Trans-Mongolian adventures: Art, architecture and arcade games in Moscow.

Russia was always going to be a major part of this adventure. I’m lucky enough to have been twice before (in 2011 & 2012) but it’s a country that I’m absolutely obsessed with, and have been since childhood. When I first heard about the train route that snakes over 9000km, through 8 time zones, from Moscow to Vladivostok (or the variant I took, which goes through Mongolia and ends in Beijing) I knew I wanted to do it. And guess what? It was every bit as epic as I’d hoped.

My Trans-Siberian 101:

1) The Trans-Siberian/Mongolian/Manchurian refers to a route, not a particular train. There are multiple trains operating the route. The trains in Russia are all operated by RZD, the Russian State Railway company, and each train has a number. The lower numbered trains are the better quality, faster ones. The most famous of these trains is the 001 from Moscow to Vladivostok, but it isn’t the only train that operates the route. Chinese trains cover the route across Mongolia and into China.

2) It isn’t a special tourist train like the Orient-Express. It’s a normal train service used by locals to get between cities for work, holidays and visiting family. You won’t find walnut paneling, a butler or Inspector Poirot lurking in the corridor. What you may find are groups of Chinese migrant laborers, grannies and their grandkids, babushkas with China tea cups and enough food to survive an apocalypse and men in string vests who say nothing to you for 48hours but unexpectedly help to carry your bag off the train. I met so many characters and had no bad experiences whatsoever. I was given biscuits and snacks, had long conversations over google translate and even had a little girl draw me a picture of her teddy bear. I rarely had to lift my bag on or off the train or reach up to get a mattress – Russian men can be extremely chivalrous (and honestly I was so tired most of the time that I didn’t even argue with it).3) You can break the journey up: spending 7 days cooped up on a train isn’t fun for anyone. There are so many Russian cities and amazing sights along the route that it would be a shame not to explore some of them!

4) You don’t have to wait until you arrive in Moscow to get your tickets – in fact it’s far less risky to get them in advance, incase the ones you want sell out quickly. You can buy tickets on the Russian Railways website, but ticket sales only open 3 months in advance. It’s much easier (unless you really want to wing it) to book through a specialist travel agency who know the timetable inside out and who will be able to secure tickets for you as soon as they go on sale (for a commission fee, of course). I used Real Russia, and I can’t recommend them enough. They also helped me with my visas.

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Tea and porridge for breakfast on the train.

5) It’s perfectly safe. The train staff work in shifts so there’s always someone around, and unless you have a ticket, you don’t board the train. Apparently each train has a police officer onboard too (although I never saw one) and there’s also a customer service person who goes through the train on each journey to check that everyone is happy and deal with complaints.

Your bag goes underneath the bed, or above it on top bunks. That means that if anyone wants to steal your stuff they either have to lift a heavy metal bunk with you on it (I’m fairly sure this would wake you) or climb onto your top bunk to reach the extremely high shelf above. It’s really hard to get a bag up there, I’d always prefer to be on the bottom bunk even if it does mean people sitting on your bed to use the table in the day.

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A typical 3rd class carriage on an older train. Most third class carriages in the CIS looked like this. Here the left hand bunks are made up into seats, as it’s daytime.

6) Bring loads of food, water and stuff to do. Slippers with plastic soles, pool slides or flip flops are great for going to the bathroom too, as they’re easy to take on and off at bed time. Ear plugs and an eye mask are highly recommended if you actually want to sleep. Take comfy tracksuits or lounge wear, everyone changes into this as soon as they get onto the train. It can get chilly at night even in witner, so have a jumper and socks on hand.

There’s a samovar (hot water boiler) in every carriage, so you can bring tea, coffee, porridge, instant noodles and dried mashed potato pots. The train carriage attendant will have some snacks and can bring you tea, and there’s also a dining car, but most people save money and bring their own or buy from vendors on the platform. Be warned that at Lake Baikal the main ‘treat’ is smoked fish and smoked eels, which absolutely stink. Keep a small bottle of boiled and cooled, or mineral water for brushing your teeth with (don’t risk the train tap water). Have a loo roll and soap in a plastic bag for toilet trips. Take wet wipes, dry shampoo, no-rinse body wash or wash wizard sponges to keep yourself smelling fairly fresh.

And lastly remember that a few Russian phrases and a big smile will go a long way!

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A samovar (this one is actually on the Riga-Moscow express). It provides boiling hot water 24/7.

There are some great resources out there to help with planning, I highly recommend Lonely Planet’s Trans-Siberian Guidebook and the brilliant website ‘The Man in Seat 61’.

Moscow

When I planned my visit to Russia I had no idea that a World Cup was going to be taking place there. That’s how little interest I have in football. It turns out that I chose the best time to visit: loads of other tourists from all around the world and an amazing, safe carnival atmosphere.

Below: Pretty decorations for the World Cup.

This was my second visit to Moscow, and I arrived to find a city far more welcoming and easy to navigate than it was in 2012. World Cup fever had gripped the city, and huge improvements in infrastructure have made it very tourist friendly. Staff in metro stations had been taught English phrases, new signage and maps had been installed, and young, friendly border guards and train attendants had appeared, a far cry from the stern-faced old guard I had encountered in the past. In fact, the only time I was stopped by police was to ask (in English) if I needed directions, as I was staring intently at a map.

The World Cup improvements didn’t seem hastily made or temporary; to me they signified a sea-change in Russia’s tourist industry. Hopefully in time the visa requirements will be loosened, and more people will be able to experience this incredible country.

By the way, I didn’t meet any anti-British sentiment either; in fact I suspect most of that was whipped up by the media and our politicians.

Here’s what I got up to in Moscow:

Day 1:

Lunch at Tepemok, my favourite Russian fast food chain (a condensed milk blini, mushroom dumplings and cranberry mors).

