A small train ride from Mongolia to St Petersburg

Yes, the heading is a joke because it isn’t a small train ride but if you haven’t worked it out yet, l was on the trans-mongolian train. It is the same as the trans-siberian and the only difference it the direction the train changes at Irkutsk.

Train Leg 1:

I had a late train out on Mongolia at 8:50pm on the 4th November to head to Irkutsk in Russia. I had a 2nd class cabin booked for this leg, which l found out later you can only take 2nd class (middle option) as there is no 3rd class option (the lowest) out of Mongolia. I shared my cabin with 2 ladies from Norway who had just been working in China for the last 3 months and were excited to be going home to their own beds which l had to laugh about and then sadly think about the comfort of my own bed after being away for so long. The train ride was straight forward but was going to take 1 and a half days to get to Irkutsk mainly with a lot of the hours being spent at the border crossing. Our border crossing took combined about 10 hours.

We arrived at the Mongolian border side at about 4am and had to wait until 9am for customs, so when l got off the train was quite unusual to see our carriage sitting alone with no engine or other carriages hooked up. The reason was simply they only needed one carriage to take across the border and a Russian engine must come pick up the carriage. We were cleared by customs at about 10:30am and we were off again for the next 30 minutes where we stopped again and this time for the Russian border control to inspect everything and they are stricter than the Mongolians, this time having dogs and photography equipment on the train to see who is who. We then left and headed for Irkutsk.

Irkutsk: A small town situated on the east side of Russia in Siberia. It is located next to the biggest lake in Russia called Lake Bikal which everyone mainly visits the city for the lake… except me. I booked only 1 night in the town and didn’t have much time to get out and see the lake so l decided to spend my time in town and experience Russia for the first time. The city alone is beautiful and it offers some nice churches and a tourist route they call the green line. The green line is a painted line on the footpath that takes you around to all the main sights of the town. I spent some time in an art museum of a famous Russian artist however l can’t remember his name. I struggled to find any places that serve traditional Russian food in town and there is no night life however l wouldn’t have been able to talk to anyone due to the fact in Siberia, not many people speak English.

Tips:

  • I was told the time to visit Lake Bikal (if you don’t go in summer) is in March when it is completely frozen over and you can ice-skate and conduct other activities on it.
  • I bought a sim card in Irkutsk for the whole country for 300rub ($6aud) which was unlimited data

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one of the mainchurches in Irkutsk

Train Leg 2: My first 3rd class experience. The carriage is open beds and each carriage holds 52 people but you only get 2 power sockets per carriage, but 2 toilets and a hot water urn for your beloved minute noodles that will become your diet for any leg of the trains. Here l was offered vodka by a local for the first time and this was more than once while he tried to explain to the young Russian lady next to him that l am Australian. That was about as exciting as this leg became except for when l went to sleep l had every bed around me full, however when l woke, l had 1 lady left. It seems everyone just disappeared overnight, don’t worry, they didn’t, they just departed at a stop earlier in the morning. This trip again was approximately another 36 hour ride.

Novosibirsk: My next stop along the route was here in bigger than Irkutsk yet still a smaller city than most Novosibirsk. Everything that you would most likely want to see in the city is situated along the main road or if not, then most likely a maximum 10-minute walk off it. The town has a famous arts centre with a square in front of it named after Lenin, a central park of its own where the fountains would most likely be turned on in the summer however most days that l was there, the temperature was an average -15 degrees Celsius. The city also has a main church like all the other cities of Russia, apologies as l cannot remember the name but l couldn’t visit it anyway due to it being completely locked up while l was there. One place l do recommend for a drink and a good night is Truba jazz bar. Cheap beers and good music to relax to out of the cold, they also serve food which l was told by the other hostel people l went with that it was tasty. I met some of the most genuine people throughout Siberia, for example when l ordered a taxi from the hostel to the train station, it turned up 5 minutes late and the reception guy paid for my taxi, given the cost wasn’t much but the thought and offer was a pleasure.

