You’re Going To Miss…The Trans-Mongolian & Tibet

You’re Going To Miss…The Trans-Mongolian & Tibet

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“We travel, some of us forever, to seek other places, other lives, other souls.” – Anais Nin

You’re going to miss the trepidation of landing in a foreign country, for which visas you’ve worked so hard to get now finally proving their worth, then searching for foreign cab drivers without knowing where to even begin looking for them (if they were even there in the first place) before walking across Palace Square for the very first time and coming upon the immense splendor of the Hermitage staircase as your first introduction to Saint Petersburg.

 

 

You’re going to miss the jet-lagged introductions to one another at the hostel, the impromptu cat-naps and alcohol runs right before dinner, then shoving to get through nonsensical security just to hear Putin speak before the clock struck midnight.

 

 

You’re going to miss dancing with fireworks among the thousands sprawled out into the night, popping open champagne on the streets while walking arm-in-arm an entire city along Nevsky Prospekt, before finding the only hookah bar open as you celebrate the beginning of a New Year and a new trip with complete strangers and new friends.

 

 

You’re going to miss the quiet snowy morning of having a world-class city still hungover from the night before all to yourself, the 15 miles of gallivanting in a single day to explore every corner and every house of worship, witnessing countless gilded mosaics of times past.

 

 

You’re going to miss making new friends at the eleventh hour just so you can say goodbye to them when walking together along a snowy wonderland of the Palace Square before embarking upon the beginning of your Trans-Siberian journey.

 

 

You’re going to miss making your beds in your new home on the train, ordering breakfast blinis and beer with the help of a good-looking local and his unapologetically intoxicated, inappropriate family, and playing Monopoly Deal to throwbacks from the 90s before waking up at the crack of dawn in a new city.

 

 

You’re going to miss hailing Ubers on an unfamiliar street and recovering in a new hostel on comfy couches for an hour while meeting a herd of faceless, local men on Tinder who would quickly invite us, unsurprisingly, all to their beds (you might not miss that).

 

 

You’re going to miss the 3 days of freedom among the dazzling lights of Moscow both above and underground, the odd pony on the street, the taste of cheap Soviet hot chocolate and gelato, the mummified corpse of Lenin, the grandeur of Red Square, double facing toilets, the views from Cathedral of Christ The Savior, the overabundance of powdery snow crunching beneath our boots, and saying goodbye to 3 friends on our last night together at the world’s 18th best restaurant, before running into 3 Swedes who we took out on the town as if the town was our very own.

 

 

You’re going to miss ignoring screaming babies on your overnight flight to Irkutsk, occupying an entire airport café, slowly waking up to your first Siberian winter morning and driving out into the wilderness to leave 6 days of urban jungles behind.

 

 

You’re going to miss sliding down makeshift ice luges, wandering a science museum dedicated to an entire lake, savagely devouring your first omul, hiking up the summit of a random ski resort, and taking in the majesty of the world’s 2nd deepest freshwater lake before your very eyes at sunset.

 

 

You’re going to miss spending a Russian Christmas Eve in a frontier Siberian town with splendid ice palaces and churches too immersed in worship to notice your presence, while you can’t help but notice the occasional odd reindeer that pass you by.

 

 

You’re going to miss figuring out which supplies to horde even though you order too much food anyway at another Chinese restaurant, before getting up too early in a hazy twilight to board your first 24 hours on the Trans-Mongolian Railway.

 

 

You’re going to miss catching up on sleep on your new mobile home on rails, making new friends with your attendants and bunkmates while avoiding the crazy ones, but nevertheless being the crazy one yourself when you jumped off the train in a clutch 45-minute time frame to see the world’s largest Lenin Head and making it back in time.

 

 

You’re going to miss the late night conversations during the border crossing between Russia and Mongolia and waking up too early in a different country.

 

 

You’re going to miss being picked up by your local guides to take you to a much needed coffee and tune-up, while leaving you to be as you hike up 250+ steps in -22ºC weather to see otherworldly views of the world’s coldest capital city.

 

 

You’re going to miss driving out into Terelj National Park to spot ancient dinosaurs roaming the steppe, climbing over locked gates to get closer looks, riding Mongolian horses on your own into the horizon, finding common ground with a new friend who had also visited the DPRK, streaking together with new said friend from ger to ger, squatting over the world’s largest pile of frozen poo with nonchalance, starting impromptu massage trains, staying awake to your driver’s snoring nightmares, and learning how to keep a fire going in your stove in order to survive the night.

