Ulanude

The final city on our transiberian adventure was set to be Ulan-Ude. Ulan-Ude is a city east of lake Baikal and is the largest Buryat city. Our stopover was mainly planned to visit the centre of Buddhism in Russia. Other than this Ulan-Ude has a few Buryat restuarants and a momument to Lenin (what a surprise). The monument is fairly monumental, as it is a bronze head weighing in at 42 tonnes, aptly placed in the centre of Communist square. 

The worlds biggest Lenin head

We enjoyed trying the Buryat cuisine a lot more than visiting a giant Lenin head (the biggest in the world). The Buryats are just one of the many different people in Russia and to be honest they are more Mongolian in appearance than Russian. Their traditional food is also welcomely different to the rest of Russia with more spices and a few specialities including Buuza (giant meat dumplings).  Eating Buuza is a little challenging as they are full of meat juice which can squirt all over if you take a bite before slurping it out of the hole in the top. 

A forest of prayer shawls

Our main destination was Involginsky Datsan, the buddhist temple not far from Ulan-Ude. Getting there involves two minibuses but is fairly easy as the drivers know exactly where tourists are going and will point you in the right direction. Once at the temple there are two options; wander around the grounds and open temples alone or take a guided tour. We opted for a guided tour with a fantastic English speaking guide. We paid 500 rubles together and this included a full 90 minute tour and free prayer shawl. 

The current main temple with guarding stupas

Our tour group consisted of two Russian ladies, a small group of Germans and their interpreter. Our guide spoke both English and Russian and was thrilled that Zoë came from England as she doesn’t meet many English people and loves the queen. We started our tour at the Buddhist university where up to 60 students learn medicine, prayer, tantra and lots of other subjects. Our guide showed us the stupa and the greenhouse which holds a tree directly descended from the tree Siddartha Gutama sat under when he achieved enlightenment. Aside from this we visited several temples dedicated to different buddhist deities including one called the White Tara who resembles Catherine the second of Russia (one of the Tsarinas who allowed Buddhists to practice freely in Russia. The temples are all beautifully painted and covered in rich materials representing the colours of the Buddhist religion; white, yellow, red, green and blue. 

Budhist prayer wheels

Probably the most famous tale from this monastery is about the twelfth chief lama of Russia who was the most senior buddhist when Stalin came to power. He predicted the religious opression that was to come and renounced his title urging Russian buddhists to flee Russia. Unfortunately many did not and were placed into Gulags where they lost their lives. The tweflth lama opted to go underground and meditate asking to be brought back to the surface after 35 and 75 years. Impatience meant he was first exhumed after 33 years and found to be in the meditating position. After 75 years he was looked at again and remarkably seemed to be in exactly the same condition as before despite never being embalmed. Today he is brought out on special holidays and has been declared to be still living and conscious. Apparently his body is still warm (between 18 and 34 degrees celcius) and his hair and nails are still growing. Its possible to receive his blessing for a small donation of 250 rubles. Whether or not you believe this it still makes for an interesting story. 

Ted feeling budhist

Back in Ulan-Ude and with more knowledge of Buddhism we only had one more night in Russia. The next day we got the bus from Ulan-Ue to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. The bus ride was far too long to be fun. The journey had some very nice scenery but 10 hours on a coach and two hours at the border made for a pretty long day. When we finally got off the bus we found ourselves in a fairly smoggy very busy Ulanbaator and still had to negotiate our way from the bus station to the city centre.

The Circum-Baikal railway and the Great Baikal Trail   

Now it was time to lean back, relax and enjoy the pretty ride. Our train was very modern (compared to what else we had been on) but lacked toilets in every carriage and built-in samovars. Hot water was instead provided by big thermos bottles. It even featured a tv where we could watch videos about the lake and it’s animals and plants. We could even open parts of the windows; a big plus for photography. Lake Baikal with all the mountains made this our most scenic breakfast we had in Russia while rattling along rather slowly. There are many villages of different sizes nestled in bays and valleys. Half the time the train goes literally along the cliff edge. Due to the many bends there are plenty of good photo oportunities. In some places we saw abandoned bridges, tunnels and sections where the tracks had been re-routed due to decay, rock fall or to acommodate longer train carriages. This route is not electrified so trains are either pulled by diesel or steam locomotives. We found a leaflet in our hostel in Irkutsk offering to do the route in two days with an overnight stay in a lovely resort at the edge of the lake but it was way above our budget. It seemed as if most of the villages are only accessible by train and a lot of the people there are fishermen.

One of the villages in the valley

One of the many views from the train (we took too many photos)

Ted! Oh and lake Baikal

Our train stopped four times along the way with two stops being at least half an hour. At the first stop we walked along a rocky beach while at least one of the Chinese groups marched through the village to find the toilet. Inspired by the example of some Russians, Matthias decided to be brave and go into the lake for a swim in his undies. According to local belief you add ten years to your life if you swim in the lake. As expected the water was freezing cold but he did it nonetheless. Back on dry land it became clear that the locals had planned this all along and brought vodka to warm up. Zoë, not to be outdone, overcame her reservations and decided to follow suit. After a quick change of clothes we warmed up with some nice tea and lunch.

