From Moscow to Ulan-Ude: Part 2 of my Trans-Mongolian adventures.

Nizhny-Novgorod

Leaving Moscow was a wrench; it’s one of my favourite cities and I felt like I still had so much to see. I was excited to get further into Russia though, and the first stop was only a couple of hours journey from the capital.

I had planned to get to Nizhny-Novgorod via Vladimir (one of the golden ring towns), but I managed to miss my train by foolishly going to the wrong station and then had a protracted hour of stressfulness trying to find the right window to buy another ticket. Luckily the World Cup volunteers stationed in the ticket hall helped me out, and eventually I managed to get a new ticket and a yummy takeaway from теремок, my favourite Russian fast food chain, which I chowed down on the swish new train.

I arrived in Nizhny and spent probably 2 hours looking for my hostel. Why I didn’t buy a Russian sim card and/or download an offline map I’ll never know, but I couldn’t seem to get an uber using the McDonald’s wifi and then walked in totally the wrong direction for quite some time. The main road also requires using an underpass to cross, which meant dragging my bag up and down the stairs more times than I can count.

Below: Bizarre statues opposite the station, and a beautiful cat outside a shop.

It was all something of a palaver, and I was glad when I finally arrived and settled in. At first it seemed as though the hostel was in the middle of nowhere, but I quickly figured out the metro system to take me into the city. It’s a beautiful place, the kremlin is fantastic and the views over the River Volga are breathtaking.

Here’s what I got up to:

I explored The Kremlin, a fortress which contains two amazing art museums, The Arsenal (a brilliant contemporary gallery) and The State Art Museum, which has a fine collection of Russian masterpieces. I was very lucky to have a guided tour from a curator at the State Art Museum, which I think was because I was one of the only visitors that day, most of the city being swept up by World Cup fever.

The Arsenal had an excellent exhibition about the development of the city during the soviet period (when it was called Gorky), including lots of original plans and a huge wooden model of the city, which you can see below.

The World Cup Fan Zone, where I watched part of a match and got a free fan photo. I still have no idea how football works, but it was fun to see so many happy and excited people from all over the world.

I ate at Kinza, an awesome Georgian restaurant. Georgian is one of my favourite cuisines, and I tucked into a huge khachapuri (cheese bread) and a bowl of lobio, a yummy bean stew.

The Trade Fair Building, a huge pre-revolutionary edifice near the World Cup Stadium which now hosts a bizarre but impressive permanent exhibition called ‘Russia my Russia’. The same exhibition can be found in other cities including Moscow, and the one in Nizhny-Novgorod is split into two themes, requiring separate tickets (soviet Russia and the history of the tsars).

I opted for the history of the tsars and received an English Language audioguide which gave in-depth information about each tsar as you move between rooms. The odd thing about the exhibition is that there are no objects, everything in the exhibition is either a projection on a screen or a touch screen interactive. All of the touch screens are in Russian so you do need the audioguide, but the whole experience is certainly impressive, if an exercise in patriotism.

Below: The Trade Fair Building and adjacent Lenin statue.

The cablecar over the River Volga, which I got to by walking around the Kremlin and taking a long route along the riverbank past the Chkalov Steps, a monument to the Soviet-era test pilot and up through a soviet-era military park. The cablecar goes to another city across the river, but I bought a return and did a round trip. The views over the river are absolutely amazing, and you can see some great riverside camping spots.

Below: The view from the cablecar.

Nizhny absolutely captured my heart, and seeing campers, wooden lodges and banyas by the river made me want to go back to enjoy more of the Volga. I also met two wonderful Russian ladies on the train to Yekaterinburg who had taken Volga cruises and who showed me the photographs of their adventures, which added to my desire to visit this lovely city again someday.

Yekaterinburg

The weather wasn’t as gloriously sunny in Yekaterinburg as it had been in Nizhny-Novgorod. It was very windy and rather grey, which was a shame as it’s another lovely city with some great pre and post-revolutionary architecture and pretty riverside parks.

One of the best ways to explore the city is through the Red Line Walking Tour, a literal red line painted on the streets which takes you past the cities most famous sights (and some more obscure ones). There’s an online audioguide you can download and you can also pick up a copy of the map at the tourist information centre. It’s a good way to see the city and the line is easy to follow.

Below: The Red Line.

I spent several hours at The Boris Yeltsin Centre, a new, multipurpose arts space on the bank of the river dedicated to Russia’s first post-soviet president. There are cafes, shops and an exhibition space but the main draw is a huge museum dedicated to the man himself. It’s divided into sections which deal with Yeltsin’s early political career, his confrontation with Gorbachev, the events leading up to the fall of the soviet union and the years between then and the start of Putin’s presidency.

It’s an interesting but one sided museum, which I personally felt portrayed Yeltsin as a saviour and glossed over issues including his alcohol problems and supposed womanising. The museum also skipped around issues such as the war in Chechnya, and I couldn’t help but feel that it demonised Gorbachev for the slow pace of glasnost rather than looking at wider issues in the soviet system. Nevertheless the displays and interactives are very well presented and they do give a good insight into Russia’s political system and the country’s recent history.

The Church on Spilled Blood (arguably Yekaterinburg’s most famous attraction) also has a link to Yeltsin; it was built on the site that the Romanov’s were murdered on, the original house where it occurred being demolished during Yeltsin’s time as city governor. A church now stands on the site, the name spilled blood referring to the blood spilled on the site during the murder of the Tsar and his family. I was hoping for a bit more information on the Romanov connection, but it was certainly an interesting place to visit and a site of reverence for many.

