After more than two and a half weeks in the country, let me sketch a short summary of our experience. I also try to provide some advice for others planning to go on a similar trip.
Archive for the ‘Europe’ Category
If you think, an English breakfast is heavy, you have probably not experienced a Russian one yet. You start off nicely with a Kasha, a porridge which can be made of different things, oats, semolina, even rice. Then, you’ll probably go on with more serious stuff, such as an omelet with mushrooms and ham, bliny (the local pancakes), or something fried, such as fried dough balls for example. In hotels with buffets, you’ll also find salads, soups, and other hot dishes such as meat balls. We’ve even encountered fried liver once.
After the first night in the train we arrived in Nizhny Novgorod. Six in the morning is a bit too early for anything so we decided to just wait a bit in the waiting room of the station. The place is a bit spartan but very well kept, the cleaning ladies passing regularly (even while we were there). Around eight we decided to move and take a tram to cross the Oka river and reach the center of the town. Nizhny Novgorod is a very nice town, the third (or fourth) in size in Russia with 1.5 million people. The walk along the Bolshaya Pokrovskaya is pretty pleasant (and a bit reminiscent of the Arbat in Moscow). The street is lively, and populated by a few statues and loudspeakers diffusing music (we found this to be pretty common in Russia: in many parks, squares and walking streets, music is constantly present). We had a very nice breakfast in an English pub (which was I think the only place where we could eat something before nine) and then went to the local post office to use one of their two computers and get an internet connection to check our mails and update the blog (geek note: we have prepared two USB keys loaded with portable apps and with all the passwords. So far we’ve been more or less lucky with it: for example, at the post the system is so locked up that one is forced to use their internet explorer). The Bolshaya Pokrovskaya ends on one side at the entrance of the local Kremlin which has an impressive view on the Volga river. From there one easily reaches the Assumption church and its golden onion domes.
The next stop was the Stroganov church whose crown-shaped golden roof could have easily figured in a Disney movie. When we entered the church a couple was getting married. It’s only a pity that it was forbidden to take pictures: the crowns they were wearing were quite a view. The Nevsky cathedral on the other side of the Oka river proved to be a bit of a disappointment: it definitely looks better from far, like a background painting.
By this time we were completely exhausted: arriving at six in the morning and walking all day had proven to be quite hard on our legs (more on this later). Which is why we were extremely happy to realize that the square in front of the station hosts a big mall, with a cafe invitingly named “divan”. It was here that we had dinner and waited for the next train that would have lead us to Ekaterinburg.
Somehow I had had a completely wrong idea about Ekaterinburg. I thought it was a nice, historical town. But you can’t find historical buildings at all – in fact, it was founded only in 1723 by tsar Peter and its historical core were a dam at the river Iset and an iron forge.
Also today it is mainly an industrial town which lives on the mineral reserves of the Ural and became big through WWII weapon industry. But it is a town that is doing well – everywhere modern buildings are growing towards the sky.
The day of our visit was a nice Sunday with pleasant warm weather. We first walked towards the “old center”, the above described dam, the “Plotinka”. At a cafe by the water we had a Shashlik. Then we headed to the probably biggest attraction of the town, the Church of Blood which was erected at the site where the last tsar and his family had been killed. The church is visible from far, crowned by a large golden dome. Inside, old ladies bow and cross themselves in front of the Romanov’s (now all elevated to saints) commemorative plates.
Later on, we strolled back to the city center, where Ekaterinburg’s numerous youth was promenading. They seem quite well off these days, all sporting modern cell phones and compact digital cameras. In general I noticed that the price level in Russia is now in general at the usual European height (contrary to my experience 11 years ago, when everything was essentally for free for a Western tourist). All the fashion labels you can find in Western towns are here, too, even though many shops still seem suspiciously empty. Also new shiny shopping centers are appearing. Everything is there for the consumer, only the consumers themselves seem to be a bit missing. But they’re definitely getting there. Also Ferrero seems to be investing in the Russian market – were were offered a big box of “Raffaello” sweets for free when crossing a small park.
Our day in Ekaterinburg was on the whole very pleasant, even though the city itself is not an architectural beauty.
We had our first proper 20 hour Russian train experience.