The second stop was at a platform with a steep drop right down to the water. We walked through an old train tunnel. From our elevated position we got an beatiful view and Matthias involutarily ended up as model in a photo shoot. The train staff used a nearby stream to fill up the trains’s water supply while we enjoyed stretching our legs in the glorious sunshine.


Hahaha it’s only a little bit cold

A feat of engineering also known as a tunnel

Ted thinking about going for a swim

Riding the rails (would be much easier without the chinese tour groups)

Chinese paparazzi

After little over six hours we arrived in Port Baikal. We were greeted by three musicians in traditional dress who immediately captured the attention of half the passengers. Since we disn’t know how frequent the ferries sailed and as we didn’t have tickets we went straight to the harbour. There we ended up in a scrum of people pushing on the passenger boat via a single file gangway before we found out that we had to go on the car ferry. It turned out in our favour since tickets would have been 700 rubles each had we bought them on the train (sometimes it is good not to have enough cash). Instead we payed 65 rubles for the 20 min boat ride. From there it was still 4km of walking to our hostel. On the way we also managed to get our national park permits for the next days walk.


The oldest car ferry we have been on

The hostel was lovely and had a big kitchen and common area but only two bathrooms. We met a Russian couple and quite a few German travellers. This was the first time we could socialise with other guests in a place we stayed. We had a great evening in our ‘little Germany’ exchanging stories, discussing plans and talking to other people than just each other. One of them was also called Matthias who had the same walking plans as us so we teamed up and decided to walk together.

Our start the next morning was delayed by an hour by the manager and her great speed in making breakfast for three people. After replenishing our food supplies at the local market we were off and into the forest. The path to Bolshie Koty is somewhere between 22 and 25km long depending on what source you read. The beginning leads away from the lake and up a hill through dense mixed forest. We had managed to time it perfectly and were walking through golden and red autumn forest in glorious sunshine.


Another fairly normal Matthias

Ted enjoying the view from his backpack

After zig-zagging down the other side we had a nice lunch on a beach. Some German guys went in and out of the lake but we resisted this time. From there on there was only one more big incline; most of the time the path was rather flat with slow ups and downs. One section was signposted as risky where it got narrower and more eroded. Overall the walk was easy and very enjoyable. We spotted our destination over an hour before we actually got there thanks to a few bays. In the end it took us seven hours including one hour lunch break at a rather leisurely pace. Our plan of going swimming fell flat due to the time and the fact that the sun was already behind the hills.


Lovely lunch and swim spot

Just a snippet of the path (yay for pol filters!)

Our host was already waiting for us and we couldn’t wait for a nice shower. In order to reduce our luggage to a small daysack we had decided to have dinner and breakfast in the guesthouse. The food was good but could have been more. The guesthouse was nice and clean and they had only just finished contruction of a separate dining shelter with kitchen in the garden. We also got to enjoy our first Russian longdrop toilets in the garden. To our surprise a couple from Hongkong who we had met on the trail earlier also stayed there so we had some friends for the evening.

After a good breakfast we met up with Matthias again and it turned out that we had made the better accommodation choice. He had to turn to the only shop for food and Russian packet size meant he was carrying more food back than he had brought the day before. At least this secured him a generous lunch.


Our guesthouse for the night

We all had slept well and made good progress so when lunch time came we ended up on the same beach as the day before. This time we all went for a dip into the cold waters before drying clothes while eating. We were really lucky as it rained in Bolshie Koty when we woke up but we were treated to another warm and glorious day even though the wind coming over the lake was colder than the previous day.

Stunning autumnal colours

In the end we completed the return walk in 6 hours and treated ourselves to coffee and cake by the lake before heading back to the hostel to relax. Our friend Matthias had to leave early in the morning to catch his next train in Irkutsk but we had left some extra time and therefore got a rare chance to lie in.


Snow-capped mountains on the eastern shore of lake baikal

After a racey bus trip back to Irkustsk we went shopping in the central market before making our way to the hostel. It was called ‘Good cat’ and only 10 minutes walk from the station. It turned out to be more of a hotel than a hostel.


Our train the next morning was scheduled at 6.45 but ended up being an hour late. This was the first delay we experienced in our whole time in Russia so far and was only annoying because it postponed our breakfast too. Finally the train arrived and we were on our way to Ulan Ude along the shore of lake Baikal. This is defintely the most scenic part of the whole train journey and worthwhile seeing during the daytime. 

Irkutsk or Hunting a ghost train

Irkutsk is the best base from which to start any adventure to Lake Baikal, according to the guide books. It’s a transport hub but also a little more interesting than the other Siberian cities we have stopped in. Although modernisation is slowly taking place, the city still has many traditional wooden houses, which seem to be quite stubborn to stay as they are rather than be replaced by modern tower blocks. Interestingly, we read that many of these old houses are not connected to running water or the sewage system as their owners are not able to afford this or the renovation.