 

 

You’re going to miss waking up to a laughter that shakes the world, introducing our new addition to the group with a visit to a statue of immense proportions in the middle of nowhere before driving around the polluted, congested and yet fascinating streets of Ulaanbaatar.

 

 

You’re going to miss restocking on supplies, not missing the alcohol, meeting friends of friends showing you around their native city and sharing their dreams of starting anew, drinking underappreciated beer at the local North Korean restaurant, before boarding your next overnight train for a night of excessive drinking games and embarrassing revelations.

 

 

You’re going to miss waking up in a new country at a remote border town between Mongolia and China, watching the bogies being replaced for new tracks before you wander off only to get lost and be led in 10 different directions until a Good Samaritan lets you back onboard.

 

 

You’re going to miss the awkward conversations about Donald Trump and giant mushroom clouds with your non English-speaking, Korean-speaking Mongolian smuggler bunkmate, giving and receiving hilarious basic Chinese lessons, and experiencing Chinese bureaucracy, kindness, and curiosity all at the same time while switching trains at the capital of Inner Mongolia.

 

 

You’re going to miss celebrating when your fellow monsooner gets accepted into Cambridge’s PhD program right before boarding your next train, then waking up hungover (again) in an ancient capital to mark the end of your Trans-Mongolian journey, storing bags away as you walk miles upon miles to see the Temple of Heaven and the Forbidden City before saying our next round of goodbyes to the 2nd round of monsooners to head back home.

 

 

You’re going to miss showing off your skills eating live scorpions (again) as appetizers before dining at the original Peking Duck House, and then leisurely making your way back to the train station just to have leisure make turn to panic when you discover you’re at the wrong one. And even though some of us make it to the correct train station on time, the others don’t quite get there as fast and we all ditch the train just so the group stays together and our newest addition gets a proper monsoon welcome, while leading us to temporary physical (and spiritual) shelter.

 

 

You many not miss the hurried bookings of hostels, flights, and car services to get to your destination in time, while doing your best to ignore the unhelpful backseat driver, but as they always say: when there’s a will, there’s a way. And when things begin to fall back into place, you’re definitely going to miss the exhilaration of your first real shower in days as the consolation prize, and the 4-5 hours of precious sleep in a real bed before getting on an early morning flight that takes you back to where you want to be, continuing the itinerary as before with no love lost among your group.

 

 

You’re going to miss setting eyes upon new friends of friends picking you up from the airport, the relief of getting back on track and in good hands before setting those same eyes on the Terracotta Army for the very first (or second) time.

 

 

You’re going to miss that perfect plate of cold noodles for lunch, the grandeur of the South Wall as you checked into your hostel, beholding the magnificence of both Drum and Bell Towers in the middle of a modernized city, and your giddiness levels rising to fever pitch while walking through the joyous madness that is the Muslim Quarter.

 

 

You’re going to miss bar hopping along the South Wall, playing foosball, darts and pool that would lead to another underslept night before having to catch your second early morning flight, this time to an elusive kingdom on the roof of the world.

 

John McGovern...for being another rockstar in the YPT family, taking us out on Xi'an and organizing our Tibet itinerary. 01/12/17.

 

While you’re never going to miss the awful hangovers of altitude sickness, you will miss the initial landscapes upon driving into Lhasa — as if you’ve stumbled upon a new world — the majesty of its location in a valley 3500m high, and the next 2 days acclimating the home of the exiled Dalai Lama in the world’s most politically guarded region on its highest plateau.

 

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You’ll definitely miss yak meat.

 

 

Tons of yak meat.

 

 

You’re going to miss sending off our beloved group storyteller with sensual oatmeal, naps, and Andrea Bocelli’s “Time To Say Goodbye” before heading out on “the other most beautiful drive in the world” from Lhasa to Shigatse, making a 9 hour drive feel like minutes when you stop to witness landscapes you couldn’t have imagined even in dreams.

 

 

While you’re neither going to miss lack of heating in your hotel room, nor the bundling up before bed, you will miss waking up to the golden honeycomb dawn of the “gateway to Everest”, immersing yourself amongst the throngs of pilgrims to visit the tombs of the Pachen lamas before returning to Lhasa.

 

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You’re going to miss the last night of the trip walking along the streets of Lhasa with your new travel family, bidding last goodbyes among conversations that would bear one another’s souls on this nude beach of honesty and self-love, and the subsequent surreal early pre-dawn drive among the mountains when an inevitable realization emerged that a life-changing odyssey was about to end.

