Russia Travel Journal
> How it all began...
We already noticed it during our holiday in Italy, July 2004: we are a little bored of Europe. Very beautiful, those palaces at the water in Venice, really great, that old city-centre of Florence and also in Milan we took a lot of pictures. But we wanted something different, something completely different!
> Our Plan
Asia was our favorite and we would love to see more than one country, so that we could have all kind of impressions of this continent during one single trip. With some vague memories of the Dutch program Peking Express 2004 and the beautiful trainjourney from Floortje for the TV-show Yorin Travel we went searching for information about the Trans Mongolia Express. We became more and more enthousiastic several visits to websites of various tour-operators. Especially the website of Tiara Tours was thorougly examined and several combinations of packages were reviewed. We would have 4 weeks for this journey at the most and we certainly wanted to see something of the countryside of Russia and Mongolia. Eventually we booked really early, in september of this year, for our vacation in 2005 with the Transsiberian Express. We would stay in Moscow for a couple of days, we'd spend a few in Suzdal, a whole week in Mongolia and an entire week in Beijing.
> The journey to Russia
The day of departure wasn't quite a vacation for us. The alarm clock rings at 03.15 and our drive through the dark country of the Netherlands to Schiphol airport begins. We are late for check-in, but luckily we can get window-seats next to each other on both flights from Amsterdam to Vienna and Vienna-Moscow. We take off right on time. Finally we're on our way!
After a quick transfer in Vienna, our plane lands in Moscow late in the afternoon (due to the difference in time). At the end of the stairs, we can join a long line. We find out that the entrance- and departure forms we received in the airplane do need to be filled out. Even though there is more than one counter in use (yes, that was not bad at all to start with) the line doesn't move too fast and we have plenty of time to fill out the forms. Some people have troubles being patient and start a dispute with the lady at the counter. After a stern gaze we get our first stamps in our pasports and on our departure form. We can walk through and... we are in Russia! After what seems to be for ever we finally see our backpack on the conveyor belt, but there is still no sign of our suitcase. As Yvonne gets the first Rubles at the ATM Peter walks around a bit. And there, at the back of the conveyor he finds our suitcase. Some other people who arrived in the same plane are not so lucky: their luggage missed the transfer in Vienna and they can only collect it the next day at the Moscow airport.
At the end of the "green-nothing-to-declare-route" we find our hostess waiting for us. Some minutes later we are all there and we are transported to hotel Izmailovo, one of the concrete, communist-style hotels in Moscow, by several vans. Our lady is, like the other people on the road, driving fast, but secure on the ringroad of Moscow and that's how we arrive in our hotel at 18.30. The ugly outside of the building still looks the same as the buildings we know from the Sovjet time, but the lobby looks daintly and pretty modern. Our room is large, but could use a little redecoration. After a short pittstop we take the subway to the Ulitsa Arbat where we'd like to look around and get ourselves something for diner. At the Moo Moo (easy to find, just look for the huge cow at the door) we have a healthy, delicious and cheap meal.
> Moscow day 1
The next day we find out how great the Russian federation is in creating lines. In the short line at the ticket office of the Kremlin we have to wait for at least 15 minutes, before it's our turn to order tickets. One of the reasons that it takes so long is that we only find out that both desks are open as we are at the front of the line. Nobody notices that the other one is also open, because the glass is so covered with posters. The posters explain only in Russian which tickets you can choose from. A handwritten note in a small corner of the window doesn't make things more clear for us. After some pointing and nodding we get two tickets shown to us with a calculator which says 650. Aha, it costs 650 Rubles, a 1000 note should be enough. But no, it's too much! "No Change!!" is the only thing the lady can say to us. Now we understand why so many people left the ticket office without tickets. Not a single stand in the neighbourhood can change, so we decide to search for an ATM. 15 Minutes later we proudly stand in line again, with our notes of 500 and 100 rubles. Meanwhile the line has become a bit longer. A little later we walk to the ticket checkpoint with our tickets. We are in, is what we think. But that's only because we don't know anything about Russia at all yet. No, we are not allowed to take any bags inside, so we have to go down the stairs, turn to the right and wait in another line, under the bridge, to exchange our bags for a number on a piece of plastic. Just to make sure that we can have fun in this line again, after our visit to the Kremlin, to pick up our bags. How silly we could be to think that the Babuschka's and vodka are the only things Russia is proud of. Well, they should inform us a little better about the great, old fashioned, wonderfull Russian lines!