Old and new houses in Irkutsk

Our primary reason for a stop at Irkutsk was to get Zoë a Mongolian visa from the Mongolian Consulate. Having read a lot about other people’s experiences of obtaining a Mongolian visa, we were a little worried. The consulate appeared to suddenly stop issuing visas to foreign passport holders in 2016 but thankfully this was only for a few months. Other travellers have also had problems with consulate opening hours, proof of insurance, proof of residence and travel itineraries. We expected some difficulties and tried to prepare as much as possible. We thought we had to wait until the following morning to apply but decided to find the building that afternoon. We were a litte surprised that the visa centre was open so went in to ask about applying. The friendly lady behind the counter said it would only take around 10 minutes and we could do it that afternoon. Fantastic. Back to the hostel we went and within an hour Zoë had a Mongolian visa in her passport. The only thing Zoë had forgotten was to put a phone number of the guesthouse but this was quickly fixed using the consulates wifi. We were both so relieved and happy that we can go to Mongolia :).

Russian orthodox church near the central parks

Our next stop in Irkutsk was the central market, which is full to the brim of fish, meat, bread, fruit and vegetables. It was great place to do some food shopping and due to our visa success we treated ourselves to a steak dinner and cake for dessert. Russians definitely like their cake. We tried a tort skaska which was chocolate sponge covered in chocolate, hazelnuts and sour cream icing. Back at our hostel cooking dinner was pretty interesting. The only other guests were a Chinese tour group, and they were fascinated by how Matthias cooked a steak and made a salad. Most of the time he had at least 3 spectators and one lady in particular who kept asking about adding salt to everything. She only stopped when the tour guide told her to leave us alone while we ate.

Up till now we didn’t have a plan for lake Baikal. We wanted to do some hiking and also take a journey on the circumbaikal railway. Finally we had a reliable weather forecast and could make a plan. We chose a circular route from Irkutsk to Slyudyanka then to Listvyanka before returning to Irkutsk. It seemed the easiest way to see everything and not spend half the week on the bus or train. So our first stop was set to be Sludyanka to board the circumbaikal railway.

Evening at lake baikal

Sludyanka is a small town on the lake shore at the southern end and most tourists miss it out completely. We booked a night here in giesthouse Delight with the plan of getting the train the next morning. The circumbaikal railway was originally part of the transiberian route and was built in 1911. It was an engineering feat as the route along the western side of Lake baikal required many bridges and tunnels to be built. Today it is open for tourists and locals but all of the transiberian trains go along a new line. There are two options for trains either the tourist train or a local elektrichka train. Due to this line only being a single set of tracks, trains run in one direction from Slyudyanka to Port Baikak during the day and returning at night. We looked up the trains and chose the best train for our plan leaving at 9:10am on Wednesday. When we arrived at Slyudyanka we tried to buy tickets but were promptly told the were none and there was no train the next day. Totally confused we checked into our guesthouse and hoped to figure it out. Our hosts for the night were lovely and very helpful although they didn’t think there was a train either. We looked it up online and returned to the station armed with the train number. Our Russian is still very basic and luckily we met a Polish lady who spoke Russian, English and German, and coincidentally wanted a ticket for the same train. After about 30 minutes, it transpired that the train does exist but is run privately and is purely for tourists. Normally, tourists board at Irkutsk and return there via a ferry and bus. The whole round trip costs 7000 rubles, not exactly budget friendly. We couldn’t buy tickets from the ticket office so our only chance was to try and board the train in at the platform in the morning and hope it wasn’t too expensive.


Slightly less panicked we had a walk along the lakeshore and returned to our lodgings for dinner. We were presented with a fabulous spread of food including goulash, potatoes, salted omul, salted herring and homegrown salad. All of the food was delicious and made even better by our hosts tales of skating across lake Baikal, hiking around the mountains and skiing through snowy valleys. Dessert was even more interesting. We tasted pollen, lingonberries, sea buckthorn berries, local honey and also found out where pine nuts come from. Perhaps this is quite obvious considering the name pine nuts. We hadn’t ever thought about how they are harvested or preserved, but now when we see someone in the forest with a 3m long wooden hammer we will know what they are doing. We also acquired a new skill for our C.V.s, shelling pine nuts with our teeth, although I think we both need a lot of practice. We had a great evening learning about Siberia and forgot our worries about the train.

The next morning we woke early but our hosts insisted on some coffee before taking us to the train station. We tried some golden root extract in our coffee and also some more berries. At the train station we found a group of German tourists and found out the train does exist! Once it pulled into the station we found someone to sell us a ticket for the second class carriage and couldn’t have been happier with our lakeside seats and almost empty carriage. The tourist train cost 3400 rubles per person from Slyudyanka to Port Baikal, which put a decent hole in the budget. Had we had time to wait until the next day and get the local train we would have paid just 200 rubles per person, but we may only be at lake Baikal once and has all our accomodation booked for the following nights so we had to make the most of our time. We would probably recommend anyone else to get the local train which currently runs on Thursdays and Fridays as far as we know.