 

 

And you’re going to miss all this long after when we had embraced goodbye . . . that moment when you finally realize that nobody else for the rest of your life will ever fully understand the 18 unforgettable days you had spent with 10 other strangers and new lifelong friends.

 

Photo on 1-16-17 at 10.00 PM

 

Therefore you’re going to miss most of all, each other; the company of diverse personalities united by a perfect marriage of camaraderie and wanderlust, the way we’ll all look back one day and ask yourself: “did we really do all that?”

 

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“Yeah we did.”

 

 

Having each overcome enormous physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual investments to get to this point, the 11 of us begin to appreciate how our shared experience on this 7000 km, 3400 mile endeavor would also represent a culmination of 11 different souls coming together – if only for a brief moment – in the belief in that we were really completing personal journeys long overdue . . .

 

 

. . . and yet if so they remain so premature, as 11 strangers and now travel family all know . . .

 

 

. . . that we still have many more miles to go.

 

 

Photo credits: Calvin Sun, JC Chan, Mihaela K, Shanika Jayakody, Ihita Kabir

From Russia (To Mongolia) With Love On The Trans-Mongolian

From Russia (To Mongolia) With Love On The Trans-Mongolian

 

This morning we woke up early for our 7am pickup for Train #004 from Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar departing at 8:12am.

 

 

And there our train stood waiting for us, emerging from the hazy mist of an early morning fog as if out of a dream — this is where the Trans-Mongolian Railway diverges from the main Trans-Siberian.

A travel goal and dream finally come true.

 

 

The train attendants for Train #004 from Moscow to Beijing are Chinese, so the moment I began to speak in my other mother tongue asking if this was the right train, the attendants stood aghast how a bunch of USA citizens could befall their ears with such Mandarin in the middle of a Siberian winter.

The doors thus opened, and we were promptly assigned to our cabins.

 

 

JC was unfortunately and inexplicably paired by himself with a paranoid schizophrenic; the moment JC sat down on his bed, he was peppered with short, caustic anti-American statements by a man pacing in his room who spoke in a textbook case of paranoid delusions, flight of ideas, tangential responses, and pressured speech (yeah I’m diagnosing here).

From an opening introduction consisting of 9/11 conspiracy theories, accusations of treason, beliefs that the US government were tracking down his movements, while deferring questions of where he came from, this guy had bad news written all over him. After overhearing the bizarre conversation next door, I informed the train attendant in Chinese about the situation and JC was immediately switched with another passenger and moved into our room with the rest of the group. 

Crisis averted.

The rest of the trip wasn’t as dramatic; after an hour and half, Lake Baikal unveiled itself once more.

 

 

We then headed  over to check out the dining car.

 

 

While a charming place to sit in, the food is overpriced for what you get. Only eat here if you’re starving and you got nothing else.

 

 

Otherwise, feel free to linger here, play cards, meet other travelers, and stare out the windows, watching a magical Siberian winter roll by before you:

 

 

Thanks to the holy samovar consistently serving boiling water at the end of every car, we indulged in endless instant coffee, tea, and instant noodles while commandeering an empty cabin for ourselves.

 

 

At exactly 3:02pm in the afternoon, we stopped in Ulan-Ude for 45 minutes.

Knowing and having read in previous travel blogs of travelers rushing out to see the world’s largest Lenin Head Statue within the 45-minute stopover timeframe — with a few barely getting back to their train on time and others giving up altogether — we decided to take up the challenge ourselves. According to Google Maps it would be a 20-25 minute walk each way from the train station to the statue. That’s cutting it close!

So exactly at 3:03pm the 5 of us bolted outside the train station while Melissa volunteered to stay behind and take our bags onwards to Ulaanbaatar in the scenario that we wouldn’t make it back on time (the fail-safe plan was to take the faster 10 hour bus from Ulan-Ude to Ulaanbaatar and beat the train).

But reason prevailed as we said “screw this” and flagged down a taxi waiting outside. We then pointed to the Russian word for “Lenin Head” on Google Maps (there’s an actual word for this!) and made hand gestures indicating that we wanted a roundtrip after taking photos. The driver understood and the mission was in play.

The drive took just 4 minutes. Once it pulled into the parking lot, we barreled out of the car and darted past a winter holiday festival filled with little children bewildered to our sudden appearance.

 

 

And there in the center of the town square stood the statue of the world’s largest Lenin Head, staring at us cross-eyed and yet surreal in its presence, while striking us with this dumb awe that such a structure could even exist on this planet.

