyan

Day 8 on Trans-Siberian Railway: Yekaterinburg -> Irkutsk (2d 5h 33 min)

Dobroe utro from Yekaterinburg! It is our last day here as we prepare to embark on a 2 day 53 hour and 33 minute train journey through Siberia to Irkutsk. It is going to be an exciting ride.

We decide to pamper ourselves in preparation for the long train ride and basically spent a good part of the day indulging on Russian/French delicacies. How does the French cuisine come into the picture? Well, have some patience, you will find out later. In between the restaurant visits we managed to take an exhilarating taxi ride to the border of Europe and Asia and a good-bye stroll in the city. Our morning starts with a visit to Vysotsky Tower and skyline breakfast.

Vysotsky Tower sticking out amidst Soviet architecture of Yekaterinburg

Vysotsky Tower sticking out amidst Soviet architecture of Yekaterinburg

Panorama restaurant on one of the top floors of the Vysotsky Tower

Panorama restaurant on one of the top floors of the Vysotsky Tower

Another Ural specialty - sea buckthorn tea mixed with orange slices and other herbs

Another delicious Ural specialty – sea buckthorn tea mixed with orange slices and other herbs

Yekaterinburg in all its glory

Yekaterinburg in all its glory – view from the Panorama restaurant

Blocks and blocks of Soviet style architecture

Blocks and blocks of colourful buildings

Descending from the sky, we called a Yandex cab to the take us to the point where Europe stops officially and Asia takes over. The 15 minute ride was nothing short of exhilarating. With the driver looking like he just escaped prison with a toothpick in his month and the phone in his hand manoeuvring the busy city traffic… To his question “Should I wait to take you back to the city or you are going to stay here”, the quick response that followed was: “No, thanks. We are staying!”

The monument marking the continental division point is a very Soviet, very serious sign. Nothing special about it, other than two words saying Europe and Asia. A little bit of creativity wouldn’t hurt. At least the nearby souvenir store tried to make up for the Soviet dullness.

This is the point where Europe stops officially and Asia takes over

This is the point where Europe stops officially and Asia takes over

This cute souvenir could make for a better and a far more exciting landmark than the Soviet pillar

This cute souvenir could make for a better and a far more exciting landmark than the Soviet pillar. No surprises there – the brown bear signifies the European part and the cute, chubby panda – the Asian.

Staying on our side of the continents

Staying on our side of the continents

The landmark is set by a small forest and in the forest you find a few curiosities – a playground to keep the kids busy, while the parents tie a ribbon to the wish tree and pose in the Gates of Love.

Gates of love, say the two endearing swans

Gates of love, say the two endearing swans

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Look up, up, up…

Getting a more civilised taxi ride back to the city, we arrive at Le Grand Café, a special treat to ourselves before the 53 hour train ride. And what a treat it is!

Le Grand Café

Le Grand Café – hidden inside a fancy shopping mall

The crown jewel of Russian cuisine - black caviar and champagne. Now we are ready for the 53 hour ride!

The crown jewel of Russian cuisine – black caviar, blini and champagne. Now we are ready for the 53 hour ride!

You half expect a Russian tsar family to appear any minute on top of the staircase and come gracefully down

You half expect a Russian tsar family to appear any minute on top of the staircase and come gracefully down

As we are well into enjoying our beautifully hand-crafted dessert plates, we are joined by a mother-daughter duo at a neighbouring table. More interested in selfies and photoshoots, the duo provides a rather exciting entertainment.

A treat from the kind French chef at Le Grand Café

A treat from the kind French chef at Le Grand Café

The following and similar scenes continued on and off during the full 30 minutes that we had the pleasure of having this mother-daughter duo as neighbours. Dressed up in their Sunday best (it was only a Friday according to the calendar, but who cares…) featuring a red Chanel bag (can’t verify the authenticity of the bag), posing with the bag, without the bag, standing, sitting, together, alone, with food, without, trying out different tables…

OMG - this and similar scenes continued on and off during the 30 minute that we had the pleasure of having this mother-daughter duo as neighbours

OMG! This and similar scenes continued on and off during the 30 minutes that we had the pleasure of having this mother-daughter duo as neighbours.

A short park walk to enjoy the evening sun and we are ready to say do svidanye to Yekaterinburg!

Evening light in Dendropark

Evening light in Dendropark

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Scenes like this accompanied us all the way in Russia from Moscow to Yekaterinburg.

Scenes like this accompanied us all the way in Russia from Moscow to Yekaterinburg.

Arriving 30 minutes earlier at the train station we are ready to board the train bound for Irkutsk. 2 days 5 hours and 33 minutes, 3,500 km of distance, crossing 3 time zones.

Yekaterinburg Train Station

Yekaterinburg Train Station

Our carriage - favourite number 7 again!

Our carriage – favourite number 7 again!

Inside the train, the Russian roulette is in action again. With an anxious heart I open the compartment door to find a sweet Russian babushka with her grandson. As we come to learn later they live in the US and are spending their summer vacation in Russia, where the grandmother takes his grandson every year on a homeland visit. How delightful! Chance to practice some of my rusty Russian since the grandma doesn’t speak English.

The train pulls off the tracks and we slowly roll towards the vast landmass of Siberia. The sun is setting off and the night will soon fall.

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