That said we were on the train…

Beginning of the circumbaikal railway

Our last sleeper train in Russia

After our lovely time enjoying Siberian nature we boarded the train bound for Irkutsk. We were in two minds about overnight journeys on trains. On the one hand, we enjoyed an evening of watching out of the window while the sunset, but on the other hand, in the hours spent asleep we were missing out on a fair amount of Russian countryside even if most of it was just trees. To avoid sleeping ao much on trains we would have had to make a lot more stops or accept arriving into a Russian city in the middle of the night. Despite this we will still have only spent 5 nights on trains all the way from Saint Petersburg to Ulan Ude. Another thing we were wondering about was what kind of neighbours we would have. We were now pretty certain that they would all be Russian but we were hoping more for the family atmosphere rather than construction workers. Luckily, most of the train disembarked at Krasnoyarsk and we got on with a large group of 6-8 year old gymnasts. The train was also a little better than we expected, it seemed more luxurious, with padded seats and even had radio throughout the carriage.

The scenery from the train was probably some of the best we have had with more river valleys and views across the landscape. It’s also turning quite autumnal so all over there are trees turing golden, red and bronze. Our gymnast neighbours were tucked up in bed by 9pm and our carriage was very quiet. Our final night sleeping on Russian trains passed peacefully and we both woke up excited to finally arrive into Irkutsk. We weren’t excited about Irkutsk but we were keen to discover Lake Baikal.

Winter is coming

After over 44 hours on the train we could not wait to get off. That was about the maximum we could endure on the trains in one go. It was good that we ended up in Krasnoyarsk as this city is right next to a beautiful national park, which offers plenty of great hiking. We had booked a hostel only a few hundred meters from the train station which was cheap and cheerful. Sadly just after check in trouble started. They decided that the price we had booked it for was for one night instead of two. The receptionist rang the manager and we spent 45 min arguing with him that is was his fault if the price online was incorrect and not ours. As he would not move a millimeter and refuse to barter we demanded our money back and left furious about them not honoring the contract. In the end we stayed in hostel Vozduh which was more expensive than the first booking (but cheaper than the actual price), had a much better location and very friendly staff. They gave us plenty of useful tips for our time in Krasnoyarsk. We had timed it well as on weekends bus number 80 went from outside the hostel straight to stolby national park, which was the main reason we stopped in this city.

Our smallest Russian friend

Stolby national park is located just at the south western tip of Krasnoyarsk. It’s main attraction are about 60 rock formations of various sizes standing mostly on top of small hills. Some of them are easy to climb but others require climbing gear. We got an early bus to make the most of the good weather forecast. Since it was a weekend there was a bus going straight from the hostel to the nature park. The first 6 kilometers we had to walk along a tarmac road with a few streches of planked wooden walkways parallel to it. We stopped often to watch siberian chipmunks, tree creepers and tits around the bird feeders and picnic areas. It was surprisingly busy with locals walking and running. The visitor center at the end of the road was busy with about 80 people participating in a 360 minutes event. They are organised in Russian national parks once a year and people volunteering spend 360 minutes clearing up litter, maintaining paths or carrying out repairs. In stolby we met a few groups of people scrubbing grafiti from rocks.

Ted went climbing too!

The only maps in this park are at the main entrance so we recommend taking photos of them. There are three colour coded walking paths but no information about their length or approximate walking times. Overall there are many information boards about the park, plants and animals but they were all in Russian and therefore of no use to us. We could have used Google Translate but it doesn’t work very well with longer texts. After reading about it online we opted for the blue and the yellow paths. Blue was a circular walk in the center and the yellow path lead us back towards the city and terminated at a ski and sports center. The blue route was busy thanks to it’s easy access and featured some nice and big rock formatiions. We found a picturesque lunch spot on one of them overlooking a forest valley but were stopped by the incoming hail just as we sat down. Thankfully it was only short so we stopped again soon after; this time without any view.

Stolby from above

Snow and the chilly wind were probably the main reasons for us arriving at the top of the ski lift over an hour and a half earlier than expected. Towards the end of the yellow route were two lookout points offering great scenic views over the surrounding hills and forest. Fit as we were we didn’t take the lift but took a shortcut down a steep ski slope. Back in the city we treated ourselves to coffee and cake after a very enjoyable day out.

One of the bigger rock formations

The next day turned out to be much nicer and sunnier than expected but since we had seen most of the national park instead we decided to walk along Yenitsei river towards Tatyshev island. The promenade was quite nice and the river wide and very fast flowing. It was dotted with stalls, benches and (restaurant) ships. The island is roughly 3km wide and 8-9km long. It features a dense network of paths and roads and many people go there for skating, cyling , running and walking. We spent about an hour of strolling around and sitting on a sunny beach we had to head back to catch our train. There was still enough time for an ice cream and a lunch treat at an Italian restaurant.