 

 

After taking our photos, we sprinted back to our cab as quickly as we dropped in and gave the driver 200 rubles for his troubles. We were back at the station within minutes at 03:22pm, with 25 minutes to spare.

Mission accomplished.

 

 

We then celebrated with Siberian vodka, making friends with our new German bunkmate Lucas, and eating more omul from Lake Baikal.

 

 

After 6 hours of stream-of-consciousness conversations, snacking, and the occasional cat nap, we finally reached Naushki located at the edge of the Russian frontier with Mongolia. There we were told not to leave the train as Russian border guards came onboard, took our passports, rifled through our luggage, searched our room, and headed back outside with our passports to give us exit stamps.

After about an hour and 40 minutes stuck on the train during this process (if you take the other trains that arrive in the middle of the day instead of at night, you get up to 3 hours to get off the train and explore), we were given back our passports before chugging along for another 30 minutes over to the Mongolian border town of Sukhbaatar, Mongolia.

Once in Sukhbaatar, Mongolian border guards came onboard to perform the same routine in reverse. And after another hour and 40 minutes on the train having our bags searched, room taken apart, and our passports stamped in, we’re finally allowed to proceed (they’re handing back everyone else’s passports as I’m writing this).

Anyways, we’re about to celebrate with more vodka now that we’re in Mongolia. Unfortunately we also just ran out of cups, so Melissa is going McGuyver on the plastic:

 

 

 

- At time of posting in Naushki/Sukhbaatar border, it was -14 °C - Humidity: 77% | Wind Speed: 11km/hr | Cloud Cover: light snow

 

A Christmas Eve In Siberia: Irkutsk & Lake Baikal

A Christmas Eve In Siberia: Irkutsk & Lake Baikal

 

Lake Baikal just got served

 

Merry Christmas Eve from Siberia!

And so begins our Trans-Siberian experience. A number of itineraries had been devised, discarded and replanned over the past year for this trip — Russia’s railway system had a habit of cancelling and rescheduling their train schedules to the point our itinerary kept evolving every 3-4 weeks at the whim of Soviet-era bureaucracy.

 

What was once …

3 days Moscow — 4 days train — 1 day Irkutsk & Lake Baikal — 1 day Ulaanbaatar — Beijing 

… turned into…

3 days Saint Petersburg — 3 days in Moscow — 6 days train — Beijing 

… after a rescheduling. 


Then after another cancellation, it turned into …

3 days Moscow — 4 days train — 1 day Ulaanbaatar — Beijing. 


Then another train got rescheduled, leading to our final itinerary: 

3 days Saint Petersburg — 3 days Moscow — 1 day Irkutsk & Lake Baikal — 1 day train — 2 days Ulaanbaatar — Beijing.

 

So as fate would have it, we would still get to do all the major sights on the Trans-Siberian/Mongolian Railway while still being on the actual train. The only catch is shaving off 2 days on the train for a flight, with which we can still get to fully experience if we ever return for a Trans-Siberian experience from Saint Petersburg to Vladivostok (which we will!).

Getting on a 9:30pm flight from Moscow to Irkutsk, we landed at 8am in the morning after a 5 hour flight (keep in mind the time zone difference).

 

 

Freshening up at Castro Café inside the airport, we waited for our pre-arranged guide from Baikal Explorer, Nikolai, to pick us up.

 

 

The airport is located in the middle of the city, literally: Across the street is a 24/7 karaoke bar.

 

 

Our first stop on the way to Listvyanka — the village on the northern side of the southwestern corner of Lake Baikal — was the Icebreak Angara, the first and only surviving ship of the original icebreakers in Russia.

 

 

Next we stopped by an open-air museum of a traditional Cossack village to represent the first Russian settlers in the Lake Baikal region:

 

 

You can get a great view of Angara River here:

 

 

Along exhibits of what daily life was back then, there are also a ton of winter-related activities you can do here, such as an ice slide on cowskin:

 

Sliding down

 

Oversized swingsets:

 

 

Sandbag jousting:

 

 

And skip-it:

 

 

Afterwards we got to learn about Lake Baikal at the local science museum before seeing the main act itself:

 

 

Lake Baikal is the deepest and oldest freshwater lake in the world, with a surface area of 12,248 sq miles and a depth of 5,387 ft and hosting thousands of unique species that exist nowhere else in the world. It is over 25 million years old and smack dab in the middle is an island that is home to 2,000 people, mostly Buryat tribes and shamans believed to be the ancestors of the Native Americans that migrated across the Bering Strait.

