We travel towards Russia again in the end of August. After 100 kilometers north of Ulanbataar, the sky becomes grey and sunshine is too weak to warm. We thought that it was because of air pollution until we reached Khyagt when we passed the border, where we learnt that the reason was the forest fire around Lake Baikal.
We are in Buriatia. Buriats, relatives of Mongolian people, constitute the majority of the population and major religions are Shamanism and Buddhism. Our aim is to reach Ulan Ude, 200 km far, but no one takes us while hitchhiking and we camp near a river. We couldn’t see the sun all day, but at night we sleep under shining full moon.
When we reach Ulan Ude after spending our previous night camping near the border city Kyagt, again we encounter with the view of a Siberain city, reminding Soviet Union.
Ulan Ude is a city with the biggest Lenin head on earth. One floor wooden Russian houses next to huge Soviet architecture, plenty of hammers and sickles on streets, a Victory Monument dedicated to World War II with a huge tank and more Lenin…
At noon we just rest while listening to classical music with fountain view in Theatre Square and walk on the streets. Probably there is more to see, but 3 days pass while resting after Mongolia in the house of Thomas, who hosted us via Couchsurfing.
Finally we reach Lake Baikal, which we couldn’t see in our previous visit. We get off from the minibus (mashrutka) one stop before Babushkin and camp in a forested area near Manturika village. In addition to magnificent Baikal view, there is a compost toilet and a fire place prepared by the campers before us. After one month in steppes, we pitch our hammock when we reach the forest. When we pitch our hammock, it means we will stay for more than one day…
Baikal is the biggest, the deepest and the oldest fresh water lake on Earth. You can swim in it as long as you can resist the cold and drink its water at the same time. Omul, an endemic species of fish, and white seals reside in the lake. In winter the lake is completely frozen and becomes an ice rink until the horizon. Even trucks are driven on the ice.
There is no magazine (market in Russia) in the village we stay, thus only food we have is what we carry in our backpacks and raspberries we gather in the forest. We wish to stay longer, but we get by only for 3 days with what we have.
We wait near the road for a couple of hours just to reach Babushkin, 15 kilometers far, but then it becomes easy to reach Kultuk by hitchhiking. We start walking near the railroad starting from Kultuk and ending in Baikal Station, where Angara River emerges from Baikal, and camp in a green area after a couple of kilometers. We wanted to continue walking on this trail, but because of heavy rain we stayed whole day in our tent playing rock-paper-scissors and battleships. The following day we end our Baikal trip and go to Irkutsk to visit our friends.
After reaching Irkutsk by hitchhiking, we stay with Vadim, Vera and their cat Lisa. Lisa is a bit tense at that time but Vadim and Vera are just like how they were before. But we are extremely lazy. We neither spend much time in streets nor go to visit highly recommended Taltsy Wooden Architecture Museum. But anyway we are happy to spend time with our friends and ready for the longest train trip of our lives.
We say farewell to Siberia after filling our bags with vegetables and unhealthy instant food that we can prepare with hot water (kipitok) in train for three and a half days.
We reach Moscow after 5000 kilometers, 84 hours, when it is still dark. But this is not our last destination. After sunrise, we start our 10 hour trip to St. Petersburg with a car we arranged via blablacar.com, a widely used car sharing web site in Russia.
St. Petersburg; with its old name Leningrad and older name Petrograd… But the first name again St. Petersburg… The city, entreated in Crime and Punishment, The Possessed and White Nights by Dostoyevsky, is pretty much same with how it was a century ago. The city center, UNESCO Heritage Area, is like a huge open air museum. Probably because of Great Petro (Petro I), who wanted to have a European atmosphere, the city looks like Venice with 42 islands shaped by rivers and canals.
We stay in the very center of the city, in Vasileostrovski Island thanks to our host Maria. Regardless of its central position, this small island is very calm; it so calm that we enjoy walking on empty streets after the drawbridges go up at night.
Buildings in the city are constructed in European architecture but one of the most magnificent buildings is Khram Voskresnia Khristova Church, looks like St. Basil in Moskow with its onion shape dome that looks like a cream puff.