Café on wheels

Too long on a train

Our longest train journey of our whole trip across Russia was set to be from Perm to Krasnoyarsk and a whopping 46 hours. We cut this short by 1.5 hours by boarding at Kungur. Still such a long time on the train was going to be a little challenging. We prepared well buying a large variety of food to cover the 6 meals we would need whilst on the train. There is a small shop on board and the opportunity to get off and buy food when the train stops but after looking at the timetable, we realised most of these stops would be in the middle of the night. It’s likely that only smokers get off at 2am to satisfy their habits.

Our train was on time and a slightly newer one than the previous 2 trains. Instead of brown the beds were blue which made for a slighlty nicer colour scheme. The train was pretty lively and all along one side was a group of young girls who spent most of the afternoon playing games and passing notes along the train. Our bay was just us and two of the girls so we both sat by the window until sunset. The views were better than before as the train made its way along a river valley. Once the sun went down we made our beds and settled down to watch a film.


Thankfully the group of school girls left the train at Yekaterinberg and we got alot of new neighbours. Opposite us a young couple with a 10 month old baby moved in. And to the other side an American man and a Russian lady. All of them were very friendly and we soon discovered (with the help of google translate), that the couple were going to Kazakhstan to see his family. Our American neighbour had missed his original train and sadly only been able to make it onto a third class carriage on our train; probably not how he wanted his first Russian train journey to go. Before bed Matthias chatted to the American-Russian couple who thought he was in his early twenties.


The next morning Matthias woke up early and discovered that it’s possible to charge electrical items next to the Provodnistas office. With the phone fully charged he returned to his seat and found Zoë was finally awake at 10am (sleeping with earplugs is the way forward). Breakfast was some surprisingly yummy instant porridge with pieces of dried apple and cherry and more tea. Then we got comfy for the rest of the day on the train and a lot more passing trees. Our neighbours all left at Omsk and were replaced by three Russian men. For the first time we were a little less easy, but once we got out our lunch and shared some of our food things were more relaxed. We are sure the vodka and whiskey they were sipping continually was helping too. We had expected people drinking on the trains but surprisingly these men were always sipping secretly while one of the others kept watch. Maybe the recent changes to alcohol laws and the classification of beer as an alcoholic beverage (only in 2011!) have made drinking less acceptable. Come to think of it even people drinking on the streets always concealed their alcohol in brown paper bags. Despite this Russia still has a large problem with alcohol abuse, especially in young men. Matthias earned a few shots of Vodka by fixing Viktor the construction workers new tablet and as a bonus we got a chocopie (a Russian Tunnock’s teacake).


The hours dragged on through the night but we both made it to the morning having had enough rest. Finally, it was the day we were going to get off the train and away from our latest train mates. The men weren’t too bad really but Viktor’s music and the sweaty man smell was starting to get a bit much. We were really looking forward to getting off the train and out into the fresh air. Our train pulled into Krasnoyarsk on time and we said goodbye to the Russian men. As we walked along to the end of our carriage we noticed that during the night they had added another carriage. This carriage was a little different with bars on the windows and windows that opened. It was full of people peering out of the windows. We are pretty sure our train had been pulling along a prison on rails. We definitely didn’t read about that in the guidebooks.

The green mile and an icy cave

We were very glad to arrive in Perm during daylight hours for our walk to the hostel which was located in a slightly rundown area in a suburb. After half an hour walk we got there safely and checked in. The building looked a lot shabbier then it did on booking.com thanks to the art of taking advantageous photos but the inside was fine. Two letdowns were the lack of heating and missing window handles. The former was immidiately fixed by a construction type heater fan and Matthias managed to lock the windows with a knife from the kitchen. Those things fixed we were able to relax but still had to go shopping. Thankfully the supermarket was only 10 minutes walk away. After a yummy meal we spent the evening relaxing and planning our journey further.

The red salty ears ofPerm

Somehow we stayed up too long so when our alarm went of at 7am we were so tired that we fell asleep again within a minute. Matthias rewoke again at 9am but Zoë slept all the way to half 11. Our trip to Kungur was now forfeit and we had to spend the time in Perm. The only issue with this was that our accomodation was about 4km away from the center. We had booked it to be close to the train station and with good bus connection to get to Kungur; not really for sightseeing in Perm. One of the best things the city has to offer for tourists are two walks marked by red and green lines on the pavement. The longer (green) route comprised 40 signs outside significant buildings and sights and takes around 1.5h to walk. The red route stops to places with romantic stories and partially coinsides with the green line. It took us quite a bit longer (we guess the official time is without reading the signs) even though we skiped some part of it. Most of the signs are at buildings because they used to be schools and some famous Russian poet, author, or other person went there. As a foreigner these names didn’t mean anything to us and so we started skipping more and more of the text. It was also getting quite cold thanks to the wind. We sought refuge in a lovely café on the way back. That evening was filled with us working out how we can make it to Kungur ice cave and still get the train.