The weather this season has been oddly warmer than usual, with today’s temperatures around -11ºC, or 12-15ºF. This meant the lake was not going to be frozen over to cross by foot or car. Thanks, global warming.

 

 

For lunch we had a Mongolian inspired meal in an actual ger:

 

 

Then we took a ski lift/chair lift up to the summit for 300 rubles roundtrip. For an extra cost, you can rent skis and snowboards; this is an actual skiing destination!

 

 

Views from the top:

 

Hike down to the actual observation point for a better and clearer view of the lake:

 

 

We then headed back down to catch the sunset over the lake:

 

 

At this time of year, the sun begins to set at 4:30pm:

 

 

If you’re getting hungry, try to find the market stalls along the lake to eat omul, the local salmon-like salmonoid fish native to and unique only to Lake Baikal. They come in 100, 150, and 200-ruble sizes.

 

 

How did it taste?

 

 

noms noms noms.

 

 

Then at 6pm we drove back to Irkutsk where we checked in at Rolling Stones Hostel and said goodbye to Nikolai:

 

 

After an hour freshening up, we headed back out to explore Irkutsk.

If you didn’t bother clicking the link above and were confused why we were wishing everyone a Merry Christmas Eve today, we discovered during our travels that the Russians celebrate their Christmas on January 7th. This bode well for us as tonight would be the only time where all its churches would be open late instead of closing at the usual 7pm. So even though we arrived back into Irkutsk at 7pm, the whole city was still bristling with the Christmas sprit and we had all of it to ourselves with nary another tourist in sight.

Our first stop was an 8 minute drive to Kazan Church on the northeastern part of the city. Surrounded by actual house-sized ice sculptures in exquisite detail, this was the most impressive house of worship in Irkutsk:

 

  

Afterwards we drove 8 min over to Znamenskiy monastyr’, a more subdued place compared to Kazan:

 

 

Then we finished our 490 ruble car drive at the Moskovskie Vorota (Triumphal Arch Moscow):

 

 

From there we walked along the Angara River…

 

 

and cut in to swing by the Monument to the Founders of Irkutsk:

 

 

Then we crossed over to visit the Cathedral of the Epiphany:

 

 

Across the street in the park is Spasskaya Tserkov’:

 

 

We then finished our Christmas Eve tour of Irkutsk at Kirov Square, which was alive with ice activities:

 

 

…ridiculous ice sculptures…

 

 

…a sad camel…

 

 

…and a reindeer, an actual freakin reindeer:

 

 

Afterwards we went grocery shopping across the street for our 28 hour train ride to Mongolia beginning the next morning…

 

 

…before finishing with a 12 course (as per Russian tradition on Christmas Eve) dinner at the next door Peking Duck House:

 

 

Tomorrow we hop on an 8am, 28-hour Train 0043 from Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar!

 

 

- At time of posting in Irkutsk, Russia, it was -11 °C - Humidity: 74% | Wind Speed: 11km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear

 

Moscow On The Metro & The World’s 18th Best Restaurant

Moscow On The Metro & The World’s 18th Best Restaurant

 

 

We started our second day in Moscow with a splendid brunch at Grabni, a cafeteria style restaurant where you self-serve from so many offerings that it’ll make your head spin.

Everybody loved the french fries:

 

 

Don’t mind the random pony on the street.

 

 

We then headed to Sanduny Bathhouse, Moscow’s oldest and most frequented local bathhouse/sauna, where for top class and around $45 USD we got 2 hours access to the saunas.

 

 

You can add on a platza massage where they beat you with platza leaves in a 190F sauna for 15 minutes (which, despite a suspect description, was amazing — I felt so rejuvenated afterwards!) to increase your circulation, then dunk you in freezing cold water to finish the job, before ending with a soap massage for 45 minutes where its essentially a deep tissue massage (they really mean it; it was one of the only massages where I immediately walked away feeling sore in my legs).

The whole session ended up costing us around $150/person which included a few drinks and food.

FYI you go full naked here. That’s the Russian way.

 

 

Afterwards we did a Metro tour of Moscow, similar to the one we did in Stockholm. This was the custom guide I made for the metro tour after a few hours of research.

The circled stations are the recommended unique ones to visit, the numbers in blue are the ones we did in order, and the numbers in black are the designated metro line numbers.

