St. Petersburg is Moscow’s flashy and pretty younger sister. While Moscow wears drab colors on her Soviet buildings, her sister prefers pastel colors on her Western European-style ones. Unlike her uptight, somewhat repressed sister, St. Pete’s revels in her winding canals, good food and her extravagant displays of money and power.
As N and I made our way from the train station to our Airbnb apartment, we immediately noticed a difference in the mood of this Russian city compared to Moscow. It immediately felt safer for us as lesbians (we saw many queer people during our stay), the people in general were friendlier and most importantly, there were signs in English EVERYWHERE.
This made things a lot easier. Gone were the days where we had to stand in front of a store trying to decipher the Cyrillic so we could find a drugstore (аптека) or a hotel (гостиница), or go through menu items so we wouldn’t order yet another dish with potatoes (картошка) or cabbage (капуста). We were able to walk down the street without constantly trying to read the Cyrillic because we had no other options, and it was such a relief.
However, English signs in a non-English-speaking city also means hordes of tourists. We felt like we weren’t really in Russia anymore, and while it was a relief to have made it safely across, it was also a little sad to know that from now on, it would get more and more touristy the further we went west. We knew going into this trip that we were traveling through Europe in the height of the tourist season, but we were spoiled by being one of very few tourists going across Russia from the east (most go from west to east), and suddenly we had to share Russia with the rest of the world.
And share with the world we did. Robert, N and I waited for over an hour in one of two lines to get into the Hermitage, Catherine the Great’s Winter Palace and currently home to painting masterpieces from around the world. You’d think that Russia’s most famous museum would have more than two ticket windows but no. The woman working our counter – with a huge, classy lily tattooed on her chest – could not give a shit that there were hundreds of people lined up, anxiously waiting to see great art. So if you go, go right when it opens or buy advance tickets online. It might be a little more expensive, but it’ll end up saving you a ton of time.
If you want to see over-the-top, St. Petersburg is your city for two of the gaudiest, completely overdone places: the Hermitage and Peterhof. I’ll get to the latter in a minute. The Winter Palace is gilded everywhere: on the ceilings, doors, walls, furniture… Decorative tables, chairs and wall-hangings are also on display to show Catherine II’s excessive lifestyle.
We woke up to rapid knocking on our door. Vladimir stood outside. “Moskva.”, he said gruffly and I looked at the time. 4:30am. What in the…? We had an hour and a half before we were scheduled to pull into the city. Our sheets were pulled out from under us as Natasha and Vladimir rushed to get as much cleaning done as possible. They couldn’t even wait until the passengers were off the train. Thanks for the first class service, guys.
Moscow: One of the biggest cities in the world – boasting a population of 12 million – and the wealthiest city in Russia. Compared to Tokyo and New York City, the people are spread out a bit more, but it is still a fast-paced and money-driven city. As many others have said before, Moscow is the most “Russian” big city in Russia. The people are stoic, there is a heavy police and military presence everywhere you go, and the all-business, ever-symmetrical Soviet-era buildings add to the tense ambiance.
We braved the Moscow subway system to get to our hotel, and the subway is what this post will be about. Seriously, there is nothing else that really interested me about the city besides the unexpected beauty of the Moscow subway stations. The Red Square. Different, but it kind of sucked because there was a huge Euro Pop concert being set up while we were there, and euro dance music being blasted in our ears really spoiled the mood.
After riding kupe and platzkart for the first two legs of our Trans-Siberian trip, we decided that we had earned and deserved an upgrade on the last and longest leg of the trip, Irkutsk to Moscow, a 76-hour marathon style train ride. The two first-class tickets cost a pretty penny, almost double the price of kupe, but they were worth every red ruble.
We left for the train station at the asscrack of dawn since I don’t like messing around with Russian transportation. Since Irkutsk is one of the major stops on the route the train stops there for at least 30 minutes and when we arrived at the platform our train was already waiting for us. There were two carriage attendants to greet us with the expected non-smiling Russian face and after we presented our tickets and passports they made us wait a few minutes on the platform with our heavy backpacks while they prepared our cabin. Once we entered our cabin we could immediately see the luxurious difference between first-class (spalny vagon), and our previous platzkart ride. The spalny vagon cabins look like the kupe cabins but they only have two lower berths instead of two on the bottom and two on top. The sheets were pure white and clearly of a higher thread count, which was more suited to our first-class tastes. We even had two fluffy pillows each! I also noticed that we were provided with wooden hangers because everyone knows that first-class people need to hang their shit up. No more wire hangers!