The friendly Perm bear and Teds new friend

The solution to this issue was the fact that we could board our train in Kungur and did not have to come back to Perm. We first though we had made a big booboo when we discovered that Kungur was on the main train line line and a lot of trains stop there. Once we got there after 2.5 hours of walking, a city bus in Perm and one overland bus we realised that there was absolutely nothing for tourists to do and see apart from the ice cave. Perm was therefore definitely the better base.

The Perm gate

Buses to Kungur run frequently throughout the day. The best stop to get off is outside the train station were we managed to deposit our backpacks for 200 rubles each. Connection to the cave is made by bus number 8 (10 min, 20 rubles) plus a few hundred meters walk. At first it seemed we were the only people on the guided tour but in the end there were 18; all apart from us were Russian. Kungur ice cave is the only karst cave in Russia set up for tourism and 1.5km of it can be visited. Entry is 600 rubles for a normal and 700 for the longer version which includes a laser show and a different route. The first two grottos were covered in ice.

Stone cross and ice curtain

The diamond grotto had more ice and walls and ceiling were covered with lots of small crystals. The Polar grotto has trees of almost palm sized snowflake shaped ice crystals which were very impressive. This first section also features some illuminated ice sculptures. After this the grottos had no more ice but featured various rock formations with interesting shadows and some lakes. The tour was very informative (if you speak or at least understand Russian) since our guide talked a lot explaining certain formations, features and the geography and history of the place. Sadly there were no signs and no audioguides available.

The bat cave

After we emerged into the sunlight again even the 12 degrees felt very nice and hot. We were very disappointed to find the café at the entrance closed (only for 3 days) and the one in the nearby hotel wasn’t very nice. Therefore we decided to walk back to the station. After buying some grapes to snack on the train we had dinner in the shopping center next to the train station and still an hour to wait for the train.

Huge ice flake crystals inthe polar grotto

Probably our best reason for stopping in Perm was the cave in Kungur. Our guidebook did not reveal to us the fact it was also on the train line which is definitely worth factoring in. Perm has got a lot of history but mainly in regards to theater, ballet and opera (important art schools). Apart from that it is probably best described as a post-industrial industrial town and quite run down. The bus station for example consists of one building with the yard being half tarmac and half gravel with busses stopping both along the road and behind the building. It also broke up our train journey into legs of 19 and 44 hours. Had we combined them into one we probably would have gone crazy. In hindsight we think we should have stopped in Kungur during the day and spent a night or two in Ekatrineburg which is meant to be nicer than Perm. This is why you need to be careful when you plan your stops along such a long train line and do plenty of research about the places along the way.

Mind your head! Low ceiling!

Our longest train journey of our whole trip across Russia was set to be from Perm to Krasnoyarsk and a whopping 46 hours. We cut this short by 1.5 hours by boarding at Kungur. Still such a long time on the train was going to be a little challenging. We prepared well buying a large variety of food to cover the 6 meals we would need whilst on the train. There is a small shop on board and the opportunity to get off and buy food when the train stops but after looking at the timetable, we realised most of these stops would be in the middle of the night. It’s likely that only smokers get off at 2am to satisfy their habits.

Our train was on time and a slightly newer one than the previous 2 trains. Instead of brown the beds were blue which made for a slighlty nicer colour scheme. The train was pretty lively and all along one side was a group of young girls who spent most of the afternoon playing games and passing notes along the train. Our bay was just us and two of the girls so we both sat by the window until sunset. The views were better than before as the train made its way along a river valley. Once the sun went down we made our beds and settled down to watch a film.

Thankfully the group of school girls left the train at Yekaterinberg and we got alot of new neighbours. Opposite us a young couple with a 10 month old baby moved in. And to the other side an American man and a Russian lady. All of them were very friendly and we soon discovered (with the help of google translate), that the couple were going to Kazakhstan to see his family. Our American neighbour had missed his original train and sadly only been able to make it onto a third class carriage on our train; probably not how he wanted his first Russian train journey to go. Before bed Matthias chatted to the American-Russian couple who thought he was in his early twenties.

The next morning Matthias woke up early and discovered that it’s possible to charge electrical items next to the Provodnistas office. With the phone fully charged he returned to his seat and found Zoë was finally awake at 10am (sleeping with earplugs is the way forward). Breakfast was some surprisingly yummy instant porridge with pieces of dried apple and cherry and more tea. Then we got comfy for the rest of the day on the train and a lot more passing trees. Our neighbours all left at Omsk and were replaced by three Russian men. For the first time we were a little less easy, but once we got out our lunch and shared some of our food things were more relaxed. We are sure the vodka and whiskey they were sipping continually was helping too. We had expected people drinking on the trains but surprisingly these men were always sipping secretly while one of the others kept watch. Maybe the recent changes to alcohol laws and the classification of beer as an alcoholic beverage (only in 2011!) have made drinking less acceptable. Come to think of it even people drinking on the streets always concealed their alcohol in brown paper bags. Despite this Russia still has a large problem with alcohol abuse, especially in young men. Matthias earned a few shots of Vodka by fixing Viktor the construction workers new tablet and as a bonus we got a chocopie (a Russian Tunnock’s teacake).