 

 

Start on the Brown line (5) at Novoslobodskaya:

 

 

Take the Brown line (5) 3 stops west to Kievskaya:

 

 

Switch to the Blue line (3) in the same station (Kievskaya):

 

 

Take the Blue line (3) 3 stops east to Ploschad’ Revolyutsii:

 

 

Walk across the platform to switch directions on the Blue line (3) and take it 1 stop west to Arabatskaya:

 

 

Switch to the Red line (1) and take it 1 stop southwest to Kropotkinskaya:

 

 

Switch to the Red line (1) and take it 5 stops northwest to Komsomol’skaya:

 

 

Switch to the Brown line (5) of the same name (Komsomol’skaya):

 

 

and take it 3 stops to Belaruskaya, switch to the Green line (2) and take it 1 stop south to Mayakovskaya:

 

 

Afterwards we took the metro to Smolenskaya, where we got off to dine at Chef Vladmir Mukhin’s White Rabbit, currently ranked at #18 of San Pellegrino’s list of the world’s best restaurants and Russia’s top fine dining venue located in a domed glass roof with sweeping views across the city.

EDIT: There’s now an episode on Chef Vladmir Mukhin and White Rabbit on Chef’s Table!

 

 

The tasting menu, themed chronically to the history and evolution of Russian cuisine:

 

 

Let the hunger games begin.

 

 

Pear, aged mead and vendace caviar:

 

Loaf, guda cheese, dried salmon paired with a test tube with watermelon vodka:

 

Swan livers ryazhenka (original Russian marshmallow) and Antonovka apple paste:

 

Birch bread and herring milt with hare forschmack butter:

 

Sour shichi (traditional Russian soup) made of herring fat, with smoked herring, paired with king crab:

 

Slices of horse meat wrapped around persimmon and cheese:

 

Crab, carrots, pike caviar from a remote far eastern Russian island in the Arctic, and salted egg yolk topped with sliced salt hardened over years, plated ontop of a rare mineral dish designed to represent an island in the sea:

 

Turnips & Parsley soup with wild duck:

 

Sturgeon topped with white caviar, sour corn, and fried crucian sauce:

 

Tavranchuk – Beef ribs cooked in kvass paired with a glass of Côtes du Rhône:

 

Black bread on the bottom topped with baked milk and mushroom foam, surrounded by caramelized black currant:

 

Sea buckthron and willow herb. This delicate candy dessert literally exploded sweet nectar in my mouth:

 

Finally, we finished with offerings of complimentary perfume/cologne to take with us back home:

 

Then, we ended our night at Leto Lounge, a popular late night hookah lounge (which is apparently the thing to do in Moscow as every bar and club serves hookah) that seemed to have all of Moscow’s youth congregated together on a Wednesday night.

 

 

We also made random friends with 3 Swedish medical students who were walking around looking for a place to drink.

Naturally, we invited them to join us on our last night together in Moscow at Leto Lounge, where as you can see, I’m blogging this very post at this very moment.

 

Photo Credit: Ihita Kabir

 

We all stayed up until 5am, moving to Shisha City after Leto Lounge closed at 2am. Some of us feel Moscow is best in the middle of the night:

 

 

Tomorrow we head onwards to Siberia! See you in Irkutsk.

 

 

- At time of posting in Moscow, Russia, it was -7 °C - Humidity: 95% | Wind Speed: 28km/hr | Cloud Cover: snowy

 

From Saint Petersburg To Moscow

From Saint Petersburg To Moscow

 

Photo credit: Ihita Kabir

The Kremlin and Red Square just got served

 

After New Year’s Eve and 2 memorable days in Saint Petersburg, we headed onwards on the overnight Train 001 from Saint Petersburg’s Moscow Station to Moscow’s Yaroslavskiy Station departing at 11:55pm.

 

Moscow Station in Saint Petersburg

 

We boarded at around 11:15pm.

 

 

Specifically for Train 001 to Moscow, you can purchase your tickets (and internationally with even a USA-issued Visa/Mastercard!) months in advance online on rzd.ru, printing them out from your computer and then showing them with your passport to your conductor before you board.

 

 

Train 001 is a relatively modernized traveler-friendly sleeper train where even its 2nd class (at 4 berths per cabin) rivals the feel of a business class flight!

 

 

They offer free snacks, water, and bread the moment you choose your beds, and they sell bottles of beer and wine for $5 USD a bottle, bringing them all to the cabins. Most of us stayed up playing Monopoly Deal while singing along to 90s throwback music.

 

 

Breakfast delivery at 07:00am is also included, and you have a choice between blini (pancakes) with jam or rice porridge.

