We arrived in St Petersburg by overnight ferry from Helsinki. I have to admit, I was a little apprehensive about arriving in Russia. We’d travelled through enough ex-USSR countries to have built up a not particularly flattering picture of its 20th century history, and more than one person had warned us to be very mindful of our personal safety. Even the guy at the money exchange office in Helsinki recommended carrying enough money for one or two bribes on us at all times. But in the end: it was fine! Maybe we were lucky, or maybe it’s just because we were careful, but nothing was stolen from us and we never had to bribe anyone. It was particularly fascinating to learn about Russia’s recent history from the other side of the fence – especially since we found that what we learned differed depending on who and where we asked.
St Petersburg (24-26 September)
We did a lot of walking on our first day in St Petersburg. Up Gorokhovaya Ulitsa, through Alexander Garden, up and down the Neva River and over bridges to Peter and Paul Fortress, up to the St Petersburg Mosque and back down to the Cruiser Aurora. We were particularly struck by the grandeur of the city: so many palaces or palace-like buildings, particularly along the Neva. Some St Petersburg recommendations:
- The Hermitage/Winter Palace. The big one. And yes, it is huge. Like the Louvre, you’d have to dedicate half a lifetime to seeing and appreciating all its works so you’re better off picking a couple of areas that interest you and spending your time in those rooms. You don’t need to book entry tickets in advance (and doing so actually costs more) but if you don’t it’s worth getting there when it opens so you don’t have to queue for very long.
- Kunstkamera. The oldest museum in Russia is (in)famous for one particular room filled with an extensive collection of deformed human and animal foetuses: not for the faint hearted! But it’s not all about the freakshow: the rest of the museum contains excellent ethnographic exhibits, most of which include English descriptions (although they can be curiously… un-PC at times, particularly the ones in the African section).
- Museum of the Political History of Russia. Covers many periods of Russian political history, including before and after the Soviet era, but I found the Soviet sections to be the most interesting. It fills two mansions, one of them featuring Lenin’s study and a balcony he delivered later speeches from.
- Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. For your brightly-coloured onion dome fix.
- Eat at a stolovaya (столовая). (There are several on Gorokhovaya Ulitsa.) These canteen-like cafes are a great way to sample a variety of different Russian foods. Grab a tray and load it up with the dishes you want to buy then pay at the end of the queue. It’s also very cheap – this meal cost us about £5 in total.
- Clean Plates Society. A cheap but quality restaurant serving modern Russian food. The blue cheese burger is divine but you can also get a good beef stroganoff fix here.
- Cafe Iberia (кафе иверия). If you get tired of Russian cuisine try this Georgian restaurant on Gorokhovaya Ulitsa.
Also: Sptn!k tours could be worth checking out. Unfortunately we didn’t find out about Sptn!k until we’d left St Petersburg but their guided tours sound quite unique.
Moscow (27-29 September)
We got our first dose of Russian trains travelling overnight from St Petersburg to Moscow. This was the fanciest (and most expensive) train we took in Russia. Everything was new, there was a powerpoint for every bed, and we were given complimentary slippers, toothbrush, toothpaste, water, apples and tea. We shared our four bed couchette with two Russian business men who mainly kept to themselves.
Arriving in Moscow was the official beginning of the Trans-Mongolian tour we booked through Real Russia. We don’t normally book tours, but we felt that this time it would be worth the extra money to get the most out of this particular experience. We also paid for Real Russia to arrange our Russian, Mongolian and Chinese visas and they were incredibly helpful with my endless questions about every minor detail. The tour arrangements meant that from Moscow until our arrival in Beijing we had a private guide and/or driver in each city we visited (as well as free time to spend as we liked) and transfers to and from every train station. All trains, accommodation and entry fees were included, and even some meals. We had three days in Moscow, one of which was a full day private tour. Cool stuff to see:
- The Metro. Probably the most impressive metro stations we’ve ever seen: it’s no wonder they’re referred to as “palaces for the people”. The decoration is still heavily Soviet, which was fascinating for us given that all the ex-USSR countries we’ve been to generally removed every trace of the Soviet era (or confined them to museums). Learning some cyrillic will definitely help make sense of the map but the trick with getting around is you can’t easily see the station names (even in cyrillic) from the trains themselves, so you may need to count stops.
- St Basil’s Cathedral. Spectacular from the outside, it’s also worth paying to go inside as the interior is quite unusual for a cathedral. Instead of a grand sweeping hall it’s made up of a series of small niches and rooms which are quite labyrinthine.
- The Kremlin. Be prepared: the Kremlin ticketing system is confusing. You can’t buy a ticket “to see the Kremlin”. You buy a ticket to see something that happens to be located within the Kremlin walls. There are a variety of different things to see and you have to buy a separate ticket for each one. We paid to go inside the four cathedrals, but you can also visit the Armoury, climb a bell tower, or visit the Diamond Foundry. Even more confusingly, things like the Armoury operate on a timed ticket (you have you visit at a specific time). Most of the tickets can be bought from the booths outside (located in Alexander Garden when we were there), except for the Diamond Fund, for which tickets are purchased inside. There are also two different entrances. (The Diamond Fund ticket booth is inside the entrance for the Armoury.)
- Monument to the Conquerors of Space and Worker and Kolkhoz Woman. Two spectacular monuments near VDNKH (ВДНХ) metro station. The first honours Russian cosmonauts and the second was built for the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris – the same fair the Eiffel Tower was constructed for.
- The All-Russia Exhibition Centre. Also near VDNKH (ВДНХ) metro station, this sprawling expo complex contains large pavilions dedicated to each of the countries of the former USSR. It’s still open today and the pavilions have either been converted into shops or stand abandoned. It’s free to enter and wander around.
- Izmailovo Kremlin. A complex of brightly coloured buildings, primarily used for weddings but worth visiting just to marvel at. While you’re there you can also visit the Vodka Museum and nearby market which is full of stands selling matryoshka dolls, fur hats, snacks and Soviet memorabilia.
- Apple Technology Museum. It’s a bit out of the way but if you consider yourself a serious Apple fan you shouldn’t miss this incredible collection of Apple and Macintosh computers, hardware accessories, software and memorabilia – the most impressive we’ve ever seen.
Up next: the longest train journey we’ve ever taken and stopping off in Siberia!