The hours dragged on through the night but we both made it to the morning having had enough rest. Finally, it was the day we were going to get off the train and away from our latest train mates. The men weren’t too bad really but Viktor’s music and the sweaty man smell was starting to get a bit much. We were really looking forward to getting off the train and out into the fresh air. Our train pulled into Krasnoyarsk on time and we said goodbye to the Russian men. As we walked along to the end of our carriage we noticed that during the night they had added another carriage. This carriage was a little different with bars on the windows and windows that opened. It was full of people peering out of the windows. We are pretty sure our train had been pulling along a prison on rails. We definitely didn’t read about that in the guidebooks.

 Our train to Siberia 

Checking out late from our guesthouse we set off back to Vladimir from Szudal. After waiting for 20 minutes at the wrong bus stop we opted to walk the 2km to the bus station. Our bus to Vladimir was just as old as the one there and unfortunately we had seats over the wheel arch which were pretty uncomfortable. Back in Vladimir, we had a couple of hours to kill before our train. We made the most of these by going for dinner in a Pelmeni restaurant. Pelmeni are pasta stuffed with a variety of fillings, very similar to tortellini. We tried a dish of both meat and salmon pelmeni and also tried some Khinkali (Georgian tortellini). It was a very yummy meal and prepared us well for the train ride ahead.

We boarded our next train at 8:30pm and would arrive into Perm at 3:30pm local time (2 hours ahead of Moscow time) the following day. The train was almost identical to the first with brown coloured beds and we were travelling 3rd class again. The carriage was pretty hot and unlike our first train this one had electronic boards to display the time and temperature inside the train; this read 24 degrees when we boarded. Our neighbours for the journey consisted of 3 Russian ladies and one empty bed. They all seemed friendly enough, but like the rest of the train they were all resting or sleeping. We made our beds and hoped for a nice quiet night. The train was full but did quieten down after around 10pm. The ride wasn’t quite as smooth as the first and unfortunately two snoring fat men kept Zoë awake for a while. At least now we have learnt to keep the ear plugs somewhere handy.

A couple of the billions of birch trees along the railway line

We woke up around 6:30am with the sunrise, as the blinds were not down. While everyone else seemed to still be asleep we prepared our breakfast. We had brought a variety of pastries with us and a large supply of tea bags. Each carriage has a water boiler at the end and hot water is free of charge. We later saw someone bringing the wood to keep our water boiler going. It’s certainly worth bringing a mug on board with you. We both have our hydaways which are collapsible silicon bottles that are great for both hot and cold drinks.

One of the water boilers on the train


From early morning until 3:30pm is a long time to look out of a train window. Having read and heard about the transiberian we were hoping for some nice scenery and views of the Russian countryside. With any journey across Russia inevitably you spend half of the time on the train asleep. We hadn’t quite expected 8 hours of passing by tree after tree after tree. In fact on this journey trees and train stations were pretty much all that we saw. Our lunch was a trial run for the other meals we would eat on the trains. We tried some instant meals which either consist of noodles or instant potato mash. They weren’t too bad but we knew we would be craving some real food after a few instant meals. Finally our journey came to an end and we arrived in Perm, the city named after the word ‘Permian’ meaning far away.  We definitley agree, it’s a long way away. 

The Golden Ring

The golden circle around Moscow is an area containing cities of ancient importance and cities that helped define Russia today. Many of the transiberian trains stop at Vladimir, a city which stood against the Turkish invaders but eventually fell. Many tourists visit Vladimir, Szudal and Nizny Novogorod on day trips from Moscow, but we decided to spend a little more time seeing at least two of these cities.

After a full day dealing with the phone saga and cancelling our original train (easy to do for a small fee) we finally arrived at the Moscow Kurskaya train station to buy some new tickets. There are slow, express and really fast trains to Vladimir, but since the express journey only takes 2.5 hours we opted for this. Safely on board the train, we noticed that yet again, everyone was sleeping on public transport. We arrived into Vladimir around 9pm and walked to our hostel. The walk was a little scary in the dark, but thankfully it was just along the main road which had street lights. The entrance to our hostel was a little more dubious as it seemed to be a semi-derelict building. Think of the worst Scottish close you have seen but with bare brickwork and crumbling walls and you will have some idea. Inside the hostel we were warmly greeted by the owner, who despite not speaking any English was able to check us in and show us around. Hostel Chocolate is a chocolate themed hostel with chocolate bed sheets and artwork all over. Thankfully the bathroom suite did not follow the trend but instead the shower looked a bit like a spaceship capsule.

Don’t judge a book by it’s cover Vladimir style (aka our hostel entrance)

The next morning we got up to explore Vladimir, but were tempted to a coffee by our host before we left. Vladimir is a fairly large city but the old interesting centre is very compact. Somehow we managed to find the back entrance along an alleyway of ramshackle houses before we reached the first church. The main sites in Vladimir are clustered around two squares with a lovely walkway and sculptures between them. Our visit coincided with the first day of the Russian school year known as Knowledge day. Following three months of summer holidays, Russian school children dress up with bows in their hair and carry flowers for their teachers. Many seemed to go to school for just part of the day and the rest of the day was spent having fun and visiting the local sites. It created a very buzzy atmosphere while we walked about the town.