Tips:

  • Be careful in Novosibirsk, because l accounted one place at dinner where the place had no English translation and the man charged me extra because he knew l couldn’t put the right price to things on the board. How did l work it out? Russian keyboard on my phone + matching letters + google translate = answers

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Lenin Square in Novosibirsk

Train leg 3: This time the train ride was shorter at only approximately 15 hours, it was a nice change. I had booked 3rd class again which was empty until about 1am when we stopped at Perm and what seemed like a million-people piled onto the train but the worst thing about it was the noise from people getting on but when you book 3rd class, you really can’t be picky. There wasn’t much else about this train ride except the start. I arrived at Novosibirsk with what l thought was enough time to get onto the train, but without making it to obvious, the train terminal you arrive at it different to the one you get the long-distance trains from. The other terminal is only about 200m away but they don’t make it an obvious thing.

Yekaterinburg: One of the largest cities in Russia outside of the obvious Moscow and St Petersburg and situated close to the border of Asia and Europe. This city was one of my favourite stops and l personally would have liked to stay an extra day. I arrived around midday and decided to get some washing done which wasn’t dry by the time l went out and when you’re in -15 Siberia, it isn’t that much fun having damp pants. My first night l went to a Kontinental hockey game (KHL) as it was a recommend one thing l must do while in Russia.

The journey there was easy and while google maps was helping the conductor lady on the tram was persistent and wasn’t going to let me walk to the arena by myself, so for the next 20-minute journey, she walked up and down the train trying to find someone to walk with me so l didn’t get lost. She found one lady who could speak a little bit of English and she was lovely too as she was going to wait with me at the ticket line to help with translation but l didn’t want to hold her up from her husband and told her l could manage. I don’t know the rules however their l am, sitting in the cheapest seats for 250rub ($5.50aud) googling the rules, l gradually picked up on what was happening. Getting home, l decided to get an Uber as the temperatures were dropping fast and my phone only had 40% battery which l thought would be enough but it was that cold that my phone was using more battery to keep warm and l was losing about 5% every 5 or so minutes.

Day 2 I went for a walk around town and started with the Boris Yeltsin museum in the Boris Yeltsin centre (Yekaterinburg is the home town of Boris), which l highly recommend to anyone to go see as it’s in both English and Russian and it was a great insight to the country’s history. I proceeded into town, visited downtown, Dr Scotch pub (which is a Scottish pub but was recommended on lonely planet for some unknown reason as it is just a pub), the Beatles monument (they never visited the city but it has 3 whole walls dedicated to them), the largest tower in Yekaterinburg that you can go to the top for 360 degree views and the famous cathedral called Church on the Blood where it known that a Tsar royal family was executed.

As l said, l had run out of time, but there are a few more things you can see in the area like a monument about 12kms out of the city marking the border of Asia and Europe.

Tips:

  • The tower cost 300rub to go up and while it does get you entry into a museum in the tower as well, it’s all in Russian so there wasn’t much point
  • There is a red walking line in the city that you can follow and to get more information, stop by the information centre where the lady piled me up with more maps and books l could possibly carry.

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Church on the blood – Yekaterinburg

Train Leg 4: The best train leg of my journey without any challenge. I hopped onto the train at 6:30am and this time l had booked 2nd class for the 24-hour journey to Vladimir. I accidentally woke the one of man up in my 4-person cabin but he wasn’t worried and went to the bathroom, so while he was gone, l unpacked and put my cup on the table, he came back, saw my cup and proceeded to reach behind his pillow, pull out vodka and pour it into my cup. He didn’t speak much English so for the next 8 hours we had a very broken conversation, but l found out he was a hunter and he had me try some salty pork he had killed and cured himself, oh and about another 10 shots of vodka. I thought he had run out about 5 shots in between us but he had a new bottle sitting in his bag. Another man joined our cabin later in the day who could speak English and he translated between us where they asked me questions about if l liked Russia and the unusual one for me if l preferred Trump or Clinton.