Yekaterinburg feels like a city that reflects Russia’s huge evolution in the last hundred years, and it’s a good place to scrape away at this history. The 19th C wooden merchant’s houses sit alongside the stately edifices of high stalinism; the church on spilled blood signifying the end of Imperial Russia and the Yeltsin Centre symbolising the end of communism.

Novosibirsk

I was fortunate to make friends in Novosibirsk, with a German guy and Russian girl. We ended up exploring the city together, eating some excellent meals (it was so much easier with a native Russian speaker!) and playing many games of durak, a Russian card game that Jenia and Paul taught me.

It’s another city centred on a river, and as with most other large Russian cities it has an excellent and easy to use metro system with beautifully ornate stations. There are also some great parks and some cute old wooden buildings, plus a lovely riverbank walk replete with fairgrounds and ice-cream sellers.

The first site we visited was the slightly ramshackle USSR Museum, which is really just a collection of paraphernalia from the period divided into broad themes such as kitchenware, household gadgets and a recreated police office. There isn’t any interpretation but the interesting thing about the museum is that you can handle the objects, which makes for some good photo opportunities. Calling it a museum is a bit of a stretch but is a fun half hour, and it’s certainly a good way to see how a typical home may have looked during the soviet period.

I was so excited to visit the West Siberian Railway History Museum and as it’s quite a trek out of the city I was disappointed to find only a very small number of the trains were open to explore when we visited. The two carriages that were open were still really interesting, one was a very old seated carriage with wooden bench seats and a coal furness and one a prison train carriage, which was a conversion of the type of soviet-era carriages I’d been travelling in on my journey, to include cells where the beds usually are, with metal bunks and a food hatch.

I’d spotted the Ob Sea on the map but didn’t think I’d have time to visit. We ended up there quite by accident after taking the wrong train back to the city from the Railway Museum, and it ended up being a beautiful mistake. It’s a huge lake with a beach, surrounded by woods and even though I didn’t have a towel or swimming costume I still had a dip in my undies. The train ride back was a very surreal experience; the seats were wooden and the carriages full of young and very warm-looking soldiers, complete with huge guns and napsacks.

Irkutsk & Listvyanka

Irkutsk is a really cute little city with lots of gorgeous old wooden houses (the kind with decorative window frames and bright paintwork, like gingerbread cottages) and plenty of museums to explore. I only had one night there, and spent my short visit checking out the small City History Museum and eating delicious pelmeni from Real Zames Pelmeni and an iced tea from Double B coffee.

The next day I planned to take a boat to Listvyanka, but sadly the timetable I found online was out of date, and I missed the only boat. I consoled myself with a stodgy canteen meal and bought a ticket on a rickety minibus instead. I arrived in Listvyanka in the middle of a gale, and as beautiful as Lake Baikal was I looked and felt like a particularly miserable drowned rat. I was followed to my guesthouse by a huge wet dog, who promptly came into the owner’s garden and set on their dog, which may have been a wolf and was at least 3 times bigger than the intruder. Luckily the guesthouse and the owners were lovely and they eventually managed to shoo out my stray friend, whilst I warmed myself up with coffee and lots and lots of chocolate biccies.

Below: Lovely Lake Baikal.

Listvyanka could be beautiful, but sadly it’s like the Russian equivalent of Brean Sands. There were lots of sunburnt, drunk Russians and bemused Chinese tour groups, tacky looking attractions such as a seal aquarium and lots of expensive excursions by boat. After an hour of wandering about on my first full day I realised there really wasn’t that much to do, so I took it as an opportunity to relax and chill out.

The food options were also pretty limited but I found an amazing Georgian restaurant in the town’s biggest hotel, where I enjoyed several delicious meals of dumplings and sea buckthorn tea. The hotel also had a banya and I decided to book it, not realising I would have the whole place to myself. It wasn’t as hot as some of the other banyas I’ve used, but it was so nice to pamper myself.

The last day in Listvyanka was without a doubt the best. I took a minibus to the Taltsi Museum, somewhere that I’d really been looking forward to visiting. Outdoor architectural museums are one of my favourite genres of museum, and having visited Kizhi Island a few years ago I have a huge love for Russian wooden architecture. Taltsi was beautiful and far larger than I expected.

It’s on the edge of the lake and the buildings include churches, farmhouses and recreated settlements of local indigenous people such as the Buryats. There are also water mills, a wooden fortress and lots of local crafts for sale, as well as Cossack singers and the opportunity to dress up in traditional Russian clothing, for a small fee. Unfortunately the lovely lady who dressed me up didn’t have the best photography skills, but here are a few nice pictures of me looking wistful and Russian (and a bonus pic of the lady’s finger in the corner):

Ulan-Ude

Ulan-Ude was my last Russian City, and it was only a quick one night stopover. I only had a few hours to explore the city, so I opted to make my first stop the ‘Largest Lenin’s Head Statue still in Existence’, which was genuinely one of the reasons I wanted to visit the city. It was so big you could have landed a small helicopter on his jutting chin.

The centre of the city is very much an example of high Stalinist architecture and soviet city planning, with a huge square in front of Lenin’s head, designed for military parades and Victory Day celebrations.

My last stop for the day was the small historical museum, it only had a few rooms but it was nicely presented and there was even a resident tabby cat. I thoroughly believe every museum should have a feline member of staff.

Below: The city’s main street, the museum and the museum moggie.

Later that afternoon I headed to the station for the penultimate section of my trans-Mongolian journey, to Ulan-Ude. The train was a rather rickety old Chinese model which still had Moscow to Peking written on the side.

Sadly this journey and the final one (Ulan Bator to Beijing) had to be in a second class carriage, as they don’t run third class carriages on that route. I found the cabins a bit small and claustrophobic and end up feeling nostalgic for all the smelly feet, small crying children and snoring old men in string vests.

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