But than there are no more surprises and even the most fanatic employee can not think of anything to keep us outside any longer. We are inside the Kremlin. The cathedrals and the patriarch's palace are wonderful and the Tsar Bell is huge. Because it took us so long to get in we get a bit hungry soon and we hop into a small cafe inside the Kremlin walls. The familiar sound of "no change" still comes a little unexpected to us, especially as we give only 150 ruble to pay 138. This time we try to hold on and after some angry gazes and sighs we do get our change. After this short stop we look around in the Kremlin a bit more. The security guards are probably no big fans of us, as we ignore the non-walking space some times and once we even walk on the lawn to get some nice pictures. We do get some angry looks, but none of the shrill whistle-signals is meant for us.
We think it's now time to explore the red square, but unfortunately the square is closed today and we can only walk at one side of it. In the GUM we enter some shops, but soon we find out that the trendy clothes are just as expensive as back home. We move on to the St. Basil's Cathedral, just as beautiful inside as outside. The chapels are all wonderfully painted and decorated with shiny materials.
On our way to Gorky Park we order our first blini at one of the markets on the street. We haven't got any idea of what's on the menu, but we point at the deliciously smelling blini, filled with chicken, of the woman next to us. It works. A few seconds later we know it for sure: when we wouldn't hate useless lines as much as we do we'd certainly move to Russia. What a delicious pancakes they have here! From the entrance of the Statue Park across the street at Gork Park we take a picture of the 100 meter high Peter the Great, standing there in the middle of the Moscow river. Actually we planned to pay a visit to the statue park, with statues from the communist time, but that was before we found out that Russians pay 1 Euro and tourists pay more than 5. The park doesn't look so attractive to us anyway, so with lots of enthusiasm we become the last persons in the line at the counter-desk at Gorky Park. But the lady behind this desk knows how things work and only 5 minutes later we walk inside, surrounded by many Russians having fun at the funfair and on the terrace of the beerbank (and in the pond in front of the beerbank). Soon we find out that it's important to walk around with as many pluche animals as you can possibly carry and to walk as cool as you can from one shooting-gallery to another. Somehow there are not many people laughing or even smiling at this place that should garantee some fun. They don't seem to be very happy, those Muscovites.
Again we have a great meal that doesn't cost too much, this time at "Propaganda". They sure know how to prepare food here. When diner is finished the tables will be moved over and you can dance to the music of (mostly) well-known dj's. We don't wait for this to happen, we've had enough for today.
> Moscow day 2
The second day we spend a little more quiet and first we go to the the Novodevitsji nunnery. Here we watch some exhibitions of the Russian church and the Russian history and of course we admire the cathedral and other buildings inside the walls. The beautiful nunnery is situated at a lake where we walk around after we've seen all of the nunnery itself. We also see some of the graveyards on the Novodevitsji cemetery where many Russian celebrities are burried.
When we're back in the city centre we witness the change of guards at the monument of the unknown soldier and we go to the Detski Mir (childrens'world), where you can buy everything that a Russian child can wish for. We buy two toy-cars, both Ladas, with Russian letters printed all over them. Because of our great experiences the other night we have diner at the Moo Moo for the second time. We're in bed before 22.00, exhausted of two days of travelling and walking.
> Moscow day 3
The third day is our last day in Moscow and this day we use to visit the Victory Park. This grand park is impressive and enormous. First we walk the gigantic alley in the direction of the monument for the victory in the great patriotic (second world-)war. Every year of the war is symbolised by a stairstep as big as a city-square. This way you walk towards the Russian victory. Behind the 100 meter high obelisk stands the huge half-round museum with weapons and maps from the war. We don't visit the museum and go directly to the entrance of the exhibition of tanks, planes, trains, cars and more items from the second world war. The collection is enormous and next to Russian objects you'll also find German and Japanese. We enjoy ourselves here for a long time, for example by taking pictures.
As we leave the park we hear the bells of the nearby Saint Georgious church. We go take a closer look and it appears that a service just started. Silently we enter the church and from a corner we can watch the praying people without disturbing them.
But then the moment comes to have something to eat and collect our luggage at the hotel, at the end of the afternoon our train to Vladmir will leave. Ordering meals at the McDonald's takes a little more time than you'd expect in a fastfoodrestaurant. After 30 minutes waiting in line we can finally get hold of our hamburgers. We are quick with packing our luggage at the hotel and arrive right on time in the lobby. A little later we are picked up bij a real Nikita Lauda without a drivers-licence. This lady can't drive and speak english at the same time and when Peter asks her something, she stops at the roadside to answer the question. We decide not to try to be social anymore, because we've got a train to catch. Opposite of her languagecourse and driving test, she had high grades for her helpfullness courses I, II and III. Though she's very tired, she helps us with our suitcase, brings us to our compartment and even points us our chairs before saying goodbye. Really friendly and helpfull!