We bought some beer at our next major stop and snacks to share and by the time l went to sleep, l was in a very happy place (thank you vodka!). I departed the train early the next morning and was a little sad not to continue along to Moscow.

Vladimir: A very small town situated about 4 hours outside Moscow. You can complete seeing this town in half a day and l only stopped here to see another town and break up the train ride. They town does consist of a main gate that is the centre attraction of the city and a nice church but you must go in the morning otherwise it will be closed.

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Vladimir

Train Leg 5: 4 hours outside of Moscow and was still offered sheets and my own bed space but didn’t need them as l was going to stay awake and take in the final leg of my train ride.

Moscow: I was excited to be here, while the train ride was a great adventure, l could place my bags down for more than 2 days in a row and have a rest. The first night l visited Red Square where the Kremlin is located along with St Basils Cathedral (even though l thought it was in St Petersburg). A walk around the Kremlin walls is possible and you will find the tomb of the unknown soldier which is guarded all year round no matter what temperatures hit Moscow.

Over the next few days’ l visited the Kremlin and the cathedrals inside the grounds plus the armoury which l highly recommend as it is Russia’s biggest collection of gold, silver and items gifted to them over the centuries. It cost 700rub ($14.5aud) but it also comes with a free audio guide so you know what is going on inside but doesn’t include entry to the cathedrals but you walk into them and sometimes the ladies employed to check tickets don’t care so l got to visit a couple of them. I also went to another KHL hockey game, this time to watch CSKA Moscow with 2 kiwis and as they had no idea what was happening, l was more the expert now so l could tell them what was going on and tried to find a bar to have a drink which l found some trendy places that charged 300rub for a simple corona however l did manage to find a bar that served 500ml local craft beers for 190rub ($4aud). Mostly everything in Moscow is located around Red Square and 4 days’ l found where probably too long but everything is my own opinion.

Tips:

  • The metro is Moscow is brilliant and it costs 50rub ($1aud) per ticket to get you anywhere in the city)
  • Moscow is a little like Sydney where it is confusing roads in every direction and navigating can be difficult so if you don’t have a sim card, l recommend leaving Red Square the way you came in otherwise you could think you are walking in the right direction but 30-minutes later be further away than what you started.

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Tsar cannon inside the Kremiln grounds

St Petersburg: My last stop in Russia and the one city l was most excited for. I flew this time from Moscow as l managed to get a ticket for 30euros ($42.50aud). I stayed here for 5 nights which seemed about the correct amount of time. The first night, l went and watched a Zenit St Petersburg Russian Premier league game and bought the ticket for 400rub of a man out front selling his friends membership card for the game and l just handed it back to him once l was in the stadium. Day 2, I visited the Hermitage museum which is ranked in the top 5 largest museums of the world and the price to enter is 600rub but once again a local man approached me and sole me a ticket for 400rub because locals get local price. The Hermitage is nice but l felt that l had seen a lot of it in the Louvre and probably didn’t get a much enjoyment out of it as everyone else.

Over the next few days’ l went on the free walking tour offered in the city which l highly recommend, went to a soviet donut café as their recipe is different to what l was expecting and they are delicious, visited a soviet arcade game museum where most of the machines still work and you can play them.

Tips:

  • The metro is Moscow is brilliant and it costs 35rub ($0.72aud) per token to get you anywhere in the city)
  • It didn’t happen to me, but about 1am in the morning, the bridges over all the islands in StP open so make sure you are on the correct side of them.

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St Issacs in St Petersburg

I stayed in hostels all the way through-out Russia and have reviewed all of them through the website below.

Irkustk – Ushanka Hostel

Novosibirsk – FunKey Hostel

Yekaterinburg – Hostel R.E.D.

Vladimir – Dostoyevsky Hostel

Moscow – Fasol Hostel

St Petersburg – Soul Kitchen

For more photos, please head to instagram and follow theworldaccordingtoaginger

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