 

Waking up to breakfast

 

After a wonderful night’s rest, Train 001 arrived in Moscow exactly at 08:00am in the morning.

 

 

The sun doesn’t rise until 9am at this time of year, so adjust your circadian rhythms accordingly. Given our bags, we took Uber cabs directly from the train station to our accommodations at Godzillas Hostel.

 

Best party ever

 

At 10am we set off for Red Square, entering from the north:

 

 

This mega complex separates the Kremlin — Russia’s former royal citadel and the official current residence of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin — from Kitai-gorod, the historic merchant quarter.

 

 

In the middle of Red Square, tucked against The Kremlin walls, is the Mausoleum of Lenin. The scientists behind this mausoleum became world famous for being one of the first to perfect the embalming process of a dead human body, namely Vladimir Lenin.

It’s free to enter, although photos are not allowed here (just google the image to get an idea); guards are literally everywhere to ensure you pay your respects by not talking and not taking any photos.

 

 

Swing by the highly photographed bust of Stalin as you exit the mausoleum:

 

 

Past the mausoleum is probably the most recognized symbol of Russia — Saint Basil’s Cathedral, built to resemble a bonfire rising into the sky.

 

 

Its interior consists of 2 floors of maze-like corridors adorned with murals wall to wall.

 

 

Afterwards, we spent an hour walking around ГУМ (GUM), a mega department store/mall famous for its lavish interiors and damn good Soviet ice cream on the bottom floor.

 

 

Afterwards, walk around to the opposite side (the western side) to enter The Kremlin. Do not enter directly from Red Square and you’ll probably get shot.

 

 

And don’t miss the eternal flame and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier:

 

 

While inside The Kremlin, the top recommendation is to visit The Armoury, which holds a lavish collection of medieval-era Russian dresses, jewelry, china, old school weaponry, chariots, armor, and chainmail.

 

 

The Kremlin at night:

 

 

There’s also the Russian State Library across the street from the Kremlin, site of the 4th largest collection of books in the world:

 

 

Once we were done with the Kremlin, we swung southwest past the big statue towards Cathedral of Christ The Savior.

 

 

Standing at a height of 338 feet/103 meters, this is the tallest Orthodox Christian church in the world. There had been a similarly sized Cathedral of Christ the Saviour that once stood on these grounds, but it was demolished by Stalin in 1931 to make way for the ridiculously sized Palace of the Soviets (after a contest that ended up with no winners because none of the entries were big enough for Stalin).

That palace was never built, however, when the Nazis invaded during World War 2 and it ended up becoming Moskova Pool, the world’s largest open-air swimming pool, under the reign of Nikita Kruschev.

Then in 1995, the pool was discarded to make way for this:

 

 

Walk up 240+ steps to the terraces where you can get 4 different views over the city of Moscow:

 

 

The odd looking pirate statue in the distance is that of Peter The Great, standing at 98 meters high.

 

 

Afterwards we walked across Patriashiy most bridge towards Red October.

 

 

Red October refers to the former grounds of a chocolate factory redeveloped to become a vibrant arts center filled with bars, restaurants and galleries. Its proximity to Red Square and The Kremlin has rendered Red October into a symbol of Russian hipster culture, European-ness, defiance, and Russian modernity.

 

 

Guess it must be more popular in the summer?

 

 

Finally, we turned a corner across another brudge onto Moscow’s central park, Gorky Park and its Fallen Monument Park/Muzeon Art Park nestled within. Featuring artifacts and sculptures from some of Russia’s best artists, it has become an open air museum and creative arts workshop for modern and Soviet Russian art.

 

 

Later that night we had a great dinner at Varenichnaya Restaurant (Вареничная №1) along Arbat Street, after which we wandered along its pedestrian-only mall reminiscent of Las Ramblas in Barcelona.

 

 

I close our first day in Moscow with this photo of a bizarre bathroom during one of our random drinking outings:

 

 

 

- At time of posting in Moscow, Russia, it was -3 °C - Humidity: 100% | Wind Speed: 8km/hr | Cloud Cover: snow showers

 

Saintly Saint Petersburg

Saintly Saint Petersburg

 

A feast for the eyes. 

 

Church of The Savior on Spilled Blood just got served

Well maybe not this one:

 

 

After a day at The Hermitage and celebrating New Year’s Eve on the streets of Nevsky Prospekt, we slept in well into noon to begin our 14 mile trek around Saint Petersburg on Day 1, and exploring all the churches’ interiors on Day 2 (given that a lot of them except Kazan are closed on New Year’s Day). 