After the first two hours in a Russian train our provodnik tells us that we are almost at Vladimir station, the place where we'll have to leave the train again for a stay of two days in Suzdal, a town in the neighbourhood. Some time later we're on an empty platform with our luggage. We're the only travellers who get off here and the other passengers look surprised by seeing us walking on the platform. For now we don't see our hostess somewhere, not even when we've come at the end of the waiting train. We decide to try the other side. Just when it looks like the train is going to leave and we'll be the only ones left at the station a red head appears on the stairs: "follow me". The Russian lady who doesn't speak much English takes us to a taxivan with driver. We sit down and a little later the lady's boyfriend shows up, with his balalaika. While the taxidriver drives the van on a bumpy road the boyfriend starts singing and playing the balalaika. The young lady tells me all kind of things about the tourist attractions of Vladimir we pass, while the balalaika is given to Peter now. It doesn't sound that bad, untill... the door is opened again, and both our new friends hop off the van, yelling: "bye bye". And there they go. We're now in the hands of a taxidriver who only speaks Russian and we have no idea how far we have to travel to Suzdal.
The long, hilly road is in a worse state every minute and we go on and on. 15 Minutes later the driver stops at a restaurant and he leaves the van. Not for a long time, we see him coming back with a pack of cigarets and he hops in again. He turns the van and drives back to where we came from to take a turn after about 10 minutes. At this turn there are some hitch-hikers and we take one of them with us. This man, we think he's about 55 years old, tries very hard to make any contact with us, but we still don't understand Russian. Peter tries English, but with no result. German. Yes, that's something he seems to recognize. A long, long time ago he used to be a busdriver on a shuttle-service from Moscow to Hamburg. Now he says everything in Russian for himself at first and then he translates it into some sort of Geman for us. Soon the family pictures are taken out of his bag and we see the wedding dress of his daughter. We exchange some candy and give him a card of this website and a postcard from Groningen, where we come from. We're so busy talking that we didn't notice that we've come really close to Suzdal now. We make an appointment to come to the man's photoshop in the centre of Suzdal the next day, when we can find it. Unfortunately we don't see any photoshops the next day. The taxidriver brings us all the way to our hotel, which is situated in the outskirts of the town.
The nicely decorated, wooden hotel appears to be very luxurious and in our room there is not just an airco, but also a great, kingsize bed, a bathroom with clean and hot water and even floorheating. We have a view on the meadows around Suzdal and we go outside for a moment to watch the sun going down behind some hills. Back in the restaurant of the hotel it is hard to order two bottles of Fanta to take to our room. When we ask one of the three waiters standing at the bar they all panic. They go to a colleague and ask her to help us: "yes, eye speek inglisch very small". It's ten minutes later when we have our Fanta and go to our room.
The next morning we first go for a 30 minutes walk to the city center to buy a map. On the market place we see dozens of babuschka's trying to sell their homegrown vegetables. We also visit some of the churches of Suzdal and a few monasteries. We've so got the feeling to be in Russia here: the old, wooden houses which can all use some fresh paint, the dirty, smoky cars with brandnames that we never have heard of, but most important is that the people who try to have a conversation with us do only speak Russian. The population here seems to be much more friendly and willing to help as their fellow-Russians in Moscow. In no time the day is over and after a last shower at 23.00 we're ready at the reception of the hotel to check out. We even get a breakfast for the next morning and get into the waiting cab. Our driver seems to think that we're in a hurry and drives like a madman. We only overtake at "prohibited-to-overtake"-signs and get the idea that these signs might have a different meaning in Russia. Fourty nervous minutes later we arrive in the dark, empty station of Vladimir, more than an hour early. The hostess that should be here to take us to the train is not here yet, but as our train will only leave in one hour we don't mind that she's not there yet. But.. will she show up later?
> Next part of this Trans Mongolia trip:
Do you want to know how this trip continues? Read the Trans Mongolia Express travelogue. That's where the real adventure starts.
> More Info
Also check our Russia info page for more info about this huge country, or the Trans Mongolia Express info page, where you can find a lot of useful information about this incredible train journey.
Come see our Russia Photos or Trans Mongolia Express Photos.