All streets of the city worth visiting but the most touristic one is Nevskiy Street. The most expensive cafes and restaurants are there. We run into a lot of great building while walking on this street. Kazan Cathedral, the old Singer House, now used as a bookstore…
Hermitage Museum, an important art museum, and Peter and Paul Fortress next to the biggest river of the city, Neva, are the must-see places but we didn’t visit. (It is free to enter the garden of the fortress)
Free tourist attractions include visiting parks, walking on the streets, entering small churches and watching bridge opening at night. But doing all these takes a couple of days. Dostoyevsky’s House serves as a museum but we couldn’t visit because it was being renovated when we were there, then we went to the “alternative” place of the city, Etaji, and saw some contemporary art.
After 3 days we spent in the center of St. Petersburg, we go to a suburb, our favorite place in every city, and stay in a Couchsurfing house with a cat again in Petergof. Nastasya and Dima host us in their tiny home like an art gallery and take us for a walk in Petergof Park.
We walk in the garden of summer palace of Peter, famous for its natural fountains (water comes from a high point and well out because of pressure), and watch birds in Gulf of Finland. Nastasya prepares an amazing tart with travok (a kind of sour cheese) and Dima presents his mouth-harp from Nepal while we are leaving.
Again with a car, thanks to blablacar.com, we go to Moskow to spend our last days in Russia. We don’t worry about the huge city thank to our friend Ibrahim who has been living in Moscow for a long time. He picks us up from the highway and immediately takes us to a bar. Welcome to Moscow!
There is everything about Russia in Moscow, as it is the hearth of Russia, but it is faster and more “modern” than the cities in the east.
One of the most important things making the city that fast is Moscow Metro. With tens of different lines combined, it is possible to go to almost every point of the city using underground tunnels and to visit all stations with a ticket for 50 Rubles. In winter it becomes vital to use these tunnels to travel and to walk when it gets colder than -20 C.
It is one of the oldest metro systems in the world which makes especially the old metro lines a museum and each station a gallery dedicated to a person or thing which it is named after. At the entrance of Partizanskaya Metro station three partisans with rifles welcomes you and Prolshchad Revolyotsi station is full of statues picturing the October Revolution.
In Moscow, we see the most magnificent monument of World War II; there is one of it in almost every small town. The war, called Great Patriotic War by Russians, keeps an import place in memory of all Russians. The monument, with relievos on it and angels at the top, is 141.8 meters high. 10 centimeter for each day of the war…
St. Basil Cathedral, Kremlin Palace, Lenin’s Mausoleum and History Museum are around Red Square in the middle of Moscow.
In VDNKh Park, designed as a fairground rather than a park in Soviet era, there are building constructed for countries of the USSR in their local style. Near the park, still used as a fairground, there is Cosmonautics Museum open for visit for 250 Rubles or it is possible to take a walk in the forest just behind the park. Famous Gorki Park, in the city center near the river, is preferred both by locals and tourists and full with people all day long.
We go to Novodevichy Cemetery, easily accessible from Sportivnaya metro station, and visit the cemetery of Nazım Hikmet and Vera near a walnut tree. In the cemetery, where graves of important statesmen, artists and intellectuals are since the beginning of 20th century, we see Cheov, Tolstoy, Kropotkin… Walls around the cemetery are full of photograhs and ashes.
If you would like to buy some souvenirs or some antique staff from Soviet Union, the place to go is Izmailovsky Market. It is accessible from Partizanskaya metro station, but an important part of it is closed on weekdays. But anytime you can visit the church feeling like Alice in Wonderland.
Of course, we don’t leave Russia without having a traditional Russian dinner. Ibrahim takes us to Petrovich Restaurant where we taste vegetarian dishes with vodka. Vodka culture in Russia is similar with Raki culture in Turkey. Occasionally, some people stand up and talk raising the glass. This is called “tos”.
At the end of the second 30 days in Russia, we say farewell to Moscow and take a train to Vladikavkaz. After a journey of one and half day and a short distance hitchhiking, we are in Georgia…