 

 

We began with a notable brunch at Marketplace, a self-serve cafeteria that offers some amazing Russian food and a great way to get a local taste of Saint Petersburg and was highly recommended on Spotted By Locals (Thanks Melissa!).

 

 

Afterwards we walked 5 minutes across the street to Kazan Cathedral, built in 1811 by the finest Russian designers of the time. It beautifully combines Orthodox Christianity with Catholicism styles, creating this “Super-Christian” motif that can be found in every inch of its exterior and interior. 

Mikhail Kutuzov, the Russian commander-in-chief largely credited for defeating Napoleon, is buried here.

 

 

We then headed to Church of Savior on the Spilled Blood, named after the assassination of Emperor Alexander II that occurred on its grounds. 

This 5-domed marvel took 24 years to build and over 27 years to renovate after Soviet rule.

 

 

Don’t forget to go inside:

 

And look…

 

…up…

 

Then we swung by Mariinsky Palace, the last Neoclassical imperial palace constructed in Saint Petersburg, Russia:

 

 

Facing the palace on the opposite end of the street is St. Isaac’s Cathedral, Russia’s largest Russian Orthodox cathedral in the city, the largest orthodox basilica, and the 4th largest cathedral in the world.

 

 

Once again, go inside:

 

 

…and then climb the 264 steps to the 360º colonnade at the top to get sweeping views over the city:

 

 

After Saint Isaac’s, we headed down the canal for a 20 minute walk to Yusupov Palace, once the primary residence of the House of Yusupov and the infamous the site of Grigori Rasputin’s murder in the early morning of December 17, 1916.

If you’re not familiar with what happened, this was the famous story where Rasputin was poisoned with potassium cyadine and didn’t die, then shot 4 times in the head, kidney, and heart, and didn’t die, kicked in the head, and didn’t die, and then thrown into the river (at the site pictured below), after which it was suspected he wrestled free from his restraints and tried to swim out, only to eventually succumb to hypothermia.

 

 

Then we headed back to the Admiralty complex, the former headquarters of the Imperial Russian Navy and the current headquarters of the Russian Navy.

 

 

We took a 35 minute stroll around Admiralty and along the Bolshaya Neva river to reach the Peter and Paul Fortress, the original citadel of St. Petersburg, founded by Peter the Great in 1703. 

This fortress also acted as the fail-safe nearby headquarters intended to destroy Admiralty in case Saint Petersburg would ever fall into the hands of the enemy.

 

 

If you come during the winter, try your luck at walking along the icy surfaces of the river:

 

 

You have to pay separately to enter any building in the fortress, but we got the combo deal for 600 rubles that gives you a ticket that accesses all the buildings here for 2 days. If you’re going in a group, they put the entire group on one ticket, so you have to go together.

The top sights in the fortress are the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral, which houses the remains of nearly the entire lineage of Russian emperors and empresses from Peter the Great to Nicholas II and his family, who were finally laid to rest in July 1998. The entire Romanov family, who were executed by the Bolsheviks in Yekaterinburg on July 17th, 1918, and Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia for 34 years, are also buried here.

 

 

The other suggested place to visit in the fortress is the Trubetskoy Bastion, the main prison block.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky was imprisoned here, leading to his inspiration for his classic novel Crime & Punishment.

 

 

After 2 hours at the fortress, we walked across the street to the Mosque. It might seem closed, but if you walk around the corner to the parking lot, you can luck out with a friendly guard who will let you in for free.

 

 

The next morning we headed to Dachniki for lunch, a charming little place modeled after a Soviet dacha. It boasts the best borscht in the city.

 

 

The highlight afterwards was Kunstkamera, Russia’s very first museum that was built in 1727 by Peter the Great. It houses the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, with a collection of almost 2 million items.

Most people flock upstairs to see the morbidly fascinating catalog of human and animal fetuses with anatomical “variabilities”, preserved in vodka and vinegar. 

Peter the Great himself sponsored this project for the edification of his people to understand these were not devil-inspired “monsters” per se but rather naturally occurring variances of the human condition.

 

 

Step outside the Kunstkamera at night to swing by the Spit of Vasilievsky Island and its adjacent Rostral Columns for a winter wonderland.

 

 

With that, it’s a wonderful group dinner at Yat Restaurant getting to know our new local friends Anna and Anastasia (thanks Tinder) before heading off on our overnight 11:55pm train to Moscow.