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Red Square (sadly Lenin’s Mausoleum was off limits whilst they prepped for the World Cup opening ceremony, it was off limits last time I went so I guess I’ll just have to plan another trip to Moscow!).

The Museum of the Great Patriotic War of 1812, a branch of the State Historical Museum with an amazing collection of artefacts  including Napoleon’s field bed and Vasily Verechshagin’s series of paintings ‘1812’. The interpretation isn’t in English, so read up before you go if it interests you (I’m not a massive military history fanatic, but the story of how the Russians defeated Napoleon and marched on Paris is a genuinely fascinating one).

The GUM (Central Department Store), where I had some very fancy tea and cake.

Day 2:

TheMoscow Museum of Transportation, several warehouses choc full of old buses, cars, motorbikes and other things with wheels. It reminded me of the many transport museums I’ve been to with my Dad (oil smell, enthusiastic volunteers, shop manequins posed as old-fashioned petrol pump attendants), and seeing several Coventry-made Jaguars on display made me happy.

Day 3:

TheGulag History Museum, which was unfortunately closed for refurbishment, so only a small (but very well presented) temporary display was available to visit. Yet another reason for me to make a third trip to Moscow, as if I really needed a excuse to visit what is without a doubt one of my favourite cities.

The Dostoevsky Apartment Musuem, the apartment adjacent to the Mariinsky Hospital where the writer lived in childhood and adolescence. It’s small and there isn’t much interpretation, but it’s interesting to see how and where he lived and how life might have looked for middle class Muscovites in the 19th Century.

The Museum of Soviet Arcade Games, a brilliantly kitsch space with loads of refurbished arcade machines played by inserting soviet-era kopeks which you receive at the counter on paying your entry ticket. Being someone who almost never plays video games and has no spatial awareness I was atrocious at all of them. I did very much enjoy the photoautomat (having become obsessed with them in Berlin), soviet era phone-booth and vintage soda machine, where you can buy fizzy water infused with syrup (refurbished soda machines like this have sprung up everywhere in Russia, catering to nostalgia and curiosity about the past).

Dinner at Vai Me! a quirky Georgian restaurant where I ate a huge cheesy khachapuri, mushrooms baked in cheese and a yummy cherry-flavoured beer. So good.

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Day 4:

VDNKh, aka The All Russia Exhibition Centre, an enormous expo centre built during soviet times which is currently being restored. It’s full of pavillions devoted to each of the countries of the former USSR as well as other typically soviet activities such as space exploration, animal husbandry and milking cows. As a fan of socilaist realist art this place was an absolute highlight of the trip so far; the scale and the level of detail that went into its creation is astonishing. I highly recommend this documentary about it if you want to know more: Soviet Paradise: restorers re-discover the magnificence of Stalin-era architecture

Nearby are some other fascinating soviet-era sights:

The Socialist-Modernist ‘Hotel Cosmos’

Vera Mukhina’s staggeringly huge ‘Worker and Kolkhoz Woman’

The ‘Monument to the Conquerors of Space’, which sits atop the Cosmonaut Museum.

Day 5:

The Muzeon Sculpture Park and the New Tretyakov Gallery, without a doubt one of the best art galleries I’ve ever visited (I love the Russian Avante Garde, and the New Tretyakov has one of the best collections of this genre in the world). The interior architecture is as compelling as the collections, and the temporary exhibition on Vasily Vereshagin was an absolute blockbuster of a show.

Below: A few details of The New Tretyakov’s amazing interior

The hip Red October Quarter, home to loads of hip galleries, cafes and restaurants and this huge statue of Peter the Great. I walked from there across the river to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and up to the Kremlin, where the traffic was stopped for a a huge motorcade… I’m fairly sure it was Mr Putin himself, given the size of the operation.

Below: Red October Quarter, The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour & The Statue of Peter the Great.

I dined at an awesome dumpling restaurant called Lepim e Varim, which was one of the best eateries of the trip so far. Not only was the food great but the decor was super quirky (the toilet is through an old wardrobe) and everything is served on cute enamelware.

After dinner I made a failed attempt to see the Narkomfin Building, an amazing example of constructivist architecture, which I went to an excellent talk about at the Calvert 22 Foundation back in London. I knew the building was being restored but I hadn’t realised it would be completely covered in hoardings and scaffold, so none of it was visible. Sad times. I brought my awesome Blue Crow Media ‘Constructivist Moscow’ map with me, but this was the only building I had time to go and see. Another thing to do on another trip. Honestly I think I could spend a year in Moscow and still not be done with it.

Day 6:

Headed to the Arbat for lunch at MY-MY (moo moo), one branch of a cafeteria chain which I’d been to on my first visit to Moscow. It’s perfect for cheap, tasty and filling Russian food.

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The afternoon was spent strolling between the graves of Russia’s great, good and not so good at the Novodevichy Cemetery, where past presidents lie alongside writers, artists and military leaders. The graves span a huge and eccentric variety of design styles, and it makes for a really interesting excursion. Unfortunately there’s no map in English – maps.me has a few of the most-visited graves pinpointed but it might be wise to do some research first, especially if you can’t read cyrillic. A visitor’s guide/map would be a brilliant addition, and I’m sure visitors wouldn’t mind paying for it.

Below: Yeltsin’s grave, Khrushchev’s grave

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Below: Some other interestingly designed gravestones

The last stop of the evening was the Moscow State University building, a huge, Stalin-era, wedding-cake of a concoction. As much as I dislike everything Stalinist architecture stood for, it’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer scale of this architectural monolith.

It was with a heavy heart that I left Moscow, but the rest of my Russian adventure didn’t disappoint. Stay tuned for the next installment!

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