People have this very adventurous notion of travelling on the trans-siberian railway. Even though this might destroy our adventurous image, let me say some things about the Russian trains.
Of course, it all depends on the train, because there are very many different types. But at least when you travel 2nd class, the trains are very comfortable. Apart from the 4 berths, there is a small table with table cloth in each compartment. Tea cups and hot water are provided for free.
Furthermore, these trains are much cleaner than European night trains. This is because each wagon is under the personal responsibility of a Provodnitsa. She passes from time to time to clean the bathroom and even passes with a vacuum cleaner through the wagon. (Against common belief, we have also found plenty of toilet paper at our disposal. Only later in the day, it might make sense to bring some spare paper.) Also the travellers themselves show much more discipline in keeping their train clean, after all they have to remain there for extended times.
The compartments hide a lot of well-thought comfort which can at first only be discovered by observing more experienced fellow travellers. What looks like an innocent bolster in fact contains small cupboards and a rail to dry your towel on.
Also the steps to climb up to the upper bed fold away so nicely that we first couldn’t find them. The luggage can mostly fit under the bottom berths, which one can fold up. There is even some kind of luggage box built in from which nothing can be removed as long as you are on the bed.
We traveled on the Nr. 56 “firmenny” (which means a better type) train “Yenisey” this time, where also linnen, towels, toothbrushes and newspapers were provided. Even our lunch in the dining car was included in the price!
The ride was quite relaxing. we’ve seen a lot of trees, birches and pine and pines and birches and in between, small wooden houses with painted windows.
We shared the compartment with two researchers from the chemical industry, who were quite conversant in English. Especially one of them never tired of talking. We also met two young guys who were chemical engineers from Yekaterinburg, and who were even so friendly to take us to our Hotel by car.
Other foreigners apart from ourselves we have not yet spotted on the trains.
Keeping the blog updated daily is not possible: even if an internet connection seems to be possible from any post office (and it’s quite cheap, for 40 Rub/hour), some of the days we spend in the train. Which means that now I have to catch up with the last three days.
We spend the 26th in Moscow: clearly one can’t expect to visit such a place in just one day and in fact we had decided since the beginning to just consider it as a technical stop, just to get the tickets and
catch the first train. After a big breakfast (which also provided a couple of sandwiches for lunch) we went to the Kazanskiy vokzal (train station) to get the e-ticket we had ordered through the agency. I
don’t think a lot of people do what we are doing. At least judging from the expression of the lady at the counter. She was at first pleased to see a photo of her booth on the printouts we brought with
us, then surprised (and amused) by how many tickets we had, concentrated to get everything right and then plainly laughing when Susanne had to sign one after the other the sixteen receipts. Well, we’re as crazy as I thought: it’s reassuring.
As I said already it’s not like you can expect to visit Moscow in one day. Still, being there you should at least go to the red square and the Kremlin. And I always wanted (for some strange form of curiosity)
to visit Lenin’s mausoleum. For the red square no problem, the rest of the plan went a bit so so. Mental note: always check the opening times before going to a tourist attraction. Turns out that the mausoleum can only be visited between 10.00 and 13.00 and that the Kremlin is closed to the public on Thursday. Guess what: we arrived there on Thursday at 12.55. Result: a quick change of schedule was needed. Then we decided to go to see the Arbat, a very nice walk among cafes, souvenir shops and mainly a street market. The weather wasn’t great (it also rained a bit), which I guess explains why there were not too many
stands. Still, with the sun rays a singing lady appeared together with her guitarist husband and a number of artists started making portraits of the tourists. After a cake and a tea it was time to head back to the hotel to fetch the luggage. A word on Moscow metro: it’s by far the nicest I’ve ever seen. Instead of the usual tiling they used marble, some of the lights could easily figure in a theater and everything is kept really well. In spite of the huge number of people passing all the time, the place is extremely clean. No comparison with Paris or New York. We missed having escalators in the station close to our hotel, but that’s just because we were a bit out of town. The bigger and more central stations are pretty deep down and connected to the entrance by long and fast escalators where essentially everyone stands on his side to let people in a rush pass. In a word, remarkable. After a quick dinner at the hotel we took a cab to the
station. I’m not ashamed to say we were both excited at the perspective to start our actual journey when we entered the first train, from Moscow to Nizhny Novgorod…