Our first week in Moscow, and our very first time in Russia ever, is one of ups and downs. We totally underestimate the language barrier. We can not read any signs, as they are all written in the Russian alphabet. Luckily we soon meet some locals who make our experience better! This is our travel journal of Russia, part one.
Have you read our first travel journal already?
Maartje already feels a little off in the last days before our departure, and her cold really kicks in after the air-conditioned plane and disturbed sleeping pattern. So our first day is a chill-day, in a hostel that cannot be found at 4 AM, with staff that does not speak English, and guests that seem to live there permanently.
Our experience with Russia(n people) turns around 360 degrees when we meet our couch surfers-slash-tour-guides Anton & Nadia, couch surfing host Olga, and couch surfer couple Tanya & Olga (yes, another Olga) in Moscow. As a tourist in Russia, having a local with you is key. With signs and street names only written in Russian alphabet, meeting locals is the best thing. Plus we get the chance to see the city from a local perspective, win-win situation!
Other than meeting up with couch surfers, we also do some exploration of the city ourselves. We wander around for a bit in the first two days, when the weather is not so cold, though grey. We see the red square, and we have a nice cup of tea in the pretty department store on the square.
Unfortunately, we have to do some errands on the third day. Managing to buy train tickets from Ulan Bator to Beijing, with help of a Google-translated-Russian handwriting is definitely the highlight. We also manage to get some copies of documents at a copy shop. On our one but last day the weather turns sunny, which makes the city a lot prettier all of a sudden! We join a free walking tour, starting at the statue of two guys who invented the Russian alphabet (thanks guys…), to a couple of churches, to the red square. In total in Moscow, we walk 66 km, and even have two relax-days in between!
Two girls on the train – Part I: Moscow- Kazan
Getting on our first train is really easy, thanks to our lovely friend Olga. She is probably even more excited about the train than we are! She helps us install our things, asks everything she can to the train conductor and eventually waves us goodbye with a big smile.
So there we are, it’s 8.48 PM, and we’re sitting in a pretty luxurious cabin, with four sleeping beds, and a cabin mate. His name is Vadim, an honest, nice Ukrainian Russian who works with machines and gets sent out for work all over Russia. He also travels Moscow-Kazan, for his next job. His English isn’t very advanced but with Google translate we have fun conversations. He says a lot of ‘shass’ when he doesn’t know the word, and we think it’s something like ‘shit’… it turns out it is Russian for ‘one moment, please’, how wrong were we. And so cute he secretly buys us two small crystal bells with goose on them from the train station ‘Crystal Goose’ during his smoke-break.
We are happy to say that our first train ride, the first 11 hours and 12 minutes, the first 718 kilometers of our Trans Siberian adventure is a success. And though it is dark most of the time and we can not see a lot outside we have a wonderful time. Luckily, because there are many more train rides to come…
Kazan for a day
Kazan, or Казан in Tatar, is the capital of Tatarstan, a republic of the Russian Federation. As it is an independent region, Tatarstan has its own language and cuisine. Also, it has an unofficial motto: bez buldırabız, we can! Though Kazan is not officially on the Trans Siberian route, we do not want to miss this incredible opportunity to see this totally different, magical, city! We are on a really tight schedule though, and we only have 18 hours to explore. But we love a challenge and decide to see as much as possible (and even nap in between). On the train Vadim told us we cannot leave Kazan without doing the following two things: eat Tatar traditional food (chuk chuk, elesh, and other forms of elesh with different names accordingly) in a local snack bar and see the beautiful mosque in the kremlin of Kazan by day AND night!
Two girls on the train – Part II: Kazan – Yekaterinburg
Our second train ride is amazing! Unfortunately we can not tell you exactly how many kilometers we make, all websites say something different. We do know that we travel for 14 hours and 9 minutes, and mostly by day! Our coupé is a little less fancy than the first one, but feels way more authentic. It has a lot of woods and brown colours and feels really cosy. In addition, we have the entire coupé to ourselves, isn’t that awesome?! So plenty of comfort to sleep whenever we want, and the possibility to define our territory by marking all space with our stuff. Amazing.
Because we travel by day, we find out something less comfortable about travelling by train. It gets hot. Really insane hot. At some point we see the temperature rise to 29 degrees celsius, aaahh. The sun is heating all cabins AND the heating system of the train is working full speed. Nonetheless, we enjoy the pretty views very very much. We chill, watch a movie, drink lots of tea (because: free hot water on the train), eat ramen and look out the window most of the time.
Crazy moments in Yekaterinburg
After the two epic cities Moscow and Kazan, we have no idea what to expect from Yekaterinburg. With no information in advance, but a very open mind we step out of the train into a big surprise. Our couch surfing host Sveta picks us up at the train station and we immediately feel the positive vibes. Sveta is an incredibly happy girl, and so is her mom, who we meet at their apartment. Dinner (borsht, mmm) is ready and we enjoy that we are taken care of. And the best part is that they are as crazy cat people as we are!
After a great night of sleep, breakfast is already on the kitchen table when we get up. It’s syrniki, very tasteful small cottage cheese pancakes. It’s AMAZING. After a lazy morning, we go explore YKB together. It apparently has a lot of crazy monuments; a keyboard, Michael Jackson, lots of writers, founders of YKB, and a Gandalf-look-a-like-war-hero. And how funny, through the entire city is a red line on the street to follow and you’ll see all the highlights! We get to see a great view from a hotel, find a photo booth (which has become our travel tradition), have a great lunch and visit the church of all saints, which may be the most famous thing in YKB. At night we watch a movie together and in the morning it is already time to continue travelling by train to Novosibirsk.
Siberia at it’s best: Novosibirsk
As Novosibirsk is the capital of Siberia, we had nothing but expectations to freeze to death. And yes, it was cold, and yes, there was snow, but as we have been told before: it is spring. So we had a couple of lovely sunny days and some pretty interesting things to see!
Upon arrival we drop our bags off at the station and start our not-so-prepared-but-totally-fun walking tour around the city. According to Google Maps, there aren’t a lot of architectural/monumental highlights as the previous cities, but there is a zoo! And zoo’s are awesome. Also sad for the animals, but the young-and-too-enthusiastic-girls inside us ignores that part. The zoo is absolutely HUGE, we spend the whole afternoon there (alright, I must admit that I napped a bit in the café) and do not even see everything.
After quite a bit of walking, we arrive at the train station again and take a bus to our new couchsurfing-address. The ride takes almost an hour and only costs us 19 rubles per person (0.31EUR!). At Kostya and Andrew’s home dinner is already on the table: porridge and egg. As it is Andrew’s first time hosting, he is so eager to learn about our culture and he even let’s us write on their wallpaper! Also he teaches us the famous Russian game Durak (fool), so we can make more friends on the train.
After one whole day of relaxing, it is time to stretch our legs again, and we walk to the train museum. Which is basically a bunch of old trains standing somewhere. It’s totally fun though! And it also makes you think about the next train we’re going to catch…
See more pictures? Take a look at our Russia Gallery.
Did you also travel through Russia? Or are you planning to?
Share your experiences with us and feel free to ask anything!