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:
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
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
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
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:
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.
I’ve been to nearly every single ex-Soviet state except for the mother of them all: Russia. That changes today.
Photo Credit: Ihita Kabir
The Hermitage just got served
And it wasn’t easy getting here.
Recalling my first monsoon trip to EgyptI also once again answered the call for emergency services personnel onboard my flight out of NYC, but this time actually as a doctor instead of a pre-medical student. I took care of 2 people, one of whom was having a delayed allergic reaction to an MRI with contrast (the feeling of difficulty swallowing, which I treated with Benadryl) and another who felt like he was having low blood pressure (he wasn’t).
And as for Russia itself, after a deportation, tons of visa bureaucracy, this week’s international saber rattling, and even a near-scare today where one of our own, JC, was prevented getting on his Aeroflot flight because of an uncertainty whether Hong Kong Passport Holders can visit Russia without a visa (they can, and for up to 14 days), it seemed that Russia was simply becoming the forbidden kingdom; but alas, here I am, typing away this entry in our first day in Saint Petersburg, Russia.
Formerly known as Leningrad, Saint Petersburg was formerly the imperial capital of Russia for 200 years before the Bolsheviks moved it back to Moscow in 1918. Given its proximity to Finland and the rest of Western Europe/Scandinavia, Saint Petersburg is not your typical Russia; it emanates a warm charm fitting for a Western European city while still reatining the cold, steely soviet pride of Mother Russia.
To get to Saint Petersburg, I had to switch airports within a 10 hour layover in Moscow. Departing from NYC at 7:20pm and landing at around 1pm in Sheremetyevo International Airport (SVO) located about an hour’s drive north from Moscow, I had to carry my bags with me for the rest of the day before catching an 11pm flight leaving from Vnukovo International Airport (VKO), located about another hour’s drive southwest from Moscow. Luckily, Uber cabs in Moscow are dirt cheap, which each hour’s drive costing no more than $10 USD each way.
Although taking public transportation to and from the airports can cost you only $1 USD to get around, remember you’ll have to carry all your bags up and down tons of escalators and stairs while adding another 40 minutes to your journey compared to an Uber. If you think you can get away with it by checking in your bags prior to departure, it won’t work; Aeroflot makes you reclaim your bags in SVO airport once you land and you’ll have to take them with you yourself to VKO airport.
That said, with a long enough layover, I conveniently arranged an appointment at Real Russia’s Moscow offices to pick up our train tickets on the Trans-Siberian/Mongolian Railway.
FYI, taking Uber, while affordable in Moscow can be a risk too – the Uber driver I took from Moscow to VKO airport didn’t know where the departures terminal was and insisted where he was dropping me off was the right place. I got out to ask at this random office, only to find him absconding and leaving me in the middle of nowhere. WTF.
The people in the office didn’t speak a lick of English, so all they did was shrug their shoulders and point in the direction where I had to walk to get to the airport. So I ended up walking about 45 minutes along a random expressway in the middle of a Russian winter night, while narrowing avoiding getting hit by a few cars, buses, and a snowplow before finally getting to the departures terminal!
My lonely walk as I approach the airport
Choose your opportunity costs wisely. On the bright side, taxis in Saint Petersburg has wifi and accept credit cards! Wheee! I ended up staying at Simple Hostel, which was conveniently (and strategically) located about 5 minutes away by foot from Palace Square.
The next morning I woke up to a hazy dawn of a New Year’s Eve, where I waited for the rest of the monsoon crew to arrive in 2 hour intervals. During this whole time, I spent running back and forth between the taxi-drop off area by Palace Square and the hostel to pick up and drop off bags for my co-travelers as they lingered around exploring the crown jewel of Saint Petersburg.
The Palace Square is one of the largest squares in the world, where events such as Bloody Sunday Massacre of 1905 and the October Revolution of 1917 took place.
Sitting on the north side is The Hermitage: Founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great and open to the public since 1852, this museum is one of the largest and oldest in the world with a catalog spanning over three million items, including the largest collection of paintings in the world.
Tickets cost around $10 USD per person, and it closes at 6pm. While some people spend a whole day here, most of us lingered and gawked at the opening stairway for a good 10 minutes before spending no more than an hour for the rest. It’s up to you.
While the collection is impressive, it’s the rooms that demand the most time and attention.
Remember Disney’s Anastasia?
It’s right here:
After closing time the 9 of us walked back through Palace Square back to our hostel to freshen up and take our jet-lagged naps.
While watching Ирония судьбы, или С лёгким паром! (Aka The Irony of Fate), the 1975 Soviet screwball romantic comedy that’s played every New Year’s Eve in every household TV of every former Soviet republic state except Ukraine, we were treated to a homecooked Russian New Year’s dinner by our hostel:
Then we had a little bit of pregaming:
After which we headed back out to Palace Square to celebrate.
FYI, there’s a huge security crush to get into the main Palace Square. There’s no sense of queue at all, so push and shove, even if it’s a Speznatz police officer holding you back; the harder you push the more likely you’ll get in.
Photo Credit: Ihita Kabir
Photo Credit: Ihita Kabir
Celebrating a Russian New Year’s Eve on the Gregorian calendar is essentially catching Putin give his annual State of Union address remarkably similar to the one Melissa Weinmann and I saw together a year ago in Bukhara, Uzbekistan. Maybe we both should make this an annual tradition at this point?
Putin comes on at 11:55pm:
He speaks literally until midnight, after which it cuts to the clock at The Kremlin ringing 12 times. Then random fireworks start (set off by random locals left and right of you), the most of which climaxes at 3am.
And outdoor drinking is totally sanctioned here:
The thing to do after Putin is to walk down Nevsky Prospekt with the crowds, drinking and posing for photos with random locals.
Photo Credit: Ihita Kabir
Hello to 2017!
What better way than to celebrate than with a wonderful group on our first day of meeting one another at a chill, off-the-books secret rooftop hookah lounge called The Office?
- At time of posting in Saint Petersburgs, Russia, it was 2 °C -
Humidity: n/a | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: cloudy