In terms of sites, Vladimir has a few to offer especially if you would like to visit churches. We opted for a few less churches and visited the famous Golden Gate first. The Golden gate was the site of a huge battle for Vladimir against the Turks and is still a strong part of the Russian identity. Today it holds a museum on the history of the gate including a video which we happily watched in English! The rest of the museum holds weapons from the 12th to 20th centuries but unfortunately none of them have English descriptions.

The Golden Gate

Our next stop was the old water tower and the museum of Vladimir, which mainly encompasses life of peasants and townspeople from the 20th century. We enjoyed looking at the photographs and exhibits but it’s only a small museum. On our way back towards the hostel we also visited the cathedral. Vladimir’s cathedral was used as a model for the assumption cathedral in the Kremlin of Moscow. It looks very similar from the outside but inside most of the paintings appear much older than the restored ones in Moscow.

We collected our bags from the hostel and made our way to the bus station to catch a bus to Szudal. The buses run every half hour and it costs just 95 rubles for the 45 minute journey. The bus took us through a very open landscape which was largely argicultural and we realised just how far some people in Russia must walk to get the bus. Our bus kept stopping in the middle of nowhere to let people off and we had to search the horizon to see the nearest village which was perhaps 3-5km away. Interestingly the bus station at Szudal is also around 2km away from the centre, but the bus continues for an extra fee of 17 rubles per person and drops you off in the town centre. We made it mid afternoon and then only had to work out how to cross the river and reach our guesthouse. We crossed the river and walked across most of the town before reaching Viktoria guesthouse. We had to call the owner to check in, but he helpfully gave us a map of the town with the main sites marked. All we needed now was some food from the local corner shop. The corner shops sell a huge variety of long life produce along with some dairy, sausages and a small selection of fruit and vegetables. When buying food in these small shops, our lack of Russian is starting to become a little frustrating for both us and the shopkeeper. We resolved to learn a little more so that we could order more easily.

The next morning we planned to visit the Kremlin, museum of wooden architecture and a Monastery. Quite a lot to cram into a day but thankfully Szudal is pretty small and all these attractions are within walking distance of eachother. It was a lovely sunny day so we set off in shorts and sandals to make the most of it. Our first stop at the Kremlin was probably the most interesting as it contains a musuem housed in an old palace and the church of the nativity. The church dates from the 11th century and was originally built from white stone before later being restored with red bricks and painted. The museum contains archeological finds from the area and the jordan canopy. The Jordan canopy is a kind of altar that was constructed on the frozen river for epiphany (6th January). A large service was held on the river ice and the preist dipped a crucifix through a cross shaped hole into the river to bless it’s waters. This is the only canopy of it’s kind to survive and is housed in its own dome shaped room. The rest of the museum contained religious art, jewellery and artefacts from the church and local town. It was a big musuem and the only bit that we didn’t enjoy was the room full of icons (probably because we have seen so many and they are all starting to look the same).

The builings inside the Szudal Kremlin

The church ofnthe Nativity

A Russian orthodox iconostasis

The only surviving canopy of Jordan

Just across the river is the museum of wooden architecture, which was founded during Soviet times. It contains around 15 wooden buildings which were moved here partly for preservation but mainly to create a tourist attraction and put Szudal on the map. Only a few of the buildings are open, including one church and several different peasant houses. For us it was interesting to compare how sparsely decorated and uncosy Russian houses were compared to the ones we saw in Romania. There were a few English descriptions about the layout of the houses with the main room (izba) being the only heated room of the house. It was interesting to see but probably not quite enough to justify the 300 ruble entrance fee. On the way back to town we passed two large wedding processions in fancy cars and a limo and started wondering what a Russian wedding is like, since the bride and groom always seem to be on an extended photo shoot. It turns out the photo shoot around the town is standard and can last several hours. Probably a hard task in a town as small as Szudal.

A typical peasants house

Two lovely wooden windmills

Our walk to the monastery led us past a lady milking her cow and then the Gvostiny Dvor or shopping arcade with its market. Today the arcade houses fairly boring shops and the market sells souvenirs, slippers and homegrown produce. We picked up an ice cream and continued up the main street to the monastery of spaso euphymius. This is the largest and best maintained monastery in Szudal (there are 3 more) and houses 10 museums. We decided to go in and find out what was inside since all the signs were in Russian. Inside the huge fortress like walls is a large courtyard, a couple of churches, a medicinal garden and the old houses for the monks. We visited two of the museums and were disappointed to find very little English and heaps of religious treasures. It was good to see inside the monastery complex but not worth visiting the museums. There’s even another museum of icons here :-(. Back at the guesthouse we made our spaghetti and meatballs and packed for our next train journey.

The best part of the monastery

Fancy a trip to Rothenburg anyone?