We stumbled off of the train gasping for fresh air sans body odor of unshowered military boys and found ourselves in our first big city in Russia: Irkutsk. I hadn’t expected such a sprawling city in the middle of Siberia, and we were excited to see what it had to offer. We had booked a room at the slightly pricier Angara Hotel for the first night so we could unwind a bit. This ended up being a mistake, because besides paying $150 for the room, the amenities were scarce, our appliances were broken and the staff was totally and utterly useless. I mean, they couldn’t give a shit at all about anything (apparently this is the Russian way, confirmed by quite a few Russians), including helping us. But we were able to get some rest, do some laundry (we have laundry bar soap and my trusty rope from Korea’s eMart that we use as a clothesline) and we were recharged for the next few days in the city.
The next day, we walked through town to the Irkutsk train station, where we walked from the end of one line to another at the ticket sales area because the concept of lining up in an orderly fashion is a foreign concept here and if you give the slightest indication of hesitation, the Russians will cut in front of you. Our godsend was a friendly police officer who spent a good 15 minutes with us, trying to help us buy our tickets on a machine.
For many foreigners, riding the Trans-Siberian rail across the vast Russian countryside is a once-in-a-lifetime travel adventure. Most of us have romanticized visions of sitting in a cozy and comfortable train car while idly staring at the passing scenery. If you’re really a dreamer you might even have fantasies of meeting a kindly Russian who speaks accented but perfect English and she’ll be an absolutely perfect cabin mate for the next seven days. She’ll be easy on the eyes, smell nice and even share her black caviar, homemade blinis, and vodka with you. And, of course, she’ll have an advanced degree in Russian history and enlighten you with her vast knowledge of her country. Before you know it, you’re at the end of your 7-day, 9,289km trip and you and Tatiana exchange emails and promise to keep in touch.
Keep dreaming, silly foreigner.
The first multi-day stop on our Trans-Siberian trip was in the small city of Ulan Ude, the capital of the Buryat Republic and the home of Tibetan Buddhism in Russia. Even though religion was banned in communist Soviet Union, Stalin allowed the Buryats to maintain and practice Buddhism to thank the Buryatia for their help defending the country during World War II. Up until 1990, the city was closed to visitors due to nearby strategic military posts, but it’s quickly becoming a favorite stop on the Trans-Siberian route due to the uniqueness of the culture and a couple of attractions that are definitely worthwhile. The city itself is one of the poorer cities in Russia, but it is quickly changing. Even though the Buryats are a minority in the city, their presence is very apparent in the food and culture. Since the Buryats have more Asian features, it almost felt like we were in an Asian city rather than a Russian city.
The next day, we got our bearings and walked over to check out the world’s largest Lenin head sculpture in the middle of the city. The massive head is 7.7 meters tall and weighs 42 tons and it’s awesome to see in person. There wasn’t much else to do besides stare at it for a few minutes and snap some pictures like proper tourists. We noticed that it must be a legal requirement to get at least a few wedding pictures there because there were no less than three bridal parties taking pictures with Grandfather Lenin.
Day 1: Into the Wild
With my heart in my throat, N and I boarded the Rossiya train for the first leg of our journey to Ulan-Ude, the capital of the Buryat Republic smack in the middle of Siberia. The kupé (second class) cabin was surprisingly modern and unlike anything we had seen in photos in guidebooks and on blogs. The toilets I had been nervously anticipating ended up being like an airplane toilet; not the best situation, but at least they weren’t the old lever-style toilets which flushed the contents of the bowl directly onto the tracks below.
The first few hours passed quietly, with only the two of us in the cabin for four. My fever was back and I crawled up to my top bunk hopped up on aspirin and passed out. I had expected to be constantly jostled around in a loud, screeching train so I was surprised by how quiet it actually was. In the afternoon, we were greeted by “Ni hao!”s as a new cabinmate and her husband boarded the train at one of the small towns that we stopped at. After kisses goodbye, our cabinmate’